After reading about how relationships were a popular subject for female blues singers, I wondered how their male counterparts approached the subject. How did they feel about infidelity, love, and the opposite sex? Expecting to have to search hard for examples, I was surprised to find many male singers of the era broaching these topics.
Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen” provides an interesting perspective in relation to many of the female songs we read about. It begins with Johnson bemoaning the loss of “the woman I love,” a glimpse into the aftermath of a breakup. However, rather than dwelling on his own bad fortune, Johnson goes on to acknowledge his own wrongdoing. “Oh, she’s gone, I know she won’t come back/I’ve taken the last nickel out of her nation sack,” he sings, admitting openly that he stole money from the woman he supposedly cared about. Furthermore, he expresses sympathy for the sexual double standard applied to women: “When a woman gets in trouble, everybody throws her down/Lookin’ for her good friend, none can be found.” Despite the emotional hardness associated with masculinity, “Come On in My Kitchen” is a surprisingly sensitive, regretful song mourning the loss of a lover.
Blind Lemon Jefferson also sang about love, loss, and the pain of relationships in “Lonesome House Blues.” Invoking the title of the song, he informs the audience that “[t]his house is lonesome, my baby left me all alone.” Jefferson further addresses the woman he loves, proclaiming that he is “goin’ away mama, just to wear you off my mind.” The pain he is feeling is certainly palpable, and this is expressed to a certain degree through bitterness toward his absent lover: “If your heart ain’t rock, sugar’s must be marble stone.” While perhaps not as sympathetic as “Come On in My Kitchen,” “Lonesome House Blues” also features a narrator experienced significant emotional turmoil over the end of a relationship.
Son House’s “Downhearted Blues” once again features a narrator in pain, though significantly more outspoken toward the woman who wronged him. “Did you ever love, when they didn’t love you?” he asks his audience mournfully. He quickly switches tack, however, calling his partner out for her poor treatment: “You know, that’s a shame, ole dirty shame/I’m so sorry the day, honey, I ever knowed your name…Oh, the way you been treatin’ me is a low down dirty ole shame.” The more aggressive tone of “Downhearted Blues” is most similar to the attitudes of female blues singers like Rainey and Smith. However, I would argue that many of the female narrators had almost a calm, cool, detached air about them, whereas the narrator in “Downhearted Blues” seems to be speaking from a place of anger and bitterness.
In looking at male blues performers’ perspectives on relationships and women, I made some interesting discoveries. We talked earlier in the semester about gender roles and entrenched ideas of masculinity; however, despite ideals of masculinity that prized emotional control and restraint, male blues singers presented views of relationships that were often fraught with heartache, bitterness, and strong feeling. Does this have to do with the blues’ highly personal nature? Were these songs an outlet for men to vent feelings and frustrations that they might otherwise have been encouraged to keep inside?