strange fruit

Lawrence Beitler’s 1930 photograph

After the long Civil War (1861-65) ended, white Southerners complained of Yankee occupation and carpetbagger excesses, but the white man’s pain paled in comparison to that suffered by the blacks. The latter often sought relief and solace in music – their own unique version called the blues. Although the blues, as a musical genre, was no doubt born in the cotton fields and partly came from the work songs of cotton pickers, there is never any mention of the word “lynching” in blues lyrics – the word was just too scary to even say out loud. Perhaps the closest mention was in Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of the song “Strange Fruit.” But even then the ominous word was conspicuously absent.

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

Since the song was very short, the producers decided to add a long instrumental introduction of 70 seconds. After recording the song in 1939, Holiday would close all her public performances with it. Because of the power of the song, there were certain rules: the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face; and there would be no encore. During the musical introduction to the song, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer. Holiday said that every time she sang the song, she had to throw up.

Wikipedia explains the origin of this powerful song: “Strange Fruit” originated as a poem written by a white Jewish-American writer, teacher and songwriter named Abel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem under the title “Bitter Fruit” in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine of the Teacher’s Union. Though Meeropol had asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set “Strange Fruit” to music himself. His protest song gained a certain success in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.

Since “Strange Fruit” was recorded by a jazz singer, could we really say it is a blues song? Professor Adam Gussow (himself a blues player) of Ole Miss university and author of Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence in the Blues Tradition, argues in his book that Holiday’s song should not be considered a true blues song, but rather as a protest conjoined with the blues spirit. After all, he points out, the song was written by a white man and was only sung by Billie Holiday, a well-known jazz singer and songwriter. In 1978, Holiday’s version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. It was also dubbed “a declaration of war … the beginning of the civil rights movement.”

Billie Holiday sings “Strange Fruit”

The tom moore farm

The great plantations (farms) of Mississippi grew up along the mighty Mississippi River, conversely, Texas plantations got their starts next to the Brazos River. There are at least two commonalities here: cotton production needs a lot of water and the black laborers on these “farms” often wrote and performed blues songs that gave voice to their many complaints. Mississippi may have produced Muddy Waters and John Hurt but Texas countered with Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Of course there are many other blues greats, but the point here is that a unique American style of music was geographic in its inception and was directly related to cotton. Mississippi’s Dockery and Stovall farms are matched by a notorious farm in central Texas called the Tom Moore farm.

The five Moore brothers established a very large cotton farm of 15,000 acres near Navasota that was operated more like a plantation than a modern farm. Walker, one of the brothers, had bought land there as early as 1911. Texas Monthly magazine described Tom, the most powerful of the brothers, thusly: “Tom Moore was a notorious twentieth-century plantation owner along the Brazos River, near Navasota, who ran his land and the mostly African-American sharecroppers on it as if it were the nineteenth century instead.”

Tom (1901-97) and his brother Harry (1903-88) were the one-two punch of plantation mentality power in Grimes, Brazos and Washington Counties in Texas for decades, a sort of white man’s law unto themselves. Tom ruled the farm with an iron hand while Harry was the farm’s chief politician, with his reach extending all the way to the Oval Office, occupied during the late sixties by his good friend Lyndon Johnson. But it was mainly Tom who received the brunt of black hatred aimed at the farm and its chief administrator. A line from one blues song referred to Tom Moore as the devil incarnate. The reference was in a song called “Three Moore Brothers” by a black prisoner named Joseph “Chinaman” Johnson, on a recording released in 1965. Here is how the song began:

“Well, who is that I see come ridin’, boy,

down on the low turn row?

Nobody but Tom Devil,

That’s the man they call Tom Moore.”

A fair criticism or not, Tom Moore became the chief antagonist for several blues songs. “Tom Moore’s Farm,” for instance, was recorded by at least six different performers, with the words being slightly different, but the refrain remaining the same. Mance’s version of the song starts like this:

“Ain’t but the one thing, see what I done wrong

Ain’t but the one thing, see what I done wrong

Moved my family down on Tom Moore’s farm”

John Shelton Reed, an authority on Southern violence, argues in The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture that “the concept of justifiable homicide is at the heart of the southern tendency to violence. One carries a gun or knife because one might have to use it, and one uses it because the occasion merits it. Much of the literature and popular culture of the South revolves around violence, which is often viewed in a neutral or even laudatory way. For Southerners, murder in defense of honor, after sufficient provocation, is often tragic rather than simply wrong.”

If what Reed wrote is true, then would it be a stretch to argue that the white man’s racism could be mimicked by his black workers? Especially if their boss, Tom Moore in this case, is telling them to go out and kill whoever you want, but come back to the farm and I will protect you from the law?  

Other writers carry this argument one step further. “One of the most pernicious and dehumanizing effects of white racism has been the gradations of skin color within the black population to take on characteristics of a caste system,” wrote Giles Oakley in his 1997 book entitled The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues. “The closer the color was to white, the more attractive they were felt to be even among black people.” Or as Georgia bluesman Blind Willie McTell sang, “A black man give you a dollar, you won’t think it nothin’ strange, Yellow man give you a dollar he’ll want back 95 cents change.”

dockery and stovall

It is not an exaggeration to state that the blues came straight out of the cotton fields, as many blues singers claim. That would include cotton-growing plantations in both Mississippi (beside the great Mississippi river) and Texas (along the smaller Brazos river). Two of the most famous of these post-Civil War “farms” are the Dockery Plantation in western Mississippi and the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale. The former produced a bumper crop of famous blues singers from Charlie Patton to Eddie “Son” House, true pioneers of the traditional Delta Blues sound. By the mid-1920s, this original group of blues singers widened to include a younger generation of musicians, including Robert Johnson, Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Some of these were itinerant workers, while others like the young Muddy Waters from the Stovall Plantation, who once said that the blues was nothing more than the back end of a mule, lived more permanently on the farms. So how did these geographical hotbeds of blues generation get started in the first place?

Wikipedia explains: “The [Dockery] plantation was started in 1895 by Will Dockery (1865–1936), a graduate of the University of Mississippi who originally bought the land for its timber but soon recognized the richness of its soil. At the time, much of the Delta area was still a wilderness of cypress and gum trees, roamed by panthers and wolves and plagued with mosquitoes. The land was gradually cleared and drained for cotton cultivation, which encouraged an influx of black laborers. Some became settled sharecroppers, who would work a portion of the land in return for a share of the crop, while others were itinerant workers. Dockery earned a good reputation for treating his workers and sharecroppers fairly and thus attracted workers from throughout the South.” Dockery himself didn’t give a whit about the blues, but he allowed his workers to spend their free time as they pleased, thus producing an incubator of the music his black workers loved to perform and listen to.

On the other hand, the Stovall Plantation became well known after its most famous tenant, Muddy Waters, skyrocketed to fame after leaving Mississippi for Chicago, where he eventually became known as the “king of the electric blues.” Two of Waters’ recordings, “Burr Clover Farm Blues” and “Burr Clover Blues,” paid tribute to plantation owner Colonel William Howard Stovall (1895-1970), who had invented the burr clover seed harvester in 1935. 

Neither Dockery Farms nor the Stovall Plantation would have become widely known, however, had it not been for the efforts of a father-son team of roots music recorders named John A. and Alan Lomax who were traveling the deep South on contract for the Library of Congress. In effect, they were giving a voice to the voiceless. Alan first recorded Muddy on the porch of his shack on the Stovall plantation in 1941. “I really heard myself for the first time. I’d never heard my voice. I used to sing; used to sing just how I felt, ‘cause that’s the way we always sang in Mississippi,” Waters told one journalist. “But when Mr. Lomax played me the record I thought, man, this boy can sing the blues.”

The down-home, plantation blues style of Muddy Waters influenced a great many singers. His authenticity was never in doubt, especially to a white female blues performer like Bonnie Raitt. 

“What always struck me as remarkable was his lack of resentment toward people like Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter and myself. Muddy just accepted everything. He was real good-hearted and didn’t have a competitive edge,” she told Rolling Stone magazine. “I think they should put up a statue like the ones in Thailand of the Buddha. You know, the ones that are fifty feet high, and he’s sitting there with a beatific smile on his face and his eyes closed? I think they should do one of those of Muddy in Chicago.”

Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker play “I’m in the Mood”

peonage and the blues

Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude, is a system whereby an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work (and thus not be paid in money). Legally, peonage was outlawed by Congress in 1867, but did that stop the practice? Some argue no, that it survived all the way into the present, or at least until the early post-WWII era. By the 1940s, according to records in the National Archives, only rare cases of long-term peonage survived, mostly in rural areas and small towns. But some, such as bluesman Mance Lipscomb, have argued that sharecropping is just another form of peonage. We’ll take a look at an incident in one small south-central Texas town in the late 1940s that may illustrate the point.

The incident in question allegedly happened on the Tom Moore farm, originally owned by a handful of brothers, which lies near the small Texas town of Navasota. Black blues singers often referred to the “repression of black workers” on the farm. This “maltreatment”  became the catalyst for the creative reaction that sprang up in opposition, in turn producing a unique blues sound.

There have been multiple versions of “Tom Moore’s Farm,” a blues standard sometimes accredited to Lipscomb, a Texas-born sharecropper who later became world famous for his blues, and other, songs. Mance (a shortened form of emancipation), who denied writing the Tom Moore Farm song, was particularly influential to blues rockers such as Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, who both traveled to Navasota to hear the blues master play.

One of the few incidents of Moore brutality to ever break into public view was the July 1948 beating of a black parolee named John Roe. John recalled the incident from his Austin hospital bed, explaining that he had asked Tom Moore (the main owner) to use a farm truck to take his sick child to the doctor. Moore denied the request and told him to get back to work. When Roe persisted, Roe said Moore struck him with a shovel, then pistol-whipped him and chased him, bumping him with a truck fender, as Roe ran for his life with a broken arm and other injuries.

The farmworker managed to get to Austin, more than 100 miles away, where he reported the incident to the state parole board. He was admitted to Brackenridge Hospital and told his story to a Texas Ranger, the chief of the parole division, a Salvation Army captain and a stenographer. According to newspaper accounts, investigations were launched by a Brazos County grand jury, the Rangers and the FBI, as well as the Austin branch of the NAACP and the local Communist Party, to determine if peonage was being practiced on Tom Moore’s farm.

What if anything ever came of these investigations is unclear, and Moore descendants say that Tom Moore was cleared of any wrongdoing. An article on the Roe incident in the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper, noted that a similar incident had involved Harry Moore (Tom’s brother), a few months before. The victim in that case was identified only as “Mr. Walker.”

One can only surmise that there were other such incidents that went uninvestigated and/or unreported. However, there can be little doubt that the original Tom Moore farm, where many blacks saw much evil lurking, became the main antagonist for blues song creation in the Brazos Valley of Texas. But some writers, like Russell Cushman, see a great irony there as well. “In some strange twist, it is many of Navasota’s white population who are the ones that have preserved the blues, loved them and celebrated them, as if they know just how important they are as documents of a time and a history locked up in the iron box.”

Lightnin’ Hopkins sings “Tom Moore Blues”

the folkways record set

What does the Great Depression have to do with roots music? The Great Stock Market Crash occurred between October 24 and October 29, 1929. Share prices collapsed sending the United States economy into the Great Depression that lasted until the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific. Less known is the fact that Blues music popularity, which had its heyday during the “Roaring Twenties,” collapsed along with the stock market. Sales of blues music records dried up and many recording companies went out of business. Blues performers found it difficult to find gigs in pubs hit hard after Congress passed the 18th Amendment, outlawing the sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. The Volstead Act that followed ushered in a long era of Prohibition (1920-33). Many blues performers, who had prospered in northern cities during the Flapper Age, were forced to return to menial jobs in the South. Maybe Muddy Waters said it best: “There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to. When I play in Chicago, I’m playing up-to-date, not the blues I was born with. People should hear the pure blues – the blues we used to have when we had no money.”

Big Band, Jazz and Swing overshadowed the Blues in a big way during the 1930s and 1940s, sparking dance sensations like the Charleston, but during the 1950s roots music such as the Blues started to make a comeback as the young postwar baby boomers searched for new and more exciting sounds. It was in that decade, often stereotyped as an era of “collective Eisenhower insomnia,” that young white Americans tired of the insipid music on the hit parade began to rediscover their country’s trove of raw, powerful music. Television, still in its black and white infancy, began to produce music reviews aimed at boomers. Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” which stayed on the air from 1957 to 1988, became a must-watch program for these postwar kids. The show was groundbreaking in another way too. “Episodes he hosted were among the first in which blacks and whites performed on the same stage, and likewise among the first in which the live studio audience sat without racial segregation,” states Wikipedia. Many older-generation Americans, however, looked down on Clark and his show. “I was roundly criticized for being in and around rock and roll music at its inception. It was the devil’s music, it would make your teeth fall out and your hair turn blue, whatever the hell. You get through that,” Clark once said.

Sometimes it takes the publication of a music anthology to spark a movement. That’s exactly what happened in 1952 in Greenwich Village, New York City. Called the “Folkways Records Set,” it was the brainchild of the avant-garde filmmaker, folklorist and anthropologist Harry Smith. The anthology comprised three boxed two-LP sets that contained 84 performances recorded between 1926 and 1933. Included were early black blues and white country music, Cajun recordings, hymns and sacred music, and more, thrown together under a loose framework that almost single-handedly redefined folk music. Recordings included everything from “Georgia Stomp” by Andrew and Jim Baxter and “Dry Bones” by Bascom Lamar Lunsford to long-forgotten African-American gems such as “Old Country Stomp” by the East Texas songster Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas to “John the Revelator” by Blind Willie Johnson, who accompanied his powerful religious songs with slashing blues slide guitar.

“In doing so, the anthology became the single most important source of material and inspiration for many young singers in the 1950s and 1960s and the touchstone of the early-‘60s ‘folk revival.’ Such performers as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and the New Lost City Ramblers, as well as later offshoots like the Byrds, Bruce Springsteen and Jerry Garcia, owe not just repertory and techniques but, in a real sense, a large portion of their world view to the anthology’s conflation of such seemingly different traditions,” explains Tom Piazza in “A Folk Album that Awakened a Generation” in The New York Times (1997).

One of the blues singers featured in the anthology was Lead Belly, whose recordings of such classics as “Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight Irene” have influenced performers on both sides of the Atlantic. “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” George Harrison once said.

Maybe Piazza hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “More than six decades after his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1949, the influence of the great blues and folk singer Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) continues to reverberate through time. Tom Waits, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Jack White are just a few of the musicians who have been deeply influenced by Lead Belly. Kurt Cobain said that he was his favorite performer, adding ‘Isn’t he all of ours’?”

Would Harrison, Cobain and countless other performers have even known about Lead Belly had this anthology not been published? Perhaps it’s a question for the musical ages.

Lead Belly sings “Midnight Special”

the blue devils

During the 1960s, many British singers and bands were infected with a “new” sound emanating from the cotton fields of the American South called the Blues. Reinterpreting this sound to fit their own styles produced a reintroduction of traditional Blues to an American generation of postwar baby boomers searching for a new style of music. The movement became known as the “British Invasion,” especially after it dovetailed with the anti-Vietnam War peace movement near the end of that turbulent decade. Even post-invasion British rockers were still being influenced by the original Blues sound. For instance, Elton John performed a 1982 song called “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” His lyrics hit all around a definition of the Blues, especially the part about demons:

And while I’m away
Dust out the demons inside
And it won’t be long before you and me run
To the place in our hearts where we hide

Sir Elton’s song was a tip of the hat to the intense feeling blues music generates, but it never really answered the question: Why is blues music called “the blues”? Maybe it wasn’t intended to; perhaps the mystery of what the blues really is contains its greatest appeal. After all, the name of Elton John’s first band was “Bluesology.”

Serious blues researchers, like Debra Devi, have come up with more interesting interpretations. “The name of this great American music probably originated with the 17th-century English expression ‘the blue devils,’ for the intense visual hallucinations that can accompany severe alcohol withdrawal,” explains Devi in Huffpost online. “Shortened over time to ‘the blues,’ it came to mean a state of agitation or depression.”

Perhaps Devi is onto something there. “Blue” was slang for “drunk” in the American English lexicon by the 1800s. Even to this day, the link between “blue” and drinking is indicated by “blue laws” that still prohibit Sunday alcohol sales, in some American states.

“By the turn of the century, a couple’s dance that involved slowly grinding the hips together called ‘the blues’ or ‘the slow drag’ was popular in Southern juke joints. A rural juke would be jammed on weekends with couples getting their drink on, doing the pre-coital shuffle to the accompaniment of a ‘bluesman’ on guitar,” Devi continues.

Some sources say the “blue devils” expression dates far back into history. The New World Encyclopedia claims, “An early reference to ‘the blues’ can be found in George Colman’s farce Blue Devils, a farce in one act (1798). Later during the nineteenth century, the phrase was used as a euphemism for delirium tremens and also in reference to the police. Though usage of the phrase in African American music may be older, it has been attested to since 1912 in Memphis, Tennessee with W. C. Handy’s Memphis Blues. In lyrics the phrase is often used to describe a depressed mood.”

The “Blue Devils” name is also used in musical groups such as The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps (also known as “BD” and “Devs”), which is a world-class competitive junior drum and bugle corps  based in Concord, California. The groups has won many international competitions and currently holds the world record for most consecutive wins (19).

Is the expression found in places other than in music? Since I am a fan of college basketball, I couldn’t help but notice the mascot of the Duke University team is the blue devil. Researching further I discovered the name comes from the French les Diables Bleus or “the Blue Devils,” which was the nickname given during World War I to the Chasseurs Alpins, the French Alpine light infantry battalion. I never imagined there would be a “connection” between basketball and the blues, but one never knows for sure.

Elton John sings “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”

chess records

Chicago had long been a destination for African Americans fleeing oppression in southern states, where cotton was king and where Blacks were used to work the fields, first as slaves and later as sharecroppers. Such escapees from the South could find employment opportunities and higher wages in such northern cities as Chicago and Detroit, where industrialization was booming. Blues singers like Muddy Waters, who electrified the blues, found Chicago to be quite accommodating during the 1940s. One could probably say that the Chicago environment got Muddy’s mojo working.

But Chicago blues really didn’t get hot until blues record labels were established there. Blues records could then be cut and distributed to radio stations, which helped popularize the genre. The hottest of all Chicago music labels in the early post-WWII era was Chess Records, established in 1950. Founded and run by two Jewish immigrant brothers from Poland, Leonard and Phil Chess, the company produced and released many singles and albums regarded as central to the blues (and later rock) music canons. Musician and critic Cub Koda described Chess Records as “America’s greatest blues label.”

In 1951, the Chess brothers began an association with Sam Phillips, of the Memphis Recording Service, the forerunner of Sun Records, which later recorded such rock luminaries as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. One of the most important blues artists that came out of Memphis, however, was blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, who stayed with the Chess label until his death in 1976. Many songs created by Chess artists were later covered by many famous rock-and-roll artists, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Eric Clapton. Musical figures created for Chess by Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and others were the basis of much subsequent rock and roll.

The 2008 biopic Cadillac Records, starring Arien Brody as Leonard Chess, was a loose retelling of the Chess Records story, but this “based on a true story” got a lot of facts wrong. For instance, Leonard’s brother Phil does not appear in the flick and his name is not even mentioned. One has to wonder what the real Phil Leonard (died at 95 in 2016) thought of this movie. There is no proof that Leonard had a sexual relationship with Etta James nor was Minnesota Fats Etta’s father, as the movie suggested. Maybe Robert Wilonsky, writing in The Dallas Observer, hits the main point here: “Fabrications in the name of movie myth-making are, of course, to be expected from a genre that demands condensing lives into a handful of Defining Episodes; all biopics reduce and trivialize.” Inaccuracies aside, Cadillac Records is a very entertaining movie experience, especially the acting and singing of Beyoncé Knowles who plays Etta James.

Back to the real facts: “In the mid-1960s, Chess relocated to a much larger building, the former home of Revere Camera Company at 320 E. 21st Street, the label’s final Chicago home. Shortly before the death of Leonard Chess in 1969, the brothers sold the company,” explains Wikipedia. “By 1972, the only part of Chess Records still operating in Chicago was the recording studio, Ter-Mar Studios. Following the sale of Chess to GRT, Phil left the label to run radio station WVON.” Phil Chess told Vanity Fair in 2008 that there’s a perfectly logical explanation for his and his brother’s affinity for the blues. “We’d been around it all our lives,” he says. “We came from Poland in 1928. That was blues all the time.”

Irony is not lost on another interesting historical twist. The original Chess Records building is now the home of Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation which labors away at making sure Black artists get their due in terms of music royalties. The title Cadillac Records is a subtle joke in itself as Blues musicians in the early days were often given Cadillacs instead of royalties, but they did not realize the automobiles had been bought with the royalty money they should have received in the first place. They would have gotten much more in terms of royalties had they just said no to the cars. To paraphrase a famous line from another movie, they should have said “just give me the money!”

Beyoncé, as Etta James, sings “I’d Rather Go Blind”

cultural appropriation

Musicians play the songs of other musicians all the time, calling this style “covers” or “tributes.” Never mind that they don’t ask permission or, heaven forbid, offer compensation. They just go ahead and do it anyway and there is normally no blowback from either the original composer or the first musician who recorded the song. How many people before 2016 realized they were breaking the copyright law when they sang “Happy Birthday?” They were supposed to have compensated the original artist (however, since 2016 the tune has been placed in the public domain).

What is more serious is when an artist just outright steals the work of another and uses his or her own name on the new recording. Even worse is, say, when a White musician pinches the recording of a Black blues artist, re-records it under his or her own name and does not even give a dime or a nod to the creator of the work. Sadly, this happened often in the history of blues music as these White thieves knew there would be no repercussions as most early Black blues performers did not have the finances to hire lawyers to fight back.

This concerns cultural appropriation, some critics say, which means using material from another culture without giving credit or compensation. Freelance journalist and editor of BBCNewsbeat Irahman Jones writes (2016) about Elvis Presley’s cover of “Hound Dog,” previously recorded by black artist Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, though it was written by the White team of Leiber and Stoller: “With a song like this, it’s easy to see why Elvis often gets levelled with accusations of appropriating black music. Why is he seen as the father of rock ’n’ roll music when he didn’t invent it? Why did it take a good old white boy to popularize a genre [the Blues] which black Americans had been playing for years, and in the process become one of the richest people on earth? It’s clear to see cultural appropriation going on here; Elvis clearly stole music from the black culture of the time, passed it off as his own, and hugely profited from it himself.”

“Hound Dog” stayed at No. 1 for 11 weeks in 1956, ultimately selling 10 million copies worldwide, making the young Elvis (then 21) a very wealthy man. Thornton’s original version, recorded four years earlier, had sold two million copies, though Big Mama collected only $500. Although “Ball and Chain” was the lead on Thornton’s 1968 album by the same name, the song became a smash hit when it was later appropriated by Janis Joplin. Again, Thornton got no royalties from this misuse of her music.

The Big Mama cases were blatant, but there are many other examples. Take the case of Willie Dixon, the blues bassist who operated out of Chicago. Dixon did fight back when Led Zeppelin stole his song “Whole Lotta Love.” Willie won his 1985 lawsuit against the group and later used the money to start the Blues Heaven Foundation to help Bluesmen get their royalty checks.

Misappropriation is one thing, but authenticity is quite another. Perhaps many white singers are simply performing the blues and not really putting black feelings into the music, some critics suggest. But at the very least, a white performer trying to sing the blues should give recognition to the original artist and make it plain what the content of the blues song was originally referring to, as he or she is morally (but perhaps not legally) supposed to do. However, when a musical genre like the blues suddenly becomes “hot” legalities often get overlooked, all in the interest of making as much money as possible before the market cools.

“Remember that, up until relatively recently, white people wouldn’t buy music performed by Black people, and that Black culture was considered ‘inferior’, ‘strange’, or ‘exotic’. Then white performers repackaged the Blues for a white audience, and suddenly they were respectable, and the origins of the Blues as a culture of resistance and the expression of a particular experience were often erased and denied. And remember that this happened during or not long after segregation… I would say that was cultural appropriation,” writes Yvonne Abburow in the online journal Patheos. By “relatively recently,” Abburow probably meant anytime up until the 1950s.

Like Abburow, a PhD candidate at the University of Florida, Howell Evans, argued that there is something smelly about White discourses on blues history. In his work The Literature of the Blues and Black Cultural Studies (2004), Evans wrote: “The literature of the blues is mostly a white man writing about a black man’s art, and there is more than a taste of paternalism…what this paternalism masks, this worship of the old authentic bluesman, is the guilt that white musicians have in ripping it off.”

Big Mama Thornton sings “Hound Dog Blues”

the Devil’s music

It’s hard to tell exactly when the Blues got saddled with the “devil’s music” moniker. On the other hand it’s much easier to determine why. “Blues was raggedy street music, performed and listened to by the down at the heel segment of society, known for doing lowbrow things like getting drunk on cheap beer, having bar fights, etc. People tend to politicize music, that is they can’t separate the music from its natural habitat. So they thought the people who played, sang, and listened to the blues were influenced by the devil, and by association, the music was also associated with the devil,” opines musician Collen Kitchen.

The downright anti-social behavior of a lot of Blues pioneers added to that perception. Son House, an early Mississippi Delta Bluesman, shot and killed a man who was shooting up the bar he was in, allegedly to protect his date. The Louisiana-born singer Lead Belly, best known for composing and singing “Goodnight Irene,” killed one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman and stabbed a white man after being released from prison. And then there was the legendary Blues singer Robert Johnson who supposedly sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads for an improved skill on the blues guitar. In “Me and the Devil Blues,” Johnson sings:

“Me and the devil

Was walkin’ side by side

Me and the devil, whooo

Was walking side by side

And I’m gonna beat my woman

Until I get satisfied”

All this negativity notwithstanding, perhaps the greatest contributor to the “devil’s music” stamp came from organized religion, both Black and White. “A large sector of the black community were fiercely religious at the time [early 1900s], and criticized blues artists for subverting the gospel and spiritual tradition in the name of this secular and self-indulgent lifestyle music,” states the Music Fans website. “The criticism came from all sectors of the ‘square’ community, including of course, the white establishment. No one, it seems, wanted to acknowledge or accept what was going on in the underworld of black life.”

Black music had, from early on, been criticized in print as well. One of the earliest published denunciations found is from 1913, when The New York Times defended the fear surrounding ragtime music, a form of the Blues more often associated with jazz. “Decent people in and out of the church are beginning to be alarmed at the crude and vulgar music and loose conduct accompanying it with dances defying all propriety,” the paper wrote. But times have definitely changed and Black traditions like “bump and grind” dancing, twerking, potty-mouthed lyrics and anti-social messages in rap music have not only been normalized but have become all the musical rage.

Books and films have also explained why the Blues got its “devil” label. One of the best books is Giles Oakley’s 1977 The Devils’ Music, which describes the texture of the life that made the Blues possible, and the changing attitudes toward the music. The book is a wholehearted and loving examination of one of America’s most powerful traditions. And then there is the 2008 The Devil’s Music, the first film to document the strange story of notorious shock-rocker Erika Spawn, who was the most infamous woman in the world after her music had been linked by the tabloid press to real-life atrocities.

That film, in alluding to a rock and roll figure, points out the handoff of the “devil’s music” label from the Blues to rock in the post-WWII era of prosperity. Baby-boomers, tired of the very straight music of such crooners as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams and polka practitioner ­­Lawrence Welk turned to the more exciting and more danceable tunes of rock pioneers such as Bill Hailey, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. When Elvis Presley single-handedly invented a new musical form called “rockabilly” in the early 1950s by combining Blues, R&B and Western music the acceptance of black influences in white mainstream music was complete.

Elvis’ 1957 hit song “Jailhouse Rock” turned the evolving rock and roll industry on its ear. When Elvis appeared on the nationally televised Ed Sullivan Show for the third and final time on January 6, 1957, the CBS censors would not allow the cameras to show anything below the singer’s waist. They feared that the suggestive gyrations of “Elvis the Pelvis” would sexually stir up young teenaged girls tuning in.

Clinical researcher John Beaton says, “As I remember the word Blues used to be linked to drinking and carousing. The ‘Blues’ was a type of music associated with Honky Tonks and bars which encouraged late Saturday nights and diminished Sunday Church attendance. Throw in the fact it was prevalent in black neighborhoods at a time when being black was all but criminal. In fact ‘Blue laws’ still prohibit people in some states from buying alcohol on Sundays.”

Texas is one of them. Texas law still prohibits sale of liquor for off-premises consumption all day on Sundays and sale of beer and wine for off-premises consumption before 12:01 p.m. on Sundays in some counties. In 1986, there were 62 counties wholly dry, but that number had dropped to seven by 2015. Does this suggest America’s reddest state is loosening up a bit? Good question; something to have a drink on.

Robert Johnson sings “Me and the Devil Blues”

barrel house blues

Of all the different blues forms, barrelhouse may be the bawdiest. Taking its name from early American bars, usually on the outskirts of towns, these small dives served beer and whiskey to their African American (mostly hard laborer) patrons directly from barrels that littered the floor. Almost always featuring a piano, these local bars rocked with an emotional music known as barrelhouse, a blend of jazz and blues that got these patrons up on their feet to dance. Eventually morphing into boogie-woogie—a strident, uninhibited, and forcefully rhythmic new American music—barrelhouse could be played on the guitar as well. Memphis Minnie proved as much in her classical 1934 recording “Drunken Barrel House Blues.” She sang:

“Get me drunk in the mornin’
don’t say one mumblin’ word (2X)
I can’t tell you all about it and I ain’t gon’ tell you nothin’ I heard

Well I believe I’ll get drunk 
tear this old barrelhouse down (2X)
‘cause I ain’t got no money but I can hope all outta town

Get me one more drink
drink and let’s ball and fun (2X)
And I’m gon’ tell everything just as soon as I get back home”

Unlike the more serious blues forms, barrelhouse was aimed more at getting drunk and having fun dancing. “While blues lyrics often deal with personal adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, and simply having fun. The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion,” writes Ed Kopp on the All About Jazz website. Kopp could have been describing barrelhouse blues with that statement although he was talking about the blues in general.

The liner notes to an album called Barrelhouse Blues explain that the piano-based blues style developed around the same time as ragtime in the late 19th century, and both shared the same syncopated emphasis on the offbeat. Cow Cow Davenport was a real pioneer of the style. His seminal 1928 recording of “Cow Cow Blues” owed much to the ragtime style. “Unlike the guitar, you couldn’t ride the rails or hobo around with a piano on your back, so musicians would have to adapt to whatever beat-up piano was on offer, with the general state of disrepair adding to the rough and unpolished sound in true barrelhouse spirit.” Other popular blues pianists to emerge from the barrelhouse circuit included Jimmy Yancey, Roosevelt Sykes, Cripple Clarence Lofton and Skip James.

Referring to the well-known barrelhouse album mentioned above, the World Music Network website says, “The raucous playing style of the opening track by Speckled Red perfectly sets the scene for this rough and ready world, with his classic ‘The Dirty Dozen’ [1929] being based on a game of exchanges of insults and vulgar remarks that have long been a part of African-American folklore. In some respects a precursor of rap music, he was told to ‘clean it up for the record’.” Here are some of his (cleaner) lyrics:

“Now, I want all you womenfolks to fall in line
Shake your shimmy like I’m shaking mine
You shake your shimmy and you shake it fast
You can’t shake your shimmy, shake your yes, yes, yes

Now you’s a dirty mistreater, robber and a cheater
Slip you in the dozen, your pappy is your cousin
Your mama do the lordy-lord

Yonder go your mama going out across the field
Running and shaking like an automobile
I hollered at your mama and I told her to wait
She slipped away from me like a Cadillac Eight”

Blues historians will recognize that Speckled Red’s style closely resembles another sub-genre of traditional American blues called “hokum,” or “dirty blues,” which uses extended analogies or euphemisms to create sexual innuendoes. Such songs were popular in the late 1920s and 30s. Their suggestive titles like Bo Carter’s “Warm My Wiener” and “Banana in Your Fruit Basket” promised salacious lyrics, and they did not disappoint. Even female blues singers like Bessie Smithtackled cheeky double-entendres with an unmistakably mischievous tone, as can be heard on “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” I won’t list any of the often X-rated lyrics here, but you get the idea. Saying the blues has meaning within meanings might be an understatement.

Memphis Minnie sings “Drunken Barrel House Blues”