Cover image for Debt and Redemption in the Blues: The Call for Justice By Julia Simon

Debt and Redemption in the Blues

The Call for Justice

Julia Simon


$104.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-09495-3

Available as an e-book

254 pages
6" × 9"

American Music History

Debt and Redemption in the Blues

The Call for Justice

Julia Simon

“A fresh and much-needed accounting of the economic and political ramifications of blues lyrics.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
This volume explores concepts of freedom and bondage in the blues and argues that this genre of music explicitly calls for a reckoning while expressing faith in a secular justice to come.

Placing blues music within its historical context of the post-Reconstruction South, Jim Crow America, and the civil rights era, Julia Simon finds a deep symbolism in the lyrical representations of romantic and sexual betrayal. The blues calls out and indicts the tangled web of deceit and entrapment constraining the physical, socioeconomic, and political movement of African Americans. Surveying blues music from the 1920s to the early twenty-first century, Simon’s analyses focus on economic relations, such as sharecropping, house contract sales, debt peonage, criminal surety, and convict lease. She demonstrates how the music reflects this exploitative economic history and how it is shaped by commodification under racialized capitalism. As Simon assesses the lyrics, technique, and styles of a wide range of blues musicians, including Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Albert Collins, and Kirk Fletcher, she argues forcefully that the call for racial justice is at the heart of the blues.

A highly sophisticated interpretation of the blues tradition steeped in musicology, social history, and critical-cultural hermeneutics, Debt and Redemption not only clarifies blues as an aesthetic tradition but, more importantly, proves that it advances a theory of social and economic development and change.

“A fresh and much-needed accounting of the economic and political ramifications of blues lyrics.”
“A fabulous and much-needed book. It is a pioneering study of musicking, protest, and political economy, a call for reparations even as it directs our attention to that call in the blues. It will open our eyes, unclog our ears, and strengthen our hearts to learn that Black musicians have been leading us to justice all along. It is up to us to follow.”
“Simon’s overall argument is compelling, her scholarship surpassingly good, and her exegeses of individual blues songs are consistently insightful and even scintillating. Debt and Redemption in the Blues is a major work of blues scholarship.”
“By synthesizing an understudied body of literature, Debt and Redemption in the Blues presents a wide variety of original interpretations. The balance of the logic in Julia Simon’s ethno-musical analysis and the imagination of selecting thematically relevant expressions deepens our understanding of Black history and culture.”

Julia Simon is Professor of French and is on the faculty of the Cultural Studies Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of five books, including The Inconvenient Lonnie Johnson: Blues, Race, Identity, also published by Penn State University Press.



1. Sharecropping, Tenancy, and House Contract Sales

2. Coercion, Debt Peonage, and Convict Labor

3. The Blues, Commodification, and Capitalism

4. From Debt to Redemption

5. A History of Relief

6. The Call for Justice in the Blues






Download a PDF sample chapter here: Introduction