Cold Ground Was My Bed: The Blues and Social Justice

A powerful torrent of “justice blues,” as deep and wide as the Mississippi itself, flows in an unbroken stream from the Depression-era blues of Bessie Smith and Skip James all the way to the 21st century blues of Otis Taylor and Robert Cray.

Louisiana Red is an imaginative songwriter who has written some of the blues most darkly despairing songs, but also some of the most hilarious. Photo credit: Till Niermann

 

by Terry Messman

Cold ground was my bed last night, rocks was my pillow too

Cold ground was my bed last night, rocks was my pillow too

I woke up this morning, I’m wondering What in the world am I gonna do?

— Lightnin’ Hopkins, “Mojo Hand”

Lately, I’ve been immersed in one of the strongest currents of the blues — blues for the downtrodden and destitute, blues for the oppressed and dispossessed, blues for the broken-hearted and the just plain broke. A current of music so powerful that it’s like being swept away on the flood waters of the Mississippi River.

A mighty torrent of “justice blues,” as deep and wide as the Mississippi itself, flows in a long and unbroken stream from the Depression-era blues of Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Skip James all the way to the 21st century blues of Otis Taylor, Robert Cray and Charlie Musselwhite.

As I’ve searched for songs of social justice in the history of the blues, I’ve found anthems for the poor and homeless in every year and every decade since blues artists were first recorded in the 1920s.

So many great blues musicians have spoken out against injustice and inequality that it always surprises me to read the books of scholars and critics who write that the blues have little to do with social justice, or who ignore this crucial issue entirely. Many historical accounts even avoid examining the way that the blues were created by a people scarred by slavery, suffering under segregation and subjected to a system of involuntary servitude in the South.

Yet, all through the nearly one hundred years of its recorded history, blues musicians have been striking the chords of compassion and crying out for justice. This may not be the major channel of the blues, but it is, nonetheless, a deep and inspiring current that has always helped hard-hit people get through tough times.

When Bessie Smith recorded her powerful “Homeless Blues” in 1927, two years before the Great Depression, she became the first in an unbroken line of blues artists to hear the cry of the poor. In recent years, I’ve heard echoes of Bessie’s blues in the haunting homeless blues of Charlie Musselwhite and Robert Cray, and in the stinging social conscience of Otis Taylor.

It is vital to understand why Otis Taylor’s modern blues, “Plastic Spoons,” a heartbreaking picture of hunger and poverty in 2014, echoes so strongly the “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” of Skip James during the Great Depression.

The River of Song

For a hundred years, musicians have constantly sung the blues about the suffering caused by hunger and homelessness, and have written compelling songs to awaken the nation to the cry of the poor.

Their songs flow as ceaselessly as a river that runs all the way from the blues created in sharecroppers’ shacks in the Mississippi Delta of the 1930s to the homeless encampments of today.

In The Land Where the Blues Began, folklorist Alan Lomax’s account of his journeys through the segregated South to discover and record blues musicians for the Library of Congress, he explains why the inequality of that long-ago era echoes the economic injustice of the present in such a striking way.

Lomax wrote, “Homeless and desperate people in America and all over the world live in the shadow of undreamed-of productivity and luxury. So it was in the Mississippi Delta in the early part of this century. Boom times in cotton gave a handful of planters easy riches, while the black majority who produced the cotton lived in sordid shanties or roamed from job to job.”

The blues were born on the fields of brutality. Lomax wrote, “The rebellious were kept in their place by gun and lynch laws, ruthlessly administered by the propertied.”

Robert Cray, a gifted blues guitarist with the vocal style of a soul singer, brought the audience to its feet when he sang about a man who lost his home in a foreclosure.

 

“I’m Done Crying”

When Robert Cray, a gifted blues guitarist with the deeply emotional vocal style of a soul singer, opened a concert for B.B. King in 2012, I was absolutely blown away by his newly written song, “I’m Done Crying,” a deeply felt and up-to-the-minute blues about the homelessness triggered by the interlocking disasters of unemployment and home foreclosures.

“I’m Done Crying” is from Cray’s 2012 release, “Nothin’ But Love.” In the CD liner notes, Cray explains, “I was writing about the recession, about people in America who are losing their homes, and the banks foreclosing on mortgages.”

“I’m Done Crying” is a masterful piece of storytelling about a man who loses his job when the company relocates overseas. He then loses his house while unemployed — but refuses to lose his dignity.

“I used to have a job, but they shut it down.

Put the blame on the union (like they always do)

and now it’s in some foreign town.”

In Oakland, countless well-paying, union jobs were lost due to plant closures. The runaway corporations got rich, the workers got shafted, and the unions got blamed. Many of those workers ended up in homeless shelters.

Every word of Cray’s song happened in real life on the streets of Oakland. Now, with the nationwide foreclosure epidemic, it is happening all over America.

“They took the house when I lost my job.

Left us out in the street (yes they did).”

Cray went beyond simply telling the outer truths about eviction and dislocation, and described the inner emotional truths of what it feels like to not only have your job and home stripped away, but to have your very identity erased.

“I begged for mercy, called out in pain,

No one seems to hear me. It’s like I don’t have a name.”

It is that verse that struck home so profoundly. No matter how many times people may read the statistics about others losing their homes or jobs, it is always a shock when it happens to them. Then they find out that nearly no one cares, and that their lives no longer seem to matter.

“It’s like I don’t have a name.”

That one line captures this loss of soul in an unforgettable way. Cray ends the song by vowing that he is done crying and has no more tears. He sings out soulfully, defiantly: “You won’t take away my dignity ‘cause I am still a man.”

The moment he sang that line, everyone in the packed audience that night stood on their feet, cheering in triumph. It felt as if that one lyric had beaten down all the bankers and home mortgage companies, all the heartless landlords and the whole urban tragedy of homelessness.

I would swear that every single person in the audience felt at that moment that Robert Cray was singing for all of us, and telling our story. In a voice full of anguish, he showed us how the whole burden of plant closures and foreclosures had fallen on the shoulders of one lone man — a man who still keeps alive his fighting spirit and his dignity.

As the song ended, there was an awed hush, followed by an outburst of applause and cheering that went on and on and on.

That night, the blues cried out in pain for all those who had lost their jobs and homes. The song was much more than a political treatise. It was the wounded heart of humanity crying out in the night.

Robert Cray and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan were largely responsible for the rebirth in popularity of the blues in the 1980s and ‘90s. Cray is a five-time Grammy winner who plays beautifully melodic electric guitar, stinging yet smooth, and sings in a soulful voice that blues critic Bill Dahl says “recalls ‘60s great O.V. Wright.” (That works for me, because O.V. Wright is one of my favorite soul singers of all time, along with Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Etta James and the incomparable James Carr.)

Blues for the Homeless Child

Charlie Musselwhite is a mesmerizing master of the blues harmonica who was born in Mississippi, and grew up in Memphis where he played with blues legends Furry Lewis, Big Joe Williams and Gus Cannon, before moving on to Chicago and playing with many of the all-time masters of the blues harp, including Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Walter Horton.

Musselwhite’s first album, “Stand Back,” was released in 1967, and he has been one of the most acclaimed blues musicians ever since. Last year, I stood right next to the stage as he blasted out his blues harp in a small club in northern California. It was a thing of beauty to hear his command of that amplified harmonica and his mellow, Memphis-accented vocals.

On Musselwhite’s “Sanctuary” CD, he became a voice of sorrow and compassion for a generation of lost and abandoned children. “Homeless Child” is a solemn and soulful blues written by Ben Harper (who accompanies Musselwhite on guitar).

As Musselwhite sings in a slow, melancholy voice, somehow you become aware of the unseen multitudes in the background of the song — and in the background of our cities — silently appealing for help that never arrives.

“Nowhere here to call my home, no one near to call my own

All that’s left is for me to roam. Somebody please, help me hang on.”

In words that cut like a knife, Musselwhite lets you know that in modern America, homelessness is a matter of life and death, and the life of a child on the street could end tomorrow.

“Some will pass and some will stay. Is this the end or just one more day?

Homeless child, homeless child, what is left for the homeless child.”

The Black Water Blues

On his “Delta Hardware” CD, recorded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Musselwhite sings the ominous “Black Water” about the deadly flood waters that inundated New Orleans. His voice is full of menace and gloom, like a prophet warning of a nation’s terrible downfall, yet it also is full of tender concern for the plight of Katrina’s victims.

“Oh black water, our world is filled with tears.”

Charlie Musselwhite’s song about the black floodwaters has deep roots in the blues that stretch all the way back to Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues,” a song she wrote in 1927 about the floods that reduced so many to homelessness. Bessie sang the “Backwater Blues” for the same reasons that Charlie sings the “Black Water” blues. She sang about the thousands who lost their homes and had nowhere on earth left to go:

“When it thunders and lightnin’ and when the wind begins to blow

There’s thousands of people ain’t got no place to go.”

Flash forward 80 years from Bessie’s blues, and Charlie Musselwhite sings that the black waters of Katrina’s floodtides are a “sign of our times.” After he sings that line, his mournful harmonica solo cries so movingly and rings through so many musical changes in the span of a minute that you understand why Delta blues legend Big Joe Williams called him one of the finest harp players of all time.

Hurricane Katrina was a disaster for everyone in its path, but like many natural calamities, it struck with far more destructive impact on poor and black people in New Orleans, who didn’t have the resources to flee the city, and who remained destitute and neglected for years afterwards. Echoing Bessie Smith’s song 80 years earlier, Musselwhite’s song is a lamentation for the ones who had the least, yet were hit the hardest.

“Poor people paying, and rich folks fleeing.

Black water, it’s a sign of our times.”

Warning that the wreckage caused by Katrina is “just a shadow of what’s to come,” he sings out a doomstruck foreboding that more black waters will flood the land — more calamities to come, more homelessness, more desperation. He sings the unnerving final warning like a prophet of old:

“Oh black water lapping at your door. Hello America, better get ready for more.

Trouble, trouble all around here, we’re too tired to shed a tear.”

The Invisible Ones

One of the most remarkable songs on Musselwhite’s “Delta Hardware” record is “Invisible Ones,” a half-sung, half-spoken anthem for the homeless.

I love that the song is not just an appeal for help, but is a cry for justice that breaks the vow of silence imposed by a society that chooses to remain in denial about the millions of poor and desperate people in our midst. Musselwhite gives “the invisible ones” a voice of their own to accuse the nation that has refused to even see their hungry children.

They may be called the invisible ones, he sings, yet they “have been here all along, right next door.” Homeless people are in every city and every state of the nation, and they become invisible only because they are shunned.

As Musselwhite sings, “You pass me right on the street, you just look away and down at your feet.”

Our society has banished these invisible ones from view and refused to hear their cries — even when they are handed over to hunger, homelessness, and ultimately, to death.

“You don’t see us, you don’t even try.

Our children are hungry, you don’t hear them cry.

‘Cause we are the invisible ones. The invisible ones, that you left die.”

These lyrics are not delivered as they might be by some liberal, middle-class poet writing about poverty in the abstract, but rather as poor people themselves would sing them, in words that bite and confront and accuse, impolite words that break the silence and voice their anger and despair that their children are abandoned to suffer.

Musselwhite sings knowingly about what nearly everyone who works with poor and homeless people has seen over and over again: the generosity and sharing that goes on in this community. I’ve personally witnessed far more sharing among people who are poor than among the affluent. His song knows all about this unexpected culture of sharing.

The narrator declares that he is of “the working poor” and goes on to tell us what that means.

“If you have a nickel, and I have a dime, if you are in need, I’d give you mine.”

If there is sharing in the friendship circles of the poor, there is cold indifference everywhere else.

Still, the question arises: Why shouldn’t we ignore the disturbing sight of so many needy people? Why should we be our brother’s keeper?

Musselwhite offers a stunning reminder: “On your front gate, you hung a sign.” At the front gate of America in New York harbor, we hung that sign on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The sign, by poet Emma Lazarus, adds: “Send these the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.”

Yet now, as Musselwhite sings, our nation refuses to provide a haven for the homeless, tempest-tossed ones.

“But you don’t see us, you don’t even try

We’re the invisible ones who are left outside.”

Plastic Spoons

Otis Taylor may be the most politically outspoken voice in the history of the blues. A 21st century blues artist with deep roots stretching all the way back to the country blues of the Mississippi Delta, Taylor is an imaginative multi-instrumentalist who sings and plays guitar like the primal blues masters of old, but also creates strikingly original rhythms on the banjo, electric mandolin and harmonica.

As the creator of “trance blues,” Taylor is an innovator who remains rooted in the deep blues even as he also draws on folk and mountain music.

In The All Music Guide to the Blues, Steve Leggett captures Taylor’s distinctive artistry by calling him a “righteous, fire-breathing hybrid” of reggae musician Peter Tosh and Detroit bluesman John Lee Hooker.

Legget wrote: “Otis Taylor’s unconventional approach to the blues has made him one of the freshest and most innovative musicians to hit the genre in decades. His driving, modal arrangements and defiant, politicized subject matter make most other contemporary blues artists seem like watered-down popsters.”

On his amazing record, “Double V,” Taylor sings about poverty and homelessness at a level of truth so intense that it sears the soul. In “Plastic Spoons,” it hurts to look so closely into the eyes of a man and his wife weighed down by the double burden of old age and desperate hunger.

In the liner notes, Taylor explains this song: “An elderly couple can’t afford prescription medicines unless they resort to eating dog food.”

Otis Taylor is a uniquely talented artist who sings the blues about homelessness, hunger, slavery, lynchings, Native Americans, civil rights — and love.

 

Some might feel the song is just too emotional, on the verge of becoming melodramatic. Yet, nothing in this song is sensationalized. Rather, it is one of those rare songs that refuses to turn away from honestly looking at the epidemic of hunger and misery among poor seniors in America.

My wife, Ellen Danchik, works with low-income and homeless seniors at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland, a city with the highest concentration of impoverished elders in California, and she values Otis Taylor’s unflinching honesty in describing this desperate scene of heartache and deprivation.

“Oh, the way they cry every night, when he watches his wife,

just about dinnertime, eating dog food on a plastic spoon.

We can’t make the bills. Can’t make the bills anymore.”

The instrumentation of “Plastic Spoons” is nearly unique in the annals of the blues. Otis Taylor sings and plays electric mandolin, his daughter Cassie Taylor plays bass, and Shaun Diaz and Lara Turner play cellos. Cellos and mandolin on a blues record!

The Reindeer Blues

“Reindeer Meat” is a song equally as stark as “Plastic Spoons,” and it, too, examines the desperate food choices that confront hungry and homeless people.

In his liner notes, Taylor writes: “At Christmastime, a homeless girl is certain she would never eat reindeer meat.”

The song has some of the expected holiday imagery: “If you see Santa Claus walking down the street, won’t you put a penny in the can.”

But it soon becomes clear that a homeless daughter has overheard her mother saying they won’t even have food this Christmas. The daughter vows that, despite her family’s lack of food, she still won’t violate the spirit of the season.

“Mama told me we ain’t got no food. But I ain’t gonna eat no meat.

Ain’t going to eat no reindeer meat, especially on Christmas day.”

The Blues and the Slave Trade

The blues began with the most massive and oppressive system of displacement and homelessness in American history — the slave trade. An estimated four million human beings were held in bondage by slaveowners at the time of the Civil War.

In The Rough Guide to the Blues, Nigel Williamson wrote, “No account of the evolution of the blues could be complete without an overview of how millions of people were uprooted and displaced from their African homes and forcibly resettled in the Americas, and of the life of misery and hardship that awaited them there.”

The plantation system in the Mississippi Delta “created one of the harshest systems of slavery the world has ever seen — an unrelentingly punishing environment that gave birth to the blues,” Williamson added.

B.B. King’s song, “Why I Sing the Blues,” examines the deepest historical roots of the blues.

“When I first got the blues, they brought me over on a ship.

Men were standing over me and a lot more with a whip.

And everybody wanna know why I sing the blues.”

On his “Respect the Dead” album, Otis Taylor sings “Ten Million Slaves” in a voice nearly as broodingly intense as John Lee Hooker’s. The song describes the ordeal of millions of African people — his ancestors — who were put in chains and taken across the ocean on the Middle Passage to a land they had never seen.

“Ten million slaves crossed that ocean, they had shackles on the legs.

Food goes bad, food looks rancid, but they ate it, anyway.

Don’t know where, where they’re going. Don’t know where, where they’ve been.”

British blues scholar Paul Oliver’s account of the origins of the blues in his book, Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues, begins with a harrowing description of the slave system. “Over a period of three centuries men and women in the millions were torn from their African homeland, chained, shipped, sold, branded, and forced into a life of toil that only ceased when death froze their limbs. Their children worked in the fields from the day when they could lift a hoe to the day when they dropped between the shafts of the plow.”

Millions of enslaved workers cleared the forests and swamps of the South, and then planted the vast acres of tobacco and cotton that enabled plantation owners to accumulate their enormous wealth.

Countless human beings were sold in slave markets where children were cruelly separated from their parents, and husbands were stripped away from their wives, never to see one another again.

Paul Oliver wrote that the enslaved laborers were “held in perpetual, unrelenting bondage on whom the South relied. On the results of their sweat and toil depended its economy.”

Tall White Mansions and Little Shacks

Neil Young once was subjected to an enormous amount of criticism for singing that same undeniable truth about the slave system in his song “Southern Man.” I can’t for the life of me understand how he could have written a more accurate description of what was really at stake.

By any historical and economic analysis, Young’s words are factually true and morally correct, laying bare the whole basis of the plantation economy in a few concise lines sung with unbelievable fire and passion.

“I saw cotton and I saw blacks, tall white mansions and little shacks.

Southern man, when will you pay them back?

I heard screaming and bullwhips cracking. How long? How long?”

Young has it exactly right. The African people who were kidnapped from their homeland and forced to live in “little shacks” created the wealth of those living in the “tall white mansions” described in “Southern Man.” They were forced to labor from first light to the fall of night by brutal overseers with whips in hand.

In “When Will We Be Paid,” their 1969 movement anthem, the Staple Singers asked the same question that Neil Young asked: “When will you pay them back?” Mavis Staples asked that question and sang out the truth:

“We worked this country from shore to shore

Our women cooked all your food and washed all your clothes

We picked cotton and laid the railroad steel

Worked our hands down to the bone at your lumber mill.

When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?”

Although the U.S. government officially apologized and made reparations for imprisoning Japanese-American citizens in internment camps during World War II, the Staple Singers remind us that the government has never made amends, or paid reparations, for the horrifying crime of slavery.

Sharecropping and Segregation

Bondage and involuntary servitude didn’t end after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, but continued without let-up for another 100 years, until Rosa Parks’ act of defiance sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, and that, in turn, helped to spark a rebellion that grew into the Freedom Movement.

After slavery was outlawed in the United States, the sharecropping system began, and a new form of exploitation and economic servitude began.

The blues began as a song in the hearts of workers and prisoners laboring on the plantations and prison grounds of Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi. The blues is the beautiful art form created by a people that refused to let their voices be erased.

In Deep Blues, one of the finest books about the emergence of the blues in the Mississippi Delta, Robert Palmer wrote that after the Civil War ended slavery, the sharecropping system “rapidly developed into a kind of modern-day feudalism.”

“In theory, the system was fair enough, but in practice it was heavily weighted against the blacks,” Palmer wrote. “At the end of a bad year, and most years seemed bad to some degree, the blacks wound up in debt.” Their debts were carried over into the next year and were used to keep the sharecroppers in perpetual servitude to the plantations.

“Families that stayed on the same plantation year after year found that they sank deeper into debt regardless of how hard they worked,” Palmer explained.

The plantation system cleverly rigged the year-end economic calculations of the worth of a sharecropper’s cotton harvest in order to enrich plantation owners at the expense of poor tenant farmers. No sharecropper dared question this iniquitous system too critically because the landowners could immediately call on their armed overseers, and could also call on the entire apparatus of local law enforcement to repress any defiance.

At the same time, Southern officials enacted a comprehensive set of Jim Crow laws that imposed a system of white supremacy, enforced by cradle-to-grave racial discrimination and secretly strengthened by extrajudicial executions and other acts of terrorism carried out against the black populace by the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs.

“The laws ostracized blacks and made them second-class citizens,” wrote Nigel Williamson. “Formal sanctions blocked access to decent housing, jobs, schools, hospitals and public transportation, and ensured that African-Americans were kept unskilled, uneducated and living in poverty. Even in death, segregation continued: many morgues and cemeteries were white-only.”

Charlie Musselwhite’s blues harmonica cries so movingly that you understand why Delta blues legend Big Joe Williams called Musselwhite one of the finest harp players of all time. Photo credit: Mikesfox

 

The Voice of the Voiceless

It is truly amazing that one of the most important and influential art forms in America — the strikingly original blues music that has spread around the globe and deeply influenced rock-and-roll, soul music, jazz and country music — was created by the poorest and most oppressed black people living in one of the nation’s most impoverished regions.

As Palmer writes in Deep Blues, “It’s the story of a small and deprived group of people who created, against tremendous odds, something that has enriched us all.” The blues were created by “the poorest, most marginal black people,” Palmer added. “They owned almost nothing and lived in virtual serfdom.”

If ever a form of music has given a voice to the voiceless, it is the blues. This music that was first sung by an oppressed people locked away in rural isolation and held down in abject poverty — this music gave them a voice that spread across the nation, then carried across the oceans to reach the farthest corners of the world.

It is so important today, when so many in our nation are once again trapped in poverty — hungry, homeless and abandoned to live and die on the streets — that these voices are resurrected and heard once again as they sing about their hopes and dreams, their fears and nightmares, their quest for love and for social justice.

Interviewed on “The House of Blues Radio Hour,” Ray Charles described how the blues are born in an oppressed and mistreated people.

Charles said, “I think that the blues came from people having trouble. I think the blues came from people being mistreated. I think the blues came from people having bad relations with their loved ones, or being mistreated or depressed or oppressed. The blues is a way of expressing how you feel inside; you can sing about it and you’re getting it out of your system.”

The civil rights movement also grew out of people “expressing how they feel inside” about being mistreated or oppressed. That is why the blues and the civil rights movement have always seemed linked in my mind, linked by the history of segregation, racism and poverty that gave rise to both of these movements.

Just as I feel that the civil rights movement is the single most inspiring example of nonviolent resistance ever to arise in America, I feel that the blues and gospel music that grew out of the experience of black people in America are the most inspiring and influential forms of music.

It is a paradox of the human spirit that the all-time blues classics of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters took root and flourished in the hard soil of the southern plantation system, while Son House, Bukka White and Robert Pete Williams created some of their most memorable blues after serving hard time in some of the most infamous prisons in the South.

Laughing to keep from crying

Sometimes, the blues can be a way of laughing in the face of disaster — “laughing just to keep from crying,” as classic blues singer Virginia Liston described it in her “You Don’t Know My Mind Blues” in the 1920s.

Louisiana Red exemplifies this strain of the blues. A gifted singer and guitarist, and an imaginative and iconoclastic songwriter, Louisiana Red (born Iverson Minter) has written some of the blues most outspoken political lyrics. He has also written some of the genre’s most darkly despairing songs and, strangely enough, some of the most hilarious.

Death and poverty may be the least likely sources of laughter in the world. Yet the blues can transform even these mortal enemies of humankind and leave us “laughing just to keep from crying.” In “Too Poor to Die,” Louisiana Red works his verbal magic on our worst fears.

“Last night I had a dream. I dreamed I died.

The undertaker came to carry me for the ride.

I couldn’t afford a coffin. Embalming’s kinda high

I jumped off my death bed ‘cause I’m too poor to die.”

Sadly enough, Louisiana Red, seemingly an ever-lasting fountainhead of creative guitar work and socially conscious lyrics, died in 2012 when a thyroid imbalance caused him to fall into a coma.

It is almost impossible to fathom this bluesman’s contradictions. His life began in tragedy. He grew up in an orphanage after his mother died of pneumonia just after he was born, and his father was the victim of a lynching by the Ku Klux Klan.

So we can readily understand that Louisiana Red would be moved to write intense, autobiographical lyrics about growing up in an orphanage, or a searing description of watching as his much-loved wife died of cancer in 1972. And we might also expect Red to sing profoundly felt songs about the many injustices he sees in the world around him.

We might even be able to understand his performance of “Dead Stray Dog,” one of the most unnerving song titles ever. Kent Cooper explained that he composed the song for Louisiana Red because the plight of a dead and abandoned dog was a stark reminder of the lonely deaths of homeless people and wandering, nomadic blues singers on the road. The death of the stray dog, Cooper wrote, “was not unlike hundreds of drifters and blues singers who followed their inclinations and wound up in lonely, unmarked graves.” Louisiana Red performed the song with deep feeling. As Cooper wrote in the liner notes: “There are a lot of ways to die on a road. A person cannot help but reflect on their own lives on seeing an abandoned death, where you are going and how you’ll end. Red caught that feeling in his singing.”

All those expectations are more than met by Louisiana Red’s intensely felt and highly political body of work. In fact, he surpasses our political hopes with songs such as “Reagan Is for the Rich Man” and “Antinuclear Blues.”

Blues critic Robert Sacre captures perfectly this side of Louisiana Red’s music, writing in Music Hound Blues: “He is a specialist of introverted, intense performance, living his sad stories again and crying in true despair over emotionally charged guitar licks, well served by his great slide playing.”

So that side of Red we can understand. But how are we to comprehend that someone born in the midst of such tragedy also has created some of the most hilarious, astonishing and surrealistic blues lyrics of all time?

In an early song, “Red’s Dream,” he casts himself as the nation’s savior, traveling to the United Nations to straighten out the Cuban missile crisis. When a grateful U.S. president asks Louisiana Red to come to Washington, the bluesman tells the president that he can continue to run the country, but Red will run the Senate! And who will he appoint to the Senate to straighten out the nation? Blues artists!

“Oughta make a few changes with a few soul brothers in it.

Ray Charles and Lightnin’ Hopkins and a guy like Jimmy Reed.

Bo Diddley and Big Maybelle be all I need!”

But somehow, in this fickle world, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Maybelle were never appointed to the Senate, and Louisiana Red left America and lived in Germany until his death in 2012. He became another member of the small community of expatriate bluesmen who relocated to Europe and found a better home for their brilliant blues overseas.

See “When You’re Down and Out,” Part 2 of “The Blues and Social Justice” by clicking here.

See “The Mississippi Delta: Birthplace of the Blues” by clicking here.

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