Lead Belly’s “The Bourgeois Blues”

There was a very close relationship between Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter, 1888-1949), folklorist John Lomax (1867-1948) and his son Alan (1915-2002). The Lomaxes devoted their lives to preserving and publishing recordings of folk and blues musicians throughout the U.S. and Europe. The artists they are credited with discovering and bringing to a wider audience include blues great Robert Johnson, protest singer and primary influence of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, folk artist Pete Seeger and bluesman Lead Belly, among others.

In July 1933, John Lomax acquired a state-of-the-art, 315 pound disk recorder and installed it in the trunk of his car. Lomax used the new machine to record Lead Belly, then serving time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Stories surfaced that Lead Belly, separately incarcerated in Texas and in Louisiana, was granted early release both times because of his musical talents. Indeed, this was the focus of a vile and racist article in Life magazine (see photo above), dated April 19, 1937 and entitled “Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel.” In actual fact, his early releases had more to do with cost-cutting measures brought on by the Great Depression, and his exemplary conduct while incarcerated. Upon his release, Lead Belly was hired as the Lomaxes driver and assistant, travelling the South together collecting songs.

In 1937, Alan Lomax was Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He invited Lead Belly to Washington to record for the Library’s collection and the two men agreed to bring their wives, have some dinner, make some music and have a good time. On the first night that Lead Belly and his wife Martha spent in the city, none of the hotels would rent rooms to African-Americans. Lomax offered to let the couple stay for the night in his apartment. The next morning, Lead Belly awoke to Lomax arguing with his landlord about the presence of black people in the hotel, with the landlord threatening to call the police. When Lead Belly, Lomax, and their wives wanted to go out for dinner together, they discovered that it was impossible for the mixed race group to find a restaurant that would serve them.

When discussing these incidents with friends later on, someone commented that Washington was a “bourgeois town.” Lead Belly had never heard the word before and after its meaning was explained to him, things clicked and he wrote “The Bourgeois Blues” in a few hours. In my opinion, it is one of the most important and culturally significant songs of the 20th century.

To our “modern” ears, the song is shocking for its use of the word “nigger” but, in 1937, everyone spoke this way. Since the civil war, Southern legislations had systematically passed laws of racial segregation directed against blacks. The intent was to suppress the new freedom of emancipated African-American slaves brought on by the civil war. Originally called the Black Codes, these statutes later became known as Jim Crow laws. The origin of the phrase “Jim Crow” has been attributed to “Jump Jim Crow”, a song-and-dance caricature of blacks performed in blackface by white actor Thomas D. Rice in 1832. As a result of Rice’s fame, “Jim Crow” quickly became a pejorative expression aimed at blacks. The offensive and disrespectful practice of minstrelsy and blackface continued, though happily lessening, for the entire 20th century. The cover for an early edition of the song “Jump Jim Crow”, circa 1832, is shown at the right.


Richard Séguin – voice, 12-string guitar, acoustic slide guitar, mandolin, MIDI guitar (tuba)


The Bourgeois Blues

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