Blues enthusiasts are preserving the blues and its African-American roots
Marsha Evans is no stranger to the blues. She has performed blues music all her life and can be found performing at venues across St. Louis with her band, Marsha Evans and the Coalition.
But Evans doesn’t confine her passion for the blues to the stage. She’s a strong advocate for the music. For weeks, she and other musicians in the St. Louis region have discussed ways to honor the legacy of the blues and keep the treasured African-American art form alive.
“You’re pouring your life in three or four minutes of musical expression — your innermost emotions, all of the pain you felt on any particular day for a number of months or years,” she said.
For Evans, the blues is a family affair. She has long performed with her husband, acclaimed international bassist Jimmy Hinds. Both are quick to note that the blues — one of the foundations of North American popular music — rose from the African-American struggle for survival.
To this day, Hinds said, people turn to the blues to deal with the joy and pain of everyday life.
“The blues is like an aspirin; it’s a music of relief,” Hinds said. “You’re being relieved of one situation or another usually.”
Throughout February, local musicians, scholars and fans have participated in a series of roundtables on the blues at KDHX. The discussions focused on ways to preserve the blues legacy as an original black art form that has been borrowed by white musicians such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley.
Blues musicians and enthusiasts in St. Louis want to make sure that black artists are acknowledged and respected.
“We can continue to get respect and give the necessary respect to black people who really gave birth to the blues instead of trying to wipe it out,” said Rosalind Norman, who moderated the discussions. “And that’s what the underlying theme of cultural appropriation is really getting at.”
Norman has been immersed in the genre since she was a child, and first learned about music from her grandfather, who instilled her with a respect for the tradition and its importance to African-American culture.
“When you think about blues music, blues music is very much a part of that history.” Norman said. “And that history is very much a part of that cultural experience coming out of slavery, and from that point on, [continuing] to evolve through the migration of those sharecroppers often times, who were moving from the South to the North.”
The music that emerged in the Mississippi Delta became the sound of sharecroppers who migrated north, Norman said. The music served as a well from which the creators of a variety of African-American styles drew inspiration.
In St. Louis, the music developed into a piano-based sound that evolved from St. Louis ragtime musician Scott Joplin in the early 20th century. In the decades that followed, other musicians in the region also drew from the blues.
“Henry Townsend, Johnny Johnson — oh, man, there’s so many,” television host and journalist Bernie Hayes said. “Oliver Sain, Ike Turner — I mean the list goes on and on.”
The blues remains significant because of the importance it holds in the black community, said Hayes, curator for the Don and Heide Wolff Jazz Institute at Harris Stowe University.
“Blues came from people who were suffering in bondage, and it was called gospel or spiritual or religious music or inspirational music,” he said. “That’s where the blues actually came from.”
But Hayes said black musicians often saw their music used or adopted by others. He hopes black artists retain connections — and a sense of ownership — to the art forms they create.
“We have to own more, that’s all I can say. There has to be a way for African-Americans and other minorities, 'so-called minorities,' to become powerful,” Hayes said. “They have to own stations, they have to know what’s going on on the inside.”
For Marsha Evans, the future of the music may lie with its ability to reach younger audiences.
When she performs, she works R&B songs and hip-hop influences into her performance to show fans how black popular music has long been interconnected.
“One thing is for sure: its ours. One can’t take away what’s really yours, if you know what I mean,” Evans said. “It can be borrowed, threatened, used however for however so long — but the blues came from black people.”
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