Chicago Blues

The Chicago blues, while musically contrasting to the Delta style, shares lyrical content that often echoes many of the same themes found in the Delta blues.  The Chicago blues generally focuses on topical, sexual and chauvinistic themes in its lyrical meaning.  Topical themes include ideas of working, traveling and displacement, describing many of the hardships that were endured during the migration north to urban areas.  Sexual themes focus on complaint, glorification and the human “animal.”  Chauvinistic themes encompass bitterness, resistance, defiance and broken relationships.  Like its predecessor, the Chicago blues use analogies, metaphors, symbols and double entendres to convey the message to the listener.  An analysis of pieces by Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Muddy Waters will demonstrate the lyrical ideas of the Chicago blues. 

                The piece “Backdoor Man” by Howlin’ Wolf illustrates the sexual themes that can be found in lyrics of the Chicago blues.  The piece describes an adulterer who sneaks around to have relationships with other people’s wives.  The use of language is interesting in the storytelling aspect of this song.  Rather than abruptly stating that he is an adulterer, the artist uses phrases like “I’m a backdoor man. Well the men don’t know, but the little girls understand.”  The phrase I’m a backdoor man alludes to the idea that he needs to enter and exit without being detected.  This metaphorical use of language is common in the blues, making ordinary things symbolic.  The symbolic use of language is exemplified again in the piece during the phrase; “Yes in the morning the rooster crow, something tell me I got to go.”  The use of this phrase plays on the fact that in the morning roosters crow to signify the sun rising, however this is a metaphorical idea relating the roosters crow to the husband returning home and the need to use the backdoor to exit without being caught.  The last idea in Howlin’ Wolf’s piece is the implication that the wife’s enjoyed the affair.  “They take me to the Doctor.  Shot full o’ holes.  Nurse cried, please save the soul.”  The verse perhaps indicates that the Nurse had been unfaithful to her “Doctor” with this backdoor man.  It is possible that the text is highlighting a caring individual concerned with saving the injured man.  However, the use of language throughout the piece would allude that the nurse’s concern is more than job related.  The sexual theme presented in this piece is characteristic of the Chicago blues and the use of language to obscure the deeper meaning is also very common.

                “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’” by Sonny Boy Williamson exemplifies the topical theme of Chicago blues.  This particular piece of music speaks to the difficulties of life and the pursuit of love.  The piece represents the struggle of an African American after the migration to an urban area.  The pursuits of a better life often lead to “squalid living conditions and overcrowding, segregation, unemployment, substandard schools, dependence on welfare, crime, and racism.”[1]  In the first verse, Sonny Boy Williamson implies that the news he has to share with Fannie Mae will not be pleasant.  More than likely the news he has to share involves the infidelity of her boyfriend and will lead to an end in the relationship as the lyric “I’m gonna break up this single fight, cause somebody’s gotta go” shows.  The next verse demonstrates the violence that became part of normal life in these new urban environments.   “Jack gives his wife two dollars to go downtown and get some Mulberry. Gets out on the streets and George stops her.  He knocked her down and blackened her eye.”  Williamson’s use of the word “streets” is also significant.  He could have chose any word to describe her going out, but chose this word to illustrate the unsafe nature of the neighborhood.  What is unclear is the last stanza of this verse, “She gets back home and tells her husband a lie.”  This suggests perhaps she was acquainted with George and did not want her husband to know the truth, again using the infidelity theme in music.  The last verse symbolizes an encounter with a prostitute.  “He honked his horn, and she began to stop.  He said take me baby, around the block.”  This piece certainly speaks to the topical ideas of displacement and new surroundings in a harsh life. 

                The last piece by Muddy Waters, “Got My Mojo Working” conveys chauvinistic themes.  The use of several symbols alludes to this idea.  The chauvinistic undertones can be heard in the lyrics: “Got my mojo working, but it just won't work on you.”  The bitterness expressed in this verse is an extension of the unreturned feelings from this woman.  Bitterness and defiance can also be seen in the verse; “Going down to Louisiana to get a mojo hand. I'm gonna have all you women right here at my command.”    The mojo hand is a type of sack that in African hoodoo was thought to bring luck.  Typically if a person had a mojo bag or mojo hand, they had the ability to control most situations.  The longing for a relationship is expressed several times when the artist states his mojo won’t work on her.  The singer decides to seek the advice of a gypsy, who would have had magical powers to make the woman return these feelings.  The chauvinistic theme is clearly expressed in the bitterness over this broken relationship.  Unrequited love is a common theme in Chicago blues. 

                The Chicago style of blues differs greatly from its predecessor, the Delta blues.  The instrumentation, vocal delivery and performance practices have all changed.   However, the lyrical content that is obscured through the use of language and symbols remains similar.  The Chicago blues encompasses many different themes.  Topical, sexual and chauvinistic thematic material makes up the largest portion of lyrical content.   The migration to urban areas in search of a better life, certainly gave these artists a new topic to communicate.  Analysis of these pieces shows that the artists chose to hide their message through their own unique use of language. 


[1]David Cohelo. "Migration, Urbanization and Revival." Boston University, Boston. 1 Aug. 2008.