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Author Topic: Labor Blues?  (Read 2391 times)

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Offline a2tom

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Labor Blues?
« on: September 03, 2006, 06:00:11 AM »
Hey - heard a bit on NPR this AM about Labor Day in which the point was made that the 1930's was a strong formative time of the US labor movement.  Made me wonder if labor issues are manifest in any blues or related popular music of the day.  I've haven't really thought about this much at all yet -  and I can think of good reasons why there wouldn't be - but curious what the BWB (big Weenie brain) comes up with.

tom

Offline Slack

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #1 on: September 03, 2006, 09:35:52 AM »
Big Bill Broonzy's "Black, Brown And White" comes to my mind.  But Jim Crow Laws affected every aspect of black life, not only labor, ...and for almost a century.  I'm not sure you'll find much as it was very risky for singers to protest discrimination, or if they were protesting labor discrimination -- very risky to have a protest song recorded.

Gotta admire Big Bill for taking this risk.
« Last Edit: September 03, 2006, 09:52:11 AM by Slack »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #2 on: September 03, 2006, 09:42:23 AM »
I guess it depends on how broad a definition you use. Certainly there are lots of issues in blues songs that would be labor issues. Specific detailed labor blues, I dunno. I'm sure Leadbelly has some things I can't think of right now.

Paul Oliver's Blues Fell this Morning has sections that touch on blues and work issues, though not organized labor per se.

Casey Bill's WPA Blues?

Offline dj

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #3 on: September 03, 2006, 10:54:57 AM »
Josh White recorded "Silicosis Is Killin' Me" in New York City on February 26, 1936.  That's the earliest "labor issue" blues (as opposed to a blues about labor) that I can think of.

 

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #4 on: September 03, 2006, 11:15:52 AM »
Paul Oliver's Blues Fell this Morning has sections that touch on blues and work issues, though not organized labor per se.
I can't think of any off the top of my head unless one counts items from Josh White with The Almanac Singers (Union Train, Union Maid, Talking Union etc).
Organised labour to me conjures up bodies like the ARU (American Railroad Union) of the late 1880s/early 1900s  or the STFU (Southern Tenant's Farmer's Union) of the 1930s, a mixed race organisation that boasted "chapters" right across the southern states. It's most well known activist was song writer John Handcox who composed the powerful King Cotton.

Offline a2tom

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #5 on: September 03, 2006, 03:21:03 PM »
Thanks for the comments.  More I got to thinking about it, the more I agree that southern blacks weren't exactly at the forefront of rights of the downtrodden.  And I'm no history buff, but living in Detroit area I do associate labor movements more with industrialization (of course, many bluesmen were now in Chicago...). 

Just read on a web page the comment that songs like John Henry are great "labor songs".  Not always sure of that, but there is John Hurt's Spike Driver Blues:

Take this hammer and carry it to my captain, tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone
Take this hammer and carry it to my captain, tell him I'm gone, just tell him I'm gone, I'm sure is gone

Not exactly aobut an organized protest or drive toward unionization, but I still love those lyrics - got to be the precursor of "take this job and shove it...".

tom

Offline dj

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #6 on: September 03, 2006, 05:21:25 PM »
Since from the Detroit area, you may be especially interested in the following:

Alan Lomax recorded Calvin Frazier and Sampson Pittman in Detroit in October and November of 1938.  Frazier's "This Old World's In A Tangle" comments on the WPA.  But Pittman was the more "labor issue" conscious of the two.  Of his songs, "I Been Down in the Circle Before" comments on his days working in the levee camps along the Mississippi, "Cotton Farmer Blues" comments on the plight of small-scale cotton farmers, and "Welfare Blues" deals specifically with Welfare payments in Detroit.  As Pittman says at the end of "Welfare Blues": "This song was composed in 1936 on the 22nd of December by Sampson Pittman in Detroit, Michigan.  It's the true fact in Detroit about the Welfare and the condition of the people."

All of the songs mentioned above are on the Juke.

Offline Pan

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #7 on: September 04, 2006, 02:24:29 AM »
Hi

a2tom's post just reminded me that "Take this Hammer" was also recorded by Leadbelly and (later) by Big Bill Broonzy. Big Bill also did "Sixteen Tons", which, I believe, can be seen as commenting on the working conditions of the miners. But is it strictly speaking  blues, or rather a work song of perhaps even white(?) origin? Maybe someone here can tell.

Anyway, here's a quote (from my memory) of "Sixteen Tons":

"I loaded sixteen tons, so what do you get?
another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go,
I owe my soul to the company store."

Yours

Pan

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #8 on: September 04, 2006, 10:25:52 AM »
a2tom's post just reminded me that "Take this Hammer" was also recorded by Leadbelly and (later) by Big Bill Broonzy. Big Bill also did "Sixteen Tons", which, I believe, can be seen as commenting on the working conditions of the miners. But is it strictly speaking  blues, or rather a work song of perhaps even white(?) origin? Maybe someone here can tell.

Anyway, here's a quote (from my memory) of "Sixteen Tons":

"I loaded sixteen tons, so what do you get?
another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go,
I owe my soul to the company store."
Sorry Pan, am I misunderstanding you? I'm fairly certain the song written to order for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955 and a worldwide hit. It made number one in the UK in January 1956 and remained there for 11 weeks. Somewhere I've still got the Capitol 45 I asked my parents to buy me as an Christmas present. The background to Sixteen Tons must be on the internet somewhere.

[Edit. The composer credit given on the Capitol 45 is "M. Travis" who I would guess is the C&W singer Merle Travis]
« Last Edit: September 04, 2006, 10:36:44 AM by Bunker Hill »

Offline Stuart

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #9 on: September 04, 2006, 10:37:47 AM »
I'm fairly certain the song written to order for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955 and a worldwide hit. It made number one in the UK in January 1956 and remained there for 11 weeks. Somewhere I've still got the Capitol 45 I asked my parents to buy me as an Christmas present. The background to Sixteen Tons must be on the internet somewhere.

Wasn't it written and recorded by Merle Travis in the 1940's?

Offline Prof Scratchy

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #10 on: September 04, 2006, 10:48:16 AM »
... and then there's the Lonnie Johnson song -Crowing Rooster Blues - that eloquently bemoans the treatment of prostitutes at the hands of pimps. Until the  last verse, that is, when he goes totally off topic ...

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #11 on: September 04, 2006, 11:06:39 AM »
Quote from: Stuart

Wasn't it written and recorded by Merle Travis in the 1940's?
As you'll observe I corrected myself with a note to my original reply. Apparently the Travis composition was recorded in 1947 and first appeared on a Capitol album that year entitled Folk Songs Of The Hills. I can't find any trace of a 45 release. Anyway...getting back to Broonzy I wonder which of the two versions he heard? My money would be on the Ford given the earliest BBB version is May 1956.

Offline Stuart

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #12 on: September 04, 2006, 12:05:27 PM »
As you'll observe I corrected myself with a note to my original reply.

Hi Bunker Hill:

I was writing my reply while you were editing your post--I only saw your edit after I posted.

Good question re: BBB. I remember reading somewhere about Travis' various releases during the 40's, but the source escapes me at the moment. I agree that BBB most probably decided to record it after Sixteen Tons became a major hit. Its possible that he may have heard an earlier version, but we'll never know for sure.

I remember when Tennessee Ernie Ford's (the Ol' Pea Picker) version was a hit--I was only six, but it was everywhere as I recall.

Offline Pan

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #13 on: September 04, 2006, 01:39:52 PM »
FWIW the Broonzy version can be heard on the Danish Storyville label LP called "An Evening with Big Bill Broonzy", recorded live in the legendary Club Montmartre of Copenhagen in 1956, if I'm not mistaken.

I should have thought of Travis. I think I've even heard him do the song sometime. So blues this is not! Mea culpa! :(

Pan

P.S. the Storyville LP appears to be in CD also, but there's two volumes of the material. The original LP only consisted of most of the songs of vol 2.

The original record was very good IMHO.

Rosalyn

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Re: Labor Blues?
« Reply #14 on: September 04, 2006, 10:44:19 PM »
Labor day celebrates the unionizing of laborers.
The indulgent bad manners of not observing the rights inherent to all humans certainly prevented blacks from partaking in labor party advantages. Of course this could be an ingredient that gives blues music a creative edge.

About the same time Robert Johnson was writing Crossroad Blues, great composers of Russia like Prokofiev and Stravinsky were silencing their creativity for the proletarian mass mind?as required by law to support the experiment in running a country according to union labor laws.

I seriously doubt if either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. and labor union policies held much real inspiration for any musician, but especially blues makers.

However I?m glad you brought it up for something to consider.
Now that I?ve explored this I?m irritated about a day given to the illusion of laborers having something to celebrate.

Signed,
Grouchy

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