Friday, 9 May 2014

The Railroad and the Birth of the Blues - The Social and Cultural Legacy of the Railways.

The Railroad and the Birth of the Blues
This post is not from the Joan Hackworth Weir Collection but there is a connection. Back in the 1990's we took the lads - (who are descendants of  Timothy Hackworth) to the museum in Stockton on Tees, in the Green Dragon Yard, The museum has since moved to Preston Park, Eaglescliffe - along the route of the original Stockton and Darlington route.
took the lads - themselves descendants of  Timothy Hackworth

Naturally the museum in stockton would celebrate the birth of the S & D line and the railways. Back then, they would would show a video on the birth of the railways which celebrated both Stephenson and Hackworth along with the other important railway innovators. The lads won't remember this film, they were too young and sadly it's no longer shown as far as I know.

What interested me was the section of the film that showed the locomotives built by Timothy Hackworth in 1838 for the Albion Coal Mining Company in Nova Scotia.

As Robert Young explains in Timothy Hackworth and the Locomotive,
"These locomotives were built to the order of John Buddle, a well known colliery viewer who was
The Sampson
actively concerned with railway work, and they were named Samson,  Hercules and  John Buddle. The Samson was the first to be shipped, and was actually the first locomotive to run in British North America. It was a 6 wheeled coupled engine, wheels 4ft. diameter, with vertical cylinders over the trailing wheels. The piston rods were connected by a system of levers giving parallel motion, and there were four eccentrics on the trailing axle. The boiler had a return flue

"The Samson, built by Timothy Hackworth was the first to be shipped, and was actually the first locomotive to run in British North America."

The film then went on to show the social effects of the development of the railroad in the United states and especially that of blues and Jazz, especially during the period 1890-1939 which saw the mass migration of Afro-Americans from the south to the industrial north. The wailing harmonica sounds imitating the engine's whistle and rhythm, the reality and symbolism in blues lyrics were illustrated in the film. Stockton and the area has a lot of blues bands and i have suggested in the past that they combine those elements in any future celebrations of the town's railway heritage. The Birth and the railway and the Birth of the Blues.

This site here entitled Railroad Blues gives a good account of this. Some edited extracts from the article - the article gives links to some of the blues songs influenced by the railroad with further notes on the lyrics.

" Blues music belongs to the railroad; the swaying of the train and the clickety-clack of the rails. Jazz composer , W.C. Handy (1873-1958), claims to have discovered the blues while waiting at a railway station in Tutwiler, Mississippi. It is no coincidence that this claim originated within such close proximity to the rails. The blues and trains had an auspicious union right from the beginning of this century, and, in some brooding and elementary way, the strong link forged between them has never really been broken.

The period 1890-1939 saw the mass migration of Afro-Americans from the south to the industrial north-the
most notable reason being a newly found freedom from slavery and available employment in centres such as Chicago and Detroit. The railroad network was sufficiently developed at this time that small hamlets could easily find connecting routes to larger metropolitan areas. The development of the blues paralleled mass migration from rural to urban centres, as well as movement within the south itself. As Afro-Americans migrated, their music migrated with them. Because the blues are about the lives and surroundings of the people, the songs often reflect this movement, and offer up an image of migration and struggle for freedom and success, with the train being one of the principle players.

Musicologists have placed the birth of the blues around 1890. Basically, a blues is simply a song that alternates brief vocal and instrumental phrases, usually forming a stanza of three such combinations, in which the first and second lines repeat themselves and the third acts as a punch line. This simple musical form quickly spread throughout the American south and, by the mid-1920s, it was the prominent music of Afro-Americans of both sexes.

During slavery the attraction to the railroad was both real and symbolic. Southern railroads did not hesitate to make extensive use of slaves during the Civil War. In some instances railroads themselves owned slaves. The Southern Carolina Railroad alone owned ninety slaves in 1859, before the War began.(2) Many work songs were sung to the rhythm of the swinging hammer as spikes were driven into the rails. So too, trains passing by plantation fields represented to the slaves toiling in them a freedom for which they were longing, although few were willing to escape or chance a ride to an ambiguous freedom. So strong was the symbolism of the train that white sympathizers who helped to organize escape routes north of the Ohio River and often into Canada, were given the name “underground railroad,” where “conductors” were met at “stations.”

Little by little the train steered away from being just a symbol to becoming a reality for those seeking freedom in northern industrial centres and Canada. With the abolition of slavery, the railroad provided the means for those with the desire to escape the oppression of the American south. Bluesmen, as the male singers came to be called, were often helped by liberal brakemen and conductors, who saw nothing wrong with giving a free ride in exchange for a little entertainment. It was common for musicians to jump on and off freight trains to visit neighbouring towns and farms. Later, they would expand their comfort zone to other states and urban centres, joining the army of homeless wanderers drifting across the country. Whenever bluesmen were denied the goodwill of railroaders, they adventurously found other means to travel for free, such as an empty boxcar, riding the blind end of a railcar, or cleverly placing a piece of wood over the axles of a railcar and riding the axles.

The use of the train as a means of escape, or as liberator, is a common theme in pre-war blues. Quite often the departure was not from the poor working conditions of the American south but rather from the long arm of the law, or a love affair gone astray. The Afro-American frequently found himself seeking shelter in one of the ramshackle settlements that developed in urban railyards. These “hobo jungles” offered refuge, camaraderie and a means of protection from the railroad officials and police."
The article mentioned the concept of the Underground Railway
"So strong was the symbolism of the train that white sympathizers who helped to organize escape routes north of the Ohio River and often into Canada, were given the name “underground railroad,” where “conductors” were met at “stations.”
Here, via this link, is a lesson plan with resources on the 'Underground Railroad'  

"Students will travel back to the year 1860 and follow a young slave as he flees a Kentucky plantation for Canada along the Underground Railroad. Along the way, they can read or listen to the runaway slave describe his terrifying journey from slavery to freedom. They'll discover what life was like as a slave, encounter the dangers of the Underground Railroad, meet brave abolitionists who took great risks to help runaways, and compare life in the North and South."

WILLIAM STILL, often called "The Father of the Underground Railroad", who helped hundreds of slaves
to escape (as many as 60 a month), and kept careful records, including short biographies of the escapees and maintained correspondence with them, eventually turning his memoirs into a book, The Underground Railroad in 1872;

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