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You'd be thinkin' 'bout that ham, wouldnt ya Jelly? - Alan Lomax spoken interjection into Jelly Roll Morton's rendition of Nearer My God to Thee, Library of Congress Sessions 1938

Author Topic: Political Country Blues?  (Read 4881 times)

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norman

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Political Country Blues?
« on: October 26, 2005, 09:08:44 PM »
I was watching a video of Scott Ainslie who, just before playing dust my broom, told a good story.

In the second verse of the song, R. Johnson talks about a lady he's looking for and that he should look in China or Ethiopia for her.  What's interesting about this is that 6 months before the song was recorded, Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia and "prophet of good will" as Ainslie puts it, was chased out of the country by Italian fascist forces (who by the way used extensive chemical warfare and even bombed red cross camps).  The ethiopian reference is obviously very emotional and political. Now I know folks like J.B. Lenoir did political songs in the 70s, but I'm wondering if anyone here knows of occurrences of such a thing in blues lyrics before that.

Thanks and bye

Vince

The show I'm talking about is here: http://www.kennedycenter.com/programs/millennium/artist_detail.cfm?artist_id=SCOTAINSLE#Q  it's at 33 minutes something

More info on Haile Selassie: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haile_Selassie_of_Ethiopia

Offline Johnm

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #1 on: October 27, 2005, 12:38:43 AM »
Hi Norman,
I don't know if an assumption can be safely made that Robert Johnson's reference to Ethiopia in "Dust My Broom" is emotional and political.  In the verse in question, Robert Johnson says
   I'm gonna call up China, see if my good gal is over there (2)
   If she ain't in the Philippine Islands she must be in Ethiopia somewhere
To me, the juxtaposition of such far-flung locations in a blues lyric in this context is just reaching for exoticism.  There is nothing political in Johnson's statement unless you consider the simple mention of Ethiopia to be political.  It's possible that Ethiopia having recently been in the news made its mention timely, but where do the Philipines and China fit in?  For this lyric to be considered either political or emotional, I think you have to be making heavy assumptions about subtext, especially since none of the other lyrics in the song pertain to it.  I think it is just as likely it is just nutty.
All best,
Johnm

norman

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #2 on: October 27, 2005, 07:34:41 AM »
you are most probably right about this. Surely he caught the country's name on the news and just threw that in cause it sounded good. Now I still think it's interesting how the lyrics relates to political event like this one. Is there any more obvious correlation you can think of?

Vince

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #3 on: October 27, 2005, 08:02:57 AM »
Hi Vince,

I suupose it depends on what is meant by political. I just finished reading Paul Oliver's Screening the Blues (highly recommended as a companion to his Blues Fell This Morning) and in the section on Blue Blues (i.e., bawdy blues) he briefly discusses the scarcity of protest songs in the blues. The context of that part of the chapter is more about possible censorship than political or protest content, and he allows the possibility that some protest stuff just didn't get recorded. But he notes that if there was censorship, the content would have likely made it out in some sublimated form.

One song that leaps to mind is Leadbelly's Bourgeois Blues. Little sublimation there.

There's a collection on Columbia called News and the Blues that has as its theme topical blues songs and has a few songs which might qualify as political: Big Bill Broonzy's Unemployment Stomp ("Oh when Mr Roosevelt sent out them unemployment cards/I just know it's sure that work was going to start"), Casey Bill Weldon's WPA Blues. Although those are pretty uptown, not exactly "country". There's also a track called Atomic Bomb Blues by Homer Harris recorded in Chicago in 1946, with a small band featuring Muddy Waters.

Offline dj

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #4 on: October 27, 2005, 08:27:33 AM »
Big Bill also recorded Just A Dream and Get Back (Black Brown And White), both of which openly addressed the plight of Blacks under Jim Crow, and both of which were first recorded before WWII, when Bill was recording for an African-American audience.  Big Bill is the only major pre-war artist I can think of who recorded such overtly political songs.

Offline Mark

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #5 on: October 27, 2005, 08:53:46 AM »
Josh White recorded a number of political or protest blues, for example the album 'Southern Exposure' from 1941 with songs like Jim Crow Train, Bad Housing Blues and Defense Factory Blues.  This album is reproduced in its entirety on the Best of Blues Vol. 7: Josh White 1933-1941 (Wolf Records), along with other fine material from Josh, and is definitely worth a listen IMO.

Mark

Offline Rivers

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #6 on: October 27, 2005, 09:21:31 AM »
Interesting discussion. I read 'somewhere' (was it A.Lomax?) some protest type material got sung informally but didn't make it to record for obvious reasons. Will try and find the reference when my books arrive.

If this is true you might expect some to show up in field recordings. Is it possible the Lomaxes and others were censoring what they recorded? Common sense tells me the players would have censored themselves.

Alan Lomax's paranoia is palpable in his writing, fearing for his safety on occasions. If you can imagine what that felt like up close it's really not surprising there were so few recordings made.

Given that it was so hard for Lomax to get permission to record even apolitical songs I can imagine where the early blues singers, their agents and record companies were coming from! Just don't go there...

Offline lindy

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #7 on: October 27, 2005, 09:25:42 AM »
Somewhere back in the neolithic period of Weenie I seem to remember someone posting a list (perhaps a list of titles from a CD) of blues that were over-the-top political. I just did a quick search of the oldies-but-goodies list and couldn't find it.  Rivers, you seem to be the biggest packrat of pre-forum Weenie nuggets in the group, does this ring a bell?

Lindy

Offline Rivers

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #8 on: October 27, 2005, 09:36:07 AM »
Hi Lindy,

Hope you're all recovered from the recent NOLA debacle.
Will dive into the dusty recesses of my hard drive and see what I can find.

Rivers.

Edit: Lindy, I found nothing in the first weenie list archives. Not on the Yahoo site either.
« Last Edit: October 27, 2005, 10:23:05 AM by Rivers »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #9 on: October 27, 2005, 09:58:39 AM »
Well I suppose one can't get more political than recording blues about an incumbent member of the White House. An entire book has been written? ?- Roosevelt Blues: African American Blues & Gospel Songs On FDR. (Guido van Rijn, Misissippi UP,? 1997) all 270 pages of it! Memphis Minnie's "Sylvester & His Mule" is fairly political. Bet black farmer Sylvester Harris in Mississippi never imagined that his telephone call to the White House in 1934 would not only make the news but be commented upon in a blues song.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #10 on: October 27, 2005, 10:21:42 AM »
Hi all,
It occurs to me that Charlie Patton's "Mean Black Moan" is about a strike and Lane Hardin's "Hard Times Blues" and Joe Stone's (J.D. Short's) "Hard Times" speak to times being hard in the general sense.  I don't think it is unrealistic to consider any statements that things were not going well outside of the normal blues context of "My baby left me" to be political.  Imagine the nerve of these guys, complaining about hard times!
All best,
Johnm

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #11 on: October 27, 2005, 10:28:37 AM »
Leadbelly also has numerous other political songs, many of which fall into the category of folk music more than blues. But for slightly bluesier items, there's his Jim Crow Blues (and Jim Crow Blues #2, a different song!) and the Hitler Song. I'm sure there's others...

It's a later period of course, but branching off Bunker's mention of blues about FDR, there was a whole album on Testament of blues about President Kennedy following his assassination.

Offline lindy

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #12 on: October 27, 2005, 10:39:48 AM »
Here's the message I was thinking of, from Front Page. It's a song list from that News In the Blues CD that Uncle Bud referred to earlier today.

Lindy
--------------------------

John:

There was a Sony Legacy CD issued a few yearws ago titled "News & the Blues: Telling It Like It Is" (out of print) that demonstrated the use of blues to convey information and misinformation about current events. Some others in the same series that are worth watching for include: the first parental guidance warning on a blues re-issue for "Raunchy Business: Hot Nuts & Lollipops" which contrasts nicely with "Preachin' the Gospel: Holy Blues" (also out of print).

Tracks on "Blues and the News" included:
  1.    Backwater Blues  performed by Bessie Smith - 3:18
  2.    Dope Head Blues  performed by Victoria Spivey - 3:13
  3.    If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down  performed by Johnson, Blind Willie - 3:09
  4.    Frankie  performed by Hurt, Mississippi John - 3:22
  5.    God Moves on the Water  performed by Johnson, Blind Willie - 2:58
  6.    Groceries on the Shelf  performed by Lucille Bogan - 2:55
  7.    34 Blues  performed by Charley Patton - 2:55
  8.    W.P.A. Blues  performed by Weldon, Casey Bill - 3:15
  9.    Unemployment Stomp  performed by Broonzy, Big Bill - 2:35
  10.    '29 Blues  performed by Alfred Fields - 2:47
  11.    Joe Louis Special  performed by Jack Kelly - 2:23
  12.    Three Ball Blues  performed by Fuller, Blind Boy - 2:54
  13.    Parchman Farm Blues  performed by Bukka White - 2:38
  14.    Life of Leroy Carr  performed by Gaither, Little Bill - 2:48
  15.    Ma Rainey  performed by Memphuis Minnie - 2:42
  16.    Moonshine Man Blues  performed by Peter Cleighton - 2:57
  17.    In the Army Now  performed by Broonzy, Big Bill - 2:41
  18.    The Gambling Man  performed by O.M. Terrell - 2:55
  19.    Atomic Bomb Blues  performed by Homer Harris - 2:30
  20.    Homeless Blues  performed by Willie Smith - 3:10

Lots of news content there!

I was interested in your mention of Jake Leg - I read a lengthy article on the syndrome two or three years ago, but can't remember where. If I remember correctly, 'jake' was a Jamaican ginger extract (read alcohol solvent base!) sold as a medicinal remedy, but widely used during Prohibition as a means of achieving intoxication. Paralysis of the legs was an unfortunate side-effect that is also commonly associated with moonshine.

Cheers,
FrontPage

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #13 on: October 27, 2005, 10:53:13 AM »
Hi Norman,
I don't know if an assumption can be safely made that Robert Johnson's reference to Ethiopia in "Dust My Broom" is emotional and political.? In the verse in question, Robert Johnson says
? ?I'm gonna call up China, see if my good gal is over there (2)
? ?If she ain't in the Philippine Islands she must be in Ethiopia somewhere
To me, the juxtaposition of such far-flung locations in a blues lyric in this context is just reaching for exoticism.? There is nothing political in Johnson's statement unless you consider the simple mention of Ethiopia to be political.? It's possible that Ethiopia having recently been in the news made its mention timely, but where do the Philipines and China fit in?? For this lyric to be considered either political or emotional, I think you have to be making heavy assumptions about subtext, especially since none of the other lyrics in the song pertain to it.? I think it is just as likely it is just nutty.
All best,
Johnm
I've been busting my brains trying to recall where I first read that theory concerning a lyrical connection with Haile Selassie's expulsion. Wherever expounded it was a mighty longtime ago (20+ years) and my mind's eye visualises a 'debunk' very much along the lines of the above (great minds and all that). I'm now gonna lose sleep over this, damn it!

Offline frankie

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Re: Political Country Blues?
« Reply #14 on: October 27, 2005, 11:22:00 AM »
What about a song like Red Cross Store?  Most people probably associate it with Fred McDowell, but I'm pretty sure it was recorded earlier by a guy named Sonny Scott, among (probably) others.

Just thinking out loud - Big Joe Williams' Providence Help The Poor People might be construed as political.

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