blues as protest

Protesting through music has a long tradition in the United States. Many associate this type of protest with the baby boomers’ 1960s movement against the war in Vietnam. Songs like Country Joe and the Fish’s “Vietnam Song” called for a pullout of American troops from the “undeclared and illegal war” in Southeast Asia. Part of its sarcastic lyrics goes: “And you can be the first one in your block to have your boy come home in a box.” Blues rock and folk rock hit the charts in a big way during the turbulent 1960s, making huge stars out of singers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, to name just a handful.

When it comes to the blues, however, we can trace protest songs all the way back to slavery days. A pre-Civil War standard was “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a song whose lyrics explained how to escape from plantations by following the North Star. It later became an anthem in the 1960s civil rights marches by African Americans seeking equality. Antebellum songs of protest often evolved from prisons located mostly in the South.

“Prison laborers in the southern states, the majority of whom were African American and replaced slave labor after the Civil War, sang songs that complained about their plight. Work songs protesting prison conditions demonstrate the emergence of blues, such as ‘We Don’t Have No Payday Here,’ sung by a group of convicts at Raiford Penitentiary in Florida. In another recording of a work song sung by prisoners at the same penitentiary, ‘Take This Hammer,’ the first person character of the song not only complains about the work, but boldly says that he will flee. The ‘blues’ quality is especially strong in this song, though it retains the qualities of a work song. Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter later made a hit recording of a version of this song, which he had learned in prison,” claims “The Blues as Protest” article on the Library of Congress Website.

The same article says: “In addition to work songs with a blues sound, prisoners also sang and played blues songs not used for work. ‘I Don’t Do Nobody Nothin’,’ led by C.W. ‘Preacher’ Smith with unidentified singers at Cummins State Farm in Arkansas, has qualities of both spirituals and blues. The song’s complaint about being unfairly hated also seems to make it an ancestor of songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Another example is ‘I Heard What You Said About Me,’ sung and performed on guitar by Allen Reid and recorded in Raiford Penitentiary. The narrator in the songs complains of being falsely accused and of labor in dark mines, which were among the places with the worst working conditions for prison laborers.”

Perhaps the most famous example of these 1930s blues protest songs is Lead Belly’s “The Bourgeois Blues,” in which he sings (in prison):

“Home of the brave, land of the free
I don’t wanna be mistreated by no bourgeois
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Yee, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
I’m gonna spread the news all around.”

It is no accident that protest songs evolved into the political arena. After all, the Great Depression was raging and millions of Americans were out of work. Many rode the rails as hobos headed for migrant jobs in California. It was from these nightly gatherings of displaced workers called “hobo jungles” that many protest songs emerged. One of the most famous migrant singers was Woody Guthrie (son is Arlo) from Oklahoma, who performed protest songs on KFVD in Los Angeles starting in 1937. Guthrie performed such songs as “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” and “Dust Bowl Refugees” but his audience was limited since the only available media then was radio, which was relatively new.

Television did not get started until after WWII. It played a leading role in the anti-war protests on the 1960s by bringing the war directly into the living rooms of every American. Protest singers in that era found they could reach much wider audiences through TV. One particular song adopted by marching African Americans then was “We Shall Overcome,” which derived from a still surviving center of 1930s radicalism, the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Tennessee.

“Despite the South’s reputation as a conservative region, both protest activities and protest music have flourished at various times in its history. Indeed, southerners have played vital roles in the shaping of the protest genre in this century,” concludes The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. And many of the contributions to this genre came from blues players, such as Lead Belly, Josh White and Vern Partlow.

Lead Belly sings “Bourgeois Blues”

trouble in mind

Suicide is an uneasy subject to discuss, but it does occur among musicians: think Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake and Chris Cornell. Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain whether a death occurred due to suicide or an accidental cause, such as a drug overdose. Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin perhaps could fit into that category. And then there is the so-called “27 Club,” of historical deaths at that particular age. In many cases, depression has been a major contributor for people deciding to end it all by their own hands. Performers, blues singers included, have wrestled with depression caused by loss of fame, drug addiction and many other problems. But the question here is whether suicide rates among musicians is higher in certain genres than in other categories. How does the blues rank in this type of analysis? Before we answer that question, let’s look at some blues songs that have touched on this depressing subject.     

“Trouble in Mind” is a vaudeville blues-style song written by jazz pianist Richard M. Jones. Wikipedia elaborates: “It became an early blues standard, with numerous renditions by a variety of musicians. Although singer Thelma La Vizzo, with Jones on piano, first recorded the song in 1924, Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill popularized the song with her 1926 recording with Jones and trumpeter Louis Armstrong.”

Jones’ lyrics deal with thoughts of suicide. Early recordings include the verses:

“Sometimes I feel like livin’
Sometimes I feel like dyin’ …
I’m gonna lay my head
On the lonesome railroad line
Let the 2:19
Satisfy my mind.”

In many later versions, new and more upbeat lyrics were added. Most usually include the well-known verse:

“Trouble in mind, I’m blue
But I won’t be blue always
‘Cause I know the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday.”

Despite the sense of pain and despair, music writers such as Adam Gussow and Paul Ackerman point to the hope engendered by the refrain: “I won’t be blue always…For the sun will shine in my back door someday.” Blues historian William Barlow calls the song “the anthem of the classic blues genre” and writer Steve Sullivan describes it as “one of the most indelible blues compositions of the 1920s.”

“Suicide Blues” (1925) was a song performed by blues singer Maggie Jones, often dubbed as the “Texas Nightingale.” She recorded 38 songs between 1923 and 1926, including another one with depressing content called “Undertaker Blues.” Part of the lyrics to “Suicide Blues” goes like this:

“If somebody finds me when I’m dead and gone
If somebody finds me when I’m dead and gone
Say I did self-murder, I died with my boots on

Took a Smith & Wesson, and blew out my brain
Took a Smith & Wesson, and blew out my brain
Didn’t take no poison, I couldn’t stand the strain.”

By the early 1930s Jones had moved on to Dallas, Texas, where she operated her own revue troupe, which performed in Fort Worth. Although the exact date of her death is unknown, it was not due to suicide.

So how does blues music rank in terms of suicide acceptability (SA), i.e. suicide planning activity? An article in the April-May 2000 issue of Death Stud provides an answer. “Research has neglected the possible impact of the blues music subculture on SA. The sad themes in the blues may attract suicidal persons and reinforce their suicidal moods and attitudes. The present study performs the first test of the thesis that associates SA with being a blues fan. It uses data on a national sample of 961 adults drawn from the General Social Survey of 1993. The results of a multivariate logistic regression analysis found that blues fans were no more accepting of suicide than nonfans. However, blues fanship was found to have substantial indirect effects on SA through its influence on such factors as lowered religiosity levels, the most important predictor of SA. Race-specific analyses found more support for the model for whites than for African Americans.”

Other publications disagreed. The Conversation carried an article called “Music to Die For,” in which it suggested that older genres such as the blues, jazz and country had suicide rates about equal to the general public in the United States. However, the same source claims, musicians who are dying youngest belong to newer genres (electronic, punk, metal, rap and hip-hop) that have not existed as long as genres such as jazz, country, gospel and blues. According to this study, almost all music genres had higher suicide rates than the blues. The only one lower was rhythm and blues (R&B).

Maggie Jones sings “Suicide Blues”

boll weevil blues

Two significant developments in the South contributed to the great migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities due to the lack of employment opportunities: 1) the boll weevil invasion of the 1890s and 2) the invention of the automated cotton picker in the 1920s. Both reduced the demand for black laborers in the southern cotton fields, forcing these workers to seek employment in the North’s industrial cities such as New York City, Chicago and Detroit. A total of six million African Americans moved out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1916 and 1970.

Here we will focus on the former as the cotton-ruining bug from south of the border devastated cotton crops across the deep south. The insect first crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas, entering the United States from Mexico in 1892 and reaching southeastern Alabama and Georgia by 1909. Since the boll weevil entered the United States, it has cost U.S. cotton producers about $15 billion, causing massive loss of crops and layoff of manual workers.

Since the boll weevil invasion coincided with the historical development of the blues, it was natural that blues artists wrote songs bemoaning the resulting loss of their main form of employment. Bluesmen, and other artists, from Georgia to Texas recorded songs about the misery caused by the influx of these Mexican bugs. Some of the lyrics to Lead Belly’s 1934 version of “Boll Weevil” goes like this:

“Well the boll weevil and the little black bug
Come from a-Mexico they say
Came all the way to Texas
Just a-lookin’ for a place to stay
Just a-lookin’ for a home, just a-lookin’ for a home

Well the first time that I seen the boll weevil
He was a-sittin’ on the square
Well the next time that I seen him
He had his a-family there
Just a-lookin’ for a home, just a-lookin’ for a home

Well the farmer took the boll weevil
And he put him on the red hot sand
Well the weevil said this is a-mighty hot
But I take it like a man
This will be my home, this will be my home.”

The origin of the boll weevil song can be traced back as far as the turn of the century writes Wikipedia: “Perhaps as early as 1908, blues pioneer Charley Patton wrote a song called ‘Mississippi Boweevil Blues’ and recorded it in July 1929 (as ‘The Masked Marvel’) for Paramount Records. Some of the lyrics are similar to ‘Boll Weevil,’ describing the first time and ‘the next time’ the narrator saw the boll weevil and making reference to the weevil’s family and home. ‘Mother of the Blues’ Ma Rainey recorded a song called ‘Bo-Weavil Blues’ in Chicago in December 1923, and Bessie Smith covered it in 1924, but the song had little in common with Lead Belly’s ‘Boll Weevil’ aside from the subject matter.”

Later recordings of the boll weevil song came from such diverse artists as rocker Eddie Cochran (1959), country singer Tex Ritter (1966) and British skiffle artist Jimmy Page (1968). A 1961 adaptation by Brook Benton became a pop hit, reaching number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Apparently, cotton farmers’ fear of this bug still exists despite successful eradication efforts throughout southern states since 1990, with the notable exception of Texas. Has this fear of a resurgence of the bug kept blues artists writing boll weevil songs? Apparently so, because the contemporary blues band White Stripes recorded a version in 2011 called “The Ballad of the Boll Weevil.”

Maybe the great jazz singer and Cotton Club performer Cab Calloway said it best:

“We took the good and we took the evil,

Laughter and song and the old boll weevil,

Time has gone by, now here am I,

Wishing that I only knew.”

Lead Belly sings “Boll Weevil”

skiffle and the blues

Post-WWII baby boomers in Britain, especially those in England, grew up in a bombed-out environment where most families were poor and could ill afford entertainment or expensive musical instruments. These teenagers of the 1950s also longed for more exciting music and were enthused by authentic American blues, which could be played on crude “musical” instruments such as rub boards, “drums” made of just about anything, and the like. Meanwhile, the British government had banned the emerging American rock and roll music from being played on BBC radio, the only such station operating then.

Not to be denied, these baby boomers tuned in to a pirate radio station called Radio Caroline, operating from an American ship sailing in international waters off the Sussex coast and thus outside the reach of British law. Blues, folk and rock records were also being smuggled into England through port cities such as Liverpool. It was enough input to create a homegrown musical genre called “skiffle,” which became all the rage in England starting in the 1950s, in spite of the fact that it had already been invented in the United States decades before.

Skiffle was first popularized in the United States in the 1920s by blues musicians and was only revived by British bands in the mid-1950s. The term was originally applied to musical parties held in private to raise rent money. Skiffle later came to mean music played by jug bands (in addition to jugs, these bands featured guitars, banjos, harmonicas and kazoos), first in Louisville, Kentucky, as early as 1905. It then became prominent in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1920s and ’30s.

The first use of the term on record was in 1925 in the name of a band called Jimmy O’Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers. Most often skiffle was used to describe country blues music records, which included the compositions “Hometown Skiffle” (1929) and “Skiffle Blues” (1946) by Dan Burley & his Skiffle Boys. The term was also used by Ma Rainey (1886–1939), often called the “mother of the blues,” to describe her repertoire to rural audiences. However, “skiffle” had disappeared from American music by the 1940s.

“In the Britain of the impoverished post-World War II years, young musicians were delighted to discover a style that could be played on a cheap guitar, a washboard scraped with thimbles, and a tea-chest bass (a broom handle and string attached to a wooden case used for exporting tea). Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie were the heroes of a movement that had one foot in the blues and the other in folk music,” explains the online version of Britannica. “When singer-banjoist Lonnie Donegan stepped out of the rhythm section of Chris Barber’s Dixieland (traditional jazz) band to record a hopped-up version of Lead Belly’s ‘Rock Island Line’ in 1954, he was unwittingly laying the foundation of the 1960s British music scene. Released as a single in 1956, ‘Rock Island Line’ was purchased by millions, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who thereby received their first exposure to African-American popular music.”

Lennon and McCartney were among thousands of British boys who, inspired by Donegan, formed skiffle groups—in their case, the Quarrymen—as a first step on the road to rock and roll. Had it not been for skiffle music there probably would not have been a worldwide musical phenomenon called The Beatles. “Before skiffle, many British pop singers tended to be crooners,” Stephen William “Billy” Bragg, an English singer-songwriter and left-wing activist, recently told The New York Post. The folk-rocker had just released his 2019 book Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, which chronicled the forgotten genre. “Skiffle musicians were the first generation of teenagers to use the guitar to separate themselves from their parents,” Bragg quipped.

There can be little doubt that the revival of skiffle music in England was one of the chief contributors to the rise of rock music there. Would there have been a later “British Invasion” of the U.S. music scene had this revival not occurred? A bigger question might be: why did this revival happen in the first place? “The main impact of skiffle was as a grassroots amateur movement, particularly popular among working class males, who could cheaply buy, improvise, or build their own instruments and who have been seen as reacting against the drab austerity of post-war Britain. The craze probably reached its height with the broadcasting of the BBC TV program ‘Six-Five Special’ from 1957. It was the first British youth music program, using a skiffle song as its title music and showcasing many skiffle acts,” explains Wikipedia.

Interestingly, the British rock royalty of the 1960s (and later) tended to downplay their skiffle roots, somewhat like not mentioning an embarrassing high school photo. But not George Harrison, who once said: “If there were no Lead Belly there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles. Therefore, no Lead Belly, no Beatles.”

Lonnie Donegan sings “Rock Island Line”

daddy rice

Songs often inspire dances, which then become fixtures of the culture. Chubby Checker’s 1960 “The Twist” inspired a post-WWII generation to twist their hips to his, and other, rock music. Long before baby boomers discovered the joys of twisting, however, were such ballads as “The Tennessee Waltz,” which encouraged slow dancers to take to the dance floor. How far back in history does this trend go? Some claim that the first American rock star, and his accompanying dance, dates all the way back to the late 1820s. His name, points out author Paul Merry, was Thomas Dartmouth “Big Daddy” Rice (1808-60) who not only encouraged a dance but inadvertently provided the label for the most repressive movement in American history – the suppression of the rights of African Americans, even after their Emancipation. The “black codes” made the suppression legal and were not reversed until the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

Merry writes: “To the tune of an Irish jig, Daddy Rice caricatured on stage the plantation song and shuffling dance of a limping old slave he’d once seen when touring the USA with his theatre group. The disabled old slave, full of backchat [rude or cheeky remarks], sang what they called black ditties while tending to his master’s horses. Rice called this ragged, impertinent but affable character, Jim Crow.” Starting in 1828, Rice performed in blackface on vaudeville stages as the character called Jim Crow, singing the song and demonstrating the accompanying dance called “Jump Jim Crow.”

The sheet music written by Rice was published in 1832. Some of its lyrics go like this:

“Come, listen all you gals and boys, Ise just from Tuckyhoe;
I’m goin’ to sing a little song, My name’s Jim Crow.

CHORUS [after every verse]
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.

I went down to the river, I didn’t mean to stay;
But dere I see so many gals, I couldn’t get away.

And arter I been dere awhile, I tought I push my boat;
But I tumbled in de river, and I find myself afloat.”

In his book How Blues Evolved (volume one), Merry continues: “As a measure of the Jim Crow persona’s incredible drawing power, on 1 December 1832, in New York’s Bowery district, a crowd three hundred strong noisily demanded Thomas Dartmouth Rice repeat his Jim Crow song and dance act a remarkable twenty times. A poster in Eric Lott’s 1993 book, Love and theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Working Class, shows Rice dancing at the American Theatre in New York on 25 November 1833. Surrounding Rice is a throng of fans who have left the audience to join him on stage. The scene is hardly different to those at rock concerts or music.”

There can be little doubt that Rice’s fame as a black-faced minstrel making fun of a downtrodden, crippled slave on a southern plantation fed the flames of white superiority claims at that time and later. By 1838, the term “Jim Crow” had become a pejorative term for African Americans and from this the laws of racial segregation became known as Jim Crow laws. Naturally then, these laws became the focus of black hatred in the years that followed. They also contributed heavily to blues lyrics which subtly pointed out the inherent unfairness of Jim Crow laws such as the black codes, which detailed what African Americans could not do (or say publicly).  

But is there a direct connection to the blues, you may ask. A Website called answers: “To put it simply: the blues wouldn’t exist without ‘Jim Crow.’ It’s the American system of racial inequality and segregation that made life a hell for African-Americans in the South.”

Once the blues era began, the term started to show up in several songs making an overt protest against the racist system. One of the earliest examples is “North Bound Blues”by American singer and pianist Maggie Jones. This 1925 song contains trenchant references to the “Jim Crow laws” that are unusual for a classic female blues singer.

“Got my trunk and grip all packed
Goodbye, I ain’t coming back
Going to leave this Jim Crow town
Lord, sweet pape, New York bound

Got my ticket in my hand
And I’m leaving Dixieland

Going north child, where I can be free
Going north child, where I can be free
Where there’s no hardships, like in Tennessee

Going where they don’t have Jim Crow laws
Going where they don’t have Jim Crow laws
Don’t have to work there, like in Arkansas

When I cross the Mason‑Dixon Line
When I cross the Mason‑Dixon Line
Goodbye old gal, yon mama’s gonna fly

Going to daddy, got no time to lose
Going to daddy, got no time to lose
I’ll be alone, can’t hear my north bound blues.”

Maggie Jones sings “North Bound Blues: