I Don't Want to Hurt That Man, I Just Want to Kill Him Dead
This list of [ten] songs is culled from the era before the second World War, when these songs were pressed on to shellac, slapped into fungus-prone cardboard and sold as race records. These are singular songs — ones that didn't pass through the ages and become skiffle hits for British teens. These songs are the dark passions of the women singing them — and ones that only they could sing.
"Gravier Street Blues" — Laura Smith
Laura Smith was a very popular singer travelling up and down the Midwest — as far north as Chicago, though it is not reported that she ever toured the southern states, where her style of blues was not as popular. Smith's "Gravier Street Blues" starts off as a typical blues "I'm leaving you today" song — Smith is walking out on her man, leaving only blues and a letter in her wake. As the song unfolds, it is clear that the letter was not about leaving him but a note to the police stating what she had done — put him six feet under ground — and why she did it — because he had been seeing another woman. That reveal is punctuated by Clarence Williams's wonderful piano playing that mimics the beating/stabbing that Laura surely laid upon her man.
"Nobody Worries About Me" — Sadie Jackson
Sadie Jackson recorded only a handful of songs in her career, which is a shame — her voice is clear and strong and does not fall into the vaudeville trappings of over-sings and harmonizing on her songs. This side features Jackson bailing her trophy man out of jail for the last time, telling him not to worry about picking up his clothes because after all, she paid for those. She sits him down to talk, but talking isn't what's on her mind: her gun, from under the chair, fills him with lead. This is why nobody worried about her. This song has the same tune and pining tone as some versions of "Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen" — a popular gospel song of the time — but Jackson brilliantly mixes it into a dark murder ballad explaining why nobody needs to worry about her: her revolver is the only friend she needs.
"Loud and Wrong" — Betty Gray
Betty Gray's "Loud and Wrong", unlike a lot of female murder ballads, starts off as a murder ballad — the second line makes it clear: she can't stand her man. The crux of this relationship problem is that "He's loud as the thunder, evil as a snake and he is always wrong at best". This leads her to the conclusion that she could kill him with a baseball bat. The way Gray pauses between baseball and bat is sickening and wonderful. This is one of the best examples of phrasing and use of a pause in all pre-war blues.
"Don't Advertise Your Man" — Clara Smith
While most murder ballads are confessions or daydreams, Clara Smith spins her tale of murder as a cautionary tale about "talking up your man". By "talking up" she means telling your girlfriends about him buying you flowers, trips to the movies, anything. Keeping your man a secret is the best — because otherwise your girlfriends will try to steal your man away. She gives this advice, of course, after shooting her man down, the obvious solution to this trifling figure.
"Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair" — Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith's tale of murder is easily the most brutal account of spousal homicide I would care to hear. Here is the recounting of how this man died. Bessie enters the room and finds her man with another woman, a woman that Bessie has warned him about messing around with previously. She lets the woman leave, then draws her knife and "goes insane". After cutting him, she kicks him several times in the side and slits his throat. While the man is dying, she stands over him and laughs until he dies. Of course Bessie knows that she's going for hell for this, and doesn't want to wait around in jail for her trip, so she's pleading to the judge just to send her to the chair.
"Santa Claus Craze" — Elzadie Robinson
It's not often that a singer writes a song threatening Santa Claus's life, but here we are. Robinson's blues are that her man left her at the altar — something that she is blaming on Santa Claus, who delivered her husband to another girl's home. As her wish and for penance for breaking her heart, Santa has got to deliver her man back to her or, as she puts it, "I'm going to break all the laws".
"Satan Is Busy in Knoxville" — Leola Manning
Leola Manning's tale of murder is significantly different from the other blues on this list as it doesn't detail her wishes or desires to murder her man or a triflin' woman. It details the true events of a serial killer who dispatched several people in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1930. Manning details each killing with journalistic accuracy, each throat cutting is described in both location and detail. She doesn't pass judgment on the killer: the refrain is a simple "Who murdered this man / Nobody knows / As the Good Book says, 'They must reap just what they sow'".
"Hangman Blues" — Bertha 'Chippie' Hill
Bertha 'Chippie' Hill isn't really known as a great blues singer, as she stuck mostly to jazz and only dabbled in blues throughout her career. This side isn't a traditional murder ballad but it's a detailed description/imagining by Hill of her new career as a hang(wo)man. The first half of the side is Hill performing her duties and getting ready for her next client. The second half has a twist, as it is her triflin' man who is getting ready to be hanged. She's not remorseful of her task: she ends the song with "Hangman blues I'm singing / Going to celebrate your death".
"Two-by-four Blues" — Merline Johnson
"I got a two-by-four / And it just fits my hand / I'm going to stop all you woman / From running around with my man". By that opening you know that the world that Merline Johnson lives in is about to see a lot of pain. Her first victim is her man, "I don't want to hurt that man / Just kill him dead". After his death she goes back to her previous man — two-by-four in hand, and warns him about his impeding doom because his other woman is stopping by his house while she is still there. I don't know if he'll be able to stop her two-by-four.
"Penitentiary" — Bessie Tucker
Most murder ballads are written from the murderer's standpoint — this one is written from the other woman's point of view. Leonard is cheating on his wife with Ms. Tucker, who is fearful that his rampant running around will make her the victim of a well-placed two-by-four or pistol of some sort. Her response to this is to get to him first, and let the penitentiary be her new home.
Copyright © 2009 by Angus Cargill from Hang the DJ. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.
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