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.
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

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