I Hear the Voice of Bluesman Prime

Posted on March 14, 2011


Bluesman Prime, the man who invented the blues, was born and grew and took his stand in the American South in the decades following the Civil War.  He might have been born into slavery, or in the giddy times just out of it.

Regardless, he grew up in an era when American slavery was adapting itself, repackaging itself into a semi-legal form in the statutes and the backroad courthouses of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi and the rest of the old Confederacy.  The venerable Southern vice was re-emerging as “convict” labour, as peonage, as sharecropping.  As often it operated as outright, socially-tolerated kidnapping.  Klans and southern sheriffs, southern neighbours and southern legislators, collaborated in keeping it healthy and eliminating any remnant of resistance from any quarter.

Southerners might have pretended to outsiders, and sometimes to themselves, that it was something else.  But the new system was slavery in whole cloth to anybody willing to look at it closely (and as the slavers themselves well knew) with whips, dogs, blood, chains, casual sexual exploitation and arbitrary death.

Free labour in the mines, building the railroads, lifting up the levees.  Free labour bleeding the trees in turpentine camps, picking the cotton.  Free labour building bricks in the brickyard, smelting iron in the smelter.  Oh, and sexual slavery as well.

And the slaves in the old system were also the slaves in the new system, just to make it more than crystal to everybody what was really going on.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution had supposedly abolished slavery in the United States in 1868, granting the former slaves full citizenship, overriding the odious Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1857: “A Negro had no rights a white man was bound to respect.”

But Bluesman Prime and every African American citizen living in the Deep South knew that the Fourteenth Amendment was a lie.  The dystopic South of Bluesman Prime’s generation—and the generations after—jackbooted past Orwell to Hieronymus Bosch, oppressive in a way that our modern sensibility perceives as caricature, melodrama, but which was all the same his historical reality.

His everyday.

Bluesman Prime had no access to legal rights, and, because of the dehumanizing morality of racism, almost no access to human sympathy.  He was slotted by Old South convention and practice into a societal cage intended to harness his labour and silence his voice.

The hell of his time and place actually did succeed in erasing Bluesman Prime’s name and all but a single detail of his biography.

But it failed to silence his voice.

The achieve of!

It failed.

Ten thousand Southern slavers, corrupt sheriffs, judges, plutocrats, legislators and whiphandlers have gone to their graves leaving nothing behind but the lingering odour of their rotten souls, but the voice of Bluesman Prime is around us everywhere today.

His voice is the joy of life.  His voice is sex, and freight trains, and sly allegories slipping beneath and behind the understanding of Mr. Charlie.  His voice is a triumph against a semi-continent of hate which tried to keep him down but failed.

The blues is Bluesman Prime’s name and voice.

His name is invoked every time BB King bends a string.  His identity has been encoded mystically into the molecular structure of Charlie Parker’s saxophone.  Bill Monroe nicknamed him “Lonesome.”  Ray Charles knew him to see him.  Without him, Albert King would have a hole in his soul.

His name is the blues.

Out of the totalitarian silence of the antebellum African American South, there was one voice so powerful that it rock-and-rolled the entire planet.

Taught us all to boogie and swing.

Bluesman Prime.  A voice stronger than the generations of hatred that tried to erase him.

I wish I could shake his hand.


It is not a book about the blues, but if you want to know in harrowing detail what it meant to be an African American living in Bluesman Prime’s time and place, then read, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon (2008, Anchor Books, NY.)

Warning.  Reading this book will almost certainly be a gut-wrenching experience.  Hang on tight to your faith in human nature.

And if that’s all too tough for you right now, maybe go back to 1927 and listen to Gus Cannon singing one of the oldest of all blues.  Might just be Bluesman Prime’s own song.

Poor Boy Long Ways From Home

Posted in: music