Chitlin’ Circuit: Blues Culture and American Culture

Richard K. Yu

An exploration into how Blues and American culture intersect and develop.

The Chitlin Circuit refers to a wide degree of venues in which African-American singers, music, and performances were predominantly designated.

Preston Lauterbach’s description of various anecdotes, short stories, and experiences in his work The Chitlin’ Circuit regarding these black performers in their daily lives gives us insight into how such a culture arose to begin with.

Often, blues and similar genres of African American music were representative of the changing social conditions African Americans experienced as they moved to new areas in the nation and acclimated. In addition, the influence of this music and culture on integrating the black and white races as well as its pertinence to the civil rights movement of the 20th century will be a subject of exploration.

Here, we’ll consider the lives and music of a few major, influential characters responsible for running the Chitlin’ Circuit, maintaining its business, and growing its impact on blues culture.

This review asserts that the creation and incorporation of blues culture and music into the more general American culture may have contributed to relaxing the attitudes regarding segregation between whites and blacks, now that they share some minor commonalities in cultural elements.


Introduction

Primarily, Lauterbach aims to establish a firm history of blues and its derivatives by tracking the progress of the music business in the context of Black America. Of course, one of the most prominent circles and hubs for informal African American musical culture traces to the Chitlin’ Circuit. Some key figures that are employed in this discussion of blues culture in the 20th century include Sax Kari, Walter Barnes, Denver Ferguson, Don Robey, Tom Wince, Little Richard, and so forth.

Source: NPR

A variety of musicians across a few decades map the rapidly changing and morphing culture of blues. It was one of the main musical venues that much of black America listened to, and Sax Kari makes this clear, “I was as good as Basie, Dorsey, and of ’em. Radio was just being born and they had all the big white bands on there. This is what lacks were listening to. If you couldn’t get up to that standard, they didn’t come see you. You had to be dynamite” (Lauterbach 10). Inside the musical sphere, it seemed, blacks seemed to be in competition with whites for attention and fame due to the advent of the radio. This ensured that although the Chitlin’ Circuit was not as famous as some other white venues, they would need to have an equal or greater amount of talent to even survive and attract customers. For Lauterbach, the Chitlin’ Circuit represented an ephemeral period in musical production from poorer areas that had wide impacts on culture but faded into obscurity,

“As money and power flowed through the ghetto during the 1930s and ’40s, creativity and musical innovation followed. But as black downtowns atrophied and disappeared thereafter, not only was their influence diminished, their mark faded from American’s culture history” (13).

This illustrates how the subject that Lauterbach seeks to cover — how live music in the Chitlin’ Circuit eventually affected rock’n’roll in later eras — does not stand as a particularly prominent or famous period in musical literature, but a spotty, obscure, yet still massively important piece of lost culture.


Background

One of the distinguishing features of the musicians featured in the Chitlin Circuit and Lauterbach’s review comes as their lower social class and success. It had been noted that more successful and talented black singers often simply played in higher-class white programs,

“These men were not promoting noteworthy black artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, or Lionel Hampton. Such exception black talents were able to secure play dates in white-owned theaters before white audiences from NYC to Los Angeles. The southern chitlin’ circuit was another world altogether” (Cooper 1).

Already, a distinction in class and wealth can be found between the spheres of white entertainment and black entertainment during these time periods. Lauterbach explicitly refers to this idea in his own accounts as well, stating,

“He [Duke Ellington] rarely performed for black audiences, thought. Management’s priorities were strictly financial, and nowhere could black dollars out buy white ones. Despite this, Duke was no turncoat in black America’s eyes…” (33).

This illustrated the racial disparities in performing venues that were both attracting black musicians. The Chitlin’ Circuit’s spreading influence would soon counterbalance this segregating force as it became more and more culturally relevant.


Sax Kari

Starting with Sax Kari, the narrative follows his intersection and subsequent introduction into the Chitlin’ Circuit by the older and more prominent Denver Ferguson. Their relationship highlights the beginnings and the overall nature of the Chitlin Circuit, which dealt with the comparative underworld of black musical talent. However, first consider the rather disorganized and informal descriptions of Sax Kari’s place as the narrator traverses the area to meet him in the introduction of the work,

“Two minivan carcasses, red and green, slump in the sandy driveway. But the address is right. A half-inch-thick sheet of particleboard stands in for the staircase. The ramp crunches under my weight… Drab bed sheets cover the windows. A beam of sunshine breaking in through a floor-to-ceiling crack…” (Lauterbach 1).

Photo by Naletu on Unsplash

This description is important because it emphasizes the nature of the business and environment, the culture that Sax Kari is accustomed to working in: his living quarters represent his style and are a passive expression of self. The narrator even doubts himself at one point, looking over the address to make sure the location is correct because the surroundings betray his expectations of what a prominent musical figure might be residing around. Of course, accompanying these rather dilapidated surroundings also include a collage of musical history and artifacts,

“A recent history of portable audio devices piles around him: transistor radios, most faceless… and a carica-1987 silver shoulder-mount Venice Beach model tape deck…” (Lauterbach 1).

These scenes of description are important because they set the tone and elucidate the nature of the Chitlin’ Circuit as a rough around the edges, unpolished setup, but musically and culturally rich nonetheless.


Building Connections

Coming back to Sax Kari’s relationship with Denver Ferguson, a similar informal, unofficial dynamic is observed between the culture surrounding the duo as they interact in the context of the Chitlin Circuit. Consider the setting of their initial meeting even,

“I met Denver D. Ferguson out of Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1941. I had run away from home, and I got a gig working there for a funeral parlor. There was an affair at this big nightclub…” (Lauterbach 9).

Sax Kari was, unsurprisingly, an aspiring saxophone player and Denver Ferguson stood as one of the main “promoters” in this music business surrounding the Chitlin’ Circuit,

“There were certain things [Ferguson] liked to do himself. He liked to make promoters, that was his thing. Ferguson made his promoters in the little small towns, shadow promoters. He collected phonebooks, and he located every black barbershop and beauty shop, every nightclub, bar…” (Lauterbach 9).

Ferguson and some of his colleagues, such as Barnes, functioned as the principal means through which advertising the performance venues of the Chitlin’ Circuit occurred. Lauterbach details how Ferguson had set up an elaborate network of paid connections with different individuals in order to ensure the maximum breadth of this word-of-mouth effect for his events.


The nature of performances in the Chitlin’ Circuit often was tiring and continuous, as performers would travel between swaths of small, rather inconspicuous towns constantly as part of their job. Sax Kari illustrates this effect and work scheduling in his own words,

“My lowest salary a night would be $300 to $350 [for the band]. But the circuit was never bout making big money — it was about making constant money. I was fortunate enough to have a bus…” (Lauterbach 11).

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Kari himself would take this bus and park it in front of overt areas to attract public attention regarding his arrival and spread the word to people that he was in town in order to garner a crowd for his performances these new towns he found himself in. Historically, these travels had begun in the Bronzeville areas before spreading out towards other towns,

“And in early 1941, Denver thought the time was right for a venture beyond Bronzeville and the Avenue” (Lauterbach 17).

The informal nature of Ferguson’s business also was predicated upon his hallmark behavior as a child to make money through non-conventional means,

“… Jimmy Coe recalled, ‘Denver would rather make a hundred dollars crooked than a thousand dollars straight.’” (Lauterbach 22).


Crime

His engagement with morally ambiguous activities began in his creation of a system of baseball tickets for their illicit use in gambling. As his operation grew larger, Ferguson would even bribe and pay off cops,

“As baseball tickets flowed into the streets from 322 Senate, Ferguson paid off the local cops at the back door, with rank determining an officer’s take” (Lauterbach 25).

These activities and prototypical schemes that Ferguson created and executed around the baseball game would foreshadow his later activities and propensities when it came to the music business and the Chitlin’ Circuit as well.


Walter Barnes

Moving on to another figure within the circuit, Walter Barnes, we see a similar parallel in the lifestyles and upbringings of these characters. Walter Barnes had become known as the “midget maestro” for his role a prominent orchestra member and probably due to his shorter stature. One of the parallels Barnes had to Ferguson was their dabbling in criminal activities and connections, as Barnes was connected to the famous Al Capone,

Walter Barnes, Source: Preston Lauterbach

“Barnes ingratiated himself to Al Capone and led the house band at Capone’s Cotton Club, near Chicago in Cicero” (Lauterbach 32).

Capone actually pulled strings and used his influence to directly get the midget maestro into certain radio stations despite his color. Other anecdotes also suggested Barnes association with the “crooked” aspect of the musical life during his tours,

“The maestro also left reader few hints about his crew’s nonmusical activities. They found a Baptist church some Sundays, and according to Barnes family lore, they tested alcohol’s effects on a pet monkey” (Lauterbach 51).

Again, the theme of the “lower” social status that Barnes often found himself associated in comparison to figures such as Duke Ellington is stressed in this passage,

“Truthfully, Barnes and Ellington traveled different paths. While Barnes did it himself — he had incorporated the Walter Barnes Co. Music Corp. In spring of 1932 — Duke Ellington’s career belonged to the most powerful forces in the entertainment business…at the Bronze Peacock.” (Lauterbach 42).

This difference in the cultural capital between both these famous and talented black singers illustrates the wider differences between the conventional musical world and culture to that of the Chitlin’ Circuit’s.


Bronzeville Culture

So how do the figures of Barnes and Ferguson eventually fit into the Chitlin’ Circuit and contribute to the development of blues culture? Their influence and work in the Bronzevilles created an elaborate and unique culture that attracted many local blacks,

“The Bronzeville Renaissance was in full swing. After some of that Ferguson action, the Avenue’s big players outdid one another with the most lavishly appointed nightclubs.” (Lauterbach 62).

This elucidates how promoters actively contributed to a flourishing culture during this time period between the 1930s and 1950s. It was unfortunately during this period of expansion and relevance that Barnes had died in a fire at The Rhythm Club, playing music in the club until his last breaths with the remaining members of his band (Lauterbach 67).

Milwaukee’s Bronzeville residents Mary Young and Chuck Holton. Source: Youtube

In any case, the Lauterbach’s narrative begins to describe a variety of different promoters and some of their life events at this point, again referring to Ferguson’s role in breaking out Sax Kari, or to the careers of individuals such as Roy Brown or Don Robey.

It focuses on their accomplishments and how they contributed to the Chitlin Circuit through either social work or performances,

“Robey had graduated from numbers runner to backroom casino operator, wood-plank dance-hall owner, territory-band promoter, and the man who sprung Louis Jordan, finally becoming boss of the fashionable lifestyle center…” (Lauterbach 135).

These events all provide a basis for understanding the culture around the lives of characters and not necessarily on their cultural relevance or blues. This analysis will now focus less on the personal lives of the musicians and the culture that spawned out of their influence and more on how blues culture originating from the Chitlin’ Circuit they created changed American musical culture as a whole.


Finding the Roots of Blues, Swing, and Cultural Shifts

Moreover, the main mode of musical products that were produced from the Chitlin’ Circuit came in the form of blues and swing music. Lauterbach proposes that the incorporation of a number of historical social elements in black culture that the music of Chitlin’ Circuit performers as well as a variety of political factors during that time — such as World War II — helped to push some artists into the spotlight.

Louis Jordan represented one of these bearers of this trending element in Chitlin’ music,

“Just in time, Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five’s overwhelming success had begun to transform black pop music. Since his breakthrough chitlin’ circuit tour in the summer of 1942, Jordan made a series of hit records, among them ‘Caldonia’, ‘G.I. Jive’… which remarkably reached the no. 1 spot on the country and western chart. Meaning white people bought it” (Lauterbach 114).

Louis Jordan. Source: Amazon

The fact that white people were being exposed to Louis Jordan’s character and style through his popularity and music showed the beginnings of a cultural transition and trend that would come to include blacks. The popularity of some Chitlin’ Circuit performers was enough to exert a sizeable integrative force on the relatively separate black and white cultures through their overlap with both.

His expanding influence came at an opportune time in the postwar era, just when the influence of the Chitlin’ Circuit was beginning to wane slightly. In addition to the luck and hard work associated with his popularity in the circuit and on the charts, some social elements magnified the effect,

“While music and the business overhauled, the language evolved. The term rock, deployed in a musical rather than sexual context — it was black slang for coitus… — gained popularity right around the time Louis Jordan and his small band blew up in the summer of 1942…” (Lauterbach 117).

His success illustrated a new shift in African American musical culture that signaled the fading role of jazz.

These social elements mark how popular blues artists from the Chitlin’ Circuit would come to influence the emergent genre of rock in the coming years.


Roy Brown and Billboard

Another important performer that reached musical prominence in blues and became a force in engendering more common cultural elements between blacks and whites was Roy Brown.

Roy Brown’s evocative, passionate style of singing contrasted with some of the traditional members that had achieved fame out from the Chitlin’ Circuit, and was one of the more notable features of his singing. Headlines such as, “[Brown sings the blues with a spiritual shouting rhythm” (Lauterbach 160) or “Roy Brown Puts Blues Singing on a New Kick” (Lauterbach 159) illustrate how Roy Brown’s music rose in recognition and became increasingly accepted.

The amount of money that Brown began to make from his venues illustrates his enormous popularity as well,

“Roy recalled Nashville auditorium date, where his standard contract called for a $400 guarantee and 50 percent privilege over $800. He took $2500 back to the colored rooming house that high. As the cash piled up, Roy bought a Cadillac limousine for the band…” (Lauterbach 160).

Roy Brown. Source: Wikipedia

Brown’s trending music even reached newspapers such as the Indianapolis Recorder or the Houston Informer. The fact that Brown’s music was often featured on the Billboard was also significant, “Billboardrenamed its African-American music bestseller list from ‘Race Records’ to ‘Rhythm and Blues Records’ in the summer of 1949” (Lauterbach 162). No longer was the word “race” a deterrent for white audiences that may have not even referred to this section of the charts simply because of a qualifier.

Billboard, in signaling changes in African American musical culture, also functioned as a cultural medium to propel the Chitin Circuit’s music into more relevant areas of not only black, but also American culture, “The recognition Billboard gave chitlin’ circuit music at the time was monumental…” (Lauterbach 163).

Again, both Roy Brown and Louis Jordan illustrate two major symbols of the Chitlin’ Circuit that had been propelled into the larger sphere of American culture to exert an integrative force between white and black music.


The narrative that Lauterbach provides continues to detail the lives of many famous performers that had rise from performing on the Chitlin’ Circuit and were advertised brightly on the Billboard charts. As history proceeded, the desegregation of Billboard charts in 1956 represented a major step forward in reconciling the separate black and white cultural spheres in America,

“By 1956, Billboard had desegregated its charts, and Little Richard, Fats Domino, Clyde McPhatter, and Ray Charles regularly appeared on the Best Selling Records list and on the Honor Roll of Hits, mixing with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins…” (Lauterbach 267).

The inclusion and homogeneity of these charts implied than in the musical sphere now, black music had begun to occupy a much more salient role in both black and white culture than it did just previously during the Chitlin’ Circuit’s obscure and questionable beginnings in seedy venues.

The fact that social status had also begun to become associated with musical acts regardless of race further pushed along this integrative force that the Chitlin Circuit’s music had,

“It [being on the Billboard] conferred status too, establishing the music’s value in the marketplace. Crossover for the black record business came with increased radio exposure and continued respect from the industry at large in the coming years…” (Lauterbach 267).

The economic situation surrounding the music industry created a platform for this integrative effect and transition that propelled black artists into general popularity.


Concluding Thoughts

Ultimately, the Chitlin’ Circuit represented an obscure and informal aspect of black musical culture that ended up developing into one of the primary influences towards the desegregation of musical culture with its continuous production of talented artists and hit songs, along with its shrewd management and promotional team.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Though the Circuit eventually fell into obscurity due to a number of political and social factors — such as the urban renewal of the Bronzevilles, which uprooted the culture there (Lauterbach 267) — its production of famous artists and the effect it had on American culture as a whole is undeniable.

Performers such as Sax Kari, Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, or Johnny Ace found their musical talents appropriately managed and their influence magnified by the work of promoters such as Denver Ferguson.

Their rigorous work along the many small towns these performers had briefly visited in the South had engendered a group of innovative and talented live performers which would serve to captivate audiences, both black and white alike as the radio became more popular in the dissemination of musical culture and as Billboard began to become associated with social status.


Richard K. Yu

Written by

Vandy '17. Analysis, opinion, and commentary | Contrarian | use richard.k.yu@vanderbilt.edu or mention me to talk!

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