Mike Mellor: OK, let's try this again. Last weekend's blizzard knocked my interent out from Friday evening until Sunday morning and didn't let me publish last week's post about love songs. This was one of them:
Looks like we're in the clear with just little snow squalls today. What's the topic tonight?
Brendan Hogan: Tonight's theme will be songs about presidents. I don't know about you, but the first song that pops into my head is J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues". I love it because it's a socially conscious and critical song from a black man in 1954; a time when having an alternate world view was not acceptable by even the whitest of white folks.
One needs to look no further than Pete Seeger or the Hollywood blacklist to see what a polemical stance against the 'American way' could do to one's ability to earn a living as an artist. But because little attention was paid to a person with J.B.'s background—a poor, black, illiterate sharecropper from Mississippi—in a weird way I think it worked to his advantage. Parrot Records was asked to rename the song as "Tax Paying Blues" and that was the extent of the scrutiny on J.B. But that's what I love about him. He was saying things when nobody else was. And it's a great song.
Mike: No doubt. The song comes in the aftermath of both the Recession of 1953 (that hit black people worse than white people) and McCarthyism dropping into overdrive. I'm not sure Eisenhower had a whole lot to do with either of those things, but like a quarterback in football the President takes the credit and blame for pretty much everything that happens in the country.
J.B. also had a habit of overtly political songs; he also wrote and recorded songs like "Korea Blues" and "Alabama Blues". Maybe this is what kept him relatively obscure until the 2000s?
Brendan: I think that's definitely part of it. While he had commercial success in the US with songs like "Mama, Talk to Your Daughter" and was considered important enough to tour Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival in 1965, black blues fans were leaving the music for the more defiant and outspoken nature of soul music by 1965. But there was J.B. even then, recording blues for a German record label in the last years of his life, singing things like "Why was I born in Mississippi when it's so hard to get ahead? Every black child born in Mississippi; you know that poor child is born dead."
Mike: Singing like that in 1965, in a sense, made him more of a contemporary of Nina Simone than, say, Muddy Waters.
I'm going to change directions with my pick and go with Johnny Cash's rendition of the folk song "Mr. Garfield", a narrative about Charles Guiteau's assassination of President James Garfield from the point of view of regular citizens hearing rumors:
The non sequitur introduction about Tombstone, AZ and Jesse James is there because the track is from Cash's concept album Sings the Ballads of the True West. The assassination happened in Washington, DC, so I don't know how it's relevant to the album concept, but it's a great song nonetheless. I especially like how Cash humanizes Garfield and his wife Lucretia in the way he narrates their conversation.
Brendan: Yes, I love the line about Garfield telling his wife to remarry. "Don't pull a single harness all your life." It humanizes the story, for sure.
I always understood the song's introduction as a way of putting the story of the President's assassination into historical context. I mean, it's a bizarre song to write, isn't it? President Garfield had the second shortest term in office, just a few months, and isn't remembered for much more than his assassination. I wonder why Ramblin' Jack Elliott was compelled to write about him.
Mike: Ramblin' Jack gets credit for writing it? I thought Cash's version came from this rendition on a 1952 Library of Congress album named Songs and Ballads of American History and of the Assassination of Presidents:
Brendan: Yeah, definitely sounds like it comes from that version. I wonder if Ramblin' Jack gets credit if only because he wrote it down.
Mike: Interesting. We should ask him the next time he comes through town.
Brendan: Nah, it seems to me that he wrote the sheet music for posterity's sake, and has since gotten credit by default. Besides he doesn't need a couple whippersnappers calling bullshit on him. He's Ramblin' Jack and it is folk music, after all. Everything is borrowed from the same pot.
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