Why does Dylan like “Black white and brown”?

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By Tony Attwood

I guess all songs is folk songs. I never heard no horse sing ’em.
~Big Bill Broonzy

For the first 11 years of my life I lived in London, and even though it was a multi-cultural multi-ethnic city, I had no contact with any members of the black community – my school and the area I lived in were totally white.   At 11 the family moved to Dorset, a rural county on the south coast, in which there was no sign of a black community anywhere at all.  I recall one lad of Indian descent, but the rest of the people I knew were English middle class white.

And yet, I can recall hearing “Black, White and Brown” somehow – maybe around the age of 15.  It certainly wouldn’t have been played on the radio stations we could get, so it must have been in a folk club – and of course I still recall it.  It shows just how powerful this song is.

The author was Big Bill Broonzy, one of the key Chicago blues singers, who up to the second world war and in the years immediately thereafter, recorded over 250 songs.  These included “Key to the Highway,”  “Hard Hearted Woman,”  and “When Will I Get to Be Called a Man” and he is registered as the composer of many more songs.

Mostly he played with small bands often with a saxophone, clarinet or trumpet helping the melody along – and of course giving a jazz feel to some of the songs.

Later in life he helped younger musicians get a foot on the ladder – people like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Memphis Slim.   Many of the rock stars of the 1950s onwards cite him as an influence.

Black Brown and White is one of his most powerful and most famous songs, and tragically in recent years it has been taken up by neo-fascist organisations in Britain as a straight recommendation of how Britain should be.

Here’s another version

Just listen to either (or better still both) of the versions of the song it becomes obvious why Dylan likes the song – it contains the elements of so much of Bob’s early music.  There is the racial prejudice commentary and the ironic humour mixed together – exactly the sort of thing that Bob was experimenting with in the 1950s.

Here are the lyrics.  The Jim Crowe reference in the last verse is to Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by white dominated state legislatures and which remained in force until 1965.    The laws mandated racial segregation through the doctrine of “separate but equal”. 

Here are the lyrics…

This little song that I’m singin’ about
People you all know is true
If you black and gotta work for a livin’ now
This is what they been sayin’ to you

They said if you white, you’s alright
If you is brown, stick around
But if you’s black, oh brother
Get back, get back, get back…

I was in a place one night
They was all havin’ fun
They was all buyin’ beer and wine
But they would not sell me none

They said if you white, you’s alright
If you is brown, you can stick around
But if you’s black, mm mm brother
Get back, get back, get back…

I went to an employment office
I got a number and I got in line
They called everybody’s number
But they never did call mine

They said if you white, you’s alright
If you is brown, you can stick around
But if you’s black, mm mm brother
Get back, get back, get back…

Me and a man was working side by side
And this is what it meant
They was payin’ him a dollar an hour
But they was payin’ me fifty cent

They said if you was white, you’d be alright
If you is brown, you could stick around
But if you’s black, whoa brother
Get back, get back, get back…

I helped win sweet victories
With my plow and hoe
Now, I want you to tell me, brother
Whatchu gonna do about the ol’ Jim Crow

And if this is new to you, you might also like to venture here….

Here are some other articles from this series

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