One great contemporary blues critic has remarked that the blues has always been about "wanting to be someplace else but making the best of where you are."17 And in the birthplace of the blues, the American South of the 1890s, making do was probably about the best for which most African Americans could hope. For many, even that was a stretch.
The period immediately following the Civil War had been one of optimism for the newly freed southern blacks. A people whose lives had long been terribly circumscribed, set about exploring the bounds of their new freedom. Many traveled freely for the first time, leaving plantations in search of jobs, family members, or just a sense of what had become newly possible. In the decade between 1867-77, during the period known as Radical Reconstruction, the freedmen and women had the support of congressional Republicans and Union troops stationed in the South in crafting an era of unprecedented interracial democracy, during which blacks were granted first citizenship and then the right to vote. The progress blacks made in public life during Radical Reconstruction was nothing short of remarkable; among the many profound changes in the South, black schools and churches were established and around 2,000 African Americans held public office.
But much of that progress proved fleeting, and government support ultimately fell far short of what would have been needed to cement the radical social and political transformation of the South that Radical Reconstruction had promised. In the end, as one ex-slave recalled in the 1930s, "we were not given a thing but freedom." And "freedom," as one newspaper pointed out, increasingly meant "free only to labor."18
The first big disappointment of Radical Reconstruction had been the failure of land reform in the South. The much hoped for "Forty Acres and a Mule," suggested by General W.T. Sherman's famed Special Field Order 15, never materialized. Former Confederate lands remained in the hands of former Confederates, and freedmen found their diminishing hopes for economic independence tied to southern boosters' misbegotten dreams of a new industrial South. Long before the New South dream sputtered, before even Reconstruction could be considered a failure, most freedmen and women had long since had to reconcile themselves to the ugly economic reality that came to characterize southern agrarian life in the absence of meaningful land reform. That reality was the system called sharecropping.
In theory, the rise of sharecropping represented a "compromise" between the desire of freed blacks for land and the need of plantation owners for labor. In practice, the system rarely amounted to anything other than a gross exploitation of black labor that indentured working renters to land owners in a system of quasi-slavery. The sharecropper's cyclical dilemma began each spring with "the furnish," goods supplied by the landowner——typically including fertilizer, seed, machinery, a mule, shelter, and a line of credit at the owner's store——before planting, and came full circle after the fall harvest with "the settle," the cropper's half of the profits from his piece of land minus the furnish and any interest charged by the landowner.
If the rise of sharecropping compromised the promise of black emancipation, the end of Radical Reconstruction seemed to renege on it altogether. In the mid-1870s, dwindling political will in the North and the return to power of traditional elites——namely, white Democrats——in much of the South, combined to stall out the Radical Reconstruction agenda. Racial violence that erupted in 1875 and 1876 met with no federal response, and by the time newly inaugurated president Rutherford Hayes ordered federal troops stationed in the South to "return to their barracks," the end of Reconstruction was a foregone conclusion. A social pall had settled over the South, and the rollback of African-American gains began.
Post-Reconstruction society in the southern states consisted, basically, of a thinly veiled effort to recreate the Slave South. The 1890s brought the wholesale disenfranchisement of blacks and the widespread imposition of segregation, and in 1896, the Supreme Court ruling in favor of segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson gave the so-called Jim Crow system explicit federal approval. The constitutional guarantee of the hard won fruits of black citizenship turned into a cruel joke underscored by the constant threat of unchecked violence: every year between 1883 and 1905, more than fifty people (nearly all black men) were lynched in the South.19 The social conditions that birthed the blues as such make it easy enough to see why the music might be about "wanting to be someplace else." The miraculous part is that the blues even held out hope of making the "best of where you are."20
The folk blues was shaped by the experience of Jim Crow just as it was by the memory of slavery. The legendary bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta——where, according to one argument, the especially intense, introspective style developed in response to particularly oppressive social conditions——all emerged from that world. Charley (or Charlie) Patton and Muddy Waters both lived on Stovall's Plantation near Clarksdale. Robert Johnson's father narrowly escaped lynching. Bukka White did time at the notorious Parchman Farm, the oldest maximum security prison in Mississippi, as did Son House. B.B. King's grandmother died an indebted sharecropper. They all experienced what one historian has described as the conditions of an "urban ghetto spread over a rural landscape."21 When Bukka White sings about being down on Parchman Farm in "Farm Blues," it goes without saying that he'd rather be someplace else. The remarkable thing is that he follows his lament with the hope that he might "overcome" or that at least his wife will hear his song. This coming from a man sentenced to a prison farm famously described as worse than slavery, where inmates labored in the relentless southern heat on work camps patrolled by overseers and drivers, just like on antebellum plantations.
In the first half of the twentieth century, many African Americans who were, at least, more free than Bukka White at Parchman, chose to actively seek that "someplace else." Their movement to the cities of the South and then to the urban centers of the North constituted one of the greatest internal migrations in American history. Many left with the hope of escaping the rural deprivation of the sharecropping system or the sanctioned violence and discrimination of Jim Crow for better work and a better life in the North. In the early part of the century, the devastation of the cotton crop by the boll weevil——immortalized in song by Ma Rainey and Mississippi John Hurt, among others——made sharecropping even more untenable than it already was, driving blacks from the agrarian South. In addition, the military and economic mobilization of two world wars had opened a host of new jobs and opportunities, pulling blacks in great numbers to the cities of the North. Nearly a quarter of a million black workers migrated to Chicago alone—just during the 1940s!
Naturally, the blues went with them. From 1930 to 1950, fully 60% of the black migrants to Chicago came from Mississippi. So, perhaps it's natural that Chicago became the center of blues performance from the mid-'30s on.22 Artists like Big Bill Broonzy——who was born in Mississippi, first recorded in 1928, and wound up in Chicago in the '30s——provided a direct link with the Delta style, which was, no doubt, well received by South Side audiences largely composed of Southern transplants. The idea of the Chicago sound——small combo, electric blues——began with the evolution of performers like Broonzy, who gradually added instrumentalists to his act through the 1930s.
Then in the 1940s, as many of these barroom combos moved towards the more urban, upbeat sound that would be defined late in that decade as R&B, the Chicago blues took a definitive turn with the arrival on the scene of McKinley Morganfield, the man who had been "discovered" in Mississippi by Alan Lomax in 1941, and was better known as Muddy Waters. Muddy effectively took what he liked best about the blues as it had developed in Chicago——electric guitar and a more danceable groove——and shot it through with a fresh dose of Delta influence, the resulting style being known, appropriately, as the Chicago Delta sound.
Muddy dominated first Chicago and then the blues at large for most of the next few decades. His band churned out master blues musicians, and the sound he built helped the blues cross over to the large white audience that came out of the folk revival in the 1960s. Indeed, as a national white market for the blues developed, many of its constituents would have ranked Muddy as their favorite. Perhaps ironically, the growth of that white blues market paralleled a gradual turning away of urban African Americans in the North, who seemed to identify increasingly with the emerging sounds of funk, soul, and ultimately rap. But it must be said that Muddy gave them—at least those northern blacks who had migrated from the South—something unique. As many ultimately found the postwar cities to fall decidedly short of their hopes, the Chicago Delta sound provided them a taste of someplace else and perhaps, made it just a little easier to make the best of where they were.