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”?

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?

North and South: The Great Migration and the Lomaxes’ Southern Journey

Men Working, Lois Mailou Jones

The early twentieth-century white folklorist Dorothy Scarborough once interviewed composer and bandleader W.C. Handy (1873- 1958), known as the Father of the Blues, about the origin of the blues. Handy, of course, was not the inventor of the blues, but he was the first musician to notate the folk music that he heard while traveling around the South to play gigs, and to arrange and publish it as sheet music, helping the genre reach a wider audience. 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:

There is no genre of American music in the decades since the 1880s that has not come out of the blues. As Alan Lomax, John Lomax’s son, 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 master-singers — why they sang. 

Why did they sing?

In their book Our Singing Country, published in 1941, John and Alan 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” (you have already encountered John Lomax’s backward views on race in his 1917 article “Self-Pity in Negro Folk-Songs,” and his 1934 article “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro”). Steven Garabedian concludes that, although father and son

were opposed politically . . . 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 Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) on their first trip in 1933, while doing field recordings in Angola State Prison in Louisiana, where Ledbetter was serving a sentence.

A staged photo of John A. Lomax recording Lead Belly in prison.

In 1941, the Lomaxes first recorded Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), who was working as a tractor driver on a plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Muddy Waters moved to Chicago in 1943 at the height of the Great Migration. He said that the day he arrived in Chicago was the greatest day of his life. In Chicago, with access to other musicians, his style changed, and he became the pioneer of what would become known as the Chicago Blues.

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.

In his 1955 song “When Will I Get to Be Called A Man,” Broonzy, a WWI veteran, touches on one of the reasons for the Great Migration. Broonzy had moved to Chicago from Mississippi in the 1920s.

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, the owner of the oldest surviving juke joint in Mississippi, covers Muddy Waters’s “Catfish Blues.” His 2019 album Cypress Grove was nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album. Holmes carries on the tradition of the Bentonia [Mississippi] School of blues guitar, with distinctive guitar tunings.