Lost & Found: Bukka White

Lately, I’ve found it difficult to listen to music. There are phases where music is comforting or exciting or, honestly, overwhelming during this pandemic. But a stressful move from my latest apartment, caught between the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd left me feeling exhausted by music altogether. I pivoted to the news, desiring the sounds of clarification, words that ostensibly might provide answers. A fucking bust. Aside from how, where, and when, I didn’t hear any. I then turned to the voices outside, of protesters, grieving voices, voices asking for freedom, voices asking to be heard. The response was the blunt lashes against skin, bleeding cries of sirens, the screams of bleeding civilians, the bursting of canisters and the shattering of glass; Brutish police violence that brought peaceful resistance, that then brought more brutish violence from those who pledged their lives to protecting our country. Instead, they protect the systems that allow them to wield oppressive power within systems that uphold white supremacy.

These weeks, I’ve spent time relearning, reading a lot, and then reading more. Here’s an important doc series. This is a fantastic book. At times, I was excited to listen again. The desire to flood my mind with music wasn’t inspired by a recent release, but a country-blues musician that I came across while reading (or maybe a documentary?). A prominent country-blues singer and steel guitar player of the 1930s, Bukka White’s name also stuck out to me as the second cousin of the legendary Chicago musician B.B. King. White has been the only voice I’ve wanted to hear sing for the past couple weeks. There’s a comfort in the fuzzy recordings, physically taking me out of the present. His voice is persistent, but he decorates some notes with a wavering, a flutter in the back of his throat.

After some light research, it became clear that White’s backstory incorporates many of the American injustices that are prevalent in African American lives today. In an industry that began as an institution profiting off of a racist definition of blackness that now continues to exploit black creativity, White was also a victim of mass incarceration and ripped off, condescended by folk documentarians. His music career is a testament to resiliency, and his story is an example of why we should question the institutions that are considered staples of American society. Whether it’s the prison system or the music industry, both are manufacturers of racial definitions, perpetuate racist stereotypes, and are harbingers of generational suffering and trauma.

Bukka White was born Booker T. Washington White between 1900-1909 near Houston, Mississippi. Many articles are at odds about his actual birthdate. The son of Lula and John White, some say he had seven siblings, some say five. His father worked on the railroads and was a part-time musician. He gifted Bukka his first guitar. (Also, his father was a big influence on his writing, as trains are predominant motif in his catalogue. Many writings about Bukka White discuss his passion for train-hopping or hoboing.) His father taught him the bottleneck slide technique, which he would become famous for. Bukka made a living, surviving off meals as a form of payment by playing bars and events. In 1930, White recorded his first records with furniture salesman Ralph Lembo, who sold records on the side as an agent for the Victor label. White recorded fourteen tracks, both gospel and blues songs, but only four were released. During the depression, he was also successful as a baseball pitcher for the Birmingham Black Cats and had a small career boxing when he lived in Chicago.

Several years later, in 1937, the legend of Bukka White starts to take place. That fall, White would be incarcerated for shooting a man in the thigh with a .38 pistol. The details of the incident are sparse and vague. Some reports say he was ambushed at night by a group, others write that he shot a man in self-defense. Despite the zero context, many authors are eager to note that White might have skipped bail in order to make music and was arrested on site at a recording studio. Before entering prison, White recorded two sides with Lester Melrose, one being “Shake ‘Em On Down,” which would become a hit while he was imprisoned. Bukka White spent two years at Parchman Farm Penitentiary, where he was allowed to form a prison band and even performed for the Mississippi governor. White also recorded two songs for John Lomax at Parchman.

A small aside about Parchman, an incredibly evil institution that still stands today. It is Mississippi’s oldest prison that installed a new form of slavery. After reconstruction, new laws were enforced to keep African Americans oppressed and enslaved to making money for the prison. The 13th amendment abolished slavery, except for convicted criminals. Around the same time the amendment passed, the Black Codes were established to jail African American for a variety of small crimes, sentencing them to a life of hard labor. These codes expanded the “definition of vagrancy to criminalize all types of people: beggars, jugglers, drunkards, night-walkers and ‘all other idle and disorderly persons’ who neglected their work or misspent their money.” Additionally, convict leasing was a way to make use of the thousands of new prisoners, renting out convicted people to provide labor for other businesses. Then, when Parchman opened in 1901, the idling prisoners were forced to work the newly bought land and make millions (in today’s money) for the prison itself. Other horrors from this infamous penitentiary included inmates that were declared “trusty shooters,” who were armed to “maintain order” and a whip named ‘Black Annie’ that was used on inmates.

After Bukka White is released from prison, he records twelve sides, again with Lester Melrose, in a south side studio of Chicago. His career simmers during World War II until his music has a resurgence in the ’60s. He’s sought out by guitarist John Fahey and Ed Dawson. It’s insane how simply they found White: “Fahey wrote a letter to ‘Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi.’ Fahey had assumed, given White’s song, ‘Aberdeen, Mississippi‘, that White still lived there, or nearby. The postcard was forwarded to Memphis, Tennessee, where White worked in a tank factory.” Together, the pair produced White’s first album in 23 years, releasing it on Fahey’s new label Takoma Records. As a result, White toured college campuses, released more of his music, and was invited to major events such as the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in solidarity with the Black Power Movement during the Star Spangled Banner. Bukka White died of cancer in 1977.

Sadly, many people have probably heard Bukka White’s music from other artists before hearing it from White himself. After his resurgence in the ’60s, his music was covered by Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, and Led Zeppelin. The latter took his best known song “Shake ‘Em On Down” for “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper” from 1970’s Led Zeppelin III. Although Zeppelin instrumentally steals from White, the lyrics differ quite a bit. In the original, White is adamant about getting the money he’s owed. He’s not going to shut the fuck up until he does. “Must I shake ’em on down,” White sings with irritation, not distress. In Zeppelin’s case, Robert Plant hazily squeals an added sentiment: “Well I ain’t no monkey/I can’t climb no tree/No brown skin woman gonna make no monkey out of me.” Really fucking weird for a scrawny white man to sing these lyrics. Turns out what’s more uncomfortable is that the group stole these other lyrics from another prominent country-blues musician of the 1930s: Oscar “Buddy” Woods.

Whether it’s Zeppelin or Bob Dylan’s cover of Bukka’s “Fixin To Die Blues” off his debut album, these white musicians’ recordings are caught between an homage to forbearers or an appropriative, offensive performance. It reminds me of a quote from Karl Hagstrom Miller’s Segregating Sound where he’s discussing Mick Jagger: “He illustrates the extent to which imitating black performance remained a constitute component of white identity. He is noteworthy and appeared transgressive because he represents the survival of the performative authenticity born from minstrelsy in the age of the folkloric paradigm.”

There’s an insidious dissonance that is embedded in these recordings of Bukka White. On the one hand, these recordings have brought the talent of Bukka White to light. On the other, they’re a direct result of a ridiculous hunt for authenticity, specifically black authenticity, by the means of imprisonment. John Lomax believed that it was best to document folk culture in isolation, in this case incarceration. Although he wasn’t the reason White was imprisoned, Lomax is a symbol of complacency and acceptance in a racist society. Hagstrom breaks its down for us: “Prisons, Lomax, argued actually transformed black culture by separating African American prisoners from the white influences they had previously embraced.” Lomax captured this music on the basis that African primitivism was the authentic black narrative, which is only being enforced and perpetuated by white supremacy oppressing, exploiting, destroying black lives for its own benefit.

White’s music changed after he was released from Parchman. When he worked with Melrose, he was encouraged to write original work instead of recording gospel or folk classics. He released “Parchman Farm Blues” in 1940, the same year that he was released from prison. The song details hearing the news of a life sentence, mourning for his wife, and the time spent working day and night on the farms. From the first to last verse, the song chronicles the narrator’s life pre-prison to his life-long stay and will to be free.

One of White’s most compelling musical signatures is the shuffle rhythm, which he emphasizes in some songs by slapping the strings of his guitar. The shuffling nature in “Parchman Farm Blues,” seems emblematic of the grind and the inevitable toil of African American men in the south at the time. Its beat carries you forward. White’s tone throughout is calm, accepting his fate, although warning others. “I don’t mean no harm,” he sings mid-song. “If you wanna do good, you better stay off old Parchman Farm.” By the final verse, he longs to go back home. But again there’s no tonal shift, no vocal crack of hope as he sings, “I hope some day, I will overcome.” There in lies an awful melancholy—a reminder to not give into a system designed to break the black spirit, but the sentiment that escape is most likely only within the song he sings while imprisoned.

“Parchman Farm Blues” was not the only song that Bukka White released that documented the physical and mental reality of African Americans. Its B-side “District Attorney Blues” targets the legal personal that specially persecuted him. The track also acknowledges the trauma and pain that black women have to endure as a result of their husband or bother or father or son’s imprisonment. “District Attorney sho’ is hard on a man/He have caused so many women to be cold in hand,” he laments. His tone is sullen in comparison to other recordings.

In a short interview about his cousin, B.B. King dismisses the myth that Bukka was the first person to buy him a guitar. However, he doesn’t downplay his significance to him as a budding musician. “He used to always tell me if you were going to be a blues singer, always dress like you were going to the bank to borrow money,” King said. It’s noted that White was a “sharp dresser,” in addition to his bottleneck talent. Not only was his style probably an expression of his identity and confidence, it was also a shield against the racist perception of black men and relating to his trauma from Parchman.

In “Where Can I Change My Clothes,” White reveals the lasting affect of seeing the officers throwing his “citizens clothes” away. The way his voice jumps to a cry at the end of, “never will I forget the day,” when he first entered Parchman. “Where Can I Change My Clothes” is one of White’s most personal, and arguably one of his best, songs that explores the loss of identity to mass incarceration. It’s a document of dehumanization, where as the days pass White feels his personhood fade away with time. His new uniform was a symbol of his disposability and inhumanity to the system he was then enslaved to.

Through his music, White allowed listeners into his mental fatigue and depression. Despite his calloused voice and hypnotic strums, White’s music is incredible vulnerable. One only has to look at the anxiously-worked “Fixin’ To Die Blues” or the trudging “Sleep Many Blues,” that White’s work post-Parchman became pensive and self-aware. In the former, he ruminates about the inevitability of death (“Feeling funny in my mind, Lord/I believe I’m fixing to die”), and in the latter, he portrays hopelessness and disinterest in life (“When a man gets trouble in his mind/He wanna sleep all the time”). To be honest, these recordings are some of the most poignant I’ve heard in regards to mental health. Bukka White makes clear the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Although our times are far removed, our circumstances and identities complete opposites, I connect with those sentiments.

So, this blog post turned out way longer than anticipated. At first, I wanted to know more about Bukka White’s history. Why is he mentioned or covered by some of the most revered musicians, and yet we never talk about him? Why are there so many gaps in his story? How do we reconcile a story full of uncomfortable paradoxes and catch-22’s in regards to authenticity, blackness, and the documentation of American music? More answers have produced many more questions, but left me with a new admiration for Bukka White and his legacy. That we must continually question the racist myth of authenticity that so many people chase after in this country. If anything, this possibly very flawed and hole-infested introduction to White reveals how much work there is to be done about the legacy of American music.

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