Sex, prison, law, and racism in the blues

Submitted by martin on 9 February, 2008 - 6:34 Author: Peter Burton

It was the fusion of blues with ragtime and Jazz in the early twenties by band leaders like Handy that popularised the blues. His signature work was the St Louis Blues. The other way blues reached white audiences was through the classic female blues performers, the music evolving from informal entertainment in bars to entertainment in theatres.

The blues performers were organised by the Theatre Owners Bookers Association (also known as “Tough on Black Asses”). Musicians performed in nightclubs such as the Cotton Club, juke joints and infamous bars along Beale Street in Memphis. At the same time Okeh, Paramount and the American Music Corporation began to record African-American music. With its growth came the rise in popularity of country blues performers like Bo Carter, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red and Blind Blake, country blues songsters like Charlie Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson and singers like Blind Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller.

But the 1920s was also the time of classic female urban or vaudeville blues singers like Mamie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Victoria Spivey. Key Urban male performers included Big Bill Broonzy, Leroy Carr and Tampa Red, the latter having a risqué hit with “It’s tight like that”. Stories about oppression, often coded, sometimes explicit, covered themes like male/female relationships, lesbian relationships, economic migration, prison experiences, racism, violence, illegal numbers playing, and coping with the law.

Men and Women/Women and Women Blues

Men sure is deceitful and they’s gettin’ worser every day

Men sure is deceitful and they’s gettin’ worser every day

Act like a bunch of women, they’s just-a gab, gab, gabbin’ away

There’s two things got me puzzled, there’s two things I can’t stand

There’s two things got me puzzled, there’s two things I can’t stand

A mannish actin’ woman and a skippin’ twistin’ woman actin’ man

Foolish Man Blues doesn’t reveal anything particularly about Bessie Smith’s sexuality, but it does have some interesting takes on gender. There’s a treasury of blues songs by and about lesbians.

Lucille Bogan, recording under the name Bessie Jackson, accompanied by pianist Walter Roland from 1935, recorded one of the best. She’s talking about “bull dykes” or “bull daggers” in B.D. Woman’s Blues.

Lesbians were common on the classic blues scene of the 1920s and 1930s, singers like Alberta Hunter. They lived in an environment where their sexuality could at times be flaunted, at other times it had to be hidden. The songs reflect this. Their stage shows did even more so. Whatever they were representing, most of these performers never stopped entertaining.

Ma Rainey was the first superstar of the classic blues women. She was a married woman, married to Pa Rainey, but in the 1920s, her love of women was no secret. She was arrested in 1925 after a police raid at a party where several women including Ma were found together naked and having sex. In Prove It on Me, while backed up by a sort of a jazz jug band that featured Thomas Dorsey, she sings about the elusiveness of her sexuality and her feelings toward men and women.

Charley Patton was the greatest chronicler of Mississippi in blues song. In Stone Pony Blues from 1934, he sings about Vicksburg, Greenville, Lula, and Natchez. Stone Pony was an expression for anything good. Patton’s uses the phrase as a metaphor for young women he has seen around Mississippi. Bukka White sang about his troubled times with the women in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

New Orleans is over 300 miles away from Aberdeen. But that was nothing to many blues musicians willing to pick up and go for any reason. Bukka White sung about getting away from the Aberdeen women to get to some new ones down in New Orleans.

Big Bill Broonzy was one of the many who made the trek out of Mississippi to Chicago. But he never forgot the south. In Lowland Blues, from 1936, he sings about Jackson, Greenwood, and anywhere in Mississippi being his true home.

Prison Blues

Field recordings from Southern penitentiaries were a frequent pursuit of folklorists recording for the Library of Congress or universities. Alan Lomax recorded some remarkable songs by prisoners about their experiences, including a harmonica feature from a man known only as Alex and a haunting vocal from Tangle Eye, though Leadbelly’s songs are the best known

Life in the penitentiary was the subject of many a blues song. Furry Lewis sang about the inevitability of ending up in the penitentiary once he ended up in the court of Judge Harsh. Furry sang about heading to prison despite never having harmed a man. His woman offers money to the judge, but it’s not enough to keep the penitentiary from becoming his home.

Peg Leg Howell recorded several songs about crimes and prison. In Ball and Chain Blues recorded in Atlanta in 1929, he sings a song about the hard labour that comes with a sentence. Labour was a constant in Southern prisons and it took various forms. Howell discusses being part of a chain gang. He knew what it was like to endure physical labour for the state as a prisoner.

Chain gang work had a reputation for harshness, but there were equally harsh systems in states like Mississippi, with Parchman Farm, and Louisiana, with Angola penitentiary. They had their prisoners work the fields of a prison plantation. Nearly all observers remarked on the similarities between these prisons and the systems of plantation slavery that had ended decades earlier in those same states. Bukka White recorded two songs about prison including Parchman Farm Blues.

Parchman Farm’s crops created a huge amount of revenue for the state of Mississippi creating an incentive to imprison labourers for the fields. The prison’s brutality was the stuff of legend.

One of the few ways to be released early was for one prisoner to kill another that was thought to be trying to escape. The state farms and the chain gangs held many in an era when hard labour was the punishment for those who ended up in prisons, some guilty of violent crimes, others lesser offences that still violated the Jim Crow system. This included countless blues musicians who recorded dozens of songs. Together they create a fascinating document of prisons in the 20s and 30s.

Dealing with the Law Blues

One of the most difficult things about living in a discriminatory society is having the law work against you rather than protecting you. This was the situation for African-Americans in the Jim Crow era. Even lawyers of the time referred to an unwritten “negro law” that treated black men without regard to their rights. This was implemented at every level of justice from the police to the courthouse to the prisons and jails.

Thanks to the heritage of slavery, black men and woman would need the protection of white men to avoid ending in trouble with local police. This protection would often be unavailable for someone living an itinerant blues lifestyle, and a huge number of blues songs were recorded about dealing with the law.

Bo Carter expressed the trouble that can come from a black man having even a little alcohol in the age of prohibition in his 1931 song The Law Gonna Step on You.

Memphis musician Robert Wilkins recorded Police Sergeant Blues in 1930. The song equates trouble with his woman to trouble with the law. He describes the inevitability of a sentence once the police come for you.

Blind Blake recorded a song about being thrown in jail, and he wished someone would have told him What a Low Down Place the Jailhouse Is. In the song, Blake was thrown in jail by a judge. Even worse than getting sent to jail for a few weeks was being sentenced to the state prison Leroy Carr’s Prison Bound Blues describes the feeling of knowing your headed to the penitentiary and losing the life you enjoyed.

The number of blues songs about police, lawyers, judges, jails, and prisons testifies to the difficulty of dealing with the law for those living a blues lifestyle. Though the stories of lynching and murder are told frequently, these songs help document the smaller problems with the law that African-Americans could have on a nearly daily basis in the Jim Crow South.

These could include being thrown in jail without a second thought from a police officer and being sentenced with little more consideration from a judge.

Racism Blues

When these 1920s blues songs were recorded, skin-lightening cream products ads were always seen alongside the blues record advertisements in black newspapers like the Chicago Defender. The assumption was that light skinned was automatically more attractive.

Blues singers often subverted this assumption, but at times reinforced it. The popular music comedy team from the 1920s, Butterbeans and Susie, sing in Brown Skin Gal about how a brown skinned girl can be trusted and is the best, but she might not have the money, status, or look as good as a yellow.

Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell have a similar take in Good Woman Blues. In It’s Heated, Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon gives his ideas about sexual stereotypes with the darkest woman coming out on top: “Now a yellow gal is like a frigid zone, brownskin’s about the same. You want some good loving, get yourself an old Crow Jane.”

The term Crow Jane shows up in dozens of blues songs referring to dark women. Texas Alexander subscribed to the lighter-is-better school in Yellow Girl Blues: “Black woman evil, brown skin evil too. Going to get me a yellow woman and see what she will do.”

Some male blues singers expressed the attitude that the high status of light-skinned women made them more difficult to deal with as romantic partners. The idea was that light-skinned women may be more beautiful, have more money, and a generally higher status, but they won’t treat a man well.

Bo Weavil Jackson sang in Some Scream High Yellow: “Some Scream High Yellow, I scream black or brown. High yellow may mistreat you, but black won’t turn you down.”

In this way issues of race and class were written and thought about in the blues culture of the time.