As a music fan and a person of Southern descent, my celebrity obsessions might be different than yours. I had the opportunity to review three very different books recently. Heat Wave is a biography of Ethel Waters from Donald Bogle put out by Harper Collins, while Jim Crow’s Counterculture and Blue Smoke both come from LSU Press by authors new to me. I’m on my third read of Jim Crow’s Counterculture. It’s not as instantly accessible as Blue Smoke, but it’s far and away my favorite. There’s something about Lawson’s style that says Pay Attention Now.
When I was young it was an established ‘fact’ that Blues were most authentic when they were most rustic, that accomplished musicians had been tainted by white cultural influences. This was racist poppycock, of course. Then (as now) black musicians were serving two very different masters. The first was what the white public wished to hear and by extension the white executives wished to record. The second was what the black public wanted to hear. Covering the period from the beginning of Jim Crow to the end of WW2, Lawson illustrates how the male blues musician (who performed a very different type of show than the female) was a vehicle for protest against Jim Crow and the dominant culture. Even so, it was a very constrained avenue. (During WW2 songs of revenge against the Japanese are quite common, but it’s a rare song that dared to speak out against the Germans. As much as they were our enemy, they were still white.) Within those confines black artists recorded their lives, their aspirations, and changed their own possibilities. As Lawson says
“Black southerners during Jim Crow were forced to be deferential, yet bluesmen projected powerful braggadocio. Black men were often emasculated or condemned as rapacious beasts, yet the bluesmen openly celebrated their sexuality. Plantation sharecropping, levee building, and logging exploited black workers in the Delta, so the musicians tried to abandon manual labor.” – R. A. Lawson
Through blues music the black southerner could move in white circles, he could amass material goods that were out of his reach through traditional means. While he was certainly not relieved of the strictures of Jim Crow, he could move between social boundaries more freely. The life of a black southern musician, while often itinerant, could offer far more independence than that of a sharecropper or manual laborer. Wearing the clothes of a laborer for his white audience the musician was defining how they saw him, but they were no longer defining who he was. Things could be said in song that could not be said in words. Of course there was not a total freedom of expression. As Ice-T leaned with “Cop Killer” the dominant culture still maintained a strong sense of what was an appropriate thing for the artist to say. Reading Lawson’s section on the emergence of the bluesman as an identity made me reflect on modern black music. “Thug Life” isn’t a far stretch from the lawless hedonism of the early bluesman’s image. The refutation of morality and law as a path of rebellion for the project dwelling youth of today comes as a straight line from the refutation of same by the young southern sharecropper. Jim Crow may be behind us, but it’s legacy of limited opportunities, of devalued black lives, of a dominant culture defining what is possible remains. Lawson uses music to illustrate points in his text, indeed Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere” could be about Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.
“Looka here the water now, Lordy, levee broke, rose most everywhere, That water at Greenville and Lula, Lord, it done rose everywhere, I would go down to Rosedale, but they tell me there’s water there.” – Charley Patton
Lawson has written a tremendously engaging book. It might not be for everyone, but it is certainly for anyone. I consider Jim Crow’s Counterculture an absolute bargain as an e-book. Kindle has it at the standard $9.99 price, hopefully to all regions. A truly rewarding read.