I Got a Letter This Morning

‘Death Letter’ or ‘Death Letter Blues’ is the signature song of the Delta blues musician Son House.  In the days before telephones, the internet and email, a written letter would alert you to a tragedy that might turn your world upside down, and this song deals with the sudden upheaval, mental and spiritual shock involved in an unexpected tragic loss.  This song ‘Death Letter Blues’ was recorded in 1965 after House was rediscovered in New York, having abandoned the music business decades earlier and many people feel that it is structured upon House’s earlier recording ‘My Black Mama, Part 2’ where he sings about a troubled romantic relationship that ends when his lover, or his “Black Mama” is dead.  This was recorded 35 years earlier in 1930 and it is a 12-bar blues, that features his slow, pumping, throbbing, ascending bottleneck guitar riffs, and his dark, brooding, intense and raw vocal, making this a country blues masterpiece.

House sang this song with different combinations of more than a dozen verses, so you may hear it being vastly differently depending on the recording that you are listening to.  Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. (March 21, 1902 – October 19, 1988) near Clarksdale, Mississippi was an American blues singer and guitarist, noted for his highly emotional style of singing and slide guitar playing.  This song was featured on the 2003 box set Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey, which was the soundtrack for the Martin Scorsese PBS documentary series The Blues.

In this song, a man gets a letter telling him that the woman who he loved is dead and that he should hurry to the mortuary to identify the body, or maybe they want him to pay for the burial.  He packs up his suitcase and heads down the road and he sees her laying on the cooling board (a wooden plank that has ice packed under it that is used for laying out a corpse so it could be prepared for burial) and this is when the reality of death fully sinks in on him.  He looks her right in the face and he is willing to accept that she passed on, but I think that this girl must have cheated on him, because he feels that she needs to be judged for her sins.  The girl must have been very popular, as when he gets to the cemetery, there are 10,000 people there.  He is a spiritual man, so he talks to the Lord and says that he would never hurt anybody.  He says his last goodbye to his honey and tells her that he will see her on Judgement Day.

He goes to his room and plays his guitar to feel better, but when the sun goes down, he starts to miss her.  The big reveal comes in this next line that shows he is a jealous man when he says, “I said now if you don’t have me, I didn’t want you to have nobody else”, and your guess is as good as mine about whether or not he had anything to do with her death.  He goes on about it being hard to love somebody and not getting any satisfaction when you are not loved in return.  The next morning, he wakes up hugging the pillow where she used to lay, making an unsuccessful attempt to regain a lost connection that he had with his lover.  He is restless, so he puts on his shoes and goes for a walk.  He is very distraught, still crying and he wants to change his life.  He thinks that he hears her calling his name and maybe that is because he is feeling guilty about her being gone.  The song ends with him appearing to be have a conversation with her and maybe he is talking to her ghost.

Jerry Garcia played this song ‘Death Letter Blues’ once with much shorter lyrics, on 30 October 1968, in a show billed as Mickey and the Hartbeats.  By the summer of 1968, Bob Weir and Pigpen didn’t seem to be on the same page with the rest of the members of the Grateful Dead and they became frustrated, because their inabilities to improvise coherently made the others feel that they were holding back the rest of the group.  They weren’t actually fired, as the other members just wanted them to step it up a little bit.

I got a letter this mornin’, how do you reckon it read?
It said, hurry, hurry, yeah, your love is dead
I got a letter this mornin, I say how do you reckon it read?
You know, it said, hurry, hurry, how come the gal you love is dead?

So, I grabbed up my suitcase, and took off down the road
When I got there she was layin’ on a coolin’ board
I grabbed up my suitcase, and I said and I took off down the road
I said, but when I got there she was already layin on a coolin’ board

Well, I walked up right close, looked down in her face
Said, the good ol’ gal got to lay here ‘til the Judgment Day
I walked up right close, and I said I looked down in her face
I said the good ol’ gal, she got to lay here ‘til the Judgment Day

Looked like there was 10,000 people standin’ round the buryin’ ground
I didn’t know I loved her ‘til they laid her down
Looked like ten thousand were standin’ round the buryin’ ground
You know I didn’t know I loved her ‘til they damn laid her down

Lord, have mercy on my wicked soul
I wouldn’t mistreat you baby, for my weight in gold
I said, Lord, have mercy on my wicked soul
You know I wouldn’t mistreat nobody, baby, not for my weight in gold

Well, I folded up my arms and I slowly walked away
I said, farewell honey, I’ll see you on Judgment Day
Ah, yeah, oh, yes, I slowly walked away
I said, farewell, farewell, I’ll see you on the Judgment Day

You know I went in my room, I bowed down to pray
The blues came along and drove my spirit away
I went in my room, I said I bowed down to pray
I said the blues came along and drove my spirit away

You know I didn’t feel so bad, ‘til the good ol’ sun went down
I didn’t have a soul to throw my arms around
I didn’t feel so bad, ‘til the good ol’ sun went down
You know, I didn’t have nobody to throw my arms around

I loved you baby, like I love myself
You don’t have me, you won’t have nobody else
I loved you baby, better than I did myself
I said now if you don’t have me, I didn’t want you to have nobody else

You know, it’s hard to love someone that don’t love you
Ain’t no satisfaction, don’t care what in the world you do
Yeah, it’s hard to love someone that don’t love you
You know it don’t look like satisfaction, don’t care what in the world you do

Got up this mornin’, just about the break of day
A-huggin’ the pillow where she used to lay
Got up this mornin’, just about the break of day
A-huggin’ the pillow where my good gal used to lay

Got up this mornin’, feelin’ round for my shoes
You know, I must-a had them old walkin’ blues
Got up this mornin’, feelin’ round for my shoes
Yeah, you know bout that, I must-a had them old walkin’ blues

You know, I cried last night and all the night before
Gotta change my way a livin’, so I don’t have to cry no more
You know, I cried last night and all the night before
Gotta change my way a livin’, you see, so I don’t have to cry no more

Ah, hush, thought I heard her call my name
If it wasn’t so loud and so nice and plain
Ah, yeah
Mmmmmm

Well, listen, whatever you do
This is one thing, honey, I tried to get along with you
Yes, no tellin’ what you do
I done everything I could, just to try and get along with you

Well, the minutes seemed like hours, hours they seemed like days
It seemed like my good, old gal outta done stopped her low-down ways
Minutes seemed like hours, hours they seemed like days
Seems like my good, old gal outta done stopped her low-down ways

You know, love’s a hard ol’ fall, make you do things you don’t wanna do
Love sometimes leaves you feeling sad and blue
You know, love’s a hard ol’ fall, make you do things you don’t wanna do
Love sometimes make you feel sad and blue

Written for Linda G. Hill’s ‘Life in progress’ JusJoJan January prompt of letter.

4 thoughts on “I Got a Letter This Morning

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