The Blues in African-American Culture
The Blues in African-American Culture
The Blues in African-American Culture
The blues are, or have been, many things within the space of African-American culture, and those things inevitably show up in opposed pairs. The blues are a lowdown lonesome feeling, a song of abandonment and despair, but they're also a kind of euphoria, a freedom cry of lusty survivorship and deliverance down the open road. The blues are about poverty and bottom-of-the-barrel hard times, but they're also—in the hands of a skilled bluesman like B. B. King or Honeyboy Edwards—a pretty good way of hustling a living from a black public that values your gifts. (See Edwards's 1996 autobiography, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing.) The blues are kerosene lamps and backwoods jooks and homemade corn liquor; the blues are so country they have mud squishing between their toes. But the blues are also about Saturday night in the big city: slipping into your red dress or your pinstriped suit and cruising downtown (or uptown) behind the wheel of your Terraplane or Rocket 88, manifesting the sort of elegant high style celebrated by Albert Murray in Stomping the Blues (1976). The blues are the devil's music—and assailed as such by certain sectors of the churchgoing black middle class—but the devilishly resourceful transformations they celebrate are the gifts of the African trickster deity Legba, god of the crossroads: a place where opposites come together and unsettle the world in explosively creative and liberating ways.
The blues, in short, are dialectical. They defy every effort to constrain or define or decisively pronounce on them—as African Americans, survivors and singers of the blues, have continually recreated and liberated themselves within the problematic confines of American history. As James Cone argues in The Spirituals and the Blues (1972), the blues may "have roots stretching back into slavery days and even to Africa" (Cone, 1991, p. 98). But the blues, as an African-American folk music and distinctive form of vernacular expression, do not blossom into being until the dark days of the 1890s, when Jim Crow segregation begins to harden, the promise of sociopolitical and economic equality vanishes, and lynching becomes a public sport across the South. "[T]he blues ain't slave music," insists Kalamu ya Salaam in What Is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self (1994). "[D]idn't no slaves sing the blues. [W]e didn't become blue until after reconstruction, after freedom day and the dashing of all hopes of receiving/attaining our promised 40acres&1mule" (Salaam, 1994, p. 7). The blues are, in other words, what Amiri Baraka called the "changing same" of African-American culture: They've been around forever, seemingly, but they've proven endlessly responsive to the fresh hopes and bitter disillusionments that characterize black life in modern America, whenever you define "modern" as beginning.
Writing the Blues
If the blues now seem like a central component of the African-American cultural imagination, much of the credit must go to three black writers—a songwriter/autobiographer, a poet, and an anthropologist/novelist—who helped transform blues song and blues culture into popular blues texts. W. C. Handy, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston were each, in their own distinctive ways, educated middle-class celebrants of unlettered working-class blues people.
W. C. Handy (1873–1958), the so-called Father of the Blues, was an Alabama-born son and grandson of Methodist ministers who abdicated the family calling to make his living in black show business during the 1890s. After a four-year stint as a bandleader with Mahara's Minstrels, a touring theatrical troupe, Handy moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1903. He soon encountered the blues in the form of a "lean, loose-jointed Negro" guitar-man at a Delta train station who was singing "the weirdest music I had ever heard" (Handy, 1991, p. 74), a life-changing experience that he later recounted in his celebrated autobiography, Father of the Blues (1941). Determined to transform this new and distinctive black folk music into American pop music, Handy is credited with the first blues instrumental hit, "Memphis Blues" (1912), and perhaps the most widely recorded blues song of all time, "St. Louis Blues" (1914). One of the first "talkies" (movies with a synchronized soundtrack), in fact, was a short entitled "St. Louis Blues" (1927) that featured blues queen Bessie Smith singing Handy's hit.
Langston Hughes (1902–1967), born in Joplin, Missouri, and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, first heard the blues on Independence Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri, and later absorbed a wide variety of blues styles in Chicago, Harlem, Paris, and Washington, D.C. In 1925, with a poem entitled "The Weary Blues," Hughes inaugurated an aesthetic revolution: He was the first American writer to translate the three-line "AAB" lyric structure of blues song into a six-line poetic stanza, injecting blues rhythms and the earthiest of blues themes into an American literary tradition that had preferred to see black folk culture through the distorting stereotypes of blackface minstrelsy. If Hughes's first volume of blues-accented poems, The Weary Blues (1926), saw him celebrated as the "busboy poet," then his second volume, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), saw him harshly criticized in the black press as "the poet low-rate" (rather than "laureate") of Harlem: He had dared to let his blues people speak in their own vernacular voices about love, lust, loss, and violent revenge. Hughes held firm to his conviction about the artistic validity of black popular music in a manifesto entitled "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926). "Let the blare of Negro jazz bands," he wrote, "and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand" (Hughes, 1994, p. 59). Every twenty-first century poet who strives to write a blues poem—or, for that matter, a jazz poem, or a hip-hop poem—owes a debt to Hughes for his pioneering work.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) was, in some sense, more naturally aligned with the blues than Handy or Hughes, growing up as she had in a small Florida town where "box pickers" (guitarists) of local renown frequently entertained crowds on the front porch of a local drygoods store. Yet Hurston's most important contribution to our understanding of African-American blues culture came as a result of several extended visits she made to the jooks, the backwoods blues clubs, of a lumber camp in Polk County, Florida—a subculture that no other anthropologist, black or white, had ever investigated. Her vivid descriptions of Big Sweet, Lucy, Ella Wall, and the other tough-talking, razor-wielding blueswomen helped animate both her germinal volume of black folklore, Mules and Men (1935), and her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). An amateur blues singer and harmonica player in her own right, Hurston used her juke-joint experiences to create the central character of her best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937): Tea Cake, the joyous, playful, sometimes violent young Florida bluesman who helps liberate the novel's heroine, Janie Crawford Killicks Starks, by convincing her to follow him down onto the "muck" of Florida's Lake Okeechobee region where "blues are made and used right on the spot" (Hurston, 1990, p. 125).
The Black Arts Movement and After
Between 1920, when Mamie Smith's recording of "Crazy Blues" became a race-records sensation, and 1961, when Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do" was a top-ten hit in Chicago, blues music was arguably the black popular music: not just a commodity, but a way of life and a worldview. All that changed in the course of the 1960s, as soul music swept across black America and the black youth market for blues—much to the chagrin of blues performers such as Muddy Waters and B. B. King—effectively disappeared. To a prideful and assertive new generation, blues music seemed old, tired, worn-out, politically retrograde. The blues, in this view, were the soundtrack of segregation and resignation rather than the battle cry of black collective progress and radical self-fashioning. "blues ain't culture," wrote Sonia Sanchez in "liberation / poem." "they sounds of / oppression / against the white man's / shit….blues is struggle / strangulation / of our people / cuz we cudn't off the / white motha / fucka…." (Sanchez, 1970, p. 54). Sanchez and many of her fellow writers and intellectuals in the black arts movement rejected the blues with as much vehemence as they critiqued the pandemic racism of white America. "[T]he blues are invalid," Maulana Ron Karenga famously declaimed in an 1968 essay in Negro Digest, "for they teach resignation, in a word acceptance of reality—and we have come to change reality" (Karenga, 1968, p. 9).
For another cohort of black arts writers led by poet and critic Larry Neal, however, the blues were something quite different: a cherished ancestral rootstock, an inalienably black cultural inheritance that could be put to political as well as aesthetic good use. "The blues," Neal argued in "The Ethos of the Blues" (1972), "represent…the essential vector of the Afro-American sensibility and identity…. [T]he blues are basically defiant in their atti tude toward life. They are about survival on the meanest, most gut level of human existence" (Neal, 1972, p. 42). These blues were not sorrow songs but survivor songs, a cultural resource that had long sustained, and continued to sustain, a beleaguered but resourceful people. African-American writers of the 1960s who embraced the blues on these terms include Kalamu ya Salaam, Stanley Crouch, Jayne Cortez, Quincy Troupe, Eugene Redmond, and Nikki Giovanni, among others.
Although blues music would, with notable regional exceptions, never again regain its former chart-topping position in the black pop mainstream after the early 1960s, the blues continued to resonate loudly within African-American culture—a direct result, arguably, of Larry Neal's determination to celebrate what he called "the blues god" through a period of political upheaval. Contemporary African-American literature, in particular, embodies the blue-toned legacy of the black arts movement: writers such as Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye ), August Wilson (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ), Alice Walker (The Color Purple ), Gayl Jones (Corregidora ), Sherley Anne Williams (Some One Sweet Angel Child ), Sterling Plumpp (Blues: The Story Always Untold ), Eugene Redmond (The Eye in the Ceiling ), Arthur Flowers (Another Good Loving Blues ), Bebe Moore Campbell (Your Blues Ain't Like Mine ), Walter Mosley (RLs Dream ), and Kevin Young (Jelly Roll: A Blues ) all testify to their enduring vitality and validity. To this richly varied list must be added a second list of contemporary African-American historians and theorizers of the blues: Amiri Baraka (Blues People and Black Music ), Houston A. Baker Jr. (Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature ), Jon Michael Spencer (Blues and Evil ), Albert Murray (The Blue Devils of Nada ), Angela Y. Davis (Blues Legacies and Black Feminism ), and Tony Bolden (Afro-Blue ). African-American literature at the dawn of the second millennium is, by any measure, supremely conscious of its southern-born vernacular taproot.
Blues Across the Arts
African-American literature is, of course, merely one place on the cultural landscape where blues energies have registered their bittersweet lyrical presence. The art world is another: Both fine art and folk or "outsider" art have found ways of translating the cackling audacity, dialectical swing, and down-home grit of the blues into visual terms. Critic Richard J. Powell has praised the "blues aesthetic" of African-American artists Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas, and Alison Saar for embodying the collage-based "will to adorn" celebrated by Zora Neale Hurston in "Characteristics of Negro Folk Expression" (1934). The Mississippi Delta, ancestral home of the blues, happens also to be a haven for blues-based folk art, from the playfully morbid clay skulls (adorned with real human teeth) constructed by the late bluesman James "Son" Thomas to the homemade guitars that Clarksdale bluesman James "Super Chikan" Johnson hammers together out of gas cans.
Blues photography has more often than not been the province of white American and European photographers and folklorists; the notable African-American exception is Ernest Withers, whose The Memphis Blues Again (2001) vibrantly documents the Memphis years of B. B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, and other legends. When the blues have found their way onto film, they've generally done so in the form of concert footage or documentaries, although Steven Spielberg's cinematic retelling of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple (1985) contained a piquant juke-joint performance by actress Margaret Avery in the role of blues diva "Shug" Avery.
Apart from literature, it is on the stage—the dramatic and musical theater stage—where the blues have registered most forcefully within contemporary African-American culture. If playwright August Wilson is the acknowledged master of the field with works such as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), The Piano Lesson (1995), and Seven Guitars (1996), then blues drama as a whole experienced a renaissance during the final decade of the twentieth century. Mule Bone, a play coauthored by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston in the early 1930s, was staged for the first time in 1991 with Baton Rouge bluesman Kenny Neal in the leading role. Other notable blues theatricals include Thunder Knocking on the Door (1999), coauthored by playwright Keith Glover and blues performer Keb' Mo', and Lackawanna Blues (2001), which paired actor Reuben Santiago-Hudson and bluesman Bill Sims Jr. In 1999 the Broadway revue It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues won two Tony Awards before touring regionally, recreating a series of classic blues tableaux—back porches down South, smoky bars up North—as showcases for the innate theatricality of blues standards such as "Crawling Kingsnake" and "Someone Else Is Steppin' In."
Despite frequent advisories to the contrary, blues music—live, recorded, broadcast—remains a significant, if somewhat diminished presence in contemporary African-American culture. This is due in no small part to the unexpected small-market success of two mid-1980s hits: Z. Z. Hill's "Down Home Blues" (1982) and Little Milton's "The Blues Is Alright" (1984). Evincing both nostalgia for the "down home" South that northern black migrants had left behind and a prideful assertion of the continuing relevance of a blues-based sensibility, the two hits helped anchor a resurgent black southern market in what came to be known as "soul blues," a fusion of Memphis soul, synthesizer-tinged disco, gospel, and electric blues. Jackson, Mississippi, is the home of contemporary soul blues, thanks to Malaco Records and the American Blues Radio Network; recent hitmakers include Sir Charles Jones ("Love Machine"), Marvin Sease ("Women Would Rather Be Licked"), Peggy Scott-Adams ("Hot and Sassy"), and
Willie Clayton ("Call Me Mr. C"). Finally, the sort of rough-and-ready backwoods blues that Zora Neale Hurston encountered down in Polk County, Florida, remains a surprisingly vital presence among a working-class black clientele in parts of the Deep South. The legendary jook in Chulahoma, Mississippi, at which bluesmen Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside used to preside burned down in 1999, the year after Kimbrough's death, but various sons, a grandson, and cousins currently play at and preside over the Burnside Blues Café in nearby Holly Springs. Mississippi jooks such as Po' Monkeys in Merigold, Bug's Place in Rosedale, and Betty's Place in Sandyland keep the blues alive: a homespun alternative to MTV and a key component of a far-reaching African-American cultural legacy.
Barlow, William. "Looking Up at Down": The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.
Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. New York: Seabury Press, 1972. Reprint, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991.
Edwards, David Honeyboy, as told to Janis Martinson and Michael Robert Frank. The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1997.
Handy, W. C. Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1941. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1991.
Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." In Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, edited by Angelyn Mitchel. London and Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Perennial, 1990.
Karenga, Ron. "Black Art: A Rhythmic Reality of Revolution." Negro Digest 17, no. 3 (1968).
Neal, Larry. "The Ethos of the Blues." The Black Scholar (Summer 1972).
Oakley, Giles. The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues. New York: Taplinger, 1977.
Oliver, Paul. Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Salaam, Kalamu ya. What Is Life? Reclaiming the Black Blues Self. Chicago: Third World Press, 1994.
Sanchez, Sonia. "liberation / poem." We a BaddDDD People. Detroit, Mich.: Broadside Press, 1970.
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