I got this from Lead Belly, but more specifically from The Leadbelly Songbook — I have no clear memory of hearing him sing it, and may have heard it by Pete Seeger or any number of other people, but I have a photographically clear memory of the page in that book,* with a picture of a pretty young woman walking along a city street in a nice dress and an impressively broad-brimmed hat. She was, presumably, one of the “yellow women” whose doorbells the singer would no longer be ringing. At the time I had no idea what the word “yellow” meant in that context, though I’m pretty sure I understood him to be talking about prostitutes.
I didn’t sing the song much, though I noted Johnny Cash’s reworking of it as “I Got Stripes” on his Folsom Prison album, but I always appreciated the way the story is told in brief, precise images, and how much it leaves to the listener’s imagination.
Then, when I was sitting down to do it for this project, I began thinking about all the implications of that reference in the chorus to “yellow women.” when I first sang this, I don’t think I separated the women in the chorus from the woman he loves who has thrown him out of doors, presumably leading to the crime that has ended him in prison. But that generic use of “yellow women” goes along with an old and widespread stereotype — I even ran across it when I was living in Lubumbashi, in the Eastern Congo — about light-skinned black women. And that, in turn, leads into the complex and brutal history of colonialism and slavery, and in particular the long history of white men publicly decrying the idea of white-black sexual relations while privately indulging by means of rape and economic coercion… and the pervasive double standard whereby women who fail to remain “pure,” whether voluntarily or not, get blamed for being temptresses, or loose, or whores.
One of the complicated things about singing old songs is that they reflect times, cultures, customs, and viewpoints that are historically and sociologically interesting, but when I sing them they cease to be artifacts and become living performances, in the present, sung by me. I enjoy that process more in some instances than in others, and am more conscious of it sometimes than others. This time, I played this song for a few days, not having done it in at least thirty years and thinking about how I might play it on guitar, then filmed a first version… and it wasn’t until I was actually doing it in front of the camera that it struck me how unpleasant it was for me to be sitting there singing about ringing yellow women’s doorbells — and also by the fact that when I sang this as a kid, no one ever suggested there was a problem.
So I filmed it again, with the lyric changed to “pretty women” — which still leaves the sexism intact, and stereotypes about good-looking women being sexually available, and me sitting in Cambridge, Mass, assuming elements of Huddie Ledbetter’s persona and describing the trials of wearing prison stripes and chains…
I love the range and breadth of American vernacular music, and am fascinated by the history embedded in these songs, and have been living with them my whole life, and plan to keep singing them. Lead Belly sang not only about his own life and experiences, but about being a cowboy shooting it out with Jesse James, and about paddling his canoe on the island of Hawai’i, and he did his best to assume those personas and make them come alive. But he also changed lyrics when he thought they were wrong for him, and if I had his talent I’d change more to suit my own tastes and reality.
*Having tracked down a copy of The Leadbelly Songbook, I find that my “photographically clear memory” of that photo was right, but it illustrated a different song, called “Yellow Gal.” I don’t know if there’s a moral to that.