“Crazy” Blues?

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In the book Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow devotes a chapter to Mamie Smith’s 1920 blues hit “Crazy Blues.” The song is believed to be the first blues recording ever released, and was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994. Gussow’s concern, however, is not with the song’s history, but with its subversive subject matter — the wild grief of an abandoned woman, which makes her “crazy,” leads to suicidal ideation, and finally reaches its crescendo in her stated plan to kill a police officer.

I can’t sleep at night
        I can’t eat a bite
        ‘Cause the man I love
        He don’t treat me right.

        He makes me feel so blue
        I don’t know what to do
        Sometimes I’m sad inside
        And then begin to cry
        ‘Cause my best friend . . . said his last goodbye.

        There’s a change in the ocean
        Change in the deep blue sea . . . but baby
        I tell you folks there . . . ain’t no change in me
        My love for that man
        Will always be.

        Now I’ve got the crazy blues
        Since my baby went away
        I ain’t got no time to lose
        I must find him today
        Now the doctor’s gonna do all . . . that he can
        But what you gonna need is a undertaker man
        I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news
        Now I’ve got the crazy blues.

        Now I can read his letter
        I sure can’t read his mind
        I thought he’s lovin’ me . . .
        He’s leavin’ all the time
        Now I see . . .
        My poor love was Iyin’.

        I went to the railroad
        Hang my head on the track
        Thought about my daddy
        I gladly snatched it back
        Now my babe’s gone
        And gave me the sack.

        Now I’ve got the crazy blues
        Since my baby went away
        I ain’t had no time to lose
        I must find him today
        I’m gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop
        Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop
        I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news
        Now I’ve got the crazy blues.

Gussow notes:

In 1920 these were remarkable words for an African American singer to shout from the rooftops . . . .they supply a partial genealogy for the emergence, decades later, of NWA (“F*ck the Police”), Ice-T (“Cop Killer,” “Squeeze the Trigger”), and other beer-and-blunts-stoked gangsta rappers of the 1980s . . . . the black male lover whose absence [Mamie Smith] bemoans is associated not simply with faithlessness but with death, an inscription of his social fate in a white-policed public sphere where countless forms of “bad news” — lynching, race riots, vagrancy laws, back-alley murder — threaten to take him away for good. 

“Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies in its first month alone, and its popularity was spread across the south when black Pullman porters set up a cottage industry of buying dozens of copies of the record for a dollar apiece in Harlem, and selling them for twice that much when their trains went down south.

Do you think “Crazy Blues” would have been so successful if it had been sung by a black man? Did Mamie Smith’s gender allowed her to express sentiments that would have been unacceptable if issued by a male singer?

It’s worth noting, too, that Smith’s threat to “do like a Chinaman . . . go and get some hop” is a drug reference — “hop” being slang for opium — as well as a racialized/racist one.

In 1924, the blues singer Josie Miles recorded another song about the urge to commit murder and mayhem, not specifically against the police, but perhaps against the violent injustice of society as a whole.

Wanna set the world on fire
That is my one mad desire
I’m a devil in disguise
Got murder in my eyes

Now I could see blood runnin’
Through the streets
Now I could see blood runnin’
Through the streets
Could be everybody
Layin’ dead right at my feet

Now man who invented war
Sure is my friend
The man invented war
Sure is my friend
Don’t believe that I’m sinkin’
Just look what a hole I am in

Give me gunpowder
Give me dynamite
Give me gunpowder
Give me dynamite
Yes I’d wreck the city
Wanna blow it up tonight

I took my big Winchester
Down off the shelf
I took my big Winchester
Down off the shelf
When I get through shootin’
There won’t be nobody left

Josie Miles’s “mad mama” is certainly “mad” in the sense of insanity, but she is also “mad” in the sense of an overwhelming, righteous anger.

Lest it seem like these early musical-homicidal intentions went underground until  gangsta rap, check out Gil Scott Heron’s 1981 cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” While Gaye’s song is a despairing, if non-specific, cry against social injustice, Heron turns his spoken-word bridge into a tribute to the New Orleans cop-killer Mark Essex.

Heron’s spoken-word bridge:

Did you ever hear about Mark Essex and the things that made him choose to fight the inner city blues
Yeah, Essex took to the rooftops guerilla style and watched while all the crackers went wild
Brought in 600 troops, brand new I hear, to see them crushed with fear
Essex fought back with a thousand rounds and New Orleans was a changing town
Rat a tat tat tat was the only sound, yeah
Bring on the stone rifles to knock down walls
Bring on the elephant guns
Bring on the helicopters to block out the sun
Yeah, made the devil wanna holler cause 8 was dead and a dozen was down
Cries for freedom were a brand new sound
New York, Chicago, Frisco, LA
Justice was served and the unjust were afraid

Tracing the Sources

[Content warning: racist language and imagery in original sources.]

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In the 1940s, the American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, also a folklorist and musicologist, published a collection of American children’s folksongs she had compiled. One of the numbers in this volume of 43 songs is “Such a Getting Upstairs.” This singer asserts that it is a “going-up-to-bed-song” from Indiana.

Ruth Crawford Seeger said of it:

It is the refrain of a play-party tune whose second section can be whistled or hummed or played, or sung with varying words like the following from Virginia: Some love coffee, some love tea, But I love the pretty girl that winks at me.

Indeed, another source cites “Getting Upstairs” as a Virginia song. The musician and folklorist Alan Jabbour describes it thus:

“Such a Getting Upstairs” is well-documented as a Virginia tune, appearing in Knauff’s Virginia Reels, vol. 4, #4 “Sich a Gittin Up Stars: Varied” and in Wilkinson, “Virginia Dance Tunes,” p. 4, played by James S. Chisholm of Greenwood, Virginia. Another nineteenth-century print set is Howe’s School for the Violin, p. 43. The tune seems to be akin to a tune in children’s song and play-party tradition (“This Old Man”).

Jabbour recorded Appalachian fiddler Henry Reed playing the song in 1967. Listen here:

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However, the tune is also known in England.

The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians claims that the song was in fact a “plantation lyric,” brought to England in the 1830s by minstrel groups.

Indeed, the sheet music, published in 1837, presents the song as a narrative of black violence.

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The song was even included in the 1942 book Songs of the Rivers of America as a song about the Susquehanna River (the river on which Binghamton is situated).

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This genre of minstrel songs, which took as their subject the violence of black men, were usually performed by heavy-set white women known as “coon shouters.” These singers not only crossed color boundaries in their performances, but also gender boundaries. Typically, such songs were written from the point of view of a black male protagonist, often referred to as a “bully” and depicted carrying a razor. Coon shouters delivered the music and the lyrics (written in Tin Pan Alley’s notion of African-American Vernacular English) in stentorian tones, taking the part of black men in their portrayals and sanitizing black maleness for white audiences.

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One of the premiere singers of this genre was Canadian-born May Irwin (1862-1938).

Indeed, in his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson (best-known today for writing the poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing”), noted of the “Bully Song, which made Irwin rich:

Some of these earliest [ragtime] songs were taken down by white men, the words slightly altered or changed, and published under the names of the arrangers. They sprang into immediate popularity and earned small fortunes. The first to become widely known was “The Bully,” a levee song which had been long used by [black] roustabouts along the Mississippi. It was introduced in New York by Miss May Irwin, and gained instant popularity.  

Karl Hagstrom Miller writes in Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow:

Newspaper critics went to lengths to call attention to Irwin’s . . . large body . . .”There are people who object to Mis Irwin as coarse, but that is a quality which she shares with many big, strong and natural things.” By inhabiting the “coarse” images of coon songs, Irwin transformed what many critics understood as her excessive, unrestrained body into a symbol of female strength and authenticity. . . White female artists such as . . . Irwin used coon songs to upset prevailing gender norms, exert their own personalities and sexuality, and expand the representation of women on New York Stages. They depended on the controversial violence and extreme racial stereotypes of 1890s coon songs to pull this off. These images remained dangerous, because many white listeners imagined them to be accurate depictions of black people. . . .White coon shouters converted the scandals of the coon song to serve their own ends, gaining an autonomous, even natural, voice, by perpetuating grotesque stereotypes of black people. 

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Before we assume that a folk song is something as innocent as a children’s going-to-bed song, we often need to examine it more closely.

Identity and Transformation

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Detail from Synecdoche by Byron Kim, a series of oil paintings that are “portraits” of racial identity.

As we all know, Rachel Dolezal was by no means the first white American to take on aspects of African-Americanness in her persona — calling Elvis, is anybody home?. . . But blackness has always been an integral part of American identity, and has only grown more so with the passage of time (think of white-rap pop star Eminem and black President of the United States Barack Obama for two recent mirror-image examples), so that for any American, it’s nearly impossible not to take on some degree of Afritude without even trying.

Do you agree?

More:

But for all her efforts at “crossing the line,” including attending Howard University, changing her name, and becoming an official of the NAACP, [Rachel] Dolezal might not merit the crown from the all-time champion of race-crossing. That honor still and forever may belong to jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, born Milton Mesirow to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Chicago in 1899. . . . Milton Mesirow fell in love with the music of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, learned to play clarinet and saxophone well enough to become their peers if not their equals, and determined that the only way he could really be a jazz musician and interest the white world in jazz was to “become black.” So he married a black woman, moved to Harlem, adopted a “jazz jive” lingo, and declared himself a “voluntary Negro.” . . . what separated the colorful Mezz Mezzrow from a host of other white musicians playing black music was that “in his belief that through his immersion in African American musical culture and his participation in the life of the black community in Harlem, he had definitively ‘crossed the line’ that divided white and black identities.”

Can race — or, more accurately, racial identity — be fluid, just as gender is said to be fluid? In art, can the artist perform another identity? Can s/he even become another identity?

merlin_139126047_7b2d4bba-b975-4b85-a4e4-ed47fefacd03-superJumboThe dancer on the left is a man. Not a transwoman, but a self-identified man who is attempting to make a career dancing female roles in ballet. Read more here.

On the other hand, this baritone, born male and singing male roles in opera, is a self-identified (trans) woman.

Is identity — racial, sexual, gender, ethnic, religious, etc. — something that can be performed? Does the artist get to choose his/her/their own identity, at least in performance?

Adele singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

The Queen singing it (the song’s composer, Carole King — a Jewish girl from Brooklyn — is in the audience, along with a few other people you may recognize).

What do you think?