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Understanding American culture means understanding the blues

By Michelle Hall


Harriet Ottenheimer and Wayne Goins have the blues.

Ottenheimer, professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, and Goins, associate professor of music, have been interested in the musical phenomenon since they were children, studied it in college, played it professionally and now teach it in their anthropology and music courses. And this year, in recognition of the "Year of the Blues" in the United States, they are teaching an entire course on the blues.

Harriet OttenheimerOttenheimer, pictured at left, said although many people like to listen to the blues, not many know where it came from or what it means.

"If they like the music, they should understand where it comes from," she said. "People don't realize the extent to which American culture is African-derived."

Goins, pictured below, said he feels it's important for people to understand the social atmosphere the blues grew out of.Wayne Goins

"People don't have 'the blues' anymore," he said. "It's foreign to us the way the blues evolved -- we have too little to cry about now. We feel like blues should be more a part of American culture."

The blues developed in small cities along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the 1890s and made its way to the delta in the early 1900s. It was an early party music developed by the children of former slaves, Ottenheimer said. Its musical and cultural foundations come from Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

But the blues have also generated plenty of controversy, Ottenheimer said. Scholars disagree over where in Africa the music originated, and when and where the first documented encounter in America with the music occurred.

"If you want to understand American culture, you need to also understand the blues, and the contexts in which it developed and flourished," she said.

In September 2002, the U.S. Congress proclaimed 2003 as the "Year of the Blues," to celebrate the 100th anniversary of African-American composer W.C. Handy's encounter with the music in Tutwiler, Miss. The "Year of the Blues" celebration brings together blues events, a radio and film series, concerts, festivals and educational initiatives.

How they got the blues

Kansas State University professors Harriet Ottenheimer and Wayne Goins took different paths to get to their love of and interest in the blues.

Growing up in Chicago, blues was the first style of music Goins learned to play on the guitar. His father was a harmonica player and his uncle, a blues guitarist who gave Goins his first gigs. Goins said he fell in love with the warm sound of the blues guitar on 45s, 78s and albums, which, he says, is "something the younger generation can't appreciate with the advent of the CD."

"Man, the warmth of the vinyl just made me imagine being there on the recording sessions," he said. "Every song I heard, I pretended I was there in the studio, making the music with them. The passion with which guys like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Lightnin' Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf sang was overwhelming to me and I just knew I had to get closer to that music. If I could have crawled inside the turntable and through the hi-fi to get to those men, I would have in an instant.

"I'm still in love with it all."

Goins continues to play jazz and blues music professionally, and has played on Broadway for Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky."

Ottenheimer's father was a "blues fanatic," she said. Her family would listen to records and attend concerts in the late 1940s and early '50s, where she became an "autograph hound."

"I grew up in love with this music in New York City," Ottenheimer said. "Going to concerts and meeting the musicians just blew me away. I wanted to know more, and I wanted to be a part of it all, to understand it all. What did it really mean, for example, to have 'trouble in mind?' or to be 'laughing to keep from crying?'"

In college, she started out with a major in music and switched to anthropology and enthnomusicology for graduate school. By then she had learned the guitar and was playing in coffee houses and bars -- her specialties were blues and folk. Ottenheimer even wrote her doctoral dissertation on blues singing in New Orleans.

She continues to teach, research and write about the blues and has published numerous articles on the subject. Her book "Cousin Joe: Blues from New Orleans," was published by the University of Chicago Press.

"I will probably always love the blues," Ottenheimer said. "Blues has an amazing ability to capture the most overwhelming experiences and emotions and to put them into words and music. The music and the lyrics can touch you emotionally like almost nothing else. It's cultural, it's personal and it's poetic."


Fall 2003