The Emergence of Blues Interest in White Americans

Despite its humble beginnings, by the turn of the 20th century, blues music had begun to emerge beyond work hollers and simple guitar chord progressions, flourishing into an art transcending racial boundaries. During this time, the traditionally African-American music began to attract a new audience: white Americans, and even Europeans.

During a time period in which African-Americans were considered to be sub-human by many white folks, it is highly intriguing and rather questionable as to why the white people of the era became fascinated in the music of an ethnicity that many still viewed to be lesser than them. In fact, “white blues” did not emerge in spite of racism, but as I would like to argue, it emerged because of racism.

Many of the most influential white blues performers in the 1920s and 1930s, most notably Jimmie Rodgers and Emmett Miller, began to participate in the art through performing black-face comedy. Jimmie Rodgers, a railroad worker from Mississippi, got his start in music in 1923 when he performed in a tent show (Wolfe, 248). Over the years, he continued to perform in vaudeville groups until eventually meeting the talent scout Ralph Peer, whom had helped release “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith. Peer had been hoping to create a new genre of blues known as “hillbilly.” After many sessions, Rodgers successfully recorded the song “T for Texas.” (Rodgers) Due to being raised in a town with a mostly black population, many of the song’s stanzas sounded much like the works of the black singers who came before him (Wolfe, 249).

I’m gonna buy me a pistol

Just as long as I’m tall

I’m gonna buy me a pistol

Just as long as I’m tall

I’m gonna shoot poor Thelma

Just to see her jump and fall

The lyrics echo the violence of the blues songs that came before, such as Bessie Tucker’s “Key to the Bushes.” (Tucker)

Captain got a big horse-pistol

And he thinks he’s bad

I’m gonna take it this mornin’

If he makes me mad

Violence is a common theme in blues music, serving as a reminder of the difficult times most of its artists endured. Especially considering that most blues musicians were black during that time, many of the violence faced was a direct result of being black. While Rodgers may have been white, living in an environment where he was able to see the African-American struggle from a close distance, he likely began to gain an empathy the led him to truly understand blues music beyond simply performing it to poke fun at blacks. While his initial exposure to performing the blues may have been a direct result of the fierce racism in the Southern states, the music proved that art knows no race or gender; art draws humans together through the emotions it raises in us and the experiences it leads us to remember.

Most importantly, Jimmie Rodgers did not solely rely on quoting the music of the musicians who came before him; he brought something new to the table: his yodel. He often used yodels to connect his stanzas. While it is relatively unknown how he came up with the idea, it is likely a result of his work in black-face shows. Another black face artist, Emmett Miller, later continued to develop his yodeling method (Wolfe, 252).

Born in Georgia, Miller also picked up on the behaviors and dialects of the black citizens living there. By the age of sixteen, he also began performing in black-face shows. He became well-known for his ability to “trick sing,” which is when he would sing in falsetto in the middle of a word (Wolfe, 252). After moving to North Carolina, he met Jimmie Rodgers and taught him how to trick-sing. Miller went on to record many of his own songs and to perform with many talented artists; however, he received little recognition for the new style he introduced to the genre (Wolfe, 253).

As interest in preserving blues recordings increased, white Americans have also been known to help raise awareness of the art. John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax are two of the most well-known and well-respected archivists even to this day. In 1932, John Lomax pitched the idea of publishing a collection of “American ballads and folk songs” to his New York publisher. Once the idea was accepted, he worked closely with the Library of Congress to find past blues and folk recordings. During the time, only music written by those of European descent was considered to be real folk music. John H. Cowley states, “Secular black music, associated with what was seen as the tarnished world of minstrelsy, ragtime, and jazz, was treated as worthless.” (Cowley, 269) However, John Lomax and his then-seventeen-year-old son Alan Lomax soon proved the critics wrong. The two went on “field trips” during which they would travel throughout the country to find some of the long-forgotten music, especially non-commercial blues (Cowley, 266). While on their field trips, they visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary and met Huddie Leadbetter, who would later be known as Leadbelly. After recording many of his songs and successfully completing their Library manuscript, the Lomaxes returned to the prison and helped him record his famous pardon song—his second pardon song, as he had previously been imprisoned for murder (Cowley, 272). While it is disputable whether or not his pardon was the result of the Lomaxes, it is undeniable that they played a large role in his popularity. Ultimately, he was arrested again for yet another violent crime. However, the Lomaxes continued to go on field trips and record new artists, forever preserving the art of the blues.

However, what is it that draws white people to the blues? The 1960s was arguably the most significant era of social change, and it directly impacted blues music. Many people began to see it as an art regardless of racial boundaries. As white folks became interested in the blues (especially young college students), blues magazines, books, albums, and festivals began to prove the blues to be a true art form (O’Neal, 348). Over time, as more white people began listening to the blues, more white blues performers began to emerge. One of my favorite musicians from the time I was a young child is Eric Clapton, as my father would always play his song “Tears in Heaven” on his guitar (Clapton). The song heavily relies on the pentatonic scale, although it is written in the key of A Major. The chord progressions follow a familiar pattern to traditional blues, yet still being creative on his part, as the key changes halfway through the chorus.

I V vi IV I V

Would you know my name if I saw you in Heaven

I V vi IV I V

Would it be the same if I saw you in Heaven

(The key then changes to F#m as Clapton finishes the chorus)

I must be strong and carry on

‘Cause I know I don’t belong here in Heaven

 Although the genre has come a long way from work hollers and being seen as a joke solely due to its performers being black, now an art that was originally mocked by white Americans is also enjoyed by them. Their interest in the blues has also greatly influenced more recent genres, such as Rock ‘n Roll and Country. Therefore, while racism may have been the original influence of white blues performers, something good has almost always eventually come of it. As humanity grows to become more accepting of each other’s differences, we learn that there is no racial divide in music. We all can relate to hardship, even if no one experience is the same. While the African-American community has faced slavery, segregation, and discrimination, everyone has faced pain and can learn from the outpouring of emotion blues allows us to experience. After all, Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” expresses much of the same emotion as many earlier blues works, as he laments the death of his young son. Yes, he is a privileged white male. However, he was still able to take a painful experience of his and turn it into one of the most beautiful songs that I have ever heard, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what music is about? Music is not in itself a demonstration of prejudice or poverty. Music is what we make it. And perhaps someday, music is what will make us; it will make us more empathetic and compassionate beings, if only we let it.

Works Cited

Clapton, Eric. “Tears in Heaven.” By Eric Clapton. 1992.

Cowley, John. “Don’t Leave Me Here: The Field Trips, 1924-60.” Nothing But the Blues. Ed.

Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group. Print.

O’Neal, Jim. “I Once Was Lost, But Now I’m Found: The Blues Revival of the 1960s.” Nothing

But the Blues. Ed. Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group. Print.

Rodgers, James. “Blue Yodel (T for Texas).” By James Rodgers. 1936.

Tucker, Bessie. “Key to the Bushes.” By Bessie Tucker. N.d.

Wolfe, Charles. “A Lighter Shade of Blue: White Country Blues.” Nothing But the Blues. Ed.

Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group. Print.


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