McDowell County, WV, Pocahontas, VA, and Thurmond, WV.
I’ve seen statuses in my Facebook feed this week from people in the blues community aimed at musicians, telling them not to speak about politics because it could alienate their fans. But…it’s blues. It’s inherently tied to political and social issues, and many songs are explicitly political. Here are just a few examples.
1937: Leadbelly- The Bourgeois Blues
1939: Unidentified Prisoners in Florida’s Raiford Penitentiary- We Don’t Have No Pay Day Here
1940 & 1941: Josh White’s albums Chain Gang and Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues are both political. Here’s Uncle Sam Says.
1943: Buster Brown- War Song
1946: Big Bill Broonzy wrote this tune, and his version of it was released in the 1950s- Black, Brown, and White
1962: Louisiana Red- Ride On Red, Ride On
1965: J.B. Lenoir has political songs for days. Here’s Alabama Blues.
1970: Floyd Jones performs Stockyard Blues, originally recorded in 1948.
Modern blues artists Michael Hill and Eric Bibb both have a number of songs about contemporary political and social issues.
And here’s a little 1973 soul gem from The Honeydrippers.
And if you want more radical political soul music, look into Swamp Dogg.
I’ve recently read some fantastic literature on blues that nuances the dominant narratives, tropes, and sounds. If you’re into that, check out…
- Southern Soul-Blues by David Whiteis (2013, U of IL Press)
- Whiteis puts oft-derided and ignored soul-blues music on the same level as more prominent blues (sub)genres by exploring its past and present contexts, sounds, and major players.
Soul-blues “is every bit as rooted in the vernacular heritage as the music (or, more accurately, the musics) commonly labeled as blues. It represents, in fact, a revitalized attempt to adapt this diverse heritage to modern popular black culture and, thus—ironically, considering the ‘inauthenticity’ charge—updates the ‘blues’ aesthetic to appeal to the evolving tastes of contemporary African American audiences. Like earlier blues, soul-blues is both a popular music and a living vernacular art form. This dual identity, rather than compromising ‘authenticity,’ is precisely what exemplifies it as both a continuation and a reimagining of what’s often called the blues tradition” (5).
- Staging The Blues: From Tent Shows to Tourism by Paige A. McGinley (2014, Duke U Press)
This book “contests historiographical narratives that position the female singers of the ‘classic’ blues as either derivative or debauched imitators, on the one hand, or manipulated victims of the culture industry, on the other” (23).
- Pioneers of the Blues Revival by Steve Cushing (2014, U of IL Press)
- This book features interviews Blues Before Sunrise host Cushing conducted with 17 men who played a large part in the blues revival of the 1950s and 1960s, like Dick Waterman, Paul Oliver, and David Evans. Their opinions, reflections, and anecdotes are fascinating and enlightening in more ways than I can explain. (Also there’s some Magic Sam stories!)
If you don’t feel like reading, there’s always moving pictures to explore…
- I recently got hip to Robert Mugge, and his unreleased film A Night At Club Ebony (2006) is available online. (More of his work is on Amazon.)
- Rural Blues is a quasi-cinéma vérité documentary of Ko de Korte and Tom Haarsma’s 1989 trip to record Mississippi bluesmen.
- I’m late to the game on this one, but maybe you are, too: You See Me Laughin’: The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen (Mandy Stein, 2002) is a gem, and features R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, CeDell Davis, T-Model Ford, and many more musicians, as well as insights from the Fat Possum guys.
Here’s a selection of recordings about spending Christmas behind bars.
This mid-1920s sermon is by Rev. J.M. Gates, a hugely popular pre-war gospel recording artist from Georgia.
Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell left us this smooth song in 1929.
L.A.-based vocal group The Youngsters tell us how to avoid spending Christmas in jail in this 1956 Empire recording.
Last, John Prine in 2000 gives us a ballad from the imagined inside of prison.
I like Christmas music, both classics and oddities. Last week, I went on a Christmas music binge and unearthed some gems. A few blues selections are below! If you want more, I’ve been sharing several (blues, jazz, outsider, rock ‘n roll, country, hillbilly, and exotica) Christmas tunes per day on my Facebook page, marked with #Christmasmusicology.
I found out about Reverend Edward W. Clayborn from Dixon and Godrich’s Recording the Blues, a slim history of early blues and gospel records, recording sessions, and labels. Clayborn’s thin, spring-loaded slide and “Jesus is the reason for the season” message are somehow simultaneously incongruent and totally complimentary. (Document Records did a compilation and booklet on Clayborn, if you need more.)
“Sonny Boy’s Christmas” is a post-war-blues-era Christmas record that doesn’t feel like a novelty, a rushed studio afterthought, or a throwaway. It’s peak Sonny Boy (II), in top form on Trumpet Records in 1951.
Non-Christmas fun fact: Lillian McMurry, owner of Trumpet Records, was in debt to Plastic Products, Inc., Buster Williams’s indie record pressing plant in Memphis. McMurry gave Williams Sonny Boy’s contract in 1954 in exchange for some debt relief and, since Williams also pressed for Chess Records, he sold Sonny Boy’s contract to Leonard and Phil Chess.
Here’s a fun, modern blues Christmas tune by the amazing Denise LaSalle, who recorded for Chess, Westbound (in Detroit, with whom she scored a gold record), ABC (in Memphis), and Malaco (in Jackson, MS).
One more. This ain’t blues, but it sure is good. I was surprised an Alex Chilton Christmas recording is out there, so I feel like it’s my job to signal boost it. Lucky for us that we’re alive in a world where it exists. Merry Christmas, y’all.
I present exhibit A: Hey Mama, a song by French DJ David Guetta with Nicki Minaj, music producer Afrojack, and singer Bebe Rexha. 2015.
I present exhibit B: Rosie, C.B. Cook & Axe Gang, recorded by Alax Lomax. 1947.
“C.B. Cook & Axe Gang” is a group of prison laborers. Lomax traveled to Parchman Farm several times to capture their work songs, coaxing more palatable versions out of the men through multiple recordings (the various takes are available here). The prisoners were not compensated for their singing. Hell, they were not even credited by name, except C.B. Cook, and it is not clear who he is (I assume the lead singer, but… who is he?!). In an irrefutably uncomfortable move, Alan and his father are even credited as the songwriters of Rosie. (See below for publishing/songwriting credits.)
Alan Lomax’s archive of music is overseen by the Association for Cultural Equity. As far as I can figure, this charitable organization has to approve a sample, as does the publisher, Ludlow Music Inc., which is now part of TRO, one of the world’s largest publishing organizations. According to their website, the ACE works to “preserve the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement.” They do this through “preservation, publication, and repatriation of our materials,” making many recordings available for free online, spearheading repatriation projects, and facilitating licensing agreements that benefit royalty recipients.
Does having the voices of prisoners in Hey Mama preserve any tradition? Eh. Is this repatriation? Well, no, Minaj and Guetta have no ascertainable connection to Parchman farm. Who benefits from this? The heirs of the prisoners? No, the Lomaxes are the songwriters, so they (the ACE) and Ludlow Music, Inc. get the checks. Why would the ACE approve the sample? Oh, I know! To spark meaningful conversations about how African American males still have higher incarceration rates, right?! As a springboard for civil rights discussions that are totally necessary right now?! Oh, wait, no, the song is about doin’ it.
Though I love the Lomax recording of Rosie, and I’m a casual fan of Minaj, this pop music sample of a breathtaking prison field recording makes me squeamish. There is a way to sample music like this; music that encapsulates ethical and social issues, music that was obtained questionably, music that exists outside the framework of radio hits and copyright laws. Simply sticking the first few bars of Rosie into the intro and post chorus of Hey Mama, a song that acknowledges none of these topics, cheapens the music and trivializes the experience of the prisoners.
What really gets me, though, is that the most powerful part of Lomax’s recording is 1:53-2:02 and 2:32-2:46, when C.B., whoever he is, growls “ahh Rosie!”
That’s the good shit. Sample THAT.
Additional Information for: ROSIE
Writer(s): JOHN A LOMAX SR, ALAN LOMAX
HFA Song Code: R2371N
Publisher Represented By HFA
LUDLOW MUSIC INC Y
ALAN LOMAX THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN
ALAN LOMAX, PRISONERS AT THE PRISON BLUES
LOUISIANA STATE PENITENTIARIES PRISON BLUES
MISSISSIPPI & LOUISIANA STATE PRISON BLUES
ODETTA LIVIN’ WITH THE BLUES
PENITENTIARIES PRISON BLUES
PRISONERS AT THE MISSISSIPPI & PRISON BLUES
RECORDED LIVE BY ALAN LOMAX NEGRO PRISON BLUES AND SONGS
THE ALAN LOMAX COLLECTION FROM PARCHMAN FARM 1947-48)
ROSIE (Legal Title)
BMI Work #1271070
Songwriter/Composer Current Affiliation CAE/IPI #
LOMAX ALAN BMI 18374288
LOMAX JOHN A SR BMI 12010568
LUDLOW MUSIC INC BMI 18683174
I’m a teaching assistant at the University of Virginia, and this semester I’m happily assigned to Karl Hagstrom Miller‘s Popular Music seminar. Today, 240 or so undergrads, plus me and the other TAs, took in Karl’s lecture on early MTV. In the beginning there were videos, and they were mostly of white men rocking. This did not go unnoticed by artists and labels:
In the early 1980s, MTV focused primarily on music videos by white male rock and pop artists from Australia, Britain, and the United States, prompting some to charge the network with racist business practices. MTV’s nearly all-white programming strategy began to erode when CBS Records allegedly threatened to pull its videos from the network if it did not show Michael Jackson’s videos from the Thriller album. Ultimately, the overwhelming popularity of Jackson’s videos paved the way for other nonwhite artists, including Prince, Lionel Richie, and Run-D.M.C., to receive airplay on MTV. (Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, edited by Mary Kosut, page 243)
This got me thinking: blues was big in the 1980s. Were there blues music videos? Was that an investment labels were willing to make? For whom would they make this investment? Perhaps only white blues artists?
Ok, ok. Damn. Way to strike while the iron is hot, Mercury Records. In 1985 Cray won Best New Artist at the Handy Awards (now called the Blues Music Awards) and released his third album on the indie label Hightone. The next year he earned a Grammy for his work with Albert Collins and Johnny “Clyde” Copeland on the now-classic Showdown album. By 1987 Cray was as big as a blues artist could get; Mercury was pushing his major label debut, Strong Persuader, as a crossover record.
But did MTV play this music video?
Yup. According to Wikipedia, the song reaching #2 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, and Cray was nominated for the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards for Best New Artist in a Video. Wow. 1987 is looking very, very cool.
I’m irritatingly skeptical of everything “fun.” It might be the New Englander in me. Breaking into an abandoned building to read old medical records? That’s fun. Disneyland, cruise ships, guided tours? The possibility that some one-size-fits-all, for-profit construction of “fun” could actually be fun seems nonexistent. If you’ve never been a grad student, I’ll tell you what year one is like: you read books by weighty authors and are expected to speak confidently about how wrong their posited ideas are, how unpleasing their writing is, or how outdated and idealistic their notions of authenticity, racial essentialism, ethics, aesthetics, gender, and politics are. So I can still do my skeptical schtick, I just need footnotes. Sometimes, we even talk about blues (read: we talk about what Elijah Wald says about blues, because he’s done the skepticaling for us).
As a blues fan, I embrace some aspects of blues tourism while finding others problematic. Yes, I used the Mississippi Blues Trail markers to visit Magic Sam’s house in Grenada several years ago, and it was awesome. But I also wrote an undergrad paper on the impact of urban renewal on Beale Street. In short, Beale was closed for a decade-ish and then rebuilt as the tourist destination we know today. There’s very little literature detailing the institutionalized and systemic racism and classism that led to the closure of Beale; sweeping that stuff under the rug keeps the “home of the blues” mythology neat and simple. I get it. Blues needs landmarks, Memphis needs tourist dollars, and people want to experience music in a bar that opened when W.C. Handy was alive, but I’m uncomfortable with reproductions being passed off as authentic, lineage narratives that are gussied up for the general public, and the fetishization of physical places that come to represent “blues.” It is a musical genre and culture filled with folklore and fakelore, and that’s part of the appeal for me, but the complicated, problematic parts of the story are often unrecorded, inaccessible, and certainly not promoted. If something in blues is aimed at blues fans, I usually skip it.
Weirdly, I’ve been told by starry-eyed blues tourists as well as eye-rolling blues skeptics that the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi is worth a trip, worth a pilgrimage, even. And I find myself in Mississippi for the Blues Symposium at Ole Miss (yes, blues has a symposium!) with the fest starting today, my one free day, the day I figured I’d finally break into the Sterick Building in Memphis. I had hoped to catch guitarist Josh Roberts in Memphis last night, but a long day and a severe weather warning kept me inside the Best Western, so I’m jonesing for a music fix…
What the hell. Juke Joint Fest it is.