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Author Topic: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store  (Read 2751 times)

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Offline Prof Scratchy

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SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« on: June 19, 2015, 03:14:24 AM »
SONG OF THE MOMENT 19th June - RED CROSS STORE

My song of the moment is Red Cross Store  Blues. I first encountered it many years ago on Leadbelly’s Library of Congress recordings, where the song is prefaced by a question from Alan Lomax about blues in general, and then about this song in particular. Here is that recording, and skip to about 3:20 minutes in if you want to go straight to the song:



So, according to Leadbelly, The Red Cross Store Blues was a blues about avoiding military service in the First World War. But was it? Leadbelly recorded the song in 1940. The song first appeared on record in 1933, and here’s Walter Roland singing it:



This version has nothing to do with conscription. Instead it’s a song about poverty and the singer’s reluctance to accept welfare of any kind. Walter wasn’t short of lyrics for this theme, so he recorded a guitar version at the same session. Here it is:



In both of these versions, Walter Roland laments the fact that he ‘cannot go to Hills’, he would have to go the Red Cross Store instead. Hill’s, I learned from Guido Van Rijn’s book ‘Roosevelt’s Blues’, was a grocery store located opposite the Red Cross Store in Birmingham, Alabama. American Weenies will probably know Hill’s by the name of the grocery chain which eventually took it over, Winn-Dixie. But if you look online, there are still some traces of Hill’s in Alabama (see attachments).

Both Walter Roland tracks were, according to Godrich and Dixon, recorded in New York on Monday 17th July 1933. Lucile Bogan must have travelled with Roland to the big city, as she was present to record her next hit song, coincidentally entitled Red Cross Man:



Lucile being Lucile, the lyrics just can’t help but sound salacious. The song certainly takes on a different flavour the way she sings it, and Walter Roland gets another outing on piano. The following day, Walter’s pal Sonny Scott waxed his version of Red Cross Blues. Is it Walter or Sonny playing  the guitar this time?:



1933 was the height of the depression, when people often had to rely on handouts from the Red Cross Store if they were to survive. Small wonder that another Red Cross Blues, an entirely different  song, was issued in short order, this time sung by Walter Davis, who recorded it in Chicago on August 2 1933. It must have been successful, as he was back in the studio in December recording Red Cross Blues No.2:



As already stated, this is an entirely different song from the Walter Roland approach, both lyrically and melodically. Walter Davis seems to have been appreciative of the Red Cross Store, and optimistic too about better times ahead. There’s no sense of pride about not accepting welfare - he’s happy that it’s there, to tide him over until the price of cotton goes up next year as forecast. Nonetheless, the support from the Red Cross isn’t enough, and he resolves to head back south where you can raise everything you need to eat.

Josh White, it turns out, was less optimistic. In his version of the Davis song, recorded in New York on 6 March 1934, he sings that he’s a ‘….hard luck man - welfare’s helping everybody, but don’t give me no helping hand’. Josh White entitled his song Welfare Blues.



Now, at this juncture, let’s backtrack a little, and concentrate on the melody and refrain of the Walter Roland/ Lucile Bogan/ Sonny Scott songs (and indeed of the Leadbelly version which he claimed dated from 1917). Now, it’s generally believed that the Robert Johnson song Sweet Home Chicago was based either on Kokomo Arnold’s Old Original Kokomo Blues, recorded in September 1934, or on Scrapper Blackwell’s 1928 recording of Kokomo Blues - or a combination of the two. Whilst this is no doubt the case, I wonder if RJ was exposed to Red Cross Store in one of its versions, and whether or not he might even have had a version of it himself. Nobody will ever know (pause for collective sigh of relief), but there is a clue in the recorded works of Calvin Frazier and Sampson Pittman who both are said to have ‘run with’ RJ and Johnny Shines when the two lived briefly in Detroit. Calvin Frazier in particular appears to have ‘borrowed’ quite a lot from Robert Johnson. Frazier and Pittman were recorded in 1938 for the Library of Congress. Each of them had a song called Welfare Blues. Pittman’s version bears no resemblance at all to the Walter Roland song, nor to the Water Davis one, but it’s such a great recording, I have to include it. He nails the process of claiming welfare, where they open a case file, put  you in an office and make you wait all day. In his accompaniment he saves his use of the slide until the last moment, hitting you on the nose with the surprise of it.



Calvin Frazier’s Welfare Blues, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in the Walter Roland song melodically. As well as having a go at welfare, he takes a poke at the WPA too. The accompaniment shows the extent of Robert Johnson’s influence on Calvin Frazier’s playing, or maybe they both went to the same guitar teacher? Anyway, based on the evidence of this Calvin Frazier recording, I’m prepared to wager frankie’s not inconsiderable guitar collection that RJ might possibly could have maybe once heard the Walter Roland track perhaps!



Leaving such conjecture behind, there was another Welfare Blues recording in 1938, this time by Speckled Red. Mr Perryman was clearly unacquainted with Hill’s grocery store. For him, it sounds like he’d rather ‘go to the hills’, though I have difficulty making out the rest of the line as he sings it. See if you can make out what he’s singing:



 
Let’s fast forward a couple of years to 1940 (the same year Leadbelly recorded for Lomax). Over in Chicago, Sonny Boy Williamson (the first, not the second) recorded his Welfare Store Blues:



Here we find ourselves fairly and squarely back in Walter Roland territory both melodically and lyrically, and I think the song really lends itself to that early small combo approach, leaving the other versions we’ve heard stylistically in another world.

The Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee version of The Red Cross Store, recorded in 1942, is up next:


This version is interesting because it places the song in 1929, when President Hoover was still in power, and before Walter Roland’s version was recorded. Brownie’s reason for not going to the Red Cross Store was because he ‘had a girl in the white folks’ yard’. He also refers to an inducement (a can of cigarettes) to go to the Red Cross Store, whereafter he was ‘put on a train’ by President Hoover. This echoes a theme central to the Leadbelly version of the song. In Leadbelly’s intro he talks of the inducements that would be offered to men who agreed to enlist.

Mississippi Fred McDowell has our next take on the Red Cross Store theme:



This recording was made at the Gaslight in 1971. His playing approach couldn’t be further away from the versions we’ve heard so far. Is this a completely different song, or is it a very distant cousin of the Walter Roland recording? As we’ll discover later, it’s a version that has endured to at least one present day performer. In 1959, 12 years before Fred McDowell’s Gaslight performance, Alan Lomax had been on the road in the company of Shirley Collins. Some years ago she presented a show at the Edinburgh Festival in which she described their trip. She talked about discovering Fred McDowell in a woodland clearing in the Mississippi Hill Country. Apparently Alan Lomax’s jaw dropped in awe as soon as he heard Fred McDowell play a note. Listening to this performance you can understand why. She also talked about meeting up with Forrest City Joe in Hughes Arkansas, where Lomax recorded this next version of Red Cross Store:



Well, we’re getting  closer in our story to the present day, but there are a couple of more examples I’d like to  share. The first of these is an example of how an old song from the 1930’s can be brought up to date by forgetting all about Roosevelt and changing the name to Nixon. Here’s Thomas Shaw’s Richard Nixon’s Welfare Blues:




Thomas Shaw locates the Richard Nixon’s Welfare Store ‘on the hill’, which is clearly his recollection of Walter Rolands Hill’s Grocery Store on the 1933 recording.

Recorded by George Mitchell, Lonzie Thomas prefers ‘Hillary’s Store’ to the Red Cross alternative. The lyrics to the song are here (thanks, Johnm): http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=6280.msg66154#msg66154
And here is Lonzie’s performance:




So there we have it. Two songs  by two Walters, Roland and Davis, recorded within weeks of each other in 1933. Both good songs, the Roland one turned out to be the VHS, whilst the Davis song remained the Betamax. Roland’s Red Cross Store/Welfare Store and its derivatives is a song about conscription, a song in praise of welfare, a song that rails against welfare, a song where the singer would rather go to Hill’s, to the hills, to the hill, or to Hillary’s. It’s set in the presidencies of Wilson, of Hoover, of Roosevelt, of Nixon. What do you think? With regard to the Walter Roland take on the Red Cross Store theme, did it suddenly appear out of nowhere with the three versions recorded at the 1933 New York session? Or did the song predate that, as Leadbelly and Brownie McGhee had it? And what’s your favourite version? There are probably more that I haven’t found.

One thing is certain, Red Cross Store is a theme that has survived in live performance for upwards of 80 years and counting, for which the following recent video of Fred McDowell’s song is submitted as evidence:


Offline Parlor Picker

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #1 on: June 19, 2015, 07:41:20 AM »
>> Apparently Alan Lomax’s jaw dropped in awe as soon as he heard Fred McDowell play a note.

And Shirley Collins said in a talk I saw her give that Lomax wrote one word in his notebook: "Perfect!".

That's Fred for you.
"I ain't good looking, teeth don't shine like pearls,
So glad good looks don't take you through this world."
Barbecue Bob

Offline Johnm

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #2 on: June 19, 2015, 08:03:28 AM »
Thanks very much for this very detailed post on "Red Cross Store", Professor.  It is going to take a while just to listen through all of the versions, but I'm looking forward to the perspective that will give.
All best,
Johnm

Offline One-Eyed Ross

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #3 on: June 19, 2015, 08:29:07 AM »
Great stuff, perfessor! 

As an aside, my dad, who spent some time riding the rails & living the life of a rambling "tramp" during portions of the 30s -80s, always said that Salvation Army was far better than Red Cross or the Mission kitchens.  (He had to give up riding boxcars when his back got so bad he couldn't hop into a car without using a five gallon bucket).

SSG, USA, Ret

She looked like a horse eating an apple through a wire fence.

Offline dj

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #4 on: June 19, 2015, 10:32:51 AM »
Roy Dunn does a version of Red cross Store on his 1972 Trix LP Know'd Them All.  It's based on the Walter Roland version.

Offline David Kaatz

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #5 on: June 19, 2015, 10:53:15 AM »
The Josh White link fails here and directly on YouTube. I found this alternative, maybe someone can edit the original post?

Offline Prof Scratchy

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #6 on: June 19, 2015, 11:59:08 AM »
Thanks davek. The original link seems to be working OK where I am. I think this is just a  pesky youtube thing. Thanks for posting the alternative.

Offline harry

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #7 on: June 19, 2015, 12:20:12 PM »
Great song Prof Scratchy. I found the lyrics for the Walter Roland versions. Very accurate I think. Maybe they are on WC already but I couldn't find them.


RED CROSS STORE - WALTER ROLAND

Said me and my good girl talked last night, me and her talked for hours,
She wanted me to go to the Red Cross Store, and get a sack of that Red Cross flour,
I told her: "No". Great Lord, said: "Woman I sure don't want to go",
Say: "I have to go to Hill's 'cause I, got to go to that Red Cross Store".

Say you know them Red Cross folks there they, sure do treat you mean,
Don't want to give you nothin' but, two - three cans of beans,
Now I told 'em: "No". Great Lord girl, said: "I don't want to go",
I said: "You know I cannot go to Hill's, I'm got to go yonder to that Red Cross Store".

But you know the governor done take it in charge now said he gon' treat, everybody right,
He gon' give 'em two cans of beans now, and one little can of tripe,
Now I told 'em: "No". Great Lord girl, says: "I don't want to go",
"I think I better wait till I get a job and go to Hill's, 'cause other than that I've got to go to that Red Cross Store".

Say you go up there early in the mornin', said he ask you: "Boy, how you feel?"
Gettin' ready to give you a nickel's worth of rice and a, bag of that boultin' meal.
Now I told him: "No". Great Lord girl, says: "I don't want to go",
Says: "You know I cannot go to Hill's, I'm got to go yonder to that Red Cross Store".

But you know say I got girl now says she gon', get herself a job,
She gon' take care of me now, while the times is hard,
And I told her: "Yes". Great Lord, "Then I won't have to go",
I said: "When you get paid off we'll go to Hill's, I won't have to go to that Red Cross Store".

But you know say a girl told me this mornin' that she loved me 'cause I, work two days a week,
I told her I worked for the Red Cross, didn't get nothin' but somethin' to eat.
She told me: "No". Great Lord, says: "Man I don't want to go",
She said: "But are you is carryin' me to Hill's" says; I say: "I take you to that Red Cross Store".

RED CROSS STORE No. 2 - WALTER ROLAND

Say you know I had a dream last night that I, had never dreamt before,
I dreamt about that head clerk, down in the Red Cross Store,
And I told 'em: "No". Great Lord, says: "Girl, I can't go",
Says: "I cannot go to Hill's, but I can go to the Red Cross Store".

Said you know that woman I got now you know, she won't treat me right,
Every time I go home now, she want to fuss and fight,
Now I tell her: "No". Great Lord, "I can't go",
Says: "You know I cannot go to Hill's, but I can take you to that Red Cross Store".

Say you know they give you something to eat at the Red Cross you have to, go get it 'fore eleven,
They done moved off of Seventeenth Street to Third Avenue, Thirteen-O-Seven.
And I told 'em: "No". Great Lord, says: "Girl, I can't go",
Says: "You know I cannot go to Hill's but I can, go to that Red Cross Store".


Says I done told you once now says I'm, sure gon' tell you twice,
Says I don't want you keep arguin' with me, about the Red Cross rice.
And I told her: "No". Great Lord, "Girl I can't go",
Say: "You know I cannot go to Hill's, but I can take you to that Red Cross Store".

Say you know I'm gon' sing this here verse now and, I sure ain't gonna sing no more,
‘Cause my wife and children is hungry and I, 'spect I'm gonna have to go,
And holler: "Oh, Great Lord I'm gon' have to go",
Say: "You know I just well's to go home and get my crocus sack, go up yonder to that Red Cross Store".

But you know there’s one thing it's certain is that, all these people see,
The Red Cross don't give you every thing you want, they give some thing you need,
And I told 'em: "No". Great Lord, says: "I can't go",
Says: "You know I cannot go to Hill's, I've got to go to the Red Cross Store".

Offline harry

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #8 on: June 19, 2015, 01:02:38 PM »
I came up with a quick, improvised Walter Roland based piano version

Offline Lastfirstface

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #9 on: June 19, 2015, 01:51:32 PM »
In those Walter Roland lyrics, shouldn't "boultin' meal" be "bolted meal"?

Offline Johnm

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #10 on: June 19, 2015, 02:08:16 PM »
Also, it would be a "croker" sack, not a "crocus" sack in "Red Cross Blues, No. 2".
All best,
Johnm

Offline frankie

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #11 on: June 19, 2015, 03:40:41 PM »
Great post, Prof, and a great topic! A real "hiding in plain sight" moment...  can't wait to get some time to sit down with some of these recordings.

Nice take on the song, Harry - I just wish I could hear the vocal better...  I'm sure it's tricky to get the right balance with a piano.

Offline waxwing

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #12 on: June 19, 2015, 04:46:12 PM »
Wow, professer, exhaustively researched. You must have retired. (Heh, heh) Really great work.

Also, it would be a "croker" sack, not a "crocus" sack in "Red Cross Blues, No. 2".
All best,
Johnm

You're right, Johnm, he does pronounce it "croker sack". Having used the word as part of a jug band name, I found out the derivation is from the original "crocus sack", as crocus bulbs and crocus pollen were heavily traded in colonial slave times as a replacement for saffron from India. No doubt this transcriber, for some reason, chose the original rather than the common colloquial pronunciation by which the sacks were known in later years.

Wax
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Offline Johnm

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #13 on: June 19, 2015, 07:36:24 PM »
Hi Waxwing,
I would say Walter Roland was not exceptional in pronouncing it "croker sack", since I have never heard any blues musician or Old-Time musician pronounce the item in question as anything other than a "croker sack".  I have never heard it referred to as a crocus sack.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Old Man Ned

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Re: SOTM June 19th - Red Cross Store
« Reply #14 on: June 19, 2015, 08:01:45 PM »
Great post Prof!  Can't help thinking how still relevant this is today with the rising number of food banks in the UK.  And the time span of the recordings shows just how hard and deep the depression hit and remained with people.

My favourite out of these is a toss up between Walter Roland's original version and Sampson Pitman's.  Regarding Speckled Red's version, after 'go to the hills..' I'm hearing 'to plough'...Could be a reference to the Mississippi Hill Country and preferring to work the land rather than go to the Red Cross store.  Just thought..