Site hosted by Build your free website today!

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

Email Author

Blues and Rock

It has been suggested that Carl Perkins's 'Blue Suede Shoes' - the first record to reach the top of the pop, rhythm and blues, and country charts - represents one of the most important steps in the evolution of American consciousness since the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps it was an even more important step, because the Proclamation was an edict handed down from above, and the success of 'Blue Suede Shoes' among Afro-Americans represented an actual grassroots acknowledgment of a common heritage, a mutual overcoming of poverty and lack of style, and act of forgiveness, of redemption1.

In the present day, the blues greats of the past are revered and missed. The blues enthusiast of today is more likely to be a white rather than black. Ironically, while today's black Americans for the most part prefer other genres of music, many whites like to claim that only blacks can truly know, and therefore play the blues. It is an irony hard to explain in a country where prejudice and acts of racism still occur2. However, as Booth mentions in the above quote, one explanation is that whites have both a sense that their heritage is intertwined with black culture and gratitude that the blues, along with country-and-western, was the genesis of rock 'n' roll. This section explores how teenagers of the late 1950s and 1960s were instrumental in bridging racial divides and how British bands shed a new light on the bluesmen who had grown dim in the eyes of American popular culture.

The gulf which Howlin' Wolf and [Hubert] Sumlin crossed was in some respects a relatively short one - a musical and geographical jump from Mississippi to Chicago. But although both Wolf, Muddy Waters and others had grown up on the music of Charley Patton, the music they produced was far more than simply an electrified version of Delta Blues, and would effectively become a prototype for the Rock Music of the Sixties3.

It was during the late 1950s to early 1960s that American popular culture began to transform into a youth culture. It was the first time teenagers were not forced to hold down a job to contribute to the family's income. Instead, many were given allowances to spend however they pleased. It was this new disposable income that record companies were after4. Rock 'n' roll became the backdrop of this new culture and against this backdrop skin color began to be drowned out by the music. Teenagers liked music to which they could dance and relate regardless of who was responsible for it.

Chuck BerryChuck Berry was extremely successful at appealing to teenagers of both races with his music. Teenagers, regardless of their race, go through the same development and have the same problems and the same fantasies. Berry was able to tap into their needs and desires and give them an anthem…or two, or three. Take the popular "School Day" which debuted in 1957. Race never has a mention in the lyrics, yet the rhythm and guitar shuffle are in an obviously black style. Instead, the song is geared toward the consumer who was the slightly anarchistic teenage male of the 1950s. School Day was followed by "Rock & Roll Music" and "Sweet Little Schoolgirl" in the same year. In 1958, any teenage boy who had ever dreamed of starring in his own rock band loved "Johnny B. Goode5." Bob Blumenthal , author of Bluesland, speaks of Berry, "The diverse reach of his influence only echoes the dichotomies of Berry's own personality. He is both down-home natural and urbane sophisticate, haunted itinerant and market manipulator supreme. His life echoes the romantic legends of numerous blues predecessors, even as his music brought the blues to people and places these elders could barely imagine." Early on Berry was exposed to a wide variety of music and learned how to be sensitive to the audience. He said that even though Muddy Waters had encouraged him to deliver the down-home blues in "the language they come from, Negro dialect," he preferred to emphasize his "diction so that it was harder and whiter. All in all, it was my intention to hold both the black and white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues6."

After a two-year stint in jail for carrying a female minor across state lines from Texas to Missouri, Berry got out in 1964 feeling refreshed and energetic. He began recording music again, producing songs like "No Particular Place to Go" and "Promised Land." Coincidentally, he timed his resurgence impeccably. The Beatles and Rolling Stones, among lesser-known British bands, were penetrating the American market and were singing the praises of Berry as a leading influence. "Suddenly he was a living legend, back on the television rock shows and the concert circuit, a godfather to the superstars of the day7."

Chubby Checker was another artist who appealed to a large white audience. Michael Bane says in White Boy Singin' the Blues that Checker was one of the leading black artists to be completely accepted by the white audience. Born Ernest Evans in Philadelphia, PA, Chubby Checker got his nickname from Mrs. Dick Clark after she saw him on her husband's program one night. Knowing how Checker adored Fats Domino, she decided a play on his name would be appropriate. Checker's big hit was a remake of an old song by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, a black R & B group of the 1950s, called "The Twist." The song came complete with the dance step and was an enormous hit among black listeners for the group in 1959. Checker took the song into the studio a year later and made an exact cover of the tune, but this time geared toward the white audience, and came out a national star. Bane says, "Everybody, but everybody, was doing the Twist, from New York's sleazy Peppermint Lounge to Podunk High School in Nowhere, Indiana." A large white audience was allowed to enjoy "The Twist" because parents felt that Chubby Checker was clean and trustworthy and the dance did not involve any touching. Bane quotes Eldridge Cleaver, author of Soul on Ice, " The Twist succeeded, as politics, religion, and law could never do, in writing in the heart and soul what the Supreme Court could only write in books8."

Little Richard was another artist who successfully captured a large white audience. This native of Macon, Georgia was busy washing dishes one day at the Greyhound bus station when his break came in the form of a phone call from Art Rupe of Specialty Records in Los Angeles. Even though Richard was already a successful local performer he was thrilled to have the opportunity to record with producer Bump Blackwell, an important influence on Quincy Jones and Ray Charles. With the help of Dorothy La Bostrie who tamed the lyrics, Richard and Blackwell came out with "Tutti-Frutti" in just fifteen minutes9. Richard filled his live performances to the brim with his wild personality. He believes his feminine appearance made his crossover possible because "the white people didn't mind the white girls screaming over me. I wasn't a threat when they saw the eyelashes and the make-up10." He also recognized the significance of certain white artists, especially Elvis Presley, who whetted the appetites of the white audience for black music, clearing a path so that many black artists could get to the mainstream. Once he exclaimed, "Thank God for Elvis Presley11!"

The British Invasion

"It took mediators from the other side of the culture, or the Atlantic, to awaken middle America to the blues within12."

Though it seems that the mere love of rock 'n' roll would have turned teenage eyes toward rock's heritage and generated an appreciation for blues music and its artisans, that was not the case. It was not until the British Invasion when groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones appeared on the scene that young Americans began to treasure their own fountain of culture - the blues. Because of the enormous success of rock 'n' roll, the blues' prosperity began to wane during the late 50s and early 60s. During that time, rock 'n' roll, having been brought forth by the blues acted like a selfish teenager, breaking away on a wild life of its own. It took the Beatles, the Stones, and other British bands to force rock 'n' roll to grow up and show a little respect.

The Beatles were an important part of the British Invasion and helped to ease the black music style into the acceptance of the white audience. Michael Ward, author of Just My Soul Responding, states that groups like the Beatles "encouraged, rather than retarded, white American exploration and patronage of black music by initially recording a diverse range of r&b13." Michael Bane states, "The Beatles offered a way out of the racial dilemma that had gripped rock and roll since its beginnings, because they were neither white nor black - they were English14!" The Beatles made it possible for the success of many other British bands in the States, including the Rolling Stones15. Listen to Kip Anderson, a blues artist from Starr, SC, talk about the effect the British Invasion had on the popularity of black music among whites.

Mick & Keith (1965)Keith Richards once said "The Rolling Stones were a white London imitation of South Side Chicago Blues. It all starts there16." It all started for Richards while he was in art school around 1958 as a boy of 16. It was at that time he and his fellow budding guitarist friends used to pass around the records of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and other Chicago blues artists. Richards states, "When I started playing all I wanted to do was play like Chuck Berry. I thought if I could do that I'd be the happiest man in the world, then I found out I could do that I thought, maybe there is another aim in life. The idea of playing with Muddy Waters was 'when I get to heaven…if I make it there and he makes it there.' But I actually got to play with him, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Scotty Moore…I actually got to play with them all. You can't ask much more than that. And I got paid17!"

Mick Jagger began as a big fan of American classic rock 'n' rollers Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bo Diddley, and it was these interests that enticed him to look further back in time to Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, and others. Richards and Jagger first met on the playground of Dartford primary school and were playmates until Richards' family moved him away at around the age of 6 or 7. The two would not meet again until 1960 while they were both on board a train headed for London. Jagger brought along albums by Chuck Berry, Little Walter, and Muddy Waters all of which Richards recognized immediately. This encounter was the beginning of their musical relationship. A couple of years later, the two were impressed by Brian Jones, the guitarist for Blues Incorporated, upon hearing the band one night in London. Richards commented, "He'd been doin' the same as we'd been doin'…thinkin' he was the only cat in the world doin' it." The Stones had just acquired a third member. By January 1963, bass player Bill Wyman, piano man Ian Stewart, and drummer Charlie Watts completed the group18.

The Stones got to play with Howlin' Wolf during their first performance on American television on a program called Shindig in 1964. They insisted that the show give a spot to Wolf during the broadcast. Wolf was a wild performer who would throw his 300-pound body on the floor and act out sexual euphoria and strut around to the beat of the music on stage. Francis Davis, author of The History of the Blues, says "a claim could be made for him as the first rock 'n' roller, if only in terms of sensibility19."

Richards talks about the first time the band met Waters:

The weirdest thing was when we met Muddy he was painting Chess studios. You walk in and start recording, on your hands and knees in this Mecca, and they say, you might like to meet this guy who's up on a stepladder in a white overall, and you say, who's that? That's Muddy Waters. It was another of those slaps around the face. His records weren't selling. And at the same time he was a real gentleman. I was sure he'd look down at us, but none of those guys were like that, or John Lee, it was like, we've had some babies, and they're white! And they sort of nurtured us. Those guys were gentlemen, they saw wider than the music business. They immediately nurtured us, and had no reason to know that because they had in a year or two they'd be selling more records than they had in their lives before. I would have expected a 'get out of here white trash' reaction but those guys were bigger than that20.

Through the popularity of the Stones, the careers of many blues artists were resuscitated. B.B. King proclaims undoubtedly that without the prompting of musicians such as Eric Clapton or Mick Jagger he might still be a secret kept in black culture21. As the 1960s came to a close, it saw Muddy, Wolf, and many other bluesmen become internationally well known. They made appearances at pop festivals, played large concert halls, and started recording again. These artists saw more young white faces in their audience than ever before. Muddy Waters claims, "Before the Rolling Stones, people didn't know anything about me and didn't want to know anything. I was making records that were called 'race records.' I'll tell you what the old folks would have said to kids who'd bought my records. They'd have said 'What's that?' Take off that nigger music!" Then the Rolling Stones came along, playing this music, and now the kids are buying my records and listening to them." He commented on his performances during the 1970s, "I play in places now don't have no black faces in there but our black faces22."

It seems that rock 'n' roll, originating from a fusion of country-and-western and blues, gave the races a reason to look past color just as blues had done years before. The Platters assert that rock 'n' roll "was doing a lot for race relations. It's giving the kids a chance to meet rock and roll artists, and this is helping them find out that so many of the stories that they hear are true." The bass player, Henry Weinger, still maintained that sentiment 30 years later. "Because of our music, white kids ventured into black areas. They had a sense of fair play long before the civil rights movement. We were invited into a lot of homes by kids whose fathers looked at us like we were going to steal the goddamned refrigerator'. Chairman Johnson of the group Chairmen of the Board described his audience at a show on the coast of South Carolina during the 1950s as being full of white enthusiasts for black music. He said it proclaimed a genuine change in racial stereotypes and habits. "It was at the beach that racial segregation began to break down, white kids could listen to R&B behind their folks' backs." Herbie Cox of the Cleftones even stated that "disc jockeys and record distributors were doing more for integration than Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education23."

11. Booth 15
2. Davis, 16
3. Trynka, 94
4. Friedlander, 21
5. Davis, 206-208
6. Blumenthal, 240-244
7. Blumenthal, 246-249
8. Bane, 142-148
9. Friedlander, 38-39
10. Ward, 53
11. Ward, 135
12. Russell, 7
13. Ward, 175
14. Bane, 150
15. Bane, 157
16. Russell, 31
17. Trynka, 124
18. Friedlander, 105-106
19. Davis, 192
20. Trynka, 126
21. Russell, 7
22. Palmer, 259-260
23. Ward, 128

Back to top