Sunday, May 31, 2015

Subject, Not a Citizen

Willie Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 1, 1915, and in the years after World War II, he would become an important figure in the development and growth of Blues, Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll. After performing with a succession of R&B groups, Dixon would work for Chess Records in Chicago, starting in 1951, and except for a brief period in the late 1950s, he would stay for two decades. Don Snowden, Dixon’s co author of I Am The Blues described his role there. “Dixon was a full-time employee after 1951—producing, arranging, running the studio . . . His role was so crucial that Leonard Chess would later describe him as ‘my right arm.’” His greatest impact was as a songwriter. He would pen “Hoochie Coochie Man” for Muddy Waters and “My Babe” for Little Walter. In the 1960s, his music would be recorded by The Rolling Stones (“Red Rooster”) and Led Zeppelin (“I Can’t Quit You” and others).

But before the fame and success came along, Willie Dixon was a subject of Jim Crow Mississippi. While still in his teens, Dixon was jailed in the Magnolia State for hoboing and the experience marked him. I am the Blues detailed the horrors, including his witness to a murder. “They beat this guy until blood was running out of his mouth at the cage. He died right there in his own blood and that dirt would be so hot and that dust so thick that it would burn your feet through your shoes. After they beat him, they drug him over to the side and a little breath was still life was still left in him. Where he had been bleeding out of his mouth and nose, you could see a little, bloody-colored bubble coming up from where he was breathing there. After awhile, you didn’t see them no more and they’d tell you, ‘Go bury this nigger.’”

This sort of experience was doubtless in his mind when he started receiving draft notices in 1941. Congress enacted a draft in 1940 as the country drifted towards entering World War II. Dixon decided that he would refuse to serve, and he was eventually arrested while performing in Chicago. “They came on the stage down at the Pink Poodle when the Five Breezes were playing one night, when we came back the second time. This was during the time that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and they picked me up and put me in jail. I told them I was a conscientious-objector and that I wasn’t going to fight for nobody. . . I said I wasn’t a citizen, I was a subject. I was telling them about the 14th and 15th Amendment[s].”

After nearly a year in jail, Dixon was released and declared unfit for service. His memoir lists his classification as “5-F” which probably should have been 4-F.

I don’t know how widely (if at all) this type of protest was made by other black men during World War II, but Dixon wasn’t the only person to feel the way he did. Harlem Renaissance journalist and Black No More author, George Schuyler also opposed African American participation as Oscar R. Williams wrote in George S. Schuyler: Portrait of a Black Conservative. “Schuyler’s reasons for opposing African American participation in World War II were primarily rooted in his firsthand experience with racism while serving in the army during World War I. ‘I saw what was done to the Negro during the last war and I heard a lot more than I saw,’ he wrote. ‘I consider the Negro’s treatment during that period unforgivable and indefensible. I foresee that his treatment during the next war will be the same.’”

Ironically, this prominent draft-resister’s widest exposure would come during the inaugural celebration George H.W. Bush, after the latter’s vapid Flag Factory/ACLU Card/Willie Horton campaign of 1988.