Insurance, and specifically life insurance, seems like an odd topic for the blues. Associated with urbanism and capitalism, the theme contests an understanding of the blues as an “authentic” expression of a rural folk culture. Focusing on a cluster of blues songs that reference life insurance reveals the consciousness of a long history of racialized exploitation and discrimination, including the everyday experiences associated with it. The representation of insurance in the blues also provides a window into polysemic modes of signifying and subtle forms of resistance.1 Recognizing the potential for insurance to function as fertile lyrical subject matter for messages of resistance or struggle requires excavating its long, racialized history extending back to the antebellum world.

Insurance, and specifically life insurance, seems like an unusual topic for the blues. To be more precise, the perception of the blues shaped by folklorists and early (ethno)musicologists failed to recognize or ignored lyrical subject matter such as insurance in favor of topics perceived as “authentic” expressions of primitive folk. Early criticism of the blues constructed the genre consistent with a binary opposition between a modern, capitalist society and a premodern, rural, folk culture. This opposition, consistent with a paradigmatic set of assumptions shaped by romanticism, curated an archive of the blues that supported the proposition that the music emanated from a rural agrarian folk untainted by the socio-economic concerns of the “modern” world. As Karl Hagstrom Miller argues, “The new folkloric paradigm changed music making and meaning throughout the South and the nation. The identification of some southern music as folk music…opened new avenues for the consumption of ideas about primitivism and exoticism that could function as a salve for the alienation of urban, industrial life.”2

The conception of the blues promoted by folklorists and early (ethno)musicologists not only ignores creative forms that voice something other than a message understood as properly “folk” and “primitive,” it also depends on a problematic racialization. As Paul Gilroy argues, a facile binary grounds the narrative of liberatory rationality, opposing a Black premodernity shaped by slavery with a white emancipatory critical project.3 According to this narrative, the enslaved inhabit a premodern world linked to the institution of slavery, whereas whites dwell in a modern capitalist world. From Reconstruction through the early twentieth century, this underlying opposition between a white, rational, capitalist modern society and premodern Black folk, agrarian, non-rational, or pre-rational culture dovetails with romanticized understandings of “folk” culture. In other words, a tradition of music scholarship has not only romanticized but also dehistoricized the blues, understanding the music and the culture that produced it as belonging to a distant past unacquainted with and therefore incapable of critical insight into the workings of modernity. Focusing on lyrics that treat insurance rehistoricizes the blues, recognizing both the continuity of history and the possibility for the blues’ critical engagement with the forces of modernity, including advanced forms of capitalism.

The insights in the blues into how insurance operates bear witness to the interpenetration of racialized realms of experience, revealing consciousness of a long history of exploitation and discrimination among the racialized “folk.” The representation of insurance in the blues also provides a window into polysemic modes of signifying and subtle forms of resistance.4 The treatment of insurance offers not only a glimpse of a history of racialized economic exploitation, including the everyday experiences associated with it from the perspective of the exploited, but also documents awareness and struggle among members of the subordinate group.

[John Lee] Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Insurance Man Blues” (Bluebird B-8034, 1938) opens with a scene that links insurance to other forms of creditor/debtor relations that appear in the blues.5 The first verse recounts a story of premium collection with a levity that winks at a knowing audience: “Ev’ry Monday mo’nin, people, the insurance man knockin’ on my do’ [2x] / Well now, tell him to come back on a Tue[sday] because Sonny Boy haven’t made no money, you know.” The narrator addresses a person charged with functioning as an intermediary to inform the insurance agent that payment will not be forthcoming. This narrative device, as well as the direct address to “people,” invites listeners to identify with both the narrator and the person to whom he is speaking. Indeed, the “you know” in the B line, addressed ambiguously to either the addressee in the narrative or the audience, operates as a conflation of the two.6 Williamson’s casual, unhurried delivery underscores the feeling of familiarity associated with the repeated scene (ev’ry Monday mo’nin’) and his resultant lack of sense of urgency in dealing with it. The held chords in the harmonica responses to the vocal reinforce the narrator’s insouciant attitude, in contrast with the busy piano work, perhaps representative of the insurance agent’s perspective. While the scene might appear odd to a white audience, it accurately reflects how insurance operated in the African American community.

Insurance for African Americans even in the twentieth century was shaped by a long history of racialized economic, social, and legal forces. The collection practice depicted by Williamson has its roots in the lodges and fraternal organizations that functioned as “Black mutual-aid societies…during and after enslavement.”7 As A. I. Dixie and Samuel Dixie explained in a W.P.A. interview,

See, you just paid 75 cents a month, [and they] give you $200 in cash when you die. But when it start[ed] up, it wasn’t paying that. If you was a farmer and your mule died, and you belonged to the Emancipated Order, everybody that had a mule had to give you a day’s work, until they could get you another mule. And if your house got burned down, they would chip in and help you get shelter.8

Lodges and fraternal societies enabled a form of collective risk management aimed at mitigating loss among members. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, “church relief and mutual aid societies were organized by free Blacks in the North, and later in the South, to provide a form of self-help for themselves and their families in the event of sickness and death.”9 They served the African American community, both free and to some degree enslaved, by taking “care of the sick and…bury[ing] the dead.”10 Membership dues financed “funeral benefits and perhaps sickness payments.”11

Benevolent aid societies existed alongside the white insurance industry pre- and post-Emancipation. Legislation prohibiting discrimination in the form of the refusal of the sale of insurance to African Americans dates back to at least the 1880s, explaining the need for alternative forms of risk mitigation in the Black community.12 Before Emancipation, slaveholders ensured their enslaved property with several northern and southern insurance companies, importantly both as cargo aboard ships and as bodies capable of performing labor in “America’s most lucrative and dangerous antebellum industries.”13 Recalling Gilroy’s assertion of a false binary between premodern slavery and modern rationality, the functioning of insurance as part of the economic regime of enslavement highlights the continuity between “premodern” slavery and post-Emancipation “modernity.” Because of the riskiness of the transatlantic trade, merchants and traders used insurance to lessen the potential for catastrophic loss. But slave insurance brought to light paradoxes about the condition of the enslaved. As Benjamin Wiggins underscores in the context of an insurance case involving an insurrection aboard the slave ship Thames, “While maritime slave insurance offered security against the loss of the ship’s ‘property,’ this property was also human. And, possessing such humanity, enslaved persons were both at risk and a risk” for financial loss through mutiny.14 After the Middle Passage, the enslaved were also insured once they were established in positions of bound labor. Slaveholders in the United States took out “life” insurance policies on people held in bondage to minimize risk to creditors and debtors.15 As Karen Ryder documents, however, slave life insurance—an outgrowth of fire and marine insurance16—affirms the enslaveds’ paradoxical existence as both persons and property.17

During the late nineteenth century, as Black lodges and fraternal organizations continued the work of distributing risk, white commercial insurance companies began offering life insurance to African Americans. Beginning in 1875, Prudential Life Insurance Company offered inexpensive “policies to laborers throughout America’s industrial trades” without “racial exclusions.”18 Relying on racist pseudo-science, however, the insurance industry “began classifying former slaves as ‘excessive’ mortality risks,” and imposed racially differential rate structures.19 Mary L. Heen writes, “Like Jim Crow state-sanctioned race segregation…the insurance industry justified and enforced Jim Crow race-based practices by reference to inherent or natural racial differences.”20

In response to racialized discrimination in insurance rates, “Black-owned insurance companies…respond[ed] to economic needs unmet by white companies,” creating “highly race-segregated” insurance markets.21 One Black-owned insurance company, Northeastern Life Insurance, was founded by Harry H. Pace, W. C. Handy’s partner in the Pace and Handy Music Company, the first Black-owned music publisher in the U.S.22 Pace went on to found Black Swan Records, the first Black-owned record label.23 Before his work in blues publishing and recording, Pace worked for Standard Life in Atlanta, one of the major Black-owned insurance companies of the early twentieth century.24 Pace was well acquainted with discrimination within the insurance industry, having worked with W. E. B. Du Bois while he was an undergraduate at Atlanta University.25 Pace’s company, Northeastern Life along with three others, later merged with Supreme Life and Casualty to form Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, of which he became the president on September 1, 1929.26 The merger of Standard Life, Northeastern Life, and Supreme Life speaks to the severe undercapitalization of all Black insurance companies.27 As Robert C. Puth explains concerning the merged company Supreme Liberty Life, “With its investments heavily concentrated in real estate and mortgages in Negro areas, the company experienced a rapid shrinkage in the real value of its assets.”28 Attesting to persistent undercapitalization, an article published in April 1929, before the stock market crash in October, reports a capital shortage among Black insurance companies.29 Before and after the Great Depression, discrimination and segregation hampered the development of the insurance sector of the Black financial system, negatively affecting both companies and their customers.30

Both Black- and white-owned insurance companies sold “industrial” policies to low-wage workers and the poor that featured frequent premiums collected door-to-door in small amounts.31 Door-to-door collection, as represented in Williamson’s “Insurance Man Blues,” remained a feature of insurance company business practice through the 1950s and 60s. John Lee Hooker Jr. recounts a story similar to Williamson’s from the time when his father was earning little because of unfair recording contracts, “Back in those days, the insurance man would come by to collect the bill. If my dad was late, he would hide in the closet or upstairs and say, ‘Tell him I’m out of town and I’ll be back in a week to pay him.’ I would lie and say, ‘My daddy isn’t home right now, but told me to tell you that he would be home next week to pay you.’”32

Initially, the industrial policies mirrored the function of mutual-aid societies, covering sickness, accidents, and death, but evolved to include “straight life” policies.33 Already before the market crash in 1929, Woodson reports, “Large numbers of Negroes…either because of their penurious condition or lack of confidence in the insurance companies, let their policies lapse and thus double the efforts of workers who must visit them and do their whole task of convincing them again of the importance of having such protection.”34 Consistent with Woodson’s report, Williamson’s B line in the second verse uses direct discourse to represent the insurance agent’s threat about allowing the policy to lapse: “He said, ‘If you don’t pays by next Wednesday, I reckon I’ll have to let your insurance drop.’” Lapsed policies and segregated real estate and mortgage holdings made financial success in the Black insurance industry nearly impossible.35

If Williamson’s vocal tone and instrumental style begin with a casual, humorous tone in response to difficult circumstances, the lyrics in the subsequent verses of “Insurance Man Blues” shift to dramatize a serious situation. In the third verse, Williamson sings, “I said, ‘Insurance man, please don’t turn me out. Lord, an’ I ain’t got nobody to bury me’ / ‘Now, insurance man, please don’t turn me out. I haven’t got nobody to bury me’ / Well, now, an’ I say, ‘If you won’t bury me, they’ll throw my body in the deep blue sea.’” Most African American listeners of the late 1930s would have likely understood the reference to burial “in the deep blue sea” as evocative imagery for the fate of those with lapsed life insurance policies: their remains are dumped in an unmarked grave. As a result, loved ones are deprived of a site to gather in remembrance of the deceased where a name and perhaps birth and death dates would have been inscribed in stone. The lack of a burial site represents not only the effacement of a life lived, but also its erasure in the historical record—the public transcript—a fate reminiscent of the social death, in Orlando Patterson’s seminal phrase, experienced by the enslaved.36 Other listeners might have heard an implied warning about the necessity of purchasing life insurance and keeping up with premiums to protect their loved ones from having to pay for a costly burial. But the imagery also gestures beyond these quotidian concerns to a shared past of bondage, terror, and death. I am suggesting that the polysemy of the blues requires listening in the present for echoes of ghosts of the past.

As previously mentioned, the enslaved aboard ships were ensured as property as part of the high-risk speculative capitalism of the transatlantic trade. One particularly gruesome and revealing episode involving the slave ship Zong demonstrates the consequences of considering the enslaved to be property. The captain of the ship purchased slaves on credit on behalf of Liverpool merchants, who then took out marine insurance on the value of the cargo. As a result of navigational errors, the ship’s water supply ran low and the captain ordered the crew to throw 132 enslaved people overboard.37 Their murders were an attempt to recoup economic losses via an insurance payout. In the Zong massacre, human life is sacrificed to use insurance to minimize loss within a capitalist system.38

While the fate of the enslaved aboard the Zong may seem like ancient history in the context of the blues, bearing history in mind enables the meaning of Williamson’s “They’ll throw my body in the deep blue sea” to resonate beyond the immediate context of the 1930s. Recognizing polysemy in lyrics and, in particular, references to a racialized history of discrimination and exploitation, reestablishes historical continuity between the “premodern” past of slavery and modern capitalism. The restored historical context also shifts the interpretive focus regarding expectations about modes of resistance to oppression. Rather than rely on an understanding of resistance shaped by the dominant culture and look for organized, overt struggle, a historically contextualized interpretation provides a window into the everyday struggles of subjugated groups.39 Bearing in mind that not all forms of critique are direct, polysemic lyrics represent a mode of indirect critique that is safer and more accessible to members of subordinate communities.

Hegemonic power rarely functions in a straightforward top-down/bottom-up manner. As James C. Scott argues, everyday forms of resistance leave traces in the historical record in what he calls a “hidden transcript”: “Every subordinate group creates, out of its ordeal, a ‘hidden transcript’ that represents a critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant.”40 But Scott is careful to clarify that, “by definition, the hidden transcript represents discourse—gesture, speech, practices—that is ordinarily excluded from the public transcript of subordinates by the exercise of power. The practice of domination, then, creates the hidden transcript.”41 Early folklorists working within a research paradigm shaped by romanticism believed they gained access to the hidden transcript. For example, Alan Lomax wrote that his research, “penetrate[d] this zone of silence,” and that he “managed, finally, to record the way the black laborers of the Delta saw their situation.”42 Scholarship conceived as a project of penetration and faithful recording fails to recognize its status as a form of (racialized) mediation.

According to Scott’s conception, the blues should not be understood as part of a hidden transcript. Hidden transcripts are precisely that: they are hidden; however, traces of hidden transcripts remain in the public record. In the case of the blues, not only white folklorists, but also white A&R folks and producers, such as Lester Melrose43 who worked closely with artists including Sonny Boy Williamson, helped curate the historical archive. As a public transcript, “Insurance Man Blues” represents a mediated cultural form. All the more reason to listen carefully for polysemy and historical resonance as modes of struggle and resistance gesturing to a hidden transcript.

In the line cited above about the threat of burial at sea, the use of pronouns stresses the narrator’s dependence on others to dispose of his body properly: “Well, now an’ I say, ‘If you won’t bury me, they’ll throw my body in the deep blue sea.’” The pointed opposition between “you”—the insurance agent whom I know and would like to trust—and “they”—who will “throw my body”—raises the specter of racialized antagonism. More specifics about the situation are revealed in the following verse. The narrator uses the future tense to address himself ambiguously to himself, the second person, and/or the audience, imagining what he will say to the insurance agent the next time he calls: “I’ll say, ‘you know how times is now-a-days, can’t no one man find no job’ [2x] / I’ll say ‘I can’t even take care of my wife an’ baby an’ I might have to let my family starve.’” The narrator imagines referencing high unemployment during the Depression to explain his inability to pay the next time the insurance agent calls, perhaps forestalling the lapse of the policy. The B line underscores the difficult choices facing the impoverished hounded by creditors of all types, forced to choose between food, shelter, and other necessities. Debt of all kinds constrains choices and, therewith, independence and autonomy.

Lest we mistakenly believe that paying premiums on a life insurance policy represents an “urban” problem, Williamson signals in the final verse that being hounded by an insurance agent is also a rural concern. The A line opens with a discourse marker clearly in the past tense, signaling the narrator’s words to the agent, who is addressed directly: “I said, ‘Please give me two mo’ weeks. Insurance man, please do that for me.’” The performance of the line is particularly emphatic, with triplets on the piano behind the vocal and a harmonica fill featuring a cupped-hand, wah-wah effect. The instrumental work emphasizes the desperation behind the words addressed to the insurance man. The opening frame of the B line shifts the discourse marker to the present tense in a pivot away from the agent and toward the audience: “Well, I say, ‘I don’t live up North, my home is back down in Tennessee.’” A softening of the instrumental backing complements the shift to a statement of fact addressed to the listener. The closing line of the representation asserts that falling prey to discriminatory practices in life insurance represents a problem facing many poor Black Americans.

Like the lyrics and their instrumental responses, the harmonica solo outro is both playful and serious. The opening three bars feature a held chord with a warbling effect. The busy backing, provided by steady quarter-note pulses on the piano and a slightly swung, single-note rhythm on guitar and mandolin, underscores through juxtaposition the emphatic emotional feel of the held chord. Williamson next reprises the standard fill he used in the verses—a quarter-note tone followed by a descending triplet pattern—to transition to an odd-sounding section featuring quick puffs of quarter notes. The effect is almost one of huffing and puffing, as if trying to get away from the agent. The tones, which are not held long, feel both light-hearted and oddly forced. Next, Williamson uses wah-wah effects to transition to a cadenced unison ending. The ensemble comes together for the only time in the performance, asserting a definitive ending in the last two bars. The final bent note on the harmonica, louder and more forceful than the rest of the ensemble, puts a definitive end to a seemingly endless tale of financial exploitation and victimization via insurance premiums. The instrumental performance asserts what the lyrics cannot: Williamson and his musical partners will achieve closure with grace and humor.

Washboard Walter and John Byrd offer a treatment of a collection visit in their earlier “Insurance Man Blues” (Paramount 12954A, 1930) that is harsher than Williamson’s. Conjuring the function of mutual-aid societies, the song references insurance against illness in two verses: “I’ve taken awful sick and I had to go to bed [2x] / I didn’t have no money to get a nurse to hold my head / I will have my money next time he comes around [2x] / And then I can call a-poor Dr. Brown.” The almost droning quality of the vocal performance, idiosyncratic phrasing, and held words such as “bed,” establish a pessimistic tone from the outset. The representation moves abruptly away from the invocation of benevolence, citing the agent’s response to the narrator’s inability to pay: “Insurance man turned around and (he) looked me in the eye [2x] / And said, ‘No, death won’t credit you when you get ready to die.’” Invoking the pitiless logic of capitalism in the agent’s direct visual contact and menacing pronouncement, the song ends with the protagonist wondering, “What am I to do?” Byrd’s instrumental accompaniment reinforces the starkness, with alternation between strumming and single-note plucked ascending and descending triplet figures on guitar. At times, the relentless accompaniment competes with the vocal performance, threatening to drown out the lyrics. The relative independence of the two lines and, indeed, near antagonism at times, echoes the lack of support from purveyors of “security.” Evoking a past of benevolent care from mutual aid societies, the song ironically critiques their replacement by transactional economic relations.

Sonny Boy Williamson, Washboard Walter and John Byrd make clear the mistrustful awareness among members of the African American community, and particularly the lower classes, that the goal of insurance companies is to make money and only tangentially to help people. Expanding on the cynicism, Smith and Harper’s “Insurance Policy Blues,” recorded in 1936 for the American Recording Corporation in a field session (ARC 6-10-61),44 provides an even more critical view of insurance. The polysemy of “policy” in the title references both insurance and the world of gambling, specifically, the illegal numbers game popular in the working class and poor Black communities beginning in the late nineteenth century.45 Winning “policy” numbers were originally generated by spinning a wheel. In response to accusations of and attempts at rigging, the wheel was replaced by sequences of numbers generated from the daily balance of the U.S. Treasury, Federal Reserve Clearing House Report, or numbers derived from racetracks, daily prices for cotton from the Chicago Exchange, or the Cuban lottery.46 Significantly for the impoverished African American community, bets as low as one cent could be placed on a combination of numbers.47 “Insurance Policy Blues” suggests an equivalence between paying life insurance premiums and gambling. Indeed, insurance premiums ran as low as three cents per week in the late nineteenth century.48 At least with policy, winning a substantial sum of money for a small cash outlay was possible; life insurance held out such a reward, but only for beneficiaries after the death of the person who made payments.

Cynicism about insurance is voiced from the beginning of the song by a narrator who addresses the agent as if his decision not to pay his premium is tantamount to giving up gambling: “I said hey, hey, insurance man, quit knocking on my door [2x] / ’Cause I’m four months behind and you ought to know I ain’t going to join that old insurance no more.” No longer paying for insurance has the feeling of giving up a vice, rather than making a difficult choice not to pay for something of value, as in Williamson’s “Insurance Man Blues.” The lyrics of the second verse make explicit the narrator’s suspicions about insurance: “Well, the last time I seed you, I give you a five-dollar bill. And the next time I seen you, you was running three or four whiskey stills / That’s why I said, please, please stop knocking on my door / ’Cause I’m going to enjoy myself a straight life and I ain’t going to carry that old insurance no more.” The narrator accuses the agent of stealing the premium money to invest in an illegal bootleg liquor operation. His mention of a desire to maintain “a straight life” in the final line implies that there is something “crooked” about insurance, strengthening the associations between insurance and gambling.

The narrator’s suspicion that insurance is a scam is not misplaced. Woodson reports that mutual aid societies often lacked capital to pay for funeral expenses and “devised the scheme of levying special assessments on all members to pay each death claim as each occurred.”49 Unscrupulous organizations used the ploy to announce “the death of persons who had neither lived nor died. This was the pretext under which a large fund might be collected and distributed among the dishonest persons in charge.”50 Likewise, white industrial insurance companies charged significantly higher premiums to insure Black lives, engaging in a Jim Crow rigging of the insurance system to bilk an already impoverished African American community. As W. E. B. Du Bois cautioned, “Negroes should be emphatically warned against unstable insurance societies conducted by irresponsible parties, and offering insurance for small weekly payments, which really amount to exorbitant rates.”51 Sensitized to other underhanded racialized ploys to exploit economically and keep a workforce immobilized and dependent, such as inflated prices, excessive interest rates, and fabricated and manipulated debt, Black folk would have no difficulty believing that these same modes of domination and exploitation extend to the insurance world.

The musical setting of the song, with its irregular verse structure, reflects practices of the rural blues tradition. The dissonance produced by the harmonica and guitars being slightly out of tune, as well as the three instruments’ quasi-independent interwoven lines, create a feeling of irregularity and instability, particularly in the introduction and solo break. The busy lead guitar work behind the vocal in the third verse, and slightly out-of-sync cadenced outro only increase the feeling of intermittent lack of cooperation and coordination among the three instrumentalists. The rural form, performed by semi-professional players during a field session, with its bumps and irregularities, yields an idiosyncratic unpolished musical product. In this respect, the tensions in the musical performance echo the cynicism and independence voiced by the narrator, who refuses to fall victim to predatory schemes. By asserting a form of creative individuality from within the trio format, Smith and Harper (and whoever the third performer is) fail to conform to the dominant culture’s standards for musical performance. The fact that “Insurance Policy Blues” is on one side of Smith and Harper’s only released 78 rpm record suggests that ARC made a financial calculation not to pursue them further, no doubt because they were not perceived as potentially profitable.52 Nonetheless, the lyrical message and the musical performance reflect the perspective and modes of expression of members of a subordinate group. Through the vehicle of a mediated form, the recording provides a trace of a hidden transcript within the public transcript. The polysemy of “policy” coupled with the “rural performance aesthetic” communicate struggle and resistance to domination and exploitation to an audience attuned to multiple contextualized meanings.

One final blues song from a slightly later period that references life insurance offers an odd twist on the theme. [James] Yank Rachell’s “Insurance Man Blues,” recorded in 1941 for Bluebird (Bluebird B 8796), opens with an endorsement of insurance, while gesturing ironically toward institutionalized racism in the criminal justice system.53 As in Williamson’s “Insurance Man Blues,” the narrator addresses a second person, only here not to evade paying, but to extoll the benefits of investing in a policy: “I just wanted to introduce you to the industrial insurance man [2x] / Well, you know, they buried old Tricky Slim, he was electrocuted in the ’lectric chair.” Referencing “industrial insurance”—policies with low face value amounts and small regular premiums designed for low-wage earners54—the narrator vouches for the integrity of insurance companies with the jarring example of a case in which a beneficiary received payment after a state execution. The second verse elaborates: “They paid his sister twenty-four hours after the poor boy was dead [2x] / Said, they would pay for anything you die with, you may die in the ’lectric chair.” The startling assertion is oddly accurate: insurance policies generally do not contain exclusions for capital punishment and, moreover, courts have upheld payments to “innocent” third-party beneficiaries.55 For knowing listeners, the reference to capital punishment likely calls to mind disproportionately high rates of arrest, conviction, incarceration, and death penalty sentences for African Americans.56 Although apparently an encomium on industrial insurance, the example of coverage for a death penalty case functions to indict structural racism.

The third verse of the song pivots from the criminal justice system to employment. Attempting to convince his interlocutor of the benefits of industrial insurance, the narrator draws a damning equivalence between “accidental death” and state execution: “You may have some kind of accident, don’t be worried ’bout how you die [2x] / Said, because if you be electrocuted, they will bury you anyhow.” If the coverage for capital punishment is, in some sense, reassuring, the inclusion of electrocution among covered “accidental” causes of death conjures another form of systemic racism by association. The move from a direct reference to the death penalty—“’lectric chair”—to the more general locution “be electrocuted” enables slippage between intentional death at the hands of the state and accidental death, often as a result of employment. “Industrial” insurance was designed for workers, and especially manual laborers, who ran a high risk of suffering serious accidents in the performance of their jobs: dismemberment, maiming, and even death. Indeed, the “excessive” mortality rates among African Americans used to rationalize discriminatory insurance rates reflected a grim reality: more Blacks than whites were employed in hazardous work that entailed significant risk.57 Frederick L. Hoffman, “a statistician at the Prudential Life Insurance Company,”58 provides “an abbreviated copy of the first rate table used for colored adult applications” in his history written for and published by the company.59 Defending racial discrimination, Hoffman writes, “The Prudential was fully justified by the available statistical information on the subject.”60 As evidence, he cites his own study, “Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro,” described by Megan Wolff as “a compilation of statistics, eugenic theory, observation, and speculation, solicited by the Prudential in response to a wave of state legislation banning discrimination against African Americans.”61 The hazards associated with low-wage work—into which Black laborers are pressured by employment discrimination—are used to justify racially discriminatory insurance premiums. The vicious circle of racist logic enables different forms of discrimination to compound the economic exploitation. As W. E. B. Du Bois diplomatically phrases it in his argument against Hoffman, racial discrimination in insurance premiums ignores the “unusual disadvantages” facing African Americans in the United States.62 Rachell’s shift from capital punishment to accidental death by electrocution underscores the ironic reality of “life insurance” for the Black population: racialized discrimination and segregation—in housing, employment and in the penal system—shorten lifespans, enabling insurance companies to justify further discrimination in the form of higher premiums.

In light of the reality of multiple forms of structural racism at play in insurance for African Americans, Tricky Slim’s sister’s response to the insurance company in the penultimate verse drips with irony: “Tricky Slim’s sister set down and wrote a letter back down to the Industrial folks [2x] / Say, ‘You done paid me what you brung me, and I don’t want you to pay no more.’” On the surface, the lyrics suggest that she is grateful for what she has received, implying that the company has done more than enough. But the reality of “life insurance” for African Americans hints at a darker meaning. Challenging the narrator’s defense of industrial insurance, the sister’s decision to opt out of future “benefits” raises questions about the meanings of her words. Clearly, the company has paid what was owed for Tricky Slim’s death at the hands of the state, but, from a critical race perspective, is this “enough”? The company profits from exploiting racialized discrimination; paying benefits seems the least it can and should do to attempt to restore something like justice. Echoing debates around reparations, the tort model of monetary “restitution” seems inadequate, particularly in light of the variety of interlocking forms of racialized economic exploitation the lyrics invoke.63 Payment for intentional death cannot help but conjure the memory of those massacred for an insurance pay-out aboard the Zong. Declining insurance, as in Smith and Harper’s “Insurance Policy Blues,” represents an effort to evade at least one form of structural racism that preys on Black bodies.

The sister’s action contrasts with the narrator’s “undying” (pun intended) loyalty to the company. In the final verse, he sings, “I’m a old member and it look like I’m gon’ live all the time / I’m a old member of that company; it look like I’m gon’ live all the time / Spoken: I don’t wanta die! / Says, but if I should happen to die, ’many [?] will let money to my wife.” Trusting that his widow will benefit upon his eventual death, he seems blind to his own victimization by forms of systemic racism. As a narrative foil, the position enables the perception of polysemy and irony in the song, at least, by a knowing audience.

The instrumental performance draws attention to the polysemy in the lyrics in subtle ways. Despite the full ensemble—guitar, harmonica, bass cano, and washboard—the accompaniment behind the vocal is restrained, especially Williamson’s harmonica work that allows the masterful vocal performance to take center stage. Indeed, the upbeat, steady rhythm supplied by the bass and washboard enables the harmonica to weave a countermelody in support of the vocal, while Rachell’s guitar is largely relegated to fills. The overall effect underscores Rachell’s idiosyncratic phrasing choices, as well as his effective use of melisma and vibrato, focusing attention on the possibility of irony in the message. The final instrumental chorus features a harmonica lead by Williamson. The first two measures create an unusual echo effect, with the guitar playing a similar line to the harmonica’s but with a slight delay. After a brief lead from the guitar, the harmonica resumes to build a solo using single notes and then a blow-and-draw pattern to fill out the texture. As the harmonica reaches the V and IV chords in the progression, the guitar increases in volume in support with backing single notes. The final bars of the chorus feature stop-time chords on harmonica with syncopated responses from the washboard. The cadenced harp and washboard phrases create an emphatic gesture of closure, prompting a retrospective re-evaluation of the ensemble play. The interwoven lines, although seemingly disorganized at times, nonetheless demonstrate collaborative purpose. In particular, the echo effect between harmonica and guitar as well as the play between harmonica and washboard exhibits an unconventional instrumental mastery. Recognizing the instrumental interplay, like recognizing the ironic play of polysemy in the lyrics, requires focused attention and an openness to contradictory meanings. In the musical context of an insistent upbeat groove and playful treble lead voices, industrial insurance receives ironic praise for paying benefits in capital punishment cases, providing humorous cover for a profound critique of interlocking forms of structural racism.

Structural racism, especially as it manifests in economic forms of discrimination and exploitation, is often difficult to perceive. The complex of blues that treats Black life insurance offers a glimpse into a hidden transcript: a lower- and working-poor African American perspective on systemic abuse enabled by finance capitalism. In this respect, the songs represent modes of struggle and resistance by a subordinate group. Because the recordings are necessarily mediated by the white dominant culture, they use polysemy and humor in lyrics and instrumental performance to evoke and implicitly critique the lived reality of racialized capitalism. The songs about life insurance evoke discrimination and segregation in the financial sector through the representation of insurance agents regularly knocking at the door to collect payment. Hearing critique and resistance requires examining all the evidence and excavating the history reflected at times indirectly in lyrically and musically polysemic representations.


James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), 187.


Karl Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 9.


Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 2012), 71.


James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), 187. Polysemy as a form of signifying in the blues links the genre to the trickster tradition and specifically the signifying monkey, who employs verbal finesse to disrupt power relations temporarily. Within the blues, signifying as the deployment of verbal and musical irony to trouble power relations relates to trickster tales and other traditions, such as the toast and the dozens. See Elijah Wald’s excellent analysis for numerous links, including between the “Signifying Monkey” toast and the dozens, Talking ’bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), esp. 110–11. Trickster tales date at least as far back as slavery. See Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage, 1974), 582–83; and Zora Neale Hurston, “High John de Conquer,” American Mercury 57 (1943): 450–58. Henry Louis Gates Jr. famously traced the tradition back to Africa to argue in favor of African retentions, including in African American musical culture in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 3–43. James C. Scott highlights the use of trickster tales as “veiled cultural resistance” deployed by subordinate groups, in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 162. Angela Y. Davis and Hazel V. Carby read the women’s blues of the 1920s and 1930s as modes of resistance to gender norms. See Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Pantheon, 1998) and Carby, “It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues,” in Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed. Robert O’Meally (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998): 469–82.


For other similar representations of collection, see [John Lee] Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Collector Man Blues” (Bluebird B7428, 1937) and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Empty House Blues” (Paramount 12946, 1929).


For a discussion of narrative conflation of time in blues lyrics, see Julia Simon, “Narrative Time in the Blues: Son House’s ‘Death Letter’ (1965),” in American Music 31.1 (Spring 2013): 50–72.


Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Thought and Practice (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2014), 20. On the development of Black fraternal and benevolent societies and Black insurance companies, see also Mary L. Heen, “Ending Jim Crow Life Insurance Rates,” Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy 4 (2009): 360–99, 384–87.


William H. Chafe, Raymond Gavins, and Robert Korstad, eds. Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South (New York: New Press, 2001), 129.


Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 372. One organization, the Prince Hall Masons, was founded in 1775. See Theda Skocpol and Jennifer Lynn Oser, “Organization Despite Adversity: The Origins and Development of African American Fraternal Associations,” Social Science History 28, no. 3 [fall 2004]: 367–437, 376.


C. G. Woodson, “Insurance Business Among Negroes,” The Journal of Negro History, 14: 2 (1929): 202–26, 207.


Skocpol and Oser, “Organization Despite Adversity,” 391–92.


Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 375–76, 390, 391.


Michael Ralph, Treasury of Weary Souls; Ralph has compiled more than 1,300 policy records in his database linked to major northern insurance companies, including AIG, Aetna, Bankers Life Insurance Company, and New York Life Insurance. Sharon Ann Murphy documents the involvement of Baltimore Life, North Carolina Mutual Life, Mutual Benefit Life and Fire of Louisiana, Greensboro Mutual Life, and Virginia Life of Richmond, which “all underwrote a significant number of slave risks,” Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 195.


Benjamin Wiggins, Calculating Race: Racial Discrimination in Risk Assessment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 2–3.


Karen Ryder, “‘To Realize Money Facilities’: Slave Life Insurance, the Slave Trade, and Credit in the Old South,” in New Directions in Slavery Studies: Commodification, Community, and Comparison, ed. J. Forret and C. E. Sears (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015): 53–71, 61. Michael Ralph notes, “Most life insurance companies decided that slaves presented too great a challenge as a risk-factor and avoided offering slave insurance altogether, leaving a few a [sic] firms to dominate the industry.…” “‘Life…in the midst of death’: Notes on the relationship between slave insurance, life insurance and disability,” Disability Studies Quarterly 32, no. 3 (2012): 1–27, 8;


Ryder, “To Realize Money Facilities,” 57.


Ryder, “‘To Realize Money Facilities,’” 59. Heen notes that racial discrimination in insurance existed under slavery: “Insurance companies provided slaveholders coverage for damage to or death of their slaves at rates substantially higher than for white lives and imposed certain coverage restrictions, including confining policy amounts to two-thirds of actual value, and covering only a limited term of years.” Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 366.


Wiggins, Calculating Race, 9. John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company soon followed suit, (ibid.); see also Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 368.


Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 369, 377–78 and Wiggins, Calculating Race, 12–15. In states where race-based rates and benefits were outlawed, some companies ceased offering policies to African Americans. See Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 375–76, 390–91.


Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 397.


Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 369; see also Walter B. Weare, Black Business in the New South: A Social History of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 16.


“Harry H. Pace, Insurance Co. Executive is Taken by Death,” New York Amsterdam Star News (July 31, 1943), W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.


Black Swan recorded about 350 sides in its three years of existence, mostly blues. Paul Slade, Black Swan Blues: The Hard Rise and Brutal Fall of America’s First Black-Owned Record Label, expanded edition [, 2021], 1).


Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 388; Alexa Benson Henderson, “Heman E. Perry and Black Enterprise in Atlanta, 1908-1925,” Business History Review 61 (Summer 1987): 216–42, esp. 222–23.


Du Bois’s obituary for Pace mentions that “he was especially active in working on the first study of Negro business enterprises, “Harry H. Pace,” 1.


Robert C. Puth, “Supreme Life: The History of a Negro Life Insurance Company, 1919-1962,” The Business History Review 43, no. 1 (Spring, 1969): 1–20, 9.


Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 387; On Standard Life, see Henderson, “Heman E. Perry”; on Northeastern Life, Liberty Life, and Supreme Life, see Puth, “Supreme Life,” 8–9. The undercapitalization in the Black insurance industry resembles and is inextricably linked to the undercapitalization of Black banks, see Mehrsa Baradaran, The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 14.


Puth, “Supreme Life,” 10.


Woodson, “Insurance Business,” 219.


Citing the seminal study, Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (New York: Harper, 1944), Heen writes, “Myrdal reported that in 1939, there were sixty-seven black-founded insurance companies that had survived the Great Depression, giving employment to about eight thousand workers. However, he concluded that it was ‘difficult to see a real future for a segregated Negro financial system,’ and that it was a ‘poor substitute’ for what was really needed—employment in white-dominated financial institutions and ‘more consideration for them as insurance or credit seekers,’” “Ending Jim Crow,” 388.


Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 374. Northeastern Life, Pace’s company, did not sell “industrial policies. ”See Puth, “Supreme Life,” 8. Ralph views “slave insurance [as] an early version of corporate or industrial insurance,” “‘Life.…in the midst of death,’” 6–7.


John Lee Hooker Jr., interview with the author, May 8, 2023. On John Lee Hooker’s bad deals with record companies, see Charles Shaar Murray, Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century (New York, Penguin: 2000), 119, 154–56, 179, 345.


Weare, Black Business, 67


Woodson, “Insurance Business,” 219


Lapsed policies also contributed to undercapitalization, see Puth, “Supreme Life,” 9.


Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 38.


Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capitalism, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 40, 106.


See Tim Armstrong’s discussion of the Zong massacre in terms of the distribution of risk and the language of “sacrifice” in marine insurance. Armstrong, The Logic of Slavery: Debt, Technology, and Pain in American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 19–20, 25.


Scott, Weapons of the Weak, 29. See also Steven Hahn’s rethinking of political action among the enslaved. Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard University Press, 2003), 15–16, and Leon Litwack’s discussion of forms of resistance after emancipation. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 241–46.


Scott, Domination, 12.


Ibid., 27.


Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (New York: The New Press, 1993), xi.


On the central role played by A&R men and women in shaping “roots” music, including the blues, see Brian Ward and Patrick Huber, A & R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press and Country Music Foundation Press, 2018). Lester Melrose routinely cheated artists of their royalty payments, declaring, “I wouldn’t record anybody unless he signed all his rights in those tunes over to me.” See Alan Lomax, Mr. Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz,” 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 187.


The American Recording Corporation traveled with mobile recording teams during the mid- to late thirties to large and small southern towns, including Augusta, GA, where Smith and Harper were recorded in June 1936. See Ward and Huber, A&R Pioneers, 54–55.


Paul Oliver, Screening the Blues: Aspects of the Blues Tradition (London: Da Capo, 1968), 128–29; Debra Devi, The Language of the Blues from Alcorub to Zuzu (Jersey City, NJ: True Nature Books, 2012), 177–79.


Catherine Yronwode, “Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream Book and Aunt Sally’s Lucky Dream Spiritual Supplies in HooDoo Rootwork,” (2019);, accessed December 14, 2022.




Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 369, 385.


Woodson, “Insurance Business,” 208.




W. E. B. Du Bois, “Some Efforts of American Negroes for Their Own Social Betterment. Report of an Investigation under the Direction of Atlanta University; Together with the Proceedings of the Third Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems, Held at Atlanta University, May 25-26, 1898,” 47;


“Poor Girl” was on the other side of the release. Robert M. W. Dixon, and John Godrich (Blues and Gospel Records 1902 – 1942, rev. ed. [London: Storyville Publications, 1969], 618); and Michael Taft (Talkin’ to Myself: Blues Lyrics, 1921 – 1942 [New York: Routledge. 2055], 520) provide no first names (or third name). They note that the group recorded five sides during the session, but that only two were released. From these facts, it seems safe to conjecture that they had a limited repertoire and that the record did not sell particularly well. By comparison, Robert Johnson recorded for ARC in San Antonio in November 1936, five months later than Smith and Harper, and produced sixteen sides. His initial releases sold well enough that ARC called him back to Dallas to record thirteen more sides seven months later, in June 1937.


In addition to Rachell on guitar and vocal, the track features Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica and spoken asides, William Mitchell on bass cano (one-string bass), and Washboard Sam on washboard. Dixon and Godrich, Blues and Gospel Records, 570.


Heen, “Ending Jim Crow,” 374–75.


William P. Wooden, “Criminal Activity of Insured as a Defense to Life Insurance Claims—Crime and Punishment,” The Forum (American Bar Association, Section of Insurance, Negligence and Compensation Law), 1: 2 (1966): 40–47, esp. 42–43. Insurance companies would not cover deaths caused as a result of the commission of a crime, but from a public policy perspective, courts upheld paying “innocent” third-party beneficiaries, in part to prevent them from becoming dependent on the state.


Heather Ann Thompson, “The Racial History of Criminal Justice in America,” Du Bois Review, 16: 1 (2019): 221–41, esp. 224. See also Michelle Alexander’s discussion of racial bias in sentencing, including the death penalty. Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, rev. ed. (New York: The New Press, 2012), 109–12.


Statistics on the higher incidence of disease in urban areas was also used to justify racially discriminatory premiums. See Frederick Ludwig Hoffman, History of the Prudential Insurance Company of America 1875-1900, (Newark: Prudential Press, 1900), 207;, accessed December 14, 2022. See W. E. B. Du Bois’s rebuttal of Hoffman, linking respiratory disease to “conditions of life” rather than “race traits and tendencies,” Du Bois, “Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro by Frederick L. Hoffman, F.S.S.,” Annals of the American Academy of Political Science and Social Science 9 (January 1897): 127–33, esp. 127.


Megan J. Wolff, “The Myth of The Actuary: Life Insurance and Frederick L. Hoffman’s Race Traits And Tendencies,” in Public Heath Report 121:1 (2006): 84–91, 84; DOI: 10.1177/003335490612100115, accessed December 14, 2022. On Hoffman, see also Wiggins, Calculating Race, 22–26.


Hoffman, History, 138.


Ibid. Hoffman even argues that, given the statistical data, The Prudential had been “more liberal towards this race than towards the white population,” “History,” 209.


Wolff, “Myth,” 84.


Du Bois, “Race Traits,” 129.


Roy L. Brooks, Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 98–99.