Emancipation had a staggering effect on the Southern blacks, and brought their music-making very much to the fore.
With the removal of the “avuncular” social structure on the plantations, the freed blacks became just a part of a huge labour pool, having to learn how to find work, accommodation, food and money for themselves. Many of the farms simply kept their slaves on as hired hands, and were forced – by legislation – to allow workers to farm small strips of land of their own. This was known as “sharecropping”, and simply resulted – as often as not – in the landowner presenting a deduction for rent and equipment which exceeded the agreed share of the sale proceeds of the year’s crop. In effect, therefore, the landowner got free labour, just as he had under slavery.
As if the conditions for sharecroppers and labourers weren’t bad enough: as the twentieth century moved on, and the great depression hit the over-productive South, the black farmers and labourers found themselves competing against poor whites for work and Government handouts. There was really no contest, but the white population grew ever more resentful of those they were used to treating as their servants, and this resentment slowly turned into outright hostility, prejudice and – inevitably – racist legislation.
This environment was, nevertheless, the perfect one to ensure the development of the blues, as the wandering musician was very much in demand – whether it be busking on street corners, or playing in the notorious barrelhouses and work -camps. It was when set against this background that the myth that blues songs were all about sorrow and grief was blown: these musicians were hired to entertain people whose lives couldn’t possibly be any worse, and they only wanted to be amused and entertained. The songs therefore had to be approachable, easy to join in with, and recognisable. They were often, therefore, quite filthy!
In many ways this was the “golden age” of the blues. Travelling players could usually get work in the camps and bars, and often in the travelling tent or medicine-shows, where they would play alongside jazz-influenced instrumentalists from the much more cosmopolitan New Orleans.
It was from this pool that the emerging record companies from the North found their first big stars, in the form - initially at least – of showy female singers like Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith and, of course, Bessie Smith. The black “race” record market boomed in the 20s and 30s, and wandering buskers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Charley Patton and Willie McTell became minor stars.
When – after the depression – record production fell due to the high cost of Shellac, radio stations in rural areas took up the baton, and – being sponsored usually by agricultural suppliers – gave work to a later generation of players like Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and a very young B.B. (for “blues boy”) King.
As conditions in the South showed no signs of improvement (despite Roosevelt’s focusing of reconstruction projects on the black communities), more and more blacks migrated away from the farmlands – often no further than the bigger Southern cities such as Shreveport, Memphis, East St Louis and Atlanta, but in most cases right up to the industrial centres such as Chicago and Detroit, from where stories of work and wealth and – above all – no discrimination, found their way down south.
The musicians, of course, went too, and many pockets of blues musicians established themselves and settled in places all over the States. They often developed local characteristics in their music, as a result, perhaps, of other cultural influences and social conditions.
The whole rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon started from a blend of redneck country music and the driving rhythms of local blues players in Memphis
As Southern blacks arrived (in their millions) in Northern cities, they tended to occupy their own districts – usually the run-down slum areas. There was hardly any work, and wooden tenement buildings were appallingly overcrowded and dangerous. Nevertheless, the people felt their travelling had ended, and they developed their own communities alongside a predominant white population which could afford – for now – to pretty much ignore them.
The music began again to evolve: the ability to “stay put” led to more stable groups of musicians forming, with pianos, basses and even drums (which had been banned on the plantations, as the landowners feared that they would be used as a signalling device to start mass slave revolts).
The invention of the electric guitar and bass in the late 40s changed everything: the guitarist no longer had to be the one-man-band: while the drums or piano kept the pounding rhythm going, he could play runs and solos which could be heard!
In cities like Chicago (and particularly in Chicago), the blues of the 50s and 60s took two forms: the electric, almost aggressive “city” blues, as performed at rent parties and later in clubs and bars, and the street music performed by the old-time buskers and tent-show musicians from the old days.
The “city” blues gained in popularity – it reflected a growing self-confidence in urban black identity, and – because of this – pretty much survived the rout of the seventies.
The street music was a direct descendant of the old street bands of the South (particularly Memphis) twenty years earlier, and gained the derogatory term “hokum” from the city blues purists. The music was lively, jolly, dirty, and clearly aimed at white passers –by and tourists.
The early 60s saw a growing awareness amongst American blacks of the gross injustices of the past, and the potential for self-fulfilment and equality in an increasingly liberal world.
This manifested itself in the Civil Rights movement in the South, and - a little later – the Black Power movements in the northern cities.
Of course, what both of these movements didn’t want to hear was a form of music that reminded them of repression, deprivation and a generally “jolly” escapist diversion. The old “hokum” was definitely passé, and some of the blues’ greatest figures, like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee were persona non grata.
The city blues was more in-your-face, and tended to be hidden in specific clubs and areas. It therefore didn’t quite die out in the same way the street-blues did. Nevertheless, young blacks on the streets wanted something more in keeping with their “cool” image, and found it in Soul Music.
It was left, for the most part, to East Coast jazz fans and white students to rescue the old-style blues from total extinction.
In the early sixties, a series of jazz festivals (particularly Newport) paraded old-style “rediscovered” solo acoustic blues singers, to incredible acclaim. Old Delta bluesmen like Son House and Skip James became big sensations, and it was only a matter of time before the trawl net was out to find more.
City blues diehards like Muddy Waters, who never really stopped, were tracked down, and some very talented and devoted young white musicians (Johnny Winter, Mike Bloomfield, Canned Heat) dedicated themselves to emulating the authentic style. Even a young Bob Dylan included old Delta blues songs on his first album.
The role played by the U.K. in rescuing and preserving the blues cannot be underestimated. The traditional jazz clubs frequented by students and beatniks in the late 50s became aware of these old blues musicians, and the early 60s saw visits by many of the old-time greats. Devoted musicians like Alexis Korner, Clifford Davies, John Mayall, Chris Barber and – of course – Lonnie Donnegan, wanted not only to try to play the old blues songs, but made arrangements to get the original performers over to London.
These clubs attracted many young hopefuls: amongst them were Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Keith Richards. It’s no accident, therefore, that much of the music of the early 60s UK pop scene showed clear characteristics of the old-time blues.
Every now and again there’s a blues revival. I can remember a little ripple of interest in the early 60s, when the Rolling Stones paid due tribute to Mississippi blues singer Jimmy Reed, who provided most of their early B-sides. Other “pop” bands like Manfred Mann and The Animals produced very obviously blues-influenced material, but not everyone realised it then.
A few years later the blues got a real boost in the UK, when John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers released the famous “Beano” album with Eric Clapton, who had already stirred a lot of interest during his spell with The Yardbirds. Heavily blues-influenced albums from Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack and heavier outfits like Free and Juicy Lucy brought the feel of the blues (if not the subtlety) to a young uninitiated audience. Seekers of more of the same found that a similar thing was happening in the States, and sought out the early albums of Captain Beefheart and Canned Heat.
There was a bit of a lean period from the mid-70s, as far as popular music was concerned. But I think what happened was that blues had at last attained its own very busy sub-culture. Blues bands flourished during this period, and – instead of having to seek out the blues, you only had to nip into your nearest city to find some form of “blues” going on somewhere.
The early years of the 21st Century have seen another foray into the world of pop, with mixers like Moby, and raucous upstarts like the White Stripes doing their bit to bring the blues to a wider audience.
Rap music has been described (as was Soul in the sixties) as the “new music of black consciousness”, which is really what the blues used to be.
In recent years, the term “R&B” has been applied to a form of hip-hop music. Whilst disliking this kind of highly-manufactured music, I have to applaud the name, as this (Rhythm and Blues) was the new name the record companies were forced to apply to black recordings in the late 50s, as the previous title “race records” (which first appeared in the boom-time of the 30s) was no longer acceptable in the new black-consciousness world.
What is most refreshing today is the growth of films, books and programmes aimed at informing everyone about the social history of the blues.
Martin Scorsese is to be hugely congratulated on his recent TV and film series “The Blues”.
The blues is – in my view – very much alive. Sadly, in a way, black people have moved on from it, and have established new kinds of music to stamp their identity.
This is probably only right and proper, but I hope there will always be a time when someone – whether white or black – will continue to preserve the story of the blues as a way of acknowledging the spirit of a people to whom such gross injustices were committed over such a long time. There are many more recent and spectacular atrocities which the world is rightly reminded to acknowledge and offer apologies for.
We are rarely asked to acknowledge the injustices done to those 30 million Africans and their descendants, whose music continues to delight and amaze so many of us.
You can understand people wanting to forget, but we mustn’t all forget.