Essays

Blues Essays, Articles and Tales on the History of the Blues

Here you will find an eclectic mix of blues essays, articles and tales which will hopefully be of interest to you. They were mainly written by enthusiasts of the blues as amateur writers. All essays are copyright of the authors. Please do not reproduce or distribute them without their prior knowledge and permission. They are provided here for educational use only. Please note British Blues is covered separately – click the tab above.

If your interest is in Gospel music, check out the full list of Gospel Essays on the sister website www.earlygospel.com

Mural at Tutwiler, Mississippi

Inscription next to the mural

Tutwiler Depot, Mississippi

“Then one night at Tutwiler, as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulder and wakened me with a start.  A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly: Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog. The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed in my mind. When the singer paused, I leaned over and asked him what the words meant. He rolled his eyes, showing a trace of mild amusement. Perhaps I should have known, but he didn’t mind explaining. At Moorhead the eastbound and the westbound met and crossed the north and southbound trains four times a day. This fellow was going where the Southern cross’ the Dog, and he didn’t care who knew it. He was simply singing about Moorhead as he waited”.
–  William C. Handy, Father of The Blues, Sidgwick & Jackson, London 1957

 

The following list of blues essays, articles and tales are registered here in order of publication (latest on top) – it’s just easier this way. Happy reading!!

The list is ‘in development’ with each essay being transcribed one at a time from the old Earlyblues.com History Section.

Please use this link if you want the full list on the old History Section : Temporary link to the full set of essays

For this new list click on the image to go to the full essay (if there’s no link the essay is currently being converted and will be available soon) ….

 

“A Clara Smith 78 Moan – No. 1 (Two-Way Influential Links Between Clara Smith & The Rural Blues)”
– by Max Haymes

The first of a series of short snippets from a forthcoming book on the life of Clara Smith.

Extract:  On  a wintry day in New York City during the month of November in 1926, Clara Smith stepped up to the microphone to record four songs, accompanied by the fine pianist Lemuel Fowler.  The second title of this session was Ease It  [Columbia 14202-D]A smouldering vocal as only she could deliver, this was an obviously risqué song cloaked in the subject of needing money from her man. This unfortunate individual was one of the black working men who had a regular day job; referred to derisively by early blues singers as ‘a monkey man’ (there were also monkey women).  Clara describes his  meagre wages as his “ones an’ twos” or counted in 1 or 2 dollar denominations  rather than tens and twenties.

 

“I Ain’t A Gamblin’ Woman, I Got Such-A Rowdy Ways (Raunchy Women’s Blues 1923-1937)”
– by Max Haymes

This is the full essay published in short form as the liner notes for ‘I Ain’t A Gamblin’ Woman I Got Such-A Rowdy Ways’ on JSP Records 4 CD boxed set.

Extract: On reflection I think I should amend my sub-heading for this 4-CD set to “raunchy and dangerous black women’s blues”.  Many of the selections are fraught with danger – of the terminal kind – whereas ‘raunchy’ usually conveys highly sexual/sensual material of which examples are here a-plenty …

 

“I’ve Got The Blues, But I’m Too Damn Mean To Cry (Protest in early blues & gospel)”
– by Max Haymes

Extract: The word ‘protest’ in the 21 “. century is often linked with, and refers to ‘political protest’. But this is really a tautology or two words strung together meaning the same thing. Erroneously, people refer to being political as involvement by a group, or party, retaining power of government or aspiring to acquire this power for themselves.

But politics is a much broader concept. It covers virtually everything in our daily lives from birth to death. Public health and safety, education, transportation, energy, agriculture, social and environmental issues, are major aspects governing the degree of quality we experience in our time on the planet. Indeed, for African Americans in the first 3 centuries of enslavement, politics and protest meant life itself. While the former spent much time talking of what could be achieved, the latter attempted to have this talk transformed into action….

 

Papa Charlie Jackson c. 1924

“Why Do You Moan, When You Can Shake That Thing? (a survey of Papa Charlie Jackson & Bo Weavil Jackson: 1924-1934)”
– by Max Haymes

This is the full essay (click on the links below) published in short form as the liner notes for ‘Why Do You Moan, When You Can Shake That Thing?’ the JSP Records 4 CD boxed set.

Extract: One of the interesting facts to emerge from putting Papa Charlie Jackson and Bo Weavil Jackson together in a CD set, is the obvious different approaches they applied to the recently-arrived phenomenon – the country or rural blues.  Both artists were growing up in the South when the Blues were relatively young.  Still, there would seem to be little commonality between William Henry and James Jackson – presumed to be their respective given names. …

 

Martin Luther King Jr.

“Blues For Martin Luther King, Jr.”
– by Terry Messman

Extract: In the despairing days after Dr. King’s death, the nation was overcome by the blues, so it was fitting that the pre-eminent blues band in the land would play for the activists in Resurrection City.

 

‘Freedom Summer Murders’
State History Marker

“We’ll March on Resurrection Day”
– by Terry Messman

Extract: The final stanza is like a dream. Big Joe Williams looks down at Martin Luther King’s face, and vows to the slain civil rights leader that we’ll keep marching on – even unto Resurrection Day.

 

Voyager Golden Record

Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground
 – by Terry Messman

Extract: Dark was the night and cold was the ground on which Blind Willie Johnson was laid. Yet after his death, his music would streak to the stars on the Voyager and become part of the “music of the spheres.”

 

J.B. Lenoir Vietnam Blues

Blues From the Streets of ‘The Other America’
– by Terry Messman

Extract: J. B. Lenoir was one of the bravest political voices of his era. He sang against poverty, lynching, the Vietnam War, racism and police violence in Alabama and Mississippi.

 

Bessie Smith
by Carl Van Vechten

Cold Ground Was My Bed: The Blues and Social Justice
– by Terry Messman

Extract: A powerful torrent of “justice blues,” as deep and wide as the Mississippi itself, flows in an unbroken stream from the Depression-era blues of Bessie Smith and Skip James all the way to the 21st century blues of Otis Taylor and Robert Cray.

 

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
– by Terry Messman

Extract: In “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues,” Skip James sings for the multitudes forced out of their homes and jobs — locked out of heaven itself and trapped on the killing floor of poverty.

 

Blind Willie McTell

Tracing The Origins Of Dying Crapshooters’ Blues Back To English And Irish Folksong In The Eighteenth Century
 – by Max Haymes

Extract: Blind Willie McTell’s first known recording of Dying Crapshooters’ Blues was in November 1940, and as part of his introduction to this version he states “I am gonna play this song that I made myself, originally this is from Atlanta”. This statement also has strong significance when tracing the path of Crapshooter’s origins …

 

 

Gulfport Island Road Blues (Nonsense & Robert Johnson)
 –
by Max Haymes

Extract: There has been, down through the years, a belief by many white people that blacks from the southern states often sang nonsense lyrics. From an otherwise very sympathetic Fanny Anne Kemble in the 1830s, on down to 1888 when another Englishwoman tracing the sea shanty, reports “The “chanty-men” have, to some extent, kept to the silly words of the negroes, and have altered the melodies to suit their purposes.” …

 

Mule, Get Up In The Alley (a Tribute to the Mule in the Blues)
 – by Max Haymes

Extract: The ‘lowly’ mule is a ubiquitous icon in the early blues and reaches back into slavery times.  This animal appears in many blues such as those by Coley Jones, Kokomo Arnold, Memphis Minnie, Billiken Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jazz Gillum, Texas Alexander, Julius Daniels, and Edna Winston …

 

Blues Jumped A Rabbit (an Englishman’s viewpoint on some background to the Rabbit Foot Minstrals of Port Gibsn, Mississippi)
– by Max Haymes

Extract: The title I have used for this short piece comes from a verse in ‘Rabbit Foot Blues’ [Paramount 12454] by the great Blind Lemon Jefferson around December, 1926, at Paramount’s studios  in Chicago.  This was a reference to starvation which was so prevalent in black communities (and some white ones too) during the 1920s and ‘30s.  The rabbit’s foot was/is a popular lucky charm either worn round the neck or carried in a pocket.  A belief/superstition (like many others) that originated across the Atlantic in the British Isles.