The Music, History, and Inspiration of the Chitlin’ Circuit

jaci remondet staff

A vibrant soundtrack of soulful music plays within the walls of juke joints and dance halls that make up the Chitlin Circuit. 

The cords play sounds of pain, joy, challenges and resilience, but these melodies are not just confined to that time and within those walls. The musical roots stem deep into history and echo throughout present-day symphonies. 

A web of juke joints and clubs named the Chitlin Circuit hosted African-American musicians during the Jim Crow era. Sounds of jazz, blues, and R&B filled the various venues of the circuit. Drummer Rodgers George, who learned to play on the circuit,  says “Dancing Music” was his main genre.

“We did music for the people that wanted to dance,” says George. “And we did dance music all of our lives so that meant you played for all ages.”

Rodgers and his band didn’t play any specific genre of music but rather music that got people to dance. 

Blues is the foundation of the Chitin Circuit sounds and most modern musical genres. Eileen Southern says in “The Music of Black Americans: A History” that blues originated from the early days of American slavery. The slaves used it as a language. It was a way for slaves to communicate their feelings, hopes and struggles.

“Through the medium of song the slaves could comment on the problems and savor the few pleasures allowed them; they could voice their despair and hopes, and assert their humanity in an environment that constantly denied their humanness."

According to Southern, the songs ranged from full phrases to simple “whoops” and each one had deep meaning. 

Michael V. Uschan, author of “The Music Library: The History of The Blues,” says that African American pianist Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, better known as Jelly Roll Morton, made the earliest recorded mention of the blues in 1902. 

In New Orleans, Morton encountered Ma Rainey, later known as the “Mother of the Blues,” singing about the struggles of providing for the man she loved while playing the piano with just three fingers.

Blues heavily inspired the musical style of the Chitlin Circuit, and it continues to influence music today. 

In the 1950s, African Americans fused blues with gospel music from the Pentecostal Church, creating a new sound called rhythm and blues, according to the book “The History of R&B and Soul Music.” Working-class African Americans deserve credit for developing original United States musical genres inside of juke joints.

“[The blues] is prevalent in all kinds of music not just jazz but rhythm and blues, country, rock, so it is still used today by musicians in a number of different genres,” says Nicholls State University music professor Jason Ladd.

Music historian Tom Piazza says in the book “The History of The Blue,” “[It] may be helpful to see the blues as a huge river through the middle of our culture. Almost every notable form of American music in the twentieth century is a city or a village along that river.”

Though the physical form of the Chitlin Circuit no longer exists, its soul is still alive today within every song and every beat. 

The Chitlin' Circuit Music: An Inspiration