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With the acquisition of a fairly ‘vintage’ re-issue L.P. called “Jumping On The Hill 1928-41”, (it must be ten years old at least!), I thought I had also acquired an extra, fifth track by Tom Dickson. This was because the track in question, “Worry Blues”, featured some slow, laid-back guitar in complete contrast to the ‘four’ tracks I already had. I then set about preparing an article discussing which one of the un-issued sides in B. & G. R. I had just received My preparation included transcribing all of the Dickson sides I now had. It was when I reached the fourth side on an even older L.P. “Memphis Blues Vol.1” on Roots R.L.323, that I realized the true situation. The latter album listed “Worry Blues” on the record label, on the record cover, and on the accompanying note of track listings. It was obviously Roots’ intention to re-issue this title which would complement the Yazoo re-issue of “Labor Blues”. Also, it has always been, as far as I know, Roots’ policy not to duplicate where possible. In the 40 albums of pre-war material in the R.L.300 series, they were invaluable for filling in important gaps in my collection. Unfortunately, the gremlins got to work, and what appears on my copy of Roots R.L.323 is another copy of “Labor Blues”!
However, by this time I had completed three parts of the article. So I would like to turn this into an in-depth survey of Tom Dickson’s available recorded output (all four of ‘em!). This will serve the purpose of a tribute to at least one of the Blues singers from whom I have gained, over the years, so much pleasure, strength of my inner self, and a deeper awareness of my fellow-man, via a different race and culture. This, I achieved from a deeper understanding of the Blues; a cause which I hope, by my small contribution, will be taken up by other Blues collectors.
Virtually nothing is known about Tom Dickson, apart from a remembrance by Mississippi’s Joe Calicot, who said he played “...around Memphis,”(1). The unidentified sleeve-note writer/s tentatively suggests an Alabama origin by the singer’s use of the word “mamlish”. Obviously making connections with Alabamian Ed Bell’s “Mamlish Blues”. But Bobby Grant who is acknowledged (if at all) as a Delta Blues man, also uses the word “mamlish” on his “Nappy Head Blue&’. (see Yazoo L-l00l). Don Kent reiterates the Joe Calicot quote but adds nothing else, in his notes to Yazoo L-1002,
Policy Wheel’s note writer says Dickson “...recorded six songs in 1928, of which four were issued.”(2). One of Dickson’s first couplings, for Okeh records, was “Death Bell Blues”/”Happy Blues” on OK 8590. Both titles were re-issued on Yazoo L-l002.
“Just as happy, woman, as I can be,
“Woman I’m lovin’ done mistreated me,
“Treat me like some one you never seen,
“Blues ain’t nuthin’, good man on your mind,
“When you see me with my head hung down,
“I’m goin’ away baby, see what you would do,
“I went to the station, I looked up on the board,
Accompanied by his guitar,
taken at a fast clip, which gives it a raggy feel while maintaining an insistent
rhythm, Dickson applies some sarcasm in the opening stanza. The place name may
possibly be a corruption of Kankakee, a city in Illinois some 50-odd miles
southwest of Chicago, which is served by the I.C. railroad; of course the I.C.
runs down to Memphis. The singer adds practicality in the second stanza. With
his woman gone, he can only love her ‘mentally’. Her friend on the other
hand is close by....! She crops up again in the fifth stanza. Yet you get the
impression that he really loves his absent partner, and the third stanza has
purposely been left as a ‘one-liner’. The second repetition adding a
poignancy which suggests that Dickson is indeed telling his own story. The sixth
stanza is the familiar “I wasn’t fired-I quit” syndrome, which is
logically followed by the Blues singers’ ultimate way out--to move on.
Unusually, a chronological as well as a logical blues, in the finest Memphis
“DEATH BELL BLUES”
“Ey-hey! death bells in my ears,
“I laid out last night, all night and the night before,
“I’m a stranger here, standin’ out in the street,
“Gonna stand right here, catch the first ol’ gal I see,
“I’m gonna ask my rider would she set my trunk outdoors,
“The woman I had, these men must of had her first,
“I begin to study, an’ the wind begin to blow,
“My mama’s dead, my papa’s ‘cross the sea,
Again, like “Happy Blues”, this is taken at a fast pace, and it too is in a chronological sequence. At least as chronological as one can be when trying to come to terms with the death of a loved one. In Dickson’s case he finds the situation almost intolerable before his dead lover’s funeral; during the period of “laying out” he desperately appeals to any female companionship (as a substitute figure?) to block out the awful reality of his tragic loss. By the third stanza he has moved on and is now homeless, and in his despair he resigns himself to death by starvation and grief. But the human being is a resilient force and the Blues singer more so than most. By the fourth stanza he is only in a desperate condition, instead of a hopeless one, and in the following verse seems to have met with some success, as he pathetically asks his dead lover f or his things. Part of him feels guilty about this state of affairs, as he says he’s not leaving but “I got another place to go”. But his change of luck only lasted the summer and by winter, “the first ol’ gal I see” has thrown him out. She was only a low-down, ‘street-loafin’ woman, anyhow, he probably reflected with only a tinge of bitterness. Once out in the street again, he realizes he is back in a desperate condition once more; being a working-class black and therefore broke, and a stranger to boot. The self-pitying last stanza would seem to leave him, yet again, without any hope--and yet--that’s where the Blues comes in!
I would like to stress that the foregoing interpretation is hinged on the second verse referring to the laying-out of a corpse. Partridge tells us that the term ‘lay out’ came from U.S. slang, originally in 1829, and is defined as “To overcome or disable, esp. with a punch, also to kill:”(5). He further informs us that the phrase became “anglicized ca l860”(6), and gives the example “the laying-out of a corpse.”(7).
However, another interpretation might take the second verse as literally lying outside under the moon and stars. Unfortunately, the last line in this verse would seem to belie this. Even if we ignore that last line, and argue that the first few verses still hang together well, the fifth stanza would completely contradict the preceding one. From being so desperate for female company and shelter in verse 4 he now has a choice of two in verse 5, and verse 6 becomes ambiguous as to which woman he is referring to!!
This Blues, for its lyric content as I see it, is one of Dickson’s best. His other issued record, OK 8570, was “Labor Blues”/”Worry Blues”. Yazoo re-issued “Labor Blues” on another early Memphis anthology (see L-l008), and “Worry Blues” reappeared on Policy Wheel records (see PW 459-1).
“It’s good mornin’ Captain, ‘e said “good mornin’ Shine,”
“I don’t mine workin’, Captain, from sun to sun,
“Worked me all this summer, an’ you started on this fall,
“If you good men wan(t) ‘er, keep ‘er out of town at night,
“No it t’ain’t no tellin’ what a Mississippi gal will do,
“It’s go on pretty mama, gonna need a friend again,
“Hey! tell me woman, where did you stay last night?
Taken at a similar speed, Peterson tells us that “Labor Blues repeats the tune of Dickson’s Death Bell, but offers a new guitar arrangement”(9). Yes! well...
On the face of it, this side appears to be fragmented into two decisive ‘halves’. The first ‘half’ concerns the work situation, as you would expect from the title. The singer’s opening verse is unusual in its overt hostility to the establishment and thus the white man. “Shine’s” answer is frank and honest, he’s not sick, just sick of the job! A sentiment many working-class whites (including me) as well as blacks can readily identify with. It is possible Dickson’s strong attitude attracted the Georgia singer, Kokomo Arnold, who was to record his excellent “Buddie Brown Blues” (Rolling Time), some ten years later, evincing the same feeling. However, as in the Arnold item, these are ‘gut’ reactions, spoken in anger at interrupted sleep in the early hours of the morning; in a more truculent vein he agrees to work (or roll for the’ man’), but the “Captain” better have his money ready at the end of the week/month! Thereby consoling himself that he’s “said his piece”, “got the boss told”, etc. meanwhile feeling resigned to working in lousy conditions for equally lousy pay, and sarcastically contemplating working through Christmas!
The second ‘half’ is about woman trouble, and would seem to leave the labor scenario in mid-air. But does it? As someone who has worked on boring, often dirty and sometimes dangerous manual jobs for over 25 years, I would say “no it doesn’t”. Some jobs are so simple and repetitive that skilled men would often say “a monkey could do your job” and they’d be right! On such jobs you can ‘switch off’ and do them almost automatically. It is then that the worker” gets to thinking”. Dickson reflects that to stop a ‘good woman’ from wandering sexually, you better keep her happy in the home and “juice her appetite”! He thinks of how his hard-earned money just seems to vanish into thin air. In another more literal meaning of the last line in verse 4, he probably regrets his meanness in not giving her enough money to buy some meat with.
So like its predecessors,
“Labor Blues”, with fine swinging guitar, is an excellent and
chronologically sung Blues; including the odd turn of phrase, playing “the
poor game”. Incidentally, concerning the last line of this Blues, I am not
100% happy with ‘unfurled’. It is what Dickson appears to sing as a
substitute for ‘undone’. I suppose you could say a flag is undone, but it
seems to be stretching a point. Maybe the singer either miss-spoke or miss-used
“Lord, I’m just as worried, mama, as I can be,
“I wished I had-a died, when I was young,
“I know my mama, she
gon’ jump an’ shout,
“You can’t always tell what’s on a good woman’s mind,
“Lord, I never loved but the three since I bin born,
“Now you need not come runnin’, holdin’ up your hands,
“I went to the station an’ I looked up on the board,
By far the easiest of Dickson’s Blues to transcribe. This is because although he has a relatively clear vocal style, on his other three sides he tends to ‘cram’ in more words per line, almost as if he is chasing a runaway guitar! Akin perhaps, to an embryonic form of singing that Tennessee-born, Sonny Boy, John Lee Williamson was to make his own over a decade later. Here he is singing and playing in a fine, slow, relaxed style. The contrast having an almost harrowing effect on the listener. The theme of “Worry Blues” is where we started from. In fact it is, emotionally, “Happy Blues” with the mask ripped off. No sarcasm here--just a man’s soul bared to the world, for two or three minutes anyway. As ever, Dickson’s stanzas follow a sequential story line. Running through a gamut of emotional stances which range from self-pity, through weary resignation, wishful thinking, puzzlement, bitterness, arid culminating in hope, implied in ‘his’ train. Though, unlike his other Blues, there is not much originality in the words of “Worry Blues”, it should be noted that the second verse has only been recorded by Furry Lewis on his beautiful “Cannon Ball Blues” and one other pre-war singer, to my knowledge. While verse 5 would appear to be unique. Usual variations, by Noah Lewis, Alice Moore, etc., feature “three men/women” depending on the sex of the singer.
What can we make of Tom Dickson-the man and the Blues singer? Much has been written in the last decade or so, about the secondary importance of the lyrics of the Blues (our primarily vocal music!) in favour of the instrumental features, including one black writer! However, this attitude would possibly have left Mississippi John Hurt tending cattle in Avalon, Miss. and Bukka White languishing in a seedy Memphis hotel room! Obviously, not everything sung by the Blues singer is from empirical experience but are feelings by projection. Fairly obvious in the case of Blind Lemon’s classic “Hangman’s Blues” for instance!
But Tom Dickson’s Blues have the ring of truly personal experience about them. In his songs, he comes across as somebody far removed from the popular concept of the Blues singer. That is, an out-of-work, drunken, womaniser, cavorting about the country on railroads and highways, including a brawl in a barrelhouse every now and again! It would seem that, unusually f or a working-class, male black in the 1920’s, Dickson was employed on a full-time basis. By references such as “The Monday Blues” In verse 4 of “Happy Blues”, which all workers are familiar with as the first day back; and in the stanzas of “Labor Blues”, we can assume that he was a fairly responsible citizen. And by his commentary on “Worry Blues” he got married or formed a relationship with a woman, that he thought would be for “ever”. But due to working long hours and all the stress this can put on a marriage, especially if the money is still nowhere near sufficient, the partnership seemed fraught with argument and tension, and a series of separations occurred culminating in the death of his wife/lover. Numbed with grief, he wandered away (from Memphis?) aimlessly, catching the next train out. Arriving in another town, he strikes up a relationship with a woman out of desperation rather than any more deep and lasting reason. Sadly, these sort of partnerships rarely last long, and so it was with Torn Dickson. A fine Blues singer / lyricist and excellent guitarist, who often featured an odd turn of phrase that was unique in the Blues.
You don’t have to worry, Tom, you are one of the good Blues singers and sound like an alright guy to boot.
1.Notes to “Jumping On The Hill-Memphis Blues And Hokum 1928-41”. Policy Wheel PW 459-1. L.P.
3.”Happy Blues” Tom Dickson (vo. gtr.). 27/2/28. Memphis, Tenn.
4,”Death Bell Blues” Tom Dickson (vo. gtr.). 27/2/28. Memphis, Tenn.
8.”Labor Blues” Torn Dickson (vo. gtr.). 27/2/28. Memphis, Tenn.
9.Notes to “Frank Stokes’ Dream...l927-l931.” L.P0 Fritz Peterson. Yazoo L-l008. c.1966.
10.”Worry Blues” Tom Dickson (vo. gtr.). 27/2/28. Memphis, Tenn.
1.E.Partridge. “Dictionary Of Historical Slang.” Penguin. 1986. First pub. 1937.
2.Discographical details from “Blues & Gospel Records 1902—1943”. R.M.W.Dixon & J.Godrich. Storyville. (3rd.Ed. Fully Revised). 1982.
1. “JUMPING ON THE HILL”.
2. “MEMPHIS BLUES Vol.1”.
3. “MISSISSIPPI BLUES
4. “TEN YEARS IN
5. “FRANK STOKES’
Copyright © 2001 Max Haymes.
All rights reserved.