queen of all moaners

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Crooners croon and moaners moan. Dictionaries define a “moaner” as a person who complains a lot, such as a movie critic. A thesaurus lists at least 22 words that are similar in meaning, including bellyacher, fussbudget, kvetcher, sniveler and whiner. The Urban Dictionary, in slang terms, defines a moaner as a person who makes moaning sounds during sexual intercourse. However, this essay concerns moaners who sang blues songs that had a complaining message to their lyrics. The moaners, such as Clara Smith, Clarence Williams and Isaiah Nettles had their moments in the sun during the early days of blues development in the 1920s. The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930s ended the moaning craze, except for a handful of moaners who managed to eke out a living during the woeful 1930s.     

Clara Smith (1894-1935) was an American classic female blues singer. She was billed as the “Queen of the Moaners,” although Smith actually had a lighter and sweeter voice than her contemporaries and main competitors. Smith was born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina. In her youth she worked on African American theater circuits and tent shows. By the late 1910s she was appearing as a headliner at the Lyric Theater in New Orleans, Louisiana and on the Theater Owner’s Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) circuit. Performers on the circuit criticized the association’s low pay, poor accommodations and arduous travel. They jokingly claimed the acronym stood for “tough on black asses.”

“In 1923 Clara settled in New York, appearing at cabarets and speakeasies there; that same year she made the first of her commercially successful series of gramophone recordings for Columbia Records, for whom she would continue recording through to 1932. She cut 122 songs often with the backing of top musicians (especially after 1925) including Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Green,” states Wikipedia. Smith was a highly successful woman of color who would today be described as “bisexual.” She was both a partner and a mentor to the stunningly beautiful Josephine Baker, introducing the young Baker to the queer world of the 1920s. Oddly, Smith is largely unrecognized in both early 20th century queer histories and blues studies.

Clarence Williams (1893-1965) was a successful businessman, a decent pianist, a cheerful singer, an enthusiastic jug blower, a bandleader, a publisher and a very successful writer. He was in constant demand as an arranger and session pianist, recording with Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sara Martin and Josh White among many others. His 1923 ‘Gulf Coast Blues’ (was the first song recorded by Bessie Smith, which also featured Clarence on piano. Clarence also wrote ‘Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home’ (1923), ‘Shout Sister, Shout’ (1929) and added lyrics to Louis Armstrong’s ‘West End Blues’ (1928). “Williams also wrote and performed with the comedy ‘hokum Blues’ duo Butterbeans and Susie, and also acted as manager for several artists. He wrote songs, published them himself, sold the sheet music, had his wife sing the tunes on the radio and, as a talent scout for Okeh (and a freelancer for other labels) during 1923-28, arranged to have them recorded by some of the finest jazz musicians of the 1920s, sometimes multiple times,” writes Scott Yanow in the Syncopated Times.

Isaiah Nettles (??), known by his recording alias “The Mississippi Moaner,” was an American country blues singer and guitarist. Accurate information about Nettles is sparse but he is best remembered for his recording session in 1935. Four songs resulted from the session but only two, “Mississippi Moan” and “It’s Cold in China Blues,” were distributed on Vocalion Records. “Unfortunately, Nettles never recorded again but his ‘forceful brand of dance music’ was a highlight of an era [1930s] that saw blues recordings significantly decline. Nettles may have served during the Second World War and later lived in Mount Olive and Taylorsville. He was last heard of when he planned to move, remarking he was going up north.” Nettles was also unique for being able to tap dance barefooted.

Although not known for being a moaner, per se, the great Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929) recorded the defining work of the blues sub-genre called “Black Snake Moan” in 1927. Some music historians claim that the lyrics to this song refer to the long black whips used by overseers to keep convicts in line while working as prison gangs. Others claim that the lyrics refer to the sexual organ of black males. Still others claim that the black snakes refer psychologically to the torments of inner demons (such as Jefferson’s blindness). Consider the following lyrics and decide for yourself:

“Mmm, mmm, black snake crawling in my room
Mmm, mmm, black snake crawling in my room
Some pretty mama better come and get this black snake soon


Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug
Baby, a chinch can’t bite that hard

Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug
Honey a chinch can’t bite that hard

Ask my sugar for fifty cents, she said
“Lemon, ain’t a child in the yard?”

Bessie Smith sings “Gulf Coast Blues”

jug bands

Prior to the Civil War, sugar and cotton were the dominant commodities in the Southern states. So was slave labor. New Orleans then had the largest slave market in the United States. But it was also the only place where slaves were allowed to use drums and to sing in the plantations. Throughout the 18th century, slaves gathered in the Congo Square in the French Quarter, where the Louis Armstrong Park now stands. On Sundays, or their days off, they formed circles and practiced the dance and drumming tradition, which was reminiscent of African culture. Jazz started there, from the widespread use of surplus instruments such as fifes, bugles and snare drums that had been shipped from battlefields to New Orleans via steamboat. History books seldom explain that Armstrong began his career in a house of ill repute in the city’s red-light district. (multiplecities.org)

New Orleans is a large and very old American city that existed long before Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803, but what about blues musicians in Mississippi and Texas boondocks in the late 19th century who were so poor they could not afford a guitar or even a harmonica? Necessity might be the mother of invention, but poverty breeds a certain kind of music from instruments made from scraps: the early blues. In the absence of tubas or trombones, early bluesmen turned to using discarded objects like old jugs for those deep bass background sounds. All musicians had to do was blow into their large jugs.

Jug band instruments can easily be made from household objects: some jugs held corn whiskey, some coal oil or turpentine, but no matter its purpose, every home had a jug. The bass was built from a washtub, broom handle, and scrap baling wire or rope, and those who couldn’t afford a kazoo could usually find scraps of wax paper and put that over a comb for an instant horn section. Even the stringed instrument could be built from a pie plate and other kitchen items, though a guitar, banjo, ukulele or fiddle was preferred.

“The jug band’s existence is a statement that anything can be made musical, and anyone can make music. By incorporating all manner of homemade instruments, jug bands were hugely popular in America during the 1920s and early 1930s. With an unparalleled vibrancy this ‘do it yourself’ and often overlooked approach to music was highly influential in the history of the blues,” explains the memphismusichalloffame.com website.

Jug bands from Louisville, Kentucky were the first to record. The violinist Clifford Hayes’s Old Southern Jug Band recorded as early as 1923. Whistler & His Jug Band, often making use of a nose whistle (or humanatone, is a small flute-like instrument that is inserted in a musician’s nose), first recorded in September 1924 for Gennet Records. Earl McDonald’s Original Louisville Jug Band and the Dixieland Jug Blowers were also among the first to record.

“Louisville bands often used whiskey jugs and were more jazz-oriented, a melding of string band and ragtime influences. Jug bands made street performances, played at parties, and began entertaining on riverboats on the Ohio River around 1900 and first appeared at the Kentucky Derby in 1903,” claims Wikipedia.

Louisville might have been the first, but the city best known for jug bands was Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, the jug band may be the quintessential expression of the Memphis music underground, of giving the power to the people. The Memphis Jug Band, led by Will Shade (1898-1966), was a rotating group of musicians who made more than 60 recordings for Victor Records between 1927 and 1932, and continued to record into the 1950s, well after the jug’s heyday.

The Memphis Jug Band borrowed from the Louisville model but added the kazoo as a prominent lead instrument, similar in sound to a trumpet in a jazz band. Another variation from the Louisville sound was a focus on country blues songs, like those favored by Jim Jackson (1876-1933) and other Memphis-area solo artists. Their body of work has inspired folk, rock and pop bands from the 1960s to the present (for example, see Pink Floyd’s 1968 “Jugband Blues”). One of the Memphis Jug Band’s greatest hits was their 1930 recording of “Going Back to Memphis,” whose lyrics go like this:

“I’m leavin’ here, mama, don’t you wanna go?
I’m leavin’ here, mama, don’t you wanna go?
Because I’m sick and tired of this ice and snow

When I get back to Memphis, you can bet I’ll stay
Say, when I get back to Memphis, honey, you can bet I’ll stay
And I ain’t gonna leave until that judgment day

I love ol’ Memphis, the place where I was born
Sure do love it, boy!
I love ol’ Memphis, the place where I was born
Where my … and drink my bottle of corn.”

The Memphis Jug Band’s visibility declined in the mid-1930s as a result of the overall decline in commercial recordings, a shift in musical taste toward more urbane swing music, and violence occurring in Memphis, states Wikipedia.

Memphis Jug Band plays “Going Back to Memphis”

on alligators and bears

Ever since Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920, the recording industry for blues music expanded and has been the pathway to fame for most blues artists. Since commercial radio began to develop during the same period, such musicians depended on cutting a record and getting it played on the radio to get their names known regionally and, more importantly, nationally. Yes, I know that many blues historians will argue that blues recordings started years before Mamie’s breakthrough recording, but that is not the point here.

Now, digital recording and the Internet have opened up a large international audience, much to the delight of blues music lovers. Traditional recording agencies still play a large role but most Americans still do not realize that 70% of all blues recordings are sold in Europe. Other blues historians may argue that is not the point either. Enough. Let’s take a closer look at a couple of these blues music recording companies.

Today, the Chicago-based Alligator Records (https://www.alligator.com) is the largest independent blues label in the world, and has been repeatedly honored for its achievements. Three Alligator recordings have won Grammy Awards, and 41 titles have been nominated. The label and its artists have received well over 100 Blues Music Awards and more than 70 Living Blues Awards. But even with all of the accolades, Alligator Records never rests on its laurels.

The Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection clearly lays out Alligator’s wide-ranging, forward-looking vision with tracks from newer voices — Shemekia Copeland, Selwyn Birchwood and Toronzo Cannon, to name a few. Together, the Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection presents a comprehensive portrait of the label’s singular, rooted, soul-stirring American music.

According to owner Bruce Iglauer, “Alligator should be the label that’s exposing the next generation of blues artists and bringing their music to the next generation of blues fans. I want to keep bringing blues and roots music to new fans and getting them as excited about the music as I am. I want the future of the blues and the future of Alligator Records to be one and the same.”

Europe has long been receptive to the traditional sound of Southern blues music.  Blues-infused rock groups from England, which were greatly influenced by the historic blues style, like the Rolling Stones or the Animals, also brought new energy to an outdated, but still powerful, style. However, the blues as we once knew it may be dying a second death. Perhaps the only new trend that can save it (again) is internationalization. Although they don’t always know the history of the songs they are singing, blues artists from all over the world are tapping into the blues style. Blues pubs are popping up from Tokyo to Berlin, from Toronto to Sao Paulo and beyond.

Iranian-born bluesman Big Harp George says: “One of the things that is really exciting in the blues world right now, here in the [San Francisco] Bay Area maybe more than anywhere, is the internationalization of the style. One of my songs is ‘Hey Jaleh!,’ which happens to be the name of my Iranian-born wife. I have had blues musicians tell me I should change that name, that no one has ever sung a blues song to an Iranian woman.”

But is it really that strange that people from other cultures and other nations can “get” the American blues? No matter your nationality or cultural upbringing, feelings are feelings and they can be expressed in song. George was educated in Beirut, but did not need to work in a cotton field in the American South to understand where the blues is coming from. “I have not picked cotton,” George points out. “I have not worked in a steel mill. By comparison to many blues musicians, I’ve had a very privileged life. But that does not mean I can’t tap emotions and contexts that are consistent with the blues tradition, and that are genuine to my own experience.”

Germany seems to be the main engine for blues activity and recording sales in Europe. It is home to Bear Family Records (https://www.bear-family.com/) and its huge collection of blues recordings and other paraphernalia concerning the American blues and other musical genres. Formed in 1975, it is the gold standard for the reissuing of classic blues recordings and is a large contributor to the sale of blues recordings worldwide. The label issues lavishly designed box sets of blues and other American roots music, with book-length liner notes.

Founded by collector Richard Weize, Bear Family Records started with the double LP “Going Back to Dixie” by Bill Clifton. The company describes itself as “a collector’s record label” due to its primary business, which is reissuing rare recordings in CD format in small amounts. Historically, their material has had only limited availability in the U.S., stocked at Ernest Tubb Record Shop and through mail order sources. Many of their box sets are now available through Amazon Marketplace, however. 

Big Harp George sings “Build Myself an App”

swamp blues

Swamp Blues

Sandwiched in between Mississippi to the east and Texas to the west, one does not necessarily associate the state of Louisiana with a blues tradition. In terms of music, most observers would point to New Orleans and its jazz history. However, that would eliminate other areas (and cities) of the swampy state which do have a blues tradition. Of course, it would be more natural to associate the southwestern area of Louisiana with the sport of college football as Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge won the national championship in the 2019 season. The music that evolved from that area in the immediate post-WWII era was dubbed the “Swamp Blues.”

Swamp blues, sometimes called the “Excello” style (after the Nashville-based recording studio), is a type of Louisiana blues that developed around Baton Rouge in the 1950s and 1960s. It incorporates influences from other genres, particularly zydeco and Cajun. However, it should not be confused with “swamp rock” which resulted from the integration of rockabilly and the soul music boom of the 1960s.

Unlike the national Chitlin’ Circuit, the “Crawfish Circuit” of Louisiana nightclubs heightened musical exchanges across the region. Influenced as much by New Orleans’ piano-driven R&B as Texas guitar blues, the swamp blues represents a cultural third-space beyond the more popular Zydeco and swamp pop local arenas. Swamp blues’ most successful proponents included Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim, both of whom enjoyed national rhythm and blues hits.

James Moore (1924-70), later known as “Slim Harpo,” was the most famous Louisiana harp player in the swamp blues tradition. Born in Lobdell in West Baton Rouge Parish in 1924, he taught himself guitar and harmonica, which he played in a neck rack, as a child. When he was in tenth grade his mother and father both died, and he had to leave school to support his family. Although he was working as a dock hand, Harpo already was a good harp (harmonica) player.

His 1957 single “King Bee” was a hit for Excello. In 1961, his “Raining in my Heart” was even bigger, scoring not only on the R&B charts but reaching number 34 on the pop charts also. “Scratch My Back,” released in 1966, reached the R&B number one slot. “After the Rolling Stones recorded ‘King Bee’ on their 1964 debut album, Harpo began to play for white rock audiences. He started to record with psychedelic overtones in the mix, and was playing the Electric Circus and the Fillmore East by 1969. A European tour was planned, and commercial success was perhaps around the corner, when he died of a heart attack in early 1970,” states Celticguitarmusic.com. Some of the lyrics to his most famous song go like this:  

“Well, I’m a king bee
Buzzing around your hive

Well, I’m a king bee
Buzzing around your hive
Well, I can make honey baby
Let me come inside

I’m young and able
To buzz all night long
I’m young and able
To buzz all night long
Well, when you hear me buzzin’ baby
Some stinging is going on.”

The draft card of “Lightnin’ Slim” (real name Otis Hicks, 1913-74) shows that he was born in Good Pine, Louisiana, but moved to Baton Rouge at the age of thirteen. Taught guitar by his older brother Layfield, Slim was playing in bars in Baton Rouge by the late 1940s. “His first recording was ‘Bad Luck Blues (If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all), released by J.D. ‘Jay’ Miller’s Feature Records in 1954. It was Miller, who had a penchant for picking colorful artists’ names, who christened him ‘Lightnin’ Slim.’ Slim then recorded for Excello Records for twelve years, starting in the mid-1950s, often collaborating with his brother-in-law Slim Harpo and with the harmonica player Lazy Lester,” states Wikipedia. In the 1970s, Slim performed on tours in Europe, in the United Kingdom and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. In July 1974, Slim died of stomach cancer in Detroit, Michigan, aged 61.

In her 2016 dissertation entitled Swamp Blues: Race and Vinyl from Southwest Louisiana at the University of Pennsylvania, Evelyn Levingston Malone argues that “the unconventional ‘regional’ swamp blues beg a revaluation of both blackness in Civil Rights-era Southwest Louisiana, and the accepted racial and ethnic segregations of sound found there that exclude the swamp blues from standard narratives of local music history.”

That may or may not be overstating the importance of this blues music sub-genre, but I would argue that not paying any attention to this particular music would be paying it a great disservice.

As Frank Zappa once said of Lightnin’ Slim’s music, “That’s good stuff because it’s real direct, it’s not a matter of pretense there. It’s right to the point.”

Slim Harpo sings “King Bee”

queen of country blues

Memphis Minnie

Categorically speaking, the blues can be divided into urban and rural styles. This is an important distinction when discussing female blues singers in the early days of blues recordings, starting in the 1920s. Performers like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey belonged to the former category. They sold lots of records as they were based in large cities, near the centers of musical production. Lesser known black female recording artists such as Katie Crippen, Edith Wilson, and Esther Bigeou did not get as many headlines, but many were just as talented. Blues historians tend to focus on Mississippi and Texas, but fewer mention the Piedmont area of the East Coast or the state of Louisiana. One great female singer, who migrated from Louisiana to Tennessee and on to Chicago, made a name for herself there with exceptional guitar picking and a loud but melodic singing touch.  

Her name was Lizzie “Memphis Minnie” Douglas (1897-1973) and she was an American blues guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter who was active from the 1920s to the 1950s. Despite her nickname, Douglas was born in the Algiers section of New Orleans. She was the only female blues artist considered a match to male contemporaries as both a singer and as an instrumentalist. “As blues and jazz gradually made their way into mainstream American culture during the swing era, the singer and guitarist known as Memphis Minnie stands out as a trailblazer. One of the first musicians in any genre to embrace the electric guitar, Memphis Minnie helped lead the transition from acoustic rural blues to electrified urban blues in the early 1940s,” reports the website 64 Parishes.

It is true that Minnie started her career in Memphis, but her nickname is misleading because the bulk of her career occurred in Chicago. In terms of record sales during the 1930s, she ranked second behind the boisterous Bessie Smith. Minnie was different from Bessie in that she wrote her own songs and played the guitar. She was much less flamboyant and controversial, thus she caught the eye of the media much less. As one observer put it, “The thin, light-skinned, bespeckled performer looked more like a schoolteacher than a blues singer.”

Minnie’s sparkling career never got as much publicity as many other blues players, probably because she had a less than a tragic life. She didn’t die at a young age like Robert Johnson or perish in a car accident as did Bessie Smith. An old adage says: “We respect people for their abilities, but love them for their weaknesses.” Instead of displaying frailties, Minnie was a woman in charge of her career, which ironically made her less interesting to historians and to the media. She was one of the most famous black women singers you have never heard about.

Langston Hughes, often called the Poet of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, saw Minnie perform at a New Year’s Party in December 1942 at Chicago’s 230 Club. There was Minnie sitting on top of a refrigerator full of beer, belting out blues songs about Louisiana over the roar of the crowd. “Then, through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles in the night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery, that never brings the right letter. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions — a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill,” Langston later wrote in the newspaper for blacks called The Chicago Defender.

Memphis Minnie recorded over 100 songs, most of which she had written herself. Among her many hits were “Bumble Bee” (her first), “Me and My Chauffer Blues”, “Hoodo Lady” and “When the Levees Broke.” The last-named 1929 song (with Kansas Joe McCoy, her husband) was actually about the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, but the tune prompted a revival of her music following Katrina, a large Category 5 Atlantic hurricane which caused over 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage to New Orleans in August 2005. The song’s lyrics start:

“If it keeps on raining’ levee’s going to break
If it keeps on raining’ levee’s going to break
And the water gonna come, you’ll have no place to stay
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moaned
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moaned
Thinkin’ bout my baby and happy home
If it keeps on raining’ levee’s going to break.” 

Minnie played the guitar like a man. She once even beat the great Big Bill Broonzy in a picking contest. Her title “Queen of the Country Blues” was no hype. “Minnie did everything the boys could do, and she did it in a fancy gown with full hair and makeup. She had it all: stellar guitar chops, a powerful voice, a huge repertoire including many original, signature songs and a stage presence simultaneously glamorous, bawdy and tough,” states an article in memphismusichalloffame.com.

More unfortunate than tragic, Memphis Minnie died broke, sick and forgotten, passing away in a nursing home in 1973. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Memphis’ New Hope Cemetery. Minnie laid in that unmarked grave for twenty-three years until Bonnie Raitt bought a headstone for her last resting place in 1996. In 1980, Memphis Minnie was one of the first 20 artists inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe perform “When the Levees Broke”

piedmont blues

In studying the historical development of the blues, it would be easy to assume that all blues came directly from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and the river bottoms of the Brazos Valley in Texas. That would be a mistake because cotton was not the only plant that contributed to the blues tradition. The other was tobacco, grown in the Piedmont region along the East Coast, which stretches from the Appalachian Mountains, down through Virginia, the Carolinas all the way to Alabama and Georgia. The region’s style of guitar picking, using only the thumb and index finger on the right hand and a slide on the left, became known as the Piedmont Blues, or was sometimes referred to as the East Coast Blues. The Piedmont style is differentiated from other styles, particularly the Mississippi Delta Blues, by its ragtime-based rhythms.

Tobacco had been grown in Virginia ever since white settlers from Europe established a settlement at Jamestown in 1607. Exporting tobacco leaves from Jamestown to England was far more profitable in those early days than growing corn. Black slaves from Europe were introduced later as tobacco growing was very labor intensive and such slaves were less likely to contract diseases than the white settlers. These slaves, coming mostly from Western Africa, brought their music with them. One of the most famous Virginians to make a fortune selling “yellow leaf” tobacco was James B. Duke, who employed the first cigarette-rolling machine. His descendants used this fortune to establish Duke University, whose basketball team is still known as the Blue Devils.

“The tobacco cities and towns of North Carolina and Virginia, plus the textile-based ones of South Carolina and Georgia, loom importantly in the history of Piedmont blues. Musicians followed the money during the tobacco harvest and auctions. The Durham market, for example, lasted three to four months, ending in December. It was a rowdy scene replete with medicine shows and buskers in the auction warehouses, all amplified by flowing dollars and bootleg whisky,” states The Blues Encyclopedia.

Why were so many Piedmont Blues players blind men?

Perhaps because the Piedmont style was less complicated than regular guitar picking, blind guitar pickers were some of the first to master the style. Such visually impaired men really had to choose between picking cotton or plucking a guitar in those days. “Blind Blake [1896-1934] was a notable exponent of this style, with clean picking, steady rhythm and tasteful and imaginative phrasing making him a best-selling Blues artist. Throughout the ‘20s he played on street corners, Saturday night dances and fish-fries all up and down the Georgia and Carolina coastline. His instrumental, ‘West Coast Blues’ was a hit on Paramount in 1926, and he recorded more than 80 tracks before his demise in 1933,” explains allaboutmusic.com.

Blake was a long-time husker, working the streets of Atlanta and Augusta. He cut his first record in 1927 for Victor Records and recorded for several different labels up until the 1950s. Unfortunately, this great master of the Piedmont Blues did not live long enough to see the “discovery” of many old blues musicians in the 1960s. Blake died from complications of diabetes and alcoholism. Not much is known about Blind Blake’s history, but the record is much better for another blind blues guitarist named Blind Willie McTell (1898-1959), who hailed from Thomas, Georgia.

“Blind Willie McTell (born William Samuel McTier) was a Piedmont blues and ragtime singer and guitarist. He played with a fluid, syncopated fingerstyle guitar technique, common among many exponents of Piedmont blues. Unlike his contemporaries, he came to use twelve-string guitars exclusively. McTell was also an adept slide guitarist, unusual among ragtime bluesmen. His vocal style, a smooth and often laid-back tenor, differed greatly from many of the harsher voices of Delta bluesmen such as Charley Patton. McTell performed in various musical styles, including blues, ragtime, religious music and hokum,” states Wikipedia.

Etta Baker (1913-2006) of Caldwell County, North Carolina played the guitar in the Piedmont Blues style for more than 80 years, starting when she was only three years old. Her father, who picked guitars in the same style was her only teacher, which meant that the 93 year old had learned from a first-generation blues performer. Many blues players have been influenced by Baker’s “pure” mastery of the Piedmont style.

Piedmont blues was popular between the 1920s and 1940s, but fell out of favor after WWII. However, the music enjoyed a revival thanks to the British Invasion and the growing anti-Vietnam War protest songs of the 1960s. Modern-day practitioners of the Piedmont style include such musicians as Keb Mo’, Eric Bibb and Ry Cooder. The last-named musician’s slide guitar, with its haunting and soul-piercing sound, has been the soundtrack to several movies, including “Paris, Texas” and “Southern Comfort.” Of Cooder’s many hits, my personal favorite is “Vigilante Man.” Arlo Guthrie famously used a Piedmont blues backing for his “Alice’s Restaurant” monologues, as it was easy to play repeatedly for long stretches of time.

Ry Cooder performs “Vigilante Man” (1973)

sister act

The blues has many roots, one of which is gospel music that has been sung in white and black churches around the nation for hundreds of years. Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer, recalled those church-going days of her youth: “Everybody in there sang, and they clapped and stomped their feet, and sang with their whole bodies. They had a beat, a rhythm we held onto from slavery days, and their music was so strong and expressive. It used to bring tears to my eyes.” Blues was a natural outgrowth of this tradition of such emotional outbursts.

In my opinion, some of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits were his gospel songs, such as “Crying in the Chapel,” “Peace in the Valley,” and “Swing Down Sweet Chariot.” The salient characteristics of such music are the feelings they exude. That’s why the early white pioneers of rock-and-roll music, like Elvis and Carl Perkins, would visit black churches to hear their choirs perform. Southern black churches at that time (1950s) had roped-off areas in the back of the pews for white visitors to observe and listen. Elvis’ trips to black churches taught him to express such feelings in his music; he channeled one black gospel and blues singer, in particular. Her name was Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-73).   

Tharpe attained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with her gospel recordings, characterized by a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and rhythmic accompaniment that was a precursor of rock and roll. She was the first great recording star of gospel music and among the first gospel musicians to appeal to rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll audiences, later being referred to as “the Godmother of rock and roll.” She influenced early rock-and-roll musicians, including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Tharpe’s unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements while incorporating a pulsating swing.

This flamboyant American singer/showman’s influence crossed the Atlantic as well. “Tharpe was a pioneer in her guitar technique; she was among the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, presaging the rise of electric blues. Her guitar playing technique had a profound influence on the development of British blues in the 1960s; in particular a European tour with Muddy Waters in 1964 with a stop in Manchester on 7 May is cited by prominent British guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards,” explains Wikipedia

Sister Rosetta was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas and was taken by her mother to Chicago when she was six years old. At 19, she married Thomas Tharpe. The marriage did not last, but the last name she had acquired did. Moving to New York in 1938, she joined up with Lucky Millinder’s orchestra and landed a seven-year recording contract with Decca Records. She later found out that the contract called for her to sing secular, not gospel, songs. Following her first hit in 1938 called “Rock Me,” her career took off like a rocket, with performances at the famous Cotton Club and at Carnegie Hall. Lyrics to her first hit go like this:

“Now won’t you hear me singin’
Hear the words that I’m saying
Wash my soul with water from on high
Why the world loves love is around me
Even force to buy me
But oh, if you leave me
I will die
You hold me in the bosom
Till the storms of life is over
Rock me in the cradle of our love
Only feed me till I want no more.”

Tharpe’s 1944 release “Down by the Riverside” was selected for the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004, which noted that it captures her spirited guitar playing and unique vocal style, demonstrating clearly her influence on early rhythm-and-blues performers. When asked about her influence on rock performers Tharpe would respond: “Oh, these kids and rock and roll, this is just sped-up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever.”

She met Marie Knight, her reportedly lesbian lover, in 1946 and the two formed a traveling duo act. The two drifted apart, however, after a fire claimed Knight’s mother and children. When the blues began to surge in the 1960s, Tharpe toured Europe as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan along with Muddy Waters and Otis Spann.

An ode to Sister Tharpe’s vast popularity came in 1951, when 25,000 people paid to attend her wedding to her new manager, Russell Morrison, whom she had met only three weeks before. The special ceremony was followed by a vocal performance at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe died from a stroke in Philadelphia in 1973 at the young age of 57. Her leg had been amputated as the result of diabetes-related complications. Marie Knight did Rosetta’s makeup and hair for the burial. Knight passed away in Harlem in 2009; she was 84.

According to her biography on AllMusic.com, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was “widely acclaimed among the greatest Sanctified gospel singers of her generation; a flamboyant performer whose music often flirted with the blues and swing, she was also one of the most controversial talents of her day, shocking purists with her leap into the secular market – by playing nightclubs and theaters, she not only pushed spiritual music into the mainstream, but in the process also helped pioneer the rise of pop-gospel.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was finally inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. “It’s long overdue,” said singer Brittany Howard, who made the introduction.

Amen to that.

radio and biscuits

What is a good definition of radio? According to an old saying: “Radio is the theater of the mind; television is the theater of the mindless.”

Radio became a reality shortly after the turn of the century. However, commercial development of radio was set back during WWI as the American Navy commandeered the technology for use in the war, i.e. sending messages to and from naval ships. It is telling that the U.S. Navy press sent its final dispatch of the war, announcing armistice on November 11, 1918, via radio transmission.

Radio experienced monumental growth after the first commercial station, KDKA, was brought to life by Westinghouse Electric in 1920, just after the Great War ended. “The company was the first to utilize the radio for broadcasting purposes. The first broadcast announced the results of the 1920 Presidential election. By creating interest in the broadcasts, Westinghouse Electric cultivated demand for radios by the general public [especially for broadcasts of boxing matches]. This demand led to the sale of $60 million of radio equipment and accessories in America. By 1924, that number jumped to $358 million,” claims the website Bnhv.org.

In other words, the commercialization of radio coincided historically with the rise in the popularity of blues music in the first part of the 20th century. Such records as Bessie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” became extremely popular in the early 1920s, but the 78rpm discs had to be played on a record player, usually a hand-cranked Victrola. Radio broadcasts of music changed all that. A radio in the center of American homes became television before television. Blues made its escape from hand-cranked turntables to the radio waves as black female singers of the Classic Blues climbed the ratings. Radio music broadcast popularity soared in the 1920s, particularly after E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone, which greatly improved radio sound quality.

Not many blues writers and aficionados would make a connection between the blues and the sale of flour. But after the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, the blues recording business crashed along with it. Blues artists doing well selling records during the roaring twenties suddenly found they had to return to a life of hard work in the cotton fields or doing other manual labor jobs. Blues recording seemed to die an early death. However, one staple every Great Depression family needed was bread, especially the kind made from white flour. Mixing the previously popular blues music with flour advertising seemed like a no-brainer to some flour companies. Using the relatively new medium of radio was also a self-illuminating idea.

What were some early radio stations that played blues music? It was not surprising, then, that the first such blues-oriented show was The King Biscuit Time radio show, named after King Biscuit flour, the show’s sponsor. The show debuted on AM 1360 KFFA in Helena, Arkansas with performances by Sonny Boy Williamson II and Robert Lockwood Jr. At the time (1941), it was the only radio show featuring African American music. KFFA reached a wide audience throughout the Mississippi Delta and later became famous around the world. The success of King Biscuit Time would pave the way for other African American radio stations and programming. It is still on the air daily on KFFA from Helena.

Wikipedia explains the wide-sweeping influence of this popular radio program: “King Biscuit Time was also a major breakthrough for African-American music in general. The popularity of the program and its reach into the untapped African-American demographic gained notice and spawned a host of imitators. By 1947, the first black disc jockey in the South, Early Wright, had been signed at WROX across the river. WDIA in Memphis soon became the first radio station in the South with an all-black staff (including deejay B.B. King) and a musical format based on the success of King Biscuit Time.”

Programmers at KBT wanted to aim their show at a maximized black audience so the show’s 12:15 pm time slot was chosen to match the lunch break of workers in the Mississippi Delta. KBT has racked up more broadcasts than the Grand Ole Opry and American Bandstand combined; it celebrated its 17,000th broadcast on May 13, 2014. The 30-minute live show is broadcast from the Delta Community Center in downtown Helena.

While working on the Stovall Plantation, just outside Clarksdale Mississippi, a young musician named Muddy Waters heard some King Biscuit Time  broadcasts on his lunch hour and decided in 1943 to head north for the bright lights and blues music being played in Chicago. The rest was history in the making. Muddy’s electrified blues style not only changed the Chicago blues, it changed the whole world of blues music. And audiences across the world also got to hear Muddy Waters sing and play via radio, thanks to the financial support from a flour company.

“Until it’s on the radio or online, it’s not real,” claims Bono of U-2.

As a child without access to television in the early 1950s, radio was very real to me. Hovering around our old cathedral radio set, I would listen to football or baseball games and radio’s Golden Age serials like “The Shadow, “Sky King” and “The Lone Ranger.” I would get chills running down my spine just waiting for the shows to begin. I never had those same feelings for television. Maybe it was because I was older. Maybe not.

Robert Lockwood Jr. performs “King Biscuit Time”

black bottoms

Trivia question: What early 1900s dance became a blues song, then a play and finally a movie, which is due out later this year? If you answered “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” you would be correct. This is an upcoming American drama film directed by George C. Wolfe, based on the play of the same name by black poet, playwright and author August Wilson (1945-2005). The film stars Viola Davis (“How to Get Away with Murder,” “Fences”) and  Chadwick Boseman (“42,” “Black Panther”) in his final film role prior to his death in August 2020. It centers on a fateful recording session of “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey in Chicago. The content of both the play and film deals with issues of race, music, relationships, and the white exploitation of black recording artists.

“Originating among African Americans in the rural South, the black bottom [dance] eventually was adopted by mainstream American culture and became a national craze in the 1920s. The dance was most famously performed by Ann Pennington, a star of the Ziegfeld Follies, who performed it in a Broadway revue staged by Ziegfeld’s rival George White in 1926. The dance originated in New Orleans in the first decade of the 20th century. The jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Martin, wrote the tune ‘Black Bottom Stomp,’ its title referring to the Black Bottom area of Detroit,” explains Wikipedia.

There is a common misconception that blues is only music, but many scholars believe that blues lyrics are literary works as well. Was Huckleberry Finn really a bluesman? Stop your snickering and listen to the views of literary critic Robert O’Meally who views Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a blues novel. “While sitting in his study reading the novel, O’Meally observed, ‘the bluesiness of Huck’s tale sounded through the book’s pages…Huck knows how to solo; and like a true bluesman, he learns to swing…my love for this book—wrong notes and all—is linked, tied as tight as the strings of old Robert Johnson’s blues guitar’.” (R. Ferris in go.gale.com)

Although the “Black Bottom” story started around the turn of the century as a dance, it was turned into a stage play in 1982 by the double Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. His play concerns a  blues recording session in 1927. The plot is about rising tensions between “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable singer. Rainey was portrayed as being upset with the horn player making advances toward her female lover called “Dussie Mae” (probably blues singer Bessie Smith in real life). Ma was also determined to control the content and style of her music instead of giving in to the aggressive white management which was trying to do the same thing. Verbal sparks fly. Both the play and upcoming movie portray Ma as insisting that her 1927 song “Black Bottom” be included. Some of the song’s lyrics are as follows:

“The other night at a swell affair
Soon as the boys found out that I was there
They said, ‘Come on, Ma let’s go to the cabaret’
Where that band you ought to hear me say

I want to see that dance you call the black bottom
I wanna learn that dance
Don’t you see the dance you call your big black bottom
That’ll put you in a trance

Now, you heard the rest
Ah, boys, I’m gonna show you the best
Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom.”

In the upcoming movie version, “triple crown” (Tony, Emmy and Oscar) winner Viola Davis plays the unstoppable, cantankerous Ma Rainey while the smoothly talented Chadwick Boseman portrays the oversexed horn player who is determined to share a bed with Ma’s lover and carve out his own niche in the recording industry. Fans of the “Black Panther,” saddened by Boseman’s early passing, will get another (and last) chance to see their hero perform on the silver screen. Personally, I can’t wait to see these two marvelous actors square off. Davis is the first black actor to win a triple crown. She dislikes being called an “actress,” asking: “When is the last time you have heard a female doctor being called a doctress?”   

Veteran black actor Denzel Washington initially had a deal with the television network HBO to produce nine of August Wilson’s plays into films, with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” amongst them. By June 2019, the deal had been moved to Netflix. Washington praised Boseman saying: “He was a gentle soul and a brilliant artist who will stay with us for eternity through his iconic performances over his short yet illustrious career. God bless Chadwick Boseman.”

The son of a German father and African American mother, August Wilson’s awards are too numerous to mention here, but expect some more awards to come from the silver screen debut of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Depending on how well the film does in the box office, it’s quite possible that an Oscar could go to Viola Davis for best actor and a posthumous statue to Chadwick Boseman for best supporting actor. Best Picture award for 2020? Maybe.

Ma Rainey sings “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

hokum signifying

Sometimes one is caught on the horns of a verbal dilemma: Is it better to tell the truth and face the consequences or tell a lie and live with the pain of that deception? Or some opt for a middle ground of “spinning,” i.e., cloaking a lie in the misdirection of truth, or vice-versa. Government officials in particular seem to excel at this “skill” of talking without actually saying anything and/or wrapping truth in a veil of lies. In World War II, Winston Churchill made his now-famous statement: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” The last three words of Churchhill’s statement became the title of a 1975 non-fiction book by Anthony Cave Brown.

Classical writers and poets also used lyrical misdirection and double entendre extensively. Life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” says the paranoid king in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. With a dead wife and armies marching against him, Macbeth’s pessimism is totally understandable. The key word here, however, is signifying, a loaded word indeed, as it can have various meanings. The textbook definition of “signifying” is the use of double-meaning in verbal communication to convey a different or opposite meaning to the literal interpretation. Centuries later, black slaves on white Southern plantations were using this lyrical technique to communicate messages without getting caught in an act of sending subversive suggestions.

“In the 19th Century, it was commonplace among slave communities for ironic statements, perhaps about some ‘fine work’ that might sound respectful to the ‘master’, to express the opposite to fellow slaves. In the Gospel song ‘Wade in the Water,’ the lyric ostensibly refers to the practice of ‘baptizing’ people into the Church by immersing them in the river, but it also references runaway slaves using waterways to put bloodhounds off the scent,” suggests Allaboutbluesmusic.com. “When songs address the subject of sex, all kinds of metaphors, and word-plays are used to disguise the material being ‘signified’, and the game included accusing anyone who complained about the content of lyrics of having a ‘dirty mind’ for doubting the literal meaning.”

Hokum, a.k.a. “dirty blues,” records were popular in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s in America. Their lyrics on some of those records that sold in their hundreds of thousands were quite explicit in their references to sexual practices, prostitution and homosexuality. This hokum craze occurred during the “Prohibition” era, when drinking alcohol criminalized large parts of the population. Permissiveness in nightlife extended to sexual activity, gambling and other immoral and subversive activities.

A sub-genre of traditional American blues, hokum uses extended analogies or euphemisms to make sexual innuendoes. For instance, let’s look at some of the lyrics to Bo Carter’s “Banana in Your Fruit Basket” (1931):

“I got a brand new skillet
I got a brand new lead,
All I need is a little woman, just to burn my bread
I’m tellin’ you baby, I sure ain’t gonna deny,
Let me put my banana in your fruit basket, then I’ll be satisfied.”

In fact, food was often a symbol used by Hokum blues players in the early days. Sausages were the food of choice for Bessie Smith (“Hot Dog Man” 1927), Butterbeans and Susie’s “I Wanna Hot Dog for my Roll” (1927), Bo Carter’s “Please Warm My Weiner” (1935), and Lil Johnson’s “Sam the Hot Dog Man” (1936). Lil Johnson’s “Press My Button, Ring My Bell” (1936) includes the lines “Come on baby, let’s have some fun, Just put your hot dog in my bun,” points out williamseaton.blogspot.com. “In 1928 Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey recorded ‘It’s Tight Like That,’ a song that was highly successful and opened the door to a stream of dirty blues artists that recorded during the 1930s. Interestingly, pianist Georgia Tom Dorsey later left his hokum blues origins and went on to create a new genre based on religious beliefs: Gospel.” The lyrics to “It’s Tight Like That” go like this:

“Listen here folks
Wanta sing a little song
Don’t get mad, we don’t mean no harm
Y’know, it’s tight like that

Beedle-um-bum
Oh, It’s tight like that
Beedle-um-bum
Oh, ya Hear me talkin’ to you
I mean it’s tight like that

There was a little black rooster
Met a little brown hen
Made a date at the barn about-a half-past-ten
Y’know, it’s tight like that.”

In PRI World Paulus van Horne explains that the hokum genre is pure entertainment, composed for the vaudeville shows and rundown theaters home to minstrel shows in the 1920s and 1930s. “Both black and white musicians sang hokum. It wasn’t only white people making fun of black people, nor was it black people playing up stereotypes for a white audience.” 

The environment that gave birth to recorded blues was indeed a witch’s brew of volatile entertainment spurred on by post-WWI euphoria, rising black nationalism, the Harlem Renaissance, lewd dancing in public and drinking in “speakeasy” (password required) pubs where outlawed liquor was sold during Prohibition days. The general giddiness of the Roaring Twenties produced a freedom of expression in music rarely seen afterwards.

Even white comedians like Jeff Foxworthy pay homage to those clever black wordsmiths of the hokum blues days: “I talk about sex and marriage but it’s just trying to find a way to say ‘it’ without actually saying ‘it’.” A couple of Jeff’s funniest one-liners about Astroglide: “Let’s you park your Cadillac in a doghouse” and (referring to a woman’s caboose) “That looks like two blue Volkswagens trying to pass each other on a gravel road.” Pure hokum. Tampa Red would look down and smile.

Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey sing “It’s Tight Like That”

Essays on early blues music development