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”