Another golden oldie post from my cross-country roadtrip chronicle: RoadGals.
In the course of researching the Southern portion of our journey, I’ve discovered the Blues. Okay, I’ve been aware of the Blues. Like anyone who’s ever read more than three copies of Rolling Stone, I know most of our “Rock Gods” from Keith Richards to Eric Clapton to Janis Joplin were heavily influenced by the Blues, while hundreds of current artists continue to reference them. But that’s how I’ve heard most of my Blues, in the “White Kid” versions offered up by mainstream artists.
It’s a whole different world when you start listening to the real thing. Finally I understand why a nice middle class English boy like Mick Jagger so often sings with a whiny, drawly moan. He’s trying to sound like he’s a 45 year old Mississippi Black man, just released from years of chain gang labor on Parchman Farm — facing poverty, discrimination and his own mortality. I don’t want to belittle Mick’s experience. I’m sure he had some Dark Nights of the Soul at the London School of Economics. But listen Mick, you’ve got nothing on Leadbelly who did serve on that chain gang for years of his life, including a stint in Louisiana’s infamous Angola Prison. Even after he was discovered there by musicologists John and Alan Lomax, who first recorded his songs, he only had a few short years of music career until his untimely death from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
But could that man put across a song! The one that really slapped me in the face and made me stand at attention was Pick a Bale of Cotton. We sang that song in my segregated-in-all-but-name elementary school in Maryland. (One day five Black students showed up in our previously lily-white school. They were taught by a Black teacher who appeared with them and even ate lunch with them at a small separate table in the lunchroom. With nobody saying anything, we kids got the message that we were not expected to “mix”.) I just found on the Internet where two years ago, a Black parent and a Civil Rights organization wanted a Detroit area school to drop Pick a Bale of Cotton from a school choir program. They claimed the song “glorifies slavery”. If they’re talking about the jaunty, upbeat version we White kids were taught in Sixties Maryland, they’re at least partially right. Sung frivolously, it’s more than offensive.
Now, far be it from me to tell an African American what is or isn’t insulting to them. I don’t have that right. But I’d suggest they listen to Leadbelly’s version.
First of all, there’s no sprightly “Jump Down, Spin Around” when he sings it. In a mournful, but strong voice, backed by an a cappella chorus, Leadbelly sings as if he’s still on that chain gang. The steady rhythmic beat sounds as if it’s the only thing keeping bone-tired arms functioning, as if the support of the group singing is all that’s keeping men, beyond fatigue and without hope, functioning. The “call and response” format and rhythm has echos even beyond the Black church, seemingly reaching back to some memory of African cadences. You can feel the oppressive Mississippi Delta humidity. You can smell the sweat. You’re brought face to face with one of the results of a system that regularly incarcerated people in labor camps, in conditions worse than slavery, for crimes that often amounted to not much more than being Black and poor. Leadbelly sings as if he knows nothing will ever change and he just has to get through one more row, then one more day, until the days end.
Yet, you won’t hear defeat in his voice. It’s as if by singing about the experience, he owns it and in some way has mastered it instead of letting it victimize him. Through everything that was thrown at him and his race, he’s still there. And he’s still singing.
Jeez. THAT’S a song.
To back up a bit, I’m not one of those obnoxious musical purists. The type of person who would insist that only a Delta-born Black man who suffered under Jim Crow and survived the Deep South penitentiary system can sing the Blues. Los Angeles-raised and operatically trained Odetta belts out a version of The Midnight Special that would have old Leadbelly checking to see if she were sharing leg irons with him. Mose Allison wrote classics like Parchman Farm so convincingly that Jet Magazine once asked for an interview under the mistaken belief that he was Black. Another instance: Eric Clapton. He gets it. I’m sure Leadbelly would have shared leg irons with Eric.
What Odetta, Allison and Clapton bring is an understanding and respect for where the Blues came from and their truths, even if they don’t have the shackle scars on their ankles.
Which is all a digression from my main point that the Blues — especially as put across by the greats such as Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith and Son House — have the power to make someone as different from them as me understand, at least a little bit, but still on a visceral level, what it was like to be them, at that particular time, facing lives I would otherwise barely be able to imagine.
There’s a great scene in the movie Walk the Line where Sam Phillips says to Johnny Cash:
“If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song. One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing?. . . Or would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. . .”
The Blues artists I’m listening to are singing those kind of “Let God Know” songs.
Which isn’t to suggest I think only a Blues artist or a Black man can sing a song with those sorts of truths. Whether Sam Phillips ever really said those words, Johnny Cash certainly had his share of “Let God Know” songs. Willie Nelson actually took the popular Irving Berlin standard, Blue Skies, and sang it as if he were an old cowboy who’d seen too many long trails, but still hoped against hope that things might get better. It’s pretty close to a “Let God Know” song. I’d even venture that Frank Sinatra, especially when he was in his Lonely Man at the End of the Bar phase, had one of those songs in One More for My Baby (And One More For the Road). Judy Garland, when she was breaking your heart, (and she was pretty much always breaking your heart), had albums full of those songs.
But there’s something special about the Blues. While Leadbelly can make me feel in a few short stanzas what it was like to live under Jim Crow, could a Garland or Sinatra song illuminate for a poor sharecropper what it was like to be Judy or Frank? I’m not sure.
Which brings me back to those people who wanted to ban Pick a Bale of Cotton. The president of the local chapter of the NAACP was quoted as saying: “People shouldn’t have to be subjected to this, especially our children.”
Again, I can’t speak for him. And maybe he’s right that it isn’t a song for a predominantly white elementary school choir to sing in concert. But if someone of my background had produced a song that so powerfully demonstrated a central experience of my race and a part of my history, I’d treasure it. Leadbelly, and the Blues artists I’m currently listening to, let God — and us — Know.
1. Read about the Pick a Bale of Cotton controversy here.
2. I hope you don’t think I’m older than official integration and the start of the Civil Rights movement. My elementary school days were more than a decade and half after Brown vs. The Board of Education which officially struck down the concept of “separate but equal”. In reality, change was a long, long time coming.
3. Read Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. No wonder the Blues came out of the Black experience!
4. I know African American is the current politically correct term. But even Whoopi Goldberg says she has reservations about it. (In fact she says she was “all right with being a Negro”.) I’ve used Black because it’s shorter and easier to type. No offense meant.
This is a golden oldie post from my first blog, RoadGals, which covered an epic cross-country roadtrip I took with my 24 year old niece two years ago. Since the original site was done with iWeb, I can’t automatically import the posts into this WordPress site. Which gives me a wonderful opportunity to recycle some of them into this site by hand whenever I’m too lazy to create a new post. Search on the Roadgals tag to find all the posts in the series.