My 3 1/2-year-old daughter recently injured her hand, requiring reconstructive surgery and an ongoing recuperation period. One of the therapies we’ve tried (her choice) is listening to Western Swing music on CD and watching YouTube videos of Bob Wills, Don Walser, and Hot Club of Cowtown.
We’ve always listened to music during the bedtime process, an evolving playlist of non-children’s music, usually albums with songs that I can sing to. These have included Don Walser’s albums, The Archive Series (Vols. 1&2). Walser was an old-time Texas country singer who died in 2006. I used to go hear him play a lot during my last couple of years in Austin, and once at the Mercury Lounge when I was living in New York. Walser mixed originals and covers, including some Bob Wills songs. At first, I would put a CD on at the beginning, but as my daughter got older, she started asking for specific songs on each CD.
I still don’t know what makes her pick up a particular song, things like Alejandro Escovedo’s cover of the Rolling Stones “Sway” from his More Miles Than Money album, Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Santa Fe Thief” (she liked the line “Look over yonder”) And Don Walser’s version of Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back To Tulsa”. Which led to my explaining that people do other people’s songs. I found a YouTube video of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys doing the song (with Luke Wills singing). Which also led to a weirdly sped-up video of Hot Club of Cowtown doing it, and then videos of Hot Club of Cowtown doing “Big Ball in Cowtown” (also covered by Don Walser), and videos of Don Walser doing some of his originals (mainly “The John Deere Tractor Song”).
I found a Bob Wills tribute album put together by Jon Langford, with various alt-country types contributing songs (also a bootleg download of a South By Southwest live performance of the album. Listening to the live version of “Take Me Back To Tulsa” led to the point (if there is one) of this post.
The song is (according to Wikipedia) “a series of unrelated, mostly nonsense, rhyming couplets.” The wording varies in the versions I’ve heard; one verse in particular:
Little bee sucks the blossom, big bee gets the honey.
Poor (or little) boy (or man) picks the cotton, Rich (or big) man gets the money.
made me think about race and poverty–when I hear it, I translate “poor” as “black” and rich as “white”
In the live version (and on the CD), the singer (from a band called The Meat Purveyers, says: “Dark man picks the cotton, white man gets the money”. Hearing it, I assumed that they were singing what I had been thinking, that they were making a statement rather than following the standard version.
After my daughter’s accident, I got a Bob Wills CD from the library (finally going to the source), and discovered that the version recorded in 1941 has the line as:
Darkie picks the cotton, white man gets the money.
As does the version the band sings in the movie Take Me Back To Okalahoma in 1940.
Wikipedia says: “Modern covers of the song, in order to avoid racial offense, tend to replace above line with “Poor boy picks the cotton, Rich man gets the money.”
My thought was, offense to whom? Darkie is an offensive term, but the explanation sounds more like people were trying not to offend their white audience by pointing out racial economic inequality. Which is getting worse.
I have no idea what Bob Wills’ intent was, or his views on race. I borrowed a biography from the library, San Antonio Rose: the life and music of Bob Wills by Charles R. Townsend. Research will continue.
One thought on “Tulsa”
I am curious to see what conclusions you’ve come to. I’ve always heard those lines as a wry commentary on economic inequality…but I did not know until very recently about Tulsa’s horrible history, bombing and burning to the ground a thriving black community in 1921. This song was released only 20 years later…pretty sure every black person that heard it remembered very vividly the injustice meted upon them by their white neighbours. So now I don’t know what to do with this song. Did you dig up any more information?