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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32. No. 25. October 9, 1969

The Blues

page 26

The Blues

They ask me where the Blues comes from The Blues Comes From Your Life If You have Got a Life Than already YOU have The Blues

Undoubtedly the greatest pleasure that the blues affords its modern afficionado is the ability he gains to see "as upon the vantage ground of truth" the musical inadequacies of those Judas-like erstwhile blues exponents who have 'sold out'. While trite comments as to the intolerance of those who indulge in this musical bear-baiting are rapidly growing uncomfortably fashionable, I would like to examine this because it Opens the way into a discussion of what blues is, should be, and has become.

And blues has become the following, firstly, a fashionable Fad for young kids who rarely have the temperament or the desire to truly appreciate the feelings that Blues should involve. This is sad, because it is upon these kids that the financial stability of the current "Blues Boom" depends. Secondly, a musical form, again rarely understood, (though deluded wits think it understood), which is a basis about which to build an intellectually inclined clique—who devote great energies to esoteric discussions of "Catharsis" and "hermeneutics of art" (cf. liner notes for Elektra's record "Blues Project"). Further it provides a basis for arguments as to whether long hair, denims, alcohol poisoning, and V.D. are prerequisites of being able to play blues.

The Blues also involves the phenomenon witnessed in jazz—the record collector and annotator. Many of these individuals truly appreciate and love the music, and collect in order to hear. But unfortunately, others collect records like stamps, and rarely even listen to their vast collections. This is a great shame, because the blues is submersed in a sea of academia. This is not to condemn all discographers and annotators, but to indicate that such activities should be undertaken through love of the music, not as a hobby or end in themselves.

The various posturings of many of the groups involved in blues at the moment are really totally meaningless. The blues is not to be analysed and made the subject of intellectual exercise. Discographics, and books such as Paul Olivers' are indeed valuable, but only in so far as they are servants to greater expression through blues. All relevance is lost otherwise.

It is also wrong to be totally obsessed with Blues, if this means all other music is rubbished out of hand. To me the blues is more relevant and important than any other music, but this doesn't mean I can find nothing of value in jazz, the classics, or good pop. But Blues is a far more intense expression, and to me a more meaningful one, than other musical forms. It's true that to higher musical wits there may be more stimulation in Britten or Handel, but the blues is a folk music, and one whose origins are such that it has become a highly emotional and incredibly expressive form.

It dosn't really matter whether a blues performer has long hair or not, though it's unfortunate that blues has come to be identified with long hair and denims. Some of the socio-economic analysts would have US believe that the white youth of today have adopted blues because they are alienated from society etc. There is probably some truth in this argument, but perhaps it's just that blues has been brought to the attention of people and they've adopted it because that's the way they feel.

Blues is a feeling, and an attitude. It's futile to go into deep definitions. If you don't ever feel what it is, you'll never know what it is, and it is impossible to convey all that the word "blues" implies except by performing the music. There really doesn't seem much to talk about. Blues is a performing, and a participating, thing. The audience will experience something of what the performer is going through if it is a true page 27blues and they are a blues audience. This sick thing of musical backbiting, bitter accusations against Clapton (who I think has played blues in his time) and May all and all the others has no relevance at all. Can white men play the blues? Anyone who listens to some of the white blurs singers and then says white men can't play the blues doesn't know what blues is. There has been just as much crap produced by negro singers (but it is black crap) viz. the pornographic blues of the 30's and some of the bad Junior Wells and B. B. King tracks. You can't just turn on the blues every time. It has to be there at one moment.

So don't talk to me about esoteric definitions, about how bluesmen should dress, about who plays blues and who doesn't, because blues is a thing you have, and that you've got to express, and it doesn't matter who or what yon are, if you have the blues, you'll know what they are. "People ask me where the blues comes from. The blues come from your life. If you have got a life you already have the blues". It seems to me that many people don't have lives, only existences.

Drawing of African men working at machinery

Blue Ladies

For about the last twenty-five years or so the Blues has been more or less the exclusive province of male singers, female blues singers being decidedly in the minority. This has not always been thes case however, as there was a time when the mention of the word 'Blues' automatically brought to mind such names as Bessie Smith. Ma Rainey. Clara Smith. Trixie Smith. Sara Martin and other illustrious blue ladies.

Why were the ladies so popular in their day? Why not now? Where, how and when did it all begin—and end? I'd like to briefly consider some of these questions and try to put in perspective the whole situation insofar as it relates to the great names of the Classic Blues era.

We have frequently been told how the Blues had their roots in the social environment of the American Negro from the times of Slavery, how the African rhythms combined with European musical culture in the fields and prisons and on the levee to produce initially the field hollers and work shouts and songs, how these work songs evolved to become what we know today as The Blues. We know that the men were singing the Blues before the turn of the century and well before the advent of recordings. But, what were the women doing while the men were out hollering in the levee camps and shouting their work songs in the chain gangs? Why, they were working in them cotton fields or silting at home with the piccaninnies, jest a'waiting for Daddy to come home! In truth, the women were just as Oppressed and hard worked as the men and were frequently required to do the same work as the men. They also evolved their own work songs, perhaps not comparable with the rough and rhythmic musical efforts of their menfolk in the railroad gangs, but they were work songs nevertheless.

The turning point for the Negro was in 1865, the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of the Emancipation of the Slaves. I say the 'beginning' because even though they were legally freed, large numbers of Negroes were kept in a virtual state of slavery for many years afterwards. However, at least their music was given greater freedom, they were able to meet freely for religious meetings etc.

Many Negroes travelled to the cities and due to their social conditiond tended to congregate in their own communities within the cities. These communities grew and became established non-white areas. Areas like Storyville in New Orleans, South Side in Chicago, Harlem in New York and so on. By the late 1800's the Vaudeville theatre was at the height of its popularity in the towns, and around the Southern States the medicine show or tent show was one of the most popular forms of entertainment, travelling minstrel troupes attracting large crowds. Both the city theatres and the country tent shows had an increasing number of female performers and it was in these shows that many of the record stars of the 1920's made their start and in some cases made their names. Ma Rainey was an established performer with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels long before she made her first record. Joe and Susie Edwards were already known to Vaudeville audiences as Butterbeans and Susie prior to their success as recording artists. Cleosephus Gibson, of the Vaudeville duo Gibson and Gibson, later recorded as Cleo Gibson. Bessie Smith was one of the stars of the TOBA circuit, having been featured in a show called The Florida Cotton Blossoms, five years before Clarence Williams arranged for her first visit to the Columbia studios in 1923.

Although the phonograph had been invented in 1877 and became an established form of entertainment soon after the turn of the century, it was not until 1920 that records were produced with the Negro specifically in mind. The first singer to record the Blues was Mamie Smith who, on a Tuesday in mid-August 1920 recorded her Crazy Blues. This was the beginning of a veritable flood of records by female blues singers.

Records were made to be sold, and obviously the best market for records was in the cities where the greatest concentration of people and money was to be found. The best type of music to record was therefore the type that would appeal to those in the cities. Thus, when it was decided to exploit the vast and expanding Negro market by means of Race Records', the choice of material tended to be Jazz and Female Blues. These two types of music went hand in hand since almost all female blues singers relied on other people (usually Jazz musicians) to accompany them and a large proportion of Jazz Bands featured women singers. The 1920's then became the heyday of Jazz (both Negro and While) and the Blues as sung by the female Negroes. Among the many reasons for this were the facts that the white people had discovered a novelty in this new form of music, the Negroes found a sense of self identification, and, in contrast to the male country blues, the female blues was relatively Europeanised in its musical form and was therefore easier for the newcomer to appreciate.

Of course, the male singers were not completely ignored and a few were recorded in 1924 and 1925. By 1926 and 1927 the Victor. Columbia and Okeh companies were even starting to engage in field trips to record out-of-town artists. Other companies like Vocalion and Paramount were recording similar singers and musicians but were having them brought into the city rather than taking lots of cumbersome although portable equipment out in search of talent away from their main recording centres. The number of male singers recorded increased very considerably from 1927 but for the reasons stated above their popularity never equalled that of the women.

Most of the female blues singers won their fame in two ways, first through live performances on the stage (either in the theatre or the tent shows) and secondly by means of the gramophone record. Of course this sequence was not followed in all cases, some singers were unknown, even in their own home towns, until their records started selling. A number, however, had become very well known, as I have already mentioned, long before they visited a recording studio. Whatever the sequence the net result was still the same—record sales boosted their theatre bookings and their live performances drew attention to their available recordings.

For nine years the female blues singers rode on the crest of a wave of popularity. Bessie Smith's first record sold 780.000 copies and within a year she had sold over two million records. Hundreds of women recorded the blues, every major recording company and many of the smaller ones had exclusive contracts with female blues singers, those companies that didn't have their own singers issued recordings made by other companies either with or without permission. It seemed as if the appetite of the record buying public would continue for ever on a diet liberally sprinkled with the blues. But it didn't. One could almost pinpoint the hour and the day in 1929 when the era of the Classic Blues ceased, the very day from which many blues singers returned to their homes never to enter the doors of a recording company again.

Victoria Spivey

Victoria Spivey

It has been frequently mentioned that the Great Depression was of considerable importance in the history of the gramophone and of gramophone records. For one thing it knocked a large number of the smaller companies out of business, and for another it curtained the recording activities for quite some time of most of the other companies. That fateful day. Tuesday the 29th October 1929, when the stock market on Wall Street crashed, was the beginning of the end for all but a handful of artists. By the time record sales had picked up again, the Jazz Age was over, we were into the swing era and he public had just about forgotten their idols of the 19. They wanted (and got) the sounds of the bip bands, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first band to record jazz in 1917, was antiquated, a thing of the past. The blues singers were replaced by the crooners and the sweet sentimental ballad singers. Bessie Smith's last recordings were produced, not for the general American public, but were made at the instigation of collector John Hammond for the benefit of English collectors who were just catching on to hot music having during the 1920's only received a handful of the many blues records that had been produced in the States. (As a matter of interest the first blues record to be issued in England was in Octobr 1923. three years after the first blues record was made in America.) Sara Martin had made her last recording in 1928 and was now devoting her time to the church. Mamie Smith, whose previous record was issued in 1926 paid another visit to the recording studios in 1931 and. to the accompaniment of a nine-piece orchestra, made her two final records. Trixie Smith who recorded up to 1926 made no further records until 12 years later when in 1938 she made some updated versions of her previously recorded 'Freight Train Blues' and 'Trixie Blues', almost an attempt at a comeback. And so the story goes on, singers either faded out suddenly, struggled on hopelessly, or were forced to adopt a more up-to-date and modern approach to their singing.

It is interesting to note that, by the middle 1930's. even the jazz historians had virtually forgotten the blues singers ten years ago. The first ever discography, or listing of records. which was entitled 'Rhythm On Record' and was produced 1936 by Hilton R. Schleman, only mentions Bessie Smith, Clara Smith and one title by Mamie Smith, while Charles Delaunay's 'Host Discography' of 1937 only lists two singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. It wasn't until the jazz revival in the 1940's and early 1950's that people again began to take notice of the many great recordings made by the Blue Ladies of the 1920's.

Blue Blues

Blues is the most poetic of forms of music. This is because of the metrical foundations which underlie each form. Furthermore, the blues is most vividly poetic in its colourful and elaborate sexual imagery.

The imagery, like the musical form itself, is seldom subtle or condescending-it is explicit, brash, exuberant, and honest. Not like the patronizing reticence and the dare-I-say taciturnity of British ballads, nor the leering innuedo and double entendre of the American popular song, there is in the blues an open and unabashed acceptance of the pleasure of sexual love. This frankness is a reflection on the attitude of the Negro race at the time when white oppression forced the natural pleasures to supercede contrived frivalties

Although many verses have directness and clarity of meaning they still contain imaginative and exuberant use of language.

Woa-oh, black snake crawling in my room

Wo-oh. black snake crawling in my room

Yeah, some pretty mama better get this black snake soon.

Many expressions in popular speech have originated from Negro blues. They usually lose their suggestive or sexual connotation in the transition from the Negro vernacular to the white vocabulary. This is probably because the Negroes weren't inclined to explain the true meaning to others, especially whiles. Many phrases were thus picked up by the whites, who always looked to the Negro for the "hipness" or "coolness" in language. For example, in the 1930's the expression "in the groove" or "groovin" with obvious reference to a man's delight as he joins a woman, i.e. as he "gets in the (physical) groove ". The term became a while man's musical term which is defined in Websters as "playing swing music in exalted mood." More recently "rock and roll" has become common usage. The term refers to the motions of the sexual embrace. Tampa Red uses a phrase in an early blues:

My daddy rocks me with one steady roll.

However the blues have little of this reticence. Exultant eroticism is patently obvious in many titles of blues recordings. Titles like "Warm it up to Me" (Blind Willie McTell), "Do it Slowly". "I'm Wild about that Thing (Bessie Smith), "Slow Driving". "My Banana in your Fruit Basket", all refer to intercourse. Ida Cox refers to intercourse as "diggin' potatoes":

If he didn't like my potatoes, why did he dig so deep?

If he didn't like my potatoes, why did he dig so deep?

In his mama's potato patch five and ten times a week.

The masculine erection is referred to in "Ram-roddin' Daddy." "Hard Pushin' Daddy", and in McTell's phrase:

Papa's rod is hot, mama gonna get it cold.

Women sang about "blacksnakes", "sweet potatoes", and "lemons". Men sang about 'jelly roll", "sweet honey hole" and their "easy riders". One of the most popular phrases is "tight like that".

It's tight like that (beedle-um-bom)

It's tight like that (beedle-um-bom)

Hear me talkin' to you, mama, cause, it's tight like that.

The verses of this particular blues are quite explicit, typical of the Negro subtlety. Some verses express the sexual frustrations of the couple:

Uncle Bill came home

'bout half past ten

Put the key in the lock

But he couldn't get in

whilst others reflect the joyous union:

My woman sure knows how to bake sweet jelly roll

My woman sure knows how to hake sweet jelly roll

She bakes so much it always make me full.

"Jelly", "Jelly Roll", "Easy rider", "Candy" are common sexual terms. Lonnie Johnson sang:

She said Mr. Jelly Roll Baker, let me be your slave

When Gabriel blow his trumpet then I'll rise from my grave

For some of your good jelly roll,

Yes, I love your jelly roll.

It's good for the sick, yes,

And it's good for the old. . . .

She said, Can I put an order in, for two weeks ahead?

I'd rather have your jelly roll than my home cooked bread.

I love your jelly roll,

I love your good, jelly roll.

and in another blues:

You've got to whip it to a jelly,

You've got to stir it in a bowl.

You've got to whip it to a jelly

If you want good jelly roll.

And Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Bakershop Blues". This contains an elaborate mixture of sexual and social implications.

I was standing front of the bakery shop and I was

feeling low down in mind.

I was standing front of the bakery shop and I was

feeling low down in mind.

Feeling hungry as could be, looking at those cakes so fine.

Woman in the bakery shop shouted "Papa, don't

look so sad."

Woman in the bakery shop shouted "Papa, don't

look so sad."

Come and try some of my cake and you won't feel

so bad.

I want to know if your jelly roll's fresh, if

your jelly roll's stale.

Well, I wanna know if your jelly roll's fresh,

if your jelly roll's stale.

I'm goin to haul off and buy me some if I have to break it loose in jail.

Robert Johnsons "Milkcow Calf Blues" is a fine example of extended sexual imagery:

Tell me. milkcow, what on earth is wrong with you,

Um-um, milkcow, what on earth is wrong with you,

Now you have a little milk calf and your milk is turning blue.

Now your calf is hungry, I believe he needs to suck,

And now your calf is hungry, I believe he needs to suck.

But your milk is turning blue, I believe he's out of luck.

I feel like milking

And my milk won't come,

I feel like chewing it.

And my milk won't turn,

I'm crying please, please don't do me wrong.

If you see my milk cow, baby, now. please drive her home.

Little Son Jackson illustrates the rural imagery of "hogs" in hisblues:

There's a groundhog rooting, rooting, in the next door yard.

There's a groundhog rooting.

One-string recorded a blues containing "lemon" imagery:

Well, you squeezed my lemon, baby, and you started my juice to run.

One of the most picturesque similies is found in Robert Johnson's "4 till Late".

A woman is like a dresser

Some man always running thru' it's drawers.

Many of the erotic blues were born in the brothels around the cities. Many female blues singers started singing in pleasure-houses. Songs relating to bawdy-houses include Victoria Spivey's "Organ Grinder Blues", Jelly Roll Morton's "Winding Boy" (a winding boy was the brothel "message boy" who ran errands for the girls and customers) and verses such as these:

Leave me by your side track, poppa

Till your main line comes

Leave me by your side track, daddy

Till your main line comes

I can do better switchin'

Than your main line ever done.

and the mournful verse of a 'retired' whore-house girl:

It's a hell of a life, said the Queen of Spain

Three minutes' pleasure and nine months pain

Two weeks rest and you're back at it again

It's a hell of a life, said the Queen of Spain.

A "trick" was a session with a man in the bawdy-house. Some girls would manage twenty tricks a shift, which was often ten hours.

Keep a-knockin' but you can't come in

I hear you knockin' but you can't come in

I got an all-night trick agin

So keep a-knockin' but you can't come in.

Well, keep on a-knockin' but you can't come in

I'm busy grindin' so you can't come in

If you love me you'll come back again

Or come back tomorrow at half past ten.

Humour is often combined with the sexual imagery quite intentionally. Titles like "My Pin in your Cushion" or "I want some of your Pie", and this song:

Take your fingers off it, don't you dare touch it

You know it don't belong to you.

Two old maids, a-lyin' in the sand

Each one wishin' that the other were a man.

I may be little and I may be thin

But I'm an awful good daddy for the shape I'm in.

I've never been to heaven, but I've been told

St. Peter taught the angels how to jelly roll.

One thing in this wide world I'll never understand

Why a bow-legged woman like a knock-kneed man.

Perhaps the most well known, andf most explicit, of all erotic blues is "Candy Man".

He's got a stick of candy nine inches long

Sells it as fast as a hog can chew corn.

You all heard what Sister Jones said

Always takes a candy stick to bed.

His stick of candy don't melt away

Just gets bigger so the ladies say.

The examples given are only a few of the blues containing

The examples given are only a few of the blues containing sexual imagery. Blues referring to sex are only a part of the vast thematic structure. However, the Negro frankness and authenticity makes the blues a streamlined vehicle for the frustrations, joys, and intensity of sexual love.

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