the devil’s son-in-law

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”

stagger lee

It is not unusual for blues songs dating back to the 1920s or before to be re-recorded in different genres. Along the way, much of the blues feeling and intent of the original song is lost or misinterpreted. One of the greatest examples of this process is “Stagger Lee,” a blues song first published in 1911, and then recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. In 1925, “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey recorded the second version of the song as “Stack O’Lee Blues.” The song had actually been doing the rounds of the South, travelling up and down the Mississippi River, since the turn of the century, claims the website udiscovermusic.com.

The historical Stagger Lee was Lee Shelton, a black pimp living in St. Louis, Missouri in the late 19th century. He was nicknamed Stag Lee or Stack Lee, with a variety of explanations being given: 1) he was given the nickname because he “went stag,” meaning he was without friends; 2) he took the nickname from a well-known riverboat captain called Stack Lee; or, 3) according to John and Alan Lomax, he took the name from a riverboat owned by the Lee family of Memphis called the Stack Lee, which was known for its on-board prostitution. 

“Shelton was well known locally as one of the Macks, a group of pimps who demanded attention through their flashy clothing and appearance. In addition to these activities, he was the captain of a black Four Hundred Club, a social club with a dubious reputation,” says Wikipedia.

“Stagger Lee” is all about an incident that happened on Christmas night in 1895 while Shelton and his acquaintance William “Billy” Lyons were drinking in the Bill Curtis Saloon. Lyons was also a member of St. Louis’ underworld, and may have been a political and business rival to Shelton. After a lot of drinking and gambling, Lyons grabbed Shelton’s Stetson hat, a definite fighting matter. Subsequently, Shelton shot Lyons in the stomach, recovered his hat, and left. Lyons died shortly afterward and Shelton was convicted of the murder in 1897. Shelton was paroled in 1909, but soon got into trouble again and was returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery; he died in there in 1912.

A string of different “Stagger Lee” versions have been recorded by Furry Lewis (1927), Long Clive Reed (1927), Frank Hutchison (1927), Woody Guthrie (1956), Lonnie Donegan (1956), Taj Mahal (1969) and Bob Dylan (1993). Cab Calloway and His Orchestra recorded a song entitled ‘Stack O Lee Blues’, but his version had nothing lyrically to do with the original, claims Richard Havers in udiscovermusic.com. Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording is considered the definitive version by blues scholars. Some of his lyrics go like this:

“Police officer, how can it be?
You can ‘rest everybody but cruel Stack O’ Lee
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
Billy de Lyon told Stack O’ Lee, ‘Please don’t take my life,
I got two little babies, and a darlin’ lovin’ wife’

That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
‘What I care about you little babies, your darlin’ lovin’ wife?
You done stole my Stetson
Hat, I’m bound to take your life.”

Some sources say that recordings of this song number in the hundreds and that the Stagger Lee tale has been told and retold in venues other than just music. According to staggerlee.com, over 400 different artists have recorded this song since the first recording in 1923. Margaret Walker and James Baldwin wrote poems from the song. It’s been refashioned as a musical, two novels, a short story, an award-winning graphic novel, Ph.D. dissertations, and a pornographic feature film. “Stagger Lee” has lived as Ragtime, a Broadway showtune, Blues, Jazz, Honky Tonk, Country, ‘50s Rock and Roll, Ska, Folk, Surf, ‘70s punk, Heavy Metal, ‘90s punk, Rap. Even Hawaiian. The song’s character lives large in Gangsta Rap. Listen to it and we hear the evolution of modern music.

Probably the most familiar version of “Stagger Lee” (at least to baby boomers) was recorded in 1958 by R&B vocalist Lloyd Price. His version of the song reached number one on the Billboard list and stayed there for four weeks in 1959. Some of his lyrics are as follows:

“Stagger Lee went to the barroom
And he stood across the barroom door
He said, nobody move and he pulled his
Forty-four, Ooh

Stagger Lee, (oh Stagger Lee) cried Billy (oh Stagger Lee)
Oh, please (oh Stagger Lee) don’t take my life (oh Stagger Lee)
I’ve got three little (oh Stagger Lee) children and a very (oh Stagger Lee)
Sickly wife (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)

Stagger Lee (oh Stagger Lee) shot Billy (oh Stagger Lee)
Oh, he shot (oh Stagger Lee) that poor boy so bad (oh Stagger Lee)
‘Till the bullet (oh Stagger Lee) came through Billy (oh Stagger Lee)and it broke the bar (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)
Tender’s glass (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)”

Lloyd Price sings “Stagger Lee”

mules in the blues

Mules have a long history of being mentioned in literature and music, going all the way back to the Bible and before. The animal is a cross between a female horse and a male donkey and is characterized as being very stubborn, but also intelligent. It is beast of burden known to be rebellious as well. In slavery days (and beyond) in the Old South mules were used to pull the plows that prepared the land for crops, usually cotton, and to haul heavy loads. They were also a primary means of transportation for African Americans then, either pulling wagons or acting as a poor man’s horse. A special bond developed between slaves and mules, a relationship which entered the black jive lexicon in many ways. It was common sense among these mule operators to never approach the animal from the rear. The “dangerous hind legs” of a mule became a powerful symbol in black slang and in blues music.

“Indeed, the blues singer adopted a phrase referring to ‘the dangerous hind legs of a mule’ when referring to another man making love to his wife or girlfriend. ‘Another mule kicking in your stall’ appeared most famously in a 1951 post-war recording Long Distance Call [Chess 1452] by Muddy Waters, but was already standard fare in many pre-war recordings,” wrote Max Haymes in an essay called “Mule, Get Up in the Alley” in the earlyblues.com blog. “While in 1930, a driving Birmingham jug band cut Kickin’ Mule Blues [OKeh 8866] with an unidentified raucous singer whose essentially single-liners give a definite pre-blues feeling to this performance.”

One of the most famous songs about mules ever written or performed was “Mule Skinner Blues,” originally recorded in 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers, who had grown up in a black neighborhood in Texas and started his career singing blues songs. Rodgers’ song was influenced by the 1928 recording of Tom Dickson’s “Labor Blues” in which the exchange is clearly between a white boss and an African-American worker (Dickson was black) who is quitting the job, not applying for it:

“It’s ‘good mornin’ Captain’, ‘e said ‘good mornin’ Shine’,

Said ‘good mornin’ Captain’, said ‘good mornin’ Shine’.

‘T’ain’t nuthin’ the matter, Captain, but I just ain’t gwine.

‘I don’t mind workin’, Captain, from sun to sun,

I don’t mind workin’, Captain, from sun to sun.

But I want my money, Captain, when pay-day come.”

The AAB blues lyric structure is apparent in the song while slang words “captain” (white boss man) and shine (African American person) were employed to lend a local flavor. Rodgers’ later version was renamed “Blue Yodel #8” and then became “Mule Skinner Blues” in the many re-recordings of the earthy ballad, which had nothing to do with skinning mules. Mule skinners in those days were simply people who knew how to handle the stubborn animals.

Black workers had a reputation of knowing how to communicate with mules, mainly since they were the persons handling them the most. “The mule acted in the role of a release valve for pent-up emotions concerning the way blacks were treated by the white man and his Jim Crow laws. Paul Oliver, whilst considering the lyrics of Go ‘Long Mule [Paramount 12247] by Ukele Bob Williams, rightly pointed out: ‘Travelers in the South and ex-slaves alike recollected that a black worker could sing comments about his master or boss to his mule, which he could not say to his boss’s face’,” wrote Haymes, quoting Oliver.

The braying of mules was the stuff of legend as the sound was so shrill and loud it could be heard for miles. Only screech owls were louder, some say. Superstitious bluesmen, many of whom followed the tenets of the black religion hoodoo (not to be confused with voodoo), weaved mule and donkey sounds into their music. “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey described a mule’s pitch in 1926: “If I could holler just like a mountain jack, I’d go up on the mountain, call my good man back.”

“Jack” was another word for an ass (donkey), so it follows that a slang name for a stupid and obnoxious loudmouth is “jackass.” On the other hand, mules were often praised in blues music. In a song called “The Death of Holmes’ Mule” Charley Turner and Winston Holmes describe a hoodoo ritual employed for the burial of the revered animal.

The great blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson, from Texas, put it interestingly: “The blues come to Texas, lopin’ like a mule.”

Jimmie Rodgers sings “Mule Skinner Blues”

the blues in space

This week featured an extraordinary event – American astronauts returning to space for the first time in nine years. Even more stunning is the fact that there were carried there by a privately owned space craft from the SpaceX company instead of a NASA owned and operated one, surely opening the door to an international space travel industry. Tickets to the moon for anyone who can afford them (and they are not cheap; at a mere $35 million) are already being sold. So what’s next? Tickets to Mars? The, ahem, the sky’s the limit? Just ask Elon Musk, the SpaceX owner.

“By successfully launching its new Crew Dragon spacecraft with astronauts on board for the first time, SpaceX became the first private company to launch astronauts for NASA. The crewed test flight, called Demo-2, is also the first crewed launch from the United States since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. SpaceX and Boeing were both selected for NASA’s commercial crew program to wean the agency off its dependence on Russia’s Soyuz to fly  astronauts after the shuttle program was retired,” explains an article in Space.com

A gentle reader might ask OK, but what does all this good news have to do with the blues? That’s where the late American astronomer Carl Sagan and his team of scientists came in back in the late 1970s with the launch of NASA’s Voyager series of space probes. In 1977, upon the launching of Voyager I and Voyager II, a committee working under Carl Sagan produced the so-called “Golden Records,” actual phonographic LPs made of copper containing “a collection of sounds and images,” writes Joss Fong at Vox, “that will probably outlast all human artifacts on Earth.”

Carried into deep space, these recordings were presumably made for the entertainment of any aliens that might come across them. The idea was to send a representative sample of the earth’s cultures in terms of what earthlings enjoy, including music. The Open Culture blog explains: Among the audio selections are greetings from then-UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, whale songs, Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 2 in F, Senegalese percussion, Aborigine songs, Peruvian panpipes and drums, Navajo chant, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” (playing in the Vox video), more Bach, Beethoven, and “Johnny B. Goode.” The Beatles wanted to have “Here Comes the Sun” included, but their recording company forbade it. On what grounds we have to wonder? Was it possible the company was afraid of being sued for copyright infringement by aliens?

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945) was born in the small town of Pendleton, Texas. He was not born blind but got that way when he was a young boy. His mother, in a spat with her husband, threw a pan full of lye in her son’s face. In rural Texas, a blind black boy in those days had only a couple of choices and both concerned picking: cotton or a guitar. Willie recorded thirty spiritual songs between 1927 and 1930; many of which featured a female background singer. For a brief period, Willie’s recordings outsold the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith.

Although Willie never recorded traditional blues songs, it was his slide guitar playing that placed him squarely in the blues category. Anyway, Blind Willie Johnson’s greatest song was selected to inter-galactically represent the blues for several reasons: he had experienced the “crucifixion” of poverty, he had an “other worldly” voice, and his guitar playing was next to heavenly. Sadly, Blind Willie died of malaria and syphilis, complicated by pneumonia, after his shack burned down in August 1945. He and his wife had slept on a soggy mattress in the ashes because they had no other place to go.

Isn’t it interesting that the music of a deaf German musical conductor named Beethoven was also included in the Golden Records in Voyager II that will fly through our solar system for the next 60,000 years? It’s also ironic that the blues greats from the Mississippi Delta were skipped over for a poor Texas bluesman. 

An article in Texas Monthly by Michael Hall entitled “The Soul of a Man” sums up nicely: “The slide guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, who used ‘Dark Was the Night’ as the motif for his melancholy soundtrack to Paris, Texas, once called the song ‘the most transcendent piece in all American music.’ In about 60,000 years, one of the Voyagers just might enter another solar system. Maybe it will be intercepted. Maybe the interceptors will figure out how to play that record. Maybe they’ll hear ‘Dark Was the Night.’ Maybe they’ll wonder, what kind of creature made that music?”

That may indeed be a question for the ages, or as Cooder himself puts it: “I think Blind Willie Johnson is one of these interplanetary world musicians.”

Blind Willie Johnson performs “Dark Was the Night”