by Marty Weil @ChiBluesHistory

For many blues musicians, shifts in the political winds caused them significant troubles. The content of the songs they wrote highlight the struggles of working-class Southerners exacerbated by the legacies of slavery and the cotton economy of the South as well as the development of Jim Crow. Many of the early blues artists lived through the Great Migration and the Civil Rights movement–gaining tremendous personal insight into the struggles of everyday life in the United States. 

During the 1920s, the blues boom enabled African-Americans to take pride in their ancestry while elevating their status in American society. However, taking pride in creating the first music form developed in the United States was not enough for avant-garde blues artists like J.B. Lenoir. In 1954, long before anti-establishment protest songs became nominally acceptable, Lenoir released his outspoken “Eisenhower Blues.” The song was considered so controversial that political pressure forced it to be removed from shelves and retitled as the less inflammatory “Tax Paying Blues.” (It’s since been reissued as Eisenhower Blues.) 

In 1966, Lenior recorded, “Shot on James Meredith,” a song about the killing of James Meredith at the hand of Mississippi police. I’ve often turned to blues songs like “Shot on James Meredith” and “Eisenhower Blues” for insight into the thoughts and experiences of African Americans in the past. There are many more great examples waiting to be listened to and considered. 

Marty Weil is the editor of @ChiBluesHistory on Twitter. Marty is a blues researcher, educator, and social media influencer.

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