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River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music - Country Blues
From the upcoming book, July 2023 release: River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music, by Matt Chaney, Four Walls Publishing.
Matt's books are on Amazon.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
The ballad "Joe Turner," an early blues form disseminated around Tennessee, decried a prison marshal who delivered inmates for peonage at farms, coal mines, and railroad construction sites. The song was a snatchy folk verse but real-life besides, depicting Joe Turney, deputy warden of the Tennessee penitentiary for 20 years. Turney placed prisoners with favored businesses as captive labor, in the Southern practice of “convict lease.”
Convict release was denounced by Century Magazine and the Knoxville Chronicle in 1884, just as Turney transported a load of Memphis convicts to the state pen. A “jolly crowd” of black prisoners sang bluesy “characteristic songs” for the entire train ride, reported the Nashville American, “some religious, some love songs, some political, and some burlesque songs.”
The inmates sang “Goodbye My Lover,” “Pass The Whiskey,” and likely “Joe Turner” right in Turney’s face, shouting and laughing in a sly maneuver of their enslaved ancestors. Turney would have been oblivious for the “pig Latin doubletalk” slaves once utilized. The code originated “to fool Plantation overseers who forbade conversations at work,” observed Charles A. Grumich. “The story is that such overseers did not object to chanting or singing, and that word communication between slaves was carried on thus.”
Southern musicians render a song, portrayed in this lithograph of Harper's Magazine, 1879. Courtesy of the New York Public Library
W.C. Handy learned a Memphis version of “Joe Turner” as a youth in Florence, Ala., from musician Jim Turner. “You heard it all over the South… wherever it was sung the words dealt with a local situation,” Handy recalled. “When you speak of the story of the blues, we can’t tell it without the story of Joe Turner.”
Handy said Memphis blacks were decoyed into dice games on Beale Street and elsewhere. "[T]hey were arrested and put into prison. Women looking for their husbands who were late coming home would ask, ‘I wonder where my husband is.’ Then they would be told, ‘Haven't you heard about Joe Turner? He's been here and gone.’ He had a long chain with 50 links to it where he could press Negroes in handcuffs and take them away.”
Memphis blacks devised verses that Handy sang:
They tell me Joe Turner's come and gone.
Oh, Lordy, tell me Joe Turner's come and gone.
Oh, Lordy, got my man and gone.
Tennessee’s convict lease system was abolished under Governor Pete Turney in 1896, and his brother Joe soon left the penal system. For two decades Joe Turney transported 10,000 prisoners across Tennessee with only two escapees, both black men: a train jumper hobbled and recaptured, and a runaway on Memphis streets. Turney’s replacement immediately lost three convicts on one trip from Memphis.
For Handy, the blues had always been, all around. “The blues is a combination with the rhythm of ragtime, the dialect of the illiterate Negro, and the melodic value of the spiritual,” he said. “It seemed to me I’d always heard them. Our people talked of ‘singing the blues,’ but that was just a phrase. Blues wasn’t written music then. There would be just a snatch of song among my people. It was music from the heart.”
Country fiddler and dancing children at a farmhouse near Anniston, Ala., circa 1895. Local Russell Brothers Photography shot the print. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
“I didn't invent the blues. No one invented them,” Handy said. “The blues were melodies sung by Negro roustabouts, farmers and wanderers from Missouri to the Gulf. My part in history was to introduce this, the blues form, to the general public as a medium for my own feelings.”
Handy cited ragtime, “syncopation without much melody,” as a blues factor. “I also had experiences in my hometown, Florence, Alabama, where I carried water for the men who worked in the rock quarry, who always sang as they worked; something like this: A-oh. A-oh. I wouldn't live in Cair-o. It was just such snatches of songs like this that turned my attention to Negro music.”
“I've always felt that the blues deal with an epoch in our history. And coming from the same people that gave us the spiritual, they reflected a nominal freedom. All the blues that I have written are either historic or folklore or folk song… a blues that expresses the feeling of a people and a hope for their future on earth.”
W.C. Handy, Mahara's Minstrels, bandleader and feature cornetist, circa 1903. Courtesy of wikimedia.org