“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

Race, Class, Art, and Consumption

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Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait d’une négresse 1800, Musée du Louvre.

New Zealand singer Lorde’s 2013 hit “Royals” appeared to be a critique of conspicuous consumption:

My friends and I – we’ve cracked the code.
We count our dollars on the train to the party.
And everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this,
We didn’t come from money.

But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom.
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.

The New York Times’s pop music critic wrote:

[Lorde has] emerged from the far side of the planet with something smarter and deeper [than most pop music]: a class-conscious critique of pop-culture materialism that’s so irresistible it became a No. 1 pop single.

Other critics, however, heard racism in Lorde’s lyrics. Verónica Bayetti Flores wrote:

Holy. Shit. What did this white girl just say? . . . While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teethCristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism.

Do you think “Royals” is racist?

How do you think Flores might respond to the new Beyoncé/Jay-Z song “Apeshit”? The lyrics can safely be called the exact opposite of a “critique of wealth accumulation.”

Gimme my check, put some respeck on my check
Or pay me in equity, pay me in equity
Or watch me reverse out the dick

He got a bad bitch, bad bitch
We live it lavish, lavish
I got expensive fabrics
I got expensive habits

On the other hand, the video introduces issues not present in the lyrics. While the song celebrates wealth and excess, the video explores the juxtaposition of black bodies and the traditions of European art-making, with black dancers in flesh-toned leotards performing in lines in the Louvre Museum and re-enacting some of the paintings, while Beyoncé and Jay-Z take in the art and rap about their success as artists. As Jason Fargo notes:

As so often, the couple here present themselves as both outsiders in an elite institution and as heirs to it; as people excluded from its narratives but now possessors of it by virtue of their talent, their taste and, well, their money.

The Carters also seem to be making an intentional reference to the iconic 1930 painting “American Gothic,” by Grant Wood.

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The song and the video raise the questions once again:

Who owns this music?

Who owns this art?

Who is the music/art for?

What does it mean to be an artist?

What does it mean to be the audience for art and music?

In the act of listening and/or viewing, does the audience participate in the work of art?

As well as the questions:

Is success the same thing as consumerism?

Is the pursuit of wealth an objectively good thing for an individual? For the community?

Is art that celebrates consumerism on the same artistic level as art that has a more profound social message?

In the song “Boss,” when Beyoncé says, “My great-great-grandchildren already rich, that’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list,” is she actually making a political statement, or simply boasting about her personal success?

Can such statements go beyond the personal circumstances of the artist and inspire change in the community?

SHOULD art have a higher message?

The Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott grappled with similar issues in his book-length poem Omeros. In this section of the epic poem, he describes going to the Metropolitan Museum and seeing the painting The Gulf Stream by American artist Winslow Homer, which shows a black man in a foundering fishing boat in the Caribbean Sea. The Museum explains the painting’s subject as a “dramatic scene of imminent disaster.”

A man faces his demise on a dismasted, rudderless fishing boat, sustained by only a few stalks of sugarcane and threatened by sharks and a distant waterspout. He is oblivious to the schooner on the left horizon, which Homer later added to the canvas as a sign of hopeful rescue. Some art historians have read The Gulf Stream as symbolic, connecting it with the period’s heightened racial tensions. The painting has also been interpreted as an expression of Homer’s presumed sense of mortality and vulnerability following the death of his father.

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Walcott writes:

Art is immortal and weighs heavily on us,

and museums leave us at a loss for words.
Outside becomes a museum: its ornate frames
square off a dome, a few trees, a brace of sparrows;

till every view is a postcard signed by great names:
that sky Canaletto’s, that empty bench Van Gogh’s.
I ground out my butt and re-entered the dead air,

down the echoing marble with its waxed air
of a pharaonic feast. Then round a corridor
I caught the light on green water as salt and clear

as the island’s. Then I saw him. Achille! Bigger
than I remembered on the white sun-splintered deck
of the hot hull. Achille! my main man, my nigger!

circled by his chain-sawing sharks; the ropes in his neck
turned his head towards Africa in The Gulf Stream,
which luffed him there, forever, between our island

and the coast of Guinea, fixed in the tribal dream,
in the light that entered another Homer’s hand,
its breeze lifting the canvas from the museum.

What does it mean, as a black artist, to receive the legacy of Western culture? What position does the black artist assume in the history of art and culture?

From the “visual album” of Lemonade:

Grandmother, the alchemist, you spun gold out of this hard life, conjured beauty from the things left behind. Found healing where it did not live. Discovered the antidote in your own kit. Broke the curse with your own two hands. You passed these instructions down to your daughter who then passed it down to her daughter.