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Jazz And Blues Legends

The Rough Guide To Blues & The Beast



This Rough Guide captures a whole menagerie of animals, both large and small, which provided the inspiration for many classic early blues recordings. From the mighty alligator to the lowly bedbug, these songs provide an intriguing insight into this weird, wonderful and often hilarious association.

The blues expresses with unprecedented clarity, honesty and simplicity all aspects of human life. Furthermore, it throws a good deal about animal life into the bargain and consequently many songs from its early recorded annals allude to a real Noah’s Ark of beasts, both large and small.

The legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson alone had quite an array of wildlife in his recorded output including black horses and snakes, Maltese cats, mules and bedbugs, which were used in ways both metaphoric and in the literal sense to help convey his underlying message. As the title suggests, his featured ‘Mosquito Moan’ is something of a straightforward rant which recounts his persecution by the bloodsucking insects.

The Memphis blues pioneer Furry Lewis is another bothered by troublesome minibeasts in his ‘Mean Old Bedbug Blues’, invariably drawn from first-hand experience when bedbugs were a common pest in the U.S. before they were almost eradicated. Another serious pest was the boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis) that fed on cotton buds and flowers and which had infested all U.S. cotton-growing areas by the 1920s, causing severe devastation to the industry. The legendary Charley Patton was renowned for commenting on public events of his time and tells of the destruction these beetles left in their wake in the classic ‘Mississippi Boweavil Blues’, with the words “You can plant your cotton and you won't get a half a bale, Lordy” and how the insect “Sucks all the blossom and leave your hedges square.”

From the miniscule to the massive, and they don’t get much mightier than the alligator, the apex predator of the Southern states. Not surprisingly it found its way into blues lore via two wonderfully contrasting numbers, both recorded in 1927. The lyrics to Victoria Spivey's song ‘The Alligator Pond Went Dry’ depict a scene where the narrator witnesses a group of alligators engaging in a social gathering. The old alligator is teaching his babies how to do the ‘Georgia Grind’, a type of dance popular in the 1920s. However, there's a sense of urgency and tension as they realize that the pond is drying up. Despite this, they carry on with their social function, determined to have fun and enjoy themselves regardless of their circumstances. Essentially this song provides a metaphor for the unpredictability and impermanence of life, urging listeners to find joy and community wherever they can, even in difficult times. In contrast, Helen Humes, accompanied by the slide guitar pioneer Sylvester Weaver, gives a more straightforward account of the fear of being eaten by a woman-eating reptile in ‘Alligator Blues’ whilst down in the everglades of Florida, after she heard them speak softly, “how we're gonna have dark meat." Fellow blues diva and unrivalled “Queen of the Country Blues” Memphis Minnie treats us to another no-nonsense tale in the horse-calling ‘Frankie Jean’ about a racehorse that wouldn’t come unless whistled to, whose running motions are mimicked by the wonderful guitar interplay of Minnie and her then husband Kansas Joe McCoy.

Several of these songs are riddled with sexual innuendo, none more so than Josh White’s ‘Lazy Black Snake Blues’ which is somewhat at odds with his later clean cut and charming persona which helped make him a key figure in the folk revival of the 1960s. Drawing inspiration from both Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘That Black Snake Moan’ and Victoria Spivey’s ‘Black Snake Blues’, double entendres abound in his smooth vocal delivery which he embellishes with wonderfully accomplished and improvised guitar-playing. Equally suggestive is Ramblin' Thomas' ‘Ground Hog Blues’ in which he talks of the trials and tribulations of having a groundhog rooting in his backyard. The song uses the obvious metaphor of the groundhog rooting to represent the unfaithfulness of a partner, with the term "groundhog" being a common name for a woodchuck or marmot.

The idea and appearance of the black cat in the blues is full of contradictions, with several notable early recordings using it as a metaphor for bad luck, whilst other later bluesmen alluding to the African American hoodoo belief in their lyrics that every black cat has a bone that is a powerful mojo, or charm. Ma Rainey is very much of the former pessimistic school of thought in her ‘Black Cat Hoot Owl Blues’, where she is not only haunted by the appearance of a black cat, but is also visited by an owl, a supposed fellow harbinger of doom. Two further feline-related numbers feature, with both the Birmingham Jug Band’s ‘The Wild Cat Squawl’ and Curley Weaver & Clarence Moore’s ‘Wild Cat Kitten’ offering a more upbeat and light-hearted take on the blues. Likewise, Barbecue Bob gives a comical yarn in his quite bizarre ‘Black Skunk Blues’ where things don’t go quite to plan after he catches his pretty little animal, “I thought it was a squirrel, I took him into my camp, when I put him down all my clothes was damp.”
Through the legacy of the great Chicago bluesman Chester Burnett, famously known as Howlin’ Wolf, the image of the lone wolf baying at the moon has become somewhat symbolic of the blues. However, long before Chester Burnett acquired this name, it had been used as a pseudonym for the Texas bluesman J.T. “Funny Papa” Smith who recorded his eponymous ‘Howling Wolf Blues’ way back in 1930. An idiosyncratic artist whose life is very much shrouded in mystery, he was known for his highly original lyrical compositions, with several of his early recordings having to be split between both sides of the three-minute limitation imposed by the standard 78-rpm disc.