Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The Blindness Blues: Race and Disability in the American Country Blues
by Lower, Jonathan S., Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo, 2020, 201; 28030015
Abstract (Summary)

The study of music places scholars in a unique position to merge multiple academic disciplines. The music, lyrics, and lifestyles of southern blues musicians capture a wide swath of social life in the early 20th century American South. Blues songs reveal elements of race, gender, and disability in society. There are no other forms of popular culture with as many blind artists as the blues. The music of blind and visually impaired African American musicians mirror the transformations of black life. Their lyrics are texts to be analyzed. By reading deeply into their lives and music, their blindness, like their blackness, reveal critiques, resistance, and the everyday-life of American people. Their lives reflect the changing conditions of America and reveal the possibilities of social recognition, agency, and economic survival. Blind blues musicians and their music, perhaps more than any other art form, functioned as a site of cultural and social mobilization. Blues songs are often metaphors about oppression and expose the black struggle by stressing the urgent need felt by oppressed African Americans.

This project reveals the relationships between songs, performances, society and their history. Music can, and often does, function as a method of protest. But just as often, music reveals the daily lives of musicians and their audiences. Music can foster social movements - reimaginings of original and traditional songs can provide spaces for cultural growth, conversation, experimentation, and audience participation. The songs of blind blues singers exist in multiple forms and contexts and this study will, in-part, rely on elements of James Scott’s “everyday resistance,” and “hidden transcripts,” along with disability studies concepts of otherness, passing, and masquerade. Together, a complex reading of blind blues musicians’ life and lyrics offers a way to analyze both protest songs and leisure songs revealing the radical black imagination as a countercultural moment.

Music also reveals the apolitical feelings and desires of a culture. My claim is that by combining songs of protest and leisure scholars can capture a broader historical and political context of southern African American life. Finally, the music of blind blues singers critiques notions of normality to reveal gender, race, and disability perspectives. Gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability are related products of the same social processes and practices that shape bodies according to ideological structures. Representations of disability are a product of cultural rules about what bodies should be. Likewise, race and disability are just two of the many identities blind musicians employed. The disabled body is a complex set of social relations, so this manuscript seeks to understand the relationships among sensory impairment and the political, social and cultural environment that only blind blues musicians can reveal. In conclusion, I hope to complicate our understanding of the role blind blues musicians played in the creation and representations of African American culture, and proposes new ways of looking at music and lyrics in history and uncovering alternative texts to the dominant narratives.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Wolcott, Victoria W., Rembis, Michael
Commitee: Herzberg, David, Young, Jason
School: State University of New York at Buffalo
Department: History
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 82/3(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: African American Studies, Music, Disability studies
Keywords: African American, American history, American studies, Disability studies, Music, Race
Publication Number: 28030015
ISBN: 9798672195896
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