Saturday, September 10, 2011

Show 54 - The 1930 Drought



In the spring of 1930, a horrible drought began in nearly every Southern state. It was particular tough for those dependent on agricultural work. As supply of crops dwindled, prices dropped with the Depression. People were starving. Mississippi and Arkansas were particular hard hit, so it’s no surprise that there are a few great blues songs about it. Charley Patton recorded Dry Well Blues that year at sessions for Paramount in Grafton Wisconsin focusing on the suffering of folks in his then hometown of Lula, Mississippi:

Way down in Lula, I was living at ease
Way down in Lula, hard living has done hit
Lord, your drought come and caught us, and parched up all the trees
Aw, she stays over in Lula, bid the old town goodbye
Stays in Lula, bidding you the town goodbye
Well it would come to know the day, oh, the Lula well was gone dry
Lord, there are citizens around Lula, all was doing very well
Citizens around Lula, all was doing very well
Now they're in hard luck together??, 'cause rain don't pour nowhere
I ain't got no money and I sure ain't got no home
I ain't got no money and I sure ain't got no home
Hot weather done come in, parched all the cotton and corn
Boy, they tell me the country, Lord, it will make you cry
Lord, country, Lord, it'll make you cry
Most anybody, Lord, hasn't any water nearby
Lord, the Lula women, Lord, putting Lula men down
Lula men, oh, putting Lula men down
Lord, you oughta been there, Lord, the women all leaving town
Also along on those sessions in Grafton were Son House, Willie Brown and pianist Louise Johnson. The story goes that Louise Johnson started out as Charley Patton’s girl, but by the end of the trip from Mississippi to Wisconsin, she was Son House’s girl. If Son House took Patton’s girl, he also seemed to take his theme. He recorded Dry Spell Blues in two parts due to technical limitations on recording length. Unlike Patton’s local focus, Son House shows the universality of the suffering from drought:

Part I:
The dry spell blues have fallen, drug me from door to door
Dry spell blues have fallen, drug me from door to door
The dry spell blues have put everybody on the killing floor
Now the people down South soon won't have no home
Lord, the people down South, soon won't have no home
'Cause this dry spell has parched all this cotton and corn
Hard luck's on everybody, ain't missing but a few
Hard luck's on everybody, ain't missing but a few
Now it’s been dry, oh, ain’t got even a dew
Lord, I fold my arms and I walked away
Lord, I fold my arms and I walked away
Just like I tell you, somebody's got to pray
Pork chops forty-five cents a pound, cotton is only ten
Pork chops forty-five cents a pound, cotton is only ten
I can't keep no women, no not one of them
 So dry old boll weevil turn up his toes and die
So dry old boll weevil turn up his toes and die
No ain't nothing to do, but bootleg moonshine and rye
Part II
It has been so dry, you can make a powderhouse out of the world
Well, it has been so dry, you can make a powderhouse out of the world
And holler money men, like a rattlesnake in his quirl
I done throwed up my hands, Lord, and solemnly swore
I done throwed up my hands, Lord, and solemnly swore
It ain't no need of me changing towns, it's the drought everywhere I go
It's a dry old spell everywhere I’ve been
Oh, it's a dry old spell everywhere I’ve been
I believe to my soul this whole world is bound to end
Well, I stood in my backyard, wrung my hands and screamed
I stood in my backyard, I wrung my hands and screamed
Well, I couldn't see nothing, couldn't see nothing green
Oh, Lord, have mercy if you please
Oh, Lord, have mercy if you please
Let your rain come down and give our poor hearts ease
These blues, these blues is worthwhile to be heard
Oh, these blues, worthwhile to be heard
Lord, it’s even likely bound to rain somewhere

Son House probably wrote that song specifically for the recording session in 1930. He never played it when he returned to music in the 1960s and it’s possible his only performance of it may have been at that studio session.

St. Louis musician Spider Carter recorded a number with the same title as Son House’s song in 1930 singing about the hard times resulting from the drought. Dry Spell Blues:

Dry spell is on, many a man ain’t got no homeDry spell is on, many a man ain’t got no homeThey have caused poor me to wander and roam
I woke up this morning just about half past fourI woke up this morning just about half past fourAll I could feel was my love knocking on my door
Hard times are driving me madHard times are driving me madThey are the worst off feeling that I’ve ever had
It’s so dry down home, most can’t plant cotton and cornIt’s so dry down home, most can’t plant potatoes and cornAnd don’t I miss it, since the dry spell’s been on
Everywhere that I went was nothing but bad newsEverywhere that I went was nothing but bad newsThat’s why I’m singing these lonesome dry spell blues
The great spiritual singer and slide guitar player Blind Willie Johnson also recorded about rain in 1930. He might not have been singing about the drought specifically, but it’s about God’s gift of rain. Willie B. Richardson is the female vocalist.The title is Rain Don’t Fall on Me, but the lyrics sound close to “rain done fell on me:”
Oh the rain, that old rain, that old rain done fell on me
Oh the rain, that old rain, oh the rain, that old rain
that old rain, that old rain done fell on me
Oh the rain, that old rain, oh the rain, that old rain
that old rain, that old rain done fell on me
Don’t you know promise it’s true
It was sent from heaven to you
it was sent to the beloved son of God
Oh the rain, that old rain, that old rain done fell on me
Oh the rain, that old rain, oh the rain, that old rain
that old rain, that old rain done fell on me
It’s for you, it’s for you and your children too
Oh the rain, that old rain, that old rain done fell on me
Oh the rain, that old rain, oh the rain, that old rain
That old rain, that old rain done fell on me
The main reason that the 1930 drought doesn't get much historical attention is that the dust bowl droughts of the mid-1930s overshadow it. Woody Guthrie was the greatest chronicler of that drought in song. He recorded a blues number Dust Bowl Blues:
I just blowed in, and I got them dust bowl blues
I just blowed in, and I got them dust bowl blues
I just blowed in, and I'll blow back out again
I guess you've heard about every kind of blues
I guess you've heard about every kind of blues
But when the dust gets high, you can't even see the sky
I've seen the dust so black that I couldn't see a thing
I've seen the dust so black that I couldn't see a thing
And the wind so cold, boy, it nearly cut your water off
I seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down
I've seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down
Buried my tractor six feet underground
Well, it turned my farm into a pile of sand
Yes, it turned my farm into a pile of sand
I had to hit that road with a bottle in my hand
I spent ten years down in that old dust bowl
I spent ten years down in that old dust bowl
When you get that dust pneumonia, boy, it's time to go
 
I had a gal and she was young and sweet
I had a gal and she was young and sweet
But a dust storm buried her--sixteen hundred feet
 
She was a good gal, long, tall and stout
Yes, she was a good gal, long, tall and stout
I had to get a steam shovel just to dig my darling out
These dusty blues are the dustiest ones I know
These dusty blues are the dustiest ones I know
Buried head over heels in the black old dust, I had to pack up and go
And I just blowed in and I'll soon blow out again

Further reading: Luigi Monge's essay on Son House's Dry Spell Blues in the David Evans book Ramblin' On My Mind and Nan Woodruff's book As Rare as Rain about the drought and federal assistance programs providing relief.

Songs:
Dry Well Blues - Charley Patton
Dry Spell Blues Parts 1 and 2 - Son House
Dry Spell Blues - Spider Carter
Rain Don't Fall on Me - Blind Willie Johnson
Dust Bowl Blues - Woody Guthrie

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Show 53 - More Cars



Cars had become one of the centers of American life by the 1920s and plenty of blues musicians we’re singing about them. It’s interesting that Blind Lemon Jefferson sang in several songs about driving cars, something he could never do as a blind man. Booger Rooger Blues starts out about driving and ends up talking about the problems cars cause with women.
I drive to the station, woman, I bid you adieu (I swear it ain’t no use?)
I drive to the station, then I bid you adieu
Tell me, you always got a fatmouth following you

My baby's quit me, man, she done throwed me down
I said my baby's quit me, she done throwed me down
I wouldn't hate it so bad, but that talk is all over town

She's a long tall woman, she got relatives in Arkansas
Long tall woman, she got relatives in Arkansas
She ain't so good looking, but, lord, them dimples is all in her jaw

I cried all night and all that night before
I say, I cried all night and all that night before
Well, it's the best to get single and you won't have to cry no more

I got ten little puppies, I got twelve little shaggy hounds
I got ten little puppies and twelve little shaggy hounds
Well, it's gonna take them twenty-two dogs to run my good gal down

I got a girl in Oak Cliff and Highland Park, Oak Lawn, Lakewoods, ma'am, too
I got a girl in Oak Cliff, Highland Park, Oak Lawn, Lakewoods, ma'am, too
I'm gonna live in Magnolia Station and watch them Mill City women going through

Some joker learned my baby how to shift gears on a Cadillac Eight
Some joker learned my baby how to shift gears on a Cadillac Eight
Sugar, ever since that happened, I can't keep my business straight
Will Batts’ Cadillac Baby starts with the same verse that Lemon ended with:

Somebody learned my baby how to shift gears on a Cadillac Eight
Somebody learned my baby how to shift gears on a Cadillac Eight
Ever since that day, I can’t keep my baby straight
I was ?, I’m gonna let you have your way
Cause baby doll,

I said late one evening, I looked through your keyhole door
Woman you know you done me wrong, I ain’t coming back here no more
I turned right around, these are the words I said
Nobody don’t have to tell me because I heard the spring cry on your bed
In 1931, Memphis Minnie sang about her house burning down, but the only thing she’s worried about is losing her car. Garage Fire Blues:
My house on fire, where's that fire wagon now?
My house on fire, where's that fire wagon now?
Ain't but the one thing I don't want my garage to burn down
 
I got a Hudson Super Six, I got me an old model Cadillac Eight
I got a Hudson Super Six, I got me an old model Cadillac Eight
I woke up this morning, my Cadillac standing at my back gate
 
Hop on boys, I got the best chauffeur in town
Hop on boys, I got the best chauffeur in town
He saved my Hudson Super Six, my Cadillac didn't burn down
 
Oh Lord Lord, wonder where is my chauffeur now
Oh Lord Lord, wonder where is my chauffeur now
Got my Cadillac Eight, done Cadillaced out of town
 
I tell the whole round world I ain't going to walk no more
I tell the whole round world I ain't going to walk no more
I got a Cadillac Eight take me to where I want to go
In 1941, Memphis Minnie was still singing about that chauffeur with some classic double entendre lyrics. Me and My Chauffeur Blues:
Want to see my chauffeur, want to see my chauffeur
I want him to drive me, I want him to drive me downtown
Yes he drives so easy, I can't turn him down

But I don't want him, but I don't want him to be riding these girls, to be riding these girls around
So I'm gonna steal me a pistol, shoot my chauffeur down

Well I must buy him, well I must buy him a brand new V8, a brand new V8 Ford
Then he won't need no passengers, I will be his load

Going to let my chauffeur, going to let my chauffeur
Drive me around the, drive me around the world
Then he can be my little boy, yes, I'll be his girl
Robert Johnson sang some of the most poetic lyrics sexualizing the car as a woman. Terraplane Blues:
And I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
When I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
Who’s been driving my Terraplane, for you since I been gone?
I'd said I flash your lights, mama, your horn won't even blow
(spoken: Somebody's been running my batteries down on this machine)
I even flash my lights, mama, this horn won't even blow
Got a short in this connection, oh well, babe, it's way down below
I'm going to hoist your hood, mama, I'm bound to check your oil
I'm going hoist your hood, mama, mmm, I'm bound to check your oil
I’ve got a woman that I'm loving, way down in Arkansas
 
Now, you know the coils ain't even buzziing, little generator won't get the spark
Motor's in a bad condition, you gotta have these batteries charged
But I'm crying, please, please don't do me wrong
Who been driving my Terraplane now, for you since I been gone?
Mr. highway man, please don't block the road
Please, please don't block the road
'Cause she's reaching a cold one hundred and I'm booked and I got to go

You, you hear me weep and moan
Who been driving my Terraplane now, for you since I been gone?
I'm going to get down in this connection, keep on tangling with your wires
I'm going to get deep down in this connection, oh well, keep on tangling with these wires
And when I mash down on your little starter, then your spark plug will give me fire
Willie ‘61’ Blackwell also explored the car as a woman metaphor in 1941 with Noiseless Motor Blues:
They say you has a noiseless motor and a substantial steering gear
They say you has a noiseless motor, baby, and substantial steering gear
If you ever need a chauffeur, please let me be your engineer
 
If you has good rubber and your emergency brake’s okay
If you has good rubber, baby, and your emergency brake’s okay
And if you ever need a chauffeur, baby, please let me shift your gears
 
I stepped on the starter and the motor turned over slow
I stepped on the starter and your motor turned over slow
 
Well, well, it's the carbon-proof motor, boy, there's a short in some place I know
You said you would be my engine and wanted me for your engineer
You said you would be my engine and wanted me for your engineer
Ramblin’ Thomas explained how not having a car made it tough to hold onto your woman in Hard to Rule Woman Blues:

I've got a girl, I wish I could keep her home at night
I've got a girl, I wish I could keep her home at night
She's always going off on automobile rides
 
She sleeps late every morning, I can't hardly get her woke
She sleeps late every morning, I can't hardly get her woke
She will wake up in one second, when she hears a car horn blow
 
Some of these days, I'm going to be like Mr. Henry Ford
Said, some of these days, I'm going to be like Mr. Henry Ford
Going to have a car and a woman running on every road
 
If you ain't got a car, man, a woman is hard to rule
If you ain't got a car, man, a woman is hard to rule
That's why, I got them automobile blues

Songs:
Booger Rooger Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson
Cadillac Baby - Will Batts
Garage Fire Blues - Memphis Minnie
Me and My Chauffeur Blues - Memphis Minnie
Terraplane Blues - Robert Johnson
Noiseless Motor Blues - Willie '61' Blackwell
Hard to Rule Woman Blues - Ramblin' Thomas

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Show 52 - Ford Blues



Transportation is one of the most common themes in the blues. These were men and women who like to get around. Walking and trains come up often, but by the 1920s when recording blues became common, it was the car that was dominating American culture. Blues musicians sang about all kinds of makes and modes, but this time we’re gonna look at songs about Fords. The mass production of the Model T had made Ford the car of the people. A lot of bluesmen may have wanted a Cadillac, but they were driving a Ford.

In DB Blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson singing about a few different kinds of cars after he shows up in his new Ford:
(Oh, here come Lemon in that new Ford sedan. Oh, listen to the motor roar.)


Who is that coming, hey, with his motor so strong?
I say, who is that coming, hey, with his motor so strong?
That's Lemon and his DB, people thinks he's got his good luck(?) on


Gonna get out of my four-cylinder Dodge, I'm gonna get me a Super Six
Get out of my four-cylinder Dodge, get me a Super Six
I'm always around the ladies, and I like to have my business fixed


I'm crazy about a Packard, but my baby only rates a Ford
I'm crazy about a Packard, my baby only rates a Ford
A Packard is too expensive, Ford will take you where you want to go


Come here, brownskin, listen to my motor roar
Come here, fair brown, and listen to my motor roar
Because my Super Six sufficient to take you where you want to go


I never did like no horses and I never could stand no seal(?)
I never did like no horses, I never could stand no seal(?)
Every since I'm old enough to catch a brown, give me the automobile
Blind Lemon Jefferson mentions driving a Ford along with Dodges, Packards, and the Super six that was a model from Hudson. DB stands for Dodge Brothers.

Sleepy John Estes recorded Poor Man’s Friend (T Model) in 1937. The Model T was out of production by 1927, so this was probably an older song when recorded in 1937. But the T-Model was clearly an iconic automobile at that point:
Well, well, when you see it in the winter, please throw your winder over in the bin
Well, well, when you see it in the winter, I want you to throw your winder over in the bin
Well, well, probably next spring, I want to rig up my T-Model again


Well, well, a T-Model Ford, I say, is a poor man's friend
Well, well, a T-Model Ford, I say, is a poor man's friend
Well, well, it will help you out, even when your money's thin


Well, well, one thing about a T-Model, you don't have to shift no gear
Well, well, one thing about a T-Model, you don't have to shift no gear
Well, well, just let down on your brake and feed the gas and the stuff is here


Well, well, a V-8 Ford, and it done took to start
Well, well, a V-8 Ford, and it done took to start
Well, well, it reach all the way from ninety down to a hundred miles


Well, well, somebody, they done stole my winder out on the road
Well, well, somebody, done stole my winder out on the road
Well, well, let's find somebody got a T-Model Ford

The Model T did have to be started with a hand crank, that;'s probably the winder that Estes refers to.

Roosevelt Sykes recorded a song named for the founder of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford Blues from 1929:
Now, lady, won’t you let me drive your Ford
Now, miss lady won’t you let me drive your Ford
Now I ain’t your chauffeur, but I can’t hold it anymore


Now there was a woman, now she owned a Chevrolet
Now there was a woman, now she owned a Chevrolet
Now she been driving fourteen years, hasn’t had an accident yet


Now I tried so hard to treat my baby right
Now I tried so hard to treat my baby right
I tried so hard to keep down a fuss and a fight


You talking about your brick house, lord, you ought to see my frame
Now you spoke about your brick house, you ought to see my frame
I don’t take up no time with no goo dame


There was a late model car, it was named Roosevelt’s straight eight
There was a late model car, it was named Roosevelt’s straight eight
Lord the good lord must be righteous for me to drive it into your back gate

Cedar Creek Sheik’s real name was Philip McCutchen he recorded in Charlotte, NC in 1936 including Ford V-8:

Soon as I get my record all straight
Put my money in a Ford V-8
Lord, and I ain't gonna walk no more


Drive into Charlotte from the Baltimore
Park my Ford in Miss Etta Prince door
Lord, gonna play my radio


Now, Pete and Frances lying in the bed
Pete turned over and Frances said
Lord, she don't credit no more


Now, soon as I get my record all straight
Put my money in a Ford V-8
Lord, I ain't gonna pray no more


Some pray to the altar, I pray out the gate
I start gearing on the Ford V-8
Lord, and I sure won't pray no more


Sue in Charleston want to be convinced
Wish I'd married to Miss Etta Prince
And Lord, then I won't be lonesome no more


Dave Hardee and Booth Key sitting on a log
Hands on a trigger, eye on a hog
Lord, Jimmy ain't gonna credit no more


Some pray to the altar, I pray in the road
Ask God to give me John Henry Ford
Lord, I sure won't pray no more


Some pray to the altar, I pray out the gate
Ask God to give me one of the Ford V-8
Lord, and I sure wouldn't want no more


Some pray to the altar, I pray in the field
Ask God to give me an Oldsmobile
Lord, and I sure wouldn't want no more


Now, soon as I get my record all straight
I'm gonna buy a Ford V-8
Lord, and I ain't gonna walk no more


I'll drive in Charlotte from the Baltimore
Park my Ford in Miss Etta Prince door
Lord, want to play my radio

The car radio was commercially introduced by the Galvin manufacturing company in 1930. Radios were being commonly installed in cars including Fords when that song was recorded in 1936.

Joe Williams recorded Brother James in 1937. It has to be one of the earlier warnings about drunk driving:

Brother James went out riding, riding in that ’29 Ford
Brother James went out riding, riding in that ’29 Ford
That poor man was drinking bad whiskey, well boys he sure done lose his soul


Lord I went out in Greenville, looked down in brother James' face
I says sleep on brother James, I'll meet you Resurrection Day


Lord brother James died under surgery and he didn't have the time to pray
Brother James died under surgery, didn't have the time to pray
I said goodbye brother James, ooo well I'll meet you Resurrection Day


Now he left sister Lottie, trying to save her wicked soul
She ain't going to drink no more whiskey, ooo well boys going to ride no ’29 Ford


I went to the graveyard and I peeped down in brother James' face
Lord I went to the graveyard and I peeped down in brother James' face
Says you know you died drunk brother James and you didn't have no time to pray


Farewell brother James, hope we will meet some day
Farewell brother James, hope we will meet some day
I will be at the fishing table, ooo well when they send brother James away

Cleo Gibson only recorded two blues songs. One of them was I’ve Got Ford Movement in My Hips in 1929. It plays on a vaudeville era song “Elgin movement in My Hips”. Elgin movement was a slogan of the Elgin watch company refrring to the precision of the internal working of their timepieces. The phrase entered popular culture and showed up in many songs, most notably in the blues in Robert Johnson’s Walking Blues. Here, Cleo Gibson, say a watch is nothing, I’ve got a car in my hips:
Now listen kind folks what I have to say
Happened about a week ago
All about Valentino down to Loving Joe


Valentino, he was smooth, such as a Packard and such
But Loving Joe was like a Ford, handling a little bit too rough
Now you know all about the machine
Got a movement you ain't never seen


I’ve got Ford engine movements in my hips
Ten thousand miles guarantee
A Ford is a car everybody wants to ride, Jump in, you will see


You can all have a Rolls Royce, your Packard and such
Take a Ford engine boys to do your stuff
I've got Ford engine movements in my hips, ten thousand miles guarantee
I say ten thousand miles guarantee


I’ve got Ford engine movements in my hips
Ten thousand miles guaranteed
A Ford is a car everybody wants to ride, Jump in, you will see


You can all have a Rolls Royce, your Packard and such
Take a Ford engine boys to do your stuff
I've got Ford engine movements in my hips, ten thousand miles guarantee
I say ten thousand miles guaranteed

Kid Prince Moore recorded Ford V-8 Blues in 1938 comparing his woman to cars:
My girl is shaped like a Cadillac, she shift like a v-8 Ford
She’s shaped like a Cadillac, she shift like a v-8 Ford
When she shift from 1st to 2nd to high she said baby I ain’t got my load


She’s long and tall, you know she’s little and slim
She’s long and tall, you know she’s little and slim
The way she shift her gears, you know she’s bound to win


I used to have a gal everybody called a Cadillac 8
I used to have a gal everybody called a Cadillac 8
She could not burn enough gasoline to keep my third gear straight


I trade my Cadillac and got myself a Ford v-8
I trade my Cadillac and got myself a Ford v-8
When she starts to burning gas, I mean she just won’t wait


She can burn it all day, she loves to burn it at night
She can burn it all day, she loves to burn it at night
She starts her motor to running, her carburetor starts just right

Walter Roland is best known as a piano player and accompanist to Lucille Bogan. He also played guitar on his own records including T-Model Blues:
Said it's mmm baby mmm baby mmm
Said it's mmm baby mmm baby mmm
Say you know you do not love me like I say I love you


Say you know these here women sure do treat me mean
ooo, these here women sure do treat me mean
You know I ask one for a drink of water, she give me gasoline


Says mmm baby, you won't do nothing you say
Says mmm baby, you won't do nothing you say
You know you told me you love me but what about that man I seen you with the other day


These here women would call themselves a Cadillac, ought to be a T Model Ford
These here women would call themselves a Cadillac, ought to be a T Model Ford
You know they got the shape all right but they can't carry no heavy load


Says you know I'm going to sing this here verse now, ain't going to sing no more
Says you know I'm going to sing this here verse now, ain't going to sing no more
Because you know I've got to go home and get on my old lady because she won't come back no more

With the Model T, Ford made cars affordable they became the car of the common people. This could be both an insult and praise. Some men wanted something fancier, some just appreciated their Ford, whether it was an actual car or a woman.

Songs:
DB Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson
Poor Man's Friend (T-Model) - Sleepy John Estes
Henry Ford Blues - Roosevelt Sykes
Ford V-8 - Cedar Creek Sheik
Brother James - Big Joe Williams
I've Got Ford Movements in my Hips - Cleo Gibson
Ford V-8 Blues - Kid Prince Moore
T-Model Blues - Walter Roland

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Show 51 - Levee Camp Blues




Levee construction began in the 19th century in the U.S. on the Mississippi River and rivers like the Red and the Brazos. Work has pretty much continued on them since. In the 1920s and especially the 30s, government contractors brought laborers into camps to build the levees higher and higher. These camps were wild places where the only law was the boss. Murder and other crimes were common. It was yet another situation where black laborers were brutally exploited. Still, there was no shortage of men looing for jobs on the levees. Pay was better than sharecropping. At least when a worker got paid. They often didn’t.

Texas singer Gene Campbell told the story when he recorded Levee Camp Man in 1930:

These contractors, they are getting so slack
These contractors, they are getting so slack
They’ll pay you half of your money and hold the other half back

There ain’t but two men that get paid off
There ain’t but two men that get paid off
That’s the commissary clerk and the walking boss

I see somebody coming down to the water trough
I see somebody coming down to the water trough
I know it ain’t the contractor, it’s that doggone walking boss

A levee camp mule and a levee camp man
A levee camp mule and a levee camp man
They work side by side, and it sure is man for man

A levee camp man ain’t got but two legs you know
A levee camp man ain’t got but two legs you know
But he puts in the same hours that a mule do on four

I wouldn’t drive no four-mule team
I wouldn’t drive no four-mule team
For no doggone contractor I’ve ever seen

Men on the levee hollering “Whoa Haw Gee”
Men on the levee hollering “Whoa Haw Gee”
And the women on the levee camp hollering “Who wants me?”
Whoa, Haw, and Gee are direction calls for the mule teams. The women hollering who wants me presumably would have been prostitutes. Women at levee camps did include prostitutes as well as the wives and girlfriends of the men. In 1927, Lucille Bogan, recording as Bessie Jackson, sang about how difficult it was to be a levee camp girl in Levee Blues:
Down on the levee, Camp Number Nine
Down the levee, Camp Number Nine
You can pass my house, honey you can hear me cry

I never had no blues, until I come by here
I never had no blues, until I come by here
I'm going to leave this camp, you can’t start in here

My sister got the, brother got them too
We all got the levee camp blues
I ain't found no doctor, ain't no doctor in this whole round world
I ain't found no doctor, ain't no doctor in this whole round world
Just to cure the blues, the blues of a levee camp girl
In 1941, Son House recorded Levee Camp Blues for the Library of Congress telling a story about a woman after the good pay of a man working on the levee:
Every evening she would be standing at the landing crying
Oh she would be standing at the landing crying
Why don’t that big boat hurry and bring home that man of mine

Way down the river you get to hear that big boat whistle blow
Oh, you could hear the big boat when she blow
Well when that doney got that check, I said, she couldn’t use me no more

I’m going away, I’m going to stay a great long time
I’m going, I’m going to stay a great long time
You know I ain’t coming back, honey, until you change your mind

Oh, don’t a man feel bad when the good old sun goes down
Whoo, I said when the good old sun goes down
I said he don’t have a soul, boy, his soul is in the ground
Alan Lomax recorded work songs including an example of the type of music sung by levee workers. Levee Camp Holler:
Whoo, I woke up this morning and I was feeling bad
Whoa, babe, I was feeling bad
I was thinking about the good time that I once have had

Whoa Lord, boy she brought my breakfast this morning and she didn’t know my name, she didn’t know my name
She said give it to the long line skinner with the brass knob hand
She said give it to the long line skinner with the brass knob hand

Oh, boys, iIf you want to go down to Mr. Charlie and don’t get hurt,
Go down Monday morning when the boy’s at work, you’ll be alright, you’ll be alright
Mmm, Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord
Boys, I got a woman up here right away looking for me
Boys, she’s looking for me, she’s looking for me
Lord, I’m going home before long, hmmm
Bye bye, bye bye baby, I’ll be home before long
Texas Alexander recorded a similiar type of work song in 1927 for Okeh records, Levee Camp Moan accompanied by Lonnie Johnson on guitar.  It’s a levee camp moan set to some amazing music:
Mmmmmm
Lord, they accused me of murder, but I haven’t harmed a man
Accused me of murder, I haven’t harmed a man
They have accused me of murder, and I haven’t harmed a man

They have accused me of forgery and I can’t write my name
Lord, They have accused me of forgery and I can’t write my name

Went all around that whole corral
I couldn’t find a mule with his shoulder well
I couldn’t find a mule with his shoulder well

Worked all morn and I worked all day
I couldn’t find a mule with his shoulder well

Mmmmmm, mmmmmm mmmmmm
Lord, that morning bell
Lord, she went up the country, yeah, but she’s on my mind
Well she went up the country, but she’s on my mind

If she don’t come on the big boat, she better not last
If she don’t come on the big boat, bog boat, she better not last
Lord, If she don’t come on the Big Boat, I mean she better not last
Leadbelly also examined the abuse of levee camp mules in his 1935 Library of Congress Recording, I am All Out and Down about life on the levee camp and a woman wanting a man's pay:
Honey, I'm all out and down
Honey, I'm broke baby, and I ain't got a dime
Every good man gets in hard luck some time
Don't it baby, don't it baby, don't it baby, don't it baby

Ah the mules and the horses taking corn and hay
The women in the levee, shouting 'cause it's morn' pay day
Sweet day, sweet day, sweet day

Honey, I’m a long ways from you
Honey, I'm going to tell my woman like the Dago told the Jew
You don't want me, honey I don't want you
Tell me baby, tell me baby, tell  me baby, tell me baby

Well the sun is going down and the mules is getting hungry and the men are getting hungry too
And just thinking about it’s close to payday
And the man had a brown skin woman
And he he wished pay day would move off a little further
So he wouldn't give his baby nothing til payday comes
She was shouting because she knows it’s morn pf payday
And here’s what the woman said:

Ah the mules and the horses taking for the corn and hay
The women in the levee, shouting 'cause it's morn pay day
Crying Day, crying day, sweet day, sweet day, sweet day, sweet day, oh day

Honey, what you want me to do?
Honey, I'm going to tell my woman like the Dago told the Jew
You don't want me, honey I don't want you
Tell me baby, tell me baby, tell me baby, oh baby, oh baby

The brownskin woman keeps you worried all the time
Brownskin woman makes a good-eyed man go blind
Won’t you baby, won’t you baby, won’t you baby, won’t you baby, won’t you baby?

Honey, I’m a long ways from home
Honey, I’m the poor boy a long way from home
Can't get nobody one the ?
Can I baby, can I baby, can I baby, can I baby?

Honey, I’m all out and down
Honey, a yellow woman makes a preacher lay his bible down
A jet black woman makes a jackrabbit hug a hound
Won’t you baby, won’t you baby? Ah baby, ah baby

Don’t it baby, don’t it baby, don’t it baby, don’t it baby

Well, do you hear me blow my horn?
Honey, keep it in the market gunning side by side
Can’t get to ? nothing will let you ride
Won’t it baby, won’t it baby, won’t it baby, won’t it baby?

Honey, I’m bound to sing this song, honey
Ma Rainey saw the levee camps as something keeping a man and a woman apart. She recorded Levee Camp Moan in 1925:

My man has left and he’s gone away
Back to the levee where he used to stay
I kiss and hug him and his kiss is good
I feel so lonesome and awful blue
That’s the reason you hear me moan the levee camp moan, I can’t help myself

Each night and moment I yearn for romance
Back to the levee where my man be
That’s the reason I moan the levee camp moan

I’ve been to ? I’ve been to Houston
It’s all because I love him baby
That’s the reason you hear me moan the levee camp moan

Mmmmm, mmmmm,
It’s all because of...
That’s the reason you hear me moan the levee camp moan
In 1941, Washboard Sam sang about a more modern levee camp with most of the same problems. Levee Camp Blues:

Says I worked in a levee camp just about a month ago
Says I worked in a levee camp just about a month ago
Says I wind so many wagons, it made my poor hands sore

We slept just like dogs, eat beans both night and day
We slept just like dogs, eat beans both night and day
But I never did know just when we were due our pay

They had two shifts on day and the same two shifts at night
They had two shifts on day and the same two shifts at night
But if a man winds wagons, he can't treat his baby right

Yeah boy, wind it now, wind it

Electric lights going out, telephone is bogging down
Electric lights going out, telephone is bogging down
I'm going to keep on winding because I'm the best old winder in town

Songs:

Levee Camp Man - Gene Campbell
Levee Blues - Lucille Bogan
Levee Camp Blues - Son House
Levee Camp Holler
Levee Camp Moan - Texas Alexander
I'm All Out and Down - Lead Belly
Levee Camp Moan - Ma Rainey
Levee Camp Blues - Washboard Sam

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...