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

3 comments:

Christena said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Johnny Jetson said...

Awesome show dude, great tunes and information!

hambonehoney said...

Nice article. But there are some major issues with the lyric transcriptions-- My Money Never Runs out is way off. Whats written doesnt make any sense.
Here, this is closer to the mark:

There's a certain yellow joker lives around this town, Just as lazy as lazy can be
While his laundry shakin’, says, he hangs around
"I love my hop," says he.

Early one morning this joker ran away, To roam the world was said
Says boy "I'll go back to bed, I'll keep up my head,
I don't care if I never wake up."

Man I don’t care if I never wake up till the birds get through with me
Im 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.

banjo

Now if my money boy was stacked high
I believe it to my soul 't would touch the sky
I polish my teeth a-with a-diamond dust
I don't care if the bank is bust
For my money, don't never run out
Rich food, you're making me stout
Well every good evenin' for quail on toast I shout

Said I'm a-livin good all the time
I don't drink, said , no cheap wine
When it's always flush, good money will never run out

banjo

My money, don’t ever run out
rich food your makin’ me stout
Well every good evenin' for quail on toast I shout
Said I'm a-livin good all the time
I don't drink, said , no cheap wine
When it's always flush, good money will never run out

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...