J.B. Lenoir’s “Alabama Blues” is a rather well-known blues protest song. It stands out because, by the 1960s, it was increasingly rare for blues musicians to sing about poverty, despair, and social injustice. And, fifty years since the tune was recorded under the supervision of Chicago blues master Willie Dixon, its lyrics still carry a deep resonance.
Lenoir, who is a character in the song, expresses why he will never go back to Alabama. His sister and brother were killed in the state. The justice system let the killers go free.
Alabama is also a state he will never love because his brother defended his mother. Police shot him down. “I can’t help but to sit down and cry some times/Think about how my poor brother lost his life,” Lenoir sings.
In the song, Lenoir’s character decries the incarceration of his people “behind a barbed wire fence.” The song ends with Lenoir declaring, “Now you’re trying to take my freedom away from me.” Presumably, he now finds himself at risk of being shackled, chained, and imprisoned, however, what Lenoir means exactly is not defined.
“Alabama Blues” is a song of the downtrodden. It is not intended to inspire an uprising against the oppression. Internally, the character of the song may be praying for peace and freedom from suffering, however, he does not have any confidence that he will bring about this salvation. He must leave Alabama, if he even can.
To link it to the present: the New York Times has a report about southern states, including Alabama, where prosecutors are two to three times more likely to strike blacks from juries than other Americans.
It seems black Americans are killed by police nearly every other day yet the system of justice maintains features, which ensure officers who kill black people go free. It also enables prosecutors to incarcerate black people behind a “barbed wire fence” for petty crimes and largely forgivable offenses that should not ruin one’s future in life.
In fact, the only thing more troubling than the fifty year-old story in “Alabama Blues” is that it is increasingly evident it is not an Alabama story. It is not simply a tale of Southern life for black people. It is a modern-day American horror story, which Lenoir would have never thought would be extremely relevant a half century later.
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Listen to “Alabama Blues”: