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BBC Bitesize Music Needs To Do Better

These are the first three paragraphs taken from the BBC Bitesize website on the origins of the blues. It's full of problematic words and phrases which do not give an accurate representation of how the blues was created, who created it, and the historical context it sits in. Even though the bitesize website is intended to consolidate information, there are ways to do this which avoid racist language and sweeping generalisations.

Here are the three paragraphs in their entirety:

"The blues is the name given to a style of music created by African Americans at the end of the 19th century. Blues music was originally performed by one singer accompanied by a guitar or banjo.

African slaves brought their musical traditions with them when they were transported to work in the North American colonies. Early types of African American music included spirituals (religious songs using vocal harmony) and work songs.

Work songs were sung rhythmically in time with the task being done. They used call and response in which phrases from a lead singer were followed by the other singers. African music combined with the folk music of the white European settlers to produce new styles of music." (BBC Bitesize)


'...created by African Americans at the end of the 19th century.'

The American Civil War (1861-65) and the Emancipation Proclamation (1865) were catalysts for the 'formalisation' of the blues. The blues in various guises had been evolving since the first Africans were enslaved in America.

'...accompanied by a guitar or banjo.'

These instruments weren't available for many slaves. Before the mid-1800s, instruments used may have included rattles, tambourines or jawbones.

'African slaves...'

During the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, black people were taken from regions in West Africa, not 'Africa' in general. Black people were enslaved - it wasn't a case of simply moving a group of slaves from one continent to another.

'...brought their musical traditions with them...'

The word 'brought' seems to suggest that the slaves were able to bring whichever musical traditions they wanted. Nothing could be further from the truth. They were denied their possessions, stripped of their dignity and forced to adopt their owners' cultural practices. Also, it's important to remember that the slave trade continued for hundreds of years. During this time, languages were lost, and some religious practises and musical traditions died out, as generations of slaves grew old, passed away, and their offspring had to survive in white America. The fact that musical traditions emerged from this, is a testament to the creativity, resourcefulness and sheer resilience of a people who were regarded as sub-human by the colonisers and imperialists who subjugated them.

' work'

It was slave labour. Work implies some sort of exchange. Nothing was given. Everything was taken.

'...the task being done.'

Slave labour.

'African music...'

What does 'African music' mean???

'...combined with the folk music'

There was no careful or systematic formulation of music. Doing anything outside of a slave owner's will, would be met with harsh punishment - even death. This fusion of music was the creation of the second generation of slaves (the first black Americans) - those who had grown up hearing songs in their parent's native languages, but began to use their North American birthplaces as their reference point. Again, how the slaves were able to create during this time is nothing short of remarkable.

'...white European settlers'

'Settlers'? How about colonialists/slave owners/imperialists?. The word 'settler' implies a peaceful, self-sufficient group of people, and doesn't speak to the rapists, murderers and white supremacists who enslaved approximately 12.5 million West Africans to create and maintain North American and Western European wealth.

We can do better.

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1 Comment

Hi Nate. Thank you for writing this. So much of what has been written for music educators about various styles of music from around the world is problematic. The way in which many topics have been presented to students by teachers can also be problematic. It is up to all music teachers to ensure that the cultural and contextual elements are taught sensitively. BBC Bitesize need to address their resources immediately.

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