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The Blood and The Blues
Arthor: Danny Smith with Bill Hampson
Publisher: Authentic Media
Paperback 215 pp.
This book deals with the horrific roots of our contemporary music, documenting the oppression of slaves in the late nineteenth century and the ‘underground railroad’ that took them to liberation in North America or Canada.
The title hints at the two separate, but overlapping, parts of this book. The first part tells the story of slavery in America, drawing on some of the many personal tales recorded of life as a slave. It describes life as a plantation worker, tells us about prominent resistance leaders and introduces us to brilliant people who were enslaved and their families. (For example, the parents of man behind the phrase ‘The real McCoy’ escaped from slavery in Kentucky).
There are harrowing tales of families regularly split up because their worth was seen only in terms of tradable commodity, and keeping families together was not always economically justified. It documents the relentless hours spent in backbreaking work with little respite and the many physical and sexual abuses that were regarded as acceptable.
Part two tells of the cause and effect of this culture on music, from spirituals and the development of the blues through to R&B and eventually rock & roll. It clearly shows how many songs that spoke of freedom were actually expressions of plans to escape from plantations, coded as ‘musical maps’ to safety in the north of America and Canada. For example, “Wade in the Water” might sound like a baptism song, but it referred to slaves escaping by river, so that tracker dogs could not follow their scent. There are pages documenting the exploitation of black musicians, who could be paid as little as a bottle of cold Coca Cola for a song that sold by the thousand.
Both sections of the book also have interesting trivia snippets, such as everyday words and phrases that have African origins (like ‘kick the bucket’,’ jive’ and ‘jam session’). The layout of the book, with many pages in bullet-point style, makes it a quick and easy read, but that does not always make it easy to follow the narrative flow.
The short photographic section at the back helps bring these people to life.
With his involvement in the Jubilee campaign and work to protect children at risk, Smith is not just documenting history, but also reminding us of the plight of today’s slaves. This is a thought-provoking read, full of interesting information, which joins a lot of dots.