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Before the "blues," "songsters" played varied tunes on street corners. These traveling musicians 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 and 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 eventually became known as the "blues," says Barry Lee Pearson. He's a scholar of African American music at the University of Maryland.
A songster's repertoire may have included blues songs, says Pearson. But it also contained varied songs African Americans were singing at the time. These songs ranged from square dance music to vaudeville hits from around beginning of the 1900s.
By the late 1950s, blues had become the primary form of African American musical expression. The "songster" had become "the blues man." Examples include musicians Robert Johnson, John Jackson and Lead Belly. They became prominent as the recording industry began seeking out blues musicians. In time, the blues became the new most popular party and dance 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. Performers such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops are drawing from this part of the African American cultural heritage. For many years songster music 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?