“Damn that Jim Crow”
Blues Songs Travel the American Apartheid Road
Steven C. Tracy
Flapping softly yet rubbing roughly against the raw bark of a Southern sugar maple tree in North Carolina, or posted crookedly at a railroad station outside the “Whites Only” door, from a distance the small bill would have awakened little fuss or worry. But upon approach, the words would come into focus, and the chagrin, disappointment, shame, anger, and weariness occasioned by their hanging, punctuated by the sharp, taunting “woo wooooo” of the approaching, ironically black, juggernaut, weighed heavily on the shoulders and minds of the Black second-class citizenry that just wanted to go. In public for all to see, in mixed company for all to feel, evoking visceral feelings of degradation better borne in private, the weight of an entire system of inequality and injustice rested heavily in terms of turmoil pressed onto the surface of a single, sinister, sheet that forbade, in euphemistic terms, “intermingling.” Both North and South Carolina are in the twenty-first century still listed among the most racist states in the country.
The American apartheid represented by the “North Carolina Law Providing for the Separate Accommodation of White and Colored Passengers Upon Motor Busses, and for Other Purposes” was just one small part of a vast and insidious network of prejudicial laws and customs that existed mainly across the South, including North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, and Alabama, in more than thirty states from 1876 to 1965 (Figure 3.1). The name of a West African dance, distorted through its association with the images and language of minstrelsy, provided the racist term and an accompanying series of stereotypes that hardened into the tragicomic designation “Jim Crow laws,” or simply “Jim Crow.” African Americans suffered being “Jim Crowed” in every facet of their lives, primarily in the South, where the enmity between empowered whites and subjugated blacks died an extremely slow and painful death after slavery and Reconstruction. But African Americans did not suffer in silence.
Figure 3.1 North Carolina Law Providing for Separate Accommodations for White & Colored Passengers Upon Motorbuses, and Other Forms, 1907. Printed document. Courtesy of the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® and the Bernard & Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts & Education.
Figure 3.2 Maker unknown. Female slave shackles, ca 1850. Iron, 14 ¼ x 21 ½ x 3 in. Courtesy of the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® and the Bernard & Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts & Education.
A number of blues recordings from the 1920s to the 1940s dealt with a broad range of issues, including the travel restrictions stated in the North Carolina law that existed in many other states as well, providing keen insight into the inconvenience, embarrassment, and danger posed by Jim Crow conditions. Whether recordings produced for African Americans in the so-called “race” series of records, recorded by portable recording units sent out to a variety of Southern locations,
songs associated with the Northern folk music movement in post–Depression America, or songs connected to contemporary literary figures, the condemnation of the Jim Crow system in various geographical locations with laws similar to those in North Carolina is clear and compelling. Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia, among other states, all had Jim Crow transportation laws. And Jim Crow laws also related to such issues as education, housing, dining, and even access to water fountains, as depicted in the Kinsey collection, which incited opposition from the African American community. Jim Crow laws were part of what replaced the concrete and visible iron “Female Slave Shackles, c. 1850” that served to enslave African Americans (Figure 3.2).
The North Carolina law comprises a hateful series of statutes which apply to all “street, interurban, and suburban railway companies.” While providing a whitewashed veneer by using such cooperative words as “providing” and “accommodation,” the whitewash is stripped away with the word “separate,” a reminder of the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson on behalf of “separate but equal” conditions. The restrictions in the law preclude the possibility of the “intermingling” of the races by setting aside separate locations of different quality for what was termed then (and now disproven) “separate” races, and imposing a punishment for anyone who facilitates such intermingling or violates its prohibition. General Statute 60–138 even prohibits spitting on vehicles, as if somehow the African American population might need such a
prohibition. Regardless, the statutes are double-barreled in taking aim not merely at passengers but at company personnel who might seek to circumvent the statutes, all in an era that, unlike ours, had little in the way of gun control laws to “interfere” with “enforcement.”
The Jim Crow laws, of course, were not limited to motor busses. The North Carolina law itself includes the vague and sinister phrase “and for Other Purposes” as a catchall clause reserving the privilege of lawmakers to interpret and expand the rules at will. In actuality, Jim Crow laws encompassed schools and circuses, churches and prisons, restaurants and bathrooms, hospitals and cemeteries, beaches and swimming pools, as well as the lowly water fountain, in the war to reinforce the inferiority of the black body, mind, soul, and spirit.
In post-slavery days, a major issue in the lives of African Americans was the ability to travel: mobility represented freedom from the restraints of slavery, along with the ability to choose one’s own spouse, unfettered by the interests of a slaveholder. This emerging generation of new issues, new experiences, and new problems gave birth around 1900 to the musical genre known as the blues. It makes perfect sense that spousal issues, mobility, and transportation became primary themes in the genre. And as the singers turned to transit and relocation as subjects, the Jim Crow laws were featured front and center in all their obstructionist machinations.
The term “Jim Crow” became famous in connection with the racist American institution known as minstrelsy that emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century, but in fact its origins were West African. African American scholar-folklorist-anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston discussed the research of famed anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits, director of Hurston’s first field research at Barnard, and performed a version of a West African “crow song”: “Dr. Herskovits says that he saw the background of it in West Africa, of the crow. The crow in some ways seems to be sacred in Africa.” Hurston reports that in the song the continued reference to visualizing the crow prepares the path of imagination and possibility, while the excited references to his flying communicate admiration at the crow’s ability to escape and transcend the bonds of earth: “Oh, mama, come see that crow. See how he flies.” Of course, flying, in addition to referencing surpassed boundaries, also carries with it implications of running away or escaping. This is clearly the type of double entendre that is so common in the tradition of “masking” in slave songs in the U.S., such as in the prominence of the spirituals “Go Down, Moses” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which work with coded messages through biblical references, such as the substitution of escaping North for the deliverance of the children
of Israel to the Promised Land and dying and going to Heaven. Masking provided a small measure of safety from behind the cover of dissembling in order to allow African Americans to speak the truth with a modicum of impunity. We see such masking already in evidence in the eighteenth century in poet Phillis Wheatley’s first book Poems on Various Subjects – Religious and Moral (1773) (Figure 3.3). As the twentieth century blues lyric would later intone, “When you see me laughin’, I’m laughin’ to keep from cryin’.”
In Yoruba culture in West Africa, a crow named Jim was a trickster who pushed the boundaries of society, sometimes by playing dumb as a way to fool his antagonists. The dance Hurston is discussing would havejourneyed from Africa to America on the currents of the slave trade, to be practiced and adapted by enslaved people whose skills were admired, mimicked, and sometimes mocked by interested and/or culturally rapacious whites. One prominent minstrel performer, Thomas “Daddy” Rice, claimed to have seen an informal African American performance of a dance that he adapted into his own extremely popular imitation in performances in the 1830s. Because of the widespread popularity of these minstrel shows, in which whites initially performed made up in racist stereotypical mockery of African American appearance and character, the dance and name spread internationally, and Jim Crow was one of the major ways in which the white public perceived the nature of African Americans. Of course, African Americans such as Benjamin Banneker were trying to establish a better image in such work as his Bannaker’s (sic) Almanac from 1795, and the willing participation of African Americans in the Civil War as depicted through portraits of African American soldiers (Figure 3.4) reinforced African American attempts both to help themselves and raise their image in white society. One must look past voluminous amounts of ugliness in minstrelsy to perceive the beautiful elements of African American culture that somehow shone through in the minstrel shows. The name Jim Crow went on to brand a system that forced African Americans into subordinate and tragic positions and situations that were extremely ironic in the face of the vigor, beauty, and significance of African American culture (Figure 3.5).
Figure 3.3 Phillis Wheatley. Poems on Various Subjects-Religious and Moral, 1773. Book, 7 5/8 x 5 ¼ x 1 ½ in. Courtesy of the Kinsey African American Art
The female pop and vaudeville blues singers of the 1910s and 1920s produced their own songs dealing very specifically with the difficulties of the Jim Crow system. When Perry Bradford convinced Fred Hager and the OKeh record label to record Mamie Smith’s version of the song “Harlem Blues,” retitled “Crazy Blues” in 1920, instead of a version by white “hot mama” Sophie Tucker, the resultant astounding record sales paved the way for a “race record” category marketed to African Americans through word of mouth, organized booking connections, radio appearances, and extensive advertisement in black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender. Advertisements created specifically to attract African American audiences, though they were sometimes obtuse and insulting, ensured that the records would reach the primary black audience. In the early 1920s, such features as “midnight frolics at the Palace Theater on Beale Street were often previewed over WMC radio’s Wednesday-night programs, which were also called midnight frolics.” Bessie Smith even broadcast from the roof of the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 1923 (Abbott and Seroff 280)! The linking of the racially segregated Theater Owners Booking Association to “urban community music shops represent[ing] the retail element of a complex commercial network supporting and profiting from the blues record star system” (Abbott and Seroff 281) guaranteed that the recordings would reach their target audience, and in part shaped the music and lyrics that would necessarily cater to the styles most appreciated by black audiences. Music shops such as R. T. Ashford’s Dallas record store provided “three soundproof rooms – they called [them] booths or cubicles to play on the Victrola before buying the records” (Abbott and Seroff 282), and some record store personnel became agents for recording companies looking for black talent. Though there was some studio censorship of the materials, by and large the recordings reflected the tastes of the audience, including the desire to hear honest experiences reflected back to the community.
Figure 3.4 Benjamin Banneker. Banneker’s Almanack, 1795. Extract from book, 7 x 4 ½ x ¼ in. Courtesy of the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® and the Bernard & Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts & Education.
Figure 3.5 Photographer unknown. Portrait of African American Private Nelson J. Campbell of the Sixth U.S. Colored Calvary, ca. 1860. Carte de visite, 2 ½ x 4 in. Courtesy of the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® and the Bernard & Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts & Education.
Singer-pianist Maggie Jones (her real name was Fae Barnes; she was also billed as the “Texas Nightingale”) sang in black theaters and clubs in Dallas / Ft. Worth and New York City, recording with, among others, Louis Armstrong. She appeared on the Theater Owners Booking Association circuit, as well as appearing in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1928 revue. She recorded her own Jim Crow blues entitled “North Bound Blues” in 1925, the year Alain Locke edited The New Negro for publication, heralding a new spirit alive among African Americans, many of whom had been encouraged to make the Great Migration to the North and supposed better times. Jones dramatizes her trip vividly, recording in 1925 with Fletcher Henderson on piano, and Charlie Green on trombone along for the ride. Significantly, the song itself was recorded in New York, the destination of the speaker in the song. Few recordings were made by African American blues singers outside New York and Chicago before 1926. Additionally, singing such words about Jim Crow would have been more palpably dangerous in a Southern location.
In her introduction, Maggie Jones inventories the objects she needs for her trip North: trunk, suitcase, and ticket are ready to transport her out of Jim Crow Dixieland to New York: “Got my trunk and grip all packed.” She seems to be leaving behind her significant other, heaving an exasperated and excited cry to the Lord and her man in between references to “Jim Crow town” and “New York bound” to dramatize her dilemma. Clearly there is no patriarchal authority here that can undermine the system, so the speaker must move of her own will. This she acknowledges at the end of the song, where she rushes out with no time any longer to listen to her descriptions of “North Bound Blues,” preferring to concentrate on a swift departure: “Going to daddy, got no time to lose.” In fact, three of four twelve-bar stanzas here begin with the word “Going.” In a sense, this strategy encourages swift departure in her record buyers, who themselves have no time to waste, since the “north bound blues” is upon them as well. There is, perhaps, a bit too much optimism in her declaration that she is going “where [she] can be free,” and “where they don’t have Jim Crow laws,” since neither was necessarily the case in the North, as many who migrated found out. Interestingly, the speaker of the song becomes a type of everywoman, saying goodbye to not one location but three: Tennessee, Arkansas, and Gallion, Alabama. It is as if she is encouraging women all over the South to pack their bags and go “a-flying,” which implies not only running away, as one might from slavery, but soaring, transcending to a place where they can no longer hear the hardships and insults represented in the “North Bound Blues.” Interestingly, the title of the song can be interpreted as meaning a song about the difficulty of going north. Though that is not described in the song, certainly a northern migration would not be an easy trip to make, given the leaving behind of history, home, family, friends, and job. But considering the alternative . . .
In circa January 1927, famed pianist and singer Charles “Cow Cow” Davenport was also vivid in his preparations to escape Jim Crow mistreatment, dealing with issues of frustration, preparation, anticipation, and separation as Maggie Jones had, but adding a bit of a safety valve at the end by hinting at the possibility of return in case the “the weather don’t suit” and “I don’t find no style.” Davenport refers twice to his exposed black soul, which he felt was in Jim Crow jeopardy, and therefore is putting it all on the line on the long journey to escape the South. In fact, Davenport is in such a hurry, he repeats “I’m goin’, I’m gone” – a hasty immediate departure – twice in the song. Taking with him a minimum of clothing and accessories – just the clothes on his back – he seems anxious neither to slow himself down with luggage nor encumber himself with a companion, whom he feels will not be of use in his new environment. His only concession is to consider easy-walker shoes or the backless shoe known as the “mule” to ease his walking. The reference to “green” likely suggests an inexperienced “country” girl who won’t suffice in a slicker urban environment. The suggestion here is that Jim Crow breaks up families, causes practical and cynical decisions to override interpersonal relationships, so that in many ways you are damned if you stay and damned if you go. Josh White may have exclaimed, “Damn that Jim Crow,” but certainly it was Jim Crow that was doing the damning. But Davenport leaves himself some wiggle room in his migration plans: if he does not find a comfortable environment in the North, he’ll quit his job and go “back to his Jim Crow town.” This is an interesting but quite problematic ending. On the one hand, it makes clear that Davenport is not innocent about what life could be like up North – it is not the Promised Land, not the place where his early optimism finds him dreaming that “money grows on trees” – but, on the other, his seemingly easy determination to return to Jim Crow if things don’t work out downplays the effects that caused him to consider leaving in the first place. However, Chicago-bound as he was, he found himself between a Hawk (a nickname for the harsh Chicago winds off the lake) and a Crow place, so to speak, where either option was fraught with hardship and danger. And the boss man was still ever-present.
What Davenport implies at the end of his song is made more explicit in a Fletcher Henderson-penned song entitled “Back Woods Blues.” The song was recorded by two different singers in 1924: in April 1924 by Clara Smith, and in May 1924 by Rosa Henderson, both with
the composer in accompaniment. This was the same year that Ida Cox recorded “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” indicating that one of the female blues personae of the era was definitely not in the mood for nonsense. Though Clara Smith recorded first, Henderson presented a slightly longer version of the song, a narrative opening leading to a series of twelve-bar blues stanzas – a common type of structure in the vaudeville blues of the era.
The introduction in the Henderson version indicates just how difficult it has been for the speaker to separate from her family, though presumably stark Jim Crow situations made it necessary. The intro sets up the listener for a song about how much she misses home, and how much she wishes to return: “Got the blues so bad for the place where I came from.” And so it is, but only for at most the first two lines of a five-line stanza, and not even that in line one and line seven. She immediately switches the subject of her blues from homesickness to Crow-sickness in line one, pivoting on a “but” after “I got the back woods blues” to complain that she doesn’t want to go back home, no matter how much she misses her family. Why? For one thing, there is the great distance in the vastly inferior Jim Crow facilities provided to African Americans on railroad cars, as the North Carolina law highlighted in the Kinsey Collection exposes. The next stanza describes harassment suffered by blacks, including females, at the hands of belligerent white passengers messing about the clothes and person of black passengers, apparently carried out largely with impunity. The singer makes it clear that she is not ashamed of the South, even the “back woods,” which implies a countrified and less modern environment, but her pride in her birthplace still does not overcome the difficulties brought by Jim Crow treatment. She is left with a huge conflict: loving her parents and proud of her home and heritage, she is nonetheless unable to return home. The downhome safety and comfort of her backwoods family environment is destroyed by manifestations of Jim Crow. The song is significantly framed with the line, “Got the back woods blues, but I don’t want to go back home.” Small wonder.
Josh White, the noted cabaret performer of protest songs among other genres, had a long career recording both “race” records (aimed at African American artists) and protest songs (aimed at an integrated but primarily white audience). White’s Greenville, South Carolina, blues and gospel roots were reflected in his recordings with Blind Joe Taggart in 1928, Charlie Spand and the Carver Boys in 1929, and his solo and other recordings beginning in 1932, which were aimed at a black, “race record” market. Within a few years he would be part of the burgeoning
American folk music movement – with its Leftist political leanings and connections to Carl Sandburg, Charles, Ruth Crawford, Pete Seeger, and the Almanac Singers – performing in cafés and cabarets in a mixture of sophisticated but deep-rooted Americana. This white leftist Popular Front movement, which had its roots in 1920s America and included such luminaries as Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Carl Sandburg, was familiar with White through his work in cabarets, nightclubs, concerts, Broadway, and even the radio programs of Alan Lomax on CBS. Though the Seegers had earlier committed to more abstract Modernist compositions as part of the strategy to generate a consolidation of the left, it soon became clear that to reach the masses, they needed to approach the masses through folk-oriented materials. However, the audience of the vaudeville blues singers that reached the black masses was decidedly different from Josh White’s in the 1940s. And this new primarily white but racially mixed audience became the primary audience for this aspect of White’s performing and recording career on such labels as Asch, Stinson, and Mercury Records, and brought White to the brink of ruination when McCarthyism and the Red Scare began targeting folk and popular musicians with a leftist consciousness that challenged the propaganda of the right. It was an integrated but primarily white movement politically motivated to raise the consciousness of proletarian workers to join with leftist political brothers and sisters that found White even performing sometimes as lead vocalist with a primarily white group featuring Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, the Almanac Singers.
In addition to his lyrics from 1941 in “Jim Crow Train,” he was known for his train imitations on guitar, notably accompanying his lament on the vicissitudes of riding the mighty iron horse. White initiates the song instrumentally, with a bold train imitation, announcing his mastery of harnessing the power of the train in his six-string box. In fact, the bulk of the song itself is instrumental, carrying wordlessly the message of the well-known lyrics of the traditional song. In the same year that Woody Guthrie branded his guitar with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists,” White used his own music in a similar way. As White picks up the momentum of his engine, he sounds the whistle alarm, much as Richard Wright set off the alarm clock as a warning for Bigger Thomas (and Wright’s own readers) at the outset of his novel Native Son one year earlier. Then White hits full fingerpicking speed, highballing toward his message. Significantly, White chooses the well-known melody of the song “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” as the accompaniment to his words. Of course, the name of that song conjures the feelings that African Americans experience riding the Jim Crow train, adding “bad luck and trouble’s all I ever had.” It is a perfect choice as backdrop for White’s own song. And it adds one more resistant sentiment that meshes with White’s own song and purpose: the refrain line asserts, “And I ain’t gonna be treated this-a-way.” That vow, not to be mistreated in Jim Crow fashion, though not explicitly mentioned in White’s words, is nonetheless inherent in his meaning. His words progress through 1) hearing the whistle that announces the train the speaker hopes is not a Jim Crow train, 2) then falsely believing the train is not Jim Crow – making it possible to ride more comfortably – but 3) ultimately finding his hopes dashed when the train is revealed in fact to be a Jim Crow train. His hopes rained on, his optimism undercut, his bad luck and trouble confirmed, the speaker has little left to do in the song but condemn the system of Jim Crow. Still, the song itself is a rousing exposition of the volatile frustrations caused by a system that clearly must be not only condemned, but DAMNED, in a biblical sense, for its irreligious tyranny.
Fellow folk song performers Pete Seeger and Lee Hays wrote a very pointed song entitled “Jim Crow” that was recorded in 1944 by White. The composition of Seeger and Hays dug into the American historical context of Jim Crow, reaching back to the Civil War and the failure of Abraham Lincoln’s promise of “victory,” and also forward to the restrictions at the polls and on public transportation. The composition is a deft and devastating mixture of statements and questions hauntingly answered by some variation of the refrain “Jim Crow.” The straightforward declarative statement of the first line of the song, “Lincoln set the Negro free,” receives expression as the “official” historical account of the principled response to slavery. However, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves, nor did the war end their racially based suffering. Hence, line two presents a chilling and sarcastic question: “Why is he [the Negro] still in slavery?” Both lines contain seven syllables, so there is a structural balance to them that is undercut by the sarcasm, as well as unsettled by the repetition of the words of line two, the fourteen syllables overwhelming the seven. The doubling of line two makes the last line of stanza one even more stark, since it hangs the term “Jim Crow” out by itself, like the singular fact of a lynching victim swaying from a sagging poplar branch. To all of the syllables that precede the final line, just two single-syllable words present a ringing retort. This is a fitting announcement and death knell for the song’s blues and deadly musical and lyrical ambience, surrounding and encompassing more specific references to the nature of the institution.
The second stanza builds on the concept of being free by referencing the word twice, the first in a positive incarnation, the second through devastating sarcasm on the illusion of freedom in its conventional sense. Indeed, freedom can be a liability without a successful Reconstruction or assistance. Freedom can be the curse – “of Jim Crow.” Particularly if, as in stanzas three and four, the Negro has neither the power to vote to change conditions or the freedom to move about with dignity and hope. The second-to-last stanza utilizes a strategy similar to that of stanza one, a declarative statement about the democratic nature of America. However, it is followed by the more assertive demand to “put an end to slavery / And Jim Crow,” suggesting an emboldening of the singer as he delineates the system of Jim Crow. Nevertheless, as the song ends, the lyrics return to the beginning, encircling the narrative with the power of Jim Crow and restricting the positive movement of the song to some kind of victory.
But, of course, there were others in the folk song movement who addressed Jim Crow. The great songster Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, was an endless fount of folk songs of all varieties coming from country suppers, sukey jumps, street corners, and prison yards. Leadbelly’s political bent shows through in a song he recorded in 1938 (also recorded in 1940) in relation to one of the most controversial episodes of its time, the infamous arrest, trial and sentencing of the “Scottsboro Boys,” which Leadbelly discusses guardedly in spoken sections of the song. The episode began with a large group of people hoboing on a Southern Railroad freight train in Alabama on March 25, 1931. The so-called Scottsboro Boys consisted of nine African American teenagers on the train who were accused of attacking a couple of white males, who exited the train and informed the police. Two white women also exited the train at the time the Scottsboro Boys were detained, claiming to have been raped, bringing the engine of Jim Crow “justice” to hit on all cylinders. Formations of lynch mobs, faulty evidence, shoddy representation, hasty and poorly executed trials – a general rush to injustice of the Jim Crow system occurred. Only through the intervention of the Communist Party and the NAACP were appeals made possible, but a series of unjust trials and appeals still found some of the men convicted and sentenced to prison, even though looking back the trials have proved to be a monumental miscarriage of justice. The trials, which lasted from 1931 to 1937 and went all the way to the Supreme Court – as well as the time of Leadbelly’s 1938 recording – caused outrage, especially among those in the North, and writers such as Countee Cullen (“Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song”), Langston Hughes (Scottsboro Limited), and Richard Wright (Native Son) drew upon the trials for aspects of their work. These were also the years when the philanthropic Harmon Foundation was recognizing the distinguished contributions of African American visual artists and writers, as evidenced in the Harmon Foundation exhibition catalogs in Checklist #58. Such a high-profile case as the Scottsboro Boys, even a trumped-up case, still had a negative impact on white responses to African Americans, at a time when African American middle-class people wanted to identify with Laura Wheeler Waring’s “respectable” 1828 portrait (see Checklist 85).
Interestingly, in the sung portions of the song, Leadbelly does not make reference to the reported rape incident at all. For him, what happened is a reflection of the heinous nature of the entire system. Therefore, he counsels African Americans to beware of landlords, of trying to sing, of trying to LIVE in Alabama. Additionally, he counsels Joe Louis never to set up a boxing match in Alabama. The exact reason is not clear: is it because Leadbelly does not want to bring any economic benefits to Alabama through this bout; or is it because he fears even the heavyweight champion of the world would be in Jim Crow danger in Alabama? Or both? An anecdote about Joe Louis traveling with singer Ruth Brown in Gulfport, Mississippi, in the 1950s is suggestive: “She got out for a drink at a gas station. The cracker screamed at her. When Joe stepped out to see what went on, the cracker recognized him and shut his own mouth. Quick. Apologized. And fixed a special pitcher of water.” But, of course, Louis could only fight Jim Crow a few “crackers” at a time. The spoken passages of the song, however, do treat the alleged rape.
Leadbelly recorded another song relative to Jim Crow in December 1938, a song that some scholars have suggested was composed by Leadbelly in collaboration with politically leftist colleagues, because the title, “Bourgeois Blues,” contains a political term they suggested was unfamiliar to Leadbelly. Be that as it may, it is still a song that seems to describe Leadbelly’s own racist experiences in the nation’s capitol: We heard the white man say, “I don’t want no niggers up there.” Explicit in its use of the “n word” – spoken by a white man, as Leadbelly refers to African Americans as “colored,” as was typical at the time – the song is equally explicit about the treatment of African Americans, as well as the attitudes behind that treatment, based both on race and class. Leadbelly is also quite clear that he will, as the refrain says repeatedly, “spread the news all around.” It would have been somewhat dangerous for an African American to be so vociferous in his protestations of Jim Crow. Indeed, Leadbelly was under surveillance by the FBI in the 1940s. His use of the “Star Spangled Banner” lyrics in the opening stanza followed a pattern of abolitionist poems that turned the language of the system against itself, but Leadbelly’s reversal of the order of the lyrics from the original song implies that something is a bit out of whack in the state of Denmark, or in this case D.C., when an African American is locked out of the benefits of democracy, all the while made to stoop before the white man by any means necessary, in this case by throwing small change at the poor man’s poorly shod feet.
When Leadbelly finally sang his way to freedom, his relationship with John and Alan Lomax, difficult as it was, helped him gain wide fame around the world as a folk singer. Around 1943, he recorded a Jim Crow song, perhaps for Moses Asch. Interestingly, Leadbelly invokes death: “This old Jim Crowism’s dead bad luck for me and you.” He characterizes its mortal effects and relates to the notion that the ubiquitous words “bad luck” in the blues are often used as a euphemism for racism and discrimination, and not just garden-variety troubles. Leadbelly takes a much more active approach to Jim Crow, informing his fans in person, and through the medium of radio, that Jim Crow was everywhere (from shore to shore, or sea to shining sea). Leadbelly advocated a collective response to Jim Crow, to “break up this Jim Crow.” Clearly, none of the responses we have discussed have been passive: leaving Jim Crow towns in any numbers would have had an effect on the economy and social milieu of the South. Furthermore, singing about Jim Crow problems would spread the word and raise the notoriety of the system, making it a kind of semi-active resistance through exposure. But Leadbelly advocates for a collective resistance, even employing the violence of the phrase “break up” after he urges “Please get together.” And he sends out his message indiscriminately over the radio, perhaps realizing, by the 1940s and in the context of the folk music movement encouraged by the Left, he had both black and white allies in the fight against racism that would encourage his more “radical” broadcasts. After all, he had become a fixture on the circuit that featured other folk singers such as Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Aunt Molly Jackson, Josh White, and Burl Ives by this time, and had sung songs about Roosevelt and Hitler. He was a much more immediately political artist (Figure 3.6).
As we can see from this selection of recordings by a variety of artists for a variety of audiences, there was no dearth of commentary on the Jim Crow system. Be they slyly nuanced, contextualized with African American traditional lore, or brutally frank in taking on the hypocrisies of American democracy, the lyrics of these performers demonstrate a clear protest tradition against prohibitions such as those contained in the “North Carolina Law Providing for the Separate Accommodation of the White and Colored Passengers Upon Motor Busses, and for Other Purposes,” in a variety of blues venues available at the time. Though the commercial recordings of the time would frequently not allow such profanity, it is possible to hear in the frustration, fervor, and frankness of these blues recordings the direct challenge to American socio-political practices that would, after Woolworth protests (Figure 4.6), the March on Washington (Figure 3.7), and other recorded protests, ultimately help condemn and end them:
Damn that Jim Crow.
Figure 3.6 Woolworth Boycott Broadside by CORE, ca. 1960. Ink on paper, 8 ¼ x 10 ¾ in. Courtesy of the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® and the Bernard & Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts & Education.
Figure 3.7 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. Lincoln Memorial program w/ Black & White photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., 8 3/8 x 18 5/8 in. Courtesy of the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® and the Bernard & Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts & Education.
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Johnson, James Weldon. Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. 1912. Rpt. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960.
Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Packard, Jerrold M. American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow. Boston: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003.
Songs for Political Action. Bear Family BCD 15720 JL. [Book and CD set].
Tracy, Steven C., ed. Write Me a Few of Your Lines: A Blues Reader. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
Wilkerson , Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns. New York: Random House, 2010.
Wolfe, Charles and Kip Lornell. The Life and Legend of Leadbelly. 1992. Rpt. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
 For more information on the period from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Era, see Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. (New York: Harper and Row, 1988); and Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). For the story of the Great Migration, see Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns (New York: Random House, 2010).
 For studies on minstrelsy, see Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); and Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2007).
 Hear Hurston perform “Crow Dance” at https://www.loc.gov/item/flwpa000017/.
 Clara Smith, “You Don’t Know My Mind Blues,” 1924, Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 1. (Document DOCD 5364).
 See Jerrold M. Packard, American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow (Boston: St. Martin’s, 2003); Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2008).
 See Cockrell, 25–26.
 Maggie Jones, “North Bound Blues,” 1925, Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 1. (Document DOCD 5348).
 Charles Davenport, “Cow Cow.” “Jim Crow Blues,” 1927, Cow Cow Davenport: Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 1. (Documents 5141).
 Clara Smith, “Back Woods Blues,” April 1924, Clara Smith: Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 2. (Document DOCD [Written by Fletcher Henderson]).
 Rosa Henderson, “Back Woods Blues,” May 1924, Rosa Henderson: Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 2. (Document DOCD 5402. [Written by Fletcher Henderson]).
 See Songs for Political Action (Bear Family BCD 15720. JL, Book and CD set).
 Josh White, “Jim Crow Train,” 1941, Rpt. Songs for Political Action (Bear Family BCD 15720. JL).
 Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940): 3.
 Josh White, “Jim Crow,” 1944, Free and Equal Blues (Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40081 [Written by Lee Hays and Pete Seeger]).
 Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), “Scottsboro Boys,” 1938, Roosevelt’s Blues (Agram Blues AB 2017).
 Steven C. Tracy, ed., Write Me a Few of Your Lines: A Blues Reader (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999): 325.
 Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), “Bourgeois Blues.”
 Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), “Jim Crow,” 1944? Leadbelly (Everest LP 202).