“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”
“Lush Life,” perhaps Billy Strayhorn’s most famous song, with its clever and beautiful lyrics that are so expressive of what the Harlem nightclub scene might have been like; here it is inimitably performed by Johnny Hartman with the John Coltrane Quartet.
“Lotus Blossom,” performed by Duke Ellington and his orchestra.
Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show. Note that she is gotten up in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”
Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not, apparently, “the kind of love that satisfies.”
“Dinah,” which Blier calls “a love song to a woman”:
“Witness,” one of the many spirituals Hall Johnson arranged, sung by Marti Newland:
Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”
The great Bessie Smith:
“In Harlem’s Araby” by Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger:
“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.
Blind Blake (1896-1938) recorded “Detroit Bound Blues” for Paramount in 1928. It’s a kind of miniature record of at least some of the impetus behind the Great Migration.
I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob
I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place Stop these eatless days from starin’ me in the face
When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around ‘Cause I don’t want her now, Lord. I’m Detroit bound
Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Wild women and bad whisky would make a fool out of me
But working on an assembly line could be soul-crushing. As Joe L. Carter sang, “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.”
Motown operated a sub-label called Black Forum, which was dedicated to recording spoken word, poetry, and black thought for posterity. Here are some recordings from its archives.
The last recording released by Black Forum was an album of consciousness-raising songs composed and performed by Black Panther leader Elaine Brown (who was a fantastic singer as well):
Documentary footage from Detroit’s five days of civic upheaval in July 1967:
While the rioting was still underway, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to study the problem. The commission concluded:
Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. . . .What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.
Content warning: explicit language, racial slurs (including the n-word) in original sources.
Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, dedicated his 1968 book Seize the Time, to his wife and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale. Malik’s third name, as Seale explains it,
derives from the lumpen proletarian politically unaware brothers in the streets. Stagolee fought his brothers and sisters, and he shouldn’t have. The Stagolees of today should take on the messages of Malcolm X as Huey Newton [the co-founder, with Seale, of the Black Panther Party] did, to oppose this racist, capitalist oppression our people and other peoples are subjected to. Malik must not fight his brothers. . . .
When my wife Artie had a baby boy, I said, “The nigger’s name is Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.”
“I don’t want him named that!” Artie said.
I had read all that book history about Stagolee, that black folkloric history, because I was hung up on that stuff at the time . . . Stagolee was a bad nigger off the block and didn’t take shit from nobody. All you had to do was organize him, like Malcolm X, make him politically conscious. . . [Kwame] Nkrumah [the first president of post-colonial Ghana] was a bad motherfucker and Malcolm X was a bad nigger. Huey P. Newton showed me the nigger on the block was [as powerful as] ten motherfuckers when politically educated, and if you got him organized. I said, “Stagolee, put Stagolee on his name,” because Stagolee was an unorganized nigger, to me, like a brother on the block. I related to Huey P. Newton because Huey was fighting niggers on the block. Huey was a nigger that came along and he incorporated Malcolm X, he incorporated Stagolee, he incorporated Nkrumah, all of them.
Who was Stagolee, and why did his legend persist into the days of Black Power?
Also known as Stagger Lee, Stacker Lee, and Stack-o-Lee, among other derivatives, Stagolee was born Lee Shelton in Texas in 1865. He became a legendary pimp in St. Louis, and shot another man, Billy Lyons, in a bar fight in 1895, during which Lyons snatched Shelton’s Stetson hat off his head. As Joe Kloc describes the scenario:
Popular songs about Stagolee, in the ancient folk tradition of murder ballads, began cropping up almost immediately after this event. Shelton went to prison, and by the time he was paroled in 1909, the first written version of the lyrics about his misdeeds had been published. The folk narrative of Stagolee and Billy has been recorded hundreds of times by artists across color lines and genres.
The most famous rendition is by country blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt.
The influential Depression-era white folksinger Woody Guthrie:
Blues guitarist Taj Mahal’s version:
In 1959, it became a rock-and-roll hit for Lloyd Price:
Amy Winehouse performing a cover of Lloyd Price’s cover:
Wilson Pickett’s blues-funk version in 1969:
The Grateful Dead:
Samuel L. Jackson talk-sings it in the movie Black Snake Moan:
British-Australian post-punk singer Nick Cave:
What is the deeper cultural meaning of the conflict between Stagolee and Billy?
What accounts for the appeal of this legend to artists decades after the event, especially artists in commercial genres?
Why do you think artists with only minimal connections to African-American folk traditions would be attracted to this song?
Do you think such artists should record/perform it? What meanings do their recordings convey?
Does the spirit of Stagolee live in on black music of our own time?
What do you think Bobby Seale’s intention was in naming his son after Stagolee?
Bobby Seale and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale, in 1973.
Some of the music JumpJim describes hearing on his trip to buy old blues records with Chester Bly — a trip that has many unintended consequences.
Chester, knocking on doors, asking his monomaniacal question. Got any records? Under your porch, maybe? Pay a dime a piece.
Here are some of the records the two get hold of.
Texas Alexander’s “Levee Camp Moan Blues,” above, contains the lyric quoted on p. 151:
They accuse me of forgery: can’t even sign my name They accuse me of forgery: can’t even sign my name Accuse me of murder, I never know the man
As the two leave Mississippi after Chester’s encounter with Miss Alberta, JumpJim hears a little boy singing the words “Pharaoh army sure got drownded.” This is from the spiritual “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” Why do you think Kunzru includes this song?
And on Seth’s own southern journey, tracing the footsteps of Chester Bly, he refers to this song on p. 212.
Willie Brown, whose legendary (and lost) recording, Paramount 13099, “Kicking in My Sleep Blues” b/w “Window Blues.”
The figure of Captain Jack appears early on in White Tears, in a song lyric that Carter is shown singing to himself on p. 29. Carter later mixes the song with the one that Seth recorded by chance in Washington Square Park, gives it an artificially gritty, vintage sound, and releases the result online as “Graveyard Blues,” which he claims was recorded in 1928 on a record label he calls Key & Gate by Charlie Shaw (“Just a name I made up,” he explains).
Carter’s reference to Captain Jack is from Son House’s “County Farm Blues” (1941):
Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong They’ll sure put you down on the country farm
Put you down under a man they call “Captain Jack” Put you under a man called “Captain Jack” Put you under a man they call “Captain Jack” He sure write his name up and down your back
Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade Wish to God that you hadn’t never been made
On a Sunday the boys be lookin’ sad On a Sunday the boys be lookin’ sad On a Sunday the boys be lookin’ sad Just wonderin’ about how much time they had
The County Farm is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Parchman Farm, a notoriously brutal, segregated prison, where black inmates
Bluesman Bukka White (1906?-1977) also did time at Parchman for assault. Folklorist John Lomax met and recorded him there. In 1940, White released “Parchman Farm Blues.”
Judge gimme me life this morn’in Down on Parchman Farm Judge gimme me life this morn’in Down on Parchman Farm I wouldn’t hate it so bad But I left my wife in mournin’
Four years, goodbye wife Oh you have done gone Ooh, goodbye wife Oh you have done gone But I hope someday You will hear my lonesome song, yeah
Oh you, listen you men I don’t mean no harm Oh-oh listen you men I don’t mean no harm If you wanna do good You better stay off old Parchman Farm, yeah
We go to work in the mo’nin Just a-dawn of day We go to work in the mo’nin Just a-dawn of day Just at the settin’ of the sun That’s when da work is done, yeah
Ooh, I’m down on old Parchman Farm I sho’ wanna go back home, yeah I’m down on the old Parchman Farm But I sho’ wanna go back home, yeah But I hope someday I will overcome.
Son House (1902-1988) was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He moved to Rochester, New York during the Great Migration, where he gave up music, working as a porter on the New York Central Railroad. House was “rediscovered” in the 1960s by a group of young white record collectors (not unlike, perhaps, JumpJim and Chester Bly a decade earlier) who had searched for him fruitlessly for years in Mississippi.
Though he spent most of his life in upstate New York, House sang, in the song “Clarksdale Moan”: “Clarksdale, Mississippi always gon’ be my home.” The song also contains the lines, “Every day in the week, I go down to Midtown Drugs/Get me a bottle of snuff and a bottle of Alcorub.” Alcorub was rubbing, or isopropyl, alcohol, “alcohol of last resort for desperate alcoholics” during Prohibition (see also “Roll and Tumble”).
House had done a stint in Parchman for allegedly killing a man in a bar brawl in self-defense; he alludes to his sentence in “Mississipi County Farm Blues,” where Captain Jack is a symbol of the brutal prison wardens. After his release, he was advised to leave Clarksdale. He went to Lula, Mississippi, sixteen miles north, where he met Charley Patton. House would later perform with Patton, and traveled with him to Grafton, Wisconsin in 1930 to record at the Paramount music studios.
However, as the sociologist B. Brian Foster has noted local backs usually don’t attend them, because “that’s for the white folks.”
Charley Patton also referred to Parchman in his song “Hammer Blues”:
They got me in shackles wearing my ball and chain And they got me ready for that Parchman train
Kunzru has Chester Bly play this recording on p. 182 of White Tears.
Who was “Captain Jack”?
“Captain” is a loaded word in African-American history. The first “captains” with whom Africans had to contend were the actual captains of slave ships. In the early 19th-century poem “The Sorrows of Yamba,” John Riland wrote of the widespread practice of “dancing the slaves” during the Middle Passage in order to force them to exercise:
At the savage Captain’s beck Now like brutes they make us prance; Smack the cat [i.e., whip] about the deck, And in scorn they bid us dance.
Plantation overseers were later called “Captain.” After Emancipation, white work gang leaders took their place. As the best-known version of the John Henry ballad tells it:
John Henry said to the Captain [of his work gang] “A man ain’t nothing but a man, But before I let your steam drill beat me down, I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord, I’d die with a hammer in my hand.”
It is worth noting that there are “rebel” versions of the John Henry ballad as well — versions in which the text is not sanitized to suggest that John Henry is battling a machine rather than an entire system of oppression. James P. Hauser has documented many examples, including one that includes this verse:
Blues singer Sippie Wallace recorded “Section Hand Blues” in 1925, thought to be the first recording by an African American to make reference to John Henry, in which she sang:
If my captain ask for me Tell him Abe Lincoln done set us free. Ain’t no hammer on this road Gonna kill poor me. This ole hammer killed John Henry, But this hammer ain’t gonna kill me.
Leadbelly also recorded a song that might be considered a “rebel version” of the John Henry ballad, “Take This Hammer.”
By the time the Southern prison system was well-established in the 1920s, the “Captain” was the prison warden.
The white collector Lawrence Gellert transcribed and recorded black chain gang songs in the rural south in the 1920s and 1930s, publishing them in two anthologies, Negro Songs of Protest and Me and My Captain. His transcriptions of some of the lyrics appeared in the Communist weekly the New Masses in the 1903s. Read an example here:
Gellert’s recordings were later released on LP. An example:
We’ve talked about how sampling prison songs can change the meaning of the original text/song. How do you think covering these songs, as an earlier generation of black concert singers like Harry Belafonte did, might change their meaning?
Belafonte singing one of the songs collected and published by Lawrence Gellert in Me and My Captain, “Look Over Yonder”:
And the famous song “Old Man River,” from the 1927 Broadway musical Show Boat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, is a kind of sanitized version of a prison/work song. Here is the scene from the 1936 film of the show, sung by the great Paul Robeson and an anonymous chorus of black riverboat stevedores.
Watch the 1966 documentary Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison, made by folksinger Pete Seeger along with his wife Toshi and son Daniel, and folklorist Bruce Jackson.
Addendum: a feminist take on the John Henry legend: the hero in this version is his wife, Polly Ann.
The only known photograph of Delta bluesman Charley Patton.
Hari Kunzru based his portrait of mid-twentieth-century collectors of early blues recordings on a loosely-knit real-life group of blues enthusiasts — made up almost entirely white men — who called themselves the “Blues Mafia.” The character of Chester Bly in particular was inspired by the legendary record collector James McKune, described by John Jeremiah Sullivan as:
McKune supposedly never gave up more than 10 bucks for a 78 (and often offered less than $3), and was deeply offended—outraged, even—by collectors willing to pay out large sums of money, a practice he found garish, irresponsible, and in basic opposition to what he understood as the moral foundation of the trade. . . . For McKune, collecting was a sacred pursuit—a way of salvaging and anointing songs and artists that had been unjustly marginalized. It was about training yourself to act as a gatekeeper, a savior; in that sense, it was also very much about being better (knowing better, listening better) than everyone else. Even in the 1940s and 50s, 78 collectors were positioning themselves as opponents of mass culture.
. . . I’m not sure what McKune was looking for, exactly. Maybe the same thing we all look for in music: some flawlessly articulated truth. But I know for sure when he found it.
. . . In January 1944 McKune took a routine trip to Big Joe’s [record shop on W. 47th Street] and began pawing through a crate labeled “Miscellany,” where he found a record with “a sleeve so tattered he almost flicked past it.” It was a battered, nearly unplayable copy of Paramount 13110, Charley Patton’s “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone.” Patton had recorded the track in Grafton, Wisconsin, 15 years earlier, and he’d been dead for less than 10 when McKune first picked it up. Patton was almost entirely unknown to modern listeners; certainly McKune had never heard him before. He tossed a buck at a snoozing Clauberg [the shop’s owner] and carted the record back to Brooklyn. As [blues scholar Marybeth] Hamilton wrote, “… even before he replaced the tonearm and turned up the volume and his neighbor began to pound on the walls, he realized that he had found it, the voice he’d been searching for all along.”
Charley Patton was a Mississippi-born guitarist of mixed ancestry, allegedly the son of a former slave. What do you think it was in his voice and guitar-playing that galvanized Jim McKune?
Jim McKune’s real-life blues epiphany is echoed in JumpJim’s story in White Tears about hearing Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues” for the first time:
That sound, my God. Like it had come out of the earth.
JumpJim begins to search for rare blues recordings:
But the sound I craved wasn’t easy to come by. Patton, Son House, Wille McTell, Robert Johnson, Willie Johnson, Skip James, John Hurt . . . the names were traded by collectors, but no one seemed to know a thing about [the musicians]. They were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness. You have to understand, when I say no one knew, I mean no one. You couldn’t just look something up in a book. Things were hidden. Things got lost. Musicians got lost.
. . . I’ve not seen a second copy of this, Chester would say, pulling out yet another incredible record another forgotten performance by a lost genius.
“Laid down last night just trying to take my rest My mind got to rambling like wild geese in the west”
(This lyrical excerpt is from “I Know You Rider,” also called “Woman Blues.” John and Alan Lomax transcribed this traditional song on their southern journey and published it in their 1934 anthology American Ballads and Folk Songs, attributing it to “an eighteen-year-old black girl, in prison for murder,” they had heard singing it in the south. It has been covered by countless artists — mainly white folksingers — and was a staple of the Grateful Dead’s live shows.)
The lyrics of one of the six songs, “Skinny Leg Blues”:
I‘m a little bitty mama, baby and I ain’t built for speed I’m a little bitty mama, baby and I ain’t built for speed Aaaaaaah and I ain’t built for speed I’ve got everything that a little bitty mama needs
I’ve got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs I’ve got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs Aaaaaah, keep up these noble thighs I’ve got somethin’ underneath them that works like a boar hog’s eye
But when you see me comin’, pull down your window blind And when you see me comin’, pull down your window blind You see me comin’, pull down your window blind So your next door neighbor sure can hear you whine
I’m gonna cut your throat, baby, Gonna look down in your face. I’m gonna let some lonesome graveyard Be your resting place.
Are the blueswomen Geeshee Wiley and Elvie (L.V.) Thomas suggesting the murderous outcome of a love gone wrong? Or are they describing sadistic, gratuitous violence? Are they talking about the logical results of “not knowing right from wrong”? Or maybe the logical results of a social system that erodes morality itself?
I rolled and I tumbled Cried the whole night long Woke up this morning I didn’t know right from wrong
The earliest recorded version of these lyrics are from Hambone Willie Newbern’s “Roll and Tumble Blues,” on a 1929 Okeh Records 78.
Alan Lomax recorded Delta blueswoman Rosa Lee Hill singing a country blues version in 1959, but her musical style suggests a time decades earlier.
Muddy Waters, the Father of the Chicago Blues, recorded the song for Chess Records in 1950.
Waters later rewrote the song as “Louisiana Blues.”
In 1966, the British rock band Cream, with a young Eric Clapton on guitar, recorded the song as “Rollin’ and Tumblin.'”
The 1960s rock band Canned Heat performed it at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. It’s worth noting that the band’s name comes from the Prohibition-era practice among the poor of straining Sterno, a fuel used in chafing dishes, through a sock, and drinking it to get drunk. The resulting drink was not only addictive but also toxic.
A 1915 ad for Sterno.
This deadly addiction was the subject of Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson’s 1928 song “Canned Heat Blues,” which Seth plays for Leonie on page 86-87 of White Tears.
Bob Dylan recorded a version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” in 2006.
Jeff Beck and Imogen Heap recorded a live version in 2007.
Why did Hari Kunzru use these lyrics as an epigraph to introduce his novel?
What are the implications for the individual bluesman and for society of “not knowing right from wrong”?
Aside from the cheerful candy-colored queer eroticism of Janelle Monae’s video for “Pynk,” one of the things that strikes me is the way Monae flips the trope of women in a car into a narrative of black female pride and empowerment.
Women in cars are, of course, a well-worn visual feature of many rap music videos. In general, both the lyrics and the visuals suggest that women are, like cars, accessories, functional objects to be used, and less valuable than the cars they ride around in.
A couple of examples:
Dr. Dre, “Still D.R.E.”:
Wyclef Jean’s semi-tongue-in-cheek “Young Thug”:
In “J.D.’s Gafflin’,” Ice Cube talks about
[jacking] them motherf*ckers for them Nissan trucks.
So, while for male rappers, cars are a symbol of sexual dominance, credibility, and hypermasculinity, for Janelle Monae, cars are vehicles for freedom, independence, and irreverent fun.
Sort of like a combination of this:
Not unlike this:
Interracial buddy road movies have a long history in Hollywood, beginning with the 1958 prison-escape movie The Defiant Ones, featuring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.
Perhaps it’s time for an interracial girl-buddy road film — or, for that matter, any girl-buddy road film in which the heroines don’t need to be destroyed in the end.
Bentley’s lyric “What made you men folk treat us women like you do?/I don’t want no man that I got to give my money to,” are a far cry from blues portrayals of women as emotionally dependent upon men, like Bessie Smith’s in her only known film appearance:
Content/Trigger warning: Racist imagery and lyrics.
Among the origins of jazz are several overlapping musical genres that were popular at the end of the nineteenth century.
Black musical theater, which, around the turn of the twentieth century, crossed color lines to become popular with white as well as black audiences.
Marti Newland singing “Swing Along,” a song from the musical theater show of the same name, by Will Marion Cook:
The overture to In Dahomey, also by Cook, the first full-length musical written and performed by African-Americans to play in a major Broadway theater (in 1903):
What musical styles do you recognize in these pieces?
2. “Coon songs,” written by both black and white composers, which portrayed black Americans in stereotypical and denigrating ways.
Even Scott Joplin cashed in on the coon song craze with a song about a free black man in the North thinking fondly about his happy days as a slave in the South:
3. Ragtime, from which jazz got its emphasis on syncopation:
“Down Home Rag” by James Reese Europe, whose ensemble, James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, were the first black band to receive a recording contract.
4. The rural blues: the semi-improvisatory way that the vocal line wanders freely over the steady rhythm of the guitar:
5. The cultural crossroads that was New Orleans, where the presence of both free and enslaved blacks and French, Spanish, Caribbean, and Creole (mixed French and African ancestry; Creoles were known as gens de couleur) populations created a unique mix of sounds. Jazz was a kind of mash-up of the orally/aurally-transmitted New Orleans black blues tradition with the classically-trained European traditions practiced by Creole musicians.
Pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand LeMothe, 1890-1941), one of the most famous and influential of the early Creole jazz musicians.
Buddy Bolden (1877-1931), a Creole cornet player and bandleader whose skill at improvisation was legendary, and who fused blues, ragtime, gospel, and and marching-band music in his playing. He is credited with leading the first jazz (sometimes spelled “jass”) band in New Orleans.
Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961) speaks about Bolden and plays an excerpt from one of his most famous compositions, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” (originally known as “Funky Butt”).
Nevertheless, the New Orleans band that made the first jazz recordings, The Original Dixieland Jass Band, was all white.
Bandleader and cornetist Nick LaRocca, the son of Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans, went so far as to claim that
As John Lomax was the first to record Lead Belly, so Alan Lomax was the first to record Muddy Waters.
Muddy Waters (1915-1983) was born McKinley Morganfield, the son of sharecroppers, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, also the homeplace of blues greats Son House and Robert Johnson. He moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration in 1943, where he became a highly-influential, internationally famous blues musician, one of the first to use electric guitar.
The first song Waters recorded with Lomax was “Country Blues.” Note the extreme rhythmic freedom of Waters’s style, which Alan Lomax called “patently African.”
Waters’s 1950 song “Rollin’ Stone” provided the name of the British band, who admired him greatly.
In fact, when the Stones were on tour in the 1981 they visited the legendary Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago, where Waters was playing a club date. Waters was gracious enough to invite them up onstage with him.
More from the same evening: Waters invites bluesmen Buddy Guy and Lefty Dizz up onstage. (Mick Jagger seems to silently acknowledge that he’s out of his depth.)
A few years later, Kurt Cobain paid a similar tribute to Lead Belly by performing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
Do you think that the sound of the music changes when performed by a white artist?
What about the meaning of the music? Alan Lomax called the blues:
the only song form in English that allows the singer . . . to pose problems, raise issues, make complaints, and then provide a cynical or satirical response. Musically speaking, the first phase of the blues raises a question-it often ends on a high note, leaving the problem unresolved, the question unanswered. The clinching phrase usually descends to a low note roundly concluding the matter. There are [other] such improvisatory forms [in the folk music of other cultures] . . . but there was none in English till the muleskinners and blues singers of the Delta filled the poetic gap, which none of the great poets of the English tradition had done. The blues has the magical property of allowing you to improvise a comment on life.
Is this “magical property” retained when sung by white artists?