Blues Settings

Blues Settings

Where did musicians play the blues?

Tobacco Warehouses
Blues SettingsThe tobacco factories on Pettigrew and Fayetteville streets in Durham drew not only African Americans who had been shunned by other employers during the Jim Crow era, but they also attracted blues musicians seeking to earn a living from tips they could receive for their playing. Gary Davis, for instance, stood next to a woman's barbecue stop on the corner of Pettigrew and Fayetteville.

However, work was seasonal. Tobacco processing began in the fall and ended after the winter. Tobacco auctions at the Bull City warehouses brought farmers with cash who were willing to pay for good music as well as fine tobacco. Typically only professional bluesmen like Blind Boy Fuller, Gary Davis and Sonny Terry could earn enough tips to support themselves. A good tip could be as much as fifteen dollars, more than five times what the factory jobs paid. But the seasonal nature of the work, in addition to the constant urging of police for crowds to move off the narrow streets, forced many musicians to consider other venues to supplement the income they made on the streets.

Another street setting that proved more stable were the cafés and barbershops around town. Lincoln Café, across Pettigrew Street from the Bull City barbershop, and the City Newsstand provided consistent work for musicians and entertainment for customers.

The House Party
Blues SettingsThe house party provided another source of income for musicians and were a primary source of entertainment for working class African Americans. This setting acquired its name from the first and most popular type of house party--a weekend of dancing, drinking and gambling in someone's house. Homeowners did not hold regular parties, but people could usually find a house party somewhere every weekend. Some of the more informal house parties were known as "fish fries," a version of a 1920 rent party where the homeowner would sell food and drinks. Musicians would play for tips and often appeared at the same house whenever the owner hosted a party. For example, Gary Davis played at Wednesday night prayer meetings in homes.

The second type of house party functioned similarly to a bar and were also called "juke joints." These parties happened every weekend at the same house and were managed by bootleggers, who used them to sell illegal alcohol and concessions at a profit. Unlike at the informal house parties, musicians received a set fee for playing from early evening until about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. Blues pianists who could not find work at theaters often performed at these house parties.

Musicians also performed in theaters. At the suggestion of John Merrick, founder of North Carolina Mutual, F.K. Watkins of Atlanta opened the Wonderland, a thriving theater-vaudeville business in Durham that employed several blues pianists. Some blues musicians received payment for specific performances; others worked on contract.