BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Blues People - The Heart and Soul of America

  • February 1, 2005

Terry Jones is director of the Department of Social Work at California State University at Hayward. This article, in recognition of Black History Month, was published in the current monthly edition of the Oakland Business Review.

A celebration of Black History Month in the Bay Area would be incomplete without tribute to the blues and its distinctive development in the city of Oakland during the 1940s and 1950s.

Standing like a rock beneath the soulful spirituals and the uplifting gospel has been the blues. The blues delivers hope, relief from pain, and a clear interpretation of the otherness of the Black experience in a strange and hostile land.

The blues is but a window to black life in America. It chronicles history and captures the rich textures and hues of a complex people navigating creatively an ever-more complex society. The blues is the glue that holds Black America together. Rich or poor, young or old, educated or illiterate, from the north or south, all black people have the blues, had the blues, or will get the blues.

In the words of an old troubadour, "If you ain't got the blues, jes keep on living."

When the blues man or woman sings it is about a universal experience, a lost love, a mean boss, good times on a Friday night, or a lonely train to Georgia in search of love or just a better life. Within the blues is hunger, disappointment, betrayal, and anger. However, there is more to the blues.

The blues is about the unspeakable joy of relationships between friends, family and lovers. It is about triumph against great adversity, and about using one's wits and faith to defeat the hate and brutality of racism and rejection. Long before Jesse Jackson shouted "I am somebody," blues men and women proclaimed and affirmed the dignity of Black people from Memphis to Mobile, from Tampa to St. Pete, from Harlem to South Chicago and from Kansas City to West Oakland.

The blues represents the great vitality and resilience of Black culture. It binds Black people to a rich and creative cultural legacy that is emotionally and spiritually uplifting in its richness, creativity, imagination and rage of feelings.

In the final analysis, the blues is a musical opera focusing on the life and times of Black America. The blues is the story of Black America in earthy musical form. The divas have been Bessie Smith, Big Momma Thornton, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Dinah Washington and even a young Aretha Franklin. Carrying the heavy load in our opera have been the blues men, Ivory Joe Hunter, Big Joe Turner, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams, Lightnin Hopkins, Memphis Slim, Mighty Joe Young, B.B. King and, the list goes on. During the formative stages of their careers many of these artists, including Big Joe Turner and Big Mama Thornton, performed regularly at clubs throughout the West Oakland area and significantly influenced blues throughout the land.

From a psychological and political perspective we understand that the blues was there as a voice to those without one, a means of understanding during confusion, an outlet or pent-up anger and a bridge over troubled waters. When oppression for Black people was so complete that to attempt resistance meant sure death, the blues provided relief. When white oppressors declared us worthless, the blues proclaimed our magnificence and beauty. When the work was so hard and the pay so low, the blues took us by the hand and lightened the load. The blues is with us now as we navigate the turbulent waters of a troubled and confused country.

The blues has been with Black Americans from the time our ancestors first stepped foot on the shores of this hostile land. It has been our language, our way of expressing our duality and, along with religion, it has been our rock while all else has been sifting sand. While we may not have been born with the blues as Lightnin Hopkins proclaims, we are certainly all products and beneficiaries of the blues. It links us to our ancestors, provides a bright spot on a cloudy day, and the blues will follow us as we continue our journey of faith and freedom.

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