White, Yellow, Brown & Black Blues

One person might call The Blues gritty. Another might call them “real.” Like a chapter out of Ecclesiastes, they frankly tell us what life is like under the sun, and it’s not always pretty. For example, it would be fair to say there’s a good deal of misogyny in The Blues when you consider Robert Johnson who is “gonna beat my woman until I’m satisfied,” which are mild lyrics compared to the use of pistols and razor blades in other blues songs. But such lyrics capture a mindset of a population at a certain point in time; I like to think we can observe such things and possibly learn from them.

But this isn’t a post about misogyny, it’s about racial themes in The Blues. It’s first of all about how African-American blues artists – you’ll see why I don’t call them “black” – describe whites and even how they make distinctions within their own race.

We’ll start with cringe-worthy exchange between musicologist John Lomax and a physically broken down Blind Willie McTell. It seems that Lomax searched for and found Willie in an Atlanta hotel room and just let the tape recorder run while Willie sang and they talked. Lomax, clearly looking for an angle, presses McTell to sing a “complaining song,” – you know, a song about how whites have mistreated blacks. Understand that Willie is a blind man in Atlanta in 1940 and you’ll understand why Willie would fend off this question and reply only that he’s been treated well by whites.

On the other hand there’s Josh White, who sang a number of songs on race, including the following lyrics:

Got my long government letter, my time to go,
When I got to the Army found the same old Jim Crow.
Uncle Sam says, “Two camps for black and white,”
But when trouble starts, we’ll all be in that same big fight.

If you ask me, I think democracy is fine,
I mean democracy without the color line.
Uncle Sam says, “We’ll live the American way,”
Let’s get together and kill Jim Crow today. [Uncle Sam Blues]

While we can’t blame White for writing these lyrics or choosing this theme, his music comes off as a bit preachy for these ears. Let preaching be preachy, but preachy art, whether fine art, movies, or music, makes us wince. Too often in such endeavors the nuances of the art form are lost (see “Christian” art of various types) and the pleasure of the art form is lost somewhere along the way.

More successful is Lead Belly’s The Bourgeois Blues:

Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow
Lord, it’s a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

I tell all the colored folks to listen to me
Don’t try to find you no home in Washington, DC
‘Cause it’s a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Maybe you can’t tell from the lyrics, but The Bourgeois Blues makes its earnest point in a way that simply “works.” If you like Lead Belly’s blues, you’ll like the song, because he pulls off the tricky business of making a serious ethical point in a song without overwhelming and pigeon-holing the song itself.

Then there’s the matter of blues artists making distinctions among African Americans themselves. Charly Patton sings of how “a brown-skinned woman’s like something fit to eat / but a jet black woman don’t put your hands on me.” Willie McTell disagrees: “I’ve got three women /That’s yellow, brown, and black/ [It’ll] take the governor of Georgia to tell which one I like.” In another song Willie sings:

My mama she told me when I was a boy playing mumblepeg
Don’t drink no black cow’s milk don’t you eat no black hen’s eggs

Black man give you a dollar, Mama, he won’t think it nothing strange
A yellow man’ll give you a dollar but he’ll want back ninety‑five cents change. [Talking to Myself]

I don’t claim to speak with authority on this point, but I’ve been told by African Americans that this distinction between light skinned (yellow), brown and black is a distinction that exists today within their community, sometimes with an attitude that would fit the classification of “racist.”

Race matters are complicated, and I’m not going to sort out their difficulties in a blog post. But The Blues – a genre that is franker than most – not only gives us an emotional release from the troubles of this world, but also something to think about as we ponder the human condition.


Filed under Blues

7 responses to “White, Yellow, Brown & Black Blues

  1. The “grasshopper” is astounded by your wisdom.

    • JY, your comments sure keep me off balance. Thanks, I think.

      • I highly doubt if I keep you “off balance” MM. That really is true about the different shades of “African-American.” I have heard it and seen it with my own ears and eyes. It was a real empirical experience. It almost turned “gritty” too.

      • One of the things that makes race difficult is that, in much of our lives, we observe particulars then generalize about groups. It brings greater predictability to our lives. Some generalizations of that sort can actually be helpful in getting along with those who are different. But then other generalizations become grossly unfair to individuals and lead to injustice. It’s a tightrope to recognize broad-brush similarities without ending up in what is called racism, sexism, etc. And, of course, the whole area is made more hazardous by those in the business of drummimg up conflict to serve political ends.

  2. Be more specific and give some examples. You have got my interest now. Go back to the generalization of the 3 shades of black. Why do you think there is racism within the 3 shades of the African-American community?

  3. Actually, I was just trying to see if I would get the Calvinist ignore tactic. It was a stupid remark on purpose. I make it a point these days to stay out of potentially violent, racially inflamed environments. Not a comfortable place to be. Very complex social dynamics that go on in some racially mixed social situations- you do have to walk a very narrow tightrope. My kids generation seem to have had more experience in mixed social situations and the tightrope seems to have gotten quite a bit thicker. At least that would be my observation.

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