The Story of Blues Parties in Southampton

For many the term “Blues Parties” also known as “Shebeens” conjures up images of Black people in smoke filled basements with heavy dub music booming out of giant speakers stacks. However, Blues parties were much more than that; they were significant places of resistance, where Black culture could be freely exercised and celebrated.

Although in the early 20th century the Black presence was negligible. It was mainly visible via dignitaries, military personnel or through sports , music and theatre and it very rarely touched everyday life in any real sense. In areas where there was a close association, such as the port towns of Cardiff and Liverpool racism was rampant. In 1919 Cardiff was the scene of organised attacks on the Black population fuelled by competition for jobs and anxieties about inter-racial mixing. In Southampton, at the same time, Black people were excluded from pubs, clubs and churches and in many places contact between Black and White people was actively discouraged.

When Enoch Powell was the Health minister between 1960-1963 the Conservative government encouraged people from the Caribbean to come to the UK to help with the labour shortage. The UK needed workers for a number of key industries such as health, rail and transport services, who were well known for recruiting Black people at that time. When the first ships from the Caribbean arrived the migrants had dreams and expectations of a better life. Although Britain was seen as the “Mother Country”, on arrival they were met with a mixture of curiosity and fear. There was little to no acknowledgment at the time of the contributions that the colonies made to the WWII effort, and it also became apparent that it was expected that they would return to the Caribbean once the labour shortage crisis was over.

Trying to find accommodation was one of the first experiences of accommodation. Signs such as “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” were commonplace and resulted in migrants being forced into areas known as “ghettos” where they were exploited by ruthless landlords. Legislation followed which outlawed this practice, but it still continued by other means. The so called “Colour Bar” became a social system where Black people were denied access to the same rights as White people and it was difficult for Black people to find jobs to match their skills. They were also unlikely to be promoted and the idea of answering to a Black boss was something many White employees had difficulty in accepting. Racial slurs, anger at mixed race relationships, violent attacks and even murder, made life very difficult for these new migrants.

While employment in the UK was hard, leisure time was also a problem. Dance clubs and pubs in the cities were places many Black people did not feel comfortable. Either these clubs did not let people in, or made them feel uncomfortable once they got in. This environment of oppression and exclusion laid the foundations for an alternative scene where West Indians found their own outlet of expression and freedom. West Indian culture, including music, food and language were strong elements that helped to soften the bad experiences that were endured. Caribbean food was not readily available in the shops and the music was not easy to find in the record stores so much had to be imported from the Caribbean. This stimulated a self-sustaining economy that started to develop within these communities.

Music, food, and language played a crucial role. Music gave people the opportunity to listen to their own sounds that were not often played on the radio. Food would be cooked Caribbean style and conversations would be in their own version of the English language. This is how house parties were born usually happening in people’s homes which were often rented flats in large house in these working-class, inner-city suburbs.

The Southampton Story

In Southampton in the 60s and 70s Black people had begun to open and run their own establishments. Migrants settled in inner city areas such as Newtown and St. Mary’s which earlier in the century had been previously occupied by wealthy people with large red brick properties designed with servant quarters and basements. By the 60s and 70s many of these properties had fallen into disrepair and became a source of houses of multiple occupation. Derby Rd was the central part of Newtown and was infamous at the time for being Southampton’s red-light district. The area from Northbrook Rd down the length of Derby Rd towards Mount Pleasant Rd where the level crossing made a natural barrier was known as “The Jungle” by both Black and White communities alike. Residential homes were interspersed with schools, shops and community centres making this a vibrant community like no other. Despite its reputation and despite a heavy police presence it was always lively and bustling and actually remarkably safe.

The Blues parties in the area were run and managed by colourful characters, each with their own individual identity with music played at a volume that suited them. The music was mainly Ska, Rock Steady, Dub, Dancehall and sometimes Soul music; complemented by the spontaneous skills of toasters and MCs. In 1976 the West Indian club was set up and became a key venue until closure in recent years.

Blues parties were the places many people went to after mainstream clubs and pubs had closed for the night. People could have access to alcohol beyond normal licensing hours and good West Indian food was often available. In Southampton, in particular, the parties gained a reputation for being exciting vibrant places where acceptance was the norm, the music was loud, and freedom of expression reigned.. They generally opened till the early hours and were sometimes a cause for complaint from neighbours and although subject to multiple police raids, always re-opened.

The music played at Blues Parties, laid the foundation for many aspects of the future entertainment industry.. The selling of late-night liquor and the availability of food all night long have since become norms.. The music has stood the test of time and is now fully integrated into popular music culture, which very often is not recognised as it should be. By the end of the 1960s ska and reggae had even impacted on the birth of the skinhead movement in the UK. In the 1970s its influence could be heard through western culture influencing artists such as Eric Clapton and the Clash. During the same decade, it inspired rappers in the USA, giving rise to hip-hop culture.

The presence of “Bass Culture” in contemporary music has influenced genres such as jungle, House and Grime and many others subsequently. This cultural phenomenon has contributed to the Southanpton music scene and to wider British culture.