It's the early 20th century, and an African-American musician is standing on a street corner, his nimble fingers coaxing melodies out of a fiddle, guitar or banjo. His surroundings could be any town, village or city—he’s visited everywhere from Baltimore to Baton Rouge. He's carried each region’s soundscape with him like a souvenir. Out of his mouth streams a polyglot of melody. Vaudeville tunes. Radio hits. Country. He can sing the blues, but he’s not necessarily a bluesman; he can switch from ragtime to a reel without missing a beat. He’s an itinerant performer with the versatility of a jukebox, a man who’s played for so many different audiences that he can now confidently play for all of them. He is a songster.
The songster—a traveling instrumentalist who mastered multiple genres—is celebrated in Smithsonian Folkways’ recent release, Classic African American Songsters. Featuring artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly and Mississippi John Hurt, the album showcases the rich hybrid of influences in African-American secular song tradition.
According to Barry Lee Pearson, a scholar of African-American music at the University of Maryland, songsters were active beginning in the 1870s, when newly-freed slaves were able to travel and play music for a living. Their sound, he says, preceded blues music and laid the foundation for the genre's rise in popularity. Smithsonianmag.com spoke with Pearson, who co-produced the album, about the songster’s history and his contribution to American music.
Where did the term “songster” come from, and why is it used to describe a traveling musician?
The songster’s kind of an artificial creation. It’s a term that’s been in use for thousands of years, meaning a person who sings. Generally, it’s attributed to the work of [anthropologist] Howard Otum, who was doing field work in Mississippi in the early 1900s. In 1911, he published a couple of major articles in the Journal of American Folklore, and he included in one of those a breakdown of different individuals [who sang secular songs]. One of them, which stuck around in both academic and popular usage, was the songster.
The term referred to . . . itinerant musicians, or street corner musicians who played a variety of tunes in order to make a little money from passersby. But these guys couldn’t stick to one place too long. Some journeyed as hobos with guitars. They traveled through the mountains and hit the coal or railroad camps to try to pick up a few bucks. Others traveled in a single city—one block, one day; next day, another neighborhood.
What kind of music did the songster perform?
The songster had a repertoire that may have included blues songs, but also contained the spectrum of songs African Americans would’ve been singing at the time. [They performed] anything from reels to breakdowns—songs associated with square dance tradition—to vaudeville hits from around the turn of the century.
A lot of “songsters” featured on Classic African American Songsters are also famous blues musicians. Is there a distinction between the two?
In the late 1950s a new term was introduced—“the blues man.” A new focus turned towards blues as the primary form of African-American expression. The songster began to lose out as kind of either an ancestor figure or maybe even sort of like a musical bookmark—before there was the blues man, there was the songster.
One could say the songster’s always been the songster, and for some reason people started focusing more so on their blues repertoire. For example, Robert Johnson, for most of his musical career, sang blues. But when he was out performing, he sang everything. John Jackson is another example; he sang blues, and was discovered when people were looking for blues musicians. They were really glad to find him, and then people found out that he knew all these other songs. The same thing happened with Lead Belly.
So it became more of a tendency for music fans—record collectors in particular—to invent this new character, the bluesman, who sings all blues songs. This also coincided with the recording industry having a preference for blues musicians. This was because when you went to record someone, you could not claim copyright for it if they had a song that somebody had previously written. But blues musicians tended to have their own materials, whether it was their own version of the blues song or something that they’d actually written. They could claim it as a new song and avoid any copyright problems. It doesn’t mean, however, that people stopped singing these others songs. It just meant that blues became the new most popular form of secular party/dance music within the black community.
The term “songster” seems to have fallen out of use in today’s modern music climate. Do you see it making a comeback?
It’s strange. It never died out completely; it was also used for a while to describe older banjo players, particularly black banjo players, because they also had this mixed repertoire of songs that weren’t blues, but came right before blues. It stayed in that community’s parlance.
The term songster is coming back in the hands of younger black musicians, who are consciously [embracing] this broad repertoire of songs that they created and performed—the pre-blues materials we were mentioning earlier. You have groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops out there; you might have people that are doing songs from the turn of the century, and you have people re-learning the banjo and the fiddle. It’s a revival of sorts. They are performing this part of their cultural heritage, which for many years seems to have been overlooked by younger musicians. It’s part of a broader historical reclamation process. I’m very proud to be a part of it.