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Hero. Legend. Good Bloke.
John Peel OBE, 1939 - 2004

Red Lick Records



One Story of the Blues

Blues, especially in the first decades of this century, performed several functions. Not the mistaken white concept of “music to slash your wrists to”!! Need to explore the world of the Southern black at this time in order to get a far clearer understanding and appreciation of the Blues.

Blues as entertainment makes life more bearable and ‘human’ living under an oppressive racial regime. Also a source of’ income - black string bands often played for whites as well as blacks, e.g. the Mississippi Sheiks. Blues also helped pay the rent. “House-rent parties” were given with a resident blues singer(s), such as Blind Blake plus corn liquor made on the premises or purchased from the local bootlegger and chitlins or other cheap food would he served. For these provisions a nominal charge was paid at the door. This phenomenon gravitated North to Chicago, Detroit, New York, etc. Many dances invented at these functions - often of a frank and sexual nature - a form of self-expression. Frankie ‘Half-Pint’ Jaxon and the Tampa Red Hokum Jug Band are a superb example.

Surviving with the blues via implied protest in lyrics as in “Cotton Seed Blues”. As well as obscure phrases (to the whites) and the insulting game of the ‘Dozens’- venting anger without running amok! A way of maintaining sanity, Blues above all else is about survival. Late Mississippi blues man. Johnny Shines said “I’m proud to be called ‘nigger’- only niggers and oxen could have survived 300 years of slavery and racial oppression”. Of course some turned to universal means such as booze, as is related in ‘Canned Heat Blues” (No. 5) as well as drugs such as cocaine. While others resorted to the supernatural in the form of hoodoo (see Guitar Nubbit and No. 10).

Sexuality and blues overlaps with survival - another form of self-expression, otherwise denied in a white-dominated society. Double-entendre, imagery and symbolism enriched content of blues lyrics. It was also a strong platform for black women to express themselves in a black male chauvinistic environment. As with Bessie Smith (No. 12), Blues singers took popular white images of the African American (over-sexed. promiscuous, animal-like. etc.) and turned them around as boastful songs of their own sexual prowess - e.g. “Crawling King Snake”, “I Want It Awful Bad’, “I’m A Rattlesnakin’ Daddy”, “Let Your Linen Hang Low”, etc. Also accepted sexual deviance - homosexuality, lesbianism and openly sung of male impotence.

Communication & solidarity in the blues Though blues singers used the first person “I’ almost exclusively, they sang of situations which black listeners would be able to identify with only too readily. For instance, family troubles (a partner leaving or very ill/dying), being jailed and sent to the corrupt county farm, for misdemeanors such as walking on the wrong side of the street arid vagrancy, as in “No Job Blues” by Ramblin’ Thomas (see No. 1). Perpetual unemployment, alcoholism as a way of coping with their “lot”, gambling with dice, cards and the Numbers Racket or “playing policy” to change their luck, etc. Black communities would draw strength from hearing their own troubles experienced by others who apparently survived them. As Mahalia Jackson, a famous gospel singer, once said: “they (poor blacks) would buy a

Bessie Smith record before they’d buy coal. Get a lot more heat from Bessie’s blues than they would from coal fires!”

Blues is a whole way of life, which gives black working-classes in the US the self- esteem/respect, strength of character, an inherent sense of fun, and the will and determination to “keep on goin”; no matter what life (and the white man) threw at them. As an album note writer in the early 60s puts it “For a bluesman a song is a personal expression of a feeling, or a recreation of an event in his past. As his mood shifts or another aspect of an event comes into his mind the song changes, and his effort is put into creating a truth - emotionally if not factually” (Ed Denson. Notes to “The Immortal Charlie Patton Number 1”. L. P. Origins of Jazz. OJL. I c. 1963). Denson goes on to describe how another Delta bluesman, Bukka White” ... told us that a song must be sung like religion is confessed - it must be truly felt if it is to mean anything.” (Ibid.). Author. Eli Marcus, states that “As with Zen, a deep understanding of the Blues requires the student / disciple to travel a path enlightenment...” (“The Blues As Zen”. Eli Marcus. Unknown date / publisher).

“The Blues being primarily a vocal genre did not require its original working-class, black listeners to be musicologists. If that had been the case, in the 1880s (or whenever) the infant Blues would have been still-born. It is WHAT is sung which is so important to the deeper understanding of the Blues and therefore of another culture. This is how we must teach the Blues and spread its appreciation and understanding across the world. Although Western musicians might find much of interest in the instrumental accompaniments, they fail to reach into the innermost depths of the Blues. That indefinable something which the listener feels when hearing the blues, eludes musicological description; and in the case of the early blues, musical notation. Blues pianist Walter Davis did not need to know he sometimes used the Aeolian mode on his records, and it’s for sure his black listeners didn’t either--I know I don’t! Yet Davis was one of the finest and most popular of Blues singers WITH HIS OWN PEOPLE. The finest and most moving of the Blues accompaniments occurred when the instrument was wholly integrated with the vocal, or replaced the vocal; as with the bottleneck/slide guitar or the ‘crying” harmonica, for example.”

…. (an adaptation of a letter to John Cloy, Chair of the Music/Blues Librarian Search Committee in the John Davis Williams Library. University of Mississippi, Oxford, Miss. from Max Haymes on 6th. October 1992).

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Text (this page) © Copyright 2000 Max Haymes. All Rights Reserved.
For further information please email: alan.white@earlyblues.com