DELTA BLUES POETRY: THE STORIES BEHIND SELECTED LYRICS OF SONNY BOY II
Delta blues lyrics are, often, very dense, highly-codified poetry that would empower powerless delta Blacks to sing what they could not dare to say. Delta Whites would often dismiss the simple, country images as folksongs rather than admit the Black (often viewed as unreliable and less than human) could create art. Sonny Boy II’s songs express many of these themes and feelings.
Without a doubt, Rice Miller AKA Sonny Boy II, was one of the most original and colorful folk blues poets of all time. While self-centered to a fault (65% of his songs listed on this site begin with I, are a command or are autobiographical), Sonny Boy’s images are unique in bluesdom. Who else could come up with such Biblical references to sex as “(She gave)Eyesight To The Blind”, “She Gave Life to The Dead,” “Unseen Eye” or “The Unseeing Eye?” Always fighting with his woman and then begging to get “The Key (To Your Door)” or telling his woman “(You don’t have to call no police; I’m) Gettin’ Out Of Town”, or, about to be caught by a returning husband, knowing “(There Ain’t But) One Way Out” he told his life’s story.
Many of his songs were autobiographical. “(I Ain’t) Fattenin’ (No More) Frogs For Snakes” was allegedly aimed at an employer who didn’t pay him. “Pontiac Blues” was about Trumpet Records’ Lillian McMurry’s new Pontiac which “Miss Lillian” offered him if his wife Mattie could travel with him as his manager (he declined the opportunity). “309” was not only Trumpet’s street address on Farish Street in Jackson Mississippi but the song gave out Lillian’s home phone number (for obvious reasons, the song went unreleased for years). “West Memphis Blues” talks about a real fire that happened at his home in West Memphis in June of 1949. I know about it; I found the arrest record on Suspicion of Arson (he was exonerated). I strongly suspect “The Goat” was about a personal encounter Sonny Boy had with the law deciding to give him “time” instead of “fines” that Max Moore, Interstate Grocer’s owner, paid. Sonny Boy’s braying vocal interjections and his goatee make a good case for why he was called “The Signifying Goat.” The stories go on forever and many references may never be fully identified.