Free and Equal Blues

When reading some of the kind comments I received yesterday and today about my email on VE Day, I recalled my dad once introducing me to the songs of folk singer Josh White. White was well known in the 1940s as using his music for human rights ideals and to end segregation in the White south. He was close to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and followed by many of those in my mom and dad’s generation. But in the McCarthy period of strident anti-Communism, White was marginalized and largely forgotten. He was ignored by the folk revival of the 1960s and the growth of audiences keen for the blues.

Josh White’s song “Free and Equal Blues” used the blues genre to reaffirm our common humanity, regardless of race or ethnicity.

His thinking that the body chemistry shared by all persons has moral implications has just been affirmed by the coronavirus, which can reproduce itself without regard for race, religion, ethnicity or class – thanks to the biology we all share.

You can hear White sing this 1940s anthem of global equality here.

The lyrics of the song are:

I went down to that St. James Infirmary and I saw some plasma there,
I ups and asks the doctor man, “Say was the donor dark or fair?”
The doctor laughed a great big laugh and he puffed it right in my face,
He said, “A molecule is a molecule, son, and the damn thing has no race.”
And that was news, yes that was news.
That was very, very, very special news.
‘Cause ever since that day, we’ve had those free and equal blues.

“You mean you heard that doc declare
That the plasma in that test tube there could be
White man, black man, yellow man, red?”
“That’s just what that doctor said.”
The doc put down his doctor book and gave me a very scientific look
And he spoke out plain and clear and rational,
He said, “Metabolism is international.”

Then the doc rigged up his microscope with some Berlin blue blood,
And, by gosh, it was the same as Chun King, Quebechef, Chattanooga, Timbuktoo blood
Why, those men who think they’re noble
Don’t even know that the corpuscle is global
Trying to disunite us with their racial supremacy,
And flying in the face of old man chemistry,
Taking all the facts and trying to twist ‘em,
But you can’t overthrow the circulatory system.

So I stayed at that St. James Infirmary.
(I couldn’t leave that place, it was too interesting)
But I said to the doctor, “Give me some more of that scientific talk talk,” and he did:
He said, “Melt yourself down into a crucible
Pour yourself out into a test tube and what have you got?
Thirty-five hundred cubic feet of gas,
The same for the upper and lower class.”
Well, I let that pass…

“Carbon, 22 pounds, 10 ounces”
“You mean that goes for princes, dukeses and countses?”
“Whatever you are, that’s what the amounts is:
Carbon, 22 pounds, 10 ounces; iron, 57 grains.”
Not enough to keep a man in chains.
“50 ounces of phosphorus, that’s whether you’re poor or prosperous.”
“Say buddy, can you spare a match?”

“Sugar, 60 ordinary lumps, free and equal rations for all nations.
Then you take 20 teaspoons of sodium chloride (that’s salt) and you add 38
Quarts of H2O (that’s water), mix two ounces of lime, a pinch of chloride of
Potash, a drop of magnesium, a bit of sulfur and a soupֱon of hydrochloric
Acid and you stir it all up and what are you?”
“You’re a walking drugstore.”
“It’s an international, metabolistic cartel.”

And that was news, yes that was news,
So listen, you African and Indian and Mexican, Mongolian, Tyrolean and Tartar,
The doctor’s right behind the Atlantic Charter.
The doc’s behind the new brotherhood of man,
As prescribed at Gettysburg, Iwo Jima, Bull Run and Guadalcanal:
Every man, everywhere is the same, when he’s got his skin off.
And that’s news, yes that’s news,
That’s the free and equal blues!