Glory of Love (Joseph Spence)

Before heading to Europe, I sat down with my records and made four or five cassettes that served as my music library for the next couple of years. I had various criteria for choosing the cuts, but most were songs or guitar parts I wanted to learn. It was a pretty good method, since with so few options I heard those tracks over and over, and kind of absorbed most of them by osmosis.

There were some, though, that involved concentrated attention, and I still remember the two daysannecy-005 I spent working on this one, in a small bedroom in Annecy, France. I’d spent a month there when I was sixteen as part of an exchange program — I’ve written about part of that trip in my post on “Suzanne” — and when I headed north from Spain I decided to stop through and see if I could find my host family. I can’t remember their name, but the mother was a judge and the son was named Etienne, and memorably took me out riding on the back of his moped one night, went down a steep hill, and turned into a street that had a metal barrier across it at night… with the result that I scraped the skin off one side of my face and came near losing an eye, while he was walking with crutches for the next few weeks.

They had moved, but a neighbor gave me their address, I showed up at the door, and the mother welcomed me and invited me to stay a few days. Typically, having the chance to spend some time in one of the loveliest parts of France, a famous vacation destination with a lake and rivers and beautiful old stone houses, I spent that visit holed up in my room learning how to play a Joseph Spence arrangement — the only local culture I picked up was when the mother came in one day having found fresh donkey meat at the market, and made steak tartare, which apparently is best made from donkey….

None of which spence - mr walkerhas anything to do with Joseph Spence or “Glory of Love,” but it’s etched in my memory because I had never attempted to learn anything like this off a recording before, and I found that I could actually do it. It wasn’t perfect, and I’ve added a lot of Spencifications since that I didn’t get on that first pass, but it was a breakthrough and started me off on one of my favorite musical journeys.

(For those who want more  on my attachment to Spence, I’ve posted my recollections and versions of his “Sloop John B” and “Brownskin Gal,” and have a full page about him and my instructional DVD on his style. As for “Glory of Love,” it’s been done by dozens of people, but I’m pretty sure I got the lyric from Werner Lammerhirt’s recording, discussed briefly in my post on the German version of “Cocaine Blues.”)

Kokain (Hannes Wader’s Cocaine Blues)

Heading north from Spain for my first summer in Europe, one of my first stops was Liechtenstein, where I had an invitation to spend a few days with the family of a young woman named Ruth who I’d known in language school in Málaga. It’s the only time I was ever in Liechtenstein, and my main memory of the (tiny) country is of standing on a mountainside looking down on the clouds that covered the valleys.

My other memory is of my introduction to the alternate universe of European blues guitar. I had my guitar with me and played for Ruth’s family, and I think it was her brother whoWerner Lämmerhirt immediately asked if I knew Werner Lämmerhirt. Of course I didn’t, so we went up to his room and he played me Lämmerhirt’s first album. I could see why he was playing it for me — it obviously came out of the same tradition, complete with versions of “Hesitation Blues” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “See See Rider” — but I was not thrilled. For one thing, Lämmerhirt’s accent was lousy and his singing completely unconvincing, and for another thing, he was a spectacularly clean, fast, and intricate guitarist, and I was envious… though the way I phrased that, even to myself, was that he had lots of chops but no soul.

At that point, I had no sense of the world of European fingerstyle. I had one John Renbourn album and a couple by Pentangle, had heard a bit of Bert Jansch, but had never even heard of Davey Graham or Wizz Jones, or Marcel Dadi… so I didn’t understand the history of what I was hearing on that Lämmerhirt LP.

I was more taken with another German (actually Austrian, but, heaven help me, I didn’t make oscar kleinthe distinction at that point) blues guitarist, Oscar Klein — I would have said because he was more soulful, and I still think that’s true, but also because he was playing like Lightnin’ Hopkins, not exploring or expanding a new, European take on blues, so I was more familiar with what I was hearing. He was a jazz trumpet player and had a great feel on guitar, and he didn’t try to sing, which also helped.

And then there was Hannes Wader, or at least “Kokain” — I don’t recall hearing Wader himself sing that or anything else, and I wonder whether it was Ruth’s brother or one of his friends who played the song for me. Whoever did it, he also wrote out the lyrics and explained what they meant, and I learned the first few verses, mostly because I figured I should have at least one song in German, but also because I felt like it was exactly what I wanted Europeans to be doing if they were going to play blues.

The thing was, my whole existence as a wandering musician in Europe was predicated on the fact that Europeans liked American music, but didn’t have a lot of Americans around to play it. They were listening to German and French and Dutch and Spanish blues singers, singing in varying simulacrums of American accents, and some could play good guitar but when they opened their mouths it was mostly funny or just lame. As an eighteen-year-old white kid from Cambridge with fair-to-middling pitch problems, I wasn’t a world-class folk-blues singer myself, but in those days I could walk into pretty much any folk or blues club in Northern Europe and book a gig simply on the strength of being American, without them asking to hear a note. I might not be great, but I could at least pronounce the words right.

So what I particularly liked about “Kokain” — and what made it a unique object, in my experience — was that Wader not onlyHannes Wader was singing in German, but had written a thoroughly German, thoroughly modern lyric to the Gary Davis/Dave Van Ronk version I knew so well. He had translated one couplet in the chorus, and kept the original tag-line, but the rest of the song was a long, funny, and completely original fantasy about an extended family caught up in the German drug scene of the 1970s:

Meine Tante dealt seit einem Jahr
Seitdem geht sie über Leichen, fährt ‘nen Jaguar
Cocaine, all around my brain
Immer wenn sie kommt, bringt sie ein Stückchen Shit
In der Radkappe für die Kinder mit
Cocaine, all around my brain

(Roughly — and I welcome corrections from German-speakers:
My aunt has been dealing for a year,
Since then she’s on top of the world  [literally “walks over dead bodies”], travels in a Jaguar…
Whenever she visits she brings a chunk of shit [hashish]
In the hubcap, for the children…)

I never memorized that verse — I had enough trouble with the first four and am amazed that I still remember them forty years later… and I apologize to any German listeners for the mistakes and mispronunciations… but hey, I had to listen to a lot of Germans sing blues in butchered English, and now it’s your turn.

Wandering (Van Ronk/Carl Sandburg/censorship)

The first few times I saw Dave Van Ronk perform, this was one of his most hypnotic pieces — he would seem to expand and fill the stage with his presence, his voice would draw you in with its gruff whisper, then gradually rise until he was shouting,Just Dave Van Ronk2 always musically, always in control. He had recorded it in the mid 1960s but rarely sang it after the 1970s, though I continued to request it and he occasionally complied.

As with “Tell Old Bill,” “Dink’s Song,” and quite possibly some other songs in his repertoire, this came from Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag, though I think Dave’s direct source was Josh White’s recording. As for Sandburg’s sources, he lists two for what he calls a “lyric of tough days,” the second being Hubert Canfield — which is interesting, because Canfield was  a collector of bawdy folklore, assembling a large collection of typescript and handwritten lyrics in the 1920s, and the verses Sandburg took from him were part of a multi-page collection of floating blues verses, some of which I’ve previously quoted in connection with “Hesitation Blues.”

Once again, this brings me to the censorship of folksong in general and blues in particular. The two verses Sandburg took from Canfield are not censored, but his opening verse, credited to another source, is clearly a bowdlerization of some common verses Canfield gives in rawer versions, to whit:

Mother takes in washing,
Papa drives a hack,
Brother sells bootleg,
And Baby pulls his jack.

Mother’s on the poor farm,
Father’s in the jail,
Brother runs a cat house
And Sister peddles tail.

The significant thing about this is not that Canfield’s dirty verses are better than the ones Sandburg gives, but that Sandburg had access to Canfield’s material and never mentioned that he was leaving out the rougher material he came across Sandburg_with_guitarin his quest to present American song in all its raw majesty, “a volume full of gargoyles and gnomes, a terribly tragic book and one grinningly comic…”

Sandburg was constrained by the mores of the time, and I’m not taking him to task — but it’s worth noting because this kind of censorship was both ubiquitous and invisible, with the result that even serious, experienced scholars who have devoted their lives to researching blues and other vernacular styles are unaware of the extent to which their sources reflect the prudery of collectors. The simple fact is that any collection of sailor, cowboy, or juke joint folklore from the 1920s or earlier that does not include explicit sexual material, complete with four-letter words, is a censored collection. The odd corollary being that most collections were compiled later than that, at times by editors who would have been willing (maybe even eager) to present uncensored texts, but who didn’t realize that their sources were systematically expurgated.

I still sing the version I learned from Dave, which he learned from Josh, who got it from Sandburg, who was a poet and amateur folklorist of unusual taste and discernment. I don’t think my own performance would be improved by reinserting the Canfield verses. I’m just noting the process by which this became something we all could sing in respectable settings, and the fact that, whatever its virtues, it is not what Canfield or Sandburg found rough workingmen singing back in the 1920s.

As for why this song fits at this point in my songobiography… towards the end of our stay in Málaga in 1977-78, Rob and I spent about a month crashing on couches, and two weeks of that was with a Japanese couple — they worked in film and were in Spain for language classes — and they  were particularly taken with the high, strained way I sang the first verse, which they said sounded a bit like Japanese music. So I sang this often for them, and that’s the only time it was regular part of my repertoire.

Sadie Green, the Vamp of New Orleans (5 Harmaniacs)

Working  with a washboard player, I naturally played a lot of Kweskin Jug Band material — “Crazy Words, Crazy Tune,” “Borneo,” “Ukulele Lady,” “Beedle Um Bum,” “I’m Satisfied with My Gal” Kweskin greatest hits(that was a call-and-response with Rob: “She don’t wear no–” “Yes, she does!” “Oh, no, she don’t!” “Oh, yes, she does!”), and a raft of others, among which this one (from a live recording at the Newport Folk Festival) was a favorite. When we were playing in Harvard Square a fair number of passersby knew the Jug Band stuff — they were local heroes and it had only been a dozen years since their heyday — so we often got requests and tried to be ready for them. In Torremolinos we didn’t have a lot of listeners who knew Kweskin’s repertoire specifically, but the English skiffle fans were familiar with the style and enjoyed the good-time ragtime rowdiness.

At the time, I had only a vague sense of where the Kweskinites got their material — I knew about the Memphis Jug Band and Cannon’s Jug Stompers, but also knew that they were drawing on a lot of other sources, but in those days before the internet it was not easy to track those sources down. Honestly, I still have no idea where a lot of those songs came from — I’ve never heard anyone else do “Borneo” and the only people I’ve heard singing “Crazy Words, Crazy Tune” (a.k.a. “Washington at Valley Forge”) got it from Kweskin.

“Sadie Green, the Vamp of New Orleans” was in that category until I looked it up on the internet a couple of days ago and found 5harmaniacs-a2the Five Harmaniacs, whose 1926 recording was obviously the Kweskin band’s model. What had first attracted me to this particular song was Mel Lyman’s wailing, swinging harmonica break, which turns out to be directly based on the Harmaniacs’ intro, though I still think Mel’s is better.

I wasn’t aware of the Harmaniacs, though a few of their recordings appeared on a jug band reissue LP in 1967, and my first assumption was that they were a white band imitating black groups like the Dixieland Jug Blowers and Memphis Jug Band. At some level, that may indeed be the case, but the tradition went a lot further back among both black and white players, and the Harmaniacs were one of the first bands to get it on record.

According to Dave Samuelson, who interviewed three group members:

Syd Newman, the band’s harmonica/kazoo-playing leader, told me the sound of the Harmaniacs was a hybrid between Borrah Minevich’s Harmonica Rascals and Red McKenzie’s Mound City Blue Blowers. Already a seasoned vaudevillian, Newman and his partner Dave Robertson intended to form a Minevich-styled harmonica band, but couldn’t find enough skilled Hohner specialists in New York. Instead, they created an ersatz cowboy ensemble with North Carolina guitarist Walter Howard and a skilled plectrum banjo virtuoso, Jerry Adams. The band worked the East Coast circuit between 1925 and 1928.
Sadie GreenDave noted that they hit right off with “Sadie Green” and went on to record for several labels, and added that a similar act in this period, Ezra Buzzington’s Rustic Revelers, went on to form the basis of the Hoosier Hot Shots, a very popular novelty band of the 1930s… yet another historical byway to be explored, though not, I think, by me. But I do enjoy playing the song.



Romance (Jeux Interdits)

From London, Rob and I took the ferry to France, then hitchhiked down the coast to Spain. It was slow going with two young men together, and in Zaragoza we gave up on that tactic and made our separate ways to Málaga — my way started with a driver who made a pass at me, then dumped me in the middle of the desert, where fantasies of dying of thirst were finally ended with a nice ride with a family en route to Madrid, where I spent a couple of days busking in the metro and got enough money to take a night train south.

elijah in Spain 1978, by Abbe KalosBy the time I reached Málaga I was in love with Spain, so I got a cheap apartment and enrolled in language school. Rob took a detour north, hoping to run away to sea, returned a month later after sundry adventures that belong in his memoir, and we buckled down to learning Spanish and got a job playing every other night in a bar in Torremolinos. It was called Maggie’s Farm, owned by an American biker named Bernie who worked doing underwater demolition in the North Sea during the summer and had used his savings to buy the bar for his English wife, Maggie.

Spain is famously guitar country, and that winter included my first desultory attempts to pick up some classical and flamenco techniques. In later years these would involve learning a couple of pieces by Bach and a couple more by John Renbourn, none of which I remember, and an abortive attempt to trade blues guitar lessons for flamenco lessons, in which I learned just how terrifically skilled even a fairly good flamenco guitarist is, especially compared to me.

metodo para guitarraThat first winter, my attempts centered on a book with some basic flamenco rhythms, directions on how to play a rasgueado, and some simple semi-classical pieces, of which I retain only “Romance.”

I learned this because it was easy, and continued to perform it for the next few years for reasons arising from that fact — as “Spanish Fandango” became ubiquitous in the American South, “Romance” was ubiquitous in much of Europe, because even a novice guitarist could make it sound pretty. In particular, several generations of French teenagers embraced it as their cultural equivalent to “Stairway to Heaven” or “Blackbird” — it was the tune a sensitive, somewhat long-haired boy would play for a small circle of misty-eyed girls. (My wife, a French-American of the right generation, is so sick of this song that she flees the room if I even hint at playing it.)

Like “Spanish Fandango,” this seems to have been composed as a beginner exercise sometime in the 19th century, perhaps by a Spanish guitarist named Antono Rubira. It was first recorded by another Spanish guitarist, Simon Ramírez, on a wax cylinder around 1900, and published and recorded several times over the next few decades.

The Spanish classical guitarist Narciso Yepes somewhat confused this history in the 1950s by saying he had composed “Romance” for his mother in 1934 at age seven —jeux-interdits LP which would be quite believable were it not for the earlier recording and manuscripts. In 1952 Yepes’s recording of the piece was the theme to René Clément’s film Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games), which was an international success, hence the name by which it is known in France and generally throughout Northern Europe.

If you want to know more, there is plenty on Wikipedia and elsewhere, because lyrics were composed to it, and it was sung by everyone from Mireille Mathieu to Miriam Makeba to Tom Jones, and played by everyone from Yepes to Eddie Vedder to  Rob, who watched me play it a couple of times, then borrowed my guitar and played the first section back at me, though he didn’t play guitar — like they say, it ain’t brain surgery. (Though, God knows, Yepes played it a lot less clunkily than I do.)

Sporting Life Blues (hitting the road)

Rob and I finished our summer in Harvard Square with savings of about $700, and Freddie Laker had just started his budget flights to London from New York for $100, so we hitched down, caught a flight, and arrived in London with $500 between us and plans to spend the winter busking in Spain. That plan almost got derailed because the British immigration authorities were convinced the Laker flights were bringing a bunch of American bums eager to get on the British dole, and Rob’s washboard instantly caught their eye… but, as it happened, a distant cousin of his was about to be sworn in as Lord Mayor, and Rob was invited to the ball, so they sent us to a little room and left us for four hours, trying to figure out whether it would be worse to bother the new Lord Mayor with our ridiculous story (assuming we were lying) or to send the Lord Mayor’s cousin back as Yankee riff-raff (if we weren’t), and finally realized they had to call him, so did, and he vouched for us, and we were in.

We caught a train into the city, checked the folk club listings, and headed over to the Cecil Sharpe House, which was having its monthly club night. I don’t remember who the featured act was, or if there even was one, but I do remember that they gave me two songs, and I played “Wild About My Good Cocaine” and “Sporting Life Blues.” The weird thing was, those were two fairly obscure songs, and I certainly hadn’t planned them as sing-alongs, tom paleybut there was this middle aged man sitting at the edge of the stage who sang along with both of them. It threw me off a bit, but I muddled through as best I could, and a bit later the middle-aged man got up with a fiddle, and turned out to be Tom Paley, of the New Lost City Ramblers…

That was a pleasure, and he had brought a young American fiddler who told me one of my all-time favorite busking stories: He had just arrived in London the previous week, and on the weekend had gone out to find a good street pitch. After trying a few places, he found a busy corner near a market, set out his case, and began to play. It was going well, with passersby throwing coins and some sticking around to listen, and after a while he noticed a bobby standing on the sidewalk on the other side of the road, chatting with someone and apparently enjoying the music. So, when the bobby crossed the street in his direction, he thought nothing of it and continued fiddling. The bobby was furious, told him to stop immediately, and gave him a stern lecture: “When a British policeman approaches you, you stop playing, you put away your instrument, you leave the area, and you do not come back for at least ten minutes.”

None of which has much to do with “Sporting Life Blues,” except that it’s one of the few times I remember playing this on stage. I learned it from Dave Van Ronk, who would record it a couple of years later, and he got it from its composer, Brownie McGhee.brownie mcghee lp McGhee, of course, is best known as half of a long-time duo with Sonny Terry, which is fine as far as it goes, but obscures what a hip musician and songwriter he was. He and Sonny had a solid career as acoustic folk-blues artists, but he also did some great R&B sides, most famously working with his brother Stick McGhee on “Drinking Wine, Spo-dee-o-dee,” but also writing “Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock ‘n’ Roll” and a bunch of other songs, including this one. Dave changed it some, adding new lyrics on the turn-arounds, and it’s his version I still hear in my head, but he always credited it to Brownie, telling a long, funny story that is one more good reason to buy his final recording, …And the Tin Pan Bended, and the Story Ended.

I came up with my own guitar part, mostly because Dave hadn’t yet recorded it, so I learned it from hearing him live and I didn’t have the ears to work out his part from memory.


Adam and Eve (Cole, Bradley, and Wald)

One of the Yazoo albums I bought during my year in New York was an anthology of bawdy blues called Please Warm My Weiner — the title of a Bo Carter song — which naturally caught my attention as a please warm my weinerteenage boy. (I similarly acquired Stash Records’ Copulating Blues anthology, and their LPs of drug songs.) The Yazoo had a cover by R. Crumb that I found pretty offensive for all sorts of reasons, but which now apparently gets good prices on Ebay…

Anyway, I only learned one song off that album, and it is significant only because it sparked my first attempt at songwriting. An extremely obscure duo named James Cole and Tommie Bradley had a track called “Adam and Eve,” with some nice rowdy fiddling, the standard 16-bar ragtime blues progression most of us associated with “Alice’s Restaurant,” and the irresistible verse:

durer adam and eveAdam and Eve in the Garden of Eden surely must have shook that thing.
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden surely must have shook that thing.
‘Cause Adam said to Eve, “You think you’re so cute,
But you wouldn’t give me none of your forbidden fruit.”
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden surely must have shook that thing.

The problem was that there was only one other verse, and it was pretty nondescript… so, inspired by Dave Van Ronk’s example of writing new verses to old songs when he thought they were needed, I concocted three further variations on the theme and had my own semi-original full-length hokum blues number.

I worked it over till I was satisfied, then proudly sang it for Dave. He listened with his most practiced poker face until I finished and looked up at him, eagerly awaiting his approbation.

“Yeah,” he said, nodding, “We used to play things like that.”

Swinging on a Star (Van Ronk/Bing Crosby)

Along with being a fine musician, awesomely well-read, and one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, Dave Van Ronk could be supremely silly. Dave as clownHis W.C. Fields imitation was legendary and I treasure his recordings of “Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” “I Want to Go Back to My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawai’i,” Willie Nininger’s “I’m Proud to be a Moose” (which he adopted as a theme song in later years), and this song, which he first recorded with the Hudson Dusters and again on Sunday Street. I also heard him do this time and again at Passim Coffeehouse in Cambridge, because Bob Donlin, the owner, regularly requested it.

Dave’s typical reaction was to murmur, “Of course,” then growl to me, sotto voce: “There’s nothing funnier to a lace-curtain Mick than a Brooklyn accent.” But he always acceded, and laid on an extra dose of Brooklynese.

swinging on a starThe song was originally from Bing Crosby, though to this day I’ve never heard his version — in fact, strange as it seems, I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone sing it other than Dave. Crosby was one of Dave’s favorite singers, which surprised me the first time he mentioned it because I grew up in a world in which Crosby was regarded as distantly old and hopelessly square. Dave had grown up in an earlier era, and appreciated Crosby’s insouciance as well as his easy swing and smart phrasing — in the mostly forgotten jazz-world version of the Beatles/Stones split in which fans opted for either Crosby or Sinatra, Dave was thoroughly a Crosby man.

I got to be a pretty fair Crosby fan myself, but favored the early stuff with the Rhythm Boys, and then with hot pick-up groups including the Dorsey brothers, Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang, his regular guitar accompanist and reputedly his closest friend (by some accounts his only close friend). The first side I fell in love with was “My Honey’s Loving Arms” with the Mills Brothers, on which they not only sang, but did a mouth-instrumental break — I’m pretty sure I bought that record at Dayton’s during the year with Dave, just to see what he was so excited about, but it may have been a bit later.

In any case, it’s still Dave’s version of “Swinging on a Star” that’s in my head, and I love it and miss him.

Darktown Strutters Ball (Shelton Brooks)

This may well have been the first old pop song I worked out for myself on guitar, and I played it regularly on the street in Harvard Square with Rob Forbes on washboard. Indeed, it was Rob who taught me the verse and helped me work out the chords to it, following the melody he recalleddarktown_strutters_newell and most — I don’t know where he’d heard it, and in those days before the internet I had no idea how to find sheet music or a recording of the verse, since all the books I found in stores or in the library had only the chorus.

“Darktown Strutters’ Ball” was one of the biggest hits of the teens, published in 1917 and composed by Shelton Brooks, who had hit back in 1909 with “You Ain’t Talking to Me,” followed in 1911 by the wildly popular “Some of These Days,” then “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone” and the dance craze hit “Walkin’ the Dog.” Brooks went on to have a fairly successful recording career in the 1920s, starting with “The Darktown Court Room,” but is little remembered today in that context because on records he was primarily a “monologuist” (what we’d now call a comedian) rather than a singer, and his monologues tended to be in exaggerated blackface minstrel dialect — an even more distant affectation than usual for an African American performer, since he was born and grew up in Ontario, Canada. Brooks was also popular as a stage comedian, known for his imitation of Bert Williams, who reputedly saw him perform and commented, “If I’m as funny as that, I got nothing to worry about.” You can get a taste of his style from the one surviving film clip of him in performance, made in 1939, in which he sings a variation on the Strutters’ Ball theme, “Hole in the Wall.”

According to some reports, “Darktown Strutters” was inspired by an annual ball in Chicago that was kind of a modern equivalent of the medieval carnivals of misrule, financed by wealthy society folk but with a guest list of pimps and prostitutes. On the other hand, Brooks told Ian Whitcomb that he wrote the song after hearing a story about an ordinary working stiff who got “an invitation to an affair to be given by the local pimps. A big ball. All a mistake and he should never have been asked.” As far as I can find, this event was not called the Darktown Strutters’ Ball, but I guess that seemed like a more marketable title than “Pimps and Hookers Ball.”

Howard Armstrong, with whom I played this song for several years in the 1990s, took it back to its rootshoward armstrong2 by following the straight chorus with a truly filthy parody — though he did not tend to perform that version onstage. If you care to check it out, be warned: the language is as raw as can be, an apt reminder of all the folklore of the jazz and blues world that never got recorded due to prudery, and hence the mistaken impression that modern gangsta rappers use nastier language than their great-grandparents used in the 1920s.

I haven’t performed this song in decades because it feels weird — at best — to be a white guy singing about going to the “Darktown” ball… for a while I tried changing the lyric to “Uptown Strutters Ball,” but that felt differently weird, since it’s a well-known song and that’s the title phrase. The odd thing is that in all the years I sang this on the street and sometimes in clubs, no one ever suggested it might be in any way offensive to anybody, or that I might want to think about what I was singing… which just shows how white my audiences have tended to be and what an amazingly sheltered life white people tend to lead in this great land of ours.

I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate

I picked up “Sister Kate” from Dave Van Ronk’s album with the Red Onion Jazz Band, and started playing it regularly on the street with Rob Forbes, because his mother, Grace, came by pretty much every week and would sing lead on it. Grace ForbesShe was from a fine old New England family, with what was known as a “swamp Yankee” accent, and had apparently contemplated running off to be a chanteuse in her youth — I have no idea what she sounded like then, but by 1977 she had many years of cigarettes behind her, and her voice had a soulful rasp that worked perfectly with this one.

The song’s composer of record was Armand Piron, a New Orleans bandleader and violinist who had a publishing partnership with pironClarence Williams, though his authorship has frequently been disputed, in particular by Louis Armstrong. Piron, who apparently copyrighted it in 1919 (though it wasn’t published till 1922), told Al Rose that Louis was kind of partly right, but…

…that’s not Louis’ tune or mine or Pete [Bocage]’s either. That tune is older than all of us. People always put different words to it. Some of them were too dirty to say in polite company…. The way Louis did it didn’t have anything to do with his sister Kate:

Gotta have ’em before it’s too late,
They shake like jelly on a plate.
Big ‘n’ juicy, soft an’ round
Sweetes’ ones I ever found.

That’s the way Louis sang it, his words… There’s just so many places you could do a number like that. Not in my band, you know.

Though Piron and his band cleaned up the lyric, they kept the sense intact, since the generally accepted derivation of “shimmy” fits Armstrong’s verse pretty well. Sister KateThe etymology isn’t solid, but most authorities derive it from chemise — “shimmy” seems to have been American slang for a lightweight women’s blouse as early as the 1840s — and the dance move was to “shake your shimmy” by vibrating the relevant area as rapidly as possible.

Once again, I’m reminded of the extent to which the history of American vernacular song has been forever obscured by the prudery of publishers, folklorists, and literate amateurs who for various reasons chose not to write down what people actually sang, back in the days when a lot of people were singing in situations that did not require drawing room prose. Armstrong apparently sang the song in honor of a local prostitute, and I find an internet source reporting his original title as “Up in Maddie’s Bunk.” I don’t know the evidence for that (if you do, please let me know), but it doesn’t seem unlikely and would have been very much in the mainstream of what was sung around “the District” in the formative years of jazz. Jelly Roll Morton provided some choice examples in his Library of Congress recordings, but the overwhelming majority of these lyrics survive only in expurgated versions, if at all, leaving us with only a few tantalizing hints and rumors of the originals. Which is, of course, better than nothing…