One of my favourite blues songs is “James Alley Blues”, performed by the wonderfully monikered Richard “Rabbit” Brown. (Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to get to perform with Willie Hutch…)

The melodic guitar playing and Brown’s warm singing voice make “James Alley Blues” one of the more accessible early blues songs, despite its chilling lyrics.

It was one of just six songs that Brown recorded in New Orleans back in March 1927, when he was forty-seven. Middle aged and belligerent, he sounds like a man out of step with his times, in tune with cold truths that only he can hear:

Times ain't now nothin' like they used to be.
Well, times ain't now nothin' like they used to be.
And I'm tellin' you all the truth, take it from me.

As we get older, we often pine for a simpler past. Or we long for a future when the present fog will lift and the new day’s bright glow will light our way. An unattainable dream that we keep grasping for. This is what spurred on Jay Gatsby in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsy:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…

In this song, the future isn’t quite so orgiastic. The lights are getting darker. Brown is brusquely accepting about the unwelcome changes that life has flung at him:  

I done seen better days, but I’m puttin’ up with these.

As is often the case in blues songs, it’s not the world that has gone wrong. It’s the singer’s love life that has “seen better days”. Brown paints a grimly humourous picture of the daily struggles and disputes that can poison any relationship:

'Cos I was born in the country, she thinks I'm easy to rule.
'Cos I was born in the country, she thinks I'm easy to rule.
She tried to hitch me to a wagon. She wanna drive me like a mule.

Soon the soft romance of moonlight gives way to petty wars of attrition in the harsh sunlight:

She tried to make me wash her clothes, but I got good common sense.

And as sure as the sun follows the moon, sweet poetic words of love are in time replaced by sour straight talkin’:

I said, "If you don't want me, why don't you tell me so?"
Because I ain't like a man that ain't got nowhere to go.

Many blues songs are infused with straight talkin’, of course. In this song, Brown adds his own unique ingredients to unsettling effect:

I've been givin' you sugar for sugar, let you get salt for salt.
I'll give you sugar for sugar, let you get salt for salt.
And if you can't get 'long with me, well it's your own fault.

For all its quirky humour, this is an undeniably dark song, even by the bleak standards of blues music. In one of the most devastating verses in the blues canon, Brown sings with frightening conviction in the final lines:

Sometimes I think that you’re too sweet to die.
Sometimes I think that you’re too sweet to die.
And another time I think you oughta be buried alive.

You can follow Brown down the dark alley in the suitably scratchy recording below.

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