Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Skip James’ Blues Imagery

Texts of all songs discussed are appended to the essay.

During the summer of 1964 I traveled with a friend east from Chicago without stopping until we reached Greenwich Village where we attended a show at the Gaslight hard by Izzy Young’s Folklore Center and the Kettle of Fish. Sleeping in his parents’ car, we toured the Northeast visiting folk clubs as we went. In a coffee house one evening in Cambridge Massachusetts with perhaps a half dozen people in the audience we heard Skip James perform, his wife by his side. As reluctant a performer at the end of his life as he had been when young, [1] James has nonetheless produced a powerful oeuvre which has exercised a strong influence through the fifty years since I heard him including versions by Jimi Hendrix, the Cream, and others.

His distinctive fingerpicking with open D minor tuning (which he called “cross-note”) to accompany his falsetto voice produced a unique sound often described as spooky, otherworldly, or ethereal. His repertoire helped shape the expressive and beautiful system of images in the Delta blues. Quintessentially poetic in that their significations provide rich detailed information that could not be encoded without metaphor, they shed light on the techniques of all poetry. The body of classic blues songs, like the comparable systems in Troubadour lyric or the Elizabethan sonnet, is particularly revealing about convention. Frequently misunderstood as clichĂ©d or automatized expressions characteristic of second-rate writers, convention is, in fact, a dynamic process in which every occurrence is unique and the meaning of which deepens and transforms through intertextuality. The understanding of American readers of Chinese poetry is often limited by their lack of familiarity with the image conventions of Chinese poetry. The blues aficionado, however, is in a position to see the often complex and revealing interrelations of text to text.

As a rural Southern genre, the blues made use of the imagery people knew best including the barnyard rooster, the catfish, and the cow. As a source of milk cows are female (as authors of children’s books know) and singers developed a complex of ideas in which the beloved is represented as a cow. [2] A milk cow was a relatively expensive investment and require substantial care, yet she might provide rich cream and butter, a striking analogy for the delights of love. The most common use of such bovine imagery is to signify the longing the owner feels when a cow has been lost. [3] Among the more familiar lines in the blues are the following.

If you see my milk cow, please, drive her on home
'Cause I ain't had no milk and butter
Since my cow's been gone.

In James’ “Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues” (see song 1 appended) James is primarily the cow itself, searching for love as the animal whose offspring is missing would devote all her efforts to “just tryin' to find, my calf, again,” paralleling his own search for his “used-to-be.” With the same poignant attachment of so much ancient Greek poetry to love and sex, only heightened by recognition of the evanescence of pleasure, James notes that all potential affective relationships are conditioned by mortality. “Every cow and calf, I believe was born to die,” and “I ain't gonna be here long.” Thus the listener to his song, if competent in the signifying codes of the blues, will respond first at the mere mention of a cow with a train of associations with the elements of voluptuous pleasure and well-being which simultaneously involves the opposite, the fear of painful loss. Since the speaker would ordinarily be the cow’s owner, the altered perspective here, the trope or twisting of the convention adds wit and ingenuity while recalling to the mind the costly loss of livestock, lovers, money, happiness, and health, and life itself. By loving one always puts oneself at risk of suffering. The entire figure resembles the Wheel of Fortune in which success prefigures failure.

Another term that recurs repeatedly in the blues is the “killing floor.” Though the popularity of the expression has been identified with the slaughterhouses of Chicago’s stockyards, [4] James used it in his 1931 “Hard Time Killing Floor,” (see song 2) one of the rare blues songs that directly comments on politics. The song, which often burst through intelligibility into moans and sighs, depicts life itself as enacted on a killing floor. The Depression is the immediate cause of suffering (“Hard time's is here.”) so great as to be all but lethal (“these hard times gon' kill you”), but the song’s continuous appeal suggests that life itself is a killing floor. The infernal stink and blood and suffering that characterizes the abattoir might serve a medieval monk as an apt picture of life here below and it seems equally apposite to the Southern sharecropper or farm laborer. The suggestions of joy and fulfilment, even luxury, inherent in the dairy cow image is absent; the vision could hardly be bleaker.

James’ “Devil Got my Woman”(song 3) is a complaint against the woman’s fickleness. Surely the devil has led her, after she had left another to be with the singer, to then change her mind and returned to the original lover. In the approximate center of this straightforward, if mellifluous and eloquent, lament is a striking image, placed like a jewel on a necklace. “But my mind got to rambling/ Like a wild geese from the west.” It is not the woman who “rambles,” though this particular word is often used for free-wheeling sexual habits; it is the speaker’s own unruly mind. The image of wild geese is common in Chinese poetry where it connotes sadness, exile, loss, and separation, [5] though James’ listeners would hardly have known this. It occurs only rarely in blues songs and with different associations. [6] The restless wandering character of the birds and their piercing cries are parallel to a train in the distance with its “lonely” whistle. Perhaps they are “from the west” primarily for the sake of the rhyme, but the phrase can only contribute to their air of wildness as they appear over a bleak landscape. The goose image is an example of the growth of the inventory of images available to the singer, as some are added and others fall away over the years.

James may seem to deliver a dubious compliment when he says of his woman in “Lorenzo Blues,” (song 4) “You know, she's stutters in her speech/ An she wiggle and she wobble,” but the image has many precedents both out and in the blues idiom. The scintillating movement of a body in motion ravishes the singer just as it had dazzled Robert Herrick (who in “Upon Julia’s Clothes” had noted the “liquefaction” and “brave vibration, each way free”) and Theodore Roethke (who wrote “I'm martyr to a motion not my own “ in “I knew a woman lovely in her bones”). The classic statement in the blues is

I got a big fat woman, meat shakin' on her bone
I say, hey, hey, meat shakin' on her bone [7]

The whole poem in fact is a systematically constructed string of compliments rather like the convention of the blason, common in the Middle Ages but never thereafter vanishing altogether. The woman oddly named Lorenzo has a Coke bottle shape and “a likeness” that’s “outta this world,” and apparently her speech impediment only intensifies the dizzying impact of her charm.

In a song titled “Forty Four” included in Thomas W. Talley's 1922 collection Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise & Otherwise the number refers first to a handgun and then to a Bible verse. Roosevelt Sykes' popular “.44 Blues" in 1929 elaborates this process of wit by cleverly using the same number to refer first to a gun, then to a train, and finally to a home address (presumably in prison). James, however, in his 1931 “22-20 Blues” (song 5) accompanied by his excellent piano playing ignores such ingenuity and focuses (as Robert Johnson was later to do in his “32-20 Blues”) on pure aggression. The weapon, and such shocking lines as “I cut that woman half in two,” express in the strongest terms the speaker’s distress at his “unruly” lover.

Simple though the situation may seem, it is presented with considerable ambiguity. Who is the mysterious “Mr. Crest” who appears at the outset? Has violence been done, or is it merely threatened? At the end the singer pictures himself out on the highway, on the pilgrimage of this life, as one might say, holding the gun that he has said is “burnin’ hell,” but declaring that he has harmed no one yet, though he says he means to “raise some sand” (start a fight) before heading on down the line. Experts seem to disagree on just what gun is meant, but the speaker makes it clear that he is weighing all options and selecting the one that reflects his despair. This indeterminacy contrasts sharply with the fatalistic directness in murder ballads such as “Little Sadie,” for James’ song is not narrative, but is primarily lyrical, defining through concrete terms the persona’s state of mind. The audience would here the song, even in its earliest versions, in a context of others’ use of similar imagery, against which the singer/poet seeks to define a new turn to the familiar convention.

In each of these cases the listener responds to a whole complex of images. I have elsewhere explained [8] that every recognizable convention immediately spawns a host of variations which require competence in the tradition to perceive. In Skip James’ beautiful and expressive lyrics the strands of intertextuality may take a number of forms. In “Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues” the singer provides an original twist to a familiar image, keeping the word fresh and the meaning original. In “Hard Time Killing Floor” a formula is used in a very standardized way, but signifying an intense and upsetting reality. The goose image in “Devil Got my Woman” is nonetheless suggestive for being innovative, but neither is it for that reason superior. Though the song concerns a missing lover, the image on which I focused in “Lorenzo Blues” celebrates women’s beauty. Equally intense, the weapon image of “22-20 Blues” takes its place among a lineage of songs referring to specific models.

One may note significant patterns in the artist’s oeuvre as his reality is organized in a set of ever-changing symbolic forms. For Skip James the texts surveyed here emphasize the delights of love (in the cow and the wiggling), the feeling of love-longing (in the geese), and the terrible truths of aggression and suffering (in the killing floor and the gun). In every case the only amelioration or (temporary) elimination of pain is through fulfilled love. The images themselves portray a world-view more accurately (including emotional tone) than prose would be likely to do. These rural American songs deploy the stratagems of image usage in ways as artful (and artificial) as any sonneteer or mandarin.

1. James (born Nehemiah Curtis) had refused to record for Okeh in 1927, perhaps because his illegal activities, notably dealing in moonshine, seemed at once more lucrative and a good reason not to draw attention to himself. After he began performing again after his rediscovery by John Fahey, Bill Barth, and Henry Vestine he felt constrained both by failing health and his commitment to church music. James told a biographer that, while he was willing to play blues with his “thinkin' faculties,” he refused to “put my heart in it.” See Stephen Calt, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues.

2. Compare the standard Homeric epithet “ox-eyed Hera.” My wife tells me that, while growing up in North Carolina, her sister was told by a high school boyfriend that she “had pretty eyes, like a cow.”

3. Among the very numerous occurrences of this topos in work by Son House, Big Bill Broonzy, Kokomo Arnold, Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley and others, two are of particular, if passing interest here. In Sara Martin’s 1928 recording “Mean Tight Mama” she sings “the cow that black and ugly has often got the sweetest milk.” In Sleepy John Estes 1930 “Milk Cow Blues” the convention is well enough established that a cow is never mentioned except in the title. The tone of yearning loneliness is evoked in a narrative of fleeing love snatched while the “slow consumption” does her in “by degrees.”

4. Hubert Sumlin says that for Howlin’ Wolf the term had particular reference to an incident in which he was shot by a jealous woman and, when downed, saw himself as on the killing floor according to Debra Devi. See her The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu.

5. As far back as the Confucian Classic of Poetry (the Shijing) geese symbolize the suffering people in the poem Hong Yan. Geese appear prominently as emblems of what might be called the blues often connoting longing for an absent friend or lover in many later poets including Du Fu and Su Shi.

6. See “Wild Goose Blues” and “Blue Goose Blues.” “Cry of the Wild Goose” by the folk-style singer/composer Terry Gilkyson who recorded with the Weavers was a hit for first Frankie Laine and then Tennessee Ernie Ford.

7. From Blind Boy Fuller “Meat Shakin’ Woman,” but see many others including Ida Cox’s “Four Day Creep” and Tommy Johnson’s “Big Fat Mama Blues.”

8. See my “Transformation of Convention” article posted in August of 2013 for the most general statement of this idea.

Song 1

Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues

Hey hey-hey-hey-hey, hey hey hey hey hey
Hey hey-hey-hey-hey, hey hey hey hey...
And every cow and calf, I believe was born to die

I'm a-milk my heifer, milk her in a churn
I'll milk my heifer, I'll milk her in a churn
If you see my rider, tell her it ain't a darn thing doin'

I wringed my hands, baby, and I wanted to scream
I wringed my hands, honey, and I wanted to scream
And when I woke up I thought it was all a dream

Hey hey-hey-hey-hey, hey hey hey hey
Hey hey-hey-hey-hey, hey hey hey hey...
And every cow and calf, I believe was born to die
Hey hey-hey, I ain't gonna be here long
Hey hey-hey, pretty mama, I ain't gonna be here long
That's the reason why you hear me singin' my old lonesome song

Hey, hey-hey-hey-hey-hey, hey hey hey hey
Hey hey-hey-hey-hey, hey hey hey hey hey
And every cow's calf, honey, got to be dyin'

I walked the levee from end to end
I walked the levee, honey, from end to end
I was just tryin' to find, my calf, again

I'm feelin' back to my used-to...
I feel a notion, back to my used-to-be
I have a pretty mama, she don't care for me

Song 2

Hard Time Killing Floor

Hard time's is here
An ev'rywhere you go
Times are harder
Than th'ever been befo'

Um, hm-hm
Um, hm-hm
Um, hm-hm-hm

You know that people
They are driftin' from do' to do'
But they can't find no heaven
I don't care where they go

Um, hm-hm
Um, hm-hm-hm

People, if I ever can get up
Off a-this old hard killin' flo'
Lord, I'll never get down
This low no mo'

Um, hm-hm-hm
Hm, um-hm
Hm, hm-hm
Hm, hm-hm-hm

Well, you hear me singin'
This old lonesome song
People, you know these hard times
Can't last us so long

Hm, hm-hm
Hmm, hmm
Hm, hm-hm
Hm, hm-hm, oh Lord

You know, you'll say you had money
You better be sho'
But these hard times gon' kill you
Just drive a lonely soul

Um, hm-hm
Umm, hmm
Umm, hm-hm
Hm, hm-hm-hm

Hmm, hm-hm-hm

Song 3

Devil Got my Woman

You know, I'd rather be the ol' devil
Well, I'd rather be the devil
Then to be that woman' man
You know, rather be the devil
Than to be that woman' man
You know, I'm so sorry
You know, so sorry
That I ever fell in love wit' you-ooo-hoo-oo
Because you know you don't treat me
Baby, like you used ta do-hoo
You know, I laid down last night
You know, I laid down last night
And I thought to take me some rest
But my mind got to rambling
Like a wild geese from the west
You know the woman that I love
The woman that I love
I stol't her from my best friend
But you know he done got lucky
An he done got her back, again
You know, I used to cut your kindleing
You know, I used to cut your kindleing
Baby, then I made you some fire
Then I would tote all your water
Way, way, way, from the bogy brier
You know, my baby she don't drink whiskey
My baby, she don't drink no whiskey
An I know she ain't crazy about wine
Now, it was nothin' but the ol' devil
He done changed my baby's mind
You know, I could be right
You know, I could be right
Then again, I could be wrong
But it was nothin' but the ol' devil
He done got my baby
Now he done gone

Song 4

Lorenzo Blues

I wonder has anybody here
Seen my lovin' Lorenzo, today?
I wonder has anybody here
Seen my lovin' Lorenzo, today?
You know, we had a nice time Christmas
But she left me on New Year's Day

Oh, you got to know her
When you see her
'Cause she's so different
From any other girl
Oh, you've got to know her
When you see her
From any other girl
Because she's made up
Like a Coke-Cola bottle
An she got a likeness
It's outta this world, alright

You know, she's stutters in her speech
An she wiggle and she wobble
When she walk
She's stuttered in her speech
An she wiggle an a-wobble
When she walk
Yes, an she got three gold teeth
An she got deep dimples in her jaw, yeah

I say, 'Hello, Lorenzo, Lorenzo
How in the world come you treat me this-a-way?'
I say, 'Lorenzo, Lorenzo
How in the world come you treat me this-a-way?'
Darling, you know that you was gonna leave me
But you didn't tell me you was goin' to stay

Now, if I can make a half a million
I declare, I'm 'on give it all, to the hoodoo man
I declare, if I can make a half a million
I'm 'on give it all, to the hoodoo man
Just after he promise me that he will
Bring my lovin' Lorenzo, back home to me, again
An I want her back ho-oh-ome, to me again.

Song 5

22-20 Blues

Oh, Mr. Crest, Mr. Crest
How in the world you
Expect for me to rest?
Oh, Mr. Crest, Mr. Crest
How in the world you
Expect for me to rest?
You've got my 22-20
Layin' up across my breast

Oh, if I send for my baby
An she act a fool
An she don't never come
If I send for my baby
She act a fool
An she don't never come
All the doctors in New York City
I declare, they can't help her none

You know, sometimes she gets unruly
An she act like she just don't wanna do
Sometimes she gets unruly
An she act like she just don't wanna
But I get my 22-20
I cut that woman half in two

Oh, your.38 Special
Buddy, it's most too light
Your .38 Special
Buddy, it's most too light
But my 22-20
Will make ev'rything, alright

Ah-or, your .44-40
Buddy, it'll do very well
Your .44-40
Buddy, it'll do very well
But my .22-20
I declare you, it's a-burnin' hell

I was stranded on the highway-hi
With my 22-20 in my
I was standin' on the highway
With my 22-20 in my
They got me 'cused for murder
I declare, I never have harmed a man

Lord, oh I measured my gun
An it's just a-long as my right arm
I measured my gun
An it's just a-long as my right
I'm gon' raise me some sand
And back down the road, I declare.

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