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How the Blues Affected Race Relations in the United States

Minstrel and Medicine shows

Early appreciation for black music
White interest in black music
Integration of Musicians
Covers & Dances
Integrated Radio
Blues & Rock
Works Consulted
Thank you

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This website explores the way in which blues brought the races together and improved their relationship during the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century. To the left, you can click on different options that will each take you to a new page describing the impact of minstrel shows and medicine shows, plantation musicians, integrated bands, the British Invasion, Chuck Berry, and other early rock stars on race relations. Though I know there are many scholars who disagree that the blues positively affected race relations in this country, my thesis is an optimistic one. I am examining the beneficial effects blues had on race relations of which I have found evidence in many books and in the words of the blues musicians with whom I have spoken.

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In the late seventeenth century, the first groups of slaves were brought on a tremendous journey from their African homeland to America. To the white Americans of the time, the slaves were little more than strong arms and sturdy backs. They were meant to work and they were meant to generate money, but they were not meant to have a voice. Though many white Americans appreciated the slaves for their exertion, this appreciation typically did not overstep the bounds of their work relationship. Even after the slaves were freed, the tide of oppression did not pass immediately. Their newly decreed freedom could not command humanity for blacks in the eyes of whites. It did not give them a heart and soul. This is where blues comes in.

WalkingThe blues style of music originated in the work fields of the southern United States. Historians believe that blues began in infancy as a field holler whose "call and response" style developed into work songs that matured into the blues. Minstrel show music, ragtime, and spirituals were also influential in its evolution. In the nineteenth century, white Americans got their first taste of black music through blackface minstrel shows, which affected race relations in a positive and negative way. With the discovery and recording of blues in the twentieth century, this familiarity steadily intensified. Many historians assert that blues, the music created by blacks, has improved race relations in the United States since its recognition by whites. The music was a unique cultural offering that whites could not deny. It was something new and intriguing to whites that shed a new light on blacks and their place in American culture and society.

The entire span of the development and popularization of blues and its rock derivation have improved race relations in this country. From the minstrel shows to the British Invasion, the music has been a magnet that had no color restrictions. It drew blacks to the same shows as it did whites. Beginning with the medicine shows at the turn-of-the-century that featured and entertained both blacks and whites, blues performances have been a place to bring the two races together. Stories tell of black musicians playing dances where a cord was used to divide the dance floor in half, one side for blacks and the other for whites. By the end of the evening, the cord would be on the floor and blacks and whites would be dancing together. They were not seeing color, they were just feeling the music. It was a place where they could enjoy themselves and leave the Jim Crow laws at the door.

It is clear that the blues offered its practitioners a more exciting lifestyle than the normal black man could have ever imagined. Farm workers who were also musicians were paid money for providing entertainment and were also usually given some food and whiskey. Because of this special treatment it is believed they were considered virtuosos and their talent and services were valued. Blacks were even brought in to consult with record companies regarding the choice of artists and the rhetoric used in advertisements. The advertisements, though wrought with racial images, did reveal efforts to understand blacks and their music. Several musicians have told me that because of their talent they were able to travel the country, an opportunity not available to most blacks pursuing other ways of making a living. With the money received from their recordings, the musicians bought lots of liquor, clothes, cars, and other luxury items. Their music was good to them.

In the 1960s, British bands such as the Rolling Stones brought about a new sense of appreciation in the United States for blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Howlin' Wolf because of their acclaimed indebtedness to the bluesmen as influences. The young British sensations enlivened a new respect in American teenagers for the old bluesmen. The music of artists such as Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker, and Little Richard also brought the two races together in his audience. Their songs were aimed toward teenagers of both races and they appealed to both audiences immensely. Elvis Presley also had the opportunity to bring the two races together through his music. He had a natural way of singing the blues that surprised and captivated black and white audiences.

Many historians have theories that explain why white-run record companies took such an interest in blues music at a time when segregation was still prevalent. At the very least, whites treasured the talents of blacks at this time because it was a way to make money. They could pay a reasonable price to record a few songs then sell the records without paying the artist royalties. What we might rather believe is that whites were aware of the cultural significance of blues music and that it was through this mindfulness that a respect and appreciation was formed for the race as a whole. This unique avenue of regard is what will be explored through this thesis.

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