There are some songs I learned back in my youth that make me wonder, in retrospect, what I was thinking when I sang them. I’m sure I knew “Beedle Um Bum” was a euphemism, and had some sense of what the song was about, but I’m also sure I missed some of its juicier implications. In any case, my main interest was having fun and playing the kazoo, for which I’m sure my parents cursed the Kweskin gang occasionally, since I played it with far more exuberance than expertise — and yes, there are more and less expert kazoo players, just as there are more and less expert scat singers… and I was well down on the list, though hard to beat for exuberance.
The Kweskin Jug Band was even harder to beat for exuberance, and is fondly remembered today by a lot of people, but even its fans are often unaware of quite how great and influential it was. I don’t think I fully appreciated it myself until I was in Memphis, talking with Jim Dickinson, who was a seriously heavyweight and knowledgeable musician with deep links to a lot of classic local blues artists (and father to Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars). When he learned I was from Cambridge, he immediately proceeded to wax rhapsodic about the Kweskin band, saying he’d had his own jug band in Memphis around the same time and couldn’t believe how great the Kweskin group sounded: “We’d learned directly from all the old guys, we knew Will Shade and Gus Cannon, and Furry Lewis, and we thought we really had that sound down, but they blew us away — we couldn’t figure out how a bunch of guys from Boston could sound like that!”
Part of it was that although the Kweskinites loved the Memphis Jug Band and Cannon’s Jug Stompers and learned a lot by listening to them, they also listened to a lot of other groups from other places, and a lot of other styles of music, and fed everything they heard through their own musical tastes and skills, and really didn’t sound like any previous group. “Beedle Um Bum,” for example, was not a jug band song — it had been done by one of the various Chicago studio aggregations dubbed the Hokum Boys, in this case consisting of Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, who were riding the crest of a wave of upbeat double-entendre numbers they had started a couple of months earlier under their own names with their huge hit, “It’s Tight Like That.” I’m assuming they wrote this one as well, which would mean its lyrical vivacity is due to the nimble pen of Thomas A. Dorsey, remembered as the Father of Gospel Music for composing “Precious Lord,” “I’m Gonna Live the Live I Sing About,” and “Peace in the Valley,” among many Christian favorites, and also for being an early mentor to Mahalia Jackson.
It seems only fair to note that the Kweskin group made a couple of changes to this lyric, including the reference to “southern eel,” but only a couple, and this was far from Dorsey’s raunchiest number. Dorsey lived to be 93 years old and although he did not sing any of this sort of material after he became established as a gospel composer, he was always happy to talk about his days playing piano for Ma Rainey and writing naughty hokum hits, and apparently had no regrets.