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

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 “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 “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

Oh, It’s tight like that
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”

the bluebird sound

Although session bands have been major contributors to the success of various musicians, they have rarely received their due recognition. Would songs like the Beachboys’ “Good Vibrations” or the Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road” have become big hits without the backing of Phil Spector’s unique “wall of sound”  (reverberating instruments in the studio which constantly threatened to drown out the vocals) recording technique? Would such songs as the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” have become famous without the contribution of the rhythm section of the FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals Alabama? The best documentary film of 2014 called “20 Feet from Stardom” starred backup singers Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer who were on many recordings, but did not get the credit they so richly deserved.     

So what about the blues? Less of a “problem” since many traditional blues players went solo, with their only accompaniment being a guitar, piano or harmonica. When it came to blues recordings, the Great Depression literally ended those Roaring 20s boom years. After the stock market crash of 1929, many record companies folded their race labels and either stopped or dramatically curtailed regional race recording. Rich varieties of down-home blues, including freewheeling blues ensembles such as the jug bands, were neglected on record. “The artists who did record, for example, Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, and Memphis Minnie, were established hit-makers who could be counted on for smooth performances and tight songwriting,” states the Encyclopedia of the Blues.

In the blues genre, Bluebird Records became one of the first companies to create a unique background sound, still referred to as “the Bluebird Sound.” Bluebird is a sub-label of RCA Victor Records originally created in 1932 to counter the American Record Company in the “three records for a dollar” market. Along with ARC’s Perfect Records, Melotone Records and Romeo Records, and the independent US Decca label, Bluebird became one of the best-selling “cheap” labels of the 1930s and early 1940s and its 78 RPM vinyl records. Frank Sinatra’s first solo recordings were released on the Bluebird label in 1942.

The first records by Bluebird, primarily in the jazz and blues genres, were released in 1932. Notable Bluebird artists included Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Tampa Red. The first three, along with Washboard Sam, would make up the Bluebird session band that would ultimately be responsible for the “Bluebird Sound” that would go on to be a major influence on Rhythm and Blues and early Rock ‘N’ Roll, claims The unique sound also became the prototype for the electric Chicago blues, which followed a decade or so later.

Robert Clifford Brown, a.k.a. Washboard Sam (1910-66) probably was not the greatest player of that original Bluebird session quartet, but he was certainly interesting in his own way. “The washboard was the rhythm instrument of choice for street musicians playing the Blues in the early days, but Washboard Sam took it into the studio and made himself a strong career as a session musician in Chicago. He also had a great voice and a talent for songwriting that saw him record more than 160 tracks as a solo artist. Sam was a great showman and bandleader too, and he could pack out big theaters with fans of his good-time music,” explains One of Sam’s greatest hits was the 1939 recording of “Digging My Potatoes,” whose lyrics go like this:

“They’ve been diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
They’ve been diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
I have a special plan, restin’ on my mind
I don’t eat no cabbage sprouts, bring me thoughts to head
Supposed to call the wagon, if I find him in my bed

You know they’ve been diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
I have a special plan, restin’ on my mind
Now she powdered her face, wet her wavy hair
Caught a taxicab, she’s out across town somewhere

You know she’s diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
I have a special plan, restin’ on my mind
Said my vine’s all green, potatoes solid red
Never found a bruised one, till I caught them in my bed

You know they’re diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
I have a special plan, restin’ on my mind.”

As WWII ended with Japan’s surrender in mid-summer of 1945, the blues had already moved on. Electric blues in Chicago had displaced the 1930s-style bluebird sound. Singers like Washboard Sam suddenly found themselves without an audience. Sam gave up singing the blues and became a policeman. However, Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Tampa Red carried on and so did Bluebird Records, but not like before. Revival attempts in the 1950s and the 1970s have led to the Victor Talking Machine Company finally supporting the label for future projects, to honor its legacy in the music recording industry.

Washboard Sam plays “Diggin’ My Potatoes”

little red rooster

Willie Dixon

Lyrics written and sung by traditional bluesmen have often tried to mimic the sound of farm animals such as horses, mules, cows, pigs, dogs and chickens. For example, Texas bluesman Billiken Johnson accurately copied the braying of mules in his 1928 recording of “Wild Jack Blues.” Lightnin’ Hopkins sings about talking to a cow in “Tom Moore’s Blues.” Other traditional blues players used harmonicas to mimic the sounds of different farm animals. Blues song writers and performers, such as Willie Dixon (1915-92), grew up on Southern farms and were surrounded by such animals. Dixon is often referred to as the “poet of the blues.”

It is only natural, then, that these budding artists noticed the sounds and behavior of their feathered and cloven-hooved friends, later incorporating the same into their music. In fact, one of Dixon’s greatest creations was “The Little Red Rooster,” first recorded by bluesman Howlin’ Wolf in 1961. The song about a barnyard rooster gained an instant following, especially after covers were later recorded by Sam Cooke (1931-64) and the British rock band The Rolling Stones. The Stones’ lyrics, somewhat different from the original, go like this:   

“I am the little red rooster
Too lazy to crow for day
I am the little red rooster
Too lazy to crow for day

Keep everything in the farmyard upset in every way

The dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl
Dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl
Watch out strange cat people
Little red rooster’s on the prowl.”

A variety of musicians have interpreted and recorded “Little Red Rooster.” Some add new words and instrumentation to mimic the sounds of animals mentioned in the lyrics. Some critics claim the song is the most overtly phallic song since Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 “Black Snake Moan” while more objective analysts see it as an innocuous farm ditty. Dixon himself said, rather sarcastically: “I wrote it as a barnyard song really, and some people even take it that way!”

American soul music singer Sam Cooke adapted the song using a more up-tempo approach and it became a successful single on both the US rhythm and blues and pop record charts in 1963. Concurrently, Dixon and bluesman Howlin’ Wolf toured the UK with the American Folk Blues Festival and helped popularize Chicago blues with local rock musicians overseas, points out Wikipedia. That particular tour was a major impetus for the British Invasion which soon followed.

The Rolling Stones were among the first British rock groups to record modern electric blues songs. In 1964, they recorded “Little Red Rooster” with original member Brian Jones, a blues purist and a key player in the recording. “Their rendition, which remains closer to the original arrangement than Cooke’s, became a number one hit record in the UK and continues to be the only blues song to ever reach the top of the British chart. The Stones frequently performed it on television and in concert and released several live recordings of the song. ‘Little Red Rooster’ continues to be performed and recorded by a variety of artists, making it one of Willie Dixon’s best-known compositions,” opines

Interpretations notwithstanding, the above comments beg the question of whether white people can authentically sing and/or play the blues invented and perfected by African Americans. Muddy Waters once famously said that whites can play the blues but cannot sing them. A June 1999 article in the Independent entitled: “Music: White Men Sing the Blues” asked the question of whether white bands like the Rolling Stones could actually sing the blues like black singers. “Yet, although black people were not seduced by the Stones’ artificial persona, many white teenagers were. The group had embraced the rebellious stance of black blues musicians, prompting Stanley Booth to describe Keith Richards as ‘the world’s only blue gum [very dark skinned black man] white man, as poisonous as a rattlesnake’. Brian Jones also initially called himself ‘Elmo Lewis’, an allusion to the blues guitarist Elmore James.”

Unfortunately, the blues-loving founder of the Rolling Stones drowned in a swimming pool incident in 1969. After his death, the Rolling Stones became less bluesy and more focused on rock ‘n’ roll. Mick Jagger, then comfortably ensconced as lead singer of the group, realized he needed to become more visual and active during stage performances. He needed a dance that would make him appear more African-American like. So Jagger studied the dance moves of the incredibly athletic James Brown in order to perfect his own version of the funky chicken. He also copied the moves of Ike and Tina Turner, in an attempt to become a white singer with black moves.

By doing so, Jagger succeeded in becoming an international sex symbol, but some observers remained unimpressed. Ike Turner said that Jagger “could not sing” and Truman Capote deduced that Jagger’s performances were “about as sexy as a pissing toad.” Nevertheless, the Rolling Stones are still rocking and making millions onstage despite being grandfathers and senior citizens. According to the magazine named after the Rolling Stones, they are the second-longest running rock band (without a break) after U-2, an Irish rock band named after an Irish unemployment form.

The Rolling Stones sing “Little Red Rooster”

musical shenanigans

Big Bill Broonzy

Race record sales peaked between the 1920s and the 1940s, which corresponded with the golden age of Jim Crow laws in the United States (and not just in the South) and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a political force. Racial hatred and white supremacy were undertones to the Roaring Twenties. Black musicians being able to sell records only to black audiences was ironically a great deal for recording companies in those heady days because they could easily take advantage of the ignorance, naivete and inexperience of black musicians. All they had to do was find an unknown blues player (usually in the South) and ask him or her to perform for a recording, often offering no contract, recognition or even royalties. In the early days of blues recording, black blues performers were so flattered to be approached by a recording company that they did not ask, much less demand, any compensation. Bingo! The record companies could create huge new cash cows with no strings (or risks) attached. Another scheme was for recording companies to “give” expensive cars (usually Cadillac convertibles) or tailored clothes to black performers as “payments.” What these performers did not realize was these “presents” were bought with money from record sales that should have been paid out to them as royalties in the first place. It was like shooting fish in a barrel of water.

For example, Chicago-based bluesman Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958), who recorded hundreds of songs during his long career, laments being Shanghaied. “I didn’t get no royalties, because I didn’t know nothing about trying to demand for no money, see?” he said in a 1947 interview. “Until I started running in this music business, I had never lived around no people that would kill they own brother, like, for a lousy dollar.”

What Broonzy was alluding to is the natural tension between performing artists and music producers; the former just wants to create music while the latter is only in it for the money. Screwing over naïve or ignorant performers was just part of their game. “Not only were there no contracts offered and no royalties paid, but part of the deal was also anonymity; that means that the names and stories of countless black musicians from the early 20th century have just been lost. Some of the most groundbreaking music in blues and jazz comes from artists we simply don’t know anything about today, because they were seen as a way for largely white-owned record companies to make a fortune,” wrote Debra Kelly in a July 16, 2020 article in

Fast forward to the 1950s. Rockabilly singer Elvis Presley’s cover of “Hound Dog,” was previously recorded by black blues artist Big Mama Thornton (1926-84), though it was written by the white team of Leiber and Stoller. Irahman Jones of BBCNewsbeat wrote in 2016: “With a song like this, it’s easy to see why Elvis often gets levelled with accusations of appropriating black music. Why is he seen as the father of rock ’n’ roll music when he didn’t invent it? Why did it take a good old white boy to popularize a genre [blues] which black Americans had been playing for years, and in the process become one of the richest people on Earth? It’s clear to see cultural appropriation going on here; Elvis clearly stole music from the black culture of the time, passed it off as his own, and hugely profited from it himself.” The song stayed at No. 1 for 11 weeks in 1956, ultimately selling 10 million copies worldwide, making the young Elvis (then 21) a very wealthy man. Thornton’s original version, recorded four years earlier, had sold two million copies, though Thornton collected only $500. Elvis went on to earn $4.3 billion in his career while Thornton died in poverty in 1984.

Some traditional blues players, such as Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912-82) of Texas, had gotten wise to the shenanigans of the music recorders by the 1950s. Hopkins performed and recorded at Gold Star Studio, a modest affair just off Telephone Road in Houston, a few miles from his home ground in the predominantly black 5th Ward. Gold Star was owned and operated by Bill Quinn, a radio repairman who had expanded into recording, so he did not have the typical cut-throat mentality of the large recording companies. At Gold Star, Hopkins established his singular method of recording: “Pay me $100 cash, and I’ll sing you a song. Give me another $100, I’ll sing another.” He wasn’t going to be taken in by the scheming executives of those city-slicker producers. Put up or shut up was the way Lightnin’ did business.

Other black bluesmen took their complaints to court, and won. Willie Dixon (1915-92), the former heavyweight boxer turned upright bass player, was one of the founders of the Chicago Blues, along with Muddy Waters. In 1977, unhappy with the small royalties paid by Memphis-based Chess Record’s publishing company, Arc Music, Dixon and Muddy Waters sued Arc and, with the proceeds from the settlement, founded their own publishing company, Hoochie Coochie Music. In 1987, explains Wikipedia, Dixon reached an out-of-court settlement with the rock band Led Zeppelin after suing for plagiarism in the band’s use of his music in “Bring It on Home” and lyrics from his composition “You Need Love” (1962) in the band’s recording of “Whole Lotta Love.” With the proceeds of this outcome Dixon founded the Blues Heaven Foundation, which works to preserve the legacy of the blues and to secure copyrights and royalties for blues musicians who were exploited in the past.

Blues players, like performers in other genres, finally found that getting tough with recording companies paid dividends.

Lightnin’ Hopkins performs “The Blues”

race records

This year (2020) marks the 100th year anniversary of the breakthrough blues recording of “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith (1883-1946), which sold so well (75,000 copies in the first couple of months) that it made blues recordings profitable and turned the heads of recording companies. Black women of the day opened their purses and bought Mamie’s revolutionary recording in droves, convincing recording companies to pick up their own divas. Suddenly black female blues singers were all the rage. “And though they’re rarely acknowledged in histories of music, the Black women and girls who responded to Smith’s sound en masse helped upend the anti-Blackness of America’s nascent record business in the early 20th century,” states an August 11, 2020 New York Times article entitled “100 Years Ago, ‘Crazy Blues’ Sparked a Revolution for Black Women Fans.” Those African American ladies were especially turned on by the song’s lyrics.

“I can’t sleep at night
I can’t eat a bite
‘Cause the man I love
He don’t treat me right

He makes me feel so blue
I don’t know what to do
Sometime I sit and sigh
And then begin to cry
‘Cause my best friend
Said his last goodbye

There’s a change in the ocean
Change in the deep blue sea, my baby
I’ll tell you folks, there ain’t no change in me
My love for that man will always be.”

What the above article was referring to was the fact that black customers in those days could not find Mamie’s record (or any other recording by a black artist) in any white owned or operated record shop, as such sales there were not allowed between the 1920s and 1940s. The fragile 78-rpm discs were called “race records,” and/or “race music,” and sales were aimed at black audiences in the South and in the Northern ghettos where blacks had fled in what later was dubbed the “Great Migration.” In the early days, such discs were played on wind-up Victrolas as electricity was not yet available in many rural areas. Made by the Victor Talking Machine Company, Victrolas were literally radio before radio. Race music endured as a commonly accepted term until the late 1940s, when it was rechristened rhythm and blues (R&B).

African-American newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, Amsterdam News and Dallas Express carried ads for race records drawn and written by whites, pandering to stereotypical images of blacks as lazy drinkers and gamblers. White performers in blackface were also used in such ads. “Despite the often demeaning, blackface depictions of black men and women in their advertisements, the ‘race records’ sold by record companies such as Columbia and OKeh helped to popularize these blues singers and their messages throughout the urban and rural African American populace, making many of these singers household names and, in effect, some of the first African American popular entertainers,” explains The Encyclopedia of the Blues. “Even in the recording industry, blacks found themselves labeled by race. When Mamie Smith made ‘Crazy Blues’ in 1920, the first vocal recording using the blues form, it was called a ‘race record’ and not a blues record.”

Black recordings were not sold in white-owned record stores, but there were other marketing routes available. Newsboys sold black records as a side business, so did door-to-door salesmen and black railway porters carried a stash of race records that they would hawk at whistle stops. The Chicago Defender urged its readers to buy records produced by black performers and before long such recording companies as OKeh, Vocalion, Paramount and Columbia had developed specialty catalogs for black audiences. Race records were selling more than five million copies per year during the 1920s.

The surging success of race records during the Roaring Twenties ended abruptly with the 1929 stock market crash. “The Great Depression of the 1930s destroyed the race record market, leaving most African American musicians jobless. Almost every major music company removed race records from their catalogs as the country turned to the radio. Black listenership for the radio consistently stayed below ten percent of the total Black population during this time, as the music they enjoyed did not get airtime,” explains Wikipedia. “The exclusion of Black artists on the radio was further cemented when commercial networks like NBC and CBS started to hire White singers to cover Black music. It was not until after World War II that rhythm and blues, a term spanning most sub genres of race records, gained prevalence on the radio.” Between 1945 and 1949, originally measuring the number of juke box plays, Billboard’s Harlem chart became known as the “Race Records” chart, but by the 1950s, the R&B classification had prevailed.

One has to wonder how the American music scene would have developed differently had the early recordings of African American performers been allowed into the mainstream between the 1920s and the 1940s. White control of the music industry was tested in 1921 with the founding of Black Swan Records by Black entrepreneur Harry Pace, but the Black-owned company only lasted three years. White owners then issued threats against Pace to cease and desist.

This year marks another centennial: the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote (for white women), but black ladies had less luck at the polls. They were intimidated with numerous roadblocks such as literacy tests, poll taxes and threats of lynching from the KKK. It took decades for ladies of color to gain full access to the polls. If you listen carefully, you can still hear blues singer Bessie Smith’s complaints echoing through the decades.  

Mamie Smith sings “Crazy Blues” (1920)

a bluesman’s lament

By the time the British Invasion in the 1960s had re-stimulated an interest in traditional American blues, the still-living masters were aging. Mance Lipscomb of Texas was in his 70s, Muddy Waters of Mississippi was in his fifties, and many other such performers were already senior citizens. Even the understudies of these old masters are now in their senior years. Take Buddy Guy (born 1936), who performed with Muddy in Chicago for years, is now in his mid-80s. This blues icon worries that the traditional blues of the South, the music created and performed for and by African Americans, may be disappearing forever.

When Buddy Guy played in Germany at the American Folk Blues Festival in 1965, he got booed, he said, because the audience thought he “looked too young, dressed too slick, and my hair was up in a do. Someone said he was also disappointed that I didn’t carry no whiskey bottle with me onstage. They [white Germans] thought bluesmen needed to be raggedy, old, and drink,” stated a 2019 article by David Remnick called “Holding the Note” in The New Yorker magazine.

Back in the United States, Guy also felt hurt that black audiences, particularly younger black audiences, were moving away from the Chicago blues. B. B. King told Guy that he cried after he was booed by such an audience. “He said that his own people looked on him like he was a farmer wearing overalls and smoking a corncob pipe,” Guy recounted in his memoir. “They saw him as a grandfather playing their grandfather’s music.”

The “grandfather” role could be seen as far back as the 1930s. When he performed at the “From Spirituals to Swing” concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall in December 1938 and ’39, Chicago blues performer Big Bill Broonzy, known as a slick dresser, was told to dress down for his stage performances. Broonzy, who had played electric guitar as a session man in Chicago for decades, gladly donned overalls and played an acoustic guitar for adoring white fans. And yes, he had that mandatory whiskey bottle in his back pocket. Other bluesmen, such as Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins, refused to play that role.

Buddy Guy worries that there is not a new generation of blues performers to carry on the great tradition. In 1983, Buddy shared that vision with his close friend Muddy Waters, who implored “Don’t let them goddam blues die on me, all right?” A couple of days later Muddy passed. Losing the blues altogether is a legitimate worry, but not entirely accurate. Remnick writes, “There are still some extraordinary musicians around who play and sing the blues with the sort of richness that Guy admires: Robert Cray, Gary Clark, Jr., Bonnie Raitt, Adia Victoria, Keb’ Mo’, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Shemekia Copeland. Guy has even coached a couple of teen-age guitar prodigies: Christone (Kingfish) Ingram, who comes from the Delta, and Quinn Sullivan, who first performed onstage with Guy when he was seven.”

Copeland, a singer and the daughter of the late and great Texas guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland (1937-97), says: “The blues as Buddy knows it, as he does it, really will be gone when he is gone.” She did not mean that traditional blues was going to die, only that its popularity was fading, which it was and is.

Blues music has always been an outlet for African Americans to express their grievances with white majority rule, particularly with Jim Crow laws in the South. These gripes had to be voiced subtly and in dog whistle fashion as lyrics being too clear or too precise were dangerous. As the blues began to lose popularity following the British Invasion of the 1960s, the music began to be replaced by hip hop among young blacks. Then came rap (or vice-versa), which started as an urban underground sound emanating from Bronx streets in New York City in the 1970s, spurred by the invention of the boom box.

“One of the first rappers at the beginning of the hip hop period, at the end of the 1970s, was also hip hop’s first disc jockey, DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant. He started delivering simple raps at his parties [in the Bronx], which some claim were inspired by the Jamaican tradition of toasting,” explains Wikipedia. Toasting is a style of lyrical chanting which — in Dancehall music and reggae — involves a deejay talking over the rhythm of the song.

With the decline of disco in the early 1980s, rap became a new form of expression, with a beat. Rap arose from musical experimentation with rhyming and rhythmic speech and was a clear departure from disco. Sherley Anne Williams refers to the development of rap as “anti-Disco” in style and means of reproduction, states Wikipedia. But more than just a new style, rap seemed to be a new venue for angry black Americans to let off steam. Take the lyrics of gangsta rapper Tracy Lauren Marrow (a.k.a. Ice-T)’s 1992 song “Cop Killer,” for example.

“I got my black shirt on.
I got my black gloves on.
I got my ski mask on.
This shit’s been too long.

I got my twelve gauge sawed off.
I got my headlights turned off.
I’m ‘bout to bust some shots off.
I’m ‘bout to dust some cops off.”

Interestingly, Ice-T now plays a New York City policeman on the nationally televised weekly TV show called Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit. Ironic? Certainly, but not necessarily a sign of the times. A quick look at the evening news these days suggests that racial conflict in the United States is getting worse, not better.

Rap may be slowly displacing the blues, but it is unclear if that is an improvement or a step in the other direction. I guess that depends on who’s listening to it.

Robert Cray and Shemekia Copeland “I Pity the Fool” duo. Incredible!

eddie who?

Eddie Durham

Blues histories like to loudly proclaim that Muddy Waters started guitar electrification in Chicago in the 1940s. What they normally don’t explain is that such electrification started decades before Muddy Waters ever fatefully boarded that train headed for the Windy City. Early blues players coming from impoverished Southern states could not afford guitars (they mostly used fiddles or harmonicas), but all that changed in 1888 when Sears & Roebuck started catalog sales of the instruments for an affordable price. The Sears catalog, and its cheap guitars, gave Mississippi Delta and Texas bluesmen the tools they needed to revolutionize American music. Still, these acoustic instruments had a problem: they were often drowned out by background music or the ambient sounds of  the bars and jukes where the blues were being played. Thus the need for an enhanced audio system became implicit.

The first electric pickup and electric amplifier for guitars was produced in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until around 1936 when a jazz guitarist named Charlie Christian (1916-1942) began using an acoustic guitar with a pickup attached to the body, with the intention of playing guitar solos in his band. This is said to be the birth of the electric guitar. Sales of the famous Rickenbacker “frying pan” guitar had started in 1932.

However, a major difficulty for the first electric guitars with pickups attached to their bodies was an acoustic phenomenon called “feedback,” where sound amplified by an amplifier caused the instrument to resonate, creating a cacophony of sound. “A clever way of solving of this annoying issue was to remove the hollow cavity from the guitar body, making it difficult for sound to resonate. This led to the creation of the solid-body guitar, in which the body is carved from a single piece of wood,” explains an article in called “The Birth of the Electric Guitar.”

Move over Muddy, the first musician to publicly record a blues song, called “Hittin’ the Bottle,” (for Decca Records) with an electric guitar came in September 1935 from a Texan named Eddie Durham (1906-87), a virtuoso trombonist and guitarist. “Of African American, Irish, Mohawk and Cherokee Indian descent, Eddie Durham was part of a musical family from San Marcos, a city so deep in the heart of Texas, he spoke mainly Spanish as a youngster. For many years, Durham knew little English. His father was a fiddler who made his violin louder by putting dried rattlesnake rattles inside it; so the urge to amplify was in young Eddie’s genes,” states Paul Merry in How Blues Evolved Volume Two.

Eddie started his career in a travelling Indian Wild West circus which supported touring acts like Mamie Smith, famous for cutting the blues breakthrough record “Crazy Blues” in 1920. Backing Smith (no relation to Bessie), Eddie and two other multi-instrumentalists played 12 instruments between them in the blues diva’s house band. “Eddie Durham’s experiments with amplification started in 1929 when he started recording with Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, probably the most influential jump blues band touring the mid-west at the time. The all-black band featured the hard-stomp beat that Kansas City was famous for, which helped develop the riffing style synonymous with later big bands.”

Sadly, Durham’s many contributions to American music have been unreported and/or overlooked by both the media and blues scholars, even though he was a great musician and musical arranger during the Great Depression. Jazz historian Phil Schaap, who knew Durham for decades, called Eddie “the most neglected musical genius of the 20th Century.” How could writers or scholars not notice or simply overlook Durham’s many achievements? Eddie was “the quantum musician most responsible for rearranging the rhythmic nucleus of jazz. He was Moten’s [original promoter of swing] trombonist-guitarist-arranger, who embossed his charts with the fluid, prairie-open, 4/4 stamp of the Southwest,” wrote Jim Gerard in an article entitled “Genius in the Shadows” in “He had a vision that Chicago jazz in the 1920s was relatable to that from Texas, yet different, and that was the beginning of his desire to orchestrate.”

Throughout his long career, Eddie demonstrated a musical curiosity and a blues-type inventiveness. For instance, he once experimented with a home-made vibrato arm, later called a whammy bar on more modern guitars. He told the following story to Guitar Player in an August 1979 interview: “I took a clothes hanger, bent it making a hook for my little finger. I hooked the other end on my movable bridge. I could hit a chord, and shake the hanger, and I’d get a nice effect. I don’t believe I ever used that on a recording, however.”

Perhaps Eddie’s quiet, unassuming attitude was his undoing. If he’d been more aggressive and loudmouthed he would’ve probably attracted more media and scholastic attention. But that was not his personality; Eddie never believed that you have to break a window to get attention. But remember: between 1937-38 he wrote most of the songs Count Basie later played, he arranged “In the Mood” for Glenn Miller and he formed and led several all-female orchestras, among many other musical achievements. Eddie was also a major purveyor of the boogie-woogie style associated with Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis.

Not bad for a quiet lad from deep in the heart of Texas.

Eddie Durham on guitar in “Hittin’ the Bottle”

birds of a feather

Sippie Wallace

In the 1968 buddy comedy film “The Odd Couple,” Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau played characters whose temperaments were diametrically opposed in every way possible, but were still close friends. Both were divorced middle-aged men sharing a New York City apartment, one a neurotic neat-freak “Felix Ungar” and the other a fun-loving slob “Oscar Madison.” They got along well as roommates despite arguing incessantly. The same sort of thing happens with blues musicians. Take the 1920s relationship between early blues legends Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, for example. Although “The Mother of the Blues” Rainey mentored “Empress of the Blues” Smith, the former’s earthy style clashed with the latter’s subtler, more agile approach. Both peaked during the anything-goes Roaring Twenties, but they found common ground in bed as being lesbians was not necessarily frowned upon in those days.

Flash forward a half century to the late 1960s, when a young and upcoming white blues singer named Bonnie Raitt met the 1920s black blues legend Sippie Wallace, from Texas. The two singers could not have been more different in terms of politics and religion: Bonnie was (and still is) non-religious and liberal while Sippie was very conservative and religious (Southern Baptist) to the core. Bonnie adored the work of the former blues star of the twenties, so the two singers quickly bonded into a lifelong (nonsexual) friendship, despite their many differences. Music formed a strong common ground and the unlikely pair soon wrote songs for each other and sang duos together; the aging Sippie became Bonnie’s mentor. Sippie had recorded her anthem “Women Be Wise” in 1966, but she and Bonnie sang the song as a duo many times during the 1970s and 1980s. Some of its lyrics are as follows:

“Women be wise, keep your mouth shut, don’t advertise your man
Don’t sit around gossiping, explaining what your good man really can do
Some women nowadays, Lord they ain’t no good
They will laugh in your face, Then try to steal your man from you
Women be wise, keep your mouth shut, don’t advertise your man.”

The two opposites attracted throughout the 1970s and up until Sippie’s passing in the mid-80s. “We are two souls who have known each other before,” Bonnie told interviewers in April 1982 when she was 32 years old (story later posted on Bonnie’s Pride and Joy website). “It’s a connection that transcends age and space. She’s more my own grandma than my natural grandmother.” Sippie reciprocates, “I love Bonnie.” The California blues singer also liked to joke that the only time she ever went to church was when she visited Sippie.

What kind of person was Sippie? Beulah Belle Thomas (1898-1986) was an American singer-songwriter born in Arkansas, but raised in Houston, Texas. Her stage name from her early career in tent shows was “Sippie” Wallace, so nicknamed because her teeth were mostly missing as a young girl so she had to be fed everything through a straw until she was three years old. Later, however, her singing was so good that she gained the billing of “The Texas Nightingale.” Between 1923 and 1927, while living in Chicago, she recorded over 40 songs for Okeh Records, many written by her or her brothers, George and Hersal Thomas. Her many accompanists included Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds and King Oliver. Her first hits were the 1924 “Shorty George Blues” and “Up the Country Blues.” In the 1930s, Sippie left show business to become a church organist, singer, and choir director in Detroit and performed secular music only sporadically until the 1960s, when she resumed her performing career. Wallace was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1982 and was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. Among the top female blues vocalists of her era, Wallace ranked up there with such blues legends as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith. 

How about Bonnie then? The California-born, 71 year old Bonnie Lynn Raitt is an American blues singer, guitarist, songwriter, and activist. During the 1970s, Raitt released a series of roots-influenced albums that incorporated elements of blues, rock, folk and country. Dig in Deep, released in 2016, is the 20th album in the storied career of this blues singer turned rock star. Raitt played over 170 shows in North America, Singapore, Australia/New Zealand, the UK and Europe on her 2012-13 “Slipstream” tour, made several national appearances (Ellen, Leno, Letterman, GMA, Fallon, Kimmel and more), performed at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors and received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance from the American Music Association, states her website. Raitt has received 10 Grammy Awards and is listed as number 50 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.”

If you have read this far, you’re probably wondering what is the point here. Well, if a fictional pair like Felix and Oscar can learn to live together despite their many differences and a real-life friendship can blossom between black and white performers like Sippie Wallace and Bonnie Raitt, why can’t Americans get along better during these trying days? Where, exactly, is the common ground? Tribal politics, cultural warfare, nationwide protests and a raging pandemic are dividing our nation like never before. Isn’t it time to put away our differences, bury the hatchets, and get back to being normal Americans again? Maybe we just need to dig in deeper to find that common ground. America came together culturally when we were attacked by Japan in December 1941. We need to be able to come together again, without another Pearl Harbor this time. Instead of Make America Great Again how about Make America America Again?

Sippie and Bonnie together sing “Women Be Wise”

hobo jungle blues

The early part of the Great Depression, especially before Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, was an especially rough row to hoe, economically. Pre-New Deal America was struggling and food was scarce, jobs even scarcer. Between 1929 and 1933, the American GDP had fallen a whopping 33%. There were at least two million homeless people and the stock market hit a low in 1932, closing at 41.22, down 89.2% from its all-time high in 1929. In rural Texas, armadillos were called “Hoover hogs” as their meat often replaced pork.

Few could afford automobiles, so hopping a freight train became a popular substitute form of traveling, particularly for African Americans. “Why walk when you can hop a train?” was a common refrain in those less than blissful days. Hobo numbers ballooned (estimates ranged from two to four million) in the 1930s, along with homeless shanty towns near railroad tracks called “hobo jungles.”

These eyesores were not always operating in plain sight, however. “Hidden deep in wayside brush but well known to the experienced hoboes, these jungles were primitive shack towns made from scrap metal, wood, cardboard, and packing cases. The inhabitants of these jungles, some of whom having made the disease-ridden tips their permanent homes, would scrape together a meagre life. These encampments were also known as ‘Hoovervilles,’ after President Hoover, who was blamed for not injecting money into the poorer areas,” wrote Alan White in an essay on hoboes in

It is not surprising, then, that many blues songs were written and performed in such “jungles” because train-hopping was the major form of transportation for poor black blues players moving from one town to another. Hobo songs by Sleepy Joe Estes and John Lee Hooker became some of the best hits of those days. Take “Hobo Blues” by the latter singer, for instance:

“When I first started hoboin’, hoboin’, boy
I took a freight train to be my friend, oh Lord

You know I hobo’d, hobo’d, hobo’d, hobo’d
Hobo’d a long, long way from home, oh Lord

You know my mother she followed me that morning, me that morning, that morning
She followed me down to the yard, oh Lord

She said my son he’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone
Yes, he’s gone in the world somewhere, oh Lord

You know I left my dear old mother, dear old mother, dear old mother
She was on her knees a’ crying, oh Lord

Since there was little hope of finding work in their rural areas at the time, many black (and white) workers had no choice except flee, and that meant hopping a freight train headed for the big city, usually in the north. “For them, the train was a symbol of power, of freedom and escape. This image carried on, in the hard times of the 1920s and 1930s, when the southern Blacks struggled to make a living and saw the northern cities as their saviors, where work was plentiful and a better life was to be had. As the blues developed, the railroad featured prominently in the songs, with a large number reflecting the life of the hobo; the symbolic had become reality, with northbound trains carrying innumerable black males (and a few women) leaving the south,” continued White.

Sadly, many of these nomadic travelers found city life less accommodating than they had imagined, so they were doomed to a life of riding the rails and camping out in hobo jungles where crime, starvation and death ran rampant. Many hoboes imagined death itself to be a train, thus the emergence of one of America’s great folk song classics. Wikipedia states that one version of the “Wabash Cannonball” was really a “death coach” that appeared at the passing of a hobo to carry his soul to its reward. The song was then created with the lyrics and music telling the story of the train. When the hobos learned of this train, they called her the “Wabash Cannonball” and said that every train station in America had heard her whistle.

Death trains notwithstanding, my own experience with hoboes happened in 1951 when I was five years old. We lived near a railroad track in the small town of Wellborn, Texas and freight trains would pass by on a daily basis. My mother would warn me about the danger of encountering hoboes so I was naturally scared of them. One day I saw man in tattered clothes approaching our house. I ran inside and told my mother. She responded by quickly preparing a sandwich and a glass of milk, placing them outside on the front porch and then locking us both inside. I heard the man leaving after having his lunch. “Thank you very much ma’m,” I heard him say.

I quickly realized he was not dangerous, just hungry.

John Lee Hooker sings “Hobo Blues”

“When a woman gets the blues, she goes to her room and hides, (x2)
When a man gets the blues, he catches a freight train and rides.”

                                         Freight Train Blues, Trixie Smith

Essays on early blues music development