Of the approximately twelve million Africans brought to the Americas, as few as 350,000 came directly to the territories that would become the United States. Virtually all of those slaves were brought to the East Coast, primarily to Virginia and the Carolinas. Among them were the ancestors of Winnie Mason (1845-1930) and Charles Dodge (1841-1912), whose ancestors had been given their freedom prior to the Civil War. Charles and Winnie moved from Virginia to Mississippi as free persons of color.
Winnie had given birth to nine children, but only five survived to adulthood. Robert Dodge (1884-1932) was the youngest and last to leave home. The events of this song took place roughly from 1880 to 1920.
Free blacks in the South were not uncommon. In 1810, there had been over 100,000 free black persons there, and by 1860 more free blacks lived in the South (261,918) than in the North (226,152). Forty percent were mulattoes, and for the most part they had been released from slavery through manumission (formal acts of emancipation by their slave-owners). That had been the case for the Dodge family, whose mixed-blood ancestor had fought in the Revolution and been granted his freedom as a result.
After receiving their freedom former slaves often moved from the upper to the deep South, as did the Dodges who went from Virginia to Mississippi. For the most part, such movement was instigated by the possibility of money to be made in the Lower South’s cotton industry.
Robert Dodge was not like his father, who was a hard worker and entrepreneur. While Robert was blessed with musical talent he was cursed with a lack of discipline and need for instant gratification. He never settled in any town long because of his wanderlust and wherever he went trouble was not far behind.
Robert was one of many songsters who traveled around Mississippi singing and playing for house parties in what were called jukes or juke joints.
ROBERT DODGE (F.D. Leone, Jr.) Robert was born on a plantation Charlie Dodge’s youngest son The Dodges lived in Albemarle Six generations before Charles A Dodge had fought with Washington That’s how their freedom was won Charles left Virginia for Mississip’ He’d heard there was cotton to pick Charles was good with his hands He set up a blacksmith stand Put his money in a crockery pot Saved enough to buy his own spot In the year nineteen-aught-one Robert wanted his own freedom He didn’t like plantation work Picking cotton made his hands hurt He got a guitar by trading his shoes Started making money playing blues He was known in all the juke joints From Clarksdale to Friars Point When he was living in Greenville Took up with a gal named Lit’l Lil Til her husband found them both in bed And he hit Lit’l Lil upside the head He came at Robert with a knife Robert ran for his life Shouting, “I don’t mean a thing to her I’m just a poor songster” He ran to Memphis on his bare feet Found a hoodoo shop on Beale Street A conjure woman sitting at a boiling pot Said her brew would bring him luck She gave him a bag made of jute Filled with graveyard clay and snakeroot Added some cat’s teeth and colored glass Would make him play his guitar fast He found his way to New Orleans His fingers flew across his guitar strings There was a train would take him North To Chicago and Detroit Robert was born on a plantation Charlie Dodge’s youngest son The Dodges lived in Albemarle Six generations before Charles © 2020 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.