Bobby Rush, the 86-year-old, Grammy-winning blues singer and songwriter, turned the tables on his interviewer. “If your wife or girlfriend leaves you,” he asked, “would you rather she left you for your best friend or a stranger?” “A stranger, I guess,” the reporter answered weakly. “Now what sense does that make?” Rush said. “Either way she’s still gone. She’s still not coming back. If I sing a song about ‘My Woman Left Me for My Best Friend’ or ‘My Woman Left Me for a Stranger,’ you’re still going to feel just as bad.
“When Howlin’ Wolf sang about someone stealing his woman,” Rush continued, “he sang about it like he was going to hurt you: ‘I wore my .44 so long, I made my shoulder sore.’ That’s serious. But sooner or later, you’ve got to get over it. Over is over, and dead is dead. What can help you get over it? Humor. If I sing, ‘My baby ran off with the garbage man,’ pretty soon I’ve got you laughing, and you’re over it. That’s where I be coming from with my stories.”
Rush is back in the spotlight these days after his appearance in the recent Eddie Murphy movie, Dolemite Is My Name, on Netflix. The film tells the story of Rudy Ray Moore, a comedian on the “chitlin’ circuit,” the pre-integration network of African-American venues where comics and musicians played for black audiences and low wages, sometimes even paid in chitterlings, stewed pig intestines. Rush got his start on that circuit too, often performing with Moore, so it made sense to have the singer do his song “I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya” during one of the scenes.
“When I played with Rudy Ray,” Rush recalled, “we played juke joints, VFW halls, dancehalls, bars—a hundred people was a big place for us. Rudy Ray would be the headliner. He would emcee the band on, then he’d do his own set while the band was on break. I was drawing a party kind of crowd, so I wrote party songs. Because I knew if the crowd told the promoter they liked you, you’d be back.”
Rush enjoyed the movie experience so much that he wrote and recorded a single after the picture was released. “Dolemite Kid” is in the tradition of folk tales about mythical superheroes. “I caught an alligator one day,” Rush boasts in the song. “I ran my hand down its throat, snatched the tongue out of the mouth and used it for my remote.” When a reporter asked exactly how that worked, Rush divulged his secret.
“The best way to get an alligator to open his mouth,” Rush confided, “is to say his name three times—‘Alligator, Alligator, Alligator’—and brush his teeth with toothpaste. Then you can reach in his mouth and he won’t bite you. If he does, let me know, and I’ll make it up to you somehow.”
Many of Rush’s best songs involve animals. His 74-song, four-CD box set, released in 2015, was called Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History of Bobby Rush. The set contains not only the title track, his first top-40 R&B hit in 1971, but also songs such as “Camel Walk,” “What’s Good for the Goose Is Good for the Gander,” “Booga Bear” and “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.” Somehow it’s easier for audiences to laugh at human misbehavior when that mischief is practiced by the birds and beasts. Rush learned this lesson when he was growing up in rural Louisiana picking cotton.
“I was a country boy, so I related to animals.” Rush explains. “When I was a child, Nat King Cole had a song about a buzzard who gave free rides to the animals and then dropped them so they would fall and die and he could eat them. But the monkey wrapped his tail around the buzzard’s neck and said, ‘Straighten up and fly right.’ Louis Jordan had a song called ‘Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens.’ I could relate to that, because I’m a rooster. My first big song was ‘Chicken Heads,’ because I grew up on a farm.”
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the allegories here. Maybe the power relationship between white landowners and black sharecroppers couldn’t be addressed explicitly, but it could easily be transferred to the relationship between a buzzard and a monkey or between a farmer and a rooster. Moreover, introducing animals into the story made it easier for audiences to laugh at their troubles rather than wallow in them.
“You don’t want to just hear songs that are sad,” Rush points out. “You’ve been working all week, under the hammer every day; you want something to make you happy. You want to think there’s a girl waiting for you at the end of the cotton row, a band waiting for you at the end of the week. Saturday night is the only time you can let your hair down, so I play like every moment is too valuable to waste. When you get off at 4 pm on Friday, you start to party, and you keep going till the joints close on Sundays at 10 pm. That’s how you get through the week, because it’ll be Tuesday till you come off that high and then you can look forward to Friday.”
Rush finally won his Grammy for his 2016 album Porcupine Meat, which featured not only the title track, but also “Snake in the Grass” and “Catfish Stew.” Producer Scott Billington picked out some of Rush’s funniest, funkiest songs and teamed the singer with some of New Orleans’ best musicians. The result was a relaxed precision that gave Rush the best showcase of his career.
“That song ‘Porcupine Meat,’” he says, “wasn’t about a porcupine. It was about a woman who didn’t want me as much as I wanted her. but I couldn’t leave her alone. So I sang, ‘Too fat to eat, too lean to throw away.’ I knew she had another man, maybe more, but I didn’t want my friends to know that, so I sang about porcupine meat instead. It might have been my downfall to joke-ify my songs, so they didn’t seem serious. But it’s a serious thing if a garbage man steals your woman.”