Over the years, my music collection has grown into a completely unmanageable mess, especially since I started the blog. Those of you who regularly read my stuff know that I listen to each album three times without distraction, then listen to it again as I write. What you don’t know is when I review an album not in my collection, I usually don’t just buy the record I’m going to review—I also buy the surrounding albums in the artist’s timeline. For example, in preparation for my upcoming review of Blondie’s third album, Parallel Lines, I also bought their first, second, fourth and fifth. I like to know where an artist has been and where they’re going, and I feel like I’m cheating the reading audience if I don’t understand the developmental context of a particular piece of music.
And because my life is quite full without the blog and because I travel through six time zones to earn my daily bread, life is sort of a happy blur for me. I hate sitting on my ass doing nothing, and even if you were to see me sitting on my ass apparently doing nothing, my mind is going a mile a minute with plans, possibilities, musical construction and plenty of sexual fantasy. Stimulation is a permanent state of affairs for me.
While I do like the constant action, it does have its downsides. I forget where I put things. When I lived in the States, I had to file an extension every year because I’d never get around to paying my taxes. I give really bad directions because the part of my brain that processes geography stopped working after years of complete neglect. I just go, and figure it out on the way. And sometimes I buy things that I already have—duplicate sweaters and skirts, duplicate glassware, and oodles of duplicate music.
All of these influences converge right here, with The Best of John Lee Hooker. I have no fucking idea how this particular John Lee Hooker record wound up in my collection. According to Discogs, this particular version of The Best of John Lee Hooker (there are several) was released in Australia and New Zealand in 1993. I’ve never visited either country and don’t know anyone who lives there. It appears to be a later release of a version released in the U. S. in 1974, but I wasn’t alive then and that version was unavailable until recently (it’s now a pretty expensive piece of music history).
Worse still, when I started my annual blues jag and browsed through my collection, I found no less than four John Lee Hooker compilations in the vault, with many of the same versions of the same songs. It’s entirely possible that I saw those records in a store, felt my diddle twiddle and rushed to the checkout stand without considering the possibility that I already owned the music.
Oh, well. I never wanted to be rich anyway. Better to piss it away on music than a Maserati.
I chose this collection for three reasons. One, the sound is fantastic. Two, it’s a solid representation of his work spanning three decades with few significant omissions. Three, this collection opens with John Lee’s opening remarks for a gig he played with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. Some of his words are elusive, but the essence of his message is a timeless statement of artistic purpose:
It’s a big wide world. You can roam a long ways. I’m so glad that we are here . . . You know we have come a long ways . . . we all are entertainers . . . trying to reach you . . . to bring you the message of the blues.
There are few bluesmen as qualified as John Lee Hooker to bring the message of the blues to a modern audience. He is a superb storyteller, making it easy for the listener to visualize a moment, share his joy or empathize with his pain. While the departure point for most of his songs is the standard blues progression, he nearly always wanders from the model—sometimes by dropping the fifth entirely or by replacing it with an unusual chord created by using standard positioning in open tuning. To the endless frustration of those who had the honor to play with him, he would unexpectedly drop or add measures according to how he was feeling it, giving his music an unusual immediacy. John Lee also combined lessons from his bluesman stepfather with open tuning to create a drone effect that gives his sound a different flavor than classic Delta blues and its offsprings. Like Muddy Waters, his music bridges the acoustic-electric/Delta-Chicago shift of the post-war era.
And the boy knew how to boogie-woogie—it was in him and it got to come out!
However, not all is sweetness and light when it comes to John Lee Hooker, particularly when it comes to his attitude towards women. While he’s hardly alone among bluesmen in voicing his ever-throbbing machismo, he is unusual in his directness and in the specific requirements he imposed on broads who wanted to bang him. I have no problem with the directness, but I do have to hold him accountable for some of his more outrageous sexist meanderings and, from my perspective as a dominant female, take him to task for what I feel are ineffective domination techniques more likely to backfire than set the bedroom on fire.
One final note: like Thelonious Monk, John Lee Hooker recorded many of his great songs several times over the years. Most of the tracks in this collection are from his Vee-Jay years, a mix of new recordings and new takes on earlier work. The years you see in parentheses are the year of the first-known recording (according to Discogs), which may or may not be the year the version in this compilation was recorded. When it matters, I’ll point it out—but we have more important things to do.
Like getting down to boogie!
“Dimples” (1956): “Dimples” is a timeless ode to female magic featuring an irresistible swing that Ted Gioia described as something that “sounds like a twelve-bar blues with a few beats amputated.” This early Vee-Jay recording utilized Jimmy Reed’s backing band, and in spots you can hear the band’s hesitation as they struggle to follow John Lee’s unexpected truncation of measures. It hardly matters, because what drives this song is John Lee’s testosterone, and a great male lover always shifts his rhythms based on how he’s feeling it and how she’s responding. “Dimples” is as hot as fuck, whatever your gender. For the ladies, it’s the ultimate sashay song, encouraging you to thrust those hips and shimmy those shoulders. For the gentlemen . . . well, it’s no surprise that the McCann Erickson agency used the instrumental passage from “Dimples” to advertise Viagra. “You’ve reached the age when giving up isn’t who you are, this is the age of knowing how to make things happen. So why let erectile dysfunction get in the way? Talk to your doctor about Viagra—20 million men already have.”
Ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sex. Do not take Viagra if you take nitrates for chest pain—it may cause an unsafe drop in blood pressure. Side effects include headache, flushing, upset stomach and abnormal vision. To avoid long-term injury, seek immediate medical help for an erection lasting more than four hours. Stop taking Viagra and call your doctor right away if you experience a sudden decrease or loss in vision or hearing.
Men will do almost anything to keep their plumbing in working order, even dangerous drugs. Takeaway for the ladies: before sex, ask your prospective stud if he takes any performance-enhancing supplements, and if he answers in the affirmative, respond with “I’ll take the top position.” If he’s going to croak during the act, this gives you an easy exit strategy while leaving the crime scene relatively pristine.
“Hobo Blues” (1949): John Lee ran away from home at the age of fourteen, escaping the dead-end of Mississippi for the music magnet called Memphis. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the escape triggered an itinerant phase in his life that would last several years. The man knew all about “hoboin’,” but unlike others who have sung of the trials and tribulations of life on the road, here John Lee sings about the more crucial moment when his mother followed him down to the train yard and watched her son climb into a boxcar. The music is both rhythmic and mournful, a one-chord acoustic guitar drone punctuated with steady handclaps and nimble fills that enhance the emotional content of voice and lyrics. The closing passage, where he describes his mother crying, “Take care of my child!” is deeply moving, the picture of the moment intensified by the repetition of the line as the song fades into darkness. Unlike Edith Piaf, John Lee Hooker faced his regrets, and we’ll see this tendency in other songs in the collection. It’s one of the personality traits of John Lee I admire most—the willingness to look back on those moments in life when we chose one path over another, and learning to accept the fact that tough choices almost always involve hurting someone else, hurting ourselves, or both. Those choices are the essence of the human experience.
“Boogie Chillen” (1948): This is definitely NOT the original. This seems to be the Vee-Jay version from 1959, but he recorded and re-recorded this song so many times it’s hard to know which version is which. It hardly matters—“Boogie Chillen” (or “Boogie Chillun)” is one of the great blues songs of all time, combining an irresistible guitar hook with John Lee’s spontaneous approach to rhythm and his remarkable ability to make a story come alive.
The 1948 version definitely sounds like a younger man who knows he has a hit on his hands—the bubbly confidence in his voice comes through loud and clear. And he was right—this sucker was a monster hit, shooting up to #1 on the “Race Records” (oh, for fuck’s sake) chart and selling around one million copies. The radio audience of the time was so taken with this song that WLAC of Nashville played it ten times in a row one night. John Lee commented, “The thing caught afire. It was ringin’ all around the country. When it come out, every juke box you went to, every place you went to . . . they were playing it there.” The song was successful enough to allow John Lee to pursue a full-time music career and abandon his job as a janitor in a manufacturing plant.
I still can’t get my head around that—one of America’s greatest musicians having to earn a living in one of the lowest-status jobs on the planet—the guy who has to clean up everyone else’s shit. John Lee doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would have gone back to the factory in his brand new Lincoln Continental and told the foreman to fuck off, but I hope there was some psychic payback somewhere along the way.
The version on this collection is more commanding—by this time, John Lee knew the song inside and out, so his vocal and guitar are more disciplined and intentional. The crucial component of the song is the last verse, when his father realizes John Lee’s purpose in life. John Lee nails it in both versions:
One night I was layin’ down
I heard mama and papa talkin’
I heard papa tell mama, “Let that boy boogie-woogie
It’s in him and it got to come out.”
Well I felt so good
And I went on boogey-woogeyin’ just the same
I think what drew people to this song more than anything else is the mesmerizing guitar figure that dominates the song. Guitar World published a superb analysis in Andy Aledort’s article In Deep With Blues Masters John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, with charts and tabs for those in the audience who’d like to give it a shot. I’m forever fascinated by contra-rhythmic passages, and “Boogie Chillen” has a great one, described by Aledort as follows: “Though written in 4/4, this figure is played with a triplet, or swing-eighths, feel, which means that notes indicated as pairs of eighth notes are actually sounded as a quarter note followed by an eighth note within a triplet bracket.”
But the thing about the blues is you can’t sit down at the piano like Mozart and scratch out notes and tempo with a quill pen. It’s all in the feel, and the great bluesmen like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson loved messing with our conventional notions of time and space.
“Little Wheel” (1957): “Little Wheel” is John Lee Hooker’s interpretation of a song that has gone through oodles of permutations; the one that listeners know best is “Matchbox,” as popularized by Carl Perkins and The Beatles. Instead of the big dog/little dog dynamic, we have the big wheel/little wheel metaphor, with the big wheel serving as the broad’s main squeeze and the little wheel happy to make her twat tingle when the big wheel is unavailable. The band does seem to have a problem following John Lee’s chord changes, moving to the fourth when he’s stubbornly hanging on to the first. What carries this number is the stop-time interruption in the middle and John Lee’s absolute confidence in his ability to “do more rollin’ than your big wheel ever done.” This was a man who loved being a man.
“Process” (1961): This is one of several cuts from John Lee’s great Vee Jay album Burnin’ that found their way to this collection. “Process” is a strong, slightly slow-tempo Chicago blues with a fabulous droning sax, solid bass from an uncredited James Jameson and some of John Lee’s best solo licks. From a musical perspective, “Process” is one of the strongest tracks on the album and is frequently featured in my fuck playlists when I anticipate a night of slow grind. Sadly, the lyrics indicate that John Lee and I would have never made it as a couple, given his disdain for women who think too much and lack sufficient cash flow. If I could go back in time, I’d tell him right to his face that intelligence enhances eroticism and I’M BROKE BECAUSE I SPENT ALL MY FUCKING MONEY BUYING JOHN LEE HOOKER RECORDS!
“Blues Before Sunrise” (1961): The second regret song in this collection (also from Burnin’) is my favorite John Lee Hooker song of them all. In “Blues Before Sunrise,” John Lee immerses himself in that dreadful moment when after a fitful sleep you wake up and remember that your long-term partner has ended the relationship, leaving you all alone in the world with nothing but a continuous replay loop of self-recrimination and self-justification. The utter sincerity of the performance is demonstrated in John Lee’s refusal to limit himself to verse structure to express himself—his lines spill over the edges, running into the following verses. The poetic meter follows no fixed pattern, making the monosyllabic tetrameter of “Lord knows I tried” extraordinarily powerful, especially given the metrically broken lines that follow:
My wife had left me
Left me for another man
For seven long years
Lord knows I tried
Everything I could
To get along with my wife
Oh, blues before sunrise
Tears standing in my eyes
A horrible feeling, boys, that I do despise
By the last verse he is reduced to repeating the themes of failed effort and loss, admitting he “tried too hard” to make things work. With strong support from the studio band (especially Benny Benjamin on drums and Joe Hunter on piano), “Blues Before Sunrise” is an absolute classic.
“Let’s Make It” (1961): I’ve frequently mentioned my disdain for sexual euphemisms, and though I really wish John Lee had replaced the phrase “make it” with “fuck,” I’m pretty happy with his direct approach in this piece:
Let’s make it, let’s make it, baby
Let’s make it, oh, right now, oh, yeah
Let’s make it, oh, baby, me and you
I don’t care what the world may say
Let’s make it, let’s make it
The directness is intensified through the complete lack of chord changes—one chord, one simple concept—what more do you need? Get the fuck on with the fucking! Towards the end, it looks like the object of the invitation wanted to talk things over before jumping into the sack, but John Lee nips that shit in the bud (“We ain’t sayin’ nothin’, we ain’t sayin’ a thing”). That’s good dominance—keeping your partner focused on the only thing that matters: poontang!
“No Shoes”(1960): “I know why the best blues artists come from Mississippi. Because it’s the worst state. You have the blues all right if you’re down in Mississippi.” So said John Lee Hooker in Ted Gioia’s book Delta Blues. And this ain’t past history—it’s now. This morning I read a summary of a U. N. report indicating that extreme poverty is on the rise in the United States, and the U. N. Team didn’t even visit Mississippi, which ranks last or close to last in nearly every measure of the human condition. I visited the Delta about ten years ago and some of the poverty I saw there was worse than anything I’ve seen in Africa.
When America was a future-oriented, progressive country, they used to say, “If you want to know where America is heading, look to California.” As long as Trump and the GOP have their way, the future of America looks a lot more like Mississippi. It’s incredible that the richest country on the planet has a government that prioritizes making “No Shoes” the future anthem of America’s underclasses.
Dominated by a guitar riff that expresses both anguish and puzzlement, John Lee amplifies the tragic nature of the situation through a vocal that sounds like an embarrassed cry for help:
No food on my table
And no shoes to go on my feet
No food on my table
And no shoes to go on my feet
My children cry for mercy
They got no place to call their own
Homeless and hungry, suffering hard times that “seem like a jealous thing” in terms of sheer relentlessness, we leave the scene with the “children crying for bread.” The reaction to this song should be deep shame and immediate action, but in the land of the free, people are free to starve because it’s their own damn fault if they weren’t born white and they should just shut up, accept god’s will and pray to Jesus to forgive them for their poverty.
“Drug Store Woman” (1961): One of the great things about America before white flight from the cities created the atrocity known as the suburban shopping mall was the local drugstore. It seems like there was a scene in every American movie from the 1930’s to the early 60’s where one of the characters had to stop at the drugstore. The drugstore had everything! Cigarettes! Coffee! Chocolate malts! Grilled cheese sandwiches! Candy for the kids! Nylons! Lipstick! Perfume! And there was a real phone both with a seat and a door so you get the latest report from your private detective, then go to the pharmacy counter in the back, buy arsenic from the man in the white coat and get rid of your cheating husband! What a great place!
Sadly, John Lee does not approve of one core component of the drugstore: the extensive beauty section where a girl can try and buy the latest beauty aids from Revlon, Max Factor and Maybelline. In this single-chord monologue addressed to the “fellas,” John Lee disapproves of the merchandise and the women who shop there, buying lipstick, powder and nylons.
Huh? Why wouldn’t you want your woman to look her best and feel good about herself? A woman who feels beautiful fucks beautifully! What the hell DO you want, Johnny?
I want the kind of woman that stay home every day
Be home when I get there
My meal’s on time—-everything on time
She meet me at the door, she says, “Johnny, are you tired?”
I say, “Yeah.”
My supper’s ready
My bathwater is ready
Everything is ready
Let me leave a note on the fridge: Johnny, your Hungry Man meal is in the icebox. If you don’t want it, shove it up your ass.
“Boom Boom” (1962): Though I bemoan the imagery that links guns to penises, “Boom Boom” fucking rocks, featuring one of the best backing band performances of John Lee’s Vee-Jay years. The stop-time pauses after each line help energize and focus the band, and every time they hit their spots they seem to ramp up the energy a little higher. John Lee’s vocal combines clear intent and extraordinary reserve, expressing the inner heat you feel when your eyes have landed on the ultimate object of your desire.
The origins of the song are fascinating, as described in this snippet from Songfacts:
I used to play at this place called the Apex Bar in Detroit. There was a young lady there named Luilla. She was a bartender there. I would come in there at night and I’d never be on time. Every night the band would beat me there. Sometimes they’d be on the bandstand playing by the time I got there. I’d always be late and whenever I’d come in she’d point at me and say, ‘Boom Boom, you’re late again.’ And she kept saying that. It dawned on me that that was a good name for a song. Then one night she said, ‘Boom boom, I’m gonna shoot you down.’ She gave me a song but she didn’t know it.
I took that thing and I hummed it all the way home from the bar. At night I went to bed and I was still thinking of it. I got up the next day and put one and one together, two and two together, trying to piece it out – taking things out, putting things in. I finally got it down right, got it together, got it down in my head. Then I went and sang it, and everybody went, Wow! Then I didn’t do it no more, not in the bar. I figured somebody would grab it before I got it copyrighted. So I sent it to Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress, and I got it copyrighted. After I got it copyrighted I could do it in the bar. So then if anybody got the idea to do it I had them by the neck, because I had it copyrighted. About two months later I recorded it. I was on Vee-Jay then. And the record shot straight to the top. Then, after I did it, the Animals turned around and did it. That barmaid felt pretty good. She went around telling everybody I got John Lee to write that song. I gave her some bread for it, too, so she was pretty happy.
As far as The Animals’ version is concerned . . . well . . . here’s my write-up from my review of The Animals Retrospective:
Look, when John Lee Hooker sings, “I’m gonna shoot you right down” to his woman, he fucking means it, whether the shooting is a euphemism for getting a sassy bitch off her high horse, a fluid he would like to eject from his hardened member, or a small metal object expelled from the barrel of a .44. Eric Burdon doesn’t mean it, because he didn’t have the life experience to give those words the layers of meaning in the original. Once again, he overdoes the vocal. John Lee’s is one of quiet, cocky confidence: he knows that bitch is goin’ down.
“I’m in the Mood” (1951): John Lee simply had to write this song, because it seems like he’s always in the mood. This is a seriously hot blues with the resonance from the hollow body electric guitars coming through loud and clear. The original (this isn’t it) sold over a million copies, making it one of the biggest selling blues singles in history. No surprise there—most of us get horny at least once a day, so eventually song will sync with mood if you’ve got the radio on all day. What I love about John Lee’s performance is that there’s no messin’ about—he’s in the mood, he wants to sing about it, and as soon as this recording his over, he’s going to do something about it.
“Maudie” (1959): I’ve never figured out why John Mayall and The Animals bothered to cover this song, as it goes absolutely nowhere. The storyline: “I love Maudie. She left me. I’m hurt.” We never find out a thing about Maudie—nothing about what she looks like, how she talks, how she shimmies or even if she shimmies. Not one of John Lee’s better efforts, but stay tuned—we do learn a bit more about Maude Mathis, John Lee’s first wife, in the closing track.
“Crawlin’ Kingsnake” (1949): I fully understand why this ancient Delta blues number has been covered by everyone from The Doors to George Thorogood to Buddy Guy—it integrates a powerful phallic symbol with a clear statement of the male right to take multiple mates while keeping the little woman safely locked up at home and telling her to mind her own fucking business. John Lee’s performance is a near-perfect expression of man-on-the-prowl, a feeling amplified by quiet passages where the guitar almost disappears and all we hear is John Lee’s deep-throated whisper, dripping with testosterone. I can put aside the laughable argument of male superiority and the tendency to overrate the importance of the penis and appreciate what is really one of the great blues vocals ever. Of all the versions out there, John Lee’s is the gold standard.
But if I want a version I can sing along to, I’ll put on Etta James’ version on her album Blues to the Bone. Singing the song from a woman’s perspective, she properly recalibrates the meaning of “snake in the grass,” calls bullshit on the whole operation and makes this pompous ass of a kingsnake shrivel to the size of a baby earthworm.
“Tupelo” (1959): Another reason Mississippi sucks: the place floods with cruel regularity. Memphis Minnie and hubby Kansas Joe sang about The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 in “When the Levee Breaks,” a human-scale re-telling of the most destructive river flood in United States history. Although Songfacts claims that John Lee wrote this song about a Tupelo flood that took place “twenty years before,” I can find no evidence of such a flood occurring in 1939. Tupelo was hit by a massive string of tornadoes in 1936 that killed over two hundred people, but there’s no reference to tornadoes in the song.
Therefore, we can assume that this is another tale about The Great Mississippi Flood, and I’m good with that. Listening to John Lee makes me feel like a kid sitting on a rickety porch on a warm night in the Delta listening to the old folks tell the old stories you love to hear—a feeling intensified here because it’s a live recording. The tale is liberally spiced with complementary guitar riffs and held together by a calm, steady beat. My favorite turn of phrase (atheist that I am) is, “There were women and there were children, screaming and crying, ‘Lord have mercy, in the great disaster, who can we turn to but you?'” Assistance from the federal government at the time was extremely limited, and as is always the case, the needs of white property owners came first. The key takeaway here is that the black people of the Delta remembered the flood as an unforgettable display of the awesome power of nature, and another indignity in a long line of indignities heaped upon people whose skin is unacceptably dark.
“Whiskey & Wimmen” (1960): I have no problem with men seeking solace in booze and broads after another boring day on the job. My problem is men who a.) get drunk, stupid and unfuckable and b.) men who don’t back the fuck off when I tell them I’m not interested. And it really pisses me off when guys blame booze and broads for wrecking their lives as John Lee does here in such an inaccurate and incomplete manner. It wasn’t the booze—it was your inability to moderate your booze intake! It wasn’t the women—if you thought the way to a woman’s pussy was by throwing your hard-earned dollars around like confetti, you’re a fucking moron! Stop blaming women for inherently male limitations!
“Whiskey and Wimmen” has a definite honky-tonk feel with its boogie-woogie riff, so I don’t pick up the needle when it comes on, but it’s sort of a nowhere song unless you’re in denial and peaking on a testosterone high.
“I’m Going Upstairs” (1961): I love the basic riff here—it was so good it was ripped off by Canned Heat in “On the Road Again,” but since John Lee and Canned Heat hooked up later for the double album Hooker ‘n’ Heat, I guess that imitation-flattery thing pays off! Despite the snappy, upbeat rhythm, this is a story of a guy whose mother is dead and gone, his father doesn’t want him around and his girlfriend has found a younger stud. The Depression Trifecta! The disconnection between music and story is too great for this to rank as one of his best songs . . . but I do love that riff.
“Want-Ad Blues” (1961): Except for the howl following the line, “But when it comes to lovin’, I’m a lovin’ little fool,” this piece really doesn’t work for me due to the inconsistency with “Let’s Make It.” Here John Lee meets a promising squeeze he found in the want-ads but when it comes time to go to the bedroom, she wants to . . . talk. John Lee enthusiastically responds, “All right!” This can’t be the same guy who refused to take that talking shit in “Let’s Make It,” and given the extreme Cold War tensions that dominated 1961, I’m claiming that this is not John Lee Hooker singing but a Soviet agent sent to discourage Americans from engaging in the reproductive act.
“Five Long Years” (1960): Most of the songs in the collection were written by John Lee, either alone or with his most frequent collaborators, Bernard Besman or Vee-Jay Records exec James Bracken. “Five Long Years” is a cover of the Eddie Boyd original, which is frigging outstanding. Eddie was a great blues pianist with a smooth mid-range voice who had an excellent command of vocal dynamics. In his version of “Five Long Years,” the blues he’s feeling over getting dumped by the wife after having worked his ass off for five years while faithfully bringing home his paycheck every week is masterfully communicated through varying dynamics and a tone of “Man, did this broad play me for a sap, or what?” The underlying absurdity of the situation is emphasized by a seriously growling sax and barroom atmosphere, which adds to the song’s Everyman flavor. You leave the song rooting for Eddie, hoping he’ll make good on his commitment to never let it happen again.
John Lee takes a completely different approach. His version is as still as a dark night, featuring only voice, guitar and a light beat, transforming the song into one of personal reflection as opposed to outreach for sympathy. His voice is generally subdued, as if in shock. The extended guitar fills are marvelously varied, the sounds of a man trying to translate powerful but still confusing feelings into some form of human communication. You leave John Lee’s version in a state of devastation, feeling deep empathy for a broken man who did all he could but still lost out.
“My First Wife Left Me” (196o): Our final regret song is the deeply personal “My First Wife Left Me,” John Lee’s reflections on losing Maude Mathis. Applying the same spare arrangement he used on “Five Long Years,” John Lee engages in an extended confessional, calling into question all his kingsnake tendencies and wishing that he would have tempered the insatiable male urge to prove one’s masculinity by balling other women:
I had a good wife, but I did not treat her right
It’s my fault–only have myself to blame
It’s my fault, it’s my fault, boys–I only have myself to blame
She would have been home right now if I hadn’t wanted every woman that I seen
I found out one thing: these women don’t mean you no good
I found out one thing, people: these women don’t mean you no good
You mistreated a good girl for some woman–that she’d turn around and turn her back on you
I love it when he speaks directly to the “boys,” the “fellas” he addressed in the sexist rant in “Drug Store Woman.” It’s fucking hard for men to let down their guard and show vulnerability, but most men have told me it’s ten times harder with the guys due to the unwritten codes of male bonding behavior. I also love this song’s placement at the end of the collection, as it demonstrates another aspect of the human experience—we all make errors of judgment, but we all have the capacity to learn, and goddamn, learning is one mean bitch.
Even though I sometimes resist some of John Lee Hooker’s messages, I have to give the guy credit for his honesty, a quality shared by all the truly great blues artists. The blues is the safe space where a person can share their innermost thoughts and feelings, no matter how ugly, no matter how socially unacceptable. Only in the blues could Robert Johnson have expressed a desire such as “I’m goin’ to beat my woman ’til I get satisfied.” While the term “politically correct” has the positive connotation of attempting to communicate in a way that shows respect for other human beings, political correctness can be easily transformed into a form of repression, and repression only ensures that when the feelings do come out—as they must—they will come out in the form of poisonous resentment.
John Lee Hooker let it all come out, and that’s the real message of the blues. It got to come out, people!
With the publication of the biographical study Woman with Guitar in the early 90’s, Memphis Minnie became a feminist cause celèbre. The sheer strength of her character and her insistence on playing, drinking and gambling with the boys thrilled feminists desperately in search of strong-woman role models.
Before I go off on my typical review-opening rant, I want to say that Memphis Minnie would serve as a great role model in many ways, but I have to confess I’m not a big fan of role-modeling. Putting aside that proviso, I think the feminist movement has a pathetic track record when it comes to role models, because as far as I can tell, the women they hold up as paragons are just guys without penises. Broads like Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel have only proven that women can be just as obtuse, limited, conventional, power-hungry and unimaginative as men. None of the so-called feminist role models challenge the assumptions of the current system, none argue for tearing it down and starting from scratch, and none show an ounce of the emotional intelligence that science has proven a distinct advantage of our gender. And as much as feminists squawk whenever a woman is branded a slut because of her desire to avoid pregnancy through one means or another, the feminist movement is as dry and sexless as a 90-year old spinster living in a house permanently buried under twelve feet of snow and ice. Nobody considers Hillary or Angela their idea of a good time. The women’s movement has become a massive repackaging effort—a pathetic attempt to try to sell the public on the notion that women can be as tough, as rational, as phony and as full of shit as their male counterparts.
I am fucking ashamed of my wimp-ass gender. The feminist view of the struggle is identical to that of The Jeffersons—women should have their piece of the pie, too. Feminists want women to be equal to men; I want women to be better than men. Why work your ass off to achieve the status quo? Can’t we do better than that?
End of rant.
Paul and Beth Garon, authors of Woman with Guitar, are feminist-socialists who attempt to interpret Minnie through a combination of Marxism and modern surrealism. While at times their analyses are interesting, and Paul Garon’s knowledge of blues is unquestionably impressive, the duo’s obsession with the surrealist connection often feels like they’re trying way too hard to connect Minnie to Magritte. What is really irritating is that while they acknowledge Minnie’s tremendous sexual appetite, they write about sex like feminist-Marxist clinicians, a tendency common in feminist writings. In commenting on the intensely erotic song “Bumble Bee,” they write:
But male singers also use stinging sex imagery to describe their lovers. If the “pain” in sex can be a function of male domination, how can we explain the male singers’ description of their female lovers in the same terms? Is not the pain actually located within the racist and sexist structures of human relationships? It is, of course, but we do not interact with “structures” themselves, but rather through our interactions with others. While the pain of erotic relations is embedded in the social structure, for the woman it is located and manifest in male domination, in the male demand and act. For the male singer, the pain is located in the female partner and the erotic act.
Getting hot? Didn’t think so. I had no idea that when I engage my partner in “interactions” and take a crop to her ass that I am merely acting out behavior that is embedded in the social structure, and that though I may pass myself off as a dominant woman, I am simply expressing male domination envy. Of course!
Well, fuck that shit. I’m not going to sterilize one of the most powerful erotic singers of all time. Memphis Minnie sung about fucking, not “interactions,” and her songs were grounded in life experience, not abstract social structures. She knew from early childhood that she didn’t want to work in the fields and ran away from home at the ripe old age of thirteen. She toured with the circus, busked on Beale Street, worked as a hooker and over the decades built a catalog that ranks with the best blues artists in history. Minnie could drink anyone under the table, chewed tobacco in her early years and partied like there was no tomorrow. A beautiful woman, she took pride in her beauty and the power it gave her, always making sure she was well-dressed and ready for any occasion. And though surrounded by men who grew up expecting blind subservience from their women, Minnie never let anyone fuck with her, especially aggressive types. “That woman was tougher than a man,” said Homesick James in Woman with Guitar. “No man was strong enough to mess with her.”
My kind of gal!
The best way to experience Memphis Minnie is not through the pages of a book or through modern feminist reinterpretations of a black woman’s experience in the early 20th century, but by listening to her music, where her command, her confidence and her unabashed eroticism is on full display. The Essential Recordings is a great listening experience, a set of forty of Minnie’s original compositions and collaborations from 1929 through the 40’s. Though she was often second-billed on the records due to the sexist norms of the time, she dominates the proceedings with the power of her voice and her guitar-picking mastery. Instead of my typical track-by-track approach, I’m going to focus on the “essentials of the essentials,” the songs that best demonstrate Minnie’s memorable personality and her undeniable talent in music and lyrics.
“Bumble Bee”: The version included in this collection is the 1929 Columbia version, from her first recording session with second hubby Kansas Joe. As the Garons point out, Minnie’s delivery is off and her guitar rather clunky, and it’s apparent that she felt the same way, for she re-recorded the song several times. The bumble bee is one of several euphemisms Minnie used for horny males and penises, often borrowing imagery from the animal kingdom. While the Garons engage in an elaborate interpretation of the symbol (that Minnie is making fun of the male obsession with penis size; or mocking the male belief that women can’t live without those big dicks), the lyrics contradict their hypotheses several times over. Why would she sing “it got me to the place, hate to see my bumble bee leave home” if she wasn’t getting any satisfaction from a hard one?
Give feminists an inch, they’ll call it a phallic symbol.
What I hear and read is a woman who knows how to handle a man and get them to perform exactly to her specifications. She also knows that when a man is a bad mood it’s because he needs to rebalance his testosterone levels with a good fuck:
I can’t stand to hear him, buzz, buzz, buzz
Come in, bumble bee, want you to stop your fuss.
You’s my bumble bee and you know your stuff.
Oh, sting me bumble bee, until I get enough.
Note that the act is for the woman’s satisfaction, not the man’s: “until I get enough.” Yes, you have to flatter men and tell them what great fucks they are so the brains in their penises keep the blood flow going, but that’s the strategy of a dominant woman who’s in the mood for a hard cock and knows how to get it done, not a weak woman submitting to oppression. Minnie’s sexual songs and her relationships with her husbands show clearly that she knew how to navigate in a world where a woman had to pay tribute to the myth that men are in charge, but understood that men are often terribly insecure people burdened with the unreasonable and absurd expectation that they are supposed to be the superior sex. Minnie wants a man who can get her “to the place,” the experience of deep orgasm, but unfortunately, as she sings in another version of “Bumble Bee,” it’s a rare occurrence: “He had me to the place once, I wish to God that I could die.”
Once? Pretty common, I’m afraid. Too many guys are pounders who don’t understand the clitoris.
“Frankie Jean”: Not all Minnie’s songs were about sex. “Frankie Jean” is a talking blues about a horse Minnie loves to ride but who keeps running away. She asks for her papa’s advice on how to get her horse back, and he tells her “You must whistle when you want your horse to come to you.” This is a cue for Minnie to whistle away on two separate verses, and she’s a great whistler. She also shows she’s one hell of a guitar player, breaking the bouncy rhythm of the song to use her guitar to replicate the rhythm of a horse trotting. In the last verse, Minnie indulges in the fantasy of turning Frankie Jean into a race horse and betting $5000 on her in a display of female bravado. The Garons go nuts on their interpretation of this one, calling up surrealist paintings and the image of the woman on the horse as a metaphorical statement of liberation. I really don’t think Minnie needed anyone to tell her that she was liberated, and I don’t think she gave a damn about liberating anyone but herself—her personal struggle for recognition took a lot of energy all by itself.
“Nothing in Rambling”: This is the one that got me hooked on Minnie. Back in my wayward, slutty college days, when penises and pussies replaced music on my priority list, my dad gave me a CD called Legends of the Blues, Volume 1 for Christmas, hoping to rekindle my interest in music. It’s a wonderful sampler of many of the great early blues artists: Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Charley Patton, Son House—they’re all there. But the voice that grabbed me was Memphis Minnie’s, because she was singing metaphorically about my life experience at the time.
I was seriously fucking rambling. I must have fucked over 100 people during my college years, men and women aged 18-60, all the races and several ethnic varieties of horny humans in one-on-ones and groups. I lived one charmed life, never falling victim to VD, herpes, AIDS or even a yeast infection. Now that I am a virtual sexual paranoid, requiring background checks and medical tests before I even think of getting down with a new partner, I look back with amazement and gratitude that I made it through as clean as a whistle.
Minnie’s song has nothing to do with my kind of rambling, but folkloric rambling—the life of the hobo, the itinerant musician, the people hitting the road to find a better life somewhere else. It’s one of Minnie’s richest and most dramatic numbers, with cinema verité imagery. In the first two verses, when the folks she encounters on her travels tell her “Ain’t nothing in rambling/Either run around,” her response is the ironic and playful “Well, I’ll believe I’ll marry/Oooo, wooo, Lord, and settle down.” The tone belies the lyrics, as if Minnie thinks the idea of setting down is nonsense. However, the remaining verses present stronger arguments for exiting the life on the road:
I was walking through the alley with my hand in my coat
The police start to shoot me, thought it was something I stole
You know it ain’t nothing in rambling . . .
Racial profiling is a modern catchword for a time-honored practice of police everywhere, and this apparently describes a real event that took place in Minnie’s travels (and I doubt it was a singular event). In the next verse, Minnie expands her social criticism to the unalleviated suffering of the migrants of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression:
The peoples on the highway is walking and crying,
Some is starving, some is dying.
You know it ain’t nothing in rambling . . .
The last verse deepens the irony inherent in rambling: it’s a gamble, but when you’re poor, hungry and hopeless, what have you got to lose?
You may go to Hollywood and try to get on the screen,
But I’m gonna stay right here and eat these old charity beans.
You know it ain’t nothing in rambling . . .
As a black woman in the 1930’s, she had no chance of getting on the big screen in any meaningful way, and a much greater chance of getting shot down by the cops, beaten by johns or starving in the icy cold of a Midwestern winter. Given the evidence in her biography, she found a practical middle ground: take the hubby along with you when you ramble. What’s important here is Minnie’s remarkable self-awareness; she knows the risks, but goddamn if she’s going to let a little risk get in the way of getting what she wants.
“Jockey Man Blues”: A riff on Kokomo Arnold’s version of Sleepy John Estes’ “Milk Cow Blues” (later recorded by The Kinks), Minnie sings of her jockey in the same way she sang of her bumble bee: “My pretty papa’s a jockey and he sure don’t ride for fun.” The Garons resurrect their miniaturization-of-men interpretation, and fall flat once again. If true, then why does Minnie, waking up to an empty bed, sing “I’ve got the blues this morning, just as low as I can be” and later, “”Lord, since you went away and left me, I don’t want nobody else?” It’s more likely that Minnie’s deflation was simply a part of the experience of a dominant woman. Look. A dominant woman always has to deal with the cultural reality that males are ashamed to be seen as submissive, so they tend to run and hide from her to hide the culturally-induced shame they feel as a by-product of submission. That trash-talking macho shit they hear from the boys always interferes with the male desire to submit (hence the epithet “pussy-whipped”), and even when a man finds submission a deeply satisfying and transformative experience, it’s a better-than even chance that they’ll eventually slip away to avoid having to accept who they are. Minnie sings of the vanishing man in several of the songs on this collection, and since I and every other dominant woman I know have experienced the disappearing act, it is definitely real, but also one of those taboo subjects that languish in obscurity.
Someone should write a book . . .
“If You See My Rooster”: The Garons try to turn this song about sex into a Marxist message about labor and production. Shit, did those people ever fuck? This is a rollicking number repeating the disappearing man theme, with Minnie playing hot guitar over Black Bob’s steady piano. This one’s great for getting in the mood, or if you’re me, getting more in the mood than usual. I should acknowledge here that one reason why the disappearing man theme appears frequently in Minnie’s work is that the phenomenon was much more common in the African-American community, as there were other socio-economic factors in play in that culture.
“Me and My Chauffeur Blues”: Minnie’s biggest hit, recorded in 1941 is an expression of a very logical fantasy: if men are such wimps that they can’t take a strong woman, maybe it’s better to hire them when you need them. Her guitar work here is superb, with marvelous fills and sliding chords that hint at the sound of a steel guitar. Minnie’s voice soars on this number, as she eschews the growl and just belts it out with the energy of someone who knows she’s written one hell of a song.
“Black Cat Blues”: Minnie gives us another strong, confident vocal about a black cat who starts out as a rat-catcher and later becomes a euphemism for a sexual partner. Her lead solo is the centerpiece here, a nimble piece of work with a rocking feel very reminiscent of the rhythms Buddy Holly would create a couple of decades later. All of Minnie’s songs are intensely rhythmic, but this one rocks a bit more noticeably . . . as do my hips after about five seconds.
“Ice Man (Come on Up)”: Goddamn, I wish I would have written this song. This is so me! The most unapologetically explicit song in the collection, this is the theme song par excellence for the perpetually horny, dominant female.
I got an ice man in the spring, a coal man in the fall:
All I need now to get my ashes hauled.
I’m gonna strut my stuff,
I’m gonna strut my stuff,
I’m gonna strut my stuff everywhere I go . . .
Ice man, ice man, come on up
You know my box is hard to fill up
I’m gonna strut my stuff (2)
I’m gonna strut my stuff everywhere I go . . .
Minnie also knew how to set clear, inviolable boundaries for her lovers:
Ice man, ice man, come and don’t get rough
If you start anything I’m gonna strut my stuff.
Baby, that’s a woman who knows how to put a man in his place! The only problem with making this my theme song is I’ll never be as good as Memphis Minnie on the guitar. Her bass rhythm and picking are way out of my league, and I can fully understand how she could just sit there, play the guitar and blow away all those big bad blues guys in cutting sessions.
Excuse me. I have so much sexual tension right now that I have to go strut my stuff for a while. I’ll pick this up . . . tomorrow.
“When the Levee Breaks”: Minnie’s great early recordings were largely performed in tandem with second hubby Kansas Joe McCoy (she would later record with his brother and a third husband, Little Son Joe). This piece from Minnie and Kansas Joe’s first session is sung by Joe, and it’s a marvelous and moving song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive flood in U. S. history. Joe has an everyman’s voice and the life experience that gives his performance an authenticity completely missing from the overwrought Led Zeppelin version. The words are so simple, but so touching in their personification of nature and the personalization of tragedy:
If it keeps on raining, levee’s going to break (2)
And the water gonna come and have no place to stay.
If it keeps on raining, levee’s going to break (2)
And all these people’ll have no place to stay.
The picking speed accelerates in a few spots to mirror the rising levee and the rising anxiety, a superb example of Minnie using everything at her disposal to accentuate the story line. But as hard as Joe works to keep the water away, there’s no hope except that which comes from moving on to a new life once the old one is destroyed.
“Hoodoo Lady”: One of Minnie’s most spirited and heartfelt vocals, her encounter with a hoodoo practitioner is a fascinating look into the powers of the female shaman, witch or whatever you choose to call those who dabble in the dark arts. Minnie’s more than willing to have the Hoodoo Lady work some magic to improve her odds at craps, or to help her find that vanishing man, but she knows that women—spiritually imbued or not—can be spiteful and competitive:
Hoodoo lady, you can turn water into wine
I been wondering where you’ve been all this time.
I’m setting here, broke, and I ain’t got a dime.
You ought to put something in these dukes of mine
But don’t put that thing on me,
Don’t put that thing on me (2),
‘Cause I’m going back to Tennessee
Her spoken word vocalizations—“Boy, you better watch it ’cause she’s tricky” and “Boys, I’m scared of her”—are spoken with no-bullshit intensity by a woman who knows how nasty other women can be. While men are boorishly competitive, relying largely on physical displays to resolve their conflicts, many women who never resolved their self-esteem issues compete in a sneaky, manipulative manner, using the learned helplessness of “feminine guile” to try to make up for a relative lack of physical strength. Echoing the twisted nature of many a female in a dysfunctional society, Minnie really bends those guitar strings in the instrumental passage, pushing those blue notes to maximum dissonance.
“In My Girlish Days”: Here Minnie steps back from her power position and assumes the role of wayward woman engaging in reflection over the life events that shaped her. This song has the intimate feel of sitting with the woman on the front porch drinking iced tea, or lolling around the kitchen table while waiting for the biscuits to come out of the oven while she tells her story. The first two verses describe how she fell prey to her “girlish ways”:
Late hours at night, trying to play my hand,
Through my window, out stepped a man.
I didn’t know no better,
In my girlish days.
My mama cried, Papa did too,
Ooh, daughter, look what a shame on you.
She’s driven from home by the shame of unwanted pregnancy, has no money for the train and has to “hit the highway” and hitchhike her way through the cold winter of 1917. The beauty of the song is in the complete rejection of the conventional notion that once a girl has ruined herself, life is over for her. In the last verse, the woman rewrites the traditional narrative:
All of my playmates is not surprised,
I had to travel ‘fore I got wise.
I found out better,
And I still got
My girlish ways.
The woman is now in a space where she can make better and more selective choices about love partners, but damned if she’s going to deny her sexuality and submit to Christian shaming. This is one of those songs that is “metaphorically autobiographical,” because while the events Minnie describes don’t sync with her personal timeline, she learned a lot on the road, and despite the usual “mistakes,” she never denied her passions. The guitar duet here is one of the best on the record, but in this song, it’s the message that matters.
“New Dirty Dozen”: The Garons quote two authors on the meaning of the phrase “dirty dozens;” we’ll go with Audre Lorde’s: “A black game of supposedly friendly rivalry and name-calling; in reality, a crucial exercise in learning how to absorb verbal abuse without faltering.”
Oh. Trash-talking. Why the fuck didn’t you say so?
The first and most noticeable thing about this song is that Minnie’s guitar run sounds very much like the opening to CSN’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Funny, I don’t remember Stills giving Minnie any credit, nor the author of the song on which Minnie’s tune is based, a piano-player named Speckled Red. Saving the issue of white boy plagiarism for another day, Minnie’s adaptation shows both her exceptionally advanced guitar skills and a lyrical talent that was far ahead of her competitors:
Come all of you women’s oughta be in the can.
Out on the corner stopping every man,
Hollering, “Soap is a nickel and the towel is free,
I’m pigmeat, pappy, now who wants me?”
You’s an old mistreater, robber and a cheater,
Slip you in the dozen, your papa and your cousin
Your mama do the lordly lord.
The last three lines are Speckled Red’s, but the first four are trash-talking Minnie. Apparently she didn’t appreciate the value of prostitutes as a way to reduce male sexual tension so guys won’t go around raping women; for Minnie, women were not sisters, but evil competitors.
“Can I Do It for You?”: My favorite duet with Kansas Joe is a call-and-response number where Joe offers Minnie different enticements in each verse and Minnie essentially tells him to piss off after each one.
Buy your shoes and clothes, buy your shoes and clothes
Buy your shoes and clothes, if I can do something to you
Hear me saying, I want to do something to you
I don’t want no shoes and clothes, I don’t want no shoes and clothes
I don’t want nothing in the world you got, and can’t do nothing for me
Hear me saying, you can’t do nothing for me
I’ll buy you a Chevrolet, I’ll buy you a Chevrolet
Buy you a Chevrolet, if I can do something to you
Hear me saying, I want to do something to you
I don’t want no Chevrolet, I don’t want no Chevrolet
I don’t want nothing in the world you got, and you can’t do nothing for me
Hear me saying, you can’t do nothing for me
Minnie eventually relents, settling for a Ford sedan, but even then she tells him “I don’t want nothing in the world you got.” What I love is Kansas Joe’s periodic exclamations as Minnie rejects his attempts to bribe her into giving him access to her pussy: “What kind of woman is this?”
She’s a woman who owns her fucking body and soul, you idiot!
“Dirty Mother for You”: It doesn’t take much effort to translate that title into the uncensored “Dirty Mother Fucker,” and most of the motherfuckers Minnie sings about are men in male-dominated professions of authority: doctors, judges and cops:
I ain’t no doctor, but I’m the doctor’s wife,
You better come to me if you want to save your life.
He’s a dirty mother fuyer,
He don’t mean no good.
He got drunk this morning, tore up the neighborhood.
In the last round, Minnie returns to her motherfucker archetype, the vanishing man: “You done squeezed my lemon, now you done broke and run.” The song predates the recording of Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” by a couple of years, so it’s likely that his famous line, “I want you to squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg,” reveals a Memphis Minnie influence. Another couplet, “I want you to come here, baby, come here quick/He done give me something ’bout to make me sick” would find a home in Red Arnall’s “Cocaine Blues,” later semi-popularized by Dave Van Ronk. Tell me this broad didn’t have influence!
“He’s in the Ring”: Two songs in the collection are devoted to Joe Louis, a hero of staggering proportions for African-Americans in the 30’s and 40’s. One of Minnie’s most intense vocals, you can hear how deeply she identifies with the fighter in her growls and passion-loaded offbeat phrasing. Long-time accompanist Black Bob makes his first appearance here, and I have to say that while Minnie’s guitar was pretty much all she needed, the piano deepens her rhythms and works very well with her voice. “Dirty Mother for You” has a fabulous piano piece (played by someone she calls “Dennis” on the record), and Black Bob’s piano on this song calls up pictures of smoky saloons and good times.
There are many more memorable songs in this collection, and I wish I had the time and the proper venue to write about them all. “Plymouth Rock Blues,” “Black Rat Swing,” “Reachin’ Pete,” “What’s the Matter with the Mill?,” “Where Is My Good Man” and “Chickasaw Train Blues” are all exceptionally strong pieces, and I could have lengthened that list by adding a dozen more. I hope that my limited sample encourages readers to explore one of the most talented women in music history, a woman who wrote some of the most striking poetry in the long tradition of the blues and who had that unique combination of courage and self-awareness that enabled her to build a successful and influential life despite unimaginably difficult obstacles.
That Minnie turned herself into an expert on the dynamics of sex and power makes her music all the sweeter for me. Damn, I would have loved to drink with this broad!