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“All my love’s in vain”: the language of the blues

The following is an extract from The Blues: A Very Short Introduction by Elijah Wald (OUP 2010).


Even the greatest blues songwriters have seen no harm in reworking each other’s phrases. As with hip-hop sampling, the idea is to create something unique and new by a combination of borrowing, reworking, and adding original touches—with the advantage that the early blues composers did not have to worry about “intellectual property” suits. It is not unusual for a phrase that blues scholars cite as an example of a particular singer’s poetic gift (for example, Robert Johnson’s “When the train it left the station, there was two lights on behind / The blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind”) to be found on further study to have appeared in an earlier song (in this case, Lemon Jefferson’s “Dry Southern Blues”).

Such recyclings may strike some readers as plagiarism, or at least as lacking originality. But there is no way to write a comprehensible sentence without reusing familiar arrangements of familiar words—that is what makes up a language. The genius of the great blues composers was in the way they put old lines together with new ones, creating startling and emotionally powerful images out of common cloth. In Jefferson’s performance, the verse about train lights was just a pretty image, but Johnson placed it as the culmination of a story about following his lover to the station and watching her leave him, and followed it with the haunting tag line, “All my love’s in vain,” giving his song a poetic unity that Jefferson never attained.

Violent themes and comic exaggeration

As professional entertainers performing for a generally young audience, Johnson and his peers intended their material not only to move their listeners emotionally but also to amuse and excite them. Hence the frequent references in blues songs to modern technologies, and even commercial brand names—Johnson, Blind Blake, and Peg Leg Howell all sang about women with “Elgin movements,” a reference to the advertising slogan of the Elgin watch company. Bessie Smith referred to a popular brand of straight razor, singing that if her man did her wrong, “I’m gonna take my Wade & Butcher, cut him through and through,” and Tampa Red updated this line in the 1930s to suit a brand of pistol: “Gonna take my German Luger, goin’ to shoot her through and through.”

Such violent themes are common in blues, as they are in rap, and in both cases they are often greeted by their core audiences as displays of comic exaggeration—though this humor tends to be lost on listeners from more sheltered backgrounds. Ma Rainey sang “I’m gonna buy me a pistol, as long as I am tall / Gonna kill my man and catch the Cannonball,” and Jimmie Rodgers added a note of exaggerated sadism to her second line, singing “Gonna shoot old Thelma, just to see her jump and fall.” (A line Johnny Cash in turn echoed in his “Folsom Prison Blues,” singing, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”) Skip James sang that if his woman wouldn’t come when he called, “all the doctors in Wisconsin, sure can’t help her none”—he happened to be recording in Grafton, Wisconsin—and when Robert Johnson covered James’s song, he shifted the location of the doctors to the more amusing locale of Hot Springs, a health resort.

Another of Johnson’s songs, “Me and the Devil” includes a verse that perfectly combines wry humor with a deeper sense of loneliness and longing. Once again, he had an earlier model: Peetie Wheatstraw had sung the wistfully sympathetic verse, “When I die, please bury my body low / So that my evil spirit, mama, now, won’t hang around your door.” Johnson changed this into a request to let him go on traveling after death, using a form of transportation that was still a novelty to Delta dwellers: “You may bury my body down by the highway side / So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”

Evoking country life

Just as old phrases were blended with new ones, references to modern innovations were balanced by verses evoking country life. One common verse, recorded by Lemon Jefferson in 1926 and repeated with variations in dozens of songs, goes “Blues jumped a rabbit, run him one solid mile / This rabbit sat down, crying like a natural child.” Animal characters have always been a staple of African and African diaspora storytelling, and such verses are arguably part of the same tradition as the Uncle Remus stories, with their protagonist Br’er Rabbit. Another verse, recorded by Peetie Wheatstraw, explicitly recalls the trickery employed by those stories’ frequent villain, Br’er Fox: “Want to tell you baby, like the fox done told the hen / I’ve got something good to tell you, if you come roll into my den.”

Other lyrics drew on images that would have been familiar to any blues listener, sometimes with startlingly powerful effect. Lonnie Johnson turned a barnyard commonplace into a bit of cynical urban wisdom, singing “What makes the rooster crow every morning before day? / To let the pimps know that the workingman is on his way.” And Sippie Wallace, in a verse repeated by many later artists, sang “I lay down last night, tried to take my rest / My mind got to traveling, like the wild goose in the west.”

Grounded in the older tradition

Leroy Carr built much of his reputation on such meditative, late night musings. The opening stanza of his “Midnight Hour Blues,” like Jefferson’s rabbit verse, visualized the blues itself as an active agent: “In the wee midnight hours, ’long toward the break of day / When the blues creep up on you and carry your mind away.” He followed the success of this song with “Blues Before Sunrise” and “When the Sun Goes Down,” meticulously composed lyrics that helped establish a new style of blues writing (as well as potentially providing him with royalties by tempting other singers to perform his compositions). But although Carr’s songs were more cohesive than most rural blues and formed a pattern followed by Wheatstraw, Robert Johnson, and hundreds of other composers, their poetic sense remained firmly grounded in the older tradition.

And, on a verse-by-verse basis, the traditional style could be as subtle and evocative as anything Carr or his followers created. Blind Willie McTell’s spare, voice-like slide guitar on “Mama’ Ain’t Long Fo’ Day” makes the record sound old-fashioned compared to the urban style of the 1930s, but its title verse matches Carr’s finest work: “The big star falling, mama, it ain’t long ’fore day / Maybe the sunshine will drive these blues away.”

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