Blues and the Black Workforce

By: Nyla Griffith

The era of the blues saw many socioeconomic changes and was heavily influenced by what was happening in the world at the time. Primarily in the early 20th century, the blues emerged from folk music as a secular form of music. But what was going on in the world at the time? 

As reflected in the lyrics of most blues music, African Americans singing in the blues were going through some hard times. Blues was primarily sung by working class black Americans. More particularly, there was an increase in demand for transportation. Therefore many black people ended up with jobs on railroad tracks. There was also an economic depression happening around this time. Black Americans were steadily working while enduring hard times. 

This sentiment lead almost directly to the development of “work songs” in the blues. Because black Americans were in basic manual labor jobs like building railroads, they were constantly exposed to one beat: the swing of a hammer, the clink of the metal against metal. 

In response, black people began to sing their old folk style music to the new beat of their activities. Moreover, the black workforce created the “work song” genre of the blues. They began to formally write these songs and used to sing them while at work as a means to get through their day.

One can even say that this practice is reminiscent of slavery because workers were doing manual labor and singing about their struggles to get through the pain. This was the whole sentiment of the blues era. People sang about their distress while working and in turn, the sounds of their manual labor assisted in the development of work song music.  

This entire concept is very fascinating to me. To me, it shows how creative African Americans are and how they can make music from their struggles. It shows the determination of black people to keep going despite their misfortune.