Years before the likes of The Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, Cream, Led Zeppelin and, later, The White Stripes appropriated blues music, the music was born in 1870s Deep South USA out of African music, work songs, and spirituals. Not all blues songs were overtly political — indeed most were not. But the very existence of the music was a sociopolitical statement. We know that the end of the 1800s and the turn of the century were frankly dangerous times to be black in America, and yet here we had a style of music that would evolve into a means of both therapy and entertainment. It could be religious but it didn’t have to be. It could also be somber or morbid, romantic or lust-fuelled. What the blues offered was artistic freedom.
The early blues artists smashed through ceilings but it wasn’t easy. In the 1800s to as late as the 1960s, the number of venues they could perform in was limited. The chitlin’ circuit was a collection of venues that provided African-American friendly entertertainment. The name, not at all racially sensitive by the way, is derived from the soul food chitterlings, or stewed pig intestines. Way before blues hit its peak of popularity, this was the route taken by black jazz artists, comedians, dancers and anything else.
Two of the first recorded blues songs were “Dallas Blues” by Hart Wand (1912) and “St. Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy (1914). But one of the earliest professional blues singers, and one of the first to record, was Ma Rainey, the “mother of the blues”. And get this: In 1928 Alabama, this badass African-American woman was singing about lesbianism and bisexuality. Let that sink in for a minute. It wasn’t easy to be gay, or even gay-friendly, in 1928. It wasn’t easy to be a woman. And it sure as shit wasn’t easy to be black. Not only did Rainey succeed, she thrived while being all three, and she became famous singing about it.
“They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.
Sure got to prove it on me.
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.”
“Prove It On Me” – Ma Rainey
Legend tells that Robert Johnson, the king of the Delta Blues, made a deal with the devil in order to play the guitar as well as he did. The story is recounted quite beautifully in the movie Crossroads(bizarrely starring Ralph Macchio), as well as Netflix’s ReMastered: Devil At the Crossroads documentary. It is this Faustian pact, signed at a Mississippi crossroads, that we’re led to believe inspired Johnson to write the song “Hellhound On My Trail,” though there’s a more likely theory that the song is about white gangs and lynch mobs chasing black people. “I got to keep movin’,” Johnson sings. “There’s a hellhound on my trail.”
JOHN LEE HOOKER
Moving forward, the blues would play a great role in providing commentary for many of America’s biggest events, in much the same way that folk music did. The biggest names of the genre offered soundtrack to the news. The 1967 Detroit race riots were summed up perfectly by John Lee Hooker with the song “The Motor City Is Burning” from his classic Urban Blues album released that same year.
“Ain’t no thing in the world that Johnny can do
My home town burnin’ down to the ground
Worser than Vietnam.”
“The Motor City Is Burning” – John Lee Hooker
Another of the biggest names of the genre, B.B, King, began life on a plantation in Mississippi before moving to Memphis and performing on the streets. King isn’t known for overtly political themes in his lyrics but he was an avid campaigner for better conditions for prisoners throughout his life, receiving the Humanitarian Award from the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1972, and often performing in prisons.
Legendary blues/jazz singer Billie Holiday performed one of the most disturbing, important, and hauntingly effective songs in music history when she recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939. Originally written as a poem in 1937 by teacher Abel Meeropol to protest racism in America, and particularly the lynching of African-Americans — it remains one of the most important songs of all time, and it’s been covered by artists as diverse as Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley, and Siouxsie & the Banshees. The lyrics are a metaphor linking lynching victims with a tree’s hanging fruit.
“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
“Strange Fruit” – Billie Holiday
Another vitally important song that everyone should be aware of is Sam Cooke’s“A Change Is Gonna Come.” Written by Cooke, the song is inspired by his own personal experiences on the road, specifically when he and his band/crew were turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana.
“I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep tellin’ me don’t hang around
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”
“A Change Is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke
It wasn’t a huge hit at the time, but it has gone down as one of Cooke’s best. More recently, it’s been sampled by rappers Ghostface Killah, Ja Rule, Papoose, and Lil Wayne, and covered by the likes of Beyoncé as well as Jon Bon Jovi and Bettye LaVette, who performed it as a duet at President Obama’s inaugural celebration.