Blues for Mr. President

By Tom Rankin

Vol. 6, No. 4, 1984, pp. 12-13

MR. PRESIDENT

Oh, went down to the employment office this morning
Lord, didn't have a thing for poor me

Went down to the employment office this morning
Lord, didn't have a thing for poor me

Went down to the welfare
Lord, the reply was the same

Mr. President
see the poor people out there in line

Mr. President
see the poor people out there in line

Lord, they trying to find a job
and a job so hard to find

Now Mr. President, DEAR Mr. President:

Whole fifty states writing you now
Trying to let you know their condition, people is suffering
People being put out of doors
People is sitting on the streets, losing their homes
Ain't got money to pay off their mortgage
Banks going broke
Little businesses shut down
People suffering everywhere Mr. President
I know you say that things is progressing a little
But the poor man is suffering
You cut the poor a whole lot; the blind, the cripple, the lame
Come live with me a little while
Find out how the situation is here
Then you'll reconsider a little bit
Go live with the blind man
Go live with the cripple man

Yours truly,
Whole fifty states

Mr. President
please give the people something to do

Mr. President, oh man
give these people something to do

People everywhere is singing
singing the no job blues

Please Mr. President

Words and Music Copyright 1983 by Richard Henry. All rights reserved.

Born in Beaufort on the coast of North Carolina in 1921, Richard "Big Boy" Henry grew up working odd jobs in town and on the farm, trying to supplement his parents' income. When he wasn't delivering groceries or helping his mother wash clothes for white townspeople, Big Boy would listen to the intinerant bluesmen on the streets of Beaufort and New Bern. In 1933, he met Fred Miller, a guitar player from Sumter, South Carolina who was traveling the eastern seaboard. "I would sing for him and he would play," he remembers. "At that time I was just trying to learn how to play. Of course, around the age of fourteen I started to play, but before then I'd do all his singing for him. And we'd go around on the streets and the corners and different houses, and we'd pick up, maybe, twenty-five, thirty, fifty cents here and twenty-five, thirty, fifty cents there." As Fred Miller and Big Boy played music as a team, Big Boy learned new songs from the more experienced bluesmen, but also began to improvise and compose his own lyrics.

By the mid-forties Big Boy Henry was providing for his wife and children partly through his music. When he wasn't off the coast of Mississippi or Texas pulling nets on menhaden boats, he was playing music at a neighborhood house party or cafe. Often, he would return from a fishing


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trip on Thursday or Friday and catch a bus to New York City where he would spend the weekend playing the blues' "Long about the middle of the forties, early fifties Fred and I would catch a weekend bus to New York. We'd play on the streets, in the beer joints, went up on Thompson Street in Brooklyn. We could make more money up there than we could down here." Often he would return with eighty or ninety dollars. In the mid-fifties, however, Big Boy exchanged his blues guitar for the pulpit and began preaching in a church in New Bern, North Carolina. At one time he pastored two churches, although he never used preaching as his main source of income: "Religion is a thing no man should just sit down and live off." He continued to work as a commerical fisherman on the menhaden boats while also fishing his own nets in the Neuse River. For nearly thirty years he continued preaching and fishing, playing no blues until 1980 when he once again picked up his guitar and began singing and composing songs.

A gentle and articulate man, Big Boy Henry now composes regularly, borrowing lines and chords from traditional blues repertoires as he comments on the world around him. One August night in Durham while opening for a John Lee Hooker concert, Big Boy began to improvise on a talking blues. "That was August 22 of 1982 and suddenly I thought about a whole lot of things," he explains. "Mostly when I'm singing in places like that, everything I sing's new. So I thought about "Mr. President" and it went over big there."

The song he calls "Mr. President" tells of hard times brought on by Reagan Administration policy. "What made me think of it, I was talking a little bit, joking about how hard things is, so it come to me and I said I believe I'll sing some of it. Wherever I would go, wherever I would sing, people I would entertain, and then on the news, people be sitting outdoors losing their homes, have no rent to pay. I think not only Reagan, I think the whole country should have more compassion than that."

Unlike many of the songs he sings which speak more subtly of social problems, "Mr. President" addresses politics candidly. The song, he feels, reflects the opinion of many blacks and whites who have suffered from the economic and social policies brought on by Reagan and his team. "I think that he don't have the feeling towards us like he should," Big Boy says of Reagan's lack of concern for blacks. "I don't think it's through hate or anything, but I reckon he "rowed up that way."

Today Richard "Big Boy" Henry lives in a two-story farm house in Beaufort with his wife, Ann, and seven children. He performs in Beaufort and Greenville often, and occasionally travels to Durham and Winston-Salem to appear at festivals. "Mr. President" his first record, was recorded on the label and is available from Audio Arts Recording Company, Route 1, Box 59, in Greenville, North Carolina 27834, (919) 758-2240.

Tom Rankin is a folklorist and photographer now living in Jackson, Mississippi. An exhibit of his photographs opens Oct. 12 at Vanderbilt University.