The blues tradition started with emotion. Albert Murray, a black novelist, commented that the blues were a way for one to “[Confront, acknowledge, and contend] with the infernal absurdities and ever-impending frustrations inherent in the nature of all experience.”1 Drawing from the oral music traditions of “field hollers” and call and response, the blues had a strong presence and role of importance in black American communities starting during the Reconstruction period before segregation laws.
One of the early recordings of Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin’s Down-hearted blues was done in 19232 (the YouTube recording below is from 1939). It follows the typical AABA structure the blues would follow and makes use of call and response primarily between the singer and a clarinet. One thing that can be noted is the inflections Hunter uses as she sings. Many of the accents and emotive inflections she uses in her phrasing would not be written down in the music––such as shortening a note at the end of a phrase, sliding into or between notes and adding accented vibrato to a sustained note.
The subject matter deals with the singer being unhappy in the romantic situation she’s in. Hunter specifically sings about “the man that wrecked her life,” but beyond the relationship, the man could be extended to representing her job or position in society (especially important given the time this piece was written in). In the first verse, Hunter sings that “the good book says you’ve got to reap just what you sow,” which is acceptance for the situation that she’s in––something she could have arguably had very much or very little control over to begin with.
1. Hogue, W. Lawrence. Discourse and the Other: The Production of the Afro-American Text. Durham, North Carolina, NC: Duke University Press, 1986.
2. Hunter, Alberta and Austin Love. Tennessee Ten: Down-hearted blues. Victor, 1923, audio recording, http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/9323.