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
Songs:
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

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