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Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From

Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From: Lyrics and History

Copyright Date: 2006
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  • Book Info
    Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
    Book Description:

    Musicians and music scholars rightly focus on the sounds of the blues and the colorful life stories of blues performers. Equally important and, until now, inadequately studied are the lyrics. The international contributors toNobody Knows Where the Blues Come Fromexplore this aspect of the blues and establish the significance of African American popular song as a neglected form of oral history.

    "High Water Everywhere: Blues and Gospel Commentary on the 1927 Mississippi River Flood," by David Evans, is the definitive study of songs about one of the greatest natural disasters in the history of the United States. In "Death by Fire: African American Popular Music on the Natchez Rhythm Club Fire," Luigi Monge analyzes a continuum of songs about exclusively African American tragedy. "Lookin' for the Bully: An Enquiry into a Song and Its Story," by Paul Oliver traces the origins and the many avatars of the Bully song. In "That Dry Creek Eaton Clan: A North Mississippi Murder Ballad of the 1930s," Tom Freeland and Chris Smith study a ballad recorded in 1939 by a black convict at Parchman prison farm. "Coolidge's Blues: African American Blues from the Roaring Twenties" is Guido van Rijn's survey of blues of that decade. Robert Springer's "On the Electronic Trail of Blues Formulas" presents a number of conclusions about the spread of patterns in blues narratives. In "West Indies Blues: An Historical Overview 1920s-1950s," John Cowley turns his attention to West Indian songs produced on the American mainland. Finally, in "Ethel Waters: 'Long, Lean, Lanky Mama,'" Randall Cherry reappraises the early career of this blues and vaudeville singer.

    Robert Springer is a professor of English at the University of Metz in Longeville les Metz, France. Among other works, he is the author ofAuthentic Blues: Its History and Its Themesand the editor ofThe Lyrics in African American Popular Music.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-731-8
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    Robert Springer
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. HIGH WATER EVERYWHERE Blues and Gospel Commentary on the 1927 Mississippi River Flood
    (pp. 3-75)

    The purpose of this paper is to identify and survey the texts of blues, gospel songs and sermons recorded by African Americans about the flood of the Mississippi River and its tributaries in 1927.¹ Although to my knowledge this is the first survey of all such recordings that directly mention the flood, it benefits from earlier partial surveys of these songs and songs about other floods by Paul Oliver (to whom I would like to dedicate this paper), Chris Strachwitz and Pete Welding, Keith Briggs, and Steven J. Morrison, as well as the comments of many authors about individual songs...

  6. DEATH BY FIRE African American Popular Music on the Natchez Rhythm Club Fire
    (pp. 76-107)

    Like other tragic historical events such as the sinking of theTitanicin 1912 and the Mississippi River flood in 1927, the death of over 200 people in the Natchez Rhythm Club fire on Tuesday, 23 April 1940, inspired a relatively large number of songs. Unlike the aforementioned disasters that occurred on both sides of the color line, this event seems to have remained almost exclusively an African American tragedy. The vitality of black people’s oral tradition, augmented by the help of phonograph records, has caused this essentially regional news item to be the theme of no less than ten...

  7. LOOKINʹ FOR THE BULLY An Enquiry into a Song and Its Story
    (pp. 108-125)

    For those among us who research the early development of the blues, Henry Thomas—Ragtime Texas—is of particular importance, for the breadth of his repertoire, his use of the quills while playing guitar, and the quality of his playing, singing and even half-spoken narrative. InSongsters and SaintsI discussed a number of his songs, including “Bob McKinney,” which commences with a fragmentary version of the ballad before a brief medley of verses of other songs. Henry Thomas moves rapidly on to a verse from another early blues, “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor,” recorded in classic versions,...

  8. THAT DRY CREEK EATON CLAN A North Mississippi Murder Ballad of the 1930s
    (pp. 126-150)

    In May 1939, John A. Lomax and his wife, Ruby Terrill, were part-way through a song collecting trip on behalf of the Archive of American Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture) of the Library of Congress. Beginning on March 31, 1939, they were to make recordings in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia, before the field trip ended at the Library of Congress on June 14, 1939. On May 23, Miss Terrill recorded in her fieldnotes that:

    We left Camp #9 of the Arkansas state farm about 2 o’clock and spent the night at...

  9. COOLIDGEʹS BLUES African American Blues Songs on Prohibition, Migration, Unemployment, and Jim Crow
    (pp. 151-163)

    In the twenties the United States was growing economically after the turbulent postwar period. The Harlem Renaissance (1920–1930) was an important period of literary and artistic flowering. The Roaring Twenties brought wealth to many white Americans, and some educated African Americans, but what was the fate of the average African American in the Coolidge era (1923–1928)?

    Calvin Coolidge was born on 4 July 1872 in Plymouth, Vermont, the son of a deputy sheriff who owned a successful country store. The Coolidges were of English Puritan heritage. Calvin Coolidge’s mother died when he was twelve. In 1895 he graduated...

    (pp. 164-186)

    A number of years ago, I published as part of a book (first in French, then in English¹) a brief thematic study of regional blues repertoires which had allowed me to outline a few of their characteristics, namely, the harshness, frustration and melancholy palpable in Mississippi Delta blues, as opposed to a somewhat more relaxed mood in East Coast/Piedmont blues (not without exceptions though), with Texas blues somewhere in between but closer to Mississippi.

    Following this, I began a study of blues lyric formulas to gauge the possibility of retracing them to a particular region and mapping out their migration...

  11. WEST INDIES BLUES An Historical Overview, 1920s–1950s—Blues and Music from the English-speaking West Indies
    (pp. 187-263)

    In most contemporary literature, a direct relationship between black music from the English-speaking West Indies and the United States is considered a twentieth-century development. Generally, Jamaica is given as the prime example of interchange, but in the region’s history the popularity of Jamaican styles is a relatively recent occurrence.

    Before slavery was abolished in the United States, black people in the British West Indies were perceived as brothers in blood in the fight for Emancipation. The ending of Apprenticeship in Britain’s colonies (1 August 1838) was cause for annual celebration by enslaved black people in the South, until freedom was...

  12. ETHEL WATERS “Long, Lean, Lanky Mama”
    (pp. 264-282)

    Ethel Waters (1896–1977) was one of America’s most prolific and multifaceted entertainers. Successively, a blues singer, one of the first true jazz vocalists to record, a Broadway star and an acclaimed film actress, her heyday could easily be any one of dozens of high points in a career that spanned the end of the 1910s to her years of semi-retirement in the early 1970s. She made her debut around 1917 as a singer of blues and novelty songs—as well as a celebrated shimmy dancer—under the stage name “Sweet Mama Stringbean.”¹ Famous for being the first professional female...

    (pp. 283-286)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 287-303)