Sunday, March 19, 2006
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