Jack, You’re Dead (Louis Jordan)

I don’t remember when* or where I got my first Louis Jordan album, but I sure remember a lot of the songs on it, and on the next: “Choo-Choo Ch-Boogie,” “Reet, Petite, and Gone,” “Knock Me a Kiss,” and particularly “Jack, You’re Dead.” I fell head over heals for this one, and got a good tip from Dave Van Ronk: I told him I was interested in working up an arrangement, and after laughing and nodding through Jordan’s version, he said, “You oughta keep that descending bass line.” So I did, and recorded it, got some local radio play–not much, maybe just on one station, but enough that for the next few years people would occasionally show up at gigs and ask me to play it.

I need to thank Dave as well for the bridge to the second verse–not because I got it from him, but because I learned from his example that it was OK to rewrite a song if it needed rewriting. Jordan’s version used the same bridge for both verses, which was not only repetitive but repeated the weakest couplet in the lyric. So, following Dave’s example on songs like “That’ll Never Happen No More” and “Somebody Else, Not Me,” I wrote a new lyric for the second bridge… and then Dave let me down, because he liked my new bridge, complimented me on it, promptly forgot about it, and when he recorded his own version used  Jordan’s repeated bridge.

Anyway, Louis Jordan…

It’s crazy that I didn’t know about him before the 1980s, because he was one of the most influential figures in 20th century popular music, and specifically in blues and R&B. Whenever I heard B.B. King sing “Let the Good Times Roll,” he was covering Louis Jordan. Chuck Berry said he based his songwriting and performance style on Jordan, and Bill Haley and the Comets were arranged as a white version of Jordan’s Tympany 5. James Brown got his start doing Jordan covers, and was still doing them in the 1960s. But all of that’s just the ripples.

Jordan was a sax player in Chick Webb’s band, one of the greatest bands of the swing era, and coupled for a while with Ella Fitzgerald, but in the late 1930s he had a brainstorm: amplification was coming in, money was tight, jukeboxes were all the rage, and he realized that records could actually sound hotter with a small group, while amplification meant small bands could play halls that had previously needed big bands. So he hit the road with a tight, swinging, fun little outfit that he called the Tympany 5, though it almost always had at least six members. He wrote or bought a bunch of hot, funny jive songs, starred in comical low-budget movies, made entertaining radio appearances… and by the mid-1940s was the most popular recording star in black America, with millions of white, Latino, and Asian fans thrown in.

There is much, much more to be said about Louis Jordan, but for now I’ll just add that he is also a contender for the first major rap star, based on his hit “Beware” in 1946. It is not exactly rap as we now know it, but the lineage is pretty clear. You can catch him doing it at minute 3:50 of this clip from his film of the same name:

*Though I don’t know when I first got into Jordan, it must have been by 1981, since I clearly remember my irritation when Joe Jackson released his Jumpin’ Jive album and it included “Jack, You’re Dead.” I had a horrible moment of fear that people would think I’d learned the song off a Joe Jackson album and was faking my attachment to Louis Jordan… but fortunately no one seems to have bought Jackson’s disc, or at least none mentioned it. (For what it’s worth, I loved Jackson’s Look Sharp album, and even worked up a couple of the songs on it, though not to the point of performing them.)

Antelope Rag (Dave Van Ronk)

In the early 1960s, when other people on the folk scene were learning rural string band and blues music, Dave Van Ronk recorded the first fingerstyle guitar arrangement of a formal, multi-part rag, “St. Louis Tickle.” As I wrote in the “Tickle” installment (and others),  that piece spawned a small ragtime guitar scene that by the mid-1970s had produced a dozen or so albums and spread to Europe. Dave meanwhile had been concentrating on other things. He took a second crack at arranging classic rags on his Ragtime Jug Stompers LP, but handed over the instrumental leads to Danny Kalb, Artie Rose, and Barry Kornfeld, and then he got into modern singer-songwriter styles, formed a rock band, recorded with larger ensembles, and put the fancy guitar work on the back burner.

The hiatus lasted till about 1975, by which time the folk boom was over, he hadn’t managed to cross over to a pop audience, and he was forced to give guitar lessons to pay the rent. For better or worse, that meant he had to think long and hard about his guitar playing, and he reached the conclusion that he was fundamentally an arranger rather than a picker. That, in turn, led to the thought that he should create some more complex arrangements, and he worked out beautiful charts of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Pearls,” and a bit later Joplin’s “The Entertainer.”

Dave was haunted, though, by a comment he had made back in “Tickle” days to the effect that solo guitar wasn’t really suited to piano rags and it would be better either to arrange them for two guitars or write new rags specifically for solo fingerstyle performance. So, around 1980, he finally wrote one. I remember the first time he played it for me, sitting on his huge and sagging couch. He was very pleased with how it had turned out, and explained that he’d titled it “Antelope Rag” because a friend had commented that his left-hand movements in the the third section looked like a leaping antelope.

By that time I’d gotten over my own flirtation with classic ragtime, and although I liked the piece I probably wouldn’t have learned it… but a few years later Dave hired me to do the tablature for his guitar instruction book. That meant learning all the arrangements, and this was one of them, and was really fun to play, so I kept playing it. I even played it for Leo Wijnkamp in Antwerp, who was one of Dave’s modern models of a ragtime guitarist, and although Leo was tired of ragtime by then and composing modernist pieces for multiple guitars and clarinets, he said some nice things about the use of dissonance in the fourth section, which made Dave very happy.

(Dave’s guitar book is long out of print, and there don’t seem to be any plans to reissue it, but Dave’s wife is willing to sell tab sheets for this piece — so if you want a copy, get in touch with me.)

Ragged, But Right (Greenbriar Boys, etc.)

I’ve testified in a previous post about my love of the Greenbriar Boys, and in particular their album with this title track. It was one of the formative records of my early teens, in a large part because it was so much fun — kind of like the Kweskin Jug Band, though with more country flavor. This song in particular became one of my standbys, because it was a great way to introduce myself. I’d start my first set with something quiet and pretty — usually “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me” — and then, when the audience was lulled into thinking I was that kind of guy, I’d hit them with a burst of fast ragtime picking and launch into this:

I just came here to tell you people, I’m ragged, but I’m right,
A thief and I’m a gambler and I’m drunk every night…

Which was stretching the truth a bit, but I was in my early twenties and feeling hot — those were the days when I’d start out wearing a cowboy shirt, then strip down mid-set to a tight black t-shirt with a gaudy picture of Madonna on it. Take that, you folky purists and sensitive singer-songwriters…

The Greenbriars presumably got this from Riley Puckett’s 1934 recording, though I’d been doing it for years before I even knew who Puckett was. That was kind of odd, because he was one of the first major stars in old-time country music, already known throughout the South before Jimmie Rodgers entered a recording studio.

I think I missed him because by the time I came along the revivalist scene had segmented, with blues fans like me on one side and old-time fiddle and string-band folks on another. Since he made lots of records singing ragtime and blues-flavored material, there’s no reason aside from race why Puckett couldn’t have gotten filed on my side along with people like John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb… but race was a major demarcator, plus the fact that he was the guitarist for a fiddle band, Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers. That’s how I first heard him, and I assumed he was mostly a sideman, but Tony Russell quotes the Skillett Lickers’ virtuoso fiddler, Clayton McMichen, saying that in commercial terms Puckett was the star: “Riley proved the people wanted to hear singin’, and if he didn’t sing on the records, why, they didn’t sell much.”

“Ragged But Right” had previously been recorded by an African American group led by brothers Rufus and Ben Quillian, who like Puckett were from Georgia, but their version was sufficiently different that it presumably wasn’t his source. The song dates back at least to 1905, when Abbott and Seroff quote the Indianapolis Freeman describing a popular comedian “cleaning up with one of Bob Russell’s latest songs, ‘Ragged, but Right’.” There was a prominent black theatrical producer named Bob Russell in that period, and I assume this was him, but I have no other evidence that he wrote songs, so it may have been something he bought from the actual composer, and a reference from 1909 credits it to a performer known only as Shoe Strings. (Handily for this research, Abbott and Seroff titled their book Ragged but Right.)

As for the guitar twirl in the last verse, I got that from Andy Cohen, and it came in handy when I worked with Howard Armstrong, who liked me to do it in sync with his mandolin twirl.

Gimme A Ride To Heaven, Boy (Terry Allen)

When I was writing for the Boston Globe I would sometimes drop by Rounder Records to see what was new, and one afternoon I stopped by George Thomas’s desk and he handed me Bloodlines by Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band. I’d never heard of Allen, and  George was so horrified by my confession of ignorance that he also handed me Smokin’ the Dummy and Lubbock (On Everything). So he’s to blame for me becoming a stone Terry Allen fan, and I’m forever grateful.

To be honest, it took a while for me to understand what I was hearing. I got “Gimme a Ride…” immediately and started performing it, but it took another year or two before I recognized the transcendent genius of the Lubbock set and started doing “Wolfman of Del Rio,” which may still be my favorite evocation of what it is to be American, or at least some kind of American. (I’ll get that one up here in a while, but meanwhile I recommend picking up the whole album.)

For those who don’t know his work, Allen is a sculptor and multimedia installation artist, a playwright, a songwriter, a singer and a five- or six-finger pianist. He grew up in Lubbock, where he and his future wife Jo Harvey were the oldest of a high school musical rebel crew that  also included Jo Carol Pierce, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and a bit later Lloyd Maines, who ended up playing a lot of the instruments in Allen’s backing group, the Panhandle Mystery Band.

Allen’s father ran the Jamboree Hall, where all the top black acts played on Fridays and all the top country acts on Saturdays, and Buddy Holly played guitar for the local country band. Allen’s mother was a honky-tonk piano player and accordionist.

So, out of that, Allen ended up as kind of a prairie Randy Newman, if you had to compare him to anyone, except his music doesn’t sound much like Newman’s and his frames of reference are very different. The music is a lot more minimal, for one thing, maybe because he’s a pretty limited pianist but also because that’s clearly how he likes it. It’s sometimes dry and sometimes Brechtian, and sometimes conceptual like the visual art it sometimes accompanies, and sometimes straight-up country but with weird twists.

None of which is particularly helpful, but I owe him several debts — a later album, Human Remains, arrived just when I was going through a bad break-up and I listened to it over and over for several weeks, interspersed with early Ornette Coleman, which sounds like an odd combination, but it got me through.

And then there’s this song, which speaks for itself.