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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 1

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Jean-Paul Régis

Black Solidarity as Expressed in the Blues

Robert Springer

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  • 1 "La fonction de contestation du blues", Revue Française d'Etudes Américaines, n° 7, avril 1979, pp (...)

1During several periods of its history, and particularly in the late fifties and early sixties when the new black consciousness was developing, the blues has been seen, especially among up-and-coming blacks and those active in social and political movements, as an abject music smacking of Uncle Tomism and connoting a retrogressive attitude which they now wanted to leave behind. I have attempted to show1 that the blues is much more than that and that a protest function which relies heavily on irony and symbolism may even be read between the lines.

2In addition, for the black community, the blues has been a powerful promoter of social togetherness. It has rendered possible the transmission of a cultural heritage: the moral lessons, the sayings and the aphorisms it contains have been means to create, keep alive or rekindle respect for the social norms black society has adopted. But it is also in charge of conveying the common experiences of black people, thus expressing a cultural unity and promoting a feeling of oneness and solidarity which is indispensable to the health and the very survival of an oppressed social and racial group. This is the reason why some scholars have felt justified to talk, often rather intuitively or impression-istically, about the ceremonial or ritual atmosphere which is common at blues venues, particularly in ghetto clubs, and which is one of the privileged ways blacks have chosen to express their togetherness. The present paper will attempt to study how this atmosphere is achieved by exploring more specifically the themes and the content of blues lyrics.

  • 2 "Residual African Elements in the Blues" in Alan Dundes, ed., Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel,(...)

3At first sight, the blues singer seems to relate a personal experience, often a negative one, to an "audience" which, gradually and if the performance is perceived and received as convincing, will help him to divest himself of it and to overcome it by sharing with him its catharsis. For this to be effective, there must be a bond of sympathy between the two interlocutors for, in fact, the tales told or retold, the situations revealed or the conclusions they entail are often so commonplace and traditional that any black person can identify with them and make them his own. It is not necessary, however, for the performer to have been the recent and/or the direct victim of a setback for him to be able to convey the feeling he evokes. Without going as far as Janheinz Jahn who maintains that "the blues singer does not in fact express his personal experiences and transfer them to his audience; on the contrary, it is experiences of the community that he is expressing, making himself its spokesman,"2 let us admit that it is not unusual for him to take up, sometimes at random, one well-tried theme or another. The fact that, like his audience, he is a frequent victim of the world of racism - which older blacks often refer to as the blues world - allows him to slip into the desired mood whenever he is called upon to act as game director or ritual leader.

  • 3 "Musical Adaptation among Afro-Americans", Journal of American Folklore, vol. 82, n° 324, April-Ju (...)
  • 4 Roger D. Abrahams, Positively Black, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970, p. 56.
  • 5 See Chris Albertson, Bessie, London: Sphere, 1975, p. 47.

4This is the reason why John Szwed has claimed that the bluesman, though "by no means a shaman, [...] performs in many of the shaman's capacities. He presents difficult experiences for the group, and the effectiveness of his performance depends upon a mutual sharing of experience."3 Though he may seem like a man out of the ordinary who not only has first-hand knowledge of the sufferings of his race - like everyone else in the black community - but also knows how'to capitalize upon an adverse state and develop it into a creative form,"4 this does not give him a superhuman aura which would estrange him from his people; the feeling of solidarity which holds the black group together is too strong for that.5 But it seems possible to carry Szwed's comparison to its completion: as a manner of shaman he is the leader of a ritual which presents and activates the myths of his people and, without lapsing into what some might call misplaced primitivism, one might suggest that the blues actually recount a history which, for the Afro-American community, is the equivalent of a myth of origins.

  • 6 Janheinz Jahn, op. cit., p. 102.
  • 7 A definition of "Nommo" may be found in Janheinz Jahn, Muntu, New York: The Grove Press, p. 124.

5Indeed, without following Janheinz Jahn all the way as he once again turns into a general rule what is merely a common phenomenon, one may note that "the blues are sung, not because one finds oneself in a particular mood, but because one wants to put oneself into a certain mood"6 Borrowing the author's African nomenclature, one might add that the song here is the vital force, "the Nommo which does not reflect but creates the mood."7

  • 8 Mircea Eliade, Aspects du mythe, Paris: Gallimard, 1963, p. 99 passim.

6The "audience," with shouts of "play the blues," may quite simply ask the singer to set the scene, to create the mood which will allow the group to conjure up for a brief moment what the blues are all about, i. e., at the same time its origins and its everlasting condition. This must be seen as a mechanism and a tradition quite similar to what Mircea Eliade has called the collective return to the past, an obvious mythical behaviour.8 What he says about it seems to be directly relevant to an analysis of the blues:

  • 9 Mircea Eliade, Personal translation of the French text, ibid., p. 112: "Dans le cas [...] du retou (...)

In the case [...] of the gradual return to the origins, we are confronted with a meticulous and exhaustive recall of personal and historical events. Of course, here also, the ultimate goal is to "burn" these memories, to cancel them as it were by reliving them and pulling away from them. [...] the important point being to recall even the most insignificant details of life - past or present -, for it is solely thanks to this memory that one succeeds in burning one's past, in mastering it and preventing it from breaking into the present.9

  • 10 Ibid., p. 115.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 18.
  • 12 Mance Lipscomb, personal interview, Navasota, Texas, August 14, 1973.

7As may be noted, the cathartic and the unifying functions of this type of cultural behaviour are practically concommitant. The blues, celebrated, so to speak, on a Saturday night - the traditional time slot allotted to this activity - in the rural juke-joints and roadhouses or in the ghetto bars and clubs, may be seen as a collective ritual which evokes a tragic history known to all but still constantly and consciously recollected.10 It is thus akin to the church service on Sunday which, lest anyone should forget, celebrates in a similar fashion the sufferings of blacks. This is probably what most blues artists confusedly feel when, despite the ever-decreasing number of practitioners of the tradition, they firmly claim that the blues will never die. And, in the same way that for archaic peoples myths are perceived and received as true stories,11 the blues are the true story of black Americans, with even more claim to realism in fact: "the blues is true story songs," says Mance Lipscomb.12

  • 13 Pete Daniel, The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South 1901-1969, New York: Oxford University Pr (...)

8The myth which has remade into a homogeneous people with a common origin and a common present the Africans of various provenance transplanted to a new continent against their will is, quite clearly the story and the history of bondage. Thus, it is with good reason that today's blacks who, consciously or not, adhere to what has been termed "the new black consciousness" have rejected the blues as a music which reminds them too much of the plantation and of slavery - although this reaction might seem strange to those who believe that the blues are only about men, women and unrequited love. Even if the blues as a genre emerged only towards the end of the 19th century, there is only an apparent paradox here for the blues tirelessly and relentlessly recalls an original condition, all the more easily as the practices of sharecropping - the crop-lien system, as it has been called by historians - and peonage, until two or three decades ago, were still part of real life for the black inhabitants of the rural South.13

9Only recently have blacks been able to express themselves openly about what remains, whatever shape it may take, their favourite topic, traces of which are to be found in most blues:

Sad when you sick and home alone, won't nobody come around, (twice)
Just look like everybody tellin' everybody else, 'Poor boy's sinkin' down

Thousand years my peoples was slave, when I was born they teach me this way, (twice)
Tip your hat to the peoples, be careful, son, what you say'

Didn't make no difference if it was rainin', do you know, man, you just had to go, (twice)
But I'm so glad, I'm so glad, I'm so glad it ain't slavery time no more.

Grandma told grandpa one mornin': 'I'm tired of livin', I'd just sooner die.
Why these peoples treatin' us this-a-way, I just can't see the reason why.'
Grandpa told grandma: 'Don't worry, we'll all right after a while.'

  • 14 Lightnin' Hopkins, "Slavery", Arhoolie F-1034.

Grandpa told grandma, if he could call back just twenty years ago,
'If I could only call back, old lady, I'm talkin''bout twenty years ago,
Yes, I would get my shot-gun and I wouldn't be a slave no more.'14

  • 15 See Ortiz Walton, Music: Black, White and Blue, New York: W. Morrow, 1972, p. 34 and Paul Garon, B (...)
  • 16 Mance Lipscomb, personal interview, Austin, Texas, July 21, 1975.

10It is quite well known that the personalization of the treatment of the subject-matter is of prime importance in the blues for, contrary to what prevails in the song repertoire of Anglo-American folklore, the ultimate goal is not strict, linear objectivity. However, rather than pushing the audience to the sidelines, personalization brings it closer to the performer in so far as the experiences depicted and retold are not only readily recognizable but are generally reproduced frankly - even crudely at times - and without adornments.15 The bluesman takes great care to speak to and for his audience: "It's both about me and somebody else. [...] I was talkin' 'bout myself as well as the world of other fellers. [...] I share my feelings with people."16

  • 17 See Kent Ersson, "B. B. King," Jefferson, 32, Vaaren 1976, p. 9.
  • 18 See Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, New York: Oxford University Press, (...)
  • 19 William Ferris Jr., "Blues Roots and Development," The Black Perspective in Music, II, Fall 1974, (...)
  • 20 Charles Keil, op. cit., p. 137.

11Usually the listeners quickly recognize the situation which is revealed to them and its implications and they often echo the singer.17 It is sufficient to see their faces light up and to listen to the laughter of complicity or the shouts of approval or encouragement - I hear you! Right on! That's the truth. Tell it like it is! - to realize that it is not an abject complaint we are hearing and that the blues are often something radically different. When the audience identifies with the situation and the content of the song or responds to the often disguised message, one witnesses the sharing of a common experience which sustains all the participants.18 These are the songs which, like those which every African griot had in his repertoire, comfort those who suffer and express the feelings of a people.19 The element of solidarity in the blues derives almost automatically from the sharing of catharsis: "the sight and sound of a common problem being acted out, talked out and worked out on stage promote catharsis, and the fact that all present are participating in the solution creates solidarity."20

  • 21 Ibid., p. 164.

12In the same manner, the black preacher subjectivizes his sermon in order to allow his flock easier access to his discourse; he, too, is familiar with the cathartic effect experienced together which promotes solidarity and finds expression in the songs, the shouts and the physical movement of his congregation. The bluesman is actually most convincing and effective in a performance which leads to dancing, linking the participants together without their having to touch each other and even though they seem to be moving to their own beat, oblivious to anything else. The preacher and the blues singer, like two high priests, though they deal with different topics, have a common goal which consists in increasing solidarity, boosting morale and strengthening the consensus within the black group.21 Their roles must be seen as complementary rather than antagonistic.

13For the blues singer - as well as for the preacher - the choice of subject matter is not inadvertent and conditions the success of his task. As a rule, he speaks exclusively for his race and class, two aspects which are often difficult to dissociate, for black Americans, quite legitimately, often see their racial and their social condition as an un separable whole. But he may also address more specifically, or even exclusively, a more restricted audience. In "Blue Harvest Blues," for instance, Mississippi John Hurt apparently seeks comfort among the community of black sharecroppers, while trying to promote their moral unity, by dealing with a problem they are familiar with and which sums up their economic situation and their plight. However, sharecropping was such a common occupation in the South in those days - the 1920's - that the topic was probably familiar to all blacks:

Standin' on this mountain, far as I can see,
Standin' on this mountain, just as far as I can see,
Dark clouds above me, clouds all around poor me.

Feelin' low and wearied, Lord, I've got trouble in mind,
Feelin' low and weary, Lord, I've got a trouble in mind,
Everything's against me, everybody's so unkind.

Harvest-time's comin' and will catch me unprepared,
Harvest-time is comin' and will catch me unprepared,
Haven't made a dollar, bad luck is all I've had.

Lord, how can I bear it, Lord when the harvest bring,
Lord, how can I bear it, Lord, what will the harvest bring,
Spent off all my money and haven't got a doggone thing.

I'm a wearied traveller, roamin' 'round from place to place, (twice)

If I don't find something, death will end me in disgrace.

Ain't got no mother, father left me long ago, (twice)
I'm just like an orphan, where my folks is I don't know.

  • 22 Mississippi John Hurt, "Blue Harvest Blues," New York, 1928, OKeh 8692.

Blues around my shoulders, blues all around my head, (twice)
With my heavy burden, Lord, I wished I was dead.22

14In this song, stanzas five and six seem to stray from the subject, but they still contribute to the picture, making it perhaps unnecessarily bleaker, through the addition of the themes of loneliness, wandering and despair.

15Among the most classic unifying themes in the blues are those which deal with the negative and frustrating aspects of the black condition. Painted almost always, with or without camouflage, as personal experiences - thus they also have something of a testimonial function -, they are seen as situations that all blacks have experienced: the material or physical obstacles to migration:

  • 23 Big Bill Broonzy, "Mississippi River Blues," Chicago, 1934, Yazoo L-1011.

I went down to the landin'to see if any boats were there
And the ferryman told me he couldn't find no boats nowhere.23

16constraint:

Soon in the mornin'you get ham and egg, (twice)
Ring that bell, you better catch that grey mule's head.

  • 24 Mance Lipscomb, "Tom Moore's Farm," Navasota, Texas, 1961, Blues Classics, 16.

Dinner-time come, you get your bread and beans,
Dinner-time come, you get bread and beans,
Ring that bell, you better catch that hurlin'team.24

17harassment:

  • 25 Ramblin' Thomas, "No Job Blues," Chicago, 1928, Paramount 12609.

I pickin' up the newspaper and I lookin' in the ads,
Says, I pickin' up the newspaper and I lookin'in the ads
And the policeman came along and he arrested me for vag.
- Now, boys, you all ought to see me in my black and white suit.
It won't do!25

18white indifference:

  • 26 Big Bill Broonzy, "Starvation Blues," Chicago, 1928, Yazoo L-1011.

Lord, I walked to the store, I ain't got a dime,
Lord, I walked to the store, mama, I ain't got a dime,
Mean, I asked for a durn neckbone and the clerk don't pay me no mind.26

19and injustice:

Baby, 'cause I'm arrested, please don't grieve and moan,
'Cause I'm arrested, baby, don't grieve and moan,
Penitentiary seems just like my home.

  • 27 Furry Lewis, "Judge Harsh Blues," Memphis, 1928, Vocalion V-38506.

People all talkin' 'bout what in the world they will do,
Judge, the people talkin' 'bout what in the world they will do,
If they had justice, they'd be in penitentiary too.27

20Certain constants of black life reappear regularly: loneliness and wandering:

  • 28 Lottie Beaman, "Rolling Log Blues," Kansas City, 1929, Brunswick, 7147. See also Furry Lewis, "Dry (...)

I been driftin' and rollin' along the road
Looking for my room and board.28

21lack of money:

  • 29 William Harris, "Bull Frog Blues," Richmond, Indiana, 1928, Herwin 214.

Have you ever dreamed lucky and woke up cold in, woke up cold in, I mean, hand?
Have you ever dreamed lucky, woke up cold in hand?29

22dejection:

  • 30 Big Bill Broonzy, "I Can't Be Satisfied," New York, 1930, Yazoo L-1011.

Lord, starvation in my kitchen, rent sign on my door,
Good girl told me she can't use me no more.30

23misery:

  • 31 Charlie Patton, "34 Blues," New York, 1934, Vocalion 02651.

Further down in the country, it almost makes you cry: (twice)
- My God, Chilien! -
Women and children flaggin' freight-trains for rides.31

24and despair:

  • 32 Skip James, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues," Grafton, Wise., 1931, Paramount 13065.

And the people are driftin' from door to door,
Can't find no heaven I don't care where they go.32

25During the Great Depression, the blues served as a vehicle for the expression and the sharing of the problems of every individual which, perhaps more than ever, had become those of all, when from last hired black workers found themselves in the position of first fired. The lyrics of "Welfare Store Blues," however, demonstrate the persistance of a feeling of racial pride - probably mixed with a dose of male pride - even in the hardest of times, thus giving the lie to the stereotype which depicted blacks as eager and lazy recipients of public aid ever ready to take advantage of white generosity:

Now, me and my baby we talked last night and we talked for nearly a hour,
She wanted me to go down to the welfare store and get a sack of that welfare flour.
But I told her: "No, baby, I sure don't wanna go,
I say, I'll do anything in the world for you, I don't wanna go down to that welfare store."

Now, you need to go get you some real white man, you know, to sign you a little note,
They'll gi'you a pair of them keen-toed shoes and one of them ole pegged-back soldier coats,
But I told her: " No, baby, I sure don't wanna go,
I say, I'll do anything in the world for you, but I don't wanna go down to that welfare store."

President Roosevelt said them welfare people, they gon' treat everybody right,
Said, they'll give you a can of them beans and a can or two of them old tripe,
But I told her: "No, baby, I sure don't wanna go,
I say, I'll do anything in the world for you, but I don't wanna go down to that welfare store."

  • 33 Sonny Boy Williamson N° 1, "Welfare Store Blues," Chicago, 1940, RCA FXM1 7203.

Well, now, me and my baby we talked yesterday and we talketed in my back-yard,
She said: "I'll take care o'you, Sonny Boy, just as long as these times stay hard,"
I told her: "Yeah, baby, and I sure won't have to go,
I say, and if you do that for me, I won't have to go down to that welfare store."33

26The topic was usually tackled frankly. However limited the point of view, it was part of the realistic aspect of the music and of the culture that had spawned it:

You want a drink o'liquor, you think it's awful nice,
When you want a drink o'liquor and you think it's awful nice,
You put your hand in your pocket and you ain't got the price.

You heard about a job, now you is on your way, (twice)
Twenty men's after the same job all in the same old day.

  • 34 Barbecue Bob, "We Sure Got Hard Times," Atlanta, 1930, Rounder 4007.

Hard time, hard time, we got hard time now,
Hard time, hard time, hard time, we sure got hard time now,
Just think and think about it, we got hard time now.34

Notes

1 "La fonction de contestation du blues", Revue Française d'Etudes Américaines, n° 7, avril 1979, pp. 67-78.

2 "Residual African Elements in the Blues" in Alan Dundes, ed., Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973, p. 101.

3 "Musical Adaptation among Afro-Americans", Journal of American Folklore, vol. 82, n° 324, April-June 1969, p. 117. See also Charles Keil, Urban Blues, University of Chicago Press, 1966, pp. 114-142 and James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, New York: Seabury Press, pp. 108-142.

4 Roger D. Abrahams, Positively Black, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970, p. 56.

5 See Chris Albertson, Bessie, London: Sphere, 1975, p. 47.

6 Janheinz Jahn, op. cit., p. 102.

7 A definition of "Nommo" may be found in Janheinz Jahn, Muntu, New York: The Grove Press, p. 124.

8 Mircea Eliade, Aspects du mythe, Paris: Gallimard, 1963, p. 99 passim.

9 Mircea Eliade, Personal translation of the French text, ibid., p. 112: "Dans le cas [...] du retour progressif à l'origine, nous avons affaire à une remémoration méticuleuse et exhaustive des événements personnels et historiques. Certes, dans ce cas aussi le but ultime est de 'brûler' ces souvenirs, de les abolir en quelque sorte en les revivant et en se détachant d'eux [...] l'important est de se remémorer même les détails les plus insignifiants de l'existence (présente ou antérieure), car c'est uniquement grâce à ce souvenir qu'on arrive à "brûler" son passé, à le maîtriser, à l'empêcher de faire irruption dans le présent."

10 Ibid., p. 115.

11 Ibid., p. 18.

12 Mance Lipscomb, personal interview, Navasota, Texas, August 14, 1973.

13 Pete Daniel, The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South 1901-1969, New York: Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 170-192.

14 Lightnin' Hopkins, "Slavery", Arhoolie F-1034.

15 See Ortiz Walton, Music: Black, White and Blue, New York: W. Morrow, 1972, p. 34 and Paul Garon, Blues and the Poetic Spirit, London: Eddison, 1975, p. 33.

16 Mance Lipscomb, personal interview, Austin, Texas, July 21, 1975.

17 See Kent Ersson, "B. B. King," Jefferson, 32, Vaaren 1976, p. 9.

18 See Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 235.

19 William Ferris Jr., "Blues Roots and Development," The Black Perspective in Music, II, Fall 1974, p. 126.

20 Charles Keil, op. cit., p. 137.

21 Ibid., p. 164.

22 Mississippi John Hurt, "Blue Harvest Blues," New York, 1928, OKeh 8692.

23 Big Bill Broonzy, "Mississippi River Blues," Chicago, 1934, Yazoo L-1011.

24 Mance Lipscomb, "Tom Moore's Farm," Navasota, Texas, 1961, Blues Classics, 16.

25 Ramblin' Thomas, "No Job Blues," Chicago, 1928, Paramount 12609.

26 Big Bill Broonzy, "Starvation Blues," Chicago, 1928, Yazoo L-1011.

27 Furry Lewis, "Judge Harsh Blues," Memphis, 1928, Vocalion V-38506.

28 Lottie Beaman, "Rolling Log Blues," Kansas City, 1929, Brunswick, 7147. See also Furry Lewis, "Dry Land Blues," Memphis, 1928, Victor 23345.

29 William Harris, "Bull Frog Blues," Richmond, Indiana, 1928, Herwin 214.

30 Big Bill Broonzy, "I Can't Be Satisfied," New York, 1930, Yazoo L-1011.

31 Charlie Patton, "34 Blues," New York, 1934, Vocalion 02651.

32 Skip James, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues," Grafton, Wise., 1931, Paramount 13065.

33 Sonny Boy Williamson N° 1, "Welfare Store Blues," Chicago, 1940, RCA FXM1 7203.

34 Barbecue Bob, "We Sure Got Hard Times," Atlanta, 1930, Rounder 4007.

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© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1992

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