III - Blues At Sea
The images of silver spades and golden chains were
not the only contribution by the sea shanty to the lyrics of the early
Blues. Many others came from similar sources as well as from American
blacks themselves, via their work-songs. Early in the 1830's in the U.S.
another musical genre appeared, the celebrated 'nigger minstrels' and
'coon songs'. This was originally popularised by Thomas Rice who would
perform songs of parody in 'black face'. After his well-known
performance of 'Jim Crow', many other white minstrels started to travel
across the U.S. Much later, blacks themselves joined the 'minstrel
scene' and songs spread across the Atlantic to Britain. (see essay
English Music Hall Connection").
Many of the songs featured by "nigger minstrels" had their roots in the
tradition of the English music hall, as has been stated. Hugill says
that the influence of the "nigger minstrel" on the sea shanties is
emphasized by Doerflinger who as well as listing some well-known
performers, also mentions the purchase by sailors of cheap song-books of
the period known as "Ethiopian Songsters." Obviously there is, via
British traditions, a definite link with the emergence of the Blues in
the late 19th century and the "nigger minstrels" who were prevalent
during slavery times and much later, and the work-songs of the sea. To
further strengthen this point, Hugill goes on to say "The following
couplets are to be found both in the shanties and Negro and minstrel
song and in some cases in English and American folk-songs and 'hobo
||Where there ain't
And the winds don't blow.
||If whisky was a
river and I could swim,
I'd take a Jump and dive right in.
||We dug his grave
with a silver spade,
And lowered him down with a golden chain.
||Who's bin here
since I've bin gone'?
A nice little gal wid bootees on." (1)
Of the six couplets quoted,
the above four were to re-appear, in a sometimes altered form in the
world of the Blues. The third one listed has been discussed at length
already (see Ch. II). The theme of No. l. has featured in the Blues as a
'floating verse' and is recalled in a title by banjoist 'Papa' Charlie
Jackson on his 1925 recording "I'm Going Where The Chilly Winds Don't
Blow". Blues singer/harmonica virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson No.1. from
Jackson, Tennessee, told one of his musical partners, Yank Rachell:
"Now an' I'm goin' back
down South, man, where the weather suits my clothes.
Now I done fooled around in Chicago. Yank I done almost broke,
Now I said I done fooled around in Chicago, Lord!
I done almost broke." (2)
Sonny Boy Williamson
reverses the usual verse-format in the Blues, the first line being
repeated, whilst decrying his Chicago environment and weather, from
nearby Aurora. Yank Rachell also appears in a supportive role on
mandolin, with pianist Jab Jones, this time backing Sleepy John Estes,
from Brownsville, also in Tennessee; when invoking the second of
"Now if the river was
whiskey an' I was a divin' duck,
Now if the river was whiskey, I-iii was a divin' duck,
I would dive on the bottom, never would come up. (3)
Furry Lewis, a resident of
Memphis, had included a variant on his "Mistreatin' Mamma" over a year
earlier, being one of the earliest examples in Blues, on record. Like
the first couplet this too became a 'floating' verse and appeared in
many blues; sometimes it was brandy rather than whiskey. Hugill quotes a
verse from a black work-song in "American Folk Songs" (1928) by Newman
I. White which runs:
"If de river was whisky,
En' if I was er duck,
I'd go down and never come up." (4)
And in the early 1930's the
Lomaxes collected the title "'Rye
Whiskey' sung by both black and white" (5) which included the verse -
"If the ocean was whisky,
And I was a duck,
I'd dive to the bottom
To get one sweet suck." (6)
- perhaps indicating its
maritime origins. In the fourth and last of couplets quoted by Hugill,
above, the "who's bin here?" theme appears in a blues by Mississippian
"Baby who's bin here, since
your daddy bin gone?
Says he must have been a
Jelly bean, had long shoes on,
He had long shoes on, he had long shoes
Says he must have been a
Jellybean, had long shoes on." (7)
The term "Jelly bean" here
seems to refer to a pimp, in black slang an early equivalent of a "sharp
cat" used to fast living and fast women. The melody sounds related to
that of "Elder Greene Blues" by Charlie Patton in 1929. Both refer to
the 'way-ward' preacher and include the phrase "... with his long coat
on". As Oliver relates that "Alabama Bound" "was one of a song cluster
which included ... 'Elder Green's In Town." (8), this could indicate an
origin at the shanty mart in Mobile Bay. As Patton, also from
Mississippi, an older man than Carter was already a big name in the
South; the latter could have seen and heard him in person.
Certainly other verses that
appeared in the Blues were traded in the Alabamian Gulf port. A shanty
called "Heave Away, Boys, Heave Away", again from Hugill, runs in part:
||"Oh, heave away, bullies,
for ol' Mobile Bay,
The gals there will help yer to spend yer pay-day."
||"When I was a young man
an' well in me prime
I'd love all them yaller gals two at a time."
||"Oh, I've got a sister
nine foot tall,
She sleeps in the kitchen
with her feet in the hall." (9)
Victoria Spivey, from Texas,
included a variant of verse 7 also found in other shanties, in her
famous "T.B. Blues".
||"When I'se up on my feet,
I could not walk down the
For the men's lookin' at me,
from my head to my feet,
Ohh now - the T.B.'s killin' me.
I want my body buried in the
deep blue sea." (10)
Four years later, Bo Carter,
again, featured lines which were closer to those of the shanty, but
obviously inspired by Ms. Spivey's big-selling record. His backache is
equally as deadly as her T.B.
||"When I was in my prime, I
could love two or three girls, any old time,
Now I'm sick an' down,
can't get around, Lord, Lord,
This backache's killin' me.
||I'm on my way to
the doctor's, I 'fraid I am too late." (11)
Verse 9 of the shanty is in
much more light-hearted vein and appeared in many hokum/good-time blues
in the 1930's, of the "It's Tight Like That" variety and surprisingly,
perhaps, in archetypal Mississippi Delta Bluesman Robert Johnson's
repertoire. Of his recorded legacy of 29 sides, he only included one in
this blues genre:
||"I got a girl, say she long
Now, she sleeps in the
kitchen with her feets in the hall, yes.
Tamales and they red hot
||Yes, now, she got 'em for
sale, I mean
Yes, she got 'em for sale,
The singer drawing on
culinary delights for sexual imagery; a popular characteristic of the
Blues. Tamales were a Mexican speciality often sold at the markets in
San Antonio, where Johnson had included "They're Red Hot" as part of
three sessions done in that city, in 1936. Hugill learnt the shanty from
"a coloured shantyman known as 'Harry Lauder' of St Lucian, B.W. 1 in
1932." (13). He thinks that by the inclusion of the word 'heave' this
shanty was "... used by the Negroes of Mobile Bay and elsewhere at the
jackscrews when stowing cotton aboard the old wooden ships." (14)
Probably "Heave Away, Boys,
Heave Away" goes back to at least the 1870's, if not earlier. Around the
same time, a roustabout song called "Shiloh" was collected by Lafcadio
Hearn who only reproduced the text. "Though we do not have the music of
Hearn's "Shiloh", the lyrics and imagery suggest that Negro work-song
style and sea shanty style had blended plausibly." (15). Work-songs,
along with 'field-hollers, were to form the nucleus of the early Blues;
and many of the verses used in the work-songs continued to appear in the
Blues. These verses, in turn, often being influenced by lyrics from
British shores ever since the earliest days of the original Thirteen
Colonies. Courlander quotes a verse from "Shiloh":
||"Nigger and a white man
playing Seven Up,
White man played the ace,
and the nigger feared to take it up,
White man played ace and nigger
played a nine,
White man died and nigger
went blind." (16)
Julius Daniels from Denmark,
South Carolina, "halfway between Augusta and Charleston." (17), included
a variant in 1927.
||"A nigger an' a white man
play Seven-Up this mornin',
A nigger an' a white man play Seven-Up this mornin'.
A nigger an' a white man play Seven-Up,
But the nigger win the
money, but he scared to pick it up.
This mornin', that too soon for me."
Bastin suggests that
Daniel's song "... sounds to be from the common ground between white and
black song." (19). Around twelve years later, the harsh-voiced Tommy McClennan was a little more explicit in his version, as to the deeper
meaning of the words; revenge against the white man:
||"Now the nigger an' a white
man play Seven-Up,
The nigger beat the white
man, 'e scared to pick it up." (20)
Another verse from "Shiloh"
is quoted by Courlander:
||"Some folks say that a Rebel
I found twenty in my
Such pullin' of shucks and
tearin' of corn,
Never saw the like since I
was born." (21)
singer, Frank Stokes changed the lyric from the Civil War scenario to
one relating more to rural life in the South in the 1920's:
||"Now, well some folks say
that a preacher wouldn't steal,
I caught about eleven in a water-melon
Jus' a-cuttin' an'
a-slicin', got tearin' a vine,
They is eatin' an' talkin'
mos' all the time." (22)
"Shiloh" was picked up on
the Cincinnati water-front by Hearn in the 1870's. And as Hugill says
"... many Rivermen songs ...reached deep water." (23). They also reached
the Blues. An unrecorded version of the black hero ballad
"Stagolee/Stack O' Lee" was noted in a report from Texas in 1910, "The
song is sung by the Negroes on the levee while they are loading and
unloading the river freighters, the words being composed by the
singers." (24). This song was to re-surface in the 1920's on records by
Blues singers such as Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Lucille Bogan,
'Papa' Harvey Hull and 'Ma' Rainey. Coming
from diverse areas as Mississippi, Memphis, Alabama and Georgia.
The Lomaxes also collected
some material from Polk Miller, an entertainer in the world of
minstrelsy who portrayed black songs in an authentic manner. One verse
they noted, runs:
||"I run down to de ribber,
but I couldn't get across,
I jumped 'pon a hog and
thought he was a horse!" (25)
But Hugill noted a shanty
that was going the rounds at the birth of minstrelsy, called "Can't Ye
Dance The Polka" or "the New York Gals" collected by Miss C.F. Smith. He
says this shanty originated in the 1830's or 1840's "when the polka
reached America from Bohemia." (26). A little more detail and variation
was included in the work-song of the sea:
||"I went to the Fulton Ferry,
But I couldn't get across,
So I Jumped on the back of
the ferry-boat man,
And rode him like a hoss." (27)
In 1928, a group of singers
from the Memphis area put on record, a parody of an old spiritual:
||"Went to the river,
an' I couldn't get 'cross
||G. Burns gonna rise again.
||Jumped on the alligator
thought he was a horse," (28)
Oliver would appear to agree
with Hugill when he says "G. Burn Gonna Rise Again" "...included stanzas
that pre-dated the Civil War!" (28), regarding the original shanty's
vintage. The theme certainly seemed widespread. St Louis-based
guitarist, Charlie Jordan offered another version:
||"I went to the river, I
couldn't get across,
I Jumped on your poppa, 'cos
I thought he was a hoss, now.
||Rolled him over,
give him a Co-Cola,
||Lemon Soda , Sauce ice-cream, take
soap and water for to keep
it clean". (30)
Back with Hugill who came
across a shanty in Trinidad in 1931 called "Miss Lucy Long":
||"Oh, take yer time, Miss
Take yer time, Miss Lucy
Oh, take yer time, Miss
Take yer time Miss Lucy Long." (31)
A singer who also played
guitar, on his secular sides, was Lil McClintock (Lil should read L'il
as this is a male artist) who recorded in Atlanta in 1930, using quite
'early' speech patterns from the plantation days of minstrelsy and
indeed from his recorded output of four sides, the other two being
sacred numbers, he could hardly be classed as a blues singer, and it is
due mainly to the fine bottleneck guitar of possibly Blind Gussie Nesbit
that his sacred sides sound more in the Blues idiom than his secular
records! Nevertheless it is interesting to note the
following extract from McClintock's "Furniture Man":
||"So take your time, Mr.
Brown, take-a your time.
All of this furniture am mine,
Well! this pie-anner and
Mr. Cooper had it written
down in-a my name,
So, take your time, Mr.
Brown, take-a your time." (32)
The sexual situation being
transposed, on this occasion, to that of the repossession of unpaid-for
goods on credit! Vaudeville-blues singer Laura Smith recorded "Lucy Long"
(unheard by me) in 1925 in New York. Two years earlier, another
vaudeville-blues singer Virginia Liston had cut "Sally Long Blues"
referring to a dance. This dance cropped up in various blues including
one by Furry Lewis, and Oliver belies the West Indies origin suggested
by Hugill, of "Miss Lucy Long". He says "Though the Sally Long seems to
have enjoyed a brief vogue in the late 1920's ... it's name may have
been derived from the 1830's when William Whitlock and T.G. Booth sang of
Sally King and Lucy Long in a dance song which included the lines "Take
your time Miss Lucy Long, rock de cradle Lucy, take your time Miss Lucy
Long, rock de cradle Lucy, take your time my dear", (33). Thus giving a
lusty sea shanty's roots in an innocent family scene!
While Mobile Bay seems to
feature the most prolifically, of the Gulf ports, in sea shanties, there
were stronger Blues tradition at others such as the major seaports of
Houston and Galveston. During the early/middle 1930's, after a large
investment of a million dollars-plus from the U.S. government "...for
improvements to the Ship Canal." (33), and "...a massive Public Works
Administration programme for country road development, the building of a
new parcel post station in Houston, ..." (35), things started to pick up
financially going against the prevailing economic trends in the U.S.
generally. "Within a year or two clearing house and port accounts
extra-ordinary increases at a time of acute financial shortages
elsewhere; the peculiarities of Houston's economic recovery matched on
the gulf at Galveston, led to a revival of employment and of
spirits."(36). As Oliver says, this wave of optimism filtered down to
the lowest social strata including the Blues singers and their audience. A strong
piano tradition existed and flourished in both seaports. Artists such as
Andy Boy and Rob Cooper reflected this optimism in their "... boisterous,
rolling blues piano..." (37), accompanying singers such as
Walter 'Cowboy' Washington and Joe Pullem. The latter was particularly
popular with his working-class, black listeners. Living in
Houston, he employed a falsetto style of singing which appeared new and
yet retained the deep feeling of the blues. He often referred to local
problems in Houston but scored his biggest 'hit' with "Black Gal What
Makes Your Head So Hard?" His recording company, Victor, had Pullum
back in the studios to cut "Black Gal" No.s 2, 3, & 4 before milking the
In the 1920's there had been
the remarkable Thomas family in Houston, "... Hersal and Sipple, their
elder brother George, his daughter Hociel, and Bernice Edwards - no
blood relation but brought up as a member of the family." (38). All sang
the blues and played piano, with the young (fifteen years old!) Hersal
being outstanding on the latter instrument. Although by 1935 this family
had broken up, through death or moving away,
'Moanin'" Bernice Edwards was to record one more session in that year;
by which time Andy Boy, Cooper, etc. were already well-established in
the Houston/Galveston areas. The piano tradition was so strong that in
post-war years, the great Blues singer-guitarist, Lightning Hopkins,
laid down his main instrument to play the "88's" on his "Goin' To
Galveston" in 1954.
All of these singers and
musicians, as well as scores of unrecorded names, would have been
influenced by the sea and the shanties in some way or another. Andy Boy
was not only a superb blues pianist but also sang. On "Church Street
Blues" he was reminiscing about a Galveston locale:
||"Mmm, goin' down to the
Gulf, watch the waves come in,
Goin' down to the Gulf, watch the waves
Comin' back down on Church
Street, drink my good old gills o' gin."
"I was born an' raised in
that good old seaport town,
I was born an raised in that
good old seaport town.
Where we all have fun an'
stomp "The Grinder" down."
"The Grinder" referred to
the "Ma Grinder" which was one of a genre of barrelhouse piano pieces
being "... the ragtime-derived, pre-blues music of the early part of the
Not only Blues singers who
lived in and around the Gulf ports, contributed to the 'work-song
exchange' or 'shanty-mart' in Hugill's words. Many recordings featured
'floating verses' with reference to the sea. The obscure guitarist,
George Torey had a variant of the "went up on the mountain an' looked
down in the sea" verse:
||"Well I went up on the
Takin' a peep in that old
deep blue sea.
I tryin' to find that woman,
put them jinx on me". (41)
Whilst Texas supremo Blind
Lemon Jefferson seemed to be the first to put these lines on wax:
||"I'm goin' to the river,
I'm gonna walk
down by the sea,
I'm goin' to the river, walk
down by the sea,
I caught those tadpoles an'
minnows arguin' over me." (42)
These and many other
itinerant blues singers travelled all over the Southern states and would
have been ideal for the spreading and perpetuating of songs via oral
transmission. Together with the Blues record which extended the
geographical area to cover the whole of the United States. There were
recording which reflected the West Indian presence either as residents
or visiting sailors at the Gulf ports. These included versions of "West
Indies Blues" in 1924 by Rosa Henderson, Clara Smith and the "Home 0'
Blues Trio". Henderson also recorded a "Barbadoes Blues" (sic) and a
"Black Star Line" (A West Indian Chant) in the same year. Between 1925
and 1928, the Library of Congress collected a very shanty-like title
from G. Carter, called "Hilup, Boy, Hilo". Some ten years later they
picked up a song by Willie Carter (presumably unrelated) recorded at the
State Docks in Mobile, Alabama, entitled "Captain I'm Gettin' Tired" in
A cursory look through
Godrich & Dixon's great tome of "Blues & Gospel Records 1902-1943"
reveals any amount of titles alluding to the sea and sailing. Table 'D'
gives a few examples by a wide range of singers and styles.
||Gulf Coast Blues
||c. 16/2/23. N.Y.C.
||The Clearing House Blues
||Deep Blue Sea Blues
||Stormy Seas Blues
c. -/8/25. Chicago
||Newport News Blues
Memphis Jug Band
Cincinnati Jug Band
Deep Sea Blues
Blue Sea Blues
Sail On, Little Girl Sail On
||c. -/8/30. Grafton
Silent On The Southern Seas
||James Cole's Washboard Band
||27/10/30. Richmond, Ind.
S.O.S. Blues (Distress Blues)
Deep Blue Ocean Blues
10/8/35. New Orleans
Big Ship Blues
Deep Sea Blues
Deep Blue Sea Blues
This is just a random sample
from over 6000 titles, listed by Godrich and Dixon, of pre-war blues and
there are many more which could have been included in Table 'D', from
that number. At least two of the Blues listed, set off a whole cluster
of later recordings, which have made the themes semi-traditional. McClennan's title (No.18) was the recorded precursor of the "Catfish
Blues" which features the line "I wish I was a catfish, swimmin' down in
the deep blue sea" and was recorded under this title in the same year,
by Robert Petway and survives in the post-war years, being recorded by
the late Muddy Waters, amongst others. Roosevelt Sykes' record (No.12)
was also recorded by many pre-war Blues singers such as Walter Roland
and in the post-war era by the Texas blues man, Lightning Hopkins. No.13
was an instrumental and the title implies a reference to sea shanties by
their absence, as there is no vocal and therefore no singing on the
'southern seas' or the sea off the Southern states coastline. While in
Kokomo Arnold's blues (No.16.) he seems to actually have been a merchant
sailor, as "Here we find a graphic description of what appears to be a
bad case of sea sickness:" (43), if we are to take his lyrics literally.
That is the point really. In
the Blues a singer does not have to necessarily experience what he/she
is singing about. But as long as they are projecting situations and
scenarios which are part of the common experience of their listeners,
other working-class blacks, then the latter can identify with both the
singer and the song. That the sea and ships, therefore by
extension docks and dock workers, were part of the common experience of
both listeners and Blues singers is blatantly obvious; and it is no
surprise to find that shanties sung on British and American ships from
the 1830's onwards, had such a strong influence on the Blues of the
Southern states in the twentieth century.
© Copyright 1991 Max Haymes.
All Rights Reserved.
Hugill. ibid. p.p.14-15
Hugill. ibid. p.280.
Lomax A & J. ibid.
Oliver. P. ibid. p.115.
Hugill. ibid. p.231.
Hugill. ibid. p.232.
||Courlander. ibid. p.120.
Bastin. B. p.195.
Bastin. ibid p. 196.
||Courlander. ibid. p.121.
||Hugill. ibid. p. 127.
||Lomax. ibid. p.93.
Hugill. ibid p.277.
Oliver. ibid. p.134.
||Hugill. ibid. p.301.
||Oliver. ibid. p.45.
||Oliver. notes to
Smith F. notes to "Volume
||Dixon R.M.W. & J.
Godrich p.80. "Recording etc.
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