Anarchy 51/Blues walking like a man
like a man
Although the precise geographical, historical and musical origins of the blues are uncertain, the social conditions which produced it are well-recorded, not least of all in the blues itself. In the white supremacist society of the south the negro was in a situation of terrifying paradox:
The blues has influenced jazz, “pop” music and even “serious” music, yet its structure is extremely simple. In its developed form it amounts to a three line stanza, with one line repeated and a third line, rhymed or unrhymed, in the form of call and response, a heritage from work songs. Sleepy John Estes, one of the finest living rural singers, sings:
- Now I was sittin’ in jail wi’ my eyes all full of tears (repeat)
- Y’know, I’m glad didn’t get lifetime, boys, that I ’scaped th’ ’lectric chair
and Jaydee Short sang bitterly:
- So dark was the night now, people; cold, cold was the ground (repeat)
- Me ’n’ my buddies in two foxholes, had to keep our heads on down
Earlier singers drew more on the entire tradition of negro folk-song and less on a still incomplete blues tradition, and there was less fixed form. Bukka White, in a haunting blues, sings:
- I’m lookin’ far in min’, believe I’m fixin’ to die,
- I believe I’m fixin’ to die,
- I’m lookin’ far in min’,
- I believe I’m fixin’ to die.
- I know I was born to die, but I hate to leave my chillen cryin’
- Mother, take my chillen back, before they let me down,
- ’Fore they let me down,
- Mother, take my chillen back,
- ’Fore they let me down,
- And don’ leave them standin’ and cryin’ on the graveyar’ groun’
Another early singer, Skip James, sings in two line verses:
- Hard time here, everywhere y’ go
- Time’s harder than they ever been before.
- If you certain y’ had money, you better be sure,
- ’Cause these hard times will drive y’ from do’ to do’.
Although Mississippi takes pride of place in any discussion of blues, there were fine singers from other areas. Jay Bird Coleman, a superbly ferocious harmonica player came from Bessemer, Alabama, and was so successful that the local Ku Klux Klan took over his management. Blind Boy Fuller came from Carolina, Oscar Woods (The Lone Wolf) from Louisiana, Peg Leg Howell and Blind Willie McTell from Georgia, Bill Broonzy from Arkansas, and Furry Lewis from Tennessee. Also from Tennessee came the two great jug bands—Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers and the Memphis Jug Band. The other great jug band—the Birmingham Jug Band—was from Alabama.
The early blues found its way onto record in the early ’twenties, not through the devotion of ethnomusicologists but because record companies realised that it was a commercial proposition. Most of the early recordings were “field-recorded” in rural centres like Memphis, Dallas and Atlanta, in small halls and bars, wherever space could be found to set up equipment, and the records, by Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Charlie Patton, Gus Cannon, Jed Davenport and later Sonny Boy Williamson, Bill Broonzy, Tommy McClennan, Blind Boy Fuller and Cripple Clarence Lofton, flooded through the mails and from the small-town stores into thousands of negro homes. The singers soon found themselves “race-heroes” and the derisively labelled “race-record” market was a booming business. Fortunately men like Ralph Peer of Victor and Mayo Williams of Paramount had excellent taste and much of the early field recording was of great interest and superlative quality.It requires enormous efforts of imagination to understand the conditions in the Deep South during the years in which the blues began. After the Civil War, when negroes had been given their “freedom”, the white south, with embittered ruthlessness, set about the re-enslavement of the negro population by “legal” means. The negroes soon found themselves driven off their newly-gained land by former owners and the fast developing railroad companies. They were increasingly the victims of Jim Crow legislation, designed to keep them in their place regardless of the Fourteenth Amendment. They were forced to work on the railroads; to work the land as tenant share-croppers, which meant in effect reversion to slavery; to work on the levees, in the sawmills or turpentine camps, which became symbols of racial subjugation. Wherever they went they were swindled and exploited with sophisticated savagery, designed, consciously or not, to demoralise as well as to enslave. Often they were charged more for food and lodging than they could possibly earn. It is a bitter commentary on the south that when Alan Lomax issued his superb Blues in the Mississippi Night recordings in 1957, he still felt it necessary to hide the real identities of the three singers whose reminiscences were contained on the record. The performers are listed simply as Sib, Natchez and Leroy but they were in fact the harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson, the guitarist Bill Broonzy and the pianist Memphis Slim Chatman. There was always the added risk of natural calamity. Texas is subject to floods and so is Mississippi: when
In the search for better work and living conditions, thousands of negroes trekked north, from the ’twenties up to the present, in the sort of exodus which is a feature of the history of racially tormented minorities. They arrived in the north by road and rail. They had no right on either, but the rail usually gave them a better chance. They could either walk the long straight lines—always risking a fall between them, and with it death, induced by the tiring and hypnotic effect of doing so—or they could “jump” a train. This was riskier, but quicker. The traveller stands on one of the few slow curves in the track and then, in Paul Oliver’s words:
“. . . breaks from cover and dashes towards the track taking advantage of the slowing of the train to make boarding possible, and of the bend to hide his movements. Crooked fingers clutch the couplings and he swings perilously on the swaying truck before getting a firmer grip. He may make for the blinds if he can. These are the baggage cars next to the tender, which are ‘blind’ or, in other words, have no side door. Sitting on the step he is safe and out of reach of the brakeman’s club. . . . More dangerous, but out of sight and unapproachable, are the brake rods that run beneath the freight cars. Risking his life he may try to worm his way across these, or if he is unusually adept he may carry a small board to throw across the rods and then precipitate himself upon it in the narrow gap between them and the underneath of the truck . . . in icy winds, in choking poisonous fumes of the railroad tunnels, he may freeze to numbness or succumb to exposure and drop to certain death . . .”
There can be few worse condemnations of a society than that it should make this method of travel acceptable. Despite the risks the exodus continued, and women and children, as well as men, risked road and rail to go north:
- Oh, stop your train, let a poor boy ride.
- Don’t you hear me cryin’?
- Woo oo woo oo wooo . . .
- Oh, fare you well, never see you no more.
- Don’t you hear me cryin’?
- Woo oo woo oo wooo . . .
- Oh, train I ride, smokestack shine like gold.
- Don’t you hear me cryin’?
- Woo oo woo oo wooo . . .
From the blues recordings we have a record of negro life, its joy and laughter—blues were primarily to entertain—as well as its bitterness and sorrow. We have stories of broken relationships, of rent parties, of work in the fields of the south and the mills and factories of the north. Much of it is fine folk poetry, some of interest because of its subject, at its bext an index of the singer’s feelings as well as a vivid picture of social conditions and the despair of the negro’s brutalised life, a despair usually lightened only by the spiritual release of religion, the erotic release of sex or the physical release of violent pleasure. A much recorded blues begins:
- Rock me, mama, rock me all night long (repeat)
- I want you to rock me, mama, till by back ain’t got no bone.
and Chester Burnett (Howling Wolf) sings:
- Tell ole Pistol Pete, everybody gonna meet,
- Tonight we need no rest, we really gonna throw a mess,
- We gonna break out all the windows, we gonna kick down all the doors,
- We gonna fix a Wang Dang Doodle, all night long, all night long. . . .
- Tell Fats and Washboard Sam, that me ’n’ everybody gonna jam,
- Tell Shakey, Box Car Joe, we got sawdust on the floor,
- Tell Jennie Mae, till I die we gonna have a time,
- Well the fish scent fill the air, there’s love juice everywhere.
- We gonna fix a Wang Dang Doodle. . . .
Race records catered for various audiences and ranged from the harsh religious songs of Blind Willie Johnson—once arrested for incitement outside a Customs House, for singing his Samson song, If I Had My Way I’d Tear This Building Down—to the lilting, leering blues of Blind Boy Fuller, which were often simply strings of sexual metaphores. Johnson and Fuller epitomised two main sources of relief for the negro—religion and sex. There were also songs on the catalogues about everything from cocaine sniffing to meningitis, and there were a large number of blues about prison, suffered usually as a result of minor offences but frequently enough for more vicious crimes, and quite often for murder.Prison was a daily feature in the lives of many families. It is some indication of the viciousness of the prisons and prison farms that, as recently as 1951, fourteen prisoners in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola hamstrung themselves rather than submit to beating with the “bat”, a particularly crude, fourteen pound leather strap which, according to Paul Oliver, “can break a brick at a single blow”. Yet prison farms, like Angola, were preferable to the overcrowded, unhealthy, closed prisons. The prison system is, even by conservative judgements, totally inadequate and archaic and even where there have been Federal
Murder occurs frequently in blues, both as a threat and as an occurrence, an indication of the everyday violence of American negro life. Sonny Boy Williamson sang:
- I got the meanest woman, the meanest woman you most ever seen,
- She sleep with an ice pick in her hand, man, fights all in her dreams,
- I’d soomer be sleepin’ with the devil, I’d sooner be sleepin’ with the devil . . .
Williamson died in 1948 on his way to hospital—his cranium split by an ice-pick—the victim of the casual violence of his own people, killed either by a jealous husband or young thugs after his money.
The blues quoted above is also indicative of the disintegrative effect the negro’s position in society had on the stability of family life. Many singers have recorded blues about leaving women, or women leaving them; many have sung about their mothers, few about their fathers. The reason is not hard to find—in thousands of cases the mother was left to bring up children on her own, the father having left in frustration or in search of work. Not surprisingly jealousy also looms large:
- Lord, my hair is a-risin’, my flesh begin to crawl (repeat)
- Had a dream last night, babe, ’nother mule in my doggone stall
And so does seduction:
- I am a back door man (repeat)
- Well the men don’t know but the little girls understand
- When everybody tryin’ to sleep, I’m somewhere makin’ my midnight creep.
- I’m the mornin’ when the rooster crow, somethin’ tell me I gotta go. . . .
As an aid to sexual ability and attraction, charms were used—mojo teeth, mojo hands, black cat bones, John the Conkeror roots. Muddy Waters sings:
- I’m goin’ down Louisiana, baby, behin’ the sun (repeat)
- Well, you know, I just found out my troubles just begun
- I’m goin’ down in New Orleans—hmmm—get me a mojo hand (repeat)
- I wan’ show all you good lookin’ women just how to treat your man.
For the most part however there was little relief and little assistance. The great Robert Johnson, another Delta singer, obviously haunted by the phantoms of a divided society and using imagery of considerable richness, sang:
- I gotta keep movin’, I gotta keep movin’
- Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail (repeat)
- I can’t keep no money, hellhound on my trail,
- Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail
- You may bury my body down by the highway side
- (Spoken: Babe, don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone)
- You can bury my old body down by the highway side
- Lord, my ole evil spirit can catch a greyhound bus and ride.
Johnson’s blues remain the most personal and frightening of negro folk music, with their sense of transient ecstasy and sorrow, heightened by an abiding torment and despair. In his work the blues lays its most serious claim to be considered an art form, and of all the great singers he is the most likely to chill and electrify the listener, to make the agony of his life real, and to communicate, from his intense, tortured private emotions, the situation and condition of his people. Johnson is frightening because he is a victim without realisation of the complete meaning of his victimisation. His songs are, in the social sense, inarticulate, and this gives them their peculiar eloquence. It was not only social conditions which affected Johnson: he was obviously chained by his own shyness and frustration. He is thought to have been poisoned by his common law wife or to have died from alcohol poisoning; whichever way, he died young in 1938. Howling Wolf, who knew him vaguely, says he was about 25 at the time; Muddy Waters thinks he was about 30; he is generally thought to have been about 19. Johnson must have had more money than most negroes of his age and he seems to have had some trouble with women:
- Got up this mornin’ to fin’ it was gone (repeat)
- Got up this mornin’, all I had was gone
- Well, leavin’ this mornin’ if I have to, gon’ ride the blinds
And in another of his blues he sang:
- Gonna stay roun’ Jonesboro, until my teeth crowned with gold (repeat)
- She got a mortgage on my body, got a lien on my soul.
In Johnson—the inheritor of a tradition which stretched from the itinerant timbermill worker Charlie Patton, a beautiful, heavy voiced singer, reputedly half-Puerto Rican, who first recorded I Shall Not Be Moved, Son House, Bukka White and Skip James, whose oddly oriental-sounding blues were amongst the strangest and most haunting noises to come from the Delta—the blues reached its peak. Despite a handful of superb singers since, it has never again reached such an emphatic state of artistic unity.
- Well, there’s one kin’ favour I ask of you,
- One kin’ favour I ask of you,
- Oh Lord, one kin’ favour I ask of you
- Please see that my grave is kept clean.
- It’s a long lane got no end (three times)
- An’ it’s a bad way that don’ never change
- Lord, it’s two white horses in a line (three times)
- Gon’ take me to my buryin’ groun’
- Dig my grave with a silver spade (three times)
- You may let me down with a golden chain
- Have you ever heard a coffin soun’? (three times)
- Then you know the poor boy’s in the groun’
- Have you ever heard a church bell toll? (three times)
- Then you know the poor boy’s dead an’ gone.
Jefferson began recording in 1924 and was dead by 1930, frozen to death on a Chicago sidewalk during a snowstorm. His records sold well but they did not stop his life being as sad as any of his people’s. Today, in a cemetary at Wortham, Lemon’s grave is almost lost under the grass and weeds.The blues changed subtly over the years and as the radio networks extended their influence, the various regional styles began to mingle. By the mid-’thirties it was increasingly difficult to recognise regional characteristics in blues vocals—the demonic intensity of Mississippi, the harsh but more introverted blues of Texas, the jollier blues of Carolina—though some were unmistakable. Leroy Carr, who seemed to fuse various regional styles in his singing, had en enormous effect on the future of the blues, during his career in the late ’twenties and early ’thirties. Carr was more sophisticated than the rural singers and his singing, over the sensitive accompaniment of his piano and Scrapper Blackwell’s guitar, emphasised melody rather more than emotion. His better recordings are marked by musical intelligence and an appealingly wistful quality and his How Long Blues is one of the few enduring, and widely recognised blues classics. Carr was easily imitated—even today there are Carr imitators like Bumble Bee Slim—and the “style” he invented was the dominating current in blues until the war. Carr was excellent but the blues trend he started was somewhat disastrous. The new blues were lighter, more swinging, but often depressingly insensitive. They were recorded, by this time, mainly in the Northern Cities, for a city audience which demanded slickness and polish. With the more rigid discipline imposed by pianos, basses and drums, which greatly restricted the flexibility and individuality of singers, it was perhaps inevitable that, by 1940, the urban background, which was, broadly
During the war the negroes found themselves fighting for freedom against racialism and tyranny; the paradox didn’t fail to strike any number of them and many have retained a lasting cynicism as a result. They either joined up cynically:
- I’ve got my questionary and they need me in the war (repeat)
- Now I feel like murder, won’t have to break the county law
- All I want’s a thirty-two-twenty, made on a .45 frame (repeat)
- Yes, and a red, white and blue flag, wavin’ in my right hand.
Or pathetically eagerly:
- I want a machine gun, wan’ be hid way out in the wood (repeat)
- I want to show ol’ man Hitler Sonny Boy don’ mean him no good.
- I want to drop a bomb, and set the Japanese city on fire (repeat)
- Now because they are so rotten, just love to see them die
The reality was different. Uncle Sam wouldn’t have dreamed of letting negroes operate a precious “thunderbolt”, though he was happy enough for them to fight—and die. The bitterness of the negro community was clearer after the Second World War than it had been after the first, but the lessons have been learnt incompletely or not at all, and there are still blues like Jimmy Rogers’s World is in a Tangle or Lightnin Slim’s (Otis Hicks) GI Blues which express, in terms nearly as militant as the blues quoted above, the desire to fight the Russians. In this the singers reflect the tone of white society in a way that more isolated singers would have found impossible, even if they had felt it desirable. The institutions of state violence can now speak directly to the negro whereas there was little to convince older singers, like the previously quoted Jaydee Short, that they had anything to gain from the whites’ wars and their natural feelings certainly told them otherwise.
THE POST WAR BLUES
The decline of blues in the ’forties was an indication not so much of integration into, as of imitation of white society: this coupled with the record companies’ lack of discrimination and the comparative ease of ghetto life. But if the early ’forties were lean years, the late ’forties and early ’fifties saw an increase in both the quantity and quality of
From this profusion of new bluesmen there were a handful who became very big names and who still play a rôle close to that of the race-hero; others have sunk to the second rank, often playing as well as their “betters”; still others—and they are the majority—have died or live on half-forgotten, their memories sustained only by a few worn 78s in junk shops or collections. Of the post-war Chicago singers Muddy Waters takes pride of place. He first recorded, for Alan Lomax in the Delta, in 1941, using his real name of McKinley Morganfield. By the late ’forties he had moved to Chicago and was making an exciting series for Aristocrat. His guitar playing, in the old bottleneck tradition, retained much of the vigour of earlier Mississippi bluesmen and his voice was rich and thrilling. He was usually accompanied by the finest of all blues bassists, Big Crawford, and the harmonica player Little Walter Jacobs. Jacobs was, and is, a magnificent musician and in his hands the harmonica became a horn-like instrument, with superb tone, range, flexibility and crispness; he blew long, flowing phrases of classical elegance and feeling, saying as much about the condition of the negro in his playing as most singers say in a lifetime of singing. He and Waters achieved a fine unity, exemplified by such tracks as Louisiana Blues, where the guitar and harmonica fuse so that they sound almost like a single instrument. Waters continued his series for Chess when that company took over Aristocrat but there was a new mood about to hit Chicago and the “rural” bluesmen—a mood that had its cause in both social and musical developments.Migration figures are not an entirely accurate index of population movement since they neither give reasons for migration nor take into account temporary migration. Quite obviously the well-to-do white moves for widely different reasons than those which compel a socially
From the mid-’fifties his records became worse and worse, with poor accompaniment, trivial and repetitive words, and a badly strained singer: the only relief was afforded by one or two splendid blues shouts, like his Hoochie Coochie Man;
- I got a black cat bone,
- I got a mojo tooth,
- I got a John the Conker root,
- Gonna mess with you.
- Gonna make all you girls
- Lead me by the hand,
- Then the world will know
- I’m a hoochie coochie man.
Waters is aware of his deterioration but he now fits the requirements of the new audience—an exciting stage act rather than interesting blues.
The other great post-war bluesman from the Mississippi, John Lee Hooker, began recording in the late ’forties. At his best he has more than a little of the old Delta manner in his rich, sensual voice and dramatically rhythmic and flexible guitar style. He started his career recording imaginative, earthy blues in a most arresting style, accompanied only by his own guitar. His voice was strong and, occasionally, bitter and his guitar had a throbbing vigour and a magnificent drive rarely heard before. With its terse, intense and rhythmic phrasing it acted as a foil for the voice and gave his blues extraordinary tension, strengthened by his sharply stamping feet. The early tracks, particularly the slow, atmospherically sensual ones, take their place amongst the great blues. Hooker’s versatility is a bit discomfiting but he can still be a magnificently haunting singer. Like his contemporary, Lightning Hopkins, Hooker entertains on the predominantly white folk circuit as well as the negro rhythm ’n’ blues circuit. He gives the white audiences folk-tinged blues and the negro audiences highly rhythmic boogie-type numbers. He rarely sings in the old style now, but his recent visit to Britain emphasised his position as one of the dozen finest post-war singers, with roots stretching far back into the Delta of his youth.
A number of singers have earned the reputation of being “Kennedy-line” singers. Bobo Jenkins castigated those who voted Republican in 1952 (Democrat Blues), Louisiana Red sang about tugging Castro’s beard and removing missile bases from Cuba in Red’s Dream (though he demanded for himself and his soul-brothers, Ray Charles, Jimmy Reed, Big Maybelle and Lightning Hopkins, a share in running the nation) and about Civil Rights in Ride on Red, Ride on. J. B. Lenoir savaged Eisenhower so mercilessly in one blues that the record, which had a more moderate indictment of the Korean War on the other side, was banned.
In War Is Starting All Over Again he sings of his feelings about the Korean War:
- Woah, y’know this world is in a tangle now, baby,
- Yes, I feel they’re thinking to start war again,
- Woah, y’know this world is in a tangle now, baby,
- Yeah, I feel they’re gonna start war again,
- Yes, there’s gon’ be many mothers and fathers worry,
- Yes, there’s gonna be as many girls that lose a frien’.
- Oooh, I got news this morning, right now they need a million men (repeat)
- Woah, y’know I bin overseas, woman, poor Lightnin don’ want to go there again.
- Y’know my girl frien’s got a boy frien’ in the army, the poor body goes to sea.
- Y’know I don’t hate it so bad, boys, y’know there’s a bit of a break for me.
- Ohhhhh, this world is in a tangle, about to have war again. . . .
He did a slightly altered version of the sung under the title Blues for Queen Elizabeth. It must be the most horrific and least sycophantic work of art ever dedicated to a resident of Buckingham Palace:
- Y’know the soldiers in France they wade in blood knee deep,
- Y’know the soldiers in France, they was wadin’ in blood knee deep,
- An’ at that time whole lots of people wanderin’ roun’ hungry an’ didn’t have a bite to eat.
In Awful Dream he amplified his horror of war:
- Have y’ ever looked over a mountain, one you ain’t never seen? (repeat)
- Have y’ ever lay down in your bed and had one of them lonesome dreams?
- Sounds like the world was comin’ to an end, somebody had passed and dropped a bomb,
- Y’know they tell me, this world is in a tangle now and them things is sure to come
- But I don’t know, God know I don’t, teach me, teach me, teach me that I’m wrong.
- Yeah, the poor soul look so pitiful, cryin’ out that ol’ one eye. . . .
- . . . Yeah, y’know it’s misery, it’s misery, every time she cry it hurt poor me.
- She ain’t got one eye to cry from when there’s something in that good eye,
- It hurt me to know that she can’t see.
Hopkins is probably the last great bluesman. When he, and the few other singers in this mould, have gone, the blues, the real, down-home, country blues, will finally be dead and with it will pass a dishonourable episode of American history.
It is impossible to regret the passing of the condition which made the old blues culturally relevant yet it is permissible to regret the passing of the old singers who have enriched the lives of so many people, both coloured and, albeit after the event, white. The blues will be left to the white folk-singers, a few good modern stylists like Otis Rush, the rabble-rousing Chicago blues-beat bands—the descendants of singers and musicians of some sensitivity like Elmore James—and the blues-rock ’n’ rollers like Chuck Berry, James Brown and Bo Diddley. The blues in some form may live on for a generation or more. It is possible to see in the harsh, angular, neurotic-sounding blues of Buddy Guy the logical extension (via singers like B. B. King) of the early post-war blues—noisier, uglier, more involuted, more intense and expressing increasing confidence. But the course of the blues, whether it be classic, urban or country, is notoriously difficult to predict and it may be that the clearest expression of the urban negroes’ new preoccupation is in the “rock ’n’ roll” songs of Chuck Berry who sings about cars, machinery and the teenage American Way of Life—telephones, juke boxes, soda stalls, hot dog stands, drive-ins and even the backwoods myth of “country-boy-makes-good” (Johnny B. Goode). Despite prison sentences he sings constantly and without bitterness of his delight at being resident in the Land of the Free. Bo Diddley’s songs are equally instructive but, mercifully, more sceptical. On the whole the blues gives every indication of being a dying form, increasingly less relevant to the audience for which it is obviously intended.
The record companies which, since the war, have tended to have parallel catalogues of “pop” music and blues, have gradually utilised more and more “pop” production gimmicks in their blues issues. More and more releases are dependent on careful arrangements, careful words, catchy tunes or phrases, set-pattern instrumental breaks, pre-determined playing time and gimmicks like double-track recording and “girlie” choirs. The sham techniques of mass production do not affect all issues but they have effectively stemmed the stream of good recordings which ran from the ’twenties to the mid-’fifties.Even in this the blues are a reflection of social conditions, or increasing automation and decreasing artistry. Today, however, one feels that the environment is reflected more in the production of records than in their content. Recently, the supposedly rhythm ’n’ blues sound of the negro-operated Tamla-Motown-Gordy set-up of Detroit, consciously designed as a gospel and blues tinged “soul-beat” music,
It only remains to be seen whether the attainment of some measure of social equality will be a fair exchange for the passing of the blues. It is to be hoped that the courage, endurance, hopes, fears and feelings of the thousands of negroes, named and unnamed, who have sung the blues for recordings, for friends and for personal solace, in hits, halls, bars, prisons and ghettoes all over the USA, will not be betrayed, for it is they who have, in a very real sense, kept alive the vision of something better, who have created from appalling conditions a vital and extremely beautiful folk music. If the spirit of the blues is to be honoured the negro must demand something better and more dignified than mere integration into the affluent squalor, neurosis and schizophrenia of modern America.