Korea Blues- J.B. Lenoir

Lenoir was unafraid to bring to light the frustrations of Americans in his time, be they black or white.

J.B Lenoir was one of the protagonists of the Chicago blues scene of the 50s and 60s. His zebra patterned suit, and high-pitched voice could be recognised for miles.

Born in Tilton, Mississippi, Lenoir started playing when he was “awful young” as he said in an interview with filmmaker Steve Seaberg in 1965. His father was a music lover, and a guitar player, who introduced him to the great Blind Lemon Jefferson, one of the most famous bluesmen of all times, famous for his unique style and his high pitched voice. Born blind, Jefferson started what is now known as Texas blues. In Lenoir’s music, the influence of Jefferson’s 1920s style is palpable.

The blues is often associated with a negative feeling, but the depth of the music and its history go much further than simply “getting the blues”. It is a fundamental part of African-American history, as it was a musical style born from the plantations, thus started by slaves and relatives of slaves. The music was a form of protest, a reaction to their situation and an escape from their problems. Blues was sung as they toiled cotton fields, and in it, there is the heat, the sweat and the pain these people had to endure. It is a music that carries suffering, but also a music that represents the continuation and evolving of a culture and history. In fact, blues style originated and “evolved from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music” said Ed Kopp in his article A brief history of the blues.

In his documentary series “The Blues” Martin Scorsese explores the origin of the music genre and follows musician Corey Harris to Mali. Under a tree, Harris and Malian musician Ali Farka Tourè are able to show the clear link between Malian style and blues in what is a unique scene.

Lenoir was himself very interested in African percussions and their influence on the blues, so much that in 1963 he recorded as J.B- Lenoir and his African Hunch Rythm. His song ‘I Sing Um the way I feel’ is a classic Chicago blues song mixed with classic African percussion sounds.

Many of Lenoir’s songs carried a strong political and social message. His classic Alabama Blues, describes the rough and violent life for black Americans in the 60s in Alabama: “they killed my sister and my brother” he sings. In protest, he says he does not want to go back to such a place, epitomising the frustration of many black Americans at the time. He also often alluded to his anti-war sentiment, of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. A controversial song called Eisenhower blues was actually changed to “Tax paying blues”, Lenoir was forced by his record label Parrot to change the title because of the implications it could have.

Despite the potential repercussions for a black man in America during those times, Lenoir was not afraid, and almost all his songs carried a strong political message. Korea Blues was recorded and released by the infamous Chicago-based record label Chess Records in 1951, as many American soldiers were dying in Korea.

The Korean war saw a classic ‘Cold War’ dynamic where the United States intervened in South Korea after an invasion of the country a few days earlier from the North Korean communist regime, who was supported by Stalin. First referred to as a police action by the then president H.S. Truman, it was in fact, a military one. It is estimated that there were 33,686 U.S. deaths during the war.

The war is often referred to as the “Forgotten” or “Unknown” war, for the lack of public attention that it received, especially in relation to the wars that preceded (World War II) and succeeded it (Vietnam War). Lenoir was one of the few musicians to acknowledge the war in one of his songs. Korean Blues is actually the first song about the Korean war where Chinese are mentioned. When China intervened in the war in 1950, the U.S was not expecting this. It was the first and last time that China and U.S. went to war. In 2014, professor Robert Farley wrote “The legacies of this war remain deep, complex and underexamined. Memory of the Korean War in the United States is obscured by the looming shadows of World War II and Vietnam. China remembers the conflict differently, but China’s position in the world has changed in deep and fundamental ways since the 1950s.”

The Korean war materialised the frustration, tensions, and political interests that existed between East and West during the Cold War. Korea was simply a stage, as other countries were after that.

Written from the perspective of a U.S. citizen who has just received a letter from the government to go and fight the war, Korean Blues carries the burden of many young men at the time. Leaving his woman behind, and killed in battle, the soldier’s main worry is who his lover will replace him with, and how she will deal with life without him.

It is a romantic song that offers the human perspective of war, and the impact it has on the individual. In his book The Truman and Eisenhower Blues: African-American Blues and Gospel Songs, Guido Van Rijn talked about the message in the song: ” J.B. Lenoir recorded a fatalistic song, in which death in action is combined with the spectre of the Jody back home”.

Lord I got my questionnaire, Uncle Sam’s gonna send me away from here
Lord I got my questionnaire, Uncle Sam’s gonna send me away from here
He said J. B. you know that I need you, Lord I need you in South Korea

Sweetheart please don’t you worry, I just begin to fly in the air
Sweetheart please don’t you worry, I just begin to fly in the air
Now the Chinese shoot me down, Lord I’ll be in Korea somewhere

I just sittin’ here wonderin’, who you gonna let lay down in my bed
I just sittin’ here wonderin’, who you gonna let lay down in my bed
What hurt me so bad, think about some man has gone in your bed.

Sounds from the Bucket
Virginia Vigliar

Virginia is a freelance journalist and editor based in Barcelona, consults for Oxfam in Spain and the Netherlands, and she is the Chief Editor of WIB. She is a passionate advocate of human rights and freedom of speech. And a meme enthusiast. She has worked in the development sector in Malawi and Kenya and Somalia before returning to Europe, where she gained experience in the United Kingdom, Norway, and Spain. To see her work, look at her website here: http://virginiavigliar.com/
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