J. B. Lenoir
was one of the bravest political voices of his era. He sang against
poverty, lynching, the Vietnam War, racism and police violence in
Alabama and Mississippi.
J.B. Lenoir recorded
beautifully outspoken songs of dissent on his last two albums,
and “Down in Mississippi." Both records have been released as “Vietnam
Blues” on Evidence Records.
Michael Harrington discovered a land he called the “Other America”
in the early 1960s, he helped awaken the nation to the existence of
a vast and largely unseen subcontinent of poverty in the midst of an
affluent society. His influential book, The Other America:
Poverty in the United States, warned that 25 percent of the
people in this supposedly prosperous nation lived and died in
Published in 1962, The Other America made an impact on
President John Kennedy, and reputedly helped to spark President
Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Harrington’s book may have been an early warning signal about the
disturbing extent of poverty, yet long before he came on the scene,
African-American blues musicians had been sounding even more urgent
warnings over and over for several decades. In part, that is because
many blues artists, along with their close friends and family
members, were living in the Other America that Harrington only
blues musicians were able to give such powerful testimony about hard
times, discrimination, hunger and homelessness because they had
grown up in rural poverty, or lived on the poor side of town in the
crowded tenements, crumbling neighborhoods and neglected streets of
the Other America.
lyrics from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s sound today like highly
knowledgeable and up-to-the-minute accounts of the present-day
economic disparity between the rich and the poor.
stereotype is that history is written by the winners. Yet the
unbroken testimony of 90 years of blues lyrics amounts to a
cumulative history written by the very people thought to be
marginalized and voiceless. It adds up to a “minority report” on the
state of the nation from the streets of the Other America.
The history that can be
traced in blues lyrics tells the story of how the common people had
the soul to survive a soul-crushing system. Along with a far-seeing
awareness of economic and racial injustice, many blues songs also
express compassion and empathy towards the poor and oppressed,
especially in times when the government had ignored and abandoned
its hungry and homeless citizens.
Hard Times for
Floyd Jones, one of the finest singers and songwriters in
Chicago’s post-war blues circles, composed and performed
some highly politicized blues, especially unique in the
politically sluggish climate of the 1950s. His “Stockyard
Blues” told the story of workers on the picket line, and not
only sympathized with the union’s struggle for better wages
for those working in Chicago’s stockyards, but also gave
voice to the desperation of those who would have to pay
higher prices for meat.
Floyd Jones was a gifted vocalist and his dark, heavy vocals
resounded with passionate intensity, especially when he
sang, “I need to earn a dollar.” He sings the word
“need” with such forcefulness that it sounds like a
three-syllable outcry carrying all the weight of the worried
“You know I need to earn a dollar
The cost of living has gone so high,
Now then I don’t know what to do.”
Floyd Jones was a
fine blues musician who wrote "Hard Times" and "Stockyard
Blues," songs about the working poor that expressed his
deeply distraught vocal in “Stockyard Blues” gives voice to the
economic misery of a generation of African Americans who had escaped
the poverty and racism of Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama, only to
feel trapped in crowded slum hotels and low-wage jobs in Chicago’s
stockyards and factories.
was born in Arkansas and began playing the blues alongside such
masterful Mississippi musicians as Johnny Shines, Eddie Taylor,
Howlin’ Wolf and Big Walter Horton. Jones was part of the company of
gifted musicians who brought the intensely felt blues of the
Mississippi Delta to Chicago and created an amplified brand of
electric blues, performing in small combos at the open-air Maxwell
Street Market and in Chicago’s South Side bars and clubs.
beautiful music is criminally underappreciated, so much so that it
is almost painful to listen to his work today and realize that this
great musician was never given his due. In the early 1950s, Floyd
Jones made a handful of brilliant blues for the J.O.B. label,
including “Dark Road” and “On the Road Again.” He often played with
pianist Sunnyland Slim and harmonica great Snooky Pryor.
anthem, “Hard Times,” was a soul-deep cry of anguish about reduced
hours, lowered wages, poverty and layoffs. “This is a bad time,”
sings Jones, “we laying them off by the thousands.”
midst of supposed post-war affluence, Floyd Jones was a voice for
those who had been left out of the nation’s vaunted economic
times, hard times here with me now.
don’t get no better, I believe I’ll leave this town.”
those words on paper can’t come close to doing justice to the deeply
worried and agonizing vocal that Jones delivers. His impassioned
singing not only expresses his despondency at the “hard times,” but
also communicates a sense of frustration and outrage right beneath
the surface, an anger that seems close to boiling over.
Jones was unusually outspoken in performing these blues in such a
quiescent era, he was right in the mainstream of the electric blues
in his singing and playing. Not only is Jones a gifted singer and
guitarist, but he could put together a powerful band in the best
tradition of the Chicago blues groups headed by Muddy Waters and
Testament Records released an album in their “Masters of Modern
Blues” series entitled “Floyd Jones —Eddie Taylor.” Floyd Jones sang
and played guitar with the powerhouse accompaniment of Otis Spann on
piano, Big Walter Horton on harmonica, Fred Below on drums, and
Eddie Taylor on guitar. Every one of those musicians was a
world-class master. Eddie Taylor’s guitar work was the secret
ingredient that fueled blues singer Jimmy Reed’s great success for
many years. Otis Spann was the pianist in Muddy Waters’ classic
bands, and many consider him to be the finest blues pianist of all.
Big Walter Horton was, along with Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little
Walter, one of the finest blues harmonica masters of all time.
Drummer Fred Below played on nearly all of Little Walter’s hits and
was perhaps the most in-demand session drummer of his time.
the company Floyd Jones kept, yet today he is nearly forgotten.
Floyd Jones and this blues ensemble demonstrate the brilliance of
the golden era of Chicago’s electric blues in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
These artists not only brought new life to the blues, but were the
key inspiration for the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, Cream,
Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in England, and the
Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Johnny Winter and Canned Heat in
the great commercial success enjoyed by blues-rock musicians in
England and America who were inspired so heavily by Chicago blues
musicians, the black blues masters who gave birth to this music
often could not even make a living performing the music that had
made other musicians rich.
lead one to despair to realize that Floyd Jones, a beautiful and
soulful songwriter and performer, recorded so little and died in
near obscurity in 1989.
Welding, who produced the 1966 Masters of Modern Blues record, wrote
in the liner notes that Floyd Jones is “one of the handful of
excellent composers of blues to have emerged in the post-war blues
excellence of Floyd’s work makes his fate even more incomprehensible
and bitterly ironic. It is a fate shared by many of his fellow
Jones was one of the very few musicians who spoke out for the
humanity of low-wage workers in Chicago. His songs, “Stockyard
Blues” and “Hard Times” are outspoken acts of solidarity with
workers who are screwed over by the powers that be.
comes the final irony: Floyd Jones himself became one of those
screwed-over workers. Here is how Pete Welding describes it in his
recent years, Floyd has been working as a forklift operator, the
latest in a succession of like ‘day jobs’ he has been forced to take
to support his family. It is truly a sad commentary on the state of
the blues in Chicago, where one of its finest composers and
performers cannot earn a livelihood at what he does so well.”
Tough Times for John Brim
Brim was another great, yet largely unheralded Chicago blues singer
and guitarist who traveled in some of the same circles as Jones. In
1953, Brim recorded one of the gutsiest and most political blues
songs of the ’50s. “Tough Times” is a classic side of tough Chicago
blues, but with a radical difference — its radical politics.
Times” can be found on the Chess compilation, “Whose Muddy Shoes,”
which collects several wonderful and hard-to-find recordings by John
Brim and Elmore James. The liner notes report that “Tough Times”
features John Brim on guitar and vocals, his wife Grace Brim on
drums, Eddie Taylor on second guitar and Snooky Pryor on harmonica
(although elsewhere it is claimed that Jimmy Reed plays harmonica).
January 1954, an economic slowdown in the United States had resulted
in a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate in the black community,
nearly double the jobless rate for the rest of the nation. Brim
responded by warning that unemployment was getting as bad as the
worst part of the Depression in 1932.
Times” has some of the tough swagger, and the stop-and-start
dynamics, of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” but it couldn’t be farther
removed in its subject. While Muddy delivered a growling vocal about
discovering a powerful sense of manhood at the age of five (when his
mother said he was “gonna be the greatest man alive”), Brim’s song
describes how one’s humanity and manhood are all but destroyed by
bad economic conditions.
my baby was talking and what she said is true.
said, “It seems like times is getting tough like they was in ‘32.
don’t have no job, our bills is past due.
me baby, what we going to do?”
this song had been heard as widely as it deserved, it might have
become that rarest of recordings — an anthem for the hard-hit
working class. For in “Tough Times,” Brim takes the side of
countless workers facing layoffs and prolonged unemployment, and the
hunger and desperation that were almost completely ignored in the
blues are an uncompromising report from the downside of American
prosperity. Yet the song does something more important than simply
exposing the layoffs hitting countless workers at a time of supposed
affluence. His highly personal songwriting and urgent vocals make
the listener really feel the anguish of a worker whose entire
life falls apart when he or she loses a job.
“I had a
good job working many long hours a week.
a big layoff and they got poor me.
broke and disgusted — in misery,
find a part-time job, nothing in my house to eat.
times, tough times is here once more
don’t have no money, you can’t live happy no more.”
Double Trouble for Otis Rush
Otis Rush, the epitome of sophisticated urban blues, sang
passionately of the terrible price of layoffs and economic
hardships. In a thrillingly beautiful song he recorded in 1958,
“Double Trouble,” Rush’s voice and guitar both wail with
spine-tingling intensity as they lament how a lost job has left him
singing is so intense that you believe every word when he cries out
about laying awake all night after being laid off at work. This is
the dark night of the soul, turned into a work of art by an absolute
master of the blues guitar.
awake at night, oh so low, just so troubled.
hard to keep a job, laid off and I’m having double trouble.”
Trouble,” recorded for the Cobra label in Chicago in 1958, is
another Eisenhower-era anthem about the layoffs and lack of money
that plagued the black community in the midst of mainstream
sang about the same troubles that many people living in Chicago’s
slum housing had experienced — no job, no money, no decent clothes
to wear, and no sleep at night due to the worried blues.
“double trouble” because being laid off and running out of money has
ended in his being rejected by his girlfriend. “You laughed at me
walking, baby, when I had no place to go.” It’s bad enough to be
homeless, walking the streets all night long, but when he sings of
being rejected in that soul-piercing voice, we feel the weight of
his torment, the “double trouble” of being broken down both
economically and romantically.
amazing how much this short song reveals about the ruinous effects
of poverty. It is hard enough to undergo hunger and unemployment,
but it is maddening to suffer deprivation in a society where so many
are wealthy. The constant barrage of advertising and propaganda
perpetuate the lie that anyone can become wealthy in a consumer
society. “Double Trouble” tells the real story.
hey, they say you can make it if you try.
this generation of millionaires
hard for me to keep decent clothes to wear.”
Sound of Silence,” Paul Simon sang, “The words of the prophets are
written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” Otis Rush’s song is
one of those prophetic warnings from the tenement halls that society
ignored. When society refuses to hear its prophetic voices, it
consigns their songs to the “sounds of silence.” And any society
that neglects and abandons its poorest citizens is headed for double
long before middle-class, mainstream America became aware of the
terribly destructive effects of poverty and homelessness, Rush was
singing about it in Chicago bars and blues clubs, and his warning of
double trouble was echoing up and down those tenement halls.
Big Mama Thornton’s
You know that times must be hard indeed just by listening to
the large number of blues songs titled “Hard Times,” “Tough
Times” or “Ain’t Times Hard.” Big Mama Thornton recorded a
shout of despair called “Hard Times” in 1952 written by the
famed rock-and-roll songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton had a big hit with Leiber and
Stoller’s “Hound Dog,” number one on the rhythm and blues
charts for seven weeks in 1953, and Elvis Presley had an
even bigger hit with it.
Thornton was inspired by Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie,
and she, in turn, inspired other blues and rock singers,
including Janis Joplin. Thornton’s own composition, the
great blues lament “Ball and Chain,” caused a sensation when
Joplin pulled out all the stops and turned it into a wild
cry of despair at the Monterey International Pop Festival in
Thornton was one of the premier women blues vocalists of the
1950s. On stage, she was an awe-inspiring blues shouter with
a deep, growling voice that some reviewers found menacing
Big Mama Thornton
was one of the premier female blues vocalists of the 1950s.
Strachwitz, who recorded Big Mama in London while she was performing
with the American Folk Blues Festival in 1965, found that she was an
“amazingly versatile singer.” Strachwitz recorded two albums with
her backed by two different all-star blues bands: “Big Mama Thornton
with the Muddy Waters Blues Band” and “Big Mama Thornton in Europe,”
when she was accompanied by legendary blues guitarists Buddy Guy and
Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Times,” Big Mama Thornton delivers a powerfully convincing
performance of a woman whose life is falling apart as she trembles
on the brink of eviction. She is hounded at home as debt-collectors
and landlords knock at her door.
wails out the first line — “times are getting hard in the city” — as
a dark cry of desolation that seems to come from deep in her soul.
Anyone who has ever faced eviction will know how realistically she
expresses her fear and despair.
woke up this morning, somebody knocking at my door.
It was a
man standing there, told me about the debts I owe.”
misery, she tells the debt collector that she is going to just give
back everything she bought and start all over. But the hard times
are only beginning, because her next visitor is the landlord who has
come to her door to badger her for unpaid rent. She knows that this
landlord has already thrown many people out, and sings, “I know I
will be next.”
her fate closing in on her, Thornton’s anguished singing in the
final verse conveys what it feels like when the burdens of life
become too heavy for one person to bear.
are getting hard in the city, I’m going on down the road.
this little money that I’m making, I can’t pull this heavy load.”
Rocks Have Been My Pillow
“Lil’ Son” Jackson was a bluesman from Texas who played in the
traditional style of the country blues. Some writers called Jackson
a throwback to an earlier era of the rural blues. If so, what an
awesome throwback he was. Texas had a rich heritage of blues
musicians, and other writers likened Jackson to Texas bluesman
Lightnin’ Hopkins. That comparison alone is very high praise.
Similarly to Juke Boy Bonner, Lil’ Son was born into a family of
sharecroppers on a small farm in Texas. His father, Johnny Jackson,
was a sharecropper and Lil’ Son didn’t want to follow in his
father’s footsteps because he saw the injustices of the
escaped that existence by setting out on a musical career, recording
for Gold Star in the late 1940s and Imperial in the early 1950s. He
had several regional hits and a national hit with “Freedom Train
Blues,” but left his musical career behind in the mid-1950s to work
as a mechanic and at an auto parts store.
the strengths of Lil’ Son Jackson is his story-telling ability,
delivered in a dramatic singing voice. Chris Strachwitz persuaded
Jackson to record again in 1960, and Arhoolie Records released an
excellent compilation of his music, “Blues Come to Texas.”
Strachwitz wrote that Jackson had “a beautiful guitar style and a
remember Bob Marley and the Wailers singing, “cold ground was my bed
last night and rock was my pillow too,” on their “Natty Dread” album
in 1974. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1949, Lil’ Son Jackson
recorded his profoundly moving “Homeless Blues” for Gold Star
records. Jackson sang about his bed of rocks and gravel.
have been my pillow, baby, gravel have been my bed,
got nowhere, oh Lord, to lay my poor aching head.”
next verse of “Homeless Blues,” Jackson describes his attempts to
hitch a ride on the highway, but finds that everyone passes him by.
“Nobody seems to know me,” he sings, as he is left deserted on the
side of the road by passing cars.
Jackson’s song is truly perceptive in capturing the feeling of being
rejected and treated like an invisible man — one of the most painful
experiences reported by homeless people. Being made to feel like an
outcast, an untouchable, adds a new level of emotional suffering to
the physical hardships of homelessness.
sense of feeling worthless and alone and unloved comes to a head
when Jackson adds the despair of losing a lover to the torment of
being ragged and homeless. It sounds simple to write, but it is
truly amazing to see so much meaning packed into a few short verses.
picture of a man’s agony — and it’s the poetry of the blues at its
know I’m ragged and I’m dirty,
ain’t got no place to go.
you don’t want me baby,
don’t love me no more.”
Big Bill Broonzy
Big Bill Broonzy, the man who would become one of the
best-known blues musicians in the nation, was born in Scott,
Mississippi, as Lee Conley Bradley. His parents were
sharecroppers who had 17 children. Broonzy grew into one of
the most stylistically diverse blues musicians, constantly
adapting to the times with an evolving musical approach that
stretched from the late 1920s to the late 1950s.
Broonzy began recording for Blue Bird Records in the 1930s,
and was invited to perform as a blues musician at both of
the heralded “From Spirituals to Swing” concerts held at
Carnegie Hall in December 1938 and December 1939.
After World War II, he began performing in England and
Europe and became an enormously influential musical guide to
a new generation of overseas blues fans in the 1950s. He
also returned to playing in his country blues style as part
of the folk music revival in the United States.
Broonzy died in 1958, but his life in the blues spans the
years from his 1928 song, “Starvation Blues,” to his
prophetic condemnation of Jim Crow laws at the dawn of the
civil rights era.
Blues musician Big
Bill Broonzy composed some of the earliest songs about
poverty and unemployment, as well as hard-hitting songs
about racial discrimination.
real foresight, Broonzy captured the economic desperation
approaching on the nation’s horizon in his “Starvation Blues,”
written in 1928, a year before the stock market crash of October
1929. Even before the Depression struck with full force, the black
community was in deep trouble and their growing poverty carried a
warning of hard times to come for the rest of the nation.
Broonzy’s “Starvation Blues” painted a stark picture of the hunger
and evictions that were about to sweep an unsuspecting nation.
“Starvation in my kitchen, rent sign’s on my door.
my luck don’t change I can’t stay at home no more.”
“Starvation Blues” packs the entire devastation of the coming
economic collapse into a few concise lines that warn about how
unemployment would trigger a series of economic woes: hunger and
difficulty in paying the rent, followed by eviction notices and,
finally, homelessness. He described this chain reaction of poverty
even before millions were thrown out of work during the Depression.
ain’t got no job,
I ain’t got no place to stay.”
Depression years went on, Broonzy recorded “Unemployment Stomp” in
1938. Given the grim subject matter, this song is almost
incongruously jaunty and swings with the accompaniment of trumpet,
piano and guitar, yet his lyrics are a distress signal to the
nation, a warning that unemployment and hunger will break up
marriages and families.
up my home ‘cause I didn’t have no work to do,
had to leave me ‘cause she was starving too.”
already had proven farsighted in singing about the nation’s oncoming
economic collapse, and now he showed himself to be just as prescient
in confronting racial discrimination in America. He began composing
justice blues that denounced the horrible misuse of the legal system
to create oppressive Jim Crow laws.
had served two years in the Army, and was stationed in Europe during
World War I. In his 1928 song, “When Will I Get to Be Called a Man,”
he voiced the discontent of many black servicemen who returned from
fighting for democracy overseas, only to encounter the same racial
inequality and segregation at home.
starts with a deeply moving lament about what it feels like to be a
second-class citizen, dishonored in his own country. In two
unforgettable lines, he describes how this mistreatment began at
birth and continued his entire life.
was born into this world, this is what happened to me.
never called a man, and now I’m fifty-three.”
returns from military service wearing his uniform, his boss tells
him that he needs to get back into his overalls and accept the same
subservient job as before — along with the same demeaning treatment.
got back from overseas, that night we had a ball.
I met the old boss. He said, ‘Boy, get you some overalls.’
when, I wonder when, I wonder when
get to be called a man.
have to wait till I get ninety-three?”
liner notes of the Smithsonian/Folkways compilation CD, “Trouble In
Mind,” Broonzy describes how he wrote one of his most significant
songs, “Black, Brown and White Blues,” about his bitter experience
of on-the-job racism.
historically important song was written long before the Montgomery
bus boycott sparked the civil rights movement in 1954. It speaks out
so boldly about racism in America that U.S. record companies refused
to release “Black, Brown and White Blues” in this country. It was
finally recorded and released in 1951 only when Big Bill went to
Europe and a French company recorded it. It is magnificently
to the employment office, got a number and I got in line.
called everybody’s number but they never did call mine.
say, “If you was white, you’d be all right.
was brown, stick around.
you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.”
“Black, Brown and White Blues,” he goes on to describe the constant
victimization he faces, the lower pay based on discrimination, and
how even service in the war doesn’t lead to equal rights and
Broonzy’s unconquerable spirit speaks out against Jim Crow
discrimination in the song’s final line. Keep in mind that the
following verse was written long before the world had heard of Rosa
Parks and Martin Luther King.
want you to tell me, brother,
gonna do about the old Jim Crow?”
Broonzy performed an updated version of the spiritual, “This Train
(Bound for Glory)” with Pete Seeger, a version that can be heard on
the Folkways “Trouble In Mind” CD. Broonzy turns the familiar song
into a civil rights anthem.
no Jim Crow and no discrimination.
train is bound for glory, this train.”
the most boldly political voice in the blues world of the 1950s and
1960s belonged to J. B. Lenoir, a brilliant and fearless songwriter
who took on an entire world of injustice by composing blues that
fought against poverty, lynching, the Vietnam War, racial
discrimination, police violence in Alabama and the shooting of James
Meredith in Mississippi.
long before anti-establishment songs became more acceptable, Lenoir
sang his outspoken “Eisenhower Blues.” His song was considered to be
so controversial that political pressure forced it to be removed
from stores and retitled as the less inflammatory “Tax Paying
sang in an unusually high-register voice, and he played acoustic
guitar in a boogie style he called “African hunch.” His voice was a
very expressive and unique instrument and he delivered powerful
performances of some of the most insightful lyrics of dissent ever
“Eisenhower Blues” shows what a creative and daring wordsmith and
musician he was. Even though the powers that be forced a change in
his song’s title, Lenoir’s voice was not silenced.
all my money to pay the tax,
giving you people the natural facts.
telling you people my belief
I am headed straight on relief.”
“Eisenhower Blues,” J.B. Lenoir broke away from the manufactured
conformity of the Eisenhower era and sounded an outcry from the
people who could no longer pay their rent.
got a dime, ain’t even got a cent.
have no money to pay my rent.
needs some clothes, she needs some shoes.
I don’t know what I’m gonna do.
got them Eisenhower blues.”
of Eisenhower was also the age of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his
blacklists and purges of accused dissidents. J. B. Lenoir voiced his
outspoken opposition to war and injustice at a time when dissent
could be very costly.
“Eisenhower Blues” had an element of light-hearted humor, but
Lenoir’s song, “Everybody Wants to Know,” is a radical warning to
the rich that hunger in America could spark outright rebellion.
rich people listen, you better listen real deep,
poor people get so hungry, we gonna take some food to eat.
uh, I got them laid-off blues.”
his finest political songs were considered too controversial to even
be released in the America of the 1950s. In his book Nothing But
the Blues, Lawrence Cohn wrote: “Lenoir’s landmark blues protest
album, ‘Alabama Blues,’ dealing with racial violence, civil rights
and Vietnam, was released only in Europe.”
blues festival producer Horst Lippman said, “At the time, no one was
willing to release it in America because of the political content.”
the intervention of European blues supporters to allow J.B. Lenoir
to finally speak the truth about what was happening to black people
in America. In 1965, Lenoir traveled to Europe as part of the
American Folk Blues Festival.
producer Lippman wrote, “I made arrangements that J. B. Lenoir
finally should get his chance — without any limitation — to sing and
play whatever comes through his mind, whatever he might think was
and is wrong in the United States toward black people.”
was born in 1929 in Monticello, Mississippi, and as the 1960s began,
he would have a great deal more to say about poverty, racism and
attacks on civil rights workers in his home state.
John Lee Hooker’s No Shoes Blues
astoundingly high number of the nation’s most masterful blues
musicians were born in Mississippi. In Ted Gioia’s book, Delta
Blues, Detroit bluesman John Lee Hooker offered his own reason
why the best blues artists come from Mississippi,” said Hooker.
“Because it’s the worst state. You have the blues all right if
you’re down in Mississippi.”
Williamson wrote in The Rough Guide to the Blues: “The social
and economic problems of the Delta region persist to this day, the
product and result of its history of enslavement and the legacies of
the cotton plantation era, including the Jim Crow laws, racial
segregation of public educational institutions and black
Hooker was born outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, and as soon as he
came of age, he moved to Detroit, where he became one of the
pre-eminent blues musicians of his era, with hard-partying boogie
music like “Boogie Chillen,” “Boom Boom” and “Dimples.” But Hooker
also sang the “Hobo Blues” about riding the rails endlessly, and
“House Rent Boogie” about holding parties to raise the rent after
Hooker’s Mississippi roots show up most clearly in his stark and
terribly sad song, “No Shoes,” written in 1960, just as the nation
was finally beginning to become aware of the extent of hunger in
Mississippi. Hooker’s song reveals the story of hunger in America
more tellingly than any Congressional fact-finding tour.
on my table, and no shoes to go on my feet.
children cry for mercy, they got no place to call your own.”
voice is so sympathetic and poignant, nearly sobbing about the
hunger and hardships facing his children. “My children cry for
mercy,” he sings, yet it is Hooker’s powerful, deep voice that cries
out for mercy.
fascinating to hear this king of the boogie utilize his rough,
growling voice to offer such a tender and kind-hearted plea for
mercy for the children. Even his raw and primal electric guitar
sounds beautiful and mournful. It becomes another voice asking for
compassion. If ever the most rough-edged brand of Delta blues can be
said to be sensitive, this is it.
ends his short song with an unforgettable image from the Other
America — an indictment of society’s failure to care about
to go on my table. Oh no, too sad.
crying for bread.”
In an interview in the
book, Elwood’s Blues: Interviews with the Blues Legends and Stars,
John Lee Hooker said, “I look at the people in the streets, sleeping
in the streets — hard time. I wonder why these people have to do
that. If we get out and reach out to those people, it would be a
better world. I can’t save the world, but I cannot forget about the
poor people working in the plants and the fields and buying John Lee
Hooker’s records. Wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”
Hunting Season in Mississippi
as Hooker’s song is, it would once again fall to J. B. Lenoir to
deliver the most explosive indictment of the plight of children in
the state of Mississippi. Lenoir’s song, “Born Dead” is a blues for
Mississippi, and asks a darkly disturbing question about why
African-American children are even born in a state where they will
face so much poverty, racial discrimination and lack of a decent
why was I born in Mississippi, when it’s so hard to get ahead?
black child born in Mississippi, you know the poor child is born
wrote that the black child born in Mississippi will never even know
his mind and will never know “why in the world he’s so poor.”
I born in Mississippi?” That was not just a rhetorical question that
Lenoir asked in a song. Just like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and
countless other Mississippi blues musicians who left the state of
their birth, Lenoir left Mississippi for good in the late 1940s and
moved to Chicago, where he played the blues at night and worked in
meatpacking plants during the day.
after he left Mississippi and became a respected songwriter in
Chicago blues circles, the hard times he faced in the South still
weighed heavily on his mind.
Rowe’s book, Chicago Blues, Lenoir describes why he left
Mississippi for Chicago in 1949, at the age of 20. Lenoir said, “The
way they does you down there in Mississippi, it ain’t what a man
should suffer, what a man should go through. And I said, after I
seen the way they treat my daddy, I never was going to stand that no
kind of way. So I just worked as hard as I could to get that money
to get away.”
unnerving song, “Down in Mississippi,” Lenoir sang: “I count myself
a lucky man just to get away with my life.” He felt lucky to escape
with his life because of the strange and deadly nature of the
state’s “hunting season.”
had a hunting season on a rabbit. If you shot him you went to jail.
season was always open on me: nobody needed no bail.”
His description of the Mississippi hunting season is a
chilling reminder of the state’s history of lynchings,
shootings, and bombings, the assassination of Medgar Evers
in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, and the murdered bodies of
civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and
Michael Schwerner, found buried in an earthen dam in 1964.
In The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues, Giles
Oakley wrote, “Mississippi had a reputation for racism and
bigotry from the earliest days of Emancipation; its record
of lynching, reaching a bloody peak in the early days of the
Jim Crow laws, was appalling.”
Oakley added, “During the civil rights campaigns of the
1960s, the state was still a by-word for repression and
racism, with several bombings and slayings…”
Shot in Mississippi
In 1966, there was a shot heard ‘round the world in
Mississippi — the shot that nearly took James Meredith’s
life. Meredith had set off on a March Against Fear from
Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, in support of
voter registration. On the second day of his march against
racial violence, a white gunman shot him several times.
Meredith survived and several days later, 15,000 people
marched on Jackson in the state’s largest civil rights
The Klan burned Mt.
Zion Church to the ground, and murdered civil rights
activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner
in the summer of 1964 after Schwerner and Chaney urged its
all-black congregation to register to vote.
Photograph taken by Rob Fergusonj r
song, “Shot on James Meredith,” is a cry of outrage from the very
depths of his soul about the shooting, and a demand for the White
House to take a stand against the shooting of unarmed freedom
shot James Meredith down just like a dog.
President, I wonder what are you gonna do now?
believe you’re gonna do nothing at all.”
musicians ever commented on this barbaric act of terror, other than
J. B. Lenoir and folksinger Phil Ochs in his brave song, “Here’s to
the State of Mississippi.” Lenoir reminded us that Meredith was
marching through Mississippi to lead the people to “what he thought
heard of my boy James Meredith
evil man shot to take his life.”
also wrote powerful condemnations of the violence and racism
encountered by civil rights activists in the neighboring state of
Alabama. In his song, “Alabama,” he sang about how black people —
his brothers and sisters — were murdered in Alabama, yet the state
let the killers go free.
will go back to Alabama, that is not the place for me.
they killed my sister and my brother,
whole world let them people down there go free.”
Lenoir’s voice sounds overwrought and nearly strangled by powerful
emotion while singing “Alabama,” there was good reason. In the
Alabama cities of Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, buses were
burned and freedom riders were brutally assaulted — several of them
beaten nearly to death — by racist mobs of white people in May 1961.
September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was
bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, killing four young Sunday
School students in the terrorist attack. In March 1965, Alabama
state troopers brutally clubbed hundreds of nonviolent demonstrators
marching for voting rights over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo and Rev. James Reeb were all
murdered in Alabama during the Selma voting rights campaign.
sang out fearlessly against the killings, police brutality, bus
burnings and church bombings in Alabama that had stunned a nation.
More than that, Lenoir captured the terrible sadness that gripped
many over the tragic murders of defenseless children, ministers and
idealistic young activists. After singing that his brother was shot
down by a police officer in Alabama, he breaks down in his grief:
help but to sit down and cry sometimes,
about how my poor brother lost his life.”
responded on a very personal level to the violence directed against
the black community and civil rights workers, white and black. The
violence not only took place during civil rights protests, but had
been used for decades in Alabama as a weapon to subjugate people. By
writing in the first person, Lenoir was able to directly express his
own grief and anger over the violence. His highly emotional
involvement gave his blues their deeply felt sense of personal
identification and pain.
“Alabama, Alabama, why you wanna be so mean?
my people behind a barb wire fence,
trying to take my freedom away from me.”
his song “Vietnam Blues,” Lenoir can’t tear his vision away from the
violence raging at home in the South. In what at first seems to be
another of the peace anthems of the 1960s, Lenoir sings: “Oh God, if
you can hear my prayer now, please help my brothers over in
thinking about the war in Vietnam and praying for an end to the
killing there only serves to remind him of the need to end the
killing in Mississippi.
lyrics like this, J.B. Lenoir was not only a blues singer. He was a
prophet with a message of extreme importance for his country.
“Vietnam, Vietnam, everybody crying about Vietnam.
Vietnam, everybody crying about Vietnam.
all the day killing me down in Mississippi,
nobody seems to give a damn.”
was a man who stood up to the challenges of his time. His last two
albums, “Alabama Blues,” released in 1965, and “Down in
Mississippi,” released in 1966, are beautiful expressions of his
conscience. Both these records have been released as “Vietnam Blues”
on Evidence Records.
Tragically, Lenoir died on April 29, 1967, only a year after
releasing one of his finest recordings. He had just turned 38,
another bluesman gone long before his time. His death was reportedly
from a heart attack that may have stemmed from injuries he had
suffered in a recent car accident.
Mayall, one of the guiding lights of the blues in England, wrote
“The Death of J.B. Lenoir” to express his grief at the loss of his
Lenoir is dead and it’s hit me like a hammer blow.
I cry inside my heart that the world can hear my man no more.”