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There is much that can be revealed from an analysis of early twentieth century Blues music when it comes to sexuality and interpersonal relationships. The Blues, being a very real-life-oriented medium, has few content restraints, which allows for a diverse amount of emotional subjects to be covered by it's musicians. In general, this has led to significant insight into the intimate details of people's lives, as musicians were free to express, in vivid detail, the serious issues they were faced with. These things were no doubt, discussed in daily life at the time, but because the subject matter was infused into a musical medium, there are many recordings that we can now use to analyze the issues of the time period. There are many positive themes in blues songs, but in particular, the negative themes in blues music from the twenties and thirties that dealt with dysfunctional relationships, violence and promiscuity allow us to see into some of the real-life struggles that people faced in those times.
There are several themes that we can find recurring in blues music that reflect some of the concerns of people in the early twentieth century time period.:

 

Abandonment

 

"Baby Won't You Please Come Home"

This song, written by Charles Warfield and Clarence Williams (disputed)1 and performed by Bessie Smith in 1923 (Wikipedia) embodies a recurring theme that is often seen in Blues music: Fear of, and dealing with abandonment. In this song, Smith sings about begging her mate to come back after leaving her. The theme is both emotional and economic in nature, conveying both the emotional despair felt from being left alone and heartbroken and a fear of the very real financial consequences.

 

1According to Wikipedia, Charles Warfield claims to be the only writer of the song.

Lyrics

I've got the blues, I feel so lonely; I'd give the world If I could only Make you understand; It truly would be grand. I'm gonna telephone my baby, Ask him won't you please come home. Oh, when you gone I'm worried all day long. Baby, won't you please come home? Baby, won't you please come home? I have tried in vain Nevermore to call your name. When you left you broke my heart, That will never make us part. Every hour in the day you will hear me say, Baby, won't you please come home? I mean, baby, won't you please come home? Baby, won't you please come home? 'Cause your mama's all alone. I have tried in vain Nevermore to call your name; When you left you broke my heart; That will never make us part; Landlord's gettin' worse, I gotta move May the first. Baby, won't you please come home? I need money. Baby, won't you please come home?

Lyrics from http://www.heptune.com/babywont.html

 

Blues songs about abandonment are not exclusive to the blues women. The male blues players often sing of these relationship issues. In fact, many of the early blues songs were sung by both men and women. In the African American Review article : In a Different Chord: Interpreting the Relations Among Black Female Sexuality, Agency, and the Blues, Nghana Tamu Lewis does a good job of summing up the views of some blues historians like Charles Keil and Albert Murray by writing "..the blues have never served as a conduit for gender-scripted performances" and "..male and female artists often sang the same songs, appropriately changing gender references in the lyrics" (2). Lewis goes on quoting Kiel to explain how the early female blues artists like Mamie Smith began to standardize blues songs structure and many of the male blues artists in the twenties and thirties started singing these songs too, and their own songs in the same style, in an effort to make blues more predictable, thereby making the songs more familiar to a widespread audience(2). Yet, throughout all this standardization, the blues has always been an avenue for the artists to express very personal and emotional feelings through the lyrics that they sing. Big Joe Williams' song "Baby Please Don't Go" is an example.
Big Joe Williams first recorded the song "Baby Please Don't Go" in 1935(Wikipedia).

 

Bad Relationships

 

In the song "Black Eye Blues", Ma Rainey sings about a woman in an abusive relationship. There is a clear empowerment in this song as the main character, the abused woman is planning her revenge. She takes the abuse and will "stick around" as she waits for the opportune moment to get back at her abuser. Although in many blues songs, men are the ones singing violent lyrics or being portrayed as the aggressor, there are also many songs where the woman is the abuser as instead.

"Black Eye Blues"

Gertrude "Ma Rainey"

 

Sexuality

 

"Black Snake Moan"

There is debate as to whether or not this song is about sexuality and loneliness. Blind Lemon Jefferson uses imagery of a snake in his room throughout the song. Some of the early blues has sexuality disguised by metaphors making it difficult to know the true meaning of the song. As can be seen by some of the back an forth debate on songfacts.com, there are differences of opinion as to whether the snake is representative of the male genitalia or whether it represents the fear that his condition of blindness has caused him psychologically.

Lyrics

I ain't got no mama now I ain't got no mama now She told me late last night, "You don't need no mama no how" Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin' in my room Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin' in my room Some pretty mama better come and get this black snake soon Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug, baby a chinch can't bite that hard Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug, honey a chinch can't bite that hard Ask my sugar for fifty cents, she said "Lemon, ain't a child in the yard" Mama, that's all right, mama that's all right for you Mama, that's all right, mama that's all right for you Mama, that's all right, most seen all you do Mmm, mmm, what's the matter now? Mmm, mmm, honey what's the matter now? Sugar, what's the matter, don't like no black snake no how Mmm, mmm, wonder where my black snake gone? Mmm, mmm, wonder where this black snake gone? Black snake mama done run my darlin' home

Lyrics from lyricstime.com

 

While some blues music expresses sexual content in hidden metaphors, some blues songs are full of overt and graphic sexual descriptions that reveal some very interesting things about the early twentieth century. In particular, Lucille Bogan (a.k.a. Bessie Jackson) sang songs about various topics, some of which including sex, prostitution and alcoholism. In a notorious "dirty" version of "Shave em' Dry", she lets loose with all sorts of sexual references and sugar coats nothing. We actually get a lot insight here into the slang and swearing that was used at the time. This 1935 recording shows us that much of the slang terminology used today that is considered "foul language" was in use back then.

The lyrics of this song are explicit and can be viewed at the following link:

Click For Lyrics

 

Again, both male and female blues singers performed songs with overtly sexual lyrics. In the blues music of the early twentieth century, there do not seem to be clearly expected gender roles to be adhered to for men and women. Like Lucille Bogan, Bo Carter performed some racy, sexually themed tunes. In the song "Warm My Wiener", Carter is begging a woman to pleasure him. Though there is a hot dog metaphor being used in the song, it is made clear what he is talking about when he says things like "Said some says it takes hot water, baby, can't you see, But your heat, baby's, plenty warm enough for me" and "Won't you just warm my wiener 'cause it don't really feel right cold". Many of the more overtly sexual songs were likely to have been less about profound emotional expression of serious topics, like fear of abandonment by a loved one, and more for entertainment purposes. Although, clearly these songs do express a natural human condition: the physiological need for physical intimacy, it is likely that they were more commercial in nature, catering to the crowds looking to have a good time and be entertained.

Lyrics

I got somethin' to tell ya baby, don't get mad this time, If you warm my weiner You give me ease all up in my mind Baby, please warm my wiener, oh, warm my wiener, Won't you just warm my wiener, 'cause he really don't feel right cold Now listen here, sweet baby, i ain't no lyin' man, If you warm my wiener one time, you gonna want him again Baby, please warm my wiener, oh, warm my wiener, Won't you just warm my wiener, 'cause he really don't feel right cold Said some says it takes hot water, baby, can't you see, But your heat, baby's, plenty warm enough for me Baby, please warm my wiener, oh, warm my wiener, Won't you just warm my wiener, 'cause he really don't feel right cold Now listen here sweet baby, it ain't no fake, I'm beggin' you baby, now just give your daddy one break Baby, please warm my wiener, oh, warm my wiener, Won't you just warm my wiener, 'cause he really don't feel right cold Now listen here, sweet baby, you know the time's growin' old, I don't want you to warm half of my wiener, i want you to warm him all Baby, please warm my wiener, oh, warm my wiener, Won't you just warm my wiener, 'cause he really don't feel right cold. (lyricstime.com)

 

 

The Blues comes in many forms and covers many topics. These early examples give us a little insight into what was on the minds of people during the twenties and thirties. These are very human themes that people can still relate to today, and this contributes significantly to why people still relate to the blues of this era.

 

References:

In a Different Chord: Interpreting the Relations among Black Female Sexuality, Agency, and the Blues.Nghana tamu Lewis : African American Review, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Winter, 2003), pp. 599-609. Published by: St. Louis University

Wikipedia links

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bo_Carter

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucille_Bogan

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_Lemon_Jefferson

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ma_Rainey

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Joe_Williams

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bessie_Smith

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blues

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mamie_Smith

 

Google used for serches

Youtube used for music

 

This webpage was created by Justin Daoust as a final project assignment for the Harvard University Extension School course "The History of Blues in America" Spring, 2010