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Crooners croon and moaners moan. Dictionaries define a “moaner” as a person who complains a lot, such as a movie critic. A thesaurus lists at least 22 words that are similar in meaning, including bellyacher, fussbudget, kvetcher, sniveler and whiner. The Urban Dictionary, in slang terms, defines a moaner as a person who makes moaning sounds during sexual intercourse. However, this essay concerns moaners who sang blues songs that had a complaining message to their lyrics. The moaners, such as Clara Smith, Clarence Williams and Isaiah Nettles had their moments in the sun during the early days of blues development in the 1920s. The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930s ended the moaning craze, except for a handful of moaners who managed to eke out a living during the woeful 1930s.
Clara Smith (1894-1935) was an American classic female blues singer. She was billed as the “Queen of the Moaners,” although Smith actually had a lighter and sweeter voice than her contemporaries and main competitors. Smith was born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina. In her youth she worked on African American theater circuits and tent shows. By the late 1910s she was appearing as a headliner at the Lyric Theater in New Orleans, Louisiana and on the Theater Owner’s Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) circuit. Performers on the circuit criticized the association’s low pay, poor accommodations and arduous travel. They jokingly claimed the acronym stood for “tough on black asses.”
“In 1923 Clara settled in New York, appearing at cabarets and speakeasies there; that same year she made the first of her commercially successful series of gramophone recordings for Columbia Records, for whom she would continue recording through to 1932. She cut 122 songs often with the backing of top musicians (especially after 1925) including Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Green,” states Wikipedia. Smith was a highly successful woman of color who would today be described as “bisexual.” She was both a partner and a mentor to the stunningly beautiful Josephine Baker, introducing the young Baker to the queer world of the 1920s. Oddly, Smith is largely unrecognized in both early 20th century queer histories and blues studies.
Clarence Williams (1893-1965) was a successful businessman, a decent pianist, a cheerful singer, an enthusiastic jug blower, a bandleader, a publisher and a very successful writer. He was in constant demand as an arranger and session pianist, recording with Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sara Martin and Josh White among many others. His 1923 ‘Gulf Coast Blues’ (was the first song recorded by Bessie Smith, which also featured Clarence on piano. Clarence also wrote ‘Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home’ (1923), ‘Shout Sister, Shout’ (1929) and added lyrics to Louis Armstrong’s ‘West End Blues’ (1928). “Williams also wrote and performed with the comedy ‘hokum Blues’ duo Butterbeans and Susie, and also acted as manager for several artists. He wrote songs, published them himself, sold the sheet music, had his wife sing the tunes on the radio and, as a talent scout for Okeh (and a freelancer for other labels) during 1923-28, arranged to have them recorded by some of the finest jazz musicians of the 1920s, sometimes multiple times,” writes Scott Yanow in the Syncopated Times.
Isaiah Nettles (??), known by his recording alias “The Mississippi Moaner,” was an American country blues singer and guitarist. Accurate information about Nettles is sparse but he is best remembered for his recording session in 1935. Four songs resulted from the session but only two, “Mississippi Moan” and “It’s Cold in China Blues,” were distributed on Vocalion Records. “Unfortunately, Nettles never recorded again but his ‘forceful brand of dance music’ was a highlight of an era [1930s] that saw blues recordings significantly decline. Nettles may have served during the Second World War and later lived in Mount Olive and Taylorsville. He was last heard of when he planned to move, remarking he was going up north.” Nettles was also unique for being able to tap dance barefooted.
Although not known for being a moaner, per se, the great Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929) recorded the defining work of the blues sub-genre called “Black Snake Moan” in 1927. Some music historians claim that the lyrics to this song refer to the long black whips used by overseers to keep convicts in line while working as prison gangs. Others claim that the lyrics refer to the sexual organ of black males. Still others claim that the black snakes refer psychologically to the torments of inner demons (such as Jefferson’s blindness). Consider the following lyrics and decide for yourself:
“Mmm, mmm, black snake crawling in my room
Mmm, mmm, black snake crawling in my room
Some pretty mama better come and get this black snake soon
Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug
Baby, a chinch can’t bite that hard
Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug
Honey a chinch can’t bite that hard
Bessie Smith sings “Gulf Coast Blues”