Now Spinning: Juke Boy Bonner

One of the first suggestions I’d offer to any collectors of old blues records – always buy Arhoolie Records releases. Arhoolie Records was formed by a young blues aficionado Chris Strachwitz, who traveled to Texas as a young man to record Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and many more, beginning with simple field recordings. From those classic and influential recordings to others hardly known, Arhoolie Records output is remarkable. I’ve purchased dozens of releases on the label including by artists I’ve barely heard of, if at all, only to be blown away each time.

Juke Boy Bonner is one of those fantastic lesser-known and now very much sadly forgotten artists I’ve discovered through this historic label. Born to sharecroppers in Texas as the youngest of nine children and sent to live at a foster home by the age of three, life was never easy for Bonner. He started playing music as a teenager, moving to Houston and playing his way up through the city’s sweaty juke joints, though commercial success eluded him.

It was years later when Strachwitz tracked him down for this special session in the late sixties. At a time when major blues artists were being urged towards incorporating psychedelic rock influences to appeal to young white commercialism, Strachwitz insisted on recording blues musicians as they were most comfortable, seeking authenticity above all. This was a blessing for Bonner, who wowed as a solo act that mimicked a full band sound with his aggressively strummed guitar, wailing harmonica and thumping rhythm from a foot drum kit. Bonner played guitar in the Lightnin’ Hopkins style, though without quite reaching Hopkins’ level musical dexterity or creativeness; instead, he more frequently relied on bubbling Jimmy Reed-esque harmonica work for solo breaks. More impressively, Bonner was a particularly adept, sharp lyricist and was even a legitimate published poet in the Houston Forward Times, a prominent black-owned newspaper.

The album title I’m Going Back to the Country Where They Don’t Burn the Buildings Down certainly doesn’t sugarcoat anything, particularly considering its release in the immediate wake of the ‘Long Hot Summer of 1967’, when cities across America erupted into flames and violence with race riots. When blacks had left rural sharecropping life en masse during the Great Migration between World War I and World War II for cities that offered more opportunities for job and social growth, whites fearful of losing their status of superiority retaliated with increased segregation and violence. When the legal end of segregation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 failed to bring positive change, black frustration exploded into riots that were met with violence and destruction of urban black neighborhoods by the police.

This crucial historical context frames the album lyrically, which is full of social commentary far bolder than what you would typically find in the blues genre. Bonner would once again tackle the day’s social injustices, perhaps even more directly, on his next album, The Struggle. Neither sold, his tenure with Arhoolie came to a quiet end and albums faded from view completely. Now, in addition to featuring some damn good blues music, they are rare but precious snapshots that capture the day’s fear and confusion:

‘Now I’m not crazy about country living

And it’s not really my desire

But if I move back to the sticks

I don’t have to worry about no sniper’s fire’

– Juke Boy Bonner, ‘Going Back to the Country’

Chuck Berry’s ‘The Promised Land’, released in late 1964, tells the story of the Great Migration, with the narrator traveling from the southeast westwards for the ‘promised land’ of California. Notably, the protagonist ‘bypassed Rock Hill’, where the Rock Hill Nine were arrested for protesting segregation at a lunch counter, strongly referencing the terrors that were driving blacks out of the south. While ‘The Promised Land’ concludes with the hope for a new life out west, the paradise of Los Angeles went up in flames during the Watts riots just one year after the song was released. If ‘The Promised Land’ recognizes an inequality but sees the hope for a brighter future, Juke Boy Bonner describes what the black urban world he lives in and sees everyday had decayed into, with songs like ‘Stay Off of Lyons Avenue’ and ‘Life is a Nightmare’ joining the near-war zone atmosphere depicted in ‘Going Back to the Country’.

I could continue with paragraphs about lyrics like ‘Somebody tell me how can you be contented when you know you been mistreated wrong and you don’t wanna kill nobody so you take it and go around, go right on’… Clearly, Juke Boy Bonner was a few steps beyond your average blues lyricist and this album is an essential for fans of the blues or even the street poetry of Gil Scott-Heron and the era’s urban culture. While you’re unlikely to stumble into this one at your local record store unless by lucky chance, several copies are available for reasonable prices on Discogs. Or try a taste first with this lower-quality stream on YouTube. The majority of the album’s tracks are additionally included on the Life Gave Me a Dirty Deal compilation, available on Spotify etc, though nothing will compare to the Arhoolie records in both sound quality and wonderful liner notes.

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