Blues artist Janiva Magness – The Blues Foundation’s 2009 B.B. King Entertainer of the Year and Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year in 2006, 2007 and 2009 – recently described the blues to the Dallas Observer as “…the music of the American people… of the working class people, who work hard for their money, who work everyday and who suffer some very difficult experiences and get through it and come out the other side. We celebrate that.”
The celebration that Magness ascribed to the blues is nothing less than the celebration of the American Dream: an ephemeral assembly of ideas, values, beliefs and hopes that have made up every American’s aspirations. Of course, the “Dream” and the “reality” of America have always been at odds, and perhaps no group has experienced this disparity more than African Americans.
In considering the relationship of the American Dream to African American culture, and specifically the blues, it’s probably important to take our lead from the pioneering work of Lawrence Levine’s 1978 study, Black Culture And Black Consciousness.
Levine argued that African American culture could not be understood in white political terms. To understand the notion of the blues and the American Dream in this context, therefore, we need to transcend white concepts of success and approach the subject from a more culturally free perspective. To paraphrase Levine: “To understand the function [of the American Dream within African American culture and the blues] it is necessary to broaden our definition of that idea to make it less restrictive and more realistic.”
Singled out as the main group brought to America to exist within that Dream, yet denied mainstream access to the possibility of progress, the chance for material gain, a general sense of the freedom of mobility – in essence all the social, cultural, economic, and political elements that supposedly ensured that Dream – African Americans created the blues as a means of expressing their experience both with their denial of that Dream, and, for a lucky few, a flirtation with it.
Blues musicians and blues scholars alike have long expressed the idea that blues music was a way out of feeling bad. As early as 1855, Frederick Douglass, in his book My Bondage And My Freedom, noted: “Slaves sing… to make themselves happy… [they are] relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” Later, W. C. Handy, self-described ‘Father of the Blues’, explained in 1919 to The Chicago Defender: “Blues music was created to chase away gloom.”
Through this perspective, one can see the very intent of the blues being related to the essence of the American Dream: as a vehicle to improve one’s lot in the world. But, of course, that’s not all blues music does. It also expresses the harsh reality of being denied access to the real American Dream of freedom and mobility. Otis Rush commented on this function of the blues when he said: “A guy will promise you the world and give you nothin’, and that’s the blues.”
That’s not just the blues, that’s the African American reality of the American Dream: America, full of promises for some, more often than not delivering very little in return. That’s also why Muddy Waters sang the blues: “I been in the blues all my life. I’m still delivering ’cause I got a long memory.”
So how and why has this double-edged sword of the blues mediated both the promise and denial of the American Dream? Precisely because that is the American Dream. As music critic Greil Marcus noted in his acclaimed book Mystery Train: Images Of America In Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, the notion of unfulfilled promise is intrinsic to that Dream. It is part of the American “struggle to set oneself free from the limits one is born to, and to learn something of the value of those limits… To be an American is to feel the promise [of the American Dream] as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails.”
As much as blues lyrics have been about romantic topics, the typical ‘man/woman done wrong’ themes, the blues have been about this feeling of being “haunted when the promise fails”. But even more importantly, the blues and African American culture have also always been about never fully surrendering the idea of that promise. We find this in the circumstances of the African American Great Migration north in the first part of the 20th century, we find it in the post-war Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and we find it in the lifestyles and lyrics of blues artists.
Without doubt, the relationship between the American Dream and the blues runs deep and strong, for the blues has always been a way to attempt to both fulfill the American Dream and to overcome (or at least cope with) it when it failed. The earliest fully documented efforts in this regard can be traced to the Classic Blues women of the 1920s. Entering the entertainment field, first in Minstrelsy and then through the blues, scores of African-American women found that becoming a performer was a way to create a better life.
At a very early age these women learned that they could strike out on their own and become more than a field worker, mammy, servant, or sharecropper’s wife. Ma Rainey began performing in 1900 in minstrel shows, when she was only 14. Bessie Smith was performing on street corners as young as nine, and by 18 she was appearing in tent and minstrel shows. Ida Cox ran away to join minstrel shows at 14, as did Clara Smith who, while still in her 20s, owned her own club in New York City.
The list of female performers who found success at an early age could go on: Sippie Wallace, Memphis Minnie, Victoria Spivey, and so many others. Some, like Bessie Smith, were even invited to become part of the white world’s social elite. Smith was a frequent guest at New York social parties and the subject of many of white social photographer Carl Van Vechten’s portraits. Many of the women performed in extravagant gowns and costumes, Ma Rainey famously appearing in a necklace made of gold coins. They even bore titles proclaiming themselves American royalty: Bessie Smith was the Empress of the blues, and numerous others were called Queen or Champion of the blues.
For these women, the blues was the American Dream. This was the reinvention of self as promised by America. Not only was America supposed to be about everyone being equal, the Dream promised that we could also become superior to those around us. But as America and its Dream makes promises, so does it take away. With the coming of the Great Depression, it became too expensive for female performers to continue traveling with or hiring a band, wearing elaborate costumes, being booked from town to town; and so their moment of the American Dream came to an end.
African-American men had entered the performing and recording blues world before the demise of the female Class Blues, with Sylvester Weaver becoming the first to record country blues – ‘Guitar Blues’ and ‘Guitar Rag’ – in 1923. But it wasn’t until Blind Lemon Jefferson released his first records under his own name in 1926 – ‘Got The Blues’ and ‘Long Lonesome Blues’ – that the American Dream would dangle its promise before the eyes of African-American men, and in the process create the context for white America to invent the mythic notion of the “bluesman”.
Jefferson had such great success – it’s estimated that he sold hundreds of thousands of records – that Paramount created a separate issue for some of his discs, the ‘Blind Lemon Jefferson Birthday Record’, complete with his portrait on the label. Some reports say that Jefferson even had a chauffeur-driven automobile. He was reaping the Horatio Alger benefits of the American Dream – not only that anyone could become a success, but anyone could become superior to his/her contemporaries.
BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON
But the promise-taken-away aspect of the Dream always seems to surface in these early, pre-blues-revival world. Jefferson died, either freezing to death or suffering a heart attack while becoming disoriented in a snowstorm. He was only 36.
The white scholarly christened ‘Father of the Delta Blues’, Charley Patton (pictured main) began to record in 1929 and apparently saw the blues as a vehicle to fulfill his own version of the American Dream: one about freedom. Freedom from work, freedom from responsibility, and freedom to move, to come and go as one pleases.
Of mixed race, Patton had advantages over his more traditional African-American contemporaries, for his music and his uncertain heritage made him a favourite among many white audiences. Patton capitalised on this association and used the liberties allowed him to move about the countryside probably more than any male blues musician before him. Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, Detroit, New York, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Alabama, and of course all of Mississippi were no strangers to Patton.
The one known publicity photo that exists of him shows the artist seated with his guitar in a nattily attired suit and bow tie, with clean white spats on his shiny shoes. Patton’s dress is another important insight into the relationship of African Americans, the blues, and the American Dream.
When asked their image of a blues musician, almost all the white students in my classes always conjure up an African-American male in a dishevelled state of dress sitting alone with a guitar. But if we look at the way blues musicians presented themselves, we find something very different, something that relates to the American Dream. It is an image of success and status.
From Blind Lemon Jefferson to Charley Patton, Blind Blake to Robert Johnson and others, when sitting for portraits or promotional photos, blues musicians always looked dapper in suits and ties. When Muddy Waters was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1941, Lomax photographed him in his street clothes sitting on the porch of his cabin on the Stovall Plantation. But when Waters received a copy of the recordings that Lomax had made, he put on his best (and possibly only) suit, went to a photo studio in nearby Clarksdale, Mississippi, and posed proudly with the record, which he believed was his ticket on the railroad to the American Dream.
Similarly, Robert Johnson donned a suit to have his photo taken in 1935 – prior to his first recording sessions – at Memphis’s Hooks Brothers photography studio. Even if the reality of the American Dream failed to fulfil its promises, the ‘Dream’ could be addressed in the way one presented oneself: in the recreation of self that is an intrinsic part of that Dream.
Patton’s freedom of movement is another element of the American Dream that would be echoed in subsequent blues musicians. Robert Johnson sang repeatedly about moving on. Having a performing career that lasted from roughly 1928 (when he was only 17) until his death in 1938, Johnson managed to include ideas about travelling and/or moving (or the inability to do so) in 17 of his 29 recorded songs.
Some of his songs, ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind’ for instance, not only contain the idea of traveling, but have that idea as their main feature. Apparently this idea – following America’s own increasing development as a country of “movers”, of “comers” and “goers” – was as important to the blues and to the African-American community as it was to anyone else. If you had the ability to “go”, you were free.
The blues made a model image of life, the idea of the American Dream, into a reality existing in the words of songs played in juke joints, on phonographs in thousands of African-American homes, and on the radio. To a culture denied mainstream access to all manner of American socio-cultural life, the blues were a way in which African Americans could both indulge themselves in the vision of the American Dream, and occasionally actually gain access to it, even if that access could eventually turn out to service the darker side of the Dream’s preoccupation with failure and promise unfulfilled.
Ultimately, the blues will always remain a part of the American Dream, for as African-American music critic and essayist Albert Murray defined them: “The blues (are) the product of a forward-looking, upward-striving people.” And that is the true nature of what it is to dream of being an American.
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Words: Bruce Conforth, PhD
Bruce is a professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, and was the Founding Curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
This article originally appeared in issue 96 of Clash magazine, our American Dream-themed special. Find more information and purchase links here.