The American Dream in Blues Music

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

15 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Frank Schmidt (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Intoduction

2. The American Dream
2.1. Peter Freese
2.2. Fossum and Roth

3. The Blues
3.1. Introduction
3.2. Blues History and Characteristics

4. The American Dream in Blues Music
4.1. Introduction
4.2. Success and Progress
4.3. Movement Towards New Froniers
4.4. Religious Aspects
4.5. Liberty, Equality and the Pursuit of Happiness

5. Conclusion

6. Discography

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In is publication of 1985, Peter Freese initially states, that in order to fully comprehend American culture and its products one must understand “certain enduring beliefs and convictions” (Freese 1985: 3). According to him, these beliefs and convictions together make up the ‘American Dream’, a concept that is and has been an integral constituent of American culture and society from its very beginning until today. Blues music is a product and certainly an important part of American culture and for over a century. Knowing this, the American Dream and the ideas that it represents must in some form relate to significant elements of blues music. But what is ‘The American Dream’ and what is ‘The Blues’? Neither question is easy to answer. To clarify the use of the first term in this paper, the theories and definitions of two influential scholars will be outlined briefly in section two. The base of my further elaborations around the American Dream will be the combination of their respective approaches. Then, before preceding to an actual analysis of the initial thesis, a brief introduction to blues music and ideas around the topic will be given to provide a sufficient background for this paper.

2. The American Dream

2.1. Peter Freese

Although the term ‘American Dream’ was according to Freese coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931, the concept originated long before. The American Dream was a utopian vision Europeans had, a place they imagined to be wholly different from their own native continent and the hardship it entailed. All the different elements and ideals of the Dream that will be discussed further on down originate in European ideas and traditions. Freese repeatedly points out the complex nature of the term and acknowledges that there are various possibilities to interpret it. He, however, puts the accent on six main intertwined constituents of the American Dream.

- A future-oriented belief in improvement and progress.
- The belief in the possibility of individual success. This point is mostly associated with social status and monetary and material gains.
- The belief that Americans are God’s chosen people with the manifest destiny to missionarize the world.
- The belief in civilizations continuous westward movement towards new frontiers.
- The belief in liberty and equality, guaranteed by the American form of democracy.
- The belief in America as a melting pot of people of different nationalities, religions and ethnicities. This aspect also encompasses the idea of leaving the old behind and moving on towards a new beginning.

Freese points out, that there elements of the dream that may contradict one another and more importantly that there are tremendous discrepancies between the Dream and the American reality. This reverse approach, aptly called American Nightmare by Freese, will prove to be relevant for the later analysis (Freese 1985).

2.2. Robert Fossum & John Roth

In addition the summary of Freese, it is helpful to complement his elaborations with the studies of two other scholars. Like Freese, Fossum and Roth acknowledge the American Dream’s complexity and initially state the fact that it is an abstract concept, actually comprised of many dreams. The first, and for Fossum and Roth central trait of the Dream is the belief in new beginnings. According to the authors, this belief originated in the visions of “European dreamers” (Fossum/Roth 1981: 8) who, fueled by their religious faith, imagined an earthly paradise beyond western frontiers. The authors connect this strand of the American Dream with such convictions and virtues as the possibility of progress, optimism, material gain, mobility, youthfulness and the freedom to leave the old behind. Another element of the dream that is deemed important is a strong self confidence. This entails a strong determination to archive a set goal, the attitude that anything can be made possible by the individual. At the basis of this, the authors see the individual freedom of choice as a crucial part of the Dream. This leads them to the opinion that many of the American Dream’s basic assumptions are stated in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. They see the unalienable rights stated there, most importantly that to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness along with equality, as the foundation of the Dream (Fossum/Roth 1981).

3. The Blues

3.1. Introduction

Just as a basic understanding of the American Dream is necessary, a rudimentary familiarity with blues music and its background is crucial. Unfortunately, the brief introduction to blues music and the overview of its history given here is clearly unable to capture the topic in its entirety. Aspects such as musical theory and musical styles that developed later or preceded the blues should generally not be ignored. They do, however, go beyond the scope of this paper. The history of blues music is long and rich and countless publications prove the academic interest in this field. A selection of worts is listed in the bibliography of this paper and should provide a guideline for further information to the interested reader.

3.2. Blues History and Characteristics

Little is known about about the exact time of origin of blues music. Quite obviously, the earliest roots of all African-American music and hence of the blues lie in eastern and central Africa, the regions in which the majority of African slaves were captured, enslaved and first brought to America in 1619. The style that today is referred to as blues did not develop until presumably the 1890’s. It evolved from field hollers, work songs, spirituals and chants on plantations, in labor and prison camps and in African-American communities of in the rural southern United States of America. The conditions under which the blues came to be are very important to keep in mind when listening to the blues and will prove to be revealing in the later analysis. The above mentioned roots can often be recognized in blues lyrics in the recurring rural and agriculturally related settings and imagery as well as in religious contents and vocabulary.

‘The blues’, as in blues music has to be distinguished from the same term that means to describe a particular feeling or state of mind. The color blue and “Blue Devils” (Wikipedia 2008), evil spirits that supposedly altered the mood, have been associated with depression and sadness for centuries before the music itself came to be. However, it is important to recognize that blues singers are not all plain fatalists who merely dramatize life’s problems. Their songs encompass an ample spectrum of subjects that reach far beyond stereotypical, melancholic self-victimization. S. C. Hyman (1973: 50- 53) points out the major entwined themes that dominate the lyrics of blues songs in contrastive pairs. First, he names leaving, travel and journeys with the counter points being returning home or coming to a new, strange place. The second dominant pair of themes is dramatic self pity and in contrast, compensatory grandiose fantasy or boasting, often sexually related. Lastly, there are on the one hand the themes of abuse or bawdry and on the other hand praise, often in connection with a member of the opposite sex. Additionally, Hyman mentions cynicism, expressed in a “noncommittal attitude towards life” (Evans 1982: 28) as another trait that is commonly found in the lyrics of blues music.

The themes that the blues deal with are universal and are not the exclusive trait of one culture (Evans 1982: 19). Yet, blues music is originally a from that reflects the conditions and dreams of disadvantaged and discriminated African-Americans in the United States. Of course this statement is not universally applicable to all blues songs and styles but the closer one gets to the roots of the music the more one will find it to be true. With regard to the limited space and to the American Dream as a topic, this paper will focus on in style and period early blues music, predominantly that from the beginnings to the 1930’s.

4. The American Dream in Blues Music

4.1. Introduction

The American Dream originated in pre-colonial Europe and the roots of blues music lie in pre-colonial Africa. Despite or rather because of this fact, they both have become a part, product and expression of American culture. As Fossum, Roth and Freese acknowledge, the elements that constitute the American Dream are entwined. Here, to follow the initial thesis in a structured manner, the aspects of the Dream will be broken down into four major points to examine their relevance in blues music. The first central point will be the belief in progress, societal and individual as well as personal success in various facets. Closely connected with the first, the second point will focus on the belief in a constant movement towards new frontiers, leaving the past behind. Next, the religious aspects of the American Dream and their representation in the blues will be explored briefly. Lastly, in point four liberty, equality and the right to the pursuit of happiness as constituents of the Dream will be discussed as to their relevance in blues music.


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The American Dream in Blues Music
University of Hamburg
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american, dream, blues, music
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Frank Schmidt (Author), 2008, The American Dream in Blues Music, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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