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R. A. Lawson. Jim Crow's Counterculture: The Blues and Black Southerners, 1890-1945.

R. A. Lawson. Jim Crow's Counterculture: The Blues and Black Southerners, 1890-1945. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2010. 275 pp. $45.00.

The community of blues scholars has often been divided between those who view the genre as indicative of acceptance of white supremacy and those who understand it as resistance. These battle lines have in part been generational, with the work of early blues researchers coming under fire (often justifiably) from later writers whose investigations were influenced by the identity politics and radical critiques of American culture that originated in the Black Power and Black Arts movements. This latter group has, however, also left an enduring rift among enthusiasts, academicians, and practitioners of the genre. With Jim Crow's Counterculture, R. A. Lawson seeks to span this chasm by portraying the blues as a counterculture that evolved over time, variously accommodating and challenging racial inequality as its individual practitioners navigated paths along a continuum between these two poles. The result is a useful and engaging study, but one that becomes tangled in one snare of the field even as it seeks to unravel another.

Lawson bridges the divide between accommodation and resistance by suggesting that the blues involved both, but changed over time. According to Lawson, blues artists "preached an antiwork ethic"; however, over the decades, this " 'me'-centered mentality of the blues increasingly became 'we' centered as the musicians began to praise hard work, national unity, and patriotism" (x-xi). In effect, Lawson argues that the Great Migration, the New Deal, and World War II transformed the blues from a counterculture that rejected labor as emblematic of racial subservience to one that celebrated the work ethic and the war effort as ways to claim full American citizenship.

Lawson organizes his study chronologically, tracing shifting incarnations of the blues from the early years of Jim Crow through World War II. Drawing on lyrics, biographies, and musicians' first-hand accounts, he claims that a work ethic developed within a counterculture that had previously rejected labor, thereby confirming white stereotypes of black laziness. Lawson contends that the new opportunities of the Great Migration laid the groundwork for this metamorphosis. World War I, by contrast, was a relatively minor influence since blues musicians rarely viewed the war as a means toward racial advancement, as did the black middle classes. The counterculture's growing work ethic emerged during the Great Depression as blues musicians bemoaned what Lawson describes as the "impoverished emasculation" of outright government aid while singing glowingly of the benefits of public works jobs (159). By World War II, he explains, blues musicians had invested themselves in a national identity that not only led them to press for citizenship rights, but to praise the war effort and condemn the nation's enemies--something they had largely declined to do during World War I. The counterculture of the "antiwork ethic" and black escapism had become one of pluralism, ready to reach across racial lines and espouse American ideals of hard work and patriotism (x). It was through these developments, Lawson claims, that blues musicians came to think of themselves as Americans, adopting "a wider identity beyond their individual selves or their race" (175).

Lawson deserves praise for his careful treatment of music and lyrics as historical artifacts. Indeed, some historians may demand more traditional archival materials; however, Lawson's unflinching insistence on viewing the blues as a rich sonic archive should be answer enough for those who take music seriously. Lawson's knowledge and love of the music is readily apparent as he incorporates lesser-known performers and, notwithstanding an overly male focus, a feature to which I shall return, does a good job of casting a wide net. He also adeptly connects the blues to a broader African American history, clearly demonstrating music's capacity to offer new perspectives on that story. Indeed, his exploration of musical expressions of disgust with racism in New Deal programs on the one hand, and the musical embrace of President Roosevelt's Second New Deal on the other, is an illuminating and insightful one. Similarly, Lawson's identification of a paired embrace of wartime patriotism and reach for full citizenship among blues musicians parallels the broader black campaigns for Double Victory during World War II, though he might have better foregrounded those connections. A more extensive treatment of this correlation might have helped to tease out questions about the extent to which the "we" Lawson identifies in the blues was truly evidence of a newfound Americanness, an adapted expression of race consciousness, or an inseparable tangle of the two.

Despite its strengths, Jim Crow's Counterculture also has problems. First, Lawson's heavy focus on male performers to the near exclusion of female artists has little rationale. Additionally, having made this choice, it is surprising that an investigation of masculinity did not figure more prominently in his study. More important, there are dangers and limitations to Lawson's assertion that blues artists peddled an "antiwork ethic" (x). There is certainly some basis for this claim in that blues musicians expressed African Americans' frustrations with an exploitative, white-controlled economy; however, to describe rejection of that system as an "antiwork ethic" is to view work in purely hegemonic terms. When Lawson attributes guitarist Eddie Boyd's defiant insistence that he "was gonna work at a certain pace" while engaged in agricultural labor to an antiwork ethic, he echoes the charges that employers have always leveled at workers who ameliorate their conditions via the slowdown. Although Boyd stated that he "didn't want to work anyway," Lawson is too ready with a one-dimensional, literal interpretation of black musicians' orientation toward work (55). Few people indeed would truly have wanted to work in such conditions for so little reward. Similarly, the characterization of Son House's musical tale of turning to bootlegging for survival when crops fail as "escapism in self-indulgence" lacks the sensitivity to harsh economic realities that Lawson displays elsewhere (95). These interpretations not only bolster a narrow understanding of the work ethic, but ignore the possibility that African Americans who abandoned agricultural labor to become bootleggers or musicians were not merely rejecting work, but exercising work choice--a view that would fit more neatly with Lawson's commendable resolve to approach blues musicians as "professionals" (4). Indeed, the very "dualism" and "paradox" that Lawson sees defining the blues suggests that musical performance might function seamlessly as both an escape from work and a form of work (x).

Ultimately, the issues that plague Lawson's otherwise accomplished monograph stem from a problem common to blues scholars: the often futile effort to define the blues. Some point to musical form, others to black experience, still others to romantic melancholy. Lawson chooses an especially expansive definition. Asking, "Is this a story of class, gender, or race?," he answers, "Not exactly." According to Lawson, the blues were "not about race" because they were "not representative of the black bourgeoisie," and "not really about class," because "not all poor Americans faced racial intimidation" and because women leave rich white men, too (3-4). Most definitions of the blues have their utility and place; however, this particular version seems an odd choice for Lawson. One struggles to imagine how music so broad as to encompass the woes of bourgeois whites could have at once constituted a meaningful counterculture to white supremacy. Indeed, Lawson's words errantly imply that, in order for issues of race and class to be truly relevant to artistic expression, that art must embody the experience and perspective of all members of a given class or race. By placing genre ahead of race- and class-based experience, Lawson trades away a good deal of what gave this counterculture substance.

Nonetheless, Lawson's book is generally a well-written and engaging study that makes valuable contributions to the field. His treatments of blues artists' comments on the New Deal alone make it worth the read. Jim Crow's Counterculture should provide useful information for those interested in Jim Crow, the blues, or the role of work and politics in black cultural production.

Reviewed by Robert Hawkins, Bradley University
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Author:Hawkins, Robert
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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