The blues emerged during a period of tremendous inequality, injustice and discrimination against black communities in the Southern States. During this time, it would have been pretty much impossible for blues artists to sing protest songs in the way that they were sung in the 1960s when the Civil Rights’ movement had gathered momentum. Although the majority of blues songs are about the troubles of love, there is a steady stream of social protest from the early days right through to the present.
Leadbelly recorded “Scottsboro Boys” in 1938, where he warns black people not to go to Alabama lest they suffer the same fate as the Scottsboro nine (nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping a white woman):
I’m gonna tell all the colored people
Even the old n***** here
Don’t ya ever go to Alabama
And try to live.
Clearly not afraid to voice his protest against what he experienced, Leadbelly also wrote “Bourgeois Blues,” where he sings about his experience of discrimination in the nation’s capital city:
Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a n***** just to see him bow
Lord, it’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around
Leadbelly talks about looking for accommodation and being turned away by the white landlord:
Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say “I don’t want no n*****s up there.”
America, according to Leadbelly may have been hailed as “The home of the Brave, The land of the Free,” but it was just somewhere where he was “mistreated” by the “bourgeoisie.”
The legacy of racial prejudice and injustice some 80 years later rumbles on:
- the black-white income gap is roughly 40% greater today than it was in 1967
- the wealth disparity between blacks and whites in America today is greater than what it was in South Africa during apartheid
- a black male today in the US has a life expectancy five years shorter than that of a white
- The United States Sentencing Commission concluded that black men get sentences one-fifth longer than white men for committing the same crimes
- in Louisiana, a study foundthat a person is 97 percent more likely to be sentenced to death for murdering a white person than a black person
- the US imprisons a higher proportion of its black population than apartheid South Africa did
- police killings of African-Americans occur as often as twice a week for at times mundane infractions and at three times the rate as for whites, according to conservative estimates from recent studies.
The recent deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others have polarized opinion and made the need for a national conversation on issues of race urgent. Isabel Wilkerson, author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” and a former national correspondent and bureau chief for The New York Times, says that:
“Such cases force black families again to consider how to safeguard their children and themselves from the violence they suffer at a disproportionate rate at the hands of authorities assigned to protect them. They are still giving a version of the same talk their ancestors gave their children back in the old country of the South, about answering yes, sir, and no, sir, and watching how they comport themselves around the upper caste and the police.”
She believes there is a national problem which requires the commitment of the entire nation to resolve. Nicholas Kristoff from the New York Times suggests the US needs to “borrow a page from South Africa and impanel a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine race in America.”
Recent events show the challenges that exist. The blues continue to bear witness about the on-going problem of racism – not just in the US but in Europe and elsewhere as well.
And here’s the original protest song – the achingly graphic Strange Fruit.