Friday, November 14, 2008

Show 39 - President Blues



Songs:
Can You Blame the Colored Man - Gus Cannon
Blue Bird Blues Part 2 - Sonny Boy Williamson
He's In the Jailhouse Now - Blind Blake
Sylvester and His Mule Blues - Memphis Minnie
President Blues - Jack Kelly
Dear Mr. President/President Roosevelt - Lead Belly

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Show 38 - WPA Blues



With all the recent talk in the U.S. about the government bailouts during the financial crisis it seemed like a good time to turn back to the biggest U.S. government actions in history during the New Deal. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the largest of the New Deal agencies and there were quite a few blues songs recorded about it. The WPA employed millions affected by the Great Depression in an effort to get people off relief and onto work on useful projects. This included huge numbers of African-Americans whose options for employment were limited.
Casey Bill Weldon recorded WPA Blues in 1936. It gets at the complex attitudes toward the WPA. Jobs are provided, but there are negative aspects too including the completion of some unwanted projects. The singer lives in a home about to be torn down by the slum clearance crews of the WPA.
Everybody's working in this town and it's worrying me night and day
Everybody's working in this town and it's worrying me night and day
If that mean working too, have to work for the WPA

Well well the landlord come this morning and he knocked on my door
He asked me if I was going to pay my rent no more
He said you have to move if you can't pay
And then he turned and he walked slowly away

So I have to try find me some other place to stay
That housewrecking crew's coming from the WPA

Well well went to the relief station and I didn't have a cent
If that's the only way you stand you don't have to pay no rent
So when I got back home, they was tacking a notice on the door
This house is condemned and you can't live there no more

So a notion struck me, I better be on my way
They're going to tear my house down, that crew from the WPA

Well well I went out next morning I put a lock on my door
I thought I would move but I have no place to go
The real estate people they all done got so
They don't rent to no relief clients no more

So I know, have to walk the streets night and day
Because that wrecking crew's coming from that WPA

Well well a notion struck me, I'll try to stay a day or two
But I soon found out that that wouldn't do
Early next morning while I was laying in my bed
I heard a mighty rumbling and the bricks come tumbling down on my head

So I had to start ducking and dodging and be on my way
They was tearing my house down on me, that crew from that WPA
There are countless songs about men and women leaving each other when they no longer depend on a partner for money. Billie McKenzie recorded one about losing her man when he got a job working for the WPA, That Man on the WPA.


I'll tell you girls what my man done to me one day
I'll tell you girls what my man done to me one day
He was so nice and kind, til he started for that WPA

Before then I gave him my money, even bought his shoes and clothes
I said I gave him my money, even bought his shoes and clothes
Got a job on the WPA and put poor me outdoors

Be a good friend to me girls, please try and see it my way
Be a good friend to me girls, please try and see it my way
If you want a good man, don't get one on that WPA

I did everything I could to keep that man from going down
I did everything I could, girls, to keep that man from going down
I even pawned my clothes and kicked mud all around this town

But I knew he was jiving when he laid down across my bed
Now I knew he was jiving when he laid down across my bed
Smoking his good doing reefers and talking all out his head
Casey Bill Weldon who recorded a followup to his hit WPA Blues in 1937. It's a story about a gambler who's luck turns and he's forced to find a job on the WPA, Casey Bill's New WPA.


Said my baby told me this morning, just about the break of day
My baby told me this morning, just about the break of day
Said: "You oughta get up this morning, get you a job on that WPA"

I says, "I am a gambler, and I gamble night and day,"
I says, "I am a gambler, I gamble night and day,"
Says, "I don't need no job on that WPA."

She said, "I'm leaving you now, daddy, yeah, that's all I got to say,"
She said, "I'm leaving you now, daddy, yeah, that's all I got to say,"
She said, "I'm gonna get me a man, that's working on that WPA."

And all the women hollering, and they hollering night and day
All the women hollering, and they hollering night and day
"I'm gonna quit my pimp, get me a man on that WPA."

"So hard luck has overtaken me, had to throw my dice and cards away,"
"Hard luck has overtaken me, had to throw my dice and cards away,"
Yeah, I've gotta try to get me a job on that WPA."

Casey Bill Weldon singing about having to work for the WPA because he can't win money gambling. Also, a funny line about women quitting their pimps in favor on WPA men.
Like Casey Bill Weldon, Peetie Wheatstraw recorded multiple songs about the WPA. New Working on the Project is the second in his trilogy of WPA songs. Recorded in 1937, around the time the Roosevelt administration was making cuts in some New Deal programs and laying off workers. It's about a man working on the WPA scared to get his 304 discharge form telling him he's lost his job:
Working on the project, what a scared man, you know
Working on the project, what a scared man, you know
Because every time I look around, somebody's getting their 304

Working on the project with a big furniture bill to pay
Working on the project with a big furniture bill to pay
But time I got my 304, the furniture man come and taken my furniture away

Working on the project, the rent man is knocking on my door
Working on the project, the rent man is knocking on my door
I am sorry Mr. Rent Man, I just got my 304

Working on the project, my partner got his 304 too
Working on the project, my partner got his 304 too
So you better look out because tomorrow it may be you

Working on the project, a 304 may make you cry
Working on the project, a 304 will make you cry
There's one thing sure, you can tell the project goodbye
Despite its successes, the songs show there were many complaints about WPA policy. More popular was the Civilian Conservation Corps. Washboard Sam compares it to the WPA in his 1938 song CCC Blues:
I'm going down, I'm going down, to the CCC
I'm going down, I'm going down, to the CCC
I know that the WPA won't do a thing for me

I told her my name and the place I stay
She said she'd give me a piece of paper, come back some other day
I'm going down, I'm going down, to the CCC
I know that the WPA won't do a thing for me

I told her I had no people and the shape I was in
She said she would help me, but she didn't say when
I'm going down, I'm going down, going down to the CCC
I know that the WPA won't do a thing for me

I told her I needed a job and no relief
On my rent day, she sent me a can of beef
I'm going down, I'm going down, to the CCC
I know that the WPA won't do a thing for me

She said she'd give me a job, everything was nice and warm
Taking care of the dead in a funeral home
I'm going down, I'm going down, to the CCC
I know that the WPA won't do a thing for me
Big Bill Broonzy recorded a couple of WPA songs including a celebratory number in 1938 called WPA Rag that starts off as a kind of old fahioned field holler and turns into a jazz number.
Oh... I feel like hollering, but the town is too small
Yeah... But the town is too small

Let's play that rag

I want all you women and I mean all you stags
I want all you women and I mean all you stags
Just to spend your money, while you play this WPA Rag
Oh yeah, Oh yeah, Oh yeah, Oh yeah
The WPA provided as many as 3 million jobs at times. When workers were getting laid off, it was reflected in blues songs and when more workers were being hired it was reflected in blues songs. The songs are amazing documents of how the government programs affected people.

Songs:
WPA Blues - Casey Bill Weldon
That Man on the WPA - Billie McKenzie
Casey Bill's New WPA - Casey Bill Weldon
New Working on the Project - Peetie Wheatstraw
CCC Blues - Washboard Sam
WPA Rag - Big Bill Broonzy

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Show 37 - Highway Blues



In 1924, about the same time record companies began to record blues regularly, American Association of State Highway Officials held a meeting to plan a system of marked and numbered interstate highways. Roads like the Lincoln Highway, Dixie Overland Highway, or the Mohawk Trail were replaced with numbered routes like 61 and 80. At the time the change was criticized. People thought the romance of the named roads could not be replace by boring numbers. However, as blues songs show us, the numbered highways developed an excitement of their own.

Big Joe Williams sang Highway 49, the road that goes from Piggott, Arkansas thought the Mississippi Delta to Gulfport, Mississippi:
Well I'm gonna get up in the morning, catch that Highway 49
Yes I'm getting up in the morning, catch that highway 49
Well Im finding my sweet woman, well well she dont pay poor Joe no mind

Well have you ever had the blues? Catch the highway 49
Well have you ever had the blues? Catch the highway 49
I'm finding my sweet woman, well boy, she trying to throw poor Joe Williams down

I'm gonna wake up in the morning, I believe I'll dust my bed
I'm getting up in the morning, well, I believe I'll dust my bed
Going down to highway 49, well boys, I'll be rocking to me head

Blues this morning, I may roll in Jackson town (I mean Jackson, Tennessee)
Blues this morning, well I'll be rolling in Jackson town
Lord I'm tired of laying around on Highway 49
U.S. Highway 80 ran across the entire Southern United States from Georgia to California. Son Bonds was a Tennessee musician, from north of where Highway 80 runs. But he sings about taking the longest road he know to get away from a woman. 80 Highway Blues from 1941.
Sitting down here thinking, yes babe I believe I better go
Sitting down here thinking, yes babe I believe I better go
You know I believe I'll go down that long long old dusty road

Now that 80 Highway is the longest highway that I know
Now that 80 Highway is the longest highway that I know
Running all the way from Frisco, Texas way cross the Atlantic on that other water coast

The church bell beginning to toll, yes some other good gambler's gone
The church bell beginning to toll, yes some other good gambler's gone
You know I wouldn't hate it so bad, but that 80 Highway's so long

You women fuss and argue with your good man, when you know you don't do right yourself
You women fuss and argue with your good man, baby when you know you don't do right yourself
You know when I look for you at night, way down on 80 Highway with someone else

Yes if you get in trouble, call on a car about forty‑five
Yes if you get in trouble, call on a car about forty‑five
Baby now I just open up my chifferobe and you'll see where my dollar lies
Son Bonds sings 80 runs from Frisco, Texas to the Atlantic which is about right these days. When the song was recorded the road ran all the way to the west coast.

Highway 51 runs from Wisconsin to Louisiana. Curtis Jones recorded Highway 51 Blues in 1937:
Forgive me, honey, for all the wrong I've done
Please forgive me, honey, for all the wrong I've done
I don't want nobody to have to come for me parked out on Highway 51

If I should die, baby, before my time
If I should die, baby, before my time
Bury my body on 51 highway right down below the Frisco line

Now Mr. bus driver, let me ride down in your blind
Mr. bus driver, let me ride down in your blind
Now if you don't let me ride main, I'm gonna swing right on behind

Baby if your good man get buggish, don't want you to have no fun
If your good man get buggish, don't want you to have no fun
Come and follow me to my nation back down on highway 51

Me and my little baby, we walked 51 Highway side by side
Me and my little baby, walk the Highway side by side
If we should happen to have a bad accident nobody knows unless we die
Mississippi-born bluesman Tommy McLennan recorded New Highway No. 51 in Chicago in 1940.
Highway 51 runs right by my baby's door
Highway 51 runs right by my baby's door
Now if I don't get the girl I'm loving ain't going down Highway 51 no more

Now if I should die before my time shall come
I said if I should die just before my time shall come
I want you to please bury my body out on Highway 51

Now yonder come that Greyhound with his tongue sticking out on the side
Yonder come that Greyhound with his tongue sticking out on the side
If you buy your ticket swear 'fore God that man'll let you ride

My baby didn't have one five dollars she spent it all on a V‑Eight Ford
My baby didn't have one five dollars, spent it all on a V‑Eight Ford
So I could meet that Greyhound bus on that Highway 51 road

Now any time you get lonesome and you wants to have some fun
Any time you get lonesome and you wants to have some fun
Come out to little Tommy's cabin, he lives on Highway 51
There have been a lot of songs recorded about Route 61. Many of them incorrectly describe the route. It runs from Minnesota to New Orleans through the heart of the Mississippi Delta
including that intersection with 49 that many consider the crossroads. Charlie Pickett recorded a Highway 61 song in 1937 called Down the Highway where he sings the road goes from Atlanta to the Gulf of Mexico:
Now I'm going to leave here walking going down Highway 61
Now I'm going to leave here walking going down Highway 61
If I find my sweet mama, baby I believe we're going to have some fun

Oh well oh well we're going to make everything all right
Oh well oh well we're going to make everything all right
Now if I don't soon in the morning, you know I will do just tomorrow night

Now the 61 Highway, you know it runs right by my door
Now the 61 Highway, man it runs right by my door
Runs from Atlanta into Georgia down into the Gulf of Mexico

Oh well oh well we're going to make everything all right
Oh well oh well you know wer'e going to make everything all right
Now if I don't soon in the morning, you know I will do just tomorrow night

Now I received a letter, some long‑distance telegram
Now I received a letter, a long‑distance telegram
Now if I don't be home Sunday, I will be home...

All these songs have been about interstate highways, but state roads got some appreciation in blues songs too. Freddie Spruell recorded one about following his baby down Illinois Route 4a called 4A Highway.
My baby woke me up this morning, she told me she's Joliet bound
My baby woke me up this morning, she told me she's Joliet bound
She went to find 4‑A Highway, that's the main Highway out of town

She wouldn't even talk with me, wouldn't even have a word to say
She wouldn't even talk with me, wouldn't even have a word to say
She asking all her friends around now, where she find number 4‑A highway

Number 4‑A Highway, that's the main highway out of town
Number 4‑A Highway, that's the main highway out of town
And if she leave out on that highway, I'm sure going to trail my baby down

I feel like taking my suitcase, setting down on the side of that lonesome highway
I feel like taking my suitcase, setting down on the side of that lonesome highway
If she leave there between now and midnight, I'll overtake her just before day

If I had my machine, I wouldn't worry about leaving town
If I had my machine, I wouldn't worry about leaving town
I'd get on that 4‑A Highway and God knows I'd roll that highway down
Key to the Highway is one of the most recorded songs in the blues. It captures the spirit of the highway as an escape. Jazz Gillum recorded it this way in 1940:
I got the key to the highway, billed out and bound to go
I'm going to leave here running because walking is much too slow

I'm going back to the bottom where I'm better known
Because you haven't done nothing but drove a good man away from home

Give me one more kiss mama just before I go
Because when I'm leaving here, I won't be back no more

When the moon creep over the mountain, honey I'll be on my way
I'm going to walk this highway until the break of day

Well it's so long so long baby, I must say goodbye
I'm going to roam this highway until the day I die
Automobiles and the culture surrounding them were central to American life in the 1930s and early 40s when these songs were recorded. Not having a car makes it a blues situation as Jazz Gillum sings that he's going to walk the highway. But with a car or without, the numbered highways became a part of the mythology of the United States and part of the blues. Highways like 61, 51, and 66 are recalled in countless songs. The men and women recording the blues in the thirties and forties lives intersected with these roads on a daily basis and the music reflects that.

Songs:
Highway 49 - Big Joe Williams
80 Highway Blues - Son Bonds
Highway 51 - Curtis Jones
New Highway No. 51 - Tommy McLennan
Down the Highway - Charlie Pickett
4A Highway - Freddie Spruell
Key to the Highway - Jazz Gillum

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Show 36 - Nicknames



It's amazing how many of the great musicians are known by nicknames. Often, the real names are obscure and even the biggest fans know only a nickname. And there are some great ones in prewar blues: Bumble Bee Slim, Leadbelly, Little Son Joe, Salty Dog Sam, Funny Paper Smith. The list of great nicknames is endless. Many sang songs that define and tell the stories behind those nicknames.
A guy named James Arnold reworked a song that Scrapper Blackwell had recorded a few years earlier. Soon he was known as Kokomo and the name James Arnold all but vanished. The song is Old Original Kokomo Blues from 1934.
Now one and one is two mama, two and two is four
Mess around here pretty mama, you know we got to go
Crying oh baby don't you want to go
Back to eleven light city, to sweet old Kokomo

Now four and one is five mama, five and one is six
You mess around here pretty mama, you going to get me tricked
Crying oh baby don't you want to go
Back to eleven light city, to sweet old Kokomo

Now six and one is seven mama, seven and one is eight
You mess around here pretty mama, you going to make me late
Crying oh baby don't you want to go
Back to eleven light city, to sweet old Kokomo

Says I told you mama when you first fell across my bed
You been drinking your bad whiskey and talking all out your head
Crying oh baby don't you want to go
Back to eleven light city, to sweet old Kokomo

I don't drink because I'm dry mama, don't drink because I'm blue
The reason I drink pretty mama, I can't get along with you
Crying oh baby don't you want to go
Back to eleven light city, to sweet old Kokomo

Now eight and one is nine mama, nine and one is ten
You mess around here pretty mama, I'm going to take you in
Crying oh baby don't you want to go
Back to eleven light city, to sweet old Kokomo

Now ten and one is eleven mama, eleven and one is twelve
You mess around here pretty mama, you going to catch you a lot of hell
Crying oh baby don't you want to go
Back to eleven light city, to sweet old Kokomo
Kokomo Arnold presumably referred to the town the Kokomo, Indiana. Two years later, Robert Johnson would rip the song off, change the city to Sweet Home Chicago and inspire countless covers. But the name Kokomo would be forever attached to Arnold.
Songs about playing cards are frequently heard in this genre. But Texas musician Babe Karo Lemon Turner took it to another level when he took the name of the prettiest card in the deck: the Black Ace. He tells the story in his 1937 recording Black Ace.
I am the Black Ace, I'm the boss card in your hand
I am the Black Ace, I'm the boss card in your hand
And I'll play for you mama if you please let me be your man

Sometimes a black ace never comes inside
Sometimes a black ace never comes inside
But I'll play for you mama, if you please, will treat me right

Says I'll lay in the deck mama, I'll lay forth and tight
But I'll play for you mama if you treat me right
If you don't want me mama, I said please leave me alone

Cause I'll play for you mama when the king is gone
(That means when your husband's gone)

I'll be your winner in any game you play
I'll be your winner in any game you play
And if you don't want me mama, please just let me stay

Yes you know you don't want me mama, you won't even say
That's alright mama, you gonna need my help someday
I sad please, mama, please, don't drive me away
Cause I'll be at the trailer, Mama if you please let me stay
Another Texas musicians got his nickname becuase he was a man that didn't want to stay in any one place for long. He was born Willard Thomas and recorded under the name Ramblin' Thomas. The story of how he earned his name is in the 1928 song, Ramblin' Man.
I feel like rambling, rambling stays on my mind
I feel like rambling, rambling stays on my mind
And I ain't satisfied unless I'm rambling all the time

Now you will wake up in the morning and find me gone
And you will wake up in the morning and find me gone
Because I'm a rambling man and I can't stay at one place long

It's one day and one night is long as I stay in one place
It's one day and one night is long as I stay in one place
But I've been in Chicago one week because I like these Chicago ways

I'm going to leave here walking, chance is that I may ride
And I'm going to leave here walking, chance is that I may ride
Because I'm going to ramble until the day that I die
One nickname is not enough for some people. JT Smith, another Texas musician, was one of them. He was known as Funny Paper or some blues researchers believe Funny Papa. If it was Funny Paper, it probably refers to newspaper comic strips, maybe even specifically to the comic Snuffy Smith. But either Papa or Paper, Smith had yet another nickname, and he had it a couple decades before a more famous bluesman. It's one of the great animal-related nicknames, the Howling Wolf. In 1930, he recorded a song in about it: Howling Wolf Blues
Well here I am got the blues about Little Old Victoria, the Howling Wolf
I guess I'll drop a few lines

I am that wolf that everybody been trying to find out where in the world I prowl
I am that wolf that everybody been trying to find out where in the world I prowl
Nobody ever gets a chance to see me, but they all hear me when I howl

Now I howl to my baby with her mother standing by her side
I howl to my baby with her mother standing by her side
And that's the reason I'm howling, I'm trying to be satisfied

I even prowled for you baby when you was down and couldn't stand up on your feet
I even prowled for you baby when you was down and couldn't stand up on your feet
Now you walk by the lone wolf and act like you don't want to see

What made you quit me, I love you as I did three years ago
What made you quit me, baby, I love you as I did three years ago
Take me back and I'll quit prowling and I won't ever howl no more

Now the preacher told me that God will forgive a black man most anything he do
Now the preacher told me that God will forgive a black man most anything he do
I ain't black but I'm dark‑complexioned, look like he ought to forgive me too

Look like God don't treat me like I'm a human kind
Seem like God don't treat me like I'm a human kind
Seem like he wants me to be a prowler and a howling wolf all the time
Howling Wolf Blues‑No. 2


Baby here I am down on my bended knees
Ask you to take me back and forgive me do that for me if you please

Now when you hear me howling mama, I mean howling at your door
when you hear me howling mama, howling at your door
Come on and give me what I want mama then you won't hear me howl no more

Ever since you quit me mama, I ain't wanted nobody
else Ever since you quit me mama, I ain't wanted nobody else
For I'd rather be with nobody than I'd rather be howling by myself

Now I done howled and howled until I wore my tonsils sore
Now I done howled and howled until I made my tonsils sore
And when I howl this time mama, I never will howl no more

Now here I am in Chicago, doing the best I can
Here I am in Chicago, doing the best I can
If I hear from my baby, I'll act the fool and go howling back south again

Mama listen at me howl
Mama listen at me howl
Watch the roads dark as night mama and you liable to see me prowl


The man born Harold Bunch was another popular musician with a few nicknames. Best known as Peetie Wheatstraw, he's also The Devil's Son-in-Law and the High Sheriff from Hell. I mentioned Robert Johnson borrowing from Kokomo Arnold, he also took a lot from Peetie Wheatstraw including an association with the devil. The troublemaking character of Peetie Wheatstraw became part of American folklore and culture, showing up in Ralph Ellison novels and Rudy Ray Moore films. It's not clear if Bunch got the name from an already existing folk hero, or if he created a new one. Either way he was a hugely popular musician when he recorded the story in Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp in 1937.
Women all raving about Peetie Wheatstraw in this land
Women all raving about Peetie Wheatstraw in this land
He got some of these women now going from hand to hand

Don't tell all the girls what that Peetie Wheatstraw can do
Woohoo... that Peetie Wheatstraw can do
That will cause suspicion now you know they will try him too

If you want to see the women that may clown
If you want to see the women may clown
Just let that Peetie Wheatstraw come into your town

I am Peetie Wheatstraw, the high sheriff from hell
I am Peetie Wheatstraw, the high sheriff from hell
The way I strut my stuff, well now you never can tell
Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp No. 2:


Everybody hollering here come that Peetie Wheatstraw
Everybody hollering here come that Peetie Wheatstraw
Now he's better known by the devil's son‑in‑law

Everybody wondering what that Peetie Wheatstraw do
Woohoo what that Peetie Wheatstraw do
Because every time you hear him, he coming out with something new

He makes some happy, some he make cry
Whoo makes some happy, some he make cry
Well now he made one old lady go hang herself and die

This is Peetie Wheatstraw I'm always in the line
This is Peetie Wheatstraw then again I'm always on the line
Save up your nickels and dimes, you can come up and see me sometime

Nicknames were the sole identification of the artist on many blues records in the prewar period. They were more important than real names for the record buying public and people within smaller communities interacting on peronal levels. For many people, nicknames are an essential part of their identity. They told you something about the man, whether he was connected to the devil and trouble, eager to ramble, or maybe just the fact that he were slim. The songs here are a tiny sample representing artists telling stories of their nicknames. Dozens more can be found in prewar blues. Nicknaming is an important part of American black culture and the legacy of blues nicknaming can certainly still be seen in hip-hop music where virtually no one records under their given name.
Songs:
Old Original Kokomo Blues - Kokomo Arnold
Black Ace - Black Ace
Ramblin' Thomas - Ramblin' Man
Funny Paper Smith - Howling Wolf Blues Part 1
Funny Paper Smith - Howling Wolf Blues Part 2
Peetie Wheatstraw - Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp Part 1
Peetie Wheatstraw - Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp Part 2

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Show 35 - Illinois Central Railroad and Cannonball Train



Train songs are one of the cornerstones of the cornerstones of the blues. I thought I'd look at one railroad company, the illinois Central and the train they called the cannonball. The Cannonball was never an official designation, it was just a nickname for a fast train, particularly the about one that ran from New Orleans to Chicago. Officially, the Panama Limited and later the City of New Orleans, the cannonball was the subject of many great songs, usually about a man getting away from some kind of trouble. Charlie McCoy recorded one about his woman leaving him, recorded in 1930 in Jackson, Mississippi it's That Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away.


Woke up this morning, found something wrong
My loving babe had caught that train and gone
Now won't you starch my jumper, iron my overalls
I'm going to ride that train that they call the Cannonball

Mister depot agent, close your depot down
The woman I'm loving, she's fixing to blow this town
Now that mean old fireman, that cruel old engineer
Going to take my baby and leave me lonesome here

It ain't no telling what that train won't do
It'll take your baby and run right over you
Now that engineer man ought to be ashamed of himself
Take women from their husbands, babies from their mother's breast

I walked down the track when the stars refused to shine
Looked like every minute I was going to lose my mind
Now my knees was weak, my footsteps was all I heard
Looked like every minute I was stepping in another world

Mister depot agent, close your depot down
The girl I'm loving, she's fixing to blow this town
Now that mean old fireman, cruel old engineer
Going to take my baby and leave me lonesome here
You can't overstate the importance the Illinois Central played in Northern migration. Countless African-Americans rode the train away from a Southern way of life. They would also ride it back down South to visit freinds and family, escape from the cold, or get away from the different difficulties encountered in Northern cities. Tampa Red sang about it in I.C. Moan.
Nobody knows that I.C. like I do
Nobody knows that I.C. like I do
Now the reason I know, I've rode it through and through

That I.C. Special is the only train I choose
That I.C. Special is the only train I choose
That's the train I ride when I get these I.C. blues

Mr. I.C. engineer, make that whistle moan
Mr. I.C. engineer, make that whistle moan
I've got the I.C. blues and I just can't help but groan

Goodbye Chicago, hello Southern town
Goodbye Chicago, hello Southern town
I want to go back baby then to be here dogged around

I've got the I.C. Blues and that's what's on my mind
I've got the I.C. Blues and that's what's on my mind
I'm gonna pack my things and move it on down the line
Frank Hutchison was a great slide guitar player usually classified on the country side of the music, primarily because he was a white man. He sang about the cannonball train coming to take him away in Cannonball Blues.
Oh the blues ain't nothing but a good man feeling sad
Oh the blues ain't nothing but a good man feeling sad
I know that feeling, its one I've often had

Went to the bedside looked in the woman's face
Went to the bedside looked in the woman's face
I love you honey, bu I don't like your lowdown ways

I opened up the door and stepped out on the ground
I opened up the door and stepped out on the ground
Goodbye honey, I'm Alabama bound

Yonder come that train coming down the railroad track
Yonder come that train, she's coming down the railroad track
She'll take me away, but she ain't gonna bring me back

When I leave here, don't you wear no black
Oh when I leave here, honey don't you wear no black
If you do, my ghost is gonna sneak right back

That train i ride, she's called the cannonball
That train i ride, she's called the cannonball
Carries 16 coaches, she carries no blinds at all

Gonna lay my head down on some railroad line-
Gonna lay my head down on some railroad line
Let the cannonball come and pacify my mind

I looked out the window as far as I can see
I looked out the window as far as I can see
While the brass kind of plain, nearer my
god to thee
Frank Hutchison sang about committing suicide by letting the Cannonball come to take his troubles away. Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded Lemon's Cannonball Blues.

Sam Collins recorded Riverside Blues for Gennett in 1927:


I went down to the river just thirty‑one days and nights
I went down to the river just thirty‑one days and nights
I'm looking for my good gal, come back and treat me right

I ain't got me nobody carry my troubles to
I ain't got me nobody carry my troubles to
I tell you peoples I don't know what to do

Just as sure as your train, Lord backs up in your yard
Just as sure as your train, Lord backs up in your yard
I'm going to see my baby if I have to ride the rods

I went away last summer, got back in the fall
I went away last summer, got back in the fall
My mind had changed, I wouldn't have come back at all

You can press my jumper, iron my overalls
You can press my jumper, iron my overalls
I'm going to the station, meet the Cannonball

The most famous legend associated with the I.C. and its Cannonball Train is the story of Casey Jones, an I.C. engineer who died in 1900 when his train crashed into a stopped freight train in Vaughn, Mississippi. The train was officially called the New Orleans special, but the newspaper headlines read I.C. Cannon Ball Wrecked. Jones' heroic effort trying to save the lives of his passenger made him a railroad icon, but it was the songs about him that made him a legend and folk hero across the entire country. Let's hear the story from piano player Jesse James who recorded it in 1936 under the title Southern Casey Jones:
I heard the people say Casey Jones can't run
I'm going to tell you what the poor boy done
Left Cincinnati about half past nine
Got to Newport News before dinner time, fore dinner time, that's fore dinner time
Got to Newport News before dinner time

Now Casey Jones said before he died
He fixed the road so a bum could ride
And if he ride he have to ride the rod
Rest his heart in the hand of God, hand of God, in the hand of God
Had to Rest his heart in the hand of God

Now little girl says mama is that a fact
Papa got killed on the I.C. track
Yes yes honey but hold your breath
Get that money from your daddy's death, from your daddy's death, from your
daddy's death
You get money from your daddy's death from your daddy's death,
from your daddy's death
You get money from your daddy's death

When the news reached town Casey Jones was dead
Women went home and had it out in red
Slipping and sliding all across the streets
With their loose mother hubbards in their stocking feet, stocking feet, stocking feet
loose mother hubbards in their stocking feet

Now Casey Jones went from place to place
Another train hit his train right in the face
People got off but Casey Jones stayed on
Natural born eastman but he's dead and gone, dead and gone, he's dead and gone
He's a natural born eastman but he's dead and gone

Here come the biggest boy coming right from school
Hollering and crying like a doggone fool
Look here mama is our papa dead?

Womens going home and had it out in red
Low cut shoes and their evening gowns
Following papa to the burying ground, to this burying ground, to this
burying ground
Following papa down to this burying ground,

Now tell the truth mama he says is that a fact
Papa got killed on the I.C. track
Quit crying boy don't do that
You got another daddy on the same damn track, on the same track, on the same track
Say you got another daddy on the same track.
Though Jesse James sang that the train left Cincinnati for Newport News, the historical Casey Jones died on the southern leg of the Illinois Central route from Chicago to New Orleans. You can't underestimate the importance that railroad played in the lives of people in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee looking to go North on the train they called the cannonball. Whether using the term cannonball to refer to that specific train or just another fast train that was leaving town, the cannonball occupied an important place in the blues.

Songs:
That Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away - Charlie McCoy
I.C. Moan - Tampa Red
Cannonball Blues - Frank Hutchison
Lemon's Cannonball Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson
Riverside Blues - Sam Collins
Southern Casey Jones - Jesse James

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Show 34 - Furniture Man Blues



The blues is often about losing what you have. In some songs, it's about losing your furniture. The Furniture Man: he shows up in quite a few blues songs. It's about not making a payment on furniture and hearing a knock at your door and knowing the furniture man's there with his wagon to take it all away. Furniture man songs go back to nineteenth century minstrel numbers, but they probably resonated particularly with music fans in the 1920s as installment payment plans became common for all kinds of goods and the average person was making payments after having been extended credit to buy products from somewhere.

In Furniture Man Blues, Victoria Spivey told her furniture man story accompanied by the great Lonnie Johnson playing the role of the furniture man.

Spivey: Who is that?
Johnson: Furniture man
Spivey: Oh. Aw, I ain't got no money today

Spivey: Furniture man, please don't take my furniture away
Johnson: I've got to take it. I ain't going to let it stay
Spivey: I'm a hard-working woman
Johnson: Yes, but you don't seem to get much pay

Spivey: Don't be so mean. Give a poor girl a little time
Johnson: You done had your time, and now it is a crime
Spivey: But I'm a good-lovin' mama
Johnson: But you ain't got a single dime

Spivey: Furniture man, don't move my lovin' foldin' bed
Johnson: I'm going to move it or lose my job instead
Spivey: That's where I get my pleasure
Johnson: Oh no, that's where you rest your head

Spivey: Furniture man, let me have another week to pay
Johnson: I said no, hot mama, I must have some dough today
Spivey: Well, my man will bring some money
Johnson: Well, he better bring it right away

Spivey: Leave my stove 'cause it's getting too doggone cold
Johnson: I got to haul your ashes before they get too old
Spivey: Oh, please remove that clicker
Johnson: Then it will be red hot, I'm told

Part 2:

Spivey: Furniture man, won't you crawl around here after dark?
Johnson: If I crawl around, mama, will you let me park?
Spivey: Yes, and we'll do some business
Johnson: I'm out until four o'clock

Spivey: If you will agree, I know how we can get it fixed
Johnson: Gal, stop tempting me. I will get all o' my days nixed
Spivey: Let's get together
Johnson: I'm onto all of your tricks

Spivey: When I get through, you'll cancel every debt I owe
Johnson: And when I get you, mama, we will do so-and-so
Spivey: Well, then, make me know it
Johnson: Well, come on, honey, baby, let's go

Spivey: Come into my parlor, furniture man, and close the door
Johnson: Baby I can't stand it. You will get me nervous, I'm sure
Spivey: I got something for you
Johnson: Why ain't you said that long before?

Spivey: Furniture man, say you'll give me just another chance?
Johnson: You can have some money, mama, just take it in advance
Spivey: Now you talkin' daddy
Johnson: That's it mama, right over in my pants.
Attempts to avoid the furniture man by people behind on their payments were common enough that the Reverend J.M. Gates recorded two sermons exhorting his followers to pay the furniture man and answer the door when the furniture man came knocking, Pay Your Furniture Man and Don't Hide from Your Furniture Man.
In the nineteenth century, furniture dealers were some of the first retailers to use installment credit payment plans as a way to increase sales. But by 1930, installment payment was the norm for funriture. According to a Department of Commerce survey, installment credit financed 80-90% of furniture sales.

Iin 1927, Georgia musician Lil McLintock recorded Furniture Man, a song that sounds straight off the vaudeville stage:


What insurance has the poor man got, with the furniture man?
If he's got no dough, he's got no show
Right back there the wagon gonna stand
He'll take everything that you possess
From a bed-tick to a frying pan
If there ever was a devil born without horns, it must have been a furniture man
So take your time, Mister Brown, take-a your time
All of this furniture am mine
Well this piano and everything, Mister Cooper had it written down in my name
So take your time, Mister Brown, take your time

...
The Furniture man songs contain some interesting racial elements. There were often actually two furniture men, the white store owner who ultimately collected the payments and a black employee who would show up to collect the missed payments and take the furniture if he had to. To explore this, let's step into the world of white country music. The racial element jumps out at you as soon as you hear the name of the group that recorded the song, Riley the Furniture Man it's the Georgia Crackers from 1927. The song is about the indignity the white singer feels at having a black man remove his furniture. It's interesting to hear the a shared problem addressed in white country music where the singer pays so much attention to race including the offensive language that is absent in the blues songs.

Going to that loan man it ought to be bad
Mr. Riley wagon's been here, got everything I had
Riley been here, got my furniture and gone
Riley come to my house, and these are the words he said:
Told that nigger driver, take down that rosewood(?) bed.

Makes no difference to the white man just white as Christmas snow
If you don't pay Mr. Riley, he'll take your furniture for sure
Riley he was a white man and he lived on 16th Street
Every Saturday evening, Mr. Riley you would meet

Riley been here, got my furniture and gone
Luke Jordan took several old minstrel show themes and turned them into a modern blues for 1927. Cocaine Blues included these furniture man lyrics:

Now the furniture man came to my house it was last Sunday morn
They asked me was my wife at home and I told she has long been gone
He backed his wagon up to my door, took everything I had
He carried it back to the furniture store and I swear I did feel sad

What in the world has anyone got, dealing with the furniture man,
If you've got no dough, to stand up for sure, he certainly will take it back.
He will take everything from an earthly plant, from the skillet to a frying pan.
If there ever was a devil born without any horns, it must have been the furniture man.
The increase in consumer credit may have been what caused the furniture man theme to show up in so many song in the second half of the 1920s. It's an interesting place where we see vaudeville music becoming the blues, songs addressing contemporary and historic issues, reflecting racial issues of the day, and providing light on the everyday problems of individuals trying to make their payments to the furniture man.


Songs:
Furniture Man Blues Parts 1 and 2 - Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson
Furniture Man - Lil McLintock
Riley the Furniture Man - Georgia Crackers
Cocaine Blues - Luke Jordan
Pay Your Furniture Man - Rev. J.M. Gates
Don't Hide from Your Furniture Man - Rev. J.M. Gates

Monday, February 11, 2008

Show 33 - Dog Blues



Songs:
Saturday Blues - Ishmon Bracey
Police Dog Blues - Blind Blake
Please Don't Go - Big Joe Williams
Sobbin' Woman Blues - Elizabeth Johnson
Low Down Dirty Dog Blues - Leroy Carr
Low Down Dirty Dog Blues - Son House
Black Dog Blues - Blind Blake

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Show 32 - Blues at the Fort Valley Folk Festival



These songs are available from the Library of Congress. Check out http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ftvhtml/ftvhome.html.

Songs:
I'm Gonna Make You Happy - Buster Brown
My Fat Hipted Mama - Charles Ellis
Milk Cow Blues - Gus Gibson and Will Chastain
Tear Tokyo Down - Sam Jackson
Po' Boy Long Ways From Home - Sonny Chestain
Do Right By Me - Buster Ezell -
Fort Valley Blues - Smith Band