Blues From The Streets of ‘The Other America’
by Terry Messman
J. B. Lenoir was one of the bravest political voices of his era. He sang against poverty, lynching, the Vietnam War, racism and police violence in Alabama and Mississippi.
When Michael Harrington discovered a land he called the “Other America” in the early 1960s, he helped awaken the nation to the existence of a vast and largely unseen subcontinent of poverty in the midst of an affluent society. His influential book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, warned that 25 percent of the people in this supposedly prosperous nation lived and died in poverty.
Published in 1962, The Other America made an impact on President John Kennedy, and reputedly helped to spark President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Harrington’s book may have been an early warning signal about the disturbing extent of poverty, yet long before he came on the scene, African-American blues musicians had been sounding even more urgent warnings over and over for several decades. In part, that is because many blues artists, along with their close friends and family members, were living in the Other America that Harrington only described.
Many blues musicians were able to give such powerful testimony about hard times, discrimination, hunger and homelessness because they had grown up in rural poverty, or lived on the poor side of town in the crowded tenements, crumbling neighborhoods and neglected streets of the Other America.
Blues lyrics from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s sound today like highly knowledgeable and up-to-the-minute accounts of the present-day economic disparity between the rich and the poor.
The stereotype is that history is written by the winners. Yet the unbroken testimony of 90 years of blues lyrics amounts to a cumulative history written by the very people thought to be marginalized and voiceless. It adds up to a “minority report” on the state of the nation from the streets of the Other America.
The history that can be traced in blues lyrics tells the story of how the common people had the soul to survive a soul-crushing system. Along with a far-seeing awareness of economic and racial injustice, many blues songs also express compassion and empathy towards the poor and oppressed, especially in times when the government had ignored and abandoned its hungry and homeless citizens.
Hard Times for Floyd Jones
Floyd Jones, one of the finest singers and songwriters in Chicago’s post-war blues circles, composed and performed some highly politicized blues, especially unique in the politically sluggish climate of the 1950s. His “Stockyard Blues” told the story of workers on the picket line, and not only sympathized with the union’s struggle for better wages for those working in Chicago’s stockyards, but also gave voice to the desperation of those who would have to pay higher prices for meat.
Floyd Jones was a gifted vocalist and his dark, heavy vocals resounded with passionate intensity, especially when he sang, “I need to earn a dollar.” He sings the word “need” with such forcefulness that it sounds like a three-syllable outcry carrying all the weight of the worried blues.
“You know I need to earn a dollar
The cost of living has gone so high,
Now then I don’t know what to do.”
Jones deeply distraught vocal in “Stockyard Blues” gives voice to the economic misery of a generation of African Americans who had escaped the poverty and racism of Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama, only to feel trapped in crowded slum hotels and low-wage jobs in Chicago’s stockyards and factories.
Jones was born in Arkansas and began playing the blues alongside such masterful Mississippi musicians as Johnny Shines, Eddie Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf and Big Walter Horton. Jones was part of the company of gifted musicians who brought the intensely felt blues of the Mississippi Delta to Chicago and created an amplified brand of electric blues, performing in small combos at the open-air Maxwell Street Market and in Chicago’s South Side bars and clubs.
His beautiful music is criminally underappreciated, so much so that it is almost painful to listen to his work today and realize that this great musician was never given his due. In the early 1950s, Floyd Jones made a handful of brilliant blues for the J.O.B. label, including “Dark Road” and “On the Road Again.” He often played with pianist Sunnyland Slim and harmonica great Snooky Pryor.
His 1954 anthem, “Hard Times,” was a soul-deep cry of anguish about reduced hours, lowered wages, poverty and layoffs. “This is a bad time,” sings Jones, “we laying them off by the thousands.”
In the midst of supposed post-war affluence, Floyd Jones was a voice for those who had been left out of the nation’s vaunted economic progress.
“Hard times, hard times here with me now.
If they don’t get no better, I believe I’ll leave this town.”
Reading those words on paper can’t come close to doing justice to the deeply worried and agonizing vocal that Jones delivers. His impassioned singing not only expresses his despondency at the “hard times,” but also communicates a sense of frustration and outrage right beneath the surface, an anger that seems close to boiling over.
If Floyd Jones was unusually outspoken in performing these blues in such a quiescent era, he was right in the mainstream of the electric blues in his singing and playing. Not only is Jones a gifted singer and guitarist, but he could put together a powerful band in the best tradition of the Chicago blues groups headed by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
In 1966, Testament Records released an album in their “Masters of Modern Blues” series entitled “Floyd Jones —Eddie Taylor.” Floyd Jones sang and played guitar with the powerhouse accompaniment of Otis Spann on piano, Big Walter Horton on harmonica, Fred Below on drums, and Eddie Taylor on guitar. Every one of those musicians was a world-class master. Eddie Taylor’s guitar work was the secret ingredient that fueled blues singer Jimmy Reed’s great success for many years. Otis Spann was the pianist in Muddy Waters’ classic bands, and many consider him to be the finest blues pianist of all. Big Walter Horton was, along with Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter, one of the finest blues harmonica masters of all time. Drummer Fred Below played on nearly all of Little Walter’s hits and was perhaps the most in-demand session drummer of his time.
That’s the company Floyd Jones kept, yet today he is nearly forgotten. Floyd Jones and this blues ensemble demonstrate the brilliance of the golden era of Chicago’s electric blues in the ‘50s and ‘60s. These artists not only brought new life to the blues, but were the key inspiration for the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, Cream, Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in England, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Johnny Winter and Canned Heat in America.
Despite the great commercial success enjoyed by blues-rock musicians in England and America who were inspired so heavily by Chicago blues musicians, the black blues masters who gave birth to this music often could not even make a living performing the music that had made other musicians rich.
It can lead one to despair to realize that Floyd Jones, a beautiful and soulful songwriter and performer, recorded so little and died in near obscurity in 1989.
Pete Welding, who produced the 1966 Masters of Modern Blues record, wrote in the liner notes that Floyd Jones is “one of the handful of excellent composers of blues to have emerged in the post-war blues idiom.”
The very excellence of Floyd’s work makes his fate even more incomprehensible and bitterly ironic. It is a fate shared by many of his fellow bluesmen.
Floyd Jones was one of the very few musicians who spoke out for the humanity of low-wage workers in Chicago. His songs, “Stockyard Blues” and “Hard Times” are outspoken acts of solidarity with workers who are screwed over by the powers that be.
And then comes the final irony: Floyd Jones himself became one of those screwed-over workers. Here is how Pete Welding describes it in his liner notes:
“In recent years, Floyd has been working as a forklift operator, the latest in a succession of like ‘day jobs’ he has been forced to take to support his family. It is truly a sad commentary on the state of the blues in Chicago, where one of its finest composers and performers cannot earn a livelihood at what he does so well.”
Tough Times for John Brim
John Brim was another great, yet largely unheralded Chicago blues singer and guitarist who traveled in some of the same circles as Jones. In 1953, Brim recorded one of the gutsiest and most political blues songs of the ’50s. “Tough Times” is a classic side of tough Chicago blues, but with a radical difference — its radical politics.
“Tough Times” can be found on the Chess compilation, “Whose Muddy Shoes,” which collects several wonderful and hard-to-find recordings by John Brim and Elmore James. The liner notes report that “Tough Times” features John Brim on guitar and vocals, his wife Grace Brim on drums, Eddie Taylor on second guitar and Snooky Pryor on harmonica (although elsewhere it is claimed that Jimmy Reed plays harmonica).
By January 1954, an economic slowdown in the United States had resulted in a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate in the black community, nearly double the jobless rate for the rest of the nation. Brim responded by warning that unemployment was getting as bad as the worst part of the Depression in 1932.
“Tough Times” has some of the tough swagger, and the stop-and-start dynamics, of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” but it couldn’t be farther removed in its subject. While Muddy delivered a growling vocal about discovering a powerful sense of manhood at the age of five (when his mother said he was “gonna be the greatest man alive”), Brim’s song describes how one’s humanity and manhood are all but destroyed by bad economic conditions.
“Me and my baby was talking and what she said is true.
She said, “It seems like times is getting tough like they was in ‘32.
You don’t have no job, our bills is past due.
Now tell me baby, what we going to do?”
If only this song had been heard as widely as it deserved, it might have become that rarest of recordings — an anthem for the hard-hit working class. For in “Tough Times,” Brim takes the side of countless workers facing layoffs and prolonged unemployment, and the hunger and desperation that were almost completely ignored in the mainstream media.
Brim’s blues are an uncompromising report from the downside of American prosperity. Yet the song does something more important than simply exposing the layoffs hitting countless workers at a time of supposed affluence. His highly personal songwriting and urgent vocals make the listener really feel the anguish of a worker whose entire life falls apart when he or she loses a job.
“I had a good job working many long hours a week.
They had a big layoff and they got poor me.
I’m broke and disgusted — in misery,
Can’t find a part-time job, nothing in my house to eat.
Tough times, tough times is here once more
If you don’t have no money, you can’t live happy no more.”
Double Trouble for Otis Rush
Even Otis Rush, the epitome of sophisticated urban blues, sang passionately of the terrible price of layoffs and economic hardships. In a thrillingly beautiful song he recorded in 1958, “Double Trouble,” Rush’s voice and guitar both wail with spine-tingling intensity as they lament how a lost job has left him destitute.
His singing is so intense that you believe every word when he cries out about laying awake all night after being laid off at work. This is the dark night of the soul, turned into a work of art by an absolute master of the blues guitar.
“I lay awake at night, oh so low, just so troubled.
It’s hard to keep a job, laid off and I’m having double trouble.”
“Double Trouble,” recorded for the Cobra label in Chicago in 1958, is another Eisenhower-era anthem about the layoffs and lack of money that plagued the black community in the midst of mainstream prosperity.
Rush sang about the same troubles that many people living in Chicago’s slum housing had experienced — no job, no money, no decent clothes to wear, and no sleep at night due to the worried blues.
He has “double trouble” because being laid off and running out of money has ended in his being rejected by his girlfriend. “You laughed at me walking, baby, when I had no place to go.” It’s bad enough to be homeless, walking the streets all night long, but when he sings of being rejected in that soul-piercing voice, we feel the weight of his torment, the “double trouble” of being broken down both economically and romantically.
It is amazing how much this short song reveals about the ruinous effects of poverty. It is hard enough to undergo hunger and unemployment, but it is maddening to suffer deprivation in a society where so many are wealthy. The constant barrage of advertising and propaganda perpetuate the lie that anyone can become wealthy in a consumer society. “Double Trouble” tells the real story.
“Hey, hey, they say you can make it if you try.
Yes, in this generation of millionaires
It’s hard for me to keep decent clothes to wear.”
In “The Sound of Silence,” Paul Simon sang, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” Otis Rush’s song is one of those prophetic warnings from the tenement halls that society ignored. When society refuses to hear its prophetic voices, it consigns their songs to the “sounds of silence.” And any society that neglects and abandons its poorest citizens is headed for double trouble.
In 1958, long before middle-class, mainstream America became aware of the terribly destructive effects of poverty and homelessness, Rush was singing about it in Chicago bars and blues clubs, and his warning of double trouble was echoing up and down those tenement halls.
Big Mama Thornton’s Landlord Blues
You know that times must be hard indeed just by listening to the large number of blues songs titled “Hard Times,” “Tough Times” or “Ain’t Times Hard.” Big Mama Thornton recorded a shout of despair called “Hard Times” in 1952 written by the famed rock-and-roll songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton had a big hit with Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog,” number one on the rhythm and blues charts for seven weeks in 1953, and Elvis Presley had an even bigger hit with it.
Thornton was inspired by Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, and she, in turn, inspired other blues and rock singers, including Janis Joplin. Thornton’s own composition, the great blues lament “Ball and Chain,” caused a sensation when Joplin pulled out all the stops and turned it into a wild cry of despair at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967.
Thornton was one of the premier women blues vocalists of the 1950s. On stage, she was an awe-inspiring blues shouter with a deep, growling voice that some reviewers found menacing and aggressive.
Chris Strachwitz, who recorded Big Mama in London while she was performing with the American Folk Blues Festival in 1965, found that she was an “amazingly versatile singer.” Strachwitz recorded two albums with her backed by two different all-star blues bands: “Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band” and “Big Mama Thornton in Europe,” when she was accompanied by legendary blues guitarists Buddy Guy and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
In “Hard Times,” Big Mama Thornton delivers a powerfully convincing performance of a woman whose life is falling apart as she trembles on the brink of eviction. She is hounded at home as debt-collectors and landlords knock at her door.
She wails out the first line — “times are getting hard in the city” — as a dark cry of desolation that seems to come from deep in her soul. Anyone who has ever faced eviction will know how realistically she expresses her fear and despair.
“Well I woke up this morning, somebody knocking at my door.
It was a man standing there, told me about the debts I owe.”
In her misery, she tells the debt collector that she is going to just give back everything she bought and start all over. But the hard times are only beginning, because her next visitor is the landlord who has come to her door to badger her for unpaid rent. She knows that this landlord has already thrown many people out, and sings, “I know I will be next.”
Sensing her fate closing in on her, Thornton’s anguished singing in the final verse conveys what it feels like when the burdens of life become too heavy for one person to bear.
“Times are getting hard in the city, I’m going on down the road.
With this little money that I’m making, I can’t pull this heavy load.”
Rocks Have Been My Pillow
Melvin “Lil’ Son” Jackson was a bluesman from Texas who played in the traditional style of the country blues. Some writers called Jackson a throwback to an earlier era of the rural blues. If so, what an awesome throwback he was. Texas had a rich heritage of blues musicians, and other writers likened Jackson to Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins. That comparison alone is very high praise.
Similarly to Juke Boy Bonner, Lil’ Son was born into a family of sharecroppers on a small farm in Texas. His father, Johnny Jackson, was a sharecropper and Lil’ Son didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps because he saw the injustices of the sharecropping system.
He escaped that existence by setting out on a musical career, recording for Gold Star in the late 1940s and Imperial in the early 1950s. He had several regional hits and a national hit with “Freedom Train Blues,” but left his musical career behind in the mid-1950s to work as a mechanic and at an auto parts store.
One of the strengths of Lil’ Son Jackson is his story-telling ability, delivered in a dramatic singing voice. Chris Strachwitz persuaded Jackson to record again in 1960, and Arhoolie Records released an excellent compilation of his music, “Blues Come to Texas.” Strachwitz wrote that Jackson had “a beautiful guitar style and a haunting voice.”
Many remember Bob Marley and the Wailers singing, “cold ground was my bed last night and rock was my pillow too,” on their “Natty Dread” album in 1974. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1949, Lil’ Son Jackson recorded his profoundly moving “Homeless Blues” for Gold Star records. Jackson sang about his bed of rocks and gravel.
“Rocks have been my pillow, baby, gravel have been my bed,
I ain’t got nowhere, oh Lord, to lay my poor aching head.”
In the next verse of “Homeless Blues,” Jackson describes his attempts to hitch a ride on the highway, but finds that everyone passes him by. “Nobody seems to know me,” he sings, as he is left deserted on the side of the road by passing cars.
Jackson’s song is truly perceptive in capturing the feeling of being rejected and treated like an invisible man — one of the most painful experiences reported by homeless people. Being made to feel like an outcast, an untouchable, adds a new level of emotional suffering to the physical hardships of homelessness.
The sense of feeling worthless and alone and unloved comes to a head when Jackson adds the despair of losing a lover to the torment of being ragged and homeless. It sounds simple to write, but it is truly amazing to see so much meaning packed into a few short verses.
It’s a picture of a man’s agony — and it’s the poetry of the blues at its best.
“You know I’m ragged and I’m dirty,
People I ain’t got no place to go.
I know you don’t want me baby,
Lord you don’t love me no more.”
Big Bill Broonzy Battles Segregation
Big Bill Broonzy, the man who would become one of the best-known blues musicians in the nation, was born in Scott, Mississippi, as Lee Conley Bradley. His parents were sharecroppers who had 17 children. Broonzy grew into one of the most stylistically diverse blues musicians, constantly adapting to the times with an evolving musical approach that stretched from the late 1920s to the late 1950s.
Broonzy began recording for Blue Bird Records in the 1930s, and was invited to perform as a blues musician at both of the heralded “From Spirituals to Swing” concerts held at Carnegie Hall in December 1938 and December 1939.
After World War II, he began performing in England and Europe and became an enormously influential musical guide to a new generation of overseas blues fans in the 1950s. He also returned to playing in his country blues style as part of the folk music revival in the United States.
Broonzy died in 1958, but his life in the blues spans the years from his 1928 song, “Starvation Blues,” to his prophetic condemnation of Jim Crow laws at the dawn of the civil rights era.
With real foresight, Broonzy captured the economic desperation approaching on the nation’s horizon in his “Starvation Blues,” written in 1928, a year before the stock market crash of October 1929. Even before the Depression struck with full force, the black community was in deep trouble and their growing poverty carried a warning of hard times to come for the rest of the nation.
Big Bill Broonzy’s “Starvation Blues” painted a stark picture of the hunger and evictions that were about to sweep an unsuspecting nation.
“Starvation in my kitchen, rent sign’s on my door.
And if my luck don’t change I can’t stay at home no more.”
“Starvation Blues” packs the entire devastation of the coming economic collapse into a few concise lines that warn about how unemployment would trigger a series of economic woes: hunger and difficulty in paying the rent, followed by eviction notices and, finally, homelessness. He described this chain reaction of poverty even before millions were thrown out of work during the Depression.
“Man, I ain’t got no job,
I ain’t got no place to stay.”
As the Depression years went on, Broonzy recorded “Unemployment Stomp” in 1938. Given the grim subject matter, this song is almost incongruously jaunty and swings with the accompaniment of trumpet, piano and guitar, yet his lyrics are a distress signal to the nation, a warning that unemployment and hunger will break up marriages and families.
“Broke up my home ‘cause I didn’t have no work to do,
My wife had to leave me ‘cause she was starving too.”
Broonzy already had proven farsighted in singing about the nation’s oncoming economic collapse, and now he showed himself to be just as prescient in confronting racial discrimination in America. He began composing justice blues that denounced the horrible misuse of the legal system to create oppressive Jim Crow laws.
Broonzy had served two years in the Army, and was stationed in Europe during World War I. In his 1928 song, “When Will I Get to Be Called a Man,” he voiced the discontent of many black servicemen who returned from fighting for democracy overseas, only to encounter the same racial inequality and segregation at home.
The song starts with a deeply moving lament about what it feels like to be a second-class citizen, dishonored in his own country. In two unforgettable lines, he describes how this mistreatment began at birth and continued his entire life.
“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.”
When he returns from military service wearing his uniform, his boss tells him that he needs to get back into his overalls and accept the same subservient job as before — along with the same demeaning treatment.
“When I got back from overseas, that night we had a ball.
Next day I met the old boss. He said, ‘Boy, get you some overalls.’
I wonder when, I wonder when, I wonder when
I will get to be called a man.
Do I have to wait till I get ninety-three?”
On the liner notes of the Smithsonian/Folkways compilation CD, “Trouble In Mind,” Broonzy describes how he wrote one of his most significant songs, “Black, Brown and White Blues,” about his bitter experience of on-the-job racism.
This historically important song was written long before the Montgomery bus boycott sparked the civil rights movement in 1954. It speaks out so boldly about racism in America that U.S. record companies refused to release “Black, Brown and White Blues” in this country. It was finally recorded and released in 1951 only when Big Bill went to Europe and a French company recorded it. It is magnificently outspoken.
“I went to the employment office, got a number and I got in line.
They called everybody’s number but they never did call mine.
They say, “If you was white, you’d be all right.
If you was brown, stick around.
But as you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.”
In “Black, Brown and White Blues,” he goes on to describe the constant victimization he faces, the lower pay based on discrimination, and how even service in the war doesn’t lead to equal rights and respect.
Big Bill Broonzy’s unconquerable spirit speaks out against Jim Crow discrimination in the song’s final line. Keep in mind that the following verse was written long before the world had heard of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.
“Now I want you to tell me, brother,
What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow?”
In 1956, Broonzy performed an updated version of the spiritual, “This Train (Bound for Glory)” with Pete Seeger, a version that can be heard on the Folkways “Trouble In Mind” CD. Broonzy turns the familiar song into a civil rights anthem.
“There’s no Jim Crow and no discrimination.
This train is bound for glory, this train.”
Perhaps the most boldly political voice in the blues world of the 1950s and 1960s belonged to J. B. Lenoir, a brilliant and fearless songwriter who took on an entire world of injustice by composing blues that fought against poverty, lynching, the Vietnam War, racial discrimination, police violence in Alabama and the shooting of James Meredith in Mississippi.
In 1954, long before anti-establishment songs became more acceptable, Lenoir sang his outspoken “Eisenhower Blues.” His song was considered to be so controversial that political pressure forced it to be removed from stores and retitled as the less inflammatory “Tax Paying Blues.”
Lenoir sang in an unusually high-register voice, and he played acoustic guitar in a boogie style he called “African hunch.” His voice was a very expressive and unique instrument and he delivered powerful performances of some of the most insightful lyrics of dissent ever written.
“Eisenhower Blues” shows what a creative and daring wordsmith and musician he was. Even though the powers that be forced a change in his song’s title, Lenoir’s voice was not silenced.
“Taken all my money to pay the tax,
I’m only giving you people the natural facts.
I’m only telling you people my belief
Because I am headed straight on relief.”
With “Eisenhower Blues,” J.B. Lenoir broke away from the manufactured conformity of the Eisenhower era and sounded an outcry from the people who could no longer pay their rent.
“Ain’t got a dime, ain’t even got a cent.
I don’t have no money to pay my rent.
My baby needs some clothes, she needs some shoes.
Peoples I don’t know what I’m gonna do.
Hmm, I got them Eisenhower blues.”
The age of Eisenhower was also the age of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his blacklists and purges of accused dissidents. J. B. Lenoir voiced his outspoken opposition to war and injustice at a time when dissent could be very costly.
“Eisenhower Blues” had an element of light-hearted humor, but Lenoir’s song, “Everybody Wants to Know,” is a radical warning to the rich that hunger in America could spark outright rebellion.
“You rich people listen, you better listen real deep,
If we poor people get so hungry, we gonna take some food to eat.
Uh, uh, uh, I got them laid-off blues.”
Many of his finest political songs were considered too controversial to even be released in the America of the 1950s. In his book Nothing But the Blues, Lawrence Cohn wrote: “Lenoir’s landmark blues protest album, ‘Alabama Blues,’ dealing with racial violence, civil rights and Vietnam, was released only in Europe.”
German blues festival producer Horst Lippman said, “At the time, no one was willing to release it in America because of the political content.”
It took the intervention of European blues supporters to allow J.B. Lenoir to finally speak the truth about what was happening to black people in America. In 1965, Lenoir traveled to Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival.
Festival producer Lippman wrote, “I made arrangements that J. B. Lenoir finally should get his chance — without any limitation — to sing and play whatever comes through his mind, whatever he might think was and is wrong in the United States toward black people.”
Lenoir was born in 1929 in Monticello, Mississippi, and as the 1960s began, he would have a great deal more to say about poverty, racism and attacks on civil rights workers in his home state.
John Lee Hooker’s No Shoes Blues
An astoundingly high number of the nation’s most masterful blues musicians were born in Mississippi. In Ted Gioia’s book, Delta Blues, Detroit bluesman John Lee Hooker offered his own reason why.
“I know why the best blues artists come from Mississippi,” said Hooker. “Because it’s the worst state. You have the blues all right if you’re down in Mississippi.”
As Nigel Williamson wrote in The Rough Guide to the Blues: “The social and economic problems of the Delta region persist to this day, the product and result of its history of enslavement and the legacies of the cotton plantation era, including the Jim Crow laws, racial segregation of public educational institutions and black disenfranchisement.”
John Lee Hooker was born outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, and as soon as he came of age, he moved to Detroit, where he became one of the pre-eminent blues musicians of his era, with hard-partying boogie music like “Boogie Chillen,” “Boom Boom” and “Dimples.” But Hooker also sang the “Hobo Blues” about riding the rails endlessly, and “House Rent Boogie” about holding parties to raise the rent after being evicted.
Perhaps Hooker’s Mississippi roots show up most clearly in his stark and terribly sad song, “No Shoes,” written in 1960, just as the nation was finally beginning to become aware of the extent of hunger in Mississippi. Hooker’s song reveals the story of hunger in America more tellingly than any Congressional fact-finding tour.
“No food on my table, and no shoes to go on my feet.
My children cry for mercy, they got no place to call your own.”
Hooker’s voice is so sympathetic and poignant, nearly sobbing about the hunger and hardships facing his children. “My children cry for mercy,” he sings, yet it is Hooker’s powerful, deep voice that cries out for mercy.
It is fascinating to hear this king of the boogie utilize his rough, growling voice to offer such a tender and kind-hearted plea for mercy for the children. Even his raw and primal electric guitar sounds beautiful and mournful. It becomes another voice asking for compassion. If ever the most rough-edged brand of Delta blues can be said to be sensitive, this is it.
Hooker ends his short song with an unforgettable image from the Other America — an indictment of society’s failure to care about malnourished children.
“No food to go on my table. Oh no, too sad.
Children crying for bread.”
In an interview in the book, Elwood’s Blues: Interviews with the Blues Legends and Stars, John Lee Hooker said, “I look at the people in the streets, sleeping in the streets — hard time. I wonder why these people have to do that. If we get out and reach out to those people, it would be a better world. I can’t save the world, but I cannot forget about the poor people working in the plants and the fields and buying John Lee Hooker’s records. Wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”
Hunting Season in Mississippi
As great as Hooker’s song is, it would once again fall to J. B. Lenoir to deliver the most explosive indictment of the plight of children in the state of Mississippi. Lenoir’s song, “Born Dead” is a blues for Mississippi, and asks a darkly disturbing question about why African-American children are even born in a state where they will face so much poverty, racial discrimination and lack of a decent education.
“Lord why was I born in Mississippi, when it’s so hard to get ahead?
Every black child born in Mississippi, you know the poor child is born dead.”
Lenoir wrote that the black child born in Mississippi will never even know his mind and will never know “why in the world he’s so poor.”
“Why was I born in Mississippi?” That was not just a rhetorical question that Lenoir asked in a song. Just like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and countless other Mississippi blues musicians who left the state of their birth, Lenoir left Mississippi for good in the late 1940s and moved to Chicago, where he played the blues at night and worked in meatpacking plants during the day.
Years after he left Mississippi and became a respected songwriter in Chicago blues circles, the hard times he faced in the South still weighed heavily on his mind.
In Mike Rowe’s book, Chicago Blues, Lenoir describes why he left Mississippi for Chicago in 1949, at the age of 20. Lenoir said, “The way they does you down there in Mississippi, it ain’t what a man should suffer, what a man should go through. And I said, after I seen the way they treat my daddy, I never was going to stand that no kind of way. So I just worked as hard as I could to get that money to get away.”
In his unnerving song, “Down in Mississippi,” Lenoir sang: “I count myself a lucky man just to get away with my life.” He felt lucky to escape with his life because of the strange and deadly nature of the state’s “hunting season.”
“They had a hunting season on a rabbit. If you shot him you went to jail.
The season was always open on me: nobody needed no bail.”
His description of the Mississippi hunting season is a chilling reminder of the state’s history of lynchings, shootings, and bombings, the assassination of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, and the murdered bodies of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, found buried in an earthen dam in 1964.
In The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues, Giles Oakley wrote, “Mississippi had a reputation for racism and bigotry from the earliest days of Emancipation; its record of lynching, reaching a bloody peak in the early days of the Jim Crow laws, was appalling.”
Oakley added, “During the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, the state was still a by-word for repression and racism, with several bombings and slayings…”
Shot in Mississippi
In 1966, there was a shot heard ‘round the world in Mississippi — the shot that nearly took James Meredith’s life. Meredith had set off on a March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, in support of voter registration. On the second day of his march against racial violence, a white gunman shot him several times. Meredith survived and several days later, 15,000 people marched on Jackson in the state’s largest civil rights demonstration.
Lenoir’s song, “Shot on James Meredith,” is a cry of outrage from the very depths of his soul about the shooting, and a demand for the White House to take a stand against the shooting of unarmed freedom marchers.
“They shot James Meredith down just like a dog.
Mr. President, I wonder what are you gonna do now?
I don’t believe you’re gonna do nothing at all.”
Few musicians ever commented on this barbaric act of terror, other than J. B. Lenoir and folksinger Phil Ochs in his brave song, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” Lenoir reminded us that Meredith was marching through Mississippi to lead the people to “what he thought was right.”
“Last I heard of my boy James Meredith
some evil man shot to take his life.”
Lenoir also wrote powerful condemnations of the violence and racism encountered by civil rights activists in the neighboring state of Alabama. In his song, “Alabama,” he sang about how black people — his brothers and sisters — were murdered in Alabama, yet the state let the killers go free.
“I never will go back to Alabama, that is not the place for me.
You know they killed my sister and my brother,
and the whole world let them people down there go free.”
If Lenoir’s voice sounds overwrought and nearly strangled by powerful emotion while singing “Alabama,” there was good reason. In the Alabama cities of Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, buses were burned and freedom riders were brutally assaulted — several of them beaten nearly to death — by racist mobs of white people in May 1961.
On September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, killing four young Sunday School students in the terrorist attack. In March 1965, Alabama state troopers brutally clubbed hundreds of nonviolent demonstrators marching for voting rights over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo and Rev. James Reeb were all murdered in Alabama during the Selma voting rights campaign.
Lenoir sang out fearlessly against the killings, police brutality, bus burnings and church bombings in Alabama that had stunned a nation. More than that, Lenoir captured the terrible sadness that gripped many over the tragic murders of defenseless children, ministers and idealistic young activists. After singing that his brother was shot down by a police officer in Alabama, he breaks down in his grief:
“I can’t help but to sit down and cry sometimes,
thinking about how my poor brother lost his life.”
Lenoir responded on a very personal level to the violence directed against the black community and civil rights workers, white and black. The violence not only took place during civil rights protests, but had been used for decades in Alabama as a weapon to subjugate people. By writing in the first person, Lenoir was able to directly express his own grief and anger over the violence. His highly emotional involvement gave his blues their deeply felt sense of personal identification and pain.
“Alabama, Alabama, why you wanna be so mean?
You got my people behind a barb wire fence,
now you trying to take my freedom away from me.”
Even in his song “Vietnam Blues,” Lenoir can’t tear his vision away from the violence raging at home in the South. In what at first seems to be another of the peace anthems of the 1960s, Lenoir sings: “Oh God, if you can hear my prayer now, please help my brothers over in Vietnam.”
But thinking about the war in Vietnam and praying for an end to the killing there only serves to remind him of the need to end the killing in Mississippi.
With lyrics like this, J.B. Lenoir was not only a blues singer. He was a prophet with a message of extreme importance for his country.
“Vietnam, Vietnam, everybody crying about Vietnam.
Vietnam, Vietnam, everybody crying about Vietnam.
The law all the day killing me down in Mississippi,
and nobody seems to give a damn.”
Lenoir was a man who stood up to the challenges of his time. His last two albums, “Alabama Blues,” released in 1965, and “Down in Mississippi,” released in 1966, are beautiful expressions of his conscience. Both these records have been released as “Vietnam Blues” on Evidence Records.
Tragically, Lenoir died on April 29, 1967, only a year after releasing one of his finest recordings. He had just turned 38, another bluesman gone long before his time. His death was reportedly from a heart attack that may have stemmed from injuries he had suffered in a recent car accident.
John Mayall, one of the guiding lights of the blues in England, wrote “The Death of J.B. Lenoir” to express his grief at the loss of his friend.
“J.B. Lenoir is dead and it’s hit me like a hammer blow.
I cry inside my heart that the world can hear my man no more.”
Editor, Street Spirit
My thanks to Terry Messman for granting permission to publish this article.
– Alan White, www.earlyblues.com
If you would like to send any comments about the article, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Article © Copyright 2014 Terry Messman. All rights reserved.
Photographs individually credited or © Copyright 2014 Terry Messman. All rights reserved.