Alabama Bound (Jelly Roll Morton, and many others)

I’ve known “Alabama Bound” forever, but never worked it up as a performance piece, and am posting it now because I used it as the theme of chapter one of my new book, Jelly Roll Blues, an exploration of Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress recordings, the world that nurtured early blues, and the ways that world was censored, reimagined, and shaped for general consumption by early folklorists and music marketers.

This song was an obvious place to begin, for a couple of reasons. First, it was how Morton began the LOC recordings, which I use as a through-thread for the book. He started playing this tune while reminiscing about the blues singers he used to hear in the Gulf Coast honky-tonks of his youth, then described how he “happened to truck down to Mobile” with a pianist named Brocky Johnny:

At that time I was supposed to be a very good pool player, and I could slip upon a lot of people playing pool, because I played piano and they thought I devoted all my time to the piano. So we’d gotten Alabama bound — the frequent saying was, any place that you was going, why, you was supposed to be “bound” for that place. So in fact we was Alabama bound, and when I got there I wrote this tune called “Alabama Bound.”

There’s no reason to believe Morton was the originator of this song, but he sang and played a lovely version and a lot of later singers were inspired by it, including me. In the book, I use it as a hook to discuss Morton’s travels, and more broadly the way Black musicians and their songs were traveling in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Several older musicians recalled “Alabama Bound” as the earliest blues they heard, and it was the first song published with the word “blues” used in a way that suggested a musical category rather than a feeling: the original sheet music cover described it as a “Rag Time Two Step (Also Known as the Alabama Blues).”* It was credited to a white New Orleans composer named Robert Hoffman, and appeared in 1909, five years after Morton claimed to have composed it — and although the New Orleans provenance might seem to support his claim, it also appeared that year as one of the sections of “Blind Boone’s Southern Rag Medley No. Two,” published in Columbia, Missouri by the piano virtuoso Blind Boone.  As I discuss in the book, the Boone medleys are fascinating documents of Black music at the turn of the twentieth century, including tunes like “Pallet on the Floor” (which I’ve made the theme of a previous post and also a chapter in Jelly Roll Blues), and the pre-blues song variously recorded in later years as “Payday,” “Reuben,” and other titles.

As for my version, it’s a similar assemblage of vernacular scraps, with a couple of verses from Morton and others picked up here and there over the last fifty years. Dave Van Ronk was probably one source, which is appropriate, since he was the person who turned me on to Morton’s blues singing — I borrowed his ten-inch LP of New Orleans Memories and recorded it on cassette, and still play his versions of Morton’s versions of : “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” “Mamie’s Blues,” and “Sweet Substitute,” as well as my own versions of his versions of a couple of other songs that turned into chapter headings: “Winding Ball” and “Hesitation Blues…” and “Michigan Water…” and I’m beginning to realize that Morton via Van Ronk is kind of my foundation for playing and singing blues. One could do a lot worse.

As I wrote at the outset, I never worked up a performance version of this song, but I’m headed out on tour for the book and want to be able to play the key songs I cover, and this is how this one fell together. If I keep playing it, I’m sure it will evolve; meanwhile, I’m enjoying messing around with it.

*To get the history straight, another white New Orleanian published a song called “I Got the Blues” in 1908 that used the form we would now call a 12-bar blues — but that title suggests the writer was still using blues to mean sadness rather than a musical style.