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Before the "blues," there was the "songster." These traveling musicians played a variety of tunes on street corners to make money from passersby. They were a common feature of African American life in the early 20th century.
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. The music of these songsters laid the foundation for the popularity of 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 the varied 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, blues had become the primary form of African American musical expression, and the "songster" had become "the blues man." Examples include musicians Robert Johnson, John Jackson and Lead Belly. They 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 as younger African American musicians are seeking out and performing the pre-blues songster music from earlier times. 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?