There is much that can be revealed from an analysis of early twentieth
century Blues music when it comes to sexuality and interpersonal relationships.
The Blues, being a very real-life-oriented medium, has few content restraints,
which allows for a diverse amount of emotional subjects to be covered by
it's musicians. In general, this has led to significant insight into the
intimate details of people's lives, as musicians were free to express, in
vivid detail, the serious issues they were faced with. These things were
no doubt, discussed in daily life at the time, but because the subject matter
was infused into a musical medium, there are many recordings that we can
now use to analyze the issues of the time period. There are many positive
themes in blues songs, but in particular, the negative themes in blues music
from the twenties and thirties that dealt with dysfunctional relationships,
violence and promiscuity allow us to see into some of the real-life struggles
that people faced in those times.
There are several themes that we can find recurring in blues music that
reflect some of the concerns of people in the early twentieth century time
"Baby Won't You Please Come Home"
This song, written by Charles Warfield and Clarence
and performed by Bessie Smith in 1923 (Wikipedia)
embodies a recurring theme that is often seen in Blues music:
Fear of, and dealing with abandonment. In this song, Smith sings
about begging her mate to come back after leaving her. The theme
is both emotional and economic in nature, conveying both the emotional
despair felt from being left alone and heartbroken and a fear
of the very real financial consequences.
1According to Wikipedia,
Charles Warfield claims to be the only writer of the song.
I've got the blues, I feel so lonely; I'd give the
world If I could only Make you understand; It truly would be grand.
I'm gonna telephone my baby, Ask him won't you please come home.
Oh, when you gone I'm worried all day long. Baby, won't you please
come home? Baby, won't you please come home? I have tried in vain
Nevermore to call your name. When you left you broke my heart, That
will never make us part. Every hour in the day you will hear me
say, Baby, won't you please come home? I mean, baby, won't you please
come home? Baby, won't you please come home? 'Cause your mama's
all alone. I have tried in vain Nevermore to call your name; When
you left you broke my heart; That will never make us part; Landlord's
gettin' worse, I gotta move May the first. Baby, won't you please
come home? I need money. Baby, won't you please come home?
Blues songs about abandonment are not exclusive to the
blues women. The male blues players often sing of these relationship
issues. In fact, many of the early blues songs were sung by both men
and women. In the African American Review article : In
a Different Chord: Interpreting the Relations Among Black Female Sexuality,
Agency, and the Blues, Nghana Tamu Lewis does a good job of summing
up the views of some blues historians like Charles Keil and Albert
Murray by writing "..the blues have never served as a conduit
for gender-scripted performances" and "..male and female
artists often sang the same songs, appropriately changing gender references
in the lyrics" (2). Lewis goes on quoting Kiel to explain how
the early female blues artists like Mamie Smith began to standardize
blues songs structure and many of the male blues artists in the twenties
and thirties started singing these songs too, and their own songs
in the same style, in an effort to make blues more predictable, thereby
making the songs more familiar to a widespread audience(2). Yet, throughout
all this standardization, the blues has always been an avenue for
the artists to express very personal and emotional feelings through
the lyrics that they sing. Big Joe Williams' song "Baby Please
Don't Go" is an example.
Big Joe Williams first recorded the song "Baby
Please Don't Go" in 1935(Wikipedia).
In the song "Black Eye Blues", Ma Rainey sings
about a woman in an abusive relationship. There is a clear empowerment
in this song as the main character, the abused woman is planning her
revenge. She takes the abuse and will "stick around" as
she waits for the opportune moment to get back at her abuser. Although
in many blues songs, men are the ones singing violent lyrics or being
portrayed as the aggressor, there are also many songs where the woman
is the abuser as instead.
"Black Eye Blues"
Gertrude "Ma Rainey"
"Black Snake Moan"
There is debate as to whether or not this song is about sexuality
and loneliness. Blind Lemon Jefferson uses imagery of a snake in
his room throughout the song. Some of the early blues has sexuality
disguised by metaphors making it difficult to know the true meaning
of the song. As can be seen by some of the back an forth debate
there are differences of opinion as to whether the snake is representative
of the male genitalia or whether it represents the fear that his
condition of blindness has caused him psychologically.
I ain't got no mama now I ain't got no mama now
She told me late last night, "You don't need no mama no how" Mmm,
mmm, black snake crawlin' in my room Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin'
in my room Some pretty mama better come and get this black snake
soon Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug, baby a chinch can't
bite that hard Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug, honey a chinch
can't bite that hard Ask my sugar for fifty cents, she said "Lemon,
ain't a child in the yard" Mama, that's all right, mama that's all
right for you Mama, that's all right, mama that's all right for
you Mama, that's all right, most seen all you do Mmm, mmm, what's
the matter now? Mmm, mmm, honey what's the matter now? Sugar, what's
the matter, don't like no black snake no how Mmm, mmm, wonder where
my black snake gone? Mmm, mmm, wonder where this black snake gone?
Black snake mama done run my darlin' home
While some blues music expresses sexual content in hidden
metaphors, some blues songs are full of overt and graphic sexual descriptions
that reveal some very interesting things about the early twentieth
century. In particular, Lucille Bogan (a.k.a. Bessie Jackson) sang
songs about various topics, some of which including sex, prostitution
and alcoholism. In a notorious "dirty" version of "Shave
em' Dry", she lets loose with all sorts of sexual references
and sugar coats nothing. We actually get a lot insight here into the
slang and swearing that was used at the time. This 1935 recording
shows us that much of the slang terminology used today that is considered
"foul language" was in use back then.
The lyrics of this song are explicit and can be viewed at the following
Again, both male and female blues singers performed
songs with overtly sexual lyrics. In the blues music of the early
twentieth century, there do not seem to be clearly expected gender
roles to be adhered to for men and women. Like Lucille Bogan, Bo Carter
performed some racy, sexually themed tunes. In the song "Warm
My Wiener", Carter is begging a woman to pleasure him. Though
there is a hot dog metaphor being used in the song, it is made clear
what he is talking about when he says things like "Said some
says it takes hot water, baby, can't you see, But your heat, baby's,
plenty warm enough for me" and "Won't you just warm my wiener
'cause it don't really feel right cold". Many of the more overtly
sexual songs were likely to have been less about profound emotional
expression of serious topics, like fear of abandonment by a loved
one, and more for entertainment purposes. Although, clearly these
songs do express a natural human condition: the physiological need
for physical intimacy, it is likely that they were more commercial
in nature, catering to the crowds looking to have a good time and
I got somethin' to tell ya baby, don't get mad this
time, If you warm my weiner You give me ease all up in my mind Baby,
please warm my wiener, oh, warm my wiener, Won't you just warm my
wiener, 'cause he really don't feel right cold Now listen here,
sweet baby, i ain't no lyin' man, If you warm my wiener one time,
you gonna want him again Baby, please warm my wiener, oh, warm my
wiener, Won't you just warm my wiener, 'cause he really don't feel
right cold Said some says it takes hot water, baby, can't you see,
But your heat, baby's, plenty warm enough for me Baby, please warm
my wiener, oh, warm my wiener, Won't you just warm my wiener, 'cause
he really don't feel right cold Now listen here sweet baby, it ain't
no fake, I'm beggin' you baby, now just give your daddy one break
Baby, please warm my wiener, oh, warm my wiener, Won't you just
warm my wiener, 'cause he really don't feel right cold Now listen
here, sweet baby, you know the time's growin' old, I don't want
you to warm half of my wiener, i want you to warm him all Baby,
please warm my wiener, oh, warm my wiener, Won't you just warm my
wiener, 'cause he really don't feel right cold. (lyricstime.com)
The Blues comes in many forms and covers many topics. These early examples
give us a little insight into what was on the minds of people during the
twenties and thirties. These are very human themes that people can still
relate to today, and this contributes significantly to why people still
relate to the blues of this era.
In a Different Chord: Interpreting the Relations among Black Female Sexuality,
Agency, and the Blues.Nghana tamu Lewis : African American Review, Vol.
37, No. 4 (Winter, 2003), pp. 599-609. Published by: St. Louis University