As early as 1786, Arkansas women were thought to be “as vicious as the men, and are worthy companions of their husbands.” Popular culture hasn’t been easy on Arkansas women. They have been portrayed as willingly subjugated, backward, and crude. “The women chew and dip / And the big gals go barefooted / With tobacco on their lip” rhymed Marion Hughes in his 1903 book Three Years in Arkansaw. From the 1930s through the 1960s, Arkansas women were seen in Hollywood movies as happy-go-lucky hicks. Comic strips and television often presented them as over-sexed, dim-witted bombshells, like Lil’ Abner’s Daisy Mae (set in Kentucky but identified with Arkansas) and The Beverly Hillbillies’ Elly May Clampett.
In popular music, Arkansas women are usually and unsurprisingly depicted as an object of a man’s desire. Delta bluesmen see Arkansas women as absent lovers. Country Western singers give them a sweeter touch. Here are eight songs, written between 1937 and 2010, about Arkansas women.
The almost mythical Delta bluesman Robert Johnson frequented Arkansas as an itinerant musician, spending significant time in Helena and West Memphis. In November 1936, Johnson recorded a set of songs in San Antonio, TX. Among them were two songs about Arkansas women, “32-20 Blues” and “Terraplane Blues.” “32-20 Blues” is as dark a song as you will hear; Johnson’s narrator threatens his Hot Springs girl with a .32-20 Winchester. He sings, “If I send for my baby, man, and she don’t come, All the doctors in Hot Springs sure can’t help her none… And if she gets unruly and thinks she don’t wan’ do, Take my 32-20, now, and cut her half in two.” The song heavily borrows from Skip James’ “22-20 Blues” and belongs to a line of American folk ballads (“Little Sadie,” “Bad Lee Brown”) about men dealing with their women troubles with handguns.
“Terraplane Blues” was recorded during the same session as “32-20 Blues” and became Johnson’s first single and biggest hit during his lifetime (selling 5,000 copies). Johnson wonders why his Terraplane (a car popular in the 1930s) will not start and thinks that his Arkansas woman let another man drive the car while he was gone. The Terraplane, of course, is used as a metaphor for sex. “I’m gon’ get down in this connection, oh well, keep on tanglin’ with these wires,” he croons, “And when I mash down on your little starter, then your spark plug will give me fire.”
3. Bukka White – “Pine Bluff, Arkansas” (1937)
Bukka White recorded “Pine Bluff, Arkansas” on September 2, 1937 in Chicago. Bukka was allowed to make the trip from Mississippi to Chicago before he began a two-year prison sentence for shooting a man in the thigh. After some men jumped him and his friend, Bukka pulled out a .38 Colt. “I just shot him where I wanted to shoot him,” Bukka recalled. Bukka was born in 1909 somewhere between Aberdeen and Houston, MS. He first recorded for Victor Records in 1930 and made money as an itinerant. In “Pine Bluff, Arkansas,” Bukka sings about his “little woman” who was the “sweetest little woman that your men most ever saw.” The woman misses Bukka terribly:
My baby says, “I’m tired goin to bed and moan.”
Ooo well, she says, “Tired of goin to bed and moan.”
She said, “I ain’t had no lovin, daddy, since that you been gone.”
Well, she says, “I’m tired, daddy, singin to you lonesome songs.”
Ooo well, she says, “I’m tired of singin to you lonesome songs.”
She says, “I ain’t even here, daddy, I ain’t even here anymore.”
My baby says, “I’m tired, daddy, hearin my bedsprings groan.”
Ooo, well, she says, “I’m tired a-hearin my bedsprings groan.”
She said, “I declare if you want me, daddy, you better hurry on.”
Bob Skyles & His Skyrockets was a horn-based western swing band made up of Bob Kendrick and his sons from Brady, TX. The band was pretty popular in Texas and Oklahoma in the late 1930s and early 1940s, touring and recording (with RCA Bluebird and Decca) as sort of a novelty act. “My Arkansas Bazooka Gal” was one of their biggest hits. A bazooka is actually a musical instrument (kind of like a bass kazoo with a trombone slider) made famous by Arkansas comedian Bob Burns in the 1930s. Soldiers in World War II began calling their rocket launchers “bazookas” because of its similar appearance to Burns’ instrument. Burns (born in Greenwood, AR) invented the instrument in the early 1900s after blowing through a long pipe with a whiskey funnel. He introduced it to his fellow servicemen in WWI. By the late 1930s, Burns had become a well-known “hillbilly” comedian (in the vein of Roy Rogers) and from 1941 to 1947 he had his own radio show called “The Arkansas Traveler.” The bazooka became a popular novelty instrument in bands throughout the country and was known for its “hick” origins. Hence, Skyles’ “My Arkansas Bazooka Gal.” Skyles sings in between ripping bazooka solos, “She’s sweet 16 and never been kissed, you don’t known what you’ve missed. I don’t exactly know her name, she’s all the world to me…I take my sweetheart hand in hand under the Ozark sky, our hearts will beat in double time, then you’ll hear me sigh, My Arkansas Bazooka Gal.”
Big Joe Williams was born in Crawford, MS in 1903. A master of the nine-string guitar and the first to record the blues classic “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” Williams was an itinerant bluesman who traveled from Chicago to New Orleans during the 1930s and 40s. He enjoyed renewed success during the Blues revival of the 1960s. “Don’t Want No Arkansas Woman” appeared on Big Joe’s 1961 album “Blues on Highway 49.” Big Joe tells us about the song in this priceless video from 1966:
“Mary Queen of Arkansas” is considered by critics and fans as one of Bruce Springsteen‘s worst songs. Eric Alterman believes it is “almost certainly the most morose and pretentious song [Springsteen] has ever released.” It is a peculiar song lyrically. Mary seems to be a drag queen that works for a circus in the pre-Civil War South. The narrator is a slave who wants to run away to Mexico with the white Mary. “You’re not man enough for me to hate or woman enough for kissing,” he sings, “I don’t understand how you can hold me so tight and love me so damn loose.” On May 2, 1972, Springsteen, 22 years old at the time, auditioned for CBS Records in the office of talent scout John Hammond. He played four songs including “Mary Queen of Arkansas.” Although Hammond was not particularly enamored with “Mary,” he later told Newsweek in 1975, “I only hear somebody really good once every ten years, and not only was Bruce the best, he was a lot better than Dylan when I first heard him.” On May 3, 1972, Springsteen recorded an audition tape for CBS, “Mary Queen of Arkansas” was the first song recorded. The song appears on Springsteen’s debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, but Springsteen rarely played it live. On March 14, 2000, after a 26 year absence from his setlist, Bruce played “Mary Queen of Arkansas” at Alltel Arena in Little Rock, AR.
Here is the original audition recording of “Mary Queen of Arkansas” from 1972. You can hear John Hammond saying, “Bruce Springsteen, Columbia Pop audition, job number 79682, Mary Queen Of Arkansas, take 1” at the beginning.
7. Green Day – “One for the Razorbacks” (1992)
In 1991, three years before their breakout hit album Dookie, Green Day was a little known punk-pop band who just began touring nationally. Billie Joe Armstrong was still obnoxious, just not obnoxiously famous. The nineteen year old Armstrong wrote a song about a girl name Juliet he knew from Fayetteville, AR called “One for the Razorbacks.” In Green Day fashion, the song meshes punk pace with pop melody, supplying the adequate amount of lyrical angst and a surprising amount of positive thinking. “Juliet’s crying / ‘Cuz now she’s realizing love can be / Filled with pain and distrust / I know I am crazy / And a bit lazy but I will try / To bring you up again somehow.” Despite Juliet’s refusals, Armstrong wants to make her feel better: “ ‘Cuz I’m losing whats left of my dignity / A small price I’ll pay to see that you’re happy / Forget all the disappointments you have faced / Open up your worried world and let me in.” The song appeared on Green Day’s 1992 album Kerplunk, which sold 50,000 copies after its release (their next album Dookie would go on to sell 15,000,000 copies). Here is a video of Green Day performing “One for the Razorbacks” in Little Rock on August 17, 1991. Armstrong explains its meaning, if anyone knows any info on Juliet let us know:
8. Damien Jurado – “Arkansas” (2010)
I am cheating on this one. When I first heard Damien Jurado’s “Arkansas,” I thought it was about a woman from Arkansas (and it very easily could be), but Jurado told an audience at White Water Tavern in Little Rock in March 2010 that the song was about thinking about his ex-wife (who I don’t think is from Arkansas) while driving south of Fayetteville down I-540. The line “Taller than trees and brighter than starlight / I never feel magic unless I’m with you / Oh, Arkansas” describes the wonderful scenery along I-540. Here is the video of Jurado’s explanation at the White Water Tavern:
“Arkansas” was Jurado’s first single from his 2010 album Saint Bartlett.