PhD student, Falling Through the Net Cluster
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
On 31st March 2013, the BBC broadcasted a documentary entitled ‘Blues Britannia: Can Blue Men Play the Whites?’, outlining the rise of blues music in late 1950s and early 1960s Britain. Featuring interviews with the likes of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Jack Bruce from Cream and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, the programme provided several reasons as to why the genre became so popular. Britain already had a well-established jazz culture prior to this era and so when the blues was beginning to reach the peak of its popularity, the BBC began to give the genre more airtime. London music shops helped too by stocking blues records in far higher quantities. However, an important factor that this documentary and many other histories of British blues music often overlook is the role of African-American GIs in introducing many Britons to the genre during and after the Second World War.
The history of blues music is defined by the histories of slavery and African-American oppression. Work songs and religious spirituals sung by enslaved African-Americans were heavily influenced by traditional African harmonies and rhythms. They would use these songs not only to pass the time but also to communicate with one another, as typified by the call and response element of this music. Even after emancipation, many African-Americans in the South were forced to work for little or no pay, and the blues music of this era came to symbolise the plight of those whose lives remained blighted by prejudice, hard labour and incarceration. The Delta blues, originating from the Mississippi Delta, were first recorded in the 1920s and told of the ongoing poverty, discrimination and poor working conditions that continued to affect African Americans at the turn of the century. Although African-American GIs played a vital role in the Second World War, with around 100,000 stationed in the UK alone, institutional and societal racism remained highly prevalent.
Despite being stationed in the United Kingdom, the African-American GIs who served here remained subject to US law, meaning that they continued to experience segregation and racial oppression. African-American GIs were largely consigned to service and supply duties, including having to endure poor living and working conditions while building airfields. When they attempted to raise issues regarding their ongoing racial segregation, they were met with brutality at the hands of their own military police, as was the case at Bamber Bridge in Lancashire during June 1943 and Park Street in Bristol on 15 July 1944[NJE1] . In both instances, one African-American soldier was killed and several more were injured. Legalised prejudice towards African-American GIs continued throughout their time in the United Kingdom and the British government did little to remedy the situation despite being aware of their ongoing mistreatment. The GIs also experienced discrimination during their recreation time with many pubs, such as the Colston Arms in Bristol, enforcing racial segregation between soldiers.
The reception of the wider British population towards African-American GIs was on the whole rather more welcoming and facilitated a number of important cultural exchanges. This included many Britons being introduced to blues music for the first time during the 1940s and 1950s, a phenomenon that would help change the course of British music for the coming decades. As a means of endearing themselves to their hosts, the GIs gave away large numbers of records to local children and would perform the blues to British military personnel while stationed at their bases. Many Britons during the war could listen to blues records and blues-themed programmes via the American Forces Network. This station proved to be an important forum for the genre even after the Second World War had ended, allowing many who were not situated in the vicinity of army bases to become familiarised with this style of music.
There were also several chance encounters between these GIs and the families of future British blues stars. A young Mick Jagger was first introduced to the music of Muddy Waters after meeting an African-American cook who worked at the same US airbase as his father, a PE teacher. Furthermore, merchant seamen stationed in port cities including Belfast and Newcastle exchanged records with their British colleagues, including the fathers of Van Morrison and the Animals’ Eric Burdon. In addition, many of the blues LPs that were sold in UK record shops in the decades after the end of the war previously belonged to African-American GIs. Many other prominent blues musicians including Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones would buy these albums and take inspiration from them while creating their own music in later years.
Although there is a rich scholarship concerning the impact of the blues on British rock and pop music, the influence of African Americans and in particular GIs is all too often missing from these narratives. The 1950s and 1960s would undoubtedly see Blues music become drastically more popular in Britain, but the earlier cultural exchanges that occurred in Britain during the Second World War sowed the seeds for this later musical trend. At a time when African Americans faced extreme discrimination both at home and abroad, African-American GIs based in Britain can be credited with performing and distributing the music describing their ongoing oppression, as well as influencing countless bands and musicians who remain household names to this very day.
Caption: Steel Guitar, courtesy of Steve Garry at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JHS_Vintage%C2%AE_AMG1_Acoustic_Resonator_Guitar_-_f-holes.jpg