Cincinnati Flow Rag (Rev. Gary Davis)

I always loved Gary Davis’s guitar playing, but was into blues and ragtime a long time before I got into gospel music — so for many years my favorite of his albums was The Guitar & Banjo of Reverend Gary Davis.  As far as I know, this is the only instrumental album by any of the foundational blues or gospel guitarists of the prewar era, so it was also the one album I could listen to when I was in the mood to hear guitar without vocals. (There were only two banjo tracks, plus one on harmonica, all on side two, so I mostly stuck with side one.) I’ve since heard other versions of a lot of the pieces on this record, and if I compared them back to back I might prefer them, but these are the versions I heard first and know best, and generally the ones I learned.

Over the years I tried my hand at pretty much every track, and the first three were all at some point highlights of my repertoire. I’m not sure I recall all the parts of Davis’s reworking of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” which started things off, but I still regularly fool around with the second (titled “Slow Drag” on this release, though more commonly known as “Cincinnati Flow Rag”) and third (often titled “Twelve Sticks,” but here called “The Boy Was Kissing the Girl [And Playing the Guitar at the Same Time]). The fourth tune was an instrumental version of “Candyman,” and then a reimagining of some John Philip Sousa compositions called “United States March” — all in all, it’s a hell of an album.

Davis was without doubt the most versatile and virtuosic guitarist in the ragtime-based style popularized by Blind Blake — at least on record. I assume there were other contenders back in the teens and twenties: apparently some of his ragtime arrangements were based on pieces by Willie Walker, a friend a playing partner of Davis’s during his youth in South Carolina, who unfortunately recorded only two songs, one of them the astonishing “South Carolina Rag,” and Davis himself only recorded his ragtime instrumentals after being “rediscovered” in the 1960s. By the time record companies got interested in African American guitar players, the ragtime period was over and they were looking for blues and gospel singers, so any virtuoso ragtimers who were still around would have been ignored. (Another whom we know of only ex post facto was Johnny St. Cyr, who was presumably playing his intricate solo guitar version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jelly Roll Blues” by the 1920s, but only recorded it by chance many years later, when Alan Lomax interviewed him about Morton for the Library of Congress.)

I went through various stages of trying to play Davis’s pieces, and “Cincinnati Flow” was from one of the earlier rounds and undoubtedly simplifies a lot of the subtleties of his arrangement. I later had the pleasure of spending many long afternoons with Ernie Hawkins, a longtime student and disciple of Davis’s who really knows how to play this stuff, which considerably refined my approach to some tunes, but I’d been playing this one so long that I stuck with the way it felt comfortable.

Key to the Highway (Hitchhiking)

I’m guessing I first heard this done by Big Bill Broonzy on The Country Blues anthology Sam Charters produced for Folkways in 1959, but the version that stuck in my head was by Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, on the first Blues at Newport LP, the same record that turned me on to Dave Van Ronk. McGhee credited it to Broonzy, calling him “one of the finest writers and blues singers that I know,” and I’d concur.

Whenever I listen to McGhee’s playing, I realize how much he influenced my understanding of blues accompaniment, and also how much I loved his singing. I only saw him a couple of times, once with Terry and later with his own small group, and spent a fascinating afternoon with him at his home in Oakland, interviewing him about Josh White and looking through the scrapbook he’d kept since the 1940s, full of clips about his career.

I’ve played this pretty regularly through the years as a set-closer, because it combines a nice upbeat feel with a lyric about moving on. At this remove I don’t remember how many of the verses I picked up from McGhee, Broonzy, or Jazz Gillum’s versions, and how many I grabbed from other sources or added on my own. Obviously the reference to Interstate 80 was mine, since that was my regular route across country — I hitched back and forth along it a half-dozen times, and when I started touring it was my route west, before I looped north and came back on 94 and 90. Which said, I’m not sure why I picked it instead of 90, since every trip out of Cambridge started at the entrance ramp to the Mass Turnpike, whether I was heading west or just down to New York — especially considering that my next verse is about going down south. I guess 80 just sounded better to me.

Either way, I never sang a blues that was closer to my own feelings. From my late teens through my early thirties I spent most of my time on the road, traveling north and south with the weather and east and west as the rides took me, on both sides of the Atlantic and out to Asia and Africa, and  the highway felt like home — which sounds like a pretentious cliche, but it was true. When I hit the road and stuck out my thumb, an automatic smile would spread across my face because, whatever happened, I was where I belonged. There were some long waits and cold nights, but the feeling of freedom was incredible. When I started driving coast to coast in the 1980s, I often felt trapped in my car, no longer open to the infinite possibilities of the next ride or to just getting out and walking over that mountain, unburdened by a big hunk of motorized metal. I enjoyed the driving as well, especially when I was touring through new clubs in strange towns, but it never felt as liberating as hitchhiking, or as interesting.

The last time I hitched across the US was in 2006, doing the book tour for Riding with Strangers, a meditation on the pleasures of hitchhiking, the dangers of cutting ourselves off from our fellow humans, and the happenstances of my previous trip across, in 2004. I did those more recent trips because I’ve found that a lot of people think hitchhiking is a vanished custom from safer times — though the truth is that crime is lower now than it was back in any fabled hippie heyday, and the rides come easier than ever.

A lot of people don’t believe me when I say that, so every ten years or so I have to do another trip to check if I’ve finally lost touch with reality — as opposed to giving in to the naysayers’ widespread but misplaced paranoia. There are plenty of reasons to be paranoid right now, of course, but they aren’t related to hitchhiking, which tends to teach you how decent other people are, including people who are very different from you and have strange politics and social views.

Which strikes me as a particularly relevant insight right now, and means I’m overdue for another trip…

I’m My Own Grandpa

This little masterpiece was composed by Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe, and first recorded by Latham’s vocal trio, the Jesters, who had the-jestersa regular radio show on NBC in the 1930s. Latham said he found the original anecdote in a collection of  pieces by Mark Twain, repeated it on the air, got a good reaction, and later turned it into a song with Jaffe’s assistance. The Jesters recorded it in 1947, then disappear from the story, because their record was promptly covered by a country comedy duo named Lonzo and Oscar, who turned it into a career-defining hit and have been associated with it ever since.

original-lonzo-and-oscarUnfortunately, there is not much more to be said about Lonzo and Oscar. They were the regular opening act on Eddie Arnold’s tours, and popular enough that when the original Lonzo (Lloyd George, not to be confused with the British Chancellor of the Exchequer who knew my father… [an old joke]) quit a couple of years later, he was replaced by another Lonzo, and there would be further Lonzos as the years went by… but they never had another hit to even vaguely equal this one.

As if that weren’t disappointment enough, it turns out the original anecdote was not grandpa-sourcefrom Mark Twain. It was circulating before Twain was born and appears in none of his collected writings, and seems to have become associated with him because it was included in various 19th century collections that also included snippets of his work. One example, at right, is from the charmingly named American Bibliopolist.

I think I first heard this sung by Erik Frandsen at the Speakeasy on MacDougal Street, but I may just have been particularly charmed by his version. In any case, I picked it up and was playing it pretty regularly by the early 1980s, always to an enthusiastic reception — if there’s a more surefire lyric in America’s musical canon, I haven’t come across it.

Meanwhile, to make up for the Twain disappointment, I recently learned that there is a celebrated example of this sort of familial complication in the rock pantheon: during the brief period when the ever-newsworthy bill-wyman-mandy-smith-marriageBill Wyman was married to Mandy Smith (his notoriously Lolitesque paramour), his son Stephen married Mandy’s mother. Hence, the erstwhile Rolling Stone and composer of “Je Suis un Rock Star” was briefly his own grandpa. (I got this from the Daily Mail‘s website, which is famously trustworthy, and therefore am discounting all the other sources that say Bill and Mandy were divorced by the time Stephen married her mum. They are obviously just spoilsports.)

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out

Most blues fans associate this song with Bessie Smith’s version from 1929 and think it was written about the Depression, but it was originally popularized in the early 1920s by its composer, Jimmie Cox. Like most of the first round of commercial blues performers, jimmie-cox-and-magnolia-cox-from-lynn-abbottCox tends to be left out of histories because he did not make any recordings, and records have become our way of connecting with that past. To paraphrase his biggest hit: “Nobody knows you when you don’t record…”

Cox’s father, J.T. “Polly” Cox, was a trap drummer in African American minstrel companies around the turn of the 20th century, and Jimmie worked with  minstrel shows in his youth, became a well-known comedian (billed on some occasions as “the jig Charlie Chaplin”), and went on to  produce and star in his own all-black revues, including the popular Georgia Red Hots. He often performed with his wife Anna Mae and daughter Gertrude “Baby” Cox (sometimes billed as “Baby Ernestine”), who would grow up to be a featured singer at the Cotton Club with Duke Ellington’s band.

The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville, by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, provides a long-overdue view of the first generation of popular blues performers. One of the striking things it shows is that virtually all of them were billed as comedians and the style was originally dominated by male stars, though many worked with female partners. Judging by reports in the black press, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, though already well-known, did not specialize in blues until a few years later, in the mid-teens — or at least were not described as singing blues before that period.

Like other African American comedians, the pioneering male blues specialists worked in blackface and although they were often singled out for their deep connection to black vernacular culture, they seem to have owed as much to Bert Williams as to any rural southern tradition. A review of the team of Cox and Cox from 1913 (their names are given as Jimmie and Magnolia, and I’m not sure if this is Anna Mae under another name or an earlier partner) described Jimmie as “a comedian who seems to have caught his cue from some odd looking member of his race that he might have seen on the streets,” adding, “He gets away from the stock make-up that many have… [and] has made it interesting because of the faithful imitation of what he has seen.”

Cox introduced “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” in 1922 or ’23, and Clarence Williams, who acquired the song’s publishing when he produced Bessie Smith’s recording, recalled:
Jimmie was a great all-around entertainer and actor. . . He used to dramatize this blues of his with his girl partner — show how a man can fall out with his baby, hit the road, and get down sick with the TB. Then on his last go-round he’d sing this number, and, man, he’d make you believe it. Bessie Smith used to work with Jimmie on these shows. She learned the song from him and made a record of it. . . That record of Bessie’s just went rolling around this old world.

It is not clear whether Cox sang all of “Nobody Knows You,” or performed the opening section as a recitation à la Bert Williams, which is how I do it. One of the earliest recordings of the song, by Pine Top Smith, is recited with comic inflections, and Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong did a terrific recording in the 1970s that included an exaggeratedly doleful recitation with lines like:
You can be blind, maimed and cannot see,
Both your legs could be cut off up above your knee,
You could have the tuberculosis or the German flu.
Death can be on your body playing Yankee Doodle-dee-doo…

Variants of the lyric survived in black oral culture as a spoken “toast,” accruing extensive and often obscene interpolations, and I recently heard Jerron Paxton perform a spectacular version that started with Cox’s familiar verse and chorus, sung over piano accompaniment, then expanded into a gleefully profane recitation — which, as with much of Jerron’s work, I would guess is closer to the way a lot of honky tonk entertainers performed it in the 1920s than what was captured on the uniformly censored recordings of that period. I wish I could do it similar justice, but I picked it up from Dave Van Ronk and still do it pretty much as written. (Dave, incidentally, added a nice new intro that can be heard on his final recording, …and the Tin Pan Bended and the Story Ended.)

As a final note: although many sources describe Bessie Smith as making the original recording of this song, Pine Top Smith’s preceded hers by a few months and the first recording was made in 1927 by Bobby Leecan, who sang a quite different lyric. Since there was no sheet music version, we have no way of knowing whether Leecan’s variant was his own rewrite, or was picked up from another entertainer, or may even have been Cox’s original lyric — which is an apt reminder of how little we know about the past in general, and early blues in particular.