Dave Van Ronk had numerous musical heroes, but Jelly Roll Morton was number one. Over the years, I got used to the idea that if I stayed late enough at his place we would likely end up listening to Morton records (often back to back with Phillipe Koutev’s Bulgarian ensemble), and it was an addiction I was happy to share. We often listened to the Red Hot Peppers records, but in terms of Dave’s repertoire the most significant Morton record was one made in the 1940s for the Commodore label, one side of which consisted of solo vocal and piano tracks. There were five songs on that side, and Dave played all of them, and eventually I learned them as well, in roughly equal parts from Dave and Morton.
“Buddy Bolden’s Blues” was a descriptive title, given by Morton to a song he recalled hearing Bolden play when he was first listening to music in “the District,” as New Orleans musicians called the red light district historians recall as Storyville:
This is, no doubt, is the earliest blues that was the real thing. That is a variation from the real barrelhouse blues. The composer was Buddy Bolden, the most powerful trumpet player I’ve ever heard or ever was known. The name of this was named by some old hunky-tunk people. While he played this, they sang a little theme to it.
That theme, “funky butt, funky butt, take it away,” has generally been glossed as a reference to farting, but everything I’ve seen and heard suggests that is less an established fact than a testimony to the higher comfort level many white jazz scholars have with pre-adolescent naughtiness as opposed to adult sexuality. Bolden was famous for the audience of prostitutes who patronized his dances, and there is no reason to associate the “funk” in his lyrics with farting rather than the strong smell of female bodies after a long night’s work — or, indeed, of male bodies after a long day’s work. Dude Bottley, whose brother sponsored many of Bolden’s dances, recalled:
Lots of folks would faint and pass out from the heat and the strong body odor, ‘cause there wasn’t many colored people who had bath tubs in those days. In fact, very few white folks owned one. Lots of times when the crowd would be jammed in front of Bolden he would stop blowing, take his hat and fan the air in front of him and holler loud:
“MY CHILLUN’S HERE. I KNOW IT ‘CAUSE I CAN SMELL ‘EM.”
That used to tickle the crowd, and everybody would clap, scream, laugh and holler. I’m tellin’ you, when that odor used to rise it smelled like burnt onions and train smoke…
In support of my theory, Zora Neale Hurston recorded a variant of this song in Florida, and one of the verses went: I’m so glad the law is passed, the women in Tampa got to wash they ass.
This was a key song in Dave’s history, because he used to play it in the late 1950s (though the only recording was unissued until the Mayor of MacDougal Street CD), then expanded it in the early 1960s into his full guitar transcription of the classic ragtime instrumental, “St. Louis Tickle.” Morton always insisted that the main strain of “St. Louis Tickle” was stolen from Bolden, and I’m guessing it was this connection — and the fact that he’d already worked out an arrangement for that strain — that led Dave to think of working out the rest of the more complex composition as his first venture into classic ragtime arranging.