Fruteland Jackson spoke to a sellout crowd at the Levy Center on March 10. A Chicago native, Jackson,whose motto is “Try, Trust and Triumph,” is a nationally known author, musician and oral historian. His program, Blues in the Schools, is designed to provide children Kindergarten through college with an appreciation and greater awareness of blues music.
During his talk, Jackson skillfully melded a brief lesson in blues with live examples of the various styles, which he played using two different guitars.
In his enthusiastic presentation, Jackson summarized the genesis of blues music as a culmination of
three different types of music that had its roots in the southern U.S., beginning in the late 1800s, around the time of The Reconstruction. These three musical genres, Jackson explained, were field holler music, work songs and religious music. “Field holler music was what was on your mind and came from the pain of life on a plantation, often keeping time to a heartbeat,” he said. He added that work songs came out of working in large groups, for example on the railroad, which he accentuated with a sample of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Finally, he said, there were religious songs, “which were invented to make us feel better and believe in something higher than ourselves.”
It was these three types of music that fused into what we call the Blues, Jackson said.
Jackson also spent some time talking about a man he dubbed “The Father of the Blues,” William
Christopher (W.C.) Handy, who is credited with first documenting the Blues into musical notation and officially copywriting it.
Handy, as Jackson tells it, defied his father by pursuing a career in music, using the five-note scale (as
opposed to the traditional seven note scale) which is a distinguishing feature of blues music. Handy
made the trip north from Florence, Alabama (his birthplace) with some friends in 1892 to perform at the historic World’s Fair in Chicago. As it turns out, the World’s Fair didn’t commence until 1893, giving Handy a chance to develop his craft. He did, successfully, and was later commissioned by Memphis Mayor Edward Hall (E.H.) Crump to compose a blues song, “The St. Louis Blues,” which was published in September 1914. It remains a classic today and is considered a fundamental element of many performers’ repertoires and has been called "the jazzman's Hamlet."
Jackson concluded his brief history with a simple summary of the two types of blues – Country Blues and City Blues. The former, he explained, was rooted in the south, used an alternating baseline and had “a touch of mountain,” often incorporating a kazoo, which he called “the poor man’s saxophone.”
It was the Great Migration of African-Americans from the south to the north, which began in 1916,
spurred in part by the automation of farming that gave rise to City Blues. “Sweet Home, Chicago” is a
migration song, Jackson added.
“People wanted to dance in the city and didn't want to hear those old songs about sharecropping,” Jackson explained. “Those songs were too slow, and people wanted a faster pace so they could cut a
rug.” From this, the Rock and Roll era also was borne, he said. “Rock and Roll is nothin’ but a shuffle with the tempo cranked up!”
Today, Jackson says, the blues is apparent in many different kinds of music, from boy bands to rap, but the old favorites are still golden and will last many lifetimes.
Jackson has been nominated for a prestigious W.C. Handy Award, and he said he will know in May if 2020 is his winning year. He has been nominated five times for the award, which is presented by the Blues Foundation, to recognize valuable contributors to blues heritage.