Masks of Dialogue: Mikhail Bakhtin and African American Blues Protest Songs

Wednesday, December 31, 1969, 7:00 PM - 7:00 PM

Type: Single Paper

Tags: African American; Music; Popular Culture


Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin stated that the language of poets and
politicians were masks and no language could claim to be an authentic incontestable face. In
the postbellum American South African American blues’ musicians employed an alternative
voice that would counter the language of a racially segregated nation. This paper exposes the
carnivalesque response of American blues’ musicians with the dialogic relationship of American
social norms, forming a narrative bridge between societal norms and a subaltern voice of
protest. The Bakhtinian carnivalesque expression can be seen in blues songs by Blind Lemon
Jefferson and the more satirical songs by Lead Belly and Nina Simone. The many language
masks of American society are a cohabitation of various epochs and periods of socio-ideological
life. While the official unitary voice of the American state as a whole would seek to
disenfranchise African Americans, the music of the blues on the other hand, demanded an
audience to lament their injustices. By juxtaposing American blues’ lyrics and performance of
the early 20 th century to the state narrative, the carnivalesque link of change and rebirth can be
exposed. Like the spirituals the blues were rooted in, the malleability of carnival music is in the
ongoing chain of statements and responses. Carnival became a way for the musician to speak
candidly about society without repercussions. This paper argues African American blues songs
were a mask of dialogue that can be analyzed in order to better understand southern black
American culture. While Bakhtin never turned his eye towards American culture, let alone that
of bluesmen’s lyrics, his theories offer an alternative story of black history, despite its clever
camouflage, that can be used as a historical tool.

Session Participants

Presenter: Jonathan Scott Lower, University at Buffalo, State University of New York
Jonathan Lower’s research focus is on US popular culture in the 20th century, merging multiple academic disciplines for a comparative approach to history and pop culture. Jonathan is currently a PhD Candidate working on his doctoral dissertation investigating the intersections of Race, Music and Disability in early 20th century Blues Musicians. He focuses on rural southern African Americans living in the United States during the early 1900s, particularly the social context of rural musicians during the Great Migration, as well as the role popular music played in shaping American society that still resonates today. While working on his dissertation, Jonathan is currently a visiting scholar at Case Western Reserve and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Archives and adjunct professor at Columbus State Community College.