communism and the blues

The success of the 1917 Russian revolution and the subsequent execution of all members of the Czar’s family sent shock waves around the world, especially in the capitalist United States. The first red scare in August 1919 was launched and a crackdown on practically all leftist organizations and labor unions occurred as a fear spread throughout America that a Bolshevist revolution was about to happen worldwide. An odd side to this red scare was the widespread belief that Russian communists were trying to infiltrate black communities to start their revolution with black Americans, who had been suppressed for some 400 years. Following the stock market crash of 1929, and the subsequent collapse of job opportunities for many American blacks, the suspicion grew that Russian communists were targeting this segment of America. The blues, the music of black America, became suspect as well.  

“The only support for blacks in the South in the 1930s was the [American] Communist Party. There was a great symbiosis between blacks and the communists. In an official meeting of the Communist Party in 1936, the American Communist Party recognized the blues as the voice of the proletarian blacks,” stated blues historian Sam Charters, author of The Country Blues, in a BBC documentary called “Blues America: Woke Up This Morning” Part 1. 

In fact, the 1929 stock market crash propelled the United States into the greatest and longest depression in its history, which continued until the start of WWII. While the economy tanked, millions of Americans found themselves unemployed, especially if they happened to be black. Sympathy for leftist ideas and movements was on the rise during the Depression, most prominently in large cities that had previously been the centers of capitalist industrialization, such as New York City. Blacks living in the Big Apple began to see communism in a different light. One of those communists was a wealthy black music promoter named John Hammond, who was a big fan of the blues musician Robert Johnson.

“During the Depression, America’s pre‐eminent African American community, Harlem, underwent a profound political transformation, emerging as a center of the left‐wing ‘Popular Front’ social movement. Many of Harlem’s residents, especially among the community’s intelligentsia, found themselves attracted to the left‐wing milieu centered around the Communist Party. By the late 1930s, Communist‐led organizations in Harlem and elsewhere were frequently featuring jazz bands at their social functions and benefits. It was in this context that many musicians, including several of the most prominent jazz musicians and bandleaders of the Swing Era, became actively engaged in the left‐wing milieu of the 1930s and 1940s,” states an article in Jazz Perspectives (Vol. 3, 2009).

The second red scare started in the late 1940s after a communist revolution succeeded in China, with the clear implication that an alignment between Chinese and Russian communism would pose an international threat to capitalism. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, cracked down on anything or anyone holding either communist or socialistic views. Actors in Hollywood and even singers were blacklisted and hauled before this committee, which saw “reds under every bed.”

One red songster singled out by the HUAC was folk singer Pete Seeger (1919-2014), a self-proclaimed communist and admirer of Joseph Stalin in his pre-WWII views. Seeger joined the American Communist Party (CPUSA) in 1936 but left in 1949. He refused to appear before HUAC in 1955 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for contempt of Congress, later overturned by an appeals court.

What was Pete’s connection to the blues? Pete Seeger was one of the earliest backers of Bob Dylan and was responsible for urging [Columbia] A&R man John Hammond, the black Harlem Renaissance financier and blues lover, to produce Dylan’s first LP on Columbia. Seeger also invited Dylan to perform at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, of which Seeger was a board member. Dylan was heavily criticized for plugging in and going electric at the festival, a no-no in the eyes (and ears) of blues and folk music purists such as Alan Lomax.

Bob Dylan, who was influenced by such blues masters as Mance Lipscomb of Navasota, Texas, also held deeply liberal views. These opinions were reflected in his very satirical 1962 song called “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” Some of the lyrics of this song go like this:

“Now we all agree with Hitler’s views
Although he killed six million Jews
It don’t matter too much that he was a Fascist
At least you can’t say he was a Communist!
That’s to say like if you got a cold you take a shot of malaria.”

Mance, who passed in 1976, probably looked down and smiled when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Bob Dylan sings “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.”

bellevue hospital blues

Mamie Smith, with her 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues,” made history as the first black singer to break the color barrier in vocal recordings. However, most historians fail to note that all her backup singers and musicians were white. Before the release of Mamie’s smash hit, Okeh Records’ owner Fred Hagar had received death threats from Northern and Southern pressure groups saying they would boycott the company if he recorded a black singer. It seemed that having a black male singer recording a song was taboo at that time, but Mamie was a black woman, which made her release more palatable to a white audience. After all, the word “crazy” was in the title of Mamie’s hit song. Other black blues singers of the day like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were considered weird, but not dangerous. Bessie was openly bisexual and Ma was an “unattractive” woman. 

Allowing a black male singer to make a recording then was unthinkable because such performers were thought by white audiences to be “dangerous” and “lecherous.” But after Mamie’s success, these attitudes began to change rapidly, especially among recording companies. Money talks, loudly. In the latter half of the “Roaring Twenties,” male blues singers like Texas-born Blind Lemon Jefferson and Louisiana-born Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, began to be recognized as “interesting” performers. And nothing was more interesting, in the Prohibition days of Bonnie and Clyde-type criminal worship, than a bad black male blues singer who had been imprisoned for murder and was being recorded after regaining his freedom. Lead Belly fit that bill perfectly.

Lead Belly, the self-styled king of the 12-string guitar, was best remembered for songs such as “The Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight Irene.” Lead Belly is “the hard name of a harder man,” Woody Guthrie once said of his friend and fellow American music icon. Though most closely associated with the rural Deep South, from the mid-1930s until his death in 1949, Lead Belly lived at 414 E. 10th Street in New York City. He was a regular performer in the music halls of Harlem and also had a regular Sunday night slot on WNYC radio station, explains the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation on its website

Just as he began to achieve some measure of wider fame, Lead Belly got sick. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1949 and was placed in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. By December of that same year, Ledbetter was dead, having spent his final days in a sick bed. He even wrote and recorded a blues song there, entitled “Been So Long,” also called “Bellevue Hospital Blues.” Some of its lyrics are as follows:

“I heard a woman saying the other day,

As some doctor began, in ten days you’ll start walkin’ again,

It’s been so long, so long, so long.”

“Ever been down in Louisiana, in New Orleans?

Got the first woman doctor I ever seen

It’s been so long, so long, so long.”

Writer Nick Deriso explains in “He doesn’t lament that certain fate on ‘Been So Long,’ even while admitting that he had already lost the ability to walk. Instead, Lead Belly flirts with the first female doctor he’d ever seen, before turning his focus to a friendly nurse. You start out thinking he’s going to talk about his heartbreaking fate; he ends up joking about an impulse that starts some place lower.” Lead Belly never lost his ribald sense of humor, even when he saw the end approaching.

Bellevue Hospital Center has not lost its reputation either: it is still the oldest public hospital in the United States (founded in 1736) and is still the flagship hospital of New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corporation. Bellevue is also famous for its psychiatric ward and in the old days, getting sent there was a pejorative expression. No longer. Bellevue is now on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit New York City hardest of all American cities. Bellevue has a central role in New York’s fight against the deadly virus as its policy is to accept any patient, insured or not.

Ledbetter’s legacy has also been bolstered through the release of long-lost music recorded under the aegis of Moses Asch for Folkways between 1941-47. The bulk of those recordings was issued in the late-1990s, under the titles Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Bourgeois Blues and Shout On. “Turns out, there’s more where that came from. Those earlier discs have been bolstered by 16 remarkable, previously unheard moments like ‘Been So Long’ for the Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection that was published in February, 2015. This five-disc set includes 108 tracks in all, providing fresh insights into a figure who joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, nearly four decades after his death,” explained Deriso. Lead Belly was also inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

Lead Belly Sings “Bellevue Hospital Blues”

king of ragtime

Almost every scene of a busy saloon in western movies features a piano player banging away at a dusty keyboard. Most tin-eared listeners, however, don’t recognize the ragtime music style he (hardly ever she) is playing. The iconic piano player is also an integral part of modern flics such as “The Sting,” whose soundtrack was a famous ragtime tune called “The Entertainer.” The late nineteenth century musical style was actually a forerunner of both blues and jazz music.

What, exactly, was this oddly named music then? Ragtime was a syncopated (placing rhythms where they would not normally be, i.e. a “ragged” technique) musical style. In a word, it was the predominant style of American popular music from about 1899 to 1917. As Wikipedia puts it: “Ragtime evolved in the playing of honky-tonk pianists along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in the last decades of the 19th century.”

As with most musical styles, a single performer steps up to improve it so much that he or she becomes known as the “king” or “queen.” In ragtime, that performer came from northeast Texas. “In the early 1880s, a young African American boy in Texarkana named Scott Joplin was trained in the fundamentals of classical music and opera by his German-born teacher. Born near Linden [Texas], Joplin was the son of a former slave — and a budding musical talent. By his early twenties, he left home to become an itinerant musician. While living in St. Louis, Joplin encountered a kind of music that juxtaposed a steady, bouncing bass with a syncopated treble: ‘ragged time,’ or ‘ragtime.’ The music was played in saloons and brothels, and in Joplin’s hands, it became high art, states the online blog

Ragtime composer Scott Joplin (1868–1917) became famous after publishing the “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899), “The Entertainer” (1902), the lesser-known “Pineapple Rag” (1908) and many others. However, Joplin was later forgotten by all but a small, dedicated community of ragtime aficionados until the major ragtime revival in the early 1970s. But for at least 12 years after its publication, “Maple Leaf Rag” heavily influenced subsequent ragtime composers with its melody lines, chord progressions or metric patterns, points out

Perhaps the most unforgettable ragtime song was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,”(1911) composed and performed by a young Jewish-Russian immigrant named Irving Berlin, who later became a great American composer whose music (e.g. “Blue Skies” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”) counts for a great portion of the Great American Songbook. Also an intuitive businessman, Irving Berlin was a co-founder of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). 

Ragtime piano tunes were so catchy that they inspired a new ragtime two-stop, two step dance, especially after the 1902 publication of Joplin’s “The Ragtime Dance” tune. “The sparkling and intoxicating rhythms of ragtime, with music by composers such as Scott Joplin, ushered in an era of expressive ballroom dancing, with dances that did not need formal training but which encouraged individualism,” explains the Library of Congress website. Part of lyrics for “The Ragtime Dance” go like this:

“Let me see you do the ‘ragtime dance’

Turn left and do the cake walk prance

Turn the other way and do the ‘slow drag’

Now take your lady to the world’s fair

And do the ‘ragtime dance’.”

The cakewalk, a strutting dance of African-American origins, was not performed in classy (white) ballrooms until Scott Joplin’s music came along. The slow drag featured the dragging of the left foot on certain beats and the right foot on others. Neither dance worked well with fast music. “Take your lady to the world’s fair” was a reference to the 1893 Columbian Expo in Chicago where Middle Eastern belly dancing was first introduced publicly.

But the speed of such dancing was not the main point. It had more to do with a break away from the strict moral code of Victorian behavior of the 19th century in favor of a dance that came from the “wrong side of the tracks.” As writer Douglas Thompson puts it in his 2014 book Shall We Dance?, “The dance floor is turning into a barnyard…these dances with their shoulder shaking, slouching and tight embrace are stomping and wiggling their way from rowdy west coast honky tonks, bordellos and lower class dance halls to every ballroom across the nation.”

Many people in those days considered the new dance styles vulgar and “paths to hell” that would lead young, impressionable girls to their ruin. Scott Joplin himself, less concerned with a breakdown of morals, cautioned against playing ragtime fast. “Don’t play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast. When I’m dead twenty-five years, people are going to begin to recognize me,” Joplin once said. How prophetic!

Music afficionados still know who Scott Joplin was. Just look on Youtube.

“The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin:

stevie’s influence

One journalist friend of mine characterizes Austin, Texas as a blueberry floating in a bowl of red soup (he lives near Dallas). Blueberries notwithstanding, Austin has always been a mecca for liberals and its entertainment districts are world famous, namely 6th Street and Congress Avenue. A lot of famous singers, including Willie Nelson and k.d. lang, record their music in the city located in the heart of Texas. Not particularly known as the state’s center for blues music, Austin does sport its share of famous blues stars. The blues hit its post-WWII zenith in the blues revival of the 1960s, but its “death” was overstated, particularly so in Austin.

Once rock started outpacing the blues in popularity in the ‘60s, white establishments like the Continental Club on Congress Avenue and a host of other pubs on 6th Street began stealing the musical spotlight. The Fabulous Thunderbirds, composed of blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, Kim Wilson, Keith Ferguson, and Mike Buck were big draws there. Jimmie’s younger brother Stevie Ray (1954-1990), played in a succession of bands, including the Cobras, before forming his own trio called Double Trouble.

“Double Trouble would quickly become one of the most respected and influential blues acts of the late 1970s and 1980s, cemented by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s masterful album ‘Texas Flood.’ The members were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015,” states

By the mid-1980s, Stevie’s career was climbing into the musical stratosphere, so to speak. In October 1984, his performance at Carnegie Hall seemed to signal that he had reached the pinnacle of his career. After that performance, he was quoted as saying: “We won’t be limited to just the trio, although that doesn’t mean we’ll stop doing the trio. I’m planning on doing that too. I ain’t gonna stay in one place. If I do, I’m stupid.” Nobody ever accused the Texas guitarist and singer of being dense; most thought of him as being a genius. He didn’t stay put either.

“It’s hard to overestimate the impact Stevie Ray Vaughan’s debut, ‘Texas Flood,’ had upon its release in 1983. At that point, blues was no longer hip, the way it was in the ‘60s. ‘Texas Flood’ changed all that, climbing into the Top 40 and spending over half a year on the charts, which was practically unheard of for a blues recording. Vaughan became a genuine star and, in doing so, sparked a revitalization of the blues,” wrote Thomas Erlewine in the All Music Review blog. “It becomes clear that Vaughan’s true achievement was finding something personal and emotional by fusing different elements of his idols. Sometimes the borrowing was overt, and other times subtle, but it all blended together into a style that recalled the past while seizing the excitement and essence of the present.”

Still later, Stevie gained national and international fame as a top-notch blues guitarist before his untimely death in a 1990 helicopter crash. Stevie’s influence as a guitarist is hard to calculate since it is so widespread, nationally and internationally. One current bluesman, Grammy Award-winning Gary Clark Jr., told Texas Monthly: “He’s a major influence on myself and so many others. You can still walk up and down Sixth Street here in Austin and hear a bunch of young guitarists playing Stevie Ray Vaughan licks. And then the other day, I met a 22-year-old in Melbourne, Australia, that was hugely influenced by Stevie. It’s a global thing. He’s one of the most powerful guitarists ever. He changed the way people play [Fender] Stratocasters. I don’t know of any young guitar player interested in blues who hasn’t studied his licks and wanted to play as powerfully and dynamically as him.”

Wikipedia summarizes Stevie’s career as follows: “Vaughan received several music awards during his lifetime and posthumously. In 1983, readers of Guitar Player voted him Best New Talent and Best Electric Blues Guitar Player. In 1984, the Blues Foundation named him Entertainer of the Year and Blues Instrumentalist of the Year, and in 1987, Performance Magazine honored him with Rhythm and Blues Act of the Year. He earned six Grammy Awards and ten Austin Music Awards, and was inducted posthumously into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2000, and the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2014. Rolling Stone ranked Vaughan as the twelfth greatest guitarist of all time.

Stevie Ray Vaughan plays “Texas Flood”

black swan records

The spectacular success of Mamie Smith’s recording of “Crazy Blues” in 1920 was partly due to a wave of black nationalism sweeping the nation, especially the southern part, immediately following the end of WWI. The Roaring Twenties were aptly named for the hedonism that prevailed in that decade in spite of, or more accurately, because of Prohibition that drove the consumption of alcohol underground, but did not stop it. The “Harlem Renaissance,” also called the “New Negro Movement” was in full swing during the entirety of the 1920s. Not only in music and the arts, the cultural boom in Harlem gave black actors opportunities for stage work that had previously been withheld. Traditionally, if black actors appeared onstage, it was in a minstrel show musical and rarely in a serious drama with non-stereotypical roles. The Harlem Renaissance changed all that, making the area a new mecca for all sorts of black entertainers and artists. 

Bessie Smith’s breakthrough recording showed white recording companies of the time that black music could be profitable and it also opened the door for the first black-owned recording company – Black Swan Records – which became, for a short time, a pillar of the Harlem Renaissance. Wikipedia claims that the Harlem Renaissance was a turning point in black cultural history. It helped African American writers and artists gain control over the representation of black culture and experience, and it provided them a place in Western high culture.

“Based in Harlem, Black Swan Records was founded in 1921 as the record division of Pace Phonographic Corporation by Harry Pace, a music publisher and former professor of Greek and Latin. Pace named the division after African American opera singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1809-1976), known as ‘The Black Swan’. The label’s mission was to serve black stockholders, employees, singers and musicians,” writes Michelle Cranfield in the Black Past online blog.

If Black Swan records was one of the pillars of the Harlem Renaissance, then blues singer and entertainer Ethel Waters (1896-1977) became the cornerstone of the company. Her biography on IMDb states that she was “the child of a teenage rape victim. Ethel Waters grew up in the slums of Philadelphia and neighboring cities, seldom living anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time. ‘No one raised me,’ she recollected, ‘I just ran wild’.”  

Recognition of Ethel’s smooth singing voice came slowly through performing in church choirs. Then came her big breakthrough. Her 1921 recording of “Down Home Blues” skyrocketed to number five on the charts of the day, putting Ethel in the Harlem and national spotlights. She recorded for Black Swan from 1921 through 1923. Her contract with Harry Pace made her the highest paid black recording artist at the time. Some of the song’s lyrics are as follows:

“Woke up this morning, the day was dawning,
And I was feeling all sad and blue,
Lord, I had nobody to tell my troubles to;
I felt so worried,
I didn't know what to do.
But there's no use in grievin’,because I’m leavin’,
I'm broken-hearted and Dixie-bound;
Lord, I been mistreated, ain’t got no time to lose.
My train is leaving,
And I got the down-home blues.”

In early 1924, Paramount  bought Black Swan, and Waters stayed with Paramount through the year before moving to Columbia Records. She later became the first African-American star of a national radio show. In middle age, first on Broadway and then in the movies, she successfully recast herself as a dramatic actress. “Devoutly religious but famously difficult to get along with, Waters found few roles worthy of her talents in her later years,” concludes her biography.

During its brief but spectacular existence, Black Swan Records specialized in jazz and blues recordings; it also became the first company to record black classical musicians. From 1921 to 1923, Black Swan Records would release over 180 records, a number that far surpassed any subsequent black-owned record company until the 1950s. It is not an exaggeration to state that Black Swan Records paved the way forward for generations of black recording artists.

Ethel Waters sings “Down Home Blues”

boss of the blues

Large people often earn nicknames related to their size. This is particularly true in sports: in pro basketball think “Dunking Bear” Shaquille O’Neil, “Too Tall Jones” in pro football or “The Big Hurt” Frank Thomas in pro baseball. Blues players and singers are no exceptions either. Big Bill Broonzy (1903-58) was famous for combining rural and urban blues in Chicago, bypassing the electric guitar phenomenon to remain truly acoustic. Playing and writing blues songs in the same city was the huge (over six feet tall and weighing 300 pounds) Willie Dixon (1915-92), an upright bass player who was a former heavyweight boxer. To the south in Kansas City was “Big Joe” Turner (1911-85), of similar build to Dixon, who was a contemporary of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Richard and Etta James. Like a famous rock singer of later years, Big Joe Turner (real name Joseph Vernon Turner Jr) earned the nickname of “boss,” not only because he was big but also because of his commanding presence on stage, with his booming voice.

“Known variously as The Boss of the Blues, and Big Joe Turner (due to his 6’2″, 300+ lbs stature), Turner was born in Kansas City. His father was killed in a train accident when Joe was only four years old. He first discovered a love of music in his involvement at church. He began singing on street corners for money, quitting school at age fourteen to work in Kansas City’s nightclubs, first as a cook, and later as a singing bartender,” states “He became known eventually as ‘The Singing Barman,’ and worked in such venues as The Kingfish Club and The Sunset, where he and his piano playing partner Pete Johnson became resident performers. The Sunset was managed by Piney Brown. It featured ‘separate but equal’ facilities for Caucasian patrons. Turner wrote ‘Piney Brown Blues’ in his honor and sang it throughout his entire career.” Some of the lyrics are as follows:

“Well I went back to Kansas City
My little girl was gone
Yes I went back to Kansas City
My little girl was gone
Goodbye bye baby
I know you got yourself a better home.”

“Last time I seen my baby
She was standin’ on Hollywood and Vine
Yes the last time I seen my baby
She was standin’ on Hollywood and Vine
She was sure cool, she wouldn’t pay me no mind
Hollywood and Vine.”

Another reason Big Joe got the “boss” label was because he was a blues shouter: a blues singer capable of singing unamplified with a band. Other famous blues shouters of the day included Wynonie Harris, Duke Henderson and Jimmy Rushing (of the Count Basie band). Bill Dahl, writing in the online blog All Music, wrote that Turner was “the premier blues shouter of the postwar era whose roar could rattle the very foundation of any gin joint he sang within – and that’s without a microphone.” 

Blues shouting notwithstanding, Turner made a seemingly effortless transition to rock & roll in the early post-WWII era. Prolific Atlantic house writer Jesse Stone was the source of Turner’s biggest smash of all, “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which turned out to be his second chart-topper in 1954. “With the Atlantic brain trust reportedly chiming in on the chorus behind Turner’s rumbling lead, the song sported enough pop possibilities to merit a considerably cleaned-up cover by Bill Haley & the Comets (and a subsequent version by Elvis Presley that came a lot closer to the original leering intent),” suggested Dahl in the same article. “During his career, Turner was part of the transition from big bands to jump blues to rhythm and blues to rock and roll. He was a master of traditional blues verses, and at Kansas City jam sessions he could swap choruses with instrumental soloists for hours,” explains Wikipedia.

Big Joe’s talents were not limited to singing. “Turner appeared in several movies (including the documentary Last of the Blue Devils, 1979), at major jazz and folk festivals in the United States and Europe, on television, and in jazz clubs, recording continually into the 1980s. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987,” states Encyclopedia Britannica.

Big Joe Turner sings “Shake, Rattle and Roll”

string beans

I suppose every genre of music has its own original superstar. The Blues is no exception. You have to go all the way back to the turn of the century to discover the “original blues” (the 12-bar blues) superstar of his time and vaudeville professional who performed the latest blues songs. He was what Elvis was to rockabilly or what Michael Jackson was to pop music. He not only had singing and playing talent but he could bust moves on stage that had never been seen before, or maybe ever since. On top of all that, he was a hilarious comedian with a stunning appearance. In a word, he lit up vaudeville stages like no other performer. His name? String Beans. W.C. Handy represented the respectful blues of those times the scholars say, but String Beans “personified the unadulterated, pure instinct of the blues.”

His real name was Butler May (1894-1917) and got his nickname because he was tall and skinny. “May was not recognized by his contemporaries as the first great piano blues man or the first blues king,” maintain Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff in The Original Blues (2017), “but it was only because there was nobody to compare him to.” As explained in the book review on the website, String Beans could have been a chart topper in those days had there been any such a thing as music charts. “His ‘Get You a Kitchen Mechanic’ and ‘Alabama Bound’ became theater and black vaudeville hits…The sheet music to ‘Alabama Bound’ (1909) shows the first appearance of the generic term ‘blues’ in print.”

“Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941) an American ragtime and early jazz pianist, bandleader and composer, once described String Beans as the greatest comedian he ever saw or heard. In an interview with folklorist Alan Lomax, Morton described May as, “over six feet tall, very slender with big liver lips, and light complexioned. His shoes were enormous and he wore trousers impossible to get over his feet without a shoehorn. He always had a big diamond in his front tooth. He was the first guy I ever saw with a diamond in his mouth, and I guess, I got the idea for my diamond from him.”

The athletic String Beans’ pre-WWI vaudeville acts wowed audiences. Writer W.L. James, who saw String Beans perform around 1914, said of him: “As he attacks the piano, String Bean’s head starts to nod, his shoulders shake, and his body begins to quiver. Slowly, he sinks to the floor of the stage. Before he submerges, he is executing the Snake Hips …shouting the blues and, as he hits the deck still playing the piano, performing a horizontal grind which would make today’s rock and roll dancers seem like staid citizens.” (Wikipedia)

In 1910, Alabama native May formed a personal and professional relationship with New Orleans-born Sweetie Matthews. They married, and performed regularly together in Benbow’s company. In 1911, they played in Chicago at the Monogram theater, one of the top black vaudeville venues in the city, and, according to writers Abbott and Seroff, “opened the floodgates for other Southern acts, and ensured a prominent place for the blues in American entertainment.”

The couple became known all over black America at the time. “Although their relationship was punctuated by occasional acrimonious separations during which May performed with other partners, String Beans and Sweetie toured together intermittently until the end of 1915. Earlier that year, they debuted in New York City, at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, later returning for an unprecedented three-week engagement there. As a husband and wife team, they directly inspired Butterbeans ans Susie [an African American comedy duo], and May was also credited as an inspiration by Ethel Waters,” explains Wikipedia.

String Beans passed away at the young age of 23 in November 1917, in Jacksonville, Florida, from a broken neck. It is believed that his death was the result of a botched initiation ceremony at a Freemasonry lodge, after a rope was put round his neck. He was paralyzed and died a week later. At his peak String Beans was highest paid Negro showman in America and, infamously, the most suggestive. May left no copyrighted sheet music or records. Other writers and academics, such as Marshall and Jean Stearns in 1966, have described Butler May, as “an early Ray Charles.”

Butterbeans and Susie perform “Hot Dog”

little walter

The guitar remains the most popular instrument accompanying blues artists, but firmly in second place has to be the venerable blues harmonica. Oddly, it is rarely mentioned in the foreground of blues literature. Even odder is the near total absence of great harmonica players in this literature despite the fact that this musical instrument has been a vital part of blues and R&B music for decades, not to mention some rock songs as well. What is perhaps not in dispute: the greatest harmonica player of all was Little Walter, from Louisiana, who revolutionized the way harmonicas were played. Contemporary musicians claimed that Walter could make the small, handheld instrument sound like a bevy of horns playing simultaneously.

“He was born Marion Walter Jacobs on May 1st, 1930 in Marksville, Louisiana and raised in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, where he first learned to play the harmonica. After quitting school by the age of 12, Jacobs left rural Louisiana and travelled around working odd jobs and busking [playing music in the street or another public place for voluntary donations] on the streets of New Orleans, Memphis, Helena, Arkansas and St. Louis. He honed his musical skills on harmonica and guitar performing with much older bluesmen such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sunnyland Slim, Honeyboy Edwards and others,” claims Chloe Richardson in an article for the American Blues Scene website. 

By the time Little Walter arrived in Chicago (1945), the blues had been electrified by Muddy Waters and other bluesmen plying their trade in the Windy City. Walter found that his harmonica sound was literally getting drowned out, so he electrified his instrument as well by cupping his hands around the harmonica while holding a microphone next to it. He was then no longer playing in the background but was competing with electrified guitars in the foreground. His amplifiers were being pushed to their electronic limits. Madison Deniro wrote a small biographical piece on Little Walter stating that “He was the first musician of any kind to purposely use electronic distortion.”

Walter’s sound was ahead of its time and more up-tempo than what the rest of the Chicago blues had to offer at the time. “As a harmonica player he was rhythmically freer, and a lot less unvarying than most blues harpists of his time,” states And like most blues players in Chicago in the 1950s, Walter was trying to get a recording contract with Chess Records, the local-based recording company, as portrayed in the biopic “Cadillac Records.” Actor Columbus Short played Little Walter in that 2008 movie.

Another film called “Blue Midnight” is a complete biography of the famous harmonica player. In that film, many blues players pay homage to Little Walter. One of the players featured in the film was Jr. Wells, who said “There will never be another Little Walter. Never.”

Walter finally hit the big time in 1952 with the smash hit “Juke.” The song remains the only harmonica instrumental ever to hit number one on Billboard. To this day “Juke” is the most successful track of any artist on the Chess label. Walter had fourteen top-ten hits on the Billboard R&B charts between ’52 and ’58, including two number one hits, the later hit being “My Babe” in 1955.

“Little Walter stood out and made his way to the top, yet his musical triumphs couldn’t save him from himself,” states “Despite his successes, Walter was an alcoholic who lived life to the maximum. Known for being hot-headed and quick-tempered, Walter was a regular brawler. He was subjected to numerous beatings throughout his life, leaving his face and body bruised, battered, and scarred.” Walter continually pushed his body to its limit, which ultimately resulted in his premature death due to “coronary thrombosis” at 37. The greatest harmonica player to ever blow the blues died in his sleep on February 15th, 1968, following a bar fight in the South Side of Chicago. The exact circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery.

Wikipedia’s tribute: “The music journalist Bill Dahl described Little Walter as ‘king of all post-war blues harpists,’ who ‘took the humble mouth organ in dazzling amplified directions that were unimaginable prior to his ascendancy.’ His legacy has been enormous: he is widely credited by blues historians as the artist primarily responsible for establishing the standard vocabulary for modern blues and blues rock harmonica players.”

It is said that the price of harmonicas skyrocketed after Little Walter’s passing.

Little Walter plays and sings “My Babe”

the devil’s instrument

The guitar can arguably be called one of the world’s most versatile musical instruments. A big problem for early blues players wanting to play it, however, was the cost of buying one. Up until the late 19th century, the guitar had been considered affordable for members of the American middle class (and above), but not for poorer African American musicians whose blues style was a perfect match for the instrument. Black blues players had no choice but make their own guitars, many fashioned from old wooden cigar boxes and broomsticks (for the neck). Only with the introduction of the Sears mail order catalogues in 1893 did guitars and all other instruments become more easily affordable.

When the Portuguese first sailed to the Hawaiian islands in the 18th century, they took guitars as gifts for the royal family there, but they never taught the islanders how to tune their gifts. The Hawaiian way of tuning produced the now-famous slack key guitar style that we currently associate with the sound of Hawaii. The 1880s saw another innovation to the Hawaiian guitar style, a way of playing that would later strongly influence the emergence of the American blues.

In Hawaii around 1885, an Oahu schoolboy, Joseph Kekuku (1874-1932), picked up a metal bolt on a railway track near Honolulu; and made music by sliding the bolt over the gut strings of his Portuguese guitar, thus producing the first steel (slide) guitar sound. “In 1904 at the age of 30, Joseph left Hawaii and would never return. He started in the United States by performing in vaudeville theaters from coast to coast. His group was called ‘Kekuku’s Hawaiian Quintet’,” states Wikipedia.” “In 1919, Kekuku left the U.S. for an eight-year tour of Europe traveling with ‘The Bird of Paradise’ show. His show was so popular that it became a film in 1932 and again in 1951, though Kekuku was not in either film.”

Many blues historians and musicologists have pondered the mystery of just how (and when) the blues was influenced by the wailing sounds of an accompanying slide guitar. Some attribute the sound as coming from the “diddly bow,” a crude guitar fashioned from discarded junk materials that was used by early bluesmen who did not have enough money to buy a real guitar. Author John W. Troutman begs to disagree. He argues in Southern Cultures that the musical technique popularized in the Mississippi Delta came from traveling Native Hawaiian musicians. “Tracing the proliferation of their playing style, writes Troutman, a historian at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and weekend steel guitarist, once again underlines just how many ethnic and racial groups have shaped southern culture.”

No matter where you stand on this argument, almost everybody can agree on one thing: the steel guitar produces a sound that can pierce the soul of a listener. “There is something so special to see a brilliant guitarist with his eyes shut, his head flung back, wringing the plaintive notes of pain and anguish from his guitar. It’s playing that uplifts us, enriches us and makes us feel good. It’s for every occasion and as long as people play the guitar, some of them will play the blues,” opines Richard Havens in the blog.

But not everyone says “amen” to these statements, especially some African American non-musicians and churchgoers during the early years of blues development. “What we now call blues was the often intimidating, frightening music heard in the darkest of places; in evil places like brothels and sleazy drinking dens. Blues was the devil’s music, many African Americans felt. If blues was mentioned at all, it was with distaste. The guitar, in particular, was seen by many blacks as the devil’s instrument. Most successful black artists would have felt blues to be undignified and beneath them. They had too much self-respect to perform or listen to the music that dare not speak its name,” writes blues historian Paul Merry in How the Blues Evolved (volume one).

Maybe so, but listen to what B.B. King, often called “The King of the Blues” has to say: “I call myself a blues singer, but you ain’t never heard me call myself a blues guitar man. I’m trying to get people to see that we are our brother’s keeper. Red, white, black, brown or yellow, rich or poor, we all have the blues.”

About Joseph Kekuku:

blues as protest

Protesting through music has a long tradition in the United States. Many associate this type of protest with the baby boomers’ 1960s movement against the war in Vietnam. Songs like Country Joe and the Fish’s “Vietnam Song” called for a pullout of American troops from the “undeclared and illegal war” in Southeast Asia. Part of its sarcastic lyrics goes: “And you can be the first one in your block to have your boy come home in a box.” Blues rock and folk rock hit the charts in a big way during the turbulent 1960s, making huge stars out of singers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, to name just a handful.

When it comes to the blues, however, we can trace protest songs all the way back to slavery days. A pre-Civil War standard was “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a song whose lyrics explained how to escape from plantations by following the North Star. It later became an anthem in the 1960s civil rights marches by African Americans seeking equality. Antebellum songs of protest often evolved from prisons located mostly in the South.

“Prison laborers in the southern states, the majority of whom were African American and replaced slave labor after the Civil War, sang songs that complained about their plight. Work songs protesting prison conditions demonstrate the emergence of blues, such as ‘We Don’t Have No Payday Here,’ sung by a group of convicts at Raiford Penitentiary in Florida. In another recording of a work song sung by prisoners at the same penitentiary, ‘Take This Hammer,’ the first person character of the song not only complains about the work, but boldly says that he will flee. The ‘blues’ quality is especially strong in this song, though it retains the qualities of a work song. Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter later made a hit recording of a version of this song, which he had learned in prison,” claims “The Blues as Protest” article on the Library of Congress Website.

The same article says: “In addition to work songs with a blues sound, prisoners also sang and played blues songs not used for work. ‘I Don’t Do Nobody Nothin’,’ led by C.W. ‘Preacher’ Smith with unidentified singers at Cummins State Farm in Arkansas, has qualities of both spirituals and blues. The song’s complaint about being unfairly hated also seems to make it an ancestor of songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Another example is ‘I Heard What You Said About Me,’ sung and performed on guitar by Allen Reid and recorded in Raiford Penitentiary. The narrator in the songs complains of being falsely accused and of labor in dark mines, which were among the places with the worst working conditions for prison laborers.”

Perhaps the most famous example of these 1930s blues protest songs is Lead Belly’s “The Bourgeois Blues,” in which he sings (in prison):

“Home of the brave, land of the free
I don’t wanna be mistreated by no bourgeois
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Yee, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
I’m gonna spread the news all around.”

It is no accident that protest songs evolved into the political arena. After all, the Great Depression was raging and millions of Americans were out of work. Many rode the rails as hobos headed for migrant jobs in California. It was from these nightly gatherings of displaced workers called “hobo jungles” that many protest songs emerged. One of the most famous migrant singers was Woody Guthrie (son is Arlo) from Oklahoma, who performed protest songs on KFVD in Los Angeles starting in 1937. Guthrie performed such songs as “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” and “Dust Bowl Refugees” but his audience was limited since the only available media then was radio, which was relatively new.

Television did not get started until after WWII. It played a leading role in the anti-war protests on the 1960s by bringing the war directly into the living rooms of every American. Protest singers in that era found they could reach much wider audiences through TV. One particular song adopted by marching African Americans then was “We Shall Overcome,” which derived from a still surviving center of 1930s radicalism, the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Tennessee.

“Despite the South’s reputation as a conservative region, both protest activities and protest music have flourished at various times in its history. Indeed, southerners have played vital roles in the shaping of the protest genre in this century,” concludes The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. And many of the contributions to this genre came from blues players, such as Lead Belly, Josh White and Vern Partlow.

Lead Belly sings “Bourgeois Blues”