In the early months of rock ‘n’ roll there will be quite a lot of notable “firsts” to delve into. First record, first hit, first instrumental, first vocal group… well, you get the picture. Naturally this was to be expected since the entire style itself was just emerging from the egg.

Today we have the first protest song in rock’s long illustrious history of loudly voicing objection to, dissent with and outright indignation over a wide variety of cultural abuses, backwards policies and wrongheaded views.

Yup, from the very start rock ‘n’ roll had a bone to pick and right off the bat they chose a good target, not to mention a very appropriate one considering rock’s genetics.

A Playboy And A Devil
Theodore Bilbo was one of the most (though obviously not “THE most”) repugnant, vile racists to ever serve in elected office in America which included two non-consecutive terms as Governor of Mississippi and two terms as a United States Senator, the latter ending mercifully when the Devil apparently needed a new toady to light his cigars in Hell and called on the eager Bilbo, who kicked the bucket August 21, 1947.

Not a moment too soon either.

Taking aim at the recently departed was 18 year old Andrew Tibbs, making his recording debut after being stashed in a hotel for days by Leonard Chess to keep other record companies from snatching him up before he could bring Tibbs to Aristocrat, the label Leonard would eventually take over and turn into the vast Chess Records empire.

But this is before all that, when Chess was simply the owner of The Macomba Lounge where Tibbs frequently sang. Looking to get into the record business himself Chess saw Tibbs as a way to get his foot in the door. But while history has obviously focused on Chess because of his subsequent success, by far the bigger deal in this sequence of events as 1947 came to a close was the teenager making his recording debut by boldly tackling a vital issue head-on in an era when such things were potentially hazardous to your well-being.


The song was written by Tibbs and Tom Archia, the sax player at the Macomba who’d also been recording for Aristocrat, as they were on the way to the studio in early September for Tibbs first session, just a few short weeks after Bilbo’s death from oral cancer (probably the result of the poison that came out of that mouth his whole life), and the record’s “underground” success at the expense of the late-Senator’s memory made Tibbs somewhat of a cause célèbre in the African-American community that was roundly applauding the political bastard’s demise nationwide.

Listening to Bilbo Is Dead today, thankfully removed from the horrors of legalized segregation, Jim Crow laws and much worse, this probably won’t even seem like a protest at all. You can go over the lyrics with a fine-toothed comb in the 21st Century and – without a working knowledge of just who Senator Bilbo was and what he stood for – mistakenly think it was actually a TRIBUTE to the man, as following a funeral-esque piano intro Tibbs sounds positively broken-hearted as he “mourns” the loss of “his best friend”. The dirge-like horns would seem to add the right touch of respect for this tragic passing as Tibbs recounts his own wayward activities and claims without Bilbo he “feels like a fatherless child”.

As such it seems like a sad lament over the passing of a respected figure in his life.

Now get that thought out of your head immediately because here’s the REAL story.


When I Got To Mississippi
In a profession full of scoundrels, Theodore Bilbo – though only 5’2” – towered above the rest. He slithered his way up the Mississippi political ladder, nearly thrown out of office early on for accepting a bribe, showing that his predilection for underhandedness was part of his DNA from the start. Most comical among his many missteps is the story of him hiding in a barn to avoid being served with subpoena after his former lieutenant governor had impregnated his secretary and following a botched abortion which left her unable to bear children she sought vengeance and legal restitution. Governor Bilbo eventually was found guilty of contempt of court for his game of hide and seek with the law and served a brief jail term for his actions.

Smarmy as all of that was it didn’t seem to derail his career any for he found the perfect political “cause” to attach his name to in order to appeal to his reprehensible constituency who had voted him into office. Bilbo built his name on not just the all-out support of segregation, which of course was all too common at the time, but a fervent belief that all Negroes should actually be shipped back to Africa so as to prevent the tainting of America should blacks ever be successful in their calls for increased civil rights and eventually be afforded status as social equals to whites.

He wrote a book about it in fact, Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization. I recommend it for the sheer unintentional hilarity of his claims, which at some points are laugh out loud funny… though it’s also a case of laughing to avoid crying that such an evil being was in a position of power, though in that regard some things never change I guess.

In this epic he rails against “Quislings” at length (Quislings was a term that emerged from World War Two in honor of Vidkun Quisling, the leader of Norway’s puppet regime that supported Adolf Hitler, against the wishes of his own country’s people. It quickly became a term for any person who collaborates with enemy forces, in this case whites who support giving blacks equal rights, which is of course ironic because Bilbo himself was surely a fan of Adolf Hitler and thus should’ve been defending Quisling, not using his name as a disparaging term… but I digress). He is particularly incensed with former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in that regard, viewing her as public enemy number one when it comes to the push for integration.

He goes on to call A. Phillip Randolph, the President of the Sleeping Car Porters union (the one job which afforded blacks some prestige and a decent living wage) “the most vigorous, audacious, ambitious and dangerous Negro in America” for deigning to use his position to advance the cause of civil rights via a threat to stage the first March on Washington which Randolph organized in 1941 leading to the creation by President Franklin Roosevelt of the Fair Employment Practice Committee which Bilbo refers to as an “unAmerican bastard” program. He is particularly affronted by Randolph’s bold persona, citing his “refusal to PLEAD for anything he wants for the Negro people”, but rather that he “vociferously demands” it, which of course in Bilbo’s eyes brands Randolph “a Communist”.

What Bilbo’s true fear boils down to, as he makes as clear as possible within the standards of literary decency for the times, is the possibility of voluntary sexual relations between the races. As befitting such a stout man apparently his… err… manhood wasn’t exactly up to par and as such he relied on having less competition for near-sighted white women who may be desperate or deranged enough to sleep with him. In any event, his raging insanity over “blood mixing” and his ridiculous views of the various attributes of each race fill each page unrelentingly.

Through all of this vitriol though he actually sees himself as a FRIEND to the Negro by offering them such a wonderful opportunity as to be packed like sardines onto a ship and sailed across the ocean (free of charge!) to a small make-shift country (which America will presumably just take from its current inhabitants, who may not be all too pleased with those circumstances) half a world away where they’ll have the “privilege” of having their start-up community overseen by capable, intelligent white men until they are deemed fit for survival and are left to their own devices… presumably with no industry, infrastructure, foreign aid, military assistance or diplomatic relations after that… but hey, what can these freeloaders expect from the country that kidnapped their ancestors in the first place, enslaved them and treated them with less human decency than livestock for hundreds of years?

Luckily Bilbo’s plan didn’t win enough support to get it past the proposal stage (actually ANY support was too much), and within a year of its publication Bilbo was, in fact, dead.

Let the celebration begin.

Had To Put It Down
The audience for this record in the waning days of 1947 of course KNEW all of this history. Thus there was no need for crib notes for the uninitiated as there is here 70 years later and so all of the tongue-in-cheek references to supposedly missing the son of a bitch were as clear as day to those who’d lived through his notorious career and suffered at the hands of his insidious policies and terrorist actions supported by the backwards rule of law that was in effect at the time.

The underlying tone Tibbs employs on Bilbo Is Dead was entirely patronizing, not respectful, the mock-sadness was in fact barely disguised delight, but all of it was delivered in a way that treated Bilbo’s claims to being a friend of the people he openly despised as if they were true. The listener was in on the joke.

In that way it works. But in other ways, not quite as much.

Part of this, I fully admit, is the passage of time. Having not lived through it but only having read about it and had more generalized stories of the times passed down through the years by ancestors, my personal reaction to such an excuse for a human being would be to dig up Bilbo’s grave, pour gasoline over his rotting corpse, torch his remains and eventually put out the smoldering embers by pissing on him. (Actually my TRUE response would be far worse than that but this is a family-friendly blog and so I’ll keep it reasonably PG-rated).

But this is the problem of course when dealing with such reprehensible things from a safe distance in the future. The natural visceral response one would have if we were transported back to that time and place would’ve been met with jailing, beatings or lynching from the authorities, judges and the white community at large, especially down south. In other words, what you WANT to do or say (or sing about) is not just unwise to do, but potentially lethal if you were to act upon it.

As a result the song in 1947 had to be done this way and Tibbs performance is definitely impressive in that regard. If all involved had been more blatant in their intent they would’ve faced a far more vicious backlash if word leaked out about the “uppity nigger who was dancing on the illustrious Senator’s freshly dug grave”. So while the protest works on that one, rather thin, level by replacing scorn with sarcasm, it doesn’t have quite the same bite to it. Only once – when Tibbs tells listeners they can “head on back to Mississippi cause Bilbo is dead and gone” – does the overall message become obvious, and then only fleetingly and consequently we in the present are left somewhat unfulfilled.

Rest In Peace
One of my constant refrains on this blog will be CONTEXT. All music needs to be viewed in the context of its times – musically, culturally and otherwise. The revolutionary actions of yesterday are always what leads to the changes of tomorrow so it’s unfair to use a modern perspective established after those changes have taken place to judge the roads taken to get us to the present where at least some of those circumstances have been thankfully made obsolete.

In that context Bilbo Is Dead does far better and deserves to be heard and appreciated, praised even, for the realities it dealt with and being able still make its mark on the world at the time. Make no mistake about it, this was a vital record which served an important role, both a cathartic one for the community whom it was intended for as well as creatively for the future course of rock itself when it comes to tackling similar issues, and that’s before even bringing up the lineage of Chess Records that’s wrapped up in this whole saga as well.

But – because of the skin-crawling realities of this particular context – my appreciation of it can’t help but fall a bit short. Admirable in its intent, but not brutal enough on its sub-human target.

Then again, it’s not my neck that would be wearing a rope for being unrelenting in what was sung. Regardless though the true victory in all of this, whether in 1947 or today, is the mere fact that Bilbo WAS dead and for that we can all rejoice.


(Visit the Artist page of Andrew Tibbs for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)