The Great Migrator: Pee Wee Hayes and the Movement of the Blues

inTheir Adventureson February 22, 2018

Thomas O. “Pee Wee” Hayes can tell a story about one of the greatest seismic shifts in American history, and it’s the story of his own life. As a child, Pee Wee’s family uprooted their lives and moved from Alamo, Tennessee to Racine, Wisconsin, right at the midway point of the Great Migration. From 1910 to 1970, over six million African American families traveled the north-south corridors in search of a better life and a truer freedom. They were pushed out of the Jim Crow South and drawn North and West by social networks and decent jobs, forever changing the American landscape and sparking the development of electric blues. There’s a reason why Pee Wee plays Chicago blues in Racine, Wisconsin, and that’s the story of the Great Migration.

The Hayes were sharecroppers in West Tennessee. Most African Americans who left West Tennessee resettled in Detroit and Chicago. Although these major urban centers are well recognized as terminuses of the Great Migration, families like the Hayes also ended up in satellite cities like Racine, carrying with them the culture and music of the South. While Chicago is best recognized as the birthplace of a new electrified blues sound, Pee Wee’s style was forged in clubs across Wisconsin and northern Illinois, evidence of an entire region infused with the communities and cultures of the South.

Job opportunities were few for black Tennesseans, and sharecropping kept many in a form of de facto enslavement. Systematic debt entrapment functioned as a new kind of legal bondage. It was not always easy to leave Tennessee – landowners often forbid sharecroppers from leaving until they could settle their debt, unless they snuck away in the night. For many, the northward journey bears striking similarity to narratives of the Underground Railroad, by then nearly a century past.

Racial violence drove the Hayes out of Tennessee. “They was trying to lynch my dad down there, so he came up here,” Pee Wee tells. Because his father couldn’t own the land he worked, the landlord took all the fruits of Pee Wee’s father’s labor. He could take nothing off of that land for himself and his family.

“My dad said, ‘I got kids and I have to feed my kids.’

“The boss said, ‘You don’t take nothin’ out of the fields. You go back to work.’

“And my dad said, ‘I’m not workin’ today. You mistreated me.’

“And the guy said, ‘You go back to work.’

“My dad ran in the house—I don’t know what he went after—but he came back out with a hammer and this man had a shotgun on him. So my dad ran back in the house and ran out the back door. The man took his truck and went home, and I guess he called his sons, and everybody got together and they organized a posse.

“So my dad ran down through the fields somewhere. He went out the back door and I knew there was a big river down there behind us and there had been a big storm about a week before that and the river was overflowing.

“My mom said, ‘Oh, go down there and see if you can find your dad!’

“So we went down there looking and we saw a big old log turning over in the water. I said, ‘There he is! There he is!’ And we went back home and we reported that he was in the river, he had got drowned and he was going down the river. So you know the family panicked and there was mourning going on. So he was able to get away!”

For a while, the Hayes’ played the part of a grieving family, giving Pee Wee’s father the chance to put distance between himself and Alamo, Tennessee. “I guess they put my dad in a box or something and shipped him up north here in a crate,” Pee Wee recalls. “I don’t know how they got him up there. I think it was a crate. He talked about it.”

His long flight ended in the industrial harbor city of Racine, Wisconsin, on the shore Lake Michigan, where he knew a friend. The family soon got word to come join their father up North. Pee Wee was eight years old at the time. “I never knew anything about Racine. I didn’t know anything but down south.”

Pee Wee’s family story reminds us of the inadequacies of a word like “migration” to describe what drew six million people across hundreds of miles at such a dramatic pace. No vast uprooting of family and community life is sparked only by the appeal of distant opportunity. Families like the Hayes faced the impossibility of staying put. As Pee Wee puts it, they “had no choice.”’

Isabel Wilkerson’s momentous 2010 saga of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, tells this story in other words: a massive refugee movement in search of political asylum from the caste system of the South. Each family that moved wanted both work and refuge. They were simultaneously pushed and pulled from home. They took their futures into their own hands, but they were displaced by the dismantling of Reconstruction-era promises and the emergence of the Jim Crow South.

Figure 1. Civil Rights protesters at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Source: The Capital Times

Millions of Americans have been refugees in their own country. The scale of the Great Migration has not been matched here in the half decade since, but a similar disruption and reorganization of African American communities occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As refugees from the storm scattered across the country, communities shattered, cultural landscapes shifted, and new cross-pollinations took flower. Music Maker partner artist Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen can tell this story—it is her own journey from New Orleans to East Spencer, North Carolina, and the new music scene she discovered there.

Listening closely to the sound and stories of American roots music helps us tell a history that starts from the people. Our musical traditions are the stories of our everyday lives, as we weather our moment in time. All across the urban North, Chicago blues emerged as the amplified street music of industrial cities infused with the energy of a new kind of everyday life experience. As Keb’ Mo’ described the blues for those children of the Great Migration: “You have to put some new life into it, new blood, new perspectives. You can’t keep talking about mules, workin’ on the levee.” As a new generation of artists like Pee Wee came of age in the urban North, they transformed the blues to fit the lives their parents were able to make for them, because they were able to find refuge.

Pee Wee will be performing at the Freight Train Blues series in Carrboro, North Carolina on May 18. Learn more – HERE

Figure 2. Electric blues on Maxwell Street, Chicago.


— Zoe Van Buren

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