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.

Because of the Wind (Joe Ely)

I first heard Joe Ely in 1979-80, when I was visiting my erstwhile washboard player, Rob Forbes, in Ithaca  and a friend of his played me Honky Tonk Masquerade. Rob’s friend introduced it as a fusion of new wave rock with country music, but I didn’t hear anything new wave about it — the country sounded country and the rock sounded like Jerry Lee Lewis. Which said, the band had a unique mix of high-powered electric guitar and steel with accordion, and the songs were my first taste of the new Texas scene, which was a huge relief from the singer-songwriter stuff I was hearing back east. (I later learned that the new wave connection was kind of guilt by association: the Clash were huge fans and took Ely on tour with them, so a lot of people first heard him in that context.)

I bought that album, listened to it over and over, learned more than half the songs on it, picked up Ely’s next couple of records as well as his first, which preceded Masquerade, and eventually had the luck to see him live and solo. I saw him a few times with bands as well — a loud rock group with Bobby Keyes on sax and then the reunion of his old Lubbock/Austin band with Lloyd Maines, Ponty Bone, Jesse Taylor, and the addition of a Dutch flamenco guitarist named Teye — but the shows that blew me away were the solo ones. He would come onstage with just an acoustic guitar and I swear he rocked harder than I ever saw him do with a group. His charisma was incredible, his guitar work was as effective as anybody’s this side of Lightnin’ Hopkins — ok, that’s an exaggeration, but in context it was terrific — and I can’t think of any concerts I’ve loved more.

I sang a lot of Joe’s songs in my touring days, and ended up recording one of them, “West Texas Waltz,” because it gave me a chance to play diatonic accordion (of course that song was written by Butch Hancock, Joe’s sometime partner with Jimmie Dale Gilmore in the Flatlanders, but I’m one of the many people who mostly know Butch’s work through Joe). I rarely played this one onstage, because I had other quiet songs and was looking for something else when I went to him, but I always loved it and did it when I had the right crowd, and almost recorded it on my LP… and I still think it’s one of the simplest, prettiest lyrics I’ve ever heard. Pure Texas, without any mythic posing or overstatement.

Incidentally, my own experience of “the breeze that blows from Corpus Christi” is a good deal less romantic. I hitchhiked through there in early December, 1987, as the temperature dived to freezing, with nothing but a light wool jacket. Fortunately  a friendly bum had an extra sweater, but it was still damn cold.

Honky Tonk Heroes (Waylon Jennings)

I owe this song and my further acquaintance with Waylon’s ouevre — and much else — to Peter Guralnick. I first became tangentially aware of Peter when I got into blues as a kid and my mother mentioned that Dr. Guralnick’s son wrote about blues. Dr. Guralnick had removed her impacted wisdom teeth and later dealt with my impacted canines, and he recently celebrated his 102nd birthday. But being a pigheaded kid I didn’t follow up on this first clue and only discovered Peter’s work in my late teens — I don’t remember whether I read Lost Highway or Feel Like Going Home first, because I immediately read the other and in my memory they are merged into a single book.

I learned a lot from those books, but the most important thing was that you didn’t have to sort music into categories — that you could like Waylon Jennings and Howlin’ Wolf for the same reasons, and think of them as singing variations of the same kind of music, along with Hank Williams, Skip James, and Elvis Presley. I didn’t necessarily share all of Peter’s tastes — though I shared a lot of them, and  later found we share many others that didn’t get into those books — but I hunted up every record he mentioned and many of them became central to my understanding of music and led me down the paths I’ve followed ever since.*

Peter described Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes as his “landmark album,” so I went right out and bought it, and it sure was a landmark for me. I had tended to dismiss contemporary country music, but that album got me on a kick that extended through another eight or ten Waylon albums, a couple of Willie Nelson’s, at least one of Tompall Glaser’s, and then I connected to Joe Ely and Merle Haggard and worked my way backward to Hank Williams and Bob Wills and forward to Lacey J. Dalton, John Anderson, Dwight Yoakam, and so on and on.

I learned at least a dozen songs off Waylon’s records, but most of them didn’t really suit me — I could never sing “The only two things in life that make it worth living/ Is guitars are tuned good and firm-feelin’ women” with a straight face. This one became a regular in my repertoire, not because it suited me in an autobiographical way but because it suited my ragtime-based guitar style. I learned it one afternoon, played it at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Harvard Square that evening, and got applause for the guitar break, which had never happened before, so I kept playing it.

I only saw Waylon live once, and he was as good as I’d hoped — he still had Ralph Mooney on steel, and the rest of the band was loose and powerful, and he seemed natural, charming, and wild, just like in Guralnick’s piece. His records were mostly spotty, and when I listen back these days I tend to put together my own mixes, but there’s still something in his voice that I can’t get anywhere else, and I still enjoy fooling around with a lot of those songs:

The highway is hotter than nine kinds of hell
The rides are scarce as the rain
When you’re down to your last shuck, with nothing to sell
And too far away for the trains

Like “Honky Tonk Heroes,” that one was penned by Billy Joe Shaver, who wrote most of that landmark Waylon album and deserves his own entry. I saw him a bunch of times over the years, interviewed him a couple of times, love his writing, and he’s a whole other story.

 

*In an earlier post I credited Doug Sahm and Band with setting me on that path, and that record probably hit me at about the same time as Guralnick, though I don’t think I made the connection at the time.

Run Red Run (The Coasters)

Among the fringe benefits of hanging out in Vancouver was a friend of Maggie’s who collected old 45s and made me a tape of oddities and rarities, including LaVerne Baker’s “Saved,” the Court Jesters’ “Roaches,” and the Coasters doing “Run Red Run” and “What About Us?”

Produced and supplied with songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the Coasters were far more political than most fans or historians recall. I’ve already written about “Framed” and “Riot in Cell Block #9,” but this 1959 pairing was their most explicit protest single to hit the charts. “What About Us?” was a thinly disguised plaint for social justice, couched in typically humorous terms:

He goes to eat at the Ritz — big steaks! (That’s the breaks.)
We eat hominy grits, from a bag. (What a drag…)
What about us? What about us?
Don’t want to cause no fuss, but what about us?

“Run, Red, Run” was an urban update of the African tradition of  animal trickster tales, and more directly a hip reworking of the “Signifying Monkey” toasts.  (For more on that, check out a terrific book, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me, by Bruce Jackson.)  On the surface it’s about a monkey who turns the tables on the man who has taught him to drink beer and play poker — but it didn’t take much imagination to see the monkey as a stand-in for Africans, Red for white America, and the story for the changes that were happening in those years, from the southern marches to the ghetto riots and the rise of black power.  As Leiber later said, “Once the monkey knows how to play, he knows how to understand other things. And once he understands that he’s being cheated and exploited, he becomes revolutionary.”

In that context, it is ironic that the song appeared on an album that, as was typical at that time, masked the race of the artists with pictures of white people. It’s possible that this was unintentional — in the sense that a white artist may have drawn white people without even considering other options — but that is no less noteworthy, and it’s equally possible that the choice was made with full intent. Berry Gordy, for one, was open about avoiding showing pictures of his groups on Motown album covers in this period, to avoid alienating white buyers — or, perhaps, their parents.

All of which said, it’s a great song, and in 1984 I included it on my LP, Songster/Fingerpicker/Shirtmaker. The guitar part was loosely adapted from John Hammond’s arrangement for Mose Allison’s “Ask Me Nice,” though he made it significantly funkier.

Incidentally, listening back to the Coasters’ records, I seem to have added a touch from the B side: they sing that the monkey is going to go to town in Red’s “new brown suit,” and refer to the rich guy in “What About Us?” as having a car made of suede… I turned the suit into a brown suede suit, having once been impressed to see Tom Lehrer wearing a suede suit at a benefit concert.

 

A Man’s a Man (Bertolt Brecht/Dave Van Ronk)

The title song from Bertolt Brecht’s early play Mann ist Mann, this was my professional recording debut, arranging and playing guitar for Dave Van Ronk. Dave was a great interpreter of Brecht’s songs, and even appeared in an off-Broadway production of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, singing the “Alabama Song.” He recorded that, and “Mack the Knife,” and his own fine translation of “As You Make Your Bed,” and then in the early 1980s Gary Cristall arranged for him to do a Brecht workshop at the Vancouver Folk Festival with the English singer Frankie Armstrong, and then for them to do an album together for his Aural Tradition record label.

I happened to be in Vancouver in the summer of 1982 or thereabouts when Dave came to record and, since he didn’t have any of his New York stalwarts around, I figured it was my chance to get on a Van Ronk session. So I volunteered and Dave — by way of gently brushing me off — said, “If you can come up with a decent arrangement for ‘A Man’s a Man,’ I’ve always wanted to do that one.” He added that it would have to be an arrangement that could be capoed up the neck, since he didn’t know what key was good for him, then left to play at the Edmonton folk festival.

In those days before the internet, it wasn’t easy to find a recording of the song, but fortunately my friend and hostess Maggie found a copy of Eric Bentley’s Brecht album in the library at Simon Fraser University. Fortunately, again, Bentley was a pretty rudimentary pianist and played a simple ragtime accompaniment that transferred easily to the bottom five frets of the guitar… so when Dave got back to Vancouver, there I was with an arrangement and he was stuck.

Brecht wrote Mann ist Mann in 1924, and described it as a comedy, apparently taking Chaplin’s films as a model. He directed the most famous production of it in Berlin in 1931, starring Peter Lorre, who performed during breaks from the shooting schedule of M. It was meant to exemplify Brecht’s theories of modern theater, and was acted in a highly stylized manner, fitting his theory of “alienation” — which in this case apparently meant “purposefully presenting the character in an episodic and incoherent manner in order to emphasize the changing nature of social relations.”* Berlin audiences were effectively alienated, and it closed in five days.

Dave also considered alienation a useful performance technique, though what he meant was that you can make a lyric more effective by framing it in a way that goes directly against its meaning: singing a tender lyric in a rough voice, or a brutal lyric over a gentle accompaniment. This song is a perfect example, using a perky ragtime tune and cheery chit-chat to underline the dehumanizing horror of war. The soldiers are interchangeable cogs, all named Dan, all having the same experiences, and all meaninglessly expendable.

I worked this out for Dave and had no plans to sing it myself, but my friend Monte fell in love with it while I was practicing for the session and made me do it whenever I was back in town, and I got to like it.

As for the Brecht album, it came out in 1989 and this song was Dave’s weakest performance on it — he had very little practice time, and sounds rushed — but he’d been singing the other songs for decades and did them brilliantly, in particular an a cappella version of the title song, “Let No One Deceive You”:

 

*Sarah Thomas, Peter Lorre, Face Maker

Pancho and Lefty (and Monte)

This song will always be associated in my mind with Monte, a longtime friend who played harmonica with me whenever I came through Vancouver. He wasn’t usually a singer, but on this one he sang Lefty’s part and his rough, dry voice perfectly fitted the character.

I’ve written a bit about Monte and his affection for Townes Van Zandt’s work in a previous post, but there are so many stories… we met during my first couple of weeks in Vancouver, staying with my friend Maggie, and for some reason we hit it off. He was a tough, gentle man and a tasteful, rowdy musician. In the early 1980s he was drinking at least a fifth of Jameson’s a day, always had at least five lady friends rotating through the week, managed a halfway house for juvenile delinquents, and never seemed to slow down. I remember once arriving in town, calling him, and getting the response: “I’m sorry, Lije, I’ve just finished a 36-hour shift and I’ve got to get some sleep. I’ll meet you at Joe’s in two hours.”

Joe’s was the coffeehouse where everyone I knew in Vancouver used to meet over the course of the day to chat and shoot pool. It was famous for serving cappuccinos with an inch and a half of foam above the edge of the cup and never a single drip down the side — later on, Monte worked there and made the cappuccinos, and later still he helped organize a strike and was fired on national television.

Another story: Monte had booked us to play at a Portuguese restaurant called Santo’s, but when I hit town and called him he sounded kind of concerned:

“So, Lije, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.”

“OK, Monte… what’s the bad news?”

“So I was over at Santo’s last week, and Santo’s brother got in an argument with his wife and slapped her, so I had to ask him to step outside and… I broke his arm, so the gig’s been cancelled.”

“OK, Monte… so what’s the good news?”

“I was in there again last night and won two hundred dollars off Santo playing poker dice, so I can pay you anyway.”

I loved Monte, and loved playing with him, and for a few years made sure to spend at least a week or two in Vancouver. Then Maggie died and I cut down on hitchhiking and touring around the US, and what with one thing and another there was a gap of almost twenty years.

When I got back out there, though, it was like old times. The first visit of the new millennium I was supposed to get in around 10pm and Monte arranged to meet at a bar called Bukowski’s. The bus was more than three hours late, I arrived after last call, and Monte was sitting with two double shots of Jameson, one for each of us, to welcome me back. Then we went over to the Wise Club, where he was tending bar, and he opened it just for us and we spent hours catching up.

For the next few years I got to Vancouver pretty regularly and Monte usually set up a gig, typically including a phenomenal guitarist named Paul Pigat who could play anything, and often Paul Rigby on mandolin, and maybe a bass player or a drummer — I didn’t deserve those guys, but they turned up for Monte and it was great.

Monte died a couple of years ago, after a long, hard battle with heart trouble, liver trouble, cancer — his body held up longer than any of us expected, but it could only take so much. He was himself to the end, though: I made it out for a final visit and found him sitting in an armchair in a friend’s living room. (The friend, Jason, had invited him to crash in the guest room after the last hospital stay and was seeing him through to the end.) He was on a lot of morphine, which made him groggy, and was smoking cocaine-laced cigarettes to stay alert, and I sat there while he slowly got one to his lips, reached for his lighter, tried to get it to light… dropped the cigarette, painfully bent down, picked it up, tried again and dropped the lighter, slowly bent over again and felt for it under his chair, found it, tried again, dropped the cigarette… and like that, for maybe five minutes, until he dropped the lighter yet again and I reached down to hand it to him, and he fixed me with an icy glare and said, “Lije, you’re just going to have to learn to control yourself.”

I still hear his voice singing Lefty’s part.

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.

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head