Blues music and the African-American civil rights movement

This music video from the USA is called Leadbelly-The Bourgeois Blues.

This song by Leadbelly is about racism among financially well off people in the USA. The lyrics are here.

By Derek Bright:

Left turns on the blues highway

Saturday 31st January 2015

Take a road trip down the ‘blues highway’ from Chicago to New Orleans in the US and the connections between the history of the blues and African-Americans’ ongoing struggle for civil rights are inescapable, says DEREK BRIGHT in this extract from his new book

Highway 61 never strays far from the Mississippi River, its southbound route drilling down into the heart of the troubled past of the US, through towns inextricably linked with cotton and slavery, civil war and the African-American struggle for civil rights.

The aim of my journey for the book Highway 61: Crossroads on the Blues Highway was to explore the history of that country’s most important indigenous musical form, ever mindful of Francoise N Hamlin’s words that it is the “narratives beyond the blues that are the very stories that made the blues.” What the “blues traveller” finds are stories inseparable from the broader history of African-American struggle.

On the first day of that road trip I stood with photographer Richard Brown, gazing up at the head of a prize-winning steer carved into the gothic archway over the last surviving gate to what had once been Chicago’s Union Stock Yards. It was a reminder of the “killing floors” that feature in blues songs such as Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor, Skip James’s Hard Time Killing Floor Blues and Son House’s Dry Spell Blues.

By the 1920s, the stockyards, slaughter houses and packing houses employed half of the newly emerging black proletariat that had migrated to Chicago, escaping a Southern share-cropping economy organised along lines that the African-American sociologist Lewis Wade Jones described as something akin to feudal fiefdoms.

With the “great migration” came the music of the South, adapted to reflect the intense urgency of the city, music described by Langston Hughes in 1942 as “amplified to machine proportions — a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.”

Yet, despite escaping Jim Crow laws, for African-Americans Chicago was a deeply segregated city and it was organisation at local level within the stockyard unions through the work of activists such as Young Communist League member Herbert Marsh that would unite black and white workers in common cause.

As an article in the African-American Chicago Defender newspaper reported in 1939: “Today the PWOC (Packinghouse Workers Organising Committee) planted the seed of unity in the stony soil of Packingtown. Negroes walk freely and in safety.

“Any public place which refused them service would be quickly put out of business by a boycott of the white union members. On the very streets where danger once lurked at every corner for Negroes, colored men stop for long chats about baseball with Polish and Irish workers.”

The Communist Party of the USA proved itself to be a significant unifying force amongst ethnic groups in the “black belt” and the “back of the yards,” infamous areas of poor housing where stockyard workers lived.

The CPUSA’s funding of legal defence for the Scottsboro Boys case in 1931 gained the trust of African-American workers, to the extent that the party was even defended in the pages of the Chicago Defender, which ran an article headlined: “Why We Can’t Hate Reds.”

That integration of black workers in the stockyard unions is reflected in songs such as Stockyard Blues (1947), where Floyd Jones sings: “I passed the stockyards y’know, the boys were still on the picket line” and in Hard Times, where he sings about union and company negotiations and delivers the line: “Slow production — we’ll give you four days a week.”

On our last day in Chicago, while searching for the grave of prolific blues composer Willie Dixon in Burr Oak’s African-American cemetery, we stumbled across the graves of Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Bradley. Till’s mother shocked the conscience of a nation when she brought her son’s tortured and mutilated body to Chicago from Mississippi, insistent that it be put on public display, an act seen by many as a defining moment in the history of the civil rights movement.

Nearly 60 years later, “blues travellers” will still find numerous reminders of Till’s murder. Driving through Money, Leflore County, Mississippi, a mile or so from Robert Johnson’s grave, a Mississippi freedom trail marker next to the buckled shell of a dilapidated building cloaked in ivy caught my attention. Our search for Johnson’s grave brought us by chance to Bryant’s grocery store where, on a summer holiday in 1955, 14-year-old Till bought candy, whistled and called: “Bye honey” to the white woman storekeeper as he left.

Till’s act of teenage bravado transgressed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour imposed by whites on blacks in the South. Declassified letters from J Edgar Hoover to Dillon Anderson, special assistant to the president, show that within days of Till’s murder the FBI was briefing on the widespread publicity the CPUSA was giving to the Till case through the pages of the Daily Worker.

That the communities that bluesmen and women came from were the same communities that fought for change is reflected in the US left’s embrace of both black and white folk music.

While the Melody Maker of July 1937 is often cited as one of the few newspapers that referenced Johnson’s music in his own lifetime, what is less well-known is that the weekly Marxist magazine New Masses, closely allied with the CPUSA, carried coverage of Johnson’s music on a number of occasions while he was alive as early as March 1937.

And the news of Johnson’s death was announced to a wider public in the pages of New Masses, just a week before Johnson was due to be showcased before an integrated audience at Carnegie Hall in New York. That concert, From Spirituals to Swing, was funded by the CPUSA.

Highway 61: Crossroads on the Blues Highway by Derek Bright is published by the History Press at £14.99.

This page contains text & video examples of and comments about selected African American civil rights songs from the 1960s. “Civil rights songs” are also known as “freedom songs”.

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