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.