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Article MT288

Blues Jumped a Rabbit

Blues jumped a rabbit and he ran a solid mile.
Blues jumped a rabbit, and he ran a solid mile. 
The rabbit sat down and cried just like a little child.

Rabbit-Foot Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson (1926)

The blues grew out of suffering.  They grew out of poverty and out of hopelessness.  They grew from the mouths of people whose ancestors had been forcibly removed from their homelands in Africa and who were forced to work as slaves.  The blues became the music of the dispossessed.

I don't know when I first heard the blues, but in 1959, when I was 16, I bought a copy of Sam Charter's book The Country Blues, possibly because I had already listened to singers such as Big Bill Broonzy on the radio.  It must have been around that time that I also came across the Origin Jazz Library set of LPs.  The label had been founded by Bill Givens and Pete Whelan and there were a dozen or so albums, each comprising tracks taken from early 78's.  They featured singers such as Charlie Patton, Son House, Crying Sam Collins, Skip James, and many other Mississippi greats.  At that time these were just names, but during the '60s a handful of enthusiasts started to scour the American South, rooting out the singers who were still left and discovering the untold story of the blues.  And the story was quite simple.  The blues, we were told, had begun on the Dockery Plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi, and Charlie Patton was in there right at the beginning.1

When African slaves were taken to America vestiges of their beliefs survived in the minds of the slaves.  Many West African villages have shrines devoted to Legba, the person who watches over crossroads, those tricky places where one's life could so easily change.  When early Christian missionaries first met Legba they soon decided that he was the equivalent to the Christian Devil.  This belief was taken to the Americas by West African slaves and it was said that the bluesman Robert Johnson had met the Devil at the crossroads, where he exchanged his soul for his newly found musical skills.

This was recorded on Friday, November 27, 1936.  In another song, Hellhound On My Trail, recorded a year later, Johnson mentioned other survivals from Africa: And: Voodoo magic can also be found in the lyrics of other Mississippi blues singers, including "Muddy Waters" (McKinley Morganfield) who sang of "mojo hands" "John the Conqueror roots" and "black cat bones" in his songs.4

African slaves, it seemed, had taken their own musical scales to the Americas.  These were different from Western scales, and when the two scales met there were sound clashes, which produced so-called 'blue' notes.  Many of the slaves also had their own way of coping with their situation.  They did this by singing 'hollers', personal songs that spoke of the injustices of life in the American South.5  This, according to some experts was how the blues began:

According to Stephen Calt and Gayle Wardlaw: This suggests that some of this music, possibly including the blues, had been around for some time before Patton began playing.  Calt and Wardlaw again: But did the blues, as a distinct musical form, actually begin in Mississippi?  Alan Lomax seemed to think so when he titled his book about Mississippi and its music The Land Where the Blues Began.9  Lomax spent a great deal of time travelling throughout the American South and was one of the most perceptive people to have visited the area.10  He was responsible for recording field hollers, such as the one above that had been sung to him by the convict simply known as "Tangle Eye", as well as for stunning blues from any number of performers.  He discovered and promoted the man who was to become "Muddy Waters" and recorded such gems as the following from Son House.11 Sometime about 1902 a black American musician and composer, W C Handy (1873 - 1958), took some time out to travel around Mississippi.  The following year, in 1903, Handy was waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi, when he heard: We don't know what the singer was singing, but it has been suggested that it could have been something along the lines of: If so, then Handy had heard a 12-bar blues, a format that was to sweep the musical South of America.  He also heard "blind singers and footloose bards" in and around Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he was living.  They were, he said, "Surrounded by crowds of country folks" and they would "pour their hearts out in song".  In 1909 Handy moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he organized a band which played in some of the Beale Street clubs.  At that time Edward Crump was the mayor of Memphis and Handy took one of Crump's re-election campaign tunes and turned it into a piece which he called The Memphis Blues, though, in truth, it is a blues in name only.  It begins: Interestingly, W C Handy also claimed to have written the original campaign song, although others have speculated that it was more likely written by another member of his band.  In September, 1927 Memphis singers Frank Stokes & Dan Sane recorded a version of the campaign song for Paramount Records.14 Their version begins: W C Handy continued to compose blues pieces, such as Beale Street Blues, Yellow Dog Blues (originally titled Yellow Dog Rag) and his most famous piece St Louis Blues, which, according to Handy, had been composed after hearing a woman on a St Louis street singing the line 'Ma man's got a heart like a rock cast in de sea'.

Handy was clearly aware of blues singers at the time when his was composing his blues.

Here, Handy is describing the 'blue' notes that I mentioned above.  He is also quite clearly saying that these notes were being sung by southern Negroes before he began to compose, and popularize, blues music.

W C Handy liked to call himself "the Father of the Blues", but perhaps this was not strictly accurate, because the blues had been born some time before Handy encountered the term.  So how do we find out just what it was that the people were singing before Handy began to compose?  Well, one way is to examine the recordings that exist of singers who probably picked up some of their repertoire before 1900, and one such singer was Henry Thomas, better known as "Ragtime Tex".

Henry Thomas is believed to have been born in a place called Big Sandy in Texas in 1874.  He was a singer who accompanied himself on the guitar and the "quills" - a set of pan-pipes that were carried just under the mouth.  During the period 1927 - 29 he recorded a total of twenty-three sides.16  Three songs, Arkansas, Honey, Won't You Allow Me One More Chance? and Woodhouse Blues, can probably be traced back to the Minstrel or Vaudeville traditions, while a further eight songs seem to come from an early tradition where verses were shared between both black and white singers.  These are John Henry, The Fox and the Hounds, The Little Red Caboose, Run, Mollie Run, Fishing Blues, Old Country Stomp, Charmin' Betsy and Railroadin' Some.

Take, for example, the song Run, Mollie Run which contains verses from a number of songs, including Poor Liza Jane (Roud 825).

(According to folklorist Mack McCormick, a dealer who holds out a jack and three seriously reduces his opponent's chances of laying down a sequence in Coon Can or similar card games.)

Henry Thomas also recorded a number of what we might call "Rag Ditties", songs which seem to be the forerunners of blues.  These are Red River Blues, Bob McKinney, Don't Ease Me In, Lovin' Babe and Don't Leave Me HereLovin' Babe includes the following lines and verses:

There are also four songs that could properly be called blues, Cottonfield Blues, Bull Doze Blues, Texas Easy Street Blues and Texas Worried Blues.  Looking at Bull Doze Blues we can see that most of the stanzas comprise a single line that is repeated three times, as in the song Poor Boy, a Long, Long Way from Home mentioned above. (This song should be titled Bull Dose Blues, the term being a "Southern colloquialism meaning to bullwhip a black person, or to intimidate through threats of violence".17

Readers who have got this far may have noticed a slight reticence on my part to go along with the "blues began at the Dockery Plantation, on the lips of Charlie Patton" theory.  Here is part of a recorded conversation between two American folklorists, Dick Spottswood and Kip Lornell:

In truth, it seems almost impossible to tie the blues down to any one place or person.  In 2010 Peter C Muir showed that while the term "blues" became especially popular in the period 1912 - 1920, the term had existed long before these dates.21  And one writer, Max Haynes from Lancaster University, managed to show that many blues singers actually used phrases, lines and even whole songs which had originally come from, of all places, the 19th century British Music Hall.22

Peter Muir's cut-off date of 1920 is an interesting choice, because shortly afterwards the first recordings of blues singers began to be heard across America.  This also means that recordings, which had been made from singers all over the American South and East Coast, are still available today for us to listen to.  And what recordings these are!

One of my favourite singers was a man who recorded under the name of 'King Solomon Hill', and who sometimes billed himself as 'Blind Lemon's Buddy' - presumably after Blind Lemon Jefferson.

'Hill' recorded eight songs for Paramount Records in 1932, a time when Paramount was about to go under, and it is doubtful if the company pressed many of Hill's records.  Copies are certainly rare today.  The titles recorded are as follows: Down on My Bended Knee (Take 1), Down on My Bended Knee (Take 2), The Gone Dead Train, My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon, Tell Me Baby, Times Has Done Got Hard, Whoopee Blues (Take 1) and Whoopee Blues (Take 2).

At first it was thought that the singer Big Joe Williams had used the 'King Solomon Hill' name for some of his recordings, though, aurally, the singers were dissimilar.  There then followed a disagreement between an academic, Professor David Evans, and an amateur (in the best sense of the word) blues aficionado called Gayle Dean Wardlaw.  Evans claimed to have discovered the true identity of 'King Solomon Hill', without, it seems, ever having presented his findings in public.  Wardlaw, on the other hand, identified 'Hill' as one Joe Holmes (1897-1949) who came from Sibley, near Minden, in Louisiana, and he published the facts as early as 1967.  Evans replied by calling Wardlaw's findings 'a fiasco'.  Wardlaw continued to beaver away on the 'King Solomon Hill' story, before publishing a second set of findings in 1987.  This time Wardlaw showed that Joe Holmes had lived at a place in Sibley called King Solomon Hill, a hill where the King Solomon Hill Baptist Church once flourished.  All the people in Sibley who remembered Joe Holmes, and who were certain that the recordings were indeed by Holmes, had never heard him use the name 'King Solomon Hill', which was actually Holme's mail address.  So had the people at Paramount become confused with Joe's deep-south accent, or had they just thought that the name 'King Solomon Hill' might sell more records?23  Surprisingly, David Evans continues to deny that Joe Holmes and 'King Solomon Hill' were one and the same.  In 2008 Evans wrote a paper, 'Nicknames of Blues Singers' where he said, 'A couple of these examples, King Solomon Hill and Prince Moore, may not be nicknames at all but simply given names'.24

Perhaps my favourite King Solomon Hill recording is that of The Gone Dead Train, with its almost surreal title.

The Gone Dead Train depicts the life of the hobo.  It is the world of the rambler and of the dispossessed.  And this is surely central to the blues, which is, after all, the music of a people stolen in the first place from Africa and, subsequently, treated as no more than chattels, objects to be bought and sold at will.  It is the music of people living in a world of insecurity, one where men and women, who might have managed to form some kind of stable relationships, could, at any moment be split apart and separated.  And that is probably why so many blues deal with insecure relationships between couples.  The blues were a legacy of all the injustices that had befallen hundreds of thousands of people.

And yet, despite all that had gone before, illiterate and semi-illiterate blues singers were able to express themselves with a poetry that almost defies definition.  Take this piece written by one of the most prolific singers, Blind Willie McTell of Georgia, a man who was himself no stranger to the rambling life:

In 1940 John Lomax and his wife, Ruby, encountered McTell in Atlanta.  They persuaded him to call round to their hotel room, where they recorded some of his songs for the Library of Congress.  They also recorded some short interviews; including one which Lomax titled "Monologue on Accidents".  Lomax was seeking "any songs about coloured people having hard time here in the South", but Willie denied knowing any such pieces.  "Are there any complaining songs, complaining about the hard times? Sometimes mistreatment by the white, have you any songs that talk about that?" to which Willie replies, "Not at the present time, because the whites is mighty good to the southern people, as far as I know."  This seems to throw Lomax, who, nevertheless presses on.  "You don't know any complaining songs at all?  Ain't It Hard to be a Nigger, Nigger - do you know that one?"  After a short pause, Willie replies, "That is not in our time … there's a spiritual It's a Mean World to Live In, but that don't have reference about hard times."  So Lomax asks, "Why is it a mean world?" to which Willie answers, "It has reference to everybody."  Lomax, who seems to be slowly cottoning on, continues, "Is it as mean for the whites as it is for the blacks?  Is that it?  And Willie replies, "That's 'bout it."  At this point Lomax notices that Willie is moving his body about.  "You keep moving around, like you are uncomfortable?"  Doubtless Willie was, indeed, uncomfortable, having been asked by a white man if he knew any songs about coloured folk being mistreated by the whites, but he gets round this by quickly answering that he had been involved in a motor accident the previous night, which had left him "a little shook up"!

"Monologue on Accidents" tells us as much about the white John Lomax as it does about the black Willie McTell.  Lomax, a man previously unknown to McTell, clearly believed that McTell would sing "protest" songs to a complete stranger, and this at a time when black people, who "stepped out of line", were being lynched in the South.  Lomax's naivety is truly remarkable.  And yet, a few years before John Lomax met Blind Willie McTell, another white man, Lawrence Gellert, did manage to record a whole batch of protest songs from black singers in the South.

Gellert, unlike John Lomax who was a southerner from Texas, was born in Hungary in 1898, but moved to New York when he was seven.  And, again unlike Lomax, he was, politically, well to the left, often writing for the communist magazine Masses (later New Masses).  In the early 1920s he settled in Tryon NC, because of poor health.  During the period 1933 - 37 Gellert made field recordings of black singers and musicians in both North and South Carolina, Mississippi and Georgia.  In total he made 221 aluminium, zinc and lacquer discs - containing some 600 songs, half of which might be called "protest songs" - which are now housed in Indiana University.  Lawrence Gellert produced the book Negro Songs of Protest in 1936, much to the surprise of many people who were unaware that such songs existed.  One notable critic was John Lomax! Me and My Captain, Negro Songs of Protest Volume 2 appeared in 1939.  Although Gellert's death is given as 1979, it seems that he "just disappeared" sometime around this date.

In 1973 Rounder Records issued the first of two LPs of material from the Gellert collection, Negro Songs of Protest (Rounder LP 4004), while volume 2, Cap'n You're So Mean - Negro Songs of Protest, Volume 2 (Rounder 4013) appeared in 1982.  Sadly, they have not been reissued on CD format.  However, a further sixteen of Gellert's recordings can be heard on the Document CD Field Recordings - Volume 9 (DOCD-5599).27  All the performers heard on these three albums are "anonymous".  Earlier this year, Bruce Conforth of the University of Michigan produced a biography of Lawrence Gellert, African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story (Scarecrow Press - an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield).

I once got into a heated debate with a Scottish academic when I suggested that Robert Burns was steeped in a folksong tradition and that Burns used much of this tradition in his poems.  The academic, who seemed to think that Burns's every word had been composed by Burns himself, just could not accept what I was saying.  And the same, I think, may be said of the blues.  The early blues developed in a tradition, with lines and verses passing from mouth to mouth.  But, as with Burns, there were extremely talented individuals within this tradition, singers such as Charlie Patton, Son House, Henry Thomas, King Solomon Hill or Willie McTell, who had the ability to transcend other singers with their individual genius.

Today we may sit back and listen to these voices, voices that are removed in time, but not in substance.  Willie McTell's Mama T'ain't Long Fo' Day is as fresh and relevant today as it was on 18th October, 1927, when Willie sat down in front of a recording machine in Atlanta, GA.  Close your eyes and you are with him in the room, listening to a man who had the same feelings and desires as us; a man who wanted justice, both for himself and for his people, yet who had suffered from the indignity of a system that had denied him those basic rights.  How, I keep wondering, could a system like that throw up such superb musicians, poets and dreamers?  How could so many people survive - because that is what they did - in such harsh circumstances?  The answer, I guess, is there to be heard, in the thousands of blues that were sung for so many, long years.

Mike Yates - 11.11.13


Article MT288

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