A Written Record of the Blues Scales from 1870 (20 Years Earlier than Commonly Believed)


Here is an intriguing article by guest contributor MM Coston.  It centers on a discovery indicating that the all-important blues scales may have existed and been documented earlier than originally believed.

A Written Record of the Blues Scales from 1870 (20 Years Earlier than Commonly Believed)

by MM Coston 

Hidden in the Mists of Time

The exact origin of Blues music has always eluded historians. It is typically believed to have been developed by African Americans in the American South toward the end of the 1800s, likely the 1890’s. Some sources suggest it began in Mississippi and others note that the earliest mention of the style, but not the term, appears c. 1901 on pages 148 – 152 of a journal found here.

Logic could suggest that “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” recorded by Jelly Roll Morton in 1939, which was reported to be Buddy Bolden’s song “Funky Butt” (named for the nickname of the Union Sons Hall ‘Funky Butt Hall’) might be the earliest known blues song. Though, whether that’s the same song Buddy played is unverified in the records. Louis Armstrong did later recall hearing Buddy play outside the hall prior to a gig when about 4 or 5 years old which would put the year c. 1904 – 1905. Buddy Bolden came to prominence in New Orleans around 1898 (and started his band in 1895) so it is possible that he was playing blues in the streets and halls of New Orleans in the 1890s.

Since the earliest sheet music referring to ‘blues’ was published in 1908 (a recording of which can be heard here), determining and proving its exact origin has long seemed virtually impossible.

A Very Interesting Discovery

In an old book written by Carl Engel and titled “The Music of the Most Ancient Nations…” which was published in 1870, among the numerous scales he presents are the following two:

The scale on page 12 in the example labeled 4 gives the notes of a zanze (mbira or thumb piano) from Senegambia (now Senegal and Gambia in west Africa) as:   A   D#/Eb   E   D   G   A   C   D

Although given in the book out of order (and the 2nd and 3rd degrees are in a higher octave), these are the exact notes of the Minor Blues Scale in A which is   A   C   D   Eb   E  G   A.

It should be noted that an estimated 24% of the slaves brought to America were from Senegambia.

Surprisingly, the existence of Engel’s scale challenges the common argument that the b5 was added by theorists in the 1930s.

The scale on page 13 in the example labeled 5 gives the notes of a vissandschi (also a mbira or thumb piano) from Congo in west central Africa as G   B   Bb   A   G   D   F   Eb   Bb   G   D   F   G   F   D   F   D   F   G   A

Omitting repeated notes the scale is G A   Bb   B   D   Eb   F   G.

The first 5 notes, octave and 9th belong to the Major Blues Scale in G, which is G A Bb B   D   E   G.   What is particularly interesting is that the major blues scale has often been understood as created by adding a b3 to a pentatonic scale. This interpretation made sense to scholars because pentatonic scales are found in cultures around the world, so adding a b3 would be a logical next step.   The scale given in the book, however, suggests that the scale may have originated as an heptatonic (7 note) scale which evolved into the modern Major Blues scale by replacing the 6th and 7th degrees (Eb and F) with the note between (E).

Could These Scales Have Been Originally Related?

The distance between Senegambia and Congo is well over 2,000 miles, but a crucial factor that links the two regions is that, at that time, Congo was at the center of a large trade network. The burials at Stonehenge have proven that bronze age travelers ventured 500 miles before 2400 BC, dispelling the belief that ancient people didn’t stray far from home, and there is evidence that India established a trade with Egypt over 3000 miles away in the 3rd millennium BC. Artifacts can very easily be found far from where they originated. Even with all that in mind, though, it’s actually impossible to know if the two were originally related.

As an aside, it could be proposed that the dissemination of musical ideas prior to printing might have been at least partially accomplished with trading musical instruments. 

The 1870 Factor

The setting of Engel’s book published in 1870 is of particular interest. At the time, these scales were considered exotic. Africa was still a mysterious continent to most people. Not to mention Engel was German born and resided in England. The book itself was published in London. I’ve yet to find an account of him venturing to America so it’s unlikely he would have heard any similar sounds in plantation music. The world hadn’t yet heard blues music and it is doubtful that even an American scholar could have understood how these scales could be utilized let alone foresee that they would change the entire future of American music.

At the time, popular American music primarily consisted of folk music, marches and parlor songs, often derived from the European classical tradition. Minstrel shows traveled the country and, despite their seemingly tasteless antics, they did provide a viable career for many talented African American performers.

In 1870, America was very different than today. For one, Engel’s book would have originally been read by lamp or candle light as the first incandescent light bulb wouldn’t have been invented for another eight years.

It was five years after the Civil War ended and the American frontier still existed. In fact, the frontier line was only approaching the middle of the central states of Oklahoma, Kansas, etc. at that time. The earliest teachings of the Native American Ghost dance, a religious movement, had only just begun in 1870.   (This was 2 decades before Wounded Knee.)

Especially notable, The Fisk Jubilee Singers formed that year. They are the ones who would go on to introduce spirituals to American audiences.

Later, Thomas A. Dorsey would integrate blues into a new form of church music called Gospel which would greatly further its popularity and accessibility.

In Support of a Mississippi Delta Origin

The likelihood that Blues music might have originated in the Mississippi Delta region can be supported in part by the area’s proximity to New Orleans.

Since rivers and railroads were the highways of the 19th century, it is likely some of the slaves in the delta arrived from nearby New Orleans. This is important because slaves in New Orleans had a unique set of liberties that their contemporaries elsewhere lacked. They were legally able to own and play drums as well as congregate every Sunday in Congo Square to drum, dance and sing. This enabled them to remember and pass along their cultural traditions.

It bears mentioning that the impetus of New Orleans born music has nothing to do with specific tunes, harmony or theory but rather revolves around the tradition of dancing that has permeated the history of the city. Playing everything from marching band music to popular songs, New Orleans musicians have long filled the role of dance band. They also strove to develop their own voice, incorporate new musical ingredients and outshine their competitors. It was a matter of supply and demand. Inadvertently, they created a highly fertile environment which eventually produced new music genres such as jazz, rhythm & blues, and possibly even blues.

This musical competition wasn’t unique to just one location. It actually paralleled the orchestral trend of that day when orchestras would tune slightly sharper than their competitors to have a brighter sound and, over time, we eventually arrived at the tuning A = 440 which we use today. ‘A’ was typically in the 420s in the early 19th century.

There was also a Creole ingredient at play in New Orleans music. Creoles were often free descendants of African Americans that usually spoke a variation of French. They were well educated, owned property and businesses, and were the elite class of musicians.

New Orleans native, Louis Moreau Gottschalk ‘s Bamboula incorporated African rhythms in 1847 which many speculate he borrowed from dances at Congo Square since his mother was Creole and the Bamboula has been reported to hove been a popular dance at the square. Also, his song Ojos Criollos (Creole Eyes), written in 1857, is an often forgotten distinct foreshadowing of ragtime, which wouldn’t be developed for several more decades. These two examples show how progressive the musical culture of New Orleans had been in the mid-19th century. There isn’t direct proof of blues originating in New Orleans but all the ingredients were in place that could easily bring about the genre.

Conclusion

The two scales in the book are among many and, as noted, were out of musical order. This is one reason why no one has noticed this record of the scales. Another reason is that although these two scales were on idiophones, much like a xylophone, the book was a part of a trend in the 19th century that typically used proportions to determine the pitches of flute artifacts. This approach has a broad range for error and the methodology has since been discarded as speculation. Also discarded were the myriad of texts related to it, including Engel’s book.   With idiophones, there isn’t speculation as the instrument can be played as it was originally and the notes simply documented. Since mbiras are still common there isn’t any uncertainty as to how they are played either. It is, rather, a case of lost treasure found.


MM Coston is a Georgia (US) based composer, artist, horse ranch hand and history enthusiast who maintains the Mad Music Lair blog in her spare time.

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