Sunday, December 20, 2009

Show 44 - Snow Blues



Songs:
Ice and Snow Blues - Peetie Wheatstraw
Easin' Back to Tennessee - Sleepy John Estes
South Bound Backwater - Lonnie Johnson
Cold Winter Blues - Kokomo Arnold
Cold Winter Day - Blind Willie McTell
Ice and Snow Blues - Clifford Gibson

Friday, September 18, 2009

Show 43 - Jim Crow Blues


The blues wouldn't exist without Jim Crow. It's the American system of racial inequality that made life hell for African-Americans in the South. The law institutionalized racism. The term comes from an old minstrel song by 19th century blackface performer Thomas Rice. Once the blues era began, the term satrts to show up in several songs that make overt protest against the racist system. An early one from singer Maggie Jones, Northbound Blues from 1925 talks about heading away from Jim Crow.


Got my trunk and grip all packed
Goodbye, I ain't coming back
Going to leave this Jim Crow town
Lord, sweet pape, New York bound


Got my ticket in my hand
And I'm leaving dixieland

Going north child, where I can be free
Going north child, where I can be free
Where there's no hardships, like in Tennessee

Going where they don't have Jim Crow laws
Going where they don't have Jim Crow laws
Don't have to work there, like in Arkansas

When I cross the Mason‑Dixon Line
When I cross the Mason‑Dixon Line
Goodbye old gal, yon mama's gonna fly

Going to daddy, got no time to lose
Going to daddy, got no time to lose
I'll be alone, can't hear my northbound blues

Cow Cow Davenport was another singer to make an overt statement about going North to escape Jim Crow. Accompanied by B.T. Wingfield on cornet, he recorded Jim Crow Blues for Paramount in 1927:
I'm tired of being Jim Crowed, gonna Leave this Jim Crow town
Doggone my black soul, I'm sweet Chicago bound

Yes I'm leaving here from this old Jim Crow town
I'm going up North where they say money grows on trees
I don't give a doggone if my black soul is free
I'm going where I don't need no baby

I got a hat, got a overcoat, don't need nothing but you
These old easy walkers going to give my ankles the blues
But when my girl hears about this, oh, that will be sad news.

I'm going up North, baby I can't carry you
Ain't nothing in that cold up there a ?? can do
I'm gonna get me a Northern girl, see that I am through with you Lord

But if I get up there, weather don't suit, I don't find no job
Go and tell that boss man of mine, Lord I'm ready to come back to my Jim Crow town
By the end of the 1930s, musicians like Leadbelly and Josh White began becoming more overt with their political statements,

Leadbelly - Jim Crow:


Bunk Johnson told me too, This old Jim Crowism dead bad luck for me and you
I been traveling, i been traveling from shore to shore
Everywhere I have been I find some old Jim Crow

One thing, people, I want everybody to know
You're gonna find some Jim Crow, every place you go

Down in Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia's a mighty good place to go
And get together, break up this old Jim Crow

I told everybody over the radio
Make up their mind and get together, break up this old Jim Crow

I want to tell you people something that you don't know
It's a lotta Jim Crow in a moving picture show

I'm gonna sing this verse, I ain't gonna sing no more
Please get together, break up this old Jim Crow

In the early 1930s, no case brought more attention to the Jim Crow system than the
trials of the Scottsboro Boys. 9 black teenagers were accused of raping two white women aboard a train. The series of trials in Alabama brought up issues of false accusation, the legal ability of black men to serve on Alabama juries, and how the entire Southern legal system treated black defendants. In 1938, Leadbelly recorded Scottsboro Boys it where he discusses Jim Crow in Alabama.




Now this is a song, "Scottsboro Boys." When I about Scottsboro Boys
cause I've been all over Alabama, Birmingham,
Montgomery. And in Alabama must be Jim Crow or something like that because
they turn loose some men and try to keep the others. I don't see why they
don't turn all of them loose. And this is the song, "Scottsboro Boys"
Go to Alabama and you better watch out
The landlord will get you, gonna jump and shout Scottsboro, Scottsboro, Scottsboro Boys
They can tell you what it's all about

I'm gonna talk to Joe Louis, ask him to listen to me
Dont he never try to make no bout in Alabamy
I'm gonna tell all the colored people, living on Sugar Hill
Don't you never go to Alabama to try to live

I'm gonna tell all the colored people, living in Harlem Swing
Don't you never go to Alabama to try to sing

Tell about the Scottsboro boys, where were they going to?
Tell about the Scottsboro boys, what happened to them?
This song is about the Scottsboro Boys. The boys left on a trip, you know, they was riding a freight train. And they met two white women in there, you know, the white women
was boosting too, what we call it. And they was beating there way along and they
met up with these boys. There was about nine boys and they rode along with them
and they went out. One of the women said it wasn't so and one of the said it
was. Now they goign to hold all of them for just one sentence, which I don't
think none of it was true. But they turned loose four and now they got a few
more. I think they ought to turn them all loose. That's what they call happened.
So they put the boys in jail. Give some of 'em life and some got loose, but I
don't think it's true. But, anyhow, the last word is this:

I'm gonna tell all the colored people, living in Harlem Swing
Don't you never go to Alabama to try to sing

Now, I'll tell you about it in Alabama, must be Jim Crow. If
a white woman says something, it must be so. And she can say something about a
colored person, if it's a thousand colored men, they kill all of 'em for just
that one woman. If she ain't telling the truth it don't make any difference.
Why? Cause it's Jim Crow and I know it's so, 'cause the Scottsboro Boys can tell
you about it.

Like Leadbelly, Josh White began to address political issues in a straightforward manner in his songs. In 1941, he recorded Jim Crow Train, a classic protest song against the Southern system. It also features one of the great recorded train imitations:

Can't you hear that train whistle blow?
Can't you hear that train whistle blow?
Can't you hear that train whistle blow?
Lord, I wish that train wasn't Jim Crow

Stop the train so I can ride this train

Damn that Jim Crow
By 1941, many believed the US would soon be entering World War II. Josh White took the chance to protest the transfer of Jim Crow into the military. Uncle Sam Says:


Airplanes flying across the land and sea,Everybody flying but a Negro like me.
Uncle Sam says, "Your place is on the ground, When I fly my
airplanes, don’t want no Negro around"
The same thing for the Navy, when ships go to sea
All they got is a mess boy’s job for me
Uncle Sam says,
"Keep on your apron, son,You know I ain’t gonna let you shoot my big Navy gun"

Got my long government letter, my time to go
When I got to the Army found the same old Jim Crow
Uncle Sam says, "Two camps for black and
whiteBut when trouble starts, we’ll all be in that same big fight"If you ask me,
I think democracy is fineI mean democracy without the color line
Uncle Sam says, "We’ll live the American way"
Let’s get together and kill Jim Crow today

Protest language in the blues is often coded and subtle. But in these songs, you hear the singers actually use the phrase "Jim Crow" make direct reference to the problems of systematic racial oppression. It's this system that created the conditions that created the blues and I'm always fascinating to hear singers comment on it overtly or covertly. Thanks to Eric Blinkhorn for his help.
Songs:
North Bound Blues - Maggie Jones
Jim Crow Blues - Cow Cow Davenport
Jim Crow Blues - Leadbelly
Scottsboro Boys - Leadbelly
Jim Crow Train - Josh White
Uncle Sam Says - Josh White

Friday, May 29, 2009

Show 42 - Minstrel Songs in the Blues Era



Minstrel shows and music played a huge part in shaping American popular culture. Though most people immediately think of white performers in blackface, black minstrelsy performed by African-American entertainers was popular and influential. In the first few decades of the twentieth century black performers from the minstrel stage like Ernest Hogan and Bert Williams were huge stars. These men actually did put burnt cork on their face to darken their skin and perform in blackface. Classic blues stars like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey shared these stages and developed their reputation with touring minstrel shows. We usually think of country blues (singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Charley Patton) as a departure from this kind of entertainment. But the influence of minstrelsy on country blues performers is clearly present. So I thought we'd take a look at some country blues performers looking back to the popular black music of their youth and some race records from the twenties and thirties of older minstrel songs.

Let's start with one of the deepest Mississippi country bluesmen. Son House recorded Am I Right or Wrong during his Library of Congress recording session in 1942. It's based on a song called There are Others Who Don't Think That Way by Shepard Edmonds, popular around the turn of the century when Edmonds was with the minstrel company called Isham's Octoroons. Here's what Son House did with it:
Am I right or wrong?
You may not think because I'm black
I'm gonna beg you to take me back
No baby, was I right or wrong

I'm going in the spring
I got a mess from shaking that thing
Now babe, was I right or wrong?

Up the heck, right down the pine
I lost my britches right behind
Now baby, was I right or wrong?

You may not think because you're brown
I'm gonna let you dog me around
Oh honey, was that right or wrong?

You may not think because you're yellow
I'm gonna give you my last poor dollar
No babe, was I right or wrong?

Look here honey what you want me to do
Done all I could to get along with you
Now honey, was I right or wrong?

You need not think because I'm black
I'm gonna beg you to take me back
No honey, was that right or wrong?

Now I'm going in the spring
I got a mess form shaking that thing
Now honey, was that right or wrong?
In 1909, The Florida Blossoms minstrel company was touring the South playing theaters or setting up shows under a big big tent. During that time, the group's singers were performing a song that had grown popular on the black minstrel circuit called I'm So Glad I'm Brown Skinned, Chocolate to the Bone. In 1928, Barbecue Bob recorded I'm so Glad I'm Brownskin for Columbia records.



So glad I'm brownskin, so glad I'm brownskin, chocolate to the bone
So glad I'm brownskin, chocolate to the bone
And I've got what it takes to make a monkey-man leave his home

Black man is evil, yellow is so lowdown
Black man is evil, yellow man is so lowdown
I walk into these houses just to see these black men frown

I'm just like Miss Lilliam, I'm just like Miss Lilliam, I mean Miss Lynn you see
I'm just like Miss Lilliam, I mean Miss Lynn you see
She said a brownskin man is just all right with me

So glad I'm brownskin, chocolate to the bone
So glad I'm brownskin, chocolate to the bone
And I've got what it takes to make a monkey-man leave his home

Yellow man won't quit, black man just won't hay
Yellow man won't quit, black man just won't hay
But a pigmeat mama crazy about brownskin baby ways

I got a yellow mama, I got a yellow mama, she always got a pleasant smile
I got a yellow mama, always got a pleasant smile
But that brownskin gal with those coal black dreamy eyes


So glad I'm brownskin, so glad I'm brownskin, I'm chocolate to the bone
So glad I'm brownskin, chocolate to the bone
And I've got what it takes to make a monkey-man leave his home

Hmmm, Hmmmm, Lord, Lord, Lord
And I've got what it takes to make a monkey-man leave his home


William Moore was a barber in Virginia and a bluesman. In 1928, he recorded the song Ragtime Millionaire that was written by Irving Jones, one of the most successful songwriters of his era. In 1902 and 1903 that song was a hit, being sung by black minstrel singers across the country. It's the kind of fantasy about being rich that was once popular and still appealed to Moore almost twenty-five years later.



I'm a rag, I'm a rag, I'm a rag, I'm a ragtime millionaire
All you little people take your hat off to me
Because I'm a ragtime millionaire

Mr. Henry's gonna send me a Ford, he must
Everybody else is gonna take my dust
Gonna put a little sign on: "In God We Trust"
I don't mean to have no fuss
All you little people take your hat off to me
Because I'm a ragtime millionaire

I'm a rag, I'm a rag, I'm a rag,
I'm a ragtime millionaire
All you little people take your hat off to me
Because I'm a ragtime millionaire

Some of the boys say that I'm gonna be late
No, if you please, I got a twenty-eight
Some boys say they gonna catch me at last
But all I got to do is just to step on the gas
All you little people take your hat off to me
Because I'm a ragtime millionaire

I'm a rag, I'm a rag, I'm a rag, I'm a ragtime millionaire
All you little people take your hat off to me
Because I'm a ragtime millionaire

Gonna take my sweetie to a ball tonight
Make those boys treat her right
Keep her out about half midnight
I don't mean to have no fight

All you little people take your hat off to me
Because I'm a ragtime millionaire

I'm a rag, I'm a rag, I'm a rag
I'm a ragtime millionaire
All you little people take your hat off to me
Because I'm a ragtime millionaire

Every tooth in my head is solid gold
Make those boys look icy cold
I brush my teeth with diamond dust
And I don't care if the bank would bust

All you little people take your hat off to me
Because I'm a ragtime millionaire

I'm a rag, I'm a rag, I'm a rag,
I'm a ragtime millionaire
All you little people take your hat off to me
Because I'm a ragtime millionaire

I'm a rag, I'm a rag, I'm a rag,
I'm a ragtime millionaire
All you little people take your hat off to me
Because I'm a ragtime millionaire
Banjo player Gus Cannon was one of the great jug band leaders in the twenties and thirties. He frequently looked back to minstrel songs for inspiration and like William Moore he recorded a wealth fantasy number that was a popular Irving Jones composition 25 years earlier. In 1927, he recorded My Money Never Runs Out. It took verses from Jones' song, My Money Never Gives Out as well as a song called I Don't Care If I Never Wake Up"written by Paul Knox. Gus Cannon's My Money Never Runs Out:
There's a certain yellow joker lives around this town
Just as lazy as lazy can be
Was long to shake, Says he hangs around
I love my hot belly

Early one morning come right away
Not a word was said
Boy I go back to bed, Man I give up my hand
I don't care if I never wake up

Man, I don't care if I never wake up
Til these boards get through with me
I'm coming back here with my big smoke
I'm gonna make them climb a tree

Nothing like living like a money king
Drink from a silver cup
She poured the pass straight out of my glass
I don't care if I never wake up.

Now if my money boy was stacked high
I believe it would go to touch the sky
I'd buy the people with a dime a dozen
Man I don't care if the banks do burst

Cause my money don't never run out
Rich folks, you're making me doubt
Now every good evening, we gonna post and shout

Said I'm living good all the time
I don't drink no cheap wine
When it's always thirst, good money don't never run out

My money don't never run out
Rich fools you're making me shout
It's notable that Gus Cannon took out all uses of the word coon from the original composition. Around the turn of the century, what are referred to as "coon songs" were an integral part of both black and white mistrelsy. Professional stage singers (even white ones) of a certain type were called coon shouters. The most famous song was black composer and singer Ernest Hogan's All Coons Look Alike to Me. It was a hit that remained popular for decades. The term coon is undeniably offensive to the modern listener amd it already was by the twenties when Gus Cannon removed the word from his song. Not all blues singers making race records did that though. Luke Jordan was one singer who went back and forth. He recorded an old song from the ragtime era called Traveling Coon in 1927. Note him going back and forth between calling the central character a coon and a man.

Folks let me tell you about a Traveling Coon
His home was down in Tennessee
He made his living stealing chickens
And everthing he sees

Policeman got straight behind this coon
And certainly made him take the road
There never was a passenger train run so fast
That Shine didn't get on board

He was a traveling man, he was a traveling man
The was the travelinest man, finest was in the land
He was a traveling man, finest was in the land
He was a traveling man, it's known for miles around
He never give up, no he wouldn't give up
Til the police shot him down

They sent the traveling coon to the spring one day
To fetch a pail of water
I think the distance from the house to the spring
Sixteen miles and a quarter
The coon went there and he got the water all right
Came back stubbed his toe and fell down
He ran back home, he got another pail
He caught the water, before it hit the ground

He was a traveling man...
By 1941, when Washboard Sam and his Washboard band (Simeon Henry, William Mitchell, and Big Bill Broonzy) told the story of that same Traveling Man, and references to coon are gone:

He's a traveling man, He's a traveling man
He's a traveling man, He's a traveling man
He's a most-traveling man, ever been in this land

And when the law got after him, he sure got on the road
And when the law got after him, he sure got on the road
And if a train passed, he sure would get on board

He's a traveling man, he was seen for miles around
He's a traveling man, he was seen for miles around
He never got caught, til the police shot him down

Police shot him with a rifle and the bullet went through his head
Police shot him with a rifle and the bullet went through his head
Peoples come from miles around just to see if he was dead

They sent down South for his mother, she was grieving down in jail
They sent down South for his mother, she was grieving down in jail
When she opened up that coffin, don't you know that fool had disappeared

Let's finish with one from Memphis singer Furry Lewis who was a veteran of later day minstrel shows. It's a version of a song that Bily Cheatham was singing around the turn of the century when Furry would have been 7 or 8 years old. Cheatham called it I'm Gonna Start Me a Graveyard of my Own, In 1928, Furry Lewis called it Furry's Blues. It's a fantasy about killing all the people that have wronged him:

I believe I'll buy me a graveyard of my own
Believe I'll buy me a graveyard of my own
I'm going to kill everybody that has done me wrong

If you want to go to Nashville, man's ain't got no fare
If you want to go to Nashville, man's ain't got no fare
Cut your good girl's throat and the judge will send you there

I'm going to get my pistol forty rounds of ball
Get my pistol forty rounds of ball
I'm going to shoot my woman just to see her fall

I'd rather hear the screws on my coffin sound
I'd rather hear the screws on my coffin sound
Than to hear my good girl say I'm jumping down

Get my pencil and paper, I'm going to sit right down
Get my pencil and paper, I'm going to sit right down
I'm going to write me a letter back to Youngstown

This ain't my home, I ain't got no right to stay
This ain't my home, I ain't got no right to stay
This ain't my home, must be my stopping place

When I left my home, you would not let me be
When I left my home, you would not let me be
Wouldn't rest contented til I come to Tennessee
It's tough to know how similar Furry's Blues is to the older Billy Cheatham song because so few black performers from the minstrel days were recorded. But taking at least themes and ideas from black minstrel music was an undeniable part of blues recordings from the 1920s and 30s. Some of the blatantly racist lyrics from the black face minstrelsy of the ragtime era made it through to the era of race records and blues recordings. Though there are relatively few recordings of black performers from the earlier era, the music they made was popular and revisited decades later by performers that we've heard who clearly recalled the pop music of their youth fondly.



Songs:
Am I Right or Wrong - Son House
I'm So Glad I'm Brownskin - Barbecue Bob
Ragtime Millionaire - William Moore
My Money Never Runs Out - Gus Cannon
Traveling Coon - Luke Jordan
Traveling Man - Washboard Sam
Furry's Blues - Furry Lewis

Further Reading: Ragged But Right by Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Show 41 - Hoodoo Women



Hoodoo. Mojo hands, John the Conqueror Root, Goofer Dust, Hot Foot Powder. It's a system rootwork, a folk belief in magic and it's all over the blues. Many hoodoo practitioners were women and I thought we'd take a look at some songs about hoodoo women. In Hoodoo Lady, Memphis Minnie sings about going to the hoodoo lady seeking some magical help and making sure she avoids whatever curse the hoodoo lady might lay on her:
Hoodoo lady, how do you do?
They tell me you take a boot and turn it to a brand new shoe
But don't put that thing on me, don't put that thing on me
Don't put that thing on me, 'cause I'm going back to Tennessee

Hoodoo lady, you can turn water to wine
I been wondering where have you been all this time
I'm setting here broke and I ain't got a dime
You ought to put something in these dukes of mine

But don't put that thing on me, Don't put that thing on me
Don't put that thing on me, 'cause I'm going back to Tennessee

Boy, you better watch it 'cause she's tricky.

Hoodoo lady, I want you to unlock my door
So I can get in and get all my clothes
But don't put that thing on me, don't put that thing on me
Don't put that thing on me, 'cause I'm going back to Tennessee

Now, look here, Hoodoo Lady, I want you to treat me right
Bring my man back home, but don't let him stay all night
And don't put that thing on me, don't put that thing on me
Don't put that thing on me, 'cause I'm going back to Tennessee

Boy, she's tricky as she can be. Better watch her, too.

Why, look here, hoodoo lady, I'm your friend
When you leave this time, come back again
But don't put that thing on me , don't put that thing on me
Don't put that thing on me, 'cause I'm going back to Tennessee
Boys, I'm scared of her
Memphis Minnie expressed her fear of the hoodoo lady. Perhaps the most famous hoodoo lady of the first part of the twentieth century was known as Aunt Caroline Dye. The Memphis Jug Band recorded a song about her released of the Victor label under the title Aunt Caroline Dyer in 1930:
I'm going to Newport News just to see Aunt Caroline Dye
I'm going to Newport News just to see Aunt Caroline Dye
She's a fortune-telling woman, oh Lord, and she don't tell no lie

I'm going to Newport News, partner, catch a battleship across the doggone sea
I'm going to Newport News, catch a battleship across the doggone sea
Because bad luck and hard work, oh Lord, sure don't agree with me

Aunt Caroline Dye, she told me, "Son, you don't have to live so rough"
Aunt Caroline Dye she told me, "Son, you don't have to live so rough
"I'm going to fix you up a mojo, oh Lord, so you can strut your stuff"

Aunt Caroline Dye she told me, "Son, these women don't mean you no good"
Aunt Caroline Dye she told me, "Son, these women don't mean you no good"
Said, "Take my advice and don't monkey with none in your neighborhood"

I am leaving in the morning, I don't want no one to accuse me
Yes, I'm leaving in the morning, I don't want no one to accuse me
I'm going back to Newport News and do what Aunt Caroline Dye told me to
The Memphis Jug Band sang about going to Newport News, Virginia to see Aunt Caroline Dye. Another singer, Johnnie Temple, in the song Hoodoo Women has the same hoodoo lady in the town of Newport, Arkansas where she actually lived:

Well, I went out on the mountain, looked over in Jerusalem
Well, I went out on the mountain, looked over in Jerusalem
Well, I see them hoodoo women, Lord, making up their lowdown plan

Well, I'm going to Newport, just to see Aunt Caroline Dye
Well, I'm going to Newport, just to see Aunt Caroline Dye
She's a fortune teller, Lord, she sure don't tell no lie

And she told my fortune, as I walked through her door
And she told my fortune, as I walked through her door
Said, "I'm sorry for you, buddy, Lord, the woman don't want you no more"

Yes, I turned around, said, "I believe I'll go downtown"
Well I turned around, said, "I believe I'll go downtown
"To Chicago River, Lord, and jump overboard and drown"

The hoodoo said, "Son, please, don't act no clown"
The hoodoo said, "Son, please, don't act no clown"
"Because it's a many more women, Lord, laying around in this no-good town"

The hoodoo is alright, in their lowdown plan
The hoodoo is alright, in their lowdown plan
But they will take your woman, Lord, and put her with another man.
The Seven Sisters were a collective of New Orleans hoodoo women. Funny Paper Smith told their story in the 1931 two-part recording Seven Sister's Blues.
They tell me seven sisters in New Orleans, they can really fix a man up right
They tell me seven sisters in New Orleans, they can really fix a man up right
And I'm headed for New Orleans, Louisiana, I'm traveling both day and night

I hear them say, the oldest sister look like she's just twenty‑one
I hear them say, the oldest sister look like she's just twenty‑one
And said she can look right in your eyes and tell you exactly what you want done

They tell me they been hung, been bled, and been crucified
They tell me they been hung, been bled, and been crucified
But I just want enough help to stand on the water and rule the tide

It's bound to be seven sisters because I've heard it by everybody else
It's bound to be seven sisters because I've heard it by everybody else
Of course I'd love to take their word but I'd rather go and see for myself

When I leave the seven sisters, I'm piling stones all around
When I leave the seven sisters, I'm piling stones all around
And go to my baby and tell her, there's another seven‑sister man in town

Good morning seven sisters, just thought I'd come down and see
Good morning seven sisters, I thought I'd come down and see
Will you build me up when I'm torn down and make me strong where I'm weak
Seven Sisters Blues‑Part 2
I went to New Orleans, Louisiana, just on account of something I heard
I went to New Orleans, Louisiana, just on account of something I heard
The seven sisters told me everything I wanted to know and they wouldn't let me speak a word

Now it's Sarah, Minnie, Bertha, Holly, Dolly, Betty, and Jane
Sarah, Minnie, Bertha, Holly, Dolly, Betty, and Jane
You can't know them sisters apart, because they all look just the same

The seven sisters sent me away happy, around the corner I met another little girl
The seven sisters sent me away happy, around the corner I met another little girl
She looked at me and smiled and said go devil and destroy the world
I'm gonna destroy it too, alright now

Seven times a year, the seven sisters will visit me in my sleep
Seven times a year, the seven sisters will visit me all in my sleep
And they said I won't have no more trouble and said I'll live twelve days in a week

Boy go down in Louisiana and get the lead right out of your bean
Boy go down in Louisiana and get the lead out of your bean
If seven sisters can't do anything in Louisiana bet you'll have to go to New Orleans

As these songs show, hoodoo women were often fortune tellers as well as root workers. Merline Johnson, known as the Yas Yas Girl sang about fortune tellers in her song Black Gypsy Blues. She uses fortune telling as a pretty straight forward sexual metaphor.
I'm the Black Gypsy, don't you want your fortune told?
I'm the Black Gypsy, don't you want your fortune told?
I will start from the first, and end up on your soul

When you get lonesome, and begin to feeling blue,
When you get lonesome, and begin to feeling blue,
Go to see a Black Gypsy, she will tell you what to do

I'm the Black Gypsy, and they call me Rosa Lee
I'm the Black Gypsy, and they call me Rosa Lee
When you get lonesome, call around to see me

All the men in town, come to see poor me,
All the men in town, come to see poor me
Because I know what to do, to ease your misery

Yes, I'm the Black Gypsy, and all my work's by trade
Yes, I'm the Black Gypsy, and all my work's by trade
And the man I can't ease his misery, has never been made

Blues songs illustrate that hoodoo and fortunetelling were a significant part of African-American life in the first half of the twentieth century. The characters and practices revealed in the blues give us a glimpse of what must have been a fascinating subculture. And women were an important and powerful part of the world of hoodoo. It's not surprising in the context of the blues that women would hold this power which at times is explicitly sexual.

Further reading: Hoodoo in Theory and Practice by Catherine Yronwode

Songs:
Hoodoo Lady - Memphis Minnie
Aunt Caroline Dyer Blues - Memphis Jug Band
Hoodoo Women - Johnnie Temple
Seven Sisters Blues - Funny Paper Smith
Black Gypsy Blues - Merline Johnson (Yas Yas Girl)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Show 40 - Boll Weevil Blues



The boll weevil--its a beetle that's less than a quarter of an inch long, but capable of destroying entire crops of cotton. In the 1920s, the boll weevil infested virtually every cotton growing area in the United States. To singers in these areas, the boll weevil became simultaneously a disaster that could destroy someone's livelihood and something that could be identified with. A seemingly powerless creature capable of completely subverting the goals of the agricultural ruling class. Its no surprise that one of the Mississippi delta's great storytellers wrote and recorded a song about the boll weevil. Charley Patton recorded Mississippi Bo Weavil at his first recording session in 1929 but there are reports of him playing the song a early as 1908 when the boll weevil might first have shown up at Dockery plantation where he lived.
It's a little boll weevil moving in the .... lord
You can plant your cotton and you won't get half a bale, lord
Boll weevil boll weevil, where's your little home?
"Louisiana and Texas is where I'm bred and born, lord"

Well I saw the boll weevil, Lord a‑circle Lord in the air, lord
The next time I seen him, Lord he had his family there, lord
Boll weevil left Texas, Lord he bid me fare you well, lord
Where you going now?

"I'm going down to Mississippi, going to give Louisiana hell"
Boll weevil told the farmer that I ain't going to treat you fair
Took all the blossoms and leave you an empty square
Next time I seen you, you have your family there, lordy

Boll weevil and his wife went and sit down on the hill
Boll weevil told his wife let's take this forty in
Boll weevil told his wife, I believe I may go north, lord

Aw, I won't tell nobody

Let's leave Louisiana and go to Arkansas
Well I saw the boll weevil, Lord a‑circle Lord in the air, lord
Next time I seen him, lord he had his family there, lord
Boll weevil told the farmer that I ain't going to treat you fair

...
Boll weevil boll weevil where your little home?
"Most anywhere they raise cotton and corn, lord"
Boll weevil boll weevil call that treating me fair, lord
Next time I seen you, you had your family there
Paramount Records originally released Mississippi Boweavil Blues under the artist name "The Masked Marvel." The song tells the story of the Boll Weevil coming from Texas and spreading throughout the South. Ma Rainey also sang about the boll weevil being everywhere you go in her 1923 recording Bo-Weavil Blues:
Hey boll weevil, don't sing the blues no more
Hey hey boll weevil, don't sing the blues no more
Boll weevils here, boll weevils everywhere you go

I'm a lone boll weevil, been out a great long time
I'm a lone boll weevil, been out a good long time
I'm going to tell you people, the evil boll weevil loves some vine

I don't want no man to put no sugar in my tea
I don't want no man to put no sugar in my tea
That bug is so evil, I'm afraid it might poison me

I went downtown and bought me a hat
I brought it back home, I put it on the shelf
Looked at my bed, I'm getting tired of sleeping by myself
Harmonica player Jaybird Coleman also recorded a boll weevil song. Its one of the many that explicitly compares the boll weevil to a man out to give the farmer a hard time. Boll Weevil Blues:
Boll weevil boll weevil you think you treat me wrong
Eat up all of my cotton, you done started on my corn

...
If you don't let me have it, down the road I'm going

Boll weevil's got mustache, boll weevil's got hands
Sometimes he's walking in the tall canes, just like a natural man

Boll Weevil told the farmer
... your cotton, plant it in your yard
Blind Willie McTell recorded a great take on the Boll Weevil theme:
Boll Weevil, Boll Weevil where you get your great long bill?
"I got it from Texas, I got it from the western hills."
"I got it from Texas, I got it from the western hills."

Boll Weevil, he told the farmer, said "don't you buy no more pills,"
"You aint gonna make enough money to pay your drugstore bills."
"You aint gonna make enough money to even pay your drugstore bills"

Boll Weevil, he told the farmer, "don't you plow no more."
"Ain't gonnna make enough flour in your back door."
"Ain't gonnna make enough flour to even put in your back door."

Boll Weevil, he told the farmer, "don't buy no Ford machine"
"You aint gonna make enough money to even buy gasoline."
"Aint gonna make enough money to even buy gasoline.

Boll Weevil said to the farmer, "don't buy no fields"
"You aint gonna make enough money to even buy your meal."
"Won't make enough money to even buy your meal."

Boll Weevil, Boll Weevil where you say you got your great long bill?
"I got it from Texas, out in the western hills."
"Way out in the panhandle, out in the Western hills."
Boll Weevil ballads were recorded by dozens of artists in the 20s and 30s. The black singer's identification with the boll weevil is clear, some singers even took Boll Weevil for their name. The best know recorded for Vocalion under the name Sam Butler. His real name was probably James Jackson, but he's known best from the name on his Paramount recording, Bo Weavil Jackson. Devil and My Brown Blues is his take on the boll weevil.

Charlie Dad Nelson recorded another song about the interaction between farmer and boll weevil, Cotton Field Blues:
Boll weevil, boll weevil, where did you come from?
Boll weevil, boll weevil, where did you come from?
From Beaumont Texas, I'm just over here on the farm

Farmer said to the boll weevil, don't you know you doing me wrong?
Farmer said to the boll weevil, don't you know you doing me wrong?
Eat up all my cotton and eat up all my corn

Says I'm going to town to buy a little gasoline
Says I'm going to town to buy a little gasoline
He's the worst boll weevil I believe I ever seen
With Let Me Be Your Boll Weevil, Lee Brown took a different take on the boll weevil, finding the sexual metaphor in its burrowing inside of the cotton boll.

Dozens of field recordings were made of boll weevil songs. Check out the Document Records collection, Boll Weevil Here, Boll Weevil Everywhere. Finious "Flat Foot" Rockmore recorded one of the more memorable versions.

Songs about the Boll Weevil were recorded in every cotton state. The devastation caused by the little bug had a tremendous impact on the lives of those connected to agriculture. The weevil seemed indestructible and did its work in secret, hatching in the boll to consume from within. You can see why it might appeal to those oppressed by the agricultural system in the American South. The boll weevil continued to frequently destroy crops in North America until the US Department of Agriculture started the Boll Weevil Eradication Program in 1978. Now, the weevil may not be the force it once was, but the songs testify to its ability to wreak havoc with the agricultural ruling class.


Songs:
Mississippi Boweavil Blues - Charley Patton
Bo-Weavil Blues - Ma Rainey
Boll Weevil - Jaybird Coleman
Boll Weevil - Blind Willie McTell
Devil And My Brown Blues - Boweavil Jackson
Cotton Field Blues - Charlie "Dad" Nelson
Let Me Be Your Bo Weavil- Lee Brown
Boll Weevil - Finious "Flat Foot" Rockmore

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...