Topical Blues

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’
hrough the streets (2x)
Could be everybody
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.

Champion Jack DupreeJunker Blues Cabbage Greens
Lil GreenKnockin' Myself Out Why Don't You Do Right? 1940-1942
Luke Jordan Cocaine Blues The Songster Tradition
Charley Jordan Just A Spoonful St. Louis Town 1929-1933
Memphis Jug Band Cocaine Habit BluesBest Of
Leadbelly Take A Whiff On Me Important Recordings 1934-1949
Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon Don't Drink It In Here How Low Can You Go: Anthology Of The String Bass
Doctor Clayton Ain't Gonna Drink No MoreDoctor Clayton & His Buddies 1946 & 1947
Clarence Williams Jerry The JunkerClarence Williams 1934
Harlem Hamfats Weed Smoker's Dream Harlem Hamfats Vol. 1 1936
Jo Jo Adams When I'm In My Tea Jo-Jo Adams 1946-1953
Buster BennettReefer Head WomanBuster Bennett 1945-1947
Cee Pee Johnson and His Band The G Man Got The T Man West Coast Jive
Josie Miles Pipe Dream Blues Gennett Jazz
Victoria Spivey Dope Head Blues Blues Images Vol. 4
Memphis Willie B.The Stuff Is Here Introducing Memphis Willie B
Carl MartinIf You're A ViperMartin, Bogan & Armstrong
Papa Charlie Jackson All I Want is a SpoonfulPapa Charlie Jackson Vol. 1 1924-26
Charlie Patton Spoonful Blues Images Vol. 12
Jazz Gillum Reefer Head Woman Roll Dem Bones 1938-1949
Curtis Jones Reefer Hound Blues Curtis Jones Vol. 2 1938-1939
Bumble Bee Slim Bricks In My PillowBumble Bee Slim Vol. 3 1934-1935
Doctor Clayton I Got To Find My Baby Doctor Clayton 1935-1942
Washboard Sam Bucket's Got a Hole in ItWhen The Sun Goes Down
Blue Lu Barker's Don't Make Me High Blu Lu Barker 1938-1939
Trixie SmithJack, I'm Mellow Trixie Smith Vol. 2 1925-1929
Leroy Carr Straight Alky Blues, Pt. 1Whiskey Is My Habit, Women Is All I Crave
Walter DavisSloppy Drunk Again Favorite Country Blues Guitar-Piano Duets 1929-1937
Kokomo Arnold I Can't Get Enough Of That Stuff Kokomo Arnold Vol. 2 1935-1936
Rev. Gary Davis Cocaine BluesBlues & Ragtime
Mance LipscombCocaine Done Killed My Baby Texas Songster Vol. 2
John Lee Hooker Whiskey and WimmenThe Vee-Jay Years Vol. 3
Tiny Grimes & JB SummersDrinking Beer House Party

Show Notes: 

Chicago Defender Ad, December 6, 1930

Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and other drugs pop up frequently as the subject of many blues. By far the subject of drinking comes up far more than any of the other topics with hundred upon hundreds of songs all facets of drinking. On our first two shows we spotlighted songs about booze, this time we broaden our reach, featuring songs about other illicit substances. While the topic of drugs shows up in some of the early recorded blues it seems to more associated with jazz, particularly songs about marijuana. The word dope came around during the 19th century opium craze. But by 1927, when Victoria Spivey recorded "Dope Head Blues" the term could apply to all kinds of drugs.

Today we survey a wide variety blues songs about drugs and drinking, the majority from the pre-war era. Many of today's songs were recorded between 1920 and 1933, the era of Prohibition and tightened restrictions on marijuana use, which didn't seem to have any effect on those trying to find those substances. Increased restrictions and labeling of marijuana began in many states from 1906 onward, and outright prohibitions began in the 1920's and by the mid-1930's it was regulated as a drug in every state. Local laws prohibiting cocaine appeared before the drug was banned outright in 1922. Just sixteen days after the Volstead act made Prohibition the law of the land federal agents made their first raid on a speakeasy in Chicago. By the middle of the 1920's bootlegging became a two billion a year industry in which half a million people were employed. Prohibition became the topic of songs and in 1919, even before the law came into effect, vaudeville tenor Irving Kauffman sang "Prohibition drives me insane" in the "Alcoholic Blues." More than any other music, the pleasures and pains of booze were a common topic in blues songs. Drinking was tied to blues culture with the blues thriving places known for drinking like brothels, lumber camps and juke joints.

Today's title comes from Washboard Sam's "Bucket's Got a Hole in It" recorded in 1938. The song is widely attributed to Clarence Williams, who obtained a copyright in 1933. The original melody evolved from the second theme of "Long Lost Blues" published in 1914. The "Long Lost Blues" theme was a variation of "Bucket's Got a Hole in It", a motif that appears in several versions of "Keep A-Knockin." This tune later became the basis for several versions of the song, "You Can't Come In" recorded by multiple artists. However, "Bucket's Got a Hole in It" has also been attributed to Buddy Bolden, which would date it before 1906. Hank Williams had a hit for MGM when his version reached #4 on the country chart in 1949 and Ricky Nelsom cut a tame version of the song in 1958. Washboard Sam's version had lyrics that don't appear in other versions (except for Lil Johnson who did an identical song the prior year):

Gonna start a new racket
Gonna start it out right
Gonna sell moonshine in the day
An peddle dope at night

In 1885 the U.S. manufacturer Parke-Davis sold cocaine in various forms, including cigarettes, powder, and even a cocaine mixture that could be injected directly into the user's veins with the included needle. The company promised that its cocaine products would "supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and render the sufferer insensitive to pain." Stevedores along the Mississippi River used the drug as a stimulant, and white employers encouraged its use by black laborers. In early 20th-century Memphis, Tennessee, cocaine was sold in neighborhood drugstores on Beale Street, costing five or ten cents for a small boxful. The Memphis Jug Band's “Cocaine Blues”, featured today, dates from the turn of the century (also known as "Take A Whiff on Me"), when cocaine was both legal and endemic in Memphis, with Lehman's Drugstore on Union the main source as Hattie Hart sings:

Went to Mr Lehman's in a lope
Saw a sign on the window said no more dope
Hey, hey, honey take a whiff on me

Champion Jack Dupree - Junker BluesLuke Jordan cut "Cocaine Blues" ("I’m simply wild about my good cocaine") in 1929 which was covered by Dick Justice almost note for note  two years later. Rev. Gary Davis recorded a version much later that he says he learnt in 1905, his version introduced the “there’s cocaine all around my brain” lyric. Other cocaine related songs featured today include Leadbelly's "Take A Whiff On Me" plus songs by Charlie Patton and Papa Charlie Jackson. Patton recorded "Spoonful" for Paramount in 1929 which is related to "All I Want Is A Spoonful" by Papa Charlie Jackson from 1925 and "Cocaine Blues" by Luke Jordan. Charley Jordan cut "Just A Spoonful" in 1930. The lyrics relate men's sometimes violent search to satisfy their cravings, with "a spoonful" used mostly as a metaphor for pleasures, which have been interpreted as sex, love, or drugs. "Spoonful" is also the title of a Willie Dixon number first recorded in 1960 by Howlin' Wolf and related to the early versions.

 Cocaine is also referenced in Champion Jack Dupree's famous "Junker Blues" along with other substances. "Junker Blues" was first recorded in 1940 by  Dupree. It formed the basis of several later songs including "The Fat Man" by Fats Domino. The song also served as a template for the classic New Orleans number "Junco Partner."Dupree also sang about drugs on songs like "Weed Head Woman" and "Can't Kick The Habit."

They call, they call me a junker
Cause I'm loaded all the time
I don't use no reefer, I'll be knocked out with that angel wine

Six months, Six months ain't no sentence
And one year ain't no time
They got boys in penitentiary doing from nine to ninety-nine

I was standing, I was standing on the corner
With my reefers in my hand
Up stepped the sergeant took my reefers out of my hand

My brother, my brother used a needle
and my sister sniffed cocaine
I don't use no junk, I'm the nicest boy you ever seen

My mother, my mother she told me
and my father told me too
That that junk is a bad habit, why don't you leave it too?

My sister she even told me
And my grandma told me too
That using junk partner was going to be the death of you

Songs about "reefer" show up in many blues songs but the term seem more associated to jazz. In 1938 Jazz Gillum cut "Reefer Head Woman" ("Mens, please don't take her around/ She will get full of reefers, and raise sand all over this town") and Curtis Jones" waxed "Reefer Hound Blues" ("I'm high off of my reefer, I'm nothing but a reefer hound") while The Harlem Hamfats cut "Weed Smoker's Dream" in 1936. At some point another set of lyrics was attached to the melody that The Harlem Hamfats had recorded as "Weed Smoker's Dream" and fashioned into "Why Don't You Do Right?" Lil Green was the first to recortd the song under that title in 1941. One of the best-known versions of the song, Peggy Lee's, was recorded in 1942, in New York with Benny Goodman which sold over 1 million copies. Speaking of Lil Green, we spin her "Knockin' Myself Out" her 1941 ode to self medication:

Listen girls and boys I got one stick
Give me a match and let me take a whiff quick
I'm gonna knock myself out, I'm gonna kill myself
I'm gonna knock myself out, gradually by degrees

Other reefer related songs played today include Memphis Willie B's "The Stuff Is Here" and Carl Martin's "If You're A Viper." Back in 1936 Martin also cut the drug themed "That New Kind Of Stuff." "The Stuff Is Here And It's Mellow” was recorded by Clarence Williams in 1934 and the following year with lyrics by Cleo Brown. "If You're a Viper" is a jazz song composed by Stuff Smith and recorded by Smith and his Onyx Club Boys in 1936. The song was a hit for Smith and is one of the most frequently covered songs about marijuana. "Viper" was Harlem slang for a pot smoker. From the 1940's we spin Doctor Clayton's "I Gotta Find My Baby ("When my head starts to aching, I grab my hat and go/Cause cocaine and reefers can't reach my case no more") and "When I'm In My Tea" recorded in 1946 by Jo Jo Adams.

Memphis SlimBeer Drinking WomanBoogie After Midnight
Roosevelt SykesTrouble and WhiskeyThe Essential
Charlie SpandRock and RyeBooze & The Blues
Smoky BabeBad WhiskeyLouisiana Country Blues
Lil' Son JacksonBad Whiskey, Bad WomanDown Home Blues Classics: Texas
Sloppy HenryCanned Heat BluesAtlanta Blues
Big Bill BroonzyWhen I Been DrinkingBooze & The Blues
Blind Well McTellBell Street BluesThe Classic Years 1927-1940
Bo CarterLet's Get Drunk AgainThe Essential
Blind BlakeFighting The JugAll The Published Sides
Elder James BeckWine Head Willie Put that Bottle DownElder Charles Beck 1946-1947
Howlin' WolfDrinkin' C.V. WineMemphis Days Vol. 1
Roy Hawkins Wine Drinkin' WomanThe Thrill Is Gone
Papa George Lightfoot Wine, Women, WhiskeyRural Blues
James TisdomWinehead SwingTexas Down Home Blues 1948-1952
Bessie SmithMoonshine BluesThe Complete Recordings
Lucille BoganWhiskey Sellin' WomanLucille Bogan Vol.1 1923-1930
Harlem HamfatsLet's Get Drunk and TruckHarlem Hamfats Vol. 1 1936
State Street SwingersYou Drink Too MuchBooze & The Blues
Blind John DavisBooze Drinking BennyBlind John Davis 1938-1952
Sleepy John EstesDiving Duck BluesI Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More
Black AceWhiskey and WomenTexas Slide Guitars: Oscar "Buddy" Woods & Black Ace 1930-1938
Yank RachelHaven't Seen No WhiskeyYank Rachel ?Vol. 2 1938-41
Gene PhilipsStinkin' DrunkDrinkin' & Stinkin'
Boogie Bill WebbDrinkin' And Stinkin'Roosevelt Holts And Friends
Tommy JohnsonAlcohol and Jake Blues Blues Images Vol. 6
Skip JamesDrunken SpreeBlues Images Vol. 2
Robert JohnsonDrunken Hearted Man The Centennial Collection
Champion Jack Dupree You've Been DrunkEarly Cuts
Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson When I Get DrunkThe Mercury Blues & Rhythm Story
Bill Gaither Moonshine By The KegBooze & the Blues
Peetie Wheatstraw Good Whiskey Blues Booze & the Blues
Leroy Carr Hustler's Blues Whiskey Is My Habit, Women Is All I Crave

Show Notes:

Sloppy Henry - Canned Heat BluesAlcohol, marijuana, cocaine and other drugs pop up frequently as the subject of many blues. By far the subject of drinking comes up more than any of the other topics with hundred upon hundreds of songs written on all facets of drinking. Today we survey a wide variety blues songs about drinking, the majority from the pre-war era. Many of today's songs were recorded between 1920 and 1933, the era of Prohibition, which didn't seem to have any effect on those trying to find booze. Just sixteen days after the Volstead act made Prohibition the law of the land federal agents made their first raid on a speakeasy in Chicago. By the middle of the 1920's bootlegging became a two billion a year industry in which half a million people were employed. Prohibition became the topic of songs and in 1919, even before the law came into effect, vaudeville tenor Irving Kauffman sang "Prohibition drives me insane" in the "Alcoholic Blues." More than any other music, the pleasures and pains of booze were a common topic in blues songs. Drinking was tied to blues culture with the blues thriving in places known for drinking like brothels, lumber camps and juke joints.

Today's show title comes from Leroy Carr's number "Hustler's Blues" ("Whiskey is my habit, good woman is all I crave/And I don't believe them two things will carry me to my grave"). Between 1928 and 1935 Leroy Carr and his partner Scrapper Blackwell laid down a remarkably consistent body of work of hundreds of sides notable for the impeccable guitar/piano interplay. Carr sang numerous songs about booze including "Sloppy Drunk" which we featured last week, "Hard Times Done Drove Me To Drink", "Corn Licker Blues", "Papa Wants to Knock a Jug", and the prophetic "Straight Alky Blues Pt. 1-3" ('This alcohol is killing me/The doctor said if I don't quit it in a lonely graveyard I will be"). By the time of their final session together in February 1935, Carr's drinking was said to have made him practically unmanageable. He he sunk deeper and deeper into alcoholism which eventually cut his life short; he died in April 1935 just after his 30th birthday.

In the previous show we played Lonnie Johnson's "Drunk Again" in which he sings "People says drinkin' can help them, but drinkin' don't mean a thing/When you think you've drinked away your worries, and you find your fool self drunk again." In a similar sentiment we have Sloppy Henry's "Canned Heat Blues", Blind Willie McTell's "Bell Street Blues", Blind Blake's "Fighting The Jug" and the State Street Swingers "You Drink Too Much." Henry and McTelll echo similar complaints: Henry sings "Canned heat whiskey make you sleep all in your clothes, lay down in your clothes" while McTell sings that "This Bell Street whiskey, make you sleep all in your clothes." Blind Blake's "Fighting The Jug" has a sense of hopeless inevitability as he sings:

I can't sleep and I can't eat (2x)
The woman I love has drive me to drink

I'm deep in a hole somebody else has dug (2x)
Getting sick and tired of fighting that jug

From accounts of his life, Tommy Johnson faced a constant struggle with alcoholism which is reflected in his "Canned Heat Blues", featured last week, and his harrowing "Alcohol and Jake Blues" from 1929:

I drink so much of Jake, till it done give me the limber leg
(spoken: And that's sure to mess you up)
Drinking so much of Jake, till it done give me the limber leg
(spoken: Sure messes you up, boy, [there's no cure for] that)
If I don't quit drinking it every morning, sure gonna kill me dead (spoken: You ain't no lying man)

Black Ace - Whiskey and WomenWhen prohibition was on, people still needed a drink. Sometimes you could get bootleg alcohol, but sometimes you had to improvise from what you could get legally. There are quite a few prohibition-era songs about alcohol substitutes. One was Jamaica Ginger extract, known by the slang name "Jake," which was a late 19th-century patent medicine that provided a convenient way to bypass Prohibition laws, since it contained between 70-80% ethanol by weight. In 1930, large numbers of Jake users began to lose the use of their hands and feet. Some victims could walk, but they had no control over the muscles which would normally have enabled them to point their toes upward. Therefore, they would raise their feet high with the toes flopping downward, which would touch the pavement first followed by their heels. The toe first, heel second pattern made a distinctive “tap-click, tap-click" sound as they walked. This very peculiar gait became known as the jake walk and those afflicted were said to have jake leg, jake foot, or jake paralysis. The term "Jake" and "Canned Heat" turn up in other songs such as Will Shade's "Better Leave That Stuff Alone and  the Mississippi Sheiks' "Jake Leg Blues."Another alternative was Moonshine, the subject of numerous blues songs including Bessie Smith's "Moonshine Blues" from 1924 and Bill Gaither's "Moonshine By The Keg" featured today.

Back in the 1930's Elder Beck railed against booze in his song "Drinking Shine" and was back at in in the 1953 number "Wine Head Willie Put that Bottle Down" a novelty sketch that takes “Open the Door Richard” as its inspiration, pitting a minister against wayward sinner. Beck recorded some 60 recordings for a number of labels spanning the 1930's through the 1950's. In the pre-war era he recorded in 1930, 1937 and 1939. After the Second World War, with the rise of independent record labels, Elder Beck really hit his stride and between 1946 and 1956 he recorded for Eagle, Gotham, King, Chart and possibly other small labels. His final recording was a full-length live LP, Urban Holiness Service, made in December 1957 for Folkways.

Eleder Beck - Wine Head Willie Put That Bottle DownThere's no shortage of songs about whiskey, which seem to be the drink of choice when available although wine seems to be pretty popular as well. Peetie Wheatstraw's "Good Whiskey Blues" from 1935  is one of the few songs that mentions the repeal of the Prohibition act (in later years James Brewer revived the song as "I'm So Glad Good Whiskey's Back"). Other songs on the topic include Yank Rachel's "Haven't Seen No Whiskey", Sleepy John Estes' "Diving Duck Blues" ("Now if the river was whiskey, I was a divin' duck/I would dive on the bottom, never would come up"), Black Ace's "Women and Whiskey", Lucille Bogan's "Whiskey Sellin' Woman", Papa George Lightfoot's "Wine, Women, Whiskey", Lil Son Jackson's "Bad Whiskey Bad Women" ("It's bad whiskey and bad women, oh man, 'bout to take me down/I wake up in the mornin' and I feel like a country clown"), Smoky Babe's "Bad Whiskey" and Roosevelt Sykes' "Trouble and Whiskey." Sticks McGhee McGhee had a smash with "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" in 1949 which James Tisdom covers on "Winehead Swing" from 1950 while Howlin' Wolf sings about "Drinkin' C.V. Wine" and Roy Hawkins sings about his "Wine Drinkin' Woman."

Ma Rainey Booze and BluesMother of The Blues
Charlie Patton Tom Rushen BluesBlues Images Vol. 8
Mississippi SheiksBootlegger's BluesThe Best Of The Mississippi Sheiks
Willie Lofton Beer Garden BluesBlues Images Vol. 12
Pine Top Smith I'm Sober Now Shake Your Wicked Knees
Leroy CarrSloppy DrunkWhiskey Is My Habit, Women Is All I Crave
Big Bill Broonzy Good Liquor Gonna Carry Me DownMy Rough And Rowdy Ways Vol. 2
Casey Bill Weldon Give Me Another ShotCasey Bill Weldon Vol. 3 1937-1938
Washboard SamNo. 1 DrunkardWashboard Sam Vol. 7 1942-1949
Tommy McClennan Whiskey Headed WomanBluebird Recordings 1939-1942
Wynonie HarrisQuiet WhiskeyLovin' Machine
Lonnie "The Cat" I Ain't DrunkRhythm Rockin' Blues
Gabriel Brown I've Got to Stop Drinkin'Shake That Thing
Lonnie JohnsonDrunk AgainLonnie Johnson -1947-1948
Sonny Boy Williamson IWhiskey Headed BluesThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol.1
Sunnyland SlimEvery Time I Get to Drinkin’Sunnyland Slim 1949-1951
Forest City JoeDrink On Little GirlSounds Of The South
Rev. W.M. MosleyDrinking ShineRev. W.M. Mosley 1926-1931
Rev. Anderson JohnsonGod Don't Like ItGet Right With God: Hot Gospel 1947-1953
Bessie Smith Me and My GinThe Complete Recordings
Elizabeth Washington Whiskey BluesThe Sparks Brothers 1932-1935
Memphis MinnieDrunken Barrel House BluesMemphis Jamboree 1927-1936
Lillian MillerDead Drunk BluesI Can't Be Satisfied Vol. 1
Junior Parker Sittin', Drinkin,' Thinkin'The Duke Recordings Vol. 1
Amos Milburn Thinking And DrinkinThe R&B Hits of 1952
Peetie Wheatsraw Drinking Man BluesPeetie Wheatstraw Vol. 3 1935-1936
Tommy JohnsonCanned heat BluesWhen The Sun Goes Down
Bukka WhiteGood Gin Blues The Complete Bukka White
Lucille Bogan Drinkin' BluesThe Essential
Big Three Trio & Rosetta HowardWhen I Been Drinking Rosetta Howard 1939-1947
Merline JohnsonBad Whiskey BluesOKeh Chicago Blues
Tony HollisWine O WomanChicago Blues Vol. 1 1939-1951
Joseph 'Chinaman' Johnson and GroupDrinkin' That WineOld Rattler Can't Hold Me: Texas Prison Songs Vol. 2

Show Notes:

Booze and the BluesAlcohol, marijuana, cocaine and other drugs pop up frequently as the subject of many blues. By far the subject of drinking comes up more than any of the other topics with hundred upon hundreds of songs written on all facets of drinking. Today we survey a wide variety blues songs about drinking, the majority from the pre-war era. Many of today's songs were recorded between 1920 and 1933, the era of Prohibition, which didn't seem to have any effect on those trying to find booze. Just sixteen days after the Volstead act made Prohibition the law of the land federal agents made their first raid on a speakeasy in Chicago. By the middle of the 1920's bootlegging became a two billion a year industry in which half a million people were employed. Prohibition became the topic of songs and in 1919, even before the law came into effect, vaudeville tenor Irving Kauffman sang "Prohibition drives me insane" in the "Alcoholic Blues." More than any other music, the pleasures and pains of booze were a common topic in blues songs. Drinking was tied to blues culture with the blues thriving in places known for drinking like brothels, lumber camps and juke joints.

Today's show title comes from Charlie Patton's 1929 number "Tom Rushen Blues" ("It takes boozy booze, lord, to carry me through/But each day seem like years in the jailhouse when there is no booze") which is modeled after Ma Rainey's “Booze and Blues” from 1924. An apparent arrest for drunkenness led Patton to write this number about the recently-installed high sheriff of Merigold, O.T. Rushing, who had assumed office in 1928 and would hold that position for the next four years.

Both Tommy Johnson's "Canned Heat Blues" and the Mississippi Sheiks' "Bootlegger's Blues" were recorded during Prohibition and deal with two different ways to get booze in this dry time. In 1928 Johnson made his first recordings for Victor Records which included "Canned Heat Blues."Canned heat was a term for the cans of sterno or other portable heating fuels. People drink it, usually strained through a sock or some kind of cloth. It will get you drunk and also maybe kill you or cause you to go blind. The song features the refrain "canned heat, mama, sure, Lord, killing me." The blues group Canned Heat took their name from this song. Bootlegging was a risky business as the Sheiks make clear:

Ever since that state went dry
The bootleggers have to stand shy
They gonna keep out the way of the sheriff if they can

There were  plenty of good time songs about drinking including several featured today like Willie Lofton's jaunty "Beer Garden Blues", Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Half Pint of Whiskey" and Wynonie Harris' "Quiet Whiskey." On the flip side were songs more acutely aware of the perils of drinking like Gabriel Brown's " I've Got to Stop Drinkin'" ("I'm gonna stop drinkin' to make myself again"), Tommy McClennan's "Whiskey Headed Woman" ( "She's a whiskey headed woman and she stays drunk all the time/Baby, and if you don't stop drinking I believe gonna lose yo' mind") and Peetie Wheatstraw's"Drinking Man Blues" from 1936:

I been drinking that stuff, and it went to my head (2x)
It made me hit the baby in the cradle, ooh well, well, and kill my papa dead

It made me hit the policeman and knock him off his feet (2x)
Taken his pistol and his star, ooh well, well, and walking up and down his beat

While Peetie's tale may be a bit fanciful (I hope),  his sometime partner Lonnie Johnson penned "Drunk Again" in 1947 a song that has an insightful, realistic approach to alcohol:

I've been drinkin' all night long, I've started again today (2x)
I'm just tryin' my best, to drink these blues away

People says drinkin' can help them, but drinkin' don't mean a thing (2x)
When you think you've drinked away your worries, and you find your fool self drunk again

Friends, I drink to keep from worryin', and I smile just to keep from cryin' (2x)
I try to cover my troubles, so the public don't know what 's on my mind

My brains is so cloudy, the world seems upside down (2x)
Yes, I would feel so much better, if was no liquor around

Love has caused so many men to drink and gamble, and stay out all night long (2x)
Love will drive a man into places, friends, where he don't belong

Willie Lofton - Beer Garden BluesSeveral of today's' singers are acutely aware of the ill effects of booze but seemingly powerless against it's grip such as Big Bill Broonzy's "Good Liquor Gonna Carry Me Down", Washboard Sam's "No. 1 Drunkard" ("I'm a number one drunkard and I don't care who knows"), Lucille Bogan's "Drinkin' Blues" ("Blues has got me drinkin', trouble's got me thinkin', and it's goin' to carry me to my grave") and Merline Johnson's" Bad Whiskey Blues", the latter which appear to be autobiographical. Johnson was one of the most prolific female artists of the 30's, with 70 issued sides, the bulk of her recordings were made between 1937 and 1940 with a last, unissued session, in 1947. Blind John Davis said of her: "…Big Bill would have to take her home so his wife could watch her so she wouldn’t go and get drunk. But when she hit that microphone, though, boy, she was on her way." Despite the efforts of her family in Milwaukee to keep her under control, John says, "She’d get to thinkin’ about Chicago, they’d wake up the next morning and Merline'd be in Chicago. She used to call me up and just cuss and laugh. "…She didn’t like good whiskey," Davis laughs. "You could go out there in Jewtown and get moonshine and still hear it foamin’ in the glass. It was still fermenting. She was crazy about it. But she was a nice person."

If you were looking to find someone to rail against the evils of booze you would have to turn to the preachers. They recorded prolifically in the 1920's and 30's dealing with all manner of social ills in their recorded sermons including drinking. We spin Rev. W.M. Mosley's "Drinking Shine" from 1927 which was widely recorded under several titles including "God Don't Like it." Rev. Mosley was an Atlanta minister whose recording career started in 1926 and lasted through 1931. From 1953 we hear Rev. Anderson's "God Don't Like It."  Anderson cut some blistering sides in the 1950's for labels such as Glory and DeLuxe. Elder Charlie Beck recorded his version of "Drinking Shine" in 1930 and also the colorful "Wine Head Willie Put That Bottle Down" in 1953 which we will spin in part two.


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