All posts by Glenn Davis

gunsmoke blues

The early days of television, on flickering black and white screens, produced some memorable weekly fare, from game shows to sitcoms derived from radio programs. One of its most enduring formats was the venerable western, a kind of modernized morality play where the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black (just so the audiences did not get confused). When television became popular in the late 1940s and 1950s, TV westerns quickly became an audience favorite, with 30 such shows airing during prime-time in 1959. Such shows were originally aimed at children but quickly matured and attracted the attention of older generations due to the portrayals of rugged, individualistic cowboys and other loners overcoming impossible odds to protect justice in the wild west.

One of the top western shows was “Gunsmoke,” starring James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon of Dodge City, Kansas. After running for nine years on the radio, it appeared for over 600 episodes on CBS television between 1955 and 1975, gathering an approval rating of 88%. It was the most-watched TV show between 1957 and 1961. A little less-known fact was that several of the show’s crew members loved blues music. 

One weekend in November 1971, blues freak Link Wyler, and his buddies from the Gunsmoke TV crew gave into temptation. On production hiatus, they bolted Hollywood to go and film blues superstars Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, and George “Harmonica” Smith, who were then barnstorming the Pacific Northwest with their bands. The resulting two-hour documentary film called “Gunsmoke Blues” captured some of the best performances of those living legends ever put on celluloid. Recorded at the University of Oregon in Eugene, the songs included: 1) “Early in the morning”; “Ball and chain” by Willie Mae Thornton (Big Mama Thornton) 2) “Juke” by Walter Jacobs; “Leaving Chicago” 3) “Hide and seek” by Ethel Byrd, Paul Winley; “Shake, rattle and roll” by Charles Calhoun. 4) “Mannish boy” by McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters), Mel London, Ellis McDaniel; “Hoochie coochie man” by Willie Dixon; “Long distance call”, and “Got my mojo working” by Muddy Waters.

“The results, released here for the first time, is some of the best shot footage ever seen of these performers working their own element. Oh, 35mm cameras might’ve yielded better quality images, but in terms of where these guys placed themselves, on-stage or in the tour van, and how close they got to their subjects, and how they set up the audio feeds, this is as good a piece of work as was ever seen on Monterey Pop, and better than most other concert material of its era,” wrote Bruce Eder in the All Music Website.

In 2004, this material was compiled by producer Toby Byron (who made the wonderful “Masters of American Music” series for PBS) and it was released by Universal on DVD. This DVD re-release is also sold by Germany’s Bear Records, which specializes in selling hard-to-find recordings such as early blues records. Many American music lovers may be surprised to find out that some ­­70% of all blues recordings are currently sold in the European market.

Why would European listeners find solace in American blues music? “The blues are Black survival music. While many songs deal with the everyday issues, others from blues’ earliest beginnings up to contemporary times are blatantly political. It’s important to note that the act of this singing was more than entertainment for plantation overseers or solely expressions of sadness. In its purest form, the slave’s singing was an act of protest. Its beauty and expression transcends the pervasive hell that was the environment that allowed them to be enslaved,” wrote William C. Anderson on the Pitchfork Website.

Concerning arresting an abused starving sodbuster’s wife Marshal Matt Dillon once said: “Blaming her would be like blaming the night for being dark.” One of the blues-loving staff of Gunsmoke must have written that line.

The full documentary can be viewed here:

ethiopian Delineating

A majority of blues scholars seem to believe that American blues started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from field hollers emanating from the cotton fields, from work songs of prison gangs and from black versions of spirituals sung in black churches. All that may be true, but some scholars suggest that the basis for the blues was laid decades earlier in the northeastern part of the United States that did not have large cotton plantations like those in the south. They argue that a new style of music emerged in the early 1800s due to the intense curiosity of Northerners concerning the strange musical sounds coming from the black slaves interned on those cotton plantations.

“Around 1823, a musical style emerged in the northeastern United States that saw white performers mimicking, and later parodying, the distinctive style of black music found on the slave plantations of the southern states. This new form of song and dance soon became known as Ethiopian delineating; delineating meaning to depict in words and gestures. The purpose of Ethiopian delineating, apart from providing entertainment, was to give northern audiences, white and black, an opportunity to experience a snapshot of plantation life and hear southern slave songs for themselves,” explains Paul Merry in How the Blues Evolved, Volume One.

Merry, himself a blues musician and author of several books on blues history, also points out that Ethiopian delineating predated minstrelsy by about two decades. These early entertainers delineated from the slaves’ point of view, their white faces greased black although they were yet to be known as minstrels. “In a world of stilted formality, the tunes of these new-fashioned slave songs were refreshingly catchy. Their infectious rhythms harked back to old Africa. The lyrics, sung in pigeon-English in a comic plantation patois [dialect], made audiences laugh, even when not written deliberately to be funny,” Merry continues. “These Ethiopian songs of the 1820s and 1830s are considered by most experts to be the origin of today’s blues and the starting point of virtually all popular modern music. Some historians describe this Ethiopian delineating as minstrelsy. However, Ethiopian song, Ethiopian dance and Ethiopian opera, as the performances were also called, only become generically known as minstrelsy in the 1840s.”

According to Merry, the first person to perform a slave song wearing blackface, in 1799, was a German oboist by the name of Johann Christian Gottlieb Graupner (1767-1836), who had been inspired by street music that overwhelmed him after wandering by mistake into a slave quarter in Virginia in 1795. This story has led to Graupner being acknowledged, by some music historians, as the Father of Negro Songs in America. However, an American writer and musician, Shlomo Pestcoe,  revealed it was actually Gottlieb Graupner’s English wife who did the performing. The lady in question was the acclaimed opera singer, Catherine Comerford Hillier, who performed her husband’s slave-inspired song, “The Gay Negro Boy,” in an interlude between acts at the Boston theatre.

Was there one particular person or act that forged these early forms of American roots music into what was to become the blues years later? Merry believes it was a visiting (white) comedian from England who pulled off this magical transition. “From September 1822 to May 1823, Charles Matthews successfully toured his one-man show across the United States [to the delight of American audiences]. This must be considered the exact moment that black slave music started the 90-year evolutionary journey that culminated in blues, as a form of music, being captured on paper and specifically named, for the first time, in March 1912 [by W.C. Handy].”

Before reading Merry’s book, I had more or less accepted the well-worn historical analysis that the blues had indeed originated in the late 19th century in the American South. However, it only stands to reason that the black slaves imported to southern plantations long before then would have brought their own African musical forms with them. Now I can envision a much earlier birth to an American style of music that is truly unique and has strongly influenced other musical forms. As Muddy Waters put it: “The blues had a baby and that baby was called rock and roll.”

the lomax library

Blues fans have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. The year 2019 has indeed been an auspicious one for blues aficionados and researchers for at least two reasons: 1) Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick’s long lost book The Blues Comes to Texas (Alan B. Govenar, TAMU Press) was finally published and 2) Alan Lomax’s huge library of roots music recordings and interviews was placed online for free public listening and reading. The second curtain-raiser is particularly significant because Alan and his father were contracted back in the 1930s by the Library of Congress to travel around the deep South to make field recordings of music being sung in cotton fields, prisons and black churches.

Why was all this important? Blues and other roots music was practically unknown to the rest of the country at that time, so these recordings changed the nature of the music world after they were released. The world was introduced to such performers as Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Aunt Molly Jackson and many others. Although the blues had been performed in jukes and other black venues for decades, white audiences were unfamiliar with such sounds until they heard them played on the radio at first and then on black and white TV screens. There can be little doubt that the blues gave birth to rock and roll. “Blues is a big part of rock and roll. The best rock and roll got its birth in the blues. You hear it in Little Richard and Chuck Berry,” said AC/DC guitarist Angus Young.

Who, you may ask were the Lomaxes? The American Folklife Center website explains: “John A. Lomax, Sr., began a ten-year relationship with the Library in 1933, when he set out with his son Alan, then eighteen, on their first folksong gathering expedition under the Library’s auspices. Together they visited Texas farms, prisons, and rural communities, recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues. John Lomax was named Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song, which in 1928 had been created in the Library’s Music Division.”

The father-son team met Lead Belly in a prison where the then completely unknown singer had written (and performed) such classics as “Goodnight Irene” and “The Midnight Special.” Perhaps Lead Belly was dreaming about a midnight prison escape in the latter song when he penned “Let the Midnight Special shine an ever-loving light on me.” After all, Lead Belly had spent nearly his whole life in prison (for murder) before being released to become John Lomax’s driver.

Alan Lomax’s work with Lead Belly, which is considered the first extended biography of an American folk musician, made him realize the importance of documenting not only music, but also the stories that went with it. Alan thus became a pioneer of recording oral histories of vernacular musicians such as Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, “Jelly Roll” Morton, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and many others. His work even extended to a project with astronomer Carl Sagan as they prepared recordings of traditional American music to be launched into deep space on the 1977 Voyager space probe.

So this is it: a huge treasure trove of songs and interviews recorded by the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax from the 1940s into the 1990s have been digitized and made available online for free listening. The Association for Cultural Equity, a nonprofit organization founded by Lomax in the 1980s, has posted some 17,000 recordings.

“For the first time,” Cultural Equity Executive Director Don Fleming told NPR’s Joel Rose, “everything that we’ve digitized of Alan’s field recording trips are online, on our Web site. It’s every take, all the way through. False takes, interviews, music.”

For a blues researcher, this website is manna from heaven. You can spend days or weeks therein and not even scratch the surface. Who can resist its magnetic pull? Let the Midnight Special shine its light on this webpage. Posterity is the big winner of this launch. Great stuff!

See the Open Culture website at:

hoochie coochie

Understanding the meaning behind the lyrics of certain blues songs necessitates a basic understanding of black slang. Since the blues is a very “earthy” style, one might expect such slang to pop up often in the songs of blues singers, and it does. Here, we’ll take a look at Muddy Waters’ smash hit “Hoochie Coochie Man” (1954, Chess Records). Part of the song’s lyrics goes like this:

“The gypsy woman told my mother
Before I was born
I got a boy-child’s comin’
He’s gonna be a son-of-a-gun
He’s gonna make pretty women’s
Jump and shout
Then the world gonna know
What this all about”

“Don’t you know I’m here
Everybody knows I’m here
Well, you know I’m the hoochie-coochie man
Everybody knows I’m here”

“I got a black cat bone
I got a mojo too
I got John the Conqueror
I’m gonna mess with you
I’m gonna make you girls
Lead me by my hand
Then the world’ll know
The hoochie-coochie man”

Wikipedia explains: “A really old term, going back to 1890, about a sexualized dance performed by carnival side-shows. A hoochie coocher was a hoochie coochie dancer. She is also called a shimmy dancer. A hoochie coochie man either runs a show or is a drag queen performer.
The phrase has made famous by various blues, jazz and rock performers. These include Elvis Presley’s ‘Saved’, Cab Calloway’s ‘Minnie the Moocher’, and Muddy Waters’ ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’. Believe it or not, there’s a 1929 Micky Mouse cartoon called ‘the Karnival Kid’ where Mickey, a carnival worker, is attracted to Minnie, a hoochie coochie dancer.”

“Hooch” is Prohibition-era slang for alcohol and “Coochie” has other meanings as well – it is specifically a reference to a drunken (black) woman’s genitals. Put together, the term could have been a reference to black women groupies who followed male blues singers around. Although Muddy Waters was forever known as the “Hoochie Coochie” man, the song itself was written by upright bassist Willie Dixon, a former heavyweight boxer and member of Waters’ band at the time. It was Waters’ 10th recording and it became his best-selling single.

There are several references in this song to hoodoo (Black religious practices similar to Haitian voodoo) such as John the Conqueror, an African-American mythical hero. This name also relates to a tree root which is said to bring good luck and protection from any sort of attack. Black cat bones, after anointment with magical Van Van oil, are often used as components in mojo bags. These small bags are normally worn as necklaces to protect against evil spells and to bring good luck. “Got my mojo working, but it just won’t work on you” is a line from another of Muddy’s songs.

“Still, it seems that the distinctive stop-time rhythm of ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ was not lost on another singer from Mississippi, by the name of Elvis Presley,” wrote David Welna on the NPR website. “Legend has it that when Muddy Waters heard Presley’s 1958 recording of the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoler song ‘Trouble,’ Waters said, ‘I better watch out. I believe whitey’s picking up on the things that I’m doing’.” 

Although singers such as Muddy Waters popularized the notion that a “hoochie coochie man” was a hunk who is sought out particularly by attractive women, there is another expression “hoochie mama,” which means an unattractive older woman who dresses in sexy clothes, trying to attract younger men. A hoochie mama can also mean a grown woman who displays an abundance of sex appeal and who is entertaining and fun to be around.

Whatever the intended usage, combining slang words for booze and female genitals in one expression may be a dog whistle for some or an unpleasant choice of words for others.

Muddy Waters sings “Hoochie Coochi Man” 

the chitlin’ circuit

The early blues singers, especially those performing before World War II, had a tough time finding places to play because segregation and Jim Crow laws prevented them from getting gigs at white establishments, for the most part. However, there were black juke joints and some white establishments which were sympathetic to such black performers. At the white establishments, the rule was that they could play their music, but were not allowed to stay on the premises afterwards. This spread of establishments was loosely known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit.”

Defining the Chitlin’ Circuit in greater detail can be a daunting task, but the online site Reverb did as good a job as any: “In an era when African Americans sat at the back of the bus and were banned from ‘Whites Only’ establishments, the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit flourished. Driven by the entrenched racial segregation of the Jim Crow era, the circuit gave comics like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor their first shots at infamy and it provided playwrights like August Wilson with an engaged audience. It also gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll music.”

Named after an African-American dish prepared from fried pig intestines, the Chitlin’ Circuit started off in the 1920s in Indianapolis, Indiana but quickly spread nationwide. To name all the various jukes that formed the circuit in the state of Texas is a task beyond the scope of this blog. There were many such jukes in the Brazos Valley and circuit pubs in Houston, Dallas and Austin, the last-named being known as the live music capital of Texas. The Victory Grill in Austin is one of the few still remaining intact.

The early circuit featured mostly local blues singers, but shortly after the end of WWII, a different kind of sound started to emanate from these small shacks calling themselves juke joints (they usually had a juke box for music when live musicians weren’t playing). This new brand of music was later named “rock ‘n’ roll” by a Pittsburgh-based disk jockey named Alan Freed, or at least he was the first to widely circulate the term.

“The circuit gave the architects of blues-fueled rock ‘n’ roll their start – icons like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix and the Isley Brothers – in predominantly southern, black-only nightclubs. Even Gladys Knight performed in a house band on the circuit early in her career, playing at what she called ‘roadside joints and honky tonks’ across the South. No menus. No kitchens. Just a grizzly old guy selling catfish nuggets, corn fritters or pig ear sandwiches in a corner,” continued the Reverb article.

It’s hard to say with certainty when the term entered mainstream publications, but some say it was singer Lou Rawls who coined the saying. No stranger to the circuit himself, Rawls told The New York Times in a 1967 interview: “For years I played night clubs, working the Chitlin’ Circuit. These clubs were very small, very tight, very crowded and very loud. Everything was loud but the entertainment. The only way to establish communication was by telling a story that would lead into the song, that would catch people’s attention.”

Rawls definitely had a point about how pub noise, fueled by lavish drinking and dancing, tended to drown out the sound of performers on the stage. That’s mainly why performers such as Muddy Waters, and others, turned to electrified guitars and loud PA systems once technology improvements appeared on the blues (and rock) scene. A juke without a dance floor and a Wurlitzer was not going to attract any customers, but the ones who had such facilities were very loud. Having a live performer on stage was a much-appreciated bonus.

Competition to get those circuit gigs was intense. Preston Lauterbach, author of the excellent The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll explains that there were no idols or divas on the circuit. “It was a real place to be a professional musician, to learn, to grow as a performer, to evolve, to get better, to exchange ideas,” Lauterbach says. “There was no such thing as a media-made Chitlin’ Circuit star – there was no Chitlin’ Circuit idol, there was no corporation getting behind an individual. They had to get out there and kick ass every single night or they were screwed. It was a real survival-of-the-fittest type situation that forced the artist to be good, to be competitive, in order to be able to make a living.”

Bobby Rush, King of the Chitlin’ Circuit, recalls what it was like:

strange fruit

Lawrence Beitler’s 1930 photograph

After the long Civil War (1861-65) ended, white Southerners complained of Yankee occupation and carpetbagger excesses, but the white man’s pain paled in comparison to that suffered by the blacks. The latter often sought relief and solace in music – their own unique version called the blues. Although the blues, as a musical genre, was no doubt born in the cotton fields and partly came from the work songs of cotton pickers, there is never any mention of the word “lynching” in blues lyrics – the word was just too scary to even say out loud. Perhaps the closest mention was in Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of the song “Strange Fruit.” But even then the ominous word was conspicuously absent.

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

Since the song was very short, the producers decided to add a long instrumental introduction of 70 seconds. After recording the song in 1939, Holiday would close all her public performances with it. Because of the power of the song, there were certain rules: the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face; and there would be no encore. During the musical introduction to the song, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer. Holiday said that every time she sang the song, she had to throw up.

Wikipedia explains the origin of this powerful song: “Strange Fruit” originated as a poem written by a white Jewish-American writer, teacher and songwriter named Abel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem under the title “Bitter Fruit” in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine of the Teacher’s Union. Though Meeropol had asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set “Strange Fruit” to music himself. His protest song gained a certain success in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.

Since “Strange Fruit” was recorded by a jazz singer, could we really say it is a blues song? Professor Adam Gussow (himself a blues player) of Ole Miss university and author of Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence in the Blues Tradition, argues in his book that Holiday’s song should not be considered a true blues song, but rather as a protest conjoined with the blues spirit. After all, he points out, the song was written by a white man and was only sung by Billie Holiday, a well-known jazz singer and songwriter. In 1978, Holiday’s version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. It was also dubbed “a declaration of war … the beginning of the civil rights movement.”

Billie Holiday sings “Strange Fruit”

The tom moore farm

The great plantations (farms) of Mississippi grew up along the mighty Mississippi River, conversely, Texas plantations got their starts next to the Brazos River. There are at least two commonalities here: cotton production needs a lot of water and the black laborers on these “farms” often wrote and performed blues songs that gave voice to their many complaints. Mississippi may have produced Muddy Waters and John Hurt but Texas countered with Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Of course there are many other blues greats, but the point here is that a unique American style of music was geographic in its inception and was directly related to cotton. Mississippi’s Dockery and Stovall farms are matched by a notorious farm in central Texas called the Tom Moore farm.

The five Moore brothers established a very large cotton farm of 15,000 acres near Navasota that was operated more like a plantation than a modern farm. Walker, one of the brothers, had bought land there as early as 1911. Texas Monthly magazine described Tom, the most powerful of the brothers, thusly: “Tom Moore was a notorious twentieth-century plantation owner along the Brazos River, near Navasota, who ran his land and the mostly African-American sharecroppers on it as if it were the nineteenth century instead.”

Tom (1901-97) and his brother Harry (1903-88) were the one-two punch of plantation mentality power in Grimes, Brazos and Washington Counties in Texas for decades, a sort of white man’s law unto themselves. Tom ruled the farm with an iron hand while Harry was the farm’s chief politician, with his reach extending all the way to the Oval Office, occupied during the late sixties by his good friend Lyndon Johnson. But it was mainly Tom who received the brunt of black hatred aimed at the farm and its chief administrator. A line from one blues song referred to Tom Moore as the devil incarnate. The reference was in a song called “Three Moore Brothers” by a black prisoner named Joseph “Chinaman” Johnson, on a recording released in 1965. Here is how the song began:

“Well, who is that I see come ridin’, boy,

down on the low turn row?

Nobody but Tom Devil,

That’s the man they call Tom Moore.”

A fair criticism or not, Tom Moore became the chief antagonist for several blues songs. “Tom Moore’s Farm,” for instance, was recorded by at least six different performers, with the words being slightly different, but the refrain remaining the same. Mance’s version of the song starts like this:

“Ain’t but the one thing, see what I done wrong

Ain’t but the one thing, see what I done wrong

Moved my family down on Tom Moore’s farm”

John Shelton Reed, an authority on Southern violence, argues in The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture that “the concept of justifiable homicide is at the heart of the southern tendency to violence. One carries a gun or knife because one might have to use it, and one uses it because the occasion merits it. Much of the literature and popular culture of the South revolves around violence, which is often viewed in a neutral or even laudatory way. For Southerners, murder in defense of honor, after sufficient provocation, is often tragic rather than simply wrong.”

If what Reed wrote is true, then would it be a stretch to argue that the white man’s racism could be mimicked by his black workers? Especially if their boss, Tom Moore in this case, is telling them to go out and kill whoever you want, but come back to the farm and I will protect you from the law?  

Other writers carry this argument one step further. “One of the most pernicious and dehumanizing effects of white racism has been the gradations of skin color within the black population to take on characteristics of a caste system,” wrote Giles Oakley in his 1997 book entitled The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues. “The closer the color was to white, the more attractive they were felt to be even among black people.” Or as Georgia bluesman Blind Willie McTell sang, “A black man give you a dollar, you won’t think it nothin’ strange, Yellow man give you a dollar he’ll want back 95 cents change.”

dockery and stovall

It is not an exaggeration to state that the blues came straight out of the cotton fields, as many blues singers claim. That would include cotton-growing plantations in both Mississippi (beside the great Mississippi river) and Texas (along the smaller Brazos river). Two of the most famous of these post-Civil War “farms” are the Dockery Plantation in western Mississippi and the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale. The former produced a bumper crop of famous blues singers from Charlie Patton to Eddie “Son” House, true pioneers of the traditional Delta Blues sound. By the mid-1920s, this original group of blues singers widened to include a younger generation of musicians, including Robert Johnson, Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Some of these were itinerant workers, while others like the young Muddy Waters from the Stovall Plantation, who once said that the blues was nothing more than the back end of a mule, lived more permanently on the farms. So how did these geographical hotbeds of blues generation get started in the first place?

Wikipedia explains: “The [Dockery] plantation was started in 1895 by Will Dockery (1865–1936), a graduate of the University of Mississippi who originally bought the land for its timber but soon recognized the richness of its soil. At the time, much of the Delta area was still a wilderness of cypress and gum trees, roamed by panthers and wolves and plagued with mosquitoes. The land was gradually cleared and drained for cotton cultivation, which encouraged an influx of black laborers. Some became settled sharecroppers, who would work a portion of the land in return for a share of the crop, while others were itinerant workers. Dockery earned a good reputation for treating his workers and sharecroppers fairly and thus attracted workers from throughout the South.” Dockery himself didn’t give a whit about the blues, but he allowed his workers to spend their free time as they pleased, thus producing an incubator of the music his black workers loved to perform and listen to.

On the other hand, the Stovall Plantation became well known after its most famous tenant, Muddy Waters, skyrocketed to fame after leaving Mississippi for Chicago, where he eventually became known as the “king of the electric blues.” Two of Waters’ recordings, “Burr Clover Farm Blues” and “Burr Clover Blues,” paid tribute to plantation owner Colonel William Howard Stovall (1895-1970), who had invented the burr clover seed harvester in 1935. 

Neither Dockery Farms nor the Stovall Plantation would have become widely known, however, had it not been for the efforts of a father-son team of roots music recorders named John A. and Alan Lomax who were traveling the deep South on contract for the Library of Congress. In effect, they were giving a voice to the voiceless. Alan first recorded Muddy on the porch of his shack on the Stovall plantation in 1941. “I really heard myself for the first time. I’d never heard my voice. I used to sing; used to sing just how I felt, ‘cause that’s the way we always sang in Mississippi,” Waters told one journalist. “But when Mr. Lomax played me the record I thought, man, this boy can sing the blues.”

The down-home, plantation blues style of Muddy Waters influenced a great many singers. His authenticity was never in doubt, especially to a white female blues performer like Bonnie Raitt. 

“What always struck me as remarkable was his lack of resentment toward people like Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter and myself. Muddy just accepted everything. He was real good-hearted and didn’t have a competitive edge,” she told Rolling Stone magazine. “I think they should put up a statue like the ones in Thailand of the Buddha. You know, the ones that are fifty feet high, and he’s sitting there with a beatific smile on his face and his eyes closed? I think they should do one of those of Muddy in Chicago.”

Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker play “I’m in the Mood”

peonage and the blues

Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude, is a system whereby an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work (and thus not be paid in money). Legally, peonage was outlawed by Congress in 1867, but did that stop the practice? Some argue no, that it survived all the way into the present, or at least until the early post-WWII era. By the 1940s, according to records in the National Archives, only rare cases of long-term peonage survived, mostly in rural areas and small towns. But some, such as bluesman Mance Lipscomb, have argued that sharecropping is just another form of peonage. We’ll take a look at an incident in one small south-central Texas town in the late 1940s that may illustrate the point.

The incident in question allegedly happened on the Tom Moore farm, originally owned by a handful of brothers, which lies near the small Texas town of Navasota. Black blues singers often referred to the “repression of black workers” on the farm. This “maltreatment”  became the catalyst for the creative reaction that sprang up in opposition, in turn producing a unique blues sound.

There have been multiple versions of “Tom Moore’s Farm,” a blues standard sometimes accredited to Lipscomb, a Texas-born sharecropper who later became world famous for his blues, and other, songs. Mance (a shortened form of emancipation), who denied writing the Tom Moore Farm song, was particularly influential to blues rockers such as Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, who both traveled to Navasota to hear the blues master play.

One of the few incidents of Moore brutality to ever break into public view was the July 1948 beating of a black parolee named John Roe. John recalled the incident from his Austin hospital bed, explaining that he had asked Tom Moore (the main owner) to use a farm truck to take his sick child to the doctor. Moore denied the request and told him to get back to work. When Roe persisted, Roe said Moore struck him with a shovel, then pistol-whipped him and chased him, bumping him with a truck fender, as Roe ran for his life with a broken arm and other injuries.

The farmworker managed to get to Austin, more than 100 miles away, where he reported the incident to the state parole board. He was admitted to Brackenridge Hospital and told his story to a Texas Ranger, the chief of the parole division, a Salvation Army captain and a stenographer. According to newspaper accounts, investigations were launched by a Brazos County grand jury, the Rangers and the FBI, as well as the Austin branch of the NAACP and the local Communist Party, to determine if peonage was being practiced on Tom Moore’s farm.

What if anything ever came of these investigations is unclear, and Moore descendants say that Tom Moore was cleared of any wrongdoing. An article on the Roe incident in the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper, noted that a similar incident had involved Harry Moore (Tom’s brother), a few months before. The victim in that case was identified only as “Mr. Walker.”

One can only surmise that there were other such incidents that went uninvestigated and/or unreported. However, there can be little doubt that the original Tom Moore farm, where many blacks saw much evil lurking, became the main antagonist for blues song creation in the Brazos Valley of Texas. But some writers, like Russell Cushman, see a great irony there as well. “In some strange twist, it is many of Navasota’s white population who are the ones that have preserved the blues, loved them and celebrated them, as if they know just how important they are as documents of a time and a history locked up in the iron box.”

Lightnin’ Hopkins sings “Tom Moore Blues”

the folkways record set

What does the Great Depression have to do with roots music? The Great Stock Market Crash occurred between October 24 and October 29, 1929. Share prices collapsed sending the United States economy into the Great Depression that lasted until the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific. Less known is the fact that Blues music popularity, which had its heyday during the “Roaring Twenties,” collapsed along with the stock market. Sales of blues music records dried up and many recording companies went out of business. Blues performers found it difficult to find gigs in pubs hit hard after Congress passed the 18th Amendment, outlawing the sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. The Volstead Act that followed ushered in a long era of Prohibition (1920-33). Many blues performers, who had prospered in northern cities during the Flapper Age, were forced to return to menial jobs in the South. Maybe Muddy Waters said it best: “There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to. When I play in Chicago, I’m playing up-to-date, not the blues I was born with. People should hear the pure blues – the blues we used to have when we had no money.”

Big Band, Jazz and Swing overshadowed the Blues in a big way during the 1930s and 1940s, sparking dance sensations like the Charleston, but during the 1950s roots music such as the Blues started to make a comeback as the young postwar baby boomers searched for new and more exciting sounds. It was in that decade, often stereotyped as an era of “collective Eisenhower insomnia,” that young white Americans tired of the insipid music on the hit parade began to rediscover their country’s trove of raw, powerful music. Television, still in its black and white infancy, began to produce music reviews aimed at boomers. Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” which stayed on the air from 1957 to 1988, became a must-watch program for these postwar kids. The show was groundbreaking in another way too. “Episodes he hosted were among the first in which blacks and whites performed on the same stage, and likewise among the first in which the live studio audience sat without racial segregation,” states Wikipedia. Many older-generation Americans, however, looked down on Clark and his show. “I was roundly criticized for being in and around rock and roll music at its inception. It was the devil’s music, it would make your teeth fall out and your hair turn blue, whatever the hell. You get through that,” Clark once said.

Sometimes it takes the publication of a music anthology to spark a movement. That’s exactly what happened in 1952 in Greenwich Village, New York City. Called the “Folkways Records Set,” it was the brainchild of the avant-garde filmmaker, folklorist and anthropologist Harry Smith. The anthology comprised three boxed two-LP sets that contained 84 performances recorded between 1926 and 1933. Included were early black blues and white country music, Cajun recordings, hymns and sacred music, and more, thrown together under a loose framework that almost single-handedly redefined folk music. Recordings included everything from “Georgia Stomp” by Andrew and Jim Baxter and “Dry Bones” by Bascom Lamar Lunsford to long-forgotten African-American gems such as “Old Country Stomp” by the East Texas songster Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas to “John the Revelator” by Blind Willie Johnson, who accompanied his powerful religious songs with slashing blues slide guitar.

“In doing so, the anthology became the single most important source of material and inspiration for many young singers in the 1950s and 1960s and the touchstone of the early-‘60s ‘folk revival.’ Such performers as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and the New Lost City Ramblers, as well as later offshoots like the Byrds, Bruce Springsteen and Jerry Garcia, owe not just repertory and techniques but, in a real sense, a large portion of their world view to the anthology’s conflation of such seemingly different traditions,” explains Tom Piazza in “A Folk Album that Awakened a Generation” in The New York Times (1997).

One of the blues singers featured in the anthology was Lead Belly, whose recordings of such classics as “Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight Irene” have influenced performers on both sides of the Atlantic. “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” George Harrison once said.

Maybe Piazza hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “More than six decades after his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1949, the influence of the great blues and folk singer Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) continues to reverberate through time. Tom Waits, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Jack White are just a few of the musicians who have been deeply influenced by Lead Belly. Kurt Cobain said that he was his favorite performer, adding ‘Isn’t he all of ours’?”

Would Harrison, Cobain and countless other performers have even known about Lead Belly had this anthology not been published? Perhaps it’s a question for the musical ages.

Lead Belly sings “Midnight Special”