Like most people in the 1960s and ’70s, I first heard this on Dave Van Ronk’s second Folkways album and figured he’d picked it up somewhere in the blues world, but during my year of lessons with Dave he steered me to his actual source: the Bahamian Blind Blake and his band from the Royal Victoria Hotel in Nassau. It is obviously related to a song recorded in the late 1920s by James “Stump” Johnson, Tampa Red, and others as “The Duck’s Yas Yas,” and that discographic primacy has led a lot of scholars to describe Blake’s song as a variant of Tampa Red’s. However, Blake’s lyric shares only the opening verse of the Red/Johnson version, and since his repertoire is full of turn-of-the-century minstrel survivals like “My Name is Morgan, But It Ain’t J.P.” and “Watermelon Spoilin’ on the Vine” (as well as the sole surviving version of a bloodthirsty minstrel masterpiece, “Jones, Oh Jones“), I would guess this is in fact an earlier version, from which Johnson, Tampa and others remembered only the first verse.
There is strong internal evidence for that guess, since all Blake’s verses are neat comic creations tailored to the “Yas, Yas, Yas” theme and rhyme, while the Johnson/Tampa version mostly consists of generic, unrelated verses after the opening. If that’s right, the latecomers seem to have vaguely remembered it, since a couple of those verses include phrases from the Blake verses — for example, a reference to the “gasoline station” from the John Dillinger verse.
The relationship of early recordings, oral traditions, and printed compositions is complicated and — to some of us, at least — fascinating. Much as I love a lot of old recordings, they are simply snapshots, frequently unrepresentative, from a huge pool of material people were singing in the early 20th century. Van Ronk still came up in a world where songs were often learned from other singers rather than from records, or from records he had only heard a couple of times and vaguely remembered. That was a disadvantage in a lot of ways, but also gave his generation a degree of freedom — they couldn’t remember how the “original” version went, exactly, so they had to do the best they could, and the result was sometimes better than the assiduous imitations that became more prevalent by my time, when we all had the old records on reissue LPs and could study them with infinite care.
I could go on about this — and often do, at great length — but for now will just note that Blind Blake’s recordings from the Bahamas, though made in 1950, are worthy of a lot more study than they have received as a repository of African American songs that failed to be recorded on the mainland in earlier eras.
(One final thought: John Dillinger was active in the early 1930s, so when I suggest that Stump Johnson’s gasoline verse in 1929 was a vaguely recalled survival of the Dillinger verse, it’s an anachronism. My guess is that the verse itself is older and Dillinger replaced an earlier protagonist, but that’s just a guess — if other people want to credit Blake with writing a whole new set of verses and turning a relatively generic blues song into a cohesive comic creation, the evidence supports their guess at least as well as mine.)