What with lockdown and miserable weather, it’s probably not surprising if you’re currently feeling blue. There might be another reason this week too, Monday January 18th was cited on several media outlets as “Blue Monday” the most depressing day of the year. This piece of pseudo-science has been doing the rounds for some time, and was originally used by a travel company, presumably to encourage its customers to make some cheery holiday bookings. Walls Ice Cream (other frozen dairy product suppliers are also available) did their own survey of the happiest day of the year, and rather unsurprisingly, came up with somewhere around the longest day so we’ve got five more months (it’s getting nearer!) to wait.
Many people use music to improve their mood. It may seem counter-intuitive but it’s not necessarily “happy” music that will make you feel happy. Indeed overly cheery music can sometimes have the opposite effect, while Blues can be surprisingly uplifting. So why do the Blues make you feel good, and is there more science to this than the claims of Blue Monday?
The paradox of music-evoked sadness: an online survey by Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch, published in PLOS ONE (October 20th, 2014) looked at this apparent anomaly, and came up with some surprisingly positive results. They discovered that sad music could lead to beneficial social effects such as regulating negative emotion and mood as well as providing consolation. In fact sad music was more likely to console than happy music.
Why? Well, there seemed to be a mixture of things going on. One was that experiencing sadness via sad music seemed to slightly distance the emotion taking it away from the particular sadness that the individual was facing (eg a bereavement) into a wider world. Memory was important here too, as it often provided part of the consolatory effect of music (in very non-scientific terms, I’m understanding here that happy-sad feeling that music can sometimes give you). You can empathically share the emotion, but there are no real-life consequences to it.
Nostalgia also played a big part, and was given as one of the prime reasons for listening to sad music, when feeling down, by Western audiences. I came across the PLOS ONE article via the blog of blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa. Blues certainly seems to be one of the go-to genres for lovers of sad music, and, perhaps not surprisingly, the whole history of Blues ties in with the conclusions of the aforementioned article. Although the early history of the Blues is not clearly documented, there are some things that seem to be clear. Blues grew up in the southern United States – the former slave states – and had links back to Africa. It is believed, for instance, that the banjo, a key instrument in early African American music, was a direct descendant of the akonting, a banjo like instrument, popular among the Jola people of Senegal and the Gambia.
The link back to an earlier common homeland before the Atlantic slave trade ripped families apart, and the input of spirituals from plantation days added elements of nostalgia to early forms of the Blues, but through music was able to distance itself from the negativity of the days of slavery, and provide hope and a sense of community. In fact the use of spirituals could be astonishingly positive.
Spirituals were not just a source of comfort to slaves with links back to home, families, and religion. Many of them – such as Wade in the Water – contained coded signals used in escapes from slavery. Music continued to be important in the daily lives of freed slaves and their families, not least in worship. Indeed many big names in R&B music, including such giants as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Donna Summer, started their musical journey singing in church. The importance of spirituals in the history of the Blues can be clearly heard in recordings such as Mahalia Jackson’s Lord don’t move the mountain.
The development of the Blues seems to coincide with the early days of post-slavery. It has been seen as a move away from the group music of the slavery days, with the individual becoming more important. As well as spirituals, the work songs of the plantations with their traditional “call and holler” response, often known as a “field holler”, became an important part of the structure of the Blues.
Here’s an example of a field holler from Belton Sutherland, with the development of a blues song from it.
Blues arose from a terrible history, but the power of music rose above the dark times, making it compelling listening, even on a Blue Monday.