Prisoners at Cummins State Farm, Arkansas who were recorded by John Lomax in 1934, where he later recorded "I Don't Do Nobody Nothin" sung by C.W. "Preacher" Smith (A.K.A. Rev. Nathanial Hawkins) in 1939. Select the link for more information and a larger image.
Blues music emerged as an African American musical form related to both spirituals and work songs at the end of the nineteenth twentieth century and rapidly became popular across the cultures of the United States as blues sheet music began to appear in the early twentieth century. Blues became so popular in nineteen -teens and twenties, that many published songs that had none of the sound we think of as blues had "blues" in their titles. Though blues songs commonly expressed personal emotions and problems, such as lost love or longing for another place or time, they were also used to express despair at social injustice. Abel Meeropol, a Jewish poet who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Allen, wrote one of the most famous blues protest songs, "Strange Fruit," popularized by singer Billie Holiday. Meeropol first wrote it as a poem in reaction to the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana in 1930. Later he set his poem to music. Billy Holiday famously sang the song to close her performances, but her recording company, Columbia, refused to record it for fear of retaliation. Commodore Records agreed to produce it and it first appeared as a single in 1939. 
Prison laborers in the southern states, the majority of whom were African American and replaced slave labor after the Civil War, sang songs that complained about their plight. Work songs protesting prison conditions demonstrate the emergence of blues, such as "We Don't Have No Payday Here," sung by a group of convicts at Raiford Penitentiary in Florida. In another recording of a work song sung by prisioners at Raiford Penitentiary, "Take This Hammer," the first person character of the song not only compains about the work, but boldy says that he will flee. The "blues" quality is especially strong in this song, though it retains the qualities of a work song. Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter later made a hit recording of a version of this song, which he had learned in prison.
In additon to work songs with a blues sound, prisoners also sang and played blues songs not used for work. "I Don't Do Nobody Nothin'," led by C.W. "Preacher" Smith with unidentfied singers at Cummins State Farm in Arkansas, has quailties of both spirituals and blues. The song's complaint about being unfairly hated also seems to make it an ancestor of songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Another example is "I Heard What You Said About Me," sung and performed on guitar by Allen Reid and recorded in Raiford Penitentiary. The narrator in the songs complains of being falsely accused and of labor in dark mines, which were among the places with the worst working conditions for prison laborers.
Another example of the use of blues to address social issues are found in African American songs about World War II. Bus Ezell's composition, "Obey the Ration Laws," urges people to comply with war-time rationing, but it also alludes to a difference in compliance and attitudes between poor and wealthy Americans. Buster Brown's "War Song," also performed during World War II, complains of a world gone crazy and the consequences for ordinary people. (For a general discussion of blues as a genre, see the "Blues" article).
- For an in-depth history of this song, see: David Margolick and Hilton Als, Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, published by Echo Press, 2000. [back to article]
- For a book about the history of chain gangs see Douglas A. Blackman, Slavery by Any Other Name, published by Doubleday, 2008.[back to article]