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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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No one will argue that the life of a black man in the 19th and 20th centuries has been burdensome. These days we can only imagine how difficult it must have been to be so oppressed. Many whites saw blacks as intruders with little to offer other than cheap labor. However, the black musician seemed to enjoy a slightly better lifestyle over other black workers, which is evidence of a change in this opinion. This section explores examples and causes behind the improved lifestyles of black musicians and how they signal the genesis of an improvement in race relations between whites and blacks.

Listen to Sammy Blue, a blues musician from Atlanta, GA, describe blues originating as a form of therapy for blacks.

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.

This treatment continued into the twentieth century. The farmers who were also musicians were paid an additional amount of money, however small it was, and given food and whiskey for their services. Historians again presume that this compensation and preferential treatment was more evidence that whites appreciated the musical talent of these blacks. The white landowners even supported the black Saturday night dances, reportedly because they felt that blacks needed an outlet for their energy. Congregating at parties was a good way for blacks to relax and let loose after a week of tough labor3.

Blues music was not only an essential element of many religious and secular events for blacks, but it was a substantial source of entertainment for whites as well. Performers were able use the same repertoire when entertaining either race. Robert Wilkins, a country blues artist from Mississippi, began his career as a performer in 1913 while entertaining whites and blacks with a similar collection of songs4. Sam Chatmon, another country blues artist from Mississippi and a member of the famous Chatmon family, once said, "Mighty seldom I played for coloreds. They didn't have nothing to hire you with5." The main focus of the bluesmen at this time was to keep the audience happy, which meant playing anything they wanted to hear, whether it be spirituals, dance tunes, or popular hits. Blind Lemon Jefferson, a Texan who became very well known for his acoustic blues during the years prior to the Depression, impressed white and black musicians and audiences alike6. It was his popularity in 1926 that revealed to the record companies that a rural blues market existed7.

As with the Senegambians years before, those who possessed the talent during this time period enjoyed a better life. Though it never made a man rich, the blues of this early period offered a lifestyle which was considerably more comfortable than that of a farmer, the typical line of work during this time. It allowed its practitioners to make more of their own decisions. A musician could come and go as he pleased and never had to take orders from a man paying him next to nothing to work his fingers to the bone8. Listen to one of the reasons Chicago Bob, a blues artist from Baton Rouge, LA, became a musician.

Charley PattonCharley Patton is an example of a bluesman living as a semi-professional entertainer, glad to escape the hard field labor9. Will Dockery was the owner of a plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi, where Charley Patton's father moved his family around 1897. Dockery's plantation was a town in itself. He had his own stores, cotton gins, post office, medical clinic, cemetery, and train station. He had no use for the music of the blacks, but his attitude was not the standard of that day. Conversely, Dockery's good friend William Howard Stovall Dockery Farmsemployed The Mississippi Sheiks, which included as part of its lineup Bo Carter, Lonnie Chatmon, and Walter Vinson in different arrangements, to act as personal songsters to him. Patton was eventually discharged from Dockery's plantation and was employed by George Kirkland, another plantation owner just a few miles down the road, who put him to work specifically as a musician and released him from other work10.

Muddy Waters also resided on Stovall's plantation in a cabin Muddy's cabinthat transformed into a juke house on weekends. Muddy was famous for making the best moonshine for miles around. His juke house was moderately, yet steadily, lucrative which was a welcomed addition to the 22 ½ cents an hour he made as a tractor driver. He also brought in a little extra by selling his liquor to white supervisors and performing at house parties11.

Numerous artists echo this story of entertaining white people. Jesse Mae Hemphill remembers:

My granddaddy would play all kinds of songs…All of the white folk were crazy about him and the children. He was friendly with everybody, but he would play more for white people round here. At their houses for them big dances, the rich white folk would get him to play, and all three of the girls and me, they would go tell him, let them all come over there. They liked to do waltzes. Square dances. Granddaddy would call and they would do it…When it was cold we'd go to somebody's house, we didn't care who they was, we'd go up and knock and tell them we had music - y'all play music, come on in, play me a piece. We'd go in and play and sometimes stay two, three days - they glad to have us. Wouldn't charge us or nothing12.

Honeyboy Edwards describes white patrons of those days:

It was some white people down there at the time was mean, and I played for a lot of white dances down there and they treated me real nice, they'd bring me back home in the car, pay me what they said they was gonna pay me, give me my drinks and my meal free13.

Robert LockwoodRobert Lockwood remembers life in the early 1900s:

"Where I grew up, my people was, you could say, middle class livers - everybody had their own farms and stuff, so nobody forced nobody to go to no field. People on both sides of my family had their own little plantations. But I ran into some of that shit in Mississippi, when we got locked up for vagrancy. They would just pick you up - it was a law-breaking thing to not be in the field. They locked us up in Sardis, MS. We did not have to do any work, nothing like that - they just locked us up because in that part of MS they did not have any juke boxes, and they locked us up to hear us play! I understood that after it was all over, they locked us up because they didn't have music and didn't allow jukeboxes in Sardi, Como, and Batesville. They locked us up because we were sounding very good, and they would take us serenading, the people would give us money and they would give the money to us. When they turned us out of jail we had over $500 apiece, that was a lot of money at that time. And we were eating in restaurants. It was…strange14."

Listen to a comment made by Chicago Bob about the treatment Louis Armstrong received while playing in the homes of whites.

1. Palmer, 32-33
2. Davis, 27-28
3. Titon, 24, 57-59
4. Titon, 30
5. Davis, 27-28
6. Titon, 30
7. Davis, 38
8. Titon, 57-59
9. Titon, 58
10. Davis, 58
11. Palmer, 3-4
12. Trynka, 22-23
13. Trynka, 23
14. Trynka, 34-35

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