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."
Which isn't to say that transplanted Southerners didn't miss their birthplaces. The genre that was to become Chicago blues, although often raucous, was also often bitterly sad. Winters (especially in Chi-Town) could be brutal, loved ones were left behind, and the hustle and bustle of city life was far more crowded and complex than life on the Delta. "It wasn't peaches and cream, man," singer-pianist Eddie Boyd said of life in the toddlin' town. "But it was a lot better than down there where I was." All of this was reflected in the hard, insistent citified blues that grew up in the postwar era. This was typified in the harp sound of Little Walter, which incorporated roaring trains, traffic noise, and the phrasings of the now-omnipresent saxophone in contrast to the more laid-back Memphis R&B of Sonny Boy Williamson. And then of course there was the electric guitar, which put a new edge to Muddy Waters's always pungent Delta playing, and introduced the mega-influential talents of Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam.
Although no longer struggling with the same overt racism that was the norm way back when, some relatively new releases still deal with the bluesman and his role in the working world, approaching blues playing as just another way to make a living. From Son Seals's bass-propelled "Bad Axe": "Can't pick no more cotton/Can't shine no more shoes/Can't get no job at a car wash/Might as well sing the blues." Or the hard-shuffle title track to Luther Allison's Soul Fixin' Man: "I'm goin' back/Back to the shoe-shine stand/I'll be singin' the blues while I shine your shoes/I'm a soul fixin' man." Seals seems to be saying that these traditional work options for black men are no longer viable, while Allison is all too glad to trade finger poppin' for rag poppin', getting off the road and back to the family.
But the dream of one day quitting the day job and making it as a musician lives on. On their new disc, Bloodlines, Michael Hill's Blues Mob, a hard-rockin' South Bronx bar band, tells a similar story on the track "Bluesman at Heart." Instead of joining his buddies to ogle the ladies during his lunchbreak, the construction-working bluesman is at the music shop, "flirting with a candy-apple Strat that caught his eye." He may be straddling girders on the 52nd floor, but "behind his eyes/he's jamming with Albert Collins, Albert King, and Buddy Guy."
Comforting words for every working Joe with a dream and some talent.
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