The good book says you’ve got to reap just what you sow

The blues tradition started with emotion. Albert Murray, a black novelist, commented that the blues were a way for one to “[Confront, acknowledge, and contend] with the infernal absurdities and ever-impending frustrations inherent in the nature of all experience.”Drawing from the oral music traditions of “field hollers” and call and response, the blues had a strong presence and role of importance in black American communities starting during the Reconstruction period before segregation laws.

One of the early recordings of Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin’s Down-hearted blues was done in 1923(the YouTube recording below is from 1939). It follows the typical AABA structure the blues would follow and makes use of call and response primarily between the singer and a clarinet. One thing that can be noted is the inflections Hunter uses as she sings. Many of the accents and emotive inflections she uses in her phrasing would not be written down in the music––such as shortening a note at the end of a phrase, sliding into or between notes and adding accented vibrato to a sustained note.

The subject matter deals with the singer being unhappy in the romantic situation she’s in. Hunter specifically sings about “the man that wrecked her life,” but beyond the relationship, the man could be extended to representing her job or position in society (especially important given the time this piece was written in). In the first verse, Hunter sings that “the good book says you’ve got to reap just what you sow,” which is acceptance for the situation that she’s in––something she could have arguably had very much or very little control over to begin with.


1. Hogue, W. Lawrence. Discourse and the Other: The Production of the Afro-American Text. Durham, North Carolina, NC: Duke University Press, 1986.

2. Hunter, Alberta and Austin Love. Tennessee Ten: Down-hearted blues. Victor, 1923, audio recording,

One thought on “The good book says you’ve got to reap just what you sow

  1. Great topic, E! What do you make of the fact that there’s no singing on the 1923 recording, but there is on the 1939 recording? And do you think there’s any significance to the fact that one of the songwriters was a woman, given that the songwriting field at the time was dominated by men? It’s interesting that a song even needed to be titled “Down-Hearted Blues” – this reminds us that the “blues” wasn’t only synonymous with sadness or dejection; it was a dance genre full of good cheer at its origins, as well as an opportunity to communicate “frustrations.”

    A few technical details to address: can you cite the Albert Murray quotation? Knowing when he was writing will help us figure out if he’s talking about the origins of the blues, or talking about what it means to him in his own time. And can you give the link for the 1923 recording *before* the Youtube recording you found? That way people listen to the original first, rather than second. Thanks, and keep up the good work!

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