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The Blues. Black Culture in a White-Dominated Society

Essay 2017 8 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde



Fisk Field Research of 1941/42;

Farms in the American South

Role of the blues

Formal Aspects of the Blues

Chicago Blues



Fisk Field Research of 1941/42

“In 1941 and 1942 the Library of Congress and Fisk University of Nashville, Tennessee, jointly undertook a sociological study of African-American communities centered in Coahoma County,

Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta region. The project resulted in a number of manuscript documents, sound recordings, and motion picture footage …”[1]

So in the summer of 1941, a white man called Alan Lomax, from Fisk University went to Mississippi, to the delta area, the flat plain between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, to record “Negro” culture, particularly music. In his car he had some recording equipment, very big and enormously heavy, working with car batteries, but state-of-the-art in the 1940s. With his machinery he could record 15 minutes of sound on coated glass disks[2].

There had been recordings of African-American music since the 1920s, but mostly for an all-black audience, African-American culture had not yet reached the American main stream.

Farms in the American South

When Lomax arrived at Stovall plantation in August 1941, he wanted to record a locally known singer and guitarist called McKinley Morganfield, nicknamed Muddy Water1. He was a farm hand who had worked on the plantation all his life and who performed at black people’s parties or at local juke joints[3].

Stovall plantation, a farm of about 4500 acres (approximately 1820 hectars), lay directly on the Mississippi river, about seven miles from Clarksdale, the nearest town. Most farm hands worked as share croppers, as they had no land of their own and as they did not have the means to buy their own seeds or animals or farm machinery.

The idea of share cropping was to give poor, landless farm workers a chance to make a living working on someone else’s land. It spread throughout the South after the end of the Civil War, when former slaves had been emancipated but had no jobs to support their families.

The system worked as follows: the sharecropper worked on land that he didn’t own; he got the “’furnish”, a piece of land, “seed, tools, mules, and credit at the plantation store”.[4] The sharecropper had to give the landowner half of his harvest and then had to pay for the furnish and his own living. The problem for the sharecropper was that he had no chance to buy goods anywhere else than at the farm store and had to pay prices that were set in a way that made it impossible for him to get out of debt. And as African-Americans often were illiterate and did not know how to calculate, they were completely at the mercy of the farm owner.

So after all not much had changed for Afro-Americans after the end of slavery, almost all lived in poverty, they were no longer the plantation owner’s property, but he was still the “boss man” not be crossed or contradicted. When a black person talked to a white person, it was “yassuh”, “nossuh”[5] and black people considered too “uppity” ran a great risk of being lynched, often with the pretext that they had flirted with a white woman. Slavery had simply been replaced by a system called “segregation”, black and white population were almost as separated as before the Civil War.

Role of the blues

On the background of this miserable life a wide variety of cultural activities developed. West-African musical traditions blended with Western European musical influences to become a distinctly African-American music in the form of work songs, spirituals to accompany black church services and finally the blues. Most sources agree that the blues as a distinct art form came into existence in the 1890s. “Feeling blue” is the expression of the frustration and sadness of the black population about discrimination, injustice, violence and their complete exclusion from the American Dream. They knew they would always be dishwashers and never make it to be millionaires, with very few exceptions, and this was expressed in their songs.

Another aspect of the blues was that as a counterweight to their hard and poorly paid work, often from sunrise to sunset, African Americans loved to party, either in private places, where they simply put beds and furniture outside to make room for dancing, or at the “juke joint”, some kind of bar where people went to drink, to gamble, to socialize and to listen to music. Here singers who accompanied themselves on guitar or small groups of musicians entertained the guests.

Outside the southern states this form of black music was virtually unknown. There were no recordings and no performances by black artists for more than just a handful of listeners.

This all changed in the 1920s when black musicians became more confident, went to towns in the South to perform before larger audiences and started recording their music. At first musicians went to smaller towns in the Delta like Clarksdale.[6]

But the aim of black musicians were the big cities, first Memphis, as Muddy Waters said: “Memphis was like you was going almost to California”[7]. But the real aim was Chicago and the industrialized north: “I thought going to Chicago was like going out of the world “[8].

An additional incentive came from the fact that economic conditions in the South changed dramatically. The arrival of the Boll weevil in the 1920s, a beetle feeding on cotton buds and flowers did enormous damage to the cotton industry and together with the economic crisis of the 1930s, the “Great Depression”, made thousands of farm workers and small farmers lose their existence. On top of all this the invention of the cotton picking machine in the 1930s[9] made even more workers redundant.The first pickers were only capable of harvesting one row of cotton at a time, but were still able to replace up to forty workers. All this greatly increased the movement of southern blacks to the cities, mostly to Memphis and Chicago.

Formal Aspects of the Blues

Most blues songs have four beats in a bar, are built on the 12-bar blues form, use three four-bar phrases. The most common chord structure uses three chords – the tonic (chord I), the subdominant (chord IV) and the dominant (chord V).

Compared with the major scale, some notes, known as “blue notes” may be flattened by a semitone or ‘bent’ by a smaller interval. Blue notes are usually found on the third, fifth or seventh degree of the scale.[10]

Of course musicians often played variations of this structure and especially in the urban blues which was influenced by jazz, playing solos became more and more common.

Guitarists can also bend the notes by pushing or pulling the strings on their instrument. From the beginning blues guitarists used the “slide” technique, putting a bottleneck, a piece of metal or even a cleaned marrowbone or a knife to slide up and down on the strings, which produced a crying, wailing sound.

Blues lyrics are very emotional, they often deal with (lost) love, hardship and loneliness. Injustice and the oppression of black Americans, the hope for a better life in the future or in the afterlife play an essential role. Originally songs were also used to pass on messages among blacks, that the white boss or overseer could not understand.

Lyrics often have a three-line structure A A B, with the second line repeating the first and the third line bringing in a new idea or aspect, often conveying the real message of the song.

Here are two examples: [11]


[1] Cristarella et al.

[2] The Plantation Recordings can be found at:

[3] Gordon, p. XIII ff.

[4] Gordon, p. 8

[5] Gordon, p. XIII

[6] Clarksdale is a city in Coahoma County, Mississippi, and seat of the county; population today is 17000

[7] Gordon, p. 32

[8] Gordon, p. 32

[9] Holley

[10] Pouska

[11] Blues for Peace


ISBN (eBook)
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blues music African-Americans culture racism segregation rhythm and blues rockn' roll soul United States Mississippi delta Fisk University Chicago Memphis Tennessee



Titel: The Blues. Black Culture in a White-Dominated Society