Democrat Man

Tom Maxwell
5 min readNov 21, 2020

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…

Tom Maxwell

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.