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.

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

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