By Glenn D. Davis and Jay Brakefield
The Mississippi Valley often gets credit for being the sole area that birthed the blues, but this is just a much-repeated myth. A parallel movement was going on in Texas, which always gets far less mention in blues histories. The blues, in both places, came straight out of the cotton fields. Cotton farmers referred to their crops as “white gold,” as it was a cash crop like no other. It was no accident, then, that many of greatest blues practitioners came from these plantation-laden regions. Blues icons such as Muddy Waters and Mance Lipscomb may not have been geographical neighbors, but they did share a common background. Plantations in both regions were laws unto themselves, where lawmen seldom left footprints. Trouble usually happened outside those gates, when black sharecroppers tried to mingle with the white majority or when black-on-black violence broke out in “jukes” (shoddy dances halls or beer joints with jukeboxes or live music) or elsewhere. The law depended on plantation owners to keep the peace on their turf and these owners used tough labor bosses (often blacks themselves) to carry out the dirty work of peacemaking.
Up until the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s, black men, especially those without steady employment, were often jailed for minor or nonexistent crimes and leased out to plantation owners, who, ironically, had less interest in their welfare than that of a slave. Before the Civil War slaves had to be procured with money; prisoners could be replaced without further expense. The politically powerful plantation owner was a much-feared law unto himself. As Brazos River bottom farmer Tom Moore always told his black workers, “You stay out of the graveyard; I’ll keep you out of the pen.” Staying out the graveyard was a not-so-subtle warning not to get killed, especially in a Saturday night brawl in some juke.
No matter what label you hang on field hands, the work is hard and long. Strong, sturdy bodies and a resistance to disease are absolute prerequisites. When working on jobs that require a specific timing, like rail laying, African-American workers would chant or sing tunes handed down for generations. They sang in church and in the fields, where songs and hollers helped coordinate the work and pass the long, hard, monotonous hours of back-breaking labor. String bands performed for dances in people’s homes and in country juke joints. Music provided both an escape from, and a response to, in-the-field oppression and outright racism elsewhere. The blues was thus born in the cotton fields and juke joints of these river valleys, where blood often flowed as well as river water. Blood-soaked cotton may not be much of an exaggeration.
Sometime between 1890 and 1900, this new musical form started to emerge, a movement which paralleled the white backlash to Reconstruction reforms, such as allowing blacks to vote. Fear spread among white communities that if enough blacks were registered to vote, the whites would find themselves in a political minority. Violence-prone groups like the KKK and White Man’s Union began to spring up like lilies after a spring shower, to make sure the black population did not make it to the ballot boxes. The Brazos Valley blues began to take on political overtones, especially after the post-Civil War battle between armed whites and blacks in Millican Texas, called the “Millican War” (June 1868) by The New York Times. Although the decade starting in 1890 is referred to as the “Gay ‘90s” it may have been a better time for Anglo-Saxons than for minorities since statistics show that lynchings of African-Americans peaked in that period in the Brazos Valley. In other words, the birth of the blues in the Brazos Valley coincided with the region’s most violent period.
After the turn of the century, black music got a boost through vaudeville and ragtime songs. Blues began to gain followers since unlike the communal songs of the fields and churches, these were songs of personal expression. Singers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson performed on the street, usually accompanied only by their own guitars. Female singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith performed in front of orchestras in tent shows and in theaters. When the blues boom began with the 1920 recording of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” some of these musicians were recorded, but most received a flat fee and no royalties. A few, such as Jefferson, sold enough records to fare better. But after the Great Depression had devastated the recording industry, many such performers returned to a life of toil.
In the burst of creativity and prosperity that followed World War II, some musicians who hailed from the Brazos Valley and other parts of East and North Texas found commercial success, often after moving to a bigger Texas city, the West Coast or even abroad. Alvin Ailey, who grew up in Navasota, moved to New York City and formed one of the most popular modern dance companies ever – the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – which still tours nationally and internationally. Ailey drew on his experiences and on the blues and gospel music he had heard in the Brazos Valley to create such dance masterpieces as “Blues Suite” and “Revelations.” Ailey said the latter piece derived from “blood memories” of his early life in Navasota.
Ironically, as blues faded as black popular music, it was rediscovered in the 1960s by whites, both in Europe and America, thus experiencing a rebirth. British rock groups such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals credited American blues players as major influences. Local figures such as Lightnin’ Hopkins performed at international festivals. In his old age, Mance Lipscomb, a sharecropper who had spent years playing at Saturday night suppers for, as he put it, “50 cents and a fish sandwich,” made money from his music, traveled abroad for engagements and hung out with such luminaries as Bob Dylan. Today, a statue of Lipscomb stands proudly in downtown Navasota. Until recently there were two annual festivals held there in his honor. Both have been discontinued, for financial reasons. Perhaps it is a sign of the times.
Mance Lipscomb Plays “Tom Moore’s Farm”