12 Years A Slave: Slavery and the Blues
(first published at Down at the Crossroads)
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a very important movie that depicts the brutal horror of slavery in the Southern states of the US before the Civil War. It tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a musician and businessman who lived in the North as a free man but who was kidnapped and sold into the slave markets of Louisiana. The film is beautifully shot and the actors’ performances, particularly that of Chiwetel Ejiofor, are outstanding.
But the shocking and savage barbarity of slavery is what stands out from the film. As well as the flickering light of hope which sustains the viewer through the inhuman brutality that is depicted. Everything comes good is the end – and that’s not just a Hollywood spin on things. The film is based on the eponymous memoir by Northrup from 1873. (download it from Amazon for just over a dollar).
The truth for most slaves in the ante-bellum South was that there was no way out and life was a misery from birth to death. It’s no wonder that it was out of the experience of slavery and the way of life that followed it in the Southern States for black people, that the blues were born. W. C. Handy said simply, “The blues were conceived in aching hearts”. James Cone suggests that “the blues is the experience of being black in a white racist society.”
In the film we get a number of scenes where the black slaves, toiling in the cotton fields, begin to sing as they work. Plaintive, bluesy singing. As you watch, you begin to get a little sense of what the blues are all about. They are sorrow songs, they are the wail of people suffering a huge injustice. According to one slave who escaped, Frederick Douglas, the slave songs were “of a plaintive cast, and told a tale of grief and sorrow. In the most boisterous outburst of rapturous sentiment, there was ever a tinge of deep melancholy”
So, out of this musical heritage emerged the blues, what James Cone calls “a secular spiritual”. Leadbelly said, “Blues was composed up by the Negro people when they was under slavery. They was worried.”
Blind Willie Johnson expresses a deep rooted sorrow in his song Lord I Just Can’t Keep from Crying:
When my heart’s full of sorrow and my eyes are filled with tears
Lord, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes.
Jack White’s rather manic version of this, somehow captures something of the pain of the song:
Slavery, sadly, in the Southern states, though abolished after the Civil War, did not die out, as Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer-winning book from 2009, Slavery By Another Name,shows. He charts, with pains-taking detail, the re-enslavement of black people after the war, right up until 1945. Life for blacks during this whole period was fraught with danger and uncertainty, with threats from neo-slavery and lynching commonplace. No wonder minds were worried, no wonder the blues are what they are. The blues tell the uncomfortable truth about the world from the perspective of those below. For that reason alone they are, and always will be an important part of life.