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How the Blues Changed America

Posted on April 27, 2012 by Mary Schranck

It is well known that culture influences music.  Throughout history, songs and pieces have been written due events in history that have impacted humanity in some way.  However, how often is it that music has not only been written about history, but also changed history?  The 1960s were a turbulent time for all the citizens of the United States.  There were wars, a presidential assassination, much drug use, and general rebellion.  However, one of the most influential and important events in the 1960s was the Civil Rights Movement.  At the time, the blues were mainly a music that pertained to African-Americans.  The blues music became a driving force in helping the Civil Rights Movement to become successful.  It led to the break down the psychological barriers of segregation, after the public barriers of segregation were already abolished.

In the early and mid 1960s, many civil-rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were fighting for equality of the African-American community.  They were participating in protests, marching for their rights, and boycotting the segregated bus systems.  However, the majority of African-American families could not participate in these high profile events.  An effective way in allowing the average family to feel as if they were involved was through the radio and television.  In Memphis, Tennessee, WDIA-Memphis was the first radio station in the United States to program an all African-American format.  Families were able to listen to the news about the protests and marches while also listening to music (Strait 33).

Since music is typically influenced by historical events, many songs developed out of the happenings of the Civil Rights Movement.  Protests songs were common during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  Such songs as these usually are sung about a social change that promises to reach an end (Trigg 994).  One protest song that had a very strong influence on African Americans was Sam Cooke’s, ‘A Change is Gonna Come,’ which was released after the events of the march on Birmingham and the bombings that took place in the same city (Trigg 992).  Here is Sam Cooke’s song:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbO2_077ixs

These types of songs, also known as civil rights songs, are meant to move society forward with a certain political direction as their purpose (Trigg 992).  Another well-known civil rights song was ‘We Shall Overcome,’ a song that was originally a protest song in 1945 during a tobacco workers strike.  This song became the unofficial anthem for the civil rights movement (‘We Shall Overcome’):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNYeqe3LewE

However, not everyone was thrilled about the idea of the African-American culture merging with white culture.  There was a revisit to the very roots of blues music in the 1960s due to the civil rights movement.   Elderly performers in the Mississippi Delta region turned back to the roots of blues music by incorporating African vocal styles and arrangements in their music, which they called ‘country blues’ (Sakakeeny 148).   These songs included wailing and shouting that were reminiscent of the enslavement and sacred rituals of earlier African-American generations.  There was a fear among these men that the rhythm & blues and the urban blues music that had such an impact on rock ‘n roll artists, such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles, would cause a ‘cultural grey-out,’ or too much of a mixture in distinct music forms (Sakakeeny 149).  Here is an example of country blues:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paIwoukg_MQ

This mixture of music forms specifically did not occur, because there are still distinct barriers between the blues and rock ‘n roll today.  However, the blues music did help to bring black and white people together in the years following the civil rights movement.  The blues musicians who were abused by white people through lynching, alienation, racialized poverty, and racial humiliation, such as B. B. King, came to play with their music with white artists in later years (Gussow 36). Adam Gussow comments on this fact in his article on racial violence, racial healing, and blues communities:

There is a paradox at work here, plainly. Blues music, a form of cultural expression whose very ground was the unjust and painful relationship between blacks and whites in the segregated south, is also a music that has helped minister to the lingering wounds of segregation during the post civil rights era (Gussow 37).

Here is an example of B. B. King, a victim and survivor of the civil rights movement, performing with a white artist, Eric Clapton:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5T5qDRxbpM

The blues helped African American performers to gain mainstream acceptance and also bring black and white musicians and audiences together into a series of local subcultural communities known as “blues scenes.”  These communities allowed for mutual admiration of an aesthetic experience and enabled people to forget their racial differences (Gussow 37).

The beauty in the blues was that it not only helped to bring about the changes of the civil rights movement, but also that it helped to heal the hostility in the years following.  People who normally would not have had anything in common with each other found a common interest in their love of the blues.

Works Cited

Gussow, Adam. “Where Is The Love?” Racial Violence, Racial Healing, And Blues         Communities.” Southern Cultures 12.4 (2006): 36-37. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.

Sakakeeny, Matt. “Disciplinary Movements, The Civil Rights Movement, And Charles Keil’s   “Urban Blues..” Current Musicology 79/80 (2005): 148-149. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.

Strait, John B. “Geographical Study Of American Blues Culture.” Journal Of Geography 109.1 (2010): 33. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.

Trigg, Christopher. “A Change Ain’t Gonna Come: Sam Cooke And The Protest Song.”            University Of Toronto Quarterly 79.3 (2010): 992-994. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.

‘We Shall Overcome.’ Library of Congress. N.p. N.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.