The compilers of this double CD set themselves the task of illustrating the central issue of African-American life in the 20th century – racism – and its far-reaching consequences for the black working class, using only material found in commercial blues recordings from that time.
It opens with six songs about World War 2 and black America’s ambivalent response to the conflict, before bringing in the stark statement of Big Bill Broonzy’s Get Back, a version of his celebrated Black, Brown And White: ‘If you’s white, you’s all right… if you’s brown, stick around… but if you’s black, whoa, brother, get back.’ This is followed by a sequence of jail songs, then compositions about natural disasters (floods, hurricanes), taxation, president Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal programme and its work projects, Korea and postwar hard times.
Blues artists have left us more or less explicit descriptions of the conditions they have lived in, but have tended to draw back from clear-cut criticism. The directness of the opening tracks by Josh White, Uncle Sam Says and Defense Factory Blues, or of Lead Belly’s The Bourgeois Blues and Jim Crow Blues, was possible only because the records were made outside the south by and for people sympathetic to the black struggle. Musicians working for the record labels, mostly white-owned, that issued blues from the 1920s to the 60s could not rely on that support. Discontent with the way things were had to be either disguised by humour or made racially unspecific – Ralph Willis could be tetchy about income tax because everyone had to pay it, and the hard times JD Short sang about in 1933, Ida Cox in 1939 and Charles Brown in 1951 were spread, albeit unevenly, through both black and white communities.
You might think a little more frankness would have been possible after World War 2, but JB Lenoir, in Korea Blues (1950), was merely writing a letter from a serviceman on his way overseas, with no political heft behind it, while the anti-Communist boasting in The World Is In A Tangle would have surely earned Jimmy Rogers a firm pat on the back from any passing bossman. A few years later Lenoir did cast a sour look at economic conditions in Eisenhower Blues, and was repaid by having the record withdrawn.
But as the programme draws to its conclusion, we hear the first rumblings of resistance. Brother Will Hairston’s The Alabama Bus, a kind of blues sermon accompanied by a pianist and an ebullient washboard player, introduces black community spokesmen Martin Luther King and Adam Clayton Powell to the world at large, and in The Big Race Memphis Slim looks forward to the US under the guidance of John F Kennedy: ‘One of these days… we can walk the streets with pride.’ Before long, that day would dawn – and at the same time, some predicted, the sun would go down on the blues. But, as Paul Oliver wrote in 1960, “The blues still fell this morning,” and 55 years on, as the cries of anger rise from the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, they are falling yet.