Migration blues

Submitted by AWL on 22 February, 2008 - 12:26 Author: Peter Burton

Continuing a history of the Blues

Beginning around the First World War, millions of black US Southerners moved north to cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Known as the Great Migration, this population movement changed the course of American history. People left the South to escape the oppressive racist system, but also, and more importantly, because of the job opportunities and promise of economic security in Northern cities.

Blind Blake sang about getting a job at Mr Ford’s place in’ Detroit Bound Blues. Jobs in the automotive industry were an important factor pulling African-Americans to Detroit. And cars and trains provided transportation to the North. Many from Alabama headed to Detroit via railroad. And many from Mississippi and Tennessee headed to Chicago. From Georgia and the Carolinas, they went to DC or New York. The route of the migration patterns was often identical to that of the large railroad lines.

Tennessee native Bessie Smith sang about missing her man who had caught the train to Chicago in her song Chicago Bound Blues. In this song, she references the Chicago Defender newspaper. The Defender actively encouraged African-Americans in the South to come to Northern cities and was very successful at recruiting wage labour for Chicago’s industries.

Though the traffic of the “Great Migration” was largely one way, at times economic opportunity dictated a return down south (in recent years moving back down has become even more common). In 1948, Roosevelt Sykes sang of a time when cotton prices made working in the Southern fields more profitable than the Northern factories.

Between the entire period 1914-1950 in several waves, millions of black Southerners arrived in Northern cities. The transition from the acoustic Delta blues of the 20s and 30s to electric Chicago blues is one of the easily observable musical manifestations of the Great Migration. But the migration changed more than music, it changed race relations, economics, and living conditions for millions. Blues musicians were some of the best observers of their own lives and the changes in the world around them.

Bonus Blues

The earliest recorded blues were made in the wake of the First World War. It’s tough to know how many blues musicians served in the armed forces, but the war was clearly a formative experience for many. Every veteran of the Great War was promised a pension that includes $1 for every day served on the home front and $1.25 for every day served overseas. The fight to actually receive this money would turn into one of the most important experiences of the Great Depression and inspire several blues songs.

From 1929, Congress had reviewed the bonus situation several times and in 1932 a bill to allow immediate payment passed in Congress, but not in the Senate. In 1932, a Veterans’ Bonus Army known as the Bonus Expeditionary Force (in an echo of the American Expeditionary Force that served in Europe) had marched on Washington to demand payment. Black and white soldiers came from all over the country and formed integrated camps in south-east Washington along the Anacostia River. The veterans’ camp presented a stark contrast to the strictly segregated units the soldiers had served in during the war as well as to the still segregated streets of Washington D.C.

After the defeat of the Bonus Bill, President Hoover ordered the camp of the Bonus Army be disbanded. General Douglas MacArthur led the effort to burn down the camp and force the veteran’s army out of the city. The images of the standing army attacking veterans from its own ranks were printed in newspapers across the country, cementing national anger with the Hoover administration, and creating great sympathy for the veterans.

After being cleared out in 1932, the veterans continued their campaign to receive the bonus money including additional marches on Washington that had vast public support. The Government continued to resist immediate payment, citing concern about the effects of the huge expenditure on the economy. The veterans were finally successful in 1936. A bill to allow bonds to be cashed whenever the veteran chose passed over President Roosevelt’s veto.

Joe Pullum may have been the first blues singer to reference the bonus in his 1934 song Black Gal What Makes Your Head So Hard? At that time the bonus money was available only in the form of bonds that could not be cashed out until 1945. Many veterans were able to capitalise on the bonuses through loans, but that entailed paying interest. That’s what Joe Pullum referred to when he sang about having his bonus money. Joe Pullum eventually recorded several more songs that reference the bonus including Bonus Blues in 1936.

Most of the blues songs that address the bonus talk about how the money will be spent when they finally get it. These include songs by Carl Martin, Peetie Wheatstraw, and others. The political issues are referenced indirectly as they often are in blues songs.

Living in a Violent World

Blues musicians of the 1920s and 30s existed in a violent world. Fights were common and it was usual to carry a weapon, a gun even, and to keep an eye open for the quickest way to get off the stage and out of the building. Some blues musicians still exist in this kind of world, and it’s common to other musical worlds. It was reflected in the music. Will Shade recorded She Stabbed me with an Ice Pick in 1928.

Carrying a weapon was seen as an essential part of life for many blues musicians dealing with rough crowds and tough situations and “self-defence” murders by bluesmen, fighting jealous husbands were common in the 1920s.