Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Real boy, real man: Pucker up and blow

I always thought the song in Pinocchio, 1940, "Always let your conscience be your guide" must have been the inspiration for Sonny Boy Williamson's "Let your conscience be your guide", since it is such an unusual and specific song title.  The blues song came out in the late 1950's on Checker records first, I think.  I also imagined the dress code of Jiminy Cricket - vagabond American meets ersatz English nobility - was itself quite Sonny Boy.  

In the Disney song, the Cricket is the personification of a far from ideal conscience directing the puppet to achieve his goal of becoming a boy.  In the Sonny Boy song, the morals are much uglier, conditional, typical of the man and the sub-culture he came from.  Here the basic message is directed towards a woman, who by all accounts is a decent woman, and he's encouraging her to continue to be decent, particularly in not telling him lies, implicitly relationship lies.  Now in the original Pinocchio story, the boy also has to battle with his tendency to tell lies - his nose gets longer when he tells lies.  His is a personal struggle with learning a moral code, of learning how to be a well behaved boy.  There's no conditionality about it.  With Sonny Boy, the reward for the woman's continued good behaviour is fidelity, Sonny's fidelity.  If you don't lie to me, then I'll stick around.  The boy story is the story of a universal moral code, one backed by one kind or another of fundamental belief system - a religion, a cultural code, a metaphysics.  With Sonny Boy it is all game theory - a collection of conditional promises based on assumptions about the other's actions.  An exhortation which only makes sense in a world where failures of fidelity are ever-present.  

It is such a strange moral tale, when compared to many of the other blues songs, where the pattern is to sing about how wonderful your lover is, or how much you miss them, or how you'd like to be their lover, or how you're afraid to lose them.  Sonny Boy's is not a blues boy's song, it reflects a much older perspective, where sexual love takes second place to conditional promises.  I think it is fair to read 'telling lies' in the song as a metaphor for infidelity.  Sonny Boy, the man, is quite likely to have been an unfaithful man, from what I can gather from his biography.  He was considered a consummate liar.  Indeed his stage name is a steal from an older, more famous blues player.  There is much doubt about his own biographical details because he lied so much to people when talking about his life.   Apparently he was married 'for a short time' and the marriage produced no offspring. 

Perhaps the image of the childless artisan wishing he had a boy touched a raw nerve with Sonny Boy.  Perhaps the song then is Sonny Boy's own identification with the liar boy, with his disembodied, wayward conscience.  He most certainly would have been an adult if he ever saw the movie.  Maybe he transformed the puppet into an archetype of a deceitful woman, always prone to infidelity, and he transformed himself into the cricket, the musical cricket, horn playing, whistling, blowing and sucking, attempting to keep his woman on the particular path of righteousness which his sub-culture spelled out for him.  

Maybe it is his fantasy of who he would have liked to have been, rather than the man he must surely have realised he really was.  Maybe the song was the denial of the reality of the man for that other fantasy.  Maybe the song was Sonny Boy's own lie to himself in praise of a cracked,contingent moral code which he wished he could live up to.  In the end, Sonny Boy wanted to monopolise a kind of purity external to him, for which he was prepared to offer his presence as payment and was a close to purity he probably ever wanted to get.