folk songs as code

The Negro folk song was an antecedent of the blues. Its lyrics were sometimes coded instructions for black slaves escaping from Southern plantations via the Underground Railway. One example of this type of folk song disguised as Black code for escape was “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” This song, dating back to the 1830s, was actually a road map for how to get to Kentucky and then to freedom. Part of the lyrics, which many white people thought was just a spiritual, made references to landmarks along the way from Alabama northward.

 “When the sun comes back, 
and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd,
The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the drinking gourd.” 

 “Where the little river 
Meets the great big one, 
The old man waits—
Follow the drinking gourd.”

The “drinking gourd” is not just a hollowed out gourd for drinking water but the Big Dipper constellation, pointing the way north. A returning sun and quail calls recall spring, the best time to run. The “old man” refers to “Commander” Peg Leg Joe, an operative of the railway. It is said that Joe would leave his mark, a left foot and a small circle (for the peg), on dead trees along the route, to guide runaways. The rivers mentioned are the Tombigbee and the Ohio. Where they merge in Peducah, Kentucky was allegedly the staging place for escaping slaves to follow the Underground Railway to freedom in either New England or Canada.

Some scholars, such as James B. Kelly, question the authenticity of the song’s lyrics. He claims the song is an interpolation and not an interpretation. The song content was researched by H.D. Parks in the 1910s and was recorded for the first time in 1928 by the Texas Folklore Society. Parks admitted that he pulled the lyrics from memories of people who could not verify from where the words had actually been derived. Other scholars point out that the song has been re-recorded by so many different singers and groups that its original meaning has become somewhat diluted, or even lost. In fact, historical records show that most of the escaping plantation slaves did not go north at all, but fled instead to large southern cities or to Caribbean destinations.

None of this criticism, however, can diminish the historical importance of the Drinking Gourd song. The website www.followthedrinkinggourd.org states: “In the ensuing 80 years [since 1928], the Drinking Gourd played an important role in the Civil Rights and folk revival movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and in contemporary elementary school education. Much of the Drinking Gourd’s enduring appeal derives from its perceived status as a unique, historical remnant harkening back to the pre-Civil War South – no other such map songs survive.” 

In addition to Negro folk songs were Negro spirituals, which formed the bedrock for the blues that followed. Some of these compositions were also coded language for resistance and escape. Examples include “Canaan, Oh Canaan,” “Steal Away to Jesus,” “Wade in the Water” and “I Got My Ticket.” One of the most performed escapist songs of the slavery period was “Go Down Moses,” with its lyrics about an oppressed people being led out of bondage. Frederick Douglass, perhaps the nineteenth century’s most famous abolitionist author and former slave, wrote about singing spirituals in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.” (Library of Congress article)

For white churchgoers of the time, “Wade in the Water” was a call to baptism, but black slaves interpreted the meaning of the song differently. To them, the lyrics were advice to wade in the rivers to throw the bloodhounds off the scent of their trails as they escaped. 

Slave owners were not entirely in the dark about such coded language, however. Escape was one worry to them, but the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 to allow slaveowners to legally recapture runaway slaves in other states. On the other hand, an armed slave revolt was one of Southern plantation owners’ greatest fears during the antebellum period. They had heard of the 1831 rebellion in Virginia, led by a slave named Nat Turner, in which 51 white people had been massacred. Slaveowners were determined to prevent a repeat.

Southern slaveowners even had an edited version of the King James version of the Bible called the “Slave Bible,” which had any descriptions of escape from bondage or similar notions deleted. Originally published in London in 1807 for the use of British missionaries in the Caribbean, this bible also removed most of the Old Testament, especially the Exodus section, but retained the parts commanding slaves to respect their masters. Other remaining passages were about the maintenance of the slavery system and slave obedience. Is it any wonder, then, that some Confederate soldiers went into battle waving Slave Bibles above their heads?

Only three copies of the Slave Bible still remain; one is on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

Follow the Drinking Gourd

spiritual blues

Thomas A. Dorsey

Gospel music and the blues share a unique relationship, reflecting two sides of the same coin, some music critics have written. It was, and still is, very common for black blues singers performing in juke joints on Saturday nights to be singing hymns in church the next morning to the same sort of beats and rhythms, or even the same lyrics. In fact, some of these songs were religious hymns that had been converted to blues or rhythm and blues (R&B) by changing a lyric here or there or adhering to a similar sound. Some singers have forged careers by making these types of conversions which were, and still are, denounced noisily by pious church goers and blues purists.

According to the Mississippi Blues Trail website: “…the blues and the spirituals flow from the same bedrock of experience, and neither is an adequate interpretation of black life without the other.” Spirituals and hymns preceded gospel, a genre that evolved through the work of Thomas A. Dorsey, a former blues singer and composer often called the “father of [Black] gospel music,” and others. “The influence between religious music and blues has long been mutual. While both genres have their own distinct characteristics, many gospel songs have been transformed into blues or soul songs, and vice versa, by simply changing a few words in the lyrics.”

When looking for clear-cut examples of such musical manipulation, the works of Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) may, in fact, be one of the most profound. Dorsey was born in Georgia and originally made his mark in the music industry as a blues pianist playing under the stage names of “Georgia Tom” or “Texas Tommy.” He is best known for writing and performing the gospel standard “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which he wrote while grieving over the death of his wife Nettie in 1932.

The Great Depression was at its apex in the early 1930s and, with that prevailing dark mood, Dorsey’s combining of blues rhythms and spiritual lyrics did not go over well with many conservative Christians. In the beginning, many mainstream churches rejected his songs. “He spoke many times about being ‘thrown out of some of the best churches in America’ where the pastor’s labeled his gospel songs as ‘Devil Music’,” claims the blog Black Art Depot Today.

Blind R&B singer Ray Charles (1930-2004) was another prolific converter of religious music. His famous 1954 hit “I’ve Got a Woman” was a good example. It was originally a church hymn entitled “It Must be Jesus,” which was first performed by the Southern Tones, a gospel group. Charles’ converted song became a prototype for what later became known as soul music. Other music critics say the song was a converted gospel hymn called “My Jesus Is All the World to Me.” No matter the source, Charles’ R&B version shot up the music charts like a roman candle, turning the music world on its head.

But in mid-50s America, this sort of hymn conversion was frowned upon, to put it mildly. Not just pious Christians were upset at Charles’ mixing – blues purists got their backs up too, saying that spiritual music and the blues should not be stirred together. Although the converted song “I’ve Got a Woman” helped Charles tap into a much wider white audience, it was shocking and outrageous to many Christians and blues purists at that time.

Ray Charles, however, remained unfazed. “If I was inventing something new, I wasn’t aware of it. I started taking gospel lines and turning them into regular songs. Many of [my] first tunes were adaptations of spirituals I had sung in quartets back in school,” states Robert Marovich’s Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul blog, quoting Ray Charles. Among the “spirituals-and-blues” Charles cites creating was “Leave My Woman Alone” from the gospel standard “You Better Leave that Liar Alone.”

Maybe we have to look farther back into history to understand the connection between spirituals and the blues. During slavery, for example, many Southern plantation owners forced their slaves to attend Christian churches, where they sang traditional (white) hymns. Slaves adapted these songs to their own needs and desires and thus produced what is known as the “Negro spiritual.” Many believe the most important American antecedent of the blues was the Negro spiritual, so it should not be surprising that some singers and performers would combine the two into an art form of its own. The songs of Thomas A. Dorsey and Ray Charles are proof this has actually happened.

Voodoo and hoodoo

Mojo bag

Mississippi Delta bluesman Muddy Waters sang about having his “mojo” working. A mojo is a magical charm bag used in the Voodoo religion, sometimes to cast a spell on another person. Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” (not the same song as “Voodoo Child”), which employed many hoodoo references, was a number one hit in England in 1970. Singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ 1956 hit song “I Put a Spell on You” also alluded to Voodoo power. In his live perfor­mances, Hawkins would rise from a coffin with a bone in his nose. Known as the “grandfather of shock rock,” he greatly influenced later rockers such as Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath.

All these singers, and many more, have used imagery from African American traditions that hark back to ancient religions imported from West Africa via the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, many people still tend to confuse Voodoo, a religion, with hoodoo, a kind of African American folk magic. So what is the difference?

“Pop culture continually intermixes many African Diasporic traditions and portrays them exclusively as Voodoo. However, most of what is portrayed in books, movies, and television is actually hoodoo. Voodoo is a religion that has two markedly different branches: Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Vodoun. Hoodoo is neither a religion, nor a denomination of a religion—it is a form of folk magic that originated in West Africa and is mainly practiced today in the Southern United States,” explains knowlegenuts.com.

Other authors point out that early country blues singers, such as Robert Johnson, relied heavily on references to both Voodoo and hoodoo in the lyrics they wrote. Consider this passage from Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues”:

Me and the Devil
Was walkin’ side by side
Me and the Devil, ooh
Was walkin’ side by side
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman
Until I get satisfied

Is there any wonder why first the blues and then rock ‘n’ roll got labeled “the devil’s music” by white parents concerned with the effect such music was having on their young, easily impressed children? Hendrix had an answer to that question: “Things like witchcraft,” he said, “which is a form of exploration and imagination, have been banned by the establishment and called evil. It’s because people are frightened to find out the full power of the mind.”

Author Charles Shaar Murray examines Hendrix’s use of the term “Voodoo Child” in his book Crosstown Traffic: “Voodoo symbolism and reference resound through the country blues, and through the urbanized electric country blues of the Chicago school…In Hendrix’s case, this is pure metaphor…he is announcing as explicitly as possible that he is a man of the blues, and one who honors, respects and understands its deepest and most profound traditions.”

When discussing trances induced by chanting, praying and/or dancing, it is interesting to compare the behavior found in Vodoo services with that found in Christian fundamentalist country churches, whose congregations are often referred to as “Holy Rollers.” In both cases, practitioners whip themselves into a frenzy, roll around on the floor (or ground) and start speaking in tongues. Old-fashioned Christian revivals featured a big tent with a center pole and a sawdust floor. Voodoo services are also characterized by a center pole, often a totem pole, which plays a central role in that religion.

In Voodoo parlance, “riding” refers to the Holy Spirit coming down the center pole to possess a person who then goes into a trance. Voodoo chants of “Ride ‘em Jesus” then evolved into the expression “right on.” In black Christian churches, the singing of the choir played a fundamental role in creating the right emotional mood and it was the solo singer therein who “belted” out the messages. Many of these soloists, such as Mahaliah Jackson and Whitney Houston, went on to establish successful singing careers as pop artists.

“Blues singers fronting big bands, like Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing, copied the way church solo singers belted over the choir. The radio beamed this new ‘shouting blues’ all over black America. It was picked up by country blues singers like Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker, who had moved to Chicago and used it with their new electrified bands. These, in turn, inspired rockers like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones,” writes Debra Devi in the Huffington Post.

So, do Voodoo-like or hoodoo-like trances play a role in blues performances? All one has to do is watch an old video of blues singers like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin go into seemingly trance-like states as they sing or play. Were they high on drugs (both were addicts) or were they feeling the influence of Voodoo or hoodoo? Maybe both?

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: “I Put a Spell on You”

the lynching blues

The word “lynch” refers to the act of illegally hanging a person by a rope (noose), usually from a tree, until he or she is dead. Lynching was adapted from the name of an 18th century plantation owner in Virginia named Charles Lynch. He coined the term “Lynch’s Law” (punishment without trial) during the American Revolution in reference to the hanging of captured Tories (British soldiers). Lynching is not found in blues lyrics, although it is sometimes alluded to, as in black jazz singer Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which was recorded in 1939. The song, however, was first written as a poem by a white male English teacher from New York named Abel Meeropol, who was inspired by a lynching photograph. Lynching was just too frightening of a word for writers of blues songs to mention, much less for blues singers to actually voice. Holiday’s (1915-59) lyrics echo through the ages:

“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.”

Holiday always closed her nightclub performances with “Strange Fruit.” While singing the song, she insisted that waiters cease serving, that the room be completely dark and that a spotlight be trained on her face. After finishing the song she would, without fail, go behind the curtain and throw up.

Lynchings were designed to spread terror among African Americans, to “keep them in their place,” as white Southerners were fond of saying. What was implied in that saying was that blacks were an inferior race and had no business in a voting booth.

“Historians broadly agree that lynchings were a method of social and racial control meant to terrorize black Americans into submission, and into an inferior racial caste position. They became widely practiced in the US south from roughly 1877, the end of post-civil war reconstruction, through 1950,” states a Guardian article by Jamiles Lartey and Sam Morris entitled “What is Lynching?”

Black American blues singers like Robert Johnson, who died in 1938, certainly knew what lynching was. In fact, the fear of getting lynched may have been the inspiration for Johnson’s famous song “Hellhound on My Trail,” also known as “The Lynching Blues.” Part of its lyrics goes:

“I’ve got to keep moving, I’ve got to keep moving,

Blues falling down like hail, blues failing down like hail,

And the days keep on ’minding me, there’s a hellhound on my trail.”

The song was not about Robert, but concerned his stepfather, some sources claim. According to Robert Johnson biographer Peter Guralnick, Johnson’s stepfather Charles Dodds was a prosperous wicker furniture maker and landowner in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. That is where Johnson, one of 10 children of Noah Johnson and Julia M. Dodds (Johnson’s birth mother) spent his first two years. Julia then sent Robert to Memphis to live with his stepfather, who had changed his name.

“Local whites envied Dodds’s success and threatened to lynch him. Consequently, a white mob nearly achieved that goal; however, he narrowly escaped and fled to Memphis in 1909,” writes Karlos K. Hill in Study the South. “According to blues enthusiast and folklorist Robert McCormick, a family legend developed concerning Charles Dodds’s near lynching. Apparently, the story went that Dodds was able to escape the lynch mob because he disguised himself in women’s clothing. Dodds lived in fear that he would be captured someday, so much so, that he changed his name to C. D. Spencer,” continues Hill.

Other blues history writers, such as Elijah Wood and Robert Palmer, believe the lyrics to this terrifying blues song were purely metaphorical, perhaps stemming from Johnson’s own fabled “deal with the devil.” So would this “hellhound” be a metaphor for the black dog that legendarily accompanies the devil or would the animal be a real bloodhound historically used to track down runaway slaves or fugitives from the law? The answer to these questions might be as enigmatic as the life of Robert Johnson himself, or more accurately, his death. Was he barking and howling like a dog when he died of poisoning (allegedly by a jealous husband) because he was actually seeing visions of hellhounds on his trail?

Professor of English and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi, Adam Gussow, author of Seems Like Murder Here, has convincingly argued that early blues songs such as Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail” express a marked anxiety about being encircled by an invisible but ever-present lynch mob or some other terrifying menace. “The blues in this sense,” declared Gussow, “are a way of symbolizing what unconsciously oppresses the black blues subject—the ever-pressuring white gaze, periodic eruptions of ritualized mob violence, the blackened knuckles and pickled fingers strewn across the lynching South.”

Gussow, who also plays the blues harmonica, “believed the blues tradition evolved as a way for black southerners to voice their anger, grief and fear in the face of the ongoing threat of lynching in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century,” states the Los Angeles Times.

The fate of these unfortunate victims has not gone unnoticed, however. The nation’s first museum dedicated to the memory of 4,400 (documented) black victims of lynching was opened to the public in Alabama in April 2018 by the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal rights organization in Montgomery. Pots of dirt from the actual lynching sites are displayed there – one for each victim. As Bob Dylan puts it: the times, they are a changin’.

Billie Holiday sings “Strange Fruit”

The 27 club

Last week, I looked at the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson and his so-called “deal with the devil.” But selling his soul to the fallen angel from hell for greater prowess on the blues guitar is not the only myth attached to Robert Johnson. He also died at the young age of 27, which is now an age associated with a group of unfortunates called “The 27 Club,” also known as the “Forever 27 Club.” One survey in the British newspaper The Independent shows that 1.3% of all musicians died at that age between 1950 and 2010, but 2.3% of the same sample died at the age of 56. A total of 137 musicians died at 27 during this period states this survey. It’s not just the total number of musician deaths at this age, argue some critics, but the deaths of a number of important musicians. Life magazine seemed to agree by putting the unfortunate six listed here on the cover of their 2016 special edition entitled Gone Too Soon.

“So why isn’t there a 56 Club or a 28 Club? Is it because Brian Jones (drowning), Jimi Hendrix (aspirated vomitus from barbiturate overdose), Janis Joplin (heroin overdose), Jim Morrison (drug-induced heart attack), Kurt Cobain (suicide by gunshot) and Amy Winehouse (alcohol poisoning) all died aged 27? All were tortured souls who reached pop stardom and died tragically at their zenith. Perhaps we need to consider a change of name for this group – from the 27 Club to ‘The Tragic Six’ or ‘The Tragic Seven’ if we include Robert Johnson?” asks an article in above-mentioned newspaper.

  1. Brian Jones was the founding member and lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, who drowned in 1969, although it was rumored that he was murdered. “Brian Jones was one of the first people in Britain to play slide guitar and his love of the blues was at the heart of what he and the rest of The Rolling Stones were all about when they started out,” states udiscovermusic.com. Although he stayed with the band for only a few years, his importance to the Stones cannot be overstated.
  2. Arguably the greatest guitarist ever, James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix was born in Seattle in 1942. Hendrix pioneered several electric blues guitar styles, sometimes playing with his teeth or other parts of his body. Starting out on the Chitlin’ Circuit, Hendrix became rock’s highest paid performer by 1969. Beside his mega-hit “Purple Haze,” he is perhaps best known for his performance of the national anthem at Woodstock in 1969. Hendrix died of a barbiturate overdose in 1970.
  3. Janis Joplin was born in 1943 in Port Arthur Texas. “Joplin brought her powerful, bluesy voice from Texas to San Francisco’s psychedelic scene, where she went from drifter to superstar. She has been called ‘the greatest white urban blues and soul singer of her generation’,” claims www.rockhall.com. There was no doubt that Janis was singing the blues as soon as she had sung the first note. She died of a heroin overdose in a Hollywood hotel room in 1970.
  4. Jim Morrison, an American singer-songwriter who founded The Doors, was best known for performing “Light My Fire” on the Ed Sullivan show in 1967 and for gaining notoriety for “This is the End,” an anti-war song about Vietnam. He was found dead in a Paris hotel bathtub in 1971, allegedly from a heroin overdose, although there was no autopsy performed to prove it.
  5. Kurt Cobain was born in Aberdeen, Washington and formed his band Nirvana during the Grunge music popularity of the 1990s. “In Charles Cross’ excellent biography Heavier Than Heaven, you can see a much fuller picture of Kurt Cobain than we were given in 1994 — a tornado of physical pain, mental pain and addiction,” says www.stereogum.com. He died in Seattle of a self-inflicted shotgun blast in 1994, but his wife, Courtney Love, believed he was murdered.
  6. British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse battled alcohol and other addictions for years. “Her final album, Back on Black (2006) was an international hit, and ‘Rehab’ (2008) was number nine on the United States pop charts. Amy Winehouse became the first British female to win five Grammy Awards on the same night, February 10th, 2008, including Best New Artist and Record of the Year for ‘Rehab’,” states Wikipedia. She died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning.

So what do these artists have in common other than passing away at the age of 27? The first four started off with a direct connection to the blues and the same four died within a year of each other. Is this just a coincidence or is there something deeper underneath? One can see the direct influence of Robert Johnson on Janis Joplin, but did that have anything to do with Brian Jones? One can also state that death at age 27 and pacts with the devil are myths, but can we be absolutely certain?

Conversely, there are some authors who criticize the whole concept of the 27 club. “There’s no mystery: if you start abusing drugs and alcohol in your teens, your body may well give out in your late 20s. The rock ‘n’ roll mythology that encourages our young artists to do that is pernicious enough without reinforcing it further, even if you think you’re doing so in the pursuit of some kind of analysis,” writes Tom Hawking in www.flavorwire.com.

Fair enough, but like the crossroads myth (where Johnson allegedly met the devil at a Mississippi crossroads and sold his soul for mastery of the guitar), the 27 Club theory lives on in modern mythology. Perhaps this is because we lament the loss of great artists at such a young age or maybe it’s pure schadenfreude, a German word that means feeling pleasure from watching someone else fail. But we have to ask ourselves: would we feel the same about Janis Joplin today if she was a has-been singer from the ‘60s or would Robert Johnson still be considered such a great guitarist without the crossroads myth? Vexing questions, for sure.

juke joints

While segregation reigned supreme in the South, black musicians found few establishments where they could play. However, these musicians could play on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” (named after a dish made of fried hog entrails) a string of run-down, black-owned establishments called “juke joints.” These small joints usually had a juke box for music when live musicians weren’t playing. The early circuit featured mostly local blues singers, but shortly after the end of WWII, a new and different kind of sound started to emanate from these small shacks; a music later dubbed “rock ‘n’ roll.”

Wikipedia explains: “Classic juke joints found, for example, at rural crossroads, catered to the rural work force that began to emerge after the emancipation. Plantation workers and sharecroppers needed a place to relax and socialize following a hard week, particularly since they were barred from most white establishments by Jim Crow laws. Set up on the outskirts of town, juke joints offered food, drink, dancing and gambling for weary workers. Owners made extra money selling groceries or moonshine to patrons, or providing cheap room and board.”

Another interpretation of “juke” is that it comes from the word joog, which means “wicked and disorderly” in Gullah, a Creole language in coastal South Carolina, Georgia and north Florida. And that might be an understatement, considering the amount of violence that occurs in such establishments, usually over women or gambling money. As the owner of the Big Wheel juke near Navasota Texas puts it: “Come here at about 8pm, that’s about when the music, dancin’ and cuttin’ starts.”

Juke joints were also known as “roadhouses,” a term which dates back to antebellum taverns called “groggeries,” which dispensed questionable liquor in one room and had a gambling room attached. These establishments were mainly for white farmers on the search for “bust-head” (moonshine) whiskey and a good game of craps or a hand of poker. In the postbellum South, these roadhouses gave way to juke joints that featured music, of the blues variety. Interestingly, one of Texas’ biggest, and some say best, spare rib restaurant chains is still called the “Texas Roadhouse.”

Honky-tonks, another variety of jukes, sprang up around oil towns in Texas and Oklahoma, especially after the debut of the gasoline engine automobile. When Texas-born musician Al Dexter recorded his “Honky Tonk Blues” in 1935, the popularity of the term exploded and small juke-like establishments started being called “honky-tonks,” although the true meaning of the term is obscure. Modern blues enthusiasts will probably be more familiar with the Rolling Stones’ version called “Honky Tonk Women.”

Chitlin’ Circuit entertainers moved from one juke joint to the next as long-term performance contracts did not exist at the time. In fact, there were very few, if any contracts for performers in those early days. Mance Lipscomb once explained that he often performed at local gatherings such as picnics for “50 cents and a fish sandwich.” Well-known performers got a flat fee or a percentage of the gate, in larger venues. “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,” says Reverb magazine.

One of the best visual presentations of how juke joints operated was in the 2007 film “Honeydripper,” starring Danny Glover. The versatile actor portrayed the owner of a juke joint by the same name in Alabama in the early 1950s. Interestingly, the establishment was located near a U.S. military base, so Honeydripper was trying to attract black soldiers with live blues music. However, customers then seemed more interested in a wilder new form of loud, electrified music, later known as “rock,” as it was easier to dance to than the slower, acoustical blues. The terminology must have also had a sexual appeal to these black soldiers and other African Americans as “rock” can be slang for “to make love,” or the more guttural equivalent. Thus songs like B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby, All Night Long” take on an entirely different meaning to black listeners.

Some performers learned how to sing the blues by going to juke joints and singing along with the jukebox, a feature of all such establishments. One was Weldon “Juke Boy” Bonner who was born in Bellville Texas in 1932, but lived most of his life in Houston. He became a superstar on the Texas circuit, but was not well known nationally.

“Bonner learned to sing in a Gospel group, as well as standing by the juke-box, and when he got a guitar as a kid, he was determined to become a Bluesman…This multi-instrumentalist sometimes performed as a one-man-band, and he never had a hit record, but he wrote some excellent, perceptive songs about his hard life, his opinions on ‘race-relations’ and the economics of poverty,” says www.allaboutbluesmusic.com. “The American Blues Festival took Juke Boy on several tours of Europe, in the late 60s and 70s and he recorded several sessions in London. Sadly, none of his records sold well so he took manual jobs to keep body and soul together. Juke Boy continued to play local gigs around Houston and recorded for a few small labels, until he died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1978.”

Juke Boy Bonner may not have chosen a typical route to blues fame, but his experience does illustrate a fundamental truth: juke boxes and juke joints played a more vital role in the development of blues music than many commentators, or even musicians, tend to believe.

Juke Boy Bonner: “Rock Me Baby”

Me, Mack and the Blues

­

By Jay Brakefield

Robert Johnson

Many white researchers of the blues genuinely loved the artists and their music and helped them to record and perform at home and abroad, thus earning badly needed cash and acclaim from fans. But there was a darker strain to these relationships. For instance, one musicologist and blues researcher named Mack McCormick initially lionized Lightnin’ Hopkins as the prophet and jester of Houston’s Third Ward. However, Mack (who suffered from bipolar disorder, also known as manic depressive illness) later came to despise the singer.

Many agree that Hopkins was a scoundrel, recording for anyone who’d pay him $100 per song and contracts be damned. But McCormick’s attitude was no doubt also shaped by his failure to manage the man. Mack signed an exclusive contract to represent Hopkins in 1959, the same year the bluesman was recorded by Sam Charters, author of the seminal book The Country Blues. Charters, who apparently was the first to record Hopkins in his second career, characterized McCormick as a “leech” on Lightnin’ in a letter to Moe Asch, founder of Folkways Records.

McCormick also produced records, including some of Mance Lipscomb’s. At one session, Mack demanded so many takes of one song that the Navasota-based songster declared, “I’m never going to play that goddamn song again!”

Like many others, McCormick became obsessed with Robert Johnson, the Mississippi musician who, as legend has it, sold  his soul to the devil at a lonely Delta crossroads and died barking like a dog after being poisoned by a jealous husband. While traveling on projects for institutions such as the Smithsonian, McCormick made phone call after phone call to Johnson in local phone books until he finally found Johnson’s half-sister. He conducted exhaustive research for a book tentatively titled Biography of a Phantom. It was never published, though Peter Guralnick published much of McCormick’s material, first in Living Blues magazine and later in a slim book called Searching for Robert Johnson.

McCormick’s relationships tended to be fraught. He would become angry at someone and stop speaking to that person, then months or years later resume the conversation as if nothing had happened. I interviewed him in 1986 when the movie Crossroads, based on the Johnson legend, was released.  He told me that he was almost certain that the Dallas recordings had taken place at 508 Park, and I wrote a story for the Dallas Morning News that was, as far as I know, the first publication of this information. (Years later, another researcher found documentation establishing what Mack had told me was true.)

For several years, McCormick cut me off, though I never knew what I had done or said to offend him. Then toward the end of his life, he invited me to his home in Houston and we discussed issuing the Johnson book and other long-buried material that existed only as typescript on cheap paper he called “railroad bond.” We were on the verge of signing an agreement when a cloud passed across his face and he again quit taking my calls. At his memorial service in 2015, lots of people shared such memories.

Mack yearned to be a “serious” writer and put the blues projects aside while laboring on plays. One, which may have been unfinished at the time of his death, consisted of an imagined dialogue between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

Meanwhile, another researcher, the late Steve LaVere, followed in Mack’s footsteps and got Johnson’s half-sister  to assign him the rights to his recordings, photos and other material. They were to split any royalties. McCormick told Columbia Records that his agreement with the family predated LaVere’s, and this delayed for years the release of a box set of Johnson’s recordings that ultimately sold at least 500,000 copies and earned LaVere a Grammy. He was quick to threaten legal action over any unauthorized use of the Johnson material, which may have helped earn him his nickname, The Weasel.

My own experience with LaVere was odd, to say the least. When researching my Dallas News article, I interviewed him by phone. He was civil enough. Soon thereafter, I was in Mississippi for a festival and saw him shooting photos. I introduced myself as the guy who had recently interviewed him. Without a word, he registered alarm and literally ran away. Ultimately, after a protracted legal battle, Johnson’s estate, worth over $1 million, was awarded to his son Claud Johnson.

Eric Clapton, who did much to popularize Johnson’s music, holds an annual Crossroads Guitar Festival. An early one, in 2004, was held in Dallas, and Clapton and guitarist Doyle Bramhall recorded in the room where Johnson made his records in 1937.

Today, I live in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where one can hear live blues every night, played by both black and white performers. Many in the audience are white or Asian, drawn to the place by the music. Many come from other countries to hear the music, and some move to the city or buy homes in which to stay when visiting.

Crossed guitars mark an intersection called The Crossroads, where one can buy liquor or furniture or wash clothes at stores and a laundromat that bear that name. The menu at Abe’s Bar-B-Q jokes that Johnson might have stopped in for a sandwich before selling his soul. Downtown, near the Ground Zero Blues Club, whose owners include actor Morgan Freeman, a large painting of Robert Johnson adorns a wall. A few blocks away, another wall bears the image of Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti Western days.

I enjoy the place and the music. As Robbie Robertson, the Canadian guitarist with The Band, noted, when you listen to people talk here, you understand where the music came from.

Mack McCormick passed away in 2015; he was 85.

Steve LaVere also died in 2015; he was 72.

american roots music

Selena

What does “American roots music” really mean? PBS explains: “At the beginning of the 20th Century, the term ‘folk music’ was used by scholars to describe music made by whites of European ancestry, often in the relatively isolated rural South. As the century progressed, the definition of folk music expanded to include the song styles – particularly the blues – of Southern blacks as well. In general, folk music was viewed as a window into the cultural life of these groups. Folk songs communicated the hopes, sorrows and convictions of ordinary people’s everyday lives. Increasingly, music made by other groups of Americans such as Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Cajuns came under the umbrella of folk music.” This can be confusing as folk music and roots music labels are often used interchangeably.

Let’s take a closer look at the Mexican-American group in Texas. Before Texas became a republic in 1836, Anglo residents of what was to become the U.S. state of Texas in 1845 were called “Texians.” Spanish-speaking colonials were called Tejanos, or Tejano Texians. It would be more accurately classify them as “Spaniard Texans,” “Spaniard Texians” or “Spaniard Americans.” These non-Anglo residents played their own form of music that did not resemble that enjoyed by white settlers. We will focus on two predominant styles, Tejano and conjunto, both of which are genuine roots music.

Tejano music is related to and sounds more like the folk music of Louisiana known as “Cajun” music. It also resembles the music of northern Mexico, rather than the folk music of central and southern Mexico, such as Mariachi and other Latino music. With the abundant use of the accordion, genuine Tejano music is part of the foundation of Country Western music. 

Closely related to Tejano is conjunto, “a roots music, similar to blues or country, that began on the farms and ranches of southern Texas at the end of the 19th century. As they worked the land together, Mexican, Czech and German immigrants shared their musical traditions, blending accordions and polkas with classic Mexican folk music. This fusion yielded an irresistible, danceable beat with infectious melodies set to lyrics expressing themes of love and loss,” explains an article in the British publication The Guardian (formerly known as The Manchester Guardian).

Both styles represent the Tex-Mex rhythms of the southern United States, bearing messages of blue-collar love, frustration and anxiety seeping through the peppy accordion and horn ensembles, much like the guitar-laden songs of blues bands. The Guardian article also pointed out that Texas and New Mexico’s roots music was having a revival [in the 1990s] with an explosion of young groups playing festivals, and bringing a new focus to the work of Flaco Jiménez and Selena Quintanilla-Perez.

Unfortunately Selena, a Tejano idol, was shot in the back and killed in 1995 by Yolanda Salivar, the manager of Selena’s boutiques, who had been embezzling from the young singer. The breakout movie performance for a young singer named Jennifer Lopez (of Puerto Rican heritage) was portraying Selena in the 1997 biopic about the Tejano sensation.

The still-living Jiménez is a force to be reckoned with in Latino music. “What B.B. King is to the blues, or George Jones is to traditional country, Grammy-winning accordionist Flaco Jiménez is to the world of Tex-Mex conjunto,” says music critic Ramino Burr in The Billboard Guide to Tejano and Mexican Music. Jiménez doubles as the accordion player for a Tex-Mex band called the Texas Tornados, which has played at the inauguration ceremony for Bill Clinton and at venues around the world.

“But these are just two [Selena and Jiménez] among hundreds of performers who have created a rich, soulful musical identity for millions of Americans over more than a century,” explains The Guardian. What the British publication did not say was that both styles, like the blues, are slipping in popularity these days. Whether they can make a comeback is still an open question.

What is not in question is Selena’s enduring popularity. On April 17, 1995 then Texas Governor George W. Bush declared April 16 (her birthday) as Selena Day. The day may now become official in 2019. “Tejano star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez may be getting an official day of recognition, thanks to a bill filed in the state House on February 26. Authored by Dallas Democrat Ana-Maria Ramos, House Bill 2492 would designate Selena’s birthday on April 16 “Selena Quintanilla-Pérez Day,” states the Texas Monthly magazine.

blues capital of texas

Navasota is known as the “Blues Capital” of Texas, mainly to honor a legendary black songster named Mance Lipscomb, who literally put the small town on the blues map. The central Texas town had been on historical maps for a different reason: it had been cleaned up by a legendary sheriff and former Texas Ranger named Frank “Pancho” Hamer (1884-1955). He is remembered now largely for leading the posse that tracked and killed outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow near Gibsland, Louisiana, in May 1934. Interviewed in Houston by western cowboy writer Zane Grey, Hamer became the model for the tough Texas Ranger hero of Grey’s 1915 novel called Lone Star Ranger. The story was made into a radio program and later into a television program, both named “The Lone Ranger.”

Hollywood has, once again, discovered the Hamer story, this time starring Kevin Costner in the 2019 movie called “The Highwaymen.” Praised by white viewers for “finally telling the truth” about the often violent lawman, Latinos beg to differ. Monica Munoz Martinez, in Made by History, states, “Frank Hamer started his career in the early 20th century when the Texas Rangers helped enforce new Jim Crow and Juan Crow segregation laws targeting black and Mexican Texans and intimidating labor organizers and anti-lynching activists. These state police officers blurred the lines between enforcing state laws, practicing vigilantism and inciting racial terror.”

According to The Washington Post, the Texas Rangers were “originally formed to protect white Americans from Mexicans and indigenous nations, advocated chattel slavery and were patently racist—a detail underplayed in ‘The Highwaymen’ that has since sparked disagreement.” The debate over whether Hamer was a good man doing bad things or a bad man doing good things rages on.

The town fathers hired the 6’3”, 193-pound Frank Hamer in 1908 to tame the wild and woolly place that was Navasota. The legendary lawman recruited a black youth right out of the cotton fields, the 12-year-old Mance Lipscomb, to drive him around in a wagon. Lipscomb called Hamer “Mr. Hayman,” saying he was a “bad man – not evil, but tough as a boot.” This, then, was the violent, racist atmosphere in which Lipscomb became a man at an early age.

What the budding young bluesman learned from Frank Hamer no doubt colors the story lines in Lipscomb’s songs. One song in particular – “Tom Moore’s Farm” – seems to sum up Mance’s feeling about social injustice. It’s about the notorious owner of a huge farm near Navasota who was known to mistreat his black workers. For his own safety, Mance always denied having anything to do with writing the song. Numerous musicians, including Lightnin’ Hopkins, have produced their own versions of this classic blues protest song.

Mance took to music as a child, and liked to recount his acquisition of his first guitar, about the time Hamer came to town. Around Navasota at that time, banjos and fiddles were the primary instruments, but Mance’s brothers had guitars, and he wanted one. When a gambler came walking through the field one day and offered to sell an old beat-up instrument for $1.50, Mance’s mother, Jane, agreed as long as she could pay the man when she got the money. Mance said he sat under a tree and “whammed away,” without any idea what he was doing, and at night could hardly sleep for dreaming of guitars.

Mance learned songs from itinerant musicians and, on a cotton-picking trip to North Texas around 1917, saw the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson singing along Central Track in Dallas. He admired Jefferson’s playing and singing but decided that, rather than imitating anyone, he would “estimate my own style.” Many other musicians admired Jefferson’s music and Jefferson Airplane even named their band after him.  

The Blues Capital of Texas contains statues of both men. Hamer, who was not a native of Navasota, is not buried there but Lipscomb, who called the town home, is. For years, a blues fest was held there to honor Mance’s memory, but it closed down in 2017 for lack of funds and not enough volunteers to keep it running. What a shame.

arhoolie records

Chris talking to Mance

Something magical happened to the blues during the 1960s; it was rediscovered in a big way by white American Baby Boomers hungry for a new sound. “The blues revival, which spanned the decade of the 1960s, attempted to resurrect indigenous African American music styles within a modern context,” states the Sam Houston State University website. In other words, old black men playing acoustic guitars and singing the early blues suddenly became all the rage. Many were searched for, and found, sometimes in the most remote locations.

In Texas, this movement launched the careers of such aging black songsters as Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Black Ace and Lil’ Son Jackson, to name a few. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic in England, new bands like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Animals and others started fusing roots blues into the new rock ‘n’ roll and bringing their style to the U.S. market, producing the so-called “British Invasion.” The new sound from England was blowing American singers off the musical charts, while it was taking the whole musical world by storm. As Mississippi bluesman Muddy Waters aptly put it: “The blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.”

Being popular is one thing; preservation is quite another. It took a young white immigrant from Europe to put the two together by forming an independent recording label to preserve the early, mostly obscure, blues songs from the elderly, but still-living masters. These early blues songs had not gone completely unnoticed, however. Texas-born John Lomax and his son Alan had been making field recordings of blues and other roots music for the Library of Congress for decades, but an immigrant taking a leading role in this type of recording, and paying for it himself, should definitely be noted.  

Chris Strachwitz was that man.  He had immigrated with his family from Germany to the United States in 1947 and they eventually settled in the bay area of northern California. Chris founded his own label there called Arhoolie Records in 1960 specifically for the preservation of early blues, conjunto [south Texas Tejano music employing button accordions] and other ethnic music, such as Louisiana zydeco. Arhoolie comes from the field holler “hoolie,” used by black workers in cottonfields and other work places.

Chris knew he had to go looking for surviving blues masters, so he took his first field trip to Texas in 1960 to find a singer and guitarist he had heard tales about – Lightnin’ Hopkins, a resident of Houston. Ironically, Hopkins was on tour in California at the time, so the two were not able to connect then, but later hooked up in a small beer joint in Houston where Strachwitz recorded Lightnin’ while he strummed his guitar and made up songs on the spot. Listening to Hopkins play and sing “was like the opening of the Pearly Gates,” the stunned music recorder said.

“I never had my own studio,” Chris explained. “I just took my recorder to places where music was being played and turned it on.” Reflecting deeper, “My main aim was to document the best authentic downhome blues singers and try to sell the albums to a new, mainly young white ‘folk music’ audience,” he told the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA).

Traveling some 80 miles north of Houston, Chris discovered an aging black sharecropper living near the huge Tom Moore farm, who had unusual singing and playing skills – Navasota-based songster Mance Lipscomb. Chris was very impressed with the singer’s wide range of songs: “Most of his repertoire seemed to be on like a computer disc in his head.” Not surprisingly, Arhoolie’s first LP recording was called Texas Sharecropper and Songster, a collection of Mance’s songs. 

Chris Strachwitz’s many achievements are chronicled in the 2013 documentary This Ain’t No Mouse Music! Interestingly, the film never explains what “mouse music” is, or maybe we can only assume what it is not. Webster’s definition for the slang term “Mickey Mouse” is “childish, oversimplified, unrelated to reality.” Some musicologists have been more specific, calling Chris’ recordings “down home” music.

“The documentary illustrates the dramatic impact Strachwitz’s efforts have had on the music world — and on ‘world music.’ Notably, it shows how the Arhoolie recordings greatly helped popularize Cajun, Tex-Mex, bluegrass and other regional music styles while bringing some much-needed attention to some significant musicians,” writes Jim Harrington for the Mercury News.

Some 70% of all recorded blues music is now sold in Europe, especially in Germany. The Bear Family of Germany still holds the lion’s share of these sales. The company describes itself as “a collector’s record label” due to its primary business, which is reissuing rare recordings in CD format in small amounts. 

In May 2016, the Smithsonian Institution announced it had acquired Arhoolie Records from founder Chris Strachwitz and his business partner Tom Diamant for the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.