Last week we looked at the roots and early life of the ballad most commonly known as “Little Sadie”. But it wasn’t the first time she walked through our strange little blog. Early in our first year of writing, Shaleane wrote a series on Nick Cave and Johnny Cash. In her second post that week, she gave us our first glimpse of Sadie in a performance by Johnny Cash of “Cocaine Blues”.
Yes, “Cocaine Blues” is a direct descendant of the bad man ballad “Little Sadie”, or “Bad Lee Brown” as it was known before Johnny Cash was born. Indeed, as we saw last week, in that year of 1932 when Cash entered this rough and beautiful world, black prisoners in penitentiaries across the American south were already using “Bad Lee Brown” to help them survive Hell on Earth. It’s fitting really – the best known version of “Cocaine Blues” is that performed by Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968. And he sang it to those inmates for exactly the same reason African-American prisoners intoned Lee Brown’s name for themselves on the chain gang.
Music, even (or especially) a murder ballad, can help anyone make it just one more day in whatever Hell they happen to be suffering.
If you’re interested in what it meant in context for these men to have Johnny sing for them, you can check out this podcast with Rodney Crowell on Cash’s Folsom Prison concerts.
But today’s post isn’t just about Johnny Cash or his prison concerts, it’s about following “Little Sadie” as she makes her rounds. Last week we saw the ballad start life in the African-American tradition, and we took an academic approach. This week, we’ll trace its development in the Anglo-American tradition, but we’ll focus more on the music. We’ll start today with the country music classic “Cocaine Blues”, then finish the week looking at “Little Sadie” in old time, folk, and bluegrass music.
In my humble opinion, we absolutely *must* start today with Cash’s epic performance from Folsom. But his wasn’t the first iteration of “Cocaine Blues”. You’ll see soon enough that he is just a strong link in a long chain.
So let’s get started then, eh?
“When I was arrested I was dressed in black…”
Here are the lyrics to Cash’s version of “Cocaine Blues.” If you compare them to any current version of “Little Sadie”, or any of the traditional versions of “Bad Lee Brown”, you’ll see they’re all growing from the same roots. But they’re just as obviously different branches. We’ll get to that in a few minutes. First, the music.
I’m sure most of you know what’s coming. But if you’re unfamiliar with Cash’s performance, or you find it politically distasteful, I beg you to give it a full, fair listen. Yes, it’s misogynistic. No, we’re not celebrating that – though neither are we wagging fingers. I promise, we’ll get to all that soon enough too, especially in the next post.
But for now, suspend judgement. Listen to the audience, to the prisoners. Look at that man’s eyes in the picture above. Imagine yourself in his shoes and having Johnny Cash descend into Hell to sing for you for just one day.
You and I can hear it anytime! So make your time now. You won’t be sorry.
Cash sang outlaw and prison songs for outlaws and prisoners. It’s a simple thing to say, but it really gets right to the heart of why we write in this blog. Those songs matter because they represent a real and deep part of who we are, though we often choose to ignore it.
Johnny Cash gave those men the gift of music in a place where monotony and routine had long since conquered creativity and rhythm, but he did more. He reminded the prisoners that their crimes and their punishments, horrible though they might be, are part of what we all sing about. He let them know that, though they may be behind bars, they still belong with us all.
Were his sources for the ballad doing the same thing before him? Well, yes and no. Listen for yourself and see what you think.
“I took a shot of Cocaine and shot my woman down…” – Country and Western Branches
I’ll get to the lyrics of “Cocaine Blues” in detail below, but it’s important to acknowledge up front that they are brutal. It’s true that its direct ancestor, “Bad Lee Brown”, is such a song too; but “Cocaine Blues” takes it to a different level, and one to which prisoners might particularly relate. Given Cash’s audience and mission at places like Folsom and San Quentin, one might surmise that he took the old bad man ballad “Bad Lee Brown” and used his colossal talent to clothe it anew as a Country and Western outlaw song specifically for such concerts.
However, such is not the case. Johnny first recorded the song as “Transfusion Blues” in 1960 on Now, There Was a Song!, but “Cocaine Blues” had been circulating as a popular song for just over 20 years before the concerts at Folsom in 1968. It’s important I think to hear some of those key performances before we get to any further analysis of the lyrics.
– Red Arnall, 1947
The first printing of Cash’s 1960 album album credited Roy Hogsed for the song. Later printings corrected this and gave credit to T.J. “Red” Arnall. (See FE Danker’s “The Repertory and Style of a Country Singer: Johnny Cash” for notes on this.) Though Hogsed’s became more popular, Arnall’s seems to be the earliest recorded version of the branch of “Bad Lee Brown / Little Sadie” we know as “Cocaine Blues”.
Check it out! The lead guitar in the second half is phenomenal – starting particularly at 1:08, if you want to go right there.
– Roy Hogsed, 1948
Hogsed’s version of “Cocaine Blues” rose to #15 on the Country charts in America in 1948. Cash would have been 16 when it was on the radio. Given this, and the fact that Cash at first mistakenly credited Hogsed with the song on that 1960 album, it’s likely that this was his original source. In Hogsed’s version, an accordion or related instrument takes the place of the lead guitar.
It’s easy to hear the Latin roots of country music in this one, as well as in Arnall’s.
– Best Performances, 1959 – 1981
Hogsed’s performance established “Cocaine Blues” as a country hit, but in 1959 “The King of Western Swing” Hank Thompson cut a version (Spotify, YouTube) that sounds more like Cash’s; or perhaps more accurately, it sounds more like the typical country hits of the late ’50s. The piano is particularly pleasant.
Cash all but certainly heard Thompson’s version, as he had established his own place in the country music charts by then and had to have been paying attention to keep fresh and competitive. He followed Thompson the next year in 1960 with “Transfusion Blues” (Spotify, YouTube) in a similar but distinctive style.
Cash’s substitution of ‘transfusion’ (presumably alcohol, though it’s admittedly vague) for ‘cocaine’ is curious. Was it his record company’s attempt to clean up the lyrics? Why then leave in the line “late in the hot joint, taking the pills”? Perhaps it was just a way for Cash to distinguish his cover from Thompson’s and those before. Or maybe he knew an older version of “Bad Lee Brown” that used this term (though I haven’t found such as yet.) I’m not particularly interested in digging in to it, as the variation doesn’t change much about the overall song. Still, you’ll agree I’m sure that Cash’s 1968 lyrics are more raw, and the energy of that live performance was bound to overshadow any studio attempt before or after.
George Thorogood and the Destroyers cut a rough driving version in 1978 (Spotify, YouTube) that is clearly an homage to Cash. I include it as an interesting crossover rock/country fusion that would sound much more typical today on a country music radio station than it would have when it came out.
Finally, for his album Rough, Rowdy, and Blue in 1981, Merle Travis cut an outstanding version that reaches back beyond Cash to the Arnall/Hogsed lyrics. He makes magic simply by accompanying himself on a 12-string guitar. Curiously, we have a Spotify version from the album Oh Brother Can You Spare a Dime that suggests the song is from the Great Depression, but this seems to be a mistake unless you stretch to equate “Cocaine Blues” with “Bad Lee Brown”, which was certainly making its rounds during the Depression. Still, it feels a little sloppy to me.
On the other hand, there is not one damn thing sloppy about the way Mr. Travis handles this piece, or his strings and frets. His Muhlenberg County thumb-picking is perfection as I hear it.
Of course, despite Travis’s exception, Cash’s 1968 performance for his classic Folsom album was the model for most of what came after. One can find performances by many country musicians, whether up and coming or established. Hank Williams III and Merle Haggard, for example, each gave it a good shot. But I’m going to leave it be with Travis in 1981 and let you look further on your own if you want. It’s time to get to the lyrics.
Down in the ‘hop joint’ – or was that ‘hot joint’?
Here are the lyrics for Hogsed’s popular 1948 version, which are quite close to Arnall’s earliest version as well as Thompson’s and Travis’s later ones. Here are Cash’s 1968 version of the lyrics from Folsom for comparison. Leaving aside minor differences, such as the substitution of Folsom for San Quentin which Cash made for obvious reasons, comparing the older and newer versions of “Cocaine Blues” leads to a couple of interesting points.
Cash sings “late in the hot joints taking the pills” at the beginning of verse 3, but Hogsed clearly sings “layin’ in the hop joint, a-smoking a pill.” And Cash’s pejorative “hack” is often “hop” in the other variants as well. While anyone who knows Cash’s basic history understands that he meant real pills, such as amphetamines to which he was addicted for a time, the older reference to “hops” is loaded with a slightly different meaning. A ‘hop joint’ was an opium den, a ‘pill’ was a small ball of opium smoked while laying down, and a ‘hop’ was an addict. Hops also at times referred to cocaine.
This raises the question of whether “Cocaine Blues” was actually a complete rewrite of “Bad Lee Brown” by Arnall, or if he simply reworked some older variants of the ballad for his new recording. I’ll come back to this below, but on the point of opium and cocaine there is circumstantial evidence at least that this strain of the ballad includes elements older than Arnall’s 1947 copyright.
Folk music lovers know that references to cocaine and opium are not uncommon in late 19th and early 20th century African-American folk-song collections and recordings. Mississippi John Hurt claimed that he learned his version of “Hop Joint” when he was nine (some time in 1901 or 1902.) And Dorothy Scarborough includes a variant of that song called “I Went to the Hop Joint” on page 90 of her 1925 work On the Trail of the Negro Folksongs. Interestingly, one fragment of an alternate variant she includes addresses the concept of murdering a woman while high on drugs. Her source reported that the rest “is hardly fit for publication.” A shame!
I went down to the hop joint
I couldn’t control my mind
I pulled out my forty-five
and shot that gal of mine…
That brings us to the other major change Cash adds in 1968. He substitutes “bad bitch” for “woman” in the last full verse. Here I think it’s reasonable to posit that Cash was ratcheting up the energy of the lyrics for his prison audience. I know it struck me hard when I first heard it. I’m sure that part of the recording hit you too.
But, even if he did make that change for such a reason, that doesn’t mean Cash was doing anything new with the song. It’s deep misogyny is obvious. In fact, Cash including that phrase makes the song feel more authentic! The message of the song is not that his woman didn’t deserve what she got. It’s that liquor and drugs made the singer do something about it that he came to regret. By changing that last line, Cash sharpens this angle of the song and gives clarity. One is reminded of the last verse of the 1933 version of “Bad Lee Brown” that we saw last week, found in Lomax’s American Ballads and Folksongs. It was sung by an unidentified African-American convict at Parchman Farm.
Here I is, bowed down in shame
I got a number instead of a name
Here for de res’ of my nachul life,
an’ all I ever done is kill my wife.
This last line is meant wryly, of course. And it’s not limited to “Bad Lee Brown” or the ’30s. Check out Mose Allison’s 1957 “Parchman Farm” for example.
But I think in the context of “Bad Lee Brown” as a chain gang song, it has a hidden meaning that translates somewhat to Cash’s version with his vulgarity. You’ll recall from last week that, as a prison blues, “Bad Lee Brown” isn’t really about the killer Lee Brown or his victim, it’s about the singer himself who, more than likely, was incarcerated for no other reason than to provide free labor to local farms and industries in the south. That certainly wasn’t the case for prisoners at Folsom in 1968, but neither should we assume that all were consistently handled justly. It seems that line -“I can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down”- was more than just a rowdy crowd-pleaser. It could speak all at once to a complicated set of emotions, to anger and regret, to indignation and shame, to the deepest loneliness that those men felt.
In other words, by changing that last line in the ‘popular’ version Cash returned the song to one of its earlier uses as a prison survival tool.
“They put me on a train and they took me back…”
We can follow up on the points above by further comparing the “Cocaine Blues” variant with “Bad Lee Brown.” The temporal relationship is obvious; “Cocaine Blues” is newer. However, the lyric correlation is almost as clear – let me briefly make the case.
Several elements in “Cocaine Blues” are clearly present in older versions of “Bad Lee Brown.” In both, the killer is “making rounds.” He sticks his gun under his pillow after his crime. He runs too slow and is overtaken in some place that rhymes with ‘slow’, Mexico being the location in that 1933 version as well. There is the commonality of the train ride back, and the black clothes. I could go on and, in fact, identify at least one specific line or concept from every verse in “Cocaine Blues” that shows up in older versions. Most particularly, the lines that refer to the judge, sheriff, and jury retain the prison blues ‘double entendre’ formulation, and this works to Cash’s advantage in his prison concerts. If you don’t believe me, check it yourself!
It’s clear then that, however much Red Arnall reworked “Little Sadie / Bad Lee Brown” in 1947, he wasn’t reinventing the song. Whether or not “Cocaine Blues” is lifted wholly from a variant of which we’re currently not aware is obviously unanswerable. Personally, I think that’s a stretch. Why? Well, if their direct relationship is established in multiple similarities, then comes the next obvious question. How do “Cocaine Blues” and “Little Sadie / Bad Lee Brown” contrast? Here is where we see the two pieces of circumstantial evidence suggesting Arnall’s (or someone’s) modern hand in the work.
“Cocaine Blues” is the only major branch of this song’s variants that bothers with motive. In almost no example of “Little Sadie” or “Bad Lee Brown” have I found even a hint of a reason for the murder. This strikes me as a major revision then. There was no need for motive in the traditional formulation of the ballad as “Bad Lee Brown”, and indeed contemporary bluegrass versions of “Little Sadie” are identical in this. It just doesn’t matter. But in “Cocaine Blues”, the combination of infidelity, whisky, and cocaine leads to murder.
Further, “Cocaine Blues” ends with a moralizing message, a warning against alcohol and drugs. I’ll grant you, it’s not the most severe or judgmental formulation I’ve ever heard! Nevertheless, the last couplet makes “Cocaine Blues” a classic cautionary ballad, which is clearly not an element that is overt in its older relatives. Just remember how Lomax’s 1933 example ends! The only thing close is found in a few Appalachian versions of “Little Sadie” sung by women, as you’ll see in the next post. But that warning is about killing women, not about taking drugs that make you kill women.
Taken together then, the motive for murder and the warning at the end of the song strike me as a way to make the song more accessible to the variety of listeners one might find in a mid-20th century country music radio audience. The song is still ‘dirty’ enough to be quite entertaining, but it has a more developed narrative and clear moral structure regarding drug use imposed upon it. Given that we see neither of these elements in all of the other branches of “Bad Lee Brown”, my amateur’s guess would be that Arnall (or a colleague) made that imposition for both artistic and commercial reasons around 1947. Without other evidence of an earlier piece with these two elements, this seems to me to be the most reasonable educated guess we could make.
So, “Cocaine Blues” may not be the result of the work of an integrator, but confabulation and rationalization was certainly part of its creation and development. And so we have the making of a country music classic!
We have yet to look at the other Anglo-American branch of this ballad, “Little Sadie” in old time, folk, and bluegrass. They fit well together, so they’re up in the next post. As well, I want to come back again to the question of the ballad’s misogyny. Interestingly, as we found with “Cold Rain and Snow“, some women today really sing the hell out of “Little Sadie.” That’s all worth some virtual ink…
Until then, check out my Spotify playlist for this ballad if you want more. And thanks for reading and listening folks!