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

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