railroads and fast texas

The Republic of Texas joined the Union in 1845 as a slave state, and a flood of migrants quickly started coming in from other states such as Tennessee and Alabama, many bringing their slaves with them. The northeastern part of the state, known as the “piney woods,” was particularly attractive for such newcomers because of its logging industry, which was providing building materials for a rapidly expanding population. When steam locomotives were introduced in the 1850s, job opportunities abounded for the new railroad industry in Texas. Where the railroads went (toward the growing towns of Houston, Galveston, Austin and Dallas), civilization followed. So did the chugging and whistling sounds of the newfangled steam locomotives that were mimicked by black (and some white) singers and piano players. Pianos had been brought into the area by steamships plying the great Mississippi and Red Rivers.

Texas was home to an environment that fostered the creation of “fast Western” music, which later became known as boogie-woogie. The lumber, cattle, turpentine, and oil industries were all served by an expanding railway system from the northern corner of East Texas to the Gulf Coast and from the Louisiana border to Dallas and West Texas. Alan Lomax, who recorded early blues songs for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and ‘40s wrote: “Anonymous black musicians, longing to grab a train and ride away from their troubles, incorporated the rhythms of the steam locomotive and the moan of their whistles into the new dance music they were playing in jukes and dance halls. Boogie-woogie forever changed piano playing, as ham-handed [unskilled] black piano players transformed the instrument into a polyrhythmic railroad train.”

One of the best known of these “train songs” was Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s 1934 version of “The Midnight Special,” recorded at Angola Prison in Louisiana. The hero aspect of this blues song was not so much about the escaping prisoners from a Sugarland (near Houston) prison, but more about the train itself. The “ever-loving light” of the train was a potent symbol of salvation and absolution from sins for these escapees.

“Well, you wake up in the mornin’, you hear the work bell ring,
And they march you to the table, you see the same old thing,
Ain’t no food upon the table, and no pork up in the pan,
But you better not complain, boy, you get in trouble with the man.”

“Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine an ever lovin’ light on me.”

Master of the 12-string guitar Lead Belly (1888-1949) sang and recorded several other blues songs concerning trains, including “Rock Island Line (1937) and “Leavin’ on the Morning Train Blues” (1938), both about trains entering and leaving New Orleans. In the former song, Lead Belly imagined a scenario in which a depot agent is about to make an oncoming freight train go “in the hole,” i.e., wait on a side track until a higher-priority train passes. The train engineer signals that he has livestock aboard by using his whistle, suggesting one of the many creative ways train sounds were used in those days. Lead Belly’s version of “Rock Island Line” was echoed by British singer Lonnie Donegan in 1954, which started the “skiffle” craze there and thus helped lead to the development of English rock and roll in the 1960s.

Many blues experts have concluded that the railroad-inspired “fast Western” (also called fast Texas) was the first term by which boogie-woogie was known. During the early days of blues development all Negro piano players in Houston, Dallas and Galveston played that way. This style was differentiated from the “slow blues” of New Orleans and St. Louis. At these gatherings, the ragtime and blues boys could easily tell from what section of the country a man came, even going so far as to name the town, by his interpretation of a piece, explains the website Nonjohn.com.

In the 1986 television broadcast of Britain’s The South Bank Show about boogie-woogie, music historian Paul Oliver noted: “Now the conductors were used to the logging camp pianists clamoring aboard, telling them a few stories, jumping off the train, getting into another logging camp, and playing again for eight hours, barrel house [music style of rowdy pubs with beer barrels on the dance floor]. In this way the music got around—all through Texas—and eventually, of course, out of Texas. Now when this new form of piano music came from Texas, it moved out towards Louisiana. It was brought by people like George W. Thomas, an early pianist who was already living in New Orleans by about 1910 and writing ‘New Orleans Hop Scop Blues,’ which really has some of the characteristics of the music that we came to know as Boogie.” The song was also recorded in 1930 by “the empress of the blues” Bessie Smith. Her version goes like this:

“Old New Orleans is a great big old southern town, where hospitality you will surely find,
The population there is very, very fair, with ev’rything they do,
White folks do it too, they have a dance surely it’s something rare there,
Glide, slide, prance, dance, hop, stop,
Take it easy honey!

“I can never git tired of dancin’ those Hop Scop Blues,
Once more you glide, slide, prance, dance,
The Hop Scop Blues will make you do a lovely shake,
They’ll make you feel so grand when you join hand in hand,
I’ll never git tired of dancin’ those Hop Scop Blues,
Once more you glide, slide, prance, I said dance, oh, hop, now stop,
Take it easy…”

Lonnie Donegan sings “Rock Island Line”

the devil’s son-in-law

Following the stock market crash of 1929, the market for blues recordings suffered its own great depression. Many black blues performers, who had been riding high during the Roaring Twenties, had no choice other than packing their bags and returning to the rural south, from which they had come. Recording companies turned away from traditional blues in favor of brighter, faster and more upbeat new sounds coming out of east Texas logging camps and steam locomotive operations called Fast Western (later known as big band swing) and Boogie Woogie, which became the dominant sound (and dances) of the World War II years. Blues made a comeback in the 1950s and ‘60s with the British Invasion which featured bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Beatles, which were groomed on traditional American blues music. Traditional blues also fit hand-in-glove with the American and international political protest movements against the war in Vietnam during the same period. 

There were some blues recording artists during the 1930s, however, who managed to create reputations for themselves and thus survive during very tough times. A saying during those days summed up the prevailing reality: “A loaf of bread was only a nickel, but who in the hell had a nickel?” One such player was William Bunch, better known by his nom de plume Peetie (or Peetey) Wheatstraw (1902-41). “He recorded in every year of the 1930s save 1933, ultimately producing 175 sides in all with only one rejection, an enormous total for a blues artist in the pre-war period. This figure does not include recordings made by Wheatstraw sitting in on records made by his frequent partner, Kokomo Arnold, or ones made with Amos Easton, a.k.a. Bumble Bee Slim,” writes Uncle Dave Lewis in allmusic.com. Only a few pictures of Peetie remain, most showing him holding a guitar, but he specialized in playing the piano.

The History of the Blues described Wheatstraw as a potato-headed pianist and singer, who delivered his lyrics in a “slightly tipsy fashion” and very often punctuated his verses with an annoying cry of “ooh well, well.” One disgusted female listener once responded: “Why doesn’t he just yodel and get it over with?”

Like the more famous Robert Johnson of the Mississippi Delta, the St. Louis based Wheatstraw claimed to have gone to the crossroads and met the devil to make a deal, although his story had a different twist than the Johnson tale. In his version, Peetie’s deal was to marry Beelzebub’s extremely ugly daughter in exchange for an enhanced musical ability. That’s why the singer’s recordings were issued under two different demonic names: “The Devil’s Son-in-Law” or “The High Sheriff from Hell.” Humility was not Peetie’s trademark.

The blues singer Henry Townsend recalled Wheatstraw’s real personality: “He was that kind of person. You know, a jive-type person.” The blues critic Tony Russell updated the description in Wikipedia: “Wheatstraw constructed a macho persona that made him the spiritual ancestor of rap artists.” Peetie’s lyrics were a major influence on Robert Johnson, forming the basis for Johnson’s 1937 “Terraplane Blues.”

One of Peetie’s greatest hits was “The Devil’s Son-in-Law.” Some of its macho lyrics are as follows:

“When I was born I was a man
I whooped the doctor’s ass for slappin’ me with his hand
Didn’t give a damn about nothin’ do you understand me cuzzin’
Cause I gotta plan to show you somethin’
The world’s in my hands You think it wasn’t I am what I am
Tell’em somethin’ Devils son-in-law yeah.”

“I got dough I got the Flow
And every dime piece is working in my show
Show after show I’m making dough
My competition hatin’ sayin’ I gotta go
They get together I didn’t know
They set me up and filled me full of holes
Oh No I’m on the floor Devils son-in-law yeah.”

An American blaxploitation comedy horror film was made in 1977 about the Wheatstraw legend     called The Devil’s Son-in-Law. The plot differs slightly from the musical legend, for comedic effect. After being murdered by his rivals, Petey Wheatstraw (played by comedian Rudy Ray Moore) is resurrected, in exchange for marrying the devil’s daughter, the world’s ugliest woman. Beginning life as the afterbirth to a watermelon, the young Wheatstraw becomes a martial artist, but is unable to best the evil comedy team of Leroy and Skillet, who also indulge in wholesale murder. Satan restores the comedians’ victims to life, and charges Petey with the task of marrying his clock-stoppingly ugly daughter to give him a grandchild. When Petey attempts to default on the deal, he is pursued by the devil’s henchmen, explains IMDb.com.

Peetie’s actual demise was less dramatic, but equally tragic. In December, 1941 (on the 21st, his birthday), Wheatstraw and a couple of friends decided to take a drive to find some liquor. Only a short distance from his house, the car struck a parked train, killing Peetie’s two friends instantly. The Devil’s Son-in-Law passed away from his injuries in the hospital a few hours later. He was only 39 years old.

“Wheatstraw was overwhelmingly popular throughout the 1930s, and he is credited in some quarters with being the artist who carried the blues from its lowly status as rural ‘devil’s music’ into the cities where, in time, it would grow, thrive and change to suit the needs of a new, urban audience,” concludes Uncle Dave Lewis.

With so many early blues performers claiming they went to the crossroads and made pacts with the devil, there is no wonder that the blues got labeled as “the devil’s music.”

Peetie Wheatstraw sings “The Devil’s Son-in-Law”

stagger lee

It is not unusual for blues songs dating back to the 1920s or before to be re-recorded in different genres. Along the way, much of the blues feeling and intent of the original song is lost or misinterpreted. One of the greatest examples of this process is “Stagger Lee,” a blues song first published in 1911, and then recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. In 1925, “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey recorded the second version of the song as “Stack O’Lee Blues.” The song had actually been doing the rounds of the South, travelling up and down the Mississippi River, since the turn of the century, claims the website udiscovermusic.com.

The historical Stagger Lee was Lee Shelton, a black pimp living in St. Louis, Missouri in the late 19th century. He was nicknamed Stag Lee or Stack Lee, with a variety of explanations being given: 1) he was given the nickname because he “went stag,” meaning he was without friends; 2) he took the nickname from a well-known riverboat captain called Stack Lee; or, 3) according to John and Alan Lomax, he took the name from a riverboat owned by the Lee family of Memphis called the Stack Lee, which was known for its on-board prostitution. 

“Shelton was well known locally as one of the Macks, a group of pimps who demanded attention through their flashy clothing and appearance. In addition to these activities, he was the captain of a black Four Hundred Club, a social club with a dubious reputation,” says Wikipedia.

“Stagger Lee” is all about an incident that happened on Christmas night in 1895 while Shelton and his acquaintance William “Billy” Lyons were drinking in the Bill Curtis Saloon. Lyons was also a member of St. Louis’ underworld, and may have been a political and business rival to Shelton. After a lot of drinking and gambling, Lyons grabbed Shelton’s Stetson hat, a definite fighting matter. Subsequently, Shelton shot Lyons in the stomach, recovered his hat, and left. Lyons died shortly afterward and Shelton was convicted of the murder in 1897. Shelton was paroled in 1909, but soon got into trouble again and was returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery; he died in there in 1912.

A string of different “Stagger Lee” versions have been recorded by Furry Lewis (1927), Long Clive Reed (1927), Frank Hutchison (1927), Woody Guthrie (1956), Lonnie Donegan (1956), Taj Mahal (1969) and Bob Dylan (1993). Cab Calloway and His Orchestra recorded a song entitled ‘Stack O Lee Blues’, but his version had nothing lyrically to do with the original, claims Richard Havers in udiscovermusic.com. Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording is considered the definitive version by blues scholars. Some of his lyrics go like this:

“Police officer, how can it be?
You can ‘rest everybody but cruel Stack O’ Lee
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
Billy de Lyon told Stack O’ Lee, ‘Please don’t take my life,
I got two little babies, and a darlin’ lovin’ wife’

That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
‘What I care about you little babies, your darlin’ lovin’ wife?
You done stole my Stetson
Hat, I’m bound to take your life.”

Some sources say that recordings of this song number in the hundreds and that the Stagger Lee tale has been told and retold in venues other than just music. According to staggerlee.com, over 400 different artists have recorded this song since the first recording in 1923. Margaret Walker and James Baldwin wrote poems from the song. It’s been refashioned as a musical, two novels, a short story, an award-winning graphic novel, Ph.D. dissertations, and a pornographic feature film. “Stagger Lee” has lived as Ragtime, a Broadway showtune, Blues, Jazz, Honky Tonk, Country, ‘50s Rock and Roll, Ska, Folk, Surf, ‘70s punk, Heavy Metal, ‘90s punk, Rap. Even Hawaiian. The song’s character lives large in Gangsta Rap. Listen to it and we hear the evolution of modern music.

Probably the most familiar version of “Stagger Lee” (at least to baby boomers) was recorded in 1958 by R&B vocalist Lloyd Price. His version of the song reached number one on the Billboard list and stayed there for four weeks in 1959. Some of his lyrics are as follows:

“Stagger Lee went to the barroom
And he stood across the barroom door
He said, nobody move and he pulled his
Forty-four, Ooh

Stagger Lee, (oh Stagger Lee) cried Billy (oh Stagger Lee)
Oh, please (oh Stagger Lee) don’t take my life (oh Stagger Lee)
I’ve got three little (oh Stagger Lee) children and a very (oh Stagger Lee)
Sickly wife (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)

Stagger Lee (oh Stagger Lee) shot Billy (oh Stagger Lee)
Oh, he shot (oh Stagger Lee) that poor boy so bad (oh Stagger Lee)
‘Till the bullet (oh Stagger Lee) came through Billy (oh Stagger Lee)and it broke the bar (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)
Tender’s glass (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)”

Lloyd Price sings “Stagger Lee”

mules in the blues

Mules have a long history of being mentioned in literature and music, going all the way back to the Bible and before. The animal is a cross between a female horse and a male donkey and is characterized as being very stubborn, but also intelligent. It is beast of burden known to be rebellious as well. In slavery days (and beyond) in the Old South mules were used to pull the plows that prepared the land for crops, usually cotton, and to haul heavy loads. They were also a primary means of transportation for African Americans then, either pulling wagons or acting as a poor man’s horse. A special bond developed between slaves and mules, a relationship which entered the black jive lexicon in many ways. It was common sense among these mule operators to never approach the animal from the rear. The “dangerous hind legs” of a mule became a powerful symbol in black slang and in blues music.

“Indeed, the blues singer adopted a phrase referring to ‘the dangerous hind legs of a mule’ when referring to another man making love to his wife or girlfriend. ‘Another mule kicking in your stall’ appeared most famously in a 1951 post-war recording Long Distance Call [Chess 1452] by Muddy Waters, but was already standard fare in many pre-war recordings,” wrote Max Haymes in an essay called “Mule, Get Up in the Alley” in the earlyblues.com blog. “While in 1930, a driving Birmingham jug band cut Kickin’ Mule Blues [OKeh 8866] with an unidentified raucous singer whose essentially single-liners give a definite pre-blues feeling to this performance.”

One of the most famous songs about mules ever written or performed was “Mule Skinner Blues,” originally recorded in 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers, who had grown up in a black neighborhood in Texas and started his career singing blues songs. Rodgers’ song was influenced by the 1928 recording of Tom Dickson’s “Labor Blues” in which the exchange is clearly between a white boss and an African-American worker (Dickson was black) who is quitting the job, not applying for it:

“It’s ‘good mornin’ Captain’, ‘e said ‘good mornin’ Shine’,

Said ‘good mornin’ Captain’, said ‘good mornin’ Shine’.

‘T’ain’t nuthin’ the matter, Captain, but I just ain’t gwine.

‘I don’t mind workin’, Captain, from sun to sun,

I don’t mind workin’, Captain, from sun to sun.

But I want my money, Captain, when pay-day come.”

The AAB blues lyric structure is apparent in the song while slang words “captain” (white boss man) and shine (African American person) were employed to lend a local flavor. Rodgers’ later version was renamed “Blue Yodel #8” and then became “Mule Skinner Blues” in the many re-recordings of the earthy ballad, which had nothing to do with skinning mules. Mule skinners in those days were simply people who knew how to handle the stubborn animals.

Black workers had a reputation of knowing how to communicate with mules, mainly since they were the persons handling them the most. “The mule acted in the role of a release valve for pent-up emotions concerning the way blacks were treated by the white man and his Jim Crow laws. Paul Oliver, whilst considering the lyrics of Go ‘Long Mule [Paramount 12247] by Ukele Bob Williams, rightly pointed out: ‘Travelers in the South and ex-slaves alike recollected that a black worker could sing comments about his master or boss to his mule, which he could not say to his boss’s face’,” wrote Haymes, quoting Oliver.

The braying of mules was the stuff of legend as the sound was so shrill and loud it could be heard for miles. Only screech owls were louder, some say. Superstitious bluesmen, many of whom followed the tenets of the black religion hoodoo (not to be confused with voodoo), weaved mule and donkey sounds into their music. “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey described a mule’s pitch in 1926: “If I could holler just like a mountain jack, I’d go up on the mountain, call my good man back.”

“Jack” was another word for an ass (donkey), so it follows that a slang name for a stupid and obnoxious loudmouth is “jackass.” On the other hand, mules were often praised in blues music. In a song called “The Death of Holmes’ Mule” Charley Turner and Winston Holmes describe a hoodoo ritual employed for the burial of the revered animal.

The great blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson, from Texas, put it interestingly: “The blues come to Texas, lopin’ like a mule.”

Jimmie Rodgers sings “Mule Skinner Blues”

the blues in space

This week featured an extraordinary event – American astronauts returning to space for the first time in nine years. Even more stunning is the fact that there were carried there by a privately owned space craft from the SpaceX company instead of a NASA owned and operated one, surely opening the door to an international space travel industry. Tickets to the moon for anyone who can afford them (and they are not cheap; at a mere $35 million) are already being sold. So what’s next? Tickets to Mars? The, ahem, the sky’s the limit? Just ask Elon Musk, the SpaceX owner.

“By successfully launching its new Crew Dragon spacecraft with astronauts on board for the first time, SpaceX became the first private company to launch astronauts for NASA. The crewed test flight, called Demo-2, is also the first crewed launch from the United States since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. SpaceX and Boeing were both selected for NASA’s commercial crew program to wean the agency off its dependence on Russia’s Soyuz to fly  astronauts after the shuttle program was retired,” explains an article in Space.com

A gentle reader might ask OK, but what does all this good news have to do with the blues? That’s where the late American astronomer Carl Sagan and his team of scientists came in back in the late 1970s with the launch of NASA’s Voyager series of space probes. In 1977, upon the launching of Voyager I and Voyager II, a committee working under Carl Sagan produced the so-called “Golden Records,” actual phonographic LPs made of copper containing “a collection of sounds and images,” writes Joss Fong at Vox, “that will probably outlast all human artifacts on Earth.”

Carried into deep space, these recordings were presumably made for the entertainment of any aliens that might come across them. The idea was to send a representative sample of the earth’s cultures in terms of what earthlings enjoy, including music. The Open Culture blog explains: Among the audio selections are greetings from then-UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, whale songs, Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 2 in F, Senegalese percussion, Aborigine songs, Peruvian panpipes and drums, Navajo chant, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” (playing in the Vox video), more Bach, Beethoven, and “Johnny B. Goode.” The Beatles wanted to have “Here Comes the Sun” included, but their recording company forbade it. On what grounds we have to wonder? Was it possible the company was afraid of being sued for copyright infringement by aliens?

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945) was born in the small town of Pendleton, Texas. He was not born blind but got that way when he was a young boy. His mother, in a spat with her husband, threw a pan full of lye in her son’s face. In rural Texas, a blind black boy in those days had only a couple of choices and both concerned picking: cotton or a guitar. Willie recorded thirty spiritual songs between 1927 and 1930; many of which featured a female background singer. For a brief period, Willie’s recordings outsold the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith.

Although Willie never recorded traditional blues songs, it was his slide guitar playing that placed him squarely in the blues category. Anyway, Blind Willie Johnson’s greatest song was selected to inter-galactically represent the blues for several reasons: he had experienced the “crucifixion” of poverty, he had an “other worldly” voice, and his guitar playing was next to heavenly. Sadly, Blind Willie died of malaria and syphilis, complicated by pneumonia, after his shack burned down in August 1945. He and his wife had slept on a soggy mattress in the ashes because they had no other place to go.

Isn’t it interesting that the music of a deaf German musical conductor named Beethoven was also included in the Golden Records in Voyager II that will fly through our solar system for the next 60,000 years? It’s also ironic that the blues greats from the Mississippi Delta were skipped over for a poor Texas bluesman. 

An article in Texas Monthly by Michael Hall entitled “The Soul of a Man” sums up nicely: “The slide guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, who used ‘Dark Was the Night’ as the motif for his melancholy soundtrack to Paris, Texas, once called the song ‘the most transcendent piece in all American music.’ In about 60,000 years, one of the Voyagers just might enter another solar system. Maybe it will be intercepted. Maybe the interceptors will figure out how to play that record. Maybe they’ll hear ‘Dark Was the Night.’ Maybe they’ll wonder, what kind of creature made that music?”

That may indeed be a question for the ages, or as Cooder himself puts it: “I think Blind Willie Johnson is one of these interplanetary world musicians.”

Blind Willie Johnson performs “Dark Was the Night”

what’s in a name?

While driving from Arkansas to Texas, country singer Harold Lloyd Jenkins (1933-93) had a light-bulb moment. He had just pulled out of the town of Conway, Arkansas and was on his way to Twitty, Texas. Bingo! His new stage name would be Conway Twitty. The new name turned his career around and the singer went on to fame and fortune, especially his singing duets with country songbird Loretta Lynn such as “After the Fire is Gone.” The same thing happened to British pop singer Arnold George Dorsey, later known as Englebert Humperdink (the name of the 19th century composer who created the opera form of “Hansel and Gretel”). After changing his stage name to Humperdink, Dorsey made it big in 1967 with his smash hit “Release Me (and Let Me Love Again).” Many other hits followed.

How many people know that the 1970s pop duo called Steely Dan was actually named after a dildo that was mentioned in a 1959 novel by American writer William S. Burroughs called The Naked Lunch? What about the name of the rock group Jefferson Airplane, later updated to Jefferson Starship? Here, Jefferson is an homage to Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929), an early blues pioneer from Texas. Mississippi Delta blues legend McKinley Morganfield (1913-83), otherwise known as Muddy Waters, got his nickname from his mother who used to chide her young son for playing in mud puddles. The name stuck to him, like the Mississippi mud from those puddles.

Sometimes stage names or nom de plumes can have a more practical function as well. “In the age when media such as television was not yet strong and the internet was non-existent, the use of a catchy nickname that could be easily remembered and therefore spread easily was the ultimate promotional tool,” writes Cynthia Betubuza in Musicmaker.org. “This was a method used by artists such as Guitar Gabriel and Muddy Waters. Also, piggy-backing off of and tweaking the nicknames of already known performers allowed for newer artists to use some of that buzz for themselves.”

Before musicians had illegal downloads to complain about, the pioneering blues artists faced even more daunting problems. Imagine recording a million-selling single and only getting paid $100 for it, while your contract forbids you from recording for anybody else. “That in a nutshell is why a handful of blues greats  did so much recording under assumed names. When it was harder to get a fair shake from your label, it was at least easier to get around your contract with a series of blues nicknames,” explains Brett Milano in a 2019 article “The Blues by Any Other Name: The Secrets Behind Blues Nicknames” in udiscovermusic.com.

Mississippi Delta bluesman John Lee Hooker was the king of that tactic. He was one of the most prolific artists in blues history, which is probably why he managed to be paid well in his early heyday. “It wasn’t unusual then for bluesmen to get a flat fee, so if the record wound up selling a million – as Hooker did with ‘Boogie Chillen’ in 1949 and ‘I’m In The Mood’ two years later – it wasn’t the artist who profited. The slight upside was that there were no big-time legal departments to come after him when he used pseudonyms as transparent as John Lee Booker and John Lee Cooker, two of the many that he adopted after that success,” continues Milano. “Sometimes he simply took another bluesman’s name; a couple singles on King were issued as by Johnny Williams. Recording for at least a half-dozen labels, he was also Poor John, Texas Slim, Boogie Man, Little Pork Chops and Lord knows who else.”

One of the most well-known nicknames in blues history belonged to Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912-82). His recording career began in 1946 when a music producer, Lola Ann Cullum, took him and a piano player, Wilson “Thunder” Smith, to Los Angeles to record for the Aladdin label, owned by the Mesner brothers. Hopkins had wanted to bring Alger “Texas” Alexander, whom he always referred to as his cousin. However, Cullum, who was described as a stylish, sophisticated African-American woman married to a prominent dentist, rejected this idea because the rough-hewn Alexander had served time in prison. Hopkins insisted on bringing Smith, however, and apparently that’s how he got his nickname. An Aladdin producer exclaimed, “If you’re ‘Thunder,’ you must be ‘Lightnin’!”

The name stuck. Hopkins, of course, told other versions of the story, especially tales about him being struck by lightning, for which there is no record or proof. But like any great storyteller, the bluesman from Houston (he was born in Centerville) never let the facts get in the way of telling a good story.

Lightnin’ Hopkins sings “Woke Up This Morning”

can blues sing the whites?

An age-old question concerns authenticity in blues music. More specifically, can white people authentically sing and play the blues? Are we hearing “real blues” from white singers or simply a blues performance? Is it morally all right for singers or players to “borrow” an original song without getting permission or paying royalties? Some sources go even further, arguing that blues music and its performance by white players and singers is a subtle form of social stratification, or even an expression of guilt for “stealing” the music in the first place.

“Once music is not understood in its historical and emotional context, it is no longer a work of art, but a commodity. I would go one step further and argue that the historical commoditization of blues perpetuated racial stratification,” theorizes an article in FYImusic news.com in July 2017.

Extending that argument, could one accurately state that the reason the blues became so international so quickly (after WWII) is that it really did become a commodity being sold on the world market? Do young white performers today sing “Hound Dog” thinking they are paying tribute to Elvis Presley and know nothing about (black) Big Mama Thornton, the original blues performer of that song? What about blues singers in Australia, Germany or Japan, for example?

Former Rolling Stones  bass player Bill Wyman was asked whether Whites could sing or play the blues and his reply was unequivocal – “If they [white performers] try really hard.”

Author Charles Keil is a bit more stoical, and diplomatic. He writes in his 1966 book Urban Blues: “The blues has probably always been about whites learning from blacks, blacks learning from whites — the mutual effort to laugh and sing and cry away the pains of American racism expressed in the metaphor of love gone sour.”

Eric Clapton was not the only English guitar player (or singer) to emulate the black bluesmen of the American South. That “copying” or “borrowing” became a major element of the British Invasion of the 1960s. If one did not know better, and closed his or her eyes when hearing Eric Burdon’s version of the “House of the Rising Sun,” one might think Burdon was black.

On the other hand, maybe Muddy Waters was right after all: white performers can play the blues but they can’t sing it. Perhaps Muddy had British guitar legend Eric Clapton (his friend) in mind when he said that. The British Blues boom that had its origins in the early 1960s with the Rolling Stones  and John Mayall  was one of the main factors that prompted this philosophical question.

Clapton, who had been in the Yardbirds, another blues-influenced band, before he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, later forming Cream and who had a solo career steeped in the blues has done more than most to demonstrate that White men really can play the blues,” states writer Richard Havers in udiscovermusic.com.

Simply asking this musical question reeks of an underlying sarcasm, almost begging for a musical parody. It wasn’t long before one appeared.

“Can Blue Men Sing The Whites (or are they hypocrites?)” was a parody song by The Bonzo Dog Band that was released in November of 1968, the same month as the Beatles’Album White  Album, that poked fun at the recent Blues trend on the charts, points out the website Beatlesebooks.com. 
The Bonzo’s parody on white men playing the blues came half a decade after the British Blues boom had begun. The Rolling Stones were at the forefront of what was a very London centric phenomenon – white boys interested in the music of the Mississippi Delta and the electric blues of Chicago. Some lyrics of the song go like this:
“Well, I think I’ll get a massage, maybe lose a little fat
So I’ll have to go downtown in my brand new Cadillac
My valet comes and dresses me, I light a big cigar
Because I like to look like Nimrod when I’m riding in my car
Can blue men sing the whites
Or are they hypocrites for singing, woo, woo, wooh?”
If you really want to get down to the nitty-gritty level, just ask a comedian. When (white) comedian George Carlin was asked the question, he said: “In the first place, white people have got no business playing the blues at all, under no circumstances, ever, ever, ever. White people give the blues, they don’t get the blues. What do they have to be blue about anyway – Banana Republic ran out of khakis? The expresso machine is jammed? Hootie and the Blowfish are breaking up? These fat, balding, overweight, over-aged, out-of-shape, middle-aged white men jump on stage and start blowing into a harmonica; it’s a @%*$! sacrilege.”
Carlin was trying to get laughs, but he knew that white people can suffer just as much as black blues singers can. Take the tragic case of Janis Joplin, for instance. This white blues singer fell victim to mocking attacks all her short life and that pain is clearly present in her music. I believe her song “Cry, Cry Baby” equals any black blues song in terms of pain in the music.
Maybe Muddy Waters was either being sanctimonious or expressing jealousy when he said white people can’t sing the blues. Whatever the case, this debate will no doubt rage on.  
 “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites” by the Bonzo Dog Band

can blues survive the virus?

As the coronavirus ravages the United States (and other countries), one has to wonder what will happen to the live music scene, including the blues, after the danger has subsided. Right now, there is little or no demand for such performers, but the question remains whether the previous demand will bounce back. The only real comparison we have is the great Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, which killed some 675,000 persons in the United States and about 50 million worldwide. Demand for live music shows did bounce back quickly in those days (1919), but that was before radio and television provided home entertainment via the air waves. Radio had been invented then, but was confiscated by the U.S. military during WWI. Television was not available commercially until after WWII.

So, will live blues performers, for example, be able to bounce back this time? We now have the Internet, but not every singer or player is wired enough to take advantage of this new medium. Players jumping from live gig to gig will be especially hard hit. If bars and other venues stay closed for months, what will happen to live entertainment? Will continuous stay-at-home restrictions destroy the industry?

“The situation has decimated live music. Shows cancelled everywhere and for everyone. And for once we’re all in the same boat. We as self-employed people, are powerless and really the last on the list of economic priorities. Sadly, that’s just the nature of the beast. It’s a case of buying bread or going to a gig. One can only hope that some have followed the old saying ‘putting something away for a rainy day’ that will help some of us to cope until we’re able to work again,” says singer and actress Ruby Turner in the Blues Matters online journal. “Once the initial shock of this now crippling pandemic virus has sunk in, we now have to deal with the fact we’re out of work for the foreseeable future. Everything cancelled or postponed. Sadly, there’s nothing we can do but try to be optimistic in the hope work can be rescheduled when this crisis ends.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only threat to the continued existence of blues music, however. Some problems are as built in as a blue note. “As the blues is not mainstream, blues artists record with boutique recording studios and have little budget to promote their work. The opportunities to perform live are also fewer today with blues fans more geographically dispersed,” opines a 2015 article in the Wall Street International magazine called “Blues in the Digital Age.”

In the golden age of the blues during the 1920s, live shows were in high demand since going out to a live show or listening to a blues recording on a Victrola (a wind-up phonograph) were the only ways to enjoy the music. Not so now as there are many other genres and sub-genres of music competing for the public’s ear over a virtual plethora of media.

Traditional blues, as we know it, died a slow death after the great stock market crash of 1929, but enjoyed a surprise revival in the 1950s and 1960s with the rise of blues-based rock and roll, especially after the British Invasion. “For blues fans, those decisions [to listen or not] are greatly influenced by the music of the masters. Recordings of B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters continue to be heard everywhere. The guitar challenges of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix are still the standards by which guitarists are measured,” claims the Wall Street International article. “But local radio is no longer what the listener turns to when they want some blues, with the exception of some local blues programs. Today specialized digital radios provide blues music 24 hours a day through the Internet. The result seems to be that the blues fan has become a fan of the blues as a whole rather than of specific blues artists.”

What will happen to the blues in the near or distant future is anybody’s guess. Singers of bands that profited from the fusion of the blues and rock may have some hints, however. “The blues is like a planet. It’s an enormous topic. You can’t ignore the impact that it has had and continues to have on the whole musical culture. It’s a tree that everyone is swinging from. Without it, I don’t know where I would be. It’s indelible and indispensable,” explained rocker Tom Waits.

Perhaps the best closing argument of all is by the late Chicago bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon who once said: “Blues is the roots and the other music is the fruits. It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on. The blues are the roots of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues.”

And like a tree that’s planted by the water, the blues will not be moved. But let’s just hope the blues doesn’t die, again.

The Influenza Blues (1919)

rabbit foot minstrels

Slavery was officially abolished in the United States in 1863 by then President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (and later passing of the 13th Amendment), but slave-like conditions persisted for African Americans living in the South for many decades longer. Since former slaves had little or no experience other than field work, many turned to tenant farming, which Texas-based blues songster Mance Lipscomb (1895-1976) described as “slavery under another name.”

After working a six-day week from dawn to dusk in the fields, black laborers were thirsty for some form of entertainment. Local jukes and churches provided platforms for singing the blues and spirituals, but “big-time” entertainment came in the form of traveling tent shows that could afford to hire well-known singers and comedians. These shows were particularly active during the spring cotton-harvesting season when workers were paid and that money was burning holes in the pockets of these hard-working farm hands.

The largest such show was the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, known colloquially as “The Foots.” It was a long-running minstrel and variety troupe that toured as a tent show in the American South between 1900 and the late 1950s, established by the African-American  entrepreneur Pat Chappelle. “The Foots provided a basis for the careers of many leading African-American musicians and entertainers, including Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Louis Jordan and Charles Neville,” explains Wikipedia. The last-named Neville (1938-2018) was the second oldest brother and horn (saxophone) man in the Neville Brothers band of New Orleans. 

The Rabbit’s Foot Company was bought in 1912 by Fred Swift Wolcott (1882–1967), a white farmer originally from Michigan. Each spring, black musicians and entertainers from around the country assembled in Port Gibson, Mississippi to create a musical, comedy, and variety show to perform under canvas. In his 1998 book The Story of the Blues, the late British historian and musicologist Paul Oliver wrote:

“The ‘Foots’ travelled in two cars and had an 80ft x 110ft tent which was raised by the roustabouts and canvassmen, while a brass band would parade in town to advertise the coming of the show…The stage would be of boards on a folding frame and Coleman lanterns – gasoline mantle lamps – acted as footlights. There were no microphones; the weaker voiced singers used a megaphone, but most of the featured women blues singers scorned such aids to volume.”

One has to wonder why minstrel shows were so popular in the early days of traveling tent shows, and later. And why would a black performer in those days demean himself or herself even more by blackening their own faces with burnt cork? Beginning about the 1820s, white entertainers began performing songs, skits, and dances in blackface, often as the two stereotypical characters of minstrelsy, Zip Coon and Jim Crow.

Schmoop.com explains: “On the one hand, these routines, which were tremendously popular throughout the United States—North and South—for much of the 1800s and centered on blatantly racist, crude caricatures of African-American language and life, played for white laughs. But on the other, minstrelsy served as a vehicle for popularizing Black secular music. The minstrel shows were, to borrow the phrase of the historian Eric Lott, sites of ‘love and theft,’ and the racial dynamic of showcase, appropriation, and ridicule became even more complicated as Black performers—some of whom, such as W.C. Handy and Ma Rainey, would become crucial blues figures—increasingly filled the ranks of the white-owned touring minstrel companies after the Civil War.”

Minstrel shows were still being performed in Navasota, Texas as late as March 1963, according to the little town’s newspaper called the Navasota Examiner. Singer Bobby Berger performed in blackface as Al Jolson at the Richlin Ballroom in Edgewood, Md., in 2015. The white singer Al Jolson (1888-1950) was known in the 1920s as “the king of blackface” and is best remembered for singing “Mammy” in the first feature-length movie talkie in 1927 called The Jazz Singer. Although we should be cautious about judging the past by today’s morality, it is also true that minstrel shows were more popular in the North than in the South.

Many blues singers got their start with the “foots.” A black-faced minstrel named “Jim Jackson (1884-1937) used to tour in his younger days with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, but it was only in October 1927 that Jackson finally went into the studio, aged around 43.  His first session included ‘Kansas City Blues,’ which went on to become a blues and rock template,” states Wikipedia. Jackson’s blues classic spawned Charlie Patton’s, ‘Going to Move to Alabama’(1929), Hank Williams’ first hit ‘Move it on Over’ (1947), and Bill Hayley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (1956).

Another key “foots” performer was Rufus Thomas (1936-98), later known as Mr. Swing, who also called himself the “world’s oldest teenager.” Thomas began performing in traveling tent shows. In 1936, he joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, an all-black revue that toured the South, as a tap dancer and comedian, sometimes part of a duo, Rufus and Johnny. He is best remembered for such classics as “Walking the Dog” (1963) and “Do the Funky Chicken” (1970).

“The Rabbit Foots was like a carnival, like when a fair came to town,” said Bobby Rush, a bluesman from Jackson Mississippi.

What was it about the name? The omg.com website explains: Although the superstition of rabbit’s feet being associated with luck has some roots in European culture, the common North American myth originates from the African-American folk spirituality known as hoodoo. It’s said that rabbit’s feet are lucky because of their reproductive habits, so carrying a rabbit’s foot was thought to help with fertility and luck.

There are, however, a few specification the rabbit’s foot must adhere to in order to technically be considered lucky:

1. It has to be the left hind foot.

2. The rabbit needs to have been captured or killed in a cemetery.

3. The rabbit’s foot needs to be cut off on a specific day—usually a Friday, but with variations such as the weather, date, etc.

To answer the above question of why African Americans blackened their faces for money, it was because minstrelsy in those early days was the route to becoming famous and prosperous. Money was only one aspect, however. “Yet it [minstrelsy] also reveals the strange way white Americans yearn to see, and indeed idolize, black performers and black culture. Wearing blackface, a white person tries on a life he simultaneously disdains,” states author Marc Aronson in a 2018 article in the Washington Post.

If the white American public in those days wanted to pay to see a cartoon version of a happy plantation slave (a parody of a freed slave) performing on stage, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels were glad to provide it to the tune of cash registers ringing. The fact that blackface still pops up here and there these days should give us all pause to reflect on its true meaning.

The Rabbit Foot Minstrels:

the blues and viagra

A connection between the blues and television advertising for an impotency drug? You must be kidding…No, not really.

Advertising, particularly the television variety, is all about identifying a target and then manipulating it for sales purposes. Once a target is identified, a virtual war chest of techniques can then be used to convince consumers to purchase your product. One technique is to make your ad so irritating that it becomes lodged in viewers’ memories. Take the Progressive Insurance ads that feature a woman so obnoxious that you remember the ad whether you want to or not.

Another technique is to associate the ad to a time period that matches the ages of your prospective consumers. One way to do this is through employing background music that features a song that is representative of the period your target audience knows well. By doing this, the advertiser associates certain feelings and moods with the ad, causing a sympathetic or warm feeling when watching the ad on television. A song like Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” is often used when advertisers aim at baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) because it was the title song for the immensely popular 1969 movie “Easy Rider.” Just hearing that music suggests the freedom of the open road and a resistance to authority; taking boomers’ feelings back to their teens. Nostalgia clearly works.

Baby boomers, America’s largest demographic, are now in their 60s and 70s, many of them drawing social security payments. Erectile Dysfunction (ED), a fancy phrase for impotence, is an embarrassing problem for some 30 million male boomers, but in the late 1970s a “solution” was accidentally discovered at Pfizer Laboratories. Sildenafil nitrate (Viagra) was finally greenlighted by the FDA in March 1998. Despite several serious side effects, the little blue pill must have seemed like manna from heaven for these ED sufferers.

“Viagra’s massive success was practically instantaneous. In the first year alone, the $8-$10 pills yielded about a billion dollars in sales. Viagra’s impact on the pharmaceutical and medical industries, as well as on the public consciousness, was also enormous. Though available by prescription only, Viagra was marketed on television, famously touted by ex-presidential candidate Bob Dole, then in his mid-70s,” states an article on history.com.

Television advertising for Viagra has evolved to a much more sophisticated level these days. Interestingly, many of the newer ads for Viagra feature blues music in the background. The 2011 Viagra TV ad (see below), for instance, employs the lead-in instrumental to the blues song “Smokestack Lightning” by Chicago bluesman Howlin’ Wolf (1910-76) as the background music. Another Viagra TV ad features the classic blues song “Dimples” by Delta bluesman John Lee Hooker (1917-2001), who is also featured in TV ads for Lee blue jeans. In these cases, the advertiser is attempting to link its impotency-correcting drug to a feeling of American historical authenticity, a key element of blues music. Both singers became popular icons during their lifetimes, familiar to many boomers who had experienced the blues and folk music revivals of the 1950s and 1960s first-hand.

Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as “Howlin’ Wolf,” was born in White Station, Mississippi to an Ethiopian father and Choctaw mother. During the above-mentioned blues revival, black blues musicians found a new audience among white  youths, and Howlin’ Wolf was among the first to capitalize on it. Wikipedia states: “He toured Europe in 1964 as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. In 1965, he appeared on the popular television ABC-TV program Shindig! at the insistence of the Rolling Stones, whose re-recording of Wolf’s ‘Little Red Rooster’ had reached number one in the UK in 1964.” In the 1950s and ‘60s, Howlin’ Wolf had multiple songs on the Billboard national R&B charts, including his very popular “Smokestack Lightning.”

John Lee Hooker, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper, rose to prominence performing an electric guitar-style adaptation of the Delta blues. “Hooker developed his own driving-rhythm boogie style, distinct from the 1930s and ‘40s piano-derived boogie-woogie,” explains Wikipedia. Some of his best known songs include “Boogie Chillen,” “Dimples,” and “Boom, Boom,” the last of which is now used as the lead-in song for the TV crime drama called “NCIS: New Orleans,” starring Scott Bakula (best known for the 1989 time-travel drama “Quantum Leap”).

Both singers were great performers of their times, and both would probably have been astonished if they had known their legacies would have been linked with such a product. A sign of the times? Hard to say.

Howlin’ Wolf’s lead-in to “Smokestack Lighting”