Political Blues

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.

1996, 2002: versions of Tojo Told Hitler by CeDell Davis and RL Burnside (warning: swears in the RL version)

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.

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Blues Books, Blues Films

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, thusironically, considering the ‘inauthenticity’ chargeupdates 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.