Before blues singers came songsters (Thinkstock)
Before blues singers came songsters
Lexile

Before the "blues," "songsters" played varied tunes on street corners. Songsters were traveling musicians. They made money from passersby. They were a common feature of African American life in the early 1900s.

Songsters first appeared during the 1870s. Newly freed slaves became able to travel widely. They could play music for a living. They included artists such as Big Bill Broonzy and Mississippi John Hurt. Songster music laid the foundation for the popular music that later became the "blues," says Barry Lee Pearson. He's a scholar of African American music at the University of Maryland.

A songster's collection may have included blues songs, says Pearson. But it also contained varied songs African Americans were singing. These songs included square dance music. They also included vaudeville hits from around beginning of the 1900s.

By the late 1950s, blues had become the primary form of African American music. The "songster" had become "the blues man." Examples include Robert Johnson, John Jackson and Lead Belly. They became prominent as the recording industry began seeking blues musicians. In time, the blues became the new most popular music within the black community, says Pearson.

The term songster is now coming back. Younger black musicians are seeking out and performing the pre-blues songster music. For example, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are drawing from this part of the African American cultural heritage. For many years songster music was overlooked by younger musicians, says Pearson. "It's part of a broader historical reclamation process."

Critical thinking challenge: Why were songsters free to travel in the 1870s?

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