Despite being born out of brutal and systematic oppression, blues music is not about being depressed or defeated.
It arrived at a time when Jim Crow laws were enforced on the streets by lynch mobs. The memory of slavery was very recent, and a deeply entrenched racism dominated the lives of black people.
But blues was a music of endurance, condemnation and resistance. It was described as “the devil’s music” because it exposed and rejected oppression.
The BBC’s iPlayer service is now showing Alexis Korner’s four-part series The Devil’s Music, which was first broadcasted in 1979.
With footage of some of the earliest blues musicians, Korner explores how poor people came up with pioneering techniques. They used broken off bottle necks or knives to create that signature guitar slide sound.
Korner touches on the different responses of early blues musicians to the development of broadcasting technology. Some embraced it, while others saw it as a threat to the “anon”, word of mouth folk culture of the blues.
Blues songs have been caricatured as whining about drink and love gone wrong—with no reference to, or even awareness of, systematic oppression.
Korner asks, “Is blues a music of protest?” He examines songs that are explicitly about poverty and inequality—the bitter, conscious soul of the blues.
We hear a song Big Joe Williams played for people standing in line at soup kitchens in St Louis.
And for the many blues songs that aren’t directly political in their lyrics, Korner describes the mentality of blues.
“Everyone knows about poverty and racism,” he said. “No need to spell it out, everyone’s experienced it. It’s a knowledge of that shared experience that gives the music its power.”
Clips show dancing to the music—and the release, even joy, it brought in the face of oppression.
The Devil’s Music is available on BBC’s iPlayer service