the lynching blues

The word “lynch” refers to the act of illegally hanging a person by a rope (noose), usually from a tree, until he or she is dead. Lynching was adapted from the name of an 18th century plantation owner in Virginia named Charles Lynch. He coined the term “Lynch’s Law” (punishment without trial) during the American Revolution in reference to the hanging of captured Tories (British soldiers). Lynching is not found in blues lyrics, although it is sometimes alluded to, as in black jazz singer Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which was recorded in 1939. The song, however, was first written as a poem by a white male English teacher from New York named Abel Meeropol, who was inspired by a lynching photograph. Lynching was just too frightening of a word for writers of blues songs to mention, much less for blues singers to actually voice. Holiday’s (1915-59) lyrics echo through the ages:

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

Holiday always closed her nightclub performances with “Strange Fruit.” While singing the song, she insisted that waiters cease serving, that the room be completely dark and that a spotlight be trained on her face. After finishing the song she would, without fail, go behind the curtain and throw up.

Lynchings were designed to spread terror among African Americans, to “keep them in their place,” as white Southerners were fond of saying. What was implied in that saying was that blacks were an inferior race and had no business in a voting booth.

“Historians broadly agree that lynchings were a method of social and racial control meant to terrorize black Americans into submission, and into an inferior racial caste position. They became widely practiced in the US south from roughly 1877, the end of post-civil war reconstruction, through 1950,” states a Guardian article by Jamiles Lartey and Sam Morris entitled “What is Lynching?”

Black American blues singers like Robert Johnson, who died in 1938, certainly knew what lynching was. In fact, the fear of getting lynched may have been the inspiration for Johnson’s famous song “Hellhound on My Trail,” also known as “The Lynching Blues.” Part of its lyrics goes:

“I’ve got to keep moving, I’ve got to keep moving,

Blues falling down like hail, blues failing down like hail,

And the days keep on ’minding me, there’s a hellhound on my trail.”

The song was not about Robert, but concerned his stepfather, some sources claim. According to Robert Johnson biographer Peter Guralnick, Johnson’s stepfather Charles Dodds was a prosperous wicker furniture maker and landowner in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. That is where Johnson, one of 10 children of Noah Johnson and Julia M. Dodds (Johnson’s birth mother) spent his first two years. Julia then sent Robert to Memphis to live with his stepfather, who had changed his name.

“Local whites envied Dodds’s success and threatened to lynch him. Consequently, a white mob nearly achieved that goal; however, he narrowly escaped and fled to Memphis in 1909,” writes Karlos K. Hill in Study the South. “According to blues enthusiast and folklorist Robert McCormick, a family legend developed concerning Charles Dodds’s near lynching. Apparently, the story went that Dodds was able to escape the lynch mob because he disguised himself in women’s clothing. Dodds lived in fear that he would be captured someday, so much so, that he changed his name to C. D. Spencer,” continues Hill.

Other blues history writers, such as Elijah Wood and Robert Palmer, believe the lyrics to this terrifying blues song were purely metaphorical, perhaps stemming from Johnson’s own fabled “deal with the devil.” So would this “hellhound” be a metaphor for the black dog that legendarily accompanies the devil or would the animal be a real bloodhound historically used to track down runaway slaves or fugitives from the law? The answer to these questions might be as enigmatic as the life of Robert Johnson himself, or more accurately, his death. Was he barking and howling like a dog when he died of poisoning (allegedly by a jealous husband) because he was actually seeing visions of hellhounds on his trail?

Professor of English and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi, Adam Gussow, author of Seems Like Murder Here, has convincingly argued that early blues songs such as Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail” express a marked anxiety about being encircled by an invisible but ever-present lynch mob or some other terrifying menace. “The blues in this sense,” declared Gussow, “are a way of symbolizing what unconsciously oppresses the black blues subject—the ever-pressuring white gaze, periodic eruptions of ritualized mob violence, the blackened knuckles and pickled fingers strewn across the lynching South.”

Gussow, who also plays the blues harmonica, “believed the blues tradition evolved as a way for black southerners to voice their anger, grief and fear in the face of the ongoing threat of lynching in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century,” states the Los Angeles Times.

The fate of these unfortunate victims has not gone unnoticed, however. The nation’s first museum dedicated to the memory of 4,400 (documented) black victims of lynching was opened to the public in Alabama in April 2018 by the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal rights organization in Montgomery. Pots of dirt from the actual lynching sites are displayed there – one for each victim. As Bob Dylan puts it: the times, they are a changin’.

Billie Holiday sings “Strange Fruit”