Anarchy 51/Blues walking like a man

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Blues walking
like a man


It is im­pos­sible to say with any certainty when the blues be­came a com­plete mus­ical form, re­cog­nis­ably dif­fer­ent from its ante­ced­ents—the songs of the farms and levee camps, the work songs, axe songs, arwhoolies, hol­lers and rags. It is equally dif­ficult to as­cer­tain in which of the south­ern states of the USA it ori­gin­ated. Many of the early sing­ers were mi­grat­ory la­bour­ers or blind men who trav­elled widely to beg and earn money by sing­ing, so it seems prob­able that it was a con­cur­rent de­vel­op­ment over large areas of the Deep South. What is quite cer­tain is that the blues was not a cre­a­tion of any one man (W. C. Handy’s self-inflat­ing claim to be Father of the Blues has al­ways seemed more than a little lu­di­crous to blues en­thus­i­asts). Neither was it a pro­duct of city life. Bessie Smith, for ex­ample, is fre­quently held to be the fin­est blues singer ever to re­cord but she re­corded Clas­sic city jazz-blues, which were a des­cend­ant, rather than a close re­la­tion, of the rural blues, al­though they found their way onto record earlier. Her style is most often praised by jazz critics, which cor­rectly in­dic­ates her posi­tion as the cre­ator of jazz-blues, rather than a blues singer per se.
  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:
iso­lated by race and colour, yet forced to con­form to the mores of a so­ci­ety in which he was de­nied a voice and from which he was rigor­ously ex­cluded. It is, in­cid­ent­ally, one of the most bit­ter iron­ies of the his­tory of Amer­ica’s negroes that they should have prac­tised their own form of ra­cial­ism—that of dis­tinc­tion based on Creole blood, “yellow-skins”, “brown-skins” and “black-skins”. Despite these con­di­tions being a prim­ary factor in the cre­a­tion and evo­lu­tion of the blues, it is not usu­ally a music of di­rect so­cial pro­test and the few mag­nif­i­cent pro­test blues are far out­num­bered by blues on women, men, cars, and rent, on the every­day life of an op­pressed min­or­ity.

  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’.
  Like Son House, the doyen of the Delta sing­ers, and the superb Charlie Patton, the “father” of the Mis­sis­sippi Blues, White and James were from Mis­sis­sippi, and played their gui­tars in the pecu­liar re­gional “bottle­neck” style. This in­volved the use of a knife, a steel ring or a smoothed down bottle­neck which was usu­ally placed on the thumb or little finger, and used as a drone on the strings of the guitar. It gave their in­stru­ments a high-pitched whin­ing sound which they were able to util­ise for lyric pas­sages, for simple rhythmic or melodic ac­com­pani­ment or as a highly dram­atic form of punc­tu­a­tion. Any blues looks rather bleak in print, be­cause it is lit­er­ally only half there. In the case of the
early Delta sing­ers it gives a more than usu­ally hol­low effect.

  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 bandsGus 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
the levees burst in 1927, it was the negroes, forced to live very close to the banks, who died in thou­sands. Se­greg­a­tion af­fected every­thing. Even hos­pitals re­fused to treat negroes, and al­though the Bessie Smith death-legend is largely apo­cry­phal, many negroes died through lack of suf­fi­cient med­ical care.

  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 . . .
  With them they took their blues, into rail­side hobo jungles where in hope­less pov­erty they could scratch a liv­ing, com­par­at­ively free from white inter­fer­ence, into the fast-de­vel­op­ing north­ern ghet­toes, into “New World”. The blues proved re­mark­ably re­si­li­ent to city life at first. There were re­fine­ments which have con­tin­ued up to the pres­ent: drums, basses and pianos were added to the more port­able, and more
mu­sic­ally flex­ible in­stru­ments fa­voured by rural mu­si­cians, such as har­mon­icas (known as “harps”, viol­ins, gui­tars and jugs which, when blown into, acted as bass re­son­at­ors. How­ever it was not until just before the last war that the blues al­tered dra­mat­ic­ally and ir­re­voc­ably, and even today there are traces of Mis­sis­sippi in the blues of some Chi­cago sing­ers.

  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
Com­mis­sions the south has ig­nored them and their re­com­mend­a­tions. Des­pite the hor­ror, many negroes have test­i­fied that life in prison was less fright­en­ing than life out­side: at least in prison the next meal was as­sured, the tyranny rarely var­ied and there was less chance of the casual cruelty which typ­ified the lives of so many ra­cial under­dogs. The great folk singer Lead­belly sang his way out of prison, but not all sing­ers were so lucky—Big Joe Wil­liams did a term at Parch­man Prison Farm, Mis­sis­sippi, and so did Bukka White, who sang a fine blues about it. Hog­man Maxey and Robert Pete Wil­liams did time at Angola. More re­cently the great Chi­cago gui­tar­ist, Auburn “Pat” Hare got a ninety-nine year sen­tence for shoot­ing his mis­tress’s hus­band and a po­lice­man who tried to ar­rest him.

  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.
  Even today maga­zines, like Rhythm ’n’ Blues, read by work­ing class negroes, carry ad­vert­ise­ments for these strange fer­til­ity sym­bols and charms—pro­duced in Louisi­ana voo­doo circles—along with pat­ent de­vices for straight­en­ing hair, strange medi­cines and other ne­ces­sit­ies of
ghetto life.

  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

and again:

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.

  Un­doubt­edly the fin­est of the early sing­ers from out­side Mis­sis­sippi was a dirty, ugly, dis­sol­ute Texan—Blind Lemon Jef­fer­son. Blind men have often made good blues sing­ers—they are doubly op­pressed, a min­or­ity within a min­or­ity. Jef­fer­son was a harsh singer with enorm­ous powers of ex­pres­sion and his gui­tar play­ing was amongst the best to be re­corded. He is now best re­mem­bered for his mov­ing See That My Grave is Kept Clean:
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
speak­ing, “in­tro­duced” by Carr, shoud have drastic­ally af­fected the sound and con­tent of blues. There were good records by the like­able Bill Broonzy, the ir­re­press­ible Mem­phis Minnie, the harshly in­tense Tommy McClennan, Sonny Boy Wil­liam­son, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and the great, roll­ing pian­ist Big Maceo Merri­weather. There were a few “so­cial blues” like John Estes’ Work­ing Man Blues, which con­tained an in­voc­a­tion to the whites to break up trucks and tract­ors and work more mules and men, thus en­sur­ing em­ploy­ment, and a few re­cord­ings in an older, country style, but the ’for­ties was a lean period for blues which said any­thing.

  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 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
blues re­cord­ing. Victor, Decca and Blue­bird, be­fore and dur­ing the war, had the money and or­gan­isa­tion to en­sure large scale dis­tri­bu­tion for their records but the post-war com­pan­ies were much smaller, with fewer re­sources. It took a big hit to give them a repu­ta­tion, and with it dis­tri­bu­tion, and in the search for suc­cess many hun­dreds of new sing­ers were re­corded, many of them per­form­ers in an older style. John Lee Hooker re­corded some archaic-sound­ing blues and sing­ers like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Wil­liam­son (the second), Howling Wolf and Light­ning Hop­kins, all of them fresh from the coun­try, were re­cord­ing rel­at­ively simple rural-style blues. There were others, like John Brim, Har­mon­ica Frank, Big Boy Spires, Houston Boines, less well known but al­most as good. The list of labels then and since seems un­be­liev­able. There were Ar­is­to­crat, Checker, Chess, JOB (Chi­cago), Gotham, Savoy (East Coast), Excello, Gold Star, Sun, Trumpet (Southern States), Flair, Modern and RPM (West Coast) and many, many more. They often dis­ap­peared after a few re­leases of ex­cep­tional qual­ity, like the amaz­ing Blood­stains on the Wall by a singer im­prob­ably named Honey Boy or Har­mon­ica Frank’s Howl­ing Tom Cat, which might as eas­ily have been re­corded in the South dur­ing the ’twen­ties, as in Chi­cago by Chess dur­ing the ’fif­ties.

  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
and eco­nom­ic­ally har­rassed negro. It is inter­est­ing, how­ever, that the fig­ures show negro pop­u­la­tion move­ment to be both more per­man­ent and more fre­quent dur­ing the period 1940-1947 (14.1%). This period of in­creased mi­gra­tion roughly co­in­cides with the be­gin­ning of the post-war re­vival. Fur­ther point is added by the fact that in 1900 90% of the negro pop­u­la­tion lived in the south, and 74% in rural areas, whereas by 1960 only 60% lived in the south and just under 25% in the rural south. Of the 40% else­where, under 2% lived in rural areas. The Amer­ican negro has be­come in­creas­ingly a north­ern city dweller rather than a south­ern coun­try dweller and in the years im­me­di­ately post-war this pro­cess speeded up. This would seem to show one ma­jor reason for the blues’ new lease of life in the early ’fif­ties and also why since the middle-’fif­ties there has been a marked de­cline in qual­ity. The negro who left the south after the war was usu­ally brought up in an en­vir­on­ment where the blues was a part of daily life, ful­fil­ling a func­tion both as en­ter­tain­ment and as a psy­cholo­gical re­lease, and there was a con­se­quent de­mand from this mi­grant group for “down-home” blues. The mi­grants moved all over the USA and new re­cord­ing com­pan­ies sprang up to meet their de­mands, often in places where no au­then­tic blues tra­di­tion ex­isted. The record com­pan­ies, pre­vi­ously deeply com­mit­ted to the urban blues market, centred on Chi­cago since the late ’thir­ties, now found them­selves with a new au­di­ence for country-style blues which many en­thu­si­asts had con­sidered dead. The country-style blues were able to sur­vive this trans­plant­a­tion as long as sing­ers and au­di­ences kept their south­ern roots, but they began to lose their raison d’être as the south­ern au­di­ence grew older and gave way to a younger white pop-influ­enced negro record buyer who, far from want­ing blues, found the con­stant re­minder of south­ern ser­vil­ity deeply em­bar­rass­ing.   The mu­sical de­vel­op­ments arose to some ex­tent from the so­cial de­vel­op­ments. In 1954 a young white singer walked into the Sun studio in Mem­phis, Ten­nes­see. Sun had is­sued good blues sing­ers like Joe Hill Louis, Walter Horton and Doctor Ross but their big­gest hit was an old Crudup blues, That’s All Right, Mama, re­corded after a num­ber of at­tempts by the young Elvis Presley. Victor bought up Sun’s Presley con­tract in 1955 and rock ’n’ roll music (a nice white name, in­vented by the disc jockey Alan Freed, for what was basic­ally negro rhythm ’n’ blues) flooded into a mil­lion white homes. For the first time the pop­ular music of the two ra­cial groups was broadly sim­ilar. Partly in sub-con­scious self-defence and partly in emu­la­tion of white youth, the young urban negroes de­manded a nois­ier, more ag­gress­ive blues, ex­press­ing their in­creas­ing con­fid­ence. There were sing­ers like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino (who sold more records than any­one ex­cept Presley dur­ing the “rock era”), who were sell­ing to both ra­cial groups, but many of the older sing­ers were forced to use scream­ing, over-amp­li­fied elec­tric gui­tars and saxes to keep up. Some, like Howling Wolf, man­aged the change with­out too much dif­fic­ulty, but most were less lucky. Wolf had a rough, rasp­ing voice which came across the amp­li­fic­a­tion with ex­cit­ing power—he had made fine
records in the coun­try style in the late ’for­ties—but in Chi­cago he had a mass­ive beat and his records for Chess have a rauc­ous, jangling sense of guts and ur­gency which suited the new au­di­ences. Muddy Waters, al­though he has re­tained to the pres­ent his repu­ta­tion as “King of Chi­cago”, was hit badly.

  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.

  Amongst these few sing­ers with a marked sense of so­cial justice is a tall lean Texan, who wears dark glasses per­petu­ally and learned his blues as a child from his cousin, Texas Alex­ander, and his “master”, Blind Lemon Jef­fer­son. Sam “Light­ning” Hop­kins sings in lines of un­even meas­ure, his sing­ing with­out nor­mally ac­cepted blues dis­cip­line. He plays in­ces­sant bass runs and rhythms as he sings and then his gui­tar rings out sharp and clear in the lyric pas­sages be­tween lines and verses. His style is even more in­tense than Hooker’s, the voice harsh, com­par­at­ively deep and with an al­most un­bear­able sense of lone­li­ness and des­ol­a­tion. Hop­kins can be an in­gra­ti­at­ing singer, par­tic­u­larly for white au­di­ences, but on his ear­li­est and best records he never both­ered and the re­sult is the pur­est body of coun­try blues to be re­corded post-war. Des­pite many miles of trav­el­ling and widely var­ied au­di­ences, Hop­kins is still oddly super­sti­tious, with an abid­ing dis­trust of aero­planes (“just can’t be nat­ural”) and an in­tense hatred of wine—his feel­ings don’t ex­tend to whiskey! He is fiercely proud of his Houston roots, and is with­er­ingly con­temp­tu­ous of the Chi­cago sing­ers—“They can’t sing ’bout nothin’ but women”. He has tended to pro­test where and when he sees in­just­ice, nat­ural or man-made, both­er­ing less about cures.

  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.
  His sharp sense of pity for the af­flicted comes through in a fine blues about a one-eyed woman:
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,
has shown a pos­sible new dir­ec­tion for blues-influ­enced music. It is, per­haps in­evit­ably, the dir­ec­tion of white tin pan alley and the Bill­board Top Hun­dred. (Equal­ity and in­teg­ra­tion in all things!) As Muddy Waters told Pete Weld­ing*: “I think the blues—the old style blues—will die with us. I don’t see any young­sters com­ing along in that style now­adays. The Negro kids, they don’t like it at all; they’re more in­ter­ested in the pop­u­lar music. And these young white kids that are play­ing in the old style. Now, maybe they feel the blues like I do, and maybe they can play like I do, but they can’t sing like I do. So I don’t think that’s the answer. I guess maybe the old blues will die, but I don’t like to think about that.”

  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.

*Down Beat, October 8, 1964.


The Mean­ing of the Blues (Blues fell this morning). Paul Oliver. (Col­lier Books—avail­able through Leeds Music Ltd., Denmark Street, London). The best ac­count of the ori­gins and de­vel­op­ments of blues and very good too on the Negro so­ci­ety of the USA. 8/6d.
The Coun­try Blues. Samuel B. Charters (Michael Joseph). Well-writ­ten short his­tory, marred by many in­ac­cura­cies and the in­ex­plic­able omis­sion of many of the fin­est sing­ers. 21/- now widely re­maindered at 7/6d.
Blues Un­lim­ited. The blues monthly with a friendly and ex­pert staff, help­ful to the col­lector and curi­ous alike, at 38a Sack­ville Road, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex. Free sample on re­quest.
The Eco­nomic Situ­a­tion of Negroes in the United States. (US Em­bassy). Ex­cel­lent brief doc­u­ment­ary de­tails on em­ploy­ment, mi­gra­tion, pop­u­la­tion with­out white­washing.


Robert John­son—King of the Delta Blues—Philips BBL 7539. (Now de­leted but avail­able from spe­cial­ists.)
Origin Jazz Lib­rary—Volumes 1 to 8—Origin Jazz Lib­rary. (Super­lat­ive re-issues of pre-war sing­ers, ran­ging from the in­tens­ity of House, James and Pat­ton to the ram­bling, melodic, folksi­ness of Henry Thomas, via the jug bands.)
Sleepy John Estes 1929-40—Folkways RBF 8.
Blues from the Mis­sis­sippi Delta—J. D. (Jaydee) Short and Son House—Folkways FA 2467.
The Blues—Volumes 1 to 4—Post-War Chess Blues—PYE NPL 28030, NPL 28035, NPL 28045, NPL 28060.
John Lee Hooker Sings the Blues—Ember 3356.
Dirty House Blues—Light­ning Hop­kins—Realm RM 171.
Tell Me—Howl­ing Wolf—PYE NEP 44032.
Best of Muddy Waters—PYE NPL 28040.