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Before there was the "blues," there was the "songster." A common feature of African American life in the early 20th century, songsters were traveling musicians who played a variety of tunes on street corners in order to make money from passersby.
Songsters first appeared during the 1870s, when newly freed slaves were able to travel widely and play music for a living. They included artists such as Big Bill Broonzy and Mississippi John Hurt. The sound of these songsters laid the foundation for the rise in popularity of music that eventually became known as the "blues," says Barry Lee Pearson, a scholar of African American music at the University of Maryland.
The songster had a repertoire that may have included blues songs, says Pearson, but also contained the spectrum of songs African Americans would've been singing at the time. These songs ranged from those associated with square dance tradition to vaudeville hits from around the turn of the century.
By the late 1950s, there was a new focus towards blues as the primary form of African American expression, and the "songster" had turned into "the blues man." Examples include musicians Robert Johnson, John Jackson and Lead Belly, who came into prominence as the recording industry began seeking out blues musicians for recording. In time, the blues became the new most popular form of party and dance music within the black community, says Pearson.
The term songster is now coming back in the hands of younger black musicians, who are seeking out and performing the pre-blues songster music from earlier times. Groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops are performing this part of the African American cultural heritage, which for many years seems to have been 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?