Sweet Home Chicago: Part IV. Blame it on the Blues

Thomas Dorsey was an active composer and blues performer before his gospel breakthrough in the early 1930s. In 1910 at age 11 he sold candy at Atlanta’s famous 81 Theater where he first heard William “Pa” Rainey and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, billed as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.” There he was exposed to other minstrel and vaudeville performers with the T.O.B.A. (the Theater Owners Booking Agency also referred to as “tough on black artists” and later as the “chitlin circuit”).


Gertrude “Ma” Rainey

Ma Rainey was an electrifying performer known for her elaborate dress and gold coin jewelry; her singing, dancing, comedy routines and overwhelming personality. She sang classic blues, a standard form most associated with East Texas and the Mississippi Delta. Rainey was upfront about her life and loves and made no qualms of her attraction to women and young men. After an arrest for an indiscretion with female members of her chorus, she famously sang in “Prove it on me:”

I went out last night with a crowd of friends,
I t must’ve been women ‘cause I don’t like men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man

Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.

By 1912 her fame grew along with the popularity of the blues, aggressively promoted via sheet music by W. C. Handy after publication of his first blues, “Memphis Blues.” Rainey claimed to have first used the term ‘blues” after hearing a girl sing about the man who left her. Handy tells of first hearing what he later called the blues at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi where an “old Negro man” was sliding a knife along the neck of a guitar and singing that he was “goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.”

Dorsey dropped out of school at thirteen, learned to play and read music from instruction books and within a year was good enough to play at juke joints and rent parties around Atlanta. He polished his improvisational skills and adopted effective performance techniques. Dorsey moved to Chicago in 1916 and played piano in Bronzeville buffet flats. Buffet flats once provided lodging for Pullman Porters between runs, and later became less respectable, unlicensed clubs allowing sexual encounters and after hours drinking. Musicians, often pianists, would play familiar blues rather than the faster syncopated jazz available at more expensive venues on the Stroll.

Dorsey found it a hard way to make a living. He went to the Chicago Music College and learned composition, arranging and songwriting. This satisfied Musician Union requirements and allowed him to play in more upscale venues. He began writing and copyrighting classic blues songs including “Riverside Blues” recorded by Joe “King” Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band in 1923. W.C. Handy had earlier followed the same route to greater exposure giving his Loveless Love (a version of the traditional “Careless Love”) to Erskine Tate at the Vendome Theatre and then taught the song to Alberta Hunter who sang it at the Dreamland.

Ma Rainey hired Dorsey as pianist for her bookings on the T.O.B.A. circuit and to lead her Wildcats Jazz Band. He debuted with Rainey in April 1924 at the Grand Theater at 32nd and State. Dorsey wrote many blues for Rainey including “Blame it on the Blues.”  Rainey sings that she’s sad and worried, got no time to spread the news; she can’t blame it on her daddy, her mother, her brother, her lover, her husband, her man. She finishes with “can’t blame it on nobody, guess I’ll have to blame it on the blues.”

Ma Rainey and her Wildcats Jazz Band, 1923. Gabriel Washington (drums), Albert Wynn (trombone), David Nelson (trumpet), Ma Rainey (vocals), Eddie Pollack (saxophone) and Thomas Dorsey (piano).

Ma Rainey and her Wildcats Jazz Band, 1923. Gabriel Washington (drums), Albert Wynn (trombone), David Nelson (trumpet), Ma Rainey (vocals), Eddie Pollack (saxophone) and Thomas Dorsey (piano).

Dorsey married Nettie Harper in 1925. They traveled with Ma Rainey on the road until 1926 when Dorsey was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. After minimal success living off his compositions of religious songs, he returned to the blues in 1928 to support Nettie.

The late 1920s to early 1930s were a time of seismic change in the world of jazz and blues.  Talking pictures pushed out live theater acts and contributed to the closure of T.O.B.A. theaters. Black urban audiences wanted the newer sounds they heard on records and radio not the older countrified throwbacks to early minstrelsy. Venues on the Stroll had suffered from reformers and the appeal of the Savoy Ballroom and Regent Theater. The crash in 1929 hit music consumer’s disposable income. By early 1930s classic jazz and classic blues had died as a form of professional employment. Male country blues singers were an exception that still drew black audiences.

August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in March 1927, a year in which Rainey recorded some her biggest hits; new versions of “Bo-weevil Blues” and “Moonshine Blues.” Her nephew introduces the song about the dance, the black bottom, with “all right, boys, you done seen the rest…now I’m gonna show you the best. Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom.” The record was released in 1928.  Afterwards Rainey had a month long engagement at Chicago’s Monogram and then her recording contract was cancelled.  In the play, Wilson characterizes the studio owner as preoccupied with money and insensitive to black performers. Reminiscent of lines Bessie Smith once sang but never recorded: “All my life I’ve been making it/All my life white folks have been taking it.”  The owner says that jazz is gaining in popularity and pushing out female blues stars like Rainey. The big shift in musical taste would be to swing and the big band sound of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.

Ma Rainey would go back to traveling, her famous gold coin necklace replaced with fake pearls. She would retire in 1935, move back to Georgia and return to religion. Her “protégé” Bessie Smith would last record in 1933 and die tragically in 1937. Billie Holiday’s star would rise, but with more popular songs.

A shift in listener preferences for a more urban sound would make 1928 a good year for Dorsey. He had a financial and artistic hit performing “It’s Tight like That” with country blues guitarist Tampa Red (Hudson Whitaker). Dorsey agreed to write music for Tampa Red’s lyrics although he was reluctant since the lyrics were risqué. Double entendre lyrics had been a blues staple throughout the 1920s and their wordplay became the definition of hokum. Dorsey recorded under the pseudonym, Georgia Tom. Tampa Red and Georgia Tom were among the pioneers of piano and guitar blues duos. “It’s Tight like That” was a great success, sold almost one million records and made the hip and urban duo instant stars. The pair recorded some 60 sides between 1928 and 1932 often as the Famous Hokum Boys.

Tom and Tampa

Georgia Tom and Tampa Red

Dorsey had his gospel breakthrough in 1932, organizing and conducting gospel choirs in Ebenezer Baptist Church then Pilgrim Baptist Church, both bastions of Bronzeville Protestant decorum. Once able to make a living with his real love, gospel, Dorsey abandoned the lyrics of the blues but not its sound and styles.

Leroy Carr and Francis “Scrapper” Blackwell recorded the other big blues hit of 1928, “How Long, How Long Blues,” destined to become a blues standard. Carr was a pianist, born in Nashville and settled in Indianapolis with his wife. Elijah Wald describes him as the first blues “crooner,” a twelve bar Bing Crosby. Carr sang softly and plaintively over his rolling piano rhythms. Guitarist Blackwell was less well known but an essential part of their piano/guitar duo sound, slipping improvised single-string guitar fills and punching bass riffs in between Carr’s blues lines. Mayo Williams had suggested that the two play together. Robert Johnson and his contemporaries would play and build on “How Long Blues.” Robert Palmer speculates that the song “must have seemed like the epitome of world weary sophistication to a black teenager growing up in the Delta.”

leroy carr and scrapper blackwell lcrumb_6-8_copy2

Carr and Blackwell by R. Crumb

Sweet Home Chicago

By the early 1930s, Robert Johnson was acknowledged by his contemporaries as an exceptional musician who could hear a tune live, on a record or on the radio and produce his own unique version. He was proud of the single record released from his first recording sessions (Terraplane Blues) brought copies to relatives, and no doubt hoped that his music could bring him fame and fortune. Johnson would have heard that the Delta’s own Charlie Patton bought a new car every year and was invited to play at house parties in Chicago and other northern cities. The road to fame would not come from just playing music with Delta roots but from creating unique versions of songs played by the male recording stars most popular in Chicago’s Black Metropolis. His recording sessions did include versions of blues standards and adopted techniques associated with his mentor Son House and with Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James, another Mississippi slide guitar master. Beyond these Delta roots, Robert Johnson was influenced by the music of the most prolific Chicago recording artist including Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, Leroy Carr, Scrapper  Blackwell, Peetie Wheatstraw and Kokomo Arnold.


This is the only known photograph of Peetie Wheatstraw, the “devil’s son-in-law” and the “high sheriff from hell.” He played piano on most of his recordings.

Blues musician’s all borrowed lyrics, melodies and techniques from each other, a musical exchange greatly facilitated by records and radio and, for Johnson by his ability to meld these components into something that was new and was uniquely his. Elijah Wald traces out the lineage of Johnson’s moodily soulful “Come On in My Kitchen.”  It builds on Tampa Red’s “Things About Coming My Way,” which is an upbeat rendering of the popular Mississippi Sheikhs hit “Sitting On Top Of The World,” itself a variation on Leroy Carr/Scrapper Blackwell’s “How Long, How Long Blues.” In his “Kind Hearted Women” Johnson’s guitar accompaniment includes piano lines played by Leroy Carr, guitar riffs of Scrapper Blackwell and touches of Kokomo Arnold. Johnson’s “Dust my Broom” is based on Leroy Carr’s “I Believe I’ll Make a Change” with its title from a line in another Arnold blues. Elmore James would later have his biggest hit in Chicago with his 1952 version of “Dust my Broom.”

Most significant for Robert Johnson’s legacy, “Scrapper” Blackwell also recorded “Kokomo Blues” in 1928 with the lines:

Mmmm, baby, don’t you want to go?
Mmmm, baby, don’t you want to go?
Pack your little suitcase, papa’s going to Kokomo

And I’ll sing this verse, baby, I can’t sing no more
I’ll sing this verse, baby, I can’t sing no more
My train is ready and I’m going to Kokomo

James Arnold, a left-handed guitarist from Georgia settled in Chicago where he made his living as a bootlegger and played a lightning fast slide guitar on the side. In 1934 he recorded a version of Blackwell’s song, adding the counting Robert Johnson would use in his “Sweet Home Chicago” and renamed it “Old Original Kokomo Blues.”

One and one is two, mama
Two and two is four
You mess around here, pretty mama
You know you got to go
Cryin’, oooh, baby don’t you want to go
Back to the Eleven Light City
To sweet old Kokomo

Arnold counted up to twelve and sang six more verses, each ending with the refrain “back to the eleven light city, to sweet old Kokomo.”  With the song’s success he changed his stage name to Kokomo Arnold and recorded 88 sides by 1938. The meaning of “eleven light city” remains somewhat of a mystery. It would seem all but obvious that the reference is to Kokomo, Indiana; Scrapper Blackwell lived in nearby Indianapolis. Kokomo had eleven stop lights in the 1930s. It also had eleven speakeasies which would have had lights in front to identify them. Arnold told blues writer Paul Oliver that the “eleven light city” referred to a Chicago drugstore where a girlfriend worked and “Koko” was their brand name of coffee.


A Commonwealth Edison advertisement for Chicago lighting. Roosevelt Sykes referred to Chicago as that “bright light city.”

Robert Johnson took “Old Original Kokomo Blues,” radically reworked the guitar accompaniment and swapped “Chicago” for “Kokomo,” a trans-formative act that turned one of Johnson’s lesser pieces into a city’s anthem: “Sweet Home Chicago.” Indianapolis based Scrapper Blackwell may have enticed his baby to go with him to Kokomo, but it was no big deal; it was not Chicago, the promised land of the north.

Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson

Oh baby don’t you want to go
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

Oh baby don’t you want to go
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

Now one and one is two
two and two is four
I’m heavy loaded baby
I’m booked I gotta go

Cryin baby
honey don’t you want to go
back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

Now two and two is four
four and two is six
You gon’ keep monkeyin’ ‘round here friend-boy
you gon’ get your business all in a trick

But I’m cryin baby
honey don’t you wanna go
Back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

Now six and two is eight
eight and two is ten
Friend-boy she trick you one time
she sure gonna do it again

But I’m cryin hey hey
baby don’t you want to go
back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

I’m goin’ to California
from there to Des Moines Iowa
Somebody will tell me that you
need my help someday

Cryin’ hey hey
baby don’t you want to go
back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

“Sweet Home Chicago,” Copyright Delta Haze Corporation

“Sweet Home Chicago” would become Johnson’s song most covered by blues musicians. It would be a South Side standard before being heard by a wider audience with release of the 1970 album King of the Delta Blues, Volume II. It also would be Johnson’s most verbally tweaked song to leave no doubt that Chicago was the musician’s destination. Ward suggests putting in a silent “or” leaving California and Chicago as aspirational options. Baldwin writes that Chicago had become such a “powerful symbol of prosperity and freedom” that Johnson “literally relocated the city within the much older American mythos of the Western frontier.”

By the mid 1930s images and the sound of the Black Metropolis were familiar in the Delta. In 1930 Charlie Patton (the first Delta blues man to record) traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount along with Sun House (a mentor to Muddy Waters as well as to Robert Johnson), Willie Brown (who is called out by Johnson in his “Crossroad Blues”) and pianist Louise Johnson (who started the trip with Patton and ended up with Sun House). Robert Johnson would soon emerge as a brilliant guitarist and lyricist and have his recording sessions with Vocalion. In 1938 John Hammond Sr. would send emissaries to the Delta to invite Johnson to perform at his “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall. Johnson was already dead; his music, myth, and legacy waiting to be carried up to Chicago. Hitler had yet to invade Poland, start World War II, and initiate the second wave of the Great Migration.

Next: Part V. I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man

Marshall Bronzeville with RJ Crossroads Blues

A Bronzeville neighborhood, song lyrics rise out of the windows of an apartment building, songs by Marvin Gaye, Jackie McLean, gospel singers and Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.” Kerry James Marshall, 7 am Sunday Morning, 2003 (detail). Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Notes and Sources


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