Blues jumped a rabbit and he ran a solid mile.
Blues jumped a rabbit, and he ran a solid mile.
The rabbit sat down and cried just like a little child.
Rabbit-Foot Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson (1926)
The blues grew out of suffering. They grew out of poverty and out of hopelessness. They grew from the mouths of people whose ancestors had been forcibly removed from their homelands in Africa and who were forced to work as slaves. The blues became the music of the dispossessed.
I don't know when I first heard the blues, but in 1959, when I was 16, I bought a copy of Sam Charter's book The Country Blues, possibly because I had already listened to singers such as Big Bill Broonzy on the radio. It must have been around that time that I also came across the Origin Jazz Library set of LPs. The label had been founded by Bill Givens and Pete Whelan and there were a dozen or so albums, each comprising tracks taken from early 78's. They featured singers such as Charlie Patton, Son House, Crying Sam Collins, Skip James, and many other Mississippi greats. At that time these were just names, but during the '60s a handful of enthusiasts started to scour the American South, rooting out the singers who were still left and discovering the untold story of the blues. And the story was quite simple. The blues, we were told, had begun on the Dockery Plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi, and Charlie Patton was in there right at the beginning.1
When African slaves were taken to America vestiges of their beliefs survived in the minds of the slaves. Many West African villages have shrines devoted to Legba, the person who watches over crossroads, those tricky places where one's life could so easily change. When early Christian missionaries first met Legba they soon decided that he was the equivalent to the Christian Devil. This belief was taken to the Americas by West African slaves and it was said that the bluesman Robert Johnson had met the Devil at the crossroads, where he exchanged his soul for his newly found musical skills.
African slaves, it seemed, had taken their own musical scales to the Americas. These were different from Western scales, and when the two scales met there were sound clashes, which produced so-called 'blue' notes. Many of the slaves also had their own way of coping with their situation. They did this by singing 'hollers', personal songs that spoke of the injustices of life in the American South.5 This, according to some experts was how the blues began:
Oh, look-a here now baby, what you want me, what you want me, me to do?
Look-a here, honey, what you want poor me to do?
You know that I done all I could, just tryin' to get along with you
You know, the blues ain't nothin' but a low-down shakin', low-down shakin', achin' chill
I say the blues is a low-down, old achin' chill
Well, if you ain't had 'em honey, I hope you never will.12
I went out a dancing with a Tennessee dear,
They had a fellow there named Handy with a band you should hear
And while the folks gently swayed, all the band folks played Real harmony.
I never will forget the tune that Handy called the Memphis Blues.
Oh yes, them Blues.
Handy was clearly aware of blues singers at the time when his was composing his blues.
W C Handy liked to call himself "the Father of the Blues", but perhaps this was not strictly accurate, because the blues had been born some time before Handy encountered the term. So how do we find out just what it was that the people were singing before Handy began to compose? Well, one way is to examine the recordings that exist of singers who probably picked up some of their repertoire before 1900, and one such singer was Henry Thomas, better known as "Ragtime Tex".
Henry Thomas is believed to have been born in a place called Big Sandy in Texas in 1874. He was a singer who accompanied himself on the guitar and the "quills" - a set of pan-pipes that were carried just under the mouth. During the period 1927 - 29 he recorded a total of twenty-three sides.16 Three songs, Arkansas, Honey, Won't You Allow Me One More Chance? and Woodhouse Blues, can probably be traced back to the Minstrel or Vaudeville traditions, while a further eight songs seem to come from an early tradition where verses were shared between both black and white singers. These are John Henry, The Fox and the Hounds, The Little Red Caboose, Run, Mollie Run, Fishing Blues, Old Country Stomp, Charmin' Betsy and Railroadin' Some.
Take, for example, the song Run, Mollie Run which contains verses from a number of songs, including Poor Liza Jane (Roud 825).
Henry Thomas also recorded a number of what we might call "Rag Ditties", songs which seem to be the forerunners of blues. These are Red River Blues, Bob McKinney, Don't Ease Me In, Lovin' Babe and Don't Leave Me Here. Lovin' Babe includes the following lines and verses:
Readers who have got this far may have noticed a slight reticence on my part to go along with the "blues began at the Dockery Plantation, on the lips of Charlie Patton" theory. Here is part of a recorded conversation between two American folklorists, Dick Spottswood and Kip Lornell:
KL: Why's that?
DS: 'cause of that particular phraseology. I'm looking at pieces like Lonesome Road Blues and Careless Love and some of those as being sort of early transitional lyric songs that have complaining elements to them.
KL: "... going down that road feeling bad"?
DS: Well, that's Lonesome Road Blues.
DS: Lonesome Road Blues I guess is the revisionist title. And I think in the 19th century a lot of those songs were in three quarter time a la Down In The Valley or Birmingham Jail and that they began being in four quarter time, and once you drop the third line of the stanza, instead of singing "Going down the road feeling bad" three times, you only sing it twice. Or Takes a worried man to sing a worried song which you always have to sing that line three times too, right? As soon as you drop that third line you've got something approaching the classic blues stanza.
KL: I also think of those songs as having roots in white culture too.
KL: I think there was a very strong shared repertoire in the nineteenth century between blacks and whites, especially in the rural South, and a lot of songs we think of as blues songs now, and certainly that's true of black fiddle and banjo playing, they have common ancestry in both black and white rural traditions.18
DS: Yeah, it almost seems as though those two worlds sort of split apart and became the musics that we know them around the twentieth century. Ma Rainey telling John Work that she encountered the blues in southwest Missouri in 1902. She maybe had heard something like that before but clearly she encountered something at that point that she experienced as something entirely new musically.19
KL: And I think a lot of that has to do with the Jim Crow laws of the 1890's kind of reinforcing what was once freedom or a semblance of freedom for blacks, all of a sudden the Jim Crow laws come in in the mid 1890s and zap, it's like being back towards slavery again. I think that really signals a seachange in American culture.
DS: Well the desired effect was to push the races apart physically and it certainly had that effect. Maybe that gave black culture the chance to put some flesh on those skeletal blues bones.
KL :It certainly happened right around the turn of the century and that seems to be the main legal and social impetus for that happening at that time.
DS: But even after that blues was always sort of crossing the street of the racial divide. Hart A Wand's Dallas Blues and all the Handy's Memphis Blues and Beale Street Blues of the teens kept pushing those songs back towards white culture again still even with the earliest recordings that we know, which is actually all that we can still hear. Mamie Smith is still singing something that has a distinctively racial component and it's not really until you get to Jimmie Rodgers in 1927, and this time exclusively via phonograph records, that you have somebody deliberately dragging blues back across the racial street again.20
KL: Yeah, there are a few earlier examples but Jimmie Rodgers was the one who put blues in the American mainstream.
DS: I think you'd have to say Handy and Rodgers both.
KL: And Handy especially through the publishing ... the sheet music starting about 1912, 1913, really helped, for people who could afford sheet music, who were interested in sheet music and I'm willing to guess that was many, many more white people than black people.
Peter Muir's cut-off date of 1920 is an interesting choice, because shortly afterwards the first recordings of blues singers began to be heard across America. This also means that recordings, which had been made from singers all over the American South and East Coast, are still available today for us to listen to. And what recordings these are!
One of my favourite singers was a man who recorded under the name of 'King Solomon Hill', and who sometimes billed himself as 'Blind Lemon's Buddy' - presumably after Blind Lemon Jefferson.
'Hill' recorded eight songs for Paramount Records in 1932, a time when Paramount was about to go under, and it is doubtful if the company pressed many of Hill's records. Copies are certainly rare today. The titles recorded are as follows: Down on My Bended Knee (Take 1), Down on My Bended Knee (Take 2), The Gone Dead Train, My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon, Tell Me Baby, Times Has Done Got Hard, Whoopee Blues (Take 1) and Whoopee Blues (Take 2).
At first it was thought that the singer Big Joe Williams had used the 'King Solomon Hill' name for some of his recordings, though, aurally, the singers were dissimilar. There then followed a disagreement between an academic, Professor David Evans, and an amateur (in the best sense of the word) blues aficionado called Gayle Dean Wardlaw. Evans claimed to have discovered the true identity of 'King Solomon Hill', without, it seems, ever having presented his findings in public. Wardlaw, on the other hand, identified 'Hill' as one Joe Holmes (1897-1949) who came from Sibley, near Minden, in Louisiana, and he published the facts as early as 1967. Evans replied by calling Wardlaw's findings 'a fiasco'. Wardlaw continued to beaver away on the 'King Solomon Hill' story, before publishing a second set of findings in 1987. This time Wardlaw showed that Joe Holmes had lived at a place in Sibley called King Solomon Hill, a hill where the King Solomon Hill Baptist Church once flourished. All the people in Sibley who remembered Joe Holmes, and who were certain that the recordings were indeed by Holmes, had never heard him use the name 'King Solomon Hill', which was actually Holme's mail address. So had the people at Paramount become confused with Joe's deep-south accent, or had they just thought that the name 'King Solomon Hill' might sell more records?23 Surprisingly, David Evans continues to deny that Joe Holmes and 'King Solomon Hill' were one and the same. In 2008 Evans wrote a paper, 'Nicknames of Blues Singers' where he said, 'A couple of these examples, King Solomon Hill and Prince Moore, may not be nicknames at all but simply given names'.24
Perhaps my favourite King Solomon Hill recording is that of The Gone Dead Train, with its almost surreal title.
This train will wreck your mind
(Spoken: Your life, too)
Lord, I once was a hobo
I crossed a many a point
But I decided I'd go down to Fryeberg light
And take it as it comes
(Spoken: I reckon' you know the fireman and the engineer would, too)
There are so many people have gone down today
And this fast train north and southern traveling light and clear
Oooo-ooh, I wanna ride your train
I said, "Look here, engineer, can I ride your train?"
He said, "Look here, you oughta know this train ain't mine
And you're asking me in vain"
Said, "You go to the Western Union, you might get a chance"
(Spoken: I didn't know the Western Union run no train)
Said, "You go to the Western Union, you might get a chance"
You might get wire to some of your people and your fare will be sent right here
(Spoken: Hadn't thought that's the way it is)
I wanna go home, and that train is done gone dead
I wanna go, that train is done gone dead
I done lost my wife and my three little children
And my mother's sick in bed
Oooo-ooh please, help me win my fare
'Cause I'm a travelin' man, boys I can't stay here.25
And yet, despite all that had gone before, illiterate and semi-illiterate blues singers were able to express themselves with a poetry that almost defies definition. Take this piece written by one of the most prolific singers, Blind Willie McTell of Georgia, a man who was himself no stranger to the rambling life:
I've got those blues, I'm not satisfied
I've got those blues, I'm not satisfied
That's the reason I'm sure long way to cry
Blues arrived at midnight, won't turn me loose 'till day
Blues arrived at midnight, won't turn me loose 'till day
I didn't have no mama to drive these blues away
The big star fallin', mama t'ain't long (be)fo'(re) day
The big star fallin', mama t'ain't long (be)fo'(re) day
Rain or sunshine drive these blues away
Oh come here quick, come on mama, I got you ...
"Monologue on Accidents" tells us as much about the white John Lomax as it does about the black Willie McTell. Lomax, a man previously unknown to McTell, clearly believed that McTell would sing "protest" songs to a complete stranger, and this at a time when black people, who "stepped out of line", were being lynched in the South. Lomax's naivety is truly remarkable. And yet, a few years before John Lomax met Blind Willie McTell, another white man, Lawrence Gellert, did manage to record a whole batch of protest songs from black singers in the South.
Gellert, unlike John Lomax who was a southerner from Texas, was born in Hungary in 1898, but moved to New York when he was seven. And, again unlike Lomax, he was, politically, well to the left, often writing for the communist magazine Masses (later New Masses). In the early 1920s he settled in Tryon NC, because of poor health. During the period 1933 - 37 Gellert made field recordings of black singers and musicians in both North and South Carolina, Mississippi and Georgia. In total he made 221 aluminium, zinc and lacquer discs - containing some 600 songs, half of which might be called "protest songs" - which are now housed in Indiana University. Lawrence Gellert produced the book Negro Songs of Protest in 1936, much to the surprise of many people who were unaware that such songs existed. One notable critic was John Lomax! Me and My Captain, Negro Songs of Protest Volume 2 appeared in 1939. Although Gellert's death is given as 1979, it seems that he "just disappeared" sometime around this date.
In 1973 Rounder Records issued the first of two LPs of material from the Gellert collection, Negro Songs of Protest (Rounder LP 4004), while volume 2, Cap'n You're So Mean - Negro Songs of Protest, Volume 2 (Rounder 4013) appeared in 1982. Sadly, they have not been reissued on CD format. However, a further sixteen of Gellert's recordings can be heard on the Document CD Field Recordings - Volume 9 (DOCD-5599).27 All the performers heard on these three albums are "anonymous". Earlier this year, Bruce Conforth of the University of Michigan produced a biography of Lawrence Gellert, African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story (Scarecrow Press - an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield).
I once got into a heated debate with a Scottish academic when I suggested that Robert Burns was steeped in a folksong tradition and that Burns used much of this tradition in his poems. The academic, who seemed to think that Burns's every word had been composed by Burns himself, just could not accept what I was saying. And the same, I think, may be said of the blues. The early blues developed in a tradition, with lines and verses passing from mouth to mouth. But, as with Burns, there were extremely talented individuals within this tradition, singers such as Charlie Patton, Son House, Henry Thomas, King Solomon Hill or Willie McTell, who had the ability to transcend other singers with their individual genius.
Today we may sit back and listen to these voices, voices that are removed in time, but not in substance. Willie McTell's Mama T'ain't Long Fo' Day is as fresh and relevant today as it was on 18th October, 1927, when Willie sat down in front of a recording machine in Atlanta, GA. Close your eyes and you are with him in the room, listening to a man who had the same feelings and desires as us; a man who wanted justice, both for himself and for his people, yet who had suffered from the indignity of a system that had denied him those basic rights. How, I keep wondering, could a system like that throw up such superb musicians, poets and dreamers? How could so many people survive - because that is what they did - in such harsh circumstances? The answer, I guess, is there to be heard, in the thousands of blues that were sung for so many, long years.
Mike Yates - 11.11.13
2. Robert Johnson Crossroad Blues Recorded 1936 and reissued on several CDs.
3. Robert Johnson Hellhound On My Trail Recorded 1937 and reissued on several CDs.
4. These Afro-American phrases, which relate to Voodoo, can be found in songs such as Muddy Waters' I'm a Hoochie Coochie Man which has been reissued on several CDs. Other examples include, 'I believe my good gal have found my black cat bone/I can leave Sunday mornin' Monday mornin' I'm tippin' 'round home' (Blind Lemon Jefferson Broke and Hungry,1926). A black cat bone is believed to make its owner invisible and increase the owner's sexual prowess. 'I'm gonna sprinkle a little goofer dust all around your nappy head/You wake up some of these mornings, find your own self dead' (Charlie Spand Big Fat Mama Blues,1929). Goofer dust is collected from a graveyard. It can cause sickness and death in an enemy, and probably comes from an African KiKongo word, kufwa, which means 'to die'. 'My rider's got a mojo, she's tryin' to keep it hid/But papa's got somethin' for to find that mojo with' (Blind Lemon Jefferson Low Down Mojo Blues, 1928). Mojo, or jomo , is a collection of magical substances held about the person in a small pouch. It enhances luck and is similar to a Gullah term for witchcraft, moco, which, in turn, may come from an African Fula word, moco'o, which means a witchdoctor. Finally, 'I'm going to New Orleans, to get this toby fixed of mine/I am havin' trouble, trouble, I can't keep from cryin'' (Hattie Hart Spider's Nest Blues, 1930). A toby is a charm (often a rabbit's foot). It is related to the Caribbean word obeah, an idiom for conjuring. According to the OED an obeah can make the bearer invisible. It would seem likely that toby/obeah comes originally from an African word.
Other examples of American retentions of African beliefs can be found in several of Robert Thompson's books, including The Four Moments of the Sun. Kongo Art in Two Worlds (1981), Flash of the Spirit. African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (1984), Face of the Gods. Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas (1993) and Aesthetic of the Cool. Afro-Atlantic Art and Music (2011).
5. Recorded examples of 'hollers' can be heard on a number of recordings, including: Prison Songs. Historical Recordings from the Parchman Farm, 1947 - 48. Volume One: Murderer's Home. Prison Songs. Historical Recordings from the Parchman Farm, 1947 - 48. Volume Two: Don'tcha Hear Poor Mother calling? Rounder CD 1715. Sounds of the South: A Musical Journey from the Georgia Sea islands to the Mississippi Delta Atlantic 7 82496 - 2 (4 CD set).
6. Tangle Eye Blues sung by Walter 'Tangle Eye' Jackson. Rounder CD. Prison Songs. Historical Recordings from the Parchman Farm, 1947 - 48. Volume One: Murderer's Home. Rounder CD 1714. Also available on Rounder CD 1866. Alan Lomax - Blues Songbook. Disc 1.
7. Stephen Calt & Gayle Wardlaw, King of the Delta Blues. The Life and Music of Charlie Patton Rock Chapel Press, Newton, New Jersey, 1988. For the Mississippi roots of the blues, see p.46.
8. Ibid p.47.
9. Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began 1993. The New Press (New Edition), 2002.
10. For a biography of Alan Lomax, see John Szwed's The Man Who Recorded the World Arrow Books, London. 2010.
11. For the Lomax/ Muddy Waters recordings, see The Complete Plantation Recordings. Muddy Waters, the Historic 1941 - 42 Library of Congress Field Recordings Chess/MCA MCD09344/CHD-9344.
12. John Szwed's The Man Who Recorded the World Arrow Books, London. 2010. p.181.
13. For some recorded versions of Poor Boy a Long Way from Home see John Dudley (Rounder CD 1703. Southern Journey. Volume 3 - Delta Country Blues, Spirituals, Work Songs & Dance Music). Gus Cannon (Document Records DCOD-5032 Gus Cannon, Volume 1, 1927 - 1928). Bo Weavil Jackson (Document Records DOCD-5036 Backwoods Blues (1926 - 1935). Barbecue Bob (Robert Hicks) (Document Records DOCD-5046. Barbecue Bob - Complete Recorded Works. Volume 1. 25 March, 1927 - 13 April, 1928). Buell Kazee ( JSP Records JSP77100 - 4 CD set - Mountain Frolic).
14. Reissued on Document CD DOCD-5012 The Beale Street Sheiks (Stokes & Sane) 1927-1929.
15. Quotes from W C Handy are in W C Handy, Arna Wendell Bontemps, Father of the Blues: An Autobiography, Da Capo Press, 1991.
16. All of Henry Thomas's sides are available on a Yazoo CD Henry Thomas. Complete Recorded Works, 1927 - 1929 (Yazoo 1080/1). I am indebted to Stephen Calt, who wrote the CD's booklet notes, for what is said about Henry Thomas above.
17. Stephen Calt, Barrelhouse Words. A Blues Dialect Dictionary University of Illinois Press, Urban & Chicago, 2009, p.40.
18. For recordings of black musicians playing tunes from a common black/white repertoire, see Black Fiddlers (Document DOCD-5631), Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia (Smithsonian-Folkways SFW 40079, Altamon - Black Stringband Music (Rounder 0238) and Deep River of Song - Black Appalachia. String Bands, Songsters and Hoedowns (Rounder 1823).
19. As previously mentioned, 1902 was the year when W C Handy started travelling around Mississippi.
20. Jimmy Rodger's recordings are available on several reissue CD sets.
21. Peter C. Muir Long Lost Blues. Popular Blues in America, 1850 - 1920 University of Illinois Press, Urbana & Chicago. 2010.
22. Max Haymes's The English Music Hall Connection can be found, in several parts, on: www.earlyblues.com
23. For both of Gayle Dean Wardlaw's articles, see his book Chasin' That Devil Music - Searching for the Blues Miller Freeman Books, San Francisco, 1998. pp.2 - 7 & 208 - 218.
24. David Evans (editor) Ramblin' on my Mind . New Perspectives on the Blues University of Illinois Press, Urbana & Chicago. 2008. p.200.
25. Six of King Solomon Hill's recordings, including The Gone Dead Train, can be heard on Document CD Backwood Blues (DOCD-5036). The two remaining tracks, My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon and Times Has Done Got Hard can be heard on 2 CDs Times Ain't Like They Used to Be (Yazoo 2067 & 2068). It should be noted that Hill's recordings can be hard to understand at times and the transcription given above may contain some mistakes.
26. Blind Willie McTell's Mama T'ain't Long Fo' Day, recorded in 1927, has been reissued as part of the 4 CD set Blind Willie McTell - 1927 - 1940, The Classic Years JSP 7711.
27. The songs of Rounder LP 4004 are: Cold Iron Shackles, Two Hoboes, Negro Got No Justice, Mail Day I Gets A Letter, Rocky Bottom, Come Get Your Money, Joe Brown's Coal Mine, You Ask For Breakfast, On A Monday, There Ain't No Heaven, In Atlanta, Georgia, Cap'n Got A Lueger, When Sun Go Down, Give Me Fifteen Minutes And You Calls It Noon, Lawdy Mamie, Cap'n Got A Pistol, Cap'n What Is On Your Mind?, Mr Tyree.
The songs on Rounder LP 4013 are: Cap'n You're So Mean, Don't Go To Georgia, Listen Here Cap'n, This Ol' Hammer, Joe Brown, Nine Pound Hammer, You Don't Know My Mind, Cap'n You Oughta Be Shamed, Standin' On The Streets Of Birmingham, Trouble, Trouble, 30 Blows From Time, Gonna Leave Atlanta, Chain Gang Blues, Red Cross Store, Annie Lee, Why Didn't Somebody Tell Me, Please Bossman Tell Me, Cap'n Hide Me, Delia, White Folks Ain't Jesus (How Long), I went On Down To Okalonda, Trouble In Mind, Cap'n Cap'n.
The Document recordings (DOCD-5599) are: Boogie Lovin', 30 Days In Jail, Ding Dong Ring, Pick & Shovel Cap'n, 6 Months Ain't No Sentence, Hard Times Hard Times, Trouble Ain't Nothin But A Good Man Feelin Bad, Down In The Chain Gang, Prison Bound Blues, Georgia Chain Gang, Gonna Leave From Georgia, Black Woman, Shootin' Craps & Gamblin, Nobody Knows My Name, I Been Pickin' & Shovellin'.