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Blues People: Negro Music in White America

4.11  ·  Rating Details ·  1,521 Ratings  ·  69 Reviews
"The path the slave took to 'citizenship' is what I want to look at. And I make my analogy through the slave citizen's music -- through the music that is most closely associated with him: blues and a later, but parallel development, jazz... [If] the Negro represents, or is symbolic of, something in and about the nature of American culture, this certainly should be revealed ...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published January 20th 1999 by Harper Perennial (first published 1968)
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Leslie Reese
Feb 05, 2014 Leslie Reese rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
After learning that Amiri Baraka had passed away (October 7, 1934 - January 9, 2014), I wanted to commemorate him by reading some of his work. Blues People was a book he published in 1963 back when he was still LeRoi Jones and African Americans were called Negroes. I didn’t purchase the book until sometime in the 1990s---at least 30 years after its initial publication. The book was too deep for me and I set it aside for another 20+ years. It’s still pretty deep but I wanted to wrap my mind aroun ...more
Michael Strode
"This book should be taken as a strictly theoretical endeavor. Theoretical, in that none of the questions it poses can be said to have been answered definitively or for all time, etc. In fact, the book proposes more questions than it will answer." ~ Amiri Baraka from the Introduction to "Blues People"

There are some moments when I find myself reading a subject of historical analysis that I am filled with a desire to ask the author if they would provide a multimedia study guide to follow along wit
Jan 17, 2014 Jeremy rated it it was amazing
While I have major reservations about a lot of Amiri Baraka's ideas and statements as expressed in his poetry and elsewhere, I have to acknowledge that Blues People is mostly excellent. It's not really a musical history of the jazz/blues, so anyone looking for lots of discussion of musical theory and the compositional development of those styles will probably need to look elsewhere.

What it is, is a social history of how black music both responded to and developed in relation to black culture an
Before he became the voice of black nationalist poetry, a young man named Amiri Baraka wrote a book that, while still widely read, deserves to be a primer for understanding the evolution of pop music. Blues, jazz, soul, and funk have all fully entered the white American songbook, and hip-hop, while it's been slow getting there, is on its way. Despite the fact that it was written a full 15 years before a rapper first stepped into the studio, Baraka seems to have anticipated it with his analysis o ...more
Scott Rhee
Aug 19, 2012 Scott Rhee rated it really liked it
Shelves: music, blues
Leroi Jones (a.k.a. Amiri Baraka) wrote his book "Blues People: Negro Music in White America" in 1963, and it is still one of the definitive texts about the blues. Jones approaches this musical genre from a sociological, historical, and political standpoint, starting with the early slave trade in America. He looks at the many African influences of the blues, as well as its opposition to more classical Western (as in Western Civilization) styles of music, and how it has evolved. Jones focuses mos ...more
East Bay J
Jul 11, 2010 East Bay J rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great book! This is to blues and jazz history what Zinn’s People’s History is to U.S. history. It’s an overview, but it covers a lot of ground and there is no nonsense to be found.

Blues People is great because it communicates so clearly the evolution of blues and jazz from the fields to the urban centers, from the 1800’s to 1960’s. Baraka’s writing is superb, never too wordy or too sparse. He has a nice economy to his writing, a concision that really speaks to the reader.

There was one passage I
Mar 03, 2016 Pamela rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2016
Blues People is an alternate history of American music. There's times when it deviates so far from the accepted story that it feels like a transmission from another planet. And that's the best thing about it - sometimes there's nothing better than learning that everything you know is wrong.

The second best is the vitriol Baraka has for just about every facet of 200 years of popular American culture. In this history, music doesn't reach mainstream ears until it has been corrupted, diluted and str
This book was NOT what I expected from reading the reviews. It is not "the definitive source of Blues history"! It is book about African American culture and history with music involved. The author said it best, "a theoretical work". It was his theories on how "Negroes" thought and felt to make them create the music. He uses a lot of excerpts from other peoples work and a lot of "because they felt this way" or "they thought that way" type writing. I am honestly having a hard time understanding m ...more
Sean A.
May 15, 2012 Sean A. rated it it was amazing
A fascinating, thorough, and exhilarating social document of the development of black music in America. A must read, I would say.

BONUS: When I was 19 I saw Baraka speak at the University of Missouri. It was such a critical and ecstatic speech that afterwords my buddies and I met him. I literally told him I thought he was a God.
May 03, 2015 Jason rated it really liked it
Though he sometimes gets weighed down in his own words, the author's style is unique as is his perspective. Definitely recommend for any music educators or blues enthusiasts.
Evan Crane
Mar 20, 2010 Evan Crane rated it liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction
In his book Blues People, LeRoi Jones claims that this dual nature of bebop music was only possible because of the separation of blacks within American society and the continuity of the authentic expression of the blues.
Beginning with the first Africans brought to North America, Jones argues that there has been a division in the black community. This division is between the “blues people” and the assimilationists. Jones defines blues people by quoting Ralph Ellison: “those who accepted and li
Jan 06, 2017 Chris rated it really liked it
This book was part of my reading for an elective core class called Youth Culture, though in practice it quickly become a Music Appreciation class, courtesy of our jazz critic professor. (That's cool, though; discovered lots of cool old films and music.) I decided to read it again after a gap of 10 years and in a more relaxed, reflective headspace than the hectic college environment.

My impression is of one of learned, cogently-argued socio-musical history of black (and white) America, antebellum
Adelaide Mcginnity
Mar 19, 2017 Adelaide Mcginnity rated it really liked it
This is worth reading if only to see how the zeitgeist has changed on the ideas of racial versus class privilege. Of course, Blues People has no love for the Jim Crow White South, but what is very intriguing is how much contempt and dislike Baraka has for the Black Bourgeoisie. One can definitely read a certain amount of Marxist influence in Baraka's Weltanshauung that is absent from the contemporary Black Lives Matter worldview, and I think it makes for an interesting contrast.

My only real issu
Marcelo Gonzalez
Mar 09, 2017 Marcelo Gonzalez rated it really liked it
Read the title carefully. "Blues People" is not about the Blues. It is about the culture that created the blues. It is an examination of how the psyche of people singing spirituals in fields descended to the tongues that would sing them in clubs across the United States for years to come. This book is about African-American culture and how it gave rise to the Blues, not about the Blues themselves. It's not a work of music history, but African-American history.

It's important to know this before
Aug 08, 2009 Miriam rated it liked it
This is a case of a book being important in its time but whose claims have become outdated. Or so it seems to me. Granted, I come from a knowledge base primarily focused on Brazil, Afro-Brazilian culture, and the African diaspora as experienced there. So the overlap is obviously imperfect, and I am unfamiliar with the debates concerning blues/jazz and the U.S. historical context of their development.

Having said that, some of the claims in this book are problematic--Baraka essentializes Africa as
Nov 18, 2015 Malcolm rated it really liked it
Blues People is one of the best novels I've read pertaining to the history of Black music. Amiri Baraka does an excellent job giving the reader the prime beginning of information of the birth of Black music and the journey from Africa to the Americas. The influence the African people had on the new world, and how they tried to survive and keep their African roots throughout the struggle of slavery. Baraka talks about how slaves were brought into slavery in terms of purely philosophical correlati ...more
This is a tough book to get a bead on and I can't say I am moving on with a full understanding of all the arguments. Despite the clarity of writing, some of the points were obscure to me.

Thesis:"The Negro as slave is one thing. The Negro as American is quite another. But the path the slave took to 'citizenship' is what I want to look at. And I make my analogy through the slave citizen's music-through the music that is most closely associated with him: blues and a later, but parallel development
Sep 15, 2013 bfred rated it liked it
Amiri Baraka poses a compelling theory about the telling ways that black music has developed in reaction to the unique experiences of African-Americans. He illustrates how traditional European music has been appropriated and transformed by black America by combining it with important aesthetic themes that can be traced back to African culture, and conversely how mainstream white America has repeatedly appropriated black music as a way to reinvigorate its popular music. The general theory here is ...more
Mar 24, 2014 Eric rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
you will never be able to think about blues or jazz the same way again after encountering this mind-blower of a book. a MUST for anyone interested in those musical forms; NOT a history of them, tho that is included, but rather a history of "the negro experience in white america and the music that developed from it," which is a COMPLETELY different thing! the emphasis is on that experience and how it expressed itself in the uniquely african-american art form of music, the only art form that someh ...more
Dawn Lennon
Jun 15, 2014 Dawn Lennon rated it liked it
Shelves: history, music
Although a long time fan of the blues, I had no historical knowledge about its evolution, but instead vague and incomplete perceptions of its roots. This book provided insights about the connections and disconnections that came about as slaves were brought to America and then over 250 years became Negro Americans, Afro Americans, and citizens.

Although the book is written pragmatically, the path through the ages taken by Negroes and the music that both sustained and propelled them is still diffic
The central argument of this book - all American popular music is stolen from blacks by whites - seems reasonable enough. But every time I read this book, the magnitude of the Baraka's argument seems more preposterous. But man, does he argue it well.

Baraka is so passionate - angry even - that in my younger days, I was actually afraid to argue against him. But his research is full of holes. When empirical evidence falters, Baraka resorts to - to paraphrase and take great liberty with the text - "
Jun 23, 2014 Kai rated it it was amazing
Take it with some grains of salt, and it's a hearty meal.

I came looking for a book to inform me about blues (and to a lesser extent, jazz), and boy, did I get it. Starting from the time of slavery and moving all the way through cool jazz, the author covers everything in great historical detail. There's analysis of individual musicians, styles, cultural movements, historical events, migrations, etc. Baraka weaves everything together quite well, whether it is talking about one musician's direct in
Rob the Obscure
Apr 07, 2014 Rob the Obscure rated it really liked it
This book is essential to anyone who loves blues, jazz, R&B, or even roots rock n' roll, and desires to understand the contribution of the Negro culture to these music forms and, thereby, to American culture. It also reveals the little understood reciprocal impact on Black culture in this country. While doing so, Baraka also provides a deepened understanding of American history, economics, and culture.

The book is extremely well written and well researched. Because it was published in 1963,
Dec 26, 2007 Steven rated it really liked it
This book started with what can only be considered a thesis of galactic proportions. To provide a cohesive, detailed analysis of the social and music development of the "Negro experience in white America" in two hundred and thirty odd pages? Ambitious. I would be lying if I said that I found the book very readable - it was difficult to get through all the obscure one-off references to people, places, and things, sometimes using slang that isn't easily cross-referenced.

That said, it's a really in
Cary Miller
Feb 21, 2013 Cary Miller rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A really crucial (and short) read. I'm sure it helped that I have a fairly thorough knowledge of the basic timeline of the major jazz styles and players. Anyway, some of the great things I took away from this book were an attempt to situate blues and jazz musicians within their racial, class, and cultural context and think about how this affected the social/communal act of making (and hearing) music - as opposed to the very typical practice of venerating unique musical "geniuses". Another point ...more
Sep 09, 2013 Mike rated it liked it
When I hear a blues song I listen to the simple lyrics that convey emotion. Unlike a blues song this book wasn't simply written. Jones filled the book with academic text that I found myself mentally translating. Although it wasn't difficult at all I felt it did take away from the experience I was expecting. I wanted to read the book to better understand the significance of jazz. I knew he was a Jazz buff so I expected it'll tell me what Jazz was about. The book does tell about the cultural roll ...more
Oct 27, 2010 Less_cunning rated it it was amazing
"Blues People" is not exactly a short history of the blues and becuz "Blues People" is such a short read it could, perhaps, be mischaracterized as topical survey. But it is such a dense book that covers such a broad range and deals w/ multiple premises all while explaining the origins & conditions which gave rise to the blues. "Blues People" is less about raison d'etre & more about the reason why (& how...) the blues CAME into existence into the first place--

I marvel at Amiri Baraka'
Curt Bozif
Nov 14, 2013 Curt Bozif rated it really liked it
Shelves: music
For the most part I found Baraka's insights and observations about black folk and black music in America informative and very interesting especially when discussing how the legacy of slavery affected the evolution of the music. New readers should be aware that only about half of the book focuses on what we now understand to be the blues, or blues music, to be precise. The later half of the book deals with jazz to greater extent. Finally, I'll simply mentioned an observation: this book was writte ...more
Jan 20, 2015 Sabina rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-harder-2015
This book details the history of blues, jazz, and other African-derived musical genres. He describes how culture and music affect each other, and the history of race relations in the United States via the interaction between African-influenced and European-influenced music. His explanations of why certain musical elements are important really helped me understand the different genres and have a greater appreciation for both blues and jazz. Towards the end, however, he switches to highly specific ...more
Mar 09, 2015 Scott rated it liked it
Anyone interested in blues, jazz or mid-century African American intellectual history should read this book. Unfortunately it is a difficult read because Baraka was not a particularly good writer. His prose is turgid and he too often lapses into abstraction, particularly when he is talking about developments of various genres. What does hard bop actually sound like? You won't learn it hear, but you will get some compelling insights into the sociological implications of various genres. You just h ...more
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Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones in Newark, New Jersey, where he attended Barringer High School. His father, Coyt Leverette Jones, worked as a postal supervisor and lift operator. His mother, Anna Lois (née Russ), was a social worker. In 1967 he adopted the African name Imamu Amear Baraka, which he later changed to Amiri Baraka.

The Universities where he studied were Rutgers, Columbia, and Howar
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“To be sure, rock n' roll is usually a flagrant commercialization of rhythm & blues, but the music in many cases depends on materials that are so alien to the general middle-class, middle-brow American culture as to remain interesting. Many of the same kinds of cheap American dilutions that had disfigured popular swing have tended to disfigure the new music, but the source, the exciting and "vulgar" urban blues of the forties, is still sufficiently removed from the mainstream to be vital. For this reason, rock n' roll has not become as emotionally meaningless as commercial swing. It is sill raw enough to stand the dilution and in some cases, to even be made attractive by the very fact of its commercialization. Even its "alienation" remains conspicuous; it is often used to characterize white adolescents as "youthful offenders." (Rock n' roll also is popular with another "underprivileged" minority, e.g., Puerto Rican youths. There are now even quite popular rock n' roll songs, at least around New York, that have some of the lyrics in Spanish.) Rock n' roll is the blues form of the classes of Americans who lack the "sophistication" to be middle brows, or are too naïve to get in on the mainstream American taste; those who think that somehow Melachrino, Kostelanetz, etc., are too lifeless” 5 likes
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