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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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The early Thirties met blues with a cold shoulder financially. Record sales dropped and many recording companies went out of business. As the decade continued, it saw the rise in popularity of collaborative efforts in the music scene and by its end companies could afford to sent talent scouts back out in the field looking for new musicians1. By the end of the 40s, blues musicians had to compete with the jukebox. Though on record they were blues artists, during live performances they became any kind of musician the audience called for. The blues artist had to become as versatile as a jukebox if he wanted to make money2.

White cover versions of black songs eased white fans toward black music. Up through the early to mid 1950s, it was still frowned upon for white teenagers to listen to black music. Record companies worked around this attitude by recording covers, songs white artists recorded that were originally hits for black artists. The Crew Cuts recorded the first important cover in 1954 with "Sh-Boom," a song that was originally a hit for the Chords3. Brian Ward comments in Just My Soul Responding, "nothing did more than the cover phenomenon to facilitate a mass market for r&b and extend the opportunities for black artists, writers and entrepreneurs4." Pat Boone covered Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" in 1956 which reached number 18 on the pop best-seller lists. Later that year, Little Richard put out "Long Tall Sally, " a hit that climbed to number 6 on the lists. However, by the time Boone came out with the cover, it did not make the best-seller lists. Billboard reported "the public is beginning to show a decided preference for the original - regardless of their origin." Radio stations could no longer afford to play the covers over the originals, so black music performed by black artists was getting an increasing amount of publicity5. But, it was these cover versions that served as a passageway for white Americans to the place where they could openly listen and dance to black music. Again, the music became common ground to blacks and whites. It gave them a mutual interest upon which to build a better relationship. This section delves into the role parties and dances played by creating a venue where whites and blacks could come together and interact in an exhilarating atmosphere, one in which "the rules" could be bent.

Almost as soon as the slaves arrived, they began forming bands. These bands featured a variety of instruments including homemade lutes, percussion instruments, and flutes or fifes. They were also the artistic force behind the blackface minstrel shows that were soon to become greatly popular. Experts find evidence of white appreciation for early black music in the way whites treated those workers who were musically talented. Robert Palmer, author of Deep Blues, mentions the Senegambians in particular who were admired for their musical ability and allowed special privileges on many plantations. They were granted light housework while slaves from other African regions were made to complete the harsh fieldwork1. In the early 19th century, advertisements would point out the musical talents of the slaves who were for sale knowing that would put them in higher demand2.

Blues infected its fans, both black and white, with the craving to dance. One way blues brought the races in contact with each other was through mixed dances and parties. Though both blacks and whites were allowed in the same building, they were not allowed to intermingle. The dances occurred during a time when Jim Crow laws held a tight grip on the South. To keep whites and blacks from mixing together on the dance floor, officials would divide it in Nappy Brownhalf with a piece of cord or rope. Whites danced on one side and blacks on the other. As the evening wore on, the music was able to swallow up the Jim Crow laws, at least while it was playing and the people were dancing. In a conversation I had with him in November 1998, Nappy Brown remembered that by the end of the evening, the white people had torn the ropes down and crossed over to dance with the blacks. He added that it was always the whites who instigated the crossover because a black doing so risked being lynched. Ruth Brown told the same story, "I'm overjoyed to say that many times the ropes came down, they'd fall because the music got in the way of attitudes and feelings and nobody cares who rubbed against each other. Everybody was having a good time. They didn't care what color your face was, for a moment…while the music was good6."

Billy Boy ArnoldBilly Boy Arnold recounts:

I saw those barriers breaking down when I was on a tour with Johnny Guitar Watson and Fats Domino in 1957. We were all down in Louisiana and Texas, and Fats was drawing as many white people as blacks. They had a partition and the white kids had to be on this side and black kids were over here dancing and having a good time. The white kids could only look and they wanted to dance and enjoy the music - so they tore the partition down. The die-hard racists were saying, what the hell's happening? I knew then that things couldn't stay the same way they had always been7.

1. Russell, 24-25
2. Davis, 143-144
3. Bane, 98
4. Ward, 44
5. Ward, 46-50
6. That Rhythm, Those Blues
7. Trynka, 123

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