by Terry Messman
While the fires were still burning up and down the block in the Chicago riots that erupted just after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Otis Spann gave a concert at a storefront church where he performed two hauntingly beautiful blues compositions: “Blues for Martin Luther King” and “Hotel Lorraine.”
Although the guitar has always been the most heralded instrument in the blues, there have been many great blues pianists, including Little Brother Montgomery, Pete Johnson, Big Maceo Merriweather, Roosevelt Sykes, Champion Jack Dupree, Charles Brown, Memphis Slim, Katie Webster, James Booker, Professor Longhair and Sunnyland Slim.
My choice for greatest blues pianist of all time is Otis Spann, the brilliant singer and gifted pianist in Muddy Waters greatest band. He also was the house pianist for Chess Records, playing on recordings by everyone from Little Walter to Bo Diddley. Spann was so skilled and multi-talented that he became one of the most in-demand session pianists of all, playing with Johnny Shines, Floyd Jones, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and James Cotton.
Spann was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1930 and only reached the age of 40, dying in 1970. In that short period,he left behind a legacy of beautiful blues masterworks that have never been surpassed. Although Spann made his reputation as a brilliant and inventive pianist, I also love his smoky, soulful vocals, on full display on the beautiful records he made as a solo artist, including “Otis Spann Is the Blues,” “The Blues Never Die” and “Walking the Blues.”
He was like a brother to Muddy Waters and the incredible musical rapport between the two men anchored one of the greatest electric blues bands of all time.
Otis Spann performed on one of the best live blues concert records, “Muddy Waters at Newport,” recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in July of 1960. Because of a riot in the town of Newport, the last two days of the concert were canceled, and Spann, with the acclaimed poet Langston Hughes as his co-author, composed and performed a spontaneous “Goodbye Newport Blues,” a sweet and sad elegy to the Newport festival.
Looking back on it now, his song seems to have foreshadowed another spontaneous elegy that Spann would compose eight years later, in 1968.
Almost immediately after Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Otis Spann and Muddy Waters played a tribute at a storefront church on 43rd Street in Chicago. Spann’s breathtaking tribute for King can be found on “Rare Chicago Blues, 1962-1968,” issued by Rounder Records.
Producer Pete Welding described the dangerous and even life-threatening context of Spann’s performance in the liner notes. “Buildings were burning up and down the street as the Chicago ghetto riots began. Accompanied in a funereal style by drummer S. P. Leary, Otis’ strong shouting voice and elegant piano are beautifully showcased in two pieces inspired by the assassination.
“Spann’s lyrics, certainly improvised, are an extraordinary testimonial of his feelings and evoke the pain and intensity of that day. Muddy Waters can be heard echoing Spann’s feelings in the background as he urges him on.”
“Hotel Lorraine” begins with Spann’s melancholy and exquisite piano and then his slow, sorrowful voice begins to tell the story of King’s death at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis earlier that day. This song is truly a “first draft of history” and it is so memorable that it is hard to imagine how it could have been composed so quickly.
Spann describes Dr. King talking to his friends in front of the Lorraine Motel, and how “the poor man didn’t feel the pain” of the sudden and unexpected gunshot. “People ask why violence has taken over and the devil got into that evil man,” Spann sings, and then plays a lovely piano break that seems to pour out all the anguish and beauty of King’s life.
Then Spann’s quiet, mournful voice suddenly roars out the last verse of “Hotel Lorraine” with gospel intensity:
“Dr. King was a man that could really understand.
You know his last words he said:
‘God knows I’m going to the Promised Land.’”
Spann shouts out the words “God knows” as an outcry of triumph and exaltation mingled with deep pain and grief.
Otis Spann’s Blues for Martin Luther King
His second song at the storefront church in Chicago that day is even more powerful. So many of Spann’s best solo recordings are beautiful and full of feeling, but “Blues for Martin Luther King” may be my favorite of all his recordings.
It begins the only way it could on that day of heartbreak and loss, with Spann asking those gathered in the storefront church if they heard the news about what happened “down in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday.” With a raw, gospel-fueled urgency in his voice, Spann sings, “There came a sniper, Lord, that wiped Dr. Luther King’s life away.”
During a magnificent instrumental break, Spann shows how a piano can wail and cry out wordlessly. It is a marvelous tribute to the man whose life had brought so much hope to the black community and whose death can never be forgotten.
The final verse reminds us that the assassination was not just a political crisis or a stumbling block for the civil rights movement. The movement had lost a leader, and the nation had lost a martyr. But Martin Luther King’s family lost their husband and father.
Almost no one else even thought to reflect upon the family’s great loss, yet the deepest and most permanent wounds were inflicted on King’s wife and children. Otis Spann had the sensitivity to write about this most personal dimension of grief and anguish. His final verse captures, for all time, their great loss.
“Oh, when his wife and kids came down, people,
all they could do was moan.
Oh, you know when his wife and kids came down,
all they could do was moan.
Now the world’s in a revolt because Martin Luther King is gone.”
The Big Heart of Big Joe Williams
The face of Big Joe Williams, with its deep scars and roughly etched lines, was like a roadmap of his soul — or a map of the endless highways, back alleys, and train tracks he traveled as a wandering bluesman for close to six decades.
In his countless songs and albums, he left behind a travel journal in musical form of those endless roadways and byways — decades and decades worth of the Delta blues that Big Joe had recorded in defiance of all passing musical styles and fads.
Big Joe Williams played the genuine Delta blues first, last and always, from the first song he played at some Mississippi levee camp to the last concert hall on his life’s journey.
Born in Crawford, Mississippi, Big Joe Williams hoboed all over the South — and then traveled onward all over the rest of the country — for more than 50 years, playing his deep and vital brand of Mississippi blues on his self-invented, nine-string guitar, hitch-hiking, hopping trains, playing in juke joints and levee camps, touring with minstrel shows, spending time in jail, and always rambling on to the next town.
In his story “Me and Big Joe,” Michael Bloomfield, the great blues musician who played spellbinding lead guitar with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and with Bob Dylan on “Highway 61 Revisited,” wrote that being with Big Joe Williams was “being with a history of the blues — you could see him as a man, and you could see him as a legend.”
Bloomfield said that Big Joe “had America memorized” because he had traveled tirelessly all over the nation, singing the blues in Mississippi juke joints in the 1930s and 1940s, New York coffeehouses in the 1950s and 1960s, and university blues festivals in the 1970s.
Bloomfield wrote, “From forty years of hiking roads and riding rails he was wise to every highway and byway and roadbed in the country, and wise to every city and county and township that they led to. Joe was part of a rare and vanished breed — he was a wanderer and a hobo and a blues singer, and he was an awesome man.”
This big, powerfully built man had lived a rough-and-tumble life, and blues critic Barry Pearson wrote, “Big Joe Williams may have been the most cantankerous human being who ever walked the earth with guitar in hand.”
But Pearson quickly added that, “he was an incredible blues musician: a gifted songwriter, a powerhouse vocalist, and an exceptionally idiosyncratic guitarist.”
That is exactly why it is so touching that this road-toughened, cantankerous and combative man was moved to compose such a tender and deeply affecting remembrance of Martin Luther King right after his assassination in Memphis.
Big Joe Williams laid his soul bare on “The Death of Dr. Martin Luther King.” He sounds shaken to his core by King’s death, and his powerful voice erupts with a complex mixture of sadness, tender concern, inconsolable grief, bitter anger and sheer outrage.
Big Joe plays a beautiful accompaniment on his strange-looking, nine-string guitar and Charlie Musselwhite, a master of the blues harp, plays a lovely, mournful elegy on his harmonica. “The Death of Dr. Martin Luther King” can be found on “Shake Your Boogie” on Arhoolie Records.
Williams begins by asking his listeners if they had heard the unbearable news.
“Did you get the news, people,
what happened in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday?
Come along some mean old sniper and carried Dr. Martin Luther King away.”
Big Joe’s next verse says it all. He traces the recent trajectory of King’s involvement in the civil rights movement, recalling the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama, the Mississippi freedom summer, and King’s last stand for freedom — his solidarity with the striking sanitation workers of Memphis.
“Well, Dr. Martin Luther King marched in Selma,
He marched in Mississippi too.
But when he got to Memphis, Tennessee, man, it wouldn’t do!
Dr. Martin Luther King is dead.”
The next verse leaves me with ashes in my mouth and a sadness that has no answer on earth.
“Well, he died last night boys,
Oh Lord, with a bullet in his head.”
March on Resurrection Day
The final stanza goes by like a dream, or a supernatural visitation. Big Joe Williams sings that he goes to the graveyard, looks down at Martin Luther King’s face, and vows to the slain civil rights leader that we’ll keep marching on — even unto Resurrection Day.
“I went to the graveyard,
I peeked down in Dr. Luther King’s face.
I said, ‘Sleep on Dr. Martin Luther King.
We’ll march on Resurrection Day.’”
Those verses are brilliant and overwhelming and they are shot through with beauty and faith. They absolutely floor me. Like Big Maybelle, Big Joe Williams has refused to let death have the last word. Resurrection has the last word.
Those lyrics are not sung as if Big Joe is barely holding onto some forlorn hope.
Rather, they are sung with all the passion and vigor of a man who has marched all over the land and has been tough enough to outlast all the hobo camps, the forced labor of the levee camps and the brutal railroad guards. Big Joe was powerful enough to endure all the rainstorms and Mississippi floods, outlive all the segregation decrees and Jim Crow laws, and thrive despite all the hunger and hardships of a life lived constantly on the move.
Big Joe Williams always marched on. He may have been drunk or hung-over or sick or penniless, but he kept moving.
So did Martin Luther King. He always marched on to the next struggle. He marched on from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Birmingham jail to the Mississippi March Against Fear to the Selma march for voter rights to the fight against slum housing in Chicago to the sanitation strike in Memphis.
At the end of all this marching, Martin Luther King began marching with great vision and courage towards Resurrection City and his showdown with the federal government in Washington, D.C.
The Mule Train from Marks, Mississippi, made it to the nation’s capital. Martin Luther King did not.
Yet there is that final, beautiful promise from Big Joe Williams to Dr. King: “We’ll march on Resurrection Day.’”
‘Threatened with Resurrection’
I am haunted by that verse: “We’ll march on Resurrection Day.” In the aftermath of King’s murder in Memphis, many activists still kept the faith and marched on in the belief that death would not have the final word for the Freedom Movement. And what destination did they reach? What is the name that they gave to the shantytown of shacks and tents that they built near the Lincoln Memorial?
The civil rights activists who built that shantytown named it in defiance of death itself, so the assassins would not have the last word.
They marched all the way to Resurrection City in Washington, D.C. And there, in that shantytown of poor people, they heard Muddy Waters and Otis Spann keeping the faith with the spirit of Martin Luther King and playing the blues on the streets of Resurrection City.
That is only the first level of meaning in Big Joe’s song. The deeper level is that after death there is the promise of resurrection. On Resurrection Day, we will march again for justice. We will arise and walk down the Freedom Road.
The Catholic priest and dissident peace activist, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, wrote that, despite all earthly evidence to the contrary, the state-sanctioned violence and death used to suppress rebellions will not have the final say in our world. Rather, as Berrigan wrote, one day Sheriff Death himself will be hauled away. That day is the Resurrection Day that Big Joe Williams described.
The poet John Donne wrote: “Death be not proud.” That is the profoundly hope-filled and life-giving title of one of his finest sonnets. Here are the final lines of John Donne’s “Death be not proud.”
“One short sleep past,
we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more;
Death, thou shalt die.”
A Guatemalan poet, Julia Esquivel, once wrote that the tyrannical regimes that oppress and crucify the poor are “threatened with Resurrection.”
The powers that be were, in fact, threatened when the U.S. civil rights activists of the Freedom Movement cast off their fear of arrests and brutal police and jail cells and death itself, and kept on marching for justice. When the Freedom Movement kept on marching, even after the executions of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi; Jimmie Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo in Selma, Alabama; and Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, they were demonstrating that death would not destroy the movement.
The names of the martyrs inscribed in black granite on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, remind us that the price of freedom can be very high. Big Joe Williams reminds us that we’ll march onto Resurrection Day.
The Fighter — Champion Jack Dupree
Champion Jack Dupree is a fascinating figure in the blues. He earned his sobriquet, “Champion Jack,” as a fighter who boxed in more than one hundred boxing matches. He won Golden Gloves and state championships before pursuing his career as a blues pianist and singer.
But those fights were only part of a lifetime struggle that began after he was orphaned at the age of two when both his parents died in a fire. He was sent to the same orphanage in New Orleans where Louis Armstrong was raised.
After his boxing career ended, Dupree moved to Chicago and began playing blues piano for a couple years before serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II — another fight on another battlefield. That fight was followed by yet another when he was held as a Japanese prisoner of war for two years.
Even though Dupree had fought in World War II, he asked the U.S. government to stop fighting in Southeast Asia in his song, “Vietnam Blues.” His long experience of poverty and racism in the United States made him sympathize with the suffering of poor people in Vietnam.
“Why don’t they leave Vietnam, leave those poor people alone.
They got a hell of a problem, just like I have at home.”
In one of the finest moments in his fighting career, Dupree spoke out for the lives of the people targeted by his country’s bombs. He also expressed sympathy for the mothers of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, when he asked the U.S. military to withdraw its troops.
“Well, I know every mother be glad to see her sons come home.
Yes, Uncle Sam just as well pack up, pull out and go back home.”
Champion Jack Dupree’s finest album, “Blues from the Gutter,” is a riveting glimpse into the dead-end world of disease, drug addiction and death. It is truly blues for the down-and-out.
Dupree looks with unswerving honesty at what Hank Williams used to call “pictures from the other side of this life” — the side most of us prefer not to see.
Even though his songs take on subjects so full of suffering and sickness, Dupree’s vocals and piano playing are beautiful, and his lyrics show us how the blues can reveal the most distressing aspects of the human condition, yet still be overflowing with life, vitality, humor and insight.
In “T.B. Blues,” Dupree becomes the voice of a man with tuberculosis, at that time a deadly and incurable disease. He manages to make a beautiful work of art out of a fatal diagnosis.
“Well I got the T.B., and the T.B. is all in my bones.
Well, the doctor told me that I ain’t gonna be here long.”
Some things are almost worse than dying, such as being abandoned in your hour of greatest need by the very people you thought were your closest friends.
This song is light years away from the kind of pop music conventions that pledge, in Carole King’s words, “You’ve got a friend.” Instead, Dupree sings a hard-won truth about the faithlessness of friends, warning that many will even stop coming to visit at all if they are even asked for help.
“Well, the T.B. is all right to have,
But your friends treat you so lowdown.
Yeah, don’t ask them for no favor,
They will even stop coming ‘round.”
Unlike many forms of rock and pop music aimed at youthful audiences, the blues most often was created by and for adults. It is unafraid to take on everything under the sun that grown-ups enjoy, suffer, fear or dream about.
The great blues artists sing of love and sex, marriages and break-ups, drinking and hangovers, good times and terrible blows, faith and doubt, war and peace, injustice and racism, and as Champion Jack Dupree showed us, our lifelong boxing matches with disease and death.
Yet, even when the great range of lyrical themes in the blues is understood, it is still a mystery how Dupree found beauty and meaning in his blues from the gutter.
Singing the Expatriate Blues
Champion Jack Dupree became one of the first blues expatriates. He left America for Europe in 1959 and stayed there the rest of his life until his death in 1992.
Several blues artists who wrote with strong convictions about social and economic justice were the very ones who packed their bags, left the United States, and moved to Europe. For many, the move was permanent, and although they may have returned occasionally to give concerts or record their music, they never returned to live in the land of their birth.
In his book, The Legacy of the Blues, Samuel Charters devoted a chapter to Champion Jack Dupree and explained his choice to leave America for good. Many American blues musicians found greater respect and love for their music in Europe, and better working opportunities. But the most important issue for these expatriate bluesmen was their desire, in Charter’s words, “to escape America’s racism.”
Charters wrote, “Eddie Boyd is only one of the blues artists who has settled down in Europe. Memphis Slim and Willie Mabon live in Paris, and Champion Jack Dupree has his house and family in England. Why have they left the United States? The most important reason always is the lack of severe racial hostility in countries like France or Denmark or Sweden.”
It is a sad commentary on America’s history of racial discrimination and hatred that many of the blues musicians who cared so deeply about social justice and expressed their conscience and humanity so eloquently in their music, felt driven to leave their homes and become expatriates for the rest of their lives.
Way Up on the Mountaintop
In his song, “The Death of Luther King,” written in 1968 less than a month after Rev. King was murdered, Champion Jack Dupree played a slow and mournful melody on the piano for an audience in Paris. The tinkling, cascading notes of his piano accompanied his opening words, a talking blues about the loss of Dr. King.
In his spoken introduction, Dupree said in a very slow, solemn voice, “Well the world lost a good man when we lost Dr. Martin Luther King, a man who tried to do everything. He tried to keep the world in peace. Now the poor man has gone to rest. So go on Dr. Martin Luther King and take your rest. There will always be another Luther King.”
I’ve always loved Dupree’s singing. His rich voice feels warm and familiar and comfortable, even when his deeply felt vocals may be in service of story-songs that are grim or despairing or down in the gutter — or, in the case of this song, when his subject is a tragedy beyond the telling.
So when his spoken introduction is over, Dupree begins singing in that warm, comforting voice, sounding for all the world like a wise old uncle giving some friendly advice. But his calm, soothing voice makes his words seem all the more startling and disturbing by contrast. He gives no quarter in this song. He is a man who has come to tell the truth.
“It was early one evening when the sun was sinking down.
Early in the evening some dirty sniper shot Martin Luther King down.
He was nothing but a coward. He dropped his gun and run.
But he will never have no peace. He’ll always be on the run.”
He performed “The Death of Luther King” for an audience in Paris in late April of 1968, three weeks after King’s assassination. Champion Jack Dupree sang out the words that Martin Luther King had spoken in a Memphis church on the day before his death.
“The words that he said just before he died:
‘I’m going up on, I’m going way up on,
Way up on the mountain top.’”
Then Dupree spoke softly to his listeners once again, quietly playing the piano while he utters the next few sentences in a subdued, introspective manner. It’s as if he were only speaking to himself, maybe daydreaming or thinking out loud, trying his best to understand this incomprehensible tragedy.
This quietly thoughtful passage is very unsettling. Dupree creates a very intimate atmosphere, as if we, his listeners, were sharing his most private thoughts. And what private thoughts we overhear!
He meditates on the series of political assassinations in America, and the effect of his reverie becomes even more private and personal in the final verse when Dupree decides that if the reactionary forces in America have not hesitated to shoot down Lincoln, Kennedy and King, Dupree himself doesn’t stand a chance.
Dupree says quietly to himself, “Yeah, they shot him down, just like they done all the rest of them. They shot down Abraham Lincoln, they shot down President Kennedy, and they took poor Martin Luther King. So you know I don’t stand a chance. I ain’t nobody.”
At the moment when he says, “I ain’t nobody,” the song enters into another dimension.
He begins singing directly to his white audience in Paris, forthrightly voicing what is really on his mind. It’s as if his thought that “I ain’t nobody,” leads him to confront the elephant in the room that everyone has been politely ignoring: the element of race and discrimination, and how that makes some people in society feel that everything is just fine, and makes others feel that, “I ain’t nobody.”
The strange thing is that Dupree is talking about this confrontational truth in a voice just as warm and gently comforting as it can be. It’s a moment of real artistry.
He speaks a truth almost too terrible for words, yet he states it with such warmth and humanity, that instead of feeling accused, I would guess that his audience in Paris that day felt disarmed by his gentle tone, as if he had invited them to really understand Dupree’s own hard experiences in a very personal way, so they might begin to understand — perhaps for the first time — how racism really feels from the inside.
He has invited them to understand, for just a moment, his own feelings about freedom, and the denial of freedom.
Again, this song seems to me an artistic triumph. For the humanity of his voice is so welcoming that his listeners that day may have felt disarmed enough to open their minds up to the feelings of all those in our society who have never felt free.
Dupree sings these very personal lyrics directly to his audience, and his gently voiced words land with shattering impact.
“I know you people, I know you’re glad you ain’t none of me.
I know you people are glad, I know you’re glad you’re white and free.
Oh what will, what will become of me?
Oh, I am begging, yes, I’m begging to be free.”
Champion Jack Dupree delivered that highly personal appeal three weeks after Martin Luther King was shot to death. He was living by choice in Europe, an entire ocean away from the segregation and church bombings and discrimination and assassinations in his country of birth.
So, in begging to be free, he was making an appeal on behalf of his people still suffering discrimination back in America, the people who had placed so much hope in the Freedom Movement, only to see so many of its leaders killed.
Today, when I listen to his song, “Death of Luther King,” I remember how I felt when I looked numbly at the water flowing over the names of dozens of martyrs inscribed in black granite at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
It felt like the end of hope to stare at the names of Medgar Evers, Rev. James Reeb, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Too many martyrs and too many dead,” sang Phil Ochs, one of the most powerful political folksingers of his generation. In “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” Ochs sang an even more uncompromising truth about the murders of so many martyrs:
“Here’s to the state of Mississippi,
For underneath her borders, the devil draws no lines.
If you drag her muddy river, nameless bodies you will find.
Oh, the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes,
The calendar is lying when it reads the present time.”
Yet the death of hope can also bring the dawn of its rebirth. Every time one civil rights worker was martyred, another arose in his or her place, and countless more were radicalized to take up the struggle.
When Champion Jack Dupree sings, “Oh, I am begging, yes, I’m begging to be free,” I can hear the echo of Martin Luther King’s soaring and majestic words when he promised that the struggle for freedom would dawn on some bright day, and a people would cry out in exaltation: “Free at last, free at last, Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”