Bourgeois Blues

In 1936, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter penned the song “Bourgeois Blues.” The song protested the cruelties of Washington, D.C.–“that bourgeois town”–and, in particular, its Jim Crow housing policies. Since the 1930s, historians have debated whether Lead Belly was prompted to include the epithet “bourgeois” in his song by pushy white leftists; implying that, as a primitive genius discovered by John Lomax in a Texas prison, Lead Belly wouldn’t know a fancy French word like “bourgeois” (such allegations block out, of course, the fact that Lead Belly spent a great deal of time in Louisiana and the Beaumont-Port Arthur area of Texas, spaces where French dialect and Creole were freely spoken as demotic languages).

Since its first performance, “Bourgeois Blues” has occupied a strange place in the US folk music canon. It is one of a handful of blues songs that plainly speaks the language of left-wing discourse; it is a rare protest against inequality and discrimination that does not tie critique to the blues’s deeper concerns: men and women, life and death. Is it one of those anticipatory miracles, a marvel that anticipates an aesthetic context yet to come? Or is it a failed experiment, a short circuit that attempts to shorten too radically the distance between political sentiment and creative expression?*

The conditions surrounding the song’s creation are quite fascinating. In the early 1930s, John Lomax and his son Alan plied their trade as folksong collectors, field recordists, and impresarios, often without a clear idea of how they would support themselves. The arrival of the New Deal cultural apparatus created an ideal institutional location for Alan Lomax at the music division of the Library of Congress. Unlike his father John, an old-fashioned Texas bigot with a passing resemblance to Sorrell Booke’s Boss Hog, Alan Lomax was in tune with the Popular Front’s embrace of folk culture and commitments to interracial solidarity; his circle included lefties like Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger. At the same time, Alan Lomax was a creature of his time and a product of the Jim Crow South: his engagement with leftish musical projects was often awkward, Eurocentric, ham-fisted.  But in his capacity as Library of Congress musical curator, Alan Lomax had the power to select who should be invited to D.C. to record for the official archives of the state, and he chose Lead Belly. Lead Belly and his wife drove down to the nation’s capital, intending to stay with the Lomaxes. According to John Szwed, “when the landlord got word that they had Negroes as guests he threatened to call the police and, under Washington’s segregationist housing laws, have them all put out of the building.” The next day, the group, which also included a few sympathetic white poets, drove around Washington, trying to find a black hotel or rooming house that would take the Ledbetters in, and a place to eat together. When they arrived as a mixed group, they were turned away [1]. This experience, legend has it, spurred Lead Belly to write “Bourgeois Blues”:

Tell all the colored folks to listen to me,

Don’t try to buy no home in Washington, D.C.


(Lord) It’s a bourgeois town, it’s a bourgeois town

Got the bourgeois blues, gonna spread the news all around.

Me an’ my wife run all over town,

Everywhere we go, the people turn us down

Following in his father’s footsteps as an inveterate violator of his subjects’ authorial integrity and post facto “co-author,” Alan Lomax later added new words to “Bourgeois Blues,” singing the song (as opposed to playing recordings on a phonograph), as was the custom of folklorists in those days, in presentations and concerts. Alan Lomax’s “collaboration” with Lead Belly, of course, exacerbated the popular suspicion that the song was not a native product of Lead Belly’s genius, but a “plant,” a bit of propaganda injected, Manchurian Candidate-style, in Lead Belly’s brain.

Such thinking has a long pedigree in the antiradical tradition. To move in reverse-chronological order: Harold Cruse (whose work is far too complex to be reduced to “antiradicalism,” but who nevertheless contributed to the delegitimization of 1930s culture with his 1967 work The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual) aimed his considerable rhetorical gifts at demolishing the legacy of CP-connected African American writing, painting it as the plaything of white cultural brokers like Mike Gold. Lust for the “white leftist manipulator/African-American dupe” narrative drew right-wingers to Richard Wright’s chapter in the 1949 ex-communist anthology The God That Failed. Or, to cite an earlier example, consider this passage from a 1923 editorial in Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, excerpted in William Maxwell’s excellent chapter on Mike Gold, Claude McKay, and interracial politics in his wonderful book New Negro, Old Left: “Let the man of color distrust those false friends who mingle with him to get his money, who seek an alliance with him on the alleged common ground of ‘opportunism,’ and who expose their whole hand when they urge him to that kind of Bolshevism found only in Moscow and on the East Side of New York” [2].

To my ears, the extant recordings of “Bourgeois Blues” do not suggest the exaggerated influence of white interlocutors. There’s nothing unusual about the song’s function as a kind of living newspaper. African American blues songs are replete with topical invocations of current events. Lead Belly had been using his music as a tribune for years, warning his listeners in “The Midnight Special,” for example, about the unusual cruelty of Texas prison warden Bud Russell. When Chuck D declared hip-hop “Black CNN,” he was not announcing a new social function of African American music, but was instead connecting the new form to an old tradition.

It seems, then, that was remains strange about “Bourgeois Blues” is the song’s invocation of the term “bourgeois.” To my mind, Lead Belly’s gloss on “bourgeois” is exactly correct: “bourgeois” names that cruel indifference to suffering and the renunciation of ethical obligations to the other, under the cover of law, contract, and culture. But in the traditions of the Left, “bourgeois” has meant so many other things: sometimes denoting a class location, sometimes describing a particular cultural formation that arose in post-Renaissance Europe, sometimes attempting to capture a spirit or ethos closely connected to capitalism, sometimes conjuring the limit of the liberal state’s formal freedoms and aesthetic resources, beyond which proletarian/socialist tendencies need to push if humanity is to survive.

If “bourgeois” is the turducken of left discourse, the overloaded and internally contradictory social fact the existence of which we mostly try to ignore, perhaps it is not so surprising that the term is no longer in circulation. There are other reasons, of course: the decline of “bourgeois” as a keyword tracks the broad tendency, among intellectual and activists (even trade unionists) to describe the working class as the “middle class,” paralleled by the embrace of the term “liberal” by many leftists who previously would have been loath to touch the “l-word” with a 10 foot pole.

It may also be the case that the casual use of “bourgeois” among the 1930s Left, as exemplified by Lead Belly’s deployment of the term in “Bourgeois Blues,” faded out in the 1940s and 1950s with the Red Scare and the attenuation of the Popular Front coalition. It seems plausible to me that one of the reasons that “bourgeois” is no longer on our lips is that the term became associated with a cartoon image of a beatnik or hippie dismissing mainstream culture of middlebrow art as “bourgeois,” a remnant of the cults of Camus and Sartre of the 1950s and the adoption of a faux-French posture by the especially pretentious in the post-war years.

If that was the case, though, how would we explain passages like this, from Martin Sklar’s foundational 1960 essay on “corporate liberalism” in the key proto-New Left journal, Studies on the Left:

Unfortunately, the bourgeois-liberal mind seems unable to understand how any transaction that involved the exchange of equivalent for equivalent can carry with it any quality of injustice or exploitation. In the economic realm, morality and justice are defined as exchange at value, so long as it is devoid of any element of extrapecuniary coercion; in more sophisticated ideological terms, morality and justice correspond with natural law. But it is precisely in the relationship defined by natural law, precisely in the exchange of equivalent for equivalent… that the exploitation, the injustice, the immorality from the point of view of the agrarian peoples resides [3].

Sklar’s polemical use of “bourgeois-liberal”–in more or less the same manner as earlier leftists like Rosa Luxemburg–was not always shared by others in the early New Left. “Bourgeois,” for example, is never spoken in the Port Huron Statement, although “middle class” makes a few appearances. This is not surprising: the Students for a Democratic Society were trying to cast off the ossified language of the New York left establishment, the “Old Left,” for whom “bourgeois” was a lexical staple.

As the New Left became both more radical and more Marxist, “bourgeois” came to be heard with increasing frequency. Interestingly, Sklar came to lament the conception of the “bourgeoisie,” and of capitalism, that had become current on the Left by the late 1960s. In “On the Proletarian Revolution and the End of Political-Economic Society,” published in the SDS-affiliated journal Radical America in 1969, Sklar continued to use the term “bourgeois,” but began to express worry about the US Left’s abandonment of a dialectical understanding of the historical role of the “bourgeoisie.” Resonating with Neil Davidson’s observations about the decline of the idea of “bourgeois revolution” as symptomatic of a wider anti-modernist and anti-developmental tendency of the contemporary Left, Sklar wrote of his political fellow travelers: “Variously, we complain of, or detachedly comment upon, the anomie and malaise of modern society and modern life, yearn abstractly for Community, identify purposefuleness with totalitarianism, or celebrate the obsolescence of ideology, in the spirit of feeling relieved of the burden of a self-purpose” [4].

“Bourgeois liberty,” Sklar acknowledged, “constituted an all too historically constricted, and hence altogether inadequate, form of the self-mastering person; while at the same time, the societal conception corresponding with revolutionary bourgeois liberty comprehended less and less of concrete historical reality the more bourgeois society developed along the lines of capitalist industrialization” [5]. Nevertheless, the task of socialism was not to erase every trace of “bourgeois” development and infrastructure. The late 1960s left, despite its groups’ frequent tendency to self-designate as “Marxist-Leninist,” had developed an attitude at odds with the Marxist and Leninist take on the relationship between socialism and the “bourgeois” legacy:

It is the work of the bourgeoisie to develop trusts, to drive children and women into factories, to torture them there, corrupt them and condemn them to the utmost misery. We do not ‘demand’ such a development; we do not ‘support’ it; we struggle against it. But how do we struggle? We know that trusts and factory work of women are progressive (emphasis added). We do not wish to go backwards to crafts, to pre-monopolist capitalism, to domestic work of women. Forward through the trusts, etc. and beyond them toward socialism! [6]

In the ensuing years, “bourgeois”–at least “bourgeois” as Sklar and Lenin and Lead Belly used it–went out of fashion. The exact chronology remains a subject for historical research, but it’s worth noting some landmarks. Barbara Ehrenreich, a proud socialist, chose to avoid the term “bourgeois” in her 1989 meditation on the US middle class, Fear of Falling,   describing it as too redolent of an outmoded class discourse. Donald M. Lowe’s 1982 work History of Bourgeois Perception characterized the “bourgeoisie” as a class that had passed into obsolescence. As early as 1962, Jurgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (the translation of which was one of the most important texts to keep a putatively Western Marxist, although in reality Weberian, consideration of the “bourgeoisie” on the academic agenda in the US in the 1980s and 1990s) presented the age of the bourgeoisie as over, building on the earlier critiques of Frankfurt School’s original Debbies Downer.

Ironically, the cessation of “bourgeois” talk on the Left coincides with the neoliberal moment. In a historical rhyme, it seems to me that for the first time in a long time, the correct word to describe the enemies of the world’s working class and poor people– the Thomas Friedmans, Richard Floridas, Larry Summerses, Arne Duncans, and Robert Zoellicks of the world–is “bourgeois.” (In contrast, think of how inapt the term “bourgeois” is as a descriptor of what was most evil about Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, Robert McNamara, or even Ronald Reagan). In fact, in the early important works on globalization by veterans of the dissident labor movements of the 1970s, Mike Davis and Kim Moody provided such an analysis of the TNC’s court philosophers and fools, explicitly addressing the class character of globalization’s potentates and hype men. If there is a worry about the current discourse of the 99%, and its obsession with billionaires, it is the loss of such an analysis, and a return to a more primitive–and increasingly Christian–jeremiad about greed, corruption, and moral decay. That seems like the wrong way to go. But perhaps a more traditionally class struggle-oriented alternative is impossible without critically rethinking what the bourgeoisie is, and what is has been.

*This calls to mind Cary Nelson’s observations in Repression and Recovery: “Finally, when literature is provisionally contextualized–both within its own broader history and within American social history as a whole–some of the more well-known failures in modern poetry become as interesting as the established successes, and some nearly forgotten poets become genuinely exciting again. Indeed, we need to stop thinking of artistic failure as a statement only about individual tragedy or the weaknesses and limitations of individual characters and begin to see it as culturally driven, as a complex reflection of social and historical contradictions, as the result of the risks of decisions made in a network of determinations” (69)

[1] John Szwed, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (New York: Viking, 2010), 104.

[2] William Maxwell, New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

[3] Martin Sklar, The United States as a Developing Country, 138-39.

[4] Martin Sklar, The United States as a Developing Country, 144.

[5] Martin Sklar, The United States as a Developing Country, 146.

[6] V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Revolution of 1917, Book 1, p. 282, quoted in CLR James, State Capitalism and World Revolution, 19.

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