Gulfport Island Road Blues (Nonsense & Robert Johnson)
by Max Haymes
There has been, down through the years, a belief by many white people that blacks from the southern states often sang nonsense lyrics. From an otherwise very sympathetic Fanny Anne Kemble in the 1830s, on down to 1888 when another Englishwoman tracing the sea shanty, reports “The “chanty-men” have, to some extent, kept to the silly words of the negroes, and have altered the melodies to suit their purposes.” (1).
It has been generally accepted that it was around the latter date that the Blues finally evolved into a recognisable form. The same attitude by some whites persisted in their view of the blues; this includes some writers on the Blues. A strange position when you consider that the Blues is primarily a vocal music and therefore the lyrics, at one or more levels, are often of great importance to the black listener for whom the Blues were intended.
A case in point crops up as late as 1990, concerning Robert Johnson. In that year, Columbia/C.B.S. released the definitive issue of this singers’ recorded output “Robert Johnson The Complete Recordings” in the U.S. and U.K. respectively. One of Johnson’s well-known titles which was included as “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”. This blues alluded to the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad; Ship Island laying off the Mississippi coast at Gulfport. In the liner notes to this issue, Eric Clapton and co. include the following transcription:
“Take camp tain he and see
camp ain’t he and see
At scal ain’t be at seen, good Lord On that Gulfport Island Road” (2).
Clapton and co. note that “The underlined passages above are phonetic approximations of what Johnson sings, which, in truth, may be nonsensical.”(3). Why? None of the remaining verses of “Last Fair Deal” can be considered nonsense, so it would be illogical, and out of character, for Johnson to suddenly insert lines which are meaningless. In any case a ‘phonetic approximation’ of countless folk songs as well as blues, could easily appear not to make sense.
It would help to dig a little deeper into the background of Johnson’s subject matter before passing judgement. Calt tells us that the Gulf & Ship Island H.R. “… constructed Gulfport between 1887-1902.” (4). This echoes a report by Alan Lomax over 20 years earlier. Said Lomax: “The line was extended through the piney woods country to Jackson, probably with the aid of leased convict labor”. (5). (see map).
Lomax is referring to the infamous convict lease system which Salmond states “… began in the South in the years immediately following the Civil War” (6). The author adds “In the late nineteenth century, most southern states adopted some variant of this practice.”(7), and “Both black and white convicts were leased, and it was generally conceded that the treatment of the blacks was even more cruel than that meted out to the whites.” (8).
In fact it was more than just ‘probably’ in the case of the Gulf & Ship Island R.R. In January, 1887 the Mississippi State board of control investigated “the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad in Harrison County. This railroad, which had been using a number of convicts since 1884 had taken over the entire leasing system on very favourable terms early in 1887. (9). Favourable to the railroad company, that is. Conditions for the black convicts were found to be as horrific and barbarous as under various private sub-lessees up to this time. After another “embarrassing investigation in 1888”, the public outcry “finally convinced the president of the railroad that the use of the convicts was not worth its cost in “unjust and harmful criticism”. As a result, the corporation cancelled its lease and returned the convicts to the prison.”(10). After 1894, legislature established the prison/county farm system in Mississippi; which was often hardly less horrific, if other accounts and the number of blues sung about it, are anything to go by.
The inhuman conditions which convicts suffered whilst on lease to the Gulf & Ship Island R.R. did not go unreported in black song. One such prison song that probably dates back to the 1880s is “It Makes A Long Time Man Feel Bad”. A version survives which was made in 1947 for the Library of Congress, by a group of prison inmates in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman; otherwise Parchman Farm. The lead singer was a young man known only as “22”; together with an unidentified group he included the lines:
“Oh Captain George,–he was a hard–oh drivin’ man (x3)
Oh my Lord, Lordy–out on the Gulf–and Ship Island Road.”(11).
Lomax, who collected this recording, curiously rendering the conclusion of the last line as “the Gulf and Shelf Island Road”, in his transcription!
Some 12 years later in another State pen., Angola in Louisiana this time, Guitar Welch was recorded by Harry Oster. Singing a capella with support from Hogman Maxey and Andy Mosely, one of the songs Welch did was “Alberta Let Your Bangs Grow Long”. Included in this song, which roughly follows the tune of the 1947 one recorded in Mississippi, are the lines:
“If you cry ’bout a nickel, Alberta, you’ll die ’bout a dime”
Robert Johnson, himself a son of the Mississippi Delta, featured these words in a 1936 recording, substituting ‘Annabelle’ for ‘Alberta’. Again, using the same tune (but slightly speeded up), he called it “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”. No doubt capturing the unfortunate convicts’ frame of mind on being leased to the notorious Gulf & Ship Island R.R. in 1887. Johnson recalls another verse of the prison song:
“My Captain’s so mean on me,
My Captain’s so mean on me.
My Captain’s so mean on m-mmmm, good Lord,
0n this Gulfport Island Road.”(12).
Johnson’s next verse is Clapton and co’s ‘nonsensical’ one quoted earlier. What Robert Johnson actually sings, is:
“That cal (sic) ain’t been an’ seen,
Gal ain’t been an’ seen,
That gal ain’t been an’ seen, good Lord,
On that Gulfport Island Road.”(13).
A sense of anger appears in Johnson’s voice in this verse, as well it might. The words allude to undetected murders of black prisoners in the Southern penal system; a theme which keeps cropping up in the Blues. Texas Alexander sang in 1928:
“I wonder what’s the matter with po’ Annie Lee,
Lord, the Captain whupped her, and she ain’t been seen.”(14).
Nearly 20 years later in Parchman Farm, “B.B.” and six fellow inmates immortalised another ‘disappeared’ black woman prisoner:
“Did you hear ’bout–Louella Wallace–(x3)
Poor gal dead, Lawdy, poor gal dead.”(15).
Lomax says “About the life and death of Louella Wallace, no accurate information exists… “(16). Much later still came the famous, and excellent, post-war recording by Calvin Leavy telling of the untold number of murdered convicts on his “Cumins Prison Farm”, way down there in Arkansas.
Robert Johnson often provided unusual lyrics and turns of phrase which reflected an earlier era than his own. The Gulf & Ship Island R.R. being one example, having been absorbed by the Illinois Central in 1925 – some 11 years before Johnson’s recording of “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”. Far from being “nonsensical”, the verse Clapton and co. transcribed phonetically, alludes to a very grim reality in the world of the blues commencing at the tail-end of the nineteenth century.
Post script: Some food for thought. Robert Johnson, it is well known, often drew on earlier blues recordings. Did he get inspiration for his “nonsensical” verse from Texas Alexander’s closing words “… and she ain’t been seen”. Johnson’s extension of “been an’ seen”, though unusual, reads to me as “ain’t been around, and seen around.” Also, ‘Annie Lee’ in Alexander’s blues might have led Johnson to ‘Annabelle’. The Texan’s last pre-war session was on 9th. April, 1934, in San Antonio some 2 years before Johnson recorded “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” in the same city. Maybe Alexander was still around, singing in the streets and Johnson heard “Penitentiary Moan Blues” at first hand as part of the oral transmission process. But this is pure conjecture on my part – so I won’t bip another bop!!
- Smith L.A. p.23.
- Clapton E. & co,
- Calt S. p.57.
- Lomax A.
- Salmond J. p.9.
- Wharton V.L. p.p.241-242.
- Ibid. p.242.
- Johnson R.
- Alexander T.
- Lomax A. ibid.
- Smith Laura Alexandrine. “Music Of The Waters”. Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. London. 1888.
- Clapton Eric. Steve La Vere. Keith Richards. Notes to “Robert Johnson The Complete Recordings”. 2x Cassettes. C.B.S. 467246 4. 1990.
- Calt Stephen. “78 Quarterly” Vol. 1. No.4. 1989.
- Lomax Alan. Notes to “Murderer’s Home’, L.P. Nixa NJL. II. 1957.
- Salmond John. “A Southern Rebel” The Life And Times of Aubrey Willis Williams 1890-1965. University of North Carolina. Chapel Hill. 1983.
- Wharton Vernon L. “The Negro In Mississippi 1865-1890”. Harper & Row. 1965. First pub. 1947.
- “22”. “It Makes A Long Time Man Feel Bad”. “22” vo.; ace. unk. group vo. 1947. Parchman, MS. 1888.
- Johnson Robert. “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”. Robert Johnson vo. gtr. 27/11/36. San Antonio, TX.
- Alexander Texas. “Penitentiary Moan Blues”. Texas Alexander vo.; Lonnie Johnson gtr. 15/11/28. New York City.
- “B.B.” “Old Alabama”. “B.B.” vo.; ace. unk. six males vo. 1947. Parchman, MS.
- Pre- war discographical details from “Blues & Gospel Records 1902-1943”. R.M.W. Dixon & J. Godrich. Storyville. 3rd. Ed. 1982.
- All transcriptions by Max Haymes unless otherwise stated.
Map. “Encyclopedia Americana”,Vol.19. Grolier Inc. N.Y. 1986. First pub. 1829.
Essay (this page) © Copyright 1998 Max Haymes. All rights reserved.
Reformatted for the web from the original typed manuscript by Alan White, January 2014.