All About The Chitlin’ Circuit Beyoncé Referenced On ‘Cowboy Carter’

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A few days before Beyoncé released her new album, “Cowboy Carter,” on March 29, the superstar unveiled the track list on social media. While many fans were surprised to learn the LP would include over 20 songs, some pointed out a detail in the Western-style poster which honored Black pioneers in music who came before her. 

In the graphic she uploaded to Instagram, which displayed the “Cowboy Carter” song titles and collaborators in red, white and blue fonts, the words “Cowboy Carter And The Rodeo Chitlin’ Circuit,” are seen at the top of the poster.

Members of the BeyHive were quick to educate fellow fans on the cultural importance of the “Chitlin’ Circuit” in the Black community in the comments section of the post.  

One commented, “The way she giving out history lessons. The chitlin circuit is (a) historic collection of venues that provided space for Black American artist, music and entertainment!”

More applauded Beyoncé referencing the circuit on X. 

“Reminder that Beyonce is trying to teach you something,” one fan noted. “For those who don’t know The Chitlin Circuit, they were performance venues where black people were allowed to tour and make a name for themselves during the segregation era.”

Another praised Beyoncé, writing in part, “The fact Beyoncé sells out stadiums across the entire world is something Our predecessors never dreamed of happening. She is Black History.”

A third BeyHive member included examples of flyers for shows on the Chitlin’ Circuit, which the Grammy-winner mirrored with her track list announcement. 

Beyoncé makes another nod to the Chitlin’ Circuit at the start of the song “Ya Ya.”

“We wanna welcome you to the Beyoncé Cowboy Carter: Act II, ah/ And a rodeo chitlin’ circuit,” she says.

As fans pointed out in their posts, the Chitlin’ Circuit gave a platform and a space for Black artists to perform and share their talents when they were prohibited from singing in white venues. 

In a statement about the inspiration behind “Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé wrote on Instagram that the album was “born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed…and it was very clear that I wasn’t.” 

Though she didn’t specifically name the “experience,” many speculated it was her performance at the 2016 Country Music Association Awards when she performed “Daddy Lessons” from her 2016 album “Lemonade,” with The Dixie Chicks, now known as The Chicks.

During that performance, which was the first time Beyoncé had taken the CMA stage, some audience members loudly booed at her, while others negatively reacted online with racist comments.

Her experience echoes the hardships many Black artists faced as they tried to get their start in the industry and looked to the Chitlin’ Circuit for support. 

Read on to learn more about the influential circuit that helped iconic Black performers make a name for themselves. 

What is the history behind the Chitlin’ Circuit?

During the Jim Crow era, theaters were segregated, preventing Black musicians from performing in white venues. So, Black artists sang and entertained in a series of clubs and theaters in Black neighborhoods that welcomed them known as the Chitlin’ Circuit.

Dr. Steven Lewis, who previously worked as a curator at the National Museum of African American Music, spoke to USA Today in 2021 about how the Chitlin Circuit’ became a launching pad for Black artists at the time. 

“It’s those nightclubs where the music happened,” he said. “You really don’t have the story of so many of these musicians without understanding the African-American entertainment world that was grounded in the Black community. That’s where so many of the artists that we celebrate in the museum got their start.”

He added, “It’s an essential part of the story.”

Lewis later explained that Chitlin Circuit’ introduced Black artists to smaller communities as they built a larger following.  

“It’s vital because it’s not only a gathering place, it’s also a place where a local community is able to plug into the national African-American entertainment world,” he said. 

The name of the circuit stems from a cultural dish called chitlins or chitterlings, which is made from pig intestines that are often boiled then fried. 

Grammy-winning blues composer and singer Bobby Rush told USA Today that the artists playing the circuit barely made any money and were sometimes performing for chitlins in return. The musician remembered performing in the “juke joints” at the start of his career. 

“We played so well in Argo, Illinois, not Chicago, a suburb of Chicago, the guy (gave) us two plates of chitlins and four hamburgers. We ate one chitlins, we sell the other for $.35 and we sell the hamburgers for $.25. I’d make a $1.25 or a $1.35 on my hamburgers every night,” he recalled. 

Despite the demanding schedule and low wages, performers still found joy in celebrating their talents with their community. 

Author Preston Lauterbach wrote about the history of the circuit in his 2011 book, “The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

When speaking to NPR in 2014, he described the circuit as Black people’s way of “making something beautiful out of something ugly, whether it’s making cuisine out of hog intestines or making world-class entertainment despite being excluded from all of the world-class venues, all of the fancy white clubs and all the first-rate white theaters.” 

What kind of acts performed on the Chitlin’ Circuit?

Patrons arrived at venues on the Chitlin’ Circuit hoping for a brief reprieve once a week from the racism and bigotry they faced daily. There, they laughed and were entertained by a series of acts similar to a “variety show,” Lauterbach told USA Today. 

Dancers, comedians and musicians performed in vaudeville type shows — originally organized by Theater Owners Booking Association, the outlet reported — under difficult conditions. The audience danced and sang along with them. 

Music executive Alan Leeds, who worked for James Brown when he played gigs on the circuit, explained to USA Today how the shows were a form of stress relief. 

He said, “When Saturday came, you really wanted to relieve the stress. Psychological stress as much as physical stress, because of the 24-7 oppression of Jim Crow, which on the surface people adjusted to.”

Leeds continued, “There’s a subliminal (effect) to living that way that we’re only now beginning to really recognize.” 

Which artists performed along the Chitlin Circuit?

Brown was one of many legendary artists who were regulars in the circuit. 

In his book “There Was a Time: James Brown, The Chitlin’ Circuit, and Me,” Leeds revealed that Brown once performed 37 shows in 11 days and would typically tour 51 weeks a year, USA Today reported. 

Rock n’ roll kings and queens, like Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, also played shows on the circuit, according to the publication. Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Marvin Gaye, Count Basie, Muddy Waters and more got their start performing in the Chitlin’ Circuit nightclubs, too.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Nile Rodgers mentioned more musicians who frequented the circuit in his 2011 book, “Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny.” 

Most RB acts east of the Rockies worked it on some level,” he wrote about the Chitlin’ Circuit in an excerpt from the book published by GQ. “There would be no Commodores, Impressions, Marvin Gaye, LaBelle, Hendrix, or Funkadelic without it.” 

Rodgers likened it to Class A (Single-A) baseball, the fourth-highest level of play in Minor League Baseball.

He explained, “You had a long way to go to get to the majors, but it was a necessary step. It may have been the minors, but the Fairtree had a tough crowd that was used to seeing quality acts, some of whom would go on to become big stars.” 

Some of these acts were comedic. Stand-up comedians and actors Moms Mabley and Flip Wilson’s start in the Chitlin’ Circuit was highlighted in the 2013 HBO documentary “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley.” 

The film showed how Moms Mabley became well known in the Chitlin’ Circuit before reaching a wider audience on television and in bigger venues, like Carnegie Hall. 

According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Moms Mabley was the first female comedian to perform a solo set at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, one of the most illustrious Chitlin’ Circuit venues. 

What states and venues were included in the Chitlin’ Circuit? 

Many theaters in the Chitlin’ Circuit were located on the East Coast and in the South on “the stroll,” USA Today reported. The stroll was a section in neighborhoods packed with markets, eateries and beer joints. 

In addition to the Apollo Theater, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta was another popular venue where rising Black artists performed, the Los Angeles Times reported

 Royal Peacock Club
The Royal Peacock Club was one of the famous Black venues featured on the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” Above is a group of patrons visiting the club in Atlanta during the 1960’s. Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Multiple music icons were spotted at Club Ebony in Indianola, Mississippi, as well, according to The New York Times. Tina and Ike Turner, Ray Charles and B.B. King regularly visited the blues venue, which reopened in 2023 after a few years of repairs.

The Littlejohn Grill in South Carolina is now known as the Littlejohn Community Center. But before it was torn down in the 1980s, it used to be a nightclub that hosted the likes of James Brown, Harry Belafonte and Ray Charles.

Greenville News announced in 2021 that the city of Clemson purchased a historical marker to place in front of the community center that now stands in its place. 

USA Today reported that at one point the Chitlin’ Circuit stretched as far west as Oklahoma. The Apollo Theater, the Royal Peacock and the Dreamland Ballroom, located in Little Rock, are some of the few venues that still remain. 



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