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.

Authenticity, part III: White Tears

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As you know by now, White Tears is the story (among other things!) of Seth, a young, white, college-educated sound engineer, who accidentally records a line from an old blues song while picking up ambient sounds in Washington Square Park. His business partner Carter, the scion of a wealthy family whose riches come from running private prisons and black ops sites, engineers the recording to make it sound vintage and posts it online, claiming it’s actually a historical recording by Charlie Shaw, a blues musician from the 1920s whose name Carter claims to have randomly made up. Soon, however, a record collector contacts them to tell them that Charlie Shaw was, and perhaps still is, a real person. So the novel is a kind of a ghost story, as well as a commentary on black music and the ways it has historically intersected with the overlapping systems of race, class, privilege, and criminal justice in America.

Hari Kunzru, an Englishman of Pakistani descent, says of his novel, “This is a book about absence,” raising the questions: Why were some black artists from the past recorded, and not others? Why are some black musicians remembered, and others forgotten?

In the video linked above, Kunzru speaks of moving to the United States around the time of Barack Obama’s first election:

The moment of false hope . . . for a post-racial America, the idea that we could just forget all this stuff and consign it to history, and then the realization that actually this history still poisons public life in the U.S. to an unbelievable degree . . . I was quite shocked by that . . . I wanted to bring my own experience, because I am an outsider, but I have a particular history with those questions here [in England]. My history is all about empire and dealing with that . . . There was a moment when . . . this romanticized idea of American history was very big in the hipster culture . . . [White Tears is also] a story about wealth and inheritance, and inherited money, and what . . . rich young people, whose parents have done whatever to make [their] money, come to New York in order to convert [financial] capital into cultural capital.

What does Kunzru mean by “cultural capital”?

Read this fascinating interview with Kunzru on the research he did on the histories of blues recording and record collecting.

And read this essay by Rishi Nath in Africa Is A Country, which suggests that the real ghost whose presence hovers over White Tears is . . . that of Biggie Smalls.

The line of the song that Seth inadvertently picks up in the first chapter of White Tears is “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” Kunzru may be referring to this song, “Furry’s Blues,” by Walter “Furry” Lewis:

And possibly also to this country blues song:

Incidentally, in 1976, Joni Mitchell wrote a song about cultural appropriation in which Furry Lewis features, “Furry Sings the Blues.” Mitchell does not excuse herself from the sin of appropriation:

Old Furry sings the blues

Propped up in his bed

With his dentures and his leg removed . . . 

Old Furry sings the blues

You bring him smoke and drink and he’ll play for you

lt’s mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel

But there was one song he played

I could really feel . . . 

Old Furry sings the blues

He points a bony finger at you and says

“I don’t like you”

Everybody laughs as if it’s the old man’s standard joke

But it’s true

We’re only welcome for our drink and smoke . . . 

W. C. Handy, I’m rich and I’m fey

And I’m not familiar with what you played

But I get such strong impressions of your hey day

Looking up and down old Beale Street . . . 

Furry sings the blues

Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true

Fallen to hard luck

And time and other thieves

While our limo is shining on his shanty street

Old Furry sings the blues

In White Tears, the B-side of Charlie Shaw’s “Graveyard Blues” is given as “The Laughing Song” (see p. 230). This is a reference to “The Negro Laughing Song,” a popular song from the days of minstrelsy. As Kunzru describes it,

The genre of the laughing song comes from the 19th-century. These songs start with a black performer singing about the racist things white people say when they see them. Then the song dissolves into rhythmic laughing. It’s the laughter of somebody who is trying to diffuse a potentially violent situation. There is such a horror to the laughter. The laughter is a window into what it felt like to be a black man on the street at sun down in the south during segregation. 

The lyrics of the song, consisting only of “Ha ha ha,” take up almost four entire pages near the end of the novel. The narrator, Seth, describes the sound as “hollow, forced, mechanical . . . the sound of a body undergoing discipline . . . the most terrifying sound I had ever heard.” As Kunzru explains in the interview excerpted above:

I specified to the publisher that I wanted it to run as spread so that the reader turns the page and has “ha ha ha” on the left and right side. To me that is the heart of darkness, or the heart of whiteness, in the book. It’s the kind of horror that can’t be described and just exists in this contentious laughter.

A remaster of the original 1891 recording of  “The Negro Laughing Song” by George W. Johnson:

Another suggested playlist for the book is here.

georgegrella1

As you know, I love this book. On the other hand, my brother, the music critic George Grella (above), who wrote this book about Miles Davis, said about White Tears on GoodReads:

This is a terrible book.

. . . Nothing against the ambition, which boils down to the question of authenticity, what it is and the dangers of pursuing it to the utmost level of purity. The vehicle is old-time American music, from poor Southern musicians, mostly black and mostly blues players, recorded in the 1920s on labels like Paramount. The characters who carry this are Seth (the protagonist) and Carter, buddies from college who use Carter’s family money to start a recording studio. They in turn are paralleled by the story of an older record collector and the obsession of one of his colleagues. Both pairs are connected through what is essentially an imaginary song from a pseudonymous musician, Charlie Shaw.

Kunzru is woefully unprepared to execute this task. The self-conscious quality of his research is painfully embarrassing throughout: the author picked up details of audio engineering, musicians’ names, song titles, and serial numbers, without ever picking up any understanding of the subject. He seems to have never heard the music in question, or it seems to have never penetrated his understanding—he comes off as the collectors themselves, obsessed with the completeness and quality of the physical object and not much interested in the art it contains. Seth and Carter somehow find themselves caring only about old acoustic recordings without ever seeming to find anything in the music that matters to them as human beings (that Kunzru name checks some well-known music writers who are features of the upper middle-class white bourgeoisie and can’t hear African-American music past Beyoncé is a tell).

This all turns into an overwrought potboiler of sex and murder, with a heaping condescension of the young white man finding, through violence and tragedy, the authentic feeling of being a young black man deep in the Jim Crow South. This is a terrible kind of slumming, Kunzru arguing that Seth has achieved this experience through writing that is nothing more than gazing at (and never putting the needle down on) the shellac grooves on a 78 side. The prose itself has the earnest, focussed, affectlessness that is everywhere now, spawned from countless MFA programs, and that is professionally smooth, bland, and that allows the author to disavow any specific meaning. That is dishonest, and the foundation of this deeply dishonest book.

Do you agree or disagree?

Fare Thee Well/Careless Love

dink
dink2

In his memoirs, John Lomax described collecting “Dink’s Song” in Texas in 1904, at a work-camp for skilled black builders from Mississippi who were constructing a levee on the Brazos River. Dink was one of a group of women imported from Memphis by the camp overseers to keep the workers happy and discourage them from drinking and fighting on Saturday nights. As Lomax writes in his 1934 anthology American Ballads and Folk Songs:

It was not long before every man had a woman in his tent to wash his clothes, cook, draw water, cut firewood, and warm his bed. Dink was one of these women.

In Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, Lomax fleshes out his narrative:

I found Dink scrubbing her man’s clothes in the shade of their tent across the Brazos River in Texas. . . But Dink, reputedly the best singer in the camp, would give me no songs. “Today ain’t my singin’ day,” she would reply to my urging. Finally a bottle of gin, bought at a nearby plantation commissary, loosed her muse. The bottle of gin soon disappeared. She sang, as she scrubbed her man’s dirty clothes, the pathetic story of a woman deserted by her man when she needs him most — a very old story . . . While Dink sang this song . . . as she washed her temporary man’s clothes, her little two-year-old nameless son played in the sand at her feet. “He ain’t got no daddy, and I ain’t had time to hunt up a name for him,” she explained.

Lomax wrote elsewhere of Dink’s song:

The original Edison record of “Dink’s Song” was broken long ago, but not until all the Lomax family had learned the tune. The one-line refrain, as Dink sang it in her soft lovely voice, gave the effect of a sobbing woman, deserted by her man. Dink’s tune is really lost; what is left is only a shadow of the tender, tragic beauty of what she sang in the sordid, bleak surroundings of a Brazos Bottom levee camp.

Lomax published the music and lyrics of “Dink’s Song” in American Ballads and Folk Songs. He suggested that the song was an African-American variant of the white Tennessee mountain ballad “Careless Love,” whose lyrics are almost identical (the lyrics about wearing one’s apron low, and then high, refer to out-of-wedlock pregnancy).

The repetition of the statement “fare thee well” can be found in many English ballads, going back at least to the eighteenth century.

Some examples:

The phrase “Fare you well” is also reminiscent of certain spirituals — like this one, recorded in 1937:

https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200196400?embed=resources

The earliest-known recording of “Dink’s Song” is sung by the white actress Libby Holman, with the accompaniment of the black guitarist Josh White:

During the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, “Dink’s Song” became a staple of the repertoires of (primarily white) folksingers, who mined the past for the authenticity they found in old ballads.

“Dink’s Song” was also featured in the 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, with actor Oscar Isaac doing his own singing and guitar playing:

The subject matter is the theme of many folk ballads, including “Careless Love,” which made its way across the Atlantic to the Appalachians from the British Isles. Here it is sung by Tennessee folksinger Jean Ritchie:

Sung by Leadbelly:

Sung by Indian musician Arko Mukhaerjee and his band, Fiddler’s Green:

The song was collected and transcribed by Howard Odum in the early 20th century as “Kelly’s Love”:

W.C. Handy, the self-styled “Father of the Blues,” published a version of “Careless Love,” sung here by Nat King Cole as a Dixieland uptemp.

The blues singer and guitarist Gene Campbell — another “blues ghost,” about whom nothing is known except his surviving 78s — referred to the levee-camp practice of women setting up their own tents to wash the men’s clothes and sell sex in “Levee Camp Man Blues” (1930):

Men on the levee hollerin’, “Whoa” and “Gee”/And the women on the levee camp, hollerin’, “Who wants me?”