the rasx context

Mance Lipscomb: Captain Blues

EDITOR’S NOTE: To listen to samples of the music of Mance Lipscomb see and click on the “Listen” button.

Buy this CD at! I attended UCSB in Ronald Reagan’s Santa Barbara of the 1980’s. I hated it. But I am half-jokingly certain that if I went to a university with more Black people in it (specifically more Black women) I am sure I would have never graduated. Cut off from the possibilities of unmitigated debauchery and Black-masculine self-destruction, I took refuge in music. A lot of the music on campus came from the freshman artists’ dormitory. Even though I was majoring in the sciences, I found myself hanging out there. One of the residents there was a guitarist that wore dresses (kilt-like garments)—long before Mel Gibson got into it—and he was also into something called Industrial Death Rock. And like any good white death rocker he knew his Blues music as well as Bauhaus. So after some conversations about David Bowie I borrowed one of his tapes and I took it for a bus ride (to where I worked in a miserable shopping mall).

Picture this: I with Sony Walkman and in deep city bus meditation on an old blues song, deep in the heart of an asphalt crowd of tires leading Downtown. It is an old blues song, deep down before blues singers knew the whites wanted to hear what they had to say—rather, play what they had to play in a profitable white way. It is an old folk blues “down home” in the plantation dust. I can envision the deep callused tobacco hands, black as purple and white as yellow, picking on the old guitar in a lonely by-gone plantation shack. The old blues man drinks beer from a bucket and stares into the sound of chirping crickets and heavy humidity creaking down on his old wooden shack. His grand-kin running barefoot for the summer but will get shoes at the first sign of winter. He sings through his alcohol-filled mucous membranes, a harsh clipped voice aged with the Big Black Sadness handed down from generation to generation through millions of cotton-pickin’ minutes.

I suppose that the song compares sharecropping life with being in the penitentiary (‘penitention’ is the way he pronounces it: fewer syllables makes speech more efficient). The song is a narrative song with a character called “Captain.” I’m guessing that he might be an old Northern officer of the Union Army, trying his hand at continuing Southern slavery, carpet bagger style, by renting land he acquired—via governmental corruption—to former slaves. The narrator of the song mentions a two-year-and-six-months period of time he has to endure with Captain. Now this could be some kind of contract between them.

On the other hand, as I listen to the song, I think that this is perhaps a song about a man convicted for some petty crime and is conscripted to a labor gang for a period of two years and six months. Either way, he is still a slave:

As’ my captain
What time o’ day
As’ my Captain
What time o’ day
He just look at his watchman
An’ he walk away

Wouldn’t mind working
Captain, from sun to sun

Wouldn’t mind working
Captain, from sun to sun
Long as you pay me my money, Captain
When payday come.

Tol’ my Captain
That ol’ Maude was dead
Tol’ my Captain
Ol’ Maude da Mool was dead
“Nigger, don’t mind that ol’ mule. Whoop the harness on Ned.”

Went all ‘round
That ol’ whole corral
All ‘round
That ol’ whole corral
Lord, couldn’t find a mool
Wit’ his shoulders well

Two years ain’t long
Six months ain’t no great long time
Two years ain’t long
Six months ain’t no great long time
Got a friend in penitention doing nin’y-nine

Oughta been down on the river
In the year nineteen and ten
Oughta been down on the river
Year: nineteen and ten
Women wo’ the ball and chain
Jus’ like the men

As romantic as it might sound to hippie ears, I cannot report that this death-rocking-but-kind white guy introduced me to the Blues. Although it is quite commonplace for my contemporary Black folk to ignore, discard and disregard the artistic achievements of Africa/African-America past while the educated classes of Europeans and Asians indulge with generous abandon. I, however, was very fortunate. I was born into a Blues family. I am sure there are more, but the two biggest Blues people in my family are my uncles, through my mother, Roy and Grady Gaines. Both Roy and Grady have made several albums—some of which (I want you to discover) are already available on the Internet.

What this generous college kid did do was introduce me to Mance Lipscomb (1895–1976). Like my Uncles, Mance was a Texas Bluesman—but according to Mance, he was more of a “songster.” Because of where he was born and how he lived, he was considered a village musician. The liner notes of Captain, Captain! explain that Mance sang more than what could be considered the Blues, “[He] performed a wide ranging repertoire including blues as well as locally popular dance tunes, ballads, spirituals, pop songs, children’s ditties, work songs, and he was a marvelous storyteller as well.”

There are several stories in Captain Blues. Historically speaking, I am obligated to say that the main character in this piece represents the post-slavery, post-Reconstruction African American suffering under the “loop-hole” of the Emancipation Proclamation. This loop-hole rests firmly upon turning as many Black males into criminals as much as possible. To show us all that I was actually educated at university I will now quote from the Constitution of the United States:

1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

If I have yet to win you over with my subtle humility in my previous demonstration, then please allow me to quote W.E.B. DuBois:

This plantation owned now by a foreigner, was a part of the famous Bolton estate. After the war it was for many years worked by gangs of Negro convicts, —and black convicts then were even more plentiful than now; it was a way of making Negroes work, and the question of guilt was a minor one… the black folks say that only colored boys are sent to jail, and not because they are guilty, but because the State needs to eke out its income by their forced labor.

—W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk

Still reading? Good. I am hoping that this little exercise will help me explain that when the character in Mance’s Captain Blues says that he, wouldn’t mind working from sun to sun, he is trying to tell me that he is no thief. With such a strong work ethic, possibly he’s no criminal at all. Although some of our contemporary, music-related entertainment inherits from a world of self-confessed, hard-core career criminals, Mance’s musical characterizations are a bit more subtle, earthy and good.

Mance Lipscomb did not create the Captain Blues wholly from his imagination. He actually learned the lyrics from an a cappella song brought to his ears as a boy from a real convict working beside him in the cotton fields. Mance came up with the music himself. I was shocked to find this out because, since those college years in Santa Barbara, I have found myself in the shower singing this song to myself. It sounded so good to me without any music! I was pleased to find that was how Mance found it. The liner notes of Captain, Captain! shows how Mance came by this song:

Convicts would work their time out and get in different areas, so one came to us at the time he got out and was chopping cotton with us. That was his favorite song, and I was a boy at the time I heard that, and I said, Now how can that be played? He just sing it flat from his mouth; he didn’t have no guitar. And that just ring in my ear, just like I say I hear things and remember, memorize them until I work them up.

Now, I am no Mance Lipscomb, but I found myself with the same problems when it comes to being struck hard by music. It is almost like an obsession sometimes with some tunes. And the Captain Blues hit me hard and stayed with me—even after I had to give that cassette tape back to that kilt-wearing college kid. As of this writing, I am working on my computer, trying to “work up” my version of this song. Perhaps I will actually get a cut to the point when I can make it available to the Internet. It’s not quite like the music my uncles already have on the Internet but I got to do what I got to do!

Mance and Mike EDITOR’S NOTE: Special thanks to Michael Birnbaum for correcting my transcription of the lyrics to Captain Blues (see photo at left). He actually met and played with Mance Lipscomb and lives to tell about it! For more information about Mance Lipscomb click here.