In addition to more rigorous research, I’ve been visiting and photographing Beale Street and chatting with tourists for the last three weeks. Beale was declared the official “Home of the Blues” in 1977. According to the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, the street receives over 4 million annual visitors, making it the top tourist attraction in Tennessee. There’s a lot to say about Beale, but for now I’m just sticking with some visuals that show the ebb and flow of visitors at different times of the day and on different days of the week.
Beale on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon
Beale on Friday afternoon and night
Beale on Saturday evening and late night
I’ve been trying to get in touch with the Beale Street Development Corporation for a few years. I’ve never received a reply and, since their office is on Beale, I decided to just knock on their door today (mid-day on a Tuesday). Well, there’s a serious locked and dusty gate on the stairway to their office, so I’m fairly certain they don’t use this facility anymore. April 2019 Correction! I have since met Lucille Catron, the executive director of the BSDC, which is and has been going for 45 years. She commented below, and here’s an excerpt: “Beale Street Development Corporation (BSDC) caused the redevelopment of Historical Beale Street, a $23 million dollar back in 1973. Todays dollars, that over $200 million dollars… Just so you will know, the gate is there for safety and security reasons. That gate has been there a lot of years as we are on the backside of Beale Street.”
I hope to have much more info on BSDC from Lucille in the near future!
Just a little post showing three of my favorite places on Jackson Ave in Memphis. Well, two are my favorite, but the Corned Beef House is all Josh Roberts. And yes, it’s open and passed health inspection last year.
Here’s a soul gem I came across this week, released in 1971 on the short-lived Memphis Records label, a Mercury subsidiarity founded by Jerry Butler of the Temptations. This was most likely recorded about a mile and a half from the photos above, at Universal Recording Studio, 261 Chelsea (according to info on Ollie’s other Memphis Records release). That is nearly a stone’s throw from the former location of American Studios (now a Family Dollar, I shit you not). There’s some info in old Billboard mags (use Google books) and on the Soul Detective blog if you want more.
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