Blues History Sing-A-Long

It wasn’t written, it was a real song that’s just made up.

That was Lead Belly in Last Sessions talking about the St. Louis Song that was around well before W.C. Handy recorded St. Louis Blues.  That’s right – before it was written down it was a real song.  If that’s true, we have been accustomed to something other than real songs. Our songs are a certain length, always with the same words, with each flourish in the same place every time we hear it. But real songs?  They might be done a little different each time you hear them, and they might be “fixed up” a bit by adding a stanza you hadn’t heard before, or at least not in that particular song. The best blues may be precisely planned, but it has the feel of spontaneity. That note you just heard? That might be the only time it was ever played just that way.

 And that’s the feel you get from Last Sessions, recorded by the Lomaxes in Lead Belly’s living room. It’s just Lead Belly, his twelve string guitar, some thigh-slapping and his request for “a Coca-Cola, not a Pepsi-Cola.”  The playlist ranges from folk to blues to spirituals and few race-equality songs.

Here you’ll get to nearly meet Lead Belly. He had, ahem, been previously convicted of murder and had a scar from one side of his neck to the other. But he’s soft-spoken, endearing and enthusiastic as he explains regional variations of songs, works in a reference to Sneaky Pete Wine, and prefaces a song with “these are the holy rollers singing this now…” (He Never Said  a Mumblin’ Word).

One of the appeals of early Blues is the sense that they are so close to the time of unrecorded music.  They seem close to something that organically sprang out of a culture which itself was connected to yet earlier cultures.  So history is an added interest. Battling the boll weevil, surviving floods, and making all telephone calls to “central” are all there in Last Sessions.  So are stories of Lead Belly touring with Blind Lemon Jefferson and his attempts to convince city women that he was also from the city. (Hint: don’t add sugar to your beer.)

A good sample of what you get here is the conversation around the classic Careless Love. No, Mr. Lomax, it isn’t a mountain pregnancy song.  It was an old song when Lead Belly was young and Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first to record it. The white folks would sing “love, careless love,” but the blacks would sing “see what careless love has done” and it referred to loving someone who doesn’t  love you back – you might as well just throw that kind of love in the East River.  That’s all going by Lead Belly’s account, anyway, and  I’m not sure Lead Belly was as much a stickler for historical accuracy as Lomax wanted him to be.  Still, it’s fun history, anyway.

 A quick aside to all you Presbyterian Sabbatarians:  a blues responsive reading.

 “Ain’t it a shame to go fishin’ on a Sunday?”  

“Yea, ain’t it a shame.”

Anyway, one of my favorites is Lead Belly’s song against multi-tasking.  See, “your mind is running, you’ve got to relax once in a while.”  So many people get in a car but they’re “not looking where they’re going.” As for Lead Belly, “I’ve never even run over a chicken, I ain’t run over nothing.”  Then the song tells us:

 When you’re driving in an automobile,
Oh, keep your eyes out through that windshield,
That’s the time you got to relax your mind.

Once was a man crossin’ a railroad track,
Oh, boy, and he forgot to relax,
That’s one time he shoulda relaxed his mind.

Relax your mind, relax your mind,
Oh, make you feel just as fine as wine,
Sometime you gotta relax your mind.

Good stuff. Lead Belly’s Last Sessions


Filed under Blues

28 responses to “Blues History Sing-A-Long

  1. Lily

    Leadbelly had such a hard and sad life. I think ‘ain’t it shame’ is my favorite, but I may have to switch to yours. No multi-tasking sounds delightful.

    Supposedly, Leadbelly played in the Dallas area way back when. It’s an area called Deep Ellum and still an area for local musicians to show off their stuff. My cousin plays guitar and sings there on occasion on open mic nights. He writes ballads – a bit like Gordon Lightfoot.,_Dallas,_Texas

    Have you ever seen Daddy Stove Pipe? My cousin sent me a link to him not too many months age:

  2. Lily

    Durn, the link worked to DSP, but not the song I thought I linked to. Here:

  3. Deep Ellum became distinguished as a prime jazz and blues hotspot in the South.
    Here is an interesting quote about Deep Ellum. One of the things that keep me in my addiction for many years was the interesting people and places you would spend time in that I never would have dreamed I ever would have spent any time in before my addiction escalated. I have been in places like this and I am lucky to have gotten out alive. Here is the wikepedia quote. I definitely am not hoping you will be impressed (or that I am trying to impress) by this but it sure was interesting.
    Artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson Huddie “Leadbelly”Ledbetter, and Bessie Smith played in Deep Ellum clubs like The Harlem and The Palace.

    In 1937, a columnist described Deep Ellum as:

    …[the] one spot in the city that needs no daylight saving time because there is no bedtime…[It is] the only place recorded on earth where business, religion, hoodooism, gambling and stealing goes on at the same time without friction…Last Saturday a prophet held the best audience in this ‘Madison Square Garden’ in announcing that Jesus Christ would come to Dallas in person in 1939. At the same time a pickpocket was lifting a week’s wages from another guy’s pocket, who stood with open mouth to hear the prophecy.

  4. Lily

    Thanks, John, but you give me way too much credit. My cousin is gifted with musical talent and what little I know seems to be learned from being around him. The Daddy Stove Pipe link was one he sent me awhile back. DSP’s website has numerous links showcasing his extraordinary musical talents, if you wish to explore it.

    As you observed, Deep Ellum can be a pretty rough area in Dallas and the level of roughness seems to depend upon economic conditions. It has a colorful culture with good elements that the city doesn’t want to lose and bad elements that refuse to conform to the city’s efforts to tame it. In some ways, it’s similar to the French Quarter in NOLA where amidst the musical culture, you can find teen prostitutes with their pimps watching them from a distance or drug dealers slyly selling their wares. It’s dissimilar in that it lacks the beauty and charm of the NOLA’s French Quarter.

    • I was hesitant Lily to make the response I did but I thought it was appropriate considering that the blues are engulfged in a “Deep Ellum” like culture. I appreciate you not reacting in a negative way. I hope I don’t get MM into trouble. He may end up deleting it and I would understand if he did.

      • Actually, JY, there’s no great controversy about that point. Delta Blues germinated in the Post-Bellum South where Blacks would work hard on the plantations for marginal compensation then get rowdy on Saturday night. Violence, cheap booze and the blues were all there together. But, then, there was always an interesting relationship between the blues and religion. Some responded to blues in a revival-ish kind of way, and remember Charley Patton fancying himself as a preacher. So it’s quite a mix of different elements.

  5. Lily

    No need to explain, John. As much as I appreciate the music, I’m with you in recognizing the culture it’s engulfed in. As you observed, it seems best appreciated from a safe distance.

    I prefer the old spirituals and tend to have weird tastes in music. Here’s a sample of loving the mix of opera divas singing my favorite spiritual. Apologies ahead of time for the poor quality:

    • If I would have stayed at a “safe distance” I never would have met Punchy, Red, Big E, KitKat, Tiffany, Shorty or all the folks I met at the rehabs I attended. In retrospect, it probably would have been better to stay at a safe distance- that was the same thing I heard from the Ivy leager (Mount Holyoke-Econ degree; Universiy of Michigan- MBA in health care Finance; DePaul- Health care Law- passed the bar exam and then passed her CPA exam on her first try) I dated for 2 years and at about the year and a half mark I could not measure up to her so I coped out and dropped out for “Deep Ellum.” In retrospect, that probably was a good thing too.

      • She ended up turning on me and going to my family to inform them that I had been hanging out at “Deep Ellam” which did not sit right with my brother or mother. That was the start of my in and out of rehabs for the next six or so years. So, I always had periods of sobriety where I was starting to get grounded in reformation theology. My brother did not like that either since he was a member at Willow Creek and the contemporary reformation theologians were starting to be critical of Willow Creek. The whole scenario got increasingly worse and the misunderstandings continued to escalate. Need I say more?

    • Btw, Balm of Gilead is a beautiful song sung by those wonderful angelic voices

  6. Speaking of the blues- Marky Mark sent me this Mencken gem:

    Mencken:The universal wisdom of the world long ago concluded that life
    is mainly a curse. Turn to the proverbial philosophy of any race, and
    you will find it full of a sense of the futility of the mundane
    struggle. Anticipation is better than realization. Disappointment is
    the lot of man. . . .
    Yet we cling to it in a muddled pathological way — and even try to fill
    it with gaudy hocus-pocus. All men who, in any true sense, are
    sentient strive mightily for distinction and power, i.e., for the
    respect and envy of their fellowsmen, i.e., for the ill-natured
    admiration of an endless series of miserable and ridiculous bags of
    rapidly disintegrating amino acides. Why? If I knew, I’d certainly not
    be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in
    a state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10
    a head to gape at me through peep-holes. But though the central
    mystery remains, it is possible, perhaps, to investigate the
    superficial symptoms to some profit. I offer myself as a laboratory
    animal. Why have I worled so hard for thirty years, deperately
    striving to accomplish something that remains impenetrable to me to
    this day? Is it because I desire money? Bosh! I can’t recall ever
    desiring it for an instant: I have always found it easy to get all I
    wanted. Is it, then, notoriety that I am after? Again the answer must
    be no. The attention of strangers is unplesant to me, and I avoid it
    as mush as possible. Then is it yearing to Do Good that moves me? Bosh
    and blah! If I am convineced of anything, it is that Doing Good is in
    bad taste. . . . I work a great deal, but working is more agreeable to
    me than anything
    else I can imagine. .

  7. Lily

    John, I’m sorry I misunderstood you. I didn’t think I was disparaging Deep Ellum or the people there, but acknowledging the reality. I very much enjoy music and interesting people. Yet, I find there are some places and lifestyles that I have no business being involved with. I am glad to hear you are enjoying your work and still working on your book. Life sounds good and I am happy for you. 😉

  8. I’m getting passive/aggressive emotions- Darryl wouldn’t do that!!

    • It was so off topic I thought it was sent in error. Try it again.

      • It was somewhat on topic- I like to think of it as the “Deep Ellam” of the WASP without the colorful and “smooth” personalities of the black man as Robert Pirsig used to say.

        David Foster Wallace was a major literary figure who died at a much too early age in 2008. His book, THE PALE KING, was reviewed by David Zahl of Mockingbird Ministries in the Sept/Oct. issue of Modern Reformation magazine. Here is the quote again which I think had theological repercussions about it, at least that is how I interpreted it. It also revealed how white culture is so diametrically opposite of black culture:

        > Here is four packed sentences for you: from BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS
        > MEN by David Foster Wallace; A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial
        > Life-
        > “When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She
        > laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone,
        > staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
        > The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he
        > acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all
        > times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.”

      • The way I interpreted it was that he said one three times and I think that means he was referring to a Trinity which postindustrial society has discarded. The result is confusion in relationships and the conforming desire to be liked takes precedence over all else in relationships. This sets up the tension to want to be liked and like even when you don’t like and don’t want to like. Dig it? RC Sproul use to say that- along with fig newtons of your imagination. Of course, I could be wrong.

  9. Would I be considered for church discipline if I went off topic?

  10. without the colorful and “smooth” personalities of the black man, as Robert Pirsig used to say.

    Actually Robert Pirsig said it in a cooler way than I did but I can’t remember exactly what he said- you get the gist. Your a cool guy MM and you even make movies- I bet you know who Robert Pirsig is. Do you remember what he said in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

  11. Or, maybe it was in Lila?


    While searching the web for the quote about black culture by Pirsig I came across this web page with great travel books in American Literature- I thought you might be interested MM.

  13. Now I get it JY – the seat next to Hunter S. Thompson is empty because YOU had to take the picture! Can I call you Gonzo John?

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