the great migration

The massive exodus of six million Blacks from the South for destinations north and west between 1916 and 1970 is historically known as the “The Great Migration.” The percentage of Blacks living in the South dropped from 95% to 50% during this same period. This, the largest voluntary migration in history, was mostly spurred by a rising demand for production workers for military equipment to support two world wars. Henry Ford’s employment of Black production line workers also brought many to Detroit, which earned the nickname “motor city.” The blog Music in the World explains that The Great Migration was produced mostly by “crop devastation, formation of the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, and the US entering WWI and WWII, which demanded more labor in the Northern states.”

As in other historical diasporas, southern Blacks took their culture with them. The movement created new markets for the music industry, particularly for blues and jazz, in Chicago, New York, St. Louis and Los Angeles. The Great Migration also urbanized the southern African American population, expanding Blues music from the southern states throughout the rest of America. The migration affected Blues music greatly, but the reverse was also true. New musical genres such as West Coast Blues, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blues and East Coast Piedmont Blues resulted.

Symbolic of this African American movement was the odyssey of Mississippi Delta Bluesman McKinley Morganfield (1915-83), otherwise known as “Muddy Waters.” He is also known as the “Father of the Chicago Blues,” an electrified version of the rural Delta Blues that featured acoustic guitars. His mother came up with the moniker “Muddy Waters” because her son played in the swampy puddles of the Mississippi River as a boy. The legend of Waters’ plugged-in influence on American music began in 1943 when Muddy boarded a train in Mississippi headed north for Chicago. Working in the city at various jobs to support himself, Waters finally broke into fame with his “I Can’t be Satisfied” recording for Chicago-based Chess Records. Many other hits followed over the next three decades, including “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Got My Mojo Working” and “Trouble No More.”

Of course, New York City has long been a center for music formation in the United States. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s had a lasting impact on blues and jazz music, especially the gritty sounds of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith. “The traditional southern brass instruments were being played with pianos, which were considered to be a wealthy instrument. Innovation and liveliness were inspiring performers all over the city, the newly found freedom resounded in their lyrics and music style,” states Music in the World blog. “By the 1950s, blues and jazz had a huge influence on mainstream American popular music, the creation of white jazz bands allowed for many white audiences to begin to appreciate new types of music and the black artists who originally created it. At the time, in New York, ‘bluesy-pop’ music was created that redefined American music and appealed to white teenagers that started listening to rhythm and blues (R&B).”

On the West Coast, post-WWII Los Angeles became a huge central location for Blues music; the style there seemed to be producing a smoother, cooler type of Blues called R&B that differed from the traditional model. “Lew Chudd, a record producer based in L.A. signed a man named Fats Domino from New Orleans. Domino had the same smooth style of L.A. artists but also had robust energy and a quirky rhythm that changed the face of R&B,” says Music in the World. “Domino was one of the first artists to successfully incorporate white country music with the blues.” The fusion of the two styles produced rock n’ roll, which is usually credited to Elvis Presley and artists like him, “but the real pioneers were Domino and, a few years later, Chuck Berry.” Buddy Holly and Little Richard could perhaps be added to this list.

While Blues singers and players from the Deep South tended to move northward toward opportunities in Chicago and New York, many Texas-born Bluesmen drifted westward to California, especially during the 1940s when aircraft construction for WWII was booming in cities like Oakland. Texas Bluesmen often went west with such migrants as Aaron “T-Bone” Walker (1910-75) and Pee-Wee Crayton. T-bone was a corruption of Walker’s real middle name Thibeaux, and was not a reference to a kind of steak, as many have believed. In Southern California, Walker, like Muddy Waters in Chicago, plugged into an amplifier and thus changed his sound. The pain and humor of the blues was no less present, but in a swinging big-band format. The sound was also much louder and capable of reaching larger audiences.

The Great Migration spread the messages and sounds of the Blues far and wide across the United States. It also informed the American public of the downsides of Blues players like Walker who lived the corrupt life of gambling, drinking, womanizing and hell-raising that he was singing about. One of the quotes attributed to T-bone goes like this: “Have fun while you can. Fate is an awful thing. You can’t tell what will happen—that’s why I love to sing.” And sing he did. The greatest hit of this half-Cherokee innovator of jump blues (a lively form featuring saxophones and small combos) was his 1947 “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad).” T-bone has been posthumously inducted into the Blues, Grammy and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.

Why African Americans Left the South in Droves

mother of the blues

In many ways, Bessie Smith was lucky to have a seasoned Blues performer as her mentor and teacher. This role model’s name was Ma Rainey, and as the name suggests, she was known as the “Mother of the Blues.” Rainey was an established Blues performer long before the “Crazy Blues” record of Mamie Smith turned the recording world on its head in 1920. Mamie and Bessie were so popular during the 1920’s that they established a new genre called “Vaudeville Blues.” Both singers, however, had a lot to learn about style and delivery from the Mother of the Blues.

“Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, Ma Rainey became the first popular stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues into her song repertoire. She performed during the first three decades of the 20th century and enjoyed mass popularity during the Blues craze of the 1920’s. Rainey’s music has served as inspiration for such [Black] poets as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown,” states

Thomas A. Dorsey, a Blues pianist and later spiritual singer, knew Rainey as well as anyone on the early Blues circuits. He described her as rather unattractive, but with an unforgettable appearance on stage to go along with her ruggedly powerful voice. Her headband was holding down a horsehair wig, her skin was “richly dark,” she had a gaudy necklace made of $20 gold coins and had a mouthful of gold teeth that “sparkled when she started singing.” Dorsey added, “She was in the spotlight, she possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the Blues with her.”

In other words, Ma Rainey was a sight to behold and had a voice to remember. As music historian Chris Albertson has written, “If there was another woman who sang the Blues before Rainey, nobody remembered hearing her.” 

Rainey was also unashamed to publicly state her sexual attraction to women. In “Prove It on Me Blues,” accompanied by a jug band, she sings defiantly:

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.

They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.

It’s true I wear a collar and a tie,

Makes the wind blow all the while.

Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.

You sure got to prove it on me.

A recent New York Times article lamented the fact that the paper had largely overlooked the importance of Ma Rainey in Blues history. “As the biographer Sandra Lieb observed in Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey (1983), by combining a black folk style with techniques learned on the vaudeville stage, Rainey ‘offered to whites a glimpse into black culture far less obscured by white expectations, and offered to blacks a more direct affirmation’ of their cultural power.”

Memories of Ma Rainey as the Mother of the Blues resonate in other ways. For instance, she is now remembered in an odd way, through a 1982 work called “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” This play was the first of Black poet and writer August Wilson’s plays to win wide acclaim, and is still among his finest works.

Explains the eNote website: “Set in a recording studio in the 1920’s, the story takes place over the course of an afternoon, as a group of musicians and the legendary Blues singer Ma Rainey record several songs. Much of the play takes the form of discussions and arguments among the four musicians, each of whom brings his own perspective to questions of prejudice and the problems facing Black people in American society.” The play is, in other words, a microcosm of the African American experience.

Just this week, Netflix announced its own upcoming film adaptation of Wilson’s play, produced by Denzel Washington, that will cast actors Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in the leading roles. 

The New York Times neatly sums up Rainey’s long career: “She was also a celebrity. Of the nearly 100 songs she recorded in the 1920’s, many were national hits, and some have become part of the American musical canon. Her 1924 recording of ‘See See Rider,’ on which she is accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004.” 

Interestingly, there was not enough room for two divas in the same record company: Rainey went to Paramount while her understudy, Bessie Smith, ended up with a Columbia contract.

Then came economic catastrophe. The crash of the US stock market in 1929 almost destroyed the music recording industry. And when the Blues faded from popularity in the 1930’s, the earthy Ma Rainey returned to her Columbus, Georgia hometown, where she ran two theaters: the Lyric Theater and the Airdome. The Mother of the Blues passed away from heart disease in 1939; she was 53 years old.

The Black Bottom song

race records

The end of the Great War (1914-18) produced a giddiness in America not seen since the “Gay Nineties” (1890s). The 1920s became known as “The Roaring Twenties” or “The Flapper Age,” the latter expression referring to women’s dresses with flaps. Jazz was all the rage for the White population, who could afford to buy record players and records. Due to ongoing segregation and the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, Blacks were relegated to buying cheap record players and records, if they could afford them at all, from Black-owned stores. Very few records sold in White stores featured, or even included, Black musicians. However, a major change in the music recording industry occurred in August 1920 with the recording of “Crazy Blues” by Black Blues singer Mamie Smith.

“African American culture greatly influenced the popular media that White Americans consumed in the 1800s. Still, there were not any primarily Black genres of music sold in early records. Perry Bradford, a famous Black composer, sparked a transition that displayed the potential for African American artists,” explains Wikipedia. “Bradford persuaded the White executive of Okeh Records, Fred Hager to record Mamie Smith, a Black artist who did not fit the mold of popular White music. In 1920, Smith created her ‘Crazy Blues/It’s Right Here for You’ recording, which sold 75,000 copies to a majority Black audience in the first month.”

The music industry immediately sat up and took notice. Okeh did not anticipate such enormous sales and attempted to recreate their success by recruiting more Black Blues singers. Other recording companies such as Columbia, Paramount, Victor and Vocalion quickly followed Okeh’s lead. Columbia went all-in and bought Okeh in 1926. The “Race Record” industry was thus formed to provide 78rpm records to Black audiences through Black-owned stores. Such records were not allowed for sale in White stores at the time. Race records were marketed to America’s Black population in this way from the 1920s through the 1940s. This accounted for approximately 10% of the record-buying  market.

One might ask why so many early Blues singers were women. Following the stunning success of “Crazy Blues” all the major record labels were on the hunt for their very own Blues diva. About 100 race records featuring female Blues singers were cut in the two years following the launch of Mamie Smith’s breakthrough record, thus forming the period called “Classic Blues” or “Vaudeville Blues,” in which Black female Blues singers predominated.

Vaudeville and Prohibition were indeed in full swing in the early 1920s. Most of these “divas” were to be found Vaudeville, but some were discovered in night clubs and in Speakeasy clubs as Prohibition was the law of the land between 1920 and 1933. Most sales of Blues race records during the Flapper Age came from divas such as Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter and Lucille Hegamin.   

Black Bluesmen were nowhere to be found in this early period, not in Vaudeville nor in recording studios. Why? “African-American Bluesmen were not welcome in the studio either, perhaps because their songs of oppression and need were considered to be too hot to handle politically at a time of the ‘Black Diaspora’, with the rise of the Klan in the south and race riots in Northern cities. The growing demand for Blues music would eventually breach this barrier, but in the early 20s, nobody was ready to make that breakthrough,” states the website All About the Blues.

The “Golden Age” of race music ranged from 1926 until the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929. When the Blues duo of Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey recorded “Tight Like That” in 1928 it set off a new trend called Hokum Blues, a sexually suggestive form relying heavily on innuendo and double entendres. “This chimed well with the culture of decadence and speakeasies in the cities and at ‘juke-joints’ in the countryside,” points out the All About site. Hokum was also called the “Dirty Blues,” but the object was not to be obscene but to make (mainly Black) audiences laugh. Bessie Smith’s contribution to Hokum was to ask for “a little sugar in my bowl” and one of her song titles was “Put It Right Here (Or Keep It Out of There).”

Nobody could sing the Blues or Hokum like Bessie Smith (1892-1937; no relation to Mamie), a raunchy and crude Black Blues singer, known as the “Empress of the Blues,” who would occasionally pause in a song to spit. The temperamental, hulking singer was as handy with her fists as with a microphone. At a tent performance in North Carolina in 1927, a half-dozen robed members of the KKK showed up and started pulling up the poles. When Bessie saw what was happening, she confronted the hooded men with fists at the ready, telling them they needed to run. They ran. Bessie went back on stage and continued her show. Black or White, nobody messed with Bessie Smith.

“Smith’s drinking, violent temper (and physical strength), and predatory sexual life involving both men and women were boundary breaking, even by the standards of free-living musicians of the Roaring Twenties,” states the New World Encyclopedia. In most performances, Bessie didn’t need a mic; she was so loud that listeners in balcony seats believed they were in the first row. Her best-selling record, “Downhearted Blues,” sold nearly 800,000 copies in its first six months in 1923 and two million copies in total. Columbia records was so impressed that it bought Bessie a private train car for touring since she was not allowed to ride in the first-class section of regular trains.

Bessie died in a tragic auto accident in 1937; she was only 45 years old. “Since her death, Bessie Smith’s music continues to win over new fans, and collections of her songs have continued to sell extremely well over the years. She has been a primary influence for countless female vocalists—including Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin —and has been immortalized in numerous works. A comprehensive, acclaimed bio on her life — Bessie, by journalist Chris Albertson — was published in 1972 and expanded in 2003. An HBO film loosely based on the book aired in 2015, with Queen Latifa (who also executive produced the project) portraying Smith and Mo’Nique playing Ma Rainey,” says

Bessie Smith “Downhearted Blues”

Note: This blog has recently been added to the “Top 30 Blues Music Blogs” on the Web. See the full list at

folk songs as code

The Negro folk song was an antecedent of the blues. Its lyrics were sometimes coded instructions for black slaves escaping from Southern plantations via the Underground Railway. One example of this type of folk song disguised as Black code for escape was “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” This song, dating back to the 1830s, was actually a road map for how to get to Kentucky and then to freedom. Part of the lyrics, which many white people thought was just a spiritual, made references to landmarks along the way from Alabama northward.

 “When the sun comes back, 
and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd,
The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the drinking gourd.” 

 “Where the little river 
Meets the great big one, 
The old man waits—
Follow the drinking gourd.”

The “drinking gourd” is not just a hollowed out gourd for drinking water but the Big Dipper constellation, pointing the way north. A returning sun and quail calls recall spring, the best time to run. The “old man” refers to “Commander” Peg Leg Joe, an operative of the railway. It is said that Joe would leave his mark, a left foot and a small circle (for the peg), on dead trees along the route, to guide runaways. The rivers mentioned are the Tombigbee and the Ohio. Where they merge in Peducah, Kentucky was allegedly the staging place for escaping slaves to follow the Underground Railway to freedom in either New England or Canada.

Some scholars, such as James B. Kelly, question the authenticity of the song’s lyrics. He claims the song is an interpolation and not an interpretation. The song content was researched by H.D. Parks in the 1910s and was recorded for the first time in 1928 by the Texas Folklore Society. Parks admitted that he pulled the lyrics from memories of people who could not verify from where the words had actually been derived. Other scholars point out that the song has been re-recorded by so many different singers and groups that its original meaning has become somewhat diluted, or even lost. In fact, historical records show that most of the escaping plantation slaves did not go north at all, but fled instead to large southern cities or to Caribbean destinations.

None of this criticism, however, can diminish the historical importance of the Drinking Gourd song. The website states: “In the ensuing 80 years [since 1928], the Drinking Gourd played an important role in the Civil Rights and folk revival movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and in contemporary elementary school education. Much of the Drinking Gourd’s enduring appeal derives from its perceived status as a unique, historical remnant harkening back to the pre-Civil War South – no other such map songs survive.” 

In addition to Negro folk songs were Negro spirituals, which formed the bedrock for the blues that followed. Some of these compositions were also coded language for resistance and escape. Examples include “Canaan, Oh Canaan,” “Steal Away to Jesus,” “Wade in the Water” and “I Got My Ticket.” One of the most performed escapist songs of the slavery period was “Go Down Moses,” with its lyrics about an oppressed people being led out of bondage. Frederick Douglass, perhaps the nineteenth century’s most famous abolitionist author and former slave, wrote about singing spirituals in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.” (Library of Congress article)

For white churchgoers of the time, “Wade in the Water” was a call to baptism, but black slaves interpreted the meaning of the song differently. To them, the lyrics were advice to wade in the rivers to throw the bloodhounds off the scent of their trails as they escaped. 

Slave owners were not entirely in the dark about such coded language, however. Escape was one worry to them, but the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 to allow slaveowners to legally recapture runaway slaves in other states. On the other hand, an armed slave revolt was one of Southern plantation owners’ greatest fears during the antebellum period. They had heard of the 1831 rebellion in Virginia, led by a slave named Nat Turner, in which 51 white people had been massacred. Slaveowners were determined to prevent a repeat.

Southern slaveowners even had an edited version of the King James version of the Bible called the “Slave Bible,” which had any descriptions of escape from bondage or similar notions deleted. Originally published in London in 1807 for the use of British missionaries in the Caribbean, this bible also removed most of the Old Testament, especially the Exodus section, but retained the parts commanding slaves to respect their masters. Other remaining passages were about the maintenance of the slavery system and slave obedience. Is it any wonder, then, that some Confederate soldiers went into battle waving Slave Bibles above their heads?

Only three copies of the Slave Bible still remain; one is on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

Follow the Drinking Gourd