by Terry Messman
The pre-eminent voice of the Depression era may have belonged to Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, as she sang, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Winning acclaim as the first major blues vocalist, she recorded songs that cried out against the injustice of poverty (“Poor Man’s Blues”), homelessness (“Homeless Blues”), the loss of poor people’s housing in Mississippi floodwaters (“Backwater Blues”), and the prison system (“Jail-House Blues”).
In 1929, when the nation began plummeting into the Great Depression, Bessie Smith recorded one of her most well-loved songs, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” written by Jimmy Cox.
In his second inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” The millions of people who were ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished could feel in their bones the truth of what Bessie Smith roared out:
“Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.
In my pocket, not one penny
And as for friends, well I don’t have any.”
There is something haunting today in listening to this long-gone blues singer performing a song about the poverty and misery that affected millions of people early in the last century — and then realizing with a start that the song is just as timely and meaningful in 2014 as it was in 1929.
Bessie Smith’s powerful voice enthralled a generation, and her beautifully expressive singing earned her the title “Empress of the Blues.” Her enduring music was vastly influential to latter-day singers, including Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Dinah Washington, Janis Joplin, Big Maybelle and Koko Taylor. Janis Joplin said of Bessie Smith, “She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it.”
Even though there is supposed to be an unbridgeable division between gospel music and the blues, Mahalia Jackson, the most legendary gospel vocalist of all, listened intently to Bessie Smith.
Mahalia Jackson said, “Bessie was my favorite, but I never let people know I listened to her. Mamie Smith, the other famous blues singer, had a prettier voice, but Bessie’s had more soul in it. She dug right down and kept it in you. Her music haunted you even when she stopped singing.”
Jackson added that even though she didn’t sing the blues herself, people have to understand what the blues meant to African Americans in Bessie Smith’s era. Black people all over the South “kept those blues playing to give us relief from our burdens and to give us courage,” Jackson explained.
The first blues vocalists that achieved widespread popularity were later referred to as the “classic blues singers.” Singers such as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith became the first generation of blues artists in the early 1920s.
The “classic blues singers” were often backed, not by the guitars and harmonicas of the country blues, but by jazz and vaudeville-based musicians playing pianos, saxophones, cornets, trombones, trumpets and tubas. And they often performed on vaudeville stages or in theaters or tent shows, rather than in the juke joints, street corners, plantation dances, and country picnics where wandering country blues artists usually played.
Although this first era of recorded blues music was a far cry from what would later become known as the blues, the finest of the classic women vocalists gave a deeply felt expression of the emotional heart and soul of the blues.
Bessie Smith began singing with the great blues pioneer Ma Rainey beginning in 1912, and then recorded her first songs in 1923. Smith was often backed by some of the finest jazz musicians of the era, revolving ensembles that could include pianists Fletcher Henderson and James Johnson, Louis Armstrong on cornet, Bennie Goodman on clarinet, Charlie Green and Jack Teagarden on trombones.
Bessie Smith’s “Homeless Blues”
In 1927, Bessie Smith recorded “Homeless Blues,” a song written by Porter Grainger that still has the power to chill us with the life-threatening finality of homelessness. “Homeless Blues” is a lamentation about the massive dislocation and loss of life caused when the Mississippi River would periodically flood, leaving thousands of people homeless or drowned. These calamities hit people who were already poor with especially severe impact, just as Hurricane Katrina did in New Orleans.
In the song, Smith cries out in sorrow that her mother and father were drowned in the flood, and her own home was destroyed. It was only a “plain old two-room shanty,” Bessie sings, “But it was my home sweet home!”
Countless African Americans in the Deep South lived in exactly those kinds of two-room shanties while doing backbreaking labor as sharecroppers in an economic system that was rigged to keep them in bondage. Yet, it is still deeply moving when she speaks of her love for the only home she has known.
The next verse is unforgettable, two short, stark lines that express the singer’s nearly bottomless suffering over the loss of her home and her parents. The singer equates homelessness with death.
“Homeless, yes, I’m homeless, might as well be dead!
Hungry and disgusted, no place to lay my head!”
As sad as those words are, she transforms them into an outcry of defiance, shouting out her anger at the floodwaters, and the injustice of homelessness and lost lives. She concludes with a fervent wish that she could spread her wings and fly away from this land of poverty.
“Wish I was an eagle, but I’m a plain old black crow,
I’m gonna flap my wings and leave here, and never come back no more!”
This is a very powerful image of flying away forever and never coming back to this landscape of loss. In her broken-hearted longing to flee, she dreams of leaving behind the Mississippi River’s toll of death and destruction, and escaping the all-too-prevalent hardships of the South.
A deeper symbolism is also at work here. In her book, Who Set You Flowin’: The African-American Migration Narrative, Farah Jasmine Griffin offers a revealing insight into the powerful symbolism at work in the contrast between the eagle and the “plain old black crow.”
As a black woman, Bessie Smith defines herself as a plain black crow, “in opposition to another symbol of American freedom, the eagle,” Griffin writes. “In the guise of the crow, she asserts her intention to flee the South, the land of injustice. The image of the crow is packed with cultural significance for Smith’s audience.”
After Reconstruction, the phrase “Jim Crow” was used to describe the segregation laws of the South. Griffin writes, “The notion of Jim Crow as a lost black soul is especially fitting in the context of the ‘Homeless Blues.’ The persona as ‘an old black crow’ is at once conflated with the image of lost Africans on the American landscape, as well as the image of the South’s system of racial apartheid.”
Poor Man’s Blues
Smith was one of the most popular blues singers of her generation, and it may seem incongruous, in light of her commercial success, lavish stage shows and glamorous costumes, that she sang songs that cry out against homelessness and economic injustice. Yet she knew full well the conditions of poverty and misery that she described in her song “Poor Man’s Blues.”
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith lost both parents at an early age, and faced, along with two brothers and three sisters, a period of poverty, hardship and insecurity for many years.
In “Poor Man’s Blues,” she asks “Mister Rich Man” to open up his heart and develop a conscience about the plight of the poor.
“Open up your heart and mind. Give the poor man a chance.
Help stop these hard, hard times.”
She is even more outspoken and class-conscious in describing the vast economic gap between the rich man’s wife in her mansion, and the hunger and desperation that women in poor households were facing. She exposes this economic disparity between rich and poor in very personal terms, and her song becomes a populist appeal for economic justice.
Bessie Smith tells it true:
“While you living in your mansion, you don’t know what hard time means.
Oh, working man’s wife is starving, your wife is living like a queen.”
Blind Lemon’s Blues
The transition from the era of Bessie Smith to Blind Lemon Jefferson marks a major transformation in the very identity of the blues. In the 1920s, the Texas-based singer, songwriter and guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first of the male blues musicians to become a major star. His ascendance marked the passage from the era of classic female blues singers to a new era of country blues musicians who would define the blues for all time to come — those lonely and legendary figures who stalked the South, singing their haunting and passionate blues on street corners, juke joints and levee camps.
Country blues singers would become the outsized figures of myth for generations to come: Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Sleepy John Estes, Tommy Johnson, Bukka White, Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson, Furry Lewis, et al. The first major recording artist, and one of the most influential among this highly select coterie of country blues artists, was Blind Lemon Jefferson.
In marked contrast to the elaborate stage shows of the classic blues singers traveling with a large entourage of musicians and dressed in luxurious costumes and glittering jewelry, Blind Lemon Jefferson began his life as a street singer, traveling on foot through dusty little Texas towns and then throughout the South, performing on street corners and at country picnics, house parties and beer joints, singing his self-written blues songs in a haunting and high-pitched voice, accompanying himself with a highly complex and unique guitar style.
Although he later would become one of the most popular and successful blues artists of his time, the blind street musician led a rough and lonely life in his early years, wandering as widely as a hobo, despite his blindness, and constantly traveling to ever-new street corners to sing to strangers.
In “Lonesome House Blues,” Jefferson evoked the endless footsore wanderings of an itinerant country bluesman in one brilliant line: “I got the blues so bad, it hurts my feet to walk.” That one poetic line captures perfectly the tough road facing countless homeless people today.
Some of Jefferson’s songs reflect this hardscrabble existence and chronicle the bleak conditions of his own life — and the lives of many of his listeners in rural areas and little towns in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi in the 1920s. In the opening verse of his “One Dime Blues,” he sings perceptively about this hand-to-mouth existence in the rural South:
“I’m broke and I ain’t got a dime.
Everybody gets in hard luck sometime.”
“One Dime Blues” was written in 1927 as America was about to enter the Depression. An entire nation would soon learn the truth of Jefferson’s lyric: “Everybody gets in hard luck sometime.”
Broke and Hungry Blues
Similarly, Jefferson’s “Broke and Hungry Blues” begins with just about as downcast a description of the effects of poverty on the soul as can be imagined. In part, the song is a come-on, since even the shabbily dressed and down-and-out need love, too. Yet, this man’s very soul seems worn to shreds.
“I’m broke and hungry, ragged and dirty too
I said I’m broke and hungry, ragged and dirty too
Mama, if I clean up can I go home with you?”
The only words more desolate than those are the heartbreaking words that follow immediately after:
“I’m motherless, fatherless, sister and brotherless too.”
Just as Bessie Smith sang with real compassion about the fate of the countless people left homeless or dead after the massive floods of the Mississippi, Jefferson sang with empathy about the thousands of people made homeless by the “Rising High Water Blues.” With real humanity, he draws an understated yet poignant picture of thousands of dispossessed people looking disconsolately down on the ruined homes in their flood-ravaged towns.
“People, since it’s raining, it has been for nights and days
Thousands of people stand on the hill, looking down where they used to stay.”
Utilizing an almost cinematic perspective, Jefferson then transports his listeners from their position on a hilltop looking down at the plight of thousands of people, to a close-up from the point of view of one family with frightened children crying about being left homeless.
“Children stand there screaming: Oh mama, we ain’t got no home.”
The song ends with the backwater rising and coming in the windows and door of the singer’s own home. He can only pray for deliverance.
“The backwater rising, come in my windows and door
I leave with a prayer in my heart, backwater won’t rise no more.”
See That My Grave Is Kept Clean
Blind Lemon Jefferson’s most famous song is a magnificent meditation on mortality and death, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” recorded later by everyone from Bob Dylan to B.B. King.
“Well it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you.
Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you.
See that my grave is kept clean.”
Even while contemplating death, Jefferson is sure to express an instinctive sympathy for the “poor boy” that he himself had once been — and that many of his listeners in the little towns in Texas and the Mississippi Delta still were.
“Have you ever heard them church bells tone?
Have you ever heard them church bells tone?
Then you know that the poor boy is dead and gone.”
In that heartrending final stanza, Lemon’s guitar rings ominously, like a church bell, every time he asks if we’ve ever heard a church bell tone.
Never ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for Blind Lemon.
For he died while still a young man in his mid-30s on December 19, 1929, during a heavy Chicago snowstorm in highly mysterious circumstances, reportedly freezing to death or, in other accounts, collapsing of heart failure and dying alone in the wintry snowfall. He may have been abandoned in death by his hired driver.
But one thing is certain. He was abandoned after death, and his own grave was not kept clean, despite the haunting plea in one of his finest songs.
Instead of his grave being kept clean, Jefferson was buried in an unmarked grave for nearly 40 years, until 1967, when a state historical marker was placed in the general area of his burial site in Wortham Black Cemetery in Texas.
Finally, nearly 70 long years after his lonesome death, a new granite headstone was put up in 1997. Then, in 2007, the entire cemetery’s name was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery.
On his headstone are the final words of his elegiac song:
“Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you.
See that my grave is kept clean.”
Hard Time Killing Floor Blues
Nehemiah “Skip” James was one of the most gifted, imaginative and utterly original voices to emerge from the state of Mississippi, and his delicately etched and sensitive art songs resemble very little else in the history of the blues.
Skip James grew up near Bentonia, Mississippi, and he sang in a forlorn falsetto voice that, when accompanied by his eerie-sounding and distinctive guitar tuning, created a captivating body of work that is full of mystery and melancholy. Rarely have the blues sounded quite so deeply blue — so lonely and forsaken.
Syl Carruthers wrote that “Skip James was born on June 21, 1902, in Yazoo, Mississippi, 30 years downwind of emancipation and 60 years south of Civil Rights.”
A creative and sensitive blues artist, James composed a masterpiece in 1931 as America fell deeper into the Depression, a nationwide calamity that was even more unbearable for black people living in rural Mississippi, who already faced the worst racial discrimination in one of the most economically backward states in the nation.
As bad as conditions had been before the Depression, the opening verse of his “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” makes it clear that the times are now immeasurably worse than ever before. In that melancholy, high-pitched voice, ghostly and despondent, James sings the blues for a nation.
“Hard times here and everywhere you go
Times is harder than ever been before.”
Skip James’s father, E.D. James, was a minister and gospel singer. After a brief period in 1931 when Skip recorded 18 of the most masterful and enduring recordings in the history of the blues, the son followed in his father’s footsteps, entered the seminary and became an ordained Baptist minister, directing a gospel group and traveling with his father’s ministry on revival tours.
At the time when James composed “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues,” he was not yet a minister, yet his awareness of the life-and-death issues at stake as the nation plunged into the Depression led him to compose one of the most sensitively observed verses ever written about the oppressive sense of being locked out of heaven itself.
“You know that people are drifting from door to door,
Can’t find no heaven, I don’t care where they go.”
This haunting image echoes down the ages, a timeless lament for the nameless, faceless multitudes forced out of their homes, reduced to riding the rails, searching fruitlessly for jobs, driven from door to door seeking handouts. And locked out of heaven itself.
“Can’t find no heaven, I don’t care where they go.” The inescapable hopelessness of being trapped on the killing floor of poverty has never been more powerfully expressed. Just after singing these poignant lyrics in that mournful voice, James begins humming hypnotically in an eerie wordless moan that sounds comforting, like a consolation to the people caught on the killing floor. Yet those moans also convey an undertone of soul-deep sadness — a funeral hymn.
Then he brings it all back home by making his forecast of hard times a highly personal warning, speaking directly to his listeners by using the word “you” for the first time in the song. In a solemn voice, James cautions that everyone is at imminent personal risk of joining the faceless, penniless crowds on the breadlines.
“And you say you had money, you better be sure.
‘Cause these hard times will drive you from door to door.”
Memphis Minnie’s Freezing Cold Blues
Memphis Minnie recorded “Outdoor Blues” in 1931 in the midst of the Depression, but instead of singing about the countless people cast out into homelessness, she made the song more deeply affecting by writing and singing in the first person, telling the very personal story of just one woman abandoned outdoors in the dead of winter.
Born Lizzie Douglas in Louisiana, Memphis Minnie was the most renowned blueswoman of the 1930s and 1940s. While Bessie Smith and the classic blues singers were vocalists performing on the vaudeville stage, Memphis Minnie was a full-blown blues musician performing in juke joints in the South and later in Chicago clubs.
Memphis Minnie was not only a powerful singer, but also a fine blues guitarist, making her one of the only women in the early history of the blues to excel both as a singer and a guitarist. Big Bill Broonzy called her the best woman guitarist he had ever heard, and wrote that she had bested both him and Tampa Red in a guitar-playing contest.
Her “Outdoor Blues” is a chilling account of being condemned to live outside in the dead of winter. Memphis Minnie’s performance is so sympathetic that it makes you feel this woman’s desperate cold and her gnawing hunger. Every word in “Outdoor Blues” rings just as true in the experiences of homeless people today as in her era.
The surpassing sweetness of her singing and her lilting guitar combine to make this song more touching. Her voice is so warm and appealing — so human-hearted — that it creates real empathy for the anguish of her heroine.
It’s a stark wintry setting, and someone is stranded in the snow.
“One cold night, I was out in the frost and snow.
I didn’t have a penny. I couldn’t find no place to go.”
Way down the street, the nearly frozen woman sees a fire, but when she approaches, it vanishes like a mirage.
“Before I could make it there to warm my hands,
the hobos had put it out.”
With great skill and sensitivity, Memphis Minnie takes us inside the skin of the homeless woman. It feels like we are at her side on this bitterly cold night as she steels her courage to share a fire with the hobos. She makes us feel her bitter disappointment when the fire is put out. You can feel the bite of the frost when she sings again and again: “I was so cold, my feets was near about froze.”
Penniless in the snow, with nowhere to go, she knocks in desperation on someone’s door. But “they wouldn’t accept my company” because her ragged clothes make her look like a hobo. The public’s intolerance for that ragged appearance is the number-one reason today why business owners try to banish homeless people from public spaces, and why so many people say they have compassion fatigue.
Finally, an “old lady standing in the door” tells her “come in, daughter.” It may seem like a clichéd literary device, this happy ending, but it feels so real, like the return of life and hope and warmth in the middle of a pitiless, snow-covered street in the Depression.
Rather than seeming like some kind of stock ending, it feels so human-hearted. It feels like Memphis Minnie’s song has offered the country a humane way to begin alleviating the suffering caused by homelessness.
The old lady who calls her “daughter” and welcomes her inside her home has just written a prescription of compassion for an entire nation.
If that sounds far-fetched or overly sentimental, Dorothy Day founded her Catholic Worker program by inviting homeless people into the safe haven of hospitality houses in exactly the same spirit — and in the same era — as the “old lady” of Memphis Minnie’s song. Dorothy Day did it for real, true life.
Rambling Blues on a Lonesome Road
Many people became homeless wanderers during the 1930s and ‘40s, and there is a pronounced tendency in blues circles to romanticize those who end up “on the road again,” in the words of a great Canned Heat song. Riding the endless rails, walking down the lonely highways, always moving on to the next horizon — the song almost writes itself.
Yet, Memphis Minnie’s song, “Nothing in Rambling,” recorded in 1940, is more original in stripping away some of that mythology and painting a more disturbing picture of life on the endless road. It makes the lonesome highway look more like desolation row.
People on the road in the Deep South were often subjected to police persecution, and arrested on trumped-up vagrancy or trespassing charges. Many blues musicians and other penniless wanderers found themselves locked inside county jails. Memphis Minnie describes it all vividly.
“I was walking through the alley with my hand in my coat.
The police start to shoot me, thought it was something I stole.”
After that experience, she sings that rambling and running around “ain’t nothing,” and she’d be better off marrying and settling down! It’s hard to imagine a more iconoclastic break with blues mythology than that. It’s interesting that in a blues culture that exalts “the rambling man,” the rambling woman ends up preferring a home and family.
Her song culminates in a beautifully expressed sympathy for all the other homeless and hungry wanderers stranded on the roads and highways. It’s a memorable explanation of why she finds “nothing in rambling,” and at the very same time, it’s a nightmare vision of the extent of poverty and starvation in the nation.
“The peoples on the highway is walking and crying.
Some is starving, some is dying.
You know it ain’t nothing in rambling, either running around.
Well I believe I’ll get a good man, Oh Lord and settle down.”
The Blues of Sleepy John Estes
Sleepy John Estes was a creative songwriter who chronicled the characters and events in Brownsville, Tennessee, with a rare degree of detail and local color, and his highly personal lyrics and plaintive, “crying” blues vocals have made him a favorite since he began recording in 1929.
His songs, such as “Diving Duck Blues,” “Someday Baby Blues,” “Drop Down Mama” and “I Ain’t Gonna Be Worried No More,” are classics, and have been recorded by many musicians over the years.
Estes lived nearly his entire life in abject poverty in broken-down houses in rural Tennessee. Blinded in one eye as a child, he lost his vision in the other eye as an adult and his blindness magnified the hardships caused by poverty.
Skip James and Memphis Minnie may have written knowingly about the poverty they witnessed, but the grueling privation that Estes endured, combined with his melancholy, crying voice, gave enormous emotional power to his best songs.
Estes had experienced deprivation inside and out, and in 1935, he wrote a song, “Down South Blues” that expressed the suffering of an entire city — Memphis, Tennessee, where Beale Street was a magnet for blues singers. But in the Depression years, Beale Street had the blues in more ways than one.
“Now I get up every morning and I walk up to 3rd and Beale.
And I’m just studying and wondering, Lord, just how to make a meal.
Now the peoples in Memphis, they’re walking the streets up and down
And you know the times is hard, people is starving all over town.”
During the 1930s, thousands of uprooted and unemployed workers rode the railways, living in hobo jungles and tent encampments. Sleepy John Estes describes the rough encounters people often had with train guards in his 1937 song, “Hobo Jungle Blues.”
“Now when I came in on that Mae West, I put down at Chicago Heights,
Now, you know over in hobo jungle, that’s where I stayed the night.”
So far, so good, but the wandering traveler always must watch out for the sometimes violent and sadistic railroad enforcers and keep a very low profile.
“Now if you hobo through Brownsville, you better not be peeping out.
Now Mr. Whitten will get you and Mr. Guy Hare will wear you out.”
Rats in My Kitchen
Unfortunately, the end of the Depression didn’t mean the end of poverty for John Estes. He recorded his last song in 1941, and then spent the next two decades as a sharecropper living in a tumbledown shack near Brownsville. Blues researchers and fans who revered his Depression-era recordings had long thought that Estes was dead — until he was unexpectedly “discovered” in 1961 during the blues revival of the 1960s.
Unfortunately, the poverty of this brilliant musician had only worsened over the decades. When blues researchers finally found Estes, the blind songwriter was living in shocking conditions with his wife and five children in an abandoned, broken-down, sharecropper’s shack.
In a 1963 article for Jazz Journal, Georges Adins described visiting John Estes in 1962 at his home in Brownsville, Tennessee, and he called the bluesman’s song of distress, “Rats In my Kitchen,” “a cry of despair which makes your hair stand on end.”
One of the greatest and most respected blues songwriters was now living in abject squalor, singing about his misery in trying to raise his children while the rats in his kitchen were destroying his family’s scant supply of food.
“Oh, them rats is mean in my kitchen, I’ve ordered me a mountain cat.
You know the way they destroying my groceries,
Man, I declare it’s tough like that.”
Later in the song, Estes laments that he has to raise “five dependent children on my disability check” while the “doggone rats” are wrecking the household.
“Hey, I came home last night, about half past 10. You know them rats said,
If you looking for groceries, poor John, you better go and come again.”
Sleepy John Estes was “rediscovered” in 1961, at the very time when the nation was “discovering” the dismaying extent of poverty and hunger in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Many cities in the South were erupting with a Freedom Movement that was a source of new hope to many black families subjected to racial discrimination and poverty.
Yet John Estes and his family were living in deep rural isolation in the “other America” of poverty and deprivation.
Georges Adins called it a “distressing and unimaginable scene” when he first witnessed Sleepy John’s family living in the ramshackle, two-room shack in 1962.
“It is obvious the misery this family are in,” Adins wrote, “and I ask myself how all this could have happened to Sleepy John Estes. Am I actually in this immense country known as the United States of America, where the wealth, the high standard of living, the inventions, the luxury are praised all the time?”
Within a few months of his rediscovery, Bob Koester, the founder of Delmark Records in Chicago, recorded his comeback album, “The Legend of Sleepy John Estes.”
Koester wrote, “Sleepy John Estes sings with a depth of feeling and emotional thrust that can only be described, as Big Bill Broonzy did, as ‘crying the blues.’ The sob in his throat is not a clever stage mannerism. His singing has all the honesty and straightforward integrity of the simple rural life John has lived.”
Thanks to the blues revival, the musical career of Sleepy John Estes was revived in 1962. Along with his new records, he appeared in two film documentaries, and began touring and performing at concerts, coffeehouses and blues festivals.
In the span of only a couple years, Estes went from being a long-forgotten (and presumed dead) throwback to an earlier era of the blues, living in obscurity in a shack in rural Tennessee, and became a world traveler who performed at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival in 1964, and then toured Europe with the renowned American Folk Blues Festival. In 1969, he again performed at the Newport Folk Festival and the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, was honored at a Smithsonian festival, and later toured Europe and Japan.
Blues in the Snow
One of the most moving and eloquent songs ever written about homelessness — and my personal favorite out of all the scores of blues recordings on the themes of poverty and injustice — is “Homeless Blues,” recorded in 1947 by Willie “Long Time” Smith. Even though I’ve played this song countless times, there is something so heartfelt in its compassion and so profoundly beautiful in its sadness that every time I hear it, I am moved all over again.
When I reflect on the subheading I gave Street Spirit back in 1995 — “Justice News and Homeless Blues” — it is Willie Smith’s elegiac “Homeless Blues” that is always called to mind.
For all my love of this song, I know next to nothing about the singer. Willie “Long Time” Smith was a relatively obscure, postwar blues pianist and vocalist who performed this song in 1947 and recorded a handful of other songs in the 1940s and ’50s.
His expressive voice captures me with his very first line: “One cold frosty morning, the ground was still wet with snow.”
That opening line is sung in a high-pitched, yearning voice — a beautiful voice of sorrow in the snow. Smith’s sweetly sorrowful singing is made even more elegiac by his lovely, melancholy piano and the bittersweet sympathy of John Gardner’s sax. It is a stunning performance.
Echoing Memphis Minnie’s “Outdoor Blues,” the song begins with the stark image of huge crowds of people stranded in the snow, with no shelter in sight.
“On one cold frosty morning, the ground was still wet with snow.
Well, I met a million people who didn’t have no place to go.”
Smith paints a vivid picture of entire families with little children uprooted and cast out into homelessness, carrying only the suitcases in their hands.
Because their very lives are jeopardized by exposure to the winter’s elements, the “people were steady walking” in a despairing search for shelter, but they “couldn’t find no place to go.”
Suddenly, in the final verse, in a vision so intensely felt that it seems almost biblical, Smith sees that all the children freezing in the snow are now standing right outside his own front door. It is a brilliant image that asks the age-old question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Who, exactly, is responsible for the homeless children shivering in the winter? The answer offered in “Homeless Blues” is that these children are standing shivering right outside our own front door. Somehow, they have become our responsibility. On some level, they are our children.
It is a prophetic vision, and Willie Smith’s voice captures this truth with a tenderness that is heartbreaking.
“People’s children were shivering, standing around my front door.
Well, they was hungry and almost naked and couldn’t find no place to go.”
The timing of Smith’s “Homeless Blues” is significant. It was written in 1947, long after the Great Depression had ended, and after World War II was over, a time when postwar prosperity meant a new era of affluence was at hand.
Few people in mainstream white society were thinking very deeply about homelessness in the 1940s and 1950s, except for a handful of prophetic souls like Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker, and Woody Guthrie, whose “I Ain’t Got No Home,” recorded in 1940, belongs in any discussion of songs about homelessness.
“My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod.
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door,
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”
The Far-Sighted Vision of the Blues
Most members of society ignored the problems of homelessness and poverty until they became widespread and deeply entrenched facts of American life in the early 1980s.
Except, that is, in the black community, where far-seeing and acutely aware blues singers like Willie “Long Time” Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Floyd Jones, John Brim and so many others kept trying to warn about the perils of poverty all through the 1940s and 1950s while most of our society was sleeping the self-satisfied sleep of affluence.
People who only became aware of homelessness in the 1980s may be stunned to realize that these blues lyrics from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s often read like up-to-the-minute accounts of today’s economic disparity between the rich and the poor. The Occupy movement could have quoted these blues lyrics on their posters and public statements, because the insights about injustice and inequality are still so timely and advanced.
There is a well-known saying about how economic downturns often have a more destructive impact on the African American community, due to the higher levels of pre-existing poverty and economic hardships in normal times: “When white America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia.”
That economic “pneumonia” is exactly what Willie “Long Time” Smith was sensing so acutely. He sensed the pneumonia that was already stalking America in its most piercingly cold form, and described it as the suffering of those homeless children abandoned in the snow.
Maybe it is not too late to hear Willie Smith’s surpassingly sorrowful voice singing the homeless blues for homeless children who were quite literally in danger of catching pneumonia.
It is still a “cold and frosty morning” in America. There are still “one million people who didn’t have nowhere to go,” just as Smith sang. The U.S. Department of Education has just released new figures on September 22, 2014, showing that a record number of homeless children are enrolled in the nation’s public schools.
Long ago, in 1947, Willie “Long Time” Smith reported seeing a million people with nowhere to go. Sixty-seven years later, in September 2014, the Department of Education reported that a record 1,258,182 homeless students were enrolled in U.S. schools.
All these years, homeless children are still standing around our front door. They are still hungry and they can’t find any place to go.
See the first part of this article, “Cold Ground Was My Bed Last Night,” Part 1 of “The Blues and Social Justice” by clicking here.
See “The Mississippi Delta: Birthplace of the Blues” by clicking here.