What is absent from blues lyrics

The focus of blues songs is predominantly personal rather than social or political. Whilst they may express misery or rail against it, they are not primarily 'protest' songs criticising leaders, such as Bob Dylan's 'With God on Our Side',23 or commenting on social mores, as in the work of the African-American nationalist group, The Last Poets.24 One can speculate that people need a certain freedom from oppression and disadvantage to be able to produce and listen to such lyrics.

Blues lyrics do include reference to events and situations as they impact on the individual. Natural disasters are well attested, particularly floods and the boll weevil infestation of cotton crops. 'Sales Tax' by the Mississippi Sheiks recorded just that - the impact of an increase in prices due to a new tax.25 Many songs refer to armed service in various wars - World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. The financial Great Depression provides a backdrop to songs of that era - 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out' paints a picture of financial ruin but as a personal narrative, not a macroeconomic phenomenon.26

The general absence of socio-political commentary illustrates some of the differences between oral and literary tradition. Lynching is not a part of the collective vocabulary, but is captured in the literary, crafted song 'Strange Fruit'.27 Work songs refer to being chased by the 'sergeant': Jimmy Reed writes in a more literary way about the 'Big Boss Man'.28

Racism from whites is not normally attested, but there are references to colour shades (and associated characteristics) within the African-American range of skin tones - yellow, red, brown and black, with black sometimes seen negatively in relation to the others.

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