Topical Blues


I's been a wild ride but the elections are finally over. I'll be off the air this week but in lieu of a new show, here's a relevant one that first aired Nov. 23, 3008 when Obama was first elected. The show also aired 45 year after Kennedy's assassination and there are several blues and gospel songs addressing his passing. You can find the the original playlist and show notes here.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Lemuel Jones Poor FarmersVirginia Traditions: Non-Blues Secular Black Music
Unknown GroupPick a Bale of CottonBlack Texicans
Big Bill Broonzy Going Back To My Plow The War & Postwar Years
Lonnie Johnson Broken Levee BluesThe Original Guitar Wizard
Walter BrownLevee Camp HollerLiving Country Blues Vol. 9
Jesse Bradle & 'Track Horse' HaggertyHammer RingField Recordings Vol. 6: Texas 1933-1958
Mance Lipscomb Captain, CaptainCaptain, Captain
Josh White Defense Factory BluesBluesman, Guitar Evangelist, Folksinger
Big Bill Broonzy Black, Brown and White Black, Brown and White
Unknown Male SingerWorking On The LeveeField Recordings from South Carolina, Mississippi Vol. 2
Son House Levee Camp Blues Legends of Country Blues
Smokey Hogg Unemployment BluesDeep Ellum Rambler
Ramblin' Thomas No Job BluesTexas Blues: Early Masters From the Lone Star State
Willie Ford & Lucious Curtis PaydayMississipp: the Blues Lineage
Johnny Lee MooreEighteen HammersSounds Of The South
Otis Webster I Wanna Tell You BossmanCountry Negro Jam Session
Hattie Burleson Sadie's Servant Room BlueTerritory Singers Vol. 2
Champion Jack Dupree Warehouse Man BluesJunker's Blues
Charlie MCCoy Charity BluesAin't Times Hard: Political & Social Comment In The Blues
Washboard Sam CCC BluesAin't Times Hard: Political & Social Comment In The Blues
Big Bill Broonzy W.P.A. BluesAll The Classic Sides
Casey Bill Weldon Casey Bill's New W.P.AThe Essential
The Florida Kid I'm Going Back On The FarmGoing Back On The Farm
Mance Lipscomb Tom Moore's FarmA Treasury of Field Recordings Vol.2
Emmanuel Dunn Working on the Levee, Pt. 1Angola Prison Worksongs

Show Notes:

Ramblin' Thomas: No Jo BluesToday's program is the second installment featuring blues songs revolving around work. We hear from a variety of blues from the pre-war and post-war dealing with working in the mills, warehouses, farm, levees and those we can't find any work at all.  As the great blues scholar Paul Oliver wrote in Blues Fell This Morning: "For one reason alone are Blacks to be found on the American Continent: the enslavement of their ancestors. Their labor in bondage accounts for their presence, no matter what place in society they hold today. Over a period of three centuries  men and women in their millions were torn from their African homeland, chained, shipped, sold, branded, and forced into a life of toil that only ceased when death froze their limbs. Their children  worked in the fields from the day when they could lift a hoe to the day when they dropped  between the shafts of the plow.. Brutal planters there were, and humane ones to …But it was the great multitude of common laborers , uneducated, unskilled, deliberately kept in ignorance and held in perpetual, unrelenting bondage on whom the South relied. On the results of their sweat and toil depended its economy.“

As Paul Oliver wrote: “Tied in permanent debt to the planters on whose lands they were sharecroppers or tenants, a vast number of Blacks were still forced to remain, for the share-cropping system was flourishing in the twenties ans was still in operation in the 1960's.” Often they ended up in never ending debt to the landowner, sometimes called the “Bossman” or “Mr. Charlie” in song. In addition to the farms, blacks could be found employed in the logging and turpentine camps (Pigmeat Pete & Catjuice Charlie "On Our Turpentine Farm") , the tobacco and fertilizer plants, the cement factories and sawmills (Ramblin' Thomas "Sawmill Moan, Elzadie Robinson "Sawmill Blues"). We play several songs about working on the farm including one by Lemuel Jones, presumably working on the state farm in Richmond, Virginia, under prison conditions, who recorded his "Po' Farmer" for the Library of Congress in 1936:

Work all the week and don't make enough
Pay my board and buy my snuff

Work all the week to sun to sun
Fifteen cents when Saturday come

This brings up something we didn't discuss on the last program which is a streak of protest to be found in some of these songs. One of the more famous protest songs about farming are those sung about Texas farmer Tom Moore. The Moore brothers operated a twenty thousand acre farm in East Texas along the Brazos river and ruled it with an iron hand. The Tom Moore songs came about originally courtesy of Yank Thornton, a man who worked as a field hand on the Moore farm and first sang about his experiences in the early 1930's. Mance Lipscomb record "Tom Moore's Farm" in 1960, and before that Lightnin' Hopkins recorded "Tim Moore's Farm" for Gold Star in 1948:

Yeah, you know it ain't but the one thing, you know, this black man done was wrong
Yes, you know I moved my wife and family down on Mr. Tim Moore's farm

Yeah, you know Mr. Tim Moore's a man, he don't never stand and grin
He just said, "Keep out of the graveyard, I'll save you from the pen"

A prisoner named Joseph "Chinaman" Johnson, sang a song called "Three Moore Brothers", which began with the words "Well, who is that I see come ridin', boy, down on the low turn row?/ Nobody but Tom Devil, That's the man they call Tom Moore." Asked about the song, Moore replied: "They're happy people – they don 't always mean what they sing. He laughed deprecatingly, 'Only I best never catch one of them singing that song.'" Mance Lipscomb recorded  several other topical/protest songs including "Captain, Captain" (Captain was a traditional term for the white boss) a song who's lyrics can be found in numerous work songs:

Wouldn't mind working Captain, from sun to sun
Long as you pay me my money, Captain when payday come

In many of the songs the protest is subtle or veiled but there were a few, like Big Bill Broonzy's "Black, Brown and White", that were more overt:

I hope to win sweet victory
With my little plough and hoe
Now I want you to tell me brother
What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow? Now if you was white should be all right
If you was brown stick around
But if you black, oh brother
Get back, get back, get back

Josh White's 1941 "Defense Factory Blues" shares a similar sentiment:

Went to the defense factory, tryin' to find some work to do,
Had the nerve to tell me, "Black boy, nothing here for you"    
        
My father died, died fighting 'cross the sea,
Mama said his dying never helped her or me

Tim Moore's FarmThe levees were another notorious form of black employment. The Mississippi levee was begun piecemeal in the early 19th century when individual planters piled up small dykes to protect their fields from spring floods. By 1833, levee commissions had organized countywide efforts, but that all went to hell during the Civil War. The levees were built with the hard manual labor of convicts, and poor black and Irish laborers called “muleskinners." The levee camps, where workers lived in tents, drew thousands of freed slaves looking for work. By the mid-1920's, working on the levee was the subject of numerous blues that expressed fear of the unsafe conditions on the levee and anger at being forced to work on it. Those who sang tales of the levee included Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe "When the Levee breaks", Texas Alexander "Levee Camp Moan Blues", Ma Rainy "Levee Camp Moan", Washboard Sam "Levee Camp Blues", Forest City Joe "Levee Camp Reminiscence" among many others. Songs like Lonnie Johnson’s “Broken Levee Blues,” written after the great flood of 1927, tell the story of those who were forcibly conscripted to work on the levees, and threatened with jail if they refused the dangerous work:

Police say work, fight, or go to jail, I say I ain't totin' no sack
And I ain't buildin' no levee, the planks is on the ground and I ain't drivin' no nails

By 1910 there began a steady stream of blacks moving to Northern cities for better employment and living conditions. Many found employment in the mills and warehouses, a subject of several blues songs such as Frank Tannehill "Warehouse Blues". Champion Jack Dupree "Warehouse Man Blues", Two Poor Boys "Mill Man Blues", Peg Leg Howell "Rolling Mill Blues", Peetie Wheatstraw "Chicago Mill Blues", Ralph Willis "Steel Mill Blues" and many others . Both Blind Blake ("Detroit Bound") and Bob Campbell ("Starvation Farm Blues") made their intentions clear:

I'm goin' to Detroit, get myself a good job (2x)
Tried to stay around here with that starvation mob

I'm goin' to Detroit to build myself a job (2x)
I'm tired of layin' around here workin' on the starvation farm

When the Wall Street crash occurred at the end of October 1929 there were many stories of lost fortunes, of bankrupt financiers throwing themselves from skyscraper buildings. Those who bore the brunt were the poor, and of those the black population was the worst off. As steel mills ceased to operate and factories were closed down, thousands of workers, many of whom were seasonal employees, were laid off. Few were members of unions, and there was no protection against unemployment. "The Panic Was On" as Hezekiah Jenkins sang in 1931:

What this country is coming to
I sure would like to know
If they don't do something bye and bye, the rich will live and the poor will die
Doggone, I mean the panic is on

Can't get no work, can't draw no pay
Unemployment getting worser every day
Nothing to eat no place to sleep
All night long folks walking the street
Doggone, I mean the panic is on

WPA BLUESFranklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in March 1933 and took many measures in his first hundred days to combat the depression. In June he established the Public Works Administration (P.W.A.) for which over $3 billion was appropriated. PWA projects were largely engaged in construction projects like sewage plants, flood control and bridge building. Under the PWA was an alphabet soup of agencies with acronyms like PWA, CCC, CWA, CCC and others. Later came the WPA which replaced direct relief and built over a half million miles of roads, a hundred thousand bridges and even more pubic buildings. Many blues songs deal with this topic: Casey Bill Weldon "W.P.A. Blues" , Black Ivory King "Working For The .PW.A.", Jimmy Gordon "Don't Take Away My P.W.A.", Peetie Wheatstraw "Working On The Project", Washboard Sam "CCC Blues" and Big Bill Broonzy "W.P.A. Blues" among many others. Charlie McCoy's"Charity Blues" had a sentiment many could relate to:

Said, charity, charity, is my only friend
When I lost my job, the charity took me in
        
I said, you ain't got no money, and ain't got no place to stay
You'd better try to get you a job, on the PWA

A different type of work song existed in the prisons as heard in selections today including Johnny Lee Moore's "Eighteen Hammers" and Jesse Bradley and Track Horse Haggerty's "Hammer Ring." In 1958 Alan Lomax wrote of Parchman Farm: “A few strands of wire were all that separated the prison from adjoining plantations. Only the sight of an occasional armed guard or a barred window in one of the frame dormitories made one realize that this was a prison. The land produced the same crop; there was the same work for blacks to do on both sides of the fence. And there was no Delta black who was not aware of how easy it was for him to find himself on the wrong side of those few strands of barbed wire. … These songs are a vivid reminder of a system of social control and forced labor that has endured in the South for centuries, and I do not believe that the pattern of Southern life can be fundamentally reshaped until what lies behind these roaring, ironic choruses is understood.” Bruce Jackson noted that "Black prisoners in all the Southern agricultural prisons in the years of these recordings participated in two distinct musical traditions: free world (the blues, hollers, spirituals and other songs they sang outside and, when the situation permitted, sang inside as well) and the work-songs, which were specific to the prison situation…"

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Joe Stone It's Hard TimeAin't Times Hard: Political & Social Comment In The Blues
Hezekiah Jenkins The Panic Is On Blues & Jazz Obscurities
Gene Campbell Levee Camp Blues Ain't Times Hard: Political & Social Comment In The Blues
Forrest City Joe Levee Camp ReminiscenceSounds Of The South
Tommy McClennan Cotton Patch BluesBluebird Recordings 1939-1942
Josh White Low Cotton Bluesman, Guitar Evangelist, Folksinger
Pigmeat Pete On Our Turpentine FarmCornshucker's Frolic Vol. 1
Florida Kid Lazy Mule Blues Rare 1930s & '40s Blues Vol. 3
Charlie Patton Mississippi Boll Weavil BluesScreamin' & Hollerin' The Blues
Robert Curtis Smith Council Spur BluesClarksdale Blues
Guitar Slim & Jelly Belly Working Man BluesAin't Times Hard: Political & Social Comment In The Blues
Smoky Babe Hottest Brand Goin'Hottest Brand Goin'
Ivory Joe Hunter High Cost, Low Pay BluesJumping at the Dew Drop
J.B. Lenoir Everybody Wants To KnowJ.B. Lenoir 1955-56
Black Ivory KingWorking For The PWAAin't Times Hard: Political & Social Comment In The Blues
Jimmy Gordon Don't Take Away My PWAAin't Times Hard: Political & Social Comment In The Blues
Peetie Wheatstraw Working On The ProjectBroadcasting the Blues
Texas Alexander Section Gang BluesTexas Alexander Vol. 1
Camp Morris Captain Haney BluesDeep River of Song: Georgia
Blind BlakeDetroit Bound BluesAll The Published Sides
Frank Tannehill Warehouse Bluesare Country Blues Vol. 4 1929-c.1953
Bob Campbell Starvation Farm BluesAin't Times Hard: Political & Social Comment In The Blues
Lightnin' Hopkins Mister CharlieThe Acoustic Years 1959-1960
Otis Webster The Farm BluesCountry Negro Jam Session
Walter Vincson Overtime BluesJackson Blues: 1928-1938
Gabriel BrownI'm Gonna Take It EasyShake That Thing
Tom Dickson Labor BluesBlues Images Vol. 8
Mance Lipscomb Captain, CaptainCaptain, Captain
Willie Ford & Lucious Curtis PaydayMississippi: the Blues Lineage
Champion Jack Dupree Warehouse Man BluesJunker's Blues 1940-41
Washboard Sam C C C BluesAin't Times Hard: Political & Social Comment In The Blues
Big Bill Broonzy W.P.A. BluesAll The Classic Sides 1928-1937

Show Notes:

Blind Blake: Dtetroit BoundToday's program revolves around blues songs and work. We hear from a variety of blues from the pre-war and post-war dealing with working in the mills, warehouses, farm, levees and those we can't find any work at all.  As the great blues scholar Paul Oliver wrote in Blues Fell This Morning: "For one reason alone are Blacks to be found on the American Continent: the enslavement of their ancestors. Their labor in bondage accounts for their presence, no matter what place in society they hold today. Over a period of three centuries  men and women in their millions were torn from their African homeland, chained, shipped, sold, branded, and forced into a life of toil that only ceased when death froze their limbs. Their children  worked in the fields from the day when they could lift a hoe to the day when they dropped  between the shafts of the plow.. Brutal planters there were, and humane ones too….But it was the great multitude of common laborers , uneducated, unskilled, deliberately kept in ignorance and held in perpetual, unrelenting bondage on whom the South relied. On the results of their sweat and toil depended its economy.“

Just a quick word, that today's show will be a bit shortened as we are in t the midst of our pledge drive. Those songs we don't get today we will spin next week. Please be sure to make your pledge of support to keep this great station, and of course our show on the air. Want to pledge now? Call 966-5299 or toll-free 1-800 -790-0415. You can also pledge online by clicking here.

As Paul Oliver wrote: “Tied in permanent debt to the planters on whose lands  they were sharecroppers or tenants, a vast  number of Blacks were still forced to remain, for the share-cropping system was flourishing in the twenties ans was still in operation in the 1960's.” Often they ended up in never ending debt to the landowner, sometimes called the “Bosman” or “Mr. Charlie” in song. In addition to the farms, blacks could be found employed in the logging and turpentine camps (Pigmeat Pete & Catjuice Charlie "On Our Turpentine Farm") , the tobacco and fertilizer plants, the cement factories and sawmills (Ramblin' Thomas "Sawmill Moan, Elzadie Robinson "Sawmill Blues").  We play several songs about working on the farm including "Low Cotton" recorded by Josh White in 1933:

When you're pickin' low cotton you gotta get down on your bended knees
Wonder who plant this low cotton, that gave me such a dirty deal
…If I was the president, I'd destroy this cotton that's worryin' us

In 1939 Tommy McClennan recorded "Cotton Patch Blues" which touches on the great northern migration in his striking opening lines:

I left my baby in Mississippi
Pickin' cotton down on her knee
I left my babe in Mississippi
Whoo-ooo, pickin' cottton down on her knee
She said, 'Babe, you get Chicago all right
Pleee-ase right me a letter, if you please

“It was a a little insect barley a quarter of an inch" long,  Oliver wrote, "that set the seal on the destruction of the South's cotton economy. In 1862 the boll-weavil was observed in the cotton fields of Mexico, and thirty years later it was ravishing the plantations of Texas. Within in a few years it was to be found throughout the entire South…” The boll-weavil  caused thousands of sharecroppers to be out of work. The boll-weavil was immortalized in numerous songs. Charley Patton recorded "Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues" at his first recording session in 1929 but there are reports of him playing the song a early as 1908 when the boll weevil might first have shown up at Dockery plantation where he lived:

Well I saw the boll weevil, Lord a-circle Lord in the air, lord
The next time I seen him, Lord he had his family there, lord
Boll weevil left Texas, Lord he bid me fare you well, lord
Where you going now?

"I'm going down to Mississippi, going to give Louisiana hell"
Boll weevil told the farmer that I ain't going to treat you fair
Took all the blossoms and leave you an empty square
Next time I seen you, you have your family there, lordy

Tom Dickson: Labor BluesThe levees were another notorious form of black employment. The Mississippi levee was begun piecemeal in the early 19th century when individual planters piled up small dykes to protect their fields from spring floods. By 1833, levee commissions had organized countywide efforts, but that all went to hell during the Civil War. The levees were built with the hard manual labor of convicts, and poor black and Irish laborers called “muleskinners." The levee camps, where workers lived in tents, drew thousands of freed slaves looking for work. By the mid-1920s, working on the levee was the subject of numerous blues that expressed fear of the unsafe conditions on the levee and anger at being forced to work on it. Those who sang tales of the levee included Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe "When the Levee breaks", Lonnie Johnson "Broken Levee Blues", Texas Alexander "Levee Camp Moan Blues", Ma Rainy "Levee Camp Moan", Washboard Sam "Levee Camp Blues", Forest City Joe "Levee Camp Reminiscence" among many others. Gene Campbell relates how the men were worked and treated the same as mules in his "Levee Camp Man" recorded in 1930:

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

By 1910 there began a steady stream of blacks moving to Northern cities for better employment and living conditions. Many found employment in the mills and warehouses, a subject of several blues songs such as Frank Tannehill "Warehouse Blues". Champion Jack Dupree "Warehouse Man Blues", Two Poor Boys "Mill Man Blues", Peg Leg Howell "Rolling Mill Blues", Peetie Wheatstraw "Chicago Mill Blues", Ralph Willis "Steel Mill Blues" and many others . Both Blind Blake ("Detroit Bound") and Bob Campbell ("Starvation Farm Blues") made their intentions clear:

I'm goin' to Detroit, get myself a good job (2x)
Tried to stay around here with that starvation mob

I'm goin' to Detroit to build myself a job (2x)
I'm tired of  layin' around here workin' on the starvation farm

When the Wall Street crash occurred at the end of October 1929 there were many stories of lost fortunes, of bankrupt financiers throwing themselves from skyscraper buildings. Those who bore the brunt were the poor, and of those the black population was the worst off. As steel mills ceased to operate and factories were closed down, thousands of workers, many of whom were seasonal employees, were laid off. Few were members of unions, and there was no protection against unemployment. "The Panic Was On" as Hezekiah Jenkins sang in 1931:

What this country is coming to
I sure would like to know
If they don't do something bye and bye, the rich will live and the poor will die
Doggone, I mean the panic is on

Can't get no work, can't draw no pay
Unemployment getting worser every day
Nothing to eat no place to sleep
All night long folks walking the street
Doggone, I mean the panic is on

rare-blues-78-peetie-wheatstraw-working-on-the-project-decca-7311-hear_3767094Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in March 1933 and took many measures in his first hundred days to combat the depression. In June he established the Public Works Administration (P.W.A.) for which over $3 billion was appropriated. PWA projects were largely engaged in construction projects like sewage plants, flood control and bridge building. Under the PWA was an alphabet soup of agencies with acronyms like PWA, CCC, CWA, CCC and others. Later came the WPA which replaced direct relief and built over a half million miles of roads, a hundred thousand bridges and even more pubic buildings. Many blues songs deal with this topic: Black Ivory King "Working For The .PW.A.", Jimmy Gordon "Don't Take Away My P.W.A.", Peetie Wheatstraw  "Working On The Project", Washboard Sam "CCC Blues" and Big Bill Broonzy "W.P.A. Blues" among many others.

Truman became President in 1945. Inflation was a major reason Truman’s popularity dropped from 87% after his election to 32% by the time he was up for re-election. In addition, after the war prices began to rise and opportunities lessen. Prices rose 38% between 1946 and 1948.Among the songs that deal with this period are Jimmy Witherspoon's "Money’s Getting Cheaper" (1947), Louis Jordan's "Inflation Blues" (1947), Roosevelt Sykes' "High Price Blues" (1945), Sunnyland Slim's "Bad Times (Cost of Living)" (1949), Smokey Hogg's "High Priced Meat" (1947) and Ivory Joe Hunter's "High Cost Low Pay Blues" (1947). In "Everybody Wants To Know (Laid Off Blues) " he was even more militant:

You rich people listen, you better listen real deep:
If we poor peoples get so hungry, we gonna take some food to eat

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Lonnie JohnsonMan Killing BroadLonnie Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1940
Bill GaitherBloody Eyed WomanBill Gaither Vol. 4 1939
Whistlin' Alex MooreIce Pick BluesWhistlin' Alex Moore 1929-1951
Walter 'Cowboy' WashingtonIce Pick MamaTexas Seaport 1934-1937
Louisiana Red Sweet Blood CallSweet Blood Call
Lazy LesterBloodstains On The WallI'm A Lover Not A Fighter
Mary Johnson Death Cell BluesMary Johnson 1929-1936
Bessie SmithSend Me To The 'Lectric ChairThe Complete Recordings
Victoria Spivey Blood Thirsty BluesVictoria Spivey Vol. 1 1926-1927
Bama StackaleeParchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings 1947-1959
Skip James 22-20 BluesComplete Early Recordings
Mississippi John Hurt Got The Blues (Can't Be Satisfied)Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 OKeh Recordings
Charles 'Speck' Petrum Gambler's BluesCharlie ''Specks'' McFadden 1929-1937
Blind Blake Playing Policy BluesAll The Published Sides
Doctor Clayton Roaming GamblerDoctor Clayton And His Buddy 1935-1947
Lucille BoganThey Ain't Walking No MoreBarrelhouse Mamas
Memphis MinnieDown In The AlleyMemphis Minnie Vol. 3 1937
Sara Martin Down At The Razor BallSara Martin Vol. 3 1924-1925
Washboard SamRazor Cuttin' ManWashboard Sam Vol. 1 1935-1936
Blind Willie McTellRazor BallAtlanta Twelve String
Walter Roland45 Pistol BluesWalter Roland Vol. 2 1934-1935
Leroy CarrShinin' PistolWhiskey Is My Habit, Women Is All I Crave
Blind Boy FullerPistol Slapper Blues Remastered 1935-1938
Will Shade She Stabbed Me With An Ice PickMemphis Jug Band Associates & Alternate Takes 1927-1930
Black Boy Shine Ice Pick And Pistol Woman Blues Black Boy Shine & Black Ivory King 1936-1937
Pat HareI'm Gonna Murder My BabySun Records - The Blues Years 1950-1956
Roy BrownButcher PetePay Day Jump: The Later Sessions
Geeshie WileySkinny Legs BluesMississippi Masters
Josie MilesMad Mama BluesJosie Miles Vol. 2 1924-1935
Jazz GillumGonna Be Some ShootingJazz Gillum Vol. 4 1946-1949
Peetie WheatstrawGangster's BluesPeetie Wheatstraw Vol. 7 1940-1941
Georgia Tom & Tampa RedCrow Jane AlleyCome On Mama Do That Dance
Jim Jackson I'm A Bad Bad ManJim Jackson Vol. 1 1927-1928
Blind Willie McTell A To Z BluesThe Classic Years 1927–1940
Bertha IdahoDown On Pennsylvania AvenueFemale Blues Singers Vol. 10
Georgia WhiteI'll Keep Sittin' On It (If I Can't Sell It)Georgia White Vol. 2 1936-1937

Show Notes: 

Victoria Spivey Ad“The blues, contrary to popular conception, are not always concerned with love, razors, dice, and death," Richard Wright wrote in 1941. While that's certainly true, there are in fact a large number of blues songs that do deal with those topics.  Today we feature a wide range of songs about violence and vice. The blues emerged at the turn of the century in the midst of virulent racism and violent repression. Blues musicians of the 1920's and 30's existed in a violent culture where fights were common and it was often common to carry a weapon. In the places where the blues were regularly performed in the early days, the juke joints, there was a considerable amount of violence. Memphis Minnie said that at juke joints she and her husband played they would “have to run at night when they start cutting and shooting.” The south was a virtual apartheid society enforced by "Jim Crow" restrictions, with widespread violence, including lynchings. An increased presence of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920's contributed to an atmosphere of fear. In the South, mobs lynched many blacks for no other reason than their having acted outside the harsh social restrictions of Jim Crow. As writer Gary Buenett wrote: "The blues enabled Southern black to process the oppression they faced, but more than that, to affirm their humanity over against a system that denied that very fact. it enabled them to state the reality of the troubles, powerlessness, dread, and despair, but at the same time assert their essential humanness through expressions of rage, humor, courage, and of course, sexuality."

Today's lurid title is courtesy of Jazz Gillum from his 1949 number "Gonna Be Some Shooting." The song is a cover of Willie "61" Blackwell's 1941 song "Machine Gun Blues" and was modified and refashioned by Sunnyland Slim as "Johnson Machine Gun." Gillum had several songs filled with violent  imagery including "I'm Gonna Take My Rap" ("I'm gonna take my pistol/And cock it in my baby's face/Gonna let some graveyard, baby be your hiding place") and "Can't Trust Myself" ("I'm gonna buy myself a pistol/I'm gonna hang it to my side/I'm going to join the gangsters/People I'm gonna live a reckless life") among others. Gillum was himself a victim of violence. He was murdered in 1966  during a street argument.  Echoing Jazz Gillum, several decades later is the harrowing "Sweet Blood Call" by Louisiana Red:

I have a hard time missing you baby, with my pistol in your mouth
You may be thinking 'bout going north, but your brains are staying south

Today's show is filled with guns, knives, razors and even ice picks. One of the more famous gun songs is Skip James' "22-20 Blues" which may have been inspired by the success of the song “44 blues” recorded by Roosevelt Sykes in 1929 as "Forty- Four Blues" and the following year by Little Brother Montgomery as “Vicksburg Blues.” In 1936 Robert Johnson covered the song as “32-20 Blues.”

You talk about your forty-four-forty, buddy it'll do very well
But my thirty-two-twenty, Lord is a burning hell

Woman were the target of much of the violence as evidenced in numerous other songs including Leroy Carr's "Shinin' Pistol" ("I'm going to get me a shiny pistol with a long shiny barrel/I'm going to ramble this town over until I find my girl") and Blind Boy Fuller's "Pistol Slapper Blues" ("And I feel like snapping my pistol in your face/Let some brownskin woman be here to take your place"). Walter Roland's "45 Pistol Blues", on the other hand, is for protection when he heads down to a part of town that must be very close to the well known Tin Pan Alley or maybe Crow Jane Alley:

I'm going over to Third Alley, Lord but I'm going to carry my .45 (2x)
Because you know ain't many men go there and come back alive
They will shoot you and cut you, Lord they will knock you down
Lord, they will shoot you and cut you, Lord they will knock you down

And you can ask anybody ain't that the baddest place in town
Mens carry .38s, womens carry their razors too (2x)

Alex Moore - Ice Pick bluesRazors, despite Richard Wright's protest, crop up quite a bit in blues. There was Washboard Sam's "Razor Cuttin' Man",  Edith Wilson's "Rules and Regulations 'Signed Razor Jim'", Jazz Gillum's "Long Razor Blues", Perline Ellison's "Razor Totin' Mama", Helen Gross' "Bloody Razor Blues" as well as a school of related songs from the pre-blues era. Around the turn of the century there was the "bully song" or more formally "The Bully of the Town" or "Looking for the Bully." There were several songs published with 'Bully" in the title around this period. Paul Oliver noted that the song "reinforced the stereotypes of the razor-totin', watermelon-suckin', chicken-stealin' 'nigger' of that period." The core of the story is an altercation, usually with a razor, between the bully and a rival with the action usually happening at a dance or ball. In the blues era several songs drawn on these earlier sources including Sara Martin's "Down At The Razor Ball" (1925), Blind Willie McTell's "Razor Ball" (1930) and Washboard Sam's "Down At The Bad Man's Hall" (1941). The most famous related song, however, is the Willie Dixon penned "Wang Dang Doodle" (1960) which draws its inspiration from the Sara Martin number. Another razor song is "A To Z Blues" which has the protagonist literally carving the entire alphabet in the victim's body. The song was recorded by Butterbeans & Susie, Josie Miles, Blind Willie McTell and Charley Jordan under the title "Cutting My ABCs."

Ice picks are not something that immediately comes to mind as a weapon (does anybody gets ice delivered to their home anymore?) but they crop up in several songs: Whistlin' Alex Moore "Ice Pick Blues", Walter 'Cowboy' Washington "Ice Pick Mama" ("Every time I meet Roberta she's got an ice pick in her hand/And all frowned up, an wanna kill some poor, poor man"), Will Shade "She Stabbed Me With An Ice Pick" and Black Boy Shine "Ice Pick And Pistol Woman Blues."

Domestic violence is a common theme in many early blues. That being said, there were no shortage of woman who sang songs that turned the tables on the men. Among those featured today are Mary Johnson's  "Death Cell Blues" ("I killed my man last year, lord, the man I really love/He did not treat me right, now he's with the good lord above"), Victoria Spivey's "Blood Thirsty Blues" and Bessie Smith's "Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair":


Judge you wanna hear my plea
Before you open up your court
But I don't want no sympathy
'Cause I'm done, cut my good man's throat

Spivey had several lurid titles including “Blood Thirsty Blues”, “Murder in the First Degree” and “Blood Hound Blues.” Okeh Records  ran a a striking newspaper advertisement for "Bloodthirsty Blues."  The ad is laid out like an authentic news report with graphic illustration and eye-catching titles such as “I Have Killed my Man”, “Never Seen So Much Blood” and “Bloodthirsty Woman Confesses!” The lyrics are equally sensational:

Blood, blood, blood look at all that blood
Blood, blood look at all that blood
Yes I killed my man
A lowdown good for nothing cuss
I told him blood was in my eyes
And still he wouldn’t listen to me

Bill Gaither used similar imagery in his "Bloody Eyed Woman" cut more than a decade later. Spivey didn't have the market corned on that kind of imagery as evidenced in Geeshie Wiley's "Skinny Leg Blues":

I’m gonna cut your throat babe, gonna look down in your face (2x)
Aaaaaaaaa, gonna look down in your face
I’m gonna let some lonesome graveyard be your restin’ place

Josie Miles had an apocalyptic vision in "Mad Mama Blues" from 1924:

Wanna set the world on fire
That is my one mad desire
I’m a devil in disguise
Got murder in my eyes

Now I could see blood runnin’
T
hrough the streets (2x)
Could be everybody
L
ayin’ dead right at my feet

As Angela Y. Davis wrote: "The performance of the classic blues women-especially Bessie Smith-were one of the few cultural spaces in which a tradition of public discourse on male violence had been previously established. …The blues women of the 1920s…fail to respect the taboo of speaking on speaking publicly about domestic violence …Women's blues suggest emergent feminist insurgency in that they unabashedly name the problem of male violence and so usher it out of the shadows of domestic life where society had kept it hidden and beyond public or political scrutiny." Daphne Duval Harrison has noted that women's blues in the 1920s "introduced a new, different model of black women-more assertive, sexy, sexually aware, independent, realistic, complex, alive. …They saw a world that did not protect the sanctity of black womanhood, as espoused in the bourgeois ideology; only white white or middle or upper-class women were protected by it. They saw and experienced injustice as jobs they held were snatched away when white women refused to work with them or white men returned from war to reclaim them. They pointed out the pain of sexual and physical abuse and abandonment."

OthBlind Willie McTell - Razor Baller vices covered today include prostitution and gambling. The most well known prostitution song is probably "Tricks Ain't Walking No More." The song is a prostitute’s lament due to a dwindling supply of customers or "tricks." Lucille Bogan recorded this song three times during 1930 including today's version "They Ain't Walking No More." Curley Weaver, Buddy Moss, Kid Coley and Memphis Minnie, among others, recorded versions of the song. Othe songs sharing this theme include Memphis Minnie's "Down In Alley" ("Met a man, asked me did I want to pally/Yes, baby, let's go down in the alley"), Georgia White's " I'll Keep Sittin' On It (If I Can't Sell It)" and Bertha Idaho's "Down On Pennsylvania Avenue" about Baltimore’s seedy side where you "can’t tell the he’s from the she’s."

Now if you want good lovin’, and want it cheap
Just drop around about the middle of the week
When the broads is broke and can’t pay rent
Get good lovin’ boys for fifteen cents
You can get it every night on Pennsylvania Avenue

Gambling features in numerous songs with quite a few dealing with playing policy. Policy is an illegal numbers game that was hugely popular at the end of the nineteenth and in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Basically you'd pick three numbers and hope they hit. The name comes from the practice of allowing bettors to make an “insurance policy” bet on tomorrow's numbers to offset potential losses, a gambler could make a policy bet that his ticket would come up blank insuring he would get something back on a losing ticket. Eventually the entire game came to be called policy. "Numbers, numbers 'bout to drive me mad/Thinkin' about the money that I should have had" sings Blind Blake on "Playing Policy Blues."

While we don't touch on it much today, the blues has a number of "bad man" ballads about violent men and outlaws like John Henry, Railroad Bill, Frankie and  Stagolee. Recorded in Parchman Farm in 1959, we hear Bama sing "Stackalee." The song about the murder of Billy Lyons by "Stag" Lee Shelton in St. Louis, Missouri at Christmas, 1895. The song was first published in 1911, and was first recorded in 1923. Long Cleve Reed and Harvey Hull recorded "Original Stack O'Lee Blues" in 1927, Furry Lewis cut "Billy Lyons And Stack O'Lee" the same year and Mississippi John Hurt recorded a version in 1928.

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