”The blues were played in New Orleans in the early days very, very slowly, and not like today, but in a Spanish rhythm.” Baby Dodds, musician.
When I started to dance and DJ, I quickly became interested in the history of American blues music to find out what it could add to the scene. Being very passionate by nature, I started out with this simple motivation but ended up with the desire to write a book on blues history. In the process, after going through quite an unhealthy amount of documentation, I had the chance to give history classes to blues dancers in Montreal and Toronto. I was then surprised to learn that even long-time dancers or teachers seemed unaware of one of the most important Latin influences on the blues: the Spanish tinge. It reminded me that there’s always a difference between how a dance really looked back in the good old days and what we can see in modern competitions and dancefloors. In between lies a big gap in knowledge and a long list of innovations, adaptations and all natural elements contributing to the evolution of any dance. This article reaches back in history to try to find some hints about blues’ birth and the meaning it could have for dancing.
Back at the beginning of the last century
Blues music probably appeared somewhere in the 1890’s in Afro-American communities and slowly spread around. While the dance itself remained obscure, the music started to appear in partitions during the next 20 years or so. The first white craze for blues music exploded around Handy’s composition ”The Memphis Blues” (recorded in 1914) that Vernon and Irene Castle were using to promote the new dance in vogue: the foxtrot. Although the following video doesn’t show us this particular dance, it does present the general movement of the famous dancers.
A slightly sarcastic but maybe accurate description would be: white people dancing to Afro-American music. Which is, indeed, not a problem by itself. It simply demonstrates the complications of trying to find out what is the ”real” way of dancing a dance. The star couple had a very strict idea of what dancing was all about: no shimmies, no hip movement, no hopping, no dips, no twisting the body and so on since such movements were obviously sinful and disgraceful. (Basically, no fun.) After Vernon and Irene, things could have easily found another path in history and their dance could have ended up being called blues dancing.
What could have changed as well, in similar fashion, are the labels for the music. ”Memphis Blues” can actually be considered a rag, no musician of the time seems to reject fast versions of ”The St. Louis Blues” as being non-blues, and even some songs long after were still labeled foxtrots, like many of Washboard Sam’s recordings. In a similar fashion, Louis Armstrong would explain to Bing Crosby: ”Ah, swing, well, we used to call it ragtime, then blues -then jazz. Now, it’s swing. Ha! Ha! White folks yo’all sho is a mess. Ha! Ha! Swing!”.
Indeed, the multiple variations on this same topic are almost infinite and we end up with the conclusion that it’s very hard to define what blues music is. This forces us to keep two possibilities in mind: either the blues was a very narrow and specific musical trend that has been stretched out for commercial value by recording companies, or it should be considered as a wider variety of music. We’ll probably never get a fully satisfactory answer, but the fact is that the fun part of the debate is hunting down some specific historical components of the music itself.
The question of Latin influences on the blues finds a hint of resolution in various anecdotal contexts. It can be Skip James’ tuning, which he got from a man named Stuckey, who learned it in Europe from Bahamian soldiers during WWI; or, slightly more convincingly, in some songs bearing Caribbean influences, like ”Coal Mine Blues” by Georgia’s songster Peg Leg Howell, which sounds like Mighty Sparrow’s old calypso recordings; or even more explicitly in Clara Smith’s ”West Indies Blues”.
It still remains rather obscure in official American music, and Latin influences might predate the blues and jazz era. In his 1897 publication, Rag Time Instructor, Ben Harney points to some Spanish origins of ragtime music based on the habanera rhythm. Sadly, not much more evidence can be found, either in his own text or in other ragtime publications of the time.
Probably the most famous Latin section of any blues comes in the introduction of the main blues anthem; ”The Saint-Louis Blues” published by Handy in 1914. In his biography he mentions that while playing at the Dixie Park in Memphis, his band went through the habanera section of Will H. Tyer’s ”Maori”. He was impressed by what he described as the natural gracefulness of the black dancers during that section and he suspected something inherently ”black” about this rhythm. He tested his hypothesis by playing ”La Paloma”, the famous Spanish song with its clear habanera section. As predicted, dancers seemed particularly at ease with it so he decided to keep this rhythm in mind for later use. After hiding it in ”The Memphis Blues”, he added it to the introduction part of his well-known blues composition. These few measures are often described as a tango introduction since the habanera rhythm is also very present in Argentina’s national music. It is as well present in various African music. Conclusion; a main Latin element in blues is not strictly Latin.
Where did the rhythm come from?
We know a large quantity of slaves were brought first to the Caribbean for ”seasoning”, basically to prepare them to become good slaves and have more value on the market. Some would stay just a little while, some would stay there forever. The conditions in the Caribbean allowed them to continue to perform music and dances rooted in Africa but evolving in the specific context of the various islands. These dances, like the Bamboula, the Chicta, Calinda and many others involved various hips and shoulders movements, often described as lascivious by white observers.
With the independence of Saint-Domingue in 1804, a lot of white and Creoles fled Haiti and transited to Cuba where their music and dances mixed with the local traditions like the contradanza habanera and others. Then many ended up in New Orleans, some 10 000 already by 1815, where Latin, French and multiple African influences finally all mixed in the pot of the Crescent City and surroundings. Lower class blacks with their very specific dances would often face racial discrimination from whiter, therefore more privileged creoles. Nevertheless, both bore an Afro-Caribbean heritage.
Of the lower class, we know for instance voodoo priest Marie Laveau would hold secret events at Lake Pontchartrain, where dances were different than what you would see publicly at Congo Square. As for the creoles, some famous musicians came out of that social group, like Alphonse Picou, Emmanuel Perez, Sidney Bechet and many others. The 1890’s Jim Crow laws forced some more interactions between black and creole musicians since before Jim Crow creoles lived more as a separate upper class from blacks, while after Jim Crow they were more considered all in the same boat by whites. Of the various traces of such collaborations and influences, one can listen to the Latin-sounding trumpet solo on King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band version of ”St-James Infirmary”, or simply in the various biguine-like songs of Sidney Bechet and the Haitian Serenaders or the Baby Dodds Trio, sung in creole dialect. (Even if these recordings date from 1938 and 1946, biguine music’s popularity goes back to the beginning of the century, and like the tango, it found a large audience in France).
As segments of the The Spirit Moves by Mura Dehn clearly evoke, both the brothel’s social function of blues and the ceremonial Afro-Caribbean dancing probably influenced the basis of blues dancing in New Orleans. The dancers here were professional stage artists, but they seem aware of the underground background of the dance. Sandra Gibson’s very sensual motions might come from lascivious movements from the red-light district while Al Minns’ performance near the end of the video looks like a slow Afro-Caribbean dance.
In the small jazz revival of the late thirties, when collectors suddenly started to realize or remember that jazz came from people of color, some aficionados decided to go back to its roots and talk to old-time musicians. This period is also the beginning of a long series of records of Latin jazz et Creole jazz by various artists. One of these musicians was no other than one of the most important jazz composer of the century.
When Jelly Roll Morton crossed the door at the Library of Congress in 1938, he was already going downhill in his career. After benefiting from the instant money and gratification of his popularity in the music world, he had to see publishers, record companies and white musicians make a fortune from his music. The 20-hour long interview he was going to give to Alan Lomax in the following months ended up becoming one of the greatest jazz interviews ever made, even considering the various inaccuracies.
Of course, we need to challenge Morton’s main claim of having invented jazz music in 1902, but the interview still provides a lot of interesting information. One of the key moments of the oral history he left us is the precise description he gives of the influence of the certain rhythm and in creation of blues and jazz, starting from an example we already know:
‘’Now take La Paloma, which I transformed in New Orleans style. You leave the left hand just the same. The difference comes in the right hand –in the syncopation, which gives it an entirely different color that really changes the color from red to blue. Now in one of my earliest tunes, New Orleans Blues, you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, if you can’t manage put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.’’
This “Spanish tinge” is the habanera rhythm. It is believed he has learnt it from a Spanish guitar teacher he had in his teens. It seems plausible since there was also a strong Latin presence in New Orleans and the rhythm had already spread around (as we can hear later in singer Lydya Mendoza and others). Its direct influence on blacks and creoles seems to have stuck to piano since guitarists from New Orleans don’t share this musical figure, nor can it be found in Harry Oster’s various recordings made in Angola prison years later. Morton’s use of seasoning relates most likely to food, but since it shares the meaning of adding value it makes it all slightly disturbing.
What is so fascinating in this interview segment is that you can clearly hear the drift from a Spanish song to the blues, all of this simply by changing the complementary syncopation of the left and right hands, which gives the music a particularly appealing kick that makes you want to move. It is also interesting to notice in the interview that he starts from the Spanish tinge and slowly modifies it into another closely related rhythm known as the Charleston rhythm, which is the one we can hear on his recording of ”New Orleans Blues”.
As Morton points out, it is for him also an essential part of jazz composition: he uses it for instance in ”The Craze”, ”Creepy Feelings” and others. The Spanish tinge probably traveled with some early piano players as far as New York. Willie the Lion Smith and James P. Johnson remember Jack the Bear playing the salty song ”The Dream”, again with the same rhythm.
It is difficult to know why the Spanish tinge doesn’t appear on more records from the 20’s. It might be that for recording companies, its Latin flavor made it less suitable for the race record market. In any case, we know it spread at least a little at the time, as the recording of ”Tia Juana Man” by Ada Brown testifies. Not surprisingly, the various musicians on the song are also New Orleans old timers like Albert Nicholas, Barney Bigard, Johnny St-Cyr, George Mitchell and Luis Russell.
The Spanish tinge almost disappeared when New Orleans pianists moved up the Mississippi to reach Chicago. Luckily though, some pianists like Doug Suggs and Little David Alexander were using it in the Windy City. It appears on many of Jimmy Yancey’s recordings, from ”At the Window” to his interpretation of Leroy Carr’s classic ”How Long Blues”.
From there, the multiple exchanges and cutting contests between musicians might have worked to spread and modify its structure. Its influence can still be heard on some random recordings like the piano line of Jazz Gillium’s ”Gonna Take My Nap”, some Champion Jack Dupree (from Louisiana) or Sunnyland Slim’s songs and multiple other recordings. It also appears in closely-related patterns on Memphis Slim’s left hand, and he gave us to understand that such a form was also practical, since it was possible to play it while holding a cigarette!
It also reached the West Coast as it can be heard on multiple recordings by Lloyd Glenn: ”Southbound Special”, his interpretation of Yancey’s composition ”Yancey Special”, on ”Savage Boy”, and so on. Its use on ”Old Time Shuffle” might indicate that the rhythm has been used for a long time. (The shuffle was danced on plantations, but other song labeled as shuffles, like ”T-Bone Shuffle” or ”Ballroom Shuffle” don’t use the Spanish tinge.)
Indeed, once you started spotting the Spanish tinge or its offshoots, you see it everywhere, especially in the R&B era and Jump Blues/Jive where variations of it can be found at different speeds. Ruth Brown, Clarence Garlow, Professor Longhair, Percy Mayfield, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry and others were influenced by it, at least for some of their songs.
What does this mean for dancers:
Since this asymmetrical rhythm seems to have been present for a long time in the blues and related music, it is natural to think a specific step could have followed it. In a Latin dance like salsa, the asymmetry is reflected in the steps. From the lead’s perspective it goes: Left foot front, right foot under, left foot under followed by its anti-mirror right foot back, left foot under, right foot under. The equivalent for follows is right foot back, left foot under, right foot under followed by its anti-mirror left foot front, right foot under, left foot under. It is very plausible that similar steps were used in New Orleans more than a century ago. Of course, a possibility would be the mirror version of salsa steps starting with the left foot back followed by right foot front. (for the lead)
The same holds for half of that series of steps, which is also a structure present in current dances, and that can be simplified as step, step rock step. The rock step here holds the same function of following the asymmetrical structure of the music (it can be seen as half the mirror version of salsa steps while for follows as half the normal salsa steps). The rhythm here can be understood as the superposition of two patterns, binary and ternary. We’ll see how it could be thought in terms of dancing.
In that video, from the lead’s perspective, the beat at 1 could be for the rock step behind, on the left foot and the step under when the red spot hits 2. As a result, the beats at a and & are used by the right foot to balance back the motion of the left foot.
In follow’s perspective, the beat at 1 could be for the right step in front and when the red spot hits 2 the right foot steps under. The left foot then serves to balance that motion at a and &.
The asymetry of the rhythm can appear in simpler forms in the dance. From the Memphis Slim’s song previously presented, the slow dance could very well include the asymetric basic steps: left-right-left, pause, right-left-right, pause.
Of course, we’ll never know exactly how much such asymmetrical steps were commonly used since it was easier to make money from people’s recordings than from filming their dance events. We know from some songs that many steps were used in country blues-related music, like the grizzly bear, the chicken scratch, the turkey trot and many others. A step behind in a kind of a salsa-ish or rock-step-ish fashion seems also very probable.
We have some footage of jazz dancers in big cities like New York and Chicago, which includes some rock steps, but there’s pretty much none for blues dancing, especially in areas like New Orleans and the Piedmont. It is very plausible that Piedmont dancers were either tap dancing or doing a mixture of bouncing steps, like some stationary Charleston. Maybe some bouncy rock steps were there as well. Blind Blake did mention the Charleston in ‘’Dry Bone Shuffle’’ and Blind Willie McTell’s wife remembers dancing the Charleston in a club on her husband’s music. It is difficult to know how much this was similar to the Geechie and Gullah’s dances that inspired James P. Johnson to compose his ‘’Charleston’’ that made the dance popular through the show Runnin’ Wild in 1923. To go full circle, we can notice that the Spanish tinge can be obtained from the Charleston rhythm by substituting the second dotted crochet (or quarter) by three eighth notes, the first of the three remaining silent to obtain the rhythm. It is exactly the reverse process of what Morton does in the interview for Lomax at the Library of Congress. How these rhythms influenced the dancing remains an interesting question since Piedmont blues represents a fair deal of blues recordings and records travel fast. For instance, it could have reached the Mississippi delta since a guitarist like Robert Johnson knew how to play covers of Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller or Blind Willie McTell. Such a dance would also be well suited for other upbeat music of the time like the Mississippi Sheiks and others.
As much as the Spanish tinge seems to have sometimes only few occurrences throughout a song, at various speeds, some rock step equivalent might very well have been part of the various steps that created the blues or all related dances of black people at the time. Even more interesting, is that we can use the Spanish tinge to link both some parts of blues and jazz music and even, maybe, dancing. Nevertheless, it remains difficult to estimate which proportion of recordings really contain direct influences of the Spanish tinge. If it was a steady left-hand pattern of some early 1900’s compositions, it evolved into various forms or was absorbed in other songs as only an occasional punctuation. In all cases, it’s hidden there in many songs.
Finally, it reminds us that there is a lot we don’t know about blues dance history. Whatever we learn about how to dance will always remain useful indications, hints and advice, not an absolute. Dances grew as combinations of various steps, often invented by long-forgotten folks in juke joints, rent parties or other dancing venues. The same holds for present-day dancing, where everyone’s personal touch can add to how we dance. In any case, we should keep in mind learning to dance well with the people in our own community. The center of the scene are the dancers with their valid preferences, points of view and skills. The only absolute criteria we should always keep in mind are to be safe and respectful, with a touch of bluesiness to wrap it all up.
©Félix Lambert, Montreal
Thanks to Andrea Rosenberg, Debbie Carman, Evelyne Batoula and Dominique Perras Saint-Jean for editing and suggestions. Thanks to Felix-Antoine Hamel for sharing musical passion and knowledge. Thanks to all the dancers I enjoyed sharing a moment with on the dancefloor.
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