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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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Making music is a circumstance under which people of both races could mix without raising very many eyebrows. Even those intolerant of integration could overlook this behavior by musicians. Musicians, being more concerned with the music than with race, certainly did not have any problem incorporating and relying upon the talents of black musicians. Tearing down racial barriers in the musical setting made progress toward tearing them down in other settings. This section looks at examples of integrated bands and black musicians working with white producers, distributors, and managers and their positive effect on race relations.

David Harrison, author of Blues: A Photographic Documentary, says that it has only been lately that historians have appreciated the high degree to which music was integrated in the rural south, even in areas where the clutch of the Ku Klux Klan was mighty and racial boundaries were clearly defined. Rumor has it that the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan managed Jaybird Coleman, an early blues harmonica player. Due to this integration, identifying the origins of songs and styles becomes increasingly difficult as one traces the music's development. There are traces of flamenco in some blues, such as Buddy Boy Hawkins, a uniquely talented country blues guitarist and vocalist, which historians believe was brought home by World War I soldiers. Also, the slide guitar, which quickly became a substantial aspect of blues music, was most likely brought over from Hawaii. Several white artists such as Monroe Moe Jackson and Harmonica Frank were long incorrectly thought to be black, while the jury is still out on Julius King and Rhythm Willie1.

Some examples Harrison gives of such integration are Andrew and Jim Baxter, two black musicians who played with the white group called The Georgia Yellowhammers; Oscar Woods and Ed Shaffer, two black slide guitarists who played with white country music singer Jimmie Davis; Jimmie Rodgers, who was famous for his blues yodeling, recorded with both Louis Armstrong and Clifford Gibson. Rodgers even rearranged a song by the Clifford Hayes Jug Band and recorded it with the band. "Jimmie Rodgers yodels permeate the blues of the thirties: sounds of black America in turn pervades much of the white country music, particularly that of Rodgers himself2." Rumor has it that it was Howlin' WolfJimmie Rodgers who gave Chester Burnette his nickname, Howlin' Wolf, upon hearing that unique "howl" one night when the two met on the road3. Amèdè Ardoin, a black Cajun accordionist, and his once neighboring sharecropper and white accompanist, Dennis McGee were once popular duo. Two wandering black musicians taught Frank Hutchinson, a white songster from West Virginia, how to play slide guitar in a genuinely black style, which he demonstrated well on his 32 records. Curley Weaver, a country blues artist from Georgia, and Buddy Moss greatly impacted the music of Cliff Carlisle, a white country music genius4. Listen to Chicago Bob commenting on the role of music in integration.

More evidence of integration is revealed by the Carter Family, a famous white country music group who declared that they learned many songs from Leslie The Carter FamilyRiddle, a not so famous black songster and guitarist from North Carolina. Riddle did not make his first recording until the blues resurgence of the 1960s5, but historians believe it may have been Riddle who taught Maybelle, the matriarch of the Carter Family, the steel guitar techniques she uses on the very popular "Little Pal of Mine6."

Freddie Vanderford is a blues musician from Union, SC who began playing blues as a young boy. He was introduced to the music of Peg Leg Sam Anderson in 1969 as a 10th grade student. With a little luck and his own tenacity, Freddie tracked Peg down one evening and asked him to teach him about the blues. At first, Peg was resistent because he was not convinced this white boy had what it took to be a blues musician. Freddie proved his committment to the blues and to Peg by spending hours with Peg taking him to run errands, gathering his firewood, and toting water from the neighbor's house a football field away. Eventually, the friendship and trust between the two grew firm and Peg shared his music with Freddie. Although Freddie's friends and family were not thrilled with him for spending most of his time wrapped up in blues music and hanging out with its black practioners, Freddie nor Peg seemed to notice the color differences between the two of them. Click here to listen to Freddie describing their relationship.

Dan Penn, a white singer/songwriter from Alabama, once said "Our rhythm 'n' blues was about blacks and white people intermingled." Joe Tex remarks, "I used the same formula every time - half soul musicians, half country musicians." David Porter spoke of his collaborations with Isaac Hayes "It's a mixture of people giving their ideas…and molding them into an individuality. Hayes and I even study country-and-western tunes because we have discovered some of the greatest lyrics in the world come from there7." Listen to Kip Anderson, a blues artist from Starr, SC, talk about the racial differences in the world of music.

Al Bell, a black songwriter for Stax who later became president, thought that the label's integration was an allegory for societal integration. He described the company as "a combine which has been integrated, basically since its inception…I'm very proud of this and think that because of this we should be considered a model for other businesses - not just the record business, but any businesses that doubt that black and white people can work together8."

Harrison states:

The examples are endless, but the conclusion is the same - music was music, and if a white musician liked a black sound, or vice versa, then there was no social disgrace in adapting it…So blues was always a multi-racial music. More importantly, surely, is the fact that it was the one musical common denominator for the poor, the exploited, the wage slaves of both races who often shared the same deprivations in the mines, the factories, and the fields. It was a music that grew from within those mixed communities9...

1. Harrison, 15-19
2. Harrison, 18
3. Bane, 85
4. Harrison, 15-18
5. Davis, 41
6. Harrison, 18
7. Ward, 222
8. Ward, 225
9. Harrison, 18

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