A Liberation from Sexual Stigma

Prior to the late twentieth century, sex and violence were considered taboo among the general public. Although everyone was aware of the subjects, it was often considered too vulgar or unprofessional to speak of such adult behavior in a public setting. Blues music paved the way for many artists to express and embrace their sexuality. Although the men and women of the genre communicate in different ways (men writing about women in boastful and sexist ways, while women often express emotions of sorrow or sing of homosexual relationships), the use of sexual content in the blues shows audiences all of the frustrations of love and lust.

When blues music began to emerge, it was known for speaking of the pain and pleasure of the working class (Humphrey, 153). In fact, many genres with similar history, such as the tango of Argentina, are known for voicing the taboo—sex, alcoholic consumption, and drugs. Such music is known for giving detailed descriptions of lifestyles that, at that time, were considered scandalous. An example of this type of songwriting is “Walking the Street,” originally performed by Mamie Desdoumes (Desdoumes). The lyrics were later remastered in 1937, stating:

Stood on the corner till my feet got soakin’ wet,

Stood on the corner till my feet got soakin’ wet,

These are the words I said to each and every man I met.

“If you ain’t got a dollar, give me a lousy dime,

If you ain’t got a dollar, give me a lousy dime,

I’ve got to beg and steal to please that man of mine.

The original lyrics communicate that the prostitute works on the streets in order to provide for her husband, yet the later recording expresses the woman’s desire to please her lover, as she is willing to “beg and steal,” if only to keep hold of his love. The song’s lyrics combine the harsh realities of prostitution with the violence the lifestyle is often accompanied with, perhaps showing that sex and violence work hand in hand. While similar women’s blues songs dealing with the theme often are told from experience or out of sympathy, male blues musicians often focus on the physical aspects of a woman, such as in Blind Boy Fuller’s “Meat Shakin’ Woman.” The song’s lyrics are quite possessive, using language similar to referring to one’s property:

If when you boys see my woman you can’t keep her long

I say hey, hey, you can’t keep her long

I got a new way to keep her down, you “monkey men”” can’t catch on

Baby, for my dinner, I want ham and eggs

I say hey, hey, I want ham and eggs

And for my supper, mama, I want to feel your legs

While the lyrics may not be easily seen as violent, it can definitely be argued that they are misogynistic. Through saying, “I got a new way to keep her down,” he sounds like a slave master or brothel owner, communicating that she will always return to him, as she will always be his property (Fuller). He compares her to “ham and eggs,” showing that he views her as a meal that satisfies his inner desires, rather than as a partner. Therefore, although the lyrics are not explicitly violent in describing murder or rape, they encourage the very culture that encourages the maltreatment of females. Blind Boy Fuller is not the only one to use possessive lyrics to describe women, however. In Lonnie Johnson’s “You Can’t Buy Love,” he says:

You can give your woman plenty money,

Dress her up in fancy gowns;

She will tell her outside man

She’s got the dumbest, the dumbest man in town!

These lyrics seem slightly possessive as well, especially through saying “you can give your woman plenty money.” The main point of the stanza is that even when the man works hard for his woman and provides her with everything she could ever ask for (“plenty money” and “fancy gowns,” in this case), she still cannot be trusted to remain faithful (Johnson). While the song is likely told from the perspective of someone who has been cheated on, and it is a valid reason to be upset, a man should not be angry at a woman for such because of what he has done for her and what she can give him in return; rather, he should see her as an equal who will stay because she loves him, and not solely because she needs him to survive. Therefore, it is evident that men’s blues is a product of the time in which it was produced—a time when a man was considered the leader of the household and women were taught to be submissive. However, women’s blues defies the era it began in, teaching women to be proud of their sexuality.

Women’s blues also shows a more humorous view of sex. While Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues” is infamous for the line, “You can squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice run down my leg,” (Johnson) such humor is also found in Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ‘Em Dry,” which describes the singer’s sex life. She can be quoted singing:

Now your nuts hang down

Like a damn bell sapper,

And your dick stands up like a steeple.

Your goddamn ass-hole

Stands open like a church door,

And the crabs walks in like people.

Bogan speaks of her partner’s body parts with slang, often using humorous analogies such as comparing his “ass-hole” to a church door. While this can be considered immature, I believe that it teaches listeners that while physical intimacy can be a private matter, there is no shame in celebrating its pleasures. In fact, it can be fun. For example, Lucille Bogan also is known for her song, “B.D. Woman’s Blues,” “B.D.” meaning “Bull Dyke,” which is a term for a masculine lesbian (Bogan). In her day, her music was considered especially taboo. In fact, even in the present her lyrics are still considered vulgar. “B.D. Woman’s Blues” is one of the first blues songs to openly talk about lesbianism, stating that “Comin’ a time, B.D. women ain’t gonna need no men / Oh the way they treat us is a lowdown and dirty sin.” The lyrics describe the harsh reality of being a woman in her time; women were often treated as lesser beings and treated horribly by men. Therefore, a woman might be able to find comfort in having a relationship with another woman instead, as women can understand each other’s experiences. The music of Lucille Bogan shows women as every bit as diverse as men can be, owning their own sexuality and being unafraid to call out the sexist and violent behaviors of men.

While the sexist nature of some blues songs can certainly be considered a flaw of the artist, it is not a reflection on the entire genre. In fact, I believe that singing about sex helps people to understand it better. Growing up in a society where no one would talk about it, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for people in that time to understand their sexual feelings without being ashamed of them. Furthermore, homosexuality was considered a taboo topic, and “coming out” as a gay man or lesbian would mean being removed from the church or even risking losing a job. However, even if society was having trouble embracing new sexual concepts and understanding feminism, the blues gave—and continues to give—a safe haven to those searching for it.

Works Cited

Allen, Fulton. “Meat Shakin’ Woman.” By Fulton Allen. 1938.

Bogan, Lucille. “B.D. Woman’s Blues.” By Lucille Bogan. 1935.

Bogan, Lucille. “Shave ‘Em Dry.” By Lucille Bogan. 1935.

Desdoumes, Mamie. “Walking the Street.” By Mamie Desdoumes. 1937.

Humphrey, Mark. “Urban Blues.” Nothing But the Blues. Ed. Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group, n.d. 153. Print.

Johnson, Lonnie. “You Can’t Buy Love.” 1952.

Johnson, Robert. “Traveling Riverside Blues.” By Robert Johnson. 1937.



The Emergence of Blues Interest in White Americans

Despite its humble beginnings, by the turn of the 20th century, blues music had begun to emerge beyond work hollers and simple guitar chord progressions, flourishing into an art transcending racial boundaries. During this time, the traditionally African-American music began to attract a new audience: white Americans, and even Europeans.

During a time period in which African-Americans were considered to be sub-human by many white folks, it is highly intriguing and rather questionable as to why the white people of the era became fascinated in the music of an ethnicity that many still viewed to be lesser than them. In fact, “white blues” did not emerge in spite of racism, but as I would like to argue, it emerged because of racism.

Many of the most influential white blues performers in the 1920s and 1930s, most notably Jimmie Rodgers and Emmett Miller, began to participate in the art through performing black-face comedy. Jimmie Rodgers, a railroad worker from Mississippi, got his start in music in 1923 when he performed in a tent show (Wolfe, 248). Over the years, he continued to perform in vaudeville groups until eventually meeting the talent scout Ralph Peer, whom had helped release “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith. Peer had been hoping to create a new genre of blues known as “hillbilly.” After many sessions, Rodgers successfully recorded the song “T for Texas.” (Rodgers) Due to being raised in a town with a mostly black population, many of the song’s stanzas sounded much like the works of the black singers who came before him (Wolfe, 249).

I’m gonna buy me a pistol

Just as long as I’m tall

I’m gonna buy me a pistol

Just as long as I’m tall

I’m gonna shoot poor Thelma

Just to see her jump and fall

The lyrics echo the violence of the blues songs that came before, such as Bessie Tucker’s “Key to the Bushes.” (Tucker)

Captain got a big horse-pistol

And he thinks he’s bad

I’m gonna take it this mornin’

If he makes me mad

Violence is a common theme in blues music, serving as a reminder of the difficult times most of its artists endured. Especially considering that most blues musicians were black during that time, many of the violence faced was a direct result of being black. While Rodgers may have been white, living in an environment where he was able to see the African-American struggle from a close distance, he likely began to gain an empathy the led him to truly understand blues music beyond simply performing it to poke fun at blacks. While his initial exposure to performing the blues may have been a direct result of the fierce racism in the Southern states, the music proved that art knows no race or gender; art draws humans together through the emotions it raises in us and the experiences it leads us to remember.

Most importantly, Jimmie Rodgers did not solely rely on quoting the music of the musicians who came before him; he brought something new to the table: his yodel. He often used yodels to connect his stanzas. While it is relatively unknown how he came up with the idea, it is likely a result of his work in black-face shows. Another black face artist, Emmett Miller, later continued to develop his yodeling method (Wolfe, 252).

Born in Georgia, Miller also picked up on the behaviors and dialects of the black citizens living there. By the age of sixteen, he also began performing in black-face shows. He became well-known for his ability to “trick sing,” which is when he would sing in falsetto in the middle of a word (Wolfe, 252). After moving to North Carolina, he met Jimmie Rodgers and taught him how to trick-sing. Miller went on to record many of his own songs and to perform with many talented artists; however, he received little recognition for the new style he introduced to the genre (Wolfe, 253).

As interest in preserving blues recordings increased, white Americans have also been known to help raise awareness of the art. John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax are two of the most well-known and well-respected archivists even to this day. In 1932, John Lomax pitched the idea of publishing a collection of “American ballads and folk songs” to his New York publisher. Once the idea was accepted, he worked closely with the Library of Congress to find past blues and folk recordings. During the time, only music written by those of European descent was considered to be real folk music. John H. Cowley states, “Secular black music, associated with what was seen as the tarnished world of minstrelsy, ragtime, and jazz, was treated as worthless.” (Cowley, 269) However, John Lomax and his then-seventeen-year-old son Alan Lomax soon proved the critics wrong. The two went on “field trips” during which they would travel throughout the country to find some of the long-forgotten music, especially non-commercial blues (Cowley, 266). While on their field trips, they visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary and met Huddie Leadbetter, who would later be known as Leadbelly. After recording many of his songs and successfully completing their Library manuscript, the Lomaxes returned to the prison and helped him record his famous pardon song—his second pardon song, as he had previously been imprisoned for murder (Cowley, 272). While it is disputable whether or not his pardon was the result of the Lomaxes, it is undeniable that they played a large role in his popularity. Ultimately, he was arrested again for yet another violent crime. However, the Lomaxes continued to go on field trips and record new artists, forever preserving the art of the blues.

However, what is it that draws white people to the blues? The 1960s was arguably the most significant era of social change, and it directly impacted blues music. Many people began to see it as an art regardless of racial boundaries. As white folks became interested in the blues (especially young college students), blues magazines, books, albums, and festivals began to prove the blues to be a true art form (O’Neal, 348). Over time, as more white people began listening to the blues, more white blues performers began to emerge. One of my favorite musicians from the time I was a young child is Eric Clapton, as my father would always play his song “Tears in Heaven” on his guitar (Clapton). The song heavily relies on the pentatonic scale, although it is written in the key of A Major. The chord progressions follow a familiar pattern to traditional blues, yet still being creative on his part, as the key changes halfway through the chorus.

I V vi IV I V

Would you know my name if I saw you in Heaven

I V vi IV I V

Would it be the same if I saw you in Heaven

(The key then changes to F#m as Clapton finishes the chorus)

I must be strong and carry on

‘Cause I know I don’t belong here in Heaven

 Although the genre has come a long way from work hollers and being seen as a joke solely due to its performers being black, now an art that was originally mocked by white Americans is also enjoyed by them. Their interest in the blues has also greatly influenced more recent genres, such as Rock ‘n Roll and Country. Therefore, while racism may have been the original influence of white blues performers, something good has almost always eventually come of it. As humanity grows to become more accepting of each other’s differences, we learn that there is no racial divide in music. We all can relate to hardship, even if no one experience is the same. While the African-American community has faced slavery, segregation, and discrimination, everyone has faced pain and can learn from the outpouring of emotion blues allows us to experience. After all, Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” expresses much of the same emotion as many earlier blues works, as he laments the death of his young son. Yes, he is a privileged white male. However, he was still able to take a painful experience of his and turn it into one of the most beautiful songs that I have ever heard, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what music is about? Music is not in itself a demonstration of prejudice or poverty. Music is what we make it. And perhaps someday, music is what will make us; it will make us more empathetic and compassionate beings, if only we let it.

Works Cited

Clapton, Eric. “Tears in Heaven.” By Eric Clapton. 1992.

Cowley, John. “Don’t Leave Me Here: The Field Trips, 1924-60.” Nothing But the Blues. Ed.

Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group. Print.

O’Neal, Jim. “I Once Was Lost, But Now I’m Found: The Blues Revival of the 1960s.” Nothing

But the Blues. Ed. Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group. Print.

Rodgers, James. “Blue Yodel (T for Texas).” By James Rodgers. 1936.

Tucker, Bessie. “Key to the Bushes.” By Bessie Tucker. N.d.

Wolfe, Charles. “A Lighter Shade of Blue: White Country Blues.” Nothing But the Blues. Ed.

Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group. Print.

Is the Blues An Art?

The art of music is one that is extremely complex, transcending the barriers of language, ethnicity, and religion. Depending on who is asked, one may have an opinion on which genres of music they consider to be an art. Some may question the relevance of blues music compared to the works of classical composers. Is it any less of an art due to its simplicity in lyrics and chord structure? I believe that the blues deserves to be considered an art, for how it brings communities together through the passion for music.
Music is an art form that expresses pain, love, and joy; sometimes, all at once. Furthermore, if there is any genre that is capable of expressing such broad range of emotion, it is the blues. Blues music is said to have emerged in West Africa prior to the slave trade. Griots, the common word for “singers” in many West African tribes, would chant during their work day, often reciting a story about war between tribes and European colonization. They would perform with an instrument they carved out of a gourd with strings made out of fishing line. Although the musicians of that timeframe did not play traditional instruments or use complex chord progressions at the time, their music greatly impacted the lifestyles of those around them; workers would utilize “work songs” following the rhythm of wood chopping or digging a shovel into the ground in order for the leader of the song to set the working pace. Work songs then went on to influence some of the early blues artists in the United States, such as Son House, who was well-known for using the work-song pattern with percussive notes on the guitar’s bass strings (E and A) and employing rhythms similar to that of wood chopping. One example is his song “Depot Blues,” which is written in 4/4 (the most common time signature; many pop songs are also written in 4/4) and has eleven full measures along with a pick-up and ending measure, totaling thirteen. The lyrics are as follows:

“I went to the depot and-a / I looked up on the board / I went to the depot / I looked up on the board / Well I couldn’t see no train I couldn’t / hear no whistle blow.”

The pattern of “Depot Blues” follows a similar pattern to that of the ancient work songs; although it does not have a “call and response” method, it is sung and played in a pattern prevalent in both work songs and modern blues music. Beneath is an example of the song’s structure:
I went to the depot and-a I looked up on the board.
I went to the depot and I looked up on the board. (He repeats the line)
(three quarter rests)
Well I couldn’t see no train
(shorter rest)
I couldn’t hear no whistle blow.
The song also follows the chord progression format (4):
These patterns would continue to be a trend in blues music for years to come as those inspired would often improvise their own lyrics, following the same chord progressions and syllable count. Due to this simplicity of both content and structure, many have criticized the creativity and artistry of blues music, believing it to be inferior to classical and traditional jazz. Although blues music typically uses repetition in lyrics, it is to further emphasize the message, urging the listener to pay close attention. An example of this is Son House’s autobiographical song, “Preachin’ the Blues.”
Oh, I’m gonna get me religion, I’m gonna join the Baptist church.
Oh, I’m gonna get me religion, I’m gonna join the Baptist church.
I’m gonna be a Baptist preacher, and I sure won’t have to work.
Oh, in my room I bowed down to pray.
Oh, in my room I bowed down to pray.
But the blues came along, and they drove my spirit away.
These lyrics tell an audience a story about the conflict between blues and gospel music during the time the piece was written. Son House sings the message in a chronological order, explaining to the audience that he originally planned to become a Baptist preacher; however, when he discovered the blues, he became acquainted with what was then known as the “devil’s music,” and therefore he believed that he had then lost his salvation. Through these few verses, the listeners have already learned about the history and personality of the writer, much like poetry. Therefore, when asked the question if blues music is truly poetic, one must remember that there is no correct way to write poetry. Just as not all poems rhyme, not all poems reach an epic length; the most important trait that all great poems share is communicating a story that the audience is able to relate to. For example, I can relate to Son House’s “Preachin’ the Blues” lyrics, because many adults in my religion believe that my desire to study other religions will cause me to leave my current faith. Therefore, I have often been discouraged from doing such, and I am able to relate to the message Son House is communicating; he was told that the blues was the “devil’s music,” yet he continued to perform it because it was clearly something that brought him comfort and that he enjoyed.
This is an example of how the blues is indeed an art. Because art is subjective, no one person will have the same answer for what it is, as it speaks to us in different ways. However, blues music allows both performers and listeners to express emotions that cannot be easily expressed with spoken word, just as many forms of modern music do as well. Furthermore, while the blues may not be as popular of a genre as it was during the time of its founding, its influence is still prevalent on modern musicians such as Bill Withers, whose “Ain’t No Sunshine” follows the blues chord progression, with heavy emphasis on the bass strings and ad-libbing. Though the music can also be seen as entertainment, I believe that entertainment and art are synonymous. Blues poetry draws listeners in through allowing them to relate to a story, which succeeds in performing the duty of both art and entertainment: to unite seemingly different individuals with similar experiences and emotions.
It is also for these reasons that the simple chord progressions do not invalidate the artistry of blues music; after all, if the repetitive use of four chords means that a song cannot be classified as true art, then most of today’s pop, country, and rap music would also not be considered an art. While the simple progressions may seem elementary compared to the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach, the honesty of the lyrics and the rich dynamics of the instruments captivate the audience just as well as Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 moves audiences all over the world to this day. While certain genres of music may require more training for musicians, it is important to understand that not any one piece of art is the same; it is not a competition, but a community in which talents and stories are shared. If the art of music was solely based upon the difficulty of the piece, it would be a sport. However, music is so much more than that. It changes lives and opens minds to new concepts, and it will continue to do so for centuries to come. At the end of the day, this is what music is about: learning about others’ experiences, and looking within ourselves.
Works Cited
Charters, Samuel. “Workin’ on the Building: Roots and Influences.” Nothing But the Blues. Ed. Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group, n.d. 13-14. Print.

Charters, Samuel. “Workin’ on the Building: Roots and Influences.” Nothing But the Blues. Ed. Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group, n.d. 21-23. Print.
House, Eddie. “Depot Blues.” By Eddie James. 1942.

Charters, Samuel. “Workin’ on the Building: Roots and Influences.” Nothing But the Blues. Ed. Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group, n.d. 19. Print.

House, Eddie. “Preachin’ the Blues.” By Eddie House. 1930.