What exactly does LeRoi Jones mean by "the blues continuum" in his book Blues People: Negro Music in White America?

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LeRoi Jones uses the term "blues continuum" to suggest that in the wake of the traditional blues movement, a number of other blues-like genres emerged which are difficult to theoretically unify. As blues became popularized and commodified, it was taken up by people who interpreted it newly, whether in the physical style in which they performed it, in the formal features of the musical arranging, or in the kinds of audiences they wanted to reach and move.

Jones suggests that the first genre to evolve out of traditional blues was jazz. The traditions of blues and jazz also merged into a hybrid genre that became known as rhythm and blues, characterized by loud, percussive instrumentalism complemented with blues vocals. Later, much of the blues continuum grew out of the appropriation of blues by white artists, who injected their own traditions of swing and country music.

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In his 1963 book, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), explores how blues music, as first sung by slaves to its evolving forms in the 1950s and 1960s, provides a profound narrative through which the experience of black people in America is revealed. "The blues continuum," with its common reference points, cultural influences, and oppositional roots, is a paradigm, Jones tells us, in which an entire history can be understood:

[The Blues] was the history of the Afro-American people as text, as tale, as story, as exposition, narrative . . . the music was the score, the actually expressed creative orchestration, reflection, of Afro-American life.

LeRoi Jones, in this groundbreaking work, transformed the historical experience of African Americans from that of cultural assimilation to cultural participation. He showed how the ever-present influence of the original blues sung by the marginalized became the foundation for later mainstream and even homogenized forms, such as the big band sound and swing. "The blues continuum" was the link found to connect, to strengthen, to render, finally, unassailable a heritage with roots reaching across continents.

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When LeRoi Jones, or Amiri Baraka, discusses "the blues continuum," he is applying the word "continuum" in dual contexts. The first context involves the history of African Americans and the survival of the ancient cultures that the early slaves brought with them from Africa. What Jones referred to as "the continuing evidence of surviving 'Africanisms' and parallels between African customs and philosophies, mores, etc., and the philosophies and the Afro-American continuum" was the physical and psychological evidence that African Americans, as with white Americans who traced their ancestry to Europe, did not magically materialize or, as he facetiously put it, "did not drop out of the sky." In other words, African Americans and the music they developed represented a historical continuum that stretched back centuries to the forced emigration of Africans from their tribal and ancestral homelands to North America.

The second context in which Jones applied the word "continuum" involved the evolution of the genre of music that provided the basis of his landmark study. Aficionados of jazz rightly connect historical dots from that uniquely American musical genre's origins in the African American experience to its present practitioners. In Blues People, Jones similarly traced the evolution of blues and "rhythm and blues" to the African American experience beginning with slavery and continuing into the "modern" Civil Rights era, circa the early 1960s (Blues People was published in 1963). The blues evolved over many years to include influences from across the African American experience, including the synthesis of the Southern blues tradition with the "musical traditions of the Northern Negro." In other words, "the blues continuum" merely refers to the evolution of that genre of music--an evolution hundreds of years in the making.

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