Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Show 31 - Mississippi Road Trip



For this show, I thought we'd travel around Mississippi listening to songs that talk about various towns and parts of the state. We'll start in the small Delta town of Avalon in Caroll County a little north of Greenwood. It's the home of Mississippi John Hurt and this is the song that led to his return to playing music in the 1960s when researcher Tom Hoskins looked in Avalon to see if John Hurt was still in the hometown he sang about in 1928:

In New York this morning, just about half past nine
In New York this morning, just about half past nine
Thought of my mama in Avalon, couldn't hardly keep from crying

Avalon my home town, always on my mind
Avalon my home town, always on my mind
Pretty mamas in Avalon want me there all the time

When the train left Avalon throwing kisses and waving at me
When the train left Avalon throwing kisses and waving at me
Says come back daddy, stay right here with me

Avalon's a small town, have no great big range
Avalon's a small town, have no great big range
Pretty mamas in Avalon sure will spend your change

New York's a good town, but it's not for mine
New York's a good town, but it's not for mine
Going back to Avalon, stay there with pretty mama all the time
As he sang in Avalon Blues, John Hurt was clearly a Mississippi guy, but his playing often sounds more typical of an east coast musician from North Carolina or Virginia. But another Mississippi musician was a Mississippi guy all the way through. He sang like he was from Mississippi, played guitar like he was from Mississippi, and sang songs about Mississippi. It's Charley Patton, the greatest chronicler of Mississippi in blues song. In Stone Pony Blues from 1934, he sings about Vicksburg, Greenville, Lula, and Natchez.

I got me a stone pony and I don't ride Shetland no more
I got me a stone pony and I don't ride Shetland no more
You can find my stone pony hooked to my rider's door

Vicksburg's my pony, Greenville is my great mare
Vicksburg's my pony, Greenville is my great mare
You can find my stone pony down in Lula town somewhere

And I got me a stone pony, don't ride Shetland no more
Got a stone pony, don't ride Shetland no more
And I can't feel welcome, rider nowhere I go

Vicksburg's on a high hill and Natchez just below
Vicksburg's on a high hill, Natchez just below
And I can't feel welcome, rider nowhere I go
“Stone Pony” was an expression for anything good. Patton's uses the phrase as a metaphor for young women he has around Mississippi.

Big Bill Broonzy was one of the many who made the trek out of Mississippi to Chicago. But he never forgot the South. In Lowland Blues from 1936 he sings about Jackson, Greenwood, and anywhere in Mississippi being his true home.

When I get down in the lowland, I won't be mistreated no more
I'm going to Jackson, Greenwood is where I belong
I'm going to Jackson, Greenwood is where I belong
Anywhere in Mississippi is my native home
Bukka White sang about his troubled times with the women in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

I was over in Aberdeen on my way to New Orleans
I was over in Aberdeen on my way to New Orleans
Them Aberdeen women told me they will buy my gasoline

There's two little women that I ain't never seen
There's two little women that I ain't never seen
These two little women they're from New Orleans

I'm sitting down in Aberdeen with New Orleans on my mind
I'm sitting down in Aberdeen with New Orleans on my mind
Lord I believe them Aberdeen women going to make me lose my mind

Aberdeen is my home but the men don't want me around
Aberdeen is my home but the men don't want me around
They know I will take these women and take them out of town

Listen you Aberdeen women, you know I ain't got no dime
Listen you women, you know I ain't got no dime
They had the poor boy all hobbled down
New Orleans is over 300 miles away from Aberdeen. But that was nothing to many blues musicians willing to pick up and go for any reason. For Bukka White it was to get away from the Aberdeen women and to get to some new ones down in New Orleans. Like Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White returned to playing because of that song when a letter came addressed to Bukka White, Blues Singer, Aberdeen, Mississippi. It was from the great guitar player, John Fahey. And it resulted in White playing music across the country and the world.

The legendary Son House recorded a song about Clarksdale that was finally released last year, Clarksdale Moan:

Clarksdale's in the South, and lays heavy on my mind
Clarksdale's in the South, lays heavy on my mind
I can have a good time there, if I ain't got but one lousy dime

Clarksdale, Mississippi always gonna be my home
Clarksdale, Mississippi always gonna be my home
That's the reason you hear me sit right here and moan
...

Nobody knows Clarksdale like I do
Nobody knows Clarksdale like I do
And the reason I know it, I follows it through and through
Every blues fan should visit Clarksdale. It's not surprising that a student of Son House also sang songs about Missisippi. Indeed, the legend of Robert Johnson, can't be separated from his travels from Mississippi town to Mississippi town. He sang about it on Traveling Riverside Blues:

If your man gets personal, want to have your fun
If your man gets personal, want to have your fun
Just come on back to Friar's Point mama and barrelhouse all night long

I've got womens in Vicksburg, clean on into Tennessee
I've got womens in Vicksburg, clean on into Tennessee
But my Friar's point rider now, hops all over me

I ain't going to state no color, but her front teeth crowned with gold
I ain't going to state no color, but her front teeth is crowned with gold
She got a mortgage on my body and a lien on my soul

Lord I'm going to Rosedale, going to take my rider by my side
Lord I'm going to Rosedale, going to take my rider by my side
We can still barrelhouse baby, because it's on the riverside

The amount of blues talent that's emerged from Mississippi is staggering.
Sometimes it seems like every small town in the Delta, and other parts of the state, was home to some musician who made a great record. It's tough to say why and its at least probably because scouts for the record companies were more aware of Mississippi talent than they were of other regions. But the Mississippi Delta, dominated by cotton fields and harsh plantation labor has been called the most Southern place on earth, and it's not a coincidence that so much of this great Southern music came from Mississippi. I'm glad so many musicians recorded songs about its towns.
Songs:

Avalon Blues - Mississippi John Hurt
Stone Pony Blues - Charley Patton
Lowland Blues - Big Bill Broonzy
Aberdeen Mississippi Blues - Bukka White
Clarksdale Moan - Son House
Traveling Riverside Blues - Robert Johnson

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Show 30 - Prison Blues



Show 30 - Prison Blues

After taking a look at justice and the law, I thought I'd continue with a focus on prisons and songs that describe life in the penitentiary. Furry Lewis sang about the inevitability of ending up in the penitentiary once he ended up in the court of Judge Harsh. Furry Lewis singing about heading to prison despite never having harmed a man. His woman offers money to the judge, but its not enough to keep the penitentiary from becoming his home.



They arrest me for murder, I ain't never harmed a man
Women hollered murder and I ain't raised my hand...
Because I'm arrested baby, please don't grieve and moan
Penitentiary seems just like my home
People all hollering about what in the world they will do
Lots of people had justice and been in penitentiary too
Field recordings from Southern penitentiaries were a frequent pursuit of folklorists recording for the Library of Congress or universities. Alan Lomax recorded some remarkable songs by prisoners about their experiences including a harmonica feature from a man known only as Alex and a haunting vocal from Tangle Eye.

Prison Blues

Well now yall be standing around the courthouse babe
Lord knows when Judge Davis(?) give me my time
Lord yall be standing around the courthouse
When Judge Davis give me my time
When I begin to leave my baby crying
Lord knows Mr. Judge you give him too long
Said now that’s all right baby lord
knows I’ll make it over one old day
Said now that’s all right baby I’ll make
it over one old day
Now some of the days soon, I’ll make it back home
Now fare you well, fare you well babe
Lord knows I’m on my last go-round
Now fare you well, fare you well
Lord knows I’m on my last go-round
Well you know if I can live to be in this town
Babe I won’t be hollering
down in prison no more
Tangle Eye:



Oh Lord
Well I wonder will I ever get back home?
Oh Lord
Well it must have been the devil that pulled me here
more down and out
Oh Lord… if I ever get back home, I’ll never do wrong
If I can just make it home I won’t do wrong no more
Lord I won’t do wrong no more
Lord I left mae will and the baby in the courthouse crying daddy please don’t go

Lord I’ll be back home
Well, Lord I’ll be home one day before long
Away from here
Lord I been here rolling but it stays so long
Lord I’m down and out... must be
Come and see what’s done happened to me
Lord If I’d listened to what my dear old mother said
But she’s dead and gone, Lord she’s dead and gone
But I’m gonna do now

Many commercial blues singers also concerned themselves with the prison experience including Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Prison Cell Blues" from 1928.

Got a red eyed captain : and a squabbling boss
Got a mad dog sergeant
honey and he won't knock off
I asked the government to knock some days off my time
Well the way I'm treated, I'm about to lose my mind
I wrote to the governor, please turn me a loose
Since I didn't get no answer I know it ain't no use
I hate to turn over and find my rider gone
Aside from his loneliness, Jefferson sang about the difficulties with his captain, boss, and sergeant. These were common complaints for the prisoner. Jefferson also refers to writing to the governor. That was common for many prisoners, usually to no avail. However, letters to the governor or a judge accompanied by the support of a local white man, who might need the black prisoner, for his own labor, at times were enough to allow the release of a convict in the Deep South (this includes John and Alan Lomax influencing Governor Oscar K. Allen of Louisiana to grant Leadbelly his second pardon).

Peg Leg Howell recorded several songs about crimes and prison. In "Ball and Chain Blues" recorded in Atlanta in 1929, he sings a song about the hard labor that comes with a sentence. Labor was a constant in Southern prisons and it took various forms. Howell discusses being part of a chain gang working in a mine.

I asked the judge what might be my fine
Get a pick and shovel, dig down in the mine
I told the judge, I ain't been here before
If you give me light sentence, I won't come here no more

Mr judge Mr judge, please don't break so hard
I always been a poor boy, never hurt no John
So the next day they carried the poor boy away
Said the next day I had a ball and chain
Take the stripes off my back, chains from around my legs
This ball and chain about to kill me dead
Howell served time in Georgia prison camps for bootlegging offenses. He knew
what it was like to endure physical labor for the state as a prisoner. Chain
gang work had a reputation for harshness, but equally harsh systems in states
like Mississippi with Parchman Farm and Louisiana with Angola penitentiary had
their prisoners work the fields of a prison plantation. Nearly all observers
remarked on the similarities between these prisons and the systems of plantation
slavery that had ended decades earlier in those same states. Bukka White
recorded two songs about prison including "Parchman Farm Blues," recounting his
experience there.
Judge give me life this morning down on Parchman Farm
I wouldn't hate it so bad but I left my wife and my home
Oh goodbye wife all you have done gone
But I hope some day you will hear my lonesome song

Oh listen men I don't mean no harm
If you want to do good you better stay off of Parchman Farm
We goes to work in the morning just the dawn of day
Just at the setting of the sun, that's when the work is done

I'm down on old Parchman Farm, I sure want to go back home
But I hope some day I will overcome

Parchman Farm's crops created a huge amount of revenue for the state of Mississippi creating an incentive to imprison laborers for the fields. The prison's brutality was the stuff of legend. One of the few ways to be released early, was for one prisoner to kill another that was thought to be trying to escape. The state farms and the chain gangs held many in an era when hard labor was the punishment for those who ended up in prisons, some guilty of violent crimes, others lesser offenses that still violated the Jim Crow system. This include countless blues musicians who recorded dozens of songs that create a fascinating document of prisons in the 20s and 30s.

Further reading: Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice by David M. Oshinksy, Blues Fell this Morning: Meaning in the Blues (Goin' to take a rap chapter) by Paul Oliver.


Songs:
Judge Harsh Blues - Furry Lewis
Prison Blues - Alex
Tangle Eye Blues - Tangle Eye
Prison Cell Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson
Prison Wall Blues - Gus Cannon
Ball and Chain Blues - Peg Leg Howell
Parchman Farm Blues - Bukka White

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Show 29 - Dealing with the Law



Show 29 - Dealing with the Law

One of the most difficult thing about living in a discriminatory society is having the law work against you rather than to protect you. This situation for African-Americans in the Jim Crow era is well documented. Even lawyers of the time referred to an unwritten “negro law” that treated black men without regard to their rights. This was implemented at every level of justice from the police to the courthouse to the prisons and jails. Reminiscent of slavery times, black men and woman would need the protection of white man to avoid ending in trouble with local police. This protection would often be unavailable for someone living a blues lifestyle. A huge number of blues songs were recorded about dealing with the law.
Bo Carter expressed the trouble that can come from a black man having even a little alcohol in the age of prohibition in his 1931 song “The Law Gonna Step on You”:


I done told you to quit hounding liquor and gambling too
Look here baby you going too fast, the law's gonna step on your... yes, yes, yes
Now you can twist you can twist you can step on it's tail, you're gonna need someone to post your bail
Look here baby your going too fast, the law's gonna step on your... yes, yes, yes
Now you may think that they're doing you wrong, but they'll send you to the county farm
Look here baby your going to fast, the law's gonna step on your... yes, yes, yes
Now if you wanna leave from home and muck around with a bottle of corn
Look here baby you're traveling too fast, the law's gonna step on your... yes, yes, yes
Memphis musician Robert Wilkins recorded “Police Sergeant Blues” in 1930. The song equates trouble with his woman to trouble with the law. He describes the inevitability of a sentence once the police come for you.
I am going to tell the judge, I know that I done wrong
You go and get some lawyers to come and go my bond
I know the judge is going to give me thirty long days
Charley Patton liked to sing about events and characters in his native Mississippi. He recorded two songs about local sheriffs. The first, “Tom Rushen Blues” from 1929 described Patton's arrest by Merigold, Mississippi sheriff Tom Rushing. The second 1934's “High Sheriff Blues” told a similar story about an arrest in Belzoni and Patton's treatment at the hands of Humphreys County sheriff John Purvis and his deputy R. Carlos Webb:

Get in trouble at Belzoni, there ain't no use screamin' and cryin'
Get in trouble in Belzoni, there ain't no use-a screamin' and cryin'
Mr. Webb will take you, back to Belzoni jailhouse flyin'

Let me tell you folks, how he treated me
Let me tell you folks, how he treated me
And he put me in a cell, it was dark as it could be

There I laid one evening, Mr. Purvis was standing 'round
There I laid one evening, Mr. Purvis was standing 'round
Mr. Purvis told Mr. Webb to let poor Charley down

It takes booze and booze, Lord, to carry me through
Takes booze and booze, Lord, to carry me through
But it did seem like years in a jailhouse where there is no booze
I got up one morning, feeling oh
I got up one morning feeling mighty bad
And it must not a-been them Belzoni jail I had
(spoken: Blues I had, boys)

I was in trouble, ain't no use screaming
When I was in prison, it ain't no use screaming and crying
Mr. Purvis the onliest man could ease that pain of mine

In his song "Shelby County Workhouse Blues," Hambone Willie Newbern sang about the difficulties in court and the inability for a man like Newbern to make his case:
Well the lawyers talk so fast, didn't have time to say not nary word
Well the lawyer pleaded, and the judge he done wrote it down
Says I'll give you ten days buddy, out in little old Shelby town
Newbern represents the typical experience for a black man in court in the 20s or 30s, however there were a few lawyers that provided exceptions to the rule. Sleepy John Estes recorded a song about one lawyer who acted as a true advocate for his client.
But you know I like Mr Clark, yes he really is my friend
He say if I just stay out of the grave, he see that I won't go to the pen
Now Mr Clark is a lawyer, his younger brother is too
When the battles get hard, he tell him just what to do
I like Mr Clark, yes he is my friend
He say if I just stay out of the grave, he see that I won't go to the pen
Now he lawyers for the rich, he lawyers for the poor
He don't try to rob nobody; just bring along to the store
Now once I got in trouble, you know I was going to take a ride
He didn't let it reach the courthouse, he kept it on the outside
you know I like Mr Clark, yes he really is my friend
He say if I just stay out of the graveyard, Poor John I see you won't go to the pen
Now Mr Clark is a good lawyer, he good as I ever seen
He the first man that proved, that water run upstream
Blind Blake recorded a song about being thrown in jail and he wished someone would have told him "What a Low Down Place the Jailhouse Is." In the song, Blake was thrown in jail by a judge. Even worse than getting sent to jail for a few weeks was being sentenced to the state prison, Leroy Carr's “Prison Bound Blues” describes the feeling of knowing your headed to the penitentiary and losing the life you enjoyed.

Early one morning the blues came falling down
Early one morning the blues came falling down
All locked up in jail, I'm prison bound


All last night, I sat in my cell alone
All last night, I sat in my cell alone
Thinking of my baby and my happy home


Baby you will never see my smiling face again
Baby you will never see my smiling face again
But always remember your daddy has been your friend


Sometimes I wonder why don't your write to me
Sometimes I wonder why don't your write to me
If I've been a bad fellow, I did not intend to be

When I had my trial baby, you could not be found
When I had my trial baby, you could not be found
It's too late now mistreating mama, I'm prison bound.

The number of blues songs about police, lawyers, judges, jails, and prisons testifies to the difficulty of dealing with the law for those living a blues lifestyle. Though the stories of lynching and and murder are told frequently, its fortunate that we have these songs to help document the smaller problems with the law that African-Americans could have on a nearly daily basis in the Jim Crow South. These could include being thrown in jail without a second thought from a police officer and being sentenced without little more consideration from a judge. That's particularly true for those living an itinerant lifestyle like many bluesmen did.

Songs:
The Law is Gonna Step on You - Bo Carter
High Sheriff Blues - Charley Patton
Police Sergeant Blues - Robert Wilkins
Shelby County Workhouse Blues - Hambone Willie Newbern
Lawyer Clark Blues - Sleepy John Estes
What a Low Down Place the Jailhouse Is - Blind Blake
Prison Bound Blues - Leroy Carr

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Show 28 - Weird Lyrics



Show 28 - Weird Lyrics

I thought I'd take a look at a few songs that I don't really understand but that I find very intriguing. Some of these are songs that seem to be from the minstrel tradition and they use lyrics with meanings that are lost to time or at least lost on me. Or maybe the songs were just always weird, even at the time they were made. That might be the case with a song from Jim Jackson. It seems to be a religious parody and might have come from the minstrel stage. Recorded in Memphis in 1928 for Victor Records, “I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop.” The same song was recorded later in the same year by Bogus Ben Covington (who is probably the same man that recorded under the name Ben Curry) accompanied by his banjo and harmonica. It's not clear if Covington learned the song from Jackson or if they picked it up from the same minstrel origin. Clearly, the song is about hunger but the lyrics are undeniably strange and seem to be about eating road kill crossed with a vision.

Jackson's lyrics:

I walked and I walked and I walked and I walked
I stopped to rest my feet
I sat down under an old oak tree and there went fast asleep
I dreamt about sitting in a swim cafe hungry as a bear
My stomach sent a telegram to my throat:
There's a wreck on the road somewhere
I heard the voice of a porkchop say: Come on to me and rest
Well you talk about your stewing me: I ain't know what the best
You talk about your chicken, ham, and eggs and turkey stuffed in dress
But I heard the voice of a pork chop say come on to me and rest
Luke Jordan's “Pick Poor Robin Clean” features music and lyrics, particularly the lyrics with what we now consider racist language reveal the probable minstrel show origin of the song:
Get off my money and don't get funny
'Cause I'm a nigger, don't cut no figure
Gambling for Sadie, she is my lady
I'm a hustling coon that's just what I am
But it's the chorus that features the lyrics that confuse me:
You better pick poor robin clean
Pick poor robin clean
I picked his head, I picked his feet
Would have picked his body, but it wasn't fit to eat
You'd better pick poor robin clean
Pick poor robin clean
But I'll be satisfied having your family


It seems picking the robin is a metaphor, but I'm not sure for what. The song was also recorded by the female duo Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas and it almost seems to take on a different meaning being sing by a woman.

Alabama musician Ed Bell recorded a great song featuring a word that seems to have left the vernacular but that shows up in quite a few blues songs of the era. The word is mamlish. The song is “Mamlish Blues,” recorded for Paramount in 1927.
These are my mamlish blues, gonna tell you just what they mean
Used to be my sugar but you ain't sweet no mamlish more
Because you mistreated me and you throwed me from your door
Mama my pack's ready, keep it for my mamlish self
Mama I done got tired of sleeping by myself
Well my Mama didn't like me, my papa give me mamlish ways
That's the very reason I'm a wandering child today
Talking about your sure love but you just ought to see mamlish mine
She ain't so good looking but she do just fine
She the man on the corner, see she going to steal that mamlish man
And a blind man seen her and a dumb man call her name
And the dumb man asked her who your regular man can be
And the blind man told her you sure look good to me
The word also shows up in another 1927 Paramount recording, “Nappy Head Blues” by Bobby Grant, one of only two songs recorded by Grant:
Your head is nappy : your feet so mamlish long
And you move like a turkey: coming through the mamlish corn
Additional songs featuring the word: Kokomo Arnold's “Milkcow Blues” and Sluefoot Joe's “Tooten' Out Blues.” Some theorize that Sluefoot Joe is the same man as Ed Bell. Those songs reveal little more about the meaning of the word. But it seems to function as an intensifier the same way some would use “Goddamm.” Any additional connotations the word probably had is certainly lost on me.

Words and expressions come and go. Songs are one place they are captured and for language from specific regions and ethnic groups, sometimes songs are the only place they're recorded. The language of pre-war blues is rich with words and expressions that have vanished and ones that are still used. And most importantly, the songs are mamlish good.

Songs:
I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop - Jim Jackson
I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop - Bogus Ben Covington
Pick Poor Robin Clean - Luke Jordan
Pick Poor Robin Clean - Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas
Mamlish Blues - Ed Bell
Nappy Head Blues - Bobby Grant

Friday, June 08, 2007

Show 27 - Policy Blues



Show 27 - Policy Blues

Policy is the lottery-- an illegal numbers game that was hugely popular at the end of the nineteenth and in the first few decades of the twentieth century. You'd pick three numbers and hope they hit. The name comes from the practice of allowing bettors to make an “insurance policy” bet on tomorrow's numbers to offset potential losses, a gambler could make a policy bet that his ticket would come up blank insuring he would get something back on a losing ticket. Eventually the entire game came to be called policy and this “insurance” came to be useful code for buying and selling tickets when the game was illegal.

North Mississippi/Memphis area bluesman Jim Jackson, tells us how the game is played in his 1928 son, “Policy Blues”. In “Playing Policy Blues” by Blind Blake, you hear him sing: “I played on Clearinghouse, couldn't make the grade.” Clearinghouse was a version of policy that attempted to ensure legitimacy by taking the last three numbers from the daily Federal Reserve Clearing House Report. The numbers were printed in the newspaper, ensuring that the policy company wasn't cheating the players. Kokomo Arnold sang about some of the problems inherent in dealing with the less honest policy game operators in Policy Wheel Blues. Bo Carter sang “Policy Blues,” he was one of the few bluesmen who came out a winner as he sings about waiting for the money he won.

One popular method of selecting numbers to play in a policy game was using the interpretation of dreams. Players consulted policy dream books to provide them with the lucky numbers their dreams suggested. These books were often published by the policy agents themselves. Bumble Bee Slim was one blues musician who wrote about a policy dream as one way to potentially beat the racket that was policy. Check out Kat Yronwode's excellent page on policy dream books including analysis of Blind Blake's lyrics.

Policy games are gone with the lottery business now controlled by the states. But these blues songs captured the essence of an important part of America's gambling culture that lasted for decades. These bluesmen and women reported what it was like to play policy and almost always lose at policy. But I guess that's what makes it the blues.

Songs:
Policy Blues - Jim Jackson
Playing Policy Blues - Blind Blake
Policy Wheel Blues - Kokomo Arnold
Policy Blues - Bo Carter
Policy Dream Blues - Bumble Bee Slim
Elzadie's Policy Blues - Elzadie Robinson

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Show 26 - John Henry



Show 26 - John Henry

John Henry - Jimmy Owens
John Henry - Reese Crenshaw
John Henry - Big John Davis
John Henry - Arthur Bell
John Henry - Leadbelly
Death Of John Henry (Steel Driving Man) - Uncle Dave Macon
John Henry - Henry Thomas

Monday, March 12, 2007

Show 25 - Yellow, Brown, or Black



Prejudice against people with darker skin is widely documented in many cultures and stereotypes about yellow, brown, and black are still common. When the songs in this show were recorded, skin-lightening cream products ads were always seen alongside the blues record advertisements in black newspapers like the Chicago Defender. The assumption was that light skinned was automatically more attractive. Blues singers often subverted this assumption but at times reinforced it. The popular music comedy team from the 1920s, Butterbeans and Susie, sing in Brown Skin Gal about how a brown skinned girl can be trusted and is the best even though she might not have the money, status, or look as good as a yellow.

Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell have a similar take in Good Woman Blues. In It’s Heated, Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon gives his ideas about sexual stereotypes with the darkest woman coming out on top: “Now a yellow gal is like a frigid zone, brownskin's about the same. You want some good loving get yourself an old Crow Jane.” The term Crow Jane shows up in dozens of blues songs referring to dark women.

Texas Alexander subscribed to the lighter is better school in Yellow Girl Blues: “Black woman evil, brownskin evil too. Going to get me a yellow woman and see what she will do.”

Some male blues singers expressed the attitude that the high status of light-skinned women made them more difficult to deal with as romantic partners. That ideas was thar light-skinned women may be more beautiful, have more money, and a generally higher status, but they won’t treat a man well. Bo Weavil Jackson sang in Some Scream High Yellow: “Some Scream High Yellow, I scream black or brown. High yellow may mistreat you, but black won't turn you down.”

Harry Gay and Stephen Tarter from Scott County, Virginia recorded just two songs. Brownie Blues dealt with skin color. Tarter sang that women on both ends of the color spectrum should be avoided:
“Want no Jet black woman burn no bread for me
Jet black is evil and she sure might poison me
Jet Black is evil and so is yellow too
I’m so glad I’m brown skinned, don’t know what to do”

Bessie Smith seemed to use her skin color as an excuse to be wild in her 1926 recording Young Woman’s Blues: “I ain't no high yellow, I'm a deep killer brown. I ain't going to marry, ain't going to settle down.”

An individual’s place on the continuum of African-American skin color has always affected status in society and the perception of their attractiveness. Terms like High Yellow or Crow Jane may fade away or change meaning, but prejudices based on skin tone never seem to go away. These blues songs give us a glimpse about some attitudes about skin color during the pre-war period. Bluesmen expressed their preference for yellow, black, or brown in song. Sometimes “Jet Black is Evil” other times “The Blacker the Berry the sweeter the Juice”, but it seems there’s no escape from stereotypes based on skin.

Check out Wallace Thurman’s 1929 novel The Blacker the Berry for a contemporary fictional take on the “colorism” issues presented by these blues songs.

Show 25 - Yellow, Brown, or Black

Songs:
Brown Skin Gal - Butterbeans and Susie
Good Woman Blues - Leroy Carr
It's Heated - Frankie 'Half-Pint' Jaxon
Yellow Girl Blues - Texas Alexander
Some Scream High Yellow - Bo Weavil Jackson
Brownie Blues - Harry Gay and Stephen Tarter
Young Woman's Blues - Bessie Smith

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Show 24 - Hard Times Blues



Show 24 - Hard Times Blues

Songs:
Hard Times Killing Floor - Skip James
We Sure Got Hard Times - Barbecue Bob
Hard Time Blues - Scrapper Blackwell
It's Hard Time - Joe Stone
Hard Times Blues - Charlie Spand
Hard Time Blues - Darby & Tarlton
Hard Time Blues - Josh White