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

Robert Johnson and Records

If you cannot see the audio controls, your browser does not support the audio element Robert Johnson was both a consumer and creator...