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If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail - Anon., A skilled Weenie, suffering through yet another 12 bar blues

Author Topic: Violence in them old blues  (Read 3351 times)

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Blind Dawg

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Violence in them old blues
« on: September 24, 2009, 12:28:34 AM »
  Geeshie Wiley is gonna slit his throat then look down in his face. Pegleg Howell is gonna cut her throat and drink her blood like wine. The Memphis Jug Band is gonna beat her with a singletree. Bertha Henderson was stabbed in the back and had to blow her attacker away. Black Ivory King sings about that ice pick woman of his. In "Cairo" Henry Spaulding sings about those mean and vicious women as does Lucille Bogan in "Boogie Alley." Then there's all those prison blues. Now I'm personally not a violent person and have never been in prison. I do however find that stuff intriquing. So unlike everything else. Who other than those old blues cats were singing lyrics like those I mentioned above? When I listen to Ramblin' Thomas or Kid Prince Moore singin' bout back biting.....hahaha! Alice Moore is black and yes she's evil. Ya gotta love that stuff,  it's a whole different world, and when I light those candles/incense and kick back in my Fortress of Solitude (ok ok garage) listening to Papa Harvey & Long Cleve singin' bout that bad man Stagger O' Lee it's as if I've gone off into another dimension. Bessie in Sing Sing Prison. Sylvester Weaver is way down below. Rabbit thinks that sometimes she ought to be buried alive. Bob Campbell just needs a shotgun, give Skip his 32-20. Amazing stuff!
« Last Edit: September 24, 2009, 12:30:31 AM by Blind Dawg »

Offline Parlor Picker

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #1 on: September 24, 2009, 01:23:24 AM »
If you read Stephen Calt's biography of Skip James, you realise it wasn't just in the songs, but for real! Sadly, extreme violence seems to have been part of the culture then.

I suppose your fascination with the subject is no different to harmless old ladies who are hooked on whodunnits.
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Blind Dawg

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #2 on: September 24, 2009, 02:15:11 AM »
If you read Stephen Calt's biography of Skip James, you realise it wasn't just in the songs, but for real! Sadly, extreme violence seems to have been part of the culture then.

I suppose your fascination with the subject is no different to harmless old ladies who are hooked on whodunnits.

No doubt it was very alive and real, the deal is that it was able to make it onto a record. Cutting throats is pretty graphic stuff for the audiences of the 1920's/30's. I doubt I have anything in common with harmless (or otherwise) old ladies ;D Just something I found interesting. Hard to believe some censorship whatever allowed this in 1926...


« Last Edit: September 24, 2009, 02:20:13 AM by Blind Dawg »

Offline dj

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #3 on: September 24, 2009, 03:35:04 AM »
Quote
So unlike everything else. Who other than those old blues cats were singing lyrics like those I mentioned above?

Modern day rappers?  Or at least the rappers from 10 years ago.  I'm afraid I haven't kept up with the genre as much as I should have.

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #4 on: September 24, 2009, 03:56:18 AM »
Its easy to dismiss the violence as colorful exaggeration of the street cred, boasting variety and not acknowledge it for the chronicle of brutality that it contains (along with the other thing). Extreme poverty and feelings of hopelessness seem to be the midwives of violence, especially domestic violence. That music of enduring power and beauty managed to arise under such circumstances is part of its mystique and appeal.
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Blind Dawg

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #5 on: September 24, 2009, 04:30:07 AM »
Quote
So unlike everything else. Who other than those old blues cats were singing lyrics like those I mentioned above?

Modern day rappers?  Or at least the rappers from 10 years ago.  I'm afraid I haven't kept up with the genre as much as I should have.

I was actually talking about back then in the prewar days. Today anything goes!

Blind Dawg

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #6 on: September 24, 2009, 04:35:56 AM »
Its easy to dismiss the violence as colorful exaggeration of the street cred, boasting variety and not acknowledge it for the chronicle of brutality that it contains (along with the other thing). Extreme poverty and feelings of hopelessness seem to be the midwives of violence, especially domestic violence. That music of enduring power and beauty managed to arise under such circumstances is part of its mystique and appeal.

I'm a white guy who grew up in central Cali, while far from rich we got by just fine. Never saw a day I lacked for anything. My parents listened to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline and other country artists as I was growing up. As a teenager it was The Stones etc. It wasn't until I discovered them old blues that I began to hear about ice picks and shotguns and back biting..haha! Totally different deal. I dig it annd yes it is part of the mystique/appeal.

Offline Kokomo O

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #7 on: September 24, 2009, 05:47:40 AM »
There's a strong train of thought among the ethnomusicologist types that many of the violent images are not really directed at the singer's wives, girlfriends and poker or craps opponents, but are metaphors directed at the white authority structure. So when, in Crow Jane, the singer, with incredible cheer in his voice, sings about shooting his woman just to see her fall, he's not really talking about his woman but his boss or his landlord. Makes a lot of sense, although the pervasiveness of these images also implies a routine to the violence that I think is unusual today even among the many, if not all, of the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Offline dj

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #8 on: September 24, 2009, 06:16:44 AM »
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There's a strong train of thought among the ethnomusicologist types that many of the violent images are not really directed at the singer's wives, girlfriends and poker or craps opponents, but are metaphors directed at the white authority structure.

I don't necessarily buy that.  I think a better analogy for lines like "I whipped my woman with a single tree/You ought to hear her holler 'Please don't murder me'" is Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden in the Honeymooners.  When he was annoyed at his wife he used to shake his fist at her chin and say "To the moon, Alice!", meaning "I'm going to punch you so hard you're going to land on the moon".  It was a laugh line, though it's hard for us to comprehend that today.  Humor doesn't necessarily translate well across eras and cultures.

Lines that occur in an obviously non-humorous context I see as more the result of the fact that violence in all it's forms was so much more prevalent and, in a way, acceptable in society as a whole and especially in the segment of society that the singers in question came from.  See O'Muck's post for that.  To my mind, that's why modern rap lyrics are a good correlation.

Offline TX_Songster

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #9 on: September 24, 2009, 06:42:57 AM »
I think modern rap is an obvious correlation.  However, consider the available forms of entertainment of that time period.  If you were illiterate it would be limited to story telling and music.  Now consider the spectrum of entertainment options we have today: slasher films, murder mysteries, websites depicting grotesque imagery, Steven King novels...  Even Law & Order SVU makes me cringe. 

I believe that when you look at what we do to entertain ourselves it is apparent that we have had a long time love affair with violence.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #10 on: September 24, 2009, 07:17:15 AM »
Not limited to blues either. Those old-time fellers were frequently singing about strangling or poisoning women and throwing them in rivers and such, and killing each other and themselves of course. While the roots of such stuff reach across the Atlantic, there was still a bit of a fascination with it.

Many of the violent phrases in the blues are of course simply repeated on down through the tradition. Geeshie Wiley's line, for instance, while one of the great ones, I'm pretty sure appears elsewhere in an earlier recording but I can't for the life of me remember where. Peg Leg's "drink your blood like wine" also appears elsewhere in several guises (though not necessarily earlier - I don't recall). So some of this as well is probably people recognizing a good grim line when they hear it and saying, "I'm gonna steal that one."

Then there were the razor-totin' stereotypes. Some of those pop songs celebrating the violent urban underworld were no doubt influential in some ways as well. Not to mention the bully of the town.

Then I also wonder how many are sexual metaphors. Back bitin' obviously is.

Blind Dawg

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #11 on: September 24, 2009, 07:34:45 AM »
There's a strong train of thought among the ethnomusicologist types that many of the violent images are not really directed at the singer's wives, girlfriends and poker or craps opponents, but are metaphors directed at the white authority structure. So when, in Crow Jane, the singer, with incredible cheer in his voice, sings about shooting his woman just to see her fall, he's not really talking about his woman but his boss or his landlord. Makes a lot of sense, although the pervasiveness of these images also implies a routine to the violence that I think is unusual today even among the many, if not all, of the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

There is no doubt that that black world back in the day did see a lot of black on black violence. In his book "Satchmo" Louis Armstrong talks about growing up in the black world of New Orleans. Lot of violence! Hookers, pimps, gamblers, druggies and simply lowlifes were in abundance anywhere we saw a large % of blacks living. Crime was all about. As anyone who has a knowledge of this at all is well aware of,  the attitude was..."as long as they keep it among themselves"....by the local authorities. I believe it was a hard life with violence playing a role so when those old blues cats sung about it it had nothing to do with any sort metaphors directed at anyone. They were singing about the life they experienced.
« Last Edit: September 24, 2009, 07:38:09 AM by Blind Dawg »

Offline dj

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #12 on: September 24, 2009, 07:43:59 AM »
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slasher films

Good catch, Songster!  I would imagine that graphically violent lyrics then are in some cases equivalent to modern slasher films.  Or Stephen King novels.

And certainly if you go as far back as you can in folk song, you'll still find plenty of men sticking their swords through their wife's/girlfriend's/rival's heart and pinning him/her against the wall.  It's a universal theme. 

Offline waxwing

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #13 on: September 24, 2009, 08:01:59 AM »
Then there were the razor-totin' stereotypes. Some of those pop songs celebrating the violent urban underworld were no doubt influential in some ways as well. Not to mention the bully of the town.

Then I also wonder how many are sexual metaphors. Back bitin' obviously is.

Certainly the "pop" music of Kurt Weill was somewhat concurrent, and I don't think he was alone in his depuction of violence. Not to mention the incredibly gory depictions in early silent movies by Griffith and Eisenstein, et al. I mean, the blues era was somewhat concurrent with the Great War, one of the bloodiest to date at that time. The world was a very violent place in the early 20th century.

And I've always thought "whip my woman with a singletree" was sexual boasting, a single tree being a long straight pole that extends from the front of a wagon between the flanks of two beasts of drayage (hmm?). Rather large and cumbersome to use for beating someone. And it's not hard to imagine that "Oh baby, don't you murder me (with that big thing)" was sexual play. I mean, the response line is "Same thing" referring to sex throughout the song.

BTW a forum search on the word "violence" will bring many similar discussions over the years if you are interested.

Wax
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Offline waxwing

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #14 on: September 24, 2009, 08:12:02 AM »
There is no doubt that that black world back in the day did see a lot of black on black violence. In his book "Satchmo" Louis Armstrong talks about growing up in the black world of New Orleans. Lot of violence! Hookers, pimps, gamblers, druggies and simply lowlifes were in abundance anywhere we saw a large % of blacks living. Crime was all about. As anyone who has a knowledge of this at all is well aware of,  the attitude was..."as long as they keep it among themselves"....by the local authorities. I believe it was a hard life with violence playing a role so when those old blues cats sung about it it had nothing to do with any sort metaphors directed at anyone. They were singing about the life they experienced.

See my previous post. I don't think blacks had a monopoly on intra-racial violence. Have you ever read any turn of the century depictions of life in NYC? It's quite possible that inter-racial violence, white on black, could have been far more common. Using the lyrics of songs to conjecture the actual everyday experience of a culture is somewhat specious without other data to back it up.

Wax
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