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By Clark “deaconbluz” White, Ph.D/blues impresario
As early as the 1820’s, free Blacks, enslaved Africans and “freed” blacks were living in Chattanooga. During and after the Civil War, there was a tremendous in-migration of African Americans into the city. This was one of the periods of Black migration when rural Black peasants sought a new life under new circumstances in a new city.
During the Civil War, Blacks sought refuge in “Camp Contraband” on the north bank of the Tennessee River near Hill City. It was there that they organized one of the first brass marching bands. By the late 1870’s, the Chattanooga Colored Brass Band was performing in the city. The history of the blues in Chattanooga begins during the late 1880’s.
Around this time a new and different music was developing throughout the Black Belt South—the emerging voice of a free people.This freedom opened up opportunities for creative expression. Freedom brought autonomy and with it, a new form of musical arts: the blues.This was a period when you could hear the music being played in places like Blue Goose Hollow on the side of Cameron Hill, down by the river at Tannery Flats, on the sidewalks of Pine and Ninth Street and down on the riverbank at Ross’s Landing. What you would have heard would have been a single musician or a small group playing primarily string and rhythm instruments. Some of this music evolved into the blues, while another stream became Black Appalachian folk music.
Because Chattanooga was a growing urban area, the music tended to reflect the familiar blues chord changes designed to make the feet move. This is the era when early blues music was being created and transmitted by African Americans throughout the Black Belt South. In Chattanooga, businessman John Lovell had opened his saloon in 1870, and by the turn of the century, there were at least ten Black saloons in the city. All of these establishments hired musicians. As Chattanooga was a major railroad terminus and final destination for some African American migrants, it’s quite easy to imagine that as blues people traveled in and out of Chattanooga they carried and shared their music. By the late 1890’s, Southern agriculture was in decline, farming had become increasingly mechanized, and there was a lot of anti-Black violence. Blacks moved into the city seeking to escape the very oppressive life in rural areas. What Chattanooga offered them was a chance to earn a living, start a business, take advantage of free public education, maintain houses of worship and participate in social and civic affairs.
Their primary music was the Blues. It was the music of the Black rural peasant slowly becoming a new industrial working class. They came from land defined by the soil to land covered with concrete. They no longer had to labor as plantation hands—they now found employment as industrial workers in the emerging foundry industry of the city. The music of these proletarians was the blues. It was rooted in and defined by the laws of Black folklore, which included songs, rhymes, stories, sayings, jokes and sermons that reflected an African American point of view. The blues is not exclusively and primarily a “sad” music as it is so often represented. However, this essentially existentialist worldview encompasses feelings that include affirmation, lamentation, celebration, contemplation, irony, wit, and ambivalence. Blacks in Chattanooga had a lot to sing the blues about.
In the chaos created by white supremacy and the absurdity of “Jim Crow”, a blues culture emerged. Government-backed Reconstruction policies and programs were being eliminated and replaced by a rigid color caste system of racial segregation. After the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” was the law of the land, there was an increasing effort to roll back Black voting rights, educational opportunities and economic development. This resulted in an increasingly color/caste segregated and subjugated society.
By law (de jure) and by social custom (de facto), Chattanooga was a segregated city, although there were some racially mixed communities on the old West Side. Up until the early 1900’s, Blacks in Chattanooga had had been represented in city government in elected and appointed positions, but by the 1920’s they were slowly being denied equal rights. This did not stop them from organizing local chapters of the NAACP, the National Negro Business League, several Masonic Lodges and a chapter of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Blacks in Chattanooga even started their own taxi and bus service. All of this was a direct reflection of how blues people were very conscious actors in their own path to freedom and equality.
Chattanooga’s Black working-class people gravitated towards the philosophy of the blues, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey. While some may have shared the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois and his “talented tenth”, among the city’s Black proletariat self-determination was a form of pragmatic strategic thinking, given the oppressive nature of white supremacy in the city.
In the midst of this era, the blues became the sound track of the African American experience in the 20th century. All forms of American popular music have been influenced by the blues, from Tin Pan Alley to rock. The blues, as a commodity, was fundamental in the development of the early modern recording industry. The first “superstar” in the music recording industry was Bessie Smith, a Chattanooga native. “Race” record sales brought in tremendous profits for recording companies. It was on the backs of Black women blues singers such as Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith that the modern recording industry was born.
Black culture became a marketable commodity. Chattanooga was one of the major cities providing space and talent for the emerging entertainment industry. By the late 1890’s, the city hosted at least nine minstrel and variety shows, and was for a time the headquarters for the Theater and Booking Owners Association, a network of theaters and performance venues throughout the country that booked Black talent into segregated Black theaters. Chattanooga had a segregated music venue, the New Opera, that opened in 1886. In 1910, there were three theaters, the Ivy, the Grand and the Palace on East Ninth Street. One of the main performers was Al “the Minstrel King” Fields.
As a main stop on the “chitlin’ circuit”, Chattanooga’s access to several rail lines made it an ideal city for troupes to stop over and perform. In one case, a theater company and the railroads worked together to ensure the timing of trains to coincide with performances. The city was full of young and hungry talent. It was not uncommon to see young Blacks on the streets of Chattanooga performing as street dancers, singers and comedians while “busking” on city street corners. This turned out to be a way for performers to develop their skills well enough to be hired by a traveling show like the Original Georgia Minstrels, Black Pattis Troubadours and Silas Green from New Orleans.
There was also work for entertainers in the local theaters, such as the Liberty and the Grand that featured Black vaudevillians. Occasionally a musical comedy like Sherman Dudley’s troupe would perform in local theaters. Bessie Smith and her brother both came out of the “street academy” of public performance. This was truly the first era of the paid black entertainer. You could hear blues performers at “juke” houses, food stands, sporting events, bus stations, cafes, buffet flats and gambling houses. Some days you could hear Rhoda “Aunt Roddy” Jennings with her bluesy street cry advertising her fried chicken and fish sandwiches. Maybe you heard the booming voice of the Rev. Addison “Big Wheel” Cole, who was known for saying in a very strong loud voice, “Let big wheel roll on” as he walked the streets around West Ninth Street. The city played a major role in the significant cultural transformation taking place in the musical landscape of America.
If you happened to live in Chattanooga then, were the right color and knew where to go to have a good time, you ended up in some form of juke or good time house. There were plenty of these spaces called “chitlin’ struts” organized and frequented by Chattanooga’s Black working class. Since the early days of slavery the juke had been a place energized by live music, dance, food and libation. The world of the juke was clandestine, usually containing quasi-legal and illegal activities. Totally off limit sto most whites, this was a recreational space where Blacks no longer had to wear the mask or the phony smile. In these spaces, they could be themselves and exercise a style of fellowship that was an experience of true democracy. You could let your hair down, eat some fried fish, gamble, flirt with the opposite sex, drink liquor, smoke weed and shout out the blues and shout at the blues singer.
Because of its democratic nature, anybody could sing, play and dance to the blues in these places. There was a lot of freedom of expression to sing the blues about the mean boss, or “old mean jim crow” or a broken heart. Dances like the “buzzard lope”, the “eagle rock” and the “huck a buck” were created to complement the blues. The juke was also one site where organized resistance to white supremacy was worked out. For example, after the lynching of Ed Johnson in 1906, Black workers staged a sit-down strike. These were some of the same patrons of the juke world. No doubt their actions were discussed and plotted out in private. The people of the juke world lived in the secular sphere. They were guided by experience and wit as opposed to any form of religion. They lived in the here and now, not the hereafter. And their music was the blues.
From the early days of the blues through the period of vaudeville, Chattanooga had a vibrant blues culture. But by the early 1930’s, commercialization of the blues was impacted by the Great Depression. The first major period of American entertainment in the 20th century was coming to a close. The majority of successful performers up this time had been Black women. It would be another decade before the blues regained its economic vitality. Yet in the world of the juke, the people of the juke in Chattanooga continued to preserve, present and perpetuate blues culture and the Black experience with elegance and style.