Why they tried to censor the blues

a blues singer, censored

In 2006, 50 years after the musicians of Chess Records had stormed the R&B charts, the bluesmen were still causing a ruckus. Although its most famous artistes including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker had since passed, the controversial legacy of their Chicago record label rolled on. 

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC), the body that polices radio and TV broadcasts in the US, had levied a $15,000 indecency fine on KCSM-TV in California for its broadcast of Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Blues: Godfathers And Sons, which followed Marshall Chess, son of Chess founder Leonard, and Public Enemy’s Chuck D as they traced the history of Chess and the Chicago blues scene. 

The FCC issued the fine over the liberal use of the words “fuck” and “shit” in the documentary. The decision had been challenged on the basis that no similar fine had been levied due to the playing of the Tom Hanks movie Saving Private Ryan, despite similar language throughout.

Scorsese weighed in, explaining in a sworn statement to the FCC that “the language of blues musicians often was filled with expletives that shocked and challenged America’s white- dominated society of the 40s, 50s and 60s. To accurately capture the essential character of the blues music and the subculture in which it originated and flourished, it was important to preserve in the film the actual speech and discursive formations of the participants,” he said. 

To do otherwise, would be “whitewashing the blues”. His point was salient – the language of the bluesmen of the 1940s and 50s, much like the music, was often raw and rough. Buddy Guy recalls in his 2012 autobiography, When I Left Home: “At Chess Records, everybody was a ‘motherfucker’. I’d been there like six months, and they’d be talking to me in the studio – ‘Hey motherfucker, you’re too loud…’ I wouldn’t look up. Muddy, Wolf, Walter – everyone was answering to that name… ‘Good morning, motherfucker.’ That was just the way it was.”

But censorship of the blues was nothing new. Although suppressing music in America can be traced back to the 1500s when slave owners forbade the use of “talking drums”, it was in the mid-20th century that censorship of music became systematic, controlled and organised. And no music has been subject to more controversy and more censorship than the blues. 

In its various guises through time, as boogie-woogie, as R&B, as British blues and as rock’n’roll, the blues has been accused of corrupting the young, encouraging sexual depravity and inciting murder. In response, both external and internal forces worked to repress the blues, with it reaching a crescendo in the 1950s. The McCarthy-era United States were steeped in fear and intolerance. As blues and rock’n’roll took hold, censorship loomed large as the older generation fought to enforce morality and prevent the corruption of the youth.

While the blues as a music genre is undoubtedly older, the first blues recording by an African American singer is widely credited to Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds’ 1920 rendition of Perry Bradford’s Crazy Blues. The recording of the song sold more than one million copies and led the way for the professionalisation of blues music – for the first time record labels became aware of the huge market for what they termed ‘race records’. 

Still the recording industry was, at that time, strictly segregated. Music by black artists was strictly targeted at black audiences and music by white artists would be exclusively for white audiences. It wasn’t until the 1940s that radio stations began to air music aimed at a crossover of the two. For the first time white audiences began to listen to black artists and discovered rhythm and blues.

As a new breed of artistes broke onto the airwaves with their brand of R&B, censorship began to creep in. The controversial issues of sex and death, often themes in blues songs, added fuel to the fire of regressive conservatives in their bid to ban the blues. 

Few artists faced as much bigotry and censorship as Billie Holiday. As well as being both female and black, Holiday’s tough upbringing – including being put to work as a prostitute by her own mother aged just 13 – resulted in a dark songbook with distressing lyrics that white America wasn’t ready to hear. Her 1939 song Strange Fruit included the words ‘Black body swinging in the southern breeze/strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’, in reference to the white south’s sport of lynching African Americans, an uncomfortable truth that America was not willing to acknowledge.

When Holiday’s record label, Columbia Records, refused to record the song, she released it on a small independent label, Commodore Records. Many radio stations refused to play it and a number of New York clubs banned Holiday from singing it. Nonetheless, the song sold well and was credited by some as sowing the seeds of the civil rights movement. Just a few years later, her song Gloomy Monday was refused airplay on many radio stations because it was alleged to encourage suicide. While these excuses were often thinly veiled attempts to cover up racism, those themes of death and sex would arise again and again in the battle against the blues.

Nonetheless, before the war, censorship wasn’t particularly organised or, indeed, deemed necessary. Blues records were only available in the south and some urban centres up north where black workers had migrated in search of work. Racial segregation in schools meant few white teenagers were exposed to R&B, which was exactly how their parents and the authorities liked it. 

However, in post-war America, racial barriers began to break down and for the first time white and black teenagers were, on a larger scale, exposed to each other’s music. It was then that the government, religious groups and others in positions of power began to band together in an effort to clamp down on the music sweeping across the nation. Underneath the backlash against rock’n’roll lay a deep-seated fear that times were changing and that the morals and beliefs that had been held for centuries were suddenly being challenged.

In the post-war early days of R&B, it wasn’t the lyrics that were causing the most offence, but the beat. A pulsating and repetitive sexual beat. Right-wing conservatives riled against the vulgarity of what one opponent referred to as the “animalistic obscenity of negro rock’n’rollers”. 

Other slurs referred to beats coming from the jungle and encouraging the self-expression of young people through sex. Throughout the 1950s the FCC received an unprecedented number of complaints relating to ‘obscene’ and ‘indecent’ songs. The biggest issue for the FCC was deciphering between the two. The reason? The American courts had ruled that ‘obscene’ songs could be banned outright but the lesser of two evils, ‘indecent’ songs, could only be regulated. 

Although the iron-clad language of the US first amendment guarantees freedom of speech and its expression, an exception is made in the case of obscene material. In the ultra-conservative midcentury, even the mere hint or suggestion of sex could be classified as obscene.

In 1954, Hank Ballard’s Work With Me, Annie faced severe opposition from the FCC because of what they deemed to be scantily clad sexual lyrics, despite no graphic terminology or anything overtly sexual in the song. The lyrics were simply: ‘Work with me, Annie, Don’t be ’shamed to work with me, Annie, Call my name, work with me’. Similarly, an ‘answer song’, The Wallflower, co-written and recorded by Etta James, popularly known as Roll With Me, Henry was also banned. 

The song was later re-recorded as Dance With Me, Henry to avoid censorship, which was attributed to the sexual suggestiveness of the ‘rolling’ in the song. Ironically, the added publicity from the FCC’s ban on Work With Me, Annie only served to boost the record’s popularity and attempts to restrict it failed. Ballard’s self-penned number shot to the top of Billboard’s R&B chart for seven weeks.

In 1955, Houston’s Juvenile Delinquency and Crime Commission banned more than 30 songs, many by black artistes. Other bodies were beginning to group together in a bid to outlaw rock’n’roll. Chief among them was the White Citizens Council. The Council, a more ‘respectable’ alternative to the Ku Klux Klan, was founded in July 1954 with the aim of opposing the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that unanimously banned segregation in public schools. 

In a time of uncertainty and unease, the White Citizen’s Council exerted significant influence on southern politics and social mores. In 1956, the North Alabama White Citizens Council declared that bebop and rock’n’roll and other “negro music” appealed to “the base in man and brought out animalism and vulgarity”. It even claimed that it was part of a wider plot to “mongrelize America”. 

Committee members regularly checked in with restaurants and cafes to ensure no blues music or variations thereof were included on the playlists of their jukeboxes. Elsewhere in the US, the Catholic Youth Organisation was encouraging bans on R&B among its members.

Even within the industry, panic and fear were building. Because the FCC had the power to issue fines and revoke licences, radio stations grew wary of ending up on its wrong side as a result of playing sexually suggestive or otherwise offensive records. In 1956, the WABB radio station in Mobile, Alabama received more than 15,000 letters of complaint about the playing of so-called “dirty records”. 

The station’s response was a promise that it would censor all controversial music, especially R&B. Link Wray’s instrumental Rumble was banned from airwaves across the US, even though it had no lyrics. Disc jockeys that ignored their employers’ instructions found themselves suddenly without jobs. 

One Oregon-based DJ, Al Priddy for KEX, was dismissed in December 1957 when he played Elvis Presley’s version of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Who could be offended by a song so innocuous and inoffensive? Plenty, it seems. As well as complaints from enraged listeners who took issue with Presley’s version, station manager Mel Bailey claimed Presley had given the song “a rhythm and blues interpretation, not in keeping with the intent of the song”. 

The print media jumped on board the conservative bandwagon, admonishing R&B and its wanton ways. A 1955 edition of Variety issued an article entitled A Warning To The Music Industry about the sudden popularisation of R&B and the message of its lyrics, or “leer-ics” as they’d since been renamed by their opponents. Time warned the allegiance of teenagers to rock performers “bear passing resemblance to Hitler’s mass meetings”.

While the overt censorship of the government, the citizen’s councils and the media was dampening the blues, a more subtle form of suppression was taking place in recording studios across America. Sam Phillips denied that he ever said it, but music folklore attributes one of rock’n’roll’s most famous quotes to the founder of the legendary Sun Studios and the man credited with discovering Elvis. “If I could find a white man who had the negro sound and the negro feel I could make a billion dollars.”

And while some claim rock’n’roll was a hybrid of R&B and country & western, others claim the music was simply white singers performing the music that black musicians had been performing for many years. Chuck Berry opined that, “It used to be called boogie-woogie, used to be called rhythm and blues, it used to be called blues. It’s called rock now.” 

White artists began covering the songs of black artistes. Georgia Gibbs covered Etta James’ The Wallflower (the censored Dance With Me version) and at Sun Records, Elvis covered Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog. Leaving aside the bizarre choice of song for a man (whereas Big Mama Thornton’s original Hound Dog referred to a cheating man, Elvis appeared to be singing about his pet dog!), the cover version was arguably another form of censorship of original blues music: whitewashing. 

The practice of whitewashing the blues was adopted by record labels, as per Phillips’ prescient quote, throughout the 1950s, in a bid to make blues more palatable for white audiences. In doing so, the edges were softened and toned down and the growl reduced to a whimper, as anyone that’s heard Pat Boone’s cover of Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti will attest to. Gone was the pounding piano, electrifying vocals and energetic beat. In its place was a pop ditty, stripped of all soul and intensity. “I had to change some words, because they seemed too raw for me,” said Boone.

“I wrote, ‘Pretty little Susie is the girl for me,’ instead of ‘Boys you don’t know what she do to me.’ I had to be selective and change some lyrics”. Little Richard said of the cover: “When Tutti Frutti came out… They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone up on the dresser and me in the drawer cos they liked my version better, but the families didn’t want me because of the image that I was projecting.”

Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti wasn’t merely sexually suggestive – this was a flashy and flamboyant gay performer singing about anal sex in the 1950s

Even before the Boone cover, Richard had been asked to censor his own recording of the song, which was originally sung in live performances as “Tutti Frutti, loose booty”. The song wasn’t merely sexually suggestive – this was a flashy and flamboyant gay performer singing about anal sex in the 1950s. The song was, unsurprisingly, deemed too offensive and Richard was instructed to instead record it as “Tutti Frutti, aw Rudi”.

In addition to bastardising one of rock’n’roll’s greatest songs, Charles “Pat” Boone went on to cover, and corrupt, several other R&B classics. With his neat haircut, white sweater and soft voice, Boone originally hit the charts in September 1955 with a cover of Fats Domino’s Ain’t That A Shame before going on to cover 60 singles, including T-Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday where he substituted the phrase ‘drinkin’ Coca-Cola’ for ‘drinkin’ wine’. 

Elvis Presley famously had his first hit with That’s Alright Mama, a song written and previously recorded by blues artist Arthur Crudup and containing some traditional blues verses first recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson back in 1926. Presley’s version, while keeping a traditional blues flavour, was more upbeat and introduced a country twang, creating what was to be one of the world’s first rockabilly numbers. 

Still, while perhaps developing the sound, Elvis did at least encourage his fans to listen to the original blues artists that had so inspired him. “The coloured folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now and I said if I ever got to a place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw,” he’s quoted as telling reporters in 1956, when asked where he got his sound.

Obviously the question as to whether the music of white rock’n’roll was a direct copy of rhythm and blues is a controversial one. The prominent feature of derivative music, such as the blues, is to reference past songs with the intention of creating something new. The use of earlier material is intended to add cultural significance and an identity to the music while simultaneously creating a new sound. 

Much like Chicago blues freshened things up as musicians replaced their acoustic instruments with amplified versions and added bass, piano and drums, some argue that rock’n’roll musicians like Elvis were creating a new sound too, namely, rockabilly.

Others, like Bo Diddley, maintain that Elvis and other white rock’n’roll singers were mere watered-down copies, used by record labels to censor audiences from its black origins.

“With me there had to be a copy. They wouldn’t buy me, but they would buy a white copy of me. Elvis got me. I went through things like, ‘Oh, you got a hit record but we need to break it into the white market. We need to get some guy to cover it.’ And I would say, ‘What do you mean?’ They would never tell me it was a racial problem.”

It’s noteworthy that this subtle form of censoring the blues could be traced back to before the dawning of rock’n’roll. One of the earliest pioneers of the blues, Huddie Ledbetter, more commonly known as Lead Belly, had been subject to a form of indirect censorship back in the 1930s. Few artists can claim to have the same level of influence as Lead Belly on the modern day worlds of blues and rock. Everyone from Muddy Waters to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Jack White has claimed to be deeply influenced by his work. Van Morrison claimed he wasn’t an influence but the influence.

Ledbetter had been serving time in Louisiana’s Angola Prison farm for attempted murder of a white man in a bar fight when musicologists John Lomax and his son, Alan, dropped by to record some songs. So impressed were they by Lead Belly’s rich voice and the skill and virtuosity on his now legendary 12-string guitar, that they invited him on the road with them upon his release. They took him to New York to publicise his recordings, bringing the blues music of the deep south to the attention of the world at large. 

However, what the world heard wasn’t necessarily the music Lead Belly had sung in the fields of Mississippi. Letters from Alan Lomax to Lead Belly highlight the former’s influence over his style: “Enclosed you will find a copy of the words and music to Ho, Boys, Caincha Line Em just the way I want you to sing it, and I wish you would get Peter or somebody who reads music to teach it you exactly as it is written here.” In his book Leadbelly Songs Lomax detailed how white audiences struggled with Lead Belly’s southern dialect and “learned to compromise with northern ways and bring his words out plain”. 

Not only was his speech rectified, but also distinct differences in the lyrics recorded by Lead Belly can be heard when you listen to his early recordings and later versions recorded for the American Record Company in New York, arranged by the Lomaxes. Lyrics were cleaned up and his once fierce and raw guitar playing was replaced by gentle strumming.

In the ultra- conservative midcentury, even the mere hint or suggestion of sex could be classified as obscene

While it’s not clear if it was the record company, the Lomaxes or self-censorship by Lead Belly, what’s plain is that his style was softer, most likely in a bid to reach white listeners of the north. Not unlike the subtle censorship of 1950s record labels, the music of the deep south was slightly altered, though this time by the artist himself.

Try though they did, the government, the clergy and the older generation failed to put a halt on the spread of rhythm and blues across America. As any parent of teenagers can tell you, the more you fight it, the more they want it. Just like the FCC’s ban on Ballard’s Work With Me, Annie increased the record’s popularity, sales of other rock’n’roll records soared. In Chicago, Chess Records stars including Muddy Waters and Etta James were making waves, albeit in James’ case with censored lyrics. Nonetheless the establishment’s opposition was encouraging the youth of America and farther afield to listen to the blues. When the music reached Britain, a new wave of musicians were inspired and, in turn, created a new sound.

By the time the British blues cohort exploded on the scene in the 1960s, a more tolerant and welcoming America awaited. The previous decade’s success in breaking down racial segregation and embracing blues had paved the way for the civil rights movement and sexual revolution. The youth of America were ready for the British invasion. But that’s not to say everyone was ready for Jagger’s gyrating hips or indeed for every inch of Robert Plant’s love. 

In 1965, The Rolling Stones’ early hit I Can’t Get No Satisfaction was taken off of many radio station playlists after they received complaints about the ‘sexually suggestive lyrics’. Two years later the Stones once again found themselves subject to censorship when they performed their 1967 hit Let’s Spend The Night Together on The Ed Sullivan Show. The performance was booked under one condition – they change the lyric to the less explicit and more family-friendly ‘let’s spend some time together’. Sullivan’s exact words were allegedly, “Either the song goes, or you go.”

Jagger performed the song, rolling his eyes and mumbling the chorus to let the world know that he was not happy about the lyric changes.

As years went by and society became more tolerant of sex, racial integration and new music, the blues became less controversial and gained wide acceptance as one of America’s greatest music traditions. By the time Tipper Gore founded the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985, the committee that introduced parental advisory stickers on records and censored music that they found objectionable, blues had been usurped by heavy metal and rap as the music for conservatives to rally against. 

But that’s not to say censorship of the blues had been completely eradicated, as Scorsese highlighted in his impassioned plea to the FCC. Even as recently as 2008, Led Zeppelin found themselves subject to censorship when the lyrics of their monster hit Whole Lotta Love, a reworked version of Willie Dixon’s You Need Love, was changed at the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The lyrics, sung by Leona Lewis with Jimmy Page on guitar, were changed to ‘Gonna give you every bit of my love’. The third verse was also dropped, most likely because of the similar sexual content.

In spite of these recent setbacks, there is hope that censorship of the blues will be consigned to history books in the near future. In 2012 President Obama invited BB King, Buddy Guy and Mick Jagger, among others, to perform at the White House in celebration of the blues. The concert, In Performance At The White House: Red, White And Blues, was in recognition of Black History Month and saw Obama join Buddy Guy in his rendition of Sweet Home Chicago

The music that the government had once feared to be corrupting its youth and threatening its morality was being celebrated and sung by the country’s leaders in the president’s home. An art form that was once suppressed, now both respected and respectable.