Born Under A Bad Sign: Bad Luck Blues Songs
Born Under A Bad Sign: Bad Luck Blues Songs
By Reverend Keith A. Gordon
he history of blues music is full of bad luck songs of one sort or another. Bad luck as a lyrical theme can take a lot of forms, from straight up sufferin' because of the vagaries of Fate, or bad luck in love due to romantic ills. In other cases, it can be as simple as being broke, or as painful as a toothache. In any event, if you're indeed "born under a bad sign," you'll be singing a bad luck blues song.
1. Albert King â€“ "Born Under A Bad Sign" (1968)
"Albert King's King of the Blues Guitar "Photo courtesy Stax Records
Blues guitar great Albert King picked up the torch from Blind Lemon Jefferson and came up with his own bad luck blues, the incredible "Born Under A Bad Sign." King's lyrical imagery is as brilliant as his six-string licks are hot: "Born under a bad sign, I been down since I begin to crawl; if it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all." Unlike others bad luck blues songs, though, King's protagonist is OK with it all, cravin' wine and women and certain that it will all lead to his graveâ€¦but not before he has some fun!
2. Big Joe Williams â€“ "I Won't Be In Hard Luck No More" (1937)
"The Very Best of Big Joe Williams"Photo courtesy Price Grabber
Sometimes a blues song is less about one's questionable karma than it is about running away from your misfortunes. That's certainly the case of Big Joe Williams, whose "I Won't Be In Hard Luck No More" makes some hard choices. Life in the South isn't so good, the song's protagonist sings, finding "hard luck and trouble, everyplace I go" and "I believe that somebody put bad luck on me, I believe that it's time to go." What seals the deal is that when he had money, he had "friends for miles around," now that his cash is gone, "my friends can not be found." Although he started in "poor luck town," he's on his way to somewhere else.
3. Blind Lemon Jefferson â€“ "Bad Luck Blues" (1926)
"The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson"Photo courtesy Price Grabber
For over 40 years, the "King of the Country Blues," Blind Lemon Jefferson's mournful "Bad Luck Blues" served as the definition of Fate's cold hand in blues music. Unlucky in love, the song's protagonist wants to "go home" but he doesn't have "sufficient clothes." He gambled away his money, lost his woman, so now he's gonna hop a freight train and head back to "lovin' Tennessee," where he's going to try and turn his bad luck aroundâ€¦or at least find another woman.
4. Bukka White â€“ "Fixin' To Die Blues" (1940)
"The Complete Bukka White"Photo courtesy Legacy Recordings
Country bluesman Bukka White was surely singin' those bad luck blues when he penned the classic "Fixin' To Die Blues." The song's protagonist, staring down the Reaper, says "I'm lookin' funny in my eyes, and I believe I'm fixin' to die; I know I was born to die, but I hate to leave my children cryin'." Accepting his fate, the singer still doesn't want his kids "screamin' and cryin' on the graveyard ground." No death-obsessed Goth rocker ever wrote more elegantly about facing the afterlife.
5. Johnny "Guitar" Watson â€“ "Broke & Lonely"
"The Very Best of Johnny Guitar Watson"Photo courtesy Rhino Records
Although he is best known for his 1970s-era funk albums, Johnny "Guitar" Watson first made a splash during the 1950s as a blues guitarist and gifted R&B singer. His telling of this classic bad luck blues song pairs a big-band horn arrangement and some tasty guitar licks with a story about how his "heart's in misery" and the women won't holler at him anymore because, well, he's "broke and hungry." As soon as he gets some cash together, though, he's leaving his misfortunes behind and headin' back to Texas.
6. Mississippi John Hurt â€“ "Trouble, I've Had It All My Days" (1966)
"Mississippi John Hurt's The Complete Studio Recordings"Photo courtesy Price Grabber
For some folks, bad luck is all they've ever had. Take country bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, whose "Trouble, I've Had It All My Days" has its protagonist walking down the street crying 'cause his gal "stayed out all night long." When arrested and put in jail, he doesn't "have nobody to go my bail," and in the end, the song's protagonist realizes that, "these troubles, gonna carry to my grave."
7. Muddy Waters â€“ "Hard Days" (1948)
"Muddy Waters' One More Mile"Photo courtesy Geffen Records
Straight off the plantation, the great Muddy Waters was still singing down-home Delta blues when he first landed in Chicago in 1947. Muddy's brilliant "Hard Days" might have been the story of his move from Mississippi to the Windy City, but in this case, though, Muddy's "hard days" have to do with havin' "nobody to love me" and the sad fact that "my pocketbook was empty," due to gambling it all away â€“ both themes consistent with bad luck in the blues.
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8. Sonny Boy Williamson â€“ "Nine Below Zero" (1961)
"Sonny Boy Williamson His Best"Photo courtesy Geffen Records
Unlucky in love, Sonny Boy Williamson sings "ain't that a pity, I declare it's a cryin' shame; she wait till it got nine below zero, and put me down for another man." Worse yet, the song's protagonist doesn't have a dime to his name, and no place to sleep: "I give her all my money, all of my lovin' and everything; all of my money, all of my lovin' and everything," leaving him on the street with nothing but this bad luck tale.
9. Tommy Johnson â€“ "Canned Heat Blues" (1929)
"Tommy Johnson's Complete Recorded Works"Photo courtesy Price Grabber
As tales of woe go, alcoholism is perhaps one of the baddest pieces of luck that can befall a bluesman or woman. Obscure, but not untalented, early Delta blues artist Tommy Johnson has the jones bad for that ol' "canned heat," a particularly nasty form of sterno that was drunk as an alcohol substitute. Although the song's protagonist (probably biographical) knows that "canned heat killing me," it's actually his bad luck with women that has led him to drink.
10. Watermelon Slim & the Workers â€“ "I've Got A Toothache" (2008)
"Watermelon Slim and the Workers' No Paid Holidays"Photo courtesy Northern Blues Music
Dental problems always make for a great bad luck blues song, even if they're indicative of some other sort of trouble. In this case, Watermelon Slim's "I've Got A Toothache" is a straight-up story of a rotten molar. Accompanied by some of the greasiest slide-Dobro that you've ever heard, Slim's talking blues-styled vocals lay out the sordid tale. The painkiller isn't helping, he can't sleep, he hates the dentist and his drill, the tooth is throbbing all damn night, and even a glass of bourbon doesn't help. In the end, Slim concludes that, "a toothache people, that ain't nothing but the blues." Amen.