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

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?

Assigned 45 times


COMMENTS (11)
  • KiraWvA-4
    2/13/2015 - 10:29 a.m.

    Songsters were the African Americans that came before the blues. They were the people who sang a repertoire of blues, African American songs, and vaudeville hits on the street corner for money. Some were freed slaves finally able to devote their lives to music. Later, though, the songster turned into the "blues man" as focus was focused on the blues. I liked the mini piece of music history that was in this article.

  • ShaniaWentz-Ste
    2/16/2015 - 10:02 a.m.

    The time of the blues was a... unique musical period. However, this time of the Songsters sounds pretty cool as well! I would have loved to experience that type of music. Oh, did I mention that "The Songsters" sounds like a name for a high school choir? Just saying.

  • BradfordAmani-DiB
    2/17/2015 - 11:42 a.m.

    Before there were blues singers that we all know and love. There where songsters they played a great verity of music. They were great and I gate this stuff. Not the music

  • AlmodovarJoshua-DiB
    2/17/2015 - 11:50 a.m.

    before there were blues singers that we all know and love. there were songsters they played a great verity of music that changed our view on music.

  • nicholas.jones07
    2/17/2015 - 12:48 p.m.

    I think that songsters are like modern day street performers. They play songs on the sidewalk and they get money. I think it is interesting that they had a different type of song before blues, but, it's not exiting.

  • JadahP-Gan
    2/17/2015 - 06:00 p.m.

    Well basically because they were freed slaves and because during that time people preferred black entertainment to white. Sense people all over wanted to hear these blacks sing, they had no choice but to travel and perform.

  • IsabellaG-Gan
    2/18/2015 - 11:29 a.m.

    The songsters were to travel in the 1870s because that's when they started playing music and it's all also when they were free from being Salvery.

  • oscarp-DiB
    2/18/2015 - 12:48 p.m.

    because i like the music and 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.

  • ratiaira
    2/18/2015 - 01:59 p.m.

    the songsters must have been really good if they are still known today the songsters are probably known for their great blues music and they basically created the music

  • CameronD-Gan
    2/19/2015 - 03:34 a.m.

    They were set free and were allowed to go preform and make a living, and work by their own free will for a change, and could finally go and do as they pleased.

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