Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Show 23 - Black Snake Moan

Show 23 - Black Snake Moan

Black Snake Moan - Blind Lemon Jefferson
Black Snake Blues - Victoria Spivey
Jet Black Snake - Jewell Nelson
New Black Snake Moan - Leadbelly
It's So Cold in China - Mississippi Moaner
Jet Black Snake - Roosevelt Sykes
Black Snake - John Henry Howard
Black Snake Dream Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson

Friday, September 29, 2006

Show 22 - Henry Townsend Appreciation

Show 22 - Henry Townsend Appreciation

An appreciation of bluesman Henry Townsend who died Sunday, September 24, 2006 at age 96.

Story from St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Doctor, Oh Doctor - Henry Townsend
Long Ago Blues - Henry Townsend
Henry's Worry Blues - Henry Townsend
Poor Man Blues - Henry Townsend
A Ramblin' Mind - Henry Townsend
Jack of Diamonds Georgia Rub - Henry Townsend

Friday, September 08, 2006

Show 21 - What the Chinaman Told the Jew

Show 21 - What the Chinaman Told the Jew

I decided to put an episode together with these songs that mention ethnic groups and nationalities after my ears repeatedly perking up when I heard lyrics about "what the Chinaman told the Jew" in these and some later blues songs. The Willie Blackwell song comes from a different place that includes a strange mix of patriotism, violence, and proud fatherhood. It has disturbing lyrics about a man preparing bringing home a Japanese skull during World War II for a newborn son. There's a good discussion of the song from Jim O'Neal at his Bluesoterica site. Though its the only one that features that kind of viciousness towards different people, I thought it was thought provoking regarding how others are thought of at different times.

14th Street Blues - Blind Joe Taggart
Bullfrog Blues - William Harris
Barbecue Blues - Barbecue Bob
Memphis Boy Blues - Memphis Jug Band
Junior's, A Jap Girl's Christmas for Her Santa Claus - Willie '61' Blackwell

Monday, August 14, 2006

Show 20 - Death Tributes

Show 20 - Death Tributes

Death of Leroy Carr - Bumble Bee Slim and Scrapper Blackwell
Death of Blind Boy Fuller - Brownie McGhee
Oh Death - Charley Patton and Bertha Lee
Death of Walter Barnes - Leonard 'Baby Doo' Caston
Death of Holmes' Mule - Charlie Turner and Winston Holmes
Death of Sonny Boy Williamson - Peck Curtis and Houston Stackhouse

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Show 19- Bootlegger's Blues

Show 19- Bootlegger's Blues

Bootleg Rum Dum Blues - Blind Blake
Bootleggers' Blues - Mississippi Sheiks
Jones Law Blues - James "Stump" Johnson
Sloppy Drunk Blues - Leroy Carr
Good Whiskey Blues - Peetie Wheatstraw
Bootleggin' Ain't No Good No More - Blind Teddy Darby
Alley Bound Blues - Curtis Jones

Monday, June 12, 2006

Show 18 - Joe Louis is the Man

Show 18 - Joe Louis is the Man

Many songs were written about Joe Louis over his career from 1934 into the fifties. The songs reflect Louis’ status as a kind of a folk hero to black America and eventually to all of America. Louis was born Joe Louis Barrow to a family of sharecroppers in Alabama. He moved as a child with his family to Detroit. Louis was a popular fighter well before he became the champ. His 4th round knockout of former champ Max Baer made him famous. But the fight that made him a hero to millions of African-Americans was in 1935 against the giant Primo Carnera. Louis fought the Italian as the world was becoming aware that Mussolini’s Italy was about to invade Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. As one of the few African nations remaining uncolonized, Ethiopia was a point of pride for the black world. Joe Louis came to represent Ethiopian strength in America. People throughout the U.S. rejoiced when Louis handled Carnera easily knocking him out in the sixth round. That same year, Memphis Minnie recorded two songs about the Brown Bomber and pianist Joe Pullum recorded “Joe Louis is the Man.”

Joe Louis had become a hero in the ring with his frequent victories. But in 1936 he suffered a devastating loss to German Max Schmeling. Despite the loss, the next year, Louis managed to become heavyweight champion by defeating Cinderella Man Jim Braddock. Even with the belt, the loss to Schmeling weighed on Louis and he never felt like the true champion. In 1938, Louis got his rematch against Schmeling. In the years since the first fight the exploits of Adolph Hitler had become common headlines and once again Louis was thrust into the role of representing American values and strength against an enemy. This time, Louis became the hope of not just African-Americans but virtually the whole country. Louis destroyed Schmeling. A new hero, Joe Louis became one of the country’s biggest celebrities.

Joe Louis enhanced his status as American hero when he joined the army to serve during World War II (which some referred to as Louis-Schmeling III). He appeared constantly in newspapers, magazines, and elsewhere. The importance of a black man achieving this iconic status at that time in America cannot be overstated.

Despite deteriorating abilities in the ring, Louis’ career continued into the fifties, largely because of tremendous financial difficulties. He owed millions to the IRS. His last professional fight was his 1951 loss to Rocky Marciano. After his death in 1981, the champ received a hero’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery. What Louis did along with other athletes like his friends Jesse Owens and later Jackie Robinson changed the attitudes of millions. His reception presented a stark contrast to that of the last black champion, Jack Johnson. This was reflected in the blues songs as well as songs by Sonny Count Basie, Cab Calloway and others. Louis’ life and career through the Second World War made him perhaps the most important athlete in American history and a natural hero in the world of the blues.

Joe Louis is the Man - Joe Pullum
Joe Louis Strut - Memphis Minnie
He's In the Ring (Doing That Same Old Thing) - Memphis Minnie
Joe Louis Special - Jack Kelly
Joe Louis Blues - Carl Martin

Friday, May 12, 2006

Show 17 - Northbound Blues

Show 17 - Northbound Blues

Beginning around the period of the First World War, millions of black Southerners moved North to cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Known as the Great Migration, this movement changed the course of American history. People left the South to escape the oppressive racist system in the South, but most importantly because of the job opportunities and promise of economic security in Northern cities.

Blind Blake sang about getting a job at Mr. Ford’s place in Detroit Bound Blues. Jobs in the automotive industry were an important factor pulling African-Americans to Detroit. And cars and trains provided transportation to the North. Many from Alabama headed to Detroit via railroad as many from Mississippi and Tennessee headed to Chicago. From Gerogia and the Carolinas, they went to DC or New York. The route of the migration patterns was often identical to that of the large railroad lines.

Tennessee native Bessie Smith sang about missing her man who had caught the train to Chicago in her song Chicago Bound Blues. In this song, she references the Chicago Defender newspaper. The Defender actively encouraged African-Americans in the South to come to Northern cities and was very successful.

Though the traffic of the Great Migration was largely one way, at times economic opportunity dictated a return down south (in recent years moving back down has become even more common). In 1948, Roosevelt Sykes sang of a time when cotton prices made working in the Southern fields more profitable than the Northern factories.

From around 1914 – 1950, the Great Migration changed the demographics of the country and altered the way Americans lives. In several waves, millions of black Southerners arrived in Northern cities. The transition from the acoustic Delta blues of the 20s and 30s to electric Chicago blues is one of the easily observable manifestations of the Great Migration. The life of Muddy Waters is often given as an example. But the migration changed more than music, it changed race relations, economics, and living conditions for millions. And as often was the case, blues musicians were some of the best observers of their own lives and the changes in the world around them.

Detroit Bound Blues - Blind Blake
Chicago Bound Blues - Bessie Smith
Cotton Belt Blues - Lizzie Miles
Cotton Patch Blues - Tommy McLennan
Southern Blues - Roosevelt Sykes

Friday, April 14, 2006

Show 16 - New Music for 75 Years Ago

Show 16 - New Music for 75 Years Ago

Songs from The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of:
Clarksdale Moan - Son House
If I Call You Mama - Luke Jordan
Mississippi County Farm Blues - Son House
I'm Going Back Home - Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy
Married Man's Blues - Wade Ward

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Show 15 - Blues of the Great War

Show 15 - Blues of the Great War

Last show I looked at songs about bonuses promised to WWI veterans.  I thought this time I’d look at some songs about the war itself.  Because blues weren’t recorded (and its not even entirely clear what form the blues existed in) during the years that the US took part in the Great War, there aren’t that many songs about it.  But several blues artists did look back to recall the war, the army, and the effects on their lives at home and abroad. 

Kingfish Bill Tomlin’s Army Blues tells a story of going to war talks about a soldier in combat in France:
Now it was late last night, late last night
I said late last night, I knocked on your door
You were so lowdown and dirty, you'll reap just what you sow

She cried please Uncle Sam, please Uncle Sam
She cried please Uncle Sammy give him one more chance
Won't you please hurry your steamboat and bring my man from France

I want to sit down, write a letter, mail it to my dear old Uncle Sam
I want to sit down, write me a letter, mail it to my Uncle Sam
Tell him when the war is all over, please take him out of that jam

So it was fourteen days, fourteen days
Mama it was fourteen days off on that deep blue sea
Met old Kaiser and his men and they were playing "Nearer my God to Thee"

So we went down into Belgium, we drilled down on the firing line
We marched down into German, drilled up on the firing line
We did everything in the world to change old Kaiser's mnid

So at last they found Kaiser, he was laying dead at rest
I said At last they found him, Kaiser laying dead at rest
Had the doctors taken over a quarter, but it's out of his chest
Nearly 400,000 African-American soldiers served in the First World War almost all of them drafted.  Nearly 40,000 of those were combat troops that served in France.  Most served as laborers at army bases at home and abroad.

War and the draft inevitably created the classic blues situation of a man separated from his woman.  Clara Smith talked about the government stealing all the men in her life to serve in the war effort in Uncle Sam Blues:
Let me tell you postman, what Sammy has done to me
Let me tell you postman, what Uncle Sam, he has done to me
He took my husband, my good man, come back and got my used‑to‑be

Uncle Sam is so bad, he walks so doggone cute
Uncle Sam is so bad, he walks so doggone cute
He took my daddy out of his boss bag, put him in a khaki suit

Going to sit down and write a letter to my Uncle Sam
Going to sit down and write a letter to my Uncle Sam
Tell him that war is over, please send me back my man

Uncle Sam has told me that things are bought around
Uncle Sam has told me that things are bought around
He took all the booze away and my good brown from town

Clara Smith from 1924 singing about losing her man to Uncle Sam.  Ma Rainey took on a similar theme saying she’s follow her man off to war if she could in a song called Army Camp Harmony Blues:
My man is leaving, crying won't make him stay
Lord, my man is leaving, crying won't make him stay
If crying do any good, I'd cry my poor self away

If I had wings, I'd fly all over the land
If I had wings, I'd fly all over the land
When I looked down, I'd find my old‑time man

Texas musician Coley Jones had an interesting take on the combat experience in the Great War with a very interesting song he recorded in 1929 called An Army Mule in No Man’s Land. The song is actually a version of a song written during the war and performed by Billy Beard of the Al. G. Fields Minstrels, a popular white minstrel group.  I don’t know if Coley Jones served in the war or if he intentionally personalized the song to reflect his experience or that of the general black soldier.  But his story making sure his life is valued above that of a mule must have reflected the thoughts of many in an army infused with institutional racism:

Deacon Jones left his congregation about two years ago
Going to help his country fight
Says he didn't mind going out in no man's land, he knowed that Uncle Sam was right

They put him on that mule that pulled that cannon round
Captain told him "right there you must ride"
He looked at the captain, said "That mule's gonna ride its place, but let me tell you what I've got on my mind:

When I get out in no man's land, they'll soon found out I'm no fool
I don't mind fighting for my Uncle Sam, not in partnership with nobody's mule
Now suppose that mule would balk on the firing line, that's where I'd leave him about a thousand miles behind

When I get out in no man's land, I can't be bothered with nobody's mule (not even my pappy's)"

Now I joined the Salvation Army about seven years ago, just to wear a uniform so bright
All at once I was called up to go and fight
Not thinking that everything would be right

Now the captain said, the healthy men must go right straight to the front
Because they was going to be just fine
There was me and that mule, we did deep down have a bad cold
Right there we got the first choice of the firing line

When I got out in no Man's Land, they soon found out I wasn't no fool
I didn't mind fighting for my Uncle Sam most anytime, but not in partnership with a mule
Now suppose that captain hollered "Boy, more then attack, how in the world would that mule help any man fight

When I got out in no Man's Land, they soon found out I wasn't no fool
I hope you heard me

Mules were commonly used in addition to horses by world war one troops. 

Blind Lemon Jefferson also addressed the blues situation of a man being sent to war in the first verse of Wartime Blues from 1926:

What you going to do, when they send your man to war
What you going to do, when they send your man to war
What you going to do, when they send your man to war
I'm going to drink muddy water, go sleep in a hollow log

Ain't got nobody, I'm all here by myself
Got nobody, I'm all here by myself
Got nobody, I'm all here by myself
Well these women don't care, but the men don't need me here

Well I'm going to the river, going to walk it up and down
Going to the river, walk it up and down
Going to the river, walk it up and down
If I don't find Corrina, I'm going to jump overboard and drown

If I could shine my light, like a headlight on some train
If I could shine, like a headlight on some train
If I could shine, like a headlight on some train
I would shine my light in Corinna's brain

Well they tell me that southbound train had a wreck last night
Lord that southbound train had a wreck last night
Lord that southbound train had a wreck last night
That little section fireman ain't treating your railroad right

Well the girl I love is the one I crave to see
Woman I love is the one I crave to see
Woman I love is the one I crave to see
Well she's living in Memphis and the fool won't write to me

Now tell me woman what have I said and done
Hey mama what have I said and done
Hey mama what have I said and done
You treat me like my trouble have just begun
Army Blues - Kingfish Bill Tomlin
Uncle Sam Blues - Clara Smith
Army Camp Harmony Blues - Ma Rainey
Army Mule in No Man's Land - Coley Jones
Wartime Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Show 14 - Bonus Blues

Bonus Blues

The earliest recorded blues were made in the wake of the First World War. It’s tough to know how many blues musicians served, but the war was clearly a formative experience for many. Every veteran of the Great War was promised a pension that include $1 for every day served on the homefront and $1.25 for every day served overseas. The fight to actually receive this money would turn into one of the most important events of the Great Depression and inspire several blues songs.

Since 1929, Congress had reviewed the bonus situation several times and in 1932 a bill to allow immediate payment passed the House but not the Senate. In 1932, a Veterans Bonus Army, known as the Bonus Expeditionary force, (in an echo of the American Expeditionary Force that served in Europe) had marched on D.C. to demand payment. Black and white soldiers came from all over the country and formed integrated camps in Southeast D.C. along the Anacostia River. The veterans’ camp presented a stark contrast to the strictly segregated units the soldiers had served in during the war as well as to the still segregated streets of Washington D.C.

After the defeat of the Bonus Bill, President Hoover ordered the camp of the Bonus Army disbanded. General Douglas MacArthur led the effort to burn down the camp and force the veterans army out of D.C. The images of the standing army attacking veterans from its own ranks were printed in newspapers across the country, cementing national anger with the Hoover administration and creating great sympathy for the veterans.

After being cleared out in 1932, the veterans continued their campaign to receive the bonus money including additional marches on Washington that had vast public support The Government continued to resist immediate payment, citing concern about the effects of the huge expenditure on the economy. The veterans were finally successful in 1936. A bill to allow bonds to be cashed whenever the veteran chose passed over President Roosevelt’s veto.

Joe Pullum may have been the first blues singer to reference the bonus in his 1934 song “Black Gal What Makes Your Head So Hard?” At that time the bonus money was available only in the form of bonds that could not be cashed out until 1945. Many veterans were able to capitalize on the bonuses through loans, but that entailed paying interest. That’s what Joe Pullum referred to when he sang about having his bonus money. Joe Pullum eventually recorded several more songs that reference the bonus including “Bonus Blues” in 1936.

Most of the blues songs that address the bonus talk about how the money will be spent when they finally get it. These include the Carl Martin, Peetie Wheatstraw, and other songs. The political issues are referenced indirectly as they often are in blues songs. As both pop music and a method of folk expression in the 1930s, the blues always provide interesting takes on issues that will affect individual lives.

I decided to make a show on this theme because I think the Bonus Army is a fascinating story and I liked the Red Nelson Wilborn and Cripple Clarence Lofton song. When I started to do research, I discovered a book by Guido Van Rijn. Roosevelt's Blues: African American Blues and Gospel Songs on FDR has a chapter on exactly this subject and it made it quite easy to put the show together.

Black Gal What Makes You Head So Hard - Joe Pullum
I'm Gonna Have My Fun - Carl Martin
Bonus Blues - Joe Pullum
When I Get My Bonus (Things Will Be Coming My Way) - Peetie Wheatstraw
When The Soldiers Get Their Bonus - Cripple Clarence Lofton and Red Nelson
When I Get My Money - Bumble Bee Slim

Friday, February 17, 2006

Show 13 - Dealing with the Devil

Show 13 - Dealing with the Devil

The legend of selling a soul to the devil in exchange for musical prowess has been associated with many genres of music for centuries. But it’s stuck more firmly to the blues than to any other music. However, the truth is that when blues singers talked about the devil they were more likely referring to a mistreating woman or boss than to the Price of Darkness Skip James recorded “Devil Got My Woman” in 1931. He had an amazing voice where he certainly sounds haunted by something from hell. But he was more troubled by his woman than anything supernatural.

Washboard Sam recorded another song associating his woman with the devil in 1941, “She Belongs to the Devil.”

Most non-religious types of music (and many activities) were dubbed the work of the devil church folk, the blues may earned the lasting sobriquet the Devil’s Music because some blues musicians embraced the image. One major blues star of the 1930s took it so far as to use it as a successful marketing tool. He called himself the High Sheriff from Hell or the Devil’s Son-In-Law and became one of the most popular and imitated musicians of his time. Peetie Wheatstraw probably gained many fans looking for a form of slight rebellion, because he presented a somewhat subversive alternative to the activities deemed acceptable by the church without being truly threatening.

Peetie Wheatstraw worked hard to establish that link to the devil and it would have been understood as all in fun by his audience. It’s a different story with Tommy Johnson who is also closely linked with the devil. In his case, the story that he sold his soul to the devil came years after his life had ended. His brother LeDell, a minister, told the classic tale of Tommy going to the crossroads to meet the devil and coming away with the ability to play any song he wanted. Though references to the devil are absent from Tommy Johnson’s music, this story has become an important part of the mythology of the blues. It must be remembered that it came from a man devoted to the church who considered a life outside of the church, a devil’s life. Big Road Blues was one of his popular songs that many of his followers would play later.

The lyrics in Lonnie Johnson’s “Devil’s Got the Blues” may get at the place of the devil in the blues more accurately than anyone else. Lonnie Johnson sings “the blues is like the devil it comes on you like a spell, it will leave your heart full of trouble and your poor mind full of hell.” The blues and the devil are both represent what’s wrong in the world, so it’s not surprising that the two would intersect quite often. The devil is most often used to represent the trouble, rather than a promise to sacrifice a soul as often referenced in the Robert Johnson legend (that also applied to Tommy Johnson and others). But Robert Johnson was just another man in this same tradition who was heavily influenced by some of the musicians I’ve played. He should be remembered for his music and the tradition he came, not as an exception that got his music through supernatural means.

See the David Evans biography of Tommy Johnson for Ledell Johnson’s tale of how Tommy went to the crossroads. Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta concludes with a discussion about the devil legend. Wald is dismissive of associations of the supernatural with the blues.

Devil Got My Woman - Skip James
She Belongs to the Devil - Washboard Sam
Devil's Son-In-Law - Peetie Wheatstraw
Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp - Peetie Wheatstraw
Big Road Blues - Tommy Johnson
Dealing with the Devil - Brownie McGhee
Devil's Got the Blues - Lonnie Johnson

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Show 12 - Living in a Violent World

Show 12 - Living in a Violent World -

Blues musicians of the 1920s and 30s existed in a violent world where fights were common and it was often common to carry a weapon and to keep an eye open for the quickest way to get out of the building from the stage. Some blues musicians still exist in this kind of world, and it’s common to other genres. Will Shade recorded “She Stabbed me with an Ice Pick” in 1928. It’s interesting how he sings about the attack on him as a way to reflect on how people feel about him. Though he didn’t see the attack coming, it’s a traumatic but logical occurrence in his world.

Bertha Henderson kills a woman who attacks her and it force her on the run. Her need to defend herself makes her life even more difficult as she has to hide from the authorities. To generalize, this can be seen as the blues position on violence. Forced into action by a violent world and suppressed by the powers that be, there’s little chance for escape from violence and oppression.

Lonnie Johnson’s take on violence in Mexico contains some amazing imagery along with his usual stellar guitar playing.

Carrying a gun was an essential part of life for many musicians dealing with rough crowds and tough situations. Skip James’ “22-20 Blues” was an attempt to capitalize on Roosevelt Sykes’ hit “44 Blues” by recording piano gun pieces.

The connection between violence and music is a frequent topic of debate. I see them as two separate parts of a shared culture. The source of both of the blues and violence is some of the same conditions in society. The same holds true for many types of music and art forms. Adam Gussow (the white harmonica-playing half of the great duo Satan and Adam) wrote about this in his book Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition. He looks more at literature and biography than songs (with the exception of in-depth analysis of one particular line of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”). But he convincingly argues that violence is an irremovable part of blues culture.


She Stabbed Me With an Ice Pick - Will Shade
Terrible Murder Blues - Blind Blake and Bertha Henderson
Got the Blues for Murder Only - Lonnie Johnson
22-20 Blues - Skip James
44 Blues - Roosevelt Sykes
Ice Pick Mama - Walter Washington

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Show 11 - Church Blues

Show 11 - Church Blues -

My first show for the Delta Blues Museum.

The blues and religion have a complex relationship. Though blues has often been castigated at the Devil’s Music, many blues musicians have always played religious songs. Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson were frequent performers of religious music. To this day, many blues singers will end a show with a gospel number. Others sing gospel, but make sure to keep religious music separate from what’s going on it the club.

But being frequently criticized by church folks must have provoked the need to respond in some blues singers. The songs featured on this show, give the blues singers a chance to respond. The musicians I featured come from all over the country and play in different styles, so the need to respond was not a localized phenomenon.

There’s some interesting discussion of attitude towards philandering preachers in the Fisk University/Library of Congress study of Coahoma County from 1942. The book was finally released last year as Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering The Fisk University-Library Of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942. Another interesting read on blues and religion is Jon Michael Spencer’s Blues and Evil. This very academic text is at times unclear (and I think he misreads other blues scholarship), but the argument is definitely thought provoking. He argues that blues have an essentially religious nature that’s not evil at all.


Church Bell Blues - Luke Jordan
Preachin' the Blues, Parts 1 & 2 - Son House
Preacher Blues - Henry Brown
He Calls That Religion - Mississippi Sheiks
Denomination Blues, Parts 1 & 2 - Washington Phillips

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