Happy Birthday Robert Johnson!

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Today is the birthday of Robert Johnson – the remarkable and legendary blues musician – born in 1911. The influence of just about any cultural effort affects so much in our culture, and Johnson’s influence on our cultural history and American music is profound.  We even see his influence in the candy universe in such items as the Hot Tamale candy, which runs from ancient Aztec women to Mexican immigrants working in agriculture to enslaved workers in the Delta to Robert Johnson to a Jewish immigrant in Pennsylvania to the Peeps candy and, at last, to the Hot Tamale candy we eat today. Here is a blog I wrote about Robert Johnson last year – HAPPY BIRTHDAY Robert Johnson. You didn’t sell your soul to the devil as some people say…but you did give a great deal of it to us.

The Blues, Robert Johnson and the Hot Tamale Connection

The history of the blues, Robert Johnson, and the tamale are fascinating and interlocked. Let’s start with the blues – a uniquely American form of music that reflects personal longing and historic strife. The roots of the blues began in the Mississippi Delta – an area that extends from Vicksburg Mississippi to Memphis Tennessee. There, on cotton plantations, enslaved laborers struggled under remarkably hostile conditions. One of their resources for survival were a confluence of songs rooted in their various African cultures, sung in the fields in unified voices, call-and-response interactions, and individual hollers.

The enslaved workers used these songs as a form of distraction and resistance, the words passing important information across the fields, unbeknownst to the slaveholders. Eventually, the enslaved and later free African Americans attended church where these songs found a natural place and, By the 1870s, they were recognized as the “Negro Spiritual” and about 30 years later, the blues.

Enter Robert Johnson

In 1911, slavery in the Mississippi Delta was long gone but the vestiges lived on. The institution of sharecropping prevailed and the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws were formidable constraints. It was in this environment, and the associated poverty, hunger and illiteracy, that Robert Johnson was born.

Where Johnson got his start in music is anyone’s guess, but it grew at the Saturday night dances where he watched the first generation of blues masters, such as Willie Brown and Charley Patton, play. Eventually, Johnson took to the road, where he played on street corners and in juke joints – one of the few venues for African American blues musicians in the rural South. His talent was so stunning, it ignited a rumor that he sold his soul to the devil just to get it.

Robert Johnson’s first recording was on November 23, 1936. Twenty-nine more followed the next year. His success was as immediate as his death where, at 27 years old, he was said to have been poisoned by a jealous husband who believed Johnson slept with his wife.  By the time he died at 27, Johnson had changed music history forever, influencing such popular musicians as the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers. According to Eric Clapton: “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.” Says Bob Dylan: “When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren’t customary blues songs. They were so utterly fluid. At first they went by quick, too quick to even get. They jumped all over the place in range and subject matter, short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story-fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic.”

Tamales and Hot Tamale

If you travel to Vicksburg Mississippi, you find an area with an elaborate casino, now empty, and a van for transporting visitors which remains parked. The Mississippi and Yazoo rivers sluggishly move along its edges. Many of the homes are empty. Among the corner shops, including small Mom and Pop restaurants, you can buy hot tamales. In fact, hot tamales appear in all sorts of places along the Mississippi Delta.

But why tamales? These portable foods are wrapped in corn shucks, and traditionally filled with pork, or more recently beef or turkey. They may be steamed or baked, stuffed with cheese and sauce, or simply mixed with mesa or corn meal and various degrees of spices. The tamale is an old food, dating back to the Aztecs of 7000 BCE, where women served as cooks for the armies, following the men to encampments where they prepared food. The tamales where perfect for the task: portable and easy to prepare and heat. Originally, the women buried the tamales in hot ashes – eventually they cooked or steamed them over-ground.

The tamales reached the African American community through migrant Mexican workers who shared the food with enslaved laborers in the South and U.S. soldiers who brought the tamale back from Mexico after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).  The tamale became an important food among African American communities in the Mississippi Delta where Robert Johnson wrote his song, “They’re Red Hot” using hot tamales as a steamy metaphor.  The tamales eventually became so mainstream that they caught the attention of Sam Born, a Jewish immigrant living in Bethlehem Pennsylvania. His company “Just Born” made the Peep candy and, in the 1950s, the Hot Tamale candy of today.

Anyway, here are Robert Johnson’s lyrics:

 They’re Red Hot

Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
I got a girl, say she long and tall
She sleeps in the kitchen with her feets in the hall
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale, I mean
Yes, she got’em for sale, yeah

Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
She got two for a nickel, got four for a dime
Would sell you more, but they ain’t none of mine
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale, I mean
Yes, she got’em for sale, yes, yeah

Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
I got a letter from a girl in the room
Now she got something good she got to bring home soon, now
It’s hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got em for sale, I mean
Yes, she got’em for sale, yeah

Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got em for sale
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got em for sale (they’re too hot boy)
The billy got back in a bumble bee nest
Ever since that he can’t take his rest, yeah
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes you got’em for sale, I mean
Yes, she got’em for sale

Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
Man don’t mess around em hot tamales now ’cause they too black bad,
If you mess around ’em hot tamales
I’m gonna upset your backbone, put your kidneys to sleep
I’ll due to break away your liver and dare your heart to beat ’bout my
Hot tamales ’cause they red hot, yes they got em for sale, I mean
Yes, she got em for sale, yeah

Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
You know grandma loves them and grandpa too
Well I wonder what in the world we children gonna do now
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale, I mean
Yes she got’em for sale

Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
Me and my babe bought a V-8 Ford
Well we wind that thing all on the runnin’ board, yes
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale, I mean
Yes she got’em for sale, yeah

Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale (they’re too hot boy!)
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes, now she got em for sale
You know the monkey, now the baboon playin’ in the grass
Well the monkey stuck his finger in that old ‘Good Gulf Gas’, now
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale, I mean
Yes she got’em for sale, yeah

Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
I got a girl, say she long and tall
Sleeps in the kitchen with her feets in the hall, yes
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale, I mean
Yes she got’em for sale, yeah

 

2 Responses

  1. Lois O'Hara says:

    Candy store is my favorite shop in Harper’s ferry. Did not know about articles
    Now abigger fan.

    • Susan Benjamin says:

      Thank you! We actually are research-based so lots of articles and a new book – “Sweet as Sin”. Of course, you can always email or call and we’ll be happy to discuss!

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