Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The Black Musician and the White City: Race and Music in Chicago, 1900-1967

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The Black Musician and the White City: Race and Music in Chicago, 1900-1967

Article excerpt

The Black Musician and the White City: Race and Music in Chicago, 1900-1967. By Amy Absher. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014. Pp xi, 202, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, $55.00.)

There are many ways to divide the city into spaces. For instance, there are the private spaces of the home; the public spaces of the street; and the hybrid semipublic spaces of the store, railway station, and entertainment venue-the latter of private ownership and public access. But, as this book argues, Chicago was defined by its racial and ethnic spaces that were divided by invisible lines created and reinforced by economic power and custom. One side of the line was relative powerlessness and unfulfilled dreams; the other, self-direction and freedom. This book details the long struggle to use music to cope with discrimination and finally break down at least some of the barriers of confinement and exploitation during two-thirds of the twentieth century.

The tightly-argued story begins early in the last century with the Levee vice district, an area that provided employment for hundreds of African American musicians of all kinds and which became the target of reformers. The narrative tries too hard to argue primarily racial motivations for the anti-prostitution crusade of 1910-1920. In reality, the Black Belt neighborhoods extended into areas of better housing, while at the same time the forces that created the Levee vice area involved land economics, transportation, and proximity to the flows of railroad travelers more than race. But this is a minor flaw in a book that so skillfully points out that each generation was also forced to fight uphill battles against whites that found new ways to mask their prejudice by condemning the music of minority origin as immoral.

The heart of the book is a fine decade-by-decade narrative of the survival strategies employed by everyday musicians of color. At the center of the story is the situation that pitted, on the one hand, the apparent self-sufficiency and certain measure of control that flowed from being segregated against, on the other hand, the desire for larger markets and freedom that integration provided. In each era the predominant generation pushed harder against the boundaries of residence and the limitations on professional performance that were imposed by white owners of venues, recording companies, and unions. …

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