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The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
Jim Crow Stories
A National Struggle
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Jim Crow Stories

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The Birth of the Blues (1900-10)
A New Orleans band

Most scholars of the blues believe it was born in the Mississippi Delta shortly before 1900. The blues had its roots in other forms of black music that included African rhythms, field hollers, jump-ups, spirituals, and church music, but it became a distinct form by the turn of the century. It grew out of the hard lives of poor black workers and sharecroppers. J. C. Handy, who would popularize the blues,
" The blues, like spirituals, were prayers. One was praying to God and he other was praying to man." Bessie Smith
pointed out, "The blues did not come from books. Suffering and hard luck were the midwives that birthed these songs. The blues were conceived in aching hearts." Many bluesmen found their songs by working on prison road crews and work gangs. Sidney Bechet, one of the great jazz musicians, first heard the blues sung by a prisoner
in a jailhouse. "The way he sang it was more than just a man. He was like every man that's been done wrong. Inside of him he's got the memory of all the wrong that's been done to all my people. When the blues is good that kind of memory grow up inside it."

Bechet considered the blues to be the secular side of black music. "The blues, like spirituals, were prayers. One was praying to God and the other was praying to man. They were both the same thing in a way; they were both my people's way of praying to be themselves, praying to be let alone so they could be human." People sang the blues at work and at home, on chain gangs and in dance halls, walking along a road, riding a mule or a train. The lyrics were about sex and lust, love found and love lost, going away and coming home, driving mules and riding horses, working on the farm and on the levee. By the time of the First World War, the blues had become part of America's music, made popular by men and women like W.C. Handy and Bessie Smith. During the 1930s and'40s, the blues spread northward with the migration of many blacks from the South and entered into the repertoire of big-band jazz. In the later 1940s and early '50s, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, and B.B. King continued the tradition. In the early 1960s, the bluesmen were "discovered" by young white American and European musicians from The Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan.

-- Richard Wormser

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Did you Know ...


Many consider Buddy Bolden, a New Orleans cornetist at the turn of the 20th century, the first jazz musician.
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Sidney Bechet
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