This article was written and kindly submitted by Bear Rasmuson.
The history of the blues–particularly the way it spread and changed in various places–has always fascinated me. It is a history that cannot be separated from the history of African Americans in the 20th century–the history of the Great Migrations. It is a history spurred by bugs, wars, depressions and agricultural machinery.
In 1900, 90% of all African Americans lived in former slave states–and over 75% of those lived in rural areas. The most reported occupation for African Americans was “farm labor”, working on the cotton plantations that were still the primary economic activity of those states. “King Cotton”, however was about to be overthrown by a lowly insect, beginning the changes that would send ripples down the years.
Somewhere around 1892, an insect pest known as the “boll weevil” crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico and began spreading north and east through the cotton belt. By 1915 it was having a significant impact on crops and by 1920 it had reached every cotton growing area in the south. A serious boll weevil infestation could–and did–completely destroy a crop. For a region which was almost totally dependent on cotton as a cash crop, the infestation was disastrous.
Well, I saw the bo weavil, Lord, a-circle in the air Next time I seed him, Lord, he had his family there Bo weavil told the farmer that “I ’tain’t got ticket fare” Sucks all the blossom and leave your hedges square Bo weavil, bo weavil, where your native home? “Most anywhere they raise cotton and corn” Bo weavil, bo weavil, “Oughtta treat me fair” The next time I did you had your family there.
Charley Patton, “Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues”
For African American share-croppers, it was even worse. While many plantation owners turned to peanuts as an alternate cash crop, that did little to support the share-cropper as peanuts are much less labor intensive. Nor did it help that–perhaps not coincidentally–the second Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915. Mind you, the south had never been particularly tolerant, but the combination of no work and increasingly harsh segregation undoubtedly made the decision to go elsewhere more palatable. It awaited only the discovery of a place to go TO, and the U.S. entry into WWI in 1917 provided the opportunity.
As war industries expanded, the demand for labor in northern cities increased. Not necessarily in the factories themselves, which were largely segregated, but in the service jobs that were being emptied as white and immigrant northerners moved into war industries. Between 1910 and 1929 Chicago, for example, grew by 1 million people. This in spite of changes to immigration law in 1921 and 1924 that severely cut back on the number of new immigrants to the country. In 1910, Detroit had an African American population of about 6,000. By 1929, the number was 120,000. It is estimated that in the two year period between 1916 and 1918 over 400,000 southern African Americans moved to northern cities.
The first African Americans to migrate north were largely headed into unknown territory, and the choice of destination often as not was determined by what they could afford. For those living in the Delta, the cheapest ticket north took you to, first Memphis, then on to St. Louis and Chicago on the “City of New Orleans”. The “City of New Orleans” was the daytime, non-sleeper run. (The Panama Limited was the nighttime sleeper train.) It was cheaper because a 19+ hour trip in a regular car was a grueling trip–even more so in the “colored” car.
Once begun, the migration continued for over 50 years. The economic devastation of the Great Depression spurred more to follow the roads north; easier now because there were relatives and neighbors (homeboys) in northern cities who could help with getting new arrivals settled and finding them a job. The onset of WWII added to the need for labor and and the development of a cotton harvesting machine in 1946 sent even more north to try their fortunes in what has come to be known as the Second Great Migration, which continued until about 1970. Between 1940 and 1960, the African American population of Chicago increased from 278,000 to 813,000. The South Side of Chicago was considered the black capital of America.
In the South, the departure of hundreds of thousands of African Americans caused the black percentage of the population in most Southern states to decrease. For example, in Mississippi, blacks decreased from about 56% of the population in 1910 to about 37% by 1970 and in South Carolina, blacks decreased from about 55% of the population in 1910 to about 30% by 1970.
Not all went north, however. From east Texas/western Louisiana, the preferred migration route during and after WWII was west, to California and the booming job markets in LA and Oakland.
And of course, as this huge population moved north and west, the blues moved with them. At first, it would have been played at home with friends–or in a speakeasy that was probably also in someone’s apartment. But when Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920, another thing happened that would change the course of blues history–it sold over 1 million copies, and many of them were bought by African Americans. Prior to the migration, rural southern African Americans had never been considered as a potential market, but the new urban, northern African American population had money to spend and the record companies noticed. A major talent hunt followed, with labels finding and signing the great blues women of the 30’s–Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace and many more.
In the clubs in Chicago, Detroit and New York performers were honing what had previously been a rural musical form and picking up elements of the blossoming jazz scene. Leroy Carr, from Tennessee and Scrapper Blackwell, from North Carolina, met in Indianapolis and pioneered the piano/guitar combo that would be the basis both of Chicago blues and the West Coast sound. Chicago became the place where the Piedmont blues of artists like Scrapper met and merged with the Delta sound of artists like Big Bill Broonzy, from Mississippi.
Recording contracts captured the new sounds and returned it to the south, where it influenced succeeding waves of migrants who would in turn add to the development and send it out again. Call and response is not just the FORM of the blues, it describes the development and growth of the form.
The Great Migrations have had a major impact on the development of the United States, and have formed and spread the music we know as the blues. We owe more to the boll weevil than we know.