The blues emerged in the context of the oppression and suffering of Black communities in the southern US, and singing the blues was a means of responding to that oppression – of giving voice to great sorrow, lamenting the current state of affairs, but also of expressing dignity in the face of injustice. The blues also were a means of protest against this injustice.
That’s worth noting at this time when the United States is facing a reckoning for the racism that has dogged it for such a long time. The push-back against white supremacy, police brutality and a myriad of social barriers faced by Blacks and other people of colour can’t be simply ignored or written off.
There have been plenty of today’s artists protesting the current lamentable state of affairs and all that has led to it – Leyla McCalla’s recently released Vari-Colored Songs, an album’s whose centerpiece, Song for a Dark Girl, is a stark account of a lynching “way down south in Dixie,” a powerful reminder of the relatively recent history of terrorism against Black communities.
Gary Clark Jr.’s This Land is a howl of protest which rails against the suspicion he gets as a Black man in Trump’s America; Shemekia Copeland’s Would You Take My Blood on her America’s Child album gets to the heart of racism; Otis Taylor’s trance blues in Fantasizing About Being Black, a history of African-American life, from slavery onwards, has Jump Out of Line, an edgy piece about civil rights marchers’ fear of being attacked; and Eric Bibb’s last album had What’s He Gonna Say Today, protesting the “bully in the playground,” aimed directly at Trump.
But the history of the blues is littered with songs protesting inequality, discrimination and White violence against Blacks. Given the huge inequality that existed, and the whole structuring of society that existed under Jim Crow, it would have been 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. Often the protest was coded, although sometimes it broke through the surface quite clearly. 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.
In 1930, Huddie Ledbetter – Lead Belly – recorded a song entitled simply Jim Crow, in which he bemoans the state of affairs facing him every day of his life, everywhere he goes:
I been traveling, I been traveling from shore to shore
Everywhere I have been I find some old Jim Crow.
He can’t get away from the racial discrimination he faces – it’s there even when he goes to the cinema to be entertained:
I want to tell you people something that you don’t know
It’s a lotta Jim Crow in a moving picture show.
And finally he pleads with his hearers, “Please get together, break up this old Jim Crow.”
In the early 1930s, nine Black teenagers from Scottsboro in Alabama were accused of raping two white women aboard a train. The case highlighted the racism of the Jim Crow system and the injustice of the entire Southern legal system. In a series of trials and re-trials, which were rushed, and adjudicated on by all-white juries and racially biased judges, the nine boys suffered incarceration in the brutally harsh Kilby Prison in Alabama, and attempted lynching and mob violence.
After three trials, during which one of the young white women who were alleged to be victims had confessed to fabricating her rape story, five of the nine were convicted and received sentences ranging from 75 years imprisonment to death. The one who received the death sentence subsequently escaped, went into hiding and was eventually pardoned by George Wallace in 1976. The case was a landmark one and led eventually to the end of all-white juries in the South.
Lead Belly 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:
I’m gonna tell all the colored people
Even the old n* here
Don’t ya ever go to Alabama
And try to live
Lead Belly was clearly not afraid to voice his protest against what he experienced. He also wrote Bourgeois Blues, perhaps the most famous example of 1930s blues protest songs. Leadbelly here 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
Lead Belly 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 Lead Belly 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 Great Depression hit black communities in the South particularly hard. Skip James’s 1931 Hard Time Killing Floor Blues captures the grim reality of the time for many people, with James’s high eerie voice and his D-minor tuned guitar. “The people are drifting from door to door” and they “can’t find no heaven.”
Hard time’s is here
An ev’rywhere you go
Times are harder
Than th’ever been befo’.
One of the blues artists who was most articulate about civil rights during this period was Josh White, who was born in 1914 and recorded under the names “Pinewood Tom” and “Tippy Barton” in the 1930s. He became a well-known race records artist during the 1920s and 30s, moving to New York in 1931, and expanding his repertoire to include not only blues but jazz and folk songs. In addition, he became a successful actor on radio, the stage and film. White was outspoken about segregation and human rights and was suspected of being a communist in the McCarthyite era of the early 1950s.
In 1941 he released one of his most influential albums, Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues. The title track pulls no punches:
Well, I work all the week in the blazin’ sun,
Can’t buy my shoes, Lord, when my payday comes
I ain’t treated no better than a mountain goat,
Boss takes my crop and the poll takes my vote.
The album of mostly 12 bar blues songs, included Jim Crow Train, Bad Housing Blues, and Defense Factory Blues. White attacked wartime factory segregation in the latter with, “I’ll tell you one thing, that bossman ain’t my friend, If he was, he’d give me some democracy to defend.”
In Jim Crow Train, he addresses the segregation on the railways:
Stop Jim Crow so I can ride this train.
Black and White folks ridin side by side.
Damn that Jim Crow.
On White’s 1940 Trouble, he leaves no doubt about the cause of black people’s problems: “Well, I always been in trouble, ‘cause I’m a black-skinned man.” The rest of the song deals with the failed justice system of the time and the inhuman conditions which black inmates suffered when incarcerated:
Wearin’ cold iron shackles from my head down to my knee
And that mean old keeper, he’s all time kickin’ me.
As a black man under Jim Crow, all White could expect from life was “Trouble, trouble, makes me weep and moan, Trouble, trouble, ever since I was born.”
Big Bill Broonzy was one of the most popular and important of the pre-World War II blues singers, who recorded over 250 songs from 1925 to 1952, including Key to the Highway, Black, Brown, and White, Glory of Love and When Will I Get to Be Called a Man. He was a very talented musician, song writer and singer, who Eric Clapton said was a role model for him in playing the acoustic guitar.
Broonzy claims in his autobiography that he joined the army sometime after 1917, and fought in World War I in France, and on returning to the South, he found conditions there quite intolerable. A more recent biography of Broonzy doubts his story of joining up, but there can be no doubting the injustice which Broonzy encountered as a black man in the South. He refers to the way in which black men were referred to disparagingly as “boy” by whites in his 1951 song, I Wonder When I’ll Be Called a Man.
When I was born into this world, this is what happened to me
I was never called a man, and now I’m fifty-three
I wonder when…I wonder when will I get to be called a man
Do I have to wait till I get ninety-three?
Black, Brown and White, recorded in 1951, rails against the discrimination that Broonzy found everywhere, be it getting a drink at a bar, being paid less money for doing the same job, or even just getting a job:
They says if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, stick around
But as you’s black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back.
Muddy Waters also highlighted the patriarchal attitudes of whites to blacks in his 1955 release Manish Boy, which on the surface is a rather sensual blues song declaring, “I’m a natural born lover’s man,” and “I’m a hoochie coochie man.” (The hoochie coochie was a sexually provocative dance that became wildly popular in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. The dance was performed by women, so a “hoochie coochie man” either watched them or ran the show). In the context of a black man never being recognized as anything other than a “boy,” however, the song asserts black manhood in the face of white suppression. “I’m a man, I’m a full grown man,” sings Muddy, “I spell M-A, child, N”
Another major and influential blues artist from Mississippi was John Lee Hooker, son of a sharecropper, who came to prominence in the late 1940s and 50s. His House Rent Boogie from 1956 protests the all too familiar tale for black American of losing a job and not being able to make the rent payment; “I said fellows, never go behind your rent, ‘cause if you did it, it will hard so it’s cold in the street.”
The wail of protest in the blues continued on into that decade most associated with protest songs, the 1960s. From 1961 we have the guitar – harmonica duo of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee singing Keep on Walkin’ which takes up again the theme of Blacks being worked hard for little pay:
The bossman was so mean, you know, I worked just like a slave
Sixteen long hours drive you in your grave
That’s why I’m walkin’, walkin’ my blues away.
And then we have Vietnam Blues by J.B. Lenoir, from 1966. Drawing an elegant parallel between the US’s presence in Southeast Asia and the Jim Crow South, Lenoir demanded of President Lyndon Johnson, “How can you tell the world we need peace, and you still mistreat and killin’ poor me?”
Lenoir came to Chicago via New Orleans and became an important part of the blues scene there in the 1950s, performing with Memphis Minnie and Muddy Waters. He was a fine singer and a great showman, sporting zebra striped costumes and nifty electric guitar licks.
But Lenoir composed a number of political blues songs bringing sharp social commentary to bear on events going on around him. Songs like Born Dead, which decries the fact that “Every black child born in Mississippi, you know the poor child is born dead,” referring to the lack of opportunity in his home state; or Eisenhower Blues, which complains that the government had “Taken all my money, to pay the tax.” Lenoir also composed the haunting “Down in Mississippi,” which he performed on his 1966 Alabama Blues. “Down in Mississippi where I was born, Down in Mississippi where I come from,” sings Lenoir,
They had a huntin’ season on a rabbit
If you shoot him you went to jail.
The season was always open on me:
Nobody needed no bail.
He concludes about the place of his birth, “I count myself a lucky man, Just to get away with my life.” The definitive version of the song, however, was to come some 40 years later, when Mavis Staples recorded it on her album We’ll Never Turn Back, Staples adding a little to the song about segregated water fountains and washeterias and how “Dr King saw that every one of those signs got taken down, down in Mississippi.”
Mavis Staples had already made her protest against three hundred years of injustice in 1970 with the no-punches-pulled When Will We Be Paid? The song demanded an answer to the exploitation of Black Americans in the construction of America’s roads and railroads, in the domestic chores their women have done and the wars in which their men have fought. Despite this contribution to the making of America over 300 years, all the remuneration Staples’s people got was being “beat up, called names, shot down and stoned.” “We have given our sweat and all our tears,” she sings, so, “When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?”
In a similar vein, complaining about the discrimination they faced, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee & Earl Hooker in Tell Me Why in 1969 sang,
Every war that’s been won, we helped to fight
Why in the world can’t we have some human rights?
Tell me why?
They give the cruel answer themselves – “It’s got to be my skin, that people don’t like.”
And one of the most hard hitting of songs in the blues genre is Mississippi Goddamn, written and sung by Nina Simone in 1964.
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last.
The song was Simone’s response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black children. She performed the song in front of 10,000 people at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches.
The blues chart the history of the indignities face by African Americans over the decades. The blues allowed Black Americans to assert their humanity and dignity in the context of an oppressive system that declared they were less than human. Whether the songs expressed explicit protest at this or not (and most blues songs didn’t), the blues, nevertheless, was Black music and, whether they were complaining about unfaithful lovers or problems with the landlord, whether they were performed as dance music in the juke joint or sung on the street corner, they reflected the abuse and indignities suffered by blacks under Jim Crow and beyond. No wonder Black theologian and writer, James Cone, said, the blues are “the essential ingredients that define the essence of black experience.”
Willie Dixon gets it spot on when he says “The blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding.” In telling the truth about the misery of black experience, but as well as that, a hope for change, the blues were a part of the endurance and resistance of the Black community.
For many white listeners to the blues, the blues are at heart a genre of music, a certain musical form, twelve bars, flattened notes, blue notes. But if we listen carefully, we can hear the history of people who have been sorely mistreated; we can, perhaps, get some understanding of what it means to be Black. But it does require careful listening. And that listening is as urgent as ever just now.
Finally, to help us stop and listen, here is the ultimate protest song written by Abel Meeropol and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. Strange Fruit.
Adapted from The Gospel According to the Blues by Gary W. Burnett