Contrary to what some people believe, the blues is not “slave music.” Although it was cultivated by the descendants of slaves, the blues was the expression of freed African Americans. The Great Migration directly influenced the blues’ many evolutions. As Black people moved from the South to northern cities, the music reflected the new urban terrain in which the people set up communities. However, the general belief that the blues comes out of slavery lasts to this day, passed down from its predecessors, including the Black Spirituals, Slave Seculars, Corn Ditties (also known as “Field Hollers” and “Corn-Field Ditties”), and String music. As a folklorist who performs the traditional style of blues music, I have had the opportunity to speak with and interview many who revere the blues, yet are misinformed about the culture and experience of the blues people who created the musical expression.
The beginnings of the blues can be traced to the late 1860s, arguably the most vicious and violent period in the United States. Vigilante justice was at an all-time high, and by 1889, the lynching of African Americans surged dramatically. The bluesman and blueswoman emerged in this difficult period, along with the stories of folk heroes translated to song and the new venues in which the music would be performed. The blues did not speak of the life of the enslaved but of the experiences of freed men and women during the periods of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. It spoke of cotton bales/gins, boll weevil, juke houses, and sharecropping. Farming and sharecropping were the starting places for most of the legendary blues musicians celebrated today, including Charlie Patton, Rubin Lacey, Son House, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and the most famous in recent generations, B.B. King.
The 1890s ushered in what can be referred to as the “Bad Man”—the incarnation of the first edition of the “New Negro” mindset. This describes the “rough and tumble” Black man or woman who openly defied white supremacy, and was just as hard on their African American counterparts. Unlike slavery, where plantation owners had their own judicial system, Blacks were tried in public courts, and the jurors, lawyers, and judges were all white. This turned the rebel into a folk hero—and even a martyr. This also changed the dynamic of songs. It is during this period that we began to hear songs of men such as Stagger Lee, a song inspired by an actual murder that took place in 1895 in a St. Louis, Missouri, bar room argument. It also made the newspaper under the headline “Shot in Curtis’s Place.” The story that ran in the next day’s edition of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, stated, “William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand… was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis… by Lee Sheldon, also colored.” A plethora of songs presented this story throughout time. One of the most famous of the songs was recorded by Lloyd Price.
In the description of the man shot, the writer states that the “colored” man was a levee hand. This reference—to working the levee—is an example of blues lyrics, which appears in several songs. Hill Country Blues legend Mississippi Fred McDowell, for example, sings of working the levee, an embankment built along a river to prevent flooding by high waters.They are the oldest and the most extensively used method of flood control, constructed by piling earth on a surface that has been cleared of vegetation and leveled. The first levee along the Mississippi was built in the early years of New Orleans between 1718 and 1727. Levee hand workers were responsible for digging, building, and maintaining the levee in case of a flood. It was a very difficult job that is described by whites and Blacks alike as forced labor in many cases. Another great example is a song from Memphis Minnie and her husband Kansas Joe, called “When the Levee Breaks.”
By the turn of the century, the boll weevil began to devastate the Southern cotton industry, becoming one of the many catalysts of the Great Migration. From this point on, we would hear many songs addressing the boll weevil. One in particular is by the legendary Charley Patton, a pioneer and one of the most influential practitioners of the Delta Blues. Born near Bolton in southern Mississippi in 1891, Patton and his family relocated to the Dockery Farms Plantation around 1900, a place where many early blues legends either passed through or lived. On June 14, 1929 Patton recorded “Mississippi Boweavil Blues”: “Sees a little boll weevil keeps movin’ in the, Lordie! You can plant your cotton and you won’t get a half a bale, Lordie.” These lyrics are a fitting example of the the relationship between farmers, cotton and the boll weevil.
Along with the boll weevil, the turn of the century also brought Jim Crow. Still looking to rekindle slave labor in the South, white supremacists established what became known as prison farms, with Parchman Farm being the epicenter as well as a popular topic of blues recordings. Blues legends such as Bukka White(Booker White) and Son House would make songs that depicted Black life on prison farms. Now known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman Farm was a convict lease hub, which spawned the business of kidnapping freed Black men who landed there for free labor. Lessees paid fees to the state and were responsible for feeding, clothing and housing prisoners who worked for them as laborers. A lucrative business for both the state and lessees, as in other states, the system led to entrapment and a high rate of convictions for minor offenses for Black men, whose population as prisoners increased rapidly in the decades after the Civil War. Wrongly accused of having a high rate of criminality, Black men often struggled for years to get out of the convict lease system. It was at these farms that African American musicians such as Leadbelly and Bukka White, who went by the name “Washington Barrelhouse White,” recorded numbers for John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress Field Recordings of Black traditional music.
During the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, African Americans migrated to the Midwest, West, and the Northeast. This migration, for some, was not just about escaping the South or even searching for better working conditions. For some Black southerners, it was about taking an opportunity to become a professional recording artist. McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield, one of the most celebrated blues musicians who made a name for himself as the father of Chicago Blues, was part of this migration. He brought with him to Chicago a traditional style of Delta blues learned on the Stovall Plantation where he grew up, incorporating elements from the new urban terrain. Howlin’ Wolf, another Chicago Blues legend and Muddy’s label mate, who also migrated from Mississippi, sang the songs of the newly migrated freed African Americans. Wolf, born Chester Arthur Burnett, in West Point, Mississippi, learned how to play the guitar from Charley Patton. Howlin’ Wolf was one of the first artists to run his band like a business–among other things, he paid band members a salary and offered them health insurance benefits.
Today, many African American historians, practitioners and enthusiasts revere blues music. Some perform public domain songs that introduce old tunes to new audiences, and others, like myself, create new blues songs that speak of the current experiences of African Americans that mirror times past. Both pay homage to our ancestors, who created blues music as an expression of their experiences as freed Black men and women. These songs are reminders of a past long gone but also speak to many of the challenges that still impacts us in this New Jim Crow era.