The Bourgeois Blues
|"The Bourgeois Blues"|
|Single by Lead Belly|
|A-side||"The Gallis Pole"|
|Format||Ten-inch 78 rpm record|
|Recorded||New York City, April 1939|
|Label||Musicraft (no. 227-B)|
"The Bourgeois Blues" is a blues song by Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. The song was written in June 1937 in response to the discrimination and segregation that Lead Belly faced during his trip to Washington DC to record for Alan Lomax. It rails against racism and Jim Crow laws and tells of the conditions that African-Americans encounter in the southern United States.
The song was recorded in December 1938 for the Library of Congress and then rerecorded in 1939 for commercial release. Since the song was written, it has been remixed and rerecorded by a number of artists including Pete Seeger and Hans Theessink. Bill Brag's remix to protest the Iraq War gained attention in 2006.
The song is remembered as one of Lead Bell's best original pieces but is the center of controversy. There is doubt over the narrative that Lead Belly wrote the song without a collaborator. In addition, the song brings up questions over the role of Lead Belly in the American Communist party and allegations that he was used to further their political goals. The party denies these allegations.
Background and creation
Most historians date the creation of "The Bourgeois Blues" to Lead Belly's visit to Washington DC in 1937. He was invited by the folklorist Alan Lomax to record tracks for the Library of Congress's folk music collection in June 1937. On first night that Lead Belly and his wife Martha, who he brought along for the trip, spent in the city, they encountered similar Jim Crow laws to those found in their native Louisiana. Most hotels refused to rent rooms to African-Americans and the few hotels that would were either full or refused to serve Lead Belly because he was with a white man. Lomax, in some telling of the story "a white friend", offered to put Lead Belly and his wife up for the night in his apartment which was situated near the Supreme Court Building. The next morning, Lead Belly awoke to the landlord yelling at Lomax about the fact that a black man was there and threaten to call the police.
Lead Belly encountered several other incidents of segregation in Washington DC that have been attributed to the impetus of the song. When Lead Belly, Lomax, and their wives wanted to go out to dinner together, it was impossible for the mixed race group to find a restaurant that would serve them. Lead Belly was told that if he returned later without Lomax, he would be served.
In response to one of these incidents a friend of Lead Belly's, either Lomax or Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, joked that Washington was a "bourgeois town." Lead Belly didn't know what the word "bourgeois" meant, but he liked and was fascinated by the sound of the word. After the word's meaning was explained to him, he decided to incorporate it into a song about the trip. The song came together quickly; one accounts claims that it only took a few hours for Lead Belly to write it. Lomax liked it because it was partly based on what happened in his apartment.
Lyrics and themes
"The Bourgeois Blues" is a blues-style protest song that serves as an "indictment" of the culture of Washington DC. It protests the Jim Crow laws of the city as well as the racism of the white population of the city. The song is structured with several verses and a refrain that declares that the speaker is going to "spread the news all around" about the racial issues that plague the city. The refrain, and the song in general, conflates race and economics by referring to Caucasians as "bourgeois".
The first two verses speak of the segregation that Lead Belly encountered in Washington DC. The first recounts the fact that during the trip Lead Belly was "turned down" wherever he tried to get served due to his race. The second speaks of the argument between Lomax and his landlord over Lead Belly stating in his apartment. The third sarcastically exclaims: "The home of the brave, the land of the Free" and juxtaposes it with this mistreatment he received at the hands of white people in DC. The fourth speaks of the racism of the white population of the city. The song ends with a suggestion for African-Americans to boycott buying homes in the city.
Throughout the song, the speaker seems unable to do anything about the discrimination and racism that he encounters. Yet, there is a kind of power found in the song. By "spreading the news" the speaker communicates, to both southern-African-Americans and northern-whites, that the status quo is deeply flawed and that something needs to change.
Recordings and adaptions
Lead Belly first recorded "The Bourgeois Blues" in December 1938 in New York City and the recording was donated to the Library of Congress. The song was rerecorded in April 1939 by Musicraft Records and was released the same year as a 78 rpm record. The version that was commercially released features Lead Belly singing and playing the twelve-string guitar without any other accompaniment. Since then, the song has been rerecorded and reimagined by a wide variety of artists including Pete Seeger and Hans Theessink. Seeger recorded and released both live and studio versions of the song on several of his albums. Theessink adapted the song to his style of European blues in the album Journey On. In Australia, the song was reworked as "Canberra Blues" by The Bitter Lemons, an R&B band. The lyrics speak of the problems faced by young Australians in the Australian Capital Territory in the 1960s.
In 2006, Billy Bragg reworked the song as "Bush War Blues". Bragg's cover is a topical protest song about the Iraq War. In one verse, Bragg claims that the Iraq War was not for democracy but instead was to "make the world safe for Halliburton". In another, he takes on the Christian right asking where the moderates are. Finally, Bragg chides the United States government for not dealing with poverty at home before going to war.
"The Bourgeois Blues" is one of Lead Belly's most famous songs and is remembered as his most "heartfelt protest songs". There is a disagreement between scholars over the importance of the song. Robert Springer claims that the song is "peripheral" to the wider study of blues music while Lawson points to it as a watershed moment in the way African-Americans see themselves in the fabric of the United States. There is also some controversy over the relationship between the song and the radical politics. It became popular with left-wing political groups and Lead Belly was invited to perform at Camp Unity, the Communist Party USA's summer retreat. Because of this, the FBI opened a file on him in the 1940s. This led to the accusations that the Communist were taking advantage of him and using him as a platform. The party claims that they were some of the few people who respected him and gave him a chance to perform.
Jeff Todd Titon, and several other writers, have suggested that Lead Belly had significant help with the creation of "The Bourgeois Blues" and that it is not a genuine protest song. This stemmed from two things. First, Lead Belly did not have a history of performing or writing protest music before he was discovered by Lomax. Since the music that Lomax recorded was sold to northerners who were sympathetic to Civil Rights, it has been suggested that the song was written to please this new audience. Second, the use of the term "bourgeois" seems out of place compared to his past work.
- Seeger 1998, p. 11 and Seeger 1964, p. 4 lists the creation date as 1938 while most other sources (Wolfe & Lornell 1992, p. 206) date the song to June 1937.
- Wolfe & Lornell 1992, p. 206
- Scalera 2013
- Weissman 2005, p. 168
- Wolfe & Lornell 1992, p. 206 and Lankford, Ronnie D., Jr. "Bourgeois Blues". AllMusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved March 4, 2015.
- Seeger 1998, p. 11
- Lawson 2010, p. 42
- Wolfe & Lornell 1992, p. 207
- Lawson 2010, p. 43
- "Allmusic Search for "Bourgeois Blues"". Allmusic. Retrieved March 5, 2015.
- Seeger 1998, p. 11 and Seeger 1964, p. 4
- Dicaire 2001, p. 222
- Marks & McIntyre 2011, p. 194
- Doctorow, Cory. "Bragg changes Ledbelly's "Bourgeois Blues" to "Bush War Blues": free MP3". Boingboing. Retrieved 5 March 2015.
- Martin & Steuter 2010, p. 172
- Filene 2000, p. 72
- Wolfe & Lornell 1992, p. 210
- Tracy 2001, p. 134
- Titon 1977, pp. 190-191
- Dicaire, David L. (2001). More Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Artists from the Later 20th Century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. ISBN 9780786410354.
- Filene, Benjamin (2000). Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0807848623.
- Lawson, R. A. (2010). Jim Crow's Counterculture: The Blues and Black Southerners, 1890-1945. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 9780807138106.
- Martin, Geoff; Steuter, Erin (2010). Pop Culture Goes to War: Enlisting and Resisting Militarism in the War on Terror. Lanham: Lexington Books.
- Marks, Ian D.; McIntyre, Iain (2011). Wild about You!: The Sixties Beat Explosion in Australia and New Zealand. Portland: Verse Chorus Press. ISBN 978-1-891241-28-4.
- Scalera, Nick (2013). "Impressions of Washington: Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues"". WETA. Public Broadcasting for Greater Washington. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
- Seeger, Pete (1964). Songs of Struggle and Protest, 1930–50 (liner notes). Pete Seeger. Washington DC: Folkways Records. ASIN B00242VPWY.
- Seeger, Pete (1998). If I Had a Hammer: Songs of Hope and Struggle (liner notes). Pete Seeger. Washington DC: Folkways Records.
- Titon, Jeff Todd (1977). Early Downhome Blues (1 ed.). Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
- Tracy, Steven C. (2001). Langston Hughes and the Blues. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252069857.
- Weissman, Dick (2005). Blues. Infobase Publishing. p. 168. ISBN 978-0816069750.
- Wolfe, Charles; Lornell, Kip (1992). The Life and Legend of Ledbelly. New York: HarperCollins.