By Jacob Katel
By Karli Evans
By Jose D. Duran
By Pablo Chacon Alvarez
By Kat Bein
By Abel Folgar
By Laurie Charles
Big Boss Man, can't you hear me when I call
Well, you ain't so big
You just tall, that's all
Prolific blues bard Jimmy Reed wrote those familiar lines a couple of decades before Johnny Paycheck was telling the boss where anatomically to place his job or Dolly Parton was bemoaning her working hours (back in the Seventies, when folks had to work only nine to five). Reed was invoking one of the top three blues topics, the other two having to do with sex (either too little or too much, usually too little). Namely: work.
Of course it was no joke to black men and women who sang and listened to the blues, even if the songs had a humorous bent. Life was hard, life was work. Blues was a release.
And for the folks who played and sang it for a living, the blues was a way out of a lifetime of drudgery, as sure as it later would be for working-class Brits such as John and Paul and George and Ringo.
The early years of Muddy Waters -- the father of modern-era blues -- on the Stovall Plantation outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, are well-documented. Young Muddy had no taste for field work (he was making 22 1/2 cents an hour driving a tractor) and much of his time was spent running a lucrative gambling operation and juke joint. When musicologist Alan Lomax passed through Mississippi and made the historic recordings of Muddy Waters, the young guitarist's course was set.
Like many blacks before and after him, Muddy went to test his fortunes in Chicago. It was several years before he hooked up with the Chess Brothers, but undoubtedly he'd made an indelible mark in the pop-music world, virtually creating Chicago blues from his Delta roots. All because Muddy saw no value in breaking his back tilling soil. (Not that he was living the lush life; in an interview in the May/June issue of King Biscuit Times harpman Billy Boy Arnold recalls Muddy making about $25 a night for clubdates in the Fifties and Sixties, the height of his popularity. But the gigs were plentiful, bolstered by a strong, working black community who loved and supported their blues.)
Similar stories have been told by John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Isaac Hayes, to name a few. "I simply was not motivated to pick cotton," soulman Hayes told interviewer Joe Smith in his pop-music oral history, Off the Record. "I used to hang on the corner with the fellows singing doo-wop, and we'd sing in the cotton fields. But I'd stand there and watch the planes and say, 'I'm going to be on one of those planes, wherever it's going.'"
Although its practitioners may have assiduously avoided manual labor, blues -- maybe more than just about any genre except country -- has been closely associated with the working class.
Buddy Guy remembers performing morning till night at South Side joints such as Theresa's for the different shifts of workers. "We played around the clock," Guy said in 1992. "A shift of people at the stockyards or the steel mills would get off at 8:00 in the morning. And we played from 7:30 to 2:00 the next morning. You couldn't move in that place." From Five Long Years, a tune that has become one of the axman's signatures: "I got a job in a steel mill/Chucking steel like I was a slave/Five long years I come straight home with my pay." Although the song really deals with how the singer is mistreated by his woman despite his backbreaking labor on her behalf, it also traces the evolution north to the factory towns and their industries. (In previous years, the man being wronged would have come home from the fields, not the factory.)
A transplanted Lousianian, Buddy Guy went up to the cold climes of Chi-Town, seeking a way out of the tedium of sharecropping and the cycle of never-ending debt. "Farming was like throwing the dice on the table at Vegas," Guy said in Donald E. Wilcock's oral bio Damn Right I've Got the Blues. "You know you're not going to beat 'em." Still, unlike many other Southern sons, Guy was never ashamed of his roots. As he sings in "Country Man" on his last album, Feels Like Rain: "I'm a country man/Been country since I came to town/I can look at a milk cow/And tell you how much her butter will come a pound."
During the decades prior to Guy's pilgrimage, a mass exodus of black men and women had followed the well-worn path up the Mississippi to more urban centers. In fact, according to Robert Palmer's definitive blues history Deep Blues, by 1930 there were more Mississippi-born blacks living in Chicago than in any other municipality outside Mississippi; between 1940 and 1950, 154,000 more Southern blacks would arrive. Pay was better, treatment was far better, and at least they had a fair shot at getting out of debt and saving something (not an option for sharecroppers like the Guys who were egregiously taken advantage of by white landowners, although their northern counterparts -- slumlords -- weren't that much of an improvement). As illustrated in "Cadillac Assembly Line," sung by Albert King: "I'm tired of whoopin' and hollerin'/Pickin' that nasty cotton/Gonna get me a job on that Cadillac assembly line..." and "I'm goin' up north/Where I won't have to say yes sir, boss."