"Hard in Chicago and Mississippi Too": Resistance to Northern Racism as Debated in Great Migration-Era Chicago Blues

Harlan Ockey

Abstract


This article investigates representations of racism in electric blues songs from 1945 to the early 1960s. During the Great Migration, more than six million African Americans relocated from the Southern United States to the North and West, primarily seeking these regions’ abundant industrial jobs and freedom from the South’s segregationist laws. However, while the urban North was ostensibly more socially liberal than the South, it concealed unique manifestations of racism that proved difficult for Southerners to traverse. The post-WWII period also saw the development of the North into the epicentre of the blues music industry. Songs created by musicians who were migrants often demonstrate the tactics migrants used to navigate the forms of discrimination specific to the urban North.

To examine this topic, I firstly detail previous historiography on electric blues in this era. As modern discourse has increasingly acknowledged the ideological diversity apparent in Black communities, I advance this discussion by exploring factors that limited musical freedom. In doing so, I identify distinct agents of oppression in Chicago that challenged migrants to the region. In analysing blues songs by artists who had migrated to Chicago, this investigation studies not only lyrical information, typically the main focus of blues scholarship, but also musical features to elucidate the strategies these performers propose for resisting Northern racism. The methods suggested vary significantly due to the differing historical and personal circumstances influencing these musicians’ experiences with Northern oppression. The communicative approaches these performers used were additionally impacted by the expectations of their record labels and audiences. These factors allow the genre to contain a range of views, demonstrating its position as a forum to debate how migrants navigated and defined themselves within their new environment.

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