AIN'T TIMES HARD? POLITICAL & SOCIAL COMMENT IN THE BLUES (4 CD BOX SET)
Tampa Red, Gene Campbell, Barbecue Bob, Hambone Willie Newbern, Joe Stone, Sonny Scott, Mississippi Sheiks, Carl Martin, Lane Hardin, Jack Kelly, Lonnie Johnson, Springback James, Peetie Wheatstraw, Charlie McCoy, Andy Chatman, Carrie Edwards, Casey Bill Weldon, Black Ivory King, Sleepy John Estes, Son Bonds, Yank Rachell, Calvin Frazier, Floyd Jones, LC Williams, Guitar Slim & Jelly Belly, John Brim, Smoky Hogg, Gatemouth Brown, JB Hutto, JB Lenoir, Cousin Joe and many more.
Blues ain't all fun and dancin' and hollerin' about Miss Bernice and her spark plugs y'know. Sometimes it gets serious, deadly serious and times can be very hard indeed. In 1927 there were the Mississippi floods, in the late twenties the depression bit hard, inflation hit in the mid forties and thousands upon thousands of people were officially in poverty - most of them black.
In the twenties a sharecropper had to buy his food and supplies from the land-owner and at the end of a year's hard work could end up with as little as fifteen cents in his pockets. If he decided to move to another plantation, the owner would take all of his possessions and nail the door shut as the family moved out. They would then be reliant on help from family and friends and eventually charity. The Red Cross denied any "conscious racial discrimination" but for good reason, most black people stayed away from the Red Cross Store. That led to virtual starvation and prompted many individuals to travel around the country searching for work and probably ending up in hobo jungles and getting arrested for vagrancy. Tough times for sure and they stayed tough for the next couple of decades.
Musicians were victims too and they set to work protesting about their lives and times in song. While the white show business industry up north fooled around with maudlin sop like "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?", it was left to the folks who where living in the real world to make records describing just how tough their situation was.
Gene Campbell and Sonny Scott sang of the near-slavery conditions of the levee camps and coal mines. Memphis Minnie, Tom Dickson and Bob Campbell reported from the rural outposts and George Curry, Hambone Willie Newbern and Fred McMullen railed about the inhuman activities going on behind bars and on the chain gangs. Bill Broonzy, Casey Bill Weldon and Jack Kelly ranted at the WPA, CWA, RFC, PWA and the other government schemes that promised relief, but in the end caused more hardship and distrust for the poor black population. Walter Roland and Sonny Terry with Brownie McGhee criticised the Red Cross Store and other feckless charities while Calvin Frazier, Josh White and Sampson Pittman showed their frustration and disgust at finding themselves having to go on welfare. Yank Rachell, Peetie Wheatstraw and Sleepy John Estes describe what sound like first hand accounts of life in the hobo jungles that were sprouting up all along America's railroad lines, while myriad bluesmen were recording songs about The Depression, homelessness, alcoholism, food stamps, building projects, picket lines, sales tax and so much misery.
The hundred sides on this anthology are a fascinating and revelatory history of how black bluesmen documented the hard times and poverty that persisted in the USA during the first half of the twentieth century. We should be grateful to JSP and thank compiler Neil Slaven for such an intriguing collection of vintage music and for his accurate and informative sleeve notes.
Review Date: September 2008