I’m the last one hired
And I’m the first one fired
I’m the only man
That has never been satisfied
I am the blues
–Willie Dixon, “I am the Blues”
When Willie Dixon hit Chicago in 1929 he was on the leading edge of the second great northward migration of blacks from the Delta. In 1930 alone nearly 8,000 blacks from Mississippi, fleeing low wages and sadistically racist conditions, landed in Chicago, drawn by the promise of factory jobs and a more liberated culture. Chicago itself was undergoing a dramatic demographic transformation. In 1900, the total population of blacks in the Windy City barely topped 30,000. By the time Willie Dixon stepped off that Illinois Central Freight train into the vast labyrinth of the South Yard more than 230,000 blacks called Chicago home.
Though Dixon’s oldest sister lived in Chicago, he was too scared to contact her. Instead, he found laborious work in a local onion field outside Harvey, Illinois. He was paid less than a dollar a day for 10 hours hoeing in the frozen ground—he earned a nickel for each bushel he filled. For those first few weeks, Dixon slept in a cardboard box, with no winter coat or blanket. He soon fell in with a local gang of black youths. Willie was big for his age, but he was still only thirteen and easily manipulated by older kids.
The gang woke Willie up early one morning, telling him they were going to help him steal some clothes. But as the gang entered an old farmhouse, Willie tripped over some milk bottles, awakening the farmer, who chased the boys off with a shotgun.
After that close call, Willie swallowed his pride and moved in with his sister and her husband on the southside of town, near the old Regal Theater, where Dixon first saw Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives play. He also saw Cab Calloway perform at the Metropolitan, another black-owned club nearby. Twenty years later Calloway would be recording some of Willie’s compositions.
Dixon took odd and demanding jobs across the city. One of the worst was with an ice company where he hauled 100-pound blocks up and down flights of stairs to offices, bars and apartments. He was paid $15 for each 60-hour week he worked there.
Later that year Dixon worked in a coal yard, earning ten cents a load to bring coal down to the rail yards for the steam locomotives. Laboring from seven in the morning until dark, Dixon could haul about eight loads a day. In a good week, he made a little more than five dollars. It was enough to eat on, but that was about all.
It was around this time that Willie learned that his father had died. Anderson had been crushed to death at the lumberyard, when a pile of logs collapsed on him. Dixon moved back down to Vicksburg for a few months to help his mother. He was still writing in his poem book, adding a few songs every day.
“I began to take life apart and put it together into words,” Dixon said. “I would try to find the right tone to emphasize the facts of life. I found out that things from my past fitted a lot of people in the present and also their hopes for the future. It didn’t always have to be a sad song. I noticed most people think the blues is a sad thing, but blues can be happy as well as sad. The blues can give you a feeling that nothing else can give you. And once I get that feeling, I smile to myself. You look at yourself and you see where you came from and where you’re going. And you feel like you got a beautiful chance, thanks to the blues.”
Down in Vicksburg, Willie penned a couple of songs (“Lonely Man” and “The West Ain’t Wild No More”) for local country and western acts. He later said he wrote them only to see his name on a record, though his sister said Willie had always wanted to be cowboy.
Willie began hanging out with an old man black named Jim Nelson, who had been a friend of Dixon’s father. Dixon called him a “hoodoo doctor.” Nelson was a fat man with no teeth. He sold herbs, roots and strange trinkets. The shelves
inside his house were crowded with glass jars filled with dead snakes, the tails of pigs, fetuses. Nelson told fortunes and mixed potions. Dixon would later incorporate many of these items, black cat bones and John the Conqueror roots, into his songs, as totems of black potency and talismans against white oppression.
About that time, Dixon also wrote a song called “The Signifying Monkey,” a comic bit of blues hokum based on cartoon animal characters his friend Eddie Cooper used to draw in grade school. Willie would sing the song on street corners and people would crack up laughing and ask him for the lyrics. So he began printing up lyric sheets and selling them for 10 cents a copy. He eventually sold 40,000 copies of the song, which was recorded in the 1940s by Cab Calloway and Count Basie. Dixon had written the first draft when he was 10.
In 1931, Dixon began singing bass in a harmony group called the Union Jubilee Singers. The quartet toured Mississippi from Greenville to Jackson, playing at churches, auctions and fairs. They also sang live every Friday afternoon on WQBC radio in Vicksburg. The show was sponsored by the W. T. Farley store and the band got paid in clothes.
Later that year Dixon started boxing. His first bouts took place at the Saturday afternoon fights in a ropeless ring at a Vicksburg park. “You fought with your fists and one of those guys could hit you with his natural fists and knock you out cold,” Dixon said. “Sometimes guys get knocked right off the damn stage into somebody’s arms. They’d throw him right back up there.”
By then, Dixon was six foot four inches tall and weighed close to 300 pounds. His body was rock solid from years spent cutting firewood and hauling heavy loads of ice and coal. He quickly laid waste to the local competition, including one heralded white professional boxer who broke his arm punching Dixon in the stomach. Dixon decided to test his fortunes in the big city once again.
In 1936, Dixon was back in Chicago. He began training at Eddie Nichols’ Gym, where he became Joe Louis’s sparing partner. Dixon didn’t know much about boxing technique, but he could take almost any punch and he threw heavy, punishing blows. In 1937 he won the Golden Gloves championship before a huge crowd at Chicago Stadium by knocking out everyone he faced. Afterwards he turned pro. Dixon won his first five fights, but the purses were meager. Dixon was getting only about $40 per fight. It turned out that his manager had been ripping him to the tune of hundreds of dollars a fight. This revelation led to an altercation in the boxing commissioners office, which got Dixon slapped with a six-month ban from fighting.
This experience taught Dixon to be wary of managers and others who claimed to be looking out for his financial interests. Dixon would be one of the first recording artists to demand audits of his royalty statements and vigorously pursue labels and bands that had ripped off his music, including his ground-breaking lawsuits against Led Zeppelin for stealing “Whole Lotta Love” and “Bring It On Home.” Dixon won.
As Dixon cooled his heels by sparring in the gym, he met a singer named Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston, who was casually playing his guitar at ringside. The two hit it off and quickly formed a group with three other musicians. They called themselves the Five Breezes. Dixon wrote a few songs for the group and they began performing at a popular Westside casino called Martin’s Corner, owned by a local political fixer named Jimmy Martin. Dixon was playing a bass guitar Baby Doo had made for him from a large oil drum with one string tied across it. “I got to play that thing pretty good,” Dixon said. “I played that bass the way I used to sing.” Martin, who was embarrassed by the contraption, eventually bought Dixon a stand-up bass from the Chicago Music Company.
The Five Breezes played at Martin’s Corner for more than a year until they were lured away by a couple of southside gangsters who had opened a strip club called the Pink Poodle. The mobsters paid well. Band members were paid $35 a piece each week. Then on Sunday mornings the group would gather early on a corner near the open air markets in the “Jewtown” section of Chicago’s Westside. Willie would set a bucket out and they’d play all day for tips. “We’d go to Jewtown and man the people would come and give us so many pennies and dimes and nickels,” Dixon recalled. “We would even count them. I remember many times when we used to come home with $50 apiece and that was more than the average guy was making in salary.” Sometimes Dixon played out on the sidewalks of Maxwell Street by himself, twirling his big bass, singing snatches of bawdy lyrics, as a couple of girls from the Pink Poodle danced alongside him.
During the day, Dixon labored at the stockyards hauling sides of beef from the freezers to the boxcars, miserable, back-breaking work that earned him less than $30 a week. With the money he was pulling in from the Five Breezes, Willie soon quit his day job, saying: “When they get a big guy that’s young and healthy, they think he should do all the heavy work. Every time they get ready with something heavy to be hauled or lifted up, they’ll have you come by forty of the little guys that ain’t doing a damn thing. My salary was the same and I just said the hell with it and quit.”
In 1940, Willie Dixon began receiving draft notices from the Selective Service, which had just established the first peacetime conscription in American history. All males between the age of 18 and 45 were meant to serve in the military for a year. He ignored the notices for two years. “I’d made up my mind I wasn’t going no damn where,” Dixon said. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the hunt for soldiers became more intense. Willie still threw the increasingly threatening letters in the trash.
One night in 1942 when the Five Breezes were playing at the Pink Poodle federal agents entered the bar and pulled Dixon off the stage while he was playing bass. As they cuffed him, Dixon screamed that he was a conscientious objector and that he refused fight and kill other humans. He was taken to federal lockup and soon placed on trial.
Dixon testified at court that he didn’t feel obligated to serve because of the conditions of black people in America. “Why should I go to work and fight to save somebody that’s killing me and my people?” Dixon exclaimed, foreshadowing the Vietnam-era draft resistance of Muhammad Ali. (Though Dixon didn’t have Elijah Muhammed writing his quips for him.)
Dixon told the court that he didn’t consider himself a citizen of the United States, but “a subject,” without full rights. Dixon’s resistance didn’t go down well with the court. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison. When Dixon began organizing other black prisoners to resist serving in the military, the authorities placed him in solitary confinement and restricted his diet to bread and water for weeks at a time. Willie was hauled before the court another twenty times. He was repeatedly chastised by the judge and threatened by prosecutors. But Dixon refused to serve.
The conditions were harsh, but Dixon kept sowing seeds of dissent from inside the prison. He became such a threat that the prison authorities offered to let him out of jail after 10 months if Dixon agreed to sign a document that kept him from performing or working at any government facility or contractor.
Dixon read over the agreement carefully in front of a federal prosecutor before he finally scrawled his name in large script directly below the final paragraph so that the feds couldn’t secretly add any other restrictions.
“Man, you don’t even trust the government,” the lawyer chided Willie.
“No, the government don’t trust me.”
This Week’s Playlist
Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon, In Paris (OBC)
Sonny Boy Williamson, The Real Folk Blues (Chess)
David Lynch, Crazy Clown Time (Play It Again Sam)
Sun Ra, Landiquity (Evidence)
The Marvelettes, Forever More: the Complete Motown Albums Vol 2 (Hip-O Select)
Jeffrey St. Clair’s latest book is Born Under a Bad Sky. He is the co-editor of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.