Where's the Blues in the Black Community?
"For a black male, the sound of the blues is pre-Civil Rights. It's oppression. In high school I had a friend who asked me why I played the blues, that black people don't play blues."
Photo by Jody Perry Is the blues almost out of the picture?
Blues was once a very popular and influential musical genre. Its artists were a common sight at local venues like Third Ward's legendary El Dorado Ballroom, as well as in other Houston-area African-American neighborhoods like Sunnyside, Fifth Ward and beyond, where Johnny Taylor, Joe Tex, Bobby Blue Bland and countless others would play to mostly black audiences on a nightly basis.
But nowadays this music is all but completely absent in these African-American communities, and blues gigs are rare, novel events. Black folks have seemingly abandoned the blues at the street level and even in a commercial sense. Young African-Americans no longer make up the audiences at blues venues around town. In most places in the U.S., including Houston, the audience of the blues is primarily constituted of non-African Americans.
The question is: Why? What has happened to the blues in the African-American community?
First and foremost, blues music is an art form capturing the pain of the black experience in America. A response to the endurance of of a lifetime of suffering, working endless physical labor in the worst conditions imaginable and, at the end of the day, not being treated remotely equal compared to the American population at large.
The blues arose out of the long transition out of slavery in the United States, and responded to the needs of a people in a particular socioeconomic situation; namely, that of being poor, hungry and destitute. It's a political-protest genre that allows for the release of tension in a socially acceptable manner, and the cathartic expression of tensions created by socially intolerable living conditions, heartbreak and economic deprivation.
Once, blues artists needed this opportunity for release to feel functional in society, and audiences in African-American communities desperately needed this release as well. People who sang the blues not only heard the blues, they actually felt bluesy. The person who sang the blues and actually felt the blues was able to return to society and deal with the impossible odds crushing his or her quality of life and dramatically shortening lifespans.
Photo by Jody Perry An example of pre-Civil Rights-era racism: a "mammy" coin bank found in River Oaks
In recent decades, though, there has been a change in perception. The forefathers of today's younger generations would do anything they could do to move one small step forward in society, whether making money or acquiring an education. That sense of urgency against impossible odds has been misplaced, forgotten or lost.
Unemployment in the African-American community is still very high, only now there is a lack of a sense of urgency to achieve. Starving to death is as a factor in this loss of urgency, as hunger is a serious motivation to strive. There is little real hunger driving young African-Americans, or anyone else in America, to roll up his or her sleeves and literally work an ugly, grueling job simply to put food on the table.
Instead, the United States as a whole is fed so well, it's fat. When you are starving, you'll do anything to survive. Young African-American people 50 years ago were very aware of how bad life was for them. They saw the cloud of doom hanging closely overhead with little chance of a healthy, happy future unless they seized any opportunity to climb out of their dismal situation presented itself.
What it boils down to is the perception of the circumstances. Younger generations of African-Americans do not have the same awareness of urgency for socioeconomic achievement as in previous generations. Despite numbers showing African-Americans at the bottom of social achievement, those in the black community, especially the youth, no longer feel they are at the bottom. They no longer feel as oppressed as the people who came before them, even though the numbers show they are in the same situation or worse off than previous generations.
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