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.
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.
Willie Brown, whose legendary (and lost) recording, Paramount 13099, “Kicking in My Sleep Blues” b/w “Window Blues.”
This is “The Negro Laughing Song,” sung by George W. Johnson, the first Black American to be recorded. Kunzru alludes to this song near the end of White Tears.
In the novel White Tears by Hari Kunzru, which is about the haunting of a 21st-century sound engineer by the ghost of a forgotten early-20th-century bluesman, the allegorical figure of “Captain Jack” appears early on, in a quoted song lyric. The lyric 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
Who is “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 the modern sampling of 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?