J. B. Lenoir (1929-1967) cut a distinctive figure on the 1950s Chicago blues scene. Although he began his career in Chicago playing downhome blues alongside early postwar stalwarts like Leroy Foster, Sunnyland Slim, and Memphis Minnie, by the mid-1950s his sound was more akin to the refined urban blues of B. B. King and Little Junior Parker. His voice was noticeably high, but could be surprisingly delicate, a juxtaposition that was echoed in his visually arresting but effortlessly smart collection of zebra print jackets.
Some of the most notable Lenoir recordings are his topical blues, commenting on the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights Movement. In this way he is quite unlike other blues stars of the 1950s, who largely avoided overt references to current events in song, but his many performances for white revivalist audiences – particularly as part of the American Folk Blues Festival European package tours – have often emphasised this side of his repertoire.
Of course, Lenoir didn’t have to be topical to approach themes of hardship in song. One of his best-known numbers is ‘I Been Down So Long’, first recorded on 19 December 1956 for the Checker label. Here Lenoir plays electric guitar and is backed by a full band, including Joe Montgomery on piano and Willie Dixon on bass, and the backing horns duo of Alex Atkins and Ernest Cotton.
In 1960, Paul Oliver recorded Lenoir singing the same song, accompanied only by his guitar. While Oliver interviewed the blues and gospel vocalist Brother John Sellers, Lenoir ‘played quitely in the background’ before offering a song to Oliver’s tape recorder. Sellers’s interview provides a telling context for Lenoir’s theme, describing the psychological weight of living in a segregated society:
Take most blues singers – they have lived rough lives, or they have been rough in their lives before they changed, because hard struggles and hard times – it makes people hard and mean towards each other regardless of who they are. If you have poverty you must have hard times and roughness – because if you come up a rough way it makes you tough and ready to battle at anything. Maybe people been talking about you and you get an achin’. Maybe you with a gang of people and some person, especially some white person say, ‘Move back!’ Well you automatically think they’re talkin’ to you. Move back? Move back for what? What have I got to move back for? Poverty makes you rough; it makes you like that – and that’s part of the blues.
Without his full band, Lenoir’s performance is more intimate and more emotional than the Checker version. Oliver’s close-quarters recording allows us to hear the whole range of Lenoir’s voice, as well as the crafted interplay between his words and the guitar accompaniment. It invites us to wonder about Lenoir’s own experiences of ‘hard times and roughness’, so often out of earshot in his more exuberant performances.
Further Reading & Listening
Paul Oliver, Conversation With The Blues, 2nd edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
Paul Oliver, Conversation With The Blues: A Documentary of Field Recordings, Decca LK 4664 (1965)