As a relatively young nation (still) the United States has few forms of music that it can claim as its own. American folk, bluegrass, and country have their roots in Scots-Celtic and British folk forms of expression. Many of the songs currently performed today even reprise traditional themes and melodies, but graft onto them American concerns and limitations for a rich fusion of the traditional and modern.
Two forms of music, however, that are uniquely American are blues and jazz, which eventually gave rise to Rhythm & Blues and early Rock & Roll. The blues are the folk music of a people enslaved, given the hope of freedom, enslaved for all intents again, and–as the country has progressed–achieving full citizenship and freedom in law if not fully in practice.
Jazz, of course, which is based on the blues, is America’s classical music. Despite attempts to straight-jacket it, as European classical music has been straight-jacketed–where variation from an accepted form based on the tastes of a privileged economic elite is the rule–jazz continues to develop and improvise. This is to be somewhat expected.
The various forms of European classical music was financed and supported by royalty and robber barons–and continues to be financed by an economic elite which tends to expect uniformity. The music, while among the greatest forms of human musical expression, has had over the years been allowed only so much freedom within the established boundaries of approval by a ruling class. The genius found within it is to hear the rebellion under the surface, borrowing from folk forms where it can be masked from disapproving ears. The subversive music from Mozart’s Barber of Seville, among others, comes to mind.
Jazz, however, is based on a democratic ideal–that the players working together, each given improvisational freedom within a structure, will create something new–a synthesis of old and new that drives the music forward. Segregation allowed African Americans to freely express themselves and to do so in ways that ran under the surface of society. The brilliance of the musical expression was soon realized and the mainstream of American society adopted many of its forms of expression and the lifestyle that often accompanied jazz and blues life.
Thus the core belief in both jazz and blues is progression–driving things forward, to a better day; not as individuals who work against each other and who strive against the success of the other–which would undermine and destroy the composition and the music–but together. Only then can the music succeed. Thus, while jazz is the music that speaks of the ideal of democratic society, blues speaks the story of the individual in society which can be cruel and unforgiving without love, compassion, decency, forgiveness, and more than a little bit of luck.
Ruthie Foster is an effective purveyor of the blues. She started singing in her church choir and, leaving her rural town, continued to perform while on active duty in the U.S. Navy Band. Since leaving the Navy she has taken the blues community by storm, winning multiple awards since her first release in 1997.
One can hear her background in her songwriting and singing. On her newest album, Promise of a Brand New Day, the song “Let Me Know” contains the familiar call-and-response structure, though a chorus never enters into the song, the instruments providing an effective substitute for the anticipation of the response to the powerful instrument of her voice. Here she is singing some selections from her new album.