Another close reading of a blues song (see “Down the Dirt Road Blues,” posted during October 2011). My goal in this series is to demonstrate the subtlety and poetic value of these great American lyrics.
Son House’s “Walkin’ Blues” is at once a narrative, like a brief short story, and a lyric cri de coeur. Musical style and tone are masterfully unified in a classic statement of the Delta blues.
The persona of the song (recorded in significantly different form by Robert Johnson) opens with a blues formula. The speaker comes into consciousness (“got up this morning”) in darkness and bewilderment (“feeling ‘round for my shoes”). While disorientation in the dark nighttime might be normative, this is unusual. Unable to put things straight, he acknowledges his ill: the “walkin’ blues.” Parallel to “walking pneumonia,” he is stricken, though able yet to function.
Initially the first person pronoun is omitted, universalizing the line and making it seem a general characterization of the world. When this is repeated in the third line, the sufferer is particularized as “I,” as though his pain has caused him to emphasis his individual ego. The fourth line addresses the listener as a potentially sympathetic confidant, an amelioration of his condition created by his words. Though the second person may lack the singer’s first-hand experience, he has experienced the blues through the lyric.
This relationship is expanded in the second verse which characterizes the blues as a “chill,” a symbolic negation of the “warmth” of life as well as a straightforward medical symptom. The relationship between imagined speaker and projected listener becomes reciprocal as the one expresses good wishes for the other: “If you ain’t had ‘em I hope you never will.” The fragility of the persona is enacted in his hesitation, as he repeats “I” in a stammer that poignantly indicates the instability and, at the same time, the trembling vulnerability of the ego.
This other figure crystallizes in the third stanza. She is a woman with whom he has a conflicted relationship. The first line kindly offers her emotional support and invites reciprocity (“When you get worried drop me a line”) but his thoughtfulness turns immediately to pessimistic self-absorption expressed ironically: “If I don’t go crazy, honey, I’m going to lose my mind.” The affectionate term “honey” appears though his distress is attributable to her failure to accept his love.
The fourth through the sixth stanzas analyze the mésalliance. The singer indicates their racial compatibility, implicitly suggesting that she is “dicty” or hoity-toity, and denouncing himself for his mad infatuation, yet ultimately he can only renew his lament, finding himself with “nobody to throw his arms around” when “the sun goes down.” He has made all possible effort toward harmony and must ask in the end her pity, despairing for the moment of her love.
The profundity of his desire is expressed in the imagery of the seventh stanza which sounds archaic enough to be Neolithic: “I love my baby like the cow love to chew her cud.” The depth of desire and the utter naturalness of the singer’s need heighten his poignant predicament. His life is aimless and pointless without love. His wife’s mistreatment, presumably infidelity, her “lowdown ways,” makes time spread out to purgatorial lengths of suffering. Convinced that “somebody is stealing my jelly roll,” he has recourse to a supernatural consultant.
The poem ends with a renewal of lament and a final resolution. “Feeling sick and bad,” he can only contrast his state with past “good times.” As the sun disappears in a lyrically distorted stanza with prolonged cries of loss, and the evening that brings depression returns, the singer declares his own righteousness to the society of men who might sympathize: “I wouldn’t do nothing boys, not against my woman’s will.” Yet in the end, he does. He resolves to leave his unfaithful wife for “a great long time,” never to return until she changes her mind.
The world of the song is hazardous and mysterious; the singer is lost, sick, and fears mental breakdown. The polarities within which he must try to make life livable – black and white, male and female – seem all but impossible to reconcile. At the moment he is alienated from a tangled love relationship. The regular recurrence of nightfall seems sinister and foreboding, magnifying the singer’s Angst and helplessness. Yet the singer, and each of us who hears him, simply go walking on toward the uncertain future, lured always forward by the memory of “good times” in the past and the ideal of satisfaction evident in the down-home image of the ruminating cow.
Walkin’ Blues Son House
Well got up this morning, feeling ‘round for my shoes
Know about that, I got the walkin' blues
I said I got up this morning, I was feeling ‘round for my shoes
I said you know about that now, I got the walkin' blues.
The blues ain’t nothing but a lowdown shaking chill
If you ain’t had ‘em I hope you never will
Oh, the blues is a lowdown old aching chill
If you ain’t had ‘em boys, I -- I hope you never will.
When you get worried drop me a line
If I don’t go crazy, honey, I’m going to lose my mind
When you get worried I said sit down and drop me a line
If I don’t go crazy, honey, I’m going to lose my mind.
Your hair ain’t curly, your doggone eyes ain’t blue
If you don’t want me what the world I -- I want with you?
Oh, your hair ain’t curly and your doggone eyes ain’t blue
I said now if you don’t want me, babe, what the wide world I want with you?
Don’t a man feel bad the Good Lord’s sun go down?
He don’t have nobody to throw his arms around
Can’t a man feel bad, I said when the Good Lord’s sun go down?
I said he don’t have a soul, not to throw his arms around.
Looky here baby, what you want me to do?
I’ve done all I could just to get a-along with you
Looky here honey, what do you want poor me to do?
I say I’ve done all I could, honey, just to get along with you.
You know I love my baby like the cow love to chew her cud
I’m layin’ round here though I aint doin’ no good
Ooh, I love you honey like the cow love to chew her cud
I’m layin’ round here, baby, but I -- I sure ain’t doin’ no good.
You know the minutes seem like hours, the hours seem like days
Seem like my baby don’t stop her lowdown ways
Oh, the minutes seem like hours, I said the hours, they seem like days
You know it seems like my bride never stop her old lowdown ways.
I’m going to the gypsy now to have my fortune told,
I believe somebody is stealing my jelly roll
I’m going to the gypsy, I believe I’ll have my fortune told,
'Cos I believe somebody is trying to steal my jelly roll.
I got up this morning, feeling sick and bad,
Thinking ‘bout the good times that I once have had
I said soon this morning, I was feeling so sick and bad,
You know I was thinking ‘bout the good times now that I -- I once have had.
The sun is going down behind that old western hill
Ooh, behind that old western hill
And I wouldn’t do nothing boys, not against my woman’s will.
You know I’m going away, I’ll stay a great long time
I aint coming back here until you change your mind
Oh, I’m going away, I believe I’ll stay a great long time
I said I aint coming back, honey, until you change your mind.