Following the stock market crash of 1929, the market for blues recordings suffered its own great depression. Many black blues performers, who had been riding high during the Roaring Twenties, had no choice other than packing their bags and returning to the rural south, from which they had come. Recording companies turned away from traditional blues in favor of brighter, faster and more upbeat new sounds coming out of east Texas logging camps and steam locomotive operations called Fast Western (later known as big band swing) and Boogie Woogie, which became the dominant sound (and dances) of the World War II years. Blues made a comeback in the 1950s and ‘60s with the British Invasion which featured bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Beatles, which were groomed on traditional American blues music. Traditional blues also fit hand-in-glove with the American and international political protest movements against the war in Vietnam during the same period.
There were some blues recording artists during the 1930s, however, who managed to create reputations for themselves and thus survive during very tough times. A saying during those days summed up the prevailing reality: “A loaf of bread was only a nickel, but who in the hell had a nickel?” One such player was William Bunch, better known by his nom de plume Peetie (or Peetey) Wheatstraw (1902-41). “He recorded in every year of the 1930s save 1933, ultimately producing 175 sides in all with only one rejection, an enormous total for a blues artist in the pre-war period. This figure does not include recordings made by Wheatstraw sitting in on records made by his frequent partner, Kokomo Arnold, or ones made with Amos Easton, a.k.a. Bumble Bee Slim,” writes Uncle Dave Lewis in allmusic.com. Only a few pictures of Peetie remain, most showing him holding a guitar, but he specialized in playing the piano.
The History of the Blues described Wheatstraw as a potato-headed pianist and singer, who delivered his lyrics in a “slightly tipsy fashion” and very often punctuated his verses with an annoying cry of “ooh well, well.” One disgusted female listener once responded: “Why doesn’t he just yodel and get it over with?”
Like the more famous Robert Johnson of the Mississippi Delta, the St. Louis based Wheatstraw claimed to have gone to the crossroads and met the devil to make a deal, although his story had a different twist than the Johnson tale. In his version, Peetie’s deal was to marry Beelzebub’s extremely ugly daughter in exchange for an enhanced musical ability. That’s why the singer’s recordings were issued under two different demonic names: “The Devil’s Son-in-Law” or “The High Sheriff from Hell.” Humility was not Peetie’s trademark.
The blues singer Henry Townsend recalled Wheatstraw’s real personality: “He was that kind of person. You know, a jive-type person.” The blues critic Tony Russell updated the description in Wikipedia: “Wheatstraw constructed a macho persona that made him the spiritual ancestor of rap artists.” Peetie’s lyrics were a major influence on Robert Johnson, forming the basis for Johnson’s 1937 “Terraplane Blues.”
One of Peetie’s greatest hits was “The Devil’s Son-in-Law.” Some of its macho lyrics are as follows:
“When I was born I was a man
I whooped the doctor’s ass for slappin’ me with his hand
Didn’t give a damn about nothin’ do you understand me cuzzin’
Cause I gotta plan to show you somethin’
The world’s in my hands You think it wasn’t I am what I am
Tell’em somethin’ Devils son-in-law yeah.”
“I got dough I got the Flow
And every dime piece is working in my show
Show after show I’m making dough
My competition hatin’ sayin’ I gotta go
They get together I didn’t know
They set me up and filled me full of holes
Oh No I’m on the floor Devils son-in-law yeah.”
An American blaxploitation comedy horror film was made in 1977 about the Wheatstraw legend called The Devil’s Son-in-Law. The plot differs slightly from the musical legend, for comedic effect. After being murdered by his rivals, Petey Wheatstraw (played by comedian Rudy Ray Moore) is resurrected, in exchange for marrying the devil’s daughter, the world’s ugliest woman. Beginning life as the afterbirth to a watermelon, the young Wheatstraw becomes a martial artist, but is unable to best the evil comedy team of Leroy and Skillet, who also indulge in wholesale murder. Satan restores the comedians’ victims to life, and charges Petey with the task of marrying his clock-stoppingly ugly daughter to give him a grandchild. When Petey attempts to default on the deal, he is pursued by the devil’s henchmen, explains IMDb.com.
Peetie’s actual demise was less dramatic, but equally tragic. In December, 1941 (on the 21st, his birthday), Wheatstraw and a couple of friends decided to take a drive to find some liquor. Only a short distance from his house, the car struck a parked train, killing Peetie’s two friends instantly. The Devil’s Son-in-Law passed away from his injuries in the hospital a few hours later. He was only 39 years old.
“Wheatstraw was overwhelmingly popular throughout the 1930s, and he is credited in some quarters with being the artist who carried the blues from its lowly status as rural ‘devil’s music’ into the cities where, in time, it would grow, thrive and change to suit the needs of a new, urban audience,” concludes Uncle Dave Lewis.
With so many early blues performers claiming they went to the crossroads and made pacts with the devil, there is no wonder that the blues got labeled as “the devil’s music.”
Peetie Wheatstraw sings “The Devil’s Son-in-Law”