Have you ever discovered an unexpected connection between two completely different things you love?
That happened to me recently when I learned there were links between early blues music and quilt-making (which is another hobby of mine). When I realised it actually sent shivers down my spine.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by patchwork quilts. I love the history and stories they tell. The rich fabric of social history is there for us in many traditions. These include sewing, music and dance.
Quilting during the times of slavery
Slave women were always involved in the making of textiles, whether on plantations or smaller farms. Women carded cotton, spun thread, wove and dyed cloth and sewed clothes and bedding.
Some slave owners gave slaves a blanket each Christmas, but one blanket could not keep anyone warm in winter. Most slave women had to make extra coverlets and quilts to keep themselves and their families warm.
Quilts and blankets softened straw mattress resting on a bed made of hard planks. Quilts had to be very sturdy to last years of hard use. They were washed by hand in an iron pot, filled with water from a well, and boiled with lye soap before being beaten with sticks to push the dirt out.
African American folk-art
I first learned about the importance of quilting in African-American folk art through this documentary. It is about an isolated community at Gees Bend in Alabama that has been making quilts since the 19th century.
From the time of slavery right through into the 20th century, Gee’s Bend women made quilts to keep themselves and their children warm in unheated shacks that lacked running water, telephones and electricity. The quilts they made out of necessity displayed a deeper artistry with a distinctive style, noted for improvisations and simplicity.
Their work is considered to be unique and one of the most important African-American visual and cultural contributions to the history of art in the United States. (The Quilts of Gees Bend is a book that I would love to own that contains colour plates of the Gees Bend quilt-making tradition.)
Music, dance and quilting
Recently I was given a different book called Stitching Stars – The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers by Mary E. Lyons. It is a colourful picture-book that tells the social history of quilting through the story of one woman and the quilts she made.
Reading this book I learned that the history of quilt-making was linked to music and dance traditions too. Some slave owners allowed women to see their quilts for cash and they were often given as prizes at buck-dancing contests at plantation dances.
Women travelled from one plantation to another for quilting bees. Mistresses supervised sewing during the day, but quilting bees were private. Each woman could be an artist with scissors and cloth. This was rare time that they had to themselves. Quilting bees were sometimes run as competitions. Groups of women competed to see who could complete their quilt the fastest.
When the quilting was done the men were invited for a quilting feast. Music and dancing followed the food. These gatherings would draw travelling entertainers. Early blues musicians such as Charlie Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson would have played at larger plantation dances. This was one of the ways in which they learned from each other, and how early blues songs changed lyrics and gained new verses.
These events were an opportunity to socialise, play, compete, maybe win a prize, but most importantly bring release from the relentless hardship of everyday life. Dancing and quilting shared a ceremonial and social function, celebrating and marking rites of passage, seasonal celebrations and weddings.
Quilts, like dances, were precious items that provided beauty, fun and even romance to ease the hard times of slavery. Young people went to the quilting bees for flirting and dancing as much as to sew.
When I think of blues dancing in our community nowadays, it’s not so different. A chance to gather, to see friends from further away, to hear music, to dance, maybe mess around in a jam circle or a soul train. We are excited to see our travelling musicians and entertainers. Most of all, we are uplifted and transported from our everyday lives.