the lomax library

Blues fans have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. The year 2019 has indeed been an auspicious one for blues aficionados and researchers for at least two reasons: 1) Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick’s long lost book The Blues Comes to Texas (Alan B. Govenar, TAMU Press) was finally published and 2) Alan Lomax’s huge library of roots music recordings and interviews was placed online for free public listening and reading. The second curtain-raiser is particularly significant because Alan and his father were contracted back in the 1930s by the Library of Congress to travel around the deep South to make field recordings of music being sung in cotton fields, prisons and black churches.

Why was all this important? Blues and other roots music was practically unknown to the rest of the country at that time, so these recordings changed the nature of the music world after they were released. The world was introduced to such performers as Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Aunt Molly Jackson and many others. Although the blues had been performed in jukes and other black venues for decades, white audiences were unfamiliar with such sounds until they heard them played on the radio at first and then on black and white TV screens. There can be little doubt that the blues gave birth to rock and roll. “Blues is a big part of rock and roll. The best rock and roll got its birth in the blues. You hear it in Little Richard and Chuck Berry,” said AC/DC guitarist Angus Young.

Who, you may ask were the Lomaxes? The American Folklife Center website explains: “John A. Lomax, Sr., began a ten-year relationship with the Library in 1933, when he set out with his son Alan, then eighteen, on their first folksong gathering expedition under the Library’s auspices. Together they visited Texas farms, prisons, and rural communities, recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues. John Lomax was named Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song, which in 1928 had been created in the Library’s Music Division.”

The father-son team met Lead Belly in a prison where the then completely unknown singer had written (and performed) such classics as “Goodnight Irene” and “The Midnight Special.” Perhaps Lead Belly was dreaming about a midnight prison escape in the latter song when he penned “Let the Midnight Special shine an ever-loving light on me.” After all, Lead Belly had spent nearly his whole life in prison (for murder) before being released to become John Lomax’s driver.

Alan Lomax’s work with Lead Belly, which is considered the first extended biography of an American folk musician, made him realize the importance of documenting not only music, but also the stories that went with it. Alan thus became a pioneer of recording oral histories of vernacular musicians such as Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, “Jelly Roll” Morton, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and many others. His work even extended to a project with astronomer Carl Sagan as they prepared recordings of traditional American music to be launched into deep space on the 1977 Voyager space probe.

So this is it: a huge treasure trove of songs and interviews recorded by the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax from the 1940s into the 1990s have been digitized and made available online for free listening. The Association for Cultural Equity, a nonprofit organization founded by Lomax in the 1980s, has posted some 17,000 recordings.

“For the first time,” Cultural Equity Executive Director Don Fleming told NPR’s Joel Rose, “everything that we’ve digitized of Alan’s field recording trips are online, on our Web site. It’s every take, all the way through. False takes, interviews, music.”

For a blues researcher, this website is manna from heaven. You can spend days or weeks therein and not even scratch the surface. Who can resist its magnetic pull? Let the Midnight Special shine its light on this webpage. Posterity is the big winner of this launch. Great stuff!

See the Open Culture website at:

hoochie coochie

Understanding the meaning behind the lyrics of certain blues songs necessitates a basic understanding of black slang. Since the blues is a very “earthy” style, one might expect such slang to pop up often in the songs of blues singers, and it does. Here, we’ll take a look at Muddy Waters’ smash hit “Hoochie Coochie Man” (1954, Chess Records). Part of the song’s lyrics goes like this:

“The gypsy woman told my mother
Before I was born
I got a boy-child’s comin’
He’s gonna be a son-of-a-gun
He’s gonna make pretty women’s
Jump and shout
Then the world gonna know
What this all about”

“Don’t you know I’m here
Everybody knows I’m here
Well, you know I’m the hoochie-coochie man
Everybody knows I’m here”

“I got a black cat bone
I got a mojo too
I got John the Conqueror
I’m gonna mess with you
I’m gonna make you girls
Lead me by my hand
Then the world’ll know
The hoochie-coochie man”

Wikipedia explains: “A really old term, going back to 1890, about a sexualized dance performed by carnival side-shows. A hoochie coocher was a hoochie coochie dancer. She is also called a shimmy dancer. A hoochie coochie man either runs a show or is a drag queen performer.
The phrase has made famous by various blues, jazz and rock performers. These include Elvis Presley’s ‘Saved’, Cab Calloway’s ‘Minnie the Moocher’, and Muddy Waters’ ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’. Believe it or not, there’s a 1929 Micky Mouse cartoon called ‘the Karnival Kid’ where Mickey, a carnival worker, is attracted to Minnie, a hoochie coochie dancer.”

“Hooch” is Prohibition-era slang for alcohol and “Coochie” has other meanings as well – it is specifically a reference to a drunken (black) woman’s genitals. Put together, the term could have been a reference to black women groupies who followed male blues singers around. Although Muddy Waters was forever known as the “Hoochie Coochie” man, the song itself was written by upright bassist Willie Dixon, a former heavyweight boxer and member of Waters’ band at the time. It was Waters’ 10th recording and it became his best-selling single.

There are several references in this song to hoodoo (Black religious practices similar to Haitian voodoo) such as John the Conqueror, an African-American mythical hero. This name also relates to a tree root which is said to bring good luck and protection from any sort of attack. Black cat bones, after anointment with magical Van Van oil, are often used as components in mojo bags. These small bags are normally worn as necklaces to protect against evil spells and to bring good luck. “Got my mojo working, but it just won’t work on you” is a line from another of Muddy’s songs.

“Still, it seems that the distinctive stop-time rhythm of ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ was not lost on another singer from Mississippi, by the name of Elvis Presley,” wrote David Welna on the NPR website. “Legend has it that when Muddy Waters heard Presley’s 1958 recording of the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoler song ‘Trouble,’ Waters said, ‘I better watch out. I believe whitey’s picking up on the things that I’m doing’.” 

Although singers such as Muddy Waters popularized the notion that a “hoochie coochie man” was a hunk who is sought out particularly by attractive women, there is another expression “hoochie mama,” which means an unattractive older woman who dresses in sexy clothes, trying to attract younger men. A hoochie mama can also mean a grown woman who displays an abundance of sex appeal and who is entertaining and fun to be around.

Whatever the intended usage, combining slang words for booze and female genitals in one expression may be a dog whistle for some or an unpleasant choice of words for others.

Muddy Waters sings “Hoochie Coochi Man” 

the chitlin’ circuit

The early blues singers, especially those performing before World War II, had a tough time finding places to play because segregation and Jim Crow laws prevented them from getting gigs at white establishments, for the most part. However, there were black juke joints and some white establishments which were sympathetic to such black performers. At the white establishments, the rule was that they could play their music, but were not allowed to stay on the premises afterwards. This spread of establishments was loosely known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit.”

Defining the Chitlin’ Circuit in greater detail can be a daunting task, but the online site Reverb did as good a job as any: “In an era when African Americans sat at the back of the bus and were banned from ‘Whites Only’ establishments, the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit flourished. Driven by the entrenched racial segregation of the Jim Crow era, the circuit gave comics like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor their first shots at infamy and it provided playwrights like August Wilson with an engaged audience. It also gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll music.”

Named after an African-American dish prepared from fried pig intestines, the Chitlin’ Circuit started off in the 1920s in Indianapolis, Indiana but quickly spread nationwide. To name all the various jukes that formed the circuit in the state of Texas is a task beyond the scope of this blog. There were many such jukes in the Brazos Valley and circuit pubs in Houston, Dallas and Austin, the last-named being known as the live music capital of Texas. The Victory Grill in Austin is one of the few still remaining intact.

The early circuit featured mostly local blues singers, but shortly after the end of WWII, a different kind of sound started to emanate from these small shacks calling themselves juke joints (they usually had a juke box for music when live musicians weren’t playing). This new brand of music was later named “rock ‘n’ roll” by a Pittsburgh-based disk jockey named Alan Freed, or at least he was the first to widely circulate the term.

“The circuit gave the architects of blues-fueled rock ‘n’ roll their start – icons like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix and the Isley Brothers – in predominantly southern, black-only nightclubs. Even Gladys Knight performed in a house band on the circuit early in her career, playing at what she called ‘roadside joints and honky tonks’ across the South. No menus. No kitchens. Just a grizzly old guy selling catfish nuggets, corn fritters or pig ear sandwiches in a corner,” continued the Reverb article.

It’s hard to say with certainty when the term entered mainstream publications, but some say it was singer Lou Rawls who coined the saying. No stranger to the circuit himself, Rawls told The New York Times in a 1967 interview: “For years I played night clubs, working the Chitlin’ Circuit. These clubs were very small, very tight, very crowded and very loud. Everything was loud but the entertainment. The only way to establish communication was by telling a story that would lead into the song, that would catch people’s attention.”

Rawls definitely had a point about how pub noise, fueled by lavish drinking and dancing, tended to drown out the sound of performers on the stage. That’s mainly why performers such as Muddy Waters, and others, turned to electrified guitars and loud PA systems once technology improvements appeared on the blues (and rock) scene. A juke without a dance floor and a Wurlitzer was not going to attract any customers, but the ones who had such facilities were very loud. Having a live performer on stage was a much-appreciated bonus.

Competition to get those circuit gigs was intense. Preston Lauterbach, author of the excellent The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll explains that there were no idols or divas on the circuit. “It was a real place to be a professional musician, to learn, to grow as a performer, to evolve, to get better, to exchange ideas,” Lauterbach says. “There was no such thing as a media-made Chitlin’ Circuit star – there was no Chitlin’ Circuit idol, there was no corporation getting behind an individual. They had to get out there and kick ass every single night or they were screwed. It was a real survival-of-the-fittest type situation that forced the artist to be good, to be competitive, in order to be able to make a living.”

Bobby Rush, King of the Chitlin’ Circuit, recalls what it was like:

strange fruit

Lawrence Beitler’s 1930 photograph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billie Holiday sings “Strange Fruit”

The tom moore farm

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

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

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

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

down on the low turn row?

Nobody but Tom Devil,

That’s the man they call Tom Moore.”

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

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

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

Moved my family down on Tom Moore’s farm”

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

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

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