final stanza is like a dream. Big Joe Williams looks down at Martin
Luther King’s face, and vows to the slain civil rights leader that
we’ll keep marching on - even unto Resurrection Day".
the fires were still burning up and down the block in the Chicago
riots that erupted just after Martin Luther King’s assassination,
Otis Spann gave a concert at a storefront church where he performed
two hauntingly beautiful blues compositions: “Blues for Martin
Luther King” and “Hotel Lorraine.”
the guitar has always been the most heralded instrument in the
blues, there have been many great blues pianists, including Little
Brother Montgomery, Pete Johnson, Big Maceo Merriweather, Roosevelt
Sykes, Champion Jack Dupree, Charles Brown, Memphis Slim, Katie
Webster, James Booker, Professor Longhair and Sunnyland Slim.
choice for greatest blues pianist of all time is Otis Spann, the
brilliant singer and gifted pianist in Muddy Waters greatest band.
He also was the house pianist for Chess Records, playing on
recordings by everyone from Little Walter to Bo Diddley. Spann was
so skilled and multi-talented that he became one of the most
in-demand session pianists of all, playing with Johnny Shines, Floyd
Jones, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and James Cotton.
was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1930 and only reached the age
of 40, dying in 1970. In that short period, he left behind a legacy
of beautiful blues masterworks that have never been surpassed.
Although Spann made his reputation as a brilliant and inventive
pianist, I also love his smoky, soulful vocals, on full display on
the beautiful records he made as a solo artist, including “Otis
Spann Is the Blues,” “The Blues Never Die” and “Walking the Blues.”
like a brother to Muddy Waters and the incredible musical rapport
between the two men anchored one of the greatest electric blues
bands of all time.
Spann performed on one of the best live blues concert records,
“Muddy Waters at Newport,” recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in
July of 1960. Because of a riot in the town of Newport, the last two
days of the concert were cancelled, and Spann, with the acclaimed
poet Langston Hughes as his co-author, composed and performed a
spontaneous “Goodbye Newport Blues,” a sweet and sad elegy to the
back on it now, his song seems to have foreshadowed another
spontaneous elegy that Spann would compose eight years later, in
immediately after Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4,
1968, Otis Spann and Muddy Waters played a tribute at a storefront
church on 43rd Street in Chicago. Spann’s breathtaking tribute for
King can be found on “Rare Chicago Blues, 1962-1968,” issued by
Pete Welding described the dangerous and even life-threatening
context of Spann’s performance in the liner notes. “Buildings were
burning up and down the street as the Chicago ghetto riots began.
Accompanied in a funereal style by drummer S. P. Leary, Otis’ strong
shouting voice and elegant piano are beautifully showcased in two
pieces inspired by the assassination.
lyrics, certainly improvised, are an extraordinary testimonial of
his feelings and evoke the pain and intensity of that day. Muddy
Waters can be heard echoing Spann’s feelings in the background as he
urges him on.”
Lorraine” begins with Spann’s melancholy and exquisite piano and
then his slow, sorrowful voice begins to tell the story of King’s
death at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis earlier that day. This song
is truly a “first draft of history” and it is so memorable that it
is hard to imagine how it could have been composed so quickly.
describes Dr. King talking to his friends in front of the Lorraine
Motel, and how “the poor man didn’t feel the pain” of the sudden and
unexpected gunshot. “People ask why violence has taken over and the
devil got into that evil man,” Spann sings, and then plays a lovely
piano break that seems to pour out all the anguish and beauty of
Spann’s quiet, mournful voice suddenly roars out the last verse of
“Hotel Lorraine” with gospel intensity:
King was a man that could really understand.
his last words he said:
knows I’m going to the Promised Land.’”
shouts out the words “God knows” as an outcry of triumph and
exaltation mingled with deep pain and grief.
Otis Spann’s Blues
for Martin Luther King
His second song at the storefront church in Chicago that day
is even more powerful. So many of Spann’s best solo
recordings are beautiful and full of feeling, but “Blues for
Martin Luther King” may be my favorite of all his
It begins the only way it could on that day of heartbreak
and loss, with Spann asking those gathered in the storefront
church if they heard the news about what happened “down in
Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday.” With a raw, gospel-fueled
urgency in his voice, Spann sings, “There came a sniper,
Lord, that wiped Dr. Luther King’s life away.”
During a magnificent instrumental break, Spann shows how a
piano can wail and cry out wordlessly. It is a marvellous
tribute to the man whose life had brought so much hope to
the black community and whose death can never be forgotten.
The final verse reminds us that the assassination was not
just a political crisis or a stumbling block for the civil
rights movement. The movement had lost a leader, and the
nation had lost a martyr. But Martin Luther King’s family
lost their husband and father.
“Otis Spann Is the
Blues” is a beautiful recording on Candid. Spann recorded
two deeply moving tributes to Martin Luther King the day
after his murder.
no one else even thought to reflect upon the family’s great loss,
yet the deepest and most permanent wounds were inflicted on King’s
wife and children. Otis Spann had the sensitivity to write about
this most personal dimension of grief and anguish. His final verse
captures, for all time, their great loss.
when his wife and kids came down, people,
could do was moan.
know when his wife and kids came down,
could do was moan.
world’s in a revolt because Martin Luther King is gone.”
The Big Heart of Big Joe Williams
of Big Joe Williams, with its deep scars and roughly etched lines,
was like a roadmap of his soul - or a map of the endless highways,
back alleys, and train tracks he traveled as a wandering bluesman
for close to six decades.
countless songs and albums, he left behind a travel journal in
musical form of those endless roadways and byways - decades and
decades worth of the Delta blues that Big Joe had recorded in
defiance of all passing musical styles and fads.
Williams played the genuine Delta blues first, last and always, from
the first song he played at some Mississippi levee camp to the last
concert hall on his life’s journey.
Crawford, Mississippi, Big Joe Williams hoboed all over the South -
and then traveled onward all over the rest of the country - for more
than 50 years, playing his deep and vital brand of Mississippi blues
on his self-invented, nine-string guitar, hitch-hiking, hopping
trains, playing in juke joints and levee camps, touring with
minstrel shows, spending time in jail, and always rambling on to the
story “Me and Big Joe,” Michael Bloomfield, the great blues musician
who played spellbinding lead guitar with the Paul Butterfield Blues
Band and with Bob Dylan on “Highway 61 Revisited,” wrote that being
with Big Joe Williams was “being with a history of the blues - you
could see him as a man, and you could see him as a legend.”
Bloomfield said that Big Joe “had America memorized” because he had
traveled tirelessly all over the nation, singing the blues in
Mississippi juke joints in the 1930s and 1940s, New York
coffeehouses in the 1950s and 1960s, and university blues festivals
in the 1970s.
Bloomfield wrote, “From forty years of hiking roads and riding rails
he was wise to every highway and byway and roadbed in the country,
and wise to every city and county and township that they led to. Joe
was part of a rare and vanished breed - he was a wanderer and a hobo
and a blues singer, and he was an awesome man.”
big, powerfully built man had lived a rough-and-tumble life, and
blues critic Barry Pearson wrote, “Big Joe Williams may have been
the most cantankerous human being who ever walked the earth with
guitar in hand.”
Pearson quickly added that, “he was an incredible blues musician: a
gifted songwriter, a powerhouse vocalist, and an exceptionally
That is exactly why it is
so touching that this road-toughened, cantankerous and combative man
was moved to compose such a tender and deeply affecting remembrance
of Martin Luther King right after his assassination in Memphis.
Big Joe Williams laid his soul bare on “The Death of Dr.
Martin Luther King.” He sounds shaken to his core by King’s
death, and his powerful voice erupts with a complex mixture
of sadness, tender concern, inconsolable grief, bitter anger
and sheer outrage.
Big Joe plays a beautiful accompaniment on his
strange-looking, nine-string guitar and Charlie Musselwhite,
a master of the blues harp, plays a lovely, mournful elegy
on his harmonica. “The Death of Dr. Martin Luther King” can
be found on “Shake Your Boogie” on Arhoolie Records.
Williams begins by asking his listeners if they had heard
the unbearable news.
“Did you get the news, people,
Big Joe Williams
plays the unique nine-string guitar that he invented to give
his blues a distinctive sound. Big Joe wrote a profoundly
moving tribute to Martin Luther King.
happened in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday?
along some mean old sniper and carried Dr. Martin Luther King away.”
Joe’s next verse says it all. He traces the recent trajectory of
King’s involvement in the civil rights movement, recalling the
Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama, the Mississippi freedom
summer, and King’s last stand for freedom — his solidarity with the
striking sanitation workers of Memphis.
Dr. Martin Luther King marched in Selma,
marched in Mississippi too.
he got to Memphis, Tennessee, man, it wouldn’t do!
Martin Luther King is dead.”
verse leaves me with ashes in my mouth and a sadness that has no
answer on earth.
he died last night boys,
with a bullet in his head.”
March on Resurrection Day
final stanza goes by like a dream, or a supernatural visitation. Big
Joe Williams sings that he goes to the graveyard, looks down at
Martin Luther King’s face, and vows to the slain civil rights leader
that we’ll keep marching on - even unto Resurrection Day.
to the graveyard,
down in Dr. Luther King’s face.
‘Sleep on Dr. Martin Luther King.
march on Resurrection Day.’”
verses are brilliant and overwhelming and they are shot through with
beauty and faith. They absolutely floor me. Like Big Maybelle, Big
Joe Williams has refused to let death have the last word.
Resurrection has the last word.
lyrics are not sung as if Big Joe is barely holding onto some
they are sung with all the passion and vigor of a man who has
marched all over the land and has been tough enough to outlast all
the hobo camps, the forced labor of the levee camps and the brutal
railroad guards. Big Joe was powerful enough to endure all the
rainstorms and Mississippi floods, outlive all the segregation
decrees and Jim Crow laws, and thrive despite all the hunger and
hardships of a life lived constantly on the move.
Williams always marched on. He may have been drunk or hung-over or
sick or penniless, but he kept moving.
Martin Luther King. He always marched on to the next struggle. He
marched on from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Birmingham jail to
the Mississippi March Against Fear to the Selma march for voter
rights to the fight against slum housing in Chicago to the
sanitation strike in Memphis.
end of all this marching, Martin Luther King began marching with
great vision and courage towards Resurrection City and his showdown
with the federal government in Washington, D.C.
Train from Marks, Mississippi, made it to the nation’s capital.
Martin Luther King did not.
Yet there is that final, beautiful promise from Big Joe Williams to
Dr. King: “We’ll march on Resurrection Day.’”
‘Threatened with Resurrection’
haunted by that verse: “We’ll march on Resurrection Day.” In
the aftermath of King’s murder in Memphis, many activists still kept
the faith and marched on in the belief that death would not have the
final word for the Freedom Movement. And what destination did they
reach? What is the name that they gave to the shantytown of shacks
and tents that they built near the Lincoln Memorial? Resurrection
marched all the way to Resurrection City in Washington, D.C. And
there, in that shantytown of poor people, they heard Muddy Waters
and Otis Spann keeping the faith with the spirit of Martin Luther
King and playing the blues on the streets of Resurrection City.
only the first level of meaning in Big Joe’s song. The deeper level
is that death shall not have the last word, because after death
there is the promise of resurrection. On Resurrection Day, we will
march again for justice. We will arise and walk down the Freedom
Catholic priest and dissident peace activist, Fr. Daniel Berrigan,
wrote that, despite all earthly evidence to the contrary, the
state-sanctioned violence and death used to suppress rebellions will
not have the final say in our world. Rather, as Berrigan wrote, one
day Sheriff Death himself will be hauled away. That day is the
Resurrection Day that Big Joe Williams described.
John Donne wrote: “Death be not proud.” That is the profoundly
hope-filled and life-giving title of one of his finest sonnets. Here
are the final lines of John Donne’s “Death be not proud.”
short sleep past,
death shall be no more;
thou shalt die.”
Guatemalan poet, Julia Esquivel, once wrote that the tyrannical
regimes that oppress and crucify the poor are “threatened with
powers that be were, in fact, threatened when the U.S. civil rights
activists of the Freedom Movement cast off their fear of arrests and
brutal police and jail cells and death itself, and kept on marching
for justice. Dr. King and others had realized that death would not
have the last word.
names of the martyrs inscribed in black granite on the Civil Rights
Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, remind us that the price of freedom
can be very high. Big Joe Williams reminds us that we’ll march onto
The Fighter —
Champion Jack Dupree
Dupree is a fascinating figure in the blues. He earned his
sobriquet, “Champion Jack,” as a fighter who boxed in more
than one hundred boxing matches. He won Golden Gloves and
state championships before pursuing his career as a blues
pianist and singer.
fights were only part of a lifetime struggle that began
after he was orphaned at the age of two when both his
parents died in a fire. He was sent to the same orphanage in
New Orleans where Louis Armstrong was raised.
boxing career ended, Dupree moved to Chicago and began
playing blues piano for a couple years before serving in the
U.S. Navy during World War II - another fight on another
battlefield. That fight was followed by yet another when he
was held as a Japanese prisoner of war for two years.
Dupree had fought in World War II, he asked the U.S.
government to stop fighting in Southeast Asia in his song,
“Vietnam Blues.” His long experience of poverty and racism
in the United States made him sympathize with the suffering
of poor people in Vietnam.
One of the finest
sets ever recorded by Champion Jack Dupree was “Blues from
the Gutter,” on the Atlantic Jazz label.
“Why don’t they
leave Vietnam, leave those poor people alone.
They got a hell of
a problem, just like I have at home.”
In one of the finest
moments in his fighting career, Dupree spoke out for the lives of
the people targeted by his country’s bombs. He also expressed
sympathy for the mothers of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, when he asked
the U.S. military to withdraw its troops.
“Well, I know
every mother be glad to see her sons come home.
Yes, Uncle Sam
just as well pack up, pull out and go back home.”
Champion Jack Dupree’s
finest album, “Blues from the Gutter,” is a riveting glimpse into
the dead-end world of disease, drug addiction and death. It is truly
blues for the down-and-out.
Dupree looks with
unswerving honesty at what Hank Williams used to call “pictures from
the other side of this life” — the side most of us prefer not to
Even though his songs
take on subjects so full of suffering and sickness, Dupree’s vocals
and piano playing are beautiful, and his lyrics show us how the
blues can reveal the most distressing aspects of the human
condition, yet still be overflowing with life, vitality, humor and
In “T.B. Blues,”
Dupree becomes the voice of a man with tuberculosis, at that time a
deadly and incurable disease. He manages to make a beautiful work of
art out of a fatal diagnosis.
“Well I got the
T.B., and the T.B. is all in my bones.
Well, the doctor
told me that I ain’t gonna be here long.”
Some things are almost
worse than dying, such as being abandoned in your hour of greatest
need by the very people you thought were your closest friends.
This song is light
years away from the kind of pop music conventions that pledge, in
Carole King’s words, “You’ve got a friend.” Instead, Dupree sings a
hard-won truth about the faithlessness of friends, warning that many
will even stop coming to visit at all if they are even asked for
“Well, the T.B. is
all right to have,
But your friends
treat you so lowdown.
Yeah, don’t ask
them for no favor,
They will even
stop coming ‘round.”
Unlike many forms of
rock and pop music aimed at youthful audiences, the blues most often
was created by and for adults. It is unafraid to take on everything
under the sun that grown-ups enjoy, suffer, fear or dream about.
The great blues
artists sing of love and sex, marriages and break-ups, drinking and
hangovers, good times and terrible blows, faith and doubt, war and
peace, injustice and racism, and as Champion Jack Dupree showed us,
our lifelong boxing matches with disease and death.
Yet, even when the
great range of lyrical themes in the blues is understood, it is
still a mystery how Dupree found beauty and meaning in his blues
from the gutter.
Singing the Expatriate Blues
Jack Dupree became one of the first blues expatriates. He left
America for Europe in 1959 and stayed there the rest of his life
until his death in 1992.
blues artists who wrote with strong convictions about social and
economic justice were the very ones who packed their bags, left the
United States, and moved to Europe. For many, the move was
permanent, and although they may have returned occasionally to give
concerts or record their music, they never returned to live in the
land of their birth.
book, The Legacy of the Blues, Samuel Charters devoted a
chapter to Champion Jack Dupree and explained his choice to leave
America for good. Many American blues musicians found greater
respect and love for their music in Europe, and better working
opportunities. But the most important issue for these expatriate
bluesmen was their desire, in Charter’s words, “to escape America’s
wrote, “Eddie Boyd is only one of the blues artists who has settled
down in Europe. Memphis Slim and Willie Mabon live in Paris, and
Champion Jack Dupree has his house and family in England. Why have
they left the United States? The most important reason always is the
lack of severe racial hostility in countries like France or Denmark
It is a
sad commentary on America’s history of racial discrimination and
hatred that many of the blues musicians who cared so deeply about
social justice and expressed their conscience and humanity so
eloquently in their music, felt driven to leave their homes and
become expatriates for the rest of their lives.
Way Up on the Mountaintop
song, “The Death of Luther King,” written in 1968 less than a month
after Rev. King was murdered, Champion Jack Dupree played a slow and
mournful melody on the piano for an audience in Paris. The tinkling,
cascading notes of his piano accompanied his opening words, a
talking blues about the loss of Dr. King.
spoken introduction, Dupree said in a very slow, solemn voice, “Well
the world lost a good man when we lost Dr. Martin Luther King, a man
who tried to do everything. He tried to keep the world in peace. Now
the poor man has gone to rest. So go on Dr. Martin Luther King and
take your rest. There will always be another Luther King.”
always loved Dupree’s singing. His rich voice feels warm and
familiar and comfortable, even when his deeply felt vocals may be in
service of story-songs that are grim or despairing or down in the
gutter - or, in the case of this song, when his subject is a tragedy
beyond the telling.
his spoken introduction is over, Dupree begins singing in that warm,
comforting voice, sounding for all the world like a wise old uncle
giving some friendly advice. But his calm, soothing voice makes his
words seem all the more startling and disturbing by contrast. He
gives no quarter in this song. He is a man who has come to tell the
early one evening when the sun was sinking down.
the evening some dirty sniper shot Martin Luther King down.
nothing but a coward. He dropped his gun and run.
will never have no peace. He’ll always be on the run.”
performed “The Death of Luther King” for an audience in Paris in
late April of 1968, three weeks after King’s assassination. Champion
Jack Dupree sang out the words that Martin Luther King had spoken in
a Memphis church on the day before his death.
words that he said just before he died:
going up on, I’m going way up on,
on the mountain top.’”
Dupree spoke softly to his listeners once again, quietly playing the
piano while he utters the next few sentences in a subdued,
introspective manner. It’s as if he were only speaking to himself,
maybe daydreaming or thinking out loud, trying his best to
understand this incomprehensible tragedy.
quietly thoughtful passage is very unsettling. Dupree creates a very
intimate atmosphere, as if we, his listeners, were sharing his most
private thoughts. And what private thoughts we overhear!
meditates on the series of political assassinations in America, and
the effect of his reverie becomes even more private and personal in
the final verse when Dupree decides that if the reactionary forces
in America have not hesitated to shoot down Lincoln, Kennedy and
King, Dupree himself doesn’t stand a chance.
says quietly to himself, “Yeah, they shot him down, just like they
done all the rest of them. They shot down Abraham Lincoln, they shot
down President Kennedy, and they took poor Martin Luther King. So
you know I don’t stand a chance. I ain’t nobody.”
moment when he says, “I ain’t nobody,” the song enters into another
begins singing directly to his white audience in Paris, forthrightly
voicing what is really on his mind. It’s as if his thought that “I
ain’t nobody,” leads him to confront the elephant in the room that
everyone has been politely ignoring: the element of race and
discrimination, and how that makes some people in society feel that
everything is just fine, and makes others feel that, “I ain’t
strange thing is that Dupree is talking about this confrontational
truth in a voice just as warm and gently comforting as it can be.
It’s a moment of real artistry.
speaks a truth almost too terrible for words, yet he states it with
such warmth and humanity, that instead of feeling accused, I would
guess that his audience in Paris that day felt disarmed by his
gentle tone, as if he had invited them to really understand Dupree’s
own hard experiences in a very personal way, so they might begin to
understand - perhaps for the first time - how racism really feels
from the inside.
invited them to understand, for just a moment, his own feelings
about freedom, and the denial of freedom.
this song seems to me an artistic triumph. For the humanity of his
voice is so welcoming that his listeners that day may have felt
disarmed enough to open their minds up to the feelings of all those
in our society who have never felt free.
sings these very personal lyrics directly to his audience, and his
gently voiced words land with shattering impact.
you people, I know you’re glad you ain’t none of me.
you people are glad, I know you’re glad you’re white and free.
will, what will become of me?
Oh, I am
begging, yes, I’m begging to be free.”
Jack Dupree delivered that highly personal appeal three weeks after
Martin Luther King was shot to death. He was living by choice in
Europe, an entire ocean away from the segregation and church
bombings and discrimination and assassinations in his country of
begging to be free, he was making an appeal on behalf of his people
still suffering discrimination back in America, the people who had
placed so much hope in the Freedom Movement, only to see so many of
its leaders killed.
Today, when I listen to his song, “Death of Luther King,” I
remember how I felt when I looked numbly at the water
flowing over the names of dozens of martyrs inscribed in
black granite at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery,
It felt like the end of hope to stare at the names of Medgar
Evers, Rev. James Reeb, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo,
Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Denise
McNair, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and
Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Too many martyrs and too many dead,” sang Phil Ochs, one of
the most powerful political folksingers of his generation.
In “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” Ochs sang an even
more uncompromising truth about the murders of so many
“Here’s to the state of Mississippi,
For underneath her borders, the devil draws no lines.
If you drag her muddy river, nameless bodies you will find.
Oh, the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes,
“Freedom Summer Murders.”
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were shot
to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi while
working for voting rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
calendar is lying when it reads the present time.”
death of hope can also bring the dawn of its rebirth. Every time one
a civil rights worker was martyred, others arose in his or her
place, and countless more were radicalized to take up the struggle.
When Champion Jack Dupree
sings, “Oh, I am begging, yes, I’m begging to be free,” I can hear
the echo of Martin Luther King’s soaring and majestic words, “Free
at last, free at last, Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”