Contrary to what some people believe, the blues is not “slave music.” Although it was cultivated by the descendants of slaves, the blues was the expression of freed African Americans. The Great Migration directly influenced the blues’ many evolutions. As Black people moved from the South to northern cities, the music reflected the new urban terrain in which the people set up communities. However, the general belief that the blues comes out of slavery lasts to this day, passed down from its predecessors, including the Black Spirituals, Slave Seculars, Corn Ditties (also known as “Field Hollers” and “Corn-Field Ditties”), and String music. As a folklorist who performs the traditional style of blues music, I have had the opportunity to speak with and interview many who revere the blues, yet are misinformed about the culture and experience of the blues people who created the musical expression.
The beginnings of the blues can be traced to the late 1860s, arguably the most vicious and violent period in the United States. Vigilante justice was at an all-time high, and by 1889, the lynching of African Americans surged dramatically. The bluesman and blueswoman emerged in this difficult period, along with the stories of folk heroes translated to song and the new venues in which the music would be performed. The blues did not speak of the life of the enslaved but of the experiences of freed men and women during the periods of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. It spoke of cotton bales/gins, boll weevil, juke houses, and sharecropping. Farming and sharecropping were the starting places for most of the legendary blues musicians celebrated today, including Charlie Patton, Rubin Lacey, Son House, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and the most famous in recent generations, B.B. King.
The 1890s ushered in what can be referred to as the “Bad Man”—the incarnation of the first edition of the “New Negro” mindset. This describes the “rough and tumble” Black man or woman who openly defied white supremacy, and was just as hard on their African American counterparts. Unlike slavery, where plantation owners had their own judicial system, Blacks were tried in public courts, and the jurors, lawyers, and judges were all white. This turned the rebel into a folk hero—and even a martyr. This also changed the dynamic of songs. It is during this period that we began to hear songs of men such as Stagger Lee, a song inspired by an actual murder that took place in 1895 in a St. Louis, Missouri, bar room argument. It also made the newspaper under the headline “Shot in Curtis’s Place.” The story that ran in the next day’s edition of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat,stated, “William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand… was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis… by Lee Sheldon, also colored.” A plethora of songs presented this story throughout time. One of the most famous of the songs was recorded by Lloyd Price.