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Jim Crow's Counterculture

The Blues and Black Southerners, 1890-1945

Making the Modern South

304 pages / 9.00 x 6.00 inches / 12 halftones

ebook available

Southern History | Music

  Hardcover / 9780807136805 / November 2010
  Paperback / 9780807152270 / March 2013

Winner of the Michael Thomason Book Award

In the late nineteenth century, black musicians in the lower Mississippi Valley, chafing under the social, legal, and economic restrictions of Jim Crow, responded with a new musical form--the blues. In Jim Crow's Counterculture, R. A. Lawson offers a cultural history of blues musicians in the segregation era, explaining how by both accommodating and resisting Jim Crow life, blues musicians created a counterculture to incubate and nurture ideas of black individuality and citizenship. These individuals, Lawson shows, collectively demonstrate the African American struggle during the early twentieth century.

Derived from the music of the black working class and popularized by commercially successful songwriter W. C. Handy, early blues provided a counterpoint to white supremacy by focusing on an anti-work ethic that promoted a culture of individual escapism--even hedonism--and by celebrating the very culture of sex, drugs, and violence that whites feared. According to Lawson, blues musicians such as Charley Patton and Muddy Waters drew on traditions of southern black music, including call and response forms, but they didn't merely sing of a folk past. Instead, musicians saw blues as a way out of economic subservience.

Lawson chronicles the major historical developments that changed the Jim Crow South and thus the attitudes of the working-class blacks who labored in that society. The Great Migration, the Great Depression and New Deal, and two World Wars, he explains, shaped a new consciousness among southern blacks as they moved north, fought overseas, and gained better-paid employment. The "me"-centered mentality of the early blues musicians increasingly became "we"-centered as these musicians sought to enter mainstream American life by promoting hard work and patriotism. Originally drawing the attention of only a few folklorists and music promoters, popular black musicians in the 1940s such as Huddie Ledbetter and Big Bill Broonzy played music that increasingly reached across racial lines, and in the process gained what segregationists had attempted to deny them: the identity of American citizenship.

By uncovering the stories of artists who expressed much in their music but left little record in traditional historical sources, Jim Crow's Counterculture offers a fresh perspective on the historical experiences of black Americans and provides a new understanding of the blues: a shared music that offered a message of personal freedom to repressed citizens.

R. A. "Stovetop" Lawson is associate professor of history at Dean College and visiting associate professor of graduate studies at Trinity College. He lives in Franklin, Massachusetts.

Praise for Jim Crow's Counterculture

"R. A. Lawson...demonstrates how to make cultural history relevant, meaningful, and historically pertinent without encumbering the text with jargon-laced rhetoric....A thorough, incisive, and meticulously researched analysis of Jim Crow era blues.”—Journal of Southern Religion

Jim Crow's Counterculture demonstrates that a blues enthusiast also can be a blues scholar and that one's enthusiasm for music does not necessarily preclude the ability to contextualize it.”—North Carolina Historical Review

“Lawson does a very skillful job in synthesizing a vast body of blues scholarship, drawing together fascinating primary and secondary material in a way that is, in the main, eminently readable.”—Studies in American Culture

“[Lawson] deftly integrates analysis of the music, lyrics, and culture of this frequently studied but often romanticized and mythologized story, while keeping it grounded firmly in historical realities.”—Journal of Southern History

“An important contribution to historians' understanding of black culture as accommodation and resistance to white culture.”—Southern Historian

“Lawson's book is an engaging read and should appeal to both blues aficionados and scholars alike.”—Southwestern Historical Quarterly

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