Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Automobiles and Singing the Blues during the 1930s

Sleepy John Estes

Singing the Blues about Automobiles and Life
            In the 1920s and1930s it was Blues artists – often coming from humble and racially restricted worlds – that recognized the car as being symbolic of freedom and unrestricted mobility. As Blacks living in a world of very limited freedom in the Jim Crow American South, their artistic expression – the Blues – contained the message that the car was liberating in terms of personal privacy and social and financial emancipation. It was a message of hope to those living in the Mississippi delta, connected as it was by U.S. Highway 61.
            Post–WWI Blues singers often sang about Fords, and especially the Model T. It was a hard working and durable machine, built by workers who included those who were Black. It was a car ignored for its virtues, as were the African-Americans who were working the cotton fields in the vicinity of Greenville and Natchez, Mississippi. One musical example expressing the notion of neglect was Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “DB Blues,” released in 1928. One lyric proclaimed “A Packard is too expensive, Ford will take you where you want to go.” Seven years later, Sleepy John Estes echoed a similar theme in his 1935 “Poor Man’s Friend.” Jefferson sang, “The Model T Ford is the poor man’s friend.” Indeed, while a Cadillac might have been in their dreams, it was more than likely a Ford that was the friend of African-Americans living in the Delta who were fortunate enough to purchase any car before WWII.
            As E. C. Widmer has so insightfully pointed out, there were strong sexual innuendoes in Blues songs, and that included tunes referring to cars.43 In 1926 Virginia Liston lamented that her “Rolls Royce Papa” had a bent piston rod:
Daddy I'll drop you in my garage: and that's no doubt
I'm going to wipe your windshield: cut your taillight out
Your carburettor's rusty: this I really mean
Your gas tank's empty: won't hold gasoline
Your windshield is broken: it ain't worth a cent
Your steering wheel is wobbly: your piston rod is bent
Your fender's all broken: your wheels ain't tight
And I know doggone well: your spark plugs ain't hitting right44
A year later Bertha Chippie Hill, in “Sports Model Mama,” claimed to receive punctures everyday.
The most important car-related song of the period was the 1936 Robert Johnson hit, “Terraplane Blues.” Johnson used the car-human being metaphor to the limit:
And I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
When I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
Who been drivin' my Terraplane, for you since I been gone.

I'd said I flash your lights, mama, you horn won't even blow
(spoken: Somebody's been runnin' my batteries down on this machine)
I even flash my lights, mama, this horn won't even blow

I'm gion' heist your hood, mama, I'm bound to check your oil
I'm goin' heist your hood, mama, mmm, I'm bound to check your oil
I got a woman that I'm lovin', way down in Arkansas

Now, you know the coils ain't even buzzin', little generator won't get the spark
Motor's in a bad condition, you gotta have these batteries charged
But I'm cryin', pleease, pleease don't do me wrong.
Who been drivin' my Terraplane now for, you since I been gone.

Mr. highway man, please don't block the road
Puh hee hee, please don't block the road
'Cause she's reachin' a cold one hundred and I'm booked and I got to go

Mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Yoo ooo ooo ooo, you hear me weep and moan
Who been drivin' my Terraplane now for, you since I been gone

I'm goin' get down in this connection, keep on tanglin' with your wires
I'm gon' get down in this connection, oh well, keep on tanglin' with these wires
And when I mash down on your little starter, then your spark plug will give me fire45
            Johnson’s songs served to lift the spirits of those oppressed and downtrodden during the bleak Depression years. It would be after WWII, however, with unparalleled prosperity and automobility, that music would take on broader societal significance to a far broader audience. And it would be the Blues tradition, drawn on by both Black and White artists after the war that would set the stage for the birth – in the back seat of an automobile, so to speak – of rock and roll.46

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