trouble in mind

Suicide is an uneasy subject to discuss, but it does occur among musicians: think Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake and Chris Cornell. Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain whether a death occurred due to suicide or an accidental cause, such as a drug overdose. Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin perhaps could fit into that category. And then there is the so-called “27 Club,” of historical deaths at that particular age. In many cases, depression has been a major contributor for people deciding to end it all by their own hands. Performers, blues singers included, have wrestled with depression caused by loss of fame, drug addiction and many other problems. But the question here is whether suicide rates among musicians is higher in certain genres than in other categories. How does the blues rank in this type of analysis? Before we answer that question, let’s look at some blues songs that have touched on this depressing subject.     

“Trouble in Mind” is a vaudeville blues-style song written by jazz pianist Richard M. Jones. Wikipedia elaborates: “It became an early blues standard, with numerous renditions by a variety of musicians. Although singer Thelma La Vizzo, with Jones on piano, first recorded the song in 1924, Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill popularized the song with her 1926 recording with Jones and trumpeter Louis Armstrong.”

Jones’ lyrics deal with thoughts of suicide. Early recordings include the verses:

“Sometimes I feel like livin’
Sometimes I feel like dyin’ …
I’m gonna lay my head
On the lonesome railroad line
Let the 2:19
Satisfy my mind.”

In many later versions, new and more upbeat lyrics were added. Most usually include the well-known verse:

“Trouble in mind, I’m blue
But I won’t be blue always
‘Cause I know the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday.”

Despite the sense of pain and despair, music writers such as Adam Gussow and Paul Ackerman point to the hope engendered by the refrain: “I won’t be blue always…For the sun will shine in my back door someday.” Blues historian William Barlow calls the song “the anthem of the classic blues genre” and writer Steve Sullivan describes it as “one of the most indelible blues compositions of the 1920s.”

“Suicide Blues” (1925) was a song performed by blues singer Maggie Jones, often dubbed as the “Texas Nightingale.” She recorded 38 songs between 1923 and 1926, including another one with depressing content called “Undertaker Blues.” Part of the lyrics to “Suicide Blues” goes like this:

“If somebody finds me when I’m dead and gone
If somebody finds me when I’m dead and gone
Say I did self-murder, I died with my boots on

Took a Smith & Wesson, and blew out my brain
Took a Smith & Wesson, and blew out my brain
Didn’t take no poison, I couldn’t stand the strain.”

By the early 1930s Jones had moved on to Dallas, Texas, where she operated her own revue troupe, which performed in Fort Worth. Although the exact date of her death is unknown, it was not due to suicide.

So how does blues music rank in terms of suicide acceptability (SA), i.e. suicide planning activity? An article in the April-May 2000 issue of Death Stud provides an answer. “Research has neglected the possible impact of the blues music subculture on SA. The sad themes in the blues may attract suicidal persons and reinforce their suicidal moods and attitudes. The present study performs the first test of the thesis that associates SA with being a blues fan. It uses data on a national sample of 961 adults drawn from the General Social Survey of 1993. The results of a multivariate logistic regression analysis found that blues fans were no more accepting of suicide than nonfans. However, blues fanship was found to have substantial indirect effects on SA through its influence on such factors as lowered religiosity levels, the most important predictor of SA. Race-specific analyses found more support for the model for whites than for African Americans.”

Other publications disagreed. The Conversation carried an article called “Music to Die For,” in which it suggested that older genres such as the blues, jazz and country had suicide rates about equal to the general public in the United States. However, the same source claims, musicians who are dying youngest belong to newer genres (electronic, punk, metal, rap and hip-hop) that have not existed as long as genres such as jazz, country, gospel and blues. According to this study, almost all music genres had higher suicide rates than the blues. The only one lower was rhythm and blues (R&B).

Maggie Jones sings “Suicide Blues”

boll weevil blues

Two significant developments in the South contributed to the great migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities due to the lack of employment opportunities: 1) the boll weevil invasion of the 1890s and 2) the invention of the automated cotton picker in the 1920s. Both reduced the demand for black laborers in the southern cotton fields, forcing these workers to seek employment in the North’s industrial cities such as New York City, Chicago and Detroit. A total of six million African Americans moved out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1916 and 1970.

Here we will focus on the former as the cotton-ruining bug from south of the border devastated cotton crops across the deep south. The insect first crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas, entering the United States from Mexico in 1892 and reaching southeastern Alabama and Georgia by 1909. Since the boll weevil entered the United States, it has cost U.S. cotton producers about $15 billion, causing massive loss of crops and layoff of manual workers.

Since the boll weevil invasion coincided with the historical development of the blues, it was natural that blues artists wrote songs bemoaning the resulting loss of their main form of employment. Bluesmen, and other artists, from Georgia to Texas recorded songs about the misery caused by the influx of these Mexican bugs. Some of the lyrics to Lead Belly’s 1934 version of “Boll Weevil” goes like this:

“Well the boll weevil and the little black bug
Come from a-Mexico they say
Came all the way to Texas
Just a-lookin’ for a place to stay
Just a-lookin’ for a home, just a-lookin’ for a home

Well the first time that I seen the boll weevil
He was a-sittin’ on the square
Well the next time that I seen him
He had his a-family there
Just a-lookin’ for a home, just a-lookin’ for a home

Well the farmer took the boll weevil
And he put him on the red hot sand
Well the weevil said this is a-mighty hot
But I take it like a man
This will be my home, this will be my home.”

The origin of the boll weevil song can be traced back as far as the turn of the century writes Wikipedia: “Perhaps as early as 1908, blues pioneer Charley Patton wrote a song called ‘Mississippi Boweevil Blues’ and recorded it in July 1929 (as ‘The Masked Marvel’) for Paramount Records. Some of the lyrics are similar to ‘Boll Weevil,’ describing the first time and ‘the next time’ the narrator saw the boll weevil and making reference to the weevil’s family and home. ‘Mother of the Blues’ Ma Rainey recorded a song called ‘Bo-Weavil Blues’ in Chicago in December 1923, and Bessie Smith covered it in 1924, but the song had little in common with Lead Belly’s ‘Boll Weevil’ aside from the subject matter.”

Later recordings of the boll weevil song came from such diverse artists as rocker Eddie Cochran (1959), country singer Tex Ritter (1966) and British skiffle artist Jimmy Page (1968). A 1961 adaptation by Brook Benton became a pop hit, reaching number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Apparently, cotton farmers’ fear of this bug still exists despite successful eradication efforts throughout southern states since 1990, with the notable exception of Texas. Has this fear of a resurgence of the bug kept blues artists writing boll weevil songs? Apparently so, because the contemporary blues band White Stripes recorded a version in 2011 called “The Ballad of the Boll Weevil.”

Maybe the great jazz singer and Cotton Club performer Cab Calloway said it best:

“We took the good and we took the evil,

Laughter and song and the old boll weevil,

Time has gone by, now here am I,

Wishing that I only knew.”

Lead Belly sings “Boll Weevil”

skiffle and the blues

Post-WWII baby boomers in Britain, especially those in England, grew up in a bombed-out environment where most families were poor and could ill afford entertainment or expensive musical instruments. These teenagers of the 1950s also longed for more exciting music and were enthused by authentic American blues, which could be played on crude “musical” instruments such as rub boards, “drums” made of just about anything, and the like. Meanwhile, the British government had banned the emerging American rock and roll music from being played on BBC radio, the only such station operating then.

Not to be denied, these baby boomers tuned in to a pirate radio station called Radio Caroline, operating from an American ship sailing in international waters off the Sussex coast and thus outside the reach of British law. Blues, folk and rock records were also being smuggled into England through port cities such as Liverpool. It was enough input to create a homegrown musical genre called “skiffle,” which became all the rage in England starting in the 1950s, in spite of the fact that it had already been invented in the United States decades before.

Skiffle was first popularized in the United States in the 1920s by blues musicians and was only revived by British bands in the mid-1950s. The term was originally applied to musical parties held in private to raise rent money. Skiffle later came to mean music played by jug bands (in addition to jugs, these bands featured guitars, banjos, harmonicas and kazoos), first in Louisville, Kentucky, as early as 1905. It then became prominent in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1920s and ’30s.

The first use of the term on record was in 1925 in the name of a band called Jimmy O’Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers. Most often skiffle was used to describe country blues music records, which included the compositions “Hometown Skiffle” (1929) and “Skiffle Blues” (1946) by Dan Burley & his Skiffle Boys. The term was also used by Ma Rainey (1886–1939), often called the “mother of the blues,” to describe her repertoire to rural audiences. However, “skiffle” had disappeared from American music by the 1940s.

“In the Britain of the impoverished post-World War II years, young musicians were delighted to discover a style that could be played on a cheap guitar, a washboard scraped with thimbles, and a tea-chest bass (a broom handle and string attached to a wooden case used for exporting tea). Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie were the heroes of a movement that had one foot in the blues and the other in folk music,” explains the online version of Britannica. “When singer-banjoist Lonnie Donegan stepped out of the rhythm section of Chris Barber’s Dixieland (traditional jazz) band to record a hopped-up version of Lead Belly’s ‘Rock Island Line’ in 1954, he was unwittingly laying the foundation of the 1960s British music scene. Released as a single in 1956, ‘Rock Island Line’ was purchased by millions, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who thereby received their first exposure to African-American popular music.”

Lennon and McCartney were among thousands of British boys who, inspired by Donegan, formed skiffle groups—in their case, the Quarrymen—as a first step on the road to rock and roll. Had it not been for skiffle music there probably would not have been a worldwide musical phenomenon called The Beatles. “Before skiffle, many British pop singers tended to be crooners,” Stephen William “Billy” Bragg, an English singer-songwriter and left-wing activist, recently told The New York Post. The folk-rocker had just released his 2019 book Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, which chronicled the forgotten genre. “Skiffle musicians were the first generation of teenagers to use the guitar to separate themselves from their parents,” Bragg quipped.

There can be little doubt that the revival of skiffle music in England was one of the chief contributors to the rise of rock music there. Would there have been a later “British Invasion” of the U.S. music scene had this revival not occurred? A bigger question might be: why did this revival happen in the first place? “The main impact of skiffle was as a grassroots amateur movement, particularly popular among working class males, who could cheaply buy, improvise, or build their own instruments and who have been seen as reacting against the drab austerity of post-war Britain. The craze probably reached its height with the broadcasting of the BBC TV program ‘Six-Five Special’ from 1957. It was the first British youth music program, using a skiffle song as its title music and showcasing many skiffle acts,” explains Wikipedia.

Interestingly, the British rock royalty of the 1960s (and later) tended to downplay their skiffle roots, somewhat like not mentioning an embarrassing high school photo. But not George Harrison, who once said: “If there were no Lead Belly there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles. Therefore, no Lead Belly, no Beatles.”

Lonnie Donegan sings “Rock Island Line”

daddy rice

Songs often inspire dances, which then become fixtures of the culture. Chubby Checker’s 1960 “The Twist” inspired a post-WWII generation to twist their hips to his, and other, rock music. Long before baby boomers discovered the joys of twisting, however, were such ballads as “The Tennessee Waltz,” which encouraged slow dancers to take to the dance floor. How far back in history does this trend go? Some claim that the first American rock star, and his accompanying dance, dates all the way back to the late 1820s. His name, points out author Paul Merry, was Thomas Dartmouth “Big Daddy” Rice (1808-60) who not only encouraged a dance but inadvertently provided the label for the most repressive movement in American history – the suppression of the rights of African Americans, even after their Emancipation. The “black codes” made the suppression legal and were not reversed until the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

Merry writes: “To the tune of an Irish jig, Daddy Rice caricatured on stage the plantation song and shuffling dance of a limping old slave he’d once seen when touring the USA with his theatre group. The disabled old slave, full of backchat [rude or cheeky remarks], sang what they called black ditties while tending to his master’s horses. Rice called this ragged, impertinent but affable character, Jim Crow.” Starting in 1828, Rice performed in blackface on vaudeville stages as the character called Jim Crow, singing the song and demonstrating the accompanying dance called “Jump Jim Crow.”

The sheet music written by Rice was published in 1832. Some of its lyrics go like this:

“Come, listen all you gals and boys, Ise just from Tuckyhoe;
I’m goin’ to sing a little song, My name’s Jim Crow.

CHORUS [after every verse]
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.

I went down to the river, I didn’t mean to stay;
But dere I see so many gals, I couldn’t get away.

And arter I been dere awhile, I tought I push my boat;
But I tumbled in de river, and I find myself afloat.”

In his book How Blues Evolved (volume one), Merry continues: “As a measure of the Jim Crow persona’s incredible drawing power, on 1 December 1832, in New York’s Bowery district, a crowd three hundred strong noisily demanded Thomas Dartmouth Rice repeat his Jim Crow song and dance act a remarkable twenty times. A poster in Eric Lott’s 1993 book, Love and theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Working Class, shows Rice dancing at the American Theatre in New York on 25 November 1833. Surrounding Rice is a throng of fans who have left the audience to join him on stage. The scene is hardly different to those at rock concerts or music.”

There can be little doubt that Rice’s fame as a black-faced minstrel making fun of a downtrodden, crippled slave on a southern plantation fed the flames of white superiority claims at that time and later. By 1838, the term “Jim Crow” had become a pejorative term for African Americans and from this the laws of racial segregation became known as Jim Crow laws. Naturally then, these laws became the focus of black hatred in the years that followed. They also contributed heavily to blues lyrics which subtly pointed out the inherent unfairness of Jim Crow laws such as the black codes, which detailed what African Americans could not do (or say publicly).  

But is there a direct connection to the blues, you may ask. A Website called answers: “To put it simply: the blues wouldn’t exist without ‘Jim Crow.’ It’s the American system of racial inequality and segregation that made life a hell for African-Americans in the South.”

Once the blues era began, the term started to show up in several songs making an overt protest against the racist system. One of the earliest examples is “North Bound Blues”by American singer and pianist Maggie Jones. This 1925 song contains trenchant references to the “Jim Crow laws” that are unusual for a classic female blues singer.

“Got my trunk and grip all packed
Goodbye, I ain’t coming back
Going to leave this Jim Crow town
Lord, sweet pape, New York bound

Got my ticket in my hand
And I’m leaving Dixieland

Going north child, where I can be free
Going north child, where I can be free
Where there’s no hardships, like in Tennessee

Going where they don’t have Jim Crow laws
Going where they don’t have Jim Crow laws
Don’t have to work there, like in Arkansas

When I cross the Mason‑Dixon Line
When I cross the Mason‑Dixon Line
Goodbye old gal, yon mama’s gonna fly

Going to daddy, got no time to lose
Going to daddy, got no time to lose
I’ll be alone, can’t hear my north bound blues.”

Maggie Jones sings “North Bound Blues:

baby seals blues

Franklin “Baby” Seals

A debate still rages among musicologists and other blues historians over what was the first published blues song, who wrote it and who performed it. Many historians credit W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” (1912) with the honor while others claim another song called “Baby Seals Blues” (August 1912) was first because its publication predated “Memphis Blues” by several months. The problem with this argument is that Hart A. Wand’s instrumental “Dallas Blues” (which had nothing to do with the Texas city) had been published five months earlier in the same year. However, a couple of aspects of “Baby Seals Blues” that all can agree on is that: 1) it was the first blues song published by an African American, and 2) it was the first published blues song featuring vocals.

Some of the song’s lyrics:

“I got the blues, can’t be satisfied today.
I got them bad, want to lay down and die.
Woke up this morning ‘bout half past four, Somebody knocking at my door,
I went out to see what it was about, they told me that my honey gal was gone,
I said, Bub that’s bad news, So sing for me them blues.”

“(She) Honey baby mamma do she do she double do love you, (Spoken) YEAH HOO
I Love you ba-a-be don’t care what you do, (Spoken) SUEY
(He) Oh sing ‘em, sing ‘em, sing them blues ‘cause they cert’ly sound good to me,
I’ve been in love these last three weeks, and it cert’ly is a misery,
There ain’t but one thing I wish was right. I wish my honey babe was here tonight,
(She) Honey babe, Mammas coming back to you,
(He) Come on babe, Oh sing ‘em, sing ‘em, sing them blues,
‘Cause they cert’ly sound good to me.”

The song, of course, was named after its writer. Wikipedia describes him as follows: “African American Franklin ‘Baby’ Seals was born in Mobile, Alabama, around 1880 [d. 1915]. He first came to public attention in 1909 as the pianist at the Lyric Theatre in Shreveport, Louisiana. In 1910 his ragtime ‘coon song’ [minstrel show genre that lampooned blacks] called ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’ (unrelated, except in title, to the later song by Jesse Stone) was published by Louis Grunewald & Co. in New Orleans. The same year, he directed and performed in shows in Houston and Galveston, Texas.”

In 1909, Seals had teamed up in Texas with Miss Floyd Fisher, who was known as “The Doll of Memphis.” The synergy of the two helped produce “Baby Seals Blues,” which was published in St. Louis, Missouri  in August 1912, with words and music credited to Baby F. Seals, and stating that it was featured by Seals and Fisher [his wife], “that Klassy Kooney Komedy Pair.” The sheet music stipulated that it was to be played “very slow.” The reason: the fast and furious rhythm and beat of ragtime was all the rage around the turn of the century, so the newly emerging blues sound was to distinguish itself by being played slower.

Seals was also a visionary; he had always tried to promote his vaudeville blues style in the black theaters of the north. Although he largely succeeded in that task, he and his wife ironically became the biggest act on the black vaudeville circuit of the south between 1912 and 1914, just as WWI started to explode in Europe. Also exploding at that time in the United States was African Americans’ interest in hearing their own music, the blues, played publicly.

Irwin Bosman, writing in No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music, puts Seals’ career into context: “The 1910’s rising popularity of the blues on the performance stage and on music sheets, provided the fertile soil for the flourishing of the commercial recordings of blues in the 1920’s. It is in this context that I measure the role played by Franklin Seals. His historic renown mainly derives from his famous 1912 composition, but this is a one-sided, incomplete picture. Seals is grossly underestimated as a live artist on the vaudeville stage.”

A contemporary correspondent for the Indianapolis Freeman wrote that the blues, like the one published by Franklin Seals, was of a “clever nature” and “more consciously developed than most blues presentations of the time.” The early blues music sheet was thus a hybrid form, building on the popularity of ragtime, but introducing idioms coming from the African American folk, or country, blues. The new genre was slowly capturing the attention of the public.

Then came Mamie Smith’s 1920 release of “Crazy Blues,” which was perhaps the tipping point for the rising popularity of blues music. Her recording sold an astonishing 75,000 copies in the first month. Smith’s success with “Crazy Blues” came as a complete surprise to record labels, but they soon realized that making records of blues songs was profitable. The rest is history.

Baby Seals Blues

dirty blues

1937 Hudson Terraplane

The golden Age of the Blues started in the early 1920s, just after the end of World War I, especially after Mamie Smith (1883-1946) recorded her epoch-making “Crazy Blues” in 1920. The blues craze also coincided with the decade known as the “Roaring Twenties” when alcohol consumption was officially banned, giving rise to “speakeasies” where illegal booze flowed along with raunchy music and even dirtier dancing. 

While whites were enjoying speakeasy freedoms, African-Americans were still subject to segregationist Jim Crow laws. Their nocturnal entertainment was largely limited to black-owned juke joints and other shabby establishments. Since practically everyone in these joints was black, the environment gave black entertainers the opening to say (or sing) whatever they wanted using dirty words and to perform (then) socially unacceptable moves they could not make elsewhere. Female blues singers ruled during those days and they did not hesitate to use dirty expressions on stage to get a laugh or to liven up the crowd. Dirty Blues was thus born in this milieu.

“Dirty blues encompasses forms of blues music that deal with socially taboo subjects and obscenity, including sexual acts and/or references to drug use of some kind. Due to the sometimes graphic subject matter, such music was often banned from radio and only available on a jukebox. The style was most popular in the years before World War II, although it had a revival in the 1960s,” states Wikipedia.

Many blues songs used innuendo, slang terms, or double entendres, such as Lil Johnson’s “Press My Button (Ring My Bell)” (“Come on baby, let’s have some fun / Just put your hot dog in my bun”). However, some of these songs were very explicit. The most extreme examples were rarely recorded at all, Lucille Bogan’s obscene song “Shave ‘Em Dry” (1935) being a rare example. It was noted by one music historian as “by far the most explicit blues song preserved at a commercial pre-war recording session.” Her lyrics are too filthy to list here; it’s a real wonder they were ever published at all.

Known as the “Queen of Dirty Blues,” Lil Johnson extensively employed this style of blues music, using extended analogies or euphemisms to make sexual innuendoes. The following lyrics were in a 1937 recording:

“Got out late last night in the rain and sleet,

Tryin’ to find a butcher to grind my meat,

Yes, I’m lookin’ for a butcher,

He must be long and tall,

If he want to grind my meat,

Cause I’m wild about my meatballs.”

Dirty blues were not totally confined to female singers, however. A good male example would be Bo Carter (1893-1964), who often used fruit in his lyrics as a sexual metaphor, such as in his song “Banana in Your Fruit Basket.” A part of the lyrics goes like this:

“Let me put my banana in your fruit basket, then I’ll be satisfied,
Now, I got the washboard, my baby got the tub,
We gonna put ‘em together, gonna rub, rub, rub.”

Another case was the great Robert Johnson’s 1936 “Terraplane Blues,” in which he used the famous 1930s Hudson automobile as a sexual symbol, saying his car would not even start after another man had driven it for a while.

“I’d said I flash your lights, mama, you horn won’t even blow,
Somebody’s been runnin’ my batteries down on this machine,
I even flash my lights, mama, this horn won’t even blow,
Got a short in this connection, hoo well, babe, it’s way down below.”

As the blues slowly morphed into rock ‘n’ roll in the post WWII period, some rockers continued the dirty blues style in their lyrics. Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” (Chess Records, 1955) comes to mind as the song’s lyrics concern a girl who keeps cheating on her man. This idea is conveyed via a car chase in which the singer is following (in his V8 Ford) his girlfriend, who is driving her Coup de Ville, and drag racing a man driving a Cadillac. Not quite to the Terraplane Blues level, but close. Interestingly, the Terraplane car went out of production the year after Johnson recorded the song in San Antonio, Texas.

Robert Johnson sings “Terraplane Blues”

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”