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Tony Wilson: A heart that is rebellious

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Tony WilsonThis is the second of a three-part serialisation of Tony Wilson's contribution to the forthcoming book Mersey: The River That Changed The World, published in December.

Ah yes, Liverpool and the slave trade. Or rather Liverpools. By the 1750s, after Liverpool had seen off the ports of Bristol and London and began to dominate the Atlantic triangular slave trade, there were two more Liverpools, one on the River St Paul in what is now Liberia and another to the north on Rio Pongas in modern Guinea. Both were slaving centres.

But it's somebody else's job to talk about these failures of humanity. Mine to recount the one truly remarkable by-product of those miserable journeys for so many of the people of West Africa. The creation of the music that has covered the globe for the last 50 years.

At first it was a bit of a shock for we civilised westerners; "Why savages who have never developed a musical or other art should be supposed to have more refined aesthetic sensibilities than the peoples who have cultivated music for centuries passes my poor powers of understanding." H.E. Kriebel in 1914 used the word "poor" rhetorically. In fact he was entirely accurate – his understanding was worse than poor – and entirely misguided, as the civilised western folk who six years later were dancing to the West African Ashanti dance, or Charleston, could have told him.

The blues is only as old as slavery, or more particularly the end of slavery, for its profound development comes only with abolition and the movement of the American Negro into the world beyond the plantation. But it begins with the American work songs, which of course have their origins in West Africa.

L Jones, whose book Blues People I will now shamelessly steal from (well isn't that what Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend did for heaven's sake from the great blues guitarists) points to the music – songs – of the second generation of slaves and their work songs; "The African slave had sung African chants and litanies in those American fields. His sons and daughters and their children began to use America as a reference."

At the heart of this new American music was what was long misunderstood as primitive or the unskilled nature of the primitive (when will we ever learn?) seen as the strangeness and out of tune quality emanating from their "crude" instruments. Classical musicologists spoke of the "aberration" of the diatonic scale in African music. That geezer Kriebel quite beautifully describes the "tones which seem rebellious to the Negro's sense of intervallic propriety are the fourth and seventh of the diatonic major series." Ah, the flattened seventh, the augmented fourth. You naughty boys. It just didn't occur to these white supremacists, as we should justly call these blinkered art critics, that perhaps the Africans were not using a diatonic scale but an African scale, a scale that would seem ludicrous when analysed by standard western musicology. The flattened seventh, like the E-A-B7 chord sequence, are not the blues; they are just faltering efforts of one music culture to define the other in its own terms.

For example, it leaves out rhythm, and though the Negro slave had to pretty soon leave out rhythm himself – drums were forbidden as seen as provoking passion and revolt – quite rightly – the syncopated patterns that had been used for communication, so much more complex than the primitive Morse code we westerners had once imagined as the use of drums, were actually the phonetic reproduction of words themselves.

Add to this the counter calling of the work song and its development into the repetition of the first three lines of the classic blues; add to this the rejection of "beautiful singing" and the preference for raucous, husky, natural tones (and here all I can think of is the almost unbearable rasp of the early Dylan) and finally add in emancipation.

As Jones points out; slavery didn't create the blues, emancipation did. For it was only when this culture came out of the field, when there was no point in singing about bales of cotton or catching fish in a long forgotten Africa. The slave diaspora spread to the cities and instead of writing songs for a work team to sing, it became songs for an individual to sing. It became personal. For all the incredible gifts of African tonality that changed popular culture in the West, the personal theme of the blues also lingers on monumentally.

Oh, Lawd, I'm tired, uuh

Oh, Lawd, I'm tired, uuh

Oh, Lawd, I'm tired, uuh

Oh, Lawd, I'm tired a dis mess

"So tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you", wouldn't you say, Mr Davies?

But enough of plagiarising the Mr Jones who did "know what was happening" and let me refer to my beloved guitarist Vini Reilly, the renowned instrumentalist of the Manchester band, the Durutti Column, but also, to me, the source of profound mathematical insight into music (and music is maths and vice versa). He explained to me that "in our classical world, in a Perry Como song, the intervals are mathematically correct, they are logical and expected. But when you hear the blues notes, the augmented fourth, the flattened seventh, they are not logical, they are a shock. In simple terms they are wildness. You expect, deep down in your psyche, a note to go some place, but it goes somewhere else. You are surprised, you are shocked, and you are excited."

Vini went on to talk about Gershwin's desire to feed these different intervals into his work only to be frustrated by the solidity of a concert orchestra. Vini points out the role of the guitar where notes can be bent, and highlights the role of the bottleneck so beloved of BB King and all the white blues players; whether or not this was used because of fingers damaged by intense manual labour, certainly it makes the notes as fluid as the tonalities of their West African origins. He also told me about that other blues standard instrument, the harmonica, how the tines wear down quickly and notes begin to wander, again allowing this all-vital blending and distorting of melody. And then there's the chord structures that grow out of this non-diatonic system and inform the entire world of rock and roll.

And again Vini defines the unexpected nature of this non-European mathematics; "a sound, a feeling that is shocking, that is extreme, that is at heart rebellious." How appropriate, how inevitable, that the sound of an oedipal culture is defined by the rebellious mathematical progressions of the blues from Western Africa via the slave ships of the Mersey and the plantations of the Southern states.

  • Mersey: the river that changed the world is published by Bluecoat Press on 6 December; sponsored by United Utilities and initiated by the Mersey Basin Campaign.

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