Intertwined: History, Disability, and Blues Music
by Jonathan Lower (SUNY) Buffalo
The classic folk story of American blues music recounts W. C. Handy’s discovery of the blues form while waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi. In his autobiography Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” remembers, “A lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept… As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars….The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.” What is rarely retold is that singer playing the blues was blind, as Handy’s lyrics in Beale Street Blues refers to “the blind man on the corner who sings the ‘Beale Street Blues.’” In the following few years after this folktale was retold blue’s popularity had surpassed every American genre but jazz, reaching its apex with the proliferation of race records in the 1920s and lasting until the stock market crash nearly destroyed the entire recording industry. During the country blues heyday there were over thirty African American blues musicians for whom the word “blind” functioned as a professional surname. So why was this bluesman on the Tutwiler line so important, and what is the significance of his blindness?
The music, lyrics and lifestyles of disabled southern blues musicians capture a wide swath of social life in the early 20th century American South. Blues songs reveal elements of race, gender, and disability in society. The music of blind and visually impaired African American musicians mirror the transformations of black life. Their lyrics are texts to be analyzed. By reading deeply into their lives and music, their blindness, like their blackness, revealing critiques, resistance, and the everyday life of North American people. Their lives reflect the changing conditions of America and reveal the possibilities of social recognition, agency and economic survival. African American blindness is closely linked with poverty, but this simple assessment is incomplete. Blind blues musicians and their music, perhaps more than any other art form, functioned as a site of cultural and social mobilization. “Blues song are, often enough,” Robert Springer explains, “metaphors about oppression.” Ben Sidran agrees that music exposes black struggle stressing the “urgent need felt by oppressed, illiterate blacks to communicate their sorrows and anguish to one another.” Unfortunately, publications on blind musicians are inundated by the “three major stereotypes of the blind in American culture: the blind beggar, the blind genius and the superstition of sensory compensation.” Scholars have yet to complicate or establish the role of blind blues musicians in society.
When Paul Oliver wrote his seminal work Blues Fell This Morning in 1961 he stated that the “blues evolved as a song primarily created by men at leisure, with the time and opportunity to play an instrumental accompaniment to their verses.” Yet, like their accompanying instruments, it was much more than mere leisure songs. As blind blues musicians grew with the development of black culture their lyrics represented both the desire to assimilate into society and at the same time refuse many of its racist and ableist norms. Blind blues musicians readings of racial and bodily difference are tools that scholars can use to contextualize and explain the complex intersectionalities between black music, popular culture, and disability. Here, the social construction of disability can be fully understood in the context of the total person, a complexity of multiple identities beyond just distinctions of blackness or blindness. Historians, Music, and Disability Studies scholars must begin to study the social context of blind blues musicians in the early 20th century South and how they use blindness in their secular and religious songs. What role did southern blind blues musicians play in society and how did they create a social dialogue through their music? Did this differ from the ways seeing blues musicians use blindness tropes? Did these songs reflect the thoughts and desires of a subaltern group, and if so how did they challenge the dominant narrative? Finally, what does this say about constructions of power, difference, race and disability in early 20th century US society?