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Author Topic: Violence in them old blues  (Read 3352 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 »
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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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Offline GhostRider

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #15 on: September 24, 2009, 09:24:26 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.

Early Ice-T made the old blues guys look like nuns. Ultraviolence.

Alex

Offline lindy

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #16 on: September 24, 2009, 09:28:53 AM »
Looking for some violence in music? Check out the ballads that the Brits, Irish, and Scots brought with them from the Isles to Amerikay. Plenty of blood and domestic abuse to pass down to descendants in the New World. Methinks serfs and laborers of any color were more willing than merchants or the middle class to report what was happening in their lives through song, and violence was part of that. The other classes also lived violent lives, but were more likely to cover them up with songs of romance or pious hymns of brotherly love.

Lindy




Offline orvillej

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #17 on: September 24, 2009, 10:22:01 AM »
looking for other violent images in early to mid 20th century musics? Get a Louvin Bros. record. Or Darby & Tarlton. Check out "Down in the Willow Garden" or "Banks of the Ohio". It certainly isn't just blues in which you'll find this stuff.

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #18 on: September 24, 2009, 11:22:51 AM »
Wax et al are Absolutely correct in pointing out the orgy of violence that was the twentieth century, by all reckoning the most murderous in history. Also Orville rightly points to the precedence of violent imagery in all the source material that American folk music is drawn from going back to Elizabethan and even earlier times. Having established those facts however, there is a point to be made about how the Blues deals with the specific manifestations and imagery of violence as enacted and experienced in rural Black America during the last decade of the nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth centuries that provides information and more intangible atmospheric impressions. It must be noted that life for most people consisted of getting up going to work, dealing with the kids and the bills and all the other mundane realities of life that for the most part would make unsuitable material for songs. Being a musician and performer placed the artist out of the world of the mundane and into the realm of the heroic where some exaggeration was expected or even demanded. The external threat of official and semi official violence towards Black people would, i think, also have placed the issue and imagery of violence more to the fore of peoples consciousness.
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Offline Coyote Slim

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #19 on: September 24, 2009, 01:37:13 PM »
And what should pop up on the juke as I read this but Willie McTell's "Southern Can is Mine"?

I think Mr O'muck hit on something in his last post.

I'd also add that American society as a whole -- regardless of the color of the person -- comes from an extremely violent history.  Our history is filled with examples where everyday interpersonal violence was accepted, encouraged, and in many cases legally justifiable.  We all know the story -- America the "free" was built by slaves and this entire continent was stolen by people who thought that "might makes right."   The European peoples who came here often came from countries wreaked  by violence and upheaval.  Their cultures often thought in terms of "might makes right" and that anyone who was weak could justifiably be suppressed because that was how God made the world.  The suppressed often felt the same way and longed to strike back.  I would find it strange if American music didn't have so many references to violence.
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Offline Johnm

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #20 on: September 24, 2009, 05:15:13 PM »
Hi all,
A lot of violence in blues lyrics is posturing, as has been noted already.  The lyrics are heavy on threats (sometimes grisly) but light on actual murderous violence, which is far more common in Old-Time songs.  Just thinking about Blues lyrics in which murder is actually committed this afternoon, I was able to come up with surprisingly few.  There are "Frankie" and "Stack O'Lee", both of which amount to reportage of historical events.  Then there are the humorous ones, like "Rope Stretchin' Blues" and "I'm a Bad, Bad Man".  I still remember the disconnect in seeing John Jackson, just about the nicest man you'll ever meet, singing "I'm A Bad, Bad Man"--"cut enough meet off of that man's head to feed all the dogs in town", and just beaming.  Another murderous one from a seemingly unlikely source is John Hurt's "Got the Blues and Can't Be Satisfied".  Jesse Fuller's "99 Years" is another, as is Sloppy Henry's "Canned Heat Blues"
Most of the violence threatened in Blues lyrics seems designed to establish that the singer is not someone to be trifled with, and centers around jealousy and control in sexual relationships.  This is even more the case with male/female violence short of murder, as per Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues" and Bo Carter's "Get Back Old Devil", or just about anything by Skip James.  A lot of the toughest talk is still that, just talk.
In Old-Time music, though, murders abound, to the point that Murder Ballads are considered a sub-category of song styles.  What's particularly chilling about the murders in most of these songs is that they're quite often sung by the killer in a first person lyric voice, and the facts around the crime are delivered in an affectless way, completely devoid of motive, psychology, back story or anything along those lines.  "Little Sadie", "Wild Bill Jones", "Pretty Polly" and "Knoxville Girl" all have that quality.  The American murder ballads differ from those of the British Isles in that respect.

This is kind of all over the place, but I think one of the primary reasons for the prevalence of violence in blues lyrics is the need of the singer to establish that he is not a person who can be controlled or "managed".  So much of what blues lyrics communicate is  "I am not going to live my life the way you or anyone else wants me to--I'm going to live it the way I want to live it."
All best,
Johnm         

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #21 on: September 24, 2009, 05:28:44 PM »
Quote
is the need of the singer to establish that he is not a person who can be controlled or "managed".

Excellent point. Probably right on the money.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline waxwing

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #22 on: September 24, 2009, 08:14:11 PM »
A song that seems to signify exactly what you are talking about Johnm is one we've discussed in this context before, in a thread about "Songs I Wouldn't Sing in Public" I think, and that would be Willie Brown's M&O Blues.

The 4th verse starts out with "I tried to kill my woman till she laid down across the bed" (or "I threatened to..." as dingwall has it) which puts it off limits for some singers. But the response lyric is "And she looked so ambitious till I took back everything I said" which sure makes it seem like his mode of murder was with words only. And she stopped him with a look! Willie sure seems to be poking fun at the bluster of other blues singers, especially when she agrees to an assignation and then leaves him holding the, er, bag? No wonder he sang in the 3rd verse that all the men who claim they "got" their women should be ashamed.

Wax
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Offline Stuart

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #23 on: December 09, 2019, 07:31:07 AM »
I finally got around to watching the NOVA episode, "The Violence Paradox," last night. The thesis is that violence has declined overall. Perhaps the fact that we no longer are comfortable with songs that mention or are about doing violence to others is evidence that violence is on the decline, even in the acceptability of song lyrics--to most of us here, anyway. Obviously, there are times when songs are performed as originally composed, but usually with an intro that puts them in historical context. It would be difficult to perform "32-20" without significant changes that would make it non-violent and thus make it into a different song altogether.

Here's the link to the NOVA episode if anyone is interested:

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/video/the-violence-paradox/






Offline DerZauberer

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #24 on: December 16, 2019, 03:17:58 AM »
...and let's not forget some first-hand experience:

Just from memory ... Son House and Bukka White served time at Parchman Farm, Lead Belly spent a lot of time incarcerated, then there's all kinds auf violence and trauma experienced, drunken fights and brawls at barbecues ... those were brutal times to be sure!
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Offline catyron

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Re: Violence in them old blues
« Reply #25 on: December 26, 2019, 10:30:50 PM »
Not to be too "political" about this, but violence in song lyrics is not a "blues thing" or a "black thing." As others have pointed out, contemporaneous white Appalachian music is filled with this, and much of it derives from British, Scottish, and Irish antecedents -- "Lie there, lie there, little Henry Lee, til the flesh drops from your bones." and "I stabbed her with my dagger, which was a bloody knife," and "I dug on your grave the best part of last night," and "I took her by her golden curls and I drug her round and around," and "Go in and you will see some dark stains on the floor -- alas! it is the blood of fair Fannie Moore." and all the plunging of silver daggers into snowy-white breasts! Violence in white folk music is quite terrifying and deranged, when you listen to the lyrics -- but i have never heard any ethnomusicologist state that it has something to do with "white culture" or "white boasting of individuality."

The "othering" of blues singers can lead toward an unfortunate blindness to the universality of human violence.

If anyone ever asks me, "Why is there so much violence in the blues?" i just answer by singing a few verses from "Duncan and Brady." LOL!

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