Blues People: Negro Music in White America

Blues People: Negro Music in White America



The Pequod Review:

LeRoi Jones's Blues People is less a history of African-American music per se than a history of African-Americans as told through their relationship to music: 

The path the slave took to “citizenship” is what I want to look at. And I make my analogy through the slave citizen's music - through the music that is most closely associated with him: blues and a later, but parallel development, jazz... [If] the Negro represents, or is symbolic of, something in and about the nature of American culture, this certainly should be revealed by his characteristic music.

And here, for example, Jones explains the value of Christian music to both slaves and their owners:

In the early days of slavery, Christianity's sole purpose was to propose a metaphysical resolution for the slave's natural yearnings for freedom, and as such, it literally made life easier for him. The secret African chants and songs were about Africa, and expressed the African slave's desire to return to the land of his birth. The Christian Negro's music became an expression of his desire to "cross Jordan" and "see his Lord”…. One can see, perhaps, how "perfect" Christianity was in that sense. It took the slave's mind off Africa, or material freedom, and proposed that if the black man wished to escape the filthy paternalism and cruelty of slavery, he wait, at least, until he died, when he could be transported peacefully and majestically to the Promised Land.

Overall, the book is too polemical and is also too general in its assumption of a single African-American experience. Nonetheless it is sustained by Jones’s passion for jazz and blues, and his musically-intelligent analysis of key artists like Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane.