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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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fishing Blues

Song texts follow the essay.

Filmmaker, doper, and record collector Harry Smith chose to conclude his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music with Henry Thomas’ “Fishing Blues” [1] a song of surpassing sweetness and coy flirtatious sexual play. The lyrics have delicacy and grace reminiscent in formal elegance and frothy wit of the Cavalier poets; Thomas’ tone is altogether different from the assertive joyful rudeness of hokum songs or the cathartic and profound longing of many classic blues. [2] The singer wryly acknowledges the universality of desire and engages in playful competition with an interlocutor representing the listener. Love is here a pleasant game, allowing the singer to celebrate human sexuality as a quiet and absorbing pastime comparable to fishing.

Thomas was born in 1874 and is thought by some to represent a largely lost “pre-blues” body of African-American music, but the folk process (unlike some of its enthusiasts) cares little for purity, and critics have seen influences of minstrelsy and parlor poetry in the verses of “Fishing Blues.” To Mack McCormick the song is “pure minstrel show material” derived from “Gumbo Chaff,” [3] though I find virtually no common ground with the earlier song apart from the mention of catching catfish. More certain is Thomas’ debt to James Whitcomb Riley, the author of “Shortnin’ Bread” (itself sometimes taken for a folk verse). (See below.) Yet these influences seem accidental, irrelevant to the primary design of the song. On the other hand, the text has significant and pervasive parallels to other blues.

The analogy of fishing with sexual relationships combines the widespread blues imagery systems associating love with appetite and food and with animals. Fishing of course occupied a prominent place in the rural Southern lifestyle and offers many relevant associations with romance, not merely the uncertainty of outcome and the sensual pleasure of success, but a tempting verbal element: the rhyme pair hole and pole. [4] Apart from the broad analogy expressed in expressions like “there are plenty of fish in the sea” and “I think this one’s a keeper,” fish have often carried obscene associations of various sorts. The mere mention of “big fish little fish : playing in the water” follows a reference to the singer’s kissing another man’s wife in Kokomo Arnold’s 1937 version of “Salty Dog.”

The fishing topos appears in a great many lyrics before and after Thomas, and the convention takes numerous forms: the lover may be male or female, fisher or fish, successful or unsuccessful. The angler is a woman in 1926 Ma Rainey’s 1926 “Don’t Fish in My Sea,” complaining about a wandering lover and asking somewhat illogically “If you don't like my ocean, don't fish in my sea.“ The man is an enthusiastic prey in William Harris’ 1929 version of “Kansas City Blues” which is the earliest use of which I am aware of the couplet, later used by dozens of artists: “I wished I was a catfish in the deep blue sea/ I'd have all these women just fishin' after me.” [5] On the other hand, the man is fishing in Tampa Red’s 1934 “Kingfishing Blues” which boats “I’m a kingfishin’ poppa, I know what kind of bait to choose./That’s why so many women cryin’ those ‘Kingfish Blues’” Man and woman seem both to be fishing in Freddie Spruell’s “ Let’s Go Riding” (1925): “Now if you got the line : I got the pole/ Now tell me dear : don't you know/ We can go out for a good time.”

Just as in Greek Anthology lyrics, troubadour songs, and Elizabethan sonnets, a single motif undergoes endless transformation in this dynamic tradition. A subcategory of the form of the figure in which the fisherman is male and the fish the female object of his hunt is built around the idea of poaching. Bo Chatman, though not the source of the convention, presents a simple metaphor in “Old Devil” (1928) with his complaint, “Some lowdown scoundrel/ been fishing in my pond.” While other singers were taking this notion in other directions, Johnnie Temple elaborated and intensified this particular concept, adding an excruciating final phrase in the “Louise Louise Blues” (1936): “somebody baby is fishing in my pond/ They catching all my perches : grinding up the bone.” Then further, more baroque, play appears in Robert Johnson’s “Dead Shrimp Blues” (1936):

Someone's fishing in my pond
Catching my goggle-eyed perches :
and they barbecuing the bones
Now you taken my shrimp baby.

The first verse of Thomas’ “Fishin Blues” simply establishes the topic as the poem’s persona gathers his gear without suggesting any broader implications. The listener will be aware, however of such usages as Blind Lemon Jefferson’s lament “I won't go to fishing : mama I done broke my pole” in his“Southern Woman Blues” (1929) and Tommy McClennan’s faux naif reminder “Now when you go to fishing : now don't forget the pole.” (“Crosscut Saw Blues” 1941)

The refrain line is repeated throughout with such regularity as to sound like a general principle, aided by the sexual associations, of the universality of desire.

Says you've been a-fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin' fishin' too.

The sudden introduction of the second person may seem enigmatic in this initial occurrence, but its naturalistic explanation would be simply that the singer, having seen another person fishing is inspired with the desire to do the same. The second person usage allows the singer to engage the listener directly, involving the outside world in the scene and allowing the singer to address his pointed banter through the individual audience member to people in general.

The second verse lets the cat out of the bag with its opening lines:

I bet your life, your lovin' wife.
Can catch more fish than you. [6]

There are now three people fishing, and the speaker is teasing “you” that your “lovin’” wife is likely to be more successful. This might seem still to be simple good-natured competitive joshing among friends, but the succeeding verses emphasize that “any fish bite, you've got good bait.” This presumably indicates why the wife will “catch more fish.” Here is an example of the arch and pointed figurative language called “signifying.’”[7] Should the listener be slow to recognize that the phrase demands particular attention, it is introduced with the phrase “here's a little somethin' I would like to relate” indicating that some significant insight will follow. The “bait” in romantic encounters is most obviously good looks. The speaker is ragging on the unidentified man while slyly complimenting the other’s lady.

The song goes on to imply the joyful consummation of dinner or love-making.

Put on your skillet, don't never mind your lead.
Mama gonna cook 'em with the short'nin' bread.
Here the poet clearly alters James Whitcomb Riley’s line.

Fotch dat dough fum the kitchin-shed—
Rake de coals out hot an' red—
Putt on de oven an' putt on de led,—
Mammy's gwineter cook som short'nin' bread. [8]

To Greil Marcus, always eager to be extravagantly enthusiastic, the singer’s accompaniment of himself on the “quills” (panpipes) “goes back to the end of the Palaeolithic.” To him the song’s line about “any fish bite if you got good bait” is delivered “as if it held all the secrets of the universe.” In the critic’s next line the conditional has diminished, and he declares that “there is an almost absolute liberation in ‘Fishing Blues,’ a liberation that is impossible not to feel and easy to understand.” [9]

One need not impute such vague sublimity to the text to relish the song’s charm. Indeed, its casual amiable tone embodies the old formula ars est celare artem. Many of Thomas’ twenty-three recorded songs exhibit similar formal beauty, wit, and dancing vitality. In “Fishing Blues” it is as though a slender stream of pure unapologetic eros is spun like cotton candy into a warm, reassuring, good-natured affirmation of physicality. It may not strike all listeners as a source of absolute liberation, but it will do as well today as it did in 1928 as a celebration of human nature, temporarily free from real conflict, suffering, and fear, very similar to an afternoon that passes like a pleasant dream on the banks of a small Southern stream, a idyll in the life of one whose daily experience may be fraught with anxiety, which is to say any of us. To create a few moments of such serenity is no small artistic achievement. In fact, I suppose it just may be about all that we ever know, or at least all we need to know, of the cosmic mysteries.




1. The song, called “Fishin Blues” on the record, was originally recorded for Vocalion in Chicago in 1928. Smith’s inclusion of Thomas is the source of the modern popular versions such as those by the Loving Spoonful (1965), Taj Mahal (1969), and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (2002). Groups including Canned Heat and the Grateful Dead have performed other songs from Thomas’ repertoire. A few later recordings have some material in common with Thomas’ song, including “Gone to Fishin” (Leroy Williams, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin and Willie Martin, 1941), “I’m Going Fishing Too” (Alice Moore, 1936) and “Everybody’s Fishing’” (Bumble Bee Slim, 1935) which includes the lines:

I woke up this mornin’ an’ I grabbed my pole
Can’t catch the fish to save my soul.”
Everybody’s fishin’ – yes, Everybody’s fishin’;
Everybody’s fishin’, I’m gon’ fish some too.
Every little fish like this bait I got,
My babe home got her skillet hot.

2. Mississippi John Hurt was capable of bringing a similar warmth even to such potentially raunchy songs as “Candy Man Blues” or “Coffee Blues.”

3. See his admirable liner notes to Henry Thomas Texas Worried Blues: Complete Recorded Works 1927-1929 titled “Henry Thomas: Our Deepest Look at the Roots.”


4. In fact Thomas demonstrates his classic restraint and does not use this rhyme. In my opinion it is hovering in the background even though unspoken.

5. Robert Petway’s more popular “Catfish Blues” (1941) is more ambivalent with its reference to “poor” me.

Well, if I were a catfish, mama
I says, swimmin' deep down in the blue sea
Have these girls now, sweet mama
Settin' out, settin' out hooks for po' me

Tommy McClennan’s “Deep Blue Sea Fishing Blues” (1941) is similar: “Lord I would have all these good-looking women now now now : fishing after me”

6. Note how the singer slyly bets the other’s life and not his own!

7. Cf. Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talking“ which says

I'm gonna break up this signifyin'
'cause somebody gotta go.

8. The verse entered the folk process rapidly and was recorded by E. C. Perrow on page 142 of his Songs and Rhymes from the South (1912) as sung by “Tennessee mountain whites.” Another equally unlikely adaptation from Riley’s “Shortnin’ Bread – Pieced Out” is “thought I hearn a chickin sneeze” used by Woody Guthrie in “Talking Blues” and Hank Snow in “Trouble Trouble Trouble.”

9. In what seems more likely carelessness and haste than conscious paradox, Marcus a few lines later says “this liberation or absolute is not easy to comprehend, but, just for that reason, it is here.” See his essay “The Old, Weird America” in Democracy and the Arts, edited by Arthur M. Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 123.




Fishing Blues by Henry Thomas

Went up on the hill about twelve o'clock.
Reached right back and got me a pole.
Went to the hardware and got me a hook.
Attached that line right on that hook.
Says you've been a-fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin' fishin' too.

I bet your life, your lovin'wife.
Can catch more fish than you.
Any fish bite if you've got good bait.
Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate.
Any fish bite, you've got good bait.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin', yes, I'm a-goin' a-fishin',
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.

Looked down the river about one o'clock.
Spied this catfish swimmin' around.
I've got so hungry, didn't know what to do.
I'm gonna get me a catfish too.

Yes, you've been fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.
I bet your life your lovin' wife.
Catch more fish than you.
Any fish bite, got good bait.
Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate.
Any fish bite, you've got good bait.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin', yes, I'm goin' a-fishin',
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.

Put on your skillet, don't never mind your lead.
Mama gonna cook 'em with the short'nin' bread.
Says you been fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin a-fishin' too.
I bet your life, your lovin' wife.
Can catch more fish than you.
Any fish bite, if you've got good bait.
Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate.
Any fish bite, you've got good bait.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin', yes, I'm goin' a-fishin',
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.




Fishing Blues by Taj Mahal
I betcha' goin' fishin' all o' the time
Baby goin' fishin' too
Bet you life, your sweet wife
Is gonna catch more fish than you
Many fish bites if you got good bait
Here's a little tip that I would like to relate
With my pole and my line
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too
I went on down my favorite fishin' hole
Baby got myself a pole an' line
Caught a nine poun' catfish
On the bottom, yes I got him
And I brought him home to my mom about supper time
Singin' many fish bites if you got good bait
Here's a little tip that I would like to relate
Many fish bites if you got good bait
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too
Baby brother 'bout to run me up outta my mind
Sayin', "Can I go fishin' with you?"
So I took him on down to the favorite fishin' hole
Now what do you think that brother of mine did do?
Caught a seven poun' catfish
On the bottom yes he got him
Took him home to mama he was real gone
With his pole and his line
He was goin' fishin', yes he goin' fishin'
And baby goin' fishin' too
Put him in the pot, baby put him in the pan
Mama cook him till he nice an' brown
Get yourself a batch o' buttermilk, whole cakes mama
An' you put that sucker on the table and eat it on down
Singin' many fish bites if you got good bait
Well here's a little tip that I would like to relate
With my pole and my line
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
My baby gone fishin' too
I betcha' goin' fishin' all o' the time
Mama goin' fishin' too
Bet you life, your sweet life
I gonna catch more fish than you
Many fish bites if you got good bait
Here's a little tip that I would like to relate
With my pole and my line
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too

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