Friday, October 22, 2010

"How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" - Blind Alfred Reed


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Four: "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" performed by Blind Alfred Reed. Recorded in New York on December 4, 1929. Original issue Victor V-40236.

Alfred Reed was born in Floyd, Virgina on June 15, 1880. Other than the fact that he was born blind, little is known of Reed's early life. He reportedly began playing violin at an early age. He played locally, performing at fairs, church functions, political rallies, and on street corners. He was discovered in 1927 by Ralph Peer while performing at a fiddle convention. Peer invited Reed to record at the historic Bristol Sessions where Reed recorded four titles. He recorded a further five titles at a session in December, 1927. His last recordings were made in New York City in on December 3rd and 4th, 1929, less than two months after the Stock Market Crash. He recorded twelve titles over the course of two days, including "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?"

Following his 1929 recording session, Reed never recorded again. He lived the rest of his life in Mercer County, West Virginia. He continued to perform locally until a 1937 statute banned blind street musicians in his community. Reed also served as a lay Methodist minister. Reed died, allegedly of starvation, on January 17, 1956.

"How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" is a song protesting high prices, high taxes, government mandated education, trigger happy policemen, greedy preachers, and the high cost of medical care. Heard in 2010, the song sounds curiously like an anthem for the Tea Party, proving (if proof were needed)that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

There was once a time when everything was cheap,
But now prices almost puts a man to sleep.
When we pay our grocery bill,
We just feel like makin' our will.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

I remember when dry goods were cheap as dirt.
We could take two bits and buy a dandy shirt.
Now we pay three bucks or more,
Maybe get a shirt that another man's wore.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Well, I used to trade with a man by the name of Gray.
Flour was fifty cents for a twenty-four pound bag.
Now it's a dollar and a half beside,
Just like skinning a flea for the hide.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Oh, the schools we have today ain't worth a cent.
But they see to it that every child is sent.
If we don't send everyday,
We have a heavy fine to pay.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Prohibition's good if 'tis conducted right.
There's no sense in shootin' a man 'til he shows flight.
Officers kill without a cause,
Then complain about funny laws.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Most all preachers preach for dough and not the soul.
That's what keeps a poor man always in a hole.
We can hardly get our breath,
Taxed and schooled and preached to death.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Oh, it's time for every man to be awake.
We pay fifty cents a pound when we ask for steak.
When we get our package home,
Got a little wad of paper with gristle and a bone.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Well, the doctor comes around with a face so bright.
And he says in a little while you'll be all right.
All he gives is a humbug pill,
A dose of dope and a great big bill.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?


"How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" is the first of three topical songs in a row, and the first of six such songs to appear on this disc.

Reed's song laments the hard times that were only just beginning in 1929. In addition to singing, Reed plays the violin on this track and is accompanied by his son, Arville Reed, on guitar. The musical performances on this track are crude and Reed's vocal style is flat and emotionless. Nevertheless, the song strikes chord in the listener. We can identify with Reed's bewilderment as the world changes rapidly, and not always for the better. Because he recorded a few topical songs, Reed is sometimes viewed as an early protest singer. Mostly, however, Reed recorded religious songs and ballads. "How Can A Poor Man..." has had considerable influence over the years, however. The song was recorded by Ry Cooder in 1970, and was famously rewritten by Bruce Springsteen in 2006. Springsteen's version only uses the last verse of Reed's song, the rest being a protest of the Bush Administration's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.

Well the doctor comes 'round here with his face all bright.
And he says "in a little while you'll be alright."
All he gives is a humbug pill, a dose of dope and a great big bill.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

"Me and my old school pals had some mighty high times down here.
And what happened to you poor black folks, well it just ain't fair."
He took a look around, gave a little pep talk,
Said "I'm with you" then he took a little walk.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

There's bodies floatin' on Canal and the levees gone to Hell.
Martha, get me my sixteen gauge and some dry shells.
Them who's got got out of town and them who ain't got left to drown.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Got family scattered from Texas all the way to Baltimore.
Yeah and I ain't got no home in this world no more.
Gonna be a judgment that's a fact, a righteous train rollin' down this track.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?


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Here's Ry Cooder performing a version of "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" from a 1987 performance.



This is Bruce Springsteen performing his version of "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?"



Download and listen to Blind Alfred Reed - "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?"

2 comments:

  1. I think you're very wrong about the tea party being the inheritors of this song-writing spirit. Tea partiers give a damn about the poor, or consider themselves poor? No way. The tea party talk about police violence?? Definitely not either. If this song talked about destroying the country with deregulation only to think it can be fix by more deregulation, THEN it would be a for-bearer to the tea party mantle of white entitlement.

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    1. Hank, I think you may have misread my comment, or perhaps I was unclear in writing it. I never said that the Tea Party (which I do not support, incidentally) are the "inheritors of [the] song-writing spirit," as you put it. I was commenting on the rather libertarian sentiment expressed by Reed in the song "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live." He comes out as being opposed to public education and taxes. That's all I was trying to say.

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