Talking Blues with Saul Meyerson-Knox

Update: In March 2016, Saul Meyerson-Knox was selected as a Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools (MAGS) Distinguished Thesis Award winner for 2016. Saul has been invited to attend the 72nd Annual MAGS Meeting in April to receive his award and to present his research.

Saul Meyerson-Knox

Saul Meyerson-Knox in front of CCM. Photo by Olivia Bruner

Where does the blues come from? Different sources will give you different answers: traditional musicologists will say it arose from African-American plantation spirituals and work songs, while more romantic types might tell of a deal with the devil under the pale moonlight at a Mississippi crossroads. Another theory, often invoked by those who want to brand their blues as more “authentic,” traces the tunes back to the musical traditions of the African continent itself. While appealing, this last explanation may be motivated more by marketing than by historical accuracy, says Saul Meyerson-Knox.

A Different Blues

Meyerson-Knox, who graduated from the College-Conservatory of Music in 2013 with a Master of Music degree in music history and classical guitar performance, spent his time at UC examining a musical genre called the “African blues.” Popularized in the 1990s by performers such as Ali Farka Touré and Taj Mahal, African blues presents the music of the continent as the direct historical inspiration from which African-American blues developed. Touré in particular was wildly successful with this approach: his 1993 album “The Source” spent 18 weeks on top of the Billboard World Music charts.

“If you’re interested in blues, and then you hear that there’s African blues, you’re going to think it’s more authentic or soulful,” Meyerson-Knox says. “I wanted to ask why is that, why do we think that and how are record labels making the connection.”  The thesis he wrote exploring these questions, “‘African Blues’: The Sound and History of a Transatlantic Discourse,” was chosen to represent UC in the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools (MAGS) 2016 Distinguished Master’s Thesis Competition.

Ali Farka Touré

Famed African bluesman Ali Farka Touré poses with his guitar.

Out of Africa?

Early scholars of the blues, notes Meyerson-Knox, studied the genre through fieldwork and research in the American South. These investigators were almost all outsiders to the blues tradition: Northern, urban, middle-class and white in contrast with the Southern, rural, poor and black performers of the music. “They believed that African-American song was most valuable when it remained primitive and uncorrupted,” he explains, and defined its worth through its distance from the “modernizing influences” of white-dominated radio and popular song. To help establish the genre’s separate identity, these academics looked for distinctly African elements in the blues and minimized other contributions such as European folk music and hymn singing.

In the context of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, this approach helped stress the unique value of African-American culture. But in seeking differences between the blues and Western genres, these scholars often glossed over its differences with actual African music. “It’s very easy to just say ‘Africa’ like it’s a unified place,” Meyerson-Knox comments, “but every region has its own different culture. When you ask anyone from there, they’re going to say it’s very different wherever you go.” Musicologists emphasized commonalities between some African music and the blues, such as the use of a five-note scale, “blue notes” and call-and-response structure, while ignoring aspects that didn’t fit their theory.

Lobi Traoré

Lobi Traoré performs at the Mississippi Delta Heritage Festival. Photo by Victor Jouvert.

Blues Back and Forth

Further complicating matters is that Western music helped shape the development of African music between the end of the slave trade and the present day. Western instruments (particularly the electric guitar) and styles (particularly jazz and rock) crossed back over the Atlantic to inspire the creativity of African artists. When the Western recording industry discovered these musicians, they used a sort of circular logic as a marketing tool; Meyerson-Knox says that “recordings of African musicians intentionally playing in a ‘bluesy’ style are perceived as evidence that the blues existed in Africa all along.” He gives the example of Lobi Traoré, an electric guitarist from the West African country of Mali whose music was sold as “Bambara (a Malian language) blues.” Although Traoré himself felt that the blues was an American genre, he allowed producers to package his work as blues so he could reach a wider audience.

When performing throughout Cincinnati, Meyerson-Knox says, he meets a lot of people with a passion for the blues, “and they’re all sort of amateur historians. They all really want to learn about the history and the old music.” While most commercial music focuses on the new sounds and artists, the genre remains rooted in the value of authenticity established by its earliest scholars. But the blues, particularly the African blues, should be recognized as a living form that evolves with the times and its audience. “When I first found these records, I just thought that this is African music, and how great that we can all appreciate it. And then I started to realize that this was actually made with my tastes in mind as a Westerner,” he explains.

No matter how “authentic” its sound may or may not be, Meyerson-Knox still loves to listen to the African blues.  As a musicologist, he says that “it’s still really great music, regardless of what it proves about a historical connection.” And as a guitarist, he finds it a consistent source of inspiration. “Even when I was working on my thesis and would get a little burnt out,” he laughs, “I would just try to figure out some of [Ali Farka Touré’s] riffs on guitar.”

Written by Daniel Walton, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School