1 of 1
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.