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• • •
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August 26, 2008


By: Bernard Chazelle

A blues gem from the master, Robert Johnson. It worked wonders for Cream, better than for Johnson, and, truth be told, Clapton's hard rock cover has always appealed to me. But it doesn't even begin to approach the complexity of Robert Johnson's original, which mixes at least 3 time signatures: 3/4, 4/4, and 5/4: amateur guitarists out there, good luck trying to pull off these polyrhythms!

I once read in a Very Serious Newspaper that Johnson was "a fine blues musician who had trouble counting to 12." No doubt, that same critic wrote somewhere else that Guernica was proof positive that Picasso was a fine painter who had trouble drawing horses.

I won't go over the story behind Crossroads, which most of you probably know. I only want to draw your attention to one line, which is often misunderstood.

I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above "Have mercy, save poor Bob, if you please."

Mmmmm, standin' at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Standin' at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by

Mmm, the sun goin' down, boy, dark gon' catch me here
oooo, ooee, eee boy, dark gon' catch me here.

I haven't got no lovin' sweet woman that love and feel my care

You can run, you can run, tell my friend-boy, Willie Brown.
You can run, tell my friend-boy, Willie Brown.
Lord, that I'm standin' at the crossroad, babe,
I believe I'm sinking down.

Johnson lived in Mississippi, which had curfews for blacks in so-called "sundown towns." Anyone with the wrong skin color caught outside after dark would be jailed, maybe lynched.

Those damn Southerners! A good thing Northerners taught them how to behave:

The incidence of sundown communities in the South, Loewen reports, was actually far lower than it was in a Midwestern state such as Illinois, in which roughly 70 percent of towns were sundown towns in 1970.

Today we don't call them "sundown towns." We call them exurbs.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at August 26, 2008 06:55 PM

How to find out if you live in a sundown town -

Posted by: Bruce F at August 26, 2008 08:54 PM

Thanks for the link, Bruce.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 26, 2008 09:22 PM

The thing about Loewen's research is that it is basically anecdotal, which he concedes. After all, how do you document all the violence which didn't occur because threats, explicit or implicit, or even rumored, took the place of physical abuse?

His hypothesis--that blacks were expelled and henceforth barred from swaths of white America--goes against a huge body of scholarship and historiography documenting black migration to industrial centers starting in the twenties and thirties.

The thing is, there are only so many black people to go around. They can't have been expelled or barred from all the towns. They were statistically mostly in the South. And we know historically that they weren't actively seeking admission to small rural midwestern towns in large numbers.

And there is a substantive difference between being a town in which no blacks live, and a town from which blacks were expelled. The first is an historical condition; the latter is a crime scene.

It sounds like a guilty liberal's wetdream: you wake up to the realization that Vermont or Utah is 99% white because blacks were forcibly moved out, cleansed, just like the Nazis did to the Jews!

Yes the country was and continues to be largely segregated. There are complex reasons and racism is one of them. Fantasizing about suppressed genocides in Iowa just doesn't seem like a great answer.

Robert Johnson on the other hand always provides an answer. I would definitely like to hear your explanation of his amazing rhythm. Was it Clapton who on first hearing RJ said, OK who's the other guy?

Posted by: Seth at August 26, 2008 10:44 PM

Though a life-long African-American, I've often been puzzled by persistent segregation and continued evidence of institutional racism in the US. Why trust my own experiences and those of family, friends, and acquaintances given the obvious anecdotal nature of these perceptions? Thanks for putting it all in perspective for me Seth.

Posted by: Coldtype at August 27, 2008 12:27 AM

Seth: You mean Keith Richards, not Eric Clapton. Your knowledge of music history seems just as impressive as your fine understanding of American history. Some time you should come and visit the US. I highly recommend it.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 27, 2008 12:44 AM

MAN!!! What a song!!! I guess WE've all been to a crossrroads somewhere trying to flag a ride, I know I have. But I guess once YOU've cut a deal with the devil YOU ought be able to deal with anybody and anything.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at August 27, 2008 09:29 AM

Bernard--Are you kidding me? What a pompous response--"You mean Richards, not Clapton." I said I wasn't sure if it was Clapton or not--what are you, distinguished professor of rock trivia?

You sound like a virginal twerp in a high school jazz band. Please, Dr. Chazelle, forgive the egregiousness of my misattribution...

"Visit the US..." All you mean by saying this is, Take a trip into the phantasmagoria of my own distorted refracted impressions.

If you wanna compare census tracts, let's go for it. I bet mine is darker and poorer than yours.

Posted by: Seth at August 27, 2008 10:34 AM

Seth: My reply was only "pompous" because I am a kind soul. Trust me, it could have been worse.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 27, 2008 11:16 AM

A player like Johnson, going solo, doesn't have to plan his changes or how long he hangs on to what we can trivialize as "a chord" but which is more like a musical underpinning of the emotional moment.

Like John Lennon when he used polyrhythms, they felt right, and he likely never charted them. In Lennon's case he let George Martin sort them out for the backing band. Robert J. lets the musicologists do it for our generation.

I love both these treatments of this bed rock American song. It is notable that the "sundown" verse is the one that Clapton does not include, interposing the "barrel house" verse that I am sure I heard in another tune or tunes - by Muddy Waters? - you will know, Bernard.

If these two versions are intimidating to any blues amateurs out there - and they ought to be if you are paying attention - try the tune as a shuffle. You will have the opportunity to find if for yourself.

Thanks for this, Bernard. Great post.

Posted by: David Keith Johnson at August 27, 2008 11:26 AM

Wow what a threat..."Trust me." Nah, instead of trusting that you can insult me better than you did the first time (lame, pointless), I'd rather hear the actual insult.

For someone who loves improvisation so much you seem incapable of it.

Come on man, refute me!

Here's what you sound like, minus the tragic quotient:
"I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things— What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth."

Posted by: Seth at August 27, 2008 11:44 AM

There are STILL "sundown" towns in Oklahoma, especially down near the ArkLaTex, and out near the panhandle. The town of LaVerne was especially notorious, as recently as 2000...

Posted by: woody, tokin librul at August 27, 2008 01:21 PM

I am always learning something new at ATR.

I did not know the song nor did I know the terminology 'Sundown Towns' though am very aware of subtle and overt RACISM that still exists, VERY SADLY, in our society.

Thank you Prof Chazelle for the post. I found some other songs by Mr Johnson and am amazed at his voice and the lyrics.

There is a recent article by Mr. James Loewen at
It is worth reading.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at August 27, 2008 01:50 PM

All of Harper County, Oklahoma, home of burgeoning metropolis LaVerne, contains a little more than 3,000 souls, averaging about 3 per square mile.

The whole county appears to have about 25 black residents.

Maybe there are so few blacks there because they are forced out, murdered, threatened, etc.

Maybe there are so few blacks there because there are SO FEW PEOPLE THERE.

Blacks are only about 12% of the total population. We know that they are heavily concentrated in urban centers.

Oklahoma as a state is about 7% black. 60% of all Oklahomans live around Tulsa or Oklahoma City, each of which is about 16% black.

It follows that relative density in some areas must mean relative sparsity in other areas.

Now Tulsa is a great test case for the Sundown Town hypothesis. In 1921 there was a legitimate horrible pogrom against black people there, with lots of damage, fire, murder, etc. Yet the city has maintained a disproportionately large per capita black population since then.

You can't insist that towns with no blacks are necessarily excluding them. Give me some evidence aside from current demographics.

I can readily accept the idea that racism exists in LaVerne. But is there really a conspiracy to rid this tiny (pop. 1000) town of blacks, and keep it white? How about nearby May, OK (pop. 33) or Rosston (pop. 66)?


Posted by: Seth at August 27, 2008 02:07 PM

I went to Bruce F's quoted website and realize that the bloggers have quoted from Mr. Loewen article I mentioned. Sorry for the duplication though the original article has some additional material and links.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at August 27, 2008 02:09 PM

That's a great book; his website has (or used to have) a list of some of the sundown towns, and when they forced out their black inhabitants. The most clear-cut way to see the phenomenon is the census: in one survey, many small towns have a certain substantial proportion of black people, and in the next, almost none. Of course, Loewen also did a lot of fieldwork.

It's not mentioned in the cited article, but in the same period (1890-1930), there were similar attacks on people of Asian descent; the most striking maybe is that the Chinese proportion of the population of Idaho went from one third in 1870 to near zero, in a fairly short time if I recall.

I think that the attacks occurred in waves, a kind of epidemic. It might be interesting to see these things in graphical form, something like a map animation.

Posted by: Ken Clarkson at August 27, 2008 03:26 PM

California and lynching of Chinese

"In addition to the expulsion of African Americans from some small towns, Chinese Americans and other minorities were also driven out of some of the towns where they lived. One example according to Loewen is that in 1870, Chinese made up one-third of the population of Idaho. Following a wave of violence and an 1886 anti-Chinese convention in Boise, almost none remained by 1910. [3] The town of Gardnerville, Nevada is said to have blown a whistle at 6 p.m. daily alerting Native Americans to leave by sundown.[4] In addition, Jews were excluded from living in some sundown towns, such as Darien, Connecticut.[5]"

Posted by: Rupa Shah at August 27, 2008 03:56 PM

Having read Bernard's post and the linked article, I must say that none of this is exactly news. Maybe it's just growing up where I did. (Missouri and Illinois.)

The question is, what to do about it? I didn't know when I was nine, and I don't know now. Write books detailing horrific events between 1870-1930? Deplore crypto-racist real estate practices in Chevy Chase circa 1970? Acknowledge hotly on blogs that racism happens EVEN TODAY? Listen to a lot of Robert Johnson?

It is probably reasonable to say that most Americans have been told that racism is bad. Knowing this, they either choose to be racist anyway or try not to be racist (to varying degrees of success). Given this reality: Are books like "Sundown Towns" really tools for changing consciousness? Or are they a kind of political pornography? Is its purpose the changing of minds--or merely to provide self-satisfaction? "Those people were so bad. If I were there, I wouldn't be those people. I'm better than those people."

It's very internetty and undergraduate, this kind of outrage--"OMG, Americans are racists!" "OMG, Democrats are militarists!"--and probably why every college campus I know is a much more miserable place than it should be. If dwelling on such stuff fascinates people, or they can make a living off it, fair enough. But I cannot help but feel that the solution to problems like racism, or militarism, leads us inevitably out of "politics" and into each individual heart. This blog satisfies me less and less as a result. I say this not to criticize the poster or readers or commenters, only to figure out why, after reading this blog from the beginning, it's starting to irritate the fuck out of me. Not that it matters--you've got plenty of people for a good party anyhow. Maybe that's the burden of being progressive--you eventually PROGRESS right out the door!

Posted by: Mike of Angle at August 27, 2008 06:08 PM

Such bizarre responses to mention of Loewen's sundown towns book. Mike of Angle even seems to suggest that studying history leads only to dissatisfaction and misery. Apparently, we shouldn't seek to understand why things are the way they are today, but introspect instead.

Loewen's book is well documented and not strictly anecdotal. Sundown towns weren't just characterized by curfews for blacks. More often, no blacks were allowed to live in such towns and were forbidden from being within the city limits after sundown. Even worse, they were forbidden from traveling through some such towns by train, and overzealous whites would wait at train stations to inspect trains for blacks, who might be lynched if found - for traveling through a town whites had declared off-limits to blacks. All this is well documented in Loewen's book and it was more pervasive outside the South. The sundown towns phenomenon made it clear to me how blacks came to live mostly in urban areas. The common belief is that they chose to, for unknown reasons. It took Loewen's historical research to reveal that it was white violence that forced blacks to live mostly in circumscribed urban areas. During Reconstruction, they had fanned out across the country into areas rural and urban, before renewed white violence post-Reconstruction restricted them. I would rather know about historical causes like that than spend my time peering into my heart.

Posted by: deang at August 27, 2008 06:55 PM

1. One day, when I find the time, I'll blog about how Princeton, NJ, keeps its black population in line. It's all anecdotal, so anyone will be free to conclude that it only happened the few times I noticed and, of course, nowhere else.

2. I believe in the redemptive value of guilt and compassion. That's why Germany is a better society today. Conversely, the moral self-satisfaction that is so common here in America is a sorry spectacle. Is there a less self-critical society on earth? Is there one with more self-love?

Why are readers so defensive when their precious little constitution is under the microscope, or their precious little western music is being examined, or their precious little racist lifestyle is being criticized. Liberals are such conservatives!

3. Note to everyone: I make sure to start every post with my name. This way, if you can't stand what I write, or if you already know everything, just skip it. With enough practice, it's not that hard. As Miles Davis said to Trane, who argued that his solos were so long because he couldn't stop: "Just yank that horn out of your mouth. You'll see, the music will stop."

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 27, 2008 08:35 PM

Only in America Dr. Chazelle, only in precious America.

Posted by: Coldtype at August 27, 2008 11:29 PM

I played that Robert Johnson 20 or more times, I think.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at August 28, 2008 12:21 AM

"I believe in the redemptive value of guilt and compassion. That's why Germany is a better society today."
While I'm sure Germany must be a better place because of your beliefs, at least a little, that's still an amazing statement for what it leaves out.
Flanders' fields got real green in the early 1920's, if you know what I mean. Even if you don't, they did.
Viz. Robt. Johnson and those complex time signatures, there's a sense of ownership, or participation, some kind of being safely inside by virtue of knowing what's up, that emanates from all that talk.
Johnson didn't break it down that way, neither did, nor do, most of his keenest listeners and emulators.
There's a reason art gets called "formulaic". As derogatory judgment.
It's because ambitious in-the-wrong-direction students get hold of some identifiable essential processes in the master's work, and throw those reductions back up as deserving, worthy, estimable. Because of that proven efficacy. Formulae. How he did it.
The beautiful irony is excessive knowledge of form virtually guarantees the mediocre a tight upper limit on their endeavors.
Taking things apart and reassembling them is a long-time path to success for the mediocre with superior skill sets. Reverse-engineering the tune.
Lacking the genius spark, making do with the patterns that enable genius. Whole careers maintained that way. Not to mention the vicarious fan-boy side of it. Stats as pre-game foreplay. Excessive analysis to fill the void where creative inspiration would otherwise reside.

Posted by: Roy Belmont at August 28, 2008 11:33 AM

bluestateleftist: Many thanks for the link to BANISHED. And yes, I know what the world would look like. I have been to Haiti!

Prof Chazelle: You are kind, patient and generous.
Your blogs are very interesting as most of the time, there is stimulating exchange of ideas and commenters may disgaree but are not disagreeable. I am always learning something new, even The Basic theory of Music, of which I did not know a word, inspired me to teach myself and I think I have learnt quite a bit by reading. I always look forward to your selection of interesting topics for your blog.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at August 28, 2008 11:36 AM

Re: that second video, I'm glad to see that Robert Jhonson is right up there with Bhudda, Ghandi, and Tolkein. The immhorthals.

Posted by: Duncan at August 28, 2008 02:39 PM

Ronald Reagan's policy of denying asylum to Haitians (as against the Cubans) was definitely racially motivated ( They were not allowed to land on US soil nor were they rescued from sinking boats ). Amnesty International had reported, less than 5% of Haitian applicants were granted political asylum. So, the attitudes were not at only 'village or town' level but also at national level, at least during Reagan administration.
( page 109-113)

Posted by: Rupa Shah at August 28, 2008 02:48 PM

[I once read in a Very Serious Newspaper that Johnson was "a fine blues musician who had trouble counting to 12." No doubt, that same critic wrote somewhere else that Guernica was proof positive that Picasso was a fine painter who had trouble drawing horses.]

That is a really funny line. At least, it would be if I knew who the fuck Guernica was!

Posted by: Poblano Picasso at August 30, 2008 06:03 AM