What is the quintessential music to pair with farming? Maybe your gut is thinking country, which seems to pair so well with the image of the robust singer in a cowboy hat or people even riding horses in music videos. I love John Denver, but face it, if you think country is the ultimate farming music, you’re wrong.
If this were a survey, the second most popular answer after country would probably be folk music. The predecessor to country music, with considerable overlap. The traditional acoustic instrumentation and storytelling lyrics are deeply rooted and intertwined with back-to-roots american folks who want to hang out in the farmhouse kitchen and sing along with that guy who has a guitar. But is it really about farming? Is the connection to the earth that strong here?
Look, I love me some folk music. And from folk we can step over to bluegrass, which is sure getting close. Bluegrass is probably my second favorite genre, and it would seem to pair with farming as well as cider pairs with pork. But to really find the music thoroughly connected to farming, there is no doubt in my mind you have to turn to the blues.
1. Blues music was born on farms
To cope with the nightmare of slavery, slaves would often sing songs while working. The music was largely African in origin, with call and response and adopted Christian themes being major elements of the songs that evolved from the work. It was a way to bring some amount of joy to each day, to help overcome hard times.
After the Civil War, black culture in America changed dramatically, but the songs lived on, evolving with the times and new circumstances. Singers picked up guitars as they expanded to more urban areas and gained a following with the new style of music. By the early 1900s, blues emerged as one of the most popular styles of music, with it’s origins firmly in America.
Nowadays farming is far removed from all the badness of slavery, but the joy that comes from music while working endures. I cannot think of anything better than digging in the earth and listening to a Muddy Waters album. If you’ve never listened to the blues while working, check out “Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters the next time you have to do some hard work in the garden.
A little fun trivia: “Mannish Boy” is the result of a sort of battle between Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, as Bo Diddley adapted and built upon the Muddy Waters recording of “Hoochie Coochie Man” with his song “I am a Man”. “I am a Man” popularized the classic blues riff we hear in all of these songs, and “Mannish Boy” is a direct response to Bo Diddley essentially ripping off “Hoochie Coochie Man”. This is apparent if you listen to these classic songs and the insulting lyrics of “Mannish Boy”. The blues have to evolve somehow!
2. The Blues Are the Roots of Most modern American Music
Many agree that the blues started it all for modern American music. Without the blues, we have no jazz, no rock (nor roll), no R&B, hip hop, country, and basically all popular music that extends from these genres. The collision of the African American songs of the south and the Appalachian folk music of the eastern US brought forth some of the essential, classic sounds that live on in popular music today. One of the first styles of blues to catch on was “delta” blues, coming from the fertile farm land of Mississippi, where crops grew well and life was hard enough to require good music. It makes perfect sense for a country that was founded on the idea of self-sufficiency and independence to pair so well with the music that evolved from the rough lives of living off the land, wouldn’t you say?
3. The Blues take it back to basics
The whole point with this style of music is simple: to live life, feel better, cope with hard times. The advice in lyrics is simple, the emotions true. The structure of a typical blues song is simple, often consisting of just 3 or 4 main chords repeated through the entire song (this simple phenomenon is exploited by many, many rock and pop songs as demonstrated in this popular video from Axis of Awesome… but the blues was first!). You don’t need many instruments for a blues song, if any at all.
This simplicity appeals to the farmer and gardener, where we slow down and focus on the basics: water, soil, sun, and patience. Here’s a great example of a simple song: Good Morning Blues, by Leadbelly.
4. Listening to the Blues is Rewarding
There is great reward in the blues if you make the effort. Huh? How can such simple, soulful music require effort? Well, to put it simply, blues is a diverse genre. There is a lot to take in if you start digging. And I’m not going to lie, a lot of blues music isn’t that great. I don’t really like some of B. B. King’s albums, even though I consider him the greatest. The trick with the blues is to keep digging until you find that sweet spot. If you don’t like that blues song you heard on the radio, don’t dismiss the entire genre. Dig deeper, look to the past. You never know where it might be or whose music might grab you. Start with the basics, like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, and B.B. King’s live albums. For modern popular blues, Joe Bonamassa and Moreland & Arbuckle are great. But dig a little deeper and you find some real gems, like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, a guitar + harmonica duo that I never get tired of:
And when you do all that digging, tilling the soil of the music, you reap some great yields. Yes, I know, this wordplay is terrible. But the comparison to raising your own food and living independently is so perfect!
5. blue things are high in antioxidants
Enough proof for me. The blues is the healthiest music there is.
Farmer Blues Playlist!
Want some more farm inspired blues? Check out our playlist on YouTube, “Farmers Love the Blues”: