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

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