Essays – Slave to the Blues

Slave To The Blues (coffles and the auction block – slave roots of the blues)

by Max Haymes

Ma Rainey ad. in the Chicago Defender- January 1926


This article is part of a far larger work (‘Slave To The Blues’) which seeks to focus on the secular roots of the Blues back in slavery times in the USA.  In collaboration with my younger brother, Rex, and blues brothers, Alan White, Robin Andrews and Dai Thomas we intend to highlight the non-religious music of the African American before 1865; and at the end of the Civil War.  Paying particular attention to the ‘corn shucking’ songs.

Of course these roots will also include references to black sacred music – the flipside of the ‘blues coin’, from spirituals on down.  In this article I intend to focus on two of the foremost phenomena: the slave coffle and the auction block.  It was of course the latter which represented the reason for the slaves in the US in the first place; to make money with the least financial outlay.  This is the crude base of all aspects of capitalism. As an American wrote in 1909: “From the fog of controversialism which has surrounded the subject of negro [sic] slavery for so many years there emerge a few indisputable truths.  The most important of these is that from first to last, from its introduction into the West Indies to its introduction and gradual spread in the North American colonies and states, the institution was essentially and fundamentally an economic one”. (1) The ‘fog’, I would suggest was an invention of apologists for what was deemed the ‘Peculiar Institution’.


PART 1 – The Coffle & the Black Camel of Death

The scars of slavery, both physical and mental, ran deep and so it is not surprising that some 60 years after the end of the Civil War, they would still be felt running through the Blues.  In 1925 one of the finest of the early vaudeville-blues singers, Ma Rainey, could record her Slave To The Blues [Paramount 12332] knowing it would still strike a strong emotional chord in her audiences – which could have included ex-slaves by then in their 80s and 90s.

  1. Ain’t robbed no train, ain’t done no hangin’ crime. (x 2)
    Just a slave to the Blues, grievin’ about that man of mine.
  2. Blues, please tell me, do I have to die a slave? (x 2)
    Do you hear me pleadin’, you’re gonna send me to my grave.
  3. If I could break these  chains an’ let my worried  heart go free. (x 2)
    But it’s too late now, the  Blues have made a slave of  me.  (2)

Writing in 1981, Sandra Lieb, rightly points up (especially in verses 1 and 2) that “The woman’s passivity is…emphasized by songs which describe her as a slave or a victim.” (3)  But as well as the “emotional bondage” of such songs Lieb is quick to identify that “…the slave image has a cruel historical antecedent; hopelessly trite in a white song, it evokes the most painful, bitter responses and memories of literal chains”. (4)

The chain was only second to the whip among the cruel icons of the peculiar institution of slavery.  Indeed, for taking coffles of blacks across country, it was essential.  The “negroes [sic] en route were usually in manacles and bound together in coffles,”. (5)   In 1992, Marion B. Lucas included a contemporary account by “James H. Dickey, a white minister, [who] left a poignant description of a bizarre caravan of slaves he met trudging down the road between Paris and Lexington [ in Kentucky] in 1822…To his shock, a slave coffle appeared.  Two violin-playing bondsmen led the way, followed by two slaves with cockades decorating their hats.  In the midst of the caravan of about forty male bondsmen, a pair of chained hands waved the American flag.  The slaves, securely handcuffed, were joined together by short chains which connected to a forty-foot long chain that ran between them.  About thirty women, tied together at one hand, followed the caravan.  All marched in “solemn sadness”, the minister wrote.” (6)  Sadly, Dickey did not refer to the  sounds emanating from the two fiddlers at the head of this coffle who would presumably not have been playing ‘jolly’ music – unless forced to by the slave traders – but tunes of lowdown gut-busting misery.  But fortunately, an almost unique recording by guitarists Peg Leg Howell and Henry Williams and fiddler Eddie Anthony surely convey something of what the two enslaved fiddlers, at least might have WANTED to play; even if it was not recognized yet as Blues in 1822.  With a deep resonance of their combined humming or ‘moaning’ shot through with some of the most intensely emotional fiddling on a record, Moanin’ And Groanin’ The Blues [Columbia 14270-D] may well be what I call an ‘oral camera’ on this horrific scene in the early 19th. Century.  Howell only includes a couple of verses on the record:

My girl’s in trouble,
My girl’s in trouble;
I said, trouble.
True. My sweet mama’s in trouble,
[I’m] Bound to suffer too.
That is reason why you hear moanin’ like I do.

Gon’ get me a fairy,
Gon’ get me a fairy;
Raise ‘er to my hand.
I’m gonna get me a sweet fairy,
Raise ‘er to my hand.
If I can’t satisfy ‘er, I’m gonna do the best I can. (7)

A ‘fairy’ appears to be a (Georgia?) corruption of ‘faro’ which in Mississippi slang of the 1920s blues “just means a woman” .(8)  According to Calt and Wardlow ‘faro’ (Footnote 1) in turn could be a corruption of a slang term listed by Partridge: “fair roebuck. ‘A Woman in the Bloom Of her Beauty…Ex fair roebuck, a roebuck in its fifth year” .(10)  from the 18th. Century.  A roebuck being a young adult female deer.

Footnote 1: Although this term is attributed to a line in Charley Patton’s Magnolia Blues [Paramount 12943] (9) it sounds to my ears more like a woman’s name where I hear Patton sing ‘Merrer’ (Mary ?). The Delta Blues king being notorious for his mis-spoken asides.

In a contrasting atmosphere to Rev. Dickey’s report, some 20 years later in Springfield, Missouri; is one by future  US President Abraham Lincoln. Along with his friend Joshua F. Speed they were on their way to the latter’s home in Kentucky on 27th. September, 1841.  At Springfield, Lincoln states: “We got on board the Steam Boat Lebanon, in the locks of the Canal about 12. o’clock.  M [morning?] of the day we left, and reached St. Louis the next Monday at 8 P.M.” (11)   After some time steaming down the Mississippi River without much interest (at least to Lincoln), he was suddenly confronted at St. Louis by a coffle of slaves.  “A gentleman had purchased twelve negroes [sic] in different parts of Kentucky and was taking them to a farm in the South.  They were chained six and six together.  A small iron clevis was around the left wrist of each, and this fastened to the main chain by a shorter one at a convenient distance from, the others; so that the negroes [sic] were strung together precisely like so many fish upon a trot-line. In this condition they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and children, and going into perpetual slavery where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where; and yet amid all these distressing circumstances, as we would think them, they were the most cheerful and apparently happy creatures on board.  One, whose offense for which he had been sold was an over-fondness for his wife, played the fiddle almost continually; and they danced, sung, cracked jokes, and played various games with cards from day to day..” (12)   I wonder if it ever occurred to Lincoln that all this ‘happiness’ was the unfortunate slaves only psychological weapon to stop them going crazy with grief and anger at being torn so cruelly from all their loved ones and friends.  This weapon also had another edge; that of not showing any distress in front of the whites who themselves would be absolutely distraught in the same situation – the blacks thereby claiming moral superiority over their so-called ‘masters’.

In 1963 another US writer, for the Life Magazine World Library, stated an unequivocal fact regarding the transatlantic slave trade.  “It was a crime of Europeans and Arabs and Africans and, in the truest sense, it was a crime of mankind.” (13)  not to forget the Americans!  But it was the Arabs who were among the first to make that trade a more viable proposition.  Coffles of slaves have trudged across the Sahara for centuries. Thomas notes that “one can explore how far the medieval trans-Saharan trade in black Africans, from the coast of Guinea, was managed by Arab mullah -merchants in the first centuries after the Moslem penetration of Africa, long before Prince Henry the Navigator’s ships were seen in West Africa.” (14)  Prince Henry, “brother of the King of Portugal,” was responsible for the first shipload of African slaves to Europe “on 8 August 1444,” (15)  But with “the introduction of the camel (native to Asia) in AD 300, much bigger cargoes could be carried with greater ease and efficiency than had been possible with the gangs of human bearers, and the trans-Sahara traffic greatly increased. Eventually it grew huge, with camel trains sometimes numbering many thousands of animals accompanied by attendants, guards and merchants.” (16)  The guards were not there only to defend these trains against robbers along the way, but also to ensure that the “human bearers”, who were usually enslaved Africans, did not try to escape or ‘mutiny’.  Of course these larger camel trains did not make the slave coffles redundant.  The Arabs were not about to relinquish such a profitable trade.  “Such tribes as could not be enslaved successfully, as the Manyema of the upper Congo, were adopted as allies by Arab traders, and became themselves slave traders and raiders of the most inveterate and relentless character.  The Hausas and Fulahs of the Egyptian Sudan were extensive owners of and dealers in negro [sic] slaves, and they would resent as quickly as a white man an attempt to identify them with negroes. [sic]  But the Arab dealer was no respector of persons, and when opportunity offered he did not hesitate to sell to the white slaver his allies of a different stock, along with the negroes [sic] whom he had bought from them.”. (17)   Indeed, the word ‘coffle’ comes from the Arabic ‘kafila’ referring to a caravan of camels, etc. and is defined as “…a line of animals, slaves, etc. fastened together.” (18)

A Slave Coffle using wooden chains – unknown date

This might explain the side recorded by Rev. J.M. Milton: The Black Camel Of Death [Co 14501-D] at his one and only session in 1929.  This is the sole recorded example of the title in B&GR .  There has been no reason given as to what this actually is or where the phrase came from.  A rather peripheral connection with a famous early aircraft, the Sopwith Camel, seems to throw up more questions than answers.  Admittedly, Milton preaches about fast travelers in a plane but this must be seen in the context of his other references to passengers on a fast train and speeding drivers in automobiles (aka ‘auto car’). But the bulk of his words concern railroads and a train (see below).  Indeed, far more plausible was a rare (in the South) modified railroad locomotive built in 1899, “constructed with an exceptionally wide firebox of the modified Wootten type”, (19) often called a ‘Camelback’ or  ‘Mother Hubbard’.  This was an experiment to burn ‘slack coal’ (i.e. anthracite, a cheaper grade of coal) on the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway.  This in effect gave the loco an extra cab giving a vague similarity to the hump of a camel (see pic.).  The experiment was a failure and “in 1902 was rebuilt with a new boiler of standard design.” (20).  Interestingly, the N.C.& St.L. ran through Atlanta where Milton had made his recording.

Rev. J.M. Milton sometimes calls it “Black Camel’s Death” or “Black Camel Death” I am convinced that this goes back to the infamous coffles once traversing the US in the 19th. Century and their centuries-old form of transportation on the African continent.  The untold numbers of men, women, and children, who literally fell by the wayside of the horrendously arduous transcontinental journeys and left for dead was surely transfixed in the psyche of surviving slaves.

The camel, it is not generally known, appeared in the United States during the 19th. Century!  I have only come across two references to this little-known phenomenon.  During the 1850s the Sante Fe (Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry.), a railroad often featured in the early blues, “was still in a fetal stage, in the area of what today would be the states of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California, there were less than two people to the square mile. The trail from Kansas to Santa Fe was an  old one that had been used as a trade route when Santa Fe became an American town in 1846. (Footnote 2) From Independence, Missouri, the state border, the 850-mile trail was by the time of the Santa Fe railroad project a well-defined route.  The period was  one when almost any new idea [re transportation] was given a try.  In 1855, for example, Congress amazingly enough had appropriated $30,000 for an experiment to bring camels to the United States to be used for transport in the southwest. By 1857 nearly a hundred camels had been imported to a Texas Gulf  port.   Since they stunk worse than mules and were even more stubborn, after two frustrating years of futiley trying to increase the herd and break them in to hauling four-ton wagon loads, the two dozen or more still surviving single humpers were turned loose in Arizona.  What became of them no one knows but maybe today they are providing tantalizing ‘fossils’ for archeologists.” (22)   It is more than likely that the old Kansas-Sante Fe trade route would have seen long lines of black camels and – slave coffles; although I have no direct evidence for this.

Footnote 2: Probably Galveston, as by “the late [18]’60s nearly all Texas cotton moved down to Galveston by rail or wagon.” (21)

Marshall’s last sentence is inaccurate.  Alvin Harlow tells us that in the beginnings of mail and express lines, another such experiment was introduced to import camels, into the US. In 1862 “Pack trains and express lines started in several directions, and… ‘an air of oriental magnificence was imparted to the scene by the advent of a long train of camels, loaded to an astonishing extent’”. (23)  However, “the camel transportation service was not greatly successful.  American drivers did not understand them, their feet, accustomed only to soft desert sand, suffered on our stony western trails, and it was not practicable to shoe the cleft hooves.” (24)   Camels also “frightened the horses wherever they went, and were finally forbidden use of the roads.” (25)    Many were just set loose to roam in the Texas Panhandle and other areas for years afterwards.  “The last one seen alive was in Arizona between 1885 and 1890.” (26)  The pic. (1875) shows a ‘camel express’ which included black animals.

Given the oral tradition of the African American since slavery days, the sight of these black camels in the later 19th. Century surely invoked memories of horror and death, passed on down by their forebears.  The art of the black preacher was to communicate as well as proselytize.     More of a chanting preacher, Rev. J.M. Milton knew how to hold the attention of  his black  congregation.

We’re gonna speak now upon the subject – the Black Camel’s Death. (Alright!)
Travels in the path of mis-understanding. (Mm)
The locomotive engineer mis-understood ‘is message. (Yes!)
Fails to take the siding.
An’ the Black Camel’s Death meets him an’ others (Pick it up!
Pick it up!) an’ swept into the Judgement. (Alright!)
Uh-many passengers an’ engineers all gone to the Judgement. (Oooh!)
By failing to-mmm-understand.
Black Camel’s Death (Preach it good! Preach it good!)
Pulled ‘em into eternity. (27)

But if there is a possibility that Milton’s record drew on the design of an unusual railroad locomotive, it is far more readily apparent that this preacher was inspired by the title of the 4th. Charlie Chan mystery, a famous fictional Chinese-American private detective in the early 20th. Century, published in 1929 (the year of Milton’s recording) as The Black Camel by Earl Derr Biggers.  Biggers, in turn, was influenced by an ancient Arab saying emanating from Egypt.   It ran: “Death is a black camel which kneels at every man’s gate.  Sooner or later you must ride the camel.” (28)  Camel comes from the “Hebrew ‘gamel’, to repay or requite, as the camel does the care of its master” (29)   The last sentence of the Arab saying is invoked by the ever-popular Rev. J.M. Gates – who is bound to have also influenced Milton’s title, – on his Death’s Black Train Is Coming [Columbia 14146-D]  recorded in Atlanta on 24th. April, 1926. (Footnote 3) Gates substituting a more modern, (at the time) American image ‘the little black train’ for the camel. One of his biggest ‘hits’, Gates was to cut another 5 versions during the same year; one of which remains undiscovered.  On his second Black Train outing he elaborates on his introductory ‘mini-sermon’.


I’m goin’ to sing a song tonight. An’ while’s I sing,
I want every sinner in the house come to the Angel’s
Seat an’bow. An’ accept prayer. Subject of this song is Death’s Black Train Is Comin’.
It’s comin’, too. Whether you believe it or not. It’s comin’.
Uh –  life is uncertain but death is sho’[sure]. This train is comin’.

While’s I sing, come on an’ accept prayer, tonight. (30)

While on his initial version, (and his recording debut) Rev. Gates gives a warning to all sinners; especially his own church members.


There’s some men – and some women;
They cares nothin’ for the gospel light.
Til the bell ring an’ the whistle blow;
Oh! The little black train in sight.


The little black train is comin’;
Get all your business right.
You better set your house in order;
‘Cos that train maybe here tonight.

Oh! The little black train an’ its engine;
With one little baggage car.
Has all deeds an’ your wicked thoughts;
Gonna meet you at the Judgement Bar.  (31)

The ‘Judgement Bar’ being the station where the railroad forks, with the left track going to Hell and the right track going to Heaven.

Footnote 3: Indeed, Milton was also probably aware of Rev. J.M. Gates’ Straining At A Gnat And Swallowing A Camel [OKeh  8699] recorded some 8 months earlier;  recorded in March, 1929. From the New Testament (Matthew 23:24).

This scenario is made quite clear in another of Gates’ recordings around the same time. You Belong To That Funeral Train [OKeh 8398] is a variant of Death’s Black Train and one of 8 versions he made, all in 1926.  But this train has no whistle or bell and when it leaves the final ‘depot’ (the Judgement Bar) it takes its passengers to heaven or hell.


Subject of this song is Funeral Train’s A-Comin’. It’s comin’, too.
An’ you’ve got to ride. You can’t get around it. Rich or poor, high or low. You’ve got to go.


Oh! You belong to that funeral train,
You belong to that funeral train;
You belong to that funeral train.
Ah! Sinner, why don’t you pray?

Uh! The funeral train it’s a-comin’;
It’s a-comin’ round the curve.
An’ the way I know it’s a-comin’;
She’s a-strainin’ at every nerve.


You belong,  [etc.]

 The funeral train that I’m talkin’ about;
She has no whistle or bell.
An’ when you find your station, now;
She has landed you in heaven or hell.

 You belong   [etc.]               (32)

Most locomotives in the WW.I era and after, certainly in the South, were painted in utility black.  Presumably from where Rev. J.M. Gates got his Death’s Black Train title.  Although in c. November, 1926, Blind Joe Taggart laid aside his trusty guitar and along with his wife Emma recorded an impressive duet a cappella:  I Wish My Mother Was  On  That Train [Supertone S2243].  Singing of an engine ‘draped in black’ this is, like several early recordings in the ‘race’ catalogues, incorrectly titled.  Far from wishing his mother on that train, the duo sing of the uncertainty and fear that as she appears to be at the ‘last depot’ she maybe does not qualify to ride the gospel train and will in fact catch the one going down to Hell.  They wonder if his mother will be on the train to Heaven in ‘Can-yan land’. (Footnote 4)


Well, I wonder will my mother be on that train;
Wonder will my mother be on that train.
The train I’m-a talkin’ about she’s-a movin’ through the land;
Ah! Lord, I wonder will my mother be on that train.  (33)

After addressing the ‘Christians’ to ensure they catch the train taking the right-hand track, Joe and Emma offer a last chance to the ‘sinners’.

Oh! Sinner, you stand a-tremblin’ an’ you don’t know what to do;
This train she run to glory an’ she runs to Canaan land.
Just call on Jesus’ name, he will always stop that train.


My Lord, I wonder will my mother [etc.]  (34) (Footnote 5)

If the sinner repents she/he can flag down the gospel train, but if they don’t then the black train for Hell ‘she got to slack’ or otherwise slow down preparing to stop.

Oh! Sinner your train is comin’, I know she got to slack; [en her speed to stop]
I know ‘er by ‘er rumblin’ but she’s always draped in black.
I’ll bid you fare you well, for you made your bed in Hell.


 My Lord, I wonder will  [etc.]    (35)

Footnote 4: This title in B. & G.R. should be adjusted accordingly, with the bracketed appellation “sic’.
Footnote 5: The other take is the same with only slight change of some words

In 1930 the Rev. A.W. Nix gave the Hell train a name.  Taken from a popular express on the Lehigh Valley Railroad he called it  The Black Diamond Express To Hell. The L.V. RR. a major coal (aka black diamonds) carrier and also referring to his listeners skin colour, gives his sermon several layers of meanings.  It was so popular a recording that six ‘parts’ were cut in the studios.  On the final version, Nix calls the last depot ‘Farewell Station’ where The Black Diamond Express and its heavenly counterpart The White Flyer go their separate ways on the final journey.  Sinners and saints say goodbye as the trains reach the point where the railroad track forks in the form of a switch or point; one going left and the other going right.  Rev. A.W. Nix paints a terrifying picture for unrepentant sinners.  Inspired no doubt by Rev. J.M. Gates’ equally terrifying Hell Bound Express Train [OKeh 8532] from 1927.

The Black Diamond express train will hit damnation switch an’ make a fast run for Hell….
in Hell there’s all the hell hounds howlin’. The hob-gobs of Hell will be turned loose on your souls.  (36)

Coincidentally (?) The Black Diamond train “In the nineties…had run all the way to Buffalo [New York] with camelback motive power.” (37)

But if Rev. Milton could take his recording from a Charlie Chan book, where did Rev. J.M. Gates get his influences?  Given that he had recorded all 14 sides about the black/funeral train in 1926; some three years before Biggers’ The Black Camel was published.  Gates must surely have had knowledge of the ancient Arab saying re the black camel of death.  Indeed, as a ‘clincher’ to the scenario I have posited, the one and only cover (also in 1926) of Gates’ Death’s Black Train contains a short spoken introduction which paraphrases this Egyptian saying! (see p.7)  Rev. H.R Tomlin, who only made 8 sides, was a more formal preacher from an earlier time who opened his version with these words:


Death is a black train which stops at every man’s door. Death has left its tracks dotted with graves an’ wet with tears.  (38)

Nothing is known of Tomlin except he had links with Atlanta, Georgia, home-base for Rev. J.M. Gates.  Also the Rigoletto Quartet of Morris Brown University, who accompanied this preacher on his Death’s Black Train Is Coming [OKeh 8375] were resident in Atlanta where the Morris Brown University (Footnote 6) is situated.  In Tomlin’s second and last session, in March, 1927; he recorded two sides in an Atlanta studio.  It is quite possible that he bumped into Rev. J.M. Gates at some point in his adult life and might even have been the informant who passed on his knowledge of the Arabic saying to the far more prolific Gates.  It is intriguing that once again in this preliminary survey, Arabian culture appears to be a source for both gospel and blues songs of the African American.  Rev. J.M. Gates and Rev. H.R. Tomlin may also have heard tales passed on down of the camel trains used in transportation (for a brief period) of the US mail some ten years before Gates was born.

Footnote 6: This educational establishment, for African Americans, reverted back to its original title as the Morris Brown College in 1929.

In all the versions of the little black/funeral train that have been discussed and/or I have listened to, none make reference to a camel, or indeed to any other animal.  In fact, excepting the Rev. J.M. Milton recording and one other, throughout at least 5,000 pre-war gospel titles listed in B&GR there are none that include the camel.  The other exception being yet another side by Rev. J.M. Gates Straining At A Gnat And Swallowing A Camel (see above).  With reference to the biblical entry [Mark 10:25] comparing the chances of a rich man getting to heaven with passing a camel through the eye of a needle.

This dearth of camel references is replicated in Judika Illes’ Encyclopedia Of Spirits, from which I have unashamedly drawn so freely.  Containing details of ‘over a thousand spirits’ (according to a comment on the back cover) and their animals symbols/preferences/familiars, only six have connection with the ‘ship of the desert’ as the camel is sometimes called.

Two of these spirits favour the llama – a species of, or at least is related to, the camel.  Pachamama “is the living Earth…Creature: Llama.” (39)   But unless made angry she is a benign deity.  Supay “is the spirit of Bolivia’s mines and patron of miners…Animals: alpaca, llama (beasts of burden that carry what’s been removed from his mines)”. (40)   Thirdly, there is Allat “Origin: Arabia…the feminine version of the name ‘Allah’.  She is a pre-Islamic spirit who was once among the primacy deities venerated at Mecca.” (41)  Along with Al Uzza and Menat, Allat formed “the trinity of goddesses mentioned in the Koran.  They are the subject of the so-called ‘satanic verses’, …inspiration for Salman Rushdie’s controversial 1988 novel ‘The Satanic Verses’.” (42)   As well as being “a spirit of abundance with dominion over human reproduction…She may have had dominion over trade routes, protecting those who traveled them.” (43)   One wonders if this protection extended to the slaves that made up the Arabian coffles.  Allat “appears in the guise of a beautiful, mature, fertile woman.” (44)  and she is represented as an icon “On coins from the Roman province of Petraer [where] she appears as a robed woman holding a bundle of cinnamon sticks and standing beside a camel.” (45)   Significant is the entry “Animal:  Camel.” (46)

The fourth spirit, by definition, includes the camel.  Kwan Yin’s entry reveals all animals “are sacred…but especially horses.” (47)   A point could be stretched for the inclusion of a fifth: Sacha Huarmi.  Known variously as ‘forest/jungle woman’ “She lives in the Ecudorian Amazon rainforest near the base of the Andes. Sacha Huarmi is the Green Woman who protects and nurtures wild forest animals…Creature: All of them but especially anacondas.” (48)   I t is implied that this spirit’s ‘creatures’ are animals of the jungle and forest.  Even if once again, by definition, the camel could be included; the llama as an indigenous mammal of South America is generally found in the desert.

None of these five spirits could be described as the ‘Black Camel of Death’!  But the sixth one it transpires, could well-hit the target; plumb center!  Linked with Lilith, ‘Queen Of Demons’, her name is Aisha Qandisha . If there was only one candidate to take the left-hand track out of ‘Farewell Station’ on the train to Hell, with links to the camel; then Aisha Qandisha (pronounced A-eesha Qand-eesha) would be that candidate.

Listed as ‘The Holy Woman’ should not necessarily reassure the reader.  “Beautiful Aisha Qandisha lingers near deserted Moroccan springs after dark. Men sometimes mistake her for a lady of easy virtue, but beware: that can be a fatal error.  The clue that she is not an ordinary lady of the evening lies in her feet.  Allegedly, even when appearing otherwise human, one foot or leg still resembles that of a camel, donkey, or goat. Aisha Qandisha is as adored as she is feared. She is a ‘great’ spirit venerated by Algeria’s Ouled Nail, a Berber tribe who are famed for their beautiful and independent dancers,” (49)    The Berbers in North Africa would have been involved in the sub-Saharan slave trade and their countless coffles.  Aisha Qandisha  “causes death, illness and madness but also restores health and bestows wealth, abundance, fertility, and luck.  She is a Lilith-like figure simultaneously dangerous and benevolent.” (50)   Among other theories of origin she is thought to possibly have been “Kadash, the sacred harlot.” (51)

Like Lilith she has a voracious sexual appetite and if a man does not please her when making love to her “she may then drown him.” (52)   Definitely suited to the appellation ‘Black Camel Death’ on Rev. J.M. Milton’s recording.  Illes adds that Aisha Qandisha  is a “temperamental, volatile spirit, quick to scratch, strangle, or whip those who displease her or don’t obey her commands fast enough.” (53)   Finally, as already stated there is the telling manifestation.  Although this spirit is often depicted as a lovely woman there is “typically some little give away that she’s more than that, such as one goat, camel, or donkey foot.  She wears long robes as camouflage; the animal leg may not be immediately apparent.” (54)

While back in 1938 an Estonian lady, Leonora Peets, wrote a book called Women of Marrakesh.  One ‘Margot the Marrakesh Mystic’ put a chapter entitled The Couscous of the Dead on the web.  It features a particularly grisly practice in this famous Moroccan city.  Ms. Peets discovered that it was general knowledge “some old women would stealthily disinter corpses in the cemetery for mysterious reasons.” (55) (Footnote 7) This led her to asking questions but “People wee [sic] evasive about the reasons –they merely expressed awe at the perpetrators’ stoutheartedness. Those reckless ones weere [sic] not afraid of Aisha-Qandeesha, the ogre who roamed the cemeteries at night.  Taller than a man, she had a woman’s torso, a camel’s legs, and a bloody wound beneath each eye.  Her eyes glowing like coals, she pursued all humans, but was particularly fond of catching men.” (56)   Now, THAT signifies (to me) Aisha Qandisha has to be the Black Camel of Death!

Footnote 7: These women used skeleton parts for spells in vodou and witchcraft. This involved preparing couscous (a favourite Moroccan dish) with the powdered bones of corpses!

Unlike Rev. J.M. Gates or the Taggarts, Rev. J.M. Milton’s Black Camel implies a reference to a little black train that has left Rev. AW. Nix’s Farewell Station, taken the left fork at the “damnation switch”, and is heading for the fiery terminus!  A comparable fate, as seen through the eyes of enslaved blacks who ultimately died chained in a coffle; on the African and  American continents over several hundred years and up to the end of the 19th. Century in the case of the US.

As an interesting addendum  to the Black Camel Death, the Bible (King James version) apparently, from a source on the internet, has 150 references to the camel in the Old Testament and 2 in the New Testament.  These see the lowly camel in various roles as a beast of burden, a mode of transportation, for rearing as providers of milk, – and, at least among Arabs, as a source of food.  But not as a harbinger of death, or Death itself.  In the Book of Genesis alone there are a dozen references to the camel.  [Genesis XXIV: 10,11,14,20,30,32,36,44,46,61,63,64.].  In an essential set of 6 CDs (for both the historian and the collector) called Goodbye, Babylon, famous Blues author David Evans cites verse 63 in relation to Rev. Milton’s The Black Camel of Death. (57)   This runs:

And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide: and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, the camels were coming. (Gen. XXIV:63)

But this has reference to his bride-to-be, Rebekah, who is coming to Isaac’s home with a dowry including a number of camels.  This can be seen as a scenario in complete antithesis to death.  It is far more likely that Rev. J.M. Milton took his inspiration from the ancient Arab saying via Rev. H.R. Tomlin, via Rev. J.M. Gates and the Charlie Chan mystery The Black Camel; rather than  any biblical reference.  This evolutionary chain ultimately has its origins in the awesome Aisha Qandisha, who in one of her most terrifying roles as The Black Camel of Death, probably gave birth to the old Egyptian saying in the first instance.

To the British slave trader on the West Coast of Africa the black camel coffles would have been a very familiar sight.  It was indeed they who were the main part of the ‘demand’ factor which inspired the ‘supply’ by the Arabs in the global economic equation.  On the ‘slave coast’ of West Africa there were forts or castles manned by European nations such as Portugal and Spain.  But the most prominent was the British establishment, the notorious Cape Coast Castle.  All these locations had slave or ‘holding pens’ for Africans about to be sold to ships’ captains from the home countries (and elsewhere) to transport across the Atlantic Ocean.  St. Clair wrote “many…came from Asante, marched, shackled, through the forest paths, and [got] their first sight of men with skin colour that was not black..” (58)   The governors of Cape Castle knew that “many of the people whom they bought did not originate from Asante, but came from communities conquered by, and subject to, the Asante empire, or who had been brought to Asante as slaves from further inland..” (59)   One, Governor Hippisley noted that a few of the slaves “were so pale in complexion as to be of North African or Middle Eastern appearance..” (60)   Sinclair added: “Hippisley speculated, correctly, that the interior of Africa was not a desert, as some Europeans believed, but luxuriant and well populated, and that the slaves brought to the Castle may have come from the whole of the vast area of sub-Saharan Africa, east as well as west, and even beyond..” (61)   Significantly, Sinclair notes: “It was only in the Asante invasion of 1807, during which men literate in Arabic who had seen the Mediterranean were found among the Asante army, that the British in the Castle began to understand..” (62)

As has been seen the Arabic legacy of the slave coffle soon reappeared in the American colonies and later, US states.  An ex-slave, Willis Winn, interviewed in 1937, told of  “The onliest statement  I can make about my age is my old master Rob Winn, always told me if anyone asked me how old I is to say I’se borned on March 10, in 1822.  I’se knowed my birthday since I’se a shirttail boy, but can’t figure in my head.” (63)   This would make Willis Winn 115 at the interview.  He goes on to relate that when growing up (c. 1840s?) “They was sellin’ slaves all the time, puttin’ ‘em on the block and sellin’ ‘em, accordin’ to how much work they could do in a day and how strong they was.  I’se seed lots of ‘em in chains like cows and mules.  (Footnote 8) If a owner have more’n he needed, he hit the road with ‘em and sold ‘em off to adjoining farms.” (64)

But the slave coffle had been around for some considerable time when Winn made these observations.  Possibly going back to the 17th. Century.  Certainly, as far as US writer, Walter Johnson, was concerned: “By the end of the eighteenth century slave coffles were a common sight on the roads connecting the declining Chesapeake – its soil exhausted by a century of tobacco planting – to the expanding regions of post-Revolutionary slavery, the Carolinas to the south and Kentucky and Tennessee to the west.” (66)

In the late 1700s there were no railroads and only a few canals.  Mostly, the only method of access across the country was by river or dirt roads and ‘Indian’ trails. (Footnote 9)  Johnson observed: “ …in these years the trade was a practice without a name or center, a series of speculations made along the roads linking the small towns of the rural South into an attenuated political economy of slavery.  As the coffles traveled south, slaves were sold at dusty crossings and roadhouses through an informal network of traders and chance encounters that continued to characterize much of the trade throughout its massive nineteenth-century expansion.” ( 67)

Footnote 8:   This likeness to treatment as cattle (as well as chattel!) continued on to plantations that the slaves were sold to.  Ex-slave Laura Smalley (probably born c. late 1840s) was interviewed at length in 1941 down in East Texas. “An they had childrens parents to come to their own children. I think but just like a cow will go to the calf, you know. An you  know, at the:same time the cow [white woman: uh-huh”] come to its calf at night. Well, they come at ten Every day at ten o clock. To hold them  babies. Yeah, wet-nurse, you know. They what did not nurse em at all, they didnt come to em at all. They were over in the field. They warnt big enough to eat, you know. Shed-a old mother, time have come. When that horn blow. Blow the horn for the mothers, you know. They just come, just like cows, you now, comin to the children.” .(65)

Footnote 9:   See When The Moon Creep Over The Mountain (highways in the early blues – from dirt roads to Highway 61). Max Haymes. Unpublished article. 2003. Reproduced in revised form in the Frog Blues & Jazz Annual No.1. Paul Swinton. Tony Russell.  (Eds.) Due for publication in early December, 2009. See latest Red Lick catalogue.


PART 2 – The Coffle, Crossroads, and the Auction Block

By the 1820s, the then new states of Alabama and Mississippi had joined this evil trade.  This throws another light on the crossroad (aka crossing) saga, in the Blues and in the early 20th. Century black communities.  The ‘roadhouses’ referred to by Walter Johnson were early stop-over/trading points situated at the crossing – a more appropriate description on most occasions, in the 18th. C. and even as late as the 1910s and ‘20s. At a point where two dirt tracks crossed provided the coffles with a location where a sale of  the human ‘freight’ could be set up via the auction block, as referred to by ex-slave Willis Winn above..  As a black woman from Sumter in South Carolina informed Hyatt in the early 1930s, this icon of the Blues graduated into roads and later even railroads. “ Jes lak if a railroad crossin’ have a road cross it, an’ cows goin’ cross it, well, dat’s a fork [crossroad], yo’ see..” (68)The unidentified woman goes on to explain an elaborate mojo to split up a relationship in the eternal triangle scenario which involved the crossroad/crossing.

This association of the slave auction block and coffles with crossroads could well explain the dearth of references to them in the blues.  One of the very few I have come across is Charley Patton’s Joe Kirby [Paramount 13133] in October, 1929.

Well, I was standin’ [at] Clack’s Crossroad, (Footnote 10)
biddin’ my rider goodbye;
I was standin’ at the crossroad, biddin’ my rider goodbye.
It [the train] blowed for the crossroad,
Lord, she started to fly (69)

Footnote 10: The auction block/trading post has been replaced with the country store, ‘Clack’s’, near Clarksdale in Mississippi was one such store.

This is the first reference to crossroads in a recorded blues.  Patton was to adapt this verse in another blues from the same session: Heart Like Railroad Steel [Paramount 12953], omitting ‘Clack’s Crossroads’. Some seven years later the most famous reference appeared on record by Robert Johnson who often went to see Charley Patton play in the 1920s; along with Johnson’s main influence Son House.  The second verse appears to borrow directly from Charley Patton whom he may have seen performing Joe Kirby live in a barrelhouse down in the Delta.

Mmmmm, standin’ at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride;
Standin’ at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride.
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by.  (70)

In West Africa, a Hausa belief runs “If one dreams of a man who is sitting alone while passers-by do not seem to notice him, that man is going to die soon.” (71)  The Hausa were one of the major peoples (rather than a single tribe) enslaved in what was to become later, Southern USA. The Hausa language was second only to that of Swahili in the numbers of people who used it and its widespread distribution throughout the African continent.  “In the days of slavery both the men and the women were much  sought after because of their superior qualities and were highly valued in North Africa than slaves taken from any other Sudanese people.” (72)   Many West African beliefs traveled  via Haiti and vodou/voodoo to the Deep South and becoming ‘hoodoo’ sometime after the end of the Civil War.  “The Hausas…are still firm believers in witchcraft and attribute to certain people the power of casting spells and causing their victims to sicken and perhaps die.” (73).  Certainly, the belief in hoodoo in the Southern states was rife in the early part of the 20th. Century; as Hyatt’s female informant from South Carolina implies. This was true for nearly all blacks and half the whites south of the Mason/Dixon line.  Reaching back into slavery times especially in Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina.

Interestingly, the first recorded reference to a crossing, if not the crossroad itself, could well have appeared as early as the autumn/fall of 1893!  The earliest black quartet that we know of started their extensive group of recordings in 1890 on December 19, in New York City. (74)   Godrich & co. inform us that the “Unique Quartette were paid for three further sessions in December, 1890, thirteen sessions 1891, three sessions in April and June 1892, and a final session on Tuesday, 14th. March. 1893.  No information is available about the titles at any of these sessions.” (75)  B&GR then go on to list details, with titles, for a probable further five sessions between late 1893 and mid-1896.  At the first of these more detailed sessions in or around the autumn of 1893, the quartet cut The Last Farewell [Edison cylinder 705].  Highlighted by the number ‘1’, this indicated the accompaniment of an unknown pianist.  I t appears to be the only song, out of 34, to be so designated.  The implication being that the other 33 sides featured either unknown accompaniment or were performed a cappella.

Fast forward some 34 years and one of only two titles by Ruby Paul is listed as Last Farewell Blues [Paramount 12592].  Recorded about the end of 1927, she is accompanied by an unidentified pianist (nice but superfluous to this performance) and the harrowing poignancy of the slide guitar played by Bobby Grant. (Footnote 11)  Ms. Paul’s tear-jerking vocal and lyrics have her down by the railroad crossing as the train is leaving the depot with her man on board.

I’m gonna stand at the crossin’, to wave my last farewell. (x 2)
I hate to see you leave me, but I hope you will do well.  (77)

Footnote 11: Though listed in B. & G.R. as “ poss. Bobby Grant” (76) he uses the same accompaniment-note for note- as on his own Lonesome Atlanta Blues [Paramount 12595] presumably from the same session according to matrix nos. and date.

The lyrics get even more lachrymose (a-typical in early blues) so it is not surprising to discover that along with another title by the Unique Quartette from the same 1893 session, Maid Of The Mill, both were “standard white parlor songs” (78).  It is quite likely therefore, that the above-quoted verse from Last Farewell Blues was included in the 1893 song by the Unique Quartette featuring the ‘crossing verse’. (Footnote 12) While Robert Johnson does not make any specific reference to meeting the Devil in his Crossroad Blues, it could well be argued that frightening if not Hellish things are closing in on him. This would explain why Johnson suddenly turns to the Christian God for emergency help:

Lord, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please. (80)   (Footnote 13)

Footnote 12: The only recording in the old time/hillbilly catalogues that might have been another version of The Last Farewell from 1893 I have come across, is Lovers Farewell [Victor 40277] made on 24th. May, 1930 in Memphis. This was by the Carter Family and while being even more sentimental is clearly a different song. NB: take 1 remains unissued and the matrix heard was 59980-2 (79)

Footnote 13: Tho’ he refers to the ‘Sunset Clause’, banning blacks from the streets from sunset- sunrise in the 1930s; in the “sun goin down, dark gonna catch me here verse (81) this would result in a stay at the local city jail-quite a common experience for itinerant blues singers. Certainly not an event requiring unfamiliar religious help from God.

Johnson being one of a ‘select’ group of blues singers who never recorded a sacred title; along with ‘wild’ artists such as Lucille Bogan, King Solomon Hill and Kokomo Arnold. However, on his Stones In My Passway [Vocalion 03723] in 1937, Robert Johnson invokes a more ‘unholy’ and much earlier icon from the spirit world of ancient gods and vodou/hoodoo.  He included the phrase:

I’ve got a three legged truck-on.  (82)

When a ‘re-discovered bluesman (Son House?) in the sixties was played this recording he expressed disbelief that the record company, ARC, actually issued this song, in 1937.  So he readily recognized the blatantly sexual content even though Johnson’s phrase does not appear on any other blues-as far as I’m aware.

This leads us once more into the world of spirits, ancient gods and goddesses. A group of spirits called the Sidhe are  ‘Fairy’ or ‘Fairies’ “(the word is singular and plural)” (83) who inhabited Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.  A ritual from the latter “encourages bribing the Sidhe to save lives via the crossroads.

Sit on a three-legged stool at a three-way crossroads at midnight on Halloween.
Listen: voices will intone the names of those destined to die during the next twelve months.
This destiny may be avoided by returning to the spot with gifts for the
Sidhe: one gift for each person whose destiny needs amending.” (84)

A three-way crossroads is usually referred to in the UK as a ‘T-Junction’.  It is not a long journey from the three-legged stool to the sexual symbol per se as used by Robert Johnson..  Traveling right back to Ancient Greece we find the Olympians’ god Hermes.  He “is the trickster of the crossroads,…summon him by erecting a herm or cairn of stones, especially at a four-way crossroads (x-shaped).” (85) Judika Illes also notes “Statues called ‘Herms’ were used to portray him: tall rectangular pillars displaying his head on top and his erect penis sticking out.  Herms were placed at crossroads.” (86)   Although later shown as a winged messenger of the gods, Hermes’ “most ancient images portray him in the form of an erect phallus.” (87) Hermes was later adapted in Haiti (from West Africa) as Papa Legba, the ‘Keeper of the Crossroads’.  He is the first lwa or vodou spirit to be contacted in ceremonies so that other lwa can be reached.  He is symbolized as “Number 3 (two legs and a phallus)…In Africa, he is sometimes venerated in the form of a phallus.” (88)

From Spain “A Basque spell suggests,…that should illness arise without obvious reason or cause, someone should bring a cauldron to a crossroads, place a comb inside the pot together with some stones, and turn the cauldron upside down.  This serves as a signal to witches that healing action is required and allegedly assistance will soon arrive.” (89)  A prime candidate for the basis of Stones In My Passway.  Also this spell has three elements: cauldron, comb, and stones; a popular requirement in Hoodoo, the Southern US adaptation of Vodou, when making mojo hands.  This spell also invokes slavery times when slaves stole away at night to an arbor to sing and pray, and used an upturned pot to ‘capture’ the sounds so as not to be heard at the Big House by their ‘master’ the white slave –owner.

The four-way crossroads referred to above are usually associated with male spirits while “In general, three-way crossroads are associated with female spirits.” (90)    As Illes says: “The most common variety are three and four-way crossroads.” (91)    Crossroads are the most powerful location for spirits generally speaking and some are crossroad specialists such as Hermes and Eshu-Elegbara (Papa Legba).  Another is the Greek goddess Hekate/Hecate.  These spirits are also known as ‘Crossroads Spirits’ or ‘Gatekeepers’. “ Sometimes they’re called ‘Road Openers’ too.” (92)   Hekate  is also known as “Hecate Trivia…’Trivia’ literally means ‘three roads’.” (93)

From the foregoing it is readily apparent that Robert Johnson was alluding to a three-way crossroads when he included his ‘three legged truck-on’ phrase on  Stones In My Passway; that is to say at a crossroads where female spirits congregate.  Particularly Hekate: “Hecate’s image was once placed in Greek towns wherever three roads met.” (94)   i.e. a ‘T’ or a ‘Y’ junction.  It would seem that on his other take of Crossroad Blues Johnson is alluding to the ’T’ variety.

An’ I went to the crossroads, mama, I looked east an’ west;
I went to the crossroad, babe, I looked east an’ west.
Lord, I didn’t have no sweet woman-oooh well!-babe, in my distress. (95)

The main highways through Mississippi in the 1930s: 49,51, and 61, ran north to south and as Johnson did not list an option to look in either direction of these major points of the compass it must be assumed he was at a ‘T’ or three-way crossroads with east or west his only options to travel (unless he retraced his steps from whence he came).  Surely, in his mind loomed Hekate “Queen of the Crossroads” and  “The Most Lovely One…Three Headed Hound of the Moon…Light Bringer.” (96)   A clear connection to Cerebros the three-headed hell hound guard dog in Hades (aka Hell) and another  ‘devilish’ subject in Johnson’s repertoire on Hellhound On My Trail [Vocalion 032623] in 1937. Returning to the world of hoodoo (p.16) another of Hyatt’s informants gives an unusual alternative use of the black cat bone (Footnote 14) and the crossroads.  “Dey go down dere to de fo’ks of de road to break up people, an’ dey go dere fo’ de ninth mawnin’ an’ de ninth mawnin’ dey go dere an’ carry a black cat.  An’ when dey get down dere with dis black cat, dey’ll have boilin’ watah, an’ dey take dis cat an’ chunk it down in dis boilin’ watah.  An’ whenever de bone dere comes up two bones an’ where dese two bones come up, one will go tuh de right an’ one tuh de left.  Well, de devil will be on one side an’ de pitchure of de Lord God on de othah one, an’ whichever bone dey cuss, if dey don’t git it, dey soul is sold to de devil; if dey does (“git it”) dey done sold deyself to de devil – but dey grab de bone, see.  ([Hyatt asks] Which bone do they grab?)  De one goin’ tuh de left – dat’s de one dat yo’ do’s yo’ devilment wit.  An’ dey’ll grab de one goin’ to de left, an’ it’s got three prongs to it.  Dat’s at chure crossroad, dat yo’ kin’ do all yo’ devilment.” (97)

Footnote 14: The black cat bone is a major ingredient in hoodoo and one of the most powerful and popular-certainly in the Blues. 

Even more awesome is one of the most powerful spirits in Jewish folklore and one of the most popular in the world of 2009-Adam’s first wife known as LILITH.  It is she who is the ruler of sexuality and sensuality. Refusing to submit to the sexual “missionary position” or to be otherwise dominated by him she “flew away” (98) from the Garden of Eden.  She went to Hell and became ‘Queen of Demons’.  Not only does she love desolate places such as forests, seacoasts, and “especially the desert” she also loves crossroads. (99)   Very aptly for Robert Johnson’s Stones In My Passway Lilith “has domain over sexual desire, erotic dreams and sacred sex magic.” (100) or put more crudely “she was a nymphomaniac” (101)  A further likely link between Lilith and some of Johnson’s lyrics shows up in another verse of Passway.

I have a bird to whistle an’ I have a bird to sing;
Have a bird to whistle an’ I have a bird to sing.
I got a woman that I’m loving, boy, but she don’t mean a thing. (102)

The last line could be translated as: compared to the all-powerful and all-sexual Lilith, Johnson is saying his own earthly lover isn’t even in the frame.  While the first two lines and the bird references sit well with the Queen of Demons.  She originated in Sumeria and “The Sumerian Burney Plaque, (circa 2,300 BCE) is generally identified as Lilith.  It depicts her as a winged naked bird woman holding the ring and the rod of power and flanked by owls.  Her taloned feet stand atop reclining lions.”(103)   In one interpretation from the Jewish Bible (and the King James version) she is indirectly referred to as a “screech owl.” (104)  Lilith possesses many forms.  As “an old crone or beautiful young woman.  She may appear as a woman from head to waist; flame underneath.” (105)   She also adapts to animal shapes “typically as a large black cat, black dog or owl.  Even when in human form, Lilith may display bird’s feet, claws or wings.” (106)

Johnson’s song invokes spirits who make him impotent (‘lost appetite’) and bring on the menstrual cycle in a woman (‘please don’t block my road’) – one of the female states most feared by otherwise macho men.

I got stones in my passway an’ my road seem dark at night. (x 2)
I have pains in my heart, they have taken my appetite.

My enemies have betrayed me, have overtaken poor Bob at last. (x 2)
An’ it’s one thing certain, they have stones all in my pass.

I got three legged truck-on, boy, please don’t block the road;
I got three legs truck-on, boys, please don’t block my road.
I’ve been feelin’ strange about my rider, babe, I’m booked and I got to go.  (107)  (Footnote 15)

Footnote 15: Although this line by Johnson has been generally rendered as ‘feelin’ [a]shamed about my rider’, I don’t hear the ‘sh’ pronunciation and I am convinced (well, 99%!) that he sings ‘strange’. It also makes more sense in the general atmosphere of Stones In My Passway..

If, in his Crossroad Blues, (see above) everybody did indeed pass him by and the old Hausa belief came true; then the closing lines of Me And The Devil Blues [Vocalion 04108] would seem to be a logical result.

You may bury my body down by the highway side;
Spoken: “Babe, I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead an’ gone.”
You may bury my body, Oooh! Down by the highway side.
So my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound  bus an’ ride. (108)

And his opening two verses a [super]natural progression.

Early this mornin’ when you knocked upon my door;
Early this mornin’. Oooh! When you knocked upon my door.
And I said “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go.

Me and the Devil was walkin’ side by side;
Me and the Devil. Oooh! Was walkin’ side by side.
An’ I’m goin’ to beat my woman until I get satisfied.  (109)

Referring to the Protestant Reformation (c.1517)  in the Medieval Period, Paine writes: “No period in Christian history was even [sic] so beneficial to the Devil.  He had advocates on both sides, including Martin Luther, who wrote in his Tishreden that, ‘Early this morning when I awoke the fiend came and began disputing with me.  “Thou art a great sinner”, said he.  I replied, “Canst not tell me something new, Satan?” (110)   Although the Devil/devil appears in many blues lyrics Satan is very nearly totally absent.  Johnson’s usage in Me And The Devil Blues seems to be pre-empted by a 1934 recording from guitarist Bob Campbell Worried All The Time [Vocalion 02798].  An excellent heavy-voiced singer Campbell appears to shun the Devil rather than accept his company, blaming Satan for his own mistreatment meted out to the woman he loves.

  1. I mistreated my baby, know I did not treat her right.
    I mistreated my baby, know I did not do her right.
    I put ‘er out in the cold on one rainy night.
  1. If I could find my baby I would do the last I could;
    If I could-a find my baby I would do the last I could.
    I can’t give ‘er much money but I can give ‘er something’ as good.
  1. Wasn’t nothing’ but old Satan made me do her so. (x 2)
    If she would come back home I wouldn’t do that thing no more.
  1. Lord, I’m worried, stays worried all the time. (x 2)
    Buddy, look a that no-good woman of mine. (111)

Bob Campbell reflects a more casual religious reference  with the exclamation ‘Lord’ akin to Robert Johnson’s appeal to God in Crossroad Blues.


PART 3 – The ‘Original’ Crossroads, Crossings and the Blues

The earliest known crossroads in the South that has come down to us is situated in what was known as ‘Indian Territory’ prior to 1907.  In that year the state of Oklahoma was born.  With the arrival of the M-K-T railroad or ‘Katy’ in 1872 this formed the first rail crossing in the Southern states.  The station/depot was named McAlester.  But before this date the locality was simply known as the ‘Cross Roads’.  This was “where the Texas Trail from Springfield, Missouri, to Preston and Dallas crossed the California Trail from Fort Smith to Albuquerque”. (112)   The story is told by one J.L. McAlester in later years how he happened on an old “memorandum book” written long before the Civil War by a geologist which included the entry that “the best coal was to be found at the ‘Cross Roads’.” (113)   As the said geologist had been part of “a government exploring party” at the time, McAlester took it to be authentic.  He therefore “went to the ‘Cross Roads’ where he established a store and soon became the owner of a flourishing business.  By his subsequent marriage to a Chickasaw girl he became entitled to citizenship in the Choctaw Nation.  When the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas (Footnote 16) reached the ‘Cross Roads’ in 1872 the station was named McAlester.” (114).     Indeed, this is one of many railroad stops mentioned by Henry ‘Ragtime Texas’ Thomas in his superb Railroadin’ Some in 1929; as “South McAlester’. (115) (Footnote 17)   Part of this epic song runs:

Change cars on the Katy, leaving Dallas, Texas;
Comin’ through Rockwall.
Hello, Greenville!
Celeste. (118)

Then crossing the state line from Texas into Oklahoma, Henry Thomas rode the Katy over that very same crossing in what he still called the ’Territory’

South McAlester!
Muskoga!                          [Muskogee]
Hello, Wagner! (119)         [Wagoner]

Then on into St. Louis where he “changed cars” once again as he headed up to Chicago, to cut another recording session for Vocalion Records.

Footnote 16: In 1872 the railroad was still the Missouri, Kansas & Texas. It was not until 1922 it became the  Missouri-Kansas-Texas or M-K-T.

Footnote 17:  As Debo in her footnote  says (at the time of her writing) the  town was re-named North McAlester. (116)  Maybe the southern part of the town  Thomas referred to was where  the black section was located. A 1900  map shows it as ‘McAlester’. (117)

This ‘first’ rail crossing saw the Katy cross the old Atlantic & Pacific – later the Frisco.  Both the Katy and the Frisco were popular railroads in the annals of the early blues.  This just might be the subject of Katy Crossing Blues by Texas Alexander in 1934 at a session in Fort Worth, Texas.

The crossing appears in relatively few Blues recordings.  This includes a small group which featured some variants of the verse:

Before I’d stand to see my baby to leave town;
I’d beat the train to the crossing and burn the trestle down.

Not surprisingly, since the Katy’s early arrival in the state, the first blues to include examples of what was essentially a ‘floating verse’ emanated from Texas singers; or ones closely associated with Texas.  Pianist Texas Bill Day recorded (as ‘Will Day”) his Central Avenue Blues [Columbia 14318-D] in April, 1928, down in New Orleans.

Before I’d stand to see my good girl leave me in this town. (x 2)
Beat the train to the crossin’ an’ burn the trestle down. (120)

Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943 (B. & G.R.) list the accompanist as unknown clarinet (Footnote 18) and guitar (see above).  As no piano is present it is highly likely that Day himself switched to guitar.  Thereby joining the ranks of piano/guitar men in the Blues such as Walter Roland, Peetie Wheatstraw, Lonnie Johnson, Clifford Gibson, Tampa Red, et al.  Texas Bill Day was so taken with the above verse that he re-recorded part of it as a title in 1929 Burn The Trestle Down [Columbia 14587-D] and included the complete verse.  Rambling Thomas, a great rural singer who came from Logansport, Louisiana, also used this ‘crossing/trestle’ verse in a blues from 1928.  Despite his adopted name he did spend some time in Dallas, Texas, and the surrounding area.  Apparently not much to his liking as related in his Hard Dallas Blues [Paramount 12708].  Thomas is a very fine and expressive guitarist who often featured chilling slide to match his heartfelt vocals-although not on either take of Dallas.  Another ‘non-Texan’ who used this verse was the Alabamian female rural blues singer Lucille Bogan.  One of the very best in the genre (i.e. the Blues generally) Ms. Bogan had originated in Amory, Mississippi, but soon made Birmingham, Alabama, her home.  By the time she recorded her superb T. & N.O. Blues in 1933, she was recording as ‘Bessie Jackson’’ and had teamed up with the awesome pianist, Walter Roland; also from Alabama. (Footnote 19)   A blues about her man’s love for riding the Texas, and New Orleans RR.  These singers are part of a small group who used the ‘crossing/trestle’ verse, or variations of same, in the pre-war era of the Blues. (see Table A)  This list is by no means an exhaustive one.

Footnote 18:  On her only 2 issued sides Alberta Brown, a fine underrated singer, Chris Smith suggests the clarinet is by the well-respected New Orleans musician Sydney Arodin. I agree at least the accompaniment sounds like the same artist. These sides were done at the same session as the one by “Will Day”. And Alberta Brown is listed with an untitled track and remains unissued. This includes an unidentified pianist – surely Texas Bill Day.

Footnote 19: See Railroadin’ Some (Ibid. Ch.1. p.p. 42-44.). This recording was a ‘cover’ of T.N. & O. Blues [sic] by Hattie Hyde in 1930 which so far remains undiscovered.  There is a possibility that Hyde could be the Texas link for this verse re- appearing in the repertoire of singers in Alabama. For a long/in-depth study of Lucille Bogan, by Max Haymes, see Alan White’s early website.

Table A

Title Artist Date/location
Central Avenue Blues Texas Bill Day  (as “Will Day”) 25/4/28. New Orleans, Louisiana.
Hard Dallas Blues-Tk.2 Rambling Thomas c. -/11/28. Chicago, Illinois.
Hard Dallas Blues-Tk.4 Rambling Thomas c. -/11/28. Chicago, Illinois.
Little Hat Blues Little Hat Jones 21/6/29. San Antonio, Texas.
Burn The Trestle Down Texas Bill Day 4/12/29. Dallas, Texas.
T. & N.O. Blues Lucille Bogan (as “Bessie Jackson”) 17/7/33. New York City.
Katy Crossing Blues Texas Alexander 29/9/34. Fort Worth, Texas.
Central Avenue Blues  Willie Reed*
*=Vocalion unissued
 28/9/35. Dallas, Texas.

Of course the most famous crossing in the Blues which was also a railroad crossing, is ‘where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog’ at Moorhead in the Mississippi Delta.  This has been discussed at some length (Footnote 20) and so will not be pursued further here. (featured in blues by Charley Patton, Bessie Smith, Kokomo Arnold, Lizzie Miles, Big Bill Broonzy, amongst several others.)

Footnote 20: See Railroadin’ Some. (Ibid. Ch. 5).  This Cat’s Got The Yellow Dog Blues. Max Haymes. In Green Diamond No.71. pp. 23-28. December, 2004. Also check early

This leaves a couple of spoken asides in 1930 by Mississippi’s Bukka White who as a Delta guitarist, then barely 20 years old, accompanied an older singer Napoleon Hairiston probably also on guitar; on a series of mouth-watering titles of which only four were issued.  One of these was New Frisco Train [Victor 23295] where Bukka imitates the train sounds on his ferocious National steel guitar, including the clanging bell as the train slows for the crossing. Although he does not sing Bukka makes all the spoken asides except two.  One is by Hairiston and one by an unidentified third man who makes the “Vicksburg in the cool of the evenin’” comment.  Said Mr. White:

Ooooh! Listen at that bell. Good God, make me think about Itta Bena—get your shoes, boy,
let’s go. Let’s catch it in the bend [if] we can’t catch it at the crossin’.  Goin’ in Alabama now,
an’ I know it.

I know I’m gonna ride, boy. I know if I can’t catch it on the crossin’, I’ll catch it in the bend.
Goin’ to Georgia too, boy. (121)

Referring to a favoured  Mississippi town (Itta Bena) his comments point up another vital role of the crossing/crossroad- as a pick-up place for aspiring hoboes including of course the blues singers.  Important too was a further role as  enacted by travelling railroad circuses.   Starting in 1868 they had always unloaded at the crossing and re-loaded there at the end of a visit to a particular town or city.  Indeed, the preceding procession (to the show)  started from this point wending its  majestic way into town.  (Footnote 21) But no blues was recorded about this important social occasion, or at least I have not come across one in over 50 years. While there are around 25 sides (so far!) featuring the crossing (usually a railroad one) only three refer to the crossroad. A couple of recordings by Charley Patton and a ‘spin-off’ by Robert Johnson, as has already been discussed.  (Footnote 22)  I suppose the Stop Look And Listen title by a handful of artists in the 1920s and 30s, (see Table B) could be seen as indirectly to do with railroad crossings as that is where similarly worded signs are to be seen; being an obvious warning to people about oncoming trains.  Even if the subject of these blues is generally about cemeteries!

Footnote 21: See Railroadin’ Some (Ibid. Ch. 8:  I Carried Water For The Elephant.)

Footnote 22:  I am  of course referring to the pre-war era of Blues here:1890-1943. Possibly the last pre-war recording to feature the crossing is a Library of  Congress side by ‘Big Boy’ simply titled Blues (see Railroadin’ Some. Ibid.. p.p.349-350.) Since then, in the post-war period, there have  been a myriad of versions (either performed live and/or recorded) of Robert Johnson’s Crossroad Blues. As well as a title by Mississippi John Hurt which included “the hooking bull crossing” phrase in the 1960s . Unfortunately  I don’  t recall  which title! It is certainly not on  either of the two versions of Cow Hooking Blues

Table B

Title  Artist Date/location
Stop Look Listen C.A. Tindley Bible Class Singers c. -/5/26. Chicago, Illinois.
Stop And Listen Blues Mississippi Sheiks 17/2/30. Shreveport, Louisiana.
Stop And Listen Blues No.2 Mississippi Sheiks 19/12/30. Jackson, Mississippi.
Stop And Listen Blues Tampa Red 1/6/31. Chicago, Illinois.
New Stop And Listen Mississippi Sheiks c. -/7/32. Grafton, Wisconsin.
Stop Look And Listen Kokomo Arnold 23/7/35. Chicago, Illinois.
Stop And Listen Merline Johnson (“Yas Yas Girl”) 2/5/40. Chicago, Illinois.

In fact, only the C.A. Tindley Bible Class Singers refer to a railroad!  The others concern a funeral except the Merline Johnson song which is a warning against falling in love, too quickly. In any event the crossing/crossroad is a major icon in the Blues and has roots going back to the days of slavery.

As an interesting footnote, the earliest links between black men/spirits and the crossroads I have come across to date are from Kilkenny in Ireland c. 1320.  Lady Alice Kyteler was accused of renouncing Christianity “to sacrifice roosters and peacocks at crossroads to a spirit named variously ‘Robin’ or ‘Robert Artisson’ or Filius Artis’.  This shape-shifting spirit was allegedly Lady Alice’s familiar, sometimes appearing as a cat or a large shaggy dog or sometimes a huge black man accompanied by two tall dark companions carrying iron rods.  Robin is described in records as ‘Aethiopis’ or ‘negro’. [sic]”. (122)   Adding further to this snapshot of the14th. Century, Lady Alice had a “maid-servant” Petronilla de Meath who “claimed that Lady Alice, the most powerful witch in the world, had taught her sorcery and witchcraft.  She said she saw Lady Alice’s demon manifest as not one, but three black men, who each had sex with Lady Alice.  Petronilla acknowledged that she herself cleaned the bed.” (123)   Lady Alice could be an off-shoot or avatar of Lilith.


PART 4 – The Auction Block Blues-Roots of Do Lord Remember Me

The dark shadow of slavery times and the coffles now  seems to invade Robert Johnson’s famous Crossroad Blues.  A harrowing description of a coffle is quoted in Slave Testimony.  An informant relates what her mother told her-going back into slavery days when she learnt she was being sent South down to Georgia.  The next morning but one we started with this Negro trader upon that dreaded and despairing journey to the cotton fields of Georgia.  Mother has often told me of the heart-breaking scene.  A long row of men chained two-and-two together, called the “coffle”, and numbering about thirty persons, was the first to march forth from the “ pen”; then came the quiet slaves—that is, those who were tame in spirit and degraded; then came the unmarried women, or those without children; after these came the children who were able to walk; and following them came mothers with their infants and young children in their arms. 

This “gang” of slaves was arranged in travelling order, all being on foot except the children that were too young to walk and too old to be carried in arms.  These latter were put into a waggon.  But mothers with infants had to carry them in their arms; and their blood often stained the whip when, from exhaustion, they lagged behind.  

When the order was given to march, it was always on such occasions accompanied by the command, which the slaves were made to understand before they left the “pen”. To “strike up lively”, which means that they must begin a song. 

Oh! what [sic] heartbreaks there are in these crude and simple songs! The purpose of the trader in having them sung is to prevent among the crowd of negroes who usually gather on such occasions, any expression of sorrow for those who are being torn away from them; but the negroes, who have very little hope of ever seeing those again who are dearer to them than life, and who are weeping and wailing over the separation, often turn the song thus demanded of them into a farewell dirge. The following song may be taken as a specimen:”. (124)  This dirge called The Coffle Song as seen in print, can only convey little more than a hint at the unbelievable emotional trauma racking the very souls/psyche of these people as they tramp painfully and wearily (if they survived!) toward the auction block at the next crossroads. (Footnote 23)


Oh! fare[sic] ye well, my bonny love,
I’m gwine away to leave you,
A long farewell for ever love,
Don’t let our parting grieve you.
(Chorus) Oh! fare ye well, my bonny, etc.

The way is long before me, love,
And all my love’s behind me;
You’ll seek me down by the old gum tree,
But none of you will find me.

I’ll think of you in the cotton fields;
I’ll pray for you when resting;
I’ll look for you in every gang,
Like the bird that’s lost her nesting.

I’ll send you my love by the whoop-o’-will; [aka whippoorwill-a popular bird in Southern folklore]
The dove shall bring my sorrow;
I leave you a drop of my heart’s own blood,
For I won’t be back tomorrow.

And when we’re moldering in the clay,
All those will weep who love us;
But it won’t be long till my Jesus come,
He sees and reigns above us.” (125)

Footnote 23: See a graphic and sometimes unbelievably horrific account of a coffle journey from near Mali to the West Africa ‘slave coast’ in the late 18th. Century. (ch. 3: ‘Three revolutions of the moon’) The Book Of The Negroes by Lawrence Hill who is an African Canadian, is a fictional novel based on a historical  document.  “This book (an actual document held in the National Archives at Kew) is a list of freed blacks rewarded for service to the king [sic] with safe  passage to Nova Scotia.” —The Book Of Negroes. Ibid. Inside dust flap. Pub. by Doubleday . 2009.

Walter Johnson, again, noted that cities which had slaves in holding pens before dispensing them further south included St. Louis in Missouri.  As well as elsewhere: “Slaves were gathered in Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Norfolk, and St. Louis and sent south, either overland in chains, (the coffle) by sailing ships around the coast, or by steamboats down the Mississippi.  These slaves were sold in the urban markets of Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, Natchez, and especially New Orleans”. (126)  The Coffle Song is more than likely a direct precursor of a gospel number  which featured on many early recordings, especially in the 1920s, usually titled Do Lord, Remember Me. The earliest recordings listed were in 1924 when two versions were made by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers/Quartet for Columbia but remain unissued.  One of several later ones appears as the very antithesis of the mournful Coffle Song.  Taken at a fast clip the downhome sounds of the fine Miles Bros. Quartette in 1937, included just three verses as couplets, drive the rhythm along with the repeated chorus.


Do Lord, do now, sho’ nuff do;
Lawdy, do remember me.
Aah! Do Lord, do now, sho’ nuff do;
Lawdy, do remember me.
Aah! Do Lord, do now, sho’ nuff do;
Lawdy, do remember me.
Well, do Lord, remember me-ee.

When I’m on my journey through/When I’m on my bended
knees/When I’m on my bed affliction[sic]
Aw! When I’m on my  journey through;
Do remember me.
I said, when I’m on my journey through;
Do remember me. Well, do lord, remember me. (127)

Another version of this number, at a similar tempo, was made some two months later by the Golden Eagle Gospel Singers with unidentified guitar, fiddle, and tambourine driven along by Josephine Tillman’s rich vocals.  But the most compelling recording of Do Lord Remember Me that has yet come to light, has to be the Library of Congress side made in 1936 by Jimmie Strothers and Joe Lee.  Once again the upbeat tempo is maintained as Tony Russell put it: while he played his guitar conventionally, another man [Joe Lee] beat on its neck with wires. (128)   Together with their twin vocals (one heavy, one light) they impart an almost ferocious rhythm which has rarely, if ever, been surpassed.  Although fragments of this and of other well-known gospel songs appear in the sermons of some recorded preachers in the 1920s and ‘30s, only two cut titles using variants of  Do Lord Remember Me. One by Deacon Leon Davis in 1927  with a slightly different tune and another by Rev. McGhee (the less well-known one to collectors) in 1942 for the Library of Congress in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which has yet to be reissued.

This song, and no doubt many variants, would be sung by the unfortunate slaves when leaving the auction block to be shipped south.  One of the most graphic accounts of this horrific leaving/parting scene was captured by post-war bluesman Johnny Shines in 1974, invoking the description on a steamboat by Abraham Lincoln back in 1841 (see above).  Born in Frayser, Tennessee, in Shelby County, on 26th. April, 1915, Shines was a powerful singer who was best-known for his Delta-style blues which were often accompanied by his superb slide guitar-playing.  Also famous for having “run with” Robert Johnson in the mid-1930s (129) – especially in East Texas – Johnny Shines was unusual within the genre insofar as he took a great interest in his own historical and traditional roots.  His lengthy spoken introduction with occasional guitar to his version of Do Lord Remember Me (called Goodbye) is an invaluable insight into not only this particular song but also the often stark reality of slavery from the sharp end, in the southern states – the Peculiar Institution.


Uh.. I say this next tune is uh… a song that they used to sing. This is not
a new song. It’s just been changed around a little bit.
Back in slavery times when the slaves was bein’ sold, lotsa time the mother
was sold from daughter an’ son. Lotsa time son an’ daughter was sold from mother an’
father; father sold from mother an’ children. An’ vice-verserin’. Well. They couldn’t,
when they was bein’ on the block; they wuz on the block to be sold. They couldn’t
socialize with their relatives; children an’ anythin’ like that, because people would
sympathize with them. An’ a lot of time they wouldn’t buy them. Because they’d weep
an’ cry so over their children, til people just feel sorry for ‘em an’ walk off on ‘em. You
know, an’ they wouldn’t buy ‘em. So if they wept over their children or their husband or
their wife, they got a whippin’.
But they still had a way of getting’ a message over to them. You know, uh, they believed
in God; God was all they did have to believe in. An’ when they wuz separatin’ from their
children, a lotsa time they would try to deliver them a message. An’ uh, most times, they
was tryin’ to tell them, how to take care of themselves throughout life. Mother would talk
to her child in this tune. (130)

Johnny Shines then sings a version of Do Lord Remember Me re-titled as Goodbye. A close cousin to this song is one usually called Take A Stand and is represented by only two or three early recordings using the title. In 1928 Elder McIntorsh and Bessie Johnson lead the fiery singing and the celebratory shouts [on OKeh 8671] and include one verse harking back to The Coffle Song.


Take a stand, take a stand, take a stand; (Oh yes!)
If I never, never see you anymore. (Glory!)
Take a stand, take a stand, take a stand; (Oh yes!)
I’ll meet you on that other shore.

Fare you well, fare you well, fare you well; (Oh yes!)
If I never, never see you any (Glory!)more. (In this world)
(Hallelujah!) Fare you well, fare you well, fare you well;
I’ll meet you on that other shore.

Here’s my hand, here’s my hand, here’s my hand; (Glory!)
Oh God! If I never see you anymore. (Anymore)
Here’s my hand, here’s my hand, here’s my hand; (Glory!)
I’ll meet you on that other shore.  (131)

The following year Blind Willie Johnson set down Take Your Stand [Columbia 14624-D] although he sings “take a stand”.  While he employs his false bass vocal throughout, he discards the slide and Willie B. Richardson is right on with her responses; and yet the overall effect is somewhat subdued after listening to the McIntorsh and Edwards performance.  This is the case even when compared to Johnson’s own frenetic I’m Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge [Columbia 14391-D] also without slide guitar, for example.  But he adds something more in the way of specific advice to those being left behind, when he sings “preach the word” and “run the race” (132) covering both sacred and secular attitudes to life ahead.

In the same year Blind Willie Johnson recorded his Take Your Stand (1929) the King of the Delta Blues-Charley Patton- cut a remarkable two-part gospel side Prayer of Death for Paramount Records.  Reported as a stream of consciousness performance Patton presents what amounts to a ‘religious rag’.  Several fragments of different well-known gospel songs all accompanied by the same accompaniment.  Much the same as Henry Thomas would on secular numbers.  Charley Patton’s haunting slide guitar ‘talks’ and ‘prays’.  On Prayer Of Death-Pt.1 [Paramount 12799–] he includes a snatch of Take A Stand, perhaps likening this traumatic separation to the death of loved ones, where his guitar often completes a line.  His opening spoken introduction seems to be setting him in the right spirit or mood:

Spoken:    The ‘Prayer of Death’. Tone the bell. Time to hear the tone a bell again.
Tell ‘em sing a little song like this.

Take a stand, take a  …, take a stand;
If I never, never see you any …
Take a stand, take a  …, take a stand;
I’ll meet you on that other …

I got his word, got his …, got his word;
If I never, never see you any …
I got his word, got his …, got his word;
I’ll meet you on that other shore.

Significantly, Charley Pattons anger at the situation originally depicted in The Coffle Song might have led him to include two less common verses:

I have a right, have a …have a right;
If I never, never see you any …
I have a right, have a right, have a right;
I’ll meet you on that other shore.

And his fury at the auction block scenario with the resulting aftermath in Pattons own time, being even more explicit in what has to be unique to the Delta blues king:

I done left old Hell, left old Hell, left old Hell;
Mm. If I never, never see you any…
I done left old Hell, left old…, left old…
Mm. I’ll meet you on that kingdom sh…[ore] (133)

The song Do Lord Remember Me made a brief, if sometimes indirect, visit to the Blues.  In 1929, a St. Louis-based guitarist Clifford Gibson adapted the ‘If I never’ verse on his Levee Camp Moan [Victor 38577]

Babe, if you never, never, never no more. (x2)
If you never no more see me, you will miss me when I go. (134)

Texas blues man Little Hat Jones featured a variant of the song omitting the title phrase, which he called Bye Bye Baby Blues, [OKeh 8815] in 1930.  While fellow Texan Henry Thomas used the song’s refrain when he cut Charmin’ Betsy [Vocalion 1468] also in 1929.  This had been recorded several times in the old timey/hillbilly catalogue (135)  commencing in 1925.  Betsy also included parts of an old country song Coming Round The Mountain which was also popular in the UK by the late 1940s.  But in 1927 on The Fox And The Hounds [Vocalion 1137]Thomas secularises the theme (and the title phrase) completely.

Well mama, well mama,
I’ve been gone sixteen years.
I’ll be ‘ome some of these days,
If I live, don’t get killed. (136)

Some 14 years later, Tennessee’s Son Bonds took the last line in the Henry Thomas song and adapted it to the refrain of Black Gal Swing [Bluebird B8852]

I’ll be there in the morning if I live;
I’ll be there in the morning if I don’t get killed.
Refrain:    If I never no more see you again, be sure to remember me. (137)

This features the upbeat rhythm imparted by the Delta Boys and some of the most inspired(?) kazoo playing since Ben Ramey (of the Memphis Jug Band) in the 1920s, by Bonds himself.  But despite the raucous and infectious atmosphere, Black Gal Swing has that underlying current of horror, fear, and anger at the blacks’ past suffering in the slave coffles and on the demeaning auction block; which gave birth to The Coffle Song and ultimately contributed greatly to the Blues.


The Coffle Song is essentially a secular one with only the ‘I’ll pray for you when I rest’ line and the last verse having any religious reference.  Akin to Robert Johnson’s ‘maverick’ line: “Lord, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please”. in his Crossroad Blues.  Also Worried All The Time by Bob Campbell could be cited.  His “Lord, I’m worried, stays worried all the time” is more of an exclamation of sadness tinged with anger; than to do with religion.  Sometimes a blues was adapted from a ‘sacred’ song, as the Delta Boys illustrate; my claim for a secular origin notwithstanding!  Tunes and song structures freely crossed the line between secular and sacred song performances.  Indeed, in the colonial and early antebellum periods no such line seemed to exist for the slaves.  A spiritual was sometimes used as a boat song for example. It wasn’t until the closing decades of slavery prior to the Civil War, that the ‘separation line’ between the two became more strictly observed.

This situation, especially given the more cavalier outlook in the South on Christianity prior to the ’Great Awakening’ in the mid-eighteenth century, probably stretches back to the very beginnings of the North American slave system; or Peculiar Institution as it was known in its dying days. In fact commencing not long after the arrival at the James River of the first boatload of African indentured servants in 1619. An extract from an observation during this initial period makes fascinating reading.  About 1625 at Cape Cod (later in the state of Massachusetts) Captain Woolaston “takes a great part of the servants and transports them to Virginia” (138)   His associate, one Thomas Morton, seeking to take over the new colony at Cape Cod and re-locate it, plied the inhabitants with drink and convinced them (when the Captain was away on one of his Virginian trips selling on servants): “ ‘You see,’ saith he, ‘that many of your fellows are carried to Virginia, and if you stay…you will also be carried away and sold for slaves with the rest.”. (139)   Although these servants would presumably have been white colonists, it does point up the fact that slavery had taken hold in the future U.S.A. less than 20 years after that fateful boatload’s arrival in 1619. It is hardly likely that these ’new’ slaves would not have included black as well as white indentured servants (who were often treated as cruelly as the Africans . (Footnote 24)  This extract includes the earliest (?) recorded reference to slaves in the American colonies.  In fact on 30th. September,1619, the Virginia Company’s  John Pory wrote a letter from “James City in Virginia” (140) to the British ambassador, Sir Dudley Carleton which, in the words of the Blues singer, boded nothing but “troubles an’ trials jumpin’ cross my head” (141)  way on down the road for African Americans.  Said Pory: “Our principal wealth (I should have said) consisteth in servants; but they are chargeable to be furnished with arms, apparel, and bedding, and for their transportation and casual, {aka maintenance] both at sea and for their first year commonly at land also; but if they escape they prove very hardy and sound, able men.”.( 142)    The emphasis is mine and appears as a complete antithesis to the relatively ‘rosy’ picture painted in the first part by Pory.

It seems to be from the period I have suggested (1840s and 1850s) that the attitude towards some secular songs expressed by many ex-slaves, in interview during the first half of the 20th. Century, became so abhorrent to ’evil ditties’ and especially those corn shucking songs –  a major secular root of the Blues.

Footnote 24: See White Cargo. Don Jordan. Mainstream Publishing. 2008. A truly pioneering and eye-opening book on the brutal cruelty suffered by white  English indentured servants to rival that meted out to their black African counterparts.


The foregoing article on ‘Coffles & The Auction Block’ is, as stated at the beginning, part of a far larger work seeking out the secular roots of the Blues. The collective undertaking for this is: Rex Haymes, Alan White, Robin Andrews, Dai Thomas, and Max Haymes.  Work is in progress on not only tracing corn shucking songs (although thought to be a major factor) but a broader spectrum including  work songs, generally.  As on the rivers and of course sometime later on the Southern prison farms.  To give some idea of the vastness of this project, detailed below is an initial ‘shopping list’ of avenues to be explored:

The earlier caste system of slaves (and slave owners)
The seemingly ‘shallow’ life-style of the Southern plantation owners
The Arabic ‘feel’ in the Blues
Forced singing of slaves
Tunes-lines-verses- from slavery times to the Blues
Origins of ‘patting juba’ in the US
Childrens’ songs and links with the Blues
Roustabouts and deck hands-steamboat’s ‘role’ in the Blues
Hoodoo doctors and the chanting preachers
Modal songs in the South and proto-blues
Sea shanties and Blues links
Influence of minstrelsy and early vaudeville-blues
Southern sounds in the rural landscape: bird calls, whistling in the Blues, role of the
whippoorwill, steamboat and train whistles, plantation, auction and church bells, street cries
Field hollers
Symbolism and imagery

To name but a few! Fortunately, I have some work done in a few of these areas amassed over the years, including: sea shanty links, vaudeville-blues, hoodoo doctors, preachers, steamboats, etc.  But this in many instances needs to be greatly enlarged.


A survey of other origins (apart from the biblical one) of Do Lord Remember Me, including music scores from 1867, is also in progress.  As well as taking us back to the 16th. Century; the earliest (to date) reference to the coffles in what was later the USA for example.  And the earliest written record (in the American colonies) alluding to patting juba.


Max Haymes
November, 2009.



1. Mitchell S.C. p.175. (“The South”, etc. Vol.X)







‘Slave To The Blues’






Ma Rainey vo. acc. Her Georgia Band:

Joe Smith cor.; Charlie Green tbn.;

Buster Bailey clt.; Coleman Hawkins bs

-sax; Fletcher Henderson pno.; Charlie

Dixon bjo.

c. -/12/25. New York City.

3. Lieb S. p.85.
4. Ibid.  
5. Phillips U.B. p.220. (“The South”, etc. Vol.IV)
6. Lucas M.B. p.96. (“Kentucky”. Vol.1)





‘Moanin’ And Groanin’ Blues’




Peg Leg Howell vo.gtr. moaning; Henry

Williams gtr. moaning; Eddie Anthony


1/11/27. Atlanta, Georgia

8. Calt S. & G.Wardlow p.288.



‘Magnolia Blues’


See Calt & co. Ibid. Also notes to

Revenant’s Patton Box(6 x CDs).

10. Partridge E. p.303. (“Historical Slang”)
11. Fehrenbacher D.E. p.45.
12. Ibid. p.p.45-46.
13. Coughlan R. p.85.
14. Thomas H. p.p.12-13
15. Ibid. p.21.
16. Coughlan. Ibid. p.47.
17. Mitchell Ibid. p.169.
18. Thompson D. p.255.
19. Prince R. p.94.
20. Ibid  
21. Marshall J. p.212.
22. Bowman H,W, p.129.
23. Harlow A.F. p.252. (‘Wayside Bills’)
24. Ibid p.p.252-253.
25. Ibid  
26. Ibid  





‘The Black Camel Of Death’




Rev. J.M. Milton preaching, speech; two

unk. females vo., speech, shouts; unk.

male speech. unacc.

5/11/29. Atlanta, Georgia.

28. Internet 11/8/09
29. Day A.E.      2005-2009




‘Death’s Black Train Is Comin’’



Rev. J.M. Gates vo., preaching; 2 unk.

soprano vo.

10/9/26. New York City.




Death’s Black Train Is Coming’



Rev. J.M. Gates vo. preaching; 2 unk.

females vo.; unk. train whistle effects.

24/4/26. Atlanta, Georgia.




‘You Belong To That Funeral



Rev. J.M. Gates vo., preaching; 2 unk.

females vo.

prob. 8 or 18, September, 1926. New York City.




‘I Wish My Mother Was On That



Blind Joe Taggart vo.; Emma Taggart

vo. unacc.

8/11/26. New York City.

34. Ibid  
35. Ibid  





‘Black Diamond Express To Hell

Part 6’



Rev. A.W. Nix vo. speech; Nina Mae

McKinney speech; unk. female group

shouts, vo.

8/4/30. Chicago, Illinois.

37. Beebe L. & C. Clegg. p.283.




‘Death’s Black Train Is Coming’



Rev. H.R. Tomlin preaching, vo.;

Rigoletto Quartet vo.; unk. pno.

c. 19/8/26. New York City.

39. Illes J. p.808. (‘Spirits’)
40. Ibid  
41. Ibid  
42. Ibid  
43. Ibid  
44. Ibid  
45. Ibid  
46. Ibid  
47. Ibid p.598.
48. Ibid p.873.
49. Ibid p..p.143-144.
50. Ibid p.144.
51. Ibid  
52. Ibid  
53. Ibid p.145.
54. Ibid  



Peets L.


Internet. ‘Margot the Marrakesh

(Marrakech) Mystic.’ 29th. January, 2008

56. Ibid  
57. Evans D p.24.
58. St. Clair W. p.200.
59. Ibid  
60. Ibid  
61. Ibid p.p.200-201.
62. Ibid p.201.
63. Winn W. p.332.
64. Ibid  
65. Smalley L. (ex-slave) Interview. 1941.
66. Johnson W. p.5
67. Ibid  
68. Hyatt H.M. (Ed.) p.1697. (Vol.II)



‘Joe Kirby’


Charley Patton vo.gtr.; Henry Sims vln.

c. -/10/29. Grafton, Wisconsin.



‘Cross Road Blues’-Tk.2


Robert Johnson vo.gtr.

27/11/36. San Antonio, Texas.

71. Knappert J. p.76. (‘African Mythology’)
72. Johnston H.A.S. (Compiler)
73. Ibid p.xlii.
74. Godrich W.J. R.M.W. Dixon. H. Rye. p.964.
75. Ibid  
76. Ibid p.709




‘Last Farewell Blues’



Ruby Paul vo.; Bobby Grant gtr.; unk.


c. -/121/27. Chicago, Illinois.

78. Brooks T. p.77.
79. Lornell K. p.43.
80. ‘Crossroad Blues’ Ibid
81. Ibid  
82. ‘Stones In My Passway’ Robert Johnson vo., gtr. 19/6/37. Dallas, Texas.
83. Illes J. p.908. (Spirits)
84. Ibid  
85. Ibid  
86. Ibid  
87. Ibid  
88. Ibid p.p.393-395.
89. Illes J. p.604. (Witchcraft)
90. Ibid p.655.
91. Ibid p.653.
92. Ibid p.655.
93. Ibid p.p.386-387.
94. Ibid  



‘Cross Road Blues’-Tk.1


Robert Johnson vo.gtr.

27/11/36. San Antonio, Texas.

96. Illes. Ibid. p.469 (Spirits)
97. Hyatt Ibid. p. 1692
98. Ibid p.638.
99. Ibid p.640.
100. Ibid p.638.
101. Paine L. p.57.
102. .‘Stones In My Passway’ Ibid
103. Illes. Ibid. p.639.
104. Isaiah 34:14  
105. Illes. Ibid
106. Ibid  
107. ‘Stones In My Passway’ Ibid



‘Me And The Devil Blues’-Tk.2


Robert Johnson vo.gtr., speech.

20/6/37 Dallas, Texas.



‘Me And The Devil Blues’-Tk.1


Robert Johnson vo.gtr., speech.

20/6/37. Dallas, Texas.

110. Paine Ibid. p.91.



‘Worried All The Time’


Bob Campbell vo.gtr.

2/8/34. New York City.

112. Debo A. p.128. (The Choctaw Republic)
113. Ibid  
114. Ibid  



‘Railroadin’ Some’


Henry Thomas vo. gtr. reed-pipes.

c. 7/10/29. Chicago, Illinois.

116. Debo Ibid. p.298.
117. Masterson V.V. p.270.
118. ‘Railroadin’ Some’ Ibid
119. Ibid  




‘Central Avenue Blues’



Texas Bill Day vo. prob.gtr.; prob.

Sydney Arodin clt.

25/4/28. New Orleans, Louisiana.




‘New Frisco Train’



Napoleon Hairiston vo.prob. gtr.; Bukka

White gtr. speech; unk. male speech.

26/5/30. Memphis, Tennessee.

122. Illes J. Ibid. p.808. (Witchcraft)
123. Ibid p.810.
124. Blassingame J. p.p.704-705 (Slave Testimony)
125. Blassingame J. p.p.704-705. (Slave Testimony. Ibid)
126. Johnson W. p.7.




‘Do Lord Remember Me’



The Miles Brothers Quartette: unk. male

vocal quartet; unacc.

16/3/37. Hot Springs, Arkansas.

128. Russell T. Notes to DOCD-5575.
129. Harris S. p.457.



‘Slavery Time Breakdown’


Johnny Shines speech, gtr.

-/2/74. Edmonton, Canada.






‘Take A Stand’





McIntorsh & Edwards: Lonnie

McIntorsh vo. gtr., shouts, speech; (?)

Edwards gtr.; Sister Johnson vo. shouts;

Sister Taylor tamb. & clapping (?).

4/12/28. Chicago, Illinois.




‘Take Your Stand’ [sic]



Blind Willie Johnson vo.gtr.; Willie B

Richardson vo.

11/12/29. New Orleans, Louisiana.



‘Prayer Of Death-Pt.1’


Charley Patton vo.gtr., speech.

14/6/29. Richmond, Indiana.



‘Levee Camp Moan’


Clifford Gibson vo.gtr.

10/12/29. New York City.



McCormick M.


Notes to Henry Thomas Ragtime Texas

L.P. Herwin 209. 1974.




‘The Fox And The Hounds’



Henry Thomas vo.gtr., reed-pipes,

speech, vo. effects.

5/10/27. Chicago.





‘Black Gal Swing’




The Delta Boys: Son Bonds vo., kazoo;

Sleepy John Estes gtr., speech;

Raymond Thomas im. bs.

24/9/41. Chicago.



Bradford W.


p.273. (The Pilgrims Seek A Refuge In

America) From The Elizabethan’s America.

139. Ibid  



Pory J.


p.254. (Promise of Prosperity in

Virginia-1619) From The Elizabethan’s America. Ibid.

141. ‘Moanin’ The Blues’ Allen Shaw vo.gtr.; prob. Willie Borum gtr.
142. Pory. Ibid. p.253.



1. Lieb S. p.86.
2. Martin S.I p.p.88-89.
3. Prince R. p.178.
4. Harlow A.F. p.p.252-253.
5. Internet  
6. Beebe L. p.? (The Central Pacific etc..)
7. Author’s collection  
8. Beebe L. & C. Clegg p.282. (The Trains We Rode)
9. Beebe Ibid
10. Crow J. etc. p.66.
11. Glendinning G.V. p.151.
12. Internet  
13. Stilgoe R. p. ?
14. Gabriel R.H. p.156.






Beebe Lucius



The Central Pacific & The Southern Pacific


[Howell-North. Berkley, California]. 1963.




Beebe Lucius & Charles Clegg



The Trains We Rode

[Promontory Press. New York.] 1990 (Rep.)

1st. pub. 1965.




Blassingame John



The Slave Community (Plantation Life In The

Antebellum South)

[Oxford University Press.]  1979.



Bowman Hank W.


Pioneer Railroads

[Arco Publishers Co. Inc. New York]  1954.




Brooks Tim



Lost Sounds (Blacks And The Birth Of The

Recording Industy:1890-1919)

[University of Illinois. Urbana & Chicago] 2005




Calt Stephen Gayle Wardlow



King Of The Delta Blues (The Life And

Music Of Charley Patton)

[Rock Chapel New Jersey Press] 1988.



Coughlan Robert (& The Editors

Of Life).

Tropical Africa

[Time-Life International. Netherlands] 1963.




Crow Jeffery. Paul D. Escott.

Flora J. Hettey


A History Of African Americans In North Carolina

[Raleigh Division of Archives and History

North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources] 1992.




Debo Angie



The Rise And Fall Of The Choctaw Republic

[University Of Oklahoma Press. Norman &

London] 1989 (Rep.) 1st. pub. 1934.



Evans David


Notes to Goodbye Babylon

[6 CD set. Dust To Digital DTD-01]  2003.




Fehrenbacker Don  E. (Ed.)



Abraham Lincoln (A Documentary Portrait

Through His Speeches And Writings)

[The New American Library. New York City]  1964.





Gabriel Ralph Henry (Ed.)




The Pageant of America Vol. III (Adventures

in the Wilderness)

[Independence Edition. New Haven. Yale

University Press. O.U.P. ] 1929.



Glendinning Gene V.


The Chicago & Alton Railroad

[Northern Illinois University Press. DeKalb] 2002.



Harris Sheldon


Blues Who’s Who

[Da Capo. New York] 1989. (Rep.) 1st. pub. c. 1979.



Harlow Alvin F.


Old Waybills

[D. Appleton-Century Co. London. New York] 1934.




Hyatt Harry M.




[Western Publishing Inc. Hannibal,

Missouri] 1970. (Rep.) 1st. pub. 1935



Illes Judika


The Element  Encyclopaedia Of Witchcraft

(the complete a-z for the entire magical world)




Illes Judika



Encyclopaedia Of Spirits (the ultimate guide to

the magic of fairies, genies, demons,

ghosts, gods and goddesses)




Johnson Walter



Soul By Soul (Life Inside The Antebellum Slave Market)

[Harvard University Press. Cambridge,

Massachusetts. London]  1999.



Johnston H.A.S. (Compiler)


A Selection Of Hausa Stories

[Clarendon Press. Oxford]  1966.



Knappert Jan


African Mythology

[Diamond Books]  1995. (Rep.) 1st. pub. 1990



Lieb Sandra


Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey

[The University of Massachusetts Press] 1981



Lornell Kip


Virginia Blues, Country, & Gospel Records




Lucas Marion B.


A History Of Blacks In  Kentucky

-Vol.1(From Slavery to Segregation 1760-1891)



Marshall James


The Railroad That Built An Empire

[Random House. New York City]  1948.



Martin S.I (Introduction by

Trevor Phillips)

Britain’s Slave Trade

[Channel 4 Book] 1999.




Masterson V.V



The Katy Railroad & The Last Frontier.

[University of Missouri Press. Columbia &

London]  1992. (Rep.) 1st pub. 1952.





Mitchell Samuel C. (Ed.)




The South In The Building Of The Nation

(12 volumes) Vol.10

[Pelican Books. Gretna, Louisiana]  2002.

(Rep.) 1st. pub. 1909.



Paine Lauran


Hierarchy Of Hell

[Robert Hale]  1972.




Partridge Eric (abridged by

Jacqueline Simpson)


The Penguin Dictionary Of Historical Slang

[Penguin Books. Harmondsworth

Middlesex]  1972. (Rep.) 1st pub. 1937






. Peets Leonora





Couscous Of The Dead, Part 1-Witchcraft

And Graveyard Theft In Morocco

From Women Of Marrakesh. 1938.

[Internet-Margot the Marrakesh

(Marrakech) Mystic]  2009.





Phillips U.B.




From The South In The Building Of The Nation Vol.4

John Bell Henneman (Ed.) [Pelican Books.

Gretna, Louisiana]  2002.

(Rep.) 1st pub. 1909.




Prince Richard E.



Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway

[Indiana University Press. Bloomington,

Illinois, & Indianapolis]  2001. (Rep.) 1st. pub. 1967.



Russell Tony


Notes to Field Recordings Vol.11: Virginia

(1936-1941)[Document CD. DOCD-5575.] 1997.




Smalley Laura (ex-slave)



Interviewed by John Henry Faulk and

unknown white female. 16/11/41. Austin, or

between Hempstead and Navasota, Texas.




Stilgoe John R.



Metropolitan Corridor

[Yale University Press. New Haven &

London]  1983.



St. Clair William


The Grand Slave Emporium

[Profile Books. London]  2006.





Thomas Hugh




The Slave Trade-The History Of The

Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870

[Papermac. London & Basingstoke]  1998

(Rev. ed.) 1st. pub. 1997.



Thompson Della (Ed.)


The Concise Oxford Dictionary (9th. ed.)

[Clarence Press. Oxford]  1995.





Willoughby Lynn




Flowing Through Time (A History of the

Lower Chattahoochee River

[The University of Alabama Press.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama. London]  1999.







Winn Willis (ex-slave)






Quoted in Slave Testimony (Two Centuries

of Letters, Speeches, Interviews


John Blassingame. (Ed.) [Louisiana State

University Press. Baton Rouge] 1998.

(Rep.) 1st. pub. 1977



Wright Louis B. (Ed.)


The Elizabethan’s America

[Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd. London] 1965.

Discographical details from Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943 (4th. ed. Revised). Robert M.W. Dixon. John Godrich. Howard Rye. [Clarendon Press. Oxford.] 1997. Post-war discographical details from Mike Leadbitter. Notes to Country Blues L.P. Xtra 1142. 1974.

Transcriptions, corrections and additions by Max Haymes.

This article was transcribed from the original text and re-formatted for the website by Alan White, March 2010