Poor Jenny

It is an immutable rule of pop music that if you have a smash hit, you try to find something similar to catch the wave. So, when the Everly Brothers hit with “Wake Up, Little Susie,” it was inevitable that Felice and Boudleaux Bryant would try to write a follow-up. The fiEverly brothersrst hit was about a boy and girl falling asleep at the movies and waking up to the realization that no one would believe them and their reputations were shot. So, where to go with that?

Their answer was a monument to adolescent male self-absorption and fecklessness, which reached the top forty in 1959 but had nothing like the success of its predecessor or its flip side, “Take a Message to Mary.” In a way, it’s a mirror-image of that song, which has a man singing to his lady love from a jail cell, where he is imprisoned for a stagecoach robbery and murder, except…

In this one it’s the girl who’s in jail, and the circumstances are a lot less romantic. Basically, the boy took her out on a date, it went very wrong, she has been abused and vilified, and he is worried that she may be upset with him and he may get in trouble.

I found this on an Everly Brothers double-LP retrospective in the Cambridge Public Library, and just like the Bryants and Everlys I picked it as a follow-up to “Wake Up, Little Susie,” but it never worked. Part of the reason may be that I got the chords completely wrong, flattening out one of the Bryants’ most interesting compositions, but honestly I think their fancy harmonies just added to the basic problem — which is that the song is supposed to be goofy and funny, but the story is nasty and upsetting, and told with enough specificity that it’s hard to overlook the nastiness.

I still like it, but it’s dark comedy: the story is just this side of date rape — hell, we don’t even know what happened after the boy left — but our narrator has that incredible teenage male ability to see nothing but his own needs and worries. Despite his constant efforts to seem sympathetic — that concern for “poor Jenny” — it’s all about him, and what may happen to him, and whether she’ll forgive him.

To me, that’s one of the fascinating things about the pop music of the late 1950s and early 1960s — after the teen market was discovered, and before the Beatles and the apotheosis of Motown. Producers who had grown up in a different world didn’t understand the teen market but desperately wanted to cash in, so they set hundreds of young songwriters and singers loose to experiment, and although most of the results were less than stellar, the naked attempt to express teen attitudes and feelings succeeded to a degree that is kind of amazing, though by no means always pretty.

And, on another level, there is a degree of innocence that makes me nostalgic, because I was a teenage boy when I learned this and pretty feckless myself, and it never occurred to me back then that anything genuinely dreadful might have happened to the girl — just like, when I sang “Wake Up, Little Susie,” it never occurred to me that they might not really have fallen asleep.

Wake Up, Little Susie (Everlys and Bryants)

When I first heard the Everly Brothers, I didn’t know what to make of them. They didn’t sound exactly like doo-wop, or like country, or like rock ‘n’ roll. In retrospect, I see them in the long tradition of country brother duets, following the Delmore Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, the 2-3 Everly BrothersLouvin Brothers — but I’m still struck by the uniqueness of their sound. The Delmores and Monroes had plenty of blues and drive in their music, but there was something different about the Everlys. Part of it was certainly their guitar playing, with its terrific simplicity and rhythmic power. And part of it, for me at least, was the attitude: they weren’t singing about country concerns, they were singing about teen concerns, and they were clever and funny.

Most of the credit for the clever and funny part has to go to Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote all their early hits, including “Bye, Bye Love,” “All I Have to do Is Dream,” “Bird Dog,” “Poor Jenny” (not much of  a hit, but I’ll be putting it up tomorrow), and “Wake Up, Little Susie.” The Bryants are a pretty great story themselves — he was a classical violinist who played briefly in the Atlanta Philharmonic before switching to country music in the late 1930s, then in 1945 he was touring through Milwaukee, got on an elevator, fell in love with the elevator operator, Matilda Scaduto, whom he renamed Felice, and they moved into a mobile home and started writing songs. They had a tough felice_boudleaux_bryanttime for a few years, but by the end of the decade they were getting some country hits, and in 1957 they took off when the Everlys cut a song that had been turned down by some thirty country artists, called “Bye, Bye Love.”

The Bryants recognized the brothers’ potential and began writing songs tailored to their tastes and image — Don Everly recalled, “Their stuff fit us like a glove, because it was designed to fit. Boudleaux would sit down and talk with us. A lot of his songs were written because he was getting inside our heads—trying to find out where we were going, what we wanted, what words were right.”

I don’t remember when or where I first heard this one — it may have been when I was getting into the rock ‘n’ roll oldies I’ve discussed in earlier posts, but probably came later, since I don’t remember singing it with my sister and our doo-wop pals. It’s a different kind of song, wittier and more rocking, and is probably my favorite Everly Brothers track. The trick, it seems to me, is that it is an utterly teenage experience, viewed from outside, with a degree of mockery — but the mockery also feels teenage. Like, the brothers are singing about something dumb they did, and how dumb they felt, and laughing ruefully at themselves, while also winking to their listeners about going to the movies and making out.

I sang this a lot on the street that summer after I’d been studying in New York, and there was something about it that felt liberating after all the ragtime and blues — it was high-energy fun, and I was a teenager, cutting loose and setting off on my own, and the spirit was upon me.

Teenager in Love (street singing/Dion)

I spent the summer of 1977 playing for tips on the street, six hours a night, four nights a week, in front of Woolworth’s in Harvard Square with Rob Forbes on washboard. We’d play from about 8pm to 1am and make maybe thirty dollars, and then from 1am to 2am we’d make another thirty singing oldies Dion_&_The_Belmontsfor the people forced into the streets when the bars closed.

By that time we were typically the only musicians out there, since the hour from midnight to one was dead and all the others would go home. We didn’t make much money earlier because the competition was stiff — there were bluegrass bands, jugglers, acrobats, and people who played more popular music, or just played better than we did. In those days no one had an amplifier, so you could fit a lot of musicians in the Square without them overlapping and bothering each other, and it was still the golden age of young people hitchhiking around the country and busking, so there was always plenty of music.

Anyway, we figured out pretty soon that if we could amuse the well-oiled exiles from the bars we could make decent money in that post-closing hour when we had the Square to ourselves. A ragtime or blues song might persuade a few broadminded, good-time souls to stop for a moment and throw us a quarter, but the trick was to get a crowd that would stick around and throw paper money, and the way to do that was to get them involved…

The way we did that was to get them all singing “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl…” over which I’d swoop in with my most aching tenor, singing:

As I-I, walk through this world, nothing can stop, the Duke of Earl…

Or start them singing “oooo-oo, wah-oo, oo…” over which I’d come in with:

Each time we have a quarrel, it almost breaks my heart
‘Cause I am so afraid, that we’ll have to part…

“Teenager in Love” was my big number, because I was the-timex-watcheighteen and put real feeling into it, and it was utterly ridiculous. One memorable night a drunk was so moved that he pulled his Timex electronic watch off his wrist and threw it in the guitar case — which doesn’t sound like much now, but no one I knew had an electronic watch back then, and I wore it for years.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about this one — I don’t remember where I learned it, or whether I had the Dion and the Belmonts recording or just got it from Sha Na Na. I had no sense of Dion, he was just another name on oldies collections, and I would have been Dion Bronx Bluesastounded if anyone had told me that in the early 1960s he’ made some  blues revival tracks like “Don’t Start Me Talking” — which is not really my fault, since they didn’t get released till the 1990s, but in later years he’s been an assiduous proponent of old-style blues and if we ever meet I guess I’ll have to apologize for the fact that I still think of him as the guy who sang “Teenager in Love.”

Oh, and one last thing: if you haven’t heard Bob Marley and the Wailers’ reworking of this song, you should click through immediately, because you have a treat in store.

Let’s Get Drunk Again (Bo Carter/busking)

This was my favorite Bo Carter song, mostly for its easy swing, but I probably wouldn’t have learned it if I had just been playing on my own. As it happened, though, the summer after my year in New York bo carter lpI was back in Cambridge, planning to head to Europe and be a ramblin’ guitar player, and my high school friend Rob Forbes had decided to go with me, and his mother happened to have a washboard — heaven knows why — so we became a duo.

We played four nights a week on the street in Harvard Square, in front of Woolworth’s, and I was damn lucky to have Rob because solo guitar players were and are a penny a dozen but washboard players were and are a novelty.

As leader of a duo, it behooved me to come up with some material that suited two voices, and this was one of the first songs I thought of — Carter did it alone, but there was an obvious place for call and response:

“Hey, Whiskey!”
“What you say, Gin?”

And then, both voices together: “Let’s both drink and get drunk again.”

The second verse even mentioned a washboard. So we did this one regularly as long as we were playing together.

As a commentary on how the world has changed, although we played on the street together four nights a week, five hours a night, from June through October, 1977, then went on to play for several months in Spain, I do not have a single picture of us. In fact, I can’t even find a picture of the Woolworth’s that used to be in Harvard Square — which was so much our musical home that when another guy tried to set up there once, the store manager came out and told him that they already had some regular musicians. (Which surprised the hell out of us — we thought we were barely being tolerated.) Anyway, here’s a photo of Rob from a few months later, when we’d headed down to Spain and he’d hitched up to Rotterdam in search of a job on a freighter. I don’t know the circumstances, but it was taken on December 28, before he gave up on seafaring and hitched back south to spend the rest of the winter playing with me in Torremolinos.

Sweet Substitute (Jelly Roll Morton)

As my year of college drew to a close, Dave Van Ronk likewise declared himself done with me as a guitar student. We’d gone through all the more complicated pieces he taught, and he thought it was time for me to come up with my own stuff. Before conceding the point, I had one last request: that he teach me his arrangement for “Sweet Substitute.”van ronk second folkways He demurred, saying, “That’s not an arrangement; I just play the chords.”

“OK,” I said. “So what are the chords?”

So he showed me, and I swear it’s an arrangement — albeit one that flowed pretty naturally out of the chords, once he’d settled on the key of G and decided on which inversions to use. The opening of the chorus, in particular, has one of those small, brilliant moves that separate the great arrangers (Dave, for example) from the rest of us: a G chord on the third fret, with the E string left open to make it a G6, descending to an F# fingered exactly the same way, with the open E now providing the flat 7th.

The song was composed by Jelly Roll Morton at the very end of his career, with lyrics by Roy Carew, one of his later friends and supporters. As Dave used to explain, Morton was down on his luck at that point and, to make the situation more bitter, his “King Porter  Stomp” was the theme song of the Benny Goodman Orchestra, one of the most popular bands in the world — but he’d sold all the rights, and wasn’t getting a nickel as it played on radio and jukeboxes across the country. So he decided, goddammit, he’d write a hit song in the modern swing style, and the result was “Sweet Substitute,” which he recorded at his final sessions, and which promptly vanished without a trace… until some West Coast dixieland bands picked it up in the mid 1950s, and Dave recorded it in 1961.

Dave loved and admired Morton, and by the time I met him that story had acquired personal resonance, because he was acutely aware that most younger players and fans on the folk scene didn’t understand what he had contributed, or the skills he had that they lacked. He wasn’t bitter, exactly, and he didn’t put himself in Morton’s class — he rated himself as “first rate second-rate,” where people like Morton, Armstrong, and Ellington were straight-up first-rate — but he did feel a sense of camaraderie with other fine musicians who hadn’t been given their due.

In which context it’s worth repeating a story from Billy Taylor, a fine pianist who came of age in the 1940s and recalled going with a couple of other young Turks to see Morton at his last venue, the Jungle Inn in Washington, D.C. They were modern jazzmen, fans of Art Tatum and Lester Young, familiar with Bartok and Hindemith, and to the extent they were aware of Morton at all, they regarded him as corny and passé. Taylor wrote about that night many years later:

late jelly roll mortonJelly came on. He looked shockingly sick and feeble – old and a little mad. But he wore his old, southern-gentleman’s suit with dignity, and when he smiled the diamond in his tooth still glittered hard. He played a new piece of his called Sweet Substitute, and then he looked straight over at our booth. His eyes had a very personal kind of pride which I had never seen before…

Then Jelly spoke only to us: “You punks can’t play this.”

I forget the tune. What I do remember is a big, full, two-handed piano player – a ragtimer modified and relaxed by way of New Orleans, and very swinging… and as I listened, suddenly I knew. “Golly, he’s right. I can’t play what he’s playing. Just purely technically I can’t play two hands together and separately the way he does.” I looked over at the other confident young men who had come with me: I saw that they knew they couldn’t either. Ours was a very quiet booth for the next three hours.

Georgia on My Mind (Hoagy Carmichael)

The musical education I got from Dave Van Ronk was by no means limited to guitar lessons, or to his own work. By the third or fourth week, he shifted my lesson to the end of the day, and when it finished he would cook dinner, then we’d break out the whiskey, and along with discoursing knowledgeably and at length on an astonishing range of subjects, he would play records – and not only that, he would loan me records to take back to my room, and listen to over and over, and tape. They may have included some blues or folk records, but I don’t recall any. hoagy2The ones I remember were by Groucho Marx, Jerry Colona, and Hoagy Carmichael. Colona was a passing fancy. Marx was wonderful, and I still know all the words to “Show Me a Rose” and “Omaha, Nebraska,” but there’s no point to anyone but Groucho performing that material.

Carmichael, though, was a revelation and has remained one of my favorite singers and a model I keep going back to after forty years of listening. He didn’t have a great voice in formal terms, but he made that a strength: he always sounded like he was talking directly to you, telling a story, while phrasing with a jazz musician’s rhythmic command and reshaping his melodic lines in surprising ways that never interfered with the lyric and always sounded completely relaxed.

For me, he epitomizes that much over-used term “singer-songwriter,” and his version of “Georgia on My Mind” is typical of what made me fall in love with his work. The lyric is ambiguous, perhaps about the state, perhaps about a girl (Carmichael’s sister was named Georgia),  and it expresses longing for a special someone as easily as a special place, her memory echoing “as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines.” (On one recording, he addresses that particular line to “Georgia, my honey.”) hoagy carmichaelOn the record I borrowed from Dave, Carmichael sang this accompanied only by a piano trio, in his understated Indiana murmur, dry and wistful, lonesome and resigned, like he was reminiscing with a friend over a final glass of whiskey before calling it a night — maybe with Lauren Bacall, in that bar where she worked as his chanteuse in To Have and Have Not. (Other versions have full band backing, and they’re fine, but not what I hear in my head.)

I was lucky that was the way I got to know this song – I’d heard Billie Holiday’s version before, but as far as I can recall, no others. Sometime later that year I was sitting with Dave in Folk City and the Ray Charles version came on the sound system, and I asked him, “Who’s that singing?” He looked at me like I was a Martian – exactly the reaction I would have now if someone asked that question – and told me. And of course I’ve now heard Ray Charles’s version innumerable times. But if I’d heard him first, I wonder if I would ever have felt like I could sing this, because how can anybody attempt it with that version in their head? I’ve rarely performed it, for exactly that reason – I figure as soon as I sing the first notes people think of Ray, and compare me to him, and I know where that leaves me. But in my own head I hear Hoagy, and if I’ll never sound as relaxed as he did, it’s at least a reasonable aspiration.

Shine On, Harvest Moon (Mance Lipscomb)

Thanks to my father, I grew up on pop songs of the teens and 1920s, but I don’t know if I would have performed any in public if I hadn’t heard Mance Lipscomb. mance lipscomb lpI was coming from a background of Woody Guthrie, followed by old blues, and although the Kweskin band had proved to me that a blues-related group might play goofy pop songs as novelties, my reference point for the more serious or sentimental pop of previous eras was  people like  Frank Sinatra, Al Martino, or whichever middle-aged warbler was currently warbling — which is to say, neither I nor anyone my age had the slightest interest in that stuff. Nor, I must admit, did I initially appreciate Lipscomb’s blues work — it was too subtle for me, and I didn’t get into it until considerably later.

Where the two intersected, though, I was entranced — for example, his live recording of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” or his Berkeley Blues Fest recording of “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” which provoked my father to come downstairs and sing along, then tell a shaggy dog ghost story about a disembodied head appearing out of a dank swamp, delivered in suitably spooky tones until the head breaks into “I ain’t got no body…

In any case, I didn’t learn that song at the time, but did learn “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” more or less the way Mance played it. Dave Van Ronk, who had a strong sense of right and wrong in such matters, shine_on_harvest_moonwould have disapproved, because Mance didn’t play the right chords — and I understand Dave’s feelings, because if I pull this out when I’m playing with people who know old pop songs, they know it the way it was written, not the way Mance did it, and if they try to join in, the result is a musical train wreck.

On the other hand, there is a long tradition of vernacular musicians reshaping material to fit their own approaches, and Mance in particular had an unusual and lovely chord sense. When he did an old pop tune, he didn’t just flatten it out or try to sing it over three chords like some rural musicians of his generation; he came up with variations that were different from the written versions but often more interesting — for instance, in this arrangement, the chromatic ascent from D to E, and the move from the F to an F# bass, then a bass run in G. I recently listened back and found that I’ve further altered his version, adding a couple of chords he didn’t play, changing a couple he did, and substituting my own bass lines for his monotonic dance beat, but I still hear his version in my head and like it better than any other.

Once I’d learned this, it opened the door to working out my own arrangements of a lot of other old pop songs — though, city boy that I am, I got my hands on some fake books and learned the “right” chords.  And, honestly, that was a good thing, because Mance had a unique ability to make anything he touched sound pretty. He was kind of like Mississippi John Hurt that way, except he went in for fancier pop songs than anything Hurt recorded, in terms of the chords, and even wrote a few himself, like “So Different Blues,” which I cover in another post.

To finish up, my appreciation of Mance’s work has grown steadily over the years — he was a wonderfully imaginative guitarist and had an uncanny ability to synthesize versions of traditional or familiar songs, coming up with lyrics drawn from multiple sources and somehow always compiling a better selection of verses than anyone else had. I love listening to him sing blues, or old play-party songs, or anything else, and if someone asked me today to recommend a couple of tracks to give them a sense of his music, I would start with “Ain’t You Sorry,” or “So Different Blues,” or maybe his version of “Take Me Back”… and yet and still, even now, when I think of Mance it is the pop songs that first come to mind, with this one vying for top honors.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Leon Redbone)

The year I was studying with Dave Van Ronk was also the first year of Saturday Night Live, back when it was a provocation rather than an institution. We wondered every week if it would get pulled off the air, and I don’t think that was just our imagination – and the musical choices were as weird and edgy as the comedy. Like, for example, Leon Redbone. I doubt that man would have had a career redbone on snlif he hadn’t happened to release his first album just when the most talked-about show on television was open to the oddity of a strange, deadpan character sitting onstage with a guitar and moaning old pop songs, so uncool that it was another kind of cool.

I didn’t catch his first appearance, when he sang “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” but saw his second, when he did “My Walking Stick,” an odd object from Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers — and I ran right out and bought his record. (I guess that was my year for running out and buying records of acts I saw on television, the other being Blondie.)

I don’t think I had ever heard “Ain’t Misbehavin’” before that, and I certainly hadn’t heard “Lazy Bones,” or “Lulu’s Back in Town,” Leon Redbone LPor any of the other songs on that LP, which I recall as mostly having just him on guitar and vocals, and his trumpet imitation, and sometimes a tuba, and Milt Hinton on bass, and a few other sidemen including Joe Venuti on violin – whom I’d never heard of, but who was obviously great.

I actually saw that SNL appearance before getting to New York, and I heard Redbone around the same time at Passim Coffeehouse in Cambridge – I didn’t have the money to go inside, but sat in the narrow well outside the window, pressing my ear to the glass, and for some reason no one came out and chased me away.

So I was smitten and learned a bunch of the songs, though just to sing silently in my head, since I couldn’t figure out the chords. And when Dave started playing me records of pop singers from the 1930s, notably Bing Crosby and Fats Waller, I mentioned joevenuti-bluefourLeon Redbone’s record… and Dave growled: “He got the chords wrong to the bridge of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ – and with Joe Venuti in the studio! If he didn’t know the chords, why didn’t he ask Joe?”

A year or so later, when I got my hands on a fake book and learned the chords and worked up an arrangement, the first thing I did was play it for Dave, to make sure I had the chords right. He said, sure, they were fine – he was a jazz guy, and knew there were a variety of possible “right” chords, which didn’t mean there weren’t some wrong ones, like for instance what Redbone played in the bridge…*

So that’s the story of how I learned “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and my brief infatuation with Leon Redbone – by the time his next album came out I was listening to Waller, Crosby, Armstrong, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, the Boswell Sisters, and I’d had my fling with him and it didn’t excite me anymore. But I have no idea how long it might have taken me to get into this kind of music without him, because he had good taste in songs and made them seem approachable for someone with basic ragtime-blues chops, and in his odd way, he was cool.

*For what it’s worth, I just went back and listened to Redbone’s recording of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and his chords sound fine to me.

Riot in Cell Block Number Nine (The Coasters)

Though my record-buying at Dayton’s focused on prewar blues, there were a handful of notable exceptions – most significantly, a trio of reissue albums on the Atlantic label featuring the Drifters, the Clovers, Coastersand – far and away most memorably – the Coasters. Aside from Chuck Berry and Ray Charles, I don’t think any other R&B hitmakers in the 1950s recorded a body of work I love as much as the Coasters’. Unlike Berry and Charles, though, the Coasters were a collaborative project, and it is not easy to define them or what made them unique.

On the one hand, there were the actor/singers who brought the songs to life. As with many groups of that period, they were not completely consistent from record to record, the personnel sometimes changing and occasional ringers taking the lead richard berry(not a common occurrence, but “Riot in Cell Block Number Nine” featured Richard Berry, the composer of “Louie, Louie,” who appeared on no other group track and was recorded when they were still based in Los Angeles — whence “The Coasters,” for West Coast — and were called the Robins).

On the other hand, there were Jerry Leiber  and Mike Stoller, who wrote the songs and produced the records. Leiber and Stoller were expert, versatile hitmakers, and did a lot of other stuff as well, but the Coasters records are their definitive artistic statement, the perfect match of playwrights and actors, composers and musicians, producers and artists.

The story of the Coasters and Leiber and Stoller has been told elsewhere, and what I want to emphasize here is just how much I loved that first LP collection and how much it affected my understanding of musical performance, then and forever. It was funny, and smart, and soulful, and musically challenging, and danceable, and collaborative, and individual – it was pure entertainment that was also rigorous and edgy, enjoyable and admirable on any level you might choose.

leiber and stollerI can sing all but a couple of songs on that record, as well as lots of other Coasters songs I heard later, but I don’t perform most of them because I can’t do them even well enough to amuse myself. This and its prequel, “Framed,” are exceptions because they are such neatly crafted story-songs, and don’t demand a group treatment the way “Youngblood,” or “Along Came Jones” do. They also appealed to me because at that point I was immersing myself in blues, and they solved a problem: Dave Van Ronk could sing “Hoochie Coochie Man” convincingly and I couldn’t, but I liked that musical framework, and this song provided a combination of the setting Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters created for that song with a lyric that didn’t demand the singer be believable as its protagonist – everyone understood that I was presenting the story of a prison break, not pretending I might lead one.

Actually… to be absolutely honest, that is a later rationalization: at the time I also sang “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and it took  a while for me to figure out why it didn’t work, while this one and “Framed” did. In which context, two relevant anecdotes:

The first is Leiber and Stoller’s recollection that the songs they wrote for Elvis were big hits and made them lots of money, but were lightweight fluff compared to what they’d done with the Coasters, their particular example being “Jailhouse Rock.” They apparently wrote all the songs for that movie soundtrack in one afternoon, and Leiber dismissed the title song as Hollywood silliness, saying: “We used to write things like ‘Riot in Cell Block Number Nine’.” What he meant was that they used to write songs that were funny but also felt real, and in an online biography of the Robins, Marv Goldberg quotes Terrell Leonard, one of the group robins22members, recalling that Leiber and Stoller wrote the song with bass singer Bobby Nunn in mind, but he refused to sing it, apparently considering it low class. “We didn’t understand our heritage,” Terrell recalled. “These two white songwriters knew our culture better than we did. Bobby wouldn’t do it so they brought Richard Berry in.”

The second anecdote, to balance that one, is Van Ronk’s story of arriving late at a blues festival, with no idea who else was on the bill, rushing onstage, and ending his set with a shouting, macho version of “Hoochie Coochie Man,” then coming off and finding Muddy Waters had been sitting and listening to him. Dave was embarrassed, but Muddy, as always, was polite and helpful: “That was very nice, son,” he said, encouragingly. “But you know, that’s supposed to be a funny song.”

Why Don’t You Do Right? (Lil Green)

Most of the early blues albums I bought during that year with Van Ronk were by male guitarists, with a few by male pianists. Aside from the complete Bessie Smith sets, the only album by a female blues singer I recall buying in that period was of Lil Green LPLil Green, and I’m pretty sure I bought it only because her accompanists included Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Slim, and because I’d heard one song of hers, “Knockin’ Myself Out,” on a compilation of songs about drugs.*

Green has not been much remembered or enthroned in the blues pantheon, but for a moment in 1939 she and Billie Holiday were hailed as co-leaders of a blues revival – the African American press had pretty much stopped writing about blues after Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and the other pioneering blues queens ceased to get hits in the late 1920s, and when Holiday hit with “Fine and Mellow” just as Green hit with “Why Don’t You Do Right?” it was treated as a significant new wave.

They were superficially similar singers, with lighter, thinner voices than their most famous predecessors, but otherwise were very different. Holiday favored hip, forward-looking musicians – most famously Lester Young – and changed jazz singing forever, while Green was in the mainstream Chicago style of the mid 1930s, complete with Slim and Broonzy backing her on piano and acoustic guitar. That made her work a good deal less distinctive, but also a good deal more approachable for me – especially since Broonzy’s guitar solo on her biggest hit was particularly simple. It was not a great solo, and I have completely forgotten it, but it was probably the first single-string lead I ever learned.

As for the song, I’ve continued to sing it off and on ever since. It was kansas joe mccoycomposed by Kansas Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie’s ex-husband and the leader of the Harlem Hamfats (which I like to think of as “the Harlem Hamfats, a Chicago band led by a Mississippi guitarist named Kansas Joe”). He’d recorded another lyric to the same tune, called “Weed Smoker’s Dream,” and apparently rewrote it for Green. In any case, it was a well-written lyric to a distinctive minor-key 12-bar blues melody, and did well for her, then even better for Peggy Lee, who got a career-establishing hit with it as vocalist for Benny Goodman’s band.

I didn’t perform this much, but sang it for my own amusement or for friends late at night, until mikamimeI did a tour of Japan with the folk-rock-avant garde singer-songwriter/ performance artist Mikami Kan. Between our first and second gigs he asked me why Americans never did any songs in minor keys, since Japanese people like that sound,  so I said we did, and sang him this one, and ended up doing it on every show for the rest of the tour, and fell in love with it all over again.


*I also learned “Knockin’ Myself Out,” which Green did wonderfully, and although I don’t remember all the verses, I still perfectly remember the way she phrased the tag line:

I’m gonna knock myself out, I’m gonna kill myself
I’m gonna knock myself out, gradually, by degrees.