In “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues,” Skip James sings for the
multitudes forced out of their homes and jobs — locked out of heaven
itself and trapped on the killing floor of poverty.
pre-eminent voice of the Depression era may have belonged to
Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, as she sang, “Nobody
Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Winning acclaim as the
first major blues vocalist, she recorded songs that cried
out against the injustice of poverty (“Poor Man’s Blues”),
homelessness (“Homeless Blues”), the loss of poor people’s
housing in Mississippi floodwaters (“Backwater Blues”), and
the prison system (“Jail-House Blues”).
In 1929, when the nation began plummeting into the Great
Depression, Bessie Smith recorded one of her most well-loved
songs, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” written
by Jimmy Cox.
In his second inaugural address, President Franklin D.
Roosevelt said, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed,
ill-clad, ill-nourished.” The millions of people who were
ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished could feel in their
bones the truth of what Bessie Smith roared out:
“Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.
In my pocket, not one penny
And as for friends, well I don’t have any.”
Portrait of Bessie Smith, the
“Empress of the Blues,” by Carl Van Vechten
something haunting today in listening to this long-gone blues singer
performing a song about the poverty and misery that affected
millions of people early in the last century — and then realizing
with a start that the song is just as timely and meaningful in 2014
as it was in 1929.
Smith’s powerful voice enthralled a generation, and her beautifully
expressive singing earned her the title “Empress of the Blues.” Her
enduring music was vastly influential to latter-day singers,
including Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Dinah Washington, Janis
Joplin, Big Maybelle and Koko Taylor. Janis Joplin said of Bessie
Smith, “She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it.”
though there is supposed to be an unbridgeable division between
gospel music and the blues, Mahalia Jackson, the most legendary
gospel vocalist of all, listened intently to Bessie Smith.
Jackson said, “Bessie was my favorite, but I never let people know I
listened to her. Mamie Smith, the other famous blues singer, had a
prettier voice, but Bessie’s had more soul in it. She dug right down
and kept it in you. Her music haunted you even when she stopped
added that even though she didn’t sing the blues herself, people
have to understand what the blues meant to African Americans in
Bessie Smith’s era. Black people all over the South “kept those
blues playing to give us relief from our burdens and to give us
courage,” Jackson explained.
first blues vocalists that achieved widespread popularity were later
referred to as the “classic blues singers.” Singers such as Ma
Rainey, Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith
became the first generation of blues artists in the early 1920s.
“classic blues singers” were often backed, not by the guitars and
harmonicas of the country blues, but by jazz and vaudeville-based
musicians playing pianos, saxophones, cornets, trombones, trumpets
and tubas. And they often performed on vaudeville stages or in
theaters or tent shows, rather than in the juke joints, street
corners, plantation dances, and country picnics where wandering
country blues artists usually played.
this first era of recorded blues music was a far cry from what would
later become known as the blues, the finest of the classic women
vocalists gave a deeply felt expression of the emotional heart and
soul of the blues.
Smith began singing with the great blues pioneer Ma Rainey beginning
in 1912, and then recorded her first songs in 1923. Smith was often
backed by some of the finest jazz musicians of the era, revolving
ensembles that could include pianists Fletcher Henderson and James
Johnson, Louis Armstrong on cornet, Bennie Goodman on clarinet,
Charlie Green and Jack Teagarden on trombones.
Bessie Smith’s “Homeless Blues”
Bessie Smith recorded “Homeless Blues,” a song written by Porter
Grainger that still has the power to chill us with the
life-threatening finality of homelessness. “Homeless Blues” is a
lamentation about the massive dislocation and loss of life caused
when the Mississippi River would periodically flood, leaving
thousands of people homeless or drowned. These calamities hit people
who were already poor with especially severe impact, just as
Hurricane Katrina did in New Orleans.
song, Smith cries out in sorrow that her mother and father were
drowned in the flood, and her own home was destroyed. It was only a
“plain old two-room shanty,” Bessie sings, “But it was my home sweet
Countless African Americans in the Deep South lived in exactly those
kinds of two-room shanties while doing backbreaking labor as
sharecroppers in an economic system that was rigged to keep them in
bondage. Yet, it is still deeply moving when she speaks of her love
for the only home she has known.
verse is unforgettable, two short, stark lines that express the
singer’s nearly bottomless suffering over the loss of her home and
her parents. The singer equates homelessness with death.
“Homeless, yes, I’m homeless, might as well be dead!
and disgusted, no place to lay my head!”
as those words are, she transforms them into an outcry of defiance,
shouting out her anger at the floodwaters, and the injustice of
homelessness and lost lives. She concludes with a fervent wish that
she could spread her wings and fly away from this land of poverty.
was an eagle, but I’m a plain old black crow,
gonna flap my wings and leave here, and never come back no more!”
a very powerful image of flying away forever and never coming back
to this landscape of loss. In her broken-hearted longing to flee,
she dreams of leaving behind the Mississippi River’s toll of death
and destruction, and escaping the all-too-prevalent hardships of the
symbolism is also at work here. In her book, Who Set You Flowin’:
The African-American Migration Narrative, Farah Jasmine Griffin
offers a revealing insight into the powerful symbolism at work in
the contrast between the eagle and the “plain old black crow.”
black woman, Bessie Smith defines herself as a plain black crow, “in
opposition to another symbol of American freedom, the eagle,”
Griffin writes. “In the guise of the crow, she asserts her intention
to flee the South, the land of injustice. The image of the crow is
packed with cultural significance for Smith’s audience.”
Reconstruction, the phrase “Jim Crow” was used to describe the
segregation laws of the South. Griffin writes, “The notion of Jim
Crow as a lost black soul is especially fitting in the context of
the ‘Homeless Blues.’ The persona as ‘an old black crow’ is at once
conflated with the image of lost Africans on the American landscape,
as well as the image of the South’s system of racial apartheid.”
Poor Man’s Blues
was one of the most popular blues singers of her generation, and it
may seem incongruous, in light of her commercial success, lavish
stage shows and glamorous costumes, that she sang songs that cry out
against homelessness and economic injustice. Yet she knew full well
the conditions of poverty and misery that she described in her song
“Poor Man’s Blues.”
Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith lost both parents at an early
age, and faced, along with two brothers and three sisters, a period
of poverty, hardship and insecurity for many years.
Man’s Blues,” she asks “Mister Rich Man” to open up his heart and
develop a conscience about the plight of the poor.
your heart and mind. Give the poor man a chance.
stop these hard, hard times.”
even more outspoken and class-conscious in describing the vast
economic gap between the rich man’s wife in her mansion, and the
hunger and desperation that women in poor households were facing.
She exposes this economic disparity between rich and poor in very
personal terms, and her song becomes a populist appeal for economic
Smith tells it true:
you living in your mansion, you don’t know what hard time means.
Oh, working man’s wife is starving, your wife is living like a
Blind Lemon’s Blues
transition from the era of Bessie Smith to Blind Lemon Jefferson
marks a major transformation in the very identity of the blues. In
the 1920s, the Texas-based singer, songwriter and guitarist Blind
Lemon Jefferson was the first of the male blues musicians to become
a major star. His ascendance marked the passage from the era of
classic female blues singers to a new era of country blues musicians
who would define the blues for all time to come — those lonely and
legendary figures who stalked the South, singing their haunting and
passionate blues on street corners, juke joints and levee camps.
blues singers would become the outsized figures of myth for
generations to come: Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House,
Sleepy John Estes, Tommy Johnson, Bukka White, Skip James, Blind
Willie Johnson, Furry Lewis, et al. The first major recording
artist, and one of the most influential among this highly select
coterie of country blues artists, was Blind Lemon Jefferson.
marked contrast to the elaborate stage shows of the classic blues
singers traveling with a large entourage of musicians and dressed in
luxurious costumes and glittering jewelry, Blind Lemon Jefferson
began his life as a street singer, traveling on foot through dusty
little Texas towns and then throughout the South, performing on
street corners and at country picnics, house parties and beer
joints, singing his self-written blues songs in a haunting and
high-pitched voice, accompanying himself with a highly complex and
unique guitar style.
he later would become one of the most popular and successful blues
artists of his time, the blind street musician led a rough and
lonely life in his early years, wandering as widely as a hobo,
despite his blindness, and constantly traveling to ever-new street
corners to sing to strangers.
“Lonesome House Blues,” Jefferson evoked the endless footsore
wanderings of an itinerant country bluesman in one brilliant line:
“I got the blues so bad, it hurts my feet to walk.” That one poetic
line captures perfectly the tough road facing countless homeless
Jefferson’s songs reflect this hardscrabble existence and chronicle
the bleak conditions of his own life — and the lives of many of his
listeners in rural areas and little towns in Texas, Louisiana and
Mississippi in the 1920s. In the opening verse of his “One Dime
Blues,” he sings perceptively about this hand-to-mouth existence in
the rural South:
broke and I ain’t got a dime.
Everybody gets in hard luck sometime.”
Dime Blues” was written in 1927 as America was about to enter the
Depression. An entire nation would soon learn the truth of
Jefferson’s lyric: “Everybody gets in hard luck sometime.”
Broke and Hungry Blues
Similarly, Jefferson’s “Broke and Hungry Blues” begins with just
about as downcast a description of the effects of poverty on the
soul as can be imagined. In part, the song is a come-on, since even
the shabbily dressed and down-and-out need love, too. Yet, this
man’s very soul seems worn to shreds.
broke and hungry, ragged and dirty too
I’m broke and hungry, ragged and dirty too
I clean up can I go home with you?”
words more desolate than those are the heartbreaking words that
follow immediately after:
motherless, fatherless, sister and brotherless too.”
Bessie Smith sang with real compassion about the fate of the
countless people left homeless or dead after the massive floods of
the Mississippi, Jefferson sang with empathy about the thousands of
people made homeless by the “Rising High Water Blues.” With real
humanity, he draws an understated yet poignant picture of thousands
of dispossessed people looking disconsolately down on the ruined
homes in their flood-ravaged towns.
since it’s raining, it has been for nights and days
Thousands of people stand on the hill, looking down where they used
Utilizing an almost cinematic perspective, Jefferson then transports
his listeners from their position on a hilltop looking down at the
plight of thousands of people, to a close-up from the point of view
of one family with frightened children crying about being left
“Children stand there screaming: Oh mama, we ain’t got no home.”
ends with the backwater rising and coming in the windows and door of
the singer’s own home. He can only pray for deliverance.
backwater rising, come in my windows and door
with a prayer in my heart, backwater won’t rise no more.”
See That My Grave
Is Kept Clean
Blind Lemon Jefferson’s most famous song is a magnificent
meditation on mortality and death, “See That My Grave Is
Kept Clean,” recorded later by everyone from Bob Dylan to
“Well it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you.
Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you.
See that my grave is kept clean.”
Even while contemplating death, Jefferson is sure to express
an instinctive sympathy for the “poor boy” that he himself
had once been — and that many of his listeners in the little
towns in Texas and the Mississippi Delta still were.
The gravestone of blues
legend Blind Lemon Jefferson is located in Wortham, Texas.
“See that my grave is kept clean.”
you ever heard them church bells tone?
ever heard them church bells tone?
know that the poor boy is dead and gone.”
heartrending final stanza, Lemon’s guitar rings ominously, like a
church bell, every time he asks if we’ve ever heard a church bell
ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for Blind Lemon.
died while still a young man in his mid-30s on December 19, 1929,
during a heavy Chicago snowstorm in highly mysterious circumstances,
reportedly freezing to death or, in other accounts, collapsing of
heart failure and dying alone in the wintry snowfall. He may have
been abandoned in death by his hired driver.
thing is certain. He was abandoned after death, and his own grave
was not kept clean, despite the haunting plea in one of his finest
of his grave being kept clean, Jefferson was buried in an unmarked
grave for nearly 40 years, until 1967, when a state historical
marker was placed in the general area of his burial site in Wortham
Black Cemetery in Texas.
nearly 70 long years after his lonesome death, a new granite
headstone was put up in 1997. Then, in 2007, the entire cemetery’s
name was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery.
headstone are the final words of his elegiac song:
it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you.
my grave is kept clean.”
Hard Time Killing
Nehemiah “Skip” James was one of the most gifted,
imaginative and utterly original voices to emerge from the
state of Mississippi, and his delicately etched and
sensitive art songs resemble very little else in the history
of the blues.
Skip James grew up near Bentonia, Mississippi, and he sang
in a forlorn falsetto voice that, when accompanied by his
eerie-sounding and distinctive guitar tuning, created a
captivating body of work that is full of mystery and
melancholy. Rarely have the blues sounded quite so deeply
blue — so lonely and forsaken.
Syl Carruthers wrote that “Skip James was born on June 21,
1902, in Yazoo, Mississippi, 30 years downwind of
emancipation and 60 years south of Civil Rights.”
A creative and sensitive blues artist, James composed a
masterpiece in 1931 as America fell deeper into the
Depression, a nationwide calamity that was even more
unbearable for black people living in rural Mississippi, who
already faced the worst racial discrimination in one of the
most economically backward states in the nation.
The sensitively etched songs
of Skip James sound full of mystery and melancholy, lonely
and forsaken. Renowned artist R. Crumb created the portrait
of Skip James for this CD compilation by The Shout Factory.
as conditions had been before the Depression, the opening verse of
his “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” makes it clear that the times
are now immeasurably worse than ever before. In that melancholy,
high-pitched voice, ghostly and despondent, James sings the blues
for a nation.
times here and everywhere you go
harder than ever been before.”
James’s father, E.D. James, was a minister and gospel singer. After
a brief period in 1931 when Skip recorded 18 of the most masterful
and enduring recordings in the history of the blues, the son
followed in his father’s footsteps, entered the seminary and became
an ordained Baptist minister, directing a gospel group and traveling
with his father’s ministry on revival tours.
time when James composed “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues,” he was
not yet a minister, yet his awareness of the life-and-death issues
at stake as the nation plunged into the Depression led him to
compose one of the most sensitively observed verses ever written
about the oppressive sense of being locked out of heaven itself.
know that people are drifting from door to door,
find no heaven, I don’t care where they go.”
haunting image echoes down the ages, a timeless lament for the
nameless, faceless multitudes forced out of their homes, reduced to
riding the rails, searching fruitlessly for jobs, driven from door
to door seeking handouts. And locked out of heaven itself.
find no heaven, I don’t care where they go.” The inescapable
hopelessness of being trapped on the killing floor of poverty has
never been more powerfully expressed. Just after singing these
poignant lyrics in that mournful voice, James begins humming
hypnotically in an eerie wordless moan that sounds comforting, like
a consolation to the people caught on the killing floor. Yet those
moans also convey an undertone of soul-deep sadness — a funeral
brings it all back home by making his forecast of hard times a
highly personal warning, speaking directly to his listeners by using
the word “you” for the first time in the song. In a solemn voice,
James cautions that everyone is at imminent personal risk of joining
the faceless, penniless crowds on the breadlines.
say you had money, you better be sure.
these hard times will drive you from door to door.”
Memphis Minnie’s Freezing Cold Blues
Minnie recorded “Outdoor Blues” in 1931 in the midst of the
Depression, but instead of singing about the countless people cast
out into homelessness, she made the song more deeply affecting by
writing and singing in the first person, telling the very personal
story of just one woman abandoned outdoors in the dead of winter.
Born Lizzie Douglas in Louisiana, Memphis Minnie was the most
renowned blueswoman of the 1930s and 1940s. While Bessie Smith and
the classic blues singers were vocalists performing on the
vaudeville stage, Memphis Minnie was a full-blown blues musician
performing in juke joints in the South and later in Chicago clubs.
Minnie was not only a powerful singer, but also a fine blues
guitarist, making her one of the only women in the early history of
the blues to excel both as a singer and a guitarist. Big Bill
Broonzy called her the best woman guitarist he had ever heard, and
wrote that she had bested both him and Tampa Red in a guitar-playing
“Outdoor Blues” is a chilling account of being condemned to live
outside in the dead of winter. Memphis Minnie’s performance is so
sympathetic that it makes you feel this woman’s desperate cold and
her gnawing hunger. Every word in “Outdoor Blues” rings just as true
in the experiences of homeless people today as in her era.
surpassing sweetness of her singing and her lilting guitar combine
to make this song more touching. Her voice is so warm and appealing
— so human-hearted — that it creates real empathy for the anguish of
stark wintry setting, and someone is stranded in the snow.
cold night, I was out in the frost and snow.
have a penny. I couldn’t find no place to go.”
the street, the nearly frozen woman sees a fire, but when she
approaches, it vanishes like a mirage.
I could make it there to warm my hands,
hobos had put it out.”
great skill and sensitivity, Memphis Minnie takes us inside the skin
of the homeless woman. It feels like we are at her side on this
bitterly cold night as she steels her courage to share a fire with
the hobos. She makes us feel her bitter disappointment when the fire
is put out. You can feel the bite of the frost when she sings again
and again: “I was so cold, my feets was near about froze.”
Penniless in the snow, with nowhere to go, she knocks in desperation
on someone’s door. But “they wouldn’t accept my company” because her
ragged clothes make her look like a hobo. The public’s intolerance
for that ragged appearance is the number-one reason today why
business owners try to banish homeless people from public spaces,
and why so many people say they have compassion fatigue.
an “old lady standing in the door” tells her “come in, daughter.” It
may seem like a clichéd literary device, this happy ending, but it
feels so real, like the return of life and hope and warmth in the
middle of a pitiless, snow-covered street in the Depression.
than seeming like some kind of stock ending, it feels so
human-hearted. It feels like Memphis Minnie’s song has offered the
country a humane way to begin alleviating the suffering caused by
lady who calls her “daughter” and welcomes her inside her home has
just written a prescription of compassion for an entire nation.
If that sounds far-fetched or overly sentimental, Dorothy Day
founded her Catholic Worker program by inviting homeless people into
the safe haven of hospitality houses in exactly the same spirit —
and in the same era — as the “old lady” of Memphis Minnie’s song.
Dorothy Day did it for real, true life.
Rambling Blues on a
Many people became homeless wanderers during the 1930s and
‘40s, and there is a pronounced tendency in blues circles to
romanticize those who end up “on the road again,” in the
words of a great Canned Heat song. Riding the endless rails,
walking down the lonely highways, always moving on to the
next horizon — the song almost writes itself.
Yet, Memphis Minnie’s song, “Nothing in Rambling,” recorded
in 1940, is more original in stripping away some of that
mythology and painting a more disturbing picture of life on
the endless road. It makes the lonesome highway look more
like desolation row.
People on the road in the Deep South were often subjected to
police persecution, and arrested on trumped-up vagrancy or
trespassing charges. Many blues musicians and other
penniless wanderers found themselves locked inside county
jails. Memphis Minnie describes it all vividly.
“I was walking through the alley with my hand in my coat.
The police start to shoot me, thought it was something I
Memphis Minnie's song,
“Nothing in Ramblin,” paints a disturbing picture that makes
life on the endless road seem dangerous and desolate.
that experience, she sings that rambling and running around “ain’t
nothing,” and she’d be better off marrying and settling down! It’s
hard to imagine a more iconoclastic break with blues mythology than
that. It’s interesting that in a blues culture that exalts “the
rambling man,” the rambling woman ends up preferring a home and
culminates in a beautifully expressed sympathy for all the other
homeless and hungry wanderers stranded on the roads and highways.
It’s a memorable explanation of why she finds “nothing in rambling,”
and at the very same time, it’s a nightmare vision of the extent of
poverty and starvation in the nation.
peoples on the highway is walking and crying.
starving, some is dying.
it ain’t nothing in rambling, either running around.
Well I believe I’ll get a good man, Oh Lord and settle down.”
The Blues of Sleepy
Sleepy John Estes was a creative songwriter who chronicled
the characters and events in Brownsville, Tennessee, with a
rare degree of detail and local color, and his highly
personal lyrics and plaintive, “crying” blues vocals have
made him a favorite since he began recording in 1929.
His songs, such as “Diving Duck Blues,” “Someday Baby
Blues,” “Drop Down Mama” and “I Ain’t Gonna Be Worried No
More,” are classics, and have been recorded by many
musicians over the years.
Estes lived nearly his entire life in abject poverty in
broken-down houses in rural Tennessee. Blinded in one eye as
a child, he lost his vision in the other eye as an adult and
his blindness magnified the hardships caused by poverty.
Skip James and Memphis Minnie may have written knowingly
about the poverty they witnessed, but the grueling privation
that Estes endured, combined with his melancholy, crying
voice, gave enormous emotional power to his best songs.
In 1962, Sleepy John Estes
made a comeback album during the blues revival of the 1960s.
“The Legend of Sleepy John Estes” was produced by Bob
Koester, president of Delmark Records.
had experienced deprivation inside and out, and in 1935, he wrote a
song, “Down South Blues” that expressed the suffering of an entire
city — Memphis, Tennessee, where Beale Street was a magnet for blues
singers. But in the Depression years, Beale Street had the blues in
more ways than one.
get up every morning and I walk up to 3rd and Beale.
just studying and wondering, Lord, just how to make a meal.
peoples in Memphis, they’re walking the streets up and down
know the times is hard, people is starving all over town.”
the 1930s, thousands of uprooted and unemployed workers rode the
railways, living in hobo jungles and tent encampments. Sleepy John
Estes describes the rough encounters people often had with train
guards in his 1937 song, “Hobo Jungle Blues.”
when I came in on that Mae West, I put down at Chicago Heights,
know over in hobo jungle, that’s where I stayed the night.”
so good, but the wandering traveler always must watch out for the
sometimes violent and sadistic railroad enforcers and keep a very
you hobo through Brownsville, you better not be peeping out.
Whitten will get you and Mr. Guy Hare will wear you out.”
Rats in My Kitchen
Unfortunately, the end of the Depression didn’t mean the end of
poverty for John Estes. He recorded his last song in 1941, and then
spent the next two decades as a sharecropper living in a tumbledown
shack near Brownsville. Blues researchers and fans who revered his
Depression-era recordings had long thought that Estes was dead —
until he was unexpectedly “discovered” in 1961 during the blues
revival of the 1960s.
Unfortunately, the poverty of this brilliant musician had only
worsened over the decades. When blues researchers finally found
Estes, the blind songwriter was living in shocking conditions with
his wife and five children in an abandoned, broken-down,
1963 article for Jazz Journal, Georges Adins described
visiting John Estes in 1962 at his home in Brownsville, Tennessee,
and he called the bluesman’s song of distress, “Rats In my Kitchen,”
“a cry of despair which makes your hair stand on end.”
the greatest and most respected blues songwriters was now living in
abject squalor, singing about his misery in trying to raise his
children while the rats in his kitchen were destroying his family’s
scant supply of food.
them rats is mean in my kitchen, I’ve ordered me a mountain cat.
the way they destroying my groceries,
declare it’s tough like that.”
the song, Estes laments that he has to raise “five dependent
children on my disability check” while the “doggone rats” are
wrecking the household.
came home last night, about half past 10. You know them rats said,
looking for groceries, poor John, you better go and come again.”
John Estes was “rediscovered” in 1961, at the very time when the
nation was “discovering” the dismaying extent of poverty and hunger
in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Many cities in the
South were erupting with a Freedom Movement that was a source of new
hope to many black families subjected to racial discrimination and
Estes and his family were living in deep rural isolation in the
“other America” of poverty and deprivation.
Adins called it a “distressing and unimaginable scene” when he first
witnessed Sleepy John’s family living in the ramshackle, two-room
shack in 1962.
obvious the misery this family are in,” Adins wrote, “and I ask
myself how all this could have happened to Sleepy John Estes. Am I
actually in this immense country known as the United States of
America, where the wealth, the high standard of living, the
inventions, the luxury are praised all the time?”
few months of his rediscovery, Bob Koester, the founder of Delmark
Records in Chicago, recorded his comeback album, “The Legend of
Sleepy John Estes.”
wrote, “Sleepy John Estes sings with a depth of feeling and
emotional thrust that can only be described, as Big Bill Broonzy
did, as ‘crying the blues.’ The sob in his throat is not a clever
stage mannerism. His singing has all the honesty and straightforward
integrity of the simple rural life John has lived.”
to the blues revival, the musical career of Sleepy John Estes was
revived in 1962. Along with his new records, he appeared in two film
documentaries, and began touring and performing at concerts,
coffeehouses and blues festivals.
span of only a couple years, Estes went from being a long-forgotten
(and presumed dead) throwback to an earlier era of the blues, living
in obscurity in a shack in rural Tennessee, and became a world
traveler who performed at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival in
1964, and then toured Europe with the renowned American Folk Blues
Festival. In 1969, he again performed at the Newport Folk Festival
and the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, was honored at a Smithsonian
festival, and later toured Europe and Japan.
Blues in the Snow
the most moving and eloquent songs ever written about homelessness —
and my personal favorite out of all the scores of blues recordings
on the themes of poverty and injustice — is “Homeless Blues,”
recorded in 1947 by Willie “Long Time” Smith. Even though I’ve
played this song countless times, there is something so heartfelt in
its compassion and so profoundly beautiful in its sadness that every
time I hear it, I am moved all over again.
reflect on the subheading I gave Street Spirit back in 1995 —
“Justice News and Homeless Blues” — it is Willie Smith’s elegiac
“Homeless Blues” that is always called to mind.
my love of this song, I know next to nothing about the singer.
Willie “Long Time” Smith was a relatively obscure, postwar blues
pianist and vocalist who performed this song in 1947 and recorded a
handful of other songs in the 1940s and ’50s.
expressive voice captures me with his very first line: “One cold
frosty morning, the ground was still wet with snow.”
opening line is sung in a high-pitched, yearning voice — a beautiful
voice of sorrow in the snow. Smith’s sweetly sorrowful singing is
made even more elegiac by his lovely, melancholy piano and the
bittersweet sympathy of John Gardner’s sax. It is a stunning
Memphis Minnie’s “Outdoor Blues,” the song begins with the stark
image of huge crowds of people stranded in the snow, with no shelter
cold frosty morning, the ground was still wet with snow.
met a million people who didn’t have no place to go.”
paints a vivid picture of entire families with little children
uprooted and cast out into homelessness, carrying only the suitcases
in their hands.
their very lives are jeopardized by exposure to the winter’s
elements, the “people were steady walking” in a despairing search
for shelter, but they “couldn’t find no place to go.”
Suddenly, in the final verse, in a vision so intensely felt that it
seems almost biblical, Smith sees that all the children freezing in
the snow are now standing right outside his own front door. It is a
brilliant image that asks the age-old question: “Am I my brother’s
exactly, is responsible for the homeless children shivering in the
winter? The answer offered in “Homeless Blues” is that these
children are standing shivering right outside our own front door.
Somehow, they have become our responsibility. On some level, they
are our children.
It is a
prophetic vision, and Willie Smith’s voice captures this truth with
a tenderness that is heartbreaking.
“People’s children were shivering, standing around my front door.
they was hungry and almost naked and couldn’t find no place to go.”
timing of Smith’s “Homeless Blues” is significant. It was written in
1947, long after the Great Depression had ended, and after World War
II was over, a time when postwar prosperity meant a new era of
affluence was at hand.
people in mainstream white society were thinking very deeply about
homelessness in the 1940s and 1950s, except for a handful of
prophetic souls like Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic
Worker, and Woody Guthrie, whose “I Ain’t Got No Home,” recorded in
1940, belongs in any discussion of songs about homelessness.
brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
and dusty road that a million feet have trod.
took my home and drove me from my door,
ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”
The Far-Sighted Vision of the Blues
members of society ignored the problems of homelessness and poverty
until they became widespread and deeply entrenched facts of American
life in the early 1980s.
that is, in the black community, where far-seeing and acutely aware
blues singers like Willie “Long Time” Smith, Big Mama Thornton,
Floyd Jones, John Brim and so many others kept trying to warn about
the perils of poverty all through the 1940s and 1950s while most of
our society was sleeping the self-satisfied sleep of affluence.
who only became aware of homelessness in the 1980s may be stunned to
realize that these blues lyrics from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s
often read like up-to-the-minute accounts of today’s economic
disparity between the rich and the poor. The Occupy movement could
have quoted these blues lyrics on their posters and public
statements, because the insights about injustice and inequality are
still so timely and advanced.
a well-known saying about how economic downturns often have a more
destructive impact on the African American community, due to the
higher levels of pre-existing poverty and economic hardships in
normal times: “When white America catches a cold, black America
economic “pneumonia” is exactly what Willie “Long Time” Smith was
sensing so acutely. He sensed the pneumonia that was already
stalking America in its most piercingly cold form, and described it
as the suffering of those homeless children abandoned in the snow.
is not too late to hear Willie Smith’s surpassingly sorrowful voice
singing the homeless blues for homeless children who were quite
literally in danger of catching pneumonia.
still a “cold and frosty morning” in America. There are still “one
million people who didn’t have nowhere to go,” just as Smith sang.
The U.S. Department of Education has just released new figures on
September 22, 2014, showing that a record number of homeless
children are enrolled in the nation’s public schools.
ago, in 1947, Willie “Long Time” Smith reported seeing a million
people with nowhere to go. Sixty-seven years later, in September
2014, the Department of Education reported that a record 1,258,182
homeless students were enrolled in U.S. schools.
these years, homeless children are still standing around our front
door. They are still hungry and they can’t find any place to go.