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A Development of Music During Jim Crow Laws Era

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Music of Jim crow laws

The Jim Crow laws were racial segregation laws that were emplaced shortly after the American Civil War that applied for most of the public spaces in the southern states and created racial tension where African Americans were treated as inferiors. During these times, John and Alan Lomax went around recording southern folk music to preserve such music. For the project, I chose the songs Prison Blues, John Henry, and as the topic of African American music during the Jim Crow era.

The first song, Prison Blues, deals with a man who had been just recently been sentenced to serve in prison. Judge Dabney is accused of giving the man too harsh of sentence by man’s wife and states that the “lord” knows of this fact. The man tries to calm his spouse down despite the oncoming doom and assures her that he would be alright and would make it back home. However, the man knows deep inside that the reality isn’t as kind as he assures it to be and prays that “lord have mercy” as he knows that he would not be likely to be able to make it back alive and waves his wife a final goodbye. The lyric of this song protest against the unjust reality imposed upon these men and reflect the social climate of the days during this era, where African Americans were heavily discriminated upon. The man in this song seem to accept the reality as a fact of life, and accepts it without much protest, seemingly knowing that there would not be much point to protest against the decision, no matter how unjust it may be. There does not seem to be any secret messages in the texts and seem to just deal with the situations these prisoners are placed in with their convictions. The music is very bluesy in nature and the song leaves big gaps in-between verses to be used for improvising during the melody, with there being good 5-6 seconds space before the next verse. The instrument of the choice was primarily the harmonica which created a melodramatic tone that was very befitting of the bleak, yet accepting nature of the circumstance presented during the song.

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The second song, John Henry, tells of a rather humorous and fantasy-like story of a larger-than-life figure of John Henry. The lyrics seem very sexual and humorous in nature, where John Henry’s masculine actions were exaggerated to point that they were ridiculous and fantasy-like. John Henry, in the song, is seen as the man’s man, someone to look up to while simultaneously poking fun at the nature of John Henry, as his figures were greatly exaggerated when his stories were passed down, something the song parodies throughout the course of its lyrics. The song seem to conclude that while John Henry may or may not be a realistic figure, it still holds down as a symbol for the singers as a man who died doing his duty. The sexual meanings and metaphors in this text seem to have all derived from the legendary skill he was famous for, which was driving steel. The humor and also the irony in this song depict John Henry, who represented the manliness of a man, helplessly being driven steel like a man by his wife. The song, John Henry, seems to serve dual purpose in this song; to remind others of an ideal figure of masculinity and also to serve as a distraction from the work with its humorous and catchy undertones. The figure of John Henry may have been used to spread his tale of struggles of laborers in the deep south where African Americans and laborers alike were exploited. The song is bluesy in nature and had no instruments being used during its singing. The music does not leave much room to improvise and the whole group sung together with the lead leading the group with first line of each verse. The general mood of the song seems to be relaxed.

The third song, Somethin’ Within Me, is a spiritual song sung by female prisoners. The lyrics of the song are vague yet relatable to people of all types. This song in particular seems to have been used to both spread the words of Gospel and stave off boredom from the mundane, repetitive work of sewing seams. The lyrics are vague and repetitive, with it repeating the line ” Have you somethin’ within you” frequently, allowing big rooms for improvising between. The lyrics reflect topic important to the prisoners, which is the lord depicted in the Bible, whom does not discriminate between the races. During the time, songs like these may have been used as a teaching tool for the illiterates to learn of god, as not so long before the Civil War, it was seen as a detriment to allow African Americans to learn how to read. The song is bluesy in nature and the general nature seem to be aloof and purposeless.


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