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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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In the South, the lives of whites and blacks have always been closely interwoven. In an economy based on cotton, their relationship was symbiotic. Both needed the other for their livelihood. It was a relationship unthinkable in the North. Francis Davis, author of The History of the Blues states that "floods and boll weevil infestations spelled disaster for everyone, landowner and sharecropper or tenant farmer alike." He reports that in 1889, when a white mob killed an approximated 25 blacks in Leflore County, MS reacting to hearsay about a black armed uprising, many cotton farmers in the county gave protection to any black who sought it1. This account is an example of white recognition of the indispensability of blacks as workers, but it was also around this time that whites began to see the value of blacks as American cultural contributors. Whites began recording the blues in the early part of the 20th century thus extending the typical relationship between blacks and whites in a positive direction.

Whites and blacks began to work together for a common good; both were making money and documenting history, whether they were aware of it at the time or not. This section investigates the benefits of bringing whites and blacks together in a business setting.

Once record companies realized that blues was a moneymaker, they began sending out scouts with transportable equipment to record the music. For example, with the success of Blind Lemon Jefferson's second record in the 1920s, record companies immediately sent scouts to Dallas (Jefferson's hometown) to look for more bluesmen. They also consulted blacks when it came to which artists to promote and the language to use in advertising copy (see examples). While these advertisements were most often stereotypical of the image whites had of blacks, they did demonstrate an effort by whites to understand the culture and music of blacks. Even if it was for purely monetary purposes at this point, it did provide a reason why whites should see blacks more as human beings and less as sheer laborers2.

Blind Lemon JeffersonMany people today complain that recording companies financially took advantage of musicians because the artists were often denied royalties and copyrights. However, Jeff Todd Titon points out in Early Downhome Blues that the money made from the sales of the records made by these artists was seldom enough to cover the cost of recording, production, and distribution. The companies were not obligated to pay the artists a flat rate for their services: however, by paying a flat wage for royalties and copyrights the musicians were guaranteed to leave with money in their pocket regardless of how well their records sold. It was also very difficult to supply these blues artists with royalties because during the early 1900s they usually did not hold a regular address. The artists happily conceded to the immediate lump-sum payment agreement because they suspected it would be very likely they would never see a royalty check if the company was given an easy excuse for not mailing it to them. The people who were most hurt by this system were the truly popular bluesmen such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake who brought in large amounts of revenue, but never saw any of it after their initial award. However, the extra profits of artists like these two compensated for the low sales of other artists' records. Their misfortune made it possible for record companies to go out searching for other talent and make other field recordings3.

1. Davis, 41
2. Titon, 207, 214, 226
3. Titon, 221

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