Shame and Scandal

This semi-feminist calypso is a rewrite of a song with completely different verses and a somewhat different title by the Trinidadian singer Sir Lancelot. He performed it in the movie I Walked with a Zombie (1943), then recorded it with Gerald Clark’s Caribbean Serenaders on Keynote Records, the leftist New York label known for the Almanac Singers, Josh White, and various jazz artists. Lancelot’s version was recorded by Odetta in the 1950s, on an album my parents had… so I’m guessing that’s where I first heard it…

…but the version I sing has completely different verses, on the same theme as Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Johnny Be Fair.” Apparently this version was composed by another calypsonian, Lord Melody, who recorded it in 1962 as “Wau Wau” (as in, “Woe, woe is me”). That version was shortly retitled “Shame and Scandal in the Family” and recorded by the Puerto Rican actor Shawn Elliott, who sang it to a modified ska backing, followed by a British ska recording by Lance Percival and versions in various styles by everyone from the Kingston Trio to Trini Lopez to Peter Tosh with the Wailers.

I don’t remember hearing any of those versions, and may well have learned the lyric from Sing Out! magazine, attaching it to my rough memory of Odetta’s melody.

In any case, I started performing it in the early 1980s as an experiment in fingerpicking Caribbean rhythms. I’d gotten interested in Congolese guitar — an interest that later took me to Lubumbashi and lessons from Jean-Bosco Mwenda — and Perry Lederman and I were jamming pretty regularly on “Jamaica Farewell,” so I was looking for a way to fit that kind of picking into my performing repertoire, and this lyric was an obvious winner — though I later switched to playing “Iko Iko” with a similar arrangement.

If you want to hear Lancelot’s original verses, here’s a televised duet by Odetta and Johnny Cash — which I never knew about till I was researching this post.

The Cowboy Fireman; or, The Trusty Lariat

Originally recorded in 1929 by Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock, this is a mock heroic, shaggy dog response to the incursion of steel rails on the open range.

In her book, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, Katie Lee recalls that Mac had been a cowboy, railroad man, hard-rock miner, and hobo before becoming a recording artist and radio star on San Francisco’s KFRC station. Best known as composer of “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (featured in an earlier post with attention to its expurgation), he sang a varied repertoire of cowboy, hobo, and IWW union songs, as well as oddities like “Circus Days,” “When It’s Time to Shear the Sheep (I’m Coming Ba-a-a-ack to You),” and this little masterpiece.

Lee prints a considerably longer lyric for “The Trusty Lariat,” apparently copied from Mac’s Songs of the Road and Range, a song folio published in 1932, but I sing it roughly as he did it on that earlier record.

Like another favorite cowboy singer, Glen Ohrlin, Haywire Mac enjoyed the romance of the cowboy legend but also understood that it was a romantic myth — as an IWW man, he was well aware of the lousy working conditions on most ranches. Like “Pat Works on the Railway,” this is an example of the kind of wry humor that often spiced western folklore, and working class folklore in general.

Incidentally, for the young folks (myself included) a “fireman” was the guy who shoveled coal into the firebox of a steam engine to heat the water, making the steam that powered the damn thing. It was the worst job on the railroad, and often done by African Americans — so if anyone wants to think of this as a song about black cowboys, there’s some evidence to support that reading.

Even more incidentally, “lariat” is an English corruption of la reata, Spanish for the lasso. “Lasso,” in turn is an English corruption of lazo, a Spanish cognate of “lace” — as in shoelace, not lace doily.  Atar is the verb “to tie,” reatar is to retie, so the reata has been doubly tied. I’m not sure exactly how, but that’s the etymology.

Fishing (Blues) (Chris Smith/Sweetie May)

A feminist ragtime cheating song from 1911, which is now known almost entirely in a highly abridged and non-feminist revision by the Texas hobo Henry Thomas — an excellent example of how recordings have muddled our understanding of the past. Thomas turned it into a ditty about fishing that lost the original sense of the chorus:

You say you’re going fishing all the time,
Well, I’m going fishing too.
Bet your life your loving wife
Will catch as many fish as you…

The original was written by Chris Smith, a songwriter and pianist best remembered for “Ballin’ the Jack.” Smith later formed a successful vaudeville duo with the singer/monologuist Henry Troy, advertised in 1923 as “perhaps the best known and most popular Colored artists on the Keith circuit,”* but back in 1911 he was writing for one of the most influential acts in the history of black show business: Butler “String Beans” May, whom Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff convincingly present in their new book The Original Blues as the first major blues star and a dominant figure on the southern theater circuit.

String Beans seems to have hired Smith to produce special material for his act, for example penning the lyrics to “There Never Was and Never Will Be a String Bean Like Me,” and also for his wife and partner, Sweetie May, a New Orleans singer known on the southern circuit as Sweetie Matthews until they married in 1910. This song was presumably written for her — their act, adapted with great success on records by Butterbeans and Susie, typically involved domestic disputes, often won by the woman — and Abbott and Seroff quote a 1911 newspaper review saying “Miss May sang ‘Fishing’ very good, and was well received.”

String Beans and Sweetie May were major stars, widely imitated and familiar to African American theatergoers throughout the country, but he died in 1917 and they never recorded. As a result they have tended to be left out of blues histories — which in general rely far too much on recordings — and Sweetie May’s hit is remembered almost exclusively from a 1928 record by the hobo singer Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas, who had likely learned it at several removes since he didn’t sing the verses and seems not to have understood the original theme.

Thomas’s record was included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and is a wonderful performance with breaks played on reed panpipes. It became a blues revival standard, recorded by Mike Seeger, Jim Kweskin, Taj Mahal, and dozens of others, and is still widely played… I love it and mean no disrespect when I suggest it’s a pity that so few later performers have been aware of Thomas’s source.

As best I can tell, the only person who remembered Chris Smith’s original song was Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, a quirky singer with a phenomenal memory who recorded a  playful version of it in the late 1970s. I learned it off his album, sang it regularly in my touring days, and everybody seemed thrilled to learn the back story of what was now commonly known as “Fishing Blues…” but the Thomas version is still the only one most people are aware of. I eventually hunted down sheet music, thanks to Lynn Abbott, and Chatmon’s lyrics are very close to Smith’s, with the up-to-date addition of miniskirts. So here it is, with hopes that some other singers — especially some women — may start doing this version and talking about Sweetie May and the early vaudeville blues stars.

*I did a fair amount of research on Smith because his song “Don’t Slip Me in the Dozen, Please” is the first thorough description of the African American insult game known as the dozens (or capping, snaps, yo’ mama jokes), so I wrote about it and him in my book The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama (now retitled Talking ‘Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap) — which, as it happens, also includes some great verses from Sam Chatmon. It was amazing how many disparate threads came together in that book.

Statesboro Blues (Willie McTell)

I’m not sure exactly how I learned “Statesboro Blues” — of course I listened to the original recording by Blind Willie McTell, and I know Woody Mann’s tablature played a part, but I don’t recall playing it much until I was touring in the early 1980s, and even then I tended to play it only as a request, because a lot of other people were already doing it. It was a pretty frequent request, presumably due to the Allman Brothers’ version, which I thought they got from John Hammond,* though more knowledgeable people cite Taj Mahal. Either way, the source for all of them was presumably Sam Charters’s groundbreaking anthology, The Country Blues. Like “Walk Right In” and “Stealin’, Stealin’,” this was not a big hit when it was first released, but that Charters LP was a foundational text for the blues revival, so for my generation those songs were standards.

We came to blues as part of the folk revival, and tended to focus on guitarists and think of singers like McTell as “roots” blues artists, from an older tradition than the more urban stars like Bessie Smith, with their pianos and jazz bands. In fact, this song is an excellent example of the extent to which that influence went in the opposite direction — in his book on McTell, Michael Gray traced the sources of this song and concluded that the lyric was compiled from several different recordings by female blues singers. The most significant was Sippie Wallace’s “Up the Country Blues,” which starts:

Hey, mama, run tell your papa,
Go tell your sister, run tell your auntie
That I’m going up the country,
Don’t you want to go?

And ends:

My mama’s got ’em, my papa’s got ’em, my sister’s got ’em,
My auntie had ’em,

Said, I woke up this morning, papa, had up the country blues,
When I looked over in the corner, my grandma had ’em too.

Other verses come from Bessie Smith’s “Reckless Blues” and Ivy Smith’s “Cincinnati Southern Blues” — none of which is surprising, since guitar players like McTell grew up playing a mix of rural dance music, religious songs, ballads, ragtime, and whatever else they heard from neighbors, local musicians, traveling performers, and by the late 1920s records and radio. Most seem to have added blues to their repertoires as it was popularized by tent show and vaudeville singers like Smith, Wallace, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox.

None of that diminishes the brilliance of McTell’s performance, or the originality with which he wove his sources together into a unique creation. Statesboro, Georgia, was his home town, so he gets full credit for that reference, and the version I do is thoroughly copied from his playing, though I make no attempt at his singing style. As Dylan wrote, “nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie Mctell.” I don’t play a lot of his songs, but when I’m in the mood for pre-war blues, he is still the artist I listen to most frequently, and I always hear something new.

 

*These days a lot of people think of Hammond as an acoustic blues player, but after first recording this one solo acoustic on his Country Blues album, he did it again on Mirrors in 1967, which had most of The Band, plus Mike Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite. Hammond was a good friend a jamming partner of Duane Allman’s, and also had Jimi Hendrix as his guitarist for a while.