Review: Jim Crow's Counterculture
R. A. Lawson. Jim Crow's Counterculture: The Blues and Black Southerners 1890-1945. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. 304 pp. ISBN 978-0-8071-5227-0.
The field of cultural history has at times suffered from the burden of theory. In a bid to interpret costume, mores, food, or, as in this case, blues music, cultural historians have immersed themselves in postmodernism, poststructuralism, and the attendant complexities of prose that so often arise from these pursuits. R. A. Lawson, however, demonstrates how to make cultural history relevant, meaningful, and historically pertinent without encumbering the text with jargon-laced rhetoric. Moreover, his deep knowledge, sharp analysis, and rigorous contextualization of sources expand our understanding of African-American responses to institutionalized segregation, violence, and the ongoing legacies of white supremacy during the first half of the twentieth century.
In this sophisticated study of the blues in black southern culture between 1890 and 1945, Lawson contends that blues musicians fostered a flexible and durable counterculture that allowed African Americans to both resist and accommodate racism in the South and North. He traces the shift in blues music from pre-World War II me-centered themes—which he calls a “lonely sort of democratic individualism” (52)—to post-WWII we-centered themes, in which blues artists began to celebrate the possibility of full citizenship and participation in U.S. consumer culture (194). Larson also asserts that not only did blues musicians and their audiences encourage resistance to Jim Crow, they also prepared the foundation for future civil rights movement activism. Moreover, Lawson argues that U.S. popular culture owes a significant debt to the African-American community for the musical and cultural forms that emerged out of the blues enterprise.
Employing a clever titling structure that echoes his topic—chapters are labeled “Sound Check,” “Verse One,” “Break,” etc.—Lawson weaves together keen analysis of blues lyrics with rigorous historical context. At times, in fact, his discussion of the attendant historical factors surrounding a given song or blues theme seems to take on a life of its own and the blues thread is momentarily discarded. The reader may find that the level of detail offered in explanation of the demise of Reconstruction, the after effects of the Great Flood of 1927, the demographic shifts of the Great Migrations, or the ramifications of the New Deal in the Lower Mississippi Valley is not entirely necessary.
At the same time, such careful positioning of his sources in the historical moment allows him to explicate the popularizing role of performer and composer W. C. Handy, the significance of blues giant Leadbelly’s incarcerations, and the meaning of Muddy Waters’s rise to become “Chicago’s famous silk-suited, pompadour-wearing, fully electrified king of blues” (173). Under Lawson’s considered evaluation, such bluesmen become not just famous performers but also opportunities for evaluating and assessing the various ways in which African Americans accommodated to and resisted a society that continually sought to place them in a subservient position.
In an especially fascinating section, Lawson shows how blues performers dehumanized the Japanese but not the Germans during WWII. He argues that blues performers recognized they could encourage patriotism by stereotyping another racial minority group but not by doing the same to white people—even if the Germans were state enemies. In this section, as throughout the book, Lawson describes his subjects in the fullness of their humanity. He writes not of one-dimensional saints and sinners, but of human beings who failed, fought, wished, and won.
Lawson’s narrative follows bluesmen in their peregrinations throughout the South and in migration to the North; women are largely absent. He explains that it was men who did most of the performing and, by extension, shaped the counterculture so central to his argument, although both women and men listened to and participated in the blues scene. Leading figures like Ma Rainey and Lillie Mae Glover do make brief appearances, but the women of the blues world that Tera Hunter brings to life (To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War, 1997) bear little on the story told here. More deliberate integration of the perspectives of women would have made for a richer presentation of the full reach of the blues counterculture.
Like gender, religion gets somewhat short shrift. Lawson does note that blues performersembodied the very antithesis of Christian charity, asceticism, and piety (1, 2, 64, 68, 72) but only in passing and without a deeper examination of the connections that existed between blues performers and Christian practitioners. As womanist scholar Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan notes, both black gospel and the blues “come out of a Black aesthetic that reflects a history, ritual, and social interaction of a collective Black ethnic, holistic, cultural identity.”1 The themes of sorrow and remorse, abandon and return, and faithfulness and betrayal resonated with and were sometimes drawn from religious sources. A bit more attention to those connections would have strengthened an otherwise robust interrogation of blues lyrics.
Yet, in the larger context of cultural history, Lawson offers a thorough, incisive, and meticulously researched analysis of Jim Crow era blues. Readers leave the text with a new appreciation for the ways in which one musical form and the counterculture that birthed and sustained it allowed African Americans to name and claim a space of their own. Reminiscent of Robin D. G. Kelley’s work on working-class opposition to Jim Crow in buses and job sites, Lawson’s treatment offers fresh insight into the intersection of resistance and accommodation in jook joints and recording studios. Moreover, Lawson has done so in an accessible style that challenges other cultural historians to set aside jargon and make plain their claims.
Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, “Justified, Sanctified, and Redeemed: Blessed Expectation in Black Women’s Blues and Gospels,” in Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation, and Transformation, ed. Emilie Maureen Townes (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997), 151 ↩