Jun 21, 2020
Black lives have never mattered in America. They’ve been enslaved, ghettoized, minimalized, and shot down like dogs in the streets. Now, they’re perishing from the coronavirus at a per capita rate more than double that of white people. But, it’s nothing new.
Forced to live on the wrong side of the tracks, they were, and are, more prone to the onslaughts of disease, hunger, and violence. Many died trying to drown their pain with toxic substances. That’s on them, it’s said, but is it?
Over one hundred years ago, black people found blues music to be an outlet for their suffering, and a source of solace. Many took up playing on the streets as a way of supporting themselves, work being largely unavailable. Even some all-time greats like Howlin’ Wolf. Those who were blind or otherwise handicapped found this to be the only way to stay alive.
TakeBlind Willie Johnson, whose songs have been recorded by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Ry Cooder. Johnson sang loud and rough, needing to be heard above the tumult of the streets, where he performed blues and gospel. Born in 1902 in Texas, his mother died shortly thereafter. At age seven, his stepmother threw lye at his father during a fight, and missed, blinding Johnson for life. In 1947, his home burned to the ground and he died of pneumonia while sleeping in the ashes.
Often considered the primary inspiration for Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters,Son House, also born in 1902, spent his childhood wandering with his sharecropping family from one Mississippi plantation to another. He hated it. Later, he took to hitchhiking and riding the rails, playing his music. He suffered two years in prison for a crime later called self-defense, before dying from both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
If you’ve got to suffer to sing the blues, as the song goes, Louisiana Red always had the credentials for greatness.
Born in Alabama in 1932, Red lost his mother to pneumonia a week after his birth. At age five, the Ku Klux Klan lynched his father. “In those days there was a lot of lynching and hanging going on and I guess he got caught up in that,” Red once said.
He spent most of his childhood with relatives where he was beaten by his aunt’s boyfriends and an uncle. At an orphanage, he endured a year of mistreatment, often going hungry. In his song “Orphanage Home Blues,” he relates running from the police - ducking into roadside trenches every time he saw a bright light. In “Too Poor to Die” he can’t even afford his own funeral. Still, he spent most of the ‘50s defending his country during the Korean War.
Red settled down, but lost his wife of ten years to cancer in 1972.
Discussing his music, Red said, “I just love the blues. As I play, I see where I come from- the tortures, the beatings, the heartaches - being put out in the streets.”
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