Frankie (Mississippi John Hurt)

I generally stay away from open tunings, partly because I have enough trouble keeping a guitar in tune in one tuning… but a lot of my favorite guitarists liked them, and they have a deep history in southern Black culture. In previous posts I wrote and talked about the way some early Black guitarists took banjo tunings and techniques and put them on guitar, demonstrating with Furry Lewis’s “Casey Jones” and Lead Belly’s “Poor Howard.” This is another example, from John Hurt, fitted with his lovely variant of the “Frankie and Albert” ballad.

I’ve already posted a more typical version of “Frankie and Johnny” — the white folk/pop variant of that ballad, and also written about the underlying story and its reinvention in my book, “Jelly Roll Blues.” Unlike other Black southern ballads from the same period (“Stackolee,” “Duncan and Brady,” “Delia,” “Louis Collins”) the Frankie and Albert ballads have virtually no overlap with the historical killing: Frankie Baker didn’t go out looking for Allen Britt, the man she shot, nor did she shoot him over another woman. He came home late one night, found her in a bed in the front room rather than the back room they normally shared, got angry and tried to cut her with a knife, and she shot him in self-defense.

Before I learned that story, I understood Hurt’s penultimate verse to end with a malapropism: I thought that when he sang “The judge said, ‘Miss Frankie, you’re gonna be justified’,” he meant she was going to be judged guilty, which is the usual ending in the Frankie ballads. Hurt may indeed have meant it that way, but in fact the judge did rule that she was justified. As she later recalled:

“I simply had protected myself.… You know, I was afraid of Albert. He beat me unmercifully a few nights before the big-blow-off. My eye was festered and sore from that lacin’ when I went before Judge Clark. He noticed it, too.…The judge even gave me back my gun. Don’t know what I did with it. Guess I pawned it or gave it away. Everybody carried a gun in those days.”

Hurt’s original recording of this piece, in 1928, is one of the technical oddities of that era: the song was too long to fit on one side of a 78 rpm disc, and rather than editing it to be shorter, the engineers slowed down the machine to get his full version — so the recording played back significantly faster than he performed it, and pitched two full tones higher.

As it happens, the higher key also felt more comfortable for my voice, so I’ve tended to play this song capoed on the fourth fret — but I’ve recently been traveling with a little guitar from the 1940s that is set up for slide and sounds much better open than capoed. That felt a little uncomfortable at first, in terms of the singing, but it struck me that Hurt didn’t have a significantly deeper voice than I have; he was just much more relaxed. So I’ve be trying to relax my voice and sing it where he sang it, and likewise to play his basic arrangement throughout, rather than trying to come up with interesting variations for the instrumental breaks — not to be more “authentic” or to imitate him more exactly, but because it sounds better this way.

I’m not going to say one can never improve on John Hurt, or come up with interesting variants of his arrangements. I’ve posted a lot of his songs here,* and on most of them I’ve added my own variations. But this one feels right to me the way it is, and the more I play it, the more convinced I am that this is the way I want to keep doing it.

*Previous John Hurt posts include: “Monday Morning Blues,” “Satisfied and Tickled Too,” “Coffee Blues,” “Candyman,” “Stagolee,” “Louis Collins,” “Ain’t No Telling (Pallet on the Floor),” “Got the Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied,” “Richlands Women,” “See See Rider,” “Spike Driver’s Blues,” “My Creole Belle,” and “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me.”

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.

Cigarettes and Coffee Blues (Lefty Frizzell)

I have Bill Morrissey to thank for turning me into a Merle Haggard nut, and making me realize how close country  music — especially the strain popularized as “honky tonk” — is to blues. Of course, to a large extent it came out of blues; Jimmie Rodgers was primarily a blues singer, with an obvious debt to Lemon Jefferson; Hank Williams was primarily a blues singer, at least to my ears; and Merle Haggard was clearly a blues singer, to the point that he wrote a song called “White Man Singin’ The Blues.” I’d add Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, and Waylon Jennings, and… you get the idea.

And, reciprocally, a lot of Black singers were deeply influenced by white country music — not just all the ones who covered country hits, from Dinah Washington to Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and Etta James, but blues singers like Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, who both named Jimmie Rodgers as one of their main influences, and Muddy Waters, whose 1941 repertoire list included a half-dozen Gene Autry hits.

I’ve sometimes tried to emphasize that overlap, for instance on my version of Hank Williams’s “You Win Again,” which I flavor with some Lightning Hopkins licks. But in a lot of cases, I have the original voice in my head and just want to do the best I can with a song that for one reason or another caught my ear and said, “Give me a try.”

Which brings me to “Cigarettes and Coffee Blues,” which isn’t a blues in the classic sense, but qualifiesin honky-tonk terms. I got it off an album of Lefty Frizzell hits, which I’d bought because Merle listed him as a major influence. I liked the way he sang, but honestly never listened to him as much as I thought I should…  and when I just went back and checked out his version of this one, it’s very different from what I remembered. I also hadn’t noticed (or hadn’t remembered) that it was composed by Marty Robbins. (I just checked out his version; I don’t think it holds a candle to Lefty’s.)

This feels to me like a nice example of Nashville formula songwriting: I figure someone (presumably Robbins) thought, “There are all those songs about ‘My baby left me, so I’m getting drunk,’ but not everybody gets drunk, so let’s try a twist on that, and have the guy sit up drinking coffee. Of course, that twist had already been tried, very successfully with “Black Coffee,” a terrific 1949 hit for Sarah Vaughan — though, as it happens, my favorite version is by Percy Mayfield — which also mentions smoking cigarettes, both directly and obliquely: “I’m moonin’ all the mornin’, moanin’ all the night,/ And in between it’s nicotine, and not much heart to fight.”

So maybe Robbins was just reworking a pop hit. In any case, it’s a nice song.

My Rough and Rowdy Ways (Jimmie Rodgers)

This is probably my favorite Jimmie Rodgers song, which is saying a lot. I don’t remember when I first heard one of Rodgers’s records, but whenever it was, I already knew at least a couple of his songs. I’d learned “Mule Skinner Blues” from Cisco Houston and “T. B. Blues” from Pete Seeger, and I’d tried to manage the yodel on the latter, but I couldn’t get it — maybe in part because at that point I was eleven or twelve years old and my voice hadn’t changed, but I didn’t get appreciably better with adolescence.Not that I ever stopped trying — I worked on Bob Dylan’s version of “Freight Train Blues” and Jack Elliot’s “Sadie Brown,” and later on I managed to get some kind of handle on Hank Williams’s version of “Lovesick Blues.”

By that time I would have been more familiar with Rodgers’s originals. I loved the way he sang, yodeling or not, and his guitar work, as well as some of the more pop arrangements like “Any Old Time,” which I originally heard and learned from Maria Muldaur’s version. I’d also heard Merle Haggard’s tribute album, with its gorgeous version of “Miss the Mississippi and You.” What I hadn’t heard, and still haven’t, is the recording of Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James doing a duet of “Waiting for a Train” — it exists, but has never been released — but I was aware of how many great Black blues artists recognized Rodgers as one of the defining masters of that genre. Tampa Red, Tommy Johnson, and the Mississippi Sheiks all recorded yodeling blues in his style; B.B. King often named him as a favorite; and Howling Wolf said he always wanted to yodel like Rodgers, but the closest he could get was his namesake falsetto howl.

That’s probably the only thing Wolf and I have in common, and without the yodel I didn’t see the point of doing Rodgers’s songs… and then I was hitchhiking across the US in 2005, the trip I wrote about in Riding with Strangers. (There’s more about that in some previous posts, like “Key to the Highway” and, yeah, “I’ve Been Everywhere.”) That time, I mostly stuck to the interstates, but from St. Louis to Iowa City I followed the old roads. The most memorable part of that leg was a night in Hannibal, Missouri, sleeping rough in the yard of the Mark Twain house: the cops rousted me around midnight, and I explained that I’d asked myself, “What would Huck Finn do?” — which got a laugh, but they moved me on and I slept the rest of the night under some pine trees outside town. I got back on the road early the next morning, and after an hour or so watching the local going-to-work traffic, got a lift from a guy who was inspecting grain elevators and took me a couple of dozen miles to his rural turn-off.

Here’s how I wrote about it in the book:

It was the first time this trip that I was somewhere I could walk. For a hitchhiker, that’s a pretty fair definition of “country”: a stretch of road where you might as well be walking as standing in a good spot. This was not a particularly scenic bit of country. It was flat and dust-yellow, and there was some kind of electrical plant or generator over to the right…. I’ve always liked the periods of walking, as long as the weather cooperates. It makes a change from riding, a chance to stretch your legs, and there’s also the macho pleasure of covering ground under your own steam. That’s one pleasure that grows with age, the enjoyment of pushing your body, going hungry, sleeping on bare ground, then shouldering a pack and walking ten or fifteen miles if you have to.

Also, it was an opportunity to yodel. Set me out in the middle of the prairie and I can sing like Jimmie Rodgers, especially if there’s no one for miles around. It had been over a year, and the flat farmland roofed by a cloudless blue sky formed a perfect concert hall:

I may be rough, I may be wild,
I may be tough and accounted vile,
But I can’t give up my good old rough and rowdy ways
Yodel-ay-ee-hoo, de-lay-ee-hoo, de-lay-eeee . . .

I was kind of disappointed when a car pulled over.

I swear, under the open sky, when no one is around, I really can yodel like Jimmie Rodgers. Indoors, with people listening, it’s not the same, but I still like to give this one a try.

Under the Boardwalk (The Drifters)

I always liked the Drifters, as who didn’t? Like most vocal group fans, I particularly liked the original line-up featuring Clyde McPhatter, a defining lead vocalist of the early Rhythm and Blues era, and I’ve paid tribute already with a version of their early hit, “Money Honey” — not that I do it justice. But I must admit that I actually know more songs by the second iteration: by the late 1950s McPhatter had gone solo, the group’s fortunes had declined, and their manager fired the remaining singers and replaced them with another group, which until then had been known as the Five Crowns.

Version 1.0.0

The second Drifters originally featured Ben E. King, who sang lead on their defining hits, “There Goes My Baby” — the first major R&B hit to use a string section and the Brazilian baion rhythm that their producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller made a trademark — and “Save the Last Dance for Me” (which I should probably do in a future post). King then went solo, and their next big hits featured Rudy Lewis, who was in turn replaced by Johnny Moore, who had previously replaced McPhatter as lead in the first group, and that brings us to “Under the Boardwalk,” their last top ten hit…

…which is probably more than most people care to know, but I’m currently writing a short history of rock ‘n’ roll, so am deep in these weeds.

I have no memory of learning this song — or rather, I have a vague memory of learning it while I was living in Seville, Spain, in a small apartment with ten other foreigners, most of us street musicians, but can’t think of how or why I would have learned it there. In any case, I’ve known it for well over forty years, but only began fooling around with a guitar part when I considered putting it up here, at which point I realized it was yet another opportunity to play around with the semi-African approach I worked out for “Iko Iko” and “Jamaica Farewell” (as well as “Margaritaville,” which I suppose I’ll have to put up here at some point). Meanwhile, summer is right around the corner, and I’m playing this a lot.

Maybellene (Chuck Berry)

I have never been much interested in “firsts,” but if I had to make a nomination for the first definitive rock ‘n’ roll record, I’d probably go with Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” I know all the other contenders and arguments, but in hindsight most were great rhythm and blues records, while Berry’s hit pointed the way of later rock: the guitar-slinging singer-songwriter-auteur of a rollicking rebel vision of male youth roaring down an endless American highway.

More prosaically, it was the first major R&B hit (that is, hit by a Black artist) to “cross over” to the white teen pop charts and dominate them with no significant competition from white covers. There were plenty of white covers, including one by Marty Robbins that made some noise on the C&W charts, but unlike the Pat Boone covers of Little Richard and Fats Domino, they never got traction on the pop scene — and within a few records, Berry’s songs would be hitting quicker and higher on the pop charts than on the racially defined R&B charts.

Another way of saying this is that “Maybellene” was one of the first hits to be thought of specifically as a record rather than a song. The mid-1950s marked a shift from hits that became “standards” — that is, memorable songs, which were originally performed by numerous people and continue to be performed by all kinds of artists, often in varying genres — to “oldies,” records that are distinctive unto themselves. There are dozens of classic versions of “Stardust”; there is only one version of “Maybellene.” (There were plenty of earlier examples that were mainly records, like the Chords’ “Sh-Boom” and the Crows’ “Gee” — but both of those had serious competition from white covers. Berry’s sound was much harder to mimic, since it involved his distinctive voice, his distinctive guitar, and a terrific Chicago blues backing band.)

Which, for anyone who wants to sing and play the song, presents a problem. Berry is one of my all-time favorite songwriters, and I’ve already posted my versions of a bunch of his songs — “No Money Down,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Memphis,” “Nadine,” “Promised Land” — but I know lots more that I haven’t posted because I can’t think of anything even slightly interesting to do with them. I have nothing to add to “Johnny B Goode” or “No Particular Place to Go,” or “Rock and Roll Music,” or…

…until recently, I would have said, “Maybellene.” But, dammit, I wanted to play the song and finally decided to just start playing it regularly and try to find a way to relax into it rather than attempting to recreate the way Berry did it. I wasn’t out to remake or transform the song, just to do it naturally rather than imitatively. And the more I played it, the more I enjoyed it. So here it is.

Early Morning Blues (Blind Blake)

“Early Morning Blues” was almost certainly the first Blind Blake guitar part I learned, and I learned it not from Blake’s recording, but from Woody Mann’s tablature (a source I’ve cited before)… which leads to a funny story…

…because over and over, decade after decade, I have decided to work on this till I can play it as fast and smooth as Blake, and I practice until I’m happy with it… and then go back and listen to Blake’s recording and find he’s playing much slower than I do. I remember playing it onstage at the Musik Doos in Antwerp, and Etienne, the owner, liked it and bought the Blind Blake record, and played it, and I was shocked at how slow it was…

…and just now, after filming it and checking that I was happy with the result, I thought I should listen to Blake’s version before posting, and once again was shocked at how slow it was.

To be clear, Blake could play faster and smoother than I will ever be able to play or have dreamed of playing, but he took his time on this one. Which said, I’m happy with my tempo — this isn’t an exercise in precise recreation, it’s an exercise in seeing how I remember the songs I learned over the course of my life, and this is how I remember this one…

…or more or less how I remember it… because something funny happened when I was filming:

I’ve always ended this by repeating the first verse: “Early this morning, my baby made me sore/ Said, ‘I’m going away to leave you, I won’t be back anymore.” (Actually, Blake sings “ain’t coming back no more,” but I’m trying to sing more like I talk.) Anyway… for some reason, when I was filming, I got to the final verse and ended the first line, “my baby made me mad.” You can see a moment of confusion on my face, because I was happy with how it was going and didn’t want to have to do another take, but “mad” wasn’t going to rhyme with “anymore.”

Fortunately, this is a standard twelve-bar blues, with two repeated lines before the rhyming third, which provides some time to think. That’s what makes blues such a relaxed style for improvising lyrics — a theme I explore in Jelly Roll Blues, because Morton was celebrated in his blues-singing days for improvising verses. And another great thing about blues is the tradition of repurposing folk homilies as song lyrics… so I did, and here it is.

By way of history: this was Blind Blake’s first recording, released in 1926 and backed with “West Coast Blues,” an instrumental that is every bit as smooth and fast as I remember it — I do my best at playing that way on my version of his “Southern Rag,” and don’t think I disgrace myself, but neither do I kid myself that I’ve mastered its subtleties or come close to matching his relaxed virtuosity.  He was a superb player, and one of the first great blues guitar stars, along with Lonnie Johnson and Lemon Jefferson — three very different players, and three of the best.

Keep Your Hands Off Her/Shake It and Break It

I learned “Keep Your Hands Off Her” very early, from an LP called Folk Blues Song Fest — I don’t remember when I got that record, but it was early enough that I was undoubtedly attracted more by the inclusion of Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston than the inclusion of Champion Jack Dupree or Arbee Stidham. It was also early enough that I learned a bunch of songs off it: this one, by Lead Belly, stuck with me, but for a while I also picked up “Fan It,” “Hush, Somebody Is Calling Me,” “Beautiful City,” and “Face in the Crowd” — it would be at least another decade before I saw the Andy Griffith movie in which Brownie McGhee played a small part and realized he must have written that last song in hopes of it being used as the title theme. (I hadn’t thought of that song in years, but just ran over it in my mind and still remember the whole thing; I guess I’ll have to put it up here at some point.)

I have a better sense of when I heard “Shake It and Break It,” because I didn’t turn on to Charlie Patton until I started buying the Yazoo reissues during my year of college in 1976-77, but I’m not sure when I learned it. Certainly, the spur for combining them was a workshop on playing in the key of F, conducted by Paul Geremia at the Augusta Heritage Center’s Blues Week in the early 1990s. I’d never thought about F as a good key for blues — but this isn’t really blues, it’s ragtime, and these songs start on a C chord, and for all I know, Patton and Lead Belly thought of them as being in the key of C, if they bothered to think about things like that. Honestly, I don’t know if they both played this in F; I’m relying on Paul and my memory.

Be that as it may, I played them both in F and that gave me my first taste of what a great key it is for ragtime/pop songs — and then I married a clarinet player and got into flat keys, and by now I play dozens of songs in F… and this was where that started.

I don’t remember when I combined these songs, but it’s been a few years, and after I started playing them together and saying I thought they were at some level versions of the same song, someone pointed out that Patton doesn’t actually play the chords I play… but they still feel to me like they fit together.

I also like to think that “Keep Your Hands Off Her” can be understood as a kind of “me too” song — though I admit that’s a bit of a stretch — as well as a “body positivity” song, with that wonderful line: “She’s a heavy-hipped woman with great big legs, walks like she’s walking on soft-boiled eggs.” And, of course, I now consider all the “jelly” references in “Shake It” as part of my Jelly Roll Blues research… but mostly this is just fun to play and sing.

Duncan and Brady

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to post “Duncan and Brady,” which I’ve known for at least forty years and recorded on my Street Corner Cowboys CD (which is now available on Bandcamp). I learned my version off Tom Rush and Dave Van Ronk, both of whom seem to have got it from Paul Clayton…

…and that was all I knew until I started working on the “Murder Ballad” chapter of my book, Jelly Roll Blues, at which point things got interesting. Like “Frankie and Johnny” (a.k.a. “Frankie and Albert”) and “Stackolee” (about which I’ve already posted versions learned from John Hurt and Furry Lewis), “Duncan and Brady” was inspired by a real murder in the Black sporting world of St. Louis in the 1890s.

The earliest of the three, it told about the shooting of an Irish immigrant policeman named James Brady by a Black man named William Henry Harrison Duncan in 1890, which made news from coast to coast and led to several years of high-profile trials, retrials, and appeals. The first surviving mention of the ballad–which is also the first printed mention of the Stack Lee ballad–appeared in the Kansas City Star in 1897 and described the key event succinctly:

Brady walked up to the bar,
Showed Duncan his shinin’ star,
Says to Duncan, “You’re under arrest;”
Duncan put a hole in Brady’s breast.

It was actually somewhat more complicated than that: Brady apparently joined another officer named Gaffney in harassing a group of Black men outside a popular saloon, Duncan went into the bar, Brady followed him, and at some point Duncan was hiding behind the bar, Brady was shot, perhaps by Duncan, and Duncan was arrested for Brady’s murder. There followed multiple trials, in which Duncan’s lawyer, Walter M. Farmer, the first Black graduate of Washington University Law School, argued his case in front of the state supreme court and brought an appeal to a justice of the US supreme court.

In the end Duncan was executed, despite an appeal to the governor signed by many prominent citizens. The St. Louis papers covered the story in surprising detail and with surprising sympathy–a final, long article following Duncan’s death described him as “one of the most popular colored men in St. Louis,” and continued:  “He was a sport, a jolly fellow, a swell dresser, a ladies’ favorite, but, above all, he was a magnificent singer. . . . They all say there never was a colored basso like him in town and few in the country who could outclass him.”

I go into the case in more detail in Jelly Roll Blues, and one of my back-burner projects is to do a full article on Duncan, Brady, and the later life of the ballad. For now, suffice it to say that there seem to have been several songs about the incident, one of them apparently penned by Duncan himself, another popular as a street chant against the police, and the third the one I sing here, which survived in multiple variants. W.C. Handy mentioned hearing a version when he first visited St. Louis in the 1890s, Lead Belly had a version,  and there were many others. I sing it roughly as I remember it from Tom Rush, with a couple of added lines I picked up while researching the book.

All of which said, my favorite version might be the one John Koerner performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 — which has nothing to do with the original story, but is a great example of Koerner koernerizing, with Tony Glover on harp, and I don’t understand why no one so far has digitized it and posted it… so I just did, and here it is.

Ella Speed (A New Orleans murder ballad)

 

This is a new one in my repertoire, worked up in the course of researching my book, Jelly Roll Blues: Censored Songs and Hidden Histories. I had heard other versions of the song from Lead Belly, who recorded it several times, and Mance Lipscomb, and the Kweskin Jug Band, who did Lead Belly’s version, and I thought of it as a folk-blues-ballad like Stackolee or Frankie and Johnny, or Lipscomb’s “Freddie.” If I’d had to guess, I would have said it came from Texas — the people who recorded it were from there, and Lead Belly told the Lomaxes that the murder happened in Dallas shortly before he got there in the second decade of the twentieth century.

In fact, it happened in New Orleans in 1894 and was widely covered in the local press. According to the stories, Speed was an “Octoroon” sex worker — the term literally meant 1/8 African, but in common parlance tended to mean a very light-skinned Black woman who could potentially pass for white; in the Blue Book guides to the New Orleans red light district, women were labeled with a W for White, C for Colored, O for Octoroon, and J for Jewish.

Her killer, Louis “Bull” Martin, was white and perhaps Latino (the Picayune suggested his last name was a shortening of Martinez), and worked as a bartender in Trauth’s saloon at the Dryades Street market. According to the Picayune, Speed was “an inmate of [madam] Lou Prout’s establishment at No. 40 Basin Street,” and the pair had been seeing each other for several months, but at some point Martin “discovered that besides himself she had formed an attachment for another party…. He became incensed with rage and frequently threatened to do her some bodily harm, but she only laughed at him.” Prout apparently got tired of their “bickering,” and asked Speed to move out, so she moved in with a woman named Pauline Jones, at 137 Customhouse Street (now Iberville).

That was the scene of the murder. The couple had been drinking heavily all evening, but appeared to be “on friendly terms” — they had ordered a couple of bottles of white wine and some oysters, and invited another of the “inmates” to join them. The party continued through the night, and around 8am Martin ordered a couple of cocktails, telling the waiter to make them “very strong.” There was no sign of trouble, but around 9:30 Jones heard a pistol shot  and “the shrieks of a female crying out, ‘Miss Pauline, come help me: I am shot!'” Speed was standing in the hallway, “with the upper portion of her garment ablaze and her hand clasped to her left breast.”

Speed died within minutes. Martin escaped, but turned himself in the following morning. He claimed she had shot herself, but was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Pardoned five years later, he was back in the news in 1911 after he married another sex worker, they opened a lunch stand, they broke up, she opened a rival lunch stand, he was heard to threaten that he would “do again what he did a long time ago,” and she got scared and shot him.

As for the song, it seems to have originated as a ragtime ballad, popular with pianists in the District. Rosalind “Rose” Johnson, a contemporary of Jelly Roll Morton’s, remembered it as a favorite in the Basin Street houses and played a version that was recorded twice in the 1950s by Edmond “Doc” Souchon, leader of the Six and Seven-Eighths String Band. My version has the two verses and chorus Souchon sang, plus additional verses from several Texas guitarists who recorded similar ragtime versions for the Library of Congress: Homer “Tricky Sam” Roberson, Finous “Flat Foot” Rockmore,” and Wallace “Staving Chain” Chains (my guitar approach is closest to Chains’s version).

All of those are more chordally intricate than the straightforward circle of fifths Lipscomb and Lead Belly played. The lyrics diverge in various ways from the newspaper stories, and Roberson, Lead Belly, and Lipscomb in particular added a bunch of “floating” verses from other ballads — which some Basin Street pianists may have done as well. In any case, this is my assemblage from that mix of sources, all of which are well worth checking out.

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head