IN THE late Thirties, Joe Turner, a blues shouter from Kansas City,
used to break down Cafe Society habitues with the lines:
Sorry, sorry to my heart
We been together so long and now we got to part.
Just about the same lines were published in 1915 in a blues by W. C. Handy called, oddly enough, the "Joe Turner Blues." This song derived from blues that folk Negroes sang much earlier about a bad Tennessee sheriff, Joe Turney, but Handy altered the dreaded "long chain man" into a wandering lover. All of that points up the history of the blues: the persistence of their lines, their basis in folk-life, and the alteration of folk blues which had many concerns - including hard times, peonage and jail - into the more marketable blues that concentrate on love.
The blues go back a long way. Over forty years ago, John Lomax heard a woman on the Brazos River levee singing an unforgettable blues line: "When my heart struck sorrow, de tears come rolling down." About the same time, Howard Odum, also on the hunt for folksongs, discovered that the blues were as prevalent among Negroes as the spirituals. And in the sporting district of New Orleans, the young Ferdinand Morton was listening to Mamie Desdunes, who sang to her own piano playing the woes of a downhearted street-walker, "the first blues," reminisces Jelly Roll, "that I no doubt heard in my life." In these years, long before he composed his own hits, W. C. Handy was introduced to the blues by a Delta troubador who knifed his guitar sadly as he sang; "I'm going where the Southem cross the Yellow Dog."
In 1909, Handy's band played his "Memphis Blues" in a political campaign for Boss Crump, who needed the publicity then. Three years later Handy's "St. Louis Blues" started on its phenomenal career. As the first published blues to win great popularity, these fixed the form. Other composers - Clarence and Spencer Williams and Porter Granger soon followed Handy's suit, and then Tin Pan Alley tried to cash in on the luerative discovery with songs such as Irving Berlin's "Schoolhouse Blues" and Jerome Kern's "Left All Alone Again. Blues," which were not blues either in form. or feeling. The true blues were sung by people close to the folk such as Ma Rainey, Marnie, Bessie, and Clara Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, Jim Jackson, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and IRroy Carr. In the disdained, segregated list of "race records," the phonograph companies found a gold mine: the studios kept busy and, in order to supply the demand, even sent out recording apparatus to the hinterlands.
The blues appealed as something different, not only in chordal progression and scalar structure, but also in verse form. They usually consist of a twelve bar stanza: that is, three lines of four stresses each, the second line repeating the first sometimes with minor variations, and the third line clinching the form with a rhyme.
If you ever been down, you know just bow l feel,
Ever been down, babe, you know just bow l feel
Like a broken down engine, not no driving wheel.
The spirit of the blues is defined by the songs themselves as "The blues ain't nothing but a good man way, way down;" "The blues ain't nothing but the poor man's heart disease;" "Did you ever dream lucky and wake up cold in hand?"
Most of the blues, like other lyric poetry, deal with love. But the manner is disillusioned and hard.
Love is like a faucet, you can turn it off and on,
But when you think you got it, done turned off and gone.
It is the careless love of the mountain ballad. It is lave too soon cooled, or treacherous, or demanding. And like so many poets over the ages the blues singer sings of the unrequited love and lost lover. Women sing of men as mistreaters, two-timers, no-gooders, soon-leavers.
My man's got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.
Don't yo' room look lonesome when yo' man packs up to leave.
There are nineteen men living in my neighborhood
Eighteen of thern are fools and the other ain't no doggone good.
Some know that they are treated like clowns, like dogs, but still are willing to take it:
l bear my daddy call. some other woman's name
l know he don't mean me, but I'm gonna answer just the same.
Some fear the competition for a good man: "these gals will double-cross
you and leave you with those empty-bed blues." A few touch the fierce
desperation that John Lomax heard Dink cry out in the levee camp:
l used to love you, but oh, God damn you now!
Others taunt their "salty" (grumpy) papas: "Theres no complaint when my other man comes round." Many boast that "they can get more men than a passenger train can haul," that they can get a man anywhere they go.
I ain't good lookin', ain't got no great long hair
But I got ways, baby, that take me everywhere.
The have-nots taunt the haves: "if he flags my tra:-n, I'm sure gonna
let him ride"; "if he didn't want my peaches, he didn't have to shake my
Bessie Smith, in one of her most moving blues, "The Sing Sing Blues,"
is asked by the judge:
The judge say 'Bessie why did you kill yo' man,'
I said,'Judge, you ain't no woman, you just cain't understand.'
Lines sung by men are often interchangeable with those sung by women, with mamma exchanged for pappy and daddy; babe or baby stays in both. Men praise women as "chocolate to the bone," with teeth "like a lighthouse on the sea," with "eyes like diamonds, teeth shine like Klondike gold," as good-looking enough to make "a rabbit chase a hound," "a freight train leave the tracks," "a preacher lay his Bible down." Some women "built up for speed, got everything a good man need;" others are for comfort.
Big fat mamma with the meat shaking on her bones
Every time she moves some skinny gal done lost her home.
The men beg for love, in the timeless way, "You so beautiful, but you gotta die some day." And the affairs die soon too. Pinchbacks and rounders, backbiting gossips and rasping quarrels:
Soon this morning, 'bout the break of day
Laid my head on the pillow where my baby used to lay.
Some get tired of the "jive you got," the "black snakes" around, the other "mules kicking in their stall," the "honey stealers," the "fore day creepers." "Somebody's got to go!" Good riddance. "l love you woman, but l don't like your low down ways."
Honey, be on yo' way, before my temper rise.
I'm going so far it'll take two dollars to send you a postal card.
Others can't take it:
l rather see my coffin come rollin' in my door
Than to hear my sweet woman say that she don't want me no more.
Some plead abjectly: "Take me back, baby, try me one more time."
Some stay drunk till they can't tell night from day,
Cause the woman l love, she treats me anyway.
And others are ready for the last gesture:
I'm gonna murder my baby, ef she don't stop cheatin' an' lyin!
l rather be in the penitentiary than be worried out of my mind.
Many sing " l love you baby, better than I do myself," but few singers express constant love. Such a line as "I'll love my baby till the sea runs dry, and ever after on," and.Lormie Johnson's blues about a woman, his consolation, and to whom he vows his love "until the deal goes down" are exceptional.
Neither the experience nor the traits indicated above are peculiar to Negroes, though the frankness of revelation and language is greater than in the love-poetry of more sophisticated areas. The blues have a bitter honesty. This is the way the blues singers and their poets have found life to be. And their audiences agree.
Though the formulas of loving and leaving are numerous, the blues give many side glimpses, sometimes full looks at social reality. The earlier blues referred more often to the rural way of life:
If I could holler like a mountain jack
I'd go up on the mountain and call my baby back.
I wish l was a catfish swimmin' in de sea
I'd have all you women fishing after me.
Blues told of cotton planting, the boll weevil, used barnyard fables and similes, and occasionally groused at the hard times. Many referred to superstitions:
When de hog makes a bed, you know de storm is due
When a screech-owl holler, means bad luck to you.
I beard a hound dog bayin' and l felt so blue
l dreamt he was in de graveyard, lookin' down at you.
Mojo hands and other spells are sought to keep the wandering man at home, or to keep the marauding women away. Shrewd aphorisms are handed down in blues verses:
My mamma told me, my daddy told me too
Everybody grins in yo'face, son, ain't no friend to you.
When you lose yo'money, baby, don't you lose yo'mind
You must.remember: all gamblers gits broke sometime.
"Nobody knows: you when you down and out," "When you broke and hungry, thaVs where your friendship ends."
The blues tell of a great restlessness. Sometimes it is vague: "Your mind go two different ways;" "Did you ever set thinking with a thousand things on your mind?"
I'm sitting here wonderin'would a match box hold my clothes.
l ain't got so many; l got a long, long way to go.
Often the dissatisfaction is dehnite:
I'd rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log,
Than to stay in this town, mistreated like a dirty dog.
Michigan water drinks like sherry wine
But this Nashville water drinks like turpentine.
"My home ain't here, it's a long ways up the road," "l may leave here walking, chances l may ride," "I'm gonna leave here tomorrow if l have to ride the blinds."
As in so much Negro folklore the railroad becomes the favored symbol
of escape. Down at the depot the board reads, "Hard times here, there's
better up the road."
Soon as that freight makes up in the yard
I'm gonna leave here, baby, if l have to ride the rods.
Did you ever ride on the Mobile Central Line
It's the road to ride to ease yo' troublin' mind.
The Santa Fe, the Southern, the Yellow Dog, the C. C. and St. Louis, the Coast Line, and N. & W., the L. & N., the C. & 0., the Rock Island, the Illinois Central Railroad lines and the Cannon Ball, the Dixie Flyer trains are affectionately recalled in the blues. A symbol of escape, the railroad is also a symbol of separation:
l ain't gonna tell nobody what the Santa Fe done to me
It took my good man, came back and got my used to be.
Ticket agent said, Lady, don't sit around and cry
Yo' man may have been here, but he's said his last good-bye.
Even the Greyhound Bus has been chanted:
Greyhound, Greyhound, l heard you when you blew your horn
Blew just to tell me that my baby was long gone.
Most of the trains head northward to St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City,
as the migrants headed. Infrequently a few head southward - to the Gulf
Coast, where weather suits the singers' clothes. Bessie Smith, singing
of the crack train, the Dixie Flyer, says she wouldn't "stay up North to
save nobody's doggone soul," but she stayed nevertheless. In one blues
tired of zero weather, of being broke, and of high price whisky and women
I'm going back to the lowlands and roll up my jumper sleeves
Then I'll be setting pretty, baby, long as l kill grass and weeds.
But his reaction is rare.
So Northern cities get their names into the ' blues along with Dallas, Memphis, and Chattanooga, and Northern streets like Market, Vine, Dearborn, Hastings, and Len'ox Avenue take their places alongside Beale and Rampart and Decatur. It is still a tough world and life that are sung about.
In the slurn shacks, love is not lively to be lasting. Men bringing a daily shift find that the city has too many attractions for their stay at home wives. Some blues treat this with sardonic humour. One hard-working man, who "brings his good woman a slave everyday" comes home and flnds somebody breaking out of his door "like Superman's mate." He promises that the next time he catches the caller, "folks gonna think Hitler is on the second floor." But generally the blues treated the violence that is real and rampant in the lives of these people.
Blues also tell of the disasters of nature. There are many blues and references to the boll-weevil, though none so good as the ballad. The sporadie floods in the Mississippi valley have been often sung in blues. The best of these, "Black Water Blues" was composed by Bessie Smith as she travelled through desolated areas in the terrible Mississippi floods of 1927, "when trouble taken place" in the lowlands:.
Thousands: of people ain't got no place to go.
There were other flood blues composed then:
Water, water, more than I ever seen
The water is still rising from Memphis dowu to New Orleans.
If the water keep rising, levee's bound to break. *
"The St. Louis Cyclone Blues" also commemorates a disaster, being cornposed and sung almost in the wake of the storm.
l seen that mean old twister corning like a cannonball.
Socially considered, then, the blues tell a great deal about one segment of Negro life. It is inaccurate, however, to consider them completely revelato,ry of the Negro folk, or of the folk transplanted in the cities, or of the lower class in general. The blues represent the secular, the profane, where the spirituals and gospel songs represent the religious. Students of folk and jazz music stress the musical resemblance of the religious songs to the blues. But each type appeals chiefly to a different group. Many church people will not listen to blues and would not have a blues record in the house. Most middle class Negroes, of course, have a distaste for the blues. A few who are interested generally become so because of the interrelationships of blues with jazz. Some Negroes get no closer to the blues than Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
Alan Lomax used as a symbol of the melting pot of American folklore the instance of the hill-billy singing Negro blues to a Hawaiian guitar and adding Swiss yodeling. Hill-billy singers sing blues in the regular threeline stanza, one favorite beginning:
It take a worried man to sing a worried song
I'm worried now, but l won't be worried long.
Aunt Molly Jackson, a heroine of the Kentucky mine patches used the regular form for the blues she wrote attacking wretched conditions:
All the women in the coal-camps a-sitting with bowed down hea'd
Ragged and barefoot, their children a-crying for bread.
Woody Guthrie sings what he calls blues. The mood, the type of experience described - that of ramblers, going down the old dusty road feeling bad, of men who know too well the box-cars, the yard-cops, the dirty jails - are close to Negro, blues, but the spirit is more that of the hobo, the Wobbly, the Tom Joad: "I ain't gonna be treated this a way." The verse and musical forms and the singing manner are naturally those of Woody's Anglo-American folk culture.
In the jazz world, white bands play instrumental blues with real feeling. Often a singer interpolates a few stanzas. Mildred Bailey, Dinah Shore, Woody Herman and Jack Teagarden are perhaps the best known white blues singers. Often white singers do not take the blues seriously and what they sing comes out blueing and not the deep blues. They are not really "out of the gallion" in the words of Mezz Mezzrow who believes that the true blues feeling comes only to those who intimately know the life that produced. the blues. As Negro musicians put it: "You can't play the blues until you have paid your dues" (Le. lived as a Negro in America).
So the blues have remained substantially the Negroes' own. Omitting the instrumental workings over of the blues by big Negro bands, where an old blues shouter like Jimmy Rushing is an exception, jazzmen chiefly form small combinations to back featured singers like Billie Hohday.
Lena Horne, Helen Humes, and Joe Turner. Current blues, closer to the folk tradition, are sung by Big Bill, Jazz Gillum, Washboard Sam, T. Bone Walker, Bea Booze, Lil Green, Albinia Jones, Dinah Washington, Ruby Smith (Bessie Smith's niece) and a host of others. Veterans like Julia Lee, Tampa Red and Lonnie Johnson continue the long tradition. But the slow-dragging moaning blues appeal less today than the blues-shout popularized by Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris and Miss Rhapsody. The people want a rolling bass and a booting saxophone behind the singer. The tone is less that of "trouble in mind" than "Let's drink some mash and talk some trash this mornin'."
The blues are often repetitious, inconsecutive, with sudden changes from tragedy to farce. Many recent commercial blues strain to get double, even triple meanings, as close to obscenity as the law allows. Earlier folk blues were broad and frank, Chaucerian; but many of the belt-line productions are prurient and pornographic. In earliest days, blues singers were labeled "comediennes" and sometimes had to resort to "hokum" to live up to the label. There may be comic tall talk in the blues: "I creep up to her window just to hear how sweet she snores." "I'm going so far, take two dollars to send. me a postal card." "You got a mouthful of gimme, a hand full of much obliged." But the blues are not for laughter: "When you thinking I'm laughing, I'm laughing just to keep from crying." The irony verges on the bitter:
Going down to the river, down to the deep blue sea
Where the sharks and the fishes, gonna make a fuss over me.
The best symbols are tragic: "Cold ground is my bed, crossties for my pillow." "Oh, de workhouse is down that long old lonesome road." "The train's at the station, but the track's all out of line."
Ef you ever been down you know just how I feel
Like a broken down engine, got no drivin' wheel.
Only rarely is there hope: "The sun gonna shine in my back door some day." More often the note is stoical recognition and hardening:
Been down so long, down don!t worry me.
It is a tough life; the rewards are few; the pleasures go swiftly and are never unmixed; tomorrow pron-Ases as little or less than today. Well, a man is born to take it.
I got the blues, but I'm too damned mean to cry.
Because of their elemental honesty, depth of insight, and strong, original
phrasing, the blues at their best belong with the best folk poetry.
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by STERLING A. BROWN
(Comments accompanying the Program of hlues and hallads on Friday evening, December 20)
As needed transition from the spirituals to the blues, l call your attention to an excerpt from a record. The title is that of an old campmeeting spiritual called Dark Was the Night and Cold the Ground. But musically there is a great distance between the old camp-meeting song and blind Willy johnson singing and talking to himself and to his guitar and being answered in turn by his guitar, companioned in his loneliness and sadness. The singing that results is what might be considered a primitive sort of blues:
Dark was the night and cold was the ground.
What arc the blues? Perhaps some lines of the songs themselves will give us an answer.
The blues ain't nothing but a poor man's heart-disease.
The blues ain't nothing but a good man 'way, 'way down.
These are the Negro's secular songs of sadness, of disappointment, of frustration. What they arc not is important-they arc not "Tin-Pan Alley Blues," they arc not the "Left-All-Alone-Again Blues" or the "Schoolhouse Blues" of Irving Berlin. These are the tin-pan alley assumption of the name-a popular name-but there is little warrant for calling them blues. One critic, even though appreciating the work of Berlin and Kern, says that the fundamental difference between Negro folk-blues and tin-pan alley blues is that in the tin-pan alley blues the grief is feigned, but in the Negro folk-blues the gaiety is feigned.
The word "blues" has come into the language as a synonym. for melancholy. To some, the blues may mean a stanzaic form of two lines, the first line repeated in the second with some slight variation in the text and the music, and the third clinching line, the rhyming line-a stanza, then, of three lines, the first two repeated. For instance,
You never miss the water until the well gocs dry.
You never miss the water, Babe, until the well goes dry;
You never miss your Baby until she say "Goodbye".
Others may consider the blues in respect to the musical formthe blues being of twelve bars with a peculiar scalar structure having a tendency to employ the flatted third and seventh, a musical form that is admirably adapted to improvisation in music and in text. Strikingly individual melodies are found in the blues, and the influence on contemporary jazz is great. But musical analysis is not in place here.
For our purpose it is perhaps best to inquire somewhat into the .rpirit of the blues. This is the spirit of "goodbye," of "it was better yesterday, it may be better tomorrow, but there's not much we can say for today, can we?" It is the spirit of "l didn't figure it would turn out this way," of "nothing, so far as we've been able to make out, lasts always--the spirit of "I wish l could live it over again."
Did you ever sit wondering-your mind a thousand different ways?
One mind to leave here and one mind to stay?
The mood of the blues is deep melancholy in spite of some humor. But the humor is often wry, twisted, ironic. A disappointed girl sings,
I'm going down to the river, going down to the deep blue sea,
Going down to the river, to the deep blue sea.
I know the sharks and fishes arc going to make a fuss over me.
Or the shrewd satire of such a couplet,
All you men, you sho' do make me tired,
You men sho' do make me tired,
You got a hand full of 'gimme' and a mouth full of 'much obliged'.
The spirit is closer, however, in this:
Been down so long, down don't worry me.
But it is generally
Trouble, trouble, done had it all my days.
Seems to me trouble will follow me to my grave.
It is probably that sort of pondering that lies behind the first bit of a blues caught fragmentarily. Let us imagine a woman about the house-burdened, not so sure, groping about. Here is a bit of her song from one of the records in the Archive of American Folk Song in the Library of Congress:
Another man done gone,
Another man done gone,
Another man done gone.
l didn't know his name,
l didn't know his name,
I didn't know his name.
He had a long chain on,
He had a long chain on,
He had a long chain on.
Or, perhaps in some dimly lit cafe in a Negro section of townSouth Side, Chicago; Twelfth Street, Kansas City; Market Street, St. Louis; Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore; Fifth Avenue, Harlema pianist may sit at a beaten-down piano for hours, improvising a melody that tells about his blues,
Whcn you think l arn laughing
Laughing just to kecp from crying.
Or a wandering guitar-player traveling from one job to another, traveling light except for his box-the very last thing to be pawnedfinding a welcome everywhere, bringing new songs, taking new songs away with him [Guitar].
By many, the greatest singer of blues is believed to be Bessie Smith, although some award the honor to Mamic Smith and "Ma" Rainey. Generally, but inaccurately, the blues are considered to be a woman's plaint for a lover long-gone and not returning, the kind of plaint seen in W. C. Handy's famous St. Louis Blues. But there is another kind, the blues compelled by a great tragedy of the folk-such as the St. Louls Cyclone Blues and the many blues about the Mississippi River on the rampage. Back-water Blues, sung by Bessie Smith is, I belleve, the finest of the blues of this sort. It was composed shortly after the tragic Mississippi flood of 1927.
When it rained five days, and the skies turned dark as night,
When it rained five days, and the skies tumed dark as night,
Then trouble taken place in the lowlands at night.
I woke this morning, can't even git out of my door,
l woke this morning, can't even git out of my door,
That's enough trouble to make a poor girl wonder where wanna go.
They rowed a little boat about five miles 'cross the farm,
They rowed a little boat about five miles 'cross the farm,
l packed all my clothcs, throwed 'em. in and they rowed me along.
When it thunders and lightnin's and the wind begin to blow,
When it thunders and lightnin's and the wind begin to blow,
They's thousands of people ain't got no place to go.
Then I went and stood upon somc high old loncsomc hill,
Then I went and stood upon some high old lonesome hill,
And looked down on the housc where I used to live.
"Thousands of people ain't got no place to go, - sang Bessie Smith. Lovers of the blues, of jazz, of American folk music, have taken Bessie Smith to their hearts. But in 1937, the year of her death, she was not so well taken to heart in America. In her native deep South, the victim of an automobile accident, this fine American folk-artist was denied entrance to a southern hospital because she was a Negro. When she was finally allowed in a hospital many miles further along the road ("Oh look down, look down, that long old lonesome road'') it was too late for anything to be done. There seems to me to be something of a profound blues poern in that.
With all of their many concerns, the blues are crowded with lines about railroads. Blues often express a wish to be somewhere else, a dislike for this hard-hearted town, this no-good place, this sun-down job-not so romantic a yearning as one based upon reality.
I got a mind to ramble, a mind for to leave this town.
I would rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log
Than to stay in this town, treated like l was a dog.
I am going to Chicago, where the water tastes like cherry wine,
Because this Birmingharn water drinks like turpentine.
One blues singer has even commented on the Nation's Capital, that Washington is a "bourgeois town,"
It's a bushwa town, it's a bushwa town,
I have the bushwa blues and I'll spread the news all around.
The railroad, then, often becomes the metaphor of escape
I went to the depot and looked up on the board;
It says there's good times here, but bctter up the road.
I'm going to leave here this moming if I have to ride the blinds.
Did you ever ride on the Mobile-Central line?
It's the road to ride to ease your troubling mind.
We shal l close this section on the blues, then, with a blues centered
around railroads. It is How Long?, played and sung by joshua White:
How, how long, baby, how long
Has that evening train been gone?
But bow long, how, how long, baby, how long?
If I could holler just like a mountain jack
Run up on the mountain, I'd call my baby back
Cryin'how long, how, bow long, baby, how long?
l bear that whistle blowing, Lawd, l can't see no train
Deep down in my heart there lies an achin' pain,
But how long, how, how long, baby, how long?
Another important division in Negro folk-song is that of the ballad.
Heroes whose lives seem exciting enough for the people to cornmemorate
thern in folk-song are of many types. Several of thein, The Traveling Man
and Long-gone Lost john, celebrate the swift-footed fugitive showing his
heels to the law in songs of sly mockery. As in many an American folk-song,
the outlaw is rendered hornage. The Negro's Raiload Bill and Stagolee take
their place in this gallery alongside of jesse james, Billy the Kid, and
Sam Hall. Po' Lazarus, one of the best ballads, tells about a Negro outlaw
who broke into the commissary and "got blowed down with a great big 45."
Po'Lazarus was given in its first coherent form in American Ballads and
Folk-songs, a book by john Lomax and Alan Lornax. The next, then, will
be a ballad of Negro life, Po' LaZarus, sung for us by the G61den Gate
Quartet, with joshua White playing the guitar.
The high sheriff told the deputy
For to go out an' bring him Laz'rus.
Bring him dead or alive,
Lawd! Lawd! Bring him dead or alive.
Well Laz'rus told the high sheriff
Dat he hadn't never been arrested
By any one man,
Lawd! Lawd! by any one man.
Well dey shot-a po' Laz'rus,
And dey shot him wid a great big number,
'Twas a four by five,
Lawd! Lawd! 'twas a four by five.
Then they took po' Laz'rus
And they laid him on the commissary county,
And they walked away,
Lawdl Lawd! then thcy walked away.
Well po' Laz'rus's mama
She couldn't go to de funcral,
Didn't have no shoes,
Lawd! Lawd! didn't have no shoes.
Best known of the Negro ballads is john Henry, the story of the steeldriving hero of the Negro working class. A recent Broadway play strove to make him a cotton-toting roustabout of the deeper South, but most of those who honor his memory know that "he was a steel-drivin' man-Great Gawd, he was a steel-drivin' man," and he belongs in Virginia or West Virginia. In little shacks perched in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains or in the deep gorges of West Virginiawherever rail-layers, drillers, tunnel builders, muleskinners and coal. miners gather and spin their yarns or listen to the guitar-player strumming his chords, there the ghost of john Henry still walks. Accepting the challenge of the new-fangled steam drill, threatening his supremacy as a steel-drivin' man, john Henry said to his captain,
"A man ain't nothin' but a man
But before I'll Iet that steam driver beat me down,
I'll die with my hammer in my hand,
I'll die with my hammer in my hand.-
The story of the titanic contest against great odds will now be sung.
john Henry was a li'l baby, uh-huh,
Sittin' on his mama's knee, oh, yeah,
Said: "The Big Bend Tunnel on the C. & 0. road
Gonna cause the death of me,
Lawd, Lawd, gonna cause the death of me.
john Henry went to de tunnel,
An' they put him in de lead to drive;
The rock so tall an'John Henry so small,
That he lied down his hammer an' he cried,
Lawd, Lawd, that he lied down his hammer an' he cried.
Oh, the captain said to John Henry,
"I blieve this mountain's sinkin' in."
John Henry said to his captain, oh my!
"Ain' nothin' but my harnmer suckin' win',
Lawd, Lawd, ain' nothin' but my hammcr suckin' win'."
John Henry was hammerin' on de mountain,
An' his harnmer was strikin' fire,
He drove so hard till he broke his poor heart,
An' he lied down his harnmer an' he died,
Lawd, Lawd, he lied down his harnmer an' he died.
Dey took john Henry to de graveyard,
An' dey buried him in de san',
An' every locomotive come roarin' by,
Says, "There lays a steel-drivin' man,
Lawd, Lawd, there lays a stcel-drivin' man."
Another type of Negro folk song, probably always present but easier now to get into the open, is the social song, the song of bitter brooding-"We want to know why"; of protest-"it ought not to be this way"; sometimes a song of harsh tragedy. In their underlying sadness, these songs are close to the blues, but they are starker, less individual cries, and more social indictments. Within the past few years collectors such as Carl Sandburg, Lawrence Gellert and the Lomaxes, john and Alan, have brought these songs out of the dark, secret places where they were sung (not loudly but deeply). They come from the exploited, the outcasts, from labor camps, from chain gangs, from places where brutality, injustice, and fear stalk at will. These are the sorrow songs of a bitter present. The first of these is the Silicosis Blues, a song composed by joshua White about that disease which takes its toll of men in the mines, miners who are inadequately protected from the dreaded dust. The Silicosis Blues, by joshua White
Now, silicosis, you made a mighty bad wreck of me,
l said, silicosis madc a mighty bad wreck of me.
Robbed me of right to live and I'm worried as I can be.
Now I'm diggin' in that tunnel, makin' only six bits a day,
I'm diggin' in that tunnel, makin' only six bits a day.
Didn't know l was diggin' my grave, silicosis eatin' my lungs away.
The second of these songs, named Trouble, is called by its composer, joshua White, a ''censored song.'' Just as in slavery days Go Down, Moses was the forbidden song, truly verboten, so in the present there is a strong subterranean current of song corning out of the chain gangs, the convict farms, the forbidden places. Behind the turned back of the captain, the straw boss, the walking boss, the man clothed in a little, brief, but terrible authority, the strong voice breaks out, sometiffies in irony, sometimes in protest, sometimes in wrath. The song Trouble, sung by joshua White and the Golden Gate Quartet
Well I'm wearing cold iron shackles
From my hcad down to my knees
An' that mean old keeper
Lawd! he's all time kickin' me.
Well I went up to dc walker
And the head boss too
An' I said "Please, all you big white folk,
Won't you sce what you can do.
Well the sheriff winked at the policeman,
Said, "I won't forget you nohow.
You better come back an' see me again, boy,
About forty years from now."
Lawd, I went back to the walker,
He looked at me and said,
''Buddy, don't you go worryin' bout forty,
'Cause in five years you'll be dead.
Lawd, I'm trouble, trouble,
Makes me weep and moan.
Lawd, I'm trouble, trouble
Since the day I was born.
Lawd, I'm trouble, trouble,
Sho' won't make me stay.
Lawd, I'm troub1e, trouble,
Jail break due some day.