Call Me a Dog (Black Dog Blues – Bayless Rose)

“Black Dog Blues” is another song I learned off the reissue anthologies I picked up at Dayton’s Records during my year in New York in the mid-1970s. I first heard it on Yazoo’s East Coast Blues 1926-1935, played by Bayless Rose, then on Yazoo’s Mr. Charlie’sBlues, played by DickJustice. I didn’t learn their guitar parts — though Rose’s, in particular, is terrific — but it quickly became one of my standard ragtime-blues pieces, interchangeable with “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” which has a lot of the same verses (at least in my versions).

The original versions were titled “Black Dog Blues,” with a chorus lamenting that the singer’s lady called him an “Old Black Dog,” but Rose’s version alternated that chorus with one that began “Call me a dog when I’m gone,” and I stuck with that.

My choice to drop the racial identification brings to mind the racial confusion around Rose’s version, which was issued in Gennett Records’ “Race” line, meaning he was marketed as a Black performer, although there is some doubt whether he was Black — or, more accurately, whether he was socially categorized as Black. (Forgive me for repeating that “Black” and “white” as US racial categories are social, not genetic:  Someone who came to the US as a Portuguese, Greek, or Italian is considered “white,” even if their skin color and curly hair is a reminder of the centuries of connection between those areas and Africa; someone whose ancestry includes even one person who was brought to the US as an African slave is considered “Black,”  no matter how large a proportion of their ancestry is European.)

When the LPs were released, the Yazoo blues experts had not been able to find anything about Rose, but they noted that although marketed as Black he sounded white. More recently (in 78 Quarterly #12, 2005), Chris King published an interview with Dick Justice’s daughter Mildred, in which she recalled her father learning “Black Dog Blues” from a railroad worker named Bailey Rose, who was “quite a bit older… had a drawl but not a bad one… [and] was always chewing tobacco.”

King asked if Rose was Black, and she  said he was not, adding, “He was kind of foreign-looking though… You know, he was sort of short with dark, curly hair but with darker skin, sort of like an Arab, but he was no n—-r.” King also checked the original recording ledger, and found that next to Rose’s (unissued and lost) version of “Beale Street Blues,” someone had written, “Person not colored.”

King suggested Rose might have been Melungeon, an ethnic group native to the Appalachian region and first mentioned in print (at least, using that spelling) in 1889, when an ophthalmologist named Swan Burnett (husband of Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of The Secret Garden) read a paper at the Anthropological Association of Washington  in which he suggested their ancestry was a mix of European, African, and Native American, as indicated by the name, which he suggested was a corruption of the French mélange — though he added that they resented that name and considered themselves Portuguese.

However… King noted that all of this was speculation, and after I posted this post, a couple of very knowledgeable people chimed in to say that pretty much everything in his article was wrong.

Gloria Goodwin Raheja, who has been researching Justice and the other Logan County guitarists for almost twenty years, writes that Justice learned the song directly from Rose and she has learned a lot more about Rose and that relationship, but is saving the full story for the book she is writing. Bayless Rose was not a common name, and there was a Black mine worker and laborer with that name in Lexington, Kentucky, who turns up in multiple official documents and a few newspaper stories. He was definitely considered Black, and Tony Russell has written to say King misunderstood the “person not colored” notation, and the Lexington Rose is probably him — which Raheja confirms. She writes:

“There were several men in the region named Bayless Rose, and sorting out the complete story of the musician and singer was one of the thorniest genealogical/historical tasks I had to do in the course of the research for my book. I can confirm that he died in Lexington and moved quite a few times–apparently in pursuit of work–during the course of his life.”

Which is all I know at this point, and I’m very much looking forward to Raheja’s book. Meanwhile…

None of this has much to do with the song, which has been one of my favorite picking pieces, on- and off-stage,  for almost fifty years.