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

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