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Willie Walker was the Art Tatum of blues guitar - Josh White to Paul Oliver

Author Topic: Blues Fell This Morning  (Read 4545 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Blues Fell This Morning
« on: June 11, 2006, 12:48:00 AM »
Yesterday I was contacted by someone writing on the theme "the record of the book in jazz and blues" which struck me as a topic with limited appeal but duly obliged with a copy of Blues Fell This Morning Rare Recordings Of Southern Blues Singer (Philips BBL7369, 1960). Having had to supply the liner notes too I thought I'd put them to secondary use here, all be they rather dated:

GRAVEL CAMP BLUES by LEWIS BLACK (vocal, guitar) (145366-3). Recorded in Dallas 10/12/27 (CO 14291);STARVATION FARM BLUES by BOB CAMPBELL (vocal guitar) (C15503-2), Recorded 1934 (Vo 02798);CHOCOLATE TO THE BONE by BARBECUE BOB (vocal, guitar) (146054-1). Recorded in Atlanta 13/4/28 (CO 14331);COURT STREET BLUES by STOVEPIPE No. I (stovepipe, vocal) and DAVID CROCKETT (guitar) (80749-1). Recorded in Atlanta-/3/27 (OK8514);WHEN YOU GET TO THINKING by "TEXAS" ALEXANDER (vocal) acc. Lonnie Johnson (guitar) (403359-1). Recorded in Chicago 27/11/29 (OK8764);TALLAHASSEE BLUES by TALLAHASSEE TIGHT (vocal, guitar)(l4637-1). Recorded 18/1/34 (Mlt-M-13073) SKIN GAME BLIJES by PEG LEG HOWELL (vocal, guitar) (145185-2). Recorded in Atlanta 9/11/27 (CO 14473);ELM STREET BLUES by TEXAS BILL DAY (vocal, guitar) and BILLIKEN J0HNSON (vocal:) acc. piano (149538-2). Recorded in Dallas (5/12/29) (CO 14514);BAD BOY by BAREFOOT BILL (vocal, guitar) (150306-1). Recorded in Atlanta 20/4/30 (CO14526);WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS by KANSAS JOE (vocal, guitar) and MEMPHIS MINNIE(guitar)(148711). Recorded l8/6/29 (CO 14439);WHEN YOU ARE GONE by BLIND BOY FULLER (vocal, guitar) (WC 3144). Recorded in Chicago 19/6/40 (OK 05756);STRANGE PLACE BLUES by BUKKA WHITE (vocal, guitar) acc. washboard. (WC2978A). Recorded in Chicago -/6/40 (OK 05526);LONESOME BLUES by HENRY WILLIAMS (vocal, guitar) and EDDIE ANTHONY (vocal, violin) (146149-2). Recorded in Atlanta 20/4/28 (CO 14328);WAKING BLUES by OTIS HARRIS (vocal, guitar) (147608-1). Recorded in Dallas 8/12/28 (CO 14428)

One of the richest folk music forms to develop in the Western world during the present century, the blues of the Negroes of the Southern United States, has been a major influence on both jazz and popular song. Accustomed to these more sophisticated types of music we are inclined to forget today the tough, forthright folk blues which helped to shape them. Already the countless coloured troubadours who sang their vigorous improvised songs to the music of battered guitars and home-made instruments are lost in an obscure and remote history. Only the rare and neglected recordings made between the wars remain to bear witness to the artistry of these folk blues singers, of which these are important examples.

Deriving from the work songs of the group labour gangs on Southern plantations and construction schemes and from the solo "hollers" of the individual field workers, the blues retained some of the formal discipline necessary to the one and the free improvisations of line and text of the other. Finally the characteristic three-line, twelve-bar structure of the blues evolved, but in the purest folk idiom it was seldom as rigid, the whims, the moods, the ideas of the composer-performers conditioning the form of their creations.

Whilst the work songs were sung by men engaged in work the blues were sung by men at leisure with the time to accompany themselves on instruments that acted as supplementary voices to their own. Inextricably bound in the drama of their own environment the composers of the blues sang of their immediate world: of their work their personal relationships and private predicaments and in doing so gave expression to their loves, hopes, repressions, superstitions, and fears. Recordings of Southern blues singers such as these were generally made on location by travelling units who literally gathered their singers from the fields and sidewalks. Many were like the Arkansas singer Lewis Black, coming from the lowest economic stratum of an underprivileged minority group. Rough and barely comprehensible, it was natural that such a singer as he should tell of the uncertainties of his work in the "jobs" reserved by their very nature primarily for Negroes?the logging, turpentine, gravel, railroad and levee camps where he had to "go out on the queue", taking his turn for such work as the "straw bosses" might give him. His ragged verses, his "hollered" words are a clear indication of the origins of the blues.

During the 'twenties and 'thirties countless thousands of Negroes were still living in the debt-serfdom of the sharecropping system, paying for their meagre rations, or "furnishings", with their own labour, overworking the land and their families in the struggle to buy themselves out of virtual slavery; living on the edge of starvation. From the North came news of better conditions and higher rates of pay in the steel mills of Gary or the Ford works of Detroit.

"Say, I'm goin' to Detroit, I'm gonna get myself a job (twice)
I'm tired of layin' around here workin' on the starvation farm...

sang Bob Campbell, but in his woman's cautionary words that follow there is a hint that even in the North conditions might not be all they seemed.

All too frequently the victim of segregation through the pigmentation of his skin, the Negro has even contributed to the problems of Racial discrimination by creating within his own society a caste system based on degrees of colour. To the brown-skinned Barbecue Bob, "chocolate to the bone", the "black man is evil, yaller man is so low-down" and he delighted in the fact that he was "jus' like Miss Lillian, I mean Miss Glinn you see; she says 'A brown-skin man is just all right with me' " as he referred to Lillian Glinn's recording of "Brownskin Blues". Unaware that such views contributed to the problems of his Race, Barbecue Bob ? Robert Hicks ? of Atlanta, Georgia, cheerfully continued to sing with his guitar oddly tuned to the intonation of his voice.

Minimum education facilities, perennial breaks in education during the sporadic periods of intense agricultural activity and the circumscribed lives of those who live in remote rural areas have left many Negroes in appalling ignorance, which has often left them ill-equipped to meet domestic troubles. When Stovepipe No. I declared:

"I'm gonna get me a picket on a graveyard fence (twice)
Gonna beat you brown skins till you learn good sense."

he could have solved few problems. But drawing from the resources of his own restricted environment Sam Jones devised his rude folk music on the stovepipe, the improvised instrument from which he drew his curious pseudonym, whilst his companion David Crockett picked the blues on his guitar.

That the Negro is incapable of love, that he is shiftless, footloose, irresponsible, unfaithful, are stereotypes that persist in the popular mind. In the search for better employment better living standards, many Negro men are obliged to leave their homes and families and such breaks can become permanent. Left at home the womenfolk are often unable to cope with the strain of their situation alone, and with the continued stress of segregation, families disintegrate. The lonely and deserted unburden their hearts by singing the blues as does "Texas" Alexander when he "gets to thinking", his moaning choruses echoed by Lonnie Johnson's sensitive accompaniment.

Like simple people the world over, Southern folk Negroes often attribute the deterioration or improvement of their fortunes to superstitious beliefs, the power of Voodoo, or in the case of Tallahassee Tight from Florida, to the women "who put a medicine on you". Praying that their luck may change they invent private rituals, consult the "root doctors" and their "numbers books" before "playing policy". Pinning their hopes on the turn of a card they gamble in games of Florida Flip, Coon-can or Georgia Skin. The latter, a fast favourite of Negro "pikers" is recaptured by the burly, one legged beggar from Atlanta, Peg Leg Howell, who sings the traditional refrain of "You better let the deal go down". In the Fall, when the crops have been gathered and the yard-and-field Negroes have money in their pockets to burn and the time to lose it, they are an easy prey to the professional gamblers who appear at the annual "Skin-ball". This is the time of year when unattached Negroes visit the larger Southern towns to spend their money in brief, reckless sprees on Mobile's Davis Street, Jackson's Farish Street, or Dallas' Elm Street where in Texas Bill Day's words the "women don't mean you no good".

In the teeming ghettoes of Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Ram-Cat Alley in Greenwood or Nashville's infamous Bush Bottom crime is rife and largely unchecked. The hopeless congestion the rotting buildings, vegetable matter and human life breed violence and corruption, criminals operate undetected and the promiscuous living is incitement to sudden affrays and brutal slayings. Hardened criminals in numbers there are without question, but equally undeniable is the fact that many a "bad" Negro is the victim of his environment, slum-shocked and destitute. Hard measures of law enforcement have often been made in desperate attempts to curb crime which do not touch root causes, and many a Negro finds himself in jail almost unwittingly. Playing his original, personal blues on a battered guitar, an Alabama Negro, Barefoot Bill, gives a hint of one such man's predicament as he sits in jail pathetically nursing his "Black Cat's Bone".

For Negroes living in "shot-gun" houses and timber frame shacks the danger of destruction by fire is a very real one and for those who live in the plantation country of the river bottoms of the Brazos or the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, the risk or loss of life and possessions through flooding is as great. It is not possible to prevent the Mississippi floods; it is only possible to exert some measure of control over them by the construction of levees or artificial river banks. But Kansas Joe McCoy and his erstwhile partner Memphis Minnie convey with the dramatic urgency of their guitar rhythms, disaster follows swiftly when the levee breaks. The victims of the floods are no more able to control the circumstances that so violently affect their lives than were the Negroes who fought with such distinction against both enemy and prejudice during the two World Wars. With mingled philosophical resignation and bewilderment, Blind Boy Fuller from North Carolina sang:

"Eeeeh, when you fightin', blood runnin' in yo' face (twice)
There's no use to worryin'?this world is a funny old place..."

Close to the bitter facts of life and death the blues singer does not seek to evade the realities of his world in his folk song, nor does he sentimentalise them. When the Mississippi singer Bukka White sings of standing at his mother's grave his fiercely uttered words are struck home by the hammer blows of his powerful guitar. His emotions at the "strange place" are intensely personal but the blues is essentially a personal form of folk song. "I wrote these blues, I'm gonna sing them as I please", declares Henry Williams, but his fiddle-playing partner Eddie Anthony expresses a common bond with him in his playing, and his blues is echoed in the hearts of his Negro hearers who buy the recordings, and who would sing the blues under like circumstances. For them there is reassurance in the knowledge that others share their own experience and there is a sympathy between blues singer and listener which makes the themes of the blues of far greater importance than those who see the song form only as an influence on the music of jazz, may realise. The blues "comes falling down" upon them all, and for them the blues is an abstract presence personified as "Mister Blues", it is a state of mind and it is the expression of them both.

Otis Harris was an unknown singer whose "Waking Blues" comes from his only record. In his emotionally charged words, in the timelessness of his verses, in the strangely compelling persistence of his repeated guitar phrases he typifies the blues singer.

"Did you ever wake up with the blues and didn't have no place to go (twice)
An' you couldn't do nothin' but just walk from door to door?
Good morning Mister Blues, Mister Blues I come to talk with you (twice)
Mister Blues, I ain't doin' nothin' an' I would like to get a job from you."

On him the blues fell, and though times and conditions are changing today, the blues still fell this morning. PAUL OLIVER


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