With songs by Gladys Bently, Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Blind Boys of Alabama and Kirk Franklin
Last year President #45 claimed he had “made Juneteenth very famous…nobody had ever heard of it.” Utter nonsense, of course. Happily President #46 signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, enshrining June 19 as the national day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. The day is also sometimes called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.”
Juneteenth celebrates the 19th June, 1865, when Union soldiers read the announcement in Galveston, Texas, that all enslaved African-Americans were free, two months after the South has surrendered in the Civil War, and more than two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It is African-Americans’ Independence Day and has traditionally been celebrated with barbeques, parades and parties.
However, a 2021 Gallup survey indicates that more than 60% of Americans know “nothing at all” or only “a little bit” about Juneteenth, which makes the current action to enshrine the day as a national holiday all the more important, as American seeks to comes to terms more fully with its racial history.
It’s an important day, then, not only for African Americans but for the whole country. Historian Kate Masur says that “Juneteenth…should serve not only to remind us of the joy and relief that accompanied the end of slavery, but also of the unfinished work of confronting slavery’s legacy.”
Down at the Crossroads celebrates Juneteenth with four songs. The first is Juneteenth Jamboree, recorded by Gladys Bentley, a Harlem singer, well known in the 1920s and 30s, who hits a note of celebration and joy.
There’s no shirking, no-one’s working Everybody’s stopped Gums are chompin’, corks are poppin’ Doing the Texas hop
Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd recently joined forces with Robert Randolph on steel guitar and veteran blues drummer Tony Coleman to record Hit ‘Em Back, a song which addresses divisiveness and anger within the greater blues community. Copeland said, “I don’t want my music to come from a place of anger because when it does, no one hears you. Let’s educate; let’s open people’s eyes; why can’t we be united?”
The song appeals to our common humanity and the power of love as an answer to division:
Don’t care where you’re born Don’t care where you been The shade of your eyes The color of your skin We all join together
Hit ‘em back Hit ‘em back with love
Our final Juneteenth celebration song, is the Blind Boys of Alabama singing Luther Dickinson’s Prayer for Peace. The song celebrates progress made, but bemoans continued racial division. The song wishes we all could be “color blind.” In the voices and harmonies of the Blind Boys of Alabama, it’s another appeal to our common humanity.
The innocence and love seen in our children’s face Makes me pray ignorance and hate disintegrate into space Shall we pray Pray for peace.
And finally here’s the “Black national anthem” in the United States, a hymn written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson. This is a truly inspirational song, and Kirk Franklin and this fabulous choir, really hit the heights.
God of our weary years God of our silent tears Thou who has brought us thus far on the way Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light Keep us forever in the path, we pray Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee
“Guy Davis is an authentic and spell-binding bluesman, with an incredible voice and a great sense of humour.”
Guy Davis is a hugely talented blues artist, who delights his audiences with his snappy guitar work, gritty vocals, humorous monologues and impressive stage presence. He’s been on the road and making records for more than forty years and is a Grammy nominee, an Emmy-winning actor and author, a multiple Blues Music Award winner, and a past winner of the Blues Foundation’s “Keeping the Blues Alive Award.”
He’s a talented guy who has at times juggled several careers, including author, teacher, and actor on Broadway, film and TV – but it’s as a musical artist and exponent of the blues that he is best known. Although he was raised in New York City, Davis grew up hearing accounts of life in the rural South from his family, especially his grandmother, all of which has inspired his music making which is rich in story-telling. He taught himself guitar and learned by listening to and watching other musicians, becoming a fine country blues acoustic guitar picker.
He’s just released his 19th album, Be Ready When I Call You, released on the M.C. Records label. In some ways it’s what you’d expect of a Guy Davis album – great songs, featuring Guy’s distinctive, growly vocals and rhythmic guitar work, good humour and engaging stories. In another it’s quite different, both musically and lyrically, most of the songs having a strong social commentary.
I was delighted to catch up with Guy to ask him about the new album. How different does he think it is from previous Guy Davis albums, musically or otherwise?
“Well,” he told me, “it’s more World music and more Americana than it is strictly blues. Blues is, I guess, what I specialize in, but some of these other songs were in me and they had to come out! Musically you’ll hear, well, some of the same instrumentation I’ve been using with Professor Louie and those guys, but my arrangements, some are almost orchestral, some have a little Middle Eastern something to them.”
You can definitely notice the blues influence here and there in the album, but as Guy says, it’s musically quite varied. Looking back through his extensive back catalogue, his previous albums have been mostly Davis on acoustic guitar, playing his own style of country blues, but on Be Ready When I Call You, there are songs with a full band. I asked about the band and recording with the other musicians.
“The reason I choose to record so regularly with the guys that I use is that I trust them. I trust them for the way they handle my music, even when I go beyond the blues. I’ve played with them on stage, of course, which is the best way to play with a band. But a lot of the music I created on my own, and when I brought my creations into the studio, I didn’t know all of what these gentlemen were going to do. I would say, I have this idea for so-and-so, and that idea for this song, but they brought something of their own to it. Ultimately, I would approve or not, but more likely I did than not. It made me feel so good.”
Davis wrote all the songs on this album, apart from Howling Wolf’s Spoonful. That suggested that the last year with the pandemic and all of that had been conducive to Guy’s writing process.
“Oh, yes. I have been writing and writing and writing. I have no excuse not to! At the moment I’m down with my daughter and with my girlfriend, but I’ve spent most of the time up in the Bronx, New York, and I had no excuse to not write. So I’ve written a bunch of things that are not on this CD, I’ve got newer stuff than is on here.”
Which sounds like we can look forward to much more good stuff from him before long.
The album has a very interesting range of songs, a number of which address issues in the United States and indeed around the world. One of the stand-outs of the album is God’s Gonna Make Things Over, which addresses the Tulsa Massacre, a horrific incident that took place which took place from 31st May 31 to 1st June, 1921.
In one of the worst incidents of white on black violence in US history, a white mob, many of whom had been deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked the vibrant and prosperous Black Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, reducing it to rubble. In an unspeakable orgy of violence, residents, homes and businesses were subjected to machine gun fire, bombing from the air, arson, looting and beatings. Hundreds were killed and thousands left homeless. Shamefully, there was a news blackout about the event, followed by decades of deliberate cover up – the history was hidden, distorted, and deformed by conspiracy theories or attempts to both-sides it.
It’s the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, so Guy’s song is fitting. The song focuses on the story of a doctor who was accosted and, despite raising his hands up high, was shot dead. Guy told me that he had been at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, and had read a moving account of this doctor who was saving lives. I asked him about the song and the need to deal with the past.
“Well, yeah, to deal with the past, but there is a message from the past, which is that people need humanity, that is, to be treated as humans in order to live. And that is a message for all people. And this particular example shows the tenuous lives of so many black people, especially back then, and it reflects on them now. Humanity is not exclusively an African-American proposition or any one group of people. So hopefully in the midst of pointing out this piece of history – and all of our pieces of history need pointing out – people will recall that this is for all of us. American history in a black perspective.”
The song seems to become personal. The lyrics say, “watch my body, burn me from a tree.” And I wondered if that reflects a sense of the ongoing trauma that African-Americans feel to this day?
“There is indeed a sense of ongoing trauma – the past continues into the present. That was a deliberate choice to switch from the third person to the first person. I decided not to restrict myself in this song and in other songs on this album – they were my impulses and I’ve become willing to take more chances. I am exercising a quality I don’t exercise enough. That is, courage to stand up and say what’s in my heart honestly. And in this song, it was to point at it in an objective historical sense and then to bring it into us.”
That begged the question from me about how important Guy thinks it is for artists to be aware of, and to reflect upon the stuff that’s going on in the world today. How important is it for musical artists to do that?
“I believe it is of paramount importance. But art is informed by the facts of historical reality, and then artists are free to bend it, to stretch it, to do what they need to do. You take, say, Garrison Keillor or even William Shakespeare. What they wrote about was fictional, but just because it wasn’t “true” did not mean that it did not tell the truth. It is an artist’s job is to be able to take the truth and find a new way to express it. That might not be just stating the facts.”
The last song on the album Welcome to my World, which sees Guy in rapper mode, is pretty hard hitting and explicit about America. “You’re rotten to the core, took all we got and you still want more than is due to you.”
He told me that this was how he was feeling at the moment he wrote the song. But, he admitted, “a person my age shouldn’t be involved in rap music probably! Nonetheless I will, because this modern rap has been around for a long time, making up rhymes about what’s going on around us. So welcome to my world! There’s some bitterness in the song, there’s some sarcasm. It’s my attempt to expose things that are true, at least true as I perceive them.”
The lyrics go on to say, “no more, you’re running out of time. You’ve got to toe the line or we’ll make you”, and “you made the movie, but we’re making the sequel,” which is a line I loved. What, I asked Guy is his sense of the possibility for change and for things improving?
“Oh boy, change is a very touchy kind of subject! The one thing I know about human nature is that men and women do not learn from history; we say we do, but we don’t. So, I have to chalk up change as an evolutionary process. Real change happens incrementally with struggle over time. It is the 2020s and we still have to make sure that there’s voting legislation that is in place and that is constitutional – and it’s still a struggle. There are always people who will choose just what is expedient. So, it’s going to take time and a lot of struggle. Change is on the way, but it’s an ongoing process that is slower than it looks like.”
Having said that, as we look at what happened during 2020 with the George Floyd and other murders, I wondered if Guy thought that had accelerated any sort of change?
“It has accelerated all of our recognition of the need for change. There are some people still who are intractable and they think what’s important is money and conservative ethics. Change takes a lot of nurturing, but now our knowledge that change is needed is greater. And so that makes me feel good. And this new generation coming up. They are much more about change, much more willing to change.”
There are a wide range of important issues in Guy Davis’s sights on this album – there are songs addressing refugees, asylum seekers, the poison water in Flint, unemployment, and poverty. He wasn’t holding back!
“No, I’ve never really held back, but these things are so much at the forefront of my consciousness, as well as what’s going on in the world. These are the kinds of issues that would be discussed when I sat at the supper table with my family – the political injustice, the racism, all sorts of things that the world needs to deal with.” Guy went on to say that the music reflects this expansion of his lyrical horizons, in that it goes beyond his normal boundaries in the blues to World music and Americana music.
In terms of World music, there’s a song on the album with a Middle Eastern musical feel to it, Palestine Oh Palestine. Listening to this at the moment is very poignant because of the flare-up of the conflict there. But Davis does the song quite sensitively – important, because obviously that’s a conflict where opinions can be very polarized and there’s been a lot of suffering. He told me that the song was arranged so that the voices representing the two enemies sing on top of each other in such a way that it is ultimately harmonious.
“And that’s my way of saying, everybody needs a voice in this process. The one voice I’m not hearing is from the Palestinians. I want to hear from Palestinian people. And even my song is not a real Palestinian voice. It is just my voice interpreting the situation.”
There is one traditional blues song on the album, is Spoonful, written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1960. It’s a great version with Guy and the band rockin’ their way through it. He told me that it’s a song he really likes, and although it’s a Howling Wolf song, it kind of reminds him of Muddy Waters and has a good feeling to it.
Once Guy gets out playing again, it’s a number that is sure to down very well. I asked him about getting out and playing these songs at some stage.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’ve done a few minor outings in the past weeks. But I’ve forgotten so much about the automatic way I do things when I go somewhere! I don’t know which wire to put where, which box to put here. I have to recreate all of this. People who are my dear friends, we’ve all been vaccinated, but when I went to hug them, I automatically turn my face to the side. I just don’t know what to do anymore!”
Be Ready When I Call Youis on the M.C. Records label, the fourth record they have released together. His previous release on the label was the 2017 Grammy-nominated record with Fabrizio Poggi, Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train.
Vika and Linda Bull are two roots artists that may not have come across your radar. You ought to remedy that straight away! They are two sisters, based in Melbourne, who have been singing, harmonizing and rocking for many years, delighting audiences in their Australian homeland. Along the way, they’ve supported the likes of Billy Joel and have performed with Iggy Pop. The sisters are members of Paul Kelly’s band – Kelly is a hugely successful Australian rock music singer-songwriter and guitarist, whom a Rolling Stone writer claimed to be “one of the finest songwriters I have ever heard.”
Vika and Linda released a new album this year, called Sunday (The Gospel According to Iso, a fabulous album of rootsy, bluesy gospel songs and we got chatting to Linda about it.
But first of all, because a lot of people in the US and Europe may not be familiar with Vika and Linda, despite their success in Australia, I asked Linda how she would characterize their music?
“Well,” she said, “we’re very hard to pigeonhole. We love harmonizing together and singing together and we cover a lot of different genres. We don’t like being pigeonholed. But I think it’s basically roots music is where our heart is – and harmony. Vika and I have got very different tastes, Vika is more rock and I’m a bit more country. And in between we can cover blues, soul, R&B and gospel. And we love to do that. We love to just sing together – regardless of the genre, we just love singing together.”
Turning to the new album, I wondered what “iso” means. Turns out it’s Australian slang for “isolation.” Linda told me:
“Because we made the album in isolation in the first phase of lock-down in Melbourne, not knowing then that we would have two. The background of the record is that we’ve been singing gospel music for probably about 35 years now.” She and Vika have made a few gospel-tinged recordings along the way, but “this one in its entirety is kind of the next step. We had restrictions with lock-down, so we made it minimally. And I think gospel music actually works really well like that. It works really well when you have very few instruments.”
The album is something of a gem, really pared back, largely featuring the wonderful harmonizing of the two sisters, and backed mostly by piano with those lovely sort of gospel chords that you get with the piano.
“We have piano all over it, in every track, and our musical director, Cameron Bruce, is a beautiful piano player. We’ve worked with him in Paul Kelly’s band, and he took charge of everything with us, helped to select the songs with a lot of zoom meetings. Cameron arranged the songs and then sent them back to us as files and we sang over the top.”
The Gospel According to Iso has 13 gospel songs (with a bit of latitude, we’ll count Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Chuck Berry’s Downbound Train as gospel!), mostly old traditional songs or spirituals like Sinnerman, Walk With Me Lord and Jesus on the Mainline. The album kicks off with a rockin’ version of Claude Ely’s Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down, and once you hear these two sisters harmonizing, and the bluesy vocals, you know this is an album you want to hear. The high quality is sustained throughout, and even though the arrangements are relatively sparse, there’s a nice variety to the way each of the songs is handled.
The album, Linda told me, all sprang from a weekly Sunday sing-song that she and Vika started to do when everything stopped in Australia early in the year. “I went out on Facebook and Instagram live every Sunday morning at 11:00am and we did one gospel song. That grew in popularity to the point where we thought we could make a record. We’d just ring a friend, they played guitar, we’d sing over the top, and we thought we could make a record like that.”
Why, I wondered, did they choose this particular selection of songs?
“We had lots of gospel songs in our back catalogue that we’ve been singing over the years, but we wanted to do something new. So I dug into the gospel collection that I had amassed over the years and we had about 70 songs from all different sources. Then we whittled it down and the focus was mainly just to do something that meant something to us and bring a bit of joy because it was pretty sort of sad over here – and everywhere.
“But we wanted also songs that people knew. So we have Bridge Over Troubled Water and Amazing Grace. But then there are other songs that we thought, we’ll just throw those into the pot because we love singing them – songs by Mahalia Jackson and so on. That’s how it came together.”
It’s a great selection of songs, but I particularly like Rosetta Tharpe’s Strange Things Happening Every Day. It’s got a very distinctive Rosetta Tharpe feel about it, with both the piano and guitar work echoing her original version. Linda said she liked Rosetta’s “rock and roll attitude. That’s kind of right up our alley.”
The other song I asked about was Elder Curry’s Memphis Flu. Curry was a singing preacher and guitar player who preached fiery sermons through his songs, backed by the barrelhouse piano of Elder Beck, and featured the stomping feet and clapped hands of his congregation. Recorded in 1930 for Okeh Records, Memphis Flu refers to the flu’ season of 1929 which was the worst since the 1919 pandemic. Death rates were very high, particularly in the Memphis region. The song is often thought of as the first rock’n’roll record and the original is a toe-tapping rocker all right. But Curry’s lyrics are pretty harsh. For Curry influenza was a manifestation of God’s wrath at sinners and there was little compassion for the large numbers of people who’d died as a result of the flu’.
Linda said that when she stumbled across the song, she thought how perfect it was for the current situation – but “the lyrics were very direct. So we tweaked them a bit in the choruses. It’s a gospel song of course, but you’re not going to die if you don’t go to church! But we thought the song was perfect for record. We weren’t sure whether people would love it or hate it!”
Actually, you can’t help but love Vika and Linda’s version, driven by a rollicking barrelhouse piano. The amended version of the song is well-chosen, actually, so timely, and with a great message talking about the epidemic getting the rich and the poor alike, and saying that it’s going to get a whole more if you don’t listen up and behave. Wear your masks people!
I asked Linda if there’d been any sort of pushback against science and wearing masks in Australia?
“There was a bit of a pushback. Yes, there were marches and demonstrations and anti-mask-wearing demonstrations, but all in all, you know, in the middle of all this, there was a black lives matter movement, and people were very observant of wearing a mask and they still went out and protested, so people in general were pretty good. No one loves wearing a mask or being told what to do – I get it, you know, but the result was good.”
Talking about black lives matter, the spectre of racism is something that we’re all increasingly aware of these days. What, I asked Linda, has been her experience in Australia, with her Tongan background?
“Well, yes, we have dark skin. So obviously we look different. So we have experienced a certain amount of racism, but nothing like our mother experienced.” The sisters’ mother came to Australia during the White Australia Policy, which from 1901 basically sought to forbid or restrict people of non-European ethnic origin, especially Asians and Pacific Islanders, from immigrating to Australia. It was only legally disbanded in the mid-1970s.
The racism encountered by Linda and her sister has been “nowhere near as much as the previous generation. So it’s getting easier in some ways, but we feel very strongly about being treated equally, and why shouldn’t we? We are respectful, but we are direct, so I always say we stand up for ourselves.”
The sisters are half Tongan – Tonga is a Polynesian neighbour of Australia, and it’s a heritage they feel proud of.
“Polynesian culture is very strong in our family. And the way they sing – when they sing in church, time pretty much time stops, it’s so beautiful. That’s how we were raised. We were raised listening to the Tongans sing in church, and that’s where we get our voices from. Because they taught us, our mother taught us.”
From listening to Linda and Vika, I’d sure love to visit one of those Tongan churches.
“Everyone we take cries when they see the Tongans fire up…as soon as you walk into the church and they start singing and they get into it, how can you help but not be moved?”
The album finishes with a beautiful, unaccompanied Amazing Grace. The slow tempo and the pure quality of the voices make it an appropriately emotional end to the album. There’s something about this song that seems to appeal to almost everybody, so I asked Linda what she thought it is about gospel music that has such a wide appeal even to people of no faith?
“I think that it’s uplifting and it’s one of those sort of genres that you can lean on when feeling a bit down, or when you could do with an uplift. It lends itself naturally to that sort of universal feeling. You know, we all want to live a little bit better sometimes. Although we grew up in a church and had a very religious upbringing, we think this music is for everybody. And I think that we love singing it because for us, it’s a release. I think it’s ultimately our aim with a gospel record to make people feel better, whether they believe or not.”
Sadly, with the restrictions still in place because of the pandemic, the Bull sisters haven’t been able to go out and play on the road. But, Linda told me, they can’t wait to sing these songs to a live audience. Hearing these two sing these songs live is going to be some experience. I just hope I get the opportunity to hear them.
The blues emerged in the context of the oppression and suffering of Black communities in the southern US, and singing the blues was a means of responding to that oppression – of giving voice to great sorrow, lamenting the current state of affairs, but also of expressing dignity in the face of injustice. The blues also were a means of protest against this injustice.
That’s worth noting at this time when the United States is facing a reckoning for the racism that has dogged it for such a long time. The push-back against white supremacy, police brutality and a myriad of social barriers faced by Blacks and other people of colour can’t be simply ignored or written off.
There have been plenty of today’s artists protesting the current lamentable state of affairs and all that has led to it – Leyla McCalla’s recently released Vari-Colored Songs, an album’s whose centerpiece, Song for a Dark Girl, is a stark account of a lynching “way down south in Dixie,” a powerful reminder of the relatively recent history of terrorism against Black communities.
Gary Clark Jr.’s This Land is a howl of protest which rails against the suspicion he gets as a Black man in Trump’s America; Shemekia Copeland’s Would You Take My Blood on her America’s Child album gets to the heart of racism; Otis Taylor’s trance blues in Fantasizing About Being Black, a history of African-American life, from slavery onwards, has Jump Out of Line, an edgy piece about civil rights marchers’ fear of being attacked; and Eric Bibb’s last album had What’s He Gonna Say Today, protesting the “bully in the playground,” aimed directly at Trump.
But the history of the blues is littered with songs protesting inequality, discrimination and White violence against Blacks. Given the huge inequality that existed, and the whole structuring of society that existed under Jim Crow, it would have been impossible for blues artists to sing protest songs in the way that they were sung in the 1960s when the Civil Rights’ movement had gathered momentum. Often the protest was coded, although sometimes it broke through the surface quite clearly. Although the majority of blues songs are about the troubles of love, there is a steady stream of social protest from the early days right through to the present.
In 1930, Huddie Ledbetter – Lead Belly – recorded a song entitled simply Jim Crow, in which he bemoans the state of affairs facing him every day of his life, everywhere he goes:
I been traveling, I been traveling from shore to shore
Everywhere I have been I find some old Jim Crow.
He can’t get away from the racial discrimination he faces – it’s there even when he goes to the cinema to be entertained:
I want to tell you people something that you don’t know
It’s a lotta Jim Crow in a moving picture show.
And finally he pleads with his hearers, “Please get together, break up this old Jim Crow.”
In the early 1930s, nine Black teenagers from Scottsboro in Alabama were accused of raping two white women aboard a train. The case highlighted the racism of the Jim Crow system and the injustice of the entire Southern legal system. In a series of trials and re-trials, which were rushed, and adjudicated on by all-white juries and racially biased judges, the nine boys suffered incarceration in the brutally harsh Kilby Prison in Alabama, and attempted lynching and mob violence.
After three trials, during which one of the young white women who were alleged to be victims had confessed to fabricating her rape story, five of the nine were convicted and received sentences ranging from 75 years imprisonment to death. The one who received the death sentence subsequently escaped, went into hiding and was eventually pardoned by George Wallace in 1976. The case was a landmark one and led eventually to the end of all-white juries in the South.
Lead Belly recorded Scottsboro Boys in 1938, where he warns Black people not to go to Alabama lest they suffer the same fate as the Scottsboro nine:
I’m gonna tell all the colored people
Even the old n* here
Don’t ya ever go to Alabama
And try to live
Lead Belly was clearly not afraid to voice his protest against what he experienced. He also wrote Bourgeois Blues, perhaps the most famous example of 1930s blues protest songs. Leadbelly here sings about his experience of discrimination in the nation’s capital city:
Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a n* just to see him bow
Lord, it’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around
Lead Belly talks about looking for accommodation and being turned away by the white landlord:
Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say “I don’t want no n*s up there.
America, according to Lead Belly may have been hailed as “The home of the Brave, the land of the Free,” but it was just somewhere where he was “mistreated” by the “bourgeoisie.”
The Great Depression hit black communities in the South particularly hard. Skip James’s 1931 Hard Time Killing FloorBlues captures the grim reality of the time for many people, with James’s high eerie voice and his D-minor tuned guitar. “The people are drifting from door to door” and they “can’t find no heaven.”
Hard time’s is here
An ev’rywhere you go
Times are harder
Than th’ever been befo’.
One of the blues artists who was most articulate about civil rights during this period was Josh White, who was born in 1914 and recorded under the names “Pinewood Tom” and “Tippy Barton” in the 1930s. He became a well-known race records artist during the 1920s and 30s, moving to New York in 1931, and expanding his repertoire to include not only blues but jazz and folk songs. In addition, he became a successful actor on radio, the stage and film. White was outspoken about segregation and human rights and was suspected of being a communist in the McCarthyite era of the early 1950s.
In 1941 he released one of his most influential albums, Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues. The title track pulls no punches:
Well, I work all the week in the blazin’ sun,
Can’t buy my shoes, Lord, when my payday comes
I ain’t treated no better than a mountain goat,
Boss takes my crop and the poll takes my vote.
The album of mostly 12 bar blues songs, included Jim Crow Train, Bad Housing Blues, and Defense Factory Blues. White attacked wartime factory segregation in the latter with, “I’ll tell you one thing, that bossman ain’t my friend, If he was, he’d give me some democracy to defend.”
In Jim Crow Train, he addresses the segregation on the railways:
Stop Jim Crow so I can ride this train.
Black and White folks ridin side by side.
Damn that Jim Crow.
On White’s 1940 Trouble, he leaves no doubt about the cause of black people’s problems: “Well, I always been in trouble, ‘cause I’m a black-skinned man.” The rest of the song deals with the failed justice system of the time and the inhuman conditions which black inmates suffered when incarcerated:
Wearin’ cold iron shackles from my head down to my knee
And that mean old keeper, he’s all time kickin’ me.
As a black man under Jim Crow, all White could expect from life was “Trouble, trouble, makes me weep and moan, Trouble, trouble, ever since I was born.”
Big Bill Broonzy was one of the most popular and important of the pre-World War II blues singers, who recorded over 250 songs from 1925 to 1952, including Key to the Highway, Black, Brown, and White, Glory of Love and When Will I Get to Be Called a Man. He was a very talented musician, song writer and singer, who Eric Clapton said was a role model for him in playing the acoustic guitar.
Broonzy claims in his autobiography that he joined the army sometime after 1917, and fought in World War I in France, and on returning to the South, he found conditions there quite intolerable. A more recent biography of Broonzy doubts his story of joining up, but there can be no doubting the injustice which Broonzy encountered as a black man in the South. He refers to the way in which black men were referred to disparagingly as “boy” by whites in his 1951 song, I Wonder When I’ll Be Called a Man.
When I was born into this world, this is what happened to me I was never called a man, and now I’m fifty-three I wonder when…I wonder when will I get to be called a man
Do I have to wait till I get ninety-three?
Black, Brown and White, recorded in 1951, rails against the discrimination that Broonzy found everywhere, be it getting a drink at a bar, being paid less money for doing the same job, or even just getting a job:
They says if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, stick around
But as you’s black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back.
Muddy Waters also highlighted the patriarchal attitudes of whites to blacks in his 1955 release Manish Boy, which on the surface is a rather sensual blues song declaring, “I’m a natural born lover’s man,” and “I’m a hoochie coochie man.” (The hoochie coochie was a sexually provocative dance that became wildly popular in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. The dance was performed by women, so a “hoochie coochie man” either watched them or ran the show). In the context of a black man never being recognized as anything other than a “boy,” however, the song asserts black manhood in the face of white suppression. “I’m a man, I’m a full grown man,” sings Muddy, “I spell M-A, child, N”
Another major and influential blues artist from Mississippi was John Lee Hooker, son of a sharecropper, who came to prominence in the late 1940s and 50s. His House Rent Boogie from 1956 protests the all too familiar tale for black American of losing a job and not being able to make the rent payment; “I said fellows, never go behind your rent, ‘cause if you did it, it will hard so it’s cold in the street.”
The wail of protest in the blues continued on into that decade most associated with protest songs, the 1960s. From 1961 we have the guitar – harmonica duo of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee singing Keep on Walkin’ which takes up again the theme of Blacks being worked hard for little pay:
The bossman was so mean, you know, I worked just like a slave
Sixteen long hours drive you in your grave
That’s why I’m walkin’, walkin’ my blues away.
And then we have Vietnam Blues by J.B. Lenoir, from 1966. Drawing an elegant parallel between the US’s presence in Southeast Asia and the Jim Crow South, Lenoir demanded of President Lyndon Johnson, “How can you tell the world we need peace, and you still mistreat and killin’ poor me?”
Lenoir came to Chicago via New Orleans and became an important part of the blues scene there in the 1950s, performing with Memphis Minnie and Muddy Waters. He was a fine singer and a great showman, sporting zebra striped costumes and nifty electric guitar licks.
But Lenoir composed a number of political blues songs bringing sharp social commentary to bear on events going on around him. Songs like Born Dead, which decries the fact that “Every black child born in Mississippi, you know the poor child is born dead,” referring to the lack of opportunity in his home state; or Eisenhower Blues, which complains that the government had “Taken all my money, to pay the tax.” Lenoir also composed the haunting “Down in Mississippi,” which he performed on his 1966 Alabama Blues. “Down in Mississippi where I was born, Down in Mississippi where I come from,” sings Lenoir,
They had a huntin’ season on a rabbit
If you shoot him you went to jail.
The season was always open on me:
Nobody needed no bail.
He concludes about the place of his birth, “I count myself a lucky man, Just to get away with my life.” The definitive version of the song, however, was to come some 40 years later, when Mavis Staples recorded it on her album We’ll Never Turn Back, Staples adding a little to the song about segregated water fountains and washeterias and how “Dr King saw that every one of those signs got taken down, down in Mississippi.”
Mavis Staples had already made her protest against three hundred years of injustice in 1970 with the no-punches-pulled When Will We Be Paid? The song demanded an answer to the exploitation of Black Americans in the construction of America’s roads and railroads, in the domestic chores their women have done and the wars in which their men have fought. Despite this contribution to the making of America over 300 years, all the remuneration Staples’s people got was being “beat up, called names, shot down and stoned.” “We have given our sweat and all our tears,” she sings, so, “When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?”
In a similar vein, complaining about the discrimination they faced, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee & Earl Hooker in Tell Me Why in 1969 sang,
Every war that’s been won, we helped to fight
Why in the world can’t we have some human rights?
Tell me why?
They give the cruel answer themselves – “It’s got to be my skin, that people don’t like.”
And one of the most hard hitting of songs in the blues genre is Mississippi Goddamn, written and sung by Nina Simone in 1964.
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last.
The song was Simone’s response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black children. She performed the song in front of 10,000 people at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches.
The blues chart the history of the indignities face by African Americans over the decades. The blues allowed Black Americans to assert their humanity and dignity in the context of an oppressive system that declared they were less than human. Whether the songs expressed explicit protest at this or not (and most blues songs didn’t), the blues, nevertheless, was Black music and, whether they were complaining about unfaithful lovers or problems with the landlord, whether they were performed as dance music in the juke joint or sung on the street corner, they reflected the abuse and indignities suffered by blacks under Jim Crow and beyond. No wonder Black theologian and writer, James Cone, said, the blues are “the essential ingredients that define the essence of black experience.”
Willie Dixon gets it spot on when he says “The blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding.” In telling the truth about the misery of black experience, but as well as that, a hope for change, the blues were a part of the endurance and resistance of the Black community.
For many white listeners to the blues, the blues are at heart a genre of music, a certain musical form, twelve bars, flattened notes, blue notes. But if we listen carefully, we can hear the history of people who have been sorely mistreated; we can, perhaps, get some understanding of what it means to be Black. But it does require careful listening. And that listening is as urgent as ever just now.
Finally, to help us stop and listen, here is the ultimate protest song written by Abel Meeropol and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. Strange Fruit.
Lynching is a terrible stain on the history of the United States. Between 1882 and 1968, around 5,000 people were lynched, 73% of them black. It was a form of terrorism on the black community, particularly in the Southern States, with the Klu Klux Klan and other paramilitary groups ruthlessly defending white supremacy. Lynching was brutal, and involved torture, mutilation, hanging and burning.
One man who remembers the terror of lynching is Freeman Vines, born in 1942 in Greene County in North Carolina. He’s the focus of a quite remarkable book, which features a stunning set of photographs of Vines, his guitars and his environment by Timothy Duffy and input from folklorist Zoe Van Buren.
Vines is an intriguing character, who has had a colourful life reflective of the struggles and hardships of African Americans in the 20th century, and I had the opportunity to chat to him about his life and the book. But the focus of the book is on one particular aspect of Vines’s life – his crafting of guitars from a tree near where he lived that had been used for lynching. In one sense this may seem somewhat morbid, but the project serves to highlight the horror of lynching and how its spectre still hovers over America. And, indeed, the ongoing white violence that many people of colour still face.
For Freeman, having been given the black walnut wood which he had been told had come from a lynching tree, he was simply building more guitars, looking for the elusive sound he had been searching for over many years as a guitar maker. That was the holy grail, it seems, that had driven his art during his life.
But as he worked on the guitars at night, “strange things started to happen,” and the guitar work seemed to take on a life of its own and he ended up carving “some horrific figures” on them. “You had to see ‘em and play ‘em to know what I’m talking about.” About the finished articles, he told me he was glad to see them go, because “I was real uncomfortable with them around me.” The project took a considerable emotional toll on Vines; he said he was worried “about how that boy had to die,” referring to Oliver Moore, a young man who was last person to be lynched on the tree in 1930. His body was riddled with over 200 bullets.
The book documents photographer Timothy Duffy’s investigations about where the wood had come from, resulting in him meeting a woman whose great-grandfather had orchestrated the last lynching to take place on the tree. Freeman didn’t want to know the details about what had taken place, because he told me, “some of them people still live down here,” obviously anxious about relations with his neighbours.
Freeman Vines has lived with racism all his life. When he was growing up the Klu Klux Klan was very active where he lived and billboards declared “You are in the heart of Klan country: welcome to North Carolina.”
“I remember all kinds of stuff,” he told me, before going on to relate a horrific story of an old man he knew when he was a boy who was falsely accused of exposing himself to a white woman and who was abducted and dragged behind a truck until he died. “The white man,” he says, “is a dangerous man.” Even today, I asked him, in 2020? “Yeah, it ain’t no joke, man.” Racism he said, “is about the same way it’s always been.”
Tim Duffy, self-portrait
Hanging Tree Guitars is also about the photographer, Timothy Duffy, who met and befriended Freeman Vines and began to photograph the guitars he made. Duffy specializes in collodion wet plate processing for his photography, an early form of photographic processing which requires a darkroom in the field. Although invented at the end of the nineteenth century, there has been a revival of interest in the method, and certainly, Duffy’s photographs, which are a major feature of the book, are nothing short of stunning. They have an aged quality to them which entirely suits the subject matter, and you’d buy the book just for the photographs.
Duffy says that the journey he took photographing Vines’s work and pursuing the story behind the hanging tree “has had a profound impact on me, all of which I have yet to understand.” The book, then, is very much the story of the intersection of two artists, from two very different worlds, one white, one black, and both working in completely different media. The two formed a seemingly unlikely friendship, helped it seems, according to Freeman, by Duffy’s wife’s feeding him the “best rice and chicken I ever ate.” At the same time, Timothy Duffy and the book’s author, Zoe Van Buran, speak of the hospitality they received on Freeman’s porch.
But ultimately, the book is about Freeman Vines and the insight his life gives us to the past and its legacy. Freeman, whose very name points back to America’s troubled past, was born in poverty in North Carolina. His family lived on a white man’s farm where his mother worked as a “housewoman,” cleaning, washing and cooking and being paid in groceries and clothes. Vines said it was worse than the days of slavery because “you had the idea that you were free, but you weren’t.”
By the time he was fourteen Freeman Vines was doing time in the penitentiary. When I asked him about that, he preferred not to talk about the circumstances surrounding this, except to tell me that he learned to read and write from comic books in the prison library.
He started building his own guitars after playing the blues from a desire to find his own sound – “I didn’t want to sound like the average blues man.” He had heard a gospel musician play a guitar when he was young and that sound has haunted him ever since – “a most disturbing sound, but pleasing and comfortable.”
“Each wood has its own sound when you’re cutting and sanding on it, but you have to be alone to hear it.” The sound, he says, “is already there,” and all you have to do is do the carving and release it. I asked him if there was a particular wood that he liked, maybe cedar or walnut or pine, and he told me that the best wood he’d ever found was the tight-grained pine from the soundboard of a 175-year-old Steinway piano. Freeman Vines is not your regular luthier.
He built guitars for over 50 years, experimenting with woods and pick-ups, but has never yet found what he’s been looking for – “I know I ain’t never gonna find that sound, because I’m too old now.” Yet his guitars made their way into the hands of various professional, touring musicians, both blues and gospel artists. “They was ugly guitars,” said Freeman, “I didn’t even know they sounded so good until I heard them on recordings.” Freeman had never been satisfied with what he heard from Fender and Gibson electric guitars and always felt his guitars, although not finely finished, lacquered or stained, were superior.
Freeman Vines has four sisters who make up the famous gospel group, the Glorifying Vines Sisters, who first recorded in the 1970s and are still making music. Freeman went a different direction, but in the book he is quoted as saying he had been very moved by his sister being healed at a gospel meeting and was considering becoming a Christian himself. Sadly, he told me, the recovery didn’t last, but Freeman said he was still thinking about faith.
The book quotes Freeman as saying, “A person has to have a purpose to live.” I asked him what his purpose has been. For Freeman, it’s all about his work as an artist – “What excites me is wood I can communicate with.” And he’s got a new batch in, “highly figured,” which he was clearly pretty excited about. It’s a great thing, to still be excited about what you do when you’re nearly 80 years old.
The story of Freeman Vines and the hanging tree guitars is a remarkable one and a sobering one. It holds a mirror up to the troubled past, and present of America. At the same time, the book gives a quite remarkable picture of the deep engagement of two artists, Vines and Duffy, over a period of years, and the impact that had on both men. It is an utterly absorbing work, disturbing in some ways, and quite unique. Zoe Van Buren’s handling and presentation of the material is masterful and her afterword quite beautifully written.
There is a companion CD available to go with the book, 12 songs from Duffy’s archive. along with three songs performed by the Vines family, which provide a glimpse into the music that inspired Freeman Vines’s lifelong search for a tone.
The project was supported by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which was founded by Timothy Duffy and his wife Denise Duffy and which seeks to give relief to senior American roots musicians. Hanging Tree Guitars is published by Bitter Southerner in conjunction with Music Maker Relief Foundation.
So, the President of the United States and those surrounding him didn’t know what Juneteenth is. Trump said that “a black Secret Service agent” had to tell him what the day meant. He’s now claiming, because he’s decided to move the date of his campaign rally, that he “made Juneteenth very famous…nobody had ever heard of it.” Utter nonsense, of course.
An incredible show of racial ignorance and insensitivity at the very top of white America, which speaks volumes about the systematic racism that exists.
But on this year’s Juneteenth, more Americans than ever before will be celebrating the day which marks the end of slavery, with many major companies adding it as a paid holiday. Juneteenth celebrates the 19th June, 1865, when Union soldiers read the announcement in Galveston, Texas, that all enslaved African-Americans were free, two months after the South had surrendered in the Civil War, and more than two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
It’s widely thought of as African-Americans’ Independence Day and has traditionally been celebrated with barbeques, parades and parties. The struggle for equality, of course, is clearly not over for African-Americans, as demonstrated by recent and on-going events and the racist-fuelled resistance to change at the very top. But perhaps the marking of Juneteenth by more than the black community is some grounds for hope.
Down at the Crossroads celebrates Juneteenth with two songs. The first is Juneteenth Jamboree, first recorded by Gladys Bentley, a Harlem singer, well known in the 1920s and 30s.
There’s no shirking, no-one’s working
Gums are chompin’, corks are poppin’
Doing the Texas hop
The second song, Uncivil War, has just been released by Shemekia Copeland. It was written by Will Kimbrough and John Hahn, who said in a recent Forbes interview “I didn’t want to write something that added to the divisiveness. I wanted to say ‘come on guys, we’re better than this, we’ve gotta stop fighting.’”
Copeland’s new album isn’t due to be released until August but she wanted to put this song out sooner because of what’s been happening in the United States.
Copeland says she does feel anger at what faces her community, but that she doesn’t “misdirect my anger…that’s why you don’t see me being just angry; I’m more interested in systemic racism. I’m more interested in our system being infiltrated with supremacists like the Senate and Congress and the police force. Those are the types of things that I think about: the system and figuring out how to change it in some way. And those are the things that I get angry about – I’m just not walking through my daily life being p*****d off at people; because I don’t have that kind of hate or anger in my art.”
Here’s her Uncivil War, which is both challenging and hopeful. Happy Juneteenth!
“I’m tired of posting social media – I got a black husband, a black son. I’m tired of them killing us. This is the civil rights movement and it’s 2020.” Fatima, from Brooklyn
Layla McCalla posted a new version of her Song for a Dark Girl, Langston Hughes’s poem set to music and said,
“When you hear of another innocent black person getting killed by the police, you never get the full picture of them. The narrative always follows along the lines of – They were black, things escalated and they were killed by well-meaning white people. You don’t see or hear about the people that they loved or who loved them.
I’ve been singing this song for years and the words were first published in 1927. It’s interesting how song meanings change and apply to different situations over time. This song breaks my heart but I have to keep singing it.”
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.
America is reeling from the death at the hands of the police of George Floyd. Mr Floyd’s death comes hot on the heels of the incident where Ahmaud Arbery, a black man in southeast Georgia, was pursued by three white men and killed, and the fatal shooting by the police in Kentucky of Breonna Taylor a black woman. Layla McCalla’s song traces America’s long history of racism back to the lynchings of the early 20th century. But if course it goes back much further than that.
As far as the blues is concerned, they grew up in the iniquity of the Jim Crow era in the United States and were a visceral response to the suffering and afflictions of the black community. Skip James’s Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues captures the grim reality of the time for his community:
“Hard times is here
An’ everywhere you go,
Times are harder than ever been before.”
Leadbelly’s 1930 Jim Crow bemoaned the social situation he was in and pleaded, “Please get together, break up this old Jim Crow.” A few years later, in Bourgeois Blues, he takes issue with the idea of America being the “land of the free” and “home of the brave” – for Leadbelly, it was somewhere he was “mistreated” by the “bourgeoisie.” Shortly after that, Josh White gave us Southern Exposure, where he complains he “ain’t treated no better than a mountain goat.”
And Josh White’s Trouble in 1940 says bluntly, “Well, I always been in trouble, ‘cause I’m a black-skinned man.” All he could expect from life was “Trouble, trouble, ever since I was born.”
Clearly there has been change, but racism remains entrenched. Systemic racism is still a problem facing the black community. In a Guardian newspaper article from a while back, Gary Younge defined racism as “a system of discrimination planted by history, nourished by politics and nurtured by economics, in which some groups face endemic disadvantage” and went on to say that, “The reality of modern racism is…the institutional marginalisation of groups performed with the utmost discretion and minimum of fuss by well-mannered and often well-intentioned people working in deeply flawed systems.”
Blavity, a website geared toward black millennials argued that the fires in Minneapolis reflected “the rage of Black protesters fed up seeing the lives of our brothers and sisters robbed by racism…We are fed up because we are forced to fight a pandemic amid a pandemic…We are being disproportionately killed by systemic and overt racism at the same time — and are expected to accept these deadly conditions.”
Despite the evidence that just goes on building up, incredibly you have the national security adviser Robert O’Brien denying in an interview on CNN that systemic racism exists in the US: “No, I don’t think there’s systemic racism…there are some bad cops that are racist and there are cops that maybe don’t have the right training.” The long record of police brutality and the fact that black families need to coach their children in how to appear subservient to law enforcement in order to stay safe tells a different story.
As does the statistic that in Minneapolis more than 2,600 misconduct complaints have been filed by members of the public since 2012 but only 12 have resulted in an officer being disciplined.
A basic starting point for those of us who are white, said New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof, is “to wake from our ongoing mass delusions, to recognize that in practice black lives have not mattered as much as white lives, and that this is an affront to values that we all profess to believe in.”
It’s certainly an affront to Christian faith. The God of the Bible is one who “loves justice” and cares for the poor and oppressed. Just read the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets if you’ve any doubt about that. Here are the prophet Amos’s hard-hitting words:
“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making…
Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”
Jesus declared those blessed who sought after justice and peace. The apostle Paul said that the kingdom of God consisted of “justice, peace and joy.” He also said that equality in Christ trumped all human divisions.
The challenge for us all, and particularly for people of faith, is to understand how black America is feeling right now. The challenge is to share in the anger about systemic racism that has gone on for far too long.
This blog is about the blues – but the blues were forged at a time of deep distress and racial oppression, and they continue to be a howl of protest about the evil of racism.
Josh White speaks the truth in Free and Equal Blues: “Every man, everywhere is the same, when he’s got his skin off…That’s the free and equal blues!”
“I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.”
As the credits rolled at the end of Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet, I found my eyes welling up, moved by the depiction of this powerful woman, whose determination and heroic action had helped expose slavery for the pernicious evil that it is and rescue hundreds of black women, men and children from the slave-owning South.
Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of Tubman is masterful, giving you a ready sense of the doughty, fearless character of the woman who not only escaped herself from the Maryland farm where she was enslaved, but then returned again and again, as a conductor on the Underground Railway, to free others. “Slavery,” Tubman said, “is the next thing to hell,” but vowed that “I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.”
In a recent interview Lemmons made no apology for highlighting Harriet Tubman’s faith and her sense of God’s guidance in the movie. She spoke of “consulting with God,” during her perilous expeditions south and trusted that God would keep her safe. Fellow abolitionist Thomas Garrett said of her, “I never met any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God.”
Black theologian James Cone noted that black slaves were not passive – they resisted the bondage they suffered in a whole range of ways. One of these was the sort of religion they developed. The Christianity embraced by many blacks in slavery was not just that of their masters. The idea of Christianity that black slaves embraced was one where freedom and liberation was vigorously affirmed and one where black humanity was affirmed, despite everything that slavery and white people said.
So black people shouted and prayed, preached and sang about a God who was not confined to the powerful and the free. A God who was for them and loved them and who was their source of strength and dignity in the midst of the trials and hardships of life. A God to whom they looked for deliverance, not just when this life was over, but right now, from the torment of slavery.
The movie also features Tubman using Spirituals to communicate with other slaves in her rescue missions. Coded songs contained words giving directions on how to escape also known as signal songs or where to meet known as map songs. She used “Wade in the Water” to tell slaves to get into the water to avoid being seen and make it through. This is an example of a map song, where directions are coded into the lyrics. “Steal away” meant to sneak into the woods for a secret slave meeting and “Swing low, Sweet Chariot” was used by slaves looking over the Ohio river – “I looked over Jordan and what did I see?” where the chariot was the means of transport northward. I’d read about this before, but as I watched the movie, I began to see how it really could work.
The movie rips along at a thrilling pace, with the tension at times almost unbearable. It’s a great story, it makes for great cinema, with a focus on courage and liberation rather than the horror of slavery (not that this this atrocity and blight on American history is glossed over). It really is a travesty that this is the first significant movie to be made about Harriet Tubman. But then, she has rarely been accorded the recognition she is due. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse, laundress, and spy with Union forces along the coast of South Carolina and was one of the few American women to lead an armed assault – yet despite numerous honours, she spent her last years in poverty.
Most of all, Harriet is a tribute to a remarkable woman, a true American hero. When asked by a BBC interviewer what had happened to the Harriet Tubman $20 bill, Lemmons said simply, “Trump happened,” but went on to express confidence that Harriet would be celebrated in this way in due course. Let’s hope Harriet helps keep the pressure on the US Treasury.
It features a chat about Songs of Our Native Daughters, a stunning album by four women roots artists, Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah, between Gary Burnett and podcast producer, Gemma Burnett, followed by an revealing interview with Bird’s of Chicago’s Allison Russell, in which she talks about the making of the album and her own family history.
“We had this kind of amazing experience of living together, working together, for twelve days and it was just kind of a creative explosion for each of us.”
Robert Johnson is an almost mythical figure in the history of the blues. The chronology of his life is somewhat hazy – we are unsure even of when he was born but it was probably around 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. The circumstances of his death have been much discussed, along with the question of where he was buried, but it is likely he was murdered in 1938 – poisoned – by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had taken up with. We know the date of some of the recordings he made and we have a legacy of 41 tracks he recorded of just 29 songs. And yet, for all his short life and mediocre recording output, Johnson is probably the most influential of all the Delta bluesmen – undoubtedly because of his inventive, versatile and masterful guitar playing and his energized singing, which included growls, shouts and tuneful falsetto. And, because Johnson was able “to transform the blues into marketable popular music” (Ted Giola).
Johnson was relatively unknown in his own lifetime and for some decades after his death, but after the reissue of his recordings in 1961 on the LP King of the Delta Blues Singers, he became a blues star, admired and popularized by blues and rock performers from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton to Jeff Beck to Jimi Hendrix. Clapton said of Johnson, “At first the music almost repelled me, it was so intense, and this man made no attempt to sugarcoat what he was trying to say, or play. It was hard-core, more than anything I had ever heard. After a few listenings I realized that, on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man’s example would be my life’s work.” In his book Chronicles, Bob Dylan said, “When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.”
One of Johnson’s most influential songs has been Hell Hound on My Trail, recorded in 1937. It was the first song recorded during Johnson’s last recording session in Dallas, Texas on Sunday, June 20, 1937 and the first single released from that session. Inspired by earlier blues songs, it is considered one of Johnson’s “best known and most admired performances—many would say it is his greatest” (Giola).
The theme of the song is a familiar one for bluesmen of the time – “rambling”, never staying too long in one spot:
I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on worryin’ me
There’s a hellhound on my trail.
The theme seems similar at first to another song Johnson recorded, Ramblin’ on My Mind – I got ramblin’, I got ramblin’ on my mind / Hate to leave my baby but you treats me so unkind. Like many of his contemporaries, Johnson was in constant motion, moving from town to town around the Delta and greater Mississippi. And from woman to woman. David “Honeyboy” Edwards said of Johnson, “He loved whiskey and he loved women. That’s two things he was crazy about”. But maybe there’s more to Hellhound than the itinerant bluesman who never likes to stay in one place too long, who is unfaithful to his woman and just wants to catch the next train.
The blues, says Adam Gussow in his book, Seems Like Murder Here, “are a way of symbolizing what unconsciously oppresses the black blues subject – the ever-pressuring white gaze, periodic eruptions of ritualized mob-violence, the blackened knuckles and pickled fingers strewn across the lynching South.” He suggests that the blues are a way of expressing the feeling produced by all that, even though the lyrics may not directly address it.
For Gussow, an understanding of the blues starts with the lynchings and violent realities of African American life in the Jim Crow South. Although “most of what might be called “lynching blues” …are semi-obscure and remain arguable,” and most blues lyrics do not intentionally refer either directly or indirectly to lynching, they do, however, “express the pressured, nightmare-strewn subjectivities that it was the intention of white southern terror to produce.” The blues, Gussow argues, was a creative, artistic response to the oppressive environment around black artists. Lynching, he suggests “casts…a broad shadow across the blues lyric tradition.”
In the Jim Crow South, there was an ever present and real threat of violence against the black community, and the spectre of lynching hung heavily over it during this period. Lynching became a means of terrorism of whites towards blacks, used to defend white domination and to intimidate and control blacks. It was usually done by hanging, but also by burning at the stake. By conservative estimates, 3,500 African Americans were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, mostly from 1882 to 1920. Lynching was widespread and common in the South during the Jim Crow period and blacks lived in terror of their lives because of the capricious nature of lynching. Looking at a white woman the “wrong way” or acting in a way that was perceived “uppity” were sometimes all it took to begin inciting whites to form a lynch mob. Bluesman Skip James said simply, “They’d lynch you in a minute.”
The daily confrontation with this threat, then, argues Gussow, gave rise to the blues which were a means of processing and dealing with that threat – speaking back to it in song. We’re beyond the territory of mere loneliness and restlessness here – we’re in the area of people trying desperately to assert their humanity, their being, in the context of a broader society that wanted to proclaim their non-being.
The other way that black people did that, of course, was through their faith. The Bible, like the blues, proclaims life in the midst of death and humanity in the midst of forces of evil that seek to annihilate that humanity. The book of Psalms howls out the blues of the oppressed:
“I am distraught by the noise of the enemy
Because of the oppression of the wicked
For they bring trouble against me.” Psalm 55. 2-3
But continues to hope for God’s deliverance:
“But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.” Psalm 9:18
And then, there’s Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome in the 1st century, themselves poor, some of them destitute, all under pressure:
“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow– not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.” Romans 8:38
The hell hound, whatever that may be, may be on our trail, but we can still proclaim our humanity and still be confident in the encompassing love of God.