Chapter II -
"The Blues And Some English Themes"
it is not just single words which seem to link the lyrics of the Blues
with English ballads, poems and folk songs of earlier centuries.
Phrases, lines and themes also show a strong connection between the two
theme of the waking lover finding him/herself deserted in the early
hours by their partner, presented by Barbecue Bob and Charlie Lincoln in
Chapter I, is echoed by many Blues singers from varying regions in the
U.S. and at different times. In 1937, North Carolina Bluesman, Blind Boy
"Says, it was early one mornin', mama,
jus' 'bout the break of day,
Heeey----Lord, 'bout the break of day.
Aaaay--I turned an' hug that pillow where my woman used to lay."
Alabamian Sonny Scott even wakes in time to hear his woman's lover
knocking on the back door, in the very act of desertion:
"I woke up this mornin', 'bout half-past
I heard somebody knockin' on my back door."
Refrain: "Lawdy, it was early this mornin', just about the break
I turned over an' hugged the piller, where my baby used to lay."
Starting off a whole series of recordings of this blues. This included
one the following day by fellow Alabamian, Walter Roland who had played
some fine rolling piano behind Scott. Some three years later, harmonica
virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson No.1 cut his version, and in the early
post-war era, Robert Henry kept this song alive, albeit in the
Williamson vein, by playing both Piano and harp (harmonica) at the same
time, by means of a rack fixed round his neck.
Meanwhile, Davies says of the following lines of "Waking Alone", from
the early sixteenth century, that "... there is a simple dignity which
is that of the natural utterance of any man imagined in this position:
"And when I awoke, by Heven Kinge,
I went after hur, and she was gone;
I had nothing but my pilowe in my arms lying,
For, when I awoke, ther was but I alone."(3).
content of the rest of this medieval poem revolves around the subject
lover coming to his bedroom and embracing her, whilst showering her with
kisses. But after all, it was just a dream "...when I waked ther was I
alone."(4). This theme was picked up by the famous Blues singer/
guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, who greatly elaborated on it in his "Just A
"I dreamed I was in heaven sittin' down around the throne,
I dreamed I had a pretty angel Lavin' back in my arms.
Refrain: But that was just a dream, just a dream I had on my mind,
Lord, an' *hen I woke up baby, not an angel could I find."
"I dreamed I had a million dollars, had a mermaid for my wife,
I dreamed I win the Brooklyn Bridge, on my knees shootin' dice.
Refrain: But that was just a dream, just a dream I had on my mind,
Lord, an' I woke up baby, not a penny could I find."(5).
Although coincidence could play some part in these links, or so a critic
might posit. some phrases would beg the question by virtue of the fact
of their curious make-up. For instance, Partridge quotes "the proverbial
'let every tub stand on its own bottom: c.17-20."(6), when discussing
the later phrase "stand on one's own bottom" which became Standard
English around 1800 and meant 'to be independent'. One of the stalwarts
of pre-war blues in Chicago, was a singer with a grainy voice called
Washboard Sam, who offered the following bit of humour:
"Now you got a job with a knife-thrower, he just missed your
An' you had the nerve to ask me to come an' take your place.
Refrain: No, no, buddy, you can't do that to me.
'Cos every tub stands on its own bottom, an' every man is for
However, the Blues singer does not always
retain the same meaning as the English counterpart. Although writer,
Jacques Roche accuses Barefoot Bill of nonsense lyrics, when he says of
his composing talents: "Bill is pretentious in sacrificing common sense
for slick 'word-plays'"(8), when Bill sings:
"From now on, mama, I tell you Just like that.(x2)
If you hit my dog, sure gonna kick your cat."(9).
But by the sheer menace of his vocal, and
the general theme of 'the worm turning', illustrated in the lines:
"From now on, mama, you gonna do what I say,
From now on. mama, you must do what I say.
You must understand, you can't have your way."(10).
it is obvious that the singer is
threatening to hurt his woman if she hurts him, in the physical sense.
Again from Partridge, we find the phrase "you kill my cat and I'll kill
your dog" from the nineteenth century, described as "An exchange of (the
lower) social amenities:"(11). He translates this as the total opposite
to Barefoot Bill's meaning, as it is rendered "you scratch my back, I'll
From the mid or later fourteenth century, we find the lines:
"The sonnes cours, we may well kenne,
Ariseth est and geth down west;"(12).
Over 550 years later, Mississippi
fiddler, Henry Sims would sing:
"Tell me, man, which way the risin' sun?(x2)
It rise in the east, go down in the west."(13).
next line in the medieval poem runs:
"The rivers into the see they renne,"(14).
which is evoked by a youthful Muddy
Waters on his first recording:
"Well, brooks run into the ocean, ocean run in, into the sea.
If I don't find my baby, somebody gonna, gon' bury me-eemmm.
Brooks run into the ocean, child, ocean run into the sea.
Well, if I don't find my baby now, ooh well! gal. you gon' have
to bury me."(15).
the later fifteenth century, a medieval ballad singer would appeal to
'luck' as an actual being:
"A! mercy, Fortune have pitee on me,"(16).
Some 450 years further on, Clifford Gibson would sing:
"Blues have mercy on poor me,"(17).
Around 1500, a phrase crops up in a poem entitled "Too Much Sex", which
could throw new light on a similar phrase that appears in the Blues. The
result in the poem is "There is nought lefte but empty skinne and
bone.": (18). In 1940, Tommy McClennan changed this slightly, when he
sang in his rasping voice:
"I say, my little woman, got me down to skin an' bone.(x2)
She done got me to the place, T hate to see my baby leave
From the same period as "Too Much Sex", comes "I must go walk the wood",
which has as its theme, a man fleeing society because he has been
mistreated and "begild" by the woman he loved:
"I must go walke the mooed so wild
And wander here and there
In dred and dedly fere,
For where I trusted I am begild, And all for one."(20).
Sang Blues pianist, Walter Davis:
"The woman that I was lovin', she did not mean me no good.(x2)
She give me so much trouble, I had to move back to the
unknown medieval poet adjusts to his rough new 'home':
"My bed shall be under the grenwood tree,
A tuft of brakes under my hed,"
"The running stremes shall be my drinke,
Acorn shall be my fode:"(22).
too, does the Blues singer:
"The blue sky is my blanket, an' the moonlight is my
Blue sky is my blanket, an' the moonlight is my spread.
Bed-rock is my pillow, that is where I rest my head."(23).
air of complete desolation conveyed by the earlier poem, is echoed in
Walter Davis' poignant vocal and in the beautifully integrated,
guitar/piano accompaniment, in this superb Blues:
"I am friendless and I'm lonesome, people, you would be the same
If the woman that you was lovin', would mistreat you both night
the nineteenth century. the Blues was still to find a source of lyrics
in the English countryside:
"I wanted to marry, but father said.
'Tis weakness in women to give themselves so:
If you care for your freedom you'll listen to me,
Make a spouse in your pocket, and let the men be."(25).
archaic singer and harmonica player, based in Birmingham, Ala. would
echo this sentiment as part of his mother's advice:
"Mama told me six long weeks ago,
Son, you save your money, just to buy your clothes."
"Buy your clothes, let these women go."(26).
Coleman's verses interchanging between couplets and single lines, and
the whole performance is permeated with the rawness of his harmonica.
Nettel quotes a facsimile of the first folk song noted down by Cecil
"I sowed the seeds of love, and I sowed
them in the spring.
I gathered them up in the morning so soon, while the small birds
do sweetly sing.
While the small birds do sweetly sing."(27).
phrase "in the morning so soon" appears in a Blues recorded by the great
Texan singer/guitarist, Black Ace in 1960, who sings:
"It ain't my business, but I know it
But that's what happen to a man that works at night.
Refrain: What's that I hear, in the morning so soon?
Something sound mighty funny, baby, in th
voicing the suspicions of a partner's infidelity of many a night shift
worker! Some thirty-three years earlier in New York, Edward Thompson
corrupted the phrase:
"She used to rock me, she used to rack me,
She used to rock me in the mornin' soon.
She used to rock me in the mornin' soon.
Got another man, she don't want me no more."(29).
first line of an old Irish folk song "The Magpie's Nest", sometimes
called "The Cuckoo's Nest", runs:
"For if I was a king, sure, I would make you a queen"(30).
This is recalled by master Bluesman, Blind Willie McTell from Georgia,
while he accompanied himself on fine twelve-string guitar:
"I once loved a woman better 'ere than I
Treated me like I was king an' she was a doggone queen."(31).
the origin of this line could lie in the beginning of the fifteenth
"Thy sister is a queue, thy brother is a king,"(32).
Staying with cuckoos for a moment, the second verse of an English folk
song simply called "The Cuckoo", runs:
"The cuckoo is a fine bird and she sings as she flies,
She brings us good tidings, she tells us no lies;
She sucks little birds' eggs to make her voice clear,
And never sings cuckoo till the summer draws near."(33).
Eminent folklorist, Lucy Broadwood noted the following variation:
"The Cuckoo she's a fine bird, she sings as she flies,
She brings us good tidings, and tells us no lies,
She sucks the sweet flowers to keep her voice clear,
And the more she sings 'Cuckoo', the summer draws near."(34).
Another version is reprinted as an amalgamation of the above, and a
footnote reads: "Compare also "The Cuckoo's Commendation", a broadside
of c.1615 in the "Pepys Ballads" (ed. Rollins), p.97."(35). South
Mississippian Blues singer, John Byrd sang:
"The cuckoo was a fine bird, hollers when
Ah! the cuckoo was a fine bird hollers when he fly.
But he never hollered "cuckoo", 'til the fourth a-July."(36).
Whilst extolling the virtues of a horse in a race, which itself was
based on an actual event. Broadwood indicates a probable source of
Byrd's verse when she says that the "Cuckoo" verse often appears in a
random fashion "...in the middle of different ballads, besides figuring
by itself in books of Nursery Rhymes."(37). In support of this Richards
and Stubbs include the lines:
"So early in the morning awakes the
The month of June is come now and winters' cold is done,
The cuckoo is a fine bird, she whistles as she flies,
And as she whistles cuckoo the bluer come the skies."(38)-
Their notes state: "Sung by Harry Westaway, Belstone, Devon and J.
Potter, Postbridge, Devon. Collected by Sabine Baring-Gould, 1888. Says
Baring-Gould, "Still a popular song among the laboring class," which is
not surprising as this is a gem of agricultural observation."(39). So
the "cuckoo" verse has been extant for some 370 years and is a
"floating" verse to boot. One of the strengths of the Blues is that a
singer who suddenly finds inspiration drying up can call on floating
verses. Basically, these are common to many of the earlier rural Blues
and include lines such as:
"I woke up this morning, feeling bad.
It's the worst old feeling I ever had."
"Hello Central, please give me 239.
I just want to have a talk to that girl of mine."
Judging by Baring-Gould's remarks, "The Months Of The Year", the song
that his "cuckoo" verse comes from, had been popular several years
earlier, possibly ten or more. Indeed, this song may well have been a
direct influence on John Byrd's blues which not only echoes the theme of
the English folk song but reproduces one of its lines as well.
© Copyright 1990 Max Haymes
31.Blind Willie McTell.
35.Holloway & Black.p.31.
38.Richards & Stubbs.p.76.
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