Ralph Ellison, above, writes in Invisible Man, his 1952 novel about race in America:
Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my [apartment], and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue ”— all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. I pour the red liquid over the white mound, watching it glisten and the vapor rising as Louis bends that military instrument [the trumpet] into a beam of lyrical sound. Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music . . . Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music.
“(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?” is a song by pianist and composer Fats Waller, with lyrics by Andy Razaf; it was originally written for the score of Hot Chocolates, a 1929 Broadway musical with an all-black cast. The original context for the song is a plot line about colorism, in which a dark-skinned woman loses her love interest to a lighter-skinned woman.
Louis Armstrong made his Broadway debut in the show’s pit orchestra, and recorded the song for Okeh Records later that year.
Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead Pains in my head, feel like old Ned What did I do to be so black and blue?
No joys for me, no company Even the mouse ran from my house All my life through I’ve been so black and blue
I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case Cause I can’t hide what is on my face I’m so forlorn. Life’s just a thorn My heart is torn. Why was I born? What did I do to be so black and blue?
I’m hurt inside, but that don’t help my case Cause I can’t hide what is on my face How will it end? Ain’t got a friend My only sin is in my skin What did I do to be so black and blue? Tell me, what did I do to be so black and blue?
In his book Sounding the Color Line: Music and Race in the Southern Imagination, Erich Nunn writes:
The song’s lyrics proclaim the superficiality of visible racial difference, proposing an understanding of race as skin-deep. While calling attention to the arbitrary significance of skin color in the verses, however, the song [also] ironically points to a normative . . . whiteness . . . “Black and Blue” balances the relative frivolity of the Broadway show tune genre with social satire and critique.
Do you agree that Louis Armstrong meant to present the song as ironic social commentary?
While on a European tour in 1965, Armstrong watched news footage of the beating of civil rights protesters in Selma. Although he hadn’t performed the song in many years, in a concert in East Berlin a few weeks later, he
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.