powerful torrent of “justice blues,” as deep and wide as the
Mississippi itself, flows in an unbroken stream from the
Depression-era blues of Bessie Smith and Skip James all the way to
the 21st century blues of Otis Taylor and Robert Cray.
ground was my bed last night, rocks was my pillow too
ground was my bed last night, rocks was my pillow too
I woke up
this morning, I’m wondering What in the world am I gonna do?
Hopkins, “Mojo Hand”
been immersed in one of the strongest currents of the blues — blues for
the downtrodden and destitute, blues for the oppressed and dispossessed,
blues for the broken-hearted and the just plain broke. A current of
music so powerful that it’s like being swept away on the flood waters of
the Mississippi River.
torrent of “justice blues,” as deep and wide as the Mississippi itself,
flows in a long and unbroken stream from the Depression-era blues of
Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Skip James all the way to the
21st century blues of Otis Taylor, Robert Cray and Charlie Musselwhite.
searched for songs of social justice in the history of the blues, I’ve
found anthems for the poor and homeless in every year and every decade
since blues artists were first recorded in the 1920s.
great blues musicians have spoken out against injustice and inequality
that it always surprises me to read the books of scholars and critics
who write that the blues have little to do with social justice, or who
ignore this crucial issue entirely. Many historical accounts even avoid
examining the way that the blues were created by a people scarred by
slavery, suffering under segregation and subjected to a system of
involuntary servitude in the South.
through the nearly one hundred years of its recorded history, blues
musicians have been striking the chords of compassion and crying out for
justice. This may not be the major channel of the blues, but it is,
nonetheless, a deep and inspiring current that has always helped
hard-hit people get through tough times.
Smith recorded her powerful “Homeless Blues” in 1927, two years before
the Great Depression, she became the first in an unbroken line of blues
artists to hear the cry of the poor. In recent years, I’ve heard echoes
of Bessie’s blues in the haunting homeless blues of Charlie Musselwhite
and Robert Cray, and in the stinging social conscience of Otis Taylor.
It is vital
to understand why Otis Taylor’s modern blues, “Plastic Spoons,” a
heartbreaking picture of hunger and poverty in 2014, echoes so strongly
the “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” of Skip James during the Great
The River of Song
hundred years, musicians have constantly sung the blues about the
suffering caused by hunger and homelessness, and have written compelling
songs to awaken the nation to the cry of the poor.
flow as ceaselessly as a river that runs all the way from the blues
created in sharecroppers’ shacks in the Mississippi Delta of the 1930s
to the homeless encampments of today.
Land Where the Blues Began, folklorist Alan Lomax’s account of his
journeys through the segregated South to discover and record blues
musicians for the Library of Congress, he explains why the inequality of
that long-ago era echoes the economic injustice of the present in such a
“Homeless and desperate people in America and all over the world live in
the shadow of undreamed-of productivity and luxury. So it was in the
Mississippi Delta in the early part of this century. Boom times in
cotton gave a handful of planters easy riches, while the black majority
who produced the cotton lived in sordid shanties or roamed from job to
The blues were born on the fields of brutality. Lomax wrote, “The
rebellious were kept in their place by gun and lynch laws, ruthlessly
administered by the propertied.”
“I’m Done Crying”
Robert Cray, a gifted blues guitarist with the deeply emotional
vocal style of a soul singer, opened a concert for B.B. King in
2012, I was absolutely blown away by his newly written song,
“I’m Done Crying,” a deeply felt and up-to-the-minute blues
about the homelessness triggered by the interlocking disasters
of unemployment and home foreclosures.
Done Crying” is from Cray’s 2012 release, “Nothin’ But Love.” In
the CD liner notes, Cray explains, “I was writing about the
recession, about people in America who are losing their homes,
and the banks foreclosing on mortgages.”
Done Crying” is a masterful piece of storytelling about a man
who loses his job when the company relocates overseas. He then
loses his house while unemployed — but refuses to lose his
used to have a job, but they shut it down.
the blame on the union (like they always do)
now it’s in some foreign town.”
Oakland, countless well-paying, union jobs were lost due to
plant closures. The runaway corporations got rich, the workers
got shafted, and the unions got blamed. Many of those workers
ended up in homeless shelters.
Robert Cray, a gifted blues
guitarist with the vocal style of a soul singer, brought the
audience to its feet when he sang about a man who lost his home
in a foreclosure.
of Cray’s song happened in real life on the streets of Oakland. Now,
with the nationwide foreclosure epidemic, it is happening all over
took the house when I lost my job.
out in the street (yes they did).”
beyond simply telling the outer truths about eviction and dislocation,
and described the inner emotional truths of what it feels like to not
only have your job and home stripped away, but to have your very
for mercy, called out in pain,
seems to hear me. It’s like I don’t have a name.”
It is that
verse that struck home so profoundly. No matter how many times people
may read the statistics about others losing their homes or jobs, it is
always a shock when it happens to them. Then they find out that nearly
no one cares, and that their lives no longer seem to matter.
like I don’t have a name.”
line captures this loss of soul in an unforgettable way. Cray ends the
song by vowing that he is done crying and has no more tears. He sings
out soulfully, defiantly: “You won’t take away my dignity ‘cause I am
still a man.”
he sang that line, everyone in the packed audience that night stood on
their feet, cheering in triumph. It felt as if that one lyric had beaten
down all the bankers and home mortgage companies, all the heartless
landlords and the whole urban tragedy of homelessness.
swear that every single person in the audience felt at that moment that
Robert Cray was singing for all of us, and telling our story. In a voice
full of anguish, he showed us how the whole burden of plant closures and
foreclosures had fallen on the shoulders of one lone man — a man who
still keeps alive his fighting spirit and his dignity.
As the song
ended, there was an awed hush, followed by an outburst of applause and
cheering that went on and on and on.
the blues cried out in pain for all those who had lost their jobs and
homes. The song was much more than a political treatise. It was the
wounded heart of humanity crying out in the night.
and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan were largely responsible for the rebirth
in popularity of the blues in the 1980s and ‘90s. Cray is a five-time
Grammy winner who plays beautifully melodic electric guitar, stinging
yet smooth, and sings in a soulful voice that blues critic Bill Dahl
says “recalls ‘60s great O.V. Wright.” (That works for me, because O.V.
Wright is one of my favorite soul singers of all time, along with Aretha
Franklin, Otis Redding, Etta James and the incomparable James Carr.)
Blues for the Homeless
Charlie Musselwhite is a mesmerizing master of the blues
harmonica who was born in Mississippi, and grew up in Memphis
where he played with blues legends Furry Lewis, Big Joe Williams
and Gus Cannon, before moving on to Chicago and playing with
many of the all-time masters of the blues harp, including Little
Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Walter Horton.
Musselwhite’s first album, “Stand Back,” was released in 1967,
and he has been one of the most acclaimed blues musicians ever
since. Last year, I stood right next to the stage as he blasted
out his blues harp in a small club in northern California. It
was a thing of beauty to hear his command of that amplified
harmonica and his mellow, Memphis-accented vocals.
Musselwhite’s “Sanctuary” CD, he became a voice of sorrow and
compassion for a generation of lost and abandoned children.
“Homeless Child” is a solemn and soulful blues written by Ben
Harper (who accompanies Musselwhite on guitar).
Musselwhite sings in a slow, melancholy voice, somehow you
become aware of the unseen multitudes in the background of the
song — and in the background of our cities — silently appealing
for help that never arrives.
Charlie Musselwhite’s blues
harmonica cries so movingly that you understand why Delta blues
legend Big Joe Williams called Musselwhite one of the finest
harp players of all time. Photo credit: Mikesfox
here to call my home, no one near to call my own
that’s left is for me to roam. Somebody please, help me hang on.”
that cut like a knife, Musselwhite lets you know that in modern America,
homelessness is a matter of life and death, and the life of a child on
the street could end tomorrow.
will pass and some will stay. Is this the end or just one more day?
child, homeless child, what is left for the homeless child.”
The Black Water Blues
“Delta Hardware” CD, recorded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,
Musselwhite sings the ominous “Black Water” about the deadly flood
waters that inundated New Orleans. His voice is full of menace and
gloom, like a prophet warning of a nation’s terrible downfall, yet it
also is full of tender concern for the plight of Katrina’s victims.
water, our world is filled with tears.”
Musselwhite’s song about the black floodwaters has deep roots in the
blues that stretch all the way back to Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues,”
a song she wrote in 1927 about the floods that reduced so many to
homelessness. Bessie sang the “Backwater Blues” for the same reasons
that Charlie sings the “Black Water” blues. She sang about the thousands
who lost their homes and had nowhere on earth left to go:
thunders and lightnin’ and when the wind begins to blow
thousands of people ain’t got no place to go.”
forward 80 years from Bessie’s blues, and Charlie Musselwhite sings that
the black waters of Katrina’s floodtides are a “sign of our times.”
After he sings that line, his mournful harmonica solo cries so movingly
and rings through so many musical changes in the span of a minute that
you understand why Delta blues legend Big Joe Williams called him one of
the finest harp players of all time.
Katrina was a disaster for everyone in its path, but like many natural
calamities, it struck with far more destructive impact on poor and black
people in New Orleans, who didn’t have the resources to flee the city,
and who remained destitute and neglected for years afterwards. Echoing
Bessie Smith’s song 80 years earlier, Musselwhite’s song is a
lamentation for the ones who had the least, yet were hit the hardest.
people paying, and rich folks fleeing.
water, it’s a sign of our times.”
the wreckage caused by Katrina is “just a shadow of what’s to come,” he
sings out a doomstruck foreboding that more black waters will flood the
land — more calamities to come, more homelessness, more desperation. He
sings the unnerving final warning like a prophet of old:
water lapping at your door. Hello America, better get ready for more.
trouble all around here, we’re too tired to shed a tear.”
The Invisible Ones
One of the
most remarkable songs on Musselwhite’s “Delta Hardware” record is
“Invisible Ones,” a half-sung, half-spoken anthem for the homeless.
I love that
the song is not just an appeal for help, but is a cry for justice that
breaks the vow of silence imposed by a society that chooses to remain in
denial about the millions of poor and desperate people in our midst.
Musselwhite gives “the invisible ones” a voice of their own to accuse
the nation that has refused to even see their hungry children.
They may be
called the invisible ones, he sings, yet they “have been here all along,
right next door.” Homeless people are in every city and every state of
the nation, and they become invisible only because they are shunned.
Musselwhite sings, “You pass me right on the street, you just look away
and down at your feet.”
has banished these invisible ones from view and refused to hear their
cries — even when they are handed over to hunger, homelessness, and
ultimately, to death.
don’t see us, you don’t even try.
children are hungry, you don’t hear them cry.
are the invisible ones. The invisible ones, that you left die.”
are not delivered as they might be by some liberal, middle-class poet
writing about poverty in the abstract, but rather as poor people
themselves would sing them, in words that bite and confront and accuse,
impolite words that break the silence and voice their anger and despair
that their children are abandoned to suffer.
sings knowingly about what nearly everyone who works with poor and
homeless people has seen over and over again: the generosity and sharing
that goes on in this community. I’ve personally witnessed far more
sharing among people who are poor than among the affluent. His song
knows all about this unexpected culture of sharing.
declares that he is of “the working poor” and goes on to tell us what
have a nickel, and I have a dime, if you are in need, I’d give you
If there is
sharing in the friendship circles of the poor, there is cold
indifference everywhere else.
question arises: Why shouldn’t we ignore the disturbing sight of so many
needy people? Why should we be our brother’s keeper?
offers a stunning reminder: “On your front gate, you hung a sign.” At
the front gate of America in New York harbor, we hung that sign on the
Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses
yearning to breathe free.” The sign, by poet Emma Lazarus, adds: “Send
these the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.”
Yet now, as
Musselwhite sings, our nation refuses to provide a haven for the
homeless, tempest-tossed ones.
don’t see us, you don’t even try
invisible ones who are left outside.”
Taylor may be the most politically outspoken voice in the
history of the blues. A 21st century blues artist with deep
roots stretching all the way back to the country blues of the
Mississippi Delta, Taylor is an imaginative
multi-instrumentalist who sings and plays guitar like the primal
blues masters of old, but also creates strikingly original
rhythms on the banjo, electric mandolin and harmonica.
the creator of “trance blues,” Taylor is an innovator who
remains rooted in the deep blues even as he also draws on folk
and mountain music.
The All Music Guide to the Blues, Steve Leggett captures
Taylor’s distinctive artistry by calling him a “righteous,
fire-breathing hybrid” of reggae musician Peter Tosh and Detroit
bluesman John Lee Hooker.
Legget wrote: “Otis Taylor’s unconventional approach to the
blues has made him one of the freshest and most innovative
musicians to hit the genre in decades. His driving, modal
arrangements and defiant, politicized subject matter make most
other contemporary blues artists seem like watered-down popsters.”
his amazing record, “Double V,” Taylor sings about poverty and
homelessness at a level of truth so intense that it sears the
soul. In “Plastic Spoons,” it hurts to look so closely into the
eyes of a man and his wife weighed down by the double burden of
old age and desperate hunger.
Otis Taylor is a uniquely
talented artist who sings the blues about homelessness, hunger,
slavery, lynchings, Native Americans, civil rights — and love.
In the liner
notes, Taylor explains this song: “An elderly couple can’t afford
prescription medicines unless they resort to eating dog food.”
might feel the song is just too emotional, on the verge of becoming
melodramatic. Yet, nothing in this song is sensationalized. Rather, it
is one of those rare songs that refuses to turn away from honestly
looking at the epidemic of hunger and misery among poor seniors in
Ellen Danchik, works with low-income and homeless seniors at St. Mary’s
Center in Oakland, a city with the highest concentration of impoverished
elders in California, and she values Otis Taylor’s unflinching honesty
in describing this desperate scene of heartache and deprivation.
way they cry every night, when he watches his wife,
about dinnertime, eating dog food on a plastic spoon.
make the bills. Can’t make the bills anymore.”
instrumentation of “Plastic Spoons” is nearly unique in the annals of
the blues. Otis Taylor sings and plays electric mandolin, his daughter
Cassie Taylor plays bass, and Shaun Diaz and Lara Turner play cellos.
Cellos and mandolin on a blues record!
The Reindeer Blues
Meat” is a song equally as stark as “Plastic Spoons,” and it, too,
examines the desperate food choices that confront hungry and homeless
In his liner
notes, Taylor writes: “At Christmastime, a homeless girl is certain she
would never eat reindeer meat.”
The song has
some of the expected holiday imagery: “If you see Santa Claus walking
down the street, won’t you put a penny in the can.”
But it soon
becomes clear that a homeless daughter has overheard her mother saying
they won’t even have food this Christmas. The daughter vows that,
despite her family’s lack of food, she still won’t violate the spirit of
told me we ain’t got no food. But I ain’t gonna eat no meat.
going to eat no reindeer meat, especially on Christmas day.”
The Blues and the Slave
began with the most massive and oppressive system of displacement and
homelessness in American history — the slave trade. An estimated four
million human beings were held in bondage by slaveowners at the time of
the Civil War.
Rough Guide to the Blues, Nigel Williamson wrote, “No account of the
evolution of the blues could be complete without an overview of how
millions of people were uprooted and displaced from their African homes
and forcibly resettled in the Americas, and of the life of misery and
hardship that awaited them there.”
plantation system in the Mississippi Delta “created one of the harshest
systems of slavery the world has ever seen — an unrelentingly punishing
environment that gave birth to the blues,” Williamson added.
song, “Why I Sing the Blues,” examines the deepest historical roots of
first got the blues, they brought me over on a ship.
standing over me and a lot more with a whip.
everybody wanna know why I sing the blues.”
“Respect the Dead” album, Otis Taylor sings “Ten Million Slaves” in a
voice nearly as broodingly intense as John Lee Hooker’s. The song
describes the ordeal of millions of African people — his ancestors — who
were put in chains and taken across the ocean on the Middle Passage to a
land they had never seen.
million slaves crossed that ocean, they had shackles on the legs.
bad, food looks rancid, but they ate it, anyway.
know where, where they’re going. Don’t know where, where they’ve been.”
blues scholar Paul Oliver’s account of the origins of the blues in his
book, Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues, begins with
a harrowing description of the slave system. “Over a period of three
centuries men and women in the millions were torn from their African
homeland, chained, shipped, sold, branded, and forced into a life of
toil that only ceased when death froze their limbs. Their children
worked in the fields from the day when they could lift a hoe to the day
when they dropped between the shafts of the plow.”
enslaved workers cleared the forests and swamps of the South, and then
planted the vast acres of tobacco and cotton that enabled plantation
owners to accumulate their enormous wealth.
human beings were sold in slave markets where children were cruelly
separated from their parents, and husbands were stripped away from their
wives, never to see one another again.
wrote that the enslaved laborers were “held in perpetual, unrelenting
bondage on whom the South relied. On the results of their sweat and toil
depended its economy.”
Tall White Mansions and
once was subjected to an enormous amount of criticism for singing that
same undeniable truth about the slave system in his song “Southern Man.”
I can’t for the life of me understand how he could have written a more
accurate description of what was really at stake.
historical and economic analysis, Young’s words are factually true and
morally correct, laying bare the whole basis of the plantation economy
in a few concise lines sung with unbelievable fire and passion.
cotton and I saw blacks, tall white mansions and little shacks.
man, when will you pay them back?
screaming and bullwhips cracking. How long? How long?”
Young has it
exactly right. The African people who were kidnapped from their homeland
and forced to live in “little shacks” created the wealth of those living
in the “tall white mansions” described in “Southern Man.” They were
forced to labor from first light to the fall of night by brutal
overseers with whips in hand.
Will We Be Paid,” their 1969 movement anthem, the Staple Singers asked
the same question that Neil Young asked: “When will you pay them back?”
Mavis Staples asked that question and sang out the truth:
worked this country from shore to shore
cooked all your food and washed all your clothes
cotton and laid the railroad steel
our hands down to the bone at your lumber mill.
we be paid for the work we’ve done?”
U.S. government officially apologized and made reparations for
imprisoning Japanese-American citizens in internment camps during World
War II, the Staple Singers remind us that the government has never made
amends, or paid reparations, for the horrifying crime of slavery.
involuntary servitude didn’t end after the Civil War and the
Emancipation Proclamation, but continued without let-up for another 100
years, until Rosa Parks’ act of defiance sparked the Montgomery bus
boycott, and that, in turn, helped to spark a rebellion that grew into
the Freedom Movement.
slavery was outlawed in the United States, the sharecropping system
began, and a new form of exploitation and economic servitude began.
began as a song in the hearts of workers and prisoners laboring on the
plantations and prison grounds of Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and
Mississippi. The blues is the beautiful art form created by a people
that refused to let their voices be erased.
Blues, one of the finest books about the emergence of the blues in
the Mississippi Delta, Robert Palmer wrote that after the Civil War
ended slavery, the sharecropping system “rapidly developed into a kind
of modern-day feudalism.”
the system was fair enough, but in practice it was heavily weighted
against the blacks,” Palmer wrote. “At the end of a bad year, and most
years seemed bad to some degree, the blacks wound up in debt.” Their
debts were carried over into the next year and were used to keep the
sharecroppers in perpetual servitude to the plantations.
that stayed on the same plantation year after year found that they sank
deeper into debt regardless of how hard they worked,” Palmer explained.
plantation system cleverly rigged the year-end economic calculations of
the worth of a sharecropper’s cotton harvest in order to enrich
plantation owners at the expense of poor tenant farmers. No sharecropper
dared question this iniquitous system too critically because the
landowners could immediately call on their armed overseers, and could
also call on the entire apparatus of local law enforcement to repress
At the same
time, Southern officials enacted a comprehensive set of Jim Crow laws
that imposed a system of white supremacy, enforced by cradle-to-grave
racial discrimination and secretly strengthened by extrajudicial
executions and other acts of terrorism carried out against the black
populace by the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs.
“The laws ostracized blacks and made them second-class citizens,” wrote
Nigel Williamson. “Formal sanctions blocked access to decent housing,
jobs, schools, hospitals and public transportation, and ensured that
African-Americans were kept unskilled, uneducated and living in poverty.
Even in death, segregation continued: many morgues and cemeteries were
Voice of the Voiceless
It is truly
amazing that one of the most important and influential art forms in
America — the strikingly original blues music that has spread around the
globe and deeply influenced rock-and-roll, soul music, jazz and country
music — was created by the poorest and most oppressed black people
living in one of the nation’s most impoverished regions.
writes in Deep Blues, “It’s the story of a small and deprived
group of people who created, against tremendous odds, something that has
enriched us all.” The blues were created by “the poorest, most marginal
black people,” Palmer added. “They owned almost nothing and lived in
If ever a
form of music has given a voice to the voiceless, it is the blues. This
music that was first sung by an oppressed people locked away in rural
isolation and held down in abject poverty — this music gave them a voice
that spread across the nation, then carried across the oceans to reach
the farthest corners of the world.
It is so
important today, when so many in our nation are once again trapped in
poverty — hungry, homeless and abandoned to live and die on the streets
— that these voices are resurrected and heard once again as they sing
about their hopes and dreams, their fears and nightmares, their quest
for love and for social justice.
on “The House of Blues Radio Hour,” Ray Charles described how the blues
are born in an oppressed and mistreated people.
said, “I think that the blues came from people having trouble. I think
the blues came from people being mistreated. I think the blues came from
people having bad relations with their loved ones, or being mistreated
or depressed or oppressed. The blues is a way of expressing how you feel
inside; you can sing about it and you’re getting it out of your system.”
rights movement also grew out of people “expressing how they feel
inside” about being mistreated or oppressed. That is why the blues and
the civil rights movement have always seemed linked in my mind, linked
by the history of segregation, racism and poverty that gave rise to both
of these movements.
Just as I
feel that the civil rights movement is the single most inspiring example
of nonviolent resistance ever to arise in America, I feel that the blues
and gospel music that grew out of the experience of black people in
America are the most inspiring and influential forms of music.
It is a
paradox of the human spirit that the all-time blues classics of Charley
Patton, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters took root and flourished in the
hard soil of the southern plantation system, while Son House, Bukka
White and Robert Pete Williams created some of their most memorable
blues after serving hard time in some of the most infamous prisons in
Laughing to keep from
Sometimes, the blues can be a way of laughing in the face of
disaster - “laughing just to keep from crying,” as classic blues
singer Virginia Liston described it in her “You Don’t Know My
Mind Blues” in the 1920s.
Louisiana Red exemplifies this strain of the blues. A gifted
singer and guitarist, and an imaginative and iconoclastic
songwriter, Louisiana Red (born Iverson Minter) has written some
of the blues most outspoken political lyrics. He has also
written some of the genre’s most darkly despairing songs and,
strangely enough, some of the most hilarious.
Death and poverty may be the least likely sources of laughter in
the world. Yet the blues can transform even these mortal enemies
of humankind and leave us “laughing just to keep from crying.”
In “Too Poor to Die,” Louisiana Red works his verbal magic on
our worst fears.
Louisiana Red is an imaginative
songwriter who has written some of the blues most darkly
despairing songs, but also some of the most hilarious. Photo
credit: Till Niermann
night I had a dream. I dreamed I died.
undertaker came to carry me for the ride.
couldn’t afford a coffin. Embalming’s kinda high
off my death bed ‘cause I’m too poor to die.”
enough, Louisiana Red, seemingly an ever-lasting fountainhead of
creative guitar work and socially conscious lyrics, died in 2012 when a
thyroid imbalance caused him to fall into a coma.
It is almost
impossible to fathom this bluesman’s contradictions. His life began in
tragedy. He grew up in an orphanage after his mother died of pneumonia
just after he was born, and his father was the victim of a lynching by
the Ku Klux Klan.
So we can
readily understand that Louisiana Red would be moved to write intense,
autobiographical lyrics about growing up in an orphanage, or a searing
description of watching as his much-loved wife died of cancer in 1972.
And we might also expect Red to sing profoundly felt songs about the
many injustices he sees in the world around him.
even be able to understand his performance of “Dead Stray Dog,” one of
the most unnerving song titles ever. Kent Cooper explained that he
composed the song for Louisiana Red because the plight of a dead and
abandoned dog was a stark reminder of the lonely deaths of homeless
people and wandering, nomadic blues singers on the road. The death of
the stray dog, Cooper wrote, “was not unlike hundreds of drifters and
blues singers who followed their inclinations and wound up in lonely,
unmarked graves.” Louisiana Red performed the song with deep feeling. As
Cooper wrote in the liner notes: “There are a lot of ways to die on a
road. A person cannot help but reflect on their own lives on seeing an
abandoned death, where you are going and how you’ll end. Red caught that
feeling in his singing.”
expectations are more than met by Louisiana Red’s intensely felt and
highly political body of work. In fact, he surpasses our political hopes
with songs such as “Reagan Is for the Rich Man” and “Antinuclear Blues.”
Robert Sacre captures perfectly this side of Louisiana Red’s music,
writing in Music Hound Blues: “He is a specialist of introverted,
intense performance, living his sad stories again and crying in true
despair over emotionally charged guitar licks, well served by his great
So that side
of Red we can understand. But how are we to comprehend that someone born
in the midst of such tragedy also has created some of the most
hilarious, astonishing and surrealistic blues lyrics of all time?
In an early
song, “Red’s Dream,” he casts himself as the nation’s savior, traveling
to the United Nations to straighten out the Cuban missile crisis. When a
grateful U.S. president asks Louisiana Red to come to Washington, the
bluesman tells the president that he can continue to run the country,
but Red will run the Senate! And who will he appoint to the Senate to
straighten out the nation? Blues artists!
make a few changes with a few soul brothers in it.
Charles and Lightnin’ Hopkins and a guy like Jimmy Reed.
Diddley and Big Maybelle be all I need!”
in this fickle world, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Maybelle were never
appointed to the Senate, and Louisiana Red left America and lived in
Germany until his death in 2012. He became another member of the small
community of expatriate bluesmen who relocated to Europe and found a
better home for their brilliant blues overseas.
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,”
Part 2 of “The Blues and Social Justice” by
Earlyblues Interview with Louisiana Red
thanks to Terry Messman for granting permission to publish this article.
- Alan White,
If you would like to send any comments about the
article, please email me at
Article © Copyright 2014 Terry Messman. All rights reserved.
Photographs individually credited or © Copyright 2014 Terry Messman. All