BLUES MUSIC AND DEFIANCE

… there have been some notable exceptions to the dominant ‘worried life’ theme of the blues. There have also been courageous bluesmen and women who used the blues defiantly in bold resistance to authority.

* * * *

See update (TomG on Paul Robeson, 29 December) below (scroll down).
 

“The blues … the ball ‘n’ chain around every English musician’s neck… in fact, every musician’s neck”.

So sang Eric Burdon in a blues song called “As the years go passing by”.

But does the blues music genre have to be a ball-and-chain? Sure, since the early twentieth century, blues singers have mostly expressed lament, regret and grief: discontent and despair rather than defiance and rebellion. Karl Marx’s assessment of religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions” can also apply to blues music.

Yet there have been some notable exceptions to the dominant ‘worried life’ theme of the blues. There have also been courageous bluesmen and women who used the blues defiantly in bold resistance to authority.

I became hooked on blues music in my teens. My first album purchase was called ‘Soul Supply’, a compilation offering a feast of styles and artists: Ike and Tina Turner, Bobby Bland, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lowell Fulsom, Vernon Garrett, King Solomon, Little Richard and Mary Love. I wanted more from that day on.

I also loved the blues-based rock music emerging in the 1960s, mostly by white performers with powerful vocal delivery such as Eric Burdon and Chris Farlowe. They did a lot to popularize the blues and to promote black American performers to British audiences and, indeed, among northern audiences in the USA itself.

When the lyrics of blues and rock music connected overtly to the rebellious left-wing political movement to which I belonged, it was more than a bonus – it was inspirational.

Music can – and does – inspire. Do you have any to add to my list? If so, send them to me with your commentary and I’ll add them to this post.


The following are my five favourites in the black American blues genre:

1. The Bourgeois Blues – Huddy Leadbetter (1888-1949) aka ‘Leadbelly’ (1938)

This is one of the early blues songs of defiance. Sure, there is also complaint in its theme but Leadbelly identifies the class nature of racial oppression and is defiant in his desire to “spread the news all around”. “The home of the Brave / The land of the Free / I don’t wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie”.

The song was written in response to Leadbelly’s visit to Washington to record songs for the Library of Congress. The celebrated ethnomusicologist and field collector, Alan Lomax, had arranged the visit and with their respective wives took Leadbelly out to dinner after the sessions. Various restaurants denied them entry because the party was a mix-race one, which infuriated Lomax and Leadbelly.

In the version below, Leadbelly sings the song and relates the circumstances that led to him writing it.

Lord, in a bourgeois town
It’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Home of the brave, land of the free
I don’t wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say “I don’t want no niggers up there”
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Uhm, bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow
Lord, it’s a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

I tell all the colored folks to listen to me
Don’t try to find you no home in Washington, DC
`Cause it’s a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Leadebelly also did a protest song about the case of the Scottsboro Boys, in which the Communist Party of the USA played an important role on the side of the nine black teenagers wrongly accused of rape.

2. Mannish Boy – Muddy Waters (1913-1983) (1955)

Like Huddy Leadbetter, Muddy Waters was the real deal and had known first-hand the extremes of racial and class oppression. In the hands of various white rockers who later covered the song, it became a statement of masculine sexual prowess but in 1955, when Muddy recorded it, it had a much deeper meaning as a declaration of manhood. In the deep South of Muddy Waters’ upbringing, black adult men were regularly called ‘boy’ in the racist culture. Muddy’s song asserts “I’m a man” and he even spells it out to prove the point: “Mmm-Aaa- child – Nnn – I’m a MAN!” Radical and inspirational stuff!

Ooooooh, yeah, ooh, yeah

Everythin’, everythin’, everythin’s gonna be alright this mornin’
Ooh yeah, whoaw
Now when I was a young boy, at the age of five
My mother said I was, gonna be the greatest man alive
But now I’m a man, way past 21
Want you to believe me baby,
I had lot’s of fun
I’m a man
I spell mmm, aaa child, nnn
That represents man
No B, O child, Y
That mean mannish boy
I’m a man
I’m a full grown man
I’m a man
I’m a natural born lovers man
I’m a man
I’m a rollin’ stone
I’m a man
I’m a hoochie coochie man

Sittin’ on the outside, just me and my mate
You know I’m made to move you honey,
Come up two hours late
Wasn’t that a man
I spell mmm, aaa child, nnn
That represents man
No B, O child, Y
That mean mannish boy
I’m a man
I’m a full grown man
Man
I’m a natural born lovers man
Man
I’m a rollin’ stone
Man-child
I’m a hoochie coochie man

The line I shoot will never miss
When I make love to a woman,
She can’t resist
I think I go down,
To old Kansas Stew
I’m gonna bring back my second cousin,
That little Johnny Cocheroo
All you little girls,
Sittin’out at that line
I can make love to you woman,
In five minutes time
Ain’t that a man
I spell mmm, aaa child, nnn
That represents man
No B, O child, Y
That mean mannish boy
Man
I’m a full grown man
Man
I’m a natural born lovers man
Man
I’m a rollin’ stone
I’m a man-child
I’m a hoochie coochie man
Well, well, well, well
Hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry
Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me child
Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt, don’t hurt me child
Well, well, well, well

3. Mississippi Goddam – Nina Simone (1993-2003) (1963)

Nina Simone was never one to hide her politics and was an activist as well as a brilliant pianist and singer. She took part in major struggles such as the march from Selma to Montgomery (Alabama’s capital) in 1965. At the conclusion of the march, she performed her song, “Mississippi Goddam” to a crowd of 40,000 civil rights activists. She had written the song in 1963 in response to the murder in Mississippi of activist Medgar Evers, and the bombing in Alabama of the 16th Street Baptist Church which killed four black girls.

I love the call-and-response – “Do it slow!” or “Go slow!” – which accentuates the reality that the movement had reached a new level of urgency and struggle in which gradualism had passed.

The song was banned from airplay in some southern states, supposedly because of the use of “goddam”.

Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air
I can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer

Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

This is a show tune
But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet

Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer

Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying “Go slow!”

But that’s just the trouble
“do it slow”
Washing the windows
“do it slow”
Picking the cotton
“do it slow”
You’re just plain rotten
“do it slow”
You’re too damn lazy
“do it slow”
The thinking’s crazy
“do it slow”
Where am I going
What am I doing
I don’t know
I don’t know

Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

I made you thought I was kiddin’

Picket lines
School boy cots
They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
for my sister my brother my people and me

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie

Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying “Go slow!”
“Go slow!”

But that’s just the trouble
“do it slow”
Desegregation
“do it slow”
Mass participation
“do it slow”
Reunification
“do it slow”
Do things gradually
“do it slow”
But bring more tragedy
“do it slow”
Why don’t you see it
Why don’t you feel it
I don’t know
I don’t know

You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

4. A change is gonna come – Sam Cooke (1931-1964) (1964)

Okay, blues aficionados may argue that Sam Cooke‘s song is more rhythm-and-blues than blues but, as Chuck Berry once said, “It’s all meat on the same bone”. And, like Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”, “A change is gonna come” became an anthem of the civil rights movement. It is notable for its optimism, at a time when police and troopers in the southern states in particular were using brutal force and mass arrests to deter the movement and its leaders.

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go down town
Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around

Its been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please.”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees

There been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

5. Vietnam Blues – J B Lenoir (1929-1967) (1966)

JB Lenoir, like Nina Simone, was a prolific musician who openly supported the civil rights struggle. And like Nina Simone, he took a stand against US involvement in the war in Vietnam early on. His song, “Vietnam Blues”, may have influenced John Lee Hooker’s “I don’t wanna go to Vietnam” recorded three years later. Both make a point about the US making war in Vietnam when its own people, especially black Americans, were in fairly dire straits.

Two of Lenoir’s albums “Alabama Blues” and “Down in Mississippi” mostly consist of political songs, including “Eisenhower Blues” which the record company made him change and reissued as “Tax Payer Blues”.

The songs above arose from actual life experience and struggle and inspired commitment to progress. Are there more recent examples that readers know of?

The following is from TomG (thanks Tom)

Old Man River (Show Boat) is no Blues song and Paul Robeson no Blues singer, but if you’re after a rebel song then the changes Robeson made to Hammerstein’s original lyrics fits the bill.
The lyrics are reproduced here twice, the first being Hammerstein’s, the second Robeson’s. The changes he made are transformative.

Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi;
Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be!
What does he care if de world’s got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain’t free?
Ol’ Man River,
Dat Ol’ Man River
He mus’ know sumpin’ But don’t say nuthin’,
He jes’ keeps rollin’,
He keeps on rollin’ along.
He don’t plant taters,
He don’t plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants ’em
Is soon forgotten,
But Ol’ Man River,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along
You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain –
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk,
An’ you land in jail…
Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’;
Ah’m tired of livin’
An skeered of dyin’,
But Ol’ Man River,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along

Revised lyrics:

There’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi;
That’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be!
What does he care if the world’s got troubles?
What does he care if the land ain’t free..
Ol’ Man River,
That Ol’ Man River
He mus’ know sumpin’ But don’t say nuthin’,
He jes’ keeps rollin’,
He keeps on rollin’ along.
He don’t plant taters,
He don’t plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants ’em
Is soon forgotten,
But Ol’ Man River,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along
You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain –
Tote that barge and
Lift that bale,
You show a little grit and
You lands in jail…
But I keeps laffin’ instead of cyrin’
I must keep fightin’;
Until I’m dyin’
And Ol’ Man River,
He just keeps rollin’ along

* * * *

Some sites and blogs of relevance include:

50 greatest protest songs

Blues music history timeline

Great Migrations and Blues

20 greatest blues albums

Brief history of the blues

50 greatest blues songs

The art of the blues

History of the blues

Weary blues go forth

Old weird America

Blues Music Society (Melbourne)

Windy City Blues Society

One thought on “BLUES MUSIC AND DEFIANCE

  1. Old Man River (Show Boat) is no Blues song and Paul Robeson no Blues singer, but if you’re after a rebel song then the changes Robeson made to Hammerstein’s original lyrics fits the bill.
    The lyrics are reproduced here twice, the first being Hammerstein’s, the second Robeson’s. The changes he made are transformative.

    Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi;
    Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be!
    What does he care if de world’s got troubles?
    What does he care if de land ain’t free?
    Ol’ Man River,
    Dat Ol’ Man River
    He mus’ know sumpin’ But don’t say nuthin’,
    He jes’ keeps rollin’,
    He keeps on rollin’ along.
    He don’t plant taters,
    He don’t plant cotton,
    An’ dem dat plants ’em
    Is soon forgotten,
    But Ol’ Man River,
    He jes’ keeps rollin’ along
    You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
    Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain –
    Tote dat barge!
    Lif’ dat bale!
    Git a little drunk,
    An’ you land in jail…
    Ah gits weary
    An’ sick of tryin’;
    Ah’m tired of livin’
    An skeered of dyin’,
    But Ol’ Man River,
    He jes’ keeps rollin’ along

    Revised lyrics:

    There’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi;
    That’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be!
    What does he care if the world’s got troubles?
    What does he care if the land ain’t free..
    Ol’ Man River,
    That Ol’ Man River
    He mus’ know sumpin’ But don’t say nuthin’,
    He jes’ keeps rollin’,
    He keeps on rollin’ along.
    He don’t plant taters,
    He don’t plant cotton,
    An’ dem dat plants ’em
    Is soon forgotten,
    But Ol’ Man River,
    He jes’ keeps rollin’ along
    You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
    Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain –
    Tote that barge and
    Lift that bale,
    You show a little grit and
    You lands in jail…
    But I keeps laffin’ instead of cyrin’
    I must keep fightin’;
    Until I’m dyin’
    And Ol’ Man River,
    He just keeps rollin’ along

    Like

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