In one sense, the generation after Emancipation represented the lowest point in the history of African Americans. Their freedom, American citizenship, and civil rights ostensibly defined and protected by three amendments recently added to the Constitution as the result of the Civil War, blacks nevertheless watched helplessly as these same rights were gradually stripped away, with few protests from their white fellow Americans and with a shrug of indifference from the federal government. The “Age of Jim Crow,” which would dictate race relations in the United States until the middle of the twentieth century, had arrived with a vengeance.
The situation was especially bleak for African Americans in the South, who were trapped in an increasingly rigid system of segregation and in other ways reduced by state and local laws to a status reminiscent of slavery. Yet, it was during this same period that Southern blacks made an important contribution to American popular culture, one that grew out of the deplorable situation in which they found themselves. The link between the legal, economic, and social oppression of African Americans during the last generation in the nineteenth century can be seen most clearly in the music produced in the rural areas and small towns of the South, the Blues.
The Blues has had a tremendous impact on a broad spectrum of American music, including jazz, country, rhythm and blues, gospel, rap, and, perhaps most importantly, on the musical style formed by the union of country and rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll. On this point, I cite no less an authority than the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” himself, Elvis Presley, who said in a 1956 interview that “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doing now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and in their juke joints, and [almost] nobody [white!] paid it no mind ‘til I goosed it up. I got it from them.” (Quoted in Geoffrey O’Brien, “Rock of Ages,” New York Review of Books, Dec. 16, 1999, p. 44–bracketed words added by present author.)
The Blues arose in those parts of the Deep South dominated by large plantations (e.g., the Mississippi Delta) or by industries that required heavy manual labor, such as mining, logging, levee and railroad construction, and freight loading. These jobs were part of the new exploitation of the South’s raw materials and its people by Northern industrialists and by their conservative white Southern allies, the “Redeemers”; they were, in other words, an integral part of what historian Paul Gaston has called the “New South Creed,” which promised to remake the conquered South economically in the image of the victorious North. Despite the outcome of the Civil War, or perhaps because of it, Southern whites found it impossible to see their former slaves in any other role than that of “heavy lifters” in this new economy.
While some African Americans sought these labor-intensive, but relatively lucrative, jobs as a way to escape from sharecropping, others were forced to work in them because they fell victim to a penal system stacked in favor of the vested interests: prison farms, convict leasing, chain gangs, vagrancy and contract laws–all were mechanisms used by southern states and localities to exploit black laborers unwilling to accept such backbreaking work voluntarily, thereby creating what Douglas A. Blackmon has called “slavery by another name.” Thus, it isn’t too surprising to learn that a number of prominent early Blues singers honed their musical skills while serving time in various southern levee camps, chain gangs, and prison farms. (For example, Huddie Ledbetter, the talented, gravel-voiced guitarist better known to Blues fans as Leadbelly, was serving a sentence for murder in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison Farm when he was “discovered” and freed through the efforts of a Blues researcher and folklorist named John Lomax in 1933.)
“With little education or property, and no political power in a completely segregated society, [Southern blacks] often encountered intolerable working conditions and moved frequently from one plantation job to another.” (David Evans, “The Blues,” Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, p. 995) From the end of Reconstruction to the outbreak of World War I, most of this migration was from rural areas to cities within the South (includingWashington,D.C.). Beginning in 1915 or so, this black search for economic opportunity set off the so-called “Great Migration” that carried African Americans in waves out of the South and into the larger industrial cities of the North and Midwest, places like New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. Between 1910 and 1940, the net out-migration of blacks from the South was 1,750,000. (Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma, p. 183) Among these migrants were a number of talented Blues performers who took their skills to a more receptive, and, they hoped, a more lucrative, environment. (E.g., Muddy Waters to Chicago, John Lee Hooker to Detroit.)
In short, the Blues arose out of the dissatisfaction of blacks with life in the post-Civil War South. The Blues “reflected not only the social isolation and lack of formal training of its creators but also their ability to make do with the most basic resources and to survive under the most adverse, oppressive circumstances.” (Evans, “The Blues,” p. 995) Or, as Bluesman Big Bill Broonzy once said, “It takes a man who’s had the Blues to play the Blues.” (Booklet, “Blues in theMississippi Night”)
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To me, the best source for hearing about “the birth of the Blues” is a compact disc produced by Alan Lomax, “Blues in the Mississippi Night,” originally recorded in 1946. Lomax, a white folklorist/musicologist of decidedly left-wing political views (and son of folklorist John Lomax, who had “discovered” Leadbelly in 1933), made a career of traveling throughout the South–and, later, Africa–trying to preserve on record or tape the musical culture of rural blacks. In a New York City recording studio in 1946, Lomax brought together three veteran Bluesmen who had been born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, the area south and west of Memphis,Tennessee, along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, “the land where the Blues began.” They were: Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958)—guitar
Memphis Slim (1915-1988)—piano
and Sonny Boy Williamson [I] (1914-1948)—harmonica
Lomax primed the pump as the session began by saying to the three Bluesmen, “Listen, you all have lived with the blues all your life, but nobody here [in New York City] understands them. Tell me what the blues are all about.” That was practically the last thing Lomax said for the next two hours, as his guests talked, sang, laughed, and cried, fueled by memories and alcohol, trying to answer his question.
When the session had ended and Lomax played the recording back, the three Bluesmen suddenly were terrified. They begged him never to tell anyone they had made the recording, pleading that “You don’t understand, Alan. If these records came out on us, they’d take it out on our folks down home; they’d burn them out and Lord knows what else.” (Booklet, “Blues in the Mississippi Night”) Lomax also claimed that, when he played the tape for Hodding Carter, a “crusading editor” in Greenville, Mississippi, Carter “was moved and astounded by what he heard, but he also warned ‘Alan, I want to give you one piece of advice. Lock those tapes in the trunk of your car and head for the Mississippi line, because if they catch you with them here I don’t know what I would be able to do for you.'”
And so, for the next forty-five years, whenever Lomax made use of this recorded material in radio broadcasts, articles, and even on a record produced by United Artists, he disguised the location of the session and gave the participants fictitious names. Not until 1990, two years after the last of the three Bluesmen had died, when he released a new version of the recordings, entitled “Blues in the Mississippi Night”(Rykodisc, RCD 90155), did Lomax set the historical record straight. It’s also important to remember that, as Lomax reminds us in the booklet accompanying the Rykodisc edition, “Certainly some of their yarns are the stuff of legend, but they contain an inner core of truth, which lights up the southern Black experience in the first years of this century.”
The booklet accompanying the cd has, in addition to the introductory essay by Alan Lomax from which I’ve quoted, the text of the conversation among Big Bill, Sonny Boy, and Memphis Slim. Moreover, there is another version of this same conversation, with some interesting differences in organization and wording, in Chapter 10 of Lomax’s fine book, The Land Where the Blues Began (New York, 1993). [NOTE: According to amazon.com, the currently available version of the “Blues in the Mississippi Night” cd is from Rounder Select (ASIN–B00009WVTH)] Whether you lay your hands on the Rykodisc version or the newer one from Rounder, to paraphrase Karl Malden in the old American Express commercials, if you are a Blues fan, “don’t leave home without” Lomax’s “Blues in the Mississippi Night.”
In addition to the works cited above, the following books provide further background and historical context for “the birth of the Blues”:
Barry, John M. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America (New York, 1997)
Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York, 2009)
Cobb, James C. The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (New York, 1992)
Cohn, David L. The Mississippi Delta and the World: The Memoirs of David L. Cohn (Editor, James C. Cobb; Baton Rouge, 1995)
Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues (New York, 1995)
Gaston, Paul M. The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (New York, 1970)
Geoia, Ted. Delta Blues (New York, 2008)
Percy, William Alexander. Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son (Baton Rouge, 1998)
Wald, Elijah. Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York, 2004)
Woodruff, Nan Elizabeth. American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 2003)
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: