Careless Love: Imagining Black Radio

By Tobi Kassim

Careless Love (1930-1932) was he first Africa n American radio drama to feature a black cast and writer. I chose to approach the sound of this unrecorded show through the American folk song with which it shares its name.

The entry on Lonnie Johnson’s “Careless Love” in The Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings catalogs many early recordings of the song[1]

Obscure Origins

Like any folk song, no form of “Careless Love” can call itself the “original.” It was anthologized (under a misheard title) in The Journal of American Folklore as “Kelly’s Love” by Howard Odum in 1911. For Odum, the song is representative of “negro folk song” and of the ways that songs, even adapted ones, become communal property.

W.C. Handy first copyrights “Loveless Love” in 1921, using the blues melody of “Careless Love” as his template. Handy recalls learning the song in 1892 in Alabama. It is also often referenced as a staple of Buddy Bolden’s repertoire in the early 1900s. The song also has strong ties to Kentucky and the mountains. The song persisted as a site of protean development on records in the wake of its formal publication. Aspects of the song that aligned it with the folk, including its availability to lyrical improvisation and its communal coming into being, characterize the many recordings that come after 1921.

This 1929 reprint calls “Loveless Love” a “Blues novelty.” The cover page depicting a cupid and a white woman with devil-eared shadows forces a social, if not political, imprint onto the song.

It is first recorded as “Loveless Love” by Noble Sissle and his Sizzling Syncopaters, and then again by Alberta Hunter (1923). This version is usually divided into a verse melody (comparisons between love and useless objects) and the familiar refrain melody “love, love, o loveless love” where loveless love’s effects take center stage.

These versions take dysfunction and synthetics as their targets, love that is something other than the real deal is reminiscent of modern life’s synthetic products “milkless milk,” “silkless silk,” and “soulless soul.” Handy’s lyrics restructure the folk form as a clever song about modernity, especially food.

The song rediscovers its classical title in 1925, starting with Oscar “Papa” Celestin’s Original Jazz Orchestra’s January recording of “Careless Love” for Okeh. Bessie “Empress of the blues” Smith records her own “Careless Love Blues” later in the same year; her version’s formal structure eschews Handy’s verse melody for four verses built on the refrain’s melody. Her ongoing intoxication with the lover she addresses also complicates the surface story of disappointment recorded by Odum, and by Handy. The idea of a lover looms larger over Smith’s words than in “loveless love” which functions as a name for the experience of false love. Careless love could be the addressee, as a person or as a concept. Careless love is not toothless here, and that is precisely the problem; it excites, maddens, and tortures her. Bessie Smith’s voice, open and clear early in the song, develops jagged edges and corners as the song gains momentum. Smith’s version also features Louis Armstrong on trumpet, and his improvisations ornament the spaces between Smith’s phrases with bright, antiphonal tension, an extended going crazy at the edges of each bar.

It is worth mentioning that WC Handy republishes “Careless Love” as “Careless Love” in his 1926 Blues: An Anthology with four verses that are (suspiciously) nearly identical to Bessie Smith’s verses, and two additional verses and background on the song’s various roots.

Editor's note for 1945 printing of W. C. Handy's "Careless Love"Sheet music for 1945 printing of W. C. Handy's "Careless Love"Sheet music for 1945 printing of W. C. Handy's "Careless Love"

Lyric sheet for 1945 printing of W. C. Handy's "Careless Love"

Lulu Jackson and Eva Parker extend the tradition of blues women’s interventions in the development of this song form, leading the song in still darker directions. This version begins on a confrontational note “You see what careless love can do? You’ll kill yourself and your lover too.” Lulu Jackson’s languid vocals and steadily-strummed guitar gives the track’s developing logic a deliberate, methodical, maybe even menacing feeling. Parker’s howl is reminiscent of Bessie Smith’s blue moan. Jackson’s Recorded in 1928, both Jackson and Parker’s versions (anthologized in Female Country Blues: The Twenties (1992) and Blue Girls Vol. 3(2005)) acknowledge the danger of violence even as the song becomes opaquer, warning listeners, “don’t turn a stranger from your door.” Unlike Bessie Smith, there is little information about Parker and Jackson in the public record, beyond the music they recorded.

Later in 1928, blues guitar pioneer Lonnie Johnson records a wicked lyrical interpretation of “Careless Love,” pushing it squarely into the domain of intimate violence:

Careless love, you drove me through the rain and snow
You have robbed me out of my silver and out of all my gold
I’ll be damned if you rob me out of my soul

You’ve worried my mother until she died
You’ve caused my father to lose his mind
Now damn you, I’m goin’ to shoot you and shoot you four five times
And stand over you until you finish dyin’

Johnson draws out an obsession with cruelty and violence; where preceding versions were confrontational, Johnson’s offended voice is vengeful. The bluesman cuts a different figure than the blues women do, and his complaint contains anguish over uncertain sustenance and historical ill-treatment.

While Smith, Parker, and Jackson delve into the bounded space of a relationship, and even of their own minds to inspect the tensions created by this desired other whose love is cruel. Lonnie Johnson takes recourse to a large-scale vision of history and justice, imagining careless love as a force with the power to transcend time and space.

Lonnie Johnson, “Careless Love” from The Complete Folkways Recordings

In these early developments of “Careless Love,” the relationship between the singer and a lover moves further into the foreground as descriptions of violence and despair become he norm. It occupies a middle ground between love and hatred, between anger and regret, and between pain and pleasure. It becomes representative of a kind of folk blues song with obscure origins and dark, painful subject matter.

As Odum’s transcriptions reveal, “Careless love” is associated with an orally transmitted, communal culture of folk music. His mishearing is suggestive of the anthropological approach to folk culture that John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax entrenched in their field recordings of black musicians. Their quest for “authenticity” in black music ends up reaffirming romanticized white views of black people as primitive and external to society. The relationship between John Lomax and Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter is one well-documented instance of the folklorist assuming a paternalistic relationship to his informant. In keeping with his practice of interviewing isolated men because their memories would not be contaminated by contact with contemporary urban society, Lomax “discovers” Leadbelly In Angola Prison Farm and speeds up the timing of his release. His later recording of “Careless Love” for Frederic Ramsey and Alan Seeger on Smithsonian Folkways Last Sessions (1948) reveals the expectations of insider knowledge the informant might offer. He describes which version of the song “white people” sang, which version Louisianans sang and who he earned it from.

Leadbelly, “Careless Love” from Lead Belly’s Last Sessions

He credits “the first record of Careless Love” to Blind Lemon Jefferson. He never recorded a song called “Careless Love” but his 1926 recording of “Broke and Hungry features a verse with the lyrics:

I wanna show you women what careless love have done
I wanna show you women what careless love have done
Caused a Man like me to steal away from home.

As these versions of “Careless Love” proliferated in the late 1920s, black artists and intellectuals were grappling with their own understandings of and relationships to folk culture. Novelist, anthropologist and playwright of the Harlem Renaissance Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, records the cultures of the south, particularly her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, to preserve the form of the folktale and to “create the boundaries of a cultural world in relation of difference to the dominant culture” (Carby, 1990). Hurston’s relationship to the folk Is one of nostalgia and belief in its ongoingness, even if it only continues in areas marked as rural and southern. Langston Hughes adapts blues forms to his poetry in response to contemporary social changes including the emerging urban working class. His blues poetry is marked as a nonliterary form that embodies the conditions of social transformation. For Hughes, folk and the blues do not consign black folk expression to the past but reflect the changing conditions of black life in his present.

Toward taking some general principles from what happens to the song into the radio show that appears in the 1930s, let me begin by saying this song is strange. To start, WC Handy’s “Loveless Love” composition compares loveless love to fake food and silk, references the pure food act of 1906, and generally suggests that everything is becoming false, including love, soul, etc, its shard revision of the romantic element of the folk source suggests to me that Handy is doing a really conscious attempt at modernizing the folk in general or folk roots of the song.  It also has a more involved arrangement. It persists in jazz covers, see Billie Holiday and especially Louis Armstrong, who seems to have a special relationship to Handy works.

Beyond Loveless Love, and back to the stripped down “Careless Love,” I  am most taken by the constant slippage of its subjects. Because it is an address, “careless love” could be a person,  as Bessie Smith’s “you fly through my head like wine” suggests. Then the subject changes, and “careless love” is a name for the verb -loving done unscrupulously. It brings a man into her life, it is still a constituted subject, active, but oddly, differently.
Speaking of strange: if anyone wants to help with the stanza, from Lulu Jackson and Eve Parker about “not driving a stranger from one’s door?” it’s mysterious and opaque to me.

I would also point to the lyrics of Lonnie Johnson’s version, which  is most clearly a revenge fantasy. But exacts revenge not just for heartbreak, but for dispossession, and historical violence done to his parents. How could careless love be a trans-historical force like this? How could he shoot this force? He needs to solidify, embody it as another.
I think Smith, Parker, and Jackson present introspective voices that reveal the divided, multiplicity of the mind. They resist, and maybe have been denied, the kinds of sociality that demand  the violently retributive relationship that Lonnie Johnson offers in the wake of the women’s songs.

One question I am asking in reaching the Careless Love radio show is how are the blues being understood as a form around this time? The 1929 sheet music has this obvious white woman with devil horns as her shadow, and it suggests that Loveless Love may be a figure for the duplicity of women, particularly white ones. And it would certainly be helpful to think of this song as a space where antagonistic race relations get rerouted through love lyrics, but I think the blues women suggest we can move beyond that. Maybe think of the blues themselves as the moving image of how communally improvised forms resist simplistic kinds of social meaning. The women’s songs in particular make me return to the singers’ interrogation of their own carelessness, which is most vividly expressed in Bessie Smith’s last stanza:

Love, oh love, oh careless love
Night and day, I weep and moan
You brought the wrong man into this life of mine
For my sins, till judgment I’ll atone

The ongoing story of love that persists even against cruelty produces a proliferation  of  definitions for love that may be fruitful.

In 1930 a radio show named “Careless Love” enters this world of evolving relationships to folk culture, storytelling, and music. It brings the development of blues forms that a song like “Careless Love” articulates through its changes into conversation with the development of the artist’s relationship to the folk. To start from the beginning, Careless Love was a weekly radio program presented by Carlton Brown which featured one act plays of black life in the south. Characterized as “simple stories that throb with heartbeat and emotion – the character and feeling of the negro people written by a negro pen,” it was the first radio drama to feature a black cast in an age dominated by white representations of black people in shows like Amos n’ Andy.

Microfilm copy of script for 1931 radio show "Careless Love"

Its insistence upon the regional specificity of its stories recalls someone like Hurston’s relationship to the south, but the show also heavily features stories of migration between the south and the north. One show captured on microfilm tells a story called “Tinsel Preferred” about a woman named Lottibell who returns to the south to take care of her injured boyfriend. At the end of the show she chooses to return to New York for her art.

Careless Love also featured folktales like “John Henry” and “Stack-o-Lee” which was slated to be aired on February 23rd 1931, but was cancelled and replaced by a memorial program for Nellie Melba. Moss retells the familiar story of the “semi mythical character” who lived in the south at the end of the 19h century. In addition to killing a man over a Stetson hat, Moss’s Stack hits his wife, runs to a house of ill repute, and then shoots himself when the police catch up to him. He bears some similarity to the remorseless “bad man” of Mississippi John Hurt’s seminal version of the song:

It is difficult to imagine how music played into the scheme of the show, but the cues in the typewritten scripts suggest that cues, ambient atmosphere, and emotional support were all concerns. One source in Henry T. Sampson’s Swingin’ on the Ether Waves suggests that the show took “Careless Love” for its theme song, an introduction to every show.

Other “incidental music was also provided by The Southernaires, a New York gospel quartet who found long-term stability and success with their radio show The Southernaires, as well as many other shows including Southland Sketches. The Library of Congress holds various recordings of this show starting from 1938.

The Careless Love cast featured other musicians who may have provided “incidental” music as well.

Eva Taylor is the most fascinating case. After touring Europe and Australia in her youth with Josephine Gassman and her Picaninnies, Taylor returned to the United States. Her career in radio and recording began around 1922. Taylor, a contralto, was praised for having the “perfect radio voice.”  In 1929, she was the first “member of her race” to participate in the Christmas morning coast-to-coast NBC to Londo Show. Two days later she is heard singing “Stephen Foster airs” and St. Louis Blues (W.C Handy) in Germany. (Sampson, 36)

Taylor gains remarkable exposure through radio. Though it remains unclear how many listeners knew she was black. In 1926, William Pickers writes for the Associated Negro Press:

The joke is that a lot of white folks do not know they are listening to a colored artist when they “tune in.” The radio dissipates color and that is at least one use of the radio. Colored artists are singing and playing to audiences which they could not reach in person – we mean, where they would not be admitted in person. (Sampson, 15)

Note the way the overdetermined focus on race in this 1927 Variety review overshadows the music:

Eva Taylor and Clarence Williams with beaucoup torrid ditties, from WPCH (New York City), heated the ether waves somewhat. . . . Dusty syncopation from dusky syncopators is the answer. Nothing like the only and original jazzhounds for that sort of thing. (Sampson, 21).

One way we might think about the Careless Love is its unmistakably black affinities; even in the context of colorless radio. The effort to drain Taylor’ voice of bodily association persists well into the 1930s. In 1932, A Biographical sketch in the New York Inquirer imagines that

few of the hundreds of thousands of radio fans who enjoy Eva Taylor’s singing half a dozen times weekly over the NBC network dream that she is colored. . . . But everybody who has overheard her on the air knows and admits that Miss Taylor is one of the outstanding songbirds of radio. . . . Miss Taylor depends upon no one type. She sings, and sings well, ballads, novelty songs, character numbers, blues, and spirituals. (Sampson, 124-125).

Taylor is “the perfect voice,” a “songbird” and “the Dixie nightingale.” It remains unclear whether to read Taylor’s radical deconstruction of musical categorization is not diminished by her white audiences’ desire to redefine her either as raceless or appropriately black.  Another article from 1940 claims that “she prefers gospel and good type songs.” However, she does force the moment to a sort of crisis by traversing the distinctions that arise in order to keep black radio colorless. While guitarist Eddie Lang had to change his name to Blind Willie Dunn to play alongside Lonnie Johnson, Eva Taylor plays blues songs with the white Blue Streaks Dance Orchestra, and she is even briefly sponsored by NBC.

(Regarding the actual speech rhythms of the show, a recording of Eva Taylor and Carlton Moss performing “A Parody of Adam and Eve” in 1937 can be accessed at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C .)

Taylor’s husband and occasional co-star Clarence Williams played with almost every important jazz and blues figure for his Blue Five sessions in the 1920s. None of the musicians on the show are directly associated with any version of “Careless Love,” but Clarence Williams recorded music with at least three musicians who recorded the song in the 1920s.

“Gulf Coast Blues” and “Down-Hearted Blues” 1923 – Bessie Smith with Clarence Williams

“Cakewalking Babies from Home” With Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Eva Taylor (1925) 


“Organ Grinder Blues” 1928(?): Victoria Spivey, Williams, Lonnie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Harry “Red” Allen.

(Lonnie Johnson and Victoria Spivey also have wonderful collaborations including the trippy, goopy, “Dope Head Blues”)

Careless Love should be remembered not just for its firstness, but for the incremental steps it made toward being, like Eva Taylor, comfortably situated in multiple idioms and vocabularies. The kind of community the cast brings together is quite beautiful. It includes a mix of musicians and stage actors involved in imagining what black art should sound like on the radio. Singers like Eva Taylor try acting for the first time, stage actresses try radio for the first time. Given that “Careless Love” the song is a good site for understanding how the blues embody different forms of being ways of being multiple, the radio show moves toward realizing this possibility in a new medium. the invisibility of radio voices makes radio a site of implicit policing along racial lines, and a place where those lines are transgressed constantly.


In its insistence, Careless Love imagines a space for work like Jacob Banks’s “Chainsmoking. His stone ground vocals land softy in the gospel harmonies of the chorus, and the care he gives to the experience of loving that which only returns cruelty echoes back to Bessie Smith singing a song of hate to herself. The “Careless Love” the song and Careless Love the show come together in the cross-bred generic and social concerns that Banks weaves beautifully into his video:

I think one of the joys of the show is that it works to bring this practice to life, in its shifting relationship to the folk and the south, or in its remixing and archiving of traditional folk forms, mixing of blues and gospel, and marriage of music and drama.

Ultimately, “Careless Love” and similar shows were not able to continue, as advertisers’ discomfort with being associated with black shows kept black radio talents from stability. After 18 months, Careless Love went off the air in 1932; Carlton Moss and his Harlem players returned with the short-lived comedy Folks from Dixie (1933), and again with Meetin’ House (1934-1936).

 Other cast members of note include Rose McClendon, Broadway actress famous for founding the Negro People’s theater.
Photo of Rose McClendon
Georgia Burke and Georgette Harvey become singers on Zora Neale Hurston’s stage show and radio performance Zora Hurston’s Choral Group, an artistic endeavor which aimed to present all-black music to its listeners (Ellet, 168).

[1] “Careless Love-1928 Lonnie Johnson” The Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings. Ed. Steve Sullivan (Lanham, Roman & Littlefield, 2013)