- Jim Crow’s Counterculture: The Blues and Black Southerners, 1890–1945
Recent scholarship on the blues has examined the genre as poetry, music, personal expression, and cultural product, to name only a few perspectives. R. A. Lawson, in Jim Crow’s Counterculture: The Blues and Black Southerners, 1890–1945, investigates blues (lyrics mostly) as black countercultural expression. Indeed, Lawson does not claim to have written “the music’s history” (ix). Rather, he traces blues culture from its emergence in the early Jim Crow South of the late nineteenth century, through the Great Migration in the early twentieth, as well as the effects that the Great Depression, New Deal programs, and two world wars had on Southern black identity. Citing representative blues lyrics along the way, Lawson highlights the transformation from an identity shaped by “bluesmen who often had been at odds with white-dominated American culture [that] gave way to a Roosevelt-era generation of pluralist musicians who regenerated the blues’ countercultural impulse by leaning toward that which the Jim Crow segregationalists would deny them: a fuller identity of American citizenship” (xi).
Lawson relies heavily on secondary literature of such black music scholars as Samuel Charters, Paul Oliver, Alan Lomax, David Evans, Samuel Floyd, and Alan Govenar. His primary sources are selected blues recordings made by southern-born [End Page 318] musicians during the first half of the twentieth century. These include such familiar names as Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, B. B. King, and Muddy Waters, and such arguably less familiar names as Willie “61” Blackwell, Hezekiah Jenkins, Arthur Weston, and numerous others.
Lawson has tackled a wealth of scholarship on the blues and the black experience in America during the Jim Crow era, and he offers a new perspective on the blues as countercultural expression. Acknowledging the debate between “black culture as accommodation” and “black culture as resistance,” Lawson does not privilege one side over the other. Rather, he shows that “the blues, subtle and complex, performed in both ways for southern African Americans as they navigated the myriad obstacles presented by segregation and disfranchisement” (x). In addition, Lawson’s examples evidence an aesthetic transformation; namely, how “The ‘me’-centered mentality of the blues increasingly became ‘we’ centered as the musicians began to praise hard work, national unity, and patriotism” (xi).
Lawson includes an extensive discography, and his bibliography is a thorough representation of important secondary sources on black southern music and culture. All are well documented in the text, and he often provides informative historiographical summaries of the related literature, at times highlighting a variety of scholarly approaches on a particular topic. Lawson’s book is an engaging read and should appeal to both blues aficionados and scholars alike.