Portraits of the Blues
Uniting African-American spirituals, folk songs, work songs, simple ballads, and call-and-response, the blues burst onto the musical scene in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century. The popular success of W.C. Handy’s hit Memphis Blues (1914) soon earned him the title of “Father of the Blues,” and inspired many African-American musicians to move to Memphis to play the blues on Beale Street. The genre spread throughout the Midwest and the South, with each region personalizing the musical form. The Delta blues, the New Orleans blues, the St. Louis blues, and eventually the electric blues would lead to the popularity of the blues throughout the world. The blues has been called one of America’s greatest exports.
The definition of the blues is as dynamic as the music itself. Perhaps the blues can be described through the most common blues instruments: the slide guitar, the harmonica, the saxophone, and the standard guitar. But the instruments alone do not make up the blues. The blues could be defined by its mournful tone, although not all blues songs are sad, or by a slower, more deliberate tempo, although some blues compositions are upbeat. The blues represents a commercial category within the music industry, although at times it is conflated with jazz and gospel. The blues is technically a progression of chords, traditionally the “twelve-bar blues,” which combines bars of alternating tonic and subdominant and a dominant seventh while a singer typically sings two repeated lines, followed by a rhyming third line. But the blues can be comprised of varying combinations of bars and lines as well. None of these terms fully captures the blues quite as well as Guitar Gabriel does. Gabriel is one of the first group of Winston-Salem, N.C. blues musicians helped by the Music Maker Relief Foundation in the 1990s. He said:
Blues is something that you do not find in no notes. You don’t find it on paper. It is something which is in your heart. You got to feel it to do it. You got to experience it. If you live it you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes we can be happy, sometimes we can be blue. It’s only what life chooses for you.
You can wake up in the morning going to your job, doing your daily occupation, 24 hours or eight hours. That’s the blues. When things don’t go right, seems like everything you do is wrong, that’s the blues. You can be in your home and have the blues. You can be on the train. You can get it too.
That’s the blues. Or you can be in New York City with over 20 million people and have the blues, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s the blues.
The Music Maker Relief Foundation was founded to preserve the musical traditions of the South, specifically the blues, by supporting the musicians who create this music, ensuring their voices will not be lost through the passage of time. Through shows like the one here tonight, the Music Maker Blues Revue, these musicians have reached over a million people with live performances in over 40 states and 17 countries around the world. In addition to providing financial support and broadening opportunities to make music, founder and executive director of the Foundation Tim Duffy has produced photographs of these musicians for over 35 years. Through the portrait series, Our Living Past, Duffy is making visible the history of this uniquely American form of music and its practitioners.
Duffy’s decision to use wet-plate collodion photography to record these portraits is an act of historical restoration itself. The collodion process was the most commonly used photographic process in the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly for portraiture. The process allowed for multiple images (unlike the daguerreotype that produced one image that could not be replicated), as well as an enviable clarity of tone. The materials were less expensive, and the exposure times shorter than for other photographic processes. The resulting portraits captured a great amount of detail about their subjects, and allowed for a more sophisticated delineation of light and shadow than had previously been afforded.
Duffy’s portraits of the Music Maker musicians reflect Frederick Douglass’s assertion that photography is the most powerful of arts—not only for its ability to record, but also to inspire. Combined with the performances and recordings of their music, these portraits—often capturing a musician with his or her instrument, within his or her surroundings—contribute to the creation of an archive of song and image, forever recording this distinctively American form of music.
By Dr. Amy Frederick
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History
She received a B.A. in English and art history from Duke University, an M.A. in art history and museum studies and a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University.