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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Migrations

Bessie Smith and Eddie Son House
The Blues
- Bessie Smith, "Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do," recorded in 1922
- Lyrics
- Audio clip
- Eddie "Son" House, "Dry Spell Blues," recorded in 1930
- Lyrics
- Audio clips (segments)

"The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness," wrote novelist Ralph Ellison, "to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." Certainly the masses migrating to the North carried with them the burdens of a painful past: a collective history of slavery in addition to the more immediate abuses under Jim Crow. While the North beckoned with opportunity, many African Americans left the only home(s) they had known. The blues—with echoing train whistles, sudden flights from danger, and the mournful cries associated with deep sorrow—emerged as a natural mode for capturing and expressing these moments of transition.

When the country blues came north, it acquired the sheen of sophistication. Sung chiefly by African American women, this classic city blues reflected the tensions and ambiguities of the new freedoms blacks found in the North. "If I attend church on Sunday," sings Bessie Smith, "Then cabaret on Monday, 'Tain't noboby's business if I do." Smith (1895-1937) was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She began her career in 1912 appearing with Ma Rainey, the "Mother of the Blues." Touring widely, she became enormously popular with both white and black audiences and recorded regularly until 1928. The intensity and emotional power of her singing made her the greatest of the vaudeville blues artists. In the early 1930s her career faded as the popularity of her style of music waned. She was mounting a comeback when she was killed in an automobile wreck.

In the 1930s, as the Great Depression worsened, the rural blues, with its message of resilience in the face of hardship, found a growing audience. Male singers, like Eddie "Son" House, made Memphis and Chicago the centers of the blues industry. House (1902-1988) was born and raised in Mississippi. Even though he wanted to become a preacher, he was drawn to the low-down world of the blues and in his twenties taught himself to play the guitar. However, it was not until after serving a two-year prison term for killing a man, in self-defense, that he undertook to make a living as a blues singer. He recorded in the 1930s and '40s, then faded from public view, only to be rediscovered with the folk revival of the 1960s. In the early 1970s ill health brought this phase of his career to an end, and he settled into retirement in Detroit. In "Dry Spell Blues," House details the struggling rural South, but with a level of gothic grandiosity Flannery O'Connor might have appreciated. Through pulsing repetition, he reveals the South as a cracking, blistering hot wasteland, miserable and tense. As House cries, "I stood in my back yard, I wrung my hands and screamed." "Dry Spell Blues" closes with measured hope, for it is "likely bound to rain somewhere."

"Dry Spell Blues" follows a distinctive three-line stanza, which, according to music historian Eileen Southern, is perhaps "a throwback to African origins." "[T]wo identical (or similar) lines," she writes, "are followed by a contrasting statement. Typically, the third line answers a question raised in the first two lines or offers a philosophical comment upon the situation."1 (Lyrics: 2 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What elements in "Tain't Nobody's Business" characterize it as distinctly urban?
  2. How does "Tain't Nobody's Business" suggest class tensions among urban blacks?
  3. What image of urban life does the song convey?
  4. How would you characterize the narrator of "Dry Spell Blues"?
  5. How does he make connections between large problems and personal hardships?
  6. In what ways is "Dry Spell Blues" about more than a drought?
  7. House sings that "these blues are worthwhile to be heard." Why? What worth or purpose did blues have? Who is the audience?

Framing Questions
  •  What migrations did African Americans undertake in the twentieth century?
  •  What were the effects of these migrations?

Lyrics: 2 pages
Supplemental Sites
Overviews in Trail of the Hellhound: Blues in the Lower Mississippi Valley, from the National Park Service

  - Bessie Smith
  - Eddie "Son" House

Bessie Smith, overview and audio clips, in Jazz (Ken Burns), from PBS

Empress of the Blues, 1974 painting by Romare Bearden, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Blues artists, brief biographies, including Bessie Smith and Eddie "Son" House, in The Blues (Martin Scorsese), from PBS

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- Bessie Smith, 3 February 1936, photograph by Carl Van Vechten, detail. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Photograph Collection.
- Eddie "Son" House, photograph, n.d. Permission pending from Dick Waterman.

1Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History, 3rd ed. (New York: Norton, 1997), 335.

1. Leaving, 1920   2. Writing for Help   3. The Chicago Riots   4. Promised Land?
  5. The Blues   6. Old Timers, Newcomers   7. Leaving But Staying
8. New Consciousness   9. New Art   10. Painting the Migration   11. Leaving, 1960

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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