Friday, July 3, 2009

Black balllads (2) : Jack Johnson and the Titanic : when the blues brought the news




Leadbelly - the Titanic (buy) (1948)


First I'd like to wish all my American readers a happy 4th of July. Please check out Darius'blog, Oliver di Place, for great Independance Day posts here.

Let's go on with our exploration of Afro American balladry. Yesterday I found this great Leadbelly song in a French compilation called Black Heroes : From Stagger Lee to Joe louis.
Another subject of ballads was the news, the real events (and not only legends). The sinking of the Titanic gave birth to hundreds of songs. As always, Gadaya made a great job of compiling the best Titanic songs in his blog.

When that great ship went down : the Titanic variations at Old Weird America

But what's also interesting in Leadbelly's song is the mention of Jack Johnson, not the singer, but the boxer, a true Afro American hero. He became heavyweight world champion in 1908 after defeating Canadian Tommy Burns who until then had refused to fight a black man. The legend has it that he wanted to board the Titanic but was turned back because, as Lead sings, the captain "didn't haul no coal".
Apart from that song, Jack Johnson is absent from folk songs, but Miles Davis dedicated an album to him in 1970.

Musically, the Leadbelly song is very close to this one by Johnnie Head, who only recorded 2 sides in 1928. With his kazoo and tenor voice, he must have come from a vaudeville/medicine show or even jazz background.

Johnnie Head - Fare thee Well (buy) (1928)


Other athletes (like boxer Joe Louis or baseball players Jackie Robinson or Larry Doby) were the heroes of folk songs, but there's a song I really like, that I also discovered in the Black Heroes compilation. I guess it's the perfect post for a 4th of July. It tells the story of how a poor Mississippi farmer called the White House in 1934 to save his mortgaged farm. Pdt Roosevelt himself picked up the phone and helped him.
The news went nation-wide and Memphis Minnie made a song out of it the following year.
Find more here about the story.

Memphis Minnie - Sylvester and his Mule Blues (buy) (1935)

6 comments:

Darius said...

Wow! Thank you so much for the honorable mention. I am loving your Black Ballads series. Can't wait to see where this goes next.

Nicolas said...

More to follow at the end of this week...
I'm planning 2 or 3 more posts (and others in between, especially one for our national day on july 14)

Nicolas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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