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Author lectures on origin of blues

| Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Acclaimed nonfiction author and literary journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan spoke on Tuesday about his current research into the origins of the blues musical tradition in the Hesburgh Center Auditorium.

Sullivan said he was recently captivated by a story that is “a very strange wormhole in Indiana history.”

“A couple years ago, I was doing some research on early African American newspapers, post-Civil War African American newspapers,” he said. “I came across a very strange sentence — an immediately intriguing sentence in an article from 1914. It was especially intriguing for me because I have had a life-long obsession with the blues.”

The sentence that interested Sullivan was written by an African American music critic and stated “‘Mr. William Abel … will sing the first blues song entitled ‘Curses,’ by Mr. Paul Dresser,’” he said.

“Already, before we know anything about this sentence, something very special is happening here because you have someone who is speculating about the origins of the blues, even in a somewhat lighthearted or offhanded way, before those questions are really being asked,” he said. “There may be one or two other people who had even taken enough interest in the music at that point to speculate where it may have come from.”

The origin of the blues style of music has always been debated, Sullivan said, with many scholars disagreeing about any given answer. The song “Curses” was unfamiliar to Sullivan, though he was aware of the composer, Paul Dresser.

“Dresser had a younger brother, whose name was Theodore Dreiser — Dresser changed the name to make it sound more American,” he said. “He ran away from home to join a medicine show, and he became a singer, a songwriter and a comedian. … Starting in the late 1880s and 1890s, he became the most popular songwriter in America.”

The song, also known as “The Curse,” was inspired by a tragic time in Dresser’s life. A time when his child had died, his wife left him shortly afterward, he was addicted to opium and he was suffering from syphilis, Sullivan said.

“It’s an upsetting piece of music, even though it’s almost comical at places because it’s so over the top,” he said. “It creates its own problems, in trying to interpret that original sentence that calls this song the first blues song. A black writer and critic in Chicago in 1914 is saying that that is the first blues song, ‘The Curse.’

“From a musicological standpoint, it’s totally baffling because you can’t really hear any of the moves being made in that song that we associate with the blues and the early blues: the flatted notes and the A-A-B lyrical pattern and all those things you expect to hear when you turn on a blues station. This is obviously totally different, and yet you have someone who is there at the moment, calling it the first blues song. So I wanted to understand that better.”

In attempting to better comprehend this claim, Sullivan said he went further back in history to research.

“It’s ended up being the most fascinating journey for me because it turns out once you go back far enough into the 20th century and even back into the late 19th, everything you think you know about what the blues is, and what’s happening in it, musically and even culturally, to a certain extent, just gets fractured,” he said.

Sullivan said that etymological dictionaries show that the term “the blues” is extrapolated from the expression “the blue devils.”

“The ‘blue devils’ was to be melancholy, especially morbidly melancholy, Sullivan said. “It was a special kind of melancholy.”

In the post-Civil War era, Sullivan said, music emerged from both black and white artists that was overtly melancholy.

“There is a period of time of about 20 years before you hear people calling a song ‘the blues.’ And when you hear people talk about ‘blue music,’ they’re very rarely referring to songs that we would think of as being in the blues tradition,” he said. “For instance, a Tchaikovsky melody would be referred to as blue music.”

Thus any song, with depressing subject matter could be considered ‘blues music,’ said Sullivan. Therefore, “The Curse,” with its tragic overtones, could be considered a blues song.

“I felt like that sentence had given me a new lens, so some of that confusion is cleared up, as to how the blues might have come into being as a distinct genre,” he said.

After about 20 years, people in the medicine show world began applying the descriptor blue music more specifically to a certain kind of songs, and what we’ve traditionally known as the blues came into being, Sullivan said.

The lecture was sponsored by the department of American Studies, John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy and the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts’ Henkels Lecture Series.

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About Catherine Owers

Senior News Writer Catherine Owers is a senior from New Orleans, Louisiana. She is studying English and Theology.

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