North and South: The Great Migration and the Lomaxes’ Southern Journey

Men Working, Lois Mailou Jones

The early twentieth-century white folklorist Dorothy Scarborough once interviewed composer and bandleader W.C. Handy (1873- 1958), known as the Father of the Blues, about the origin of the blues. Handy, of course, was not the inventor of the blues, but he was the first musician to notate the folk music that he heard while traveling around the South to play gigs, and to arrange and publish it as sheet music, helping the genre reach a wider audience. When Scarborough asked him about the relationship of the blues to folk music, Handy replied that that the blues were folk music, pure and simple. What did he mean by this?

Handy’s first hit, “Memphis Blues,” published in 1908:

“St. Louis Blues,” from 1914:

While Handy was the first composer to publish blues songs (and one of the first African-Americans to make a living from music publishing), he openly acknowledged that his own music was influenced by the rural African-American folk music he had heard and transcribed while touring Mississippi in 1902-1905. In his memoir, Father of the Blues, Handy described sharing the stage at a dance he played with  a trio of musicians who

struck up one of those over and over strains that seem to have no beginning and certainly no ending at all. The strumming attained a disturbing monotony, but on and on it went, a kind of stuff associated with [sugar] cane rows and levee camps. Thump-thump-thump went their feet on the floor. It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps “haunting” is the better word.

Some of the songs that influenced Handy:

There is no genre of American music in the decades since the 1880s that has not come out of the blues. As Alan Lomax, John Lomax’s son, wrote in 1948:

Child of [the] fertile [Mississippi] Delta land, voice of the voiceless black masses, the blues crept into the back windows of America maybe forty years ago and since then has colored the whole of American popular music. Hill-billy singers, hot jazz blowers, crooners like [Bing] Crosby, cowboy yodelers — all these have learned from the native folk blues. . . . the whole world can feel, uncoiling in its ear, this somber music of the Mississippi. And yet no one had ever thought to ask the makers of these songs — these ragged master-singers — why they sang. 

Why did they sing?

In their book Our Singing Country, published in 1941, John and Alan Lomax describe the blues as a folk genre

sung by . . . unspoiled [singers] in the South, sung without the binding restrictions of conventional piano accompaniment or orchestral arrangement, [that] grow up like a wild flowering vine in the woods.

The Lomaxes, father and son, were in political conflict for their entire partnership as folksong collectors. As historian Ronald Cohen explained, “The father’s politics were considerably to the right of the son’s, yet both believed in the uniting and rejuvenating powers of folk music” (you have already encountered John Lomax’s backward views on race in his 1917 article “Self-Pity in Negro Folk-Songs,” and his 1934 article “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro”). Steven Garabedian concludes that, although father and son

were opposed politically . . . they found common ground in a shared romantic idealization of an unspoiled homespun American republic. Vernacular music, they held, carried the spirit of this redemptive grassroots national culture.

The Lomaxes, working for the Library of Congress, traveled all over the southern United States from the 1930s through the 1950s, recording and transcribing folk music. They discovered Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) on their first trip in 1933, while doing field recordings in Angola State Prison in Louisiana, where Ledbetter was serving a sentence.

A staged photo of John A. Lomax recording Lead Belly in prison.

In 1941, the Lomaxes first recorded Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), who was working as a tractor driver on a plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Muddy Waters moved to Chicago in 1943 at the height of the Great Migration. He said that the day he arrived in Chicago was the greatest day of his life. In Chicago, with access to other musicians, his style changed, and he became the pioneer of what would become known as the Chicago Blues.

In 1946, Alan Lomax recorded three great Delta bluesmen, Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson, in a live conversation punctuated with music at Decca Studios in New York City. Listen to the complete interview here:

Read Lomax’s transcription here.

In his 1955 song “When Will I Get to Be Called A Man,” Broonzy, a WWI veteran, touches on one of the reasons for the Great Migration. Broonzy had moved to Chicago from Mississippi in the 1920s.

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, the owner of the oldest surviving juke joint in Mississippi, covers Muddy Waters’s “Catfish Blues.” His 2019 album Cypress Grove was nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album. Holmes carries on the tradition of the Bentonia [Mississippi] School of blues guitar, with distinctive guitar tunings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s