The BLUR (Blues Lyrics Collected at the University of Regensburg) Corpus: Blues Lyricism and the African American Literary Tradition

Ulrich Miethaner


The African American vernacular tradition has always played a major role in both reflecting and shaping the African American experience. It has influenced the language, the philosophical discourse, and the artistic expression of this ethnic group. This paper focusses on the (arguably) most influential offspring of the African American oral tradition, the blues. There is a sharp contrast between the fact that the analysis of this genre and its functions in the African American community (and American society) has produced an enormous amount of literature in various fields of study, and the limited availability of original sources. A research project housed at the University of Regensburg aims at expanding the corpus of accessible African American vernacular material by collecting and computerizing a large number of transcripts of blues lyrics recorded prior to World War II. We believe that the BLUR (Blues Lyrics Collected at the University of Regensburg) corpus provides insights not only for linguists (the original target group of the project interested in the genesis and development of African American English), but also for literary specialists, cultural historians, ethnomusicologists, blues aficionados, etc.

I will illustrate the analytic potential of BLUR by showing that the discussions on the role of the blues in the African American literary tradition to date in many cases have suffered from the lack of comprehensive documentation. I will argue that a close study of the BLUR corpus unravels the blues’ richness and diversity, instantiated in a multitude of regionally, stylistically and structurally variable forms, meanings and concepts, and that in analyses of the blues' influence on African American (and white) writers and artists critics need to keep these different analytical frameworks apart.

The documentation of blues lyricism

The blues critic Paul Oliver is certainly right in pointing out that "[f]ortunately its [the blues'] representation is truly remarkable and exceeds that of any other type of folk music (21990: 9)." This observation is valid in two respects: first, almost all blues songs recorded in the pre-WW II period have been reissued and are now available on CD, and secondly, transcriptions exist for the vast majority of blues songs from that period. However, these transcripts are scattered over a large number of sources. They include song collections proper (e.g. Handy 1926, Sackheim 1975, Titon 1991), sections devoted to the blues in anthologies of African American literature (e.g. Hill 1998, Gates and McKay 1997) and American literature (e.g. Lauter 1990), and monographs, articles and liner notes including sample transcriptions (e.g. Oliver 21990 [1960], Charters 1963, Evans 1982). The problem for blues analysts is that in order to accumulate a substantial selection of songs, they either have to consult a great number of sources or do their own transcriptions. What is missing, then, is a large, comprehensive collection of blues lyrics representative of the full range of the genre.

The lack of convenient access to the documentation of blues lyricism has affected the research on the blues' role within the African American literary tradition on three levels: the level of various "conceptualizations" of the blues, the level of the analysis of the blues as a form of poetry and finally, the level of the input of blues poetry on other forms of African American literature (comparative studies). I will look at these aspects in the next two chapters.


Conceptualizations of the blues

Almost any serious analyst of the blues has developed his or her ideas about the functions and the "meaning" of the blues:

Some say all blues are sad. Others claim that they are happy. This one says they are political, that one, apolitical. The blues, it is said, are a personal expression. No, comes the reply, they express the values of the group. Dramatic dialogues. Self catharsis. Audience catharsis. Dance music. Devil music. Truth (Tracy 1988: 77).


This diversity of interpretation probably results from researchers basing their observations on different "subsets" of documentation, and from the blues being studied within different analytical frameworks: musical genre, poetic form, source of artistic inspiration, apparatus for literary criticism, "matrix" for cultural discourse, or simply an individual (gloomy) feeling. It is not surprising, then, that these different approaches have yielded different interpretations of the blues. For example, since LeRoi Jones' (Amiri Bakara's) publication of his ground-breaking Blues People (1963), various critics (and writers) have developed sophisticated concepts interpreting the blues as ethos, i.e. a medium for philosophical discourse (e.g. Ralph Ellison 1964; Albert Murray 1973, 1976). This process culminated in Houston A. Baker's remarkable study Blues, Ideology, and African American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (1984), which postulates the thesis "that Afro-American culture is a complex, reflexive enterprise which finds its proper figuration in blues conceived as matrix." (3).

How does Baker's interpretation of the blues as a meta-concept, which is based on the observation that "... the blues offer a phylogenetic recapitulation - a nonlinear, freely associative, nonsequential meditation - of species experience" (5), relate to the blues as a poetic form? The narrative technique identified by Baker is indeed the core of early blues poetry. The "original" country blues songs, which "were so fragmentary and elusive - they were really little more than states of mind expressed in song" (Odum and Johnson 1926: 19), were composed on the spot by members of the lower classes with no formal training, who drew on traditional material ("formulas", e.g. "I woke up this morning,"), which they creatively rearranged and combined with original material, generally in a stream-of-consciousness manner. There was no clear-cut distinction into separate stanzas, and the length of the songs varied considerably. However, as the blues became popularized, they also became exposed to commercial influences. W.C. Handy's "discovery" of the blues changed the compositional method: Vaudeville (classic, city) blues songs were written out by professional composers (some of whom were white), who sought to "polish" and "improve on" the original folk material - and this was in line with the African American intellectual elite's quest to raise African American art from its folk roots - and transform it into a sophisticated kind of music for the stage. Though they did use traditional verses as a basis for their texts, they did not put them together in an associative manner. Their lyrics focussed on a single theme or told a coherent story.

The introduction of phonograph records exerted another deep influence on the (country) blues tradition. According to Evans (1982, cf. Titon 1977), record companies insisted on recording "original" and "different" material, frowning on the duplication of previously recorded lines. Because the repertoires of country blues performers consisted mainly of traditional material from the oral tradition shared by a great number of performers, "these seemingly simple requirements must have become major hurdles for folk blues singers" (Evans 1982: 74). Most country blues performers had a command of only a limited supply of lyrics and, since the 1910s, numerous blues songs had already been issued on records, parts of which the singers had already appropriated for their repertoires. Singers who recorded regularly were therefore forced to "invent" new songs, which themselves became part of the oral tradition.

It becomes evident that the two different interpretations of the blues dealt with above, both of which are valid on their own terms, need to be kept strictly apart. Baker's definition of the blues as a meditative compositional method, a definition which he expands into a generalized meta-concept (blues as an expressive force in a broad sense), refers to an Urform and is therefore static. Specific instantiations of blues lyricism, on the other hand, are representative of a continuing process. The blues have always been a flexible genre, cast in the mold of the African American oral tradition and shaped by many influences, including changing social contexts (migration) and formats (sheet music, recordings). However, analyses of this process have likely been based on only a limited number of songs. The study of a large, truly representative body of transcripts might help to more clearly define different concepts of the blues. The distinction between different interpretations of the blues is also essential to the analysis of the blues' contribution to and influence on the African American literary tradition.


The blues and the African American literary tradition

The blues has entered the African American literary tradition on three levels: First, the blues form itself was identified as an authentic manifestation of folk poetry. Secondly, the blues form was detected as a source of inspiration for African American writers, both as a medium capable of projecting various feelings and subjects - formal structure of music and verse, and compositional method (e.g. Langston Hughes, Sterling A. Brown, Toni Morrison, Sterling Plumpp) - and as context or setting (e.g. Alice Walker, Nora Zeale Hurston). Finally, the blues were defined as an "interpretative metaphor", i.e. a critical apparatus which allows the identification of distinctive elements of African American literature (e.g. Henderson 1973, Baker 1984). It is obvious that for a critical analysis of each of these levels, access to a representative body of original sources is of prime importance. The absence thereof has yielded a number of problems:

1. Although Oliver's (1960) and Charters' (1963) analyses of blues poetry still hold up, they need to be augmented with more detailed research in two ways. As neither Oliver nor Charters are literary critics, and their treatments to a certain degree lack terminological precision, an investigation into all aspects of blues poetry needs to apply the critical methodology developed by literary criticism. In addition, as outlined above, more texts need to be examined.

2. Analyzing the source and the target work in full before drawing any conclusions is basic methodology in comparative studies. Unfortunately, this approach has not been possible so far in blues research. As a consequence, more often than not, studies of the "XY and the blues" or "The blues in YX" type do not provide detailed documentation to substantiate a given claim.

3. The postulation of the blues as an analytical framework that helps readers to appreciate writers such as Wright, Ellison, Morrison, etc. has tempted many a critic to adopt a generalized, "mythical" blues concept. In many cases, features like call-and-response, improvisation, intensity of expression, polyrhythm, etc. are listed under the heading "blues". However, these are general features of the African American oral tradition, which have manifested themselves variably in different genres (jazz, gospel; oratory tradition; novels, poetry, etc.). There is a great deal of variation even within the blues tradition (see above). Critics need to discriminate between general features of the African American oral tradition, used in the framing of a given novel, etc., and instances in which the blues as a melodic-poetic set-up (and specific manifestations thereof within the functionally and structurally flexible tradition) are used as reference material. Again, access to a broad analytical basis of blues poetry should increase analytical and terminological precision.


The BLUR corpus


The BLUR project, which is sponsored by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), sets out to collect and computerize a large number of transcripts of blues recordings. The largest contribution is comprised by Macleod's (1989, 1992, 1994-2000, 1997) monumental collection of transcripts, a source which up to now has received little attention. Other sources include unpublished transcripts produced by Chris Smith and Gorgen Antonsson, along with my own transcriptions of field recordings. These collections add up to a total of more than 8,000 song transcripts.

BLUR not only provides a near-complete documentation of the blues genre, its electronic format transforms it into a powerful research tool. The corpus is fully computerized and tagged, and thus applicable to concordancing software (WordCruncher). The main feature of WordCruncher (and comparable software tools) is a word list, which enables users to access all songs containing a specific token. More sophisticated applications allow for combined searches of two words within a specific range (collocation). BLUR thus clearly facilitates the research into various aspects of the blues. For example, the development of the compositional method (e.g. the appropriation of formulas to specific song contexts) can be analyzed, and the use of lexical items or metaphors in target works can be tested against the documentation of blues poetry in the BLUR corpus (comparative studies).

As we lack (at the moment) funding for the preparation of BLUR for publication, the corpus will be distributed (on CD-ROM) to scholars interested in the material, who will be asked to sign a document stating their intent to use BLUR for academic purposes only. It is hoped that BLUR will be received with great interest and that its analysis will help to more clearly discriminate between different interpretations of the blues and to deepen our insights into the structure and meaning of blues poetry and their influence on the African American literary tradition.

Works cited

Baker, Houston A. Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Charters, Samuel B. The Poetry of the Blues. New York: Oak, 1963.

Dauer, Alfons Michael. "Towards a Typology of the Vocal Blues Idiom." Jazzforschung/jazz research 11 (1979): 9-92.

Dauer, Alfons Michael. Blues aus 100 Jahren: 43 Beispiele zur Typologie der vokalen Bluesformen. Texte und Noten mit Begleitakkorden. Frankfurt: Fischer, 1983

Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York, Random House, 1964.

Evans, David. Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: Norton, 1997.

Henderson, Stephen. Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic Reference. New York: Morrow, 1973.

Handy, William Christopher, ed. 1926. Blues: An Anthology. New York: A. and C. Boni.

Hill, Patricia L., ed. Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Jones, LeRoi (Amiri Bakara). Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Morrow, 1963.

Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Lexington, MA and Toronto: Heath, 1990.

Macleod, R.R. Yazoo 1-20. Edinburgh: PAT Publications, 1989.

Macleod, R.R. Yazoo 21-83. Edinburgh: PAT Publications, 1992.

Macleod, R.R.. Document Blues. 7 vols. Edinburgh: PAT Publications, 1994 - 2000.

Macleod, R.R. Blues Document. Edinburgh: PAT Publications, 1997.

Murray, Albert. The Hero and the Blues. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1973.

Murray, Albert. Stomping the Blues. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Odum, Howard W. and Guy B. Johnson. Negro Workaday Songs. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1926

Oliver, Paul. Blues Fell this Morning: The Meaning of the Blues. London: Cassell, 1960. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 21990.]

Oliver, Paul. Screening the Blues: Aspects of the Blues Tradition. London: Cassell, 1968.

Sackheim, Eric, ed. The Blues Line: A Collection of Blues Lyrics. New York: Schirmer, 1975.

Taft, Michael. Blues Lyric Poetry: An Anthology. New York and London: Garland, 1983.

Titon, Jeff Todd. Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Titon, Jeff Todd. Downhome Blues Lyrics: An Anthology from the Post-World War II Era. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Tracy, Stephen C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.


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