Between 1920 and 1960, blues was Black popular music. During the decade that followed, however, the Black blues audience largely melted away, redirecting its attentions towards soul music, and a large cohort of white blues fans and blues musicians emerged to fill that space—a cultural earthquake whose effects have lingered to the present day. This chapter, looking to educate that successor cohort, seeks to anchor our understandings of the blues in a fresh appreciation for the world in which the music’s Black southern creators lived. Jim Crow social relations, which included lynching and other forms of racial violence along with legislated segregation, were the crucible in which early blues players struggled to achieve personal freedom and develop their creative gifts. Slavery had been replaced by cotton sharecropping after Emancipation; new sexual freedoms and wide-ranging mobility, however compromised, were there to be explored, in blues lyricism as in life. Playwright August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” vividly dramatizes these themes, offering revelations about the persistence of traumatic memories generated by white southern violence.
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