The first full-length analytical and historical study of jazz and blues written by an African American, Blues People: Negro Music in White America presents a highly original thesis suggesting that music can be used as a gauge to measure the cultural assimilation of Africans in North America from the early eighteenth century to the twentieth century. Broad in scope and insightfully opinionated, Blues People caused controversy among musicologists and other critics. Intending his remarks as negative criticism, Ralph Ellison was accurate in noting that Amiri Baraka is “attracted to the blues for what he believes they tell us of the sociology of Negro American identity and attitude.”
Baraka contends that although slavery destroyed many formal artistic traditions, African American music represents certain African survivals. Most important, African American music represents an African approach to culture. As such, the music sustains the African worldview and records the historical experience of an oppressed people.
Baraka also argues that while Africans adapted their culture to the English language and to European musical instruments and song forms, they also maintained an ethnic viewpoint that is preserved and transmitted by their music. Stylistic changes in the music mirror historical changes in the attitudes and social conditions of African Americans. The chapter “Swing— From Verb to Noun” compares the contributions of African American and white jazz musicians in the 1920’s and 1930’s, demonstrating how some artists developed and extended an ethnic folk music tradition while others added what they learned from that tradition to the vocabulary of a more commercialized American popular music. Baraka’s view that music is capable of expressing and maintaining a group identity leads to his assertion that even in later decades, increasingly dominated by the recording and broadcasting industry, African American artists continued to be the primary contributors and innovators. A classic work of its kind, Blues People offers an interesting view of how cultural products reflect and perhaps determine other social developments.