black bottoms

Trivia question: What early 1900s dance became a blues song, then a play and finally a movie, which is due out later this year? If you answered “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” you would be correct. This is an upcoming American drama film directed by George C. Wolfe, based on the play of the same name by black poet, playwright and author August Wilson (1945-2005). The film stars Viola Davis (“How to Get Away with Murder,” “Fences”) and  Chadwick Boseman (“42,” “Black Panther”) in his final film role prior to his death in August 2020. It centers on a fateful recording session of “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey in Chicago. The content of both the play and film deals with issues of race, music, relationships, and the white exploitation of black recording artists.

“Originating among African Americans in the rural South, the black bottom [dance] eventually was adopted by mainstream American culture and became a national craze in the 1920s. The dance was most famously performed by Ann Pennington, a star of the Ziegfeld Follies, who performed it in a Broadway revue staged by Ziegfeld’s rival George White in 1926. The dance originated in New Orleans in the first decade of the 20th century. The jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Martin, wrote the tune ‘Black Bottom Stomp,’ its title referring to the Black Bottom area of Detroit,” explains Wikipedia.

There is a common misconception that blues is only music, but many scholars believe that blues lyrics are literary works as well. Was Huckleberry Finn really a bluesman? Stop your snickering and listen to the views of literary critic Robert O’Meally who views Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a blues novel. “While sitting in his study reading the novel, O’Meally observed, ‘the bluesiness of Huck’s tale sounded through the book’s pages…Huck knows how to solo; and like a true bluesman, he learns to swing…my love for this book—wrong notes and all—is linked, tied as tight as the strings of old Robert Johnson’s blues guitar’.” (R. Ferris in go.gale.com)

Although the “Black Bottom” story started around the turn of the century as a dance, it was turned into a stage play in 1982 by the double Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. His play concerns a  blues recording session in 1927. The plot is about rising tensions between “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable singer. Rainey was portrayed as being upset with the horn player making advances toward her female lover called “Dussie Mae” (probably blues singer Bessie Smith in real life). Ma was also determined to control the content and style of her music instead of giving in to the aggressive white management which was trying to do the same thing. Verbal sparks fly. Both the play and upcoming movie portray Ma as insisting that her 1927 song “Black Bottom” be included. Some of the song’s lyrics are as follows:

“The other night at a swell affair
Soon as the boys found out that I was there
They said, ‘Come on, Ma let’s go to the cabaret’
Where that band you ought to hear me say

I want to see that dance you call the black bottom
I wanna learn that dance
Don’t you see the dance you call your big black bottom
That’ll put you in a trance

Now, you heard the rest
Ah, boys, I’m gonna show you the best
Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom.”

In the upcoming movie version, “triple crown” (Tony, Emmy and Oscar) winner Viola Davis plays the unstoppable, cantankerous Ma Rainey while the smoothly talented Chadwick Boseman portrays the oversexed horn player who is determined to share a bed with Ma’s lover and carve out his own niche in the recording industry. Fans of the “Black Panther,” saddened by Boseman’s early passing, will get another (and last) chance to see their hero perform on the silver screen. Personally, I can’t wait to see these two marvelous actors square off. Davis is the first black actor to win a triple crown. She dislikes being called an “actress,” asking: “When is the last time you have heard a female doctor being called a doctress?”   

Veteran black actor Denzel Washington initially had a deal with the television network HBO to produce nine of August Wilson’s plays into films, with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” amongst them. By June 2019, the deal had been moved to Netflix. Washington praised Boseman saying: “He was a gentle soul and a brilliant artist who will stay with us for eternity through his iconic performances over his short yet illustrious career. God bless Chadwick Boseman.”

The son of a German father and African American mother, August Wilson’s awards are too numerous to mention here, but expect some more awards to come from the silver screen debut of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Depending on how well the film does in the box office, it’s quite possible that an Oscar could go to Viola Davis for best actor and a posthumous statue to Chadwick Boseman for best supporting actor. Best Picture award for 2020? Maybe.

Ma Rainey sings “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

hokum signifying

Sometimes one is caught on the horns of a verbal dilemma: Is it better to tell the truth and face the consequences or tell a lie and live with the pain of that deception? Or some opt for a middle ground of “spinning,” i.e., cloaking a lie in the misdirection of truth, or vice-versa. Government officials in particular seem to excel at this “skill” of talking without actually saying anything and/or wrapping truth in a veil of lies. In World War II, Winston Churchill made his now-famous statement: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” The last three words of Churchhill’s statement became the title of a 1975 non-fiction book by Anthony Cave Brown.

Classical writers and poets also used lyrical misdirection and double entendre extensively. Life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” says the paranoid king in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. With a dead wife and armies marching against him, Macbeth’s pessimism is totally understandable. The key word here, however, is signifying, a loaded word indeed, as it can have various meanings. The textbook definition of “signifying” is the use of double-meaning in verbal communication to convey a different or opposite meaning to the literal interpretation. Centuries later, black slaves on white Southern plantations were using this lyrical technique to communicate messages without getting caught in an act of sending subversive suggestions.

“In the 19th Century, it was commonplace among slave communities for ironic statements, perhaps about some ‘fine work’ that might sound respectful to the ‘master’, to express the opposite to fellow slaves. In the Gospel song ‘Wade in the Water,’ the lyric ostensibly refers to the practice of ‘baptizing’ people into the Church by immersing them in the river, but it also references runaway slaves using waterways to put bloodhounds off the scent,” suggests Allaboutbluesmusic.com. “When songs address the subject of sex, all kinds of metaphors, and word-plays are used to disguise the material being ‘signified’, and the game included accusing anyone who complained about the content of lyrics of having a ‘dirty mind’ for doubting the literal meaning.”

Hokum, a.k.a. “dirty blues,” records were popular in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s in America. Their lyrics on some of those records that sold in their hundreds of thousands were quite explicit in their references to sexual practices, prostitution and homosexuality. This hokum craze occurred during the “Prohibition” era, when drinking alcohol criminalized large parts of the population. Permissiveness in nightlife extended to sexual activity, gambling and other immoral and subversive activities.

A sub-genre of traditional American blues, hokum uses extended analogies or euphemisms to make sexual innuendoes. For instance, let’s look at some of the lyrics to Bo Carter’s “Banana in Your Fruit Basket” (1931):

“I got a brand new skillet
I got a brand new lead,
All I need is a little woman, just to burn my bread
I’m tellin’ you baby, I sure ain’t gonna deny,
Let me put my banana in your fruit basket, then I’ll be satisfied.”

In fact, food was often a symbol used by Hokum blues players in the early days. Sausages were the food of choice for Bessie Smith (“Hot Dog Man” 1927), Butterbeans and Susie’s “I Wanna Hot Dog for my Roll” (1927), Bo Carter’s “Please Warm My Weiner” (1935), and Lil Johnson’s “Sam the Hot Dog Man” (1936). Lil Johnson’s “Press My Button, Ring My Bell” (1936) includes the lines “Come on baby, let’s have some fun, Just put your hot dog in my bun,” points out williamseaton.blogspot.com. “In 1928 Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey recorded ‘It’s Tight Like That,’ a song that was highly successful and opened the door to a stream of dirty blues artists that recorded during the 1930s. Interestingly, pianist Georgia Tom Dorsey later left his hokum blues origins and went on to create a new genre based on religious beliefs: Gospel.” The lyrics to “It’s Tight Like That” go like this:

“Listen here folks
Wanta sing a little song
Don’t get mad, we don’t mean no harm
Y’know, it’s tight like that

Beedle-um-bum
Oh, It’s tight like that
Beedle-um-bum
Oh, ya Hear me talkin’ to you
I mean it’s tight like that

There was a little black rooster
Met a little brown hen
Made a date at the barn about-a half-past-ten
Y’know, it’s tight like that.”

In PRI World Paulus van Horne explains that the hokum genre is pure entertainment, composed for the vaudeville shows and rundown theaters home to minstrel shows in the 1920s and 1930s. “Both black and white musicians sang hokum. It wasn’t only white people making fun of black people, nor was it black people playing up stereotypes for a white audience.” 

The environment that gave birth to recorded blues was indeed a witch’s brew of volatile entertainment spurred on by post-WWI euphoria, rising black nationalism, the Harlem Renaissance, lewd dancing in public and drinking in “speakeasy” (password required) pubs where outlawed liquor was sold during Prohibition days. The general giddiness of the Roaring Twenties produced a freedom of expression in music rarely seen afterwards.

Even white comedians like Jeff Foxworthy pay homage to those clever black wordsmiths of the hokum blues days: “I talk about sex and marriage but it’s just trying to find a way to say ‘it’ without actually saying ‘it’.” A couple of Jeff’s funniest one-liners about Astroglide: “Let’s you park your Cadillac in a doghouse” and (referring to a woman’s caboose) “That looks like two blue Volkswagens trying to pass each other on a gravel road.” Pure hokum. Tampa Red would look down and smile.

Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey sing “It’s Tight Like That”

the bluebird sound

Although session bands have been major contributors to the success of various musicians, they have rarely received their due recognition. Would songs like the Beachboys’ “Good Vibrations” or the Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road” have become big hits without the backing of Phil Spector’s unique “wall of sound”  (reverberating instruments in the studio which constantly threatened to drown out the vocals) recording technique? Would such songs as the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” have become famous without the contribution of the rhythm section of the FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals Alabama? The best documentary film of 2014 called “20 Feet from Stardom” starred backup singers Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer who were on many recordings, but did not get the credit they so richly deserved.     

So what about the blues? Less of a “problem” since many traditional blues players went solo, with their only accompaniment being a guitar, piano or harmonica. When it came to blues recordings, the Great Depression literally ended those Roaring 20s boom years. After the stock market crash of 1929, many record companies folded their race labels and either stopped or dramatically curtailed regional race recording. Rich varieties of down-home blues, including freewheeling blues ensembles such as the jug bands, were neglected on record. “The artists who did record, for example, Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, and Memphis Minnie, were established hit-makers who could be counted on for smooth performances and tight songwriting,” states the Encyclopedia of the Blues.

In the blues genre, Bluebird Records became one of the first companies to create a unique background sound, still referred to as “the Bluebird Sound.” Bluebird is a sub-label of RCA Victor Records originally created in 1932 to counter the American Record Company in the “three records for a dollar” market. Along with ARC’s Perfect Records, Melotone Records and Romeo Records, and the independent US Decca label, Bluebird became one of the best-selling “cheap” labels of the 1930s and early 1940s and its 78 RPM vinyl records. Frank Sinatra’s first solo recordings were released on the Bluebird label in 1942.

The first records by Bluebird, primarily in the jazz and blues genres, were released in 1932. Notable Bluebird artists included Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Tampa Red. The first three, along with Washboard Sam, would make up the Bluebird session band that would ultimately be responsible for the “Bluebird Sound” that would go on to be a major influence on Rhythm and Blues and early Rock ‘N’ Roll, claims nighthawk.sundayblues.org. The unique sound also became the prototype for the electric Chicago blues, which followed a decade or so later.

Robert Clifford Brown, a.k.a. Washboard Sam (1910-66) probably was not the greatest player of that original Bluebird session quartet, but he was certainly interesting in his own way. “The washboard was the rhythm instrument of choice for street musicians playing the Blues in the early days, but Washboard Sam took it into the studio and made himself a strong career as a session musician in Chicago. He also had a great voice and a talent for songwriting that saw him record more than 160 tracks as a solo artist. Sam was a great showman and bandleader too, and he could pack out big theaters with fans of his good-time music,” explains allaboutbluesmusic.com. One of Sam’s greatest hits was the 1939 recording of “Digging My Potatoes,” whose lyrics go like this:

“They’ve been diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
They’ve been diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
I have a special plan, restin’ on my mind
I don’t eat no cabbage sprouts, bring me thoughts to head
Supposed to call the wagon, if I find him in my bed

You know they’ve been diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
I have a special plan, restin’ on my mind
Now she powdered her face, wet her wavy hair
Caught a taxicab, she’s out across town somewhere

You know she’s diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
I have a special plan, restin’ on my mind
Said my vine’s all green, potatoes solid red
Never found a bruised one, till I caught them in my bed

You know they’re diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
I have a special plan, restin’ on my mind.”

As WWII ended with Japan’s surrender in mid-summer of 1945, the blues had already moved on. Electric blues in Chicago had displaced the 1930s-style bluebird sound. Singers like Washboard Sam suddenly found themselves without an audience. Sam gave up singing the blues and became a policeman. However, Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Tampa Red carried on and so did Bluebird Records, but not like before. Revival attempts in the 1950s and the 1970s have led to the Victor Talking Machine Company finally supporting the label for future projects, to honor its legacy in the music recording industry.

Washboard Sam plays “Diggin’ My Potatoes”

little red rooster

Willie Dixon

Lyrics written and sung by traditional bluesmen have often tried to mimic the sound of farm animals such as horses, mules, cows, pigs, dogs and chickens. For example, Texas bluesman Billiken Johnson accurately copied the braying of mules in his 1928 recording of “Wild Jack Blues.” Lightnin’ Hopkins sings about talking to a cow in “Tom Moore’s Blues.” Other traditional blues players used harmonicas to mimic the sounds of different farm animals. Blues song writers and performers, such as Willie Dixon (1915-92), grew up on Southern farms and were surrounded by such animals. Dixon is often referred to as the “poet of the blues.”

It is only natural, then, that these budding artists noticed the sounds and behavior of their feathered and cloven-hooved friends, later incorporating the same into their music. In fact, one of Dixon’s greatest creations was “The Little Red Rooster,” first recorded by bluesman Howlin’ Wolf in 1961. The song about a barnyard rooster gained an instant following, especially after covers were later recorded by Sam Cooke (1931-64) and the British rock band The Rolling Stones. The Stones’ lyrics, somewhat different from the original, go like this:   

“I am the little red rooster
Too lazy to crow for day
I am the little red rooster
Too lazy to crow for day

Keep everything in the farmyard upset in every way

The dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl
Dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl
Watch out strange cat people
Little red rooster’s on the prowl.”

A variety of musicians have interpreted and recorded “Little Red Rooster.” Some add new words and instrumentation to mimic the sounds of animals mentioned in the lyrics. Some critics claim the song is the most overtly phallic song since Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 “Black Snake Moan” while more objective analysts see it as an innocuous farm ditty. Dixon himself said, rather sarcastically: “I wrote it as a barnyard song really, and some people even take it that way!”

American soul music singer Sam Cooke adapted the song using a more up-tempo approach and it became a successful single on both the US rhythm and blues and pop record charts in 1963. Concurrently, Dixon and bluesman Howlin’ Wolf toured the UK with the American Folk Blues Festival and helped popularize Chicago blues with local rock musicians overseas, points out Wikipedia. That particular tour was a major impetus for the British Invasion which soon followed.

The Rolling Stones were among the first British rock groups to record modern electric blues songs. In 1964, they recorded “Little Red Rooster” with original member Brian Jones, a blues purist and a key player in the recording. “Their rendition, which remains closer to the original arrangement than Cooke’s, became a number one hit record in the UK and continues to be the only blues song to ever reach the top of the British chart. The Stones frequently performed it on television and in concert and released several live recordings of the song. ‘Little Red Rooster’ continues to be performed and recorded by a variety of artists, making it one of Willie Dixon’s best-known compositions,” opines gerrymoss.net.

Interpretations notwithstanding, the above comments beg the question of whether white people can authentically sing and/or play the blues invented and perfected by African Americans. Muddy Waters once famously said that whites can play the blues but cannot sing them. A June 1999 article in the Independent entitled: “Music: White Men Sing the Blues” asked the question of whether white bands like the Rolling Stones could actually sing the blues like black singers. “Yet, although black people were not seduced by the Stones’ artificial persona, many white teenagers were. The group had embraced the rebellious stance of black blues musicians, prompting Stanley Booth to describe Keith Richards as ‘the world’s only blue gum [very dark skinned black man] white man, as poisonous as a rattlesnake’. Brian Jones also initially called himself ‘Elmo Lewis’, an allusion to the blues guitarist Elmore James.”

Unfortunately, the blues-loving founder of the Rolling Stones drowned in a swimming pool incident in 1969. After his death, the Rolling Stones became less bluesy and more focused on rock ‘n’ roll. Mick Jagger, then comfortably ensconced as lead singer of the group, realized he needed to become more visual and active during stage performances. He needed a dance that would make him appear more African-American like. So Jagger studied the dance moves of the incredibly athletic James Brown in order to perfect his own version of the funky chicken. He also copied the moves of Ike and Tina Turner, in an attempt to become a white singer with black moves.

By doing so, Jagger succeeded in becoming an international sex symbol, but some observers remained unimpressed. Ike Turner said that Jagger “could not sing” and Truman Capote deduced that Jagger’s performances were “about as sexy as a pissing toad.” Nevertheless, the Rolling Stones are still rocking and making millions onstage despite being grandfathers and senior citizens. According to the magazine named after the Rolling Stones, they are the second-longest running rock band (without a break) after U-2, an Irish rock band named after an Irish unemployment form.

The Rolling Stones sing “Little Red Rooster”