This is a piece I wrote on Patreon some weeks ago that I’m sharing now. I hope you’ll consider becoming a patron.
Patron Scott Thill wrote me the other day. “Found a song you should write about,” he said. “A bit too perfect for our times.” You better believe I’m gonna write about it.
The song is “Democrat Man” from John Lee Hooker’s 1960 album That’s My Story. Have a listen.
It’s never a bad time to hear John Lee Hooker, for reasons eloquently expressed by The New York Times’ reviewer Robert Shelton in 1961: “Mr. Hooker’s voice is immediately arresting, a deep, dark-leather-timbred instrument that turns sullen, nostalgic, brooding or sensuous. He has a rhythmic sense that sets a firm, heart-beat pulse against which he embellishes a smoldering vocal line. He projects his voice in an urgent and intimate fashion that almost makes the listener feel Mr. Hooker’s hand is on his shoulder and the song is for him alone.”
The story of “Democrat Man” (and the album it appears on) is damned interesting. It includes a mid-century tussle over musical authenticity, the evolution of the blues form, and the emerging white woman voter demographic. Let’s get into this.
The twelve tracks that comprise That’s My Story were recorded in New York City’s Reeves Sound Studios in one day: February 9, 1960. Although Hooker was under contract with Vee-Jay Records at the time, he was still on a year-long sabbatical. That’s My Story was issued on Riverside Records. The recording was supervised by Riverside owner Orrin Keepnews, who also wrote the liner notes. (As I wrote for Longreads, Keepnews was usually kept busy wrangling and recording wayward jazz musicians.)
The two men had worked together before. “John Lee Hooker is the most down-home of the major post-war blues figures,” Keepnews wrote in the liner notes of 1959s The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker, “a most authentic singer of the way-back, close-to-the-soil kind of blues.” Hooker’s Riverside records are all acoustic, and this was no accident. “The last thing Keepnews wanted to do was emulate Hooker’s electric-oriented, very amplified Vee-Jay output,” Jazz Messengers writes, “which fared well among rock and R&B audiences. Keepnews had an acoustic country blues vision for the bluesman, and That’s My Story favors a raw, stripped-down, bare-bones approach — no electric guitar, no distortion, no singles aimed at rock & rollers.”
By this time in American culture, early acoustic blues recordings had been rediscovered and rolled into the folk music craze. Anybody playing electric — be it Bob Dylan or John Lee Hooker — was considered an inauthentic sell-out. (Folk hero Pete Seeger, and much of the crowd, famously melted down over Dylan’s electric Newport set in July, 1965.) Still, Keepnews had a bit of an ace up his sleeve: many of the songs featured on That’s My Story utilize jazz saxophonist Nat “Cannonball” Adderly’s rhythm section of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes. As his biographer Charles Shaar Murray writes, “Hooker had absolutely no problem adjusting his music to the light, syncopated ‘swing’ of a jazz rhythm section, though the reverse isn’t strictly true: you can virtually hear the sweat dripping from bassist Jones’ brow as he continually shifts his chords to stay in sync with Hooker.”
I don’t know about that. Nobody seems to break much of a sweat — although it seems at first Jones doesn’t understand that “No More Doggin’” is modal, because he tries to play the traditional I-IV-V blues changes — and it sounds more to me on songs like “I Need Some Money” that Hooker showed those cats how to shuffle more than they showed him how to swing.
Let’s get to the song Scott recommended I write about. “Democrat puts us on our feet,” Hooker sings, “these crazy women, they vote him out.” It seems likely that Hooker is referring to the 1956 presidential election. “In all, the Eisenhower and Stevenson campaigns spent millions of dollars creating and airing nine commercials each,” reads an MIT paper on the subject. “The 1956 election was not significant just for this increased investment in campaigning through television ads. These commercials also showed a shift in how women were portrayed in advertisements and viewed as voters.” And indeed, a (slightly higher) percentage of (white) women voted for Eisenhower, the Republican candidate.
“The women of our country swept Dwight D. Eisenhower into office four years ago,” a female narrator tells us in a 1956 election ad. “They will probably decide the election this time.”
Even though Ike’s top marginal tax rate climbed as high as 91%, Hooker was emphatically supporting a Democrat — who in this case was none other than John F. Kennedy, who won the presidency against Richard Nixon in 1960. “I ain’t got no shoes, no shoes, no shoes don’t fit,” Hooker sings, “but I ain’t goin’ to that welfare store.”
You know why?
It won’t be long ‘fore election time
Democrats be in
“‘Democrat Man’ is the albums’ ringer in more ways than one,” Murray writes in Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker. “For a start, it’s the kind of out-front partisan political song which was common in the predominately left-wing white folk world but…such songs were highly unusual in the cagey, more cynical lyrical world of the blues.”
Hooker was more plain about the dangers of a Black man being overtly political. “You get in places, ooh whee, in the way backwoods, where they ain’t never come out,” he once said, “and you start that stuff, you act like you want to be like that, you liable to get torn up.”
“You know,” he added, laughing without smiling, “hillbillies and rednecks.”
I’m feeling very much the same way about the 2016 election that John Lee Hooker felt in 1956: 62% of white women without college degrees voted for Trump four years ago, although generally speaking white women turned out in higher numbers for Clinton, according to Pew Research.
One direct result of the 1960 election (although posthumous to JFK) was the Civil Rights Act. The 2020 election, I believe, is for the soul of the republic, and hopefully will be the first renewed steps down the road to true economic and racial equality.
I loved researching and writing this piece, and I am especially thrilled that it was suggested to me by a patron. I encourage each and every one of you to chime in with your own essay requests, because that should be the nature of our relationship. I hope y’all are safe, happy, and thriving. Until next time, happy listening.