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

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...