Stagolee Shot Billy

Content warning: explicit language, racial slurs (including the n-word) in original sources.

Stack Lee (drawing by Timothy Lane).

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.

Seale (left) and Newton.

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:

On Christmas Day, 1895, a local pimp named “Stack” Lee Shelton walked into a St. Louis bar wearing pointed shoes, a box-back coat, and his soon-to-be infamous milk-white John B. Stetson hat. Stack joined his friend Billy Lyons for a drink. Their conversation settled on politics, and soon it grew hostile: Lyons was a levee hand and, like his brother-in-law—one of the richest black men in St. Louis at the time—a supporter of the Republican party. Stack had aligned himself with the local black Democrats. The details of their argument aren’t known, but at some point Lyons snatched the Stetson off Stack’s head. Stack demanded it back, and when Lyons refused, shot him dead.

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.

This is a beautifully-drawn graphic-novel treatment of the story. The pages are out of order because they’re meant to be printed and bound, but check it out.

JumpJim’s Southern Journey

Men Working, Lois Mailou Jones

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.

JumpJim describes:

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.


Captain Jack

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

were essentially slaves again . . . They worked long hours for no pay, were poorly fed, and slept in tents at work sites doing dangerous jobs like dynamiting tunnels for railroad companies and clearing malarial-filled swamps for construction. Convicts, sometimes including children under age 10, were whipped and beaten, underfed, and rarely given medical treatment. [David] Oshinksy [author of “Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice”] writes that between 9 and 16 percent of convicts died yearly in the 1880s.

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.

Clarksdale is now home to two yearly blues festivals, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Fest and the Juke Joint Festival.

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:

John Henry went to the captain’s house,
The captain was sleeping sound.
He says, “Wake up, captain, wake up now,
You ought to be dead and in the ground.”

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.

Addendum: a feminist take on the John Henry legend: the hero in this version is his wife, Polly Ann.

The Voices That Have Gone: Blues Ghosts

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:

twitchy, rail-thin Jim McKune, a postal worker from Long Island City, Queens, who famously maintained precisely 300 of the choicest records under his bed at the Y.M.C.A. Had to keep the volume low to avoid complaints. He referred to his listening sessions as séances.

A séance is a gathering at which people attempt to make contact with the voices of the dead. Do you think that this is a fitting metaphor for listening to old records?

Amanda Petrusich elaborates:

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.)

Read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s long article about two musicians who got lost, “The Ballad of Geeshee and Elvie: On the Trail of the Phantom Women Who Changed American Music and Then Vanished Without A Trace,” and listen to the six songs embedded at the end of the article — recorded, like many early country blues recordings, at the Paramount Furniture Store studio in Grafton, Wisconsin (read the article to find out why).

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?

Roll and Tumble

White Tears begins with an epigraph:

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”?

Girls in Cars

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.

And, lest anyone imagine Janelle Monae is the first gender-bending black woman in popular music, read this belated obituary of Gladys Bentley (1907-1960).

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:

Origins of Jazz

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.

  1. 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.

Cooncooncoon

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.

jellyrollmorton

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_001

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

Jazz was strictly “white man’s music” and owed nothing to “the Negro race” or anything “coming from the jungles of Africa.” [La Rocca] should have known better.

Authenticity, part V: Tribute or Appropriation?

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?

What is the Blues?

Maud_Cuney_Hare-133-William_C_Handy.jpg

(W.C. Handy)

The early twentieth-century white folklorist Dorothy Scarborough once interviewed the famous bandleader W.C. Handy (1873- 1958), known as the Father of the Blues, about the origin of the blues. When Scarborough asked him about the relationship of the blues to folk music, Handy replied that that the blues were folk music, pure and simple. What did he mean by this?

Handy’s first hit, “Memphis Blues,” published in 1908:

“St. Louis Blues,” from 1914:

While Handy was the first composer to publish blues songs (and one of the first African-Americans to make a living from music publishing), he openly acknowledged that his own music was influenced by the rural African-American folk music he had heard and transcribed while touring Mississippi in 1902-1905. In his memoir, Father of the Blues, Handy described sharing the stage at a dance he played with  a trio of musicians who

struck up one of those over and over strains that seem to have no beginning and certainly no ending at all. The strumming attained a disturbing monotony, but on and on it went, a kind of stuff associated with [sugar] cane rows and levee camps. Thump-thump-thump went their feet on the floor. It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps “haunting” is the better word.

Some of the songs that influenced Handy:

Alan Lomax wrote in 1948:

Child of [the] fertile [Mississippi] Delta land, voice of the voiceless black masses, the blues crept into the back windows of America maybe forty years ago and since then has colored the whole of American popular music. Hill-billy singers, hot jazz blowers, crooners like [Bing] Crosby, cowboy yodelers — all these have learned from the native folk blues. . . . the whole world can feel, uncoiling in its ear, this somber music of the Mississippi. And yet no one had ever thought to ask the makers of these songs — these ragged mister-singers — why they sang. 

Why did they sing?

In their book Our Singing Country, published in 1941, Alan Lomax and his father, John Lomax, describe the blues as a folk genre

sung by . . . unspoiled [singers] in the South, sung without the binding restrictions of conventional piano accompaniment or orchestral arrangement, [that] grow up like a wild flowering vine in the woods.

The Lomaxes, father and son, were in political conflict for their entire partnership as folksong collectors. As historian Ronald Cohen explained, “The father’s politics were considerably to the right of the son’s, yet both believed in the uniting and rejuvenating powers of folk music.” Steven Garabedian concludes that:

They were opposed politically, but they found common ground in a shared romantic idealization of an unspoiled homespun American republic. Vernacular music, they held, carried the spirit of this redemptive grassroots national culture.

The Lomaxes, working for the Library of Congress, traveled all over the southern United States from the 1930s through the 1950s, recording and transcribing folk music. They discovered Leadbelly on their first trip in 1933, and, in 1941, first recorded Muddy Waters, who was working as a tractor driver in Mississippi.

In 1946, Alan Lomax recorded three great Delta bluesmen, Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson, in a live conversation punctuated with music at Decca Studios in New York City. Listen to the complete interview here:

Read Lomax’s transcription here.