Wolf Stories

In this issue of BluesNotes, I’m going to be quoting from David Honeyboy Edwards’ remarkable memoir/biography The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing. It is the most vivid and revealing memoir, and contains some of the most beautiful language and expressions I’ve ever seen in print. Though he has passed away now, in this book Honeyboy comes alive again. Go buy a copy. Continue Reading

‘Nation Sacks

Hear a sample of the song “Come On In My Kitchen” which mentions the ‘nation sack.

Access the complete lyrics of this song.'nation sack

BluesNotes, October 1, 2003

This issue of BluesNotes concerning “Nation Sacks” comes to me courtesy of Jennifer Bleck, a resonator player and one-time student of mine at one of the music camps around the country.

It has been my understanding from Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stephen Calt, that the term is a contraction of ‘donation sack’, and sprung from the double drawstring purses common for holding coins in the late 1800’s, and used by tent show revival preachers for their collected donations. And that these ‘nation sacs became fashion items for prostitutes who collected their ‘donations’ from their nightly ministrations and would wear the sacks under their skirts for security, and would further jingle the coins to attract customers. Continue Reading


Southern Stereotypes,
the Holocaust and Public Health?

©2003, Scott Ainslie

Prompted by a recent article in the Times, the notes in this issue of BluesRoots pertain to a part of our history at which no one even hinted during my sixteen years of undergraduate study. It has been astonishing to discover. Good reading.

Dr. Joseph Goldberger

In a recent article “The New Yorker Who Changed the Diet of the South” by Howard Markel (NY Times of August 12, 2003); Dr. Joseph Goldberger’s efforts to uncover the dietary deficiencies that led to Pellagra are wonderfully recounted. Goldberger came out of slums of the Eastern European jewish neighborhoods of the East Village in New York City and by his audacity, curiosity and strength of will–when measured by the lives he changed—became one of the most significant public health workers the country has ever known, by prescribing brewer’s yeast as a dietary supplement for the South’s poor, black and white. As Markel writes, “It was not until 1937, eight years after Goldberger’s death, that biochemists at the University of Wisconsin identified the exact chemical root of the dietary deficiency that causes pellagra: Niacin.” Continue Reading

Ras Tafari

For years Blues scholars and musicians have been intrigued by one of Robert Johnson’s lyrics in his most covered tune, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”. In the song, Johnson comes home to find his woman has been seeing someone else. The premise of the song is that he will “get up in the morning” and “dust” his broom–an expression meaning that he’s going to be hitting the road. And he goes all around the northern Delta region looking for an old girlfriend to take him in, someone who will treat him fairly and care for him: justice and love. Continue Reading

Diddley Bows

Hear a sample of Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” played on a Diddley Bow:

The jumping off place for this BluesNotes on Diddley Bows is taken from Gerhard Kubik’s wonderful book, Africa & the Blues (University Press of Mississippi, 1999).

Ainslie,Scott.kff08.5644.srDBowWEBWriting about one-stringed instruments, Kubik cites David Evans wonderful “African-American One-Stringed Instruments” (Evans, 1970) and goes on to note that,

“Like many other African traditions and culture traits, the idea of the monochord zither seems to have smoldered on through the nineteenth century in an underground existence, perpetuated especially by children, and in the rare cases in which the instrument was perhaps observed by outsiders, it was not consider even worthy of report. Only when systematic research of the southern cultures began in the 1930s, does it become documented through photographs, and it was not recorded until the 1950s.”

Continue Reading

Turpentine Camps

Florida’s “Turpmtine” Camps

My travels this spring took me back to Florida, where I met friends of Stetson Kennedy who put me on his trail.

Kennedy is one of the pioneer Southern folklore collectors of the first half of the twentieth century. He was Director of the Federal Writer’s Project unit on folklore, oral history and social-ethnic studies for the Works Progress Administration between 1937 and 1942.

Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1916, as a teenager Kennedy began collecting Cracker PalmettoCoand African-American folksay material while he was collecting “dollar down and dollar a week” accounts for his father, a furniture merchant. He left the University of Florida in 1937 to join the WPA. Kennedy’s first book, “Palmetto Country,” appeared in 1942 as a volume in the American Folkways Series edited by Erskine Caldwell.

Having myself been drawn into Florida folklife by Dwight DeVane’s field recordings of Emmett Murray (where I learned the title cut for my third CD, a turpentine camp song: “You Better Lie Down,”), I came home from Florida and ordered all Kennedy’s books and am working my way through them now. Kennedy infiltrated the Klan and published “The Klan Unmasked” in 1954. That’s number two on my list. He is a fellow who has walked the walk. Continue Reading

Metronome cover

Metronome Interview with Brian Owens, 2014

Blues singer-songwriter-guitarist and historian Scott Ainslie is an innate musician and a true gentleman. After listening to John Jackson play at a high school assembly while in his teens, Ainslie found his way to music and never looked back. Over the years, he’s played with John Jackson, Ernie Hawkins, Etta Baker, Mike Seeger and the Fly By Night String Band, among others. He’s a gifted storyteller and an exceptional musician whose musical journey has enriched his life (and others) beyond his wildest dreams. We talked at length one winter day and he explained how he came to choose music as his calling….

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The Length of a 78

Recently, one of the list correspondents commented:
“I’ve gotten the impression from reading about early Delta blues and country blues that the white A & R men who lugged “portable” recording devices into the South starting around 1926 and on into Robert Johnson’s time were looking for two things. 1) marketable vocal & instrumental skills, and, perhaps more important 2) original lyrics…It seems to me that these two skills reached a flowering in the person of Robert Johnson.

No other blues performers I’ve heard from the ’20s & ’30s come close to Johnson’s lyric breadth and depth.”

While Johnson’s work represents a kind of genius at once communal and individual, drawing as it did from the rich work of earlier performers and his contemporaries; I believe there is another reason that Johnson’s work really stands apart from the recordings of earlier performers: Johnson understood just how long a 78 r.p.m. side was. Continue Reading

Don’t Obey Notes

Full text of Scott’s notes about the song:

The song “Don’t Obey” began developing after a reading of Howard Zinn’s marvelous Declarations of Independence: Cross Examining American Ideology in the spring of 2003. It is a song in the Gandhian tradition of nonviolent engagement and finds some of its inspiration more recently from the Israeli military men and women–now numbering over 1,000—who have refused to serve or bomb in the occupied territories.

In the book, Zinn quotes British scientist and essayist C. P. Snow. In 1961, Snow wrote:

“When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. The German Officer Corps were brought up in the most rigorous code of obedience…in the name of obedience they were party to, and assisted in, the most wicked large scale actions in the history of the world.”
—Quoted in Milgram, Obedience to Authority, (Harper & Row, 1974)

Continue Reading

Redemption: Reconstructing the South

Examining the historical context of the Blues is tricky for anyone, though perhaps doubly so for Whites. The music was built, freely played and enjoyed by people of color whose lives, livelihoods–and, sometimes, deaths–were shaped by forces on the loose in the American landscape that are unexamined and unfamiliar to many listeners. I do not believe this is out of callousness generally, but is more due to the fact that this dark history is glossed over or entirely absent in our schools. Continue Reading

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