[NOTE: As I’ve explained elsewhere, my initial interest in the Blues developed because my older son and I were trying to decide what type of music to listen to in the morning as we rode to school. By the time my son graduated and headed off to college four years later, I had become addicted to the Blues. The historian in me was stirred by the flair of the early Blues men, as well as the obvious roots of the music in the American South during the era of Jim Crow, as the lyrics of one early Blues tune after another made clear.
The more I researched the origins of the Blues, the more convinced I became that injecting this musical genre into my treatment of the rise of Jim Crow in the post-Civil War South in my A.P U.S. History course could help my students better understand what life was like for African Americans in the late nineteenth-century. This approach worked so well that I eventually extended it to a senior elective course, the Modern Civil Rights Movement, as well as to Blues history mini-courses I taught interested alums in our annual “Back-to-School Night” program.]
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So, imagine how excited I was at the appearance of R.A. “Stovetop” Lawson’s Jim Crow’s Counterculture: The Blues and Black Southerners, 1890-1945 (LSU Press, 2010). Lawson, who is both a History professor and member of a Blues band, studied closely the Blues produced by Black southerners during a seminal era. His book is a perceptive account of how those performers essentially created an “audio documentary and commentary” (134) on the history of African Americans in the South, as well as of their departure from the region during the Great Migration and what that exodus portended for the self-image of a people and for the nation in which they lived.
Lawson argues that southern African American Blues musicians created songs, as well as a stereotypical “Blues man” persona, that were “countercultural” in several ways: initially, the music “preached an antiwork ethic and peddled a culture of individual escapism and hedonism, often by portraying values and behaviors that reflected the same debased culture of sex, drugs, and violence that whites ascribed to blacks.” (x-xi) But this worldview would change over the next few decades, until, by World War II, it began to produce a “generation of pluralist musicians who regenerated the blues’ countercultural impulse by leaning toward that which the Jim Crow segregationists would deny them: a fuller identity of American citizenship.” (xi)
To Lawson, early Blues men (his emphasis throughout is on male performers) entertained working-class audiences with songs that were “opposed to white supremacy, Christian forbearance, and bourgeois pragmatism and propriety.” (2) Much like their West African griot ancestors, these Blues troubadours communicated “through veiled and coded language,” thanks, perhaps ironically, to the very success of Jim Crow: their main modes of communication, live performances at juke joints and the commercial production of small-label “race records,” did not attract much attention from whites, though they did upset some members of the region’s small black middle class and many faithful black churchgoers, who considered the Blues “the devil’s music.”
The Great Migration, which began during World War I and continued through World War II, and the development of recording and broadcast technology carried the countercultural message of the Blues out of the South and into the rest of the nation. (11) And, despite the fact that significant, effective civil rights legislation did not come until the mid-1960s, Lawson contends that two decades earlier, thanks to the Mississippi River flood of 1927, the Great Depression, and World War II, “the rebellious and raucous blues counterculture was sheltering, or perhaps incubating, the growing idea among southern blacks that they were citizens—an identity that necessarily meant rejecting the culture of second-class status institutionalized by Jim Crow statutes.” (21)
After sketching his thesis in broad strokes, Lawson adopts a straightforward chronological approach. During the Jim Crow era, Blues performers like the pragmatic Big Bill Broonzy passed on their talents and skills to other performers. Lawson also highlights the career of Huddie Ledbetter, or “Leadbelly,” rescued from Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana by musicologists John and Alan Lomax, who massaged Leadbelly’s image to present him as a “crude, authentic folk artifact.” At the same time, though, Leadbelly also came across as “the stereotypical southern black ‘badman’: womanizer, murderer, escaped convict, wandering singer,” (31), a figure who represented both accommodation and resistance in the Blues.
During the Age of Jim Crow, landowners exploited Black sharecroppers, a truism that came through in Blues songs, which also treated themes like white supremacy, disfranchisement, segregation, and lynching. This allowed Blues singers to “talk back” to southern whites, using “a lonely sort of democratic individualism.” (53) And, not surprisingly, “black listeners could read between the lines in ways the white audience might not.” (61) At the least, according to Lawson, the Blues gave listeners ways to cope with disfranchisement, if not to challenge it directly. (62) But there was another side to this type of music: Blues culture tended to reinforce “whites’ conceptions of blacks as slothful and immoral,” drudges in thrall to the “devil’s music” who regularly flaunted their sexuality, used drugs (especially alcohol), and frequently resorted to violence in juke joints or at house parties. (64-65)
In treating the Great Migration, Lawson emphasizes the significance of “mobility” (“ramblin’”) to Blues performers, even maintaining that some songs that seemed to stress the end of a love affair as a reason for leaving the South actually might have been veiled references to social and economic conditions that made leaving a necessity. So, “the countercultural blues took on a new aspect—life outside of the Jim Crow South.” (85) The music changed in these new environs—“jump blues”; “boogie-woogie” guitar; barrelhouse piano; and electric guitar. African Americans who escaped the Jim Crow South demanded a new type of Blues to commemorate their new lives, and, according to Lawson, it is wrong to assume that the “real” Blues only describes the hard scrabble existence of field hands and their families in the agricultural South. (This is not a point with which I agree, but Lawson obviously feels strongly about it.)
Lawson’s approach to the Great Migration is even-handed. Although messages spread through Black newspapers, recordings, and radio programs offered hope to African Americans still trapped in the Jim Crow South, those who had fled the region for the purported Eden of Chicago and points east did not exactly find themselves in Nirvana: instead of the “Promised Land” of freedom and opportunity, they encountered segregated housing, economic discrimination in hiring, and racial violence. Yet, while Big Bill Broonzy might sing about “Going Back to Arkansas,” “most southern blacks who had moved north did not want to go home again,” (113) because, whatever they encountered, at least they had the vote.
Despite the urging of Black intellectuals and newspapers, World War I was not a “turning point” for African Americans. The executive branch of the federal government was biased against them, and the American military was segregated. On the home front, the lives of African Americans in the South differed little from their prewar existence, and, after the war, returning Black veterans in uniform were, to put it mildly, not warmly welcomed by whites.
The events that spurred Black out-migration from the South after the First World War included the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and the Great Depression. A significant Blues man here was William Bunch, a former sharecropper who performed as “Peetie Wheatstraw,” “the Devil’s son-in-law.” Wheatstraw emphasized freedom of movement and the resulting material gains, the same benefits being enjoyed by contemporary white Americans. Another interesting point is Lawson’s treatment of the allegedly “satanic” aspects of the music of Wheatstraw and Robert Johnson, which he sees as a marketing tool that “probably had more to do with metaphors for domestic and social violence than actual necromancy and ‘black arts.’” (131)
The national government’s response to the 1927 flood was exactly what African Americans in the South had expected. The aid extended was channeled through local white landowners, which meant that–surprise!–African Americans got little aid and ended up doing the heavy lifting during the recovery process. Within a couple of years, the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression. In 1933, a new President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, brought a cheering message to a nation in crisis, but African Americans in the South had difficulty looking beyond the obvious fact that FDR was a Democrat, the titular head of the party that, in their region, represented white supremacy.
Lawson runs into a problem at this point, for the Crash and the ensuing Depression basically killed the “race record” industry. So, his effort to interpret the views of Blues performers towards FDR and the New Deal must rely on a fairly small sample of records issued before the full force of the Depression was evident. The national government’s response to crisis resembled earlier periods, when the scant aid sent to the South was controlled by white southern Democrats, and black folks got little of it. However, as the New Deal evolved, African American performers became more optimistic, so that Blues lyrics began to transcend the “wholly negative image of Jim Crow life in the South and could now include a more positive imagined future in which work, consumption, and stability were valued over vagrancy and avoidance of pain.” (168)
According to Lawson, World War II represented a definite turning point in the history of African Americans in the South. Latching onto “the war-era culture of pluralism,” they seized “the identity of citizenship for themselves,” and, thus, helped lay the groundwork for the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. (174-175) Ironically, in supporting the idea that Americans were “a distinct ‘race’ of people,” Blues singers also accepted–and employed in their songs–anti-Japanese racial stereotypes. On balance, during the Second World War, Lawson argues, “black musicians claimed for themselves a place in the democracy and pushed back at Jim Crow society, rejecting second-class citizenship and perpetual poverty.” (194)
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Lawson’s treatment of the Blues as “Jim Crow’s Counterculture” is impressively researched, well-organized, and clearly written. He employs analysis shrewdly, assessing, for example, both sides of the Great Migration coin, and examining several versions of the song “Red Cross Blues” to gauge the African American view of the help extended by the national government during the Depression. Lawson also makes effective use of statistics, comparisons and contrasts, and a series of biographical sketches of important Blues men.
Racing through the post-World War II period in the last few pages of his book, Lawson contends, using the Leiber and Stoller composition, “Hound Dog,” as an example, that black and white musicians were able to rework the Blues into “a countercultural form so revolutionary as to be declared a new kind of music: rock and roll,” which both blurred the lines between “white music” and “black music” and continued to speak truth to power through the 1960s. (196) Yet, Lawson’s treatment of “Hound Dog” in isolation to illustrate the rise of rock ‘n’ roll and the impact of the Blues in bringing that about, while certainly suggestive, proves a weak reed on which to rest such an important argument. Here’s hoping that the “countercultural” role of the Blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and folk music in the 1950s and 1960s will be the topic of Professor Lawson’s next book. If not, I’m hopeful that the next unread Blues history book on my shelf, John Milward’s Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues), will help answer the question. Stay tuned.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: