Blues: Oxygen for working people

Movie Review: Cadillac Records I went to see Cadillac Records with two of my movie buddies on the night after opening in Houston. This great movie is an exceptional attempt to portray the genius of African-American music. Set in the 1950s, it documents the development of Chess Records, set in South Chicago. Chess Records stood up to the racism of the times and provided a venue for numerous African-American blues artists.

The movie does not hold any punches and notes the extent to which the artists were exploited by the same record company that thrust them into the spotlight of American culture at a time when African-Americans were marginalized and ignored. Frequently, luminaries such as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James are seen in the movie as subservient to the Anglo boss, Leonard Chess. They beg money from him, and although he appears to be sympathetic and generous, they only receive a small portion of the wealth they produce by their extraordinary work.

Immersed in the culture, they are shown to spend their meager earnings on commodities such as Cadillacs, houses, drugs, alcohol and other means of comforting the misery generated by the environment of the time. The misery they must deal with is the fuel which propels their exceptional contributions.

The movie opens with a scene in which Alan Lomax comes to Mississippi and finds Muddy Waters working in the cotton fields and recognizes his extraordinary talent and makes a recording on the spot. With the confidence resulting from the experience, Muddy Waters proceeds to Chicago and begins his musical career. Lomax was the son of John Lomax, a musicologist who documented American folk music and was faculty at the University of Texas in Austin and Texas A&M University (current home of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library). The Lomaxes are credited with finding a twelve-string guitar player named Huddie Ledbetter, better known as “Leadbelly,” who was incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Leadbelly was a member of the Communist Party. Alan Lomax “sang alongside Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson during the 1948 presidential campaign of former Vice President Henry A. Wallace” according to an article in the New York Times at the time of his death in 2002.

One of the many things that I found impressive about the movie was its notation that this wonderful music was developed at a time when this nation was struggling with civil rights issues and makes note of Rosa Parks’ accomplishment. It makes reference to the awful lynchings which were taking place in Texas and in other parts of the country. This music and these performers were instrumental in breaking down the racial divides which polarized this nation. Chuck Berry is shown at a concert in which whites and blacks were divided by physical barriers. White women broke through the barriers starting the process of reducing racial tensions. Another excellent contribution of the film was the documentation of the theft of black music by white performers. White performers such as Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and others used the music from the artists with Chess Records to launch themselves into the stratosphere of monetary rewards and stardom. Willie Dixon sued Led Zeppelin and won one million dollars for theft of his music.

There were several weaknesses of this film which should be mentioned. The film focused on songs about sexuality and the drug and alcohol culture which was developing among musicians. Although the music and times resulted in progress in our understanding and acceptance of the sexual aspects of being human, this was not the only change taking place. Many blues songs dramatize the misery experienced by workers as a result of their exploitation by the significant expansion of capitalist industry during this era. These songs are absent from the film but bear exploration.

Angela Davis in her book Women, culture & politics,(1989) notes “…Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, reached the apex of her career when she composed and recorded a song transmitting an unmistakable political message, entitled ‘Poor Man’s Blues.’ This song evoked the exploitation and manipulation of working people by the wealthy and portrayed the rich as parasites accumulating their wealth and fighting their wars with the labor of the poor.” She adds “As Phillip Bonosky points out in a 1959 Political Affairs article entitled ‘The Thirties in American Culture’:

There is every reason in the world why official reaction should want the thirties to be forgotten as if they never existed. For that period remains a watershed in the American democratic tradition. It is a period which will continue to serve both the present and the future as a reminder and as an example of how an aroused people, led and spurred on by the working class, can change the entire complexion of the culture of a nation.”

In the movie, Willie Dixon provides the narration which is a history of Chess Records and notes that he was the one that wrote all the great songs. Interestingly, his wonderful song “Study war no more” was omitted, but readers should review these selected lyrics

“The money spent on bombs alone can build poor people a happy home and some good we can do you treat me like I treat you

No more starving in the nation Everybody getting an education Everytime a baby is born We know he’ll have him a happy home

No more sleeping in the street We all happy whoever meet Then we all will shake a hand And make this world a promised land.”