September-October 2013

Domestic Violence in the Blues

By Ross Altman

Classic Harmonica BluesIf you want to learn how to make a bomb there are a number of obscure web sites on the Internet; terrorists seem to know where they are, and The Southern Poverty Law Center who tracks hate groups, and I assume the NSA, does too. But if you want to learn how and when to beat your wife, you don’t have to traffic in dirt; just go to your nation’s proudest repository of classic folk music—the kind of music that is often found in books with titles like An American Treasury of Folk Music by Ben Botkin—or John and Alan Lomax. But there is a difference between reading it between the covers of a dusty old library book, and hearing it burst out of your stereo system from a brand new CD sent to you from Smithsonian Folkways Records, Washington, DC. It’s called Classic Harmonica Blues.

The collection was co-produced and annotated by Barry Lee Pearson and Jeff Place. Pearson offers an excellent history of the harmonica from its invention in Germany in 1821 to its refinement by Hohner in 1857 to its successful importing to America around the turn of the 20th Century and absorption by African-American blues musicians—who figured out on their own how to adapt its European formulas to the blues—by playing it backwards, or second position, or more popularly cross-harp, so as to be able to bend the notes and mold it to the human voice. The first performer to record in that style was Burl “Jaybird” Coleman from Alabama who recorded some twenty sides from 1927 to 1930.

Were it possible to erase the vocal tracks from these songs and listen just to the harmonica from the Folkways vault (as represented by Roscoe Holcomb’s instrumental version of Barbara Allen Blues) one would have an uninterrupted hour and six minutes of exciting, indomitable blues music to hold one’s attention; but I kept getting distracted by verbal abuse threatening violence against the women for whom many of these songs were written—from threats of physical abuse to knives to waving guns in their faces.

I found it hard to focus on the main event; much like Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window, I couldn’t take my eyes off the evidence of a crime being committed in the background. Finally I had to pick up my binoculars and look closer, even at the risk of offending my neighbors (or my readers and Smithsonian Folkways—the villain Thorwald of this film noir). I wish I had Grace Kelly here to do my sleuthing for me, but alas I work in my garret alone.

Not surprisingly, Sonny Terry is on the cover, the great blind blues harmonica player from Georgia who teamed up with guitarist Brownie McGee in New York City’s Greenwich Village and became the most popular blues duo during the folk revival. Well, what do you know, that’s precisely where Jimmy Stewart’s apartment is, Greenwich Village, so I feel right at home as I pick up my binoculars and take a closer look at Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee’s Crow Jane Blues:

Crow Jane, Crow Jane don’t hold your head so high

You realize baby you’re gonna lay down and die

I done told you baby and I ain’t gonna tell you no more

If I tell you again I’m gonna bring my old 44

I feel like snappin my pistol in your face

Some lonely graveyard will be your resting place

I love you Crow Jane and I ain’t gonna tell you no lies

The day you quit me that’s the day you die.

Again, that’s not some ominous street rapper dwelling on the “n”-word; that’s Sonny and Brownie, the most beloved blues icons of all. Smithsonian Folkways has vaults full of Sonny Terry’s recordings, and they have to put this out? It would be like putting out the song sung by Leadbelly and others, which contain the lyrics: Ain’t it a shame to whip your wife on Sunday —when you’ve got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, Friday and Saturday—ain’t it a shame. But wait, that’s exactly what Smithsonian Folkways did release—with no less a righteous deacon icon than Pete Seeger singing it—recorded back in the days when the women’s movement had not yet seen Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. To have recorded it when human consciousness about violence against women was back in the stone age is one thing; it may not have registered on the radar screen of even some women; but to re-release it fifty years after the founding document of modern feminism is quite another. I pointed this out three years ago in my review of that boxed Pete Seeger collection drawn from his six-volume Folkways set of American Favorite Ballads—the basis for Seeger’s very first songbook. But here they are, in 2013 with still no screening system in place to prevent songs like this from slipping through.

Dog Days of August feels like it could have been written right here at 125 W. 9th St.; it surveys the problems of a long hot summer (it is 94 degrees on the thermometer) and what its temptations are; one of them is they will make a man “beat his wife—oh Lord I got a wrong-doing woman/I got trouble in my life.” It would of course be less bluesy to say that these dog days of August will make a man enter an anger management program—so beat your wife it is. This song by John Cephas on guitar and Phil Wiggins on harmonica was not recorded back in the 1930s but in 2008 at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival—by the duo that inherited the Piedmont Blues Tradition from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Unfortunately they also inherited the periodic temptation to celebrate songs that denigrate women.

It would be defensible if the purpose of the album was in fact to highlight songs that conveyed messages we have long since outgrown as a culture—at least among those who most value traditional American music of all stripes. But that is not the case here; the superior annotations of the artists and songs barely raise an eyebrow: “The song alternates between threats and praise, typical of the blues genre.” Question: if that is “typical,” then isn’t it worth studying for its own sake? Perhaps something needs to be said about this genre.

This theme of domestic abuse in the blues works on both sides of the street; the legendary Memphis Minnie takes her shots (pun intended) at the man in Me and My Chauffeur Blues:

 I don’t want you to be driving these other girls around

Well I’m going to steal me a pistol and shoot my chauffeur down.

Her song (written by Minnie’s then-husband, Little Son Joe (Ernest Lawler) is now a showstopper for Maria Muldaur, who was just reviewed in these pages. One might argue that a man wrote the song but Memphis Minnie and Maria Muldaur have both made it their own.

“I whip my woman” seems to be a preliminary form of violence that then leads to knives and guns. The phrase comes up in the jug band classic Take Your Fingers Off It by Will Shade (discussed briefly in my Maria Muldaur review), Charlie Purse and Gus Cannon.

I’m not a watchdog for political correctness; I just like to see great artists represented by their best work. Leadbelly recorded hundreds of songs without mentioning beating his wife; Sonny Terry recorded hundreds of sides without threatening to take out his pistol and turn into Phil Spector. I know this because I have a stellar collection, acquired over many years, and this is the first time I have heard these songs, on a special collection on which he is represented by only three tracks. Ain’t it a shame to hear Sonny singing about pulling out his pistol and shooting a black woman (suggested by the title Crow Jane). It is to me.

Sonny and TerrySo let me tell you what song I would have chosen in its stead: Lost John—the greatest harmonica virtuoso piece Sonny ever recorded, about a convict who breaks loose from a chain gang. You’ll hear the hound dog bark and moan (all coming out of the interplay between Sonny’s harp and voice) chasing him. You’ll also hear Sonny’s harmonica talk, as he interpolates a bit of I Want My Mama. To hear Lost John in all its raging glory find a copy of Stephen Wade’s magnificent collection A Treasury of Library of Congress Recordings on Rounder Records. I also have it on an old Stinson Record—the American Folksay Collection. And sure enough, Smithsonian Folkways has it too—on their 1952 recording Sonny Terry-Harmonica and Vocal Solos (FW02035/FA 2035/FTS 32035).

What Sonny Terry did with a harmonica was sheer magic; and one wants to hear him without having to peer into a courtyard window where a crime is about to be committed. Sonny Terry deserves better than that, and so does the memory of Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways who recorded him. But that’s just me—a proud male feminist.

We live in a violence-saturated culture that can’t release a new movie based on The Lone Ranger without having a scene where a human heart is carved out of a victim’s chest and devoured. We can’t release a new movie based on Superman (Man of Steel) without dead bodies piled up like Gettysburg. Perhaps Smithsonian Folkways feels pressured to stay au currant with the culture of violence in which we live, but I look to folk music as an alternative to the culture—perhaps the word I am searching for is counter-culture. That’s it—the classic word coined by the late social critic Theodore Roszak—to describe the Woodstock generation. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest generation. But the new religion it gave birth to—recently described by my friend writer/musician Michael Simmons as Hippie-American—may have been more in keeping with God’s laws than the old-time religion it transcended.

It has its own hymns and spirituals—such as Richie Havens’ improvised opening song from Woodstock Freedom--and its own blues. When Dylan left his girlfriend he simply said,

When your rooster crows at the break of dawn

Look out your window and I’ll be gone

You’re the reason I’m a travelin’ on

Don’t think twice

It’s all right.

Listen to Dylan’s cross harp solo from 1962 and you’ll hear topnotch harmonica playing and a certain compassion even for the woman he is leaving behind. The blues does not have to end in violence.

Not a word about pistols, knives or bare fists. It’s a long way from King of the Delta Blues’ Robert Johnson’s:

Me and the Devil was walking side by side

I’m going to beat my woman until I get satisfied

--(Me and the Devil Blues).

Wife beating soon takes on ever more sinister threats:

I’m gonna shoot my pistol; gonna shoot my Gatlin’ gun

You made me love you but now your man have come

--(32-20 Blues)

In this song both of the lovers are armed: she has a “38-Special” which he observes is much too light:

I sent for my woman…and if she don’t want to

Take my 32-20 cut her half in two.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent for my woman,

and if she don’t want to, I take a cold shower.

Maybe Darwin was right; and if not Darwin, maybe Langston Hughes:

I got the Weary Blues

And I can't be satisfied.

Got the Weary Blues

And can't be satisfied--I ain't happy no mo'

And I wish that I had died.

Maybe there is some kind of evolution in consciousness as time goes by. Langston Hughes’ singer does not look for a victim.

Big Bill BroonzyBut then again, there are a number of great blues artists who manage to avoid the dark side of the blues—for whom the blues was an existential condition, not a way of holding a gun to somebody’s head. I never heard a mean-spirited song come out of Big Bill Broonzy; his Key to The Highway (I’m Billed Out and Bound to Go Blues) conveys a sense of resolution:

I got the key to the highway

Billed out and I’m bound to go

Gonna leave here runnin’

cause walkin’s most too slow

Goin’ down to the border

Take a Greyhound bus and ride

Gonna leave California

Make it to the other side

With the moon over my right shoulder

I’m going way beyond the sea

Gonna find a new woman

Make a new man of me.

Sonny and Brownie closed their shows with this Broonzy road classic.

As I look out over the courtyard from the rear window of my sweltering apartment in the Village, every window tells a story. In one a portly gentleman in the background winds a clock, while in the foreground there is a songwriter, Randy Goodrum, who is overheard to say, “I've always thought that songs, even positive songs, needed to have a certain amount of shadow in them for the light to be significant.” That’s a good description of the following blues songs, all of which have that sense of shadow, but avoid the absolute darkness of the songs of battered women I have been considering.

Jesse Fuller’s San Francisco Bay Blues doesn’t flinch from the pain of love; but finds a glimmer of hope in his despair:

Ever while in another city

Just about to go insane

Thought I heard my baby

The way she used to call my name

If she ever comes back to stay

Gonna be a brand new day

Walking with my baby

down by the San Francisco Bay.

Josh White singing St. James Infirmary Blues (on Josh at Midnight on Elektra Records);

Listen to Blind Willie McTell singing Lord Send Me an Angel Down (“Well I ain’t got no angel/But I’ll send you old Thelma Brown”) and you’ll hear a wicked sense of humor.

Blind Lemon Jefferson: Match Box Blues and Black Snake Moan.

Blind Reverend Gary Davis’ singing his song Baby Let Me Follow You Down (which Dylan recorded in bottleneck style on his first album—Gary Davis recorded for Prestige);

Dave Van Ronk singing Jimmy Cox’s Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.

Aunt Molly Jackson singing her Kentucky Miner’s Wife’s Hungry, Ragged Blues.

As the courtyard returns to normal I put my binoculars away. There is a harmonica playing the blues from an open window. It’s a track on the new Smithsonian Classic Harmonica Blues CD—Doctor Ross, the Harmonica Boss (no relation), a joyous Chicago Breakdown he does live in his full one-man band format with harmonica, guitar and drums at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival—his gracious interaction with the audience is worth the price of the album. There are 20 tracks on this generous sampling from Folkway’s great collection—both vintage and modern, including Vietnam veteran Charlie Sayles’ harp solo Train Piece. I thought the D-train was roaring past my window.

On Sunday, September 29 from 7:00 to 10:00PM Ross will host 100 Thousand Poets and Musicians for Change at The Talking Stick Coffee Lounge at 1411 Lincoln Blvd. (at California) 310-450-6052 .

On Wednesday, October 10, at 7:00pm at The Santa Monica Synagogue at 1448 18th Street in Santa Monica Ross will host Harmony for Humanity for Daniel Pearl World Music Days on what would have been the murdered journalist’s 50th birthday. Free and open to the public.

Ross Altman may be reached at


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