Buddy Bolden’s Blues (Jelly Roll Morton)

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 recordings — by some standards the first examples of jazz that was both carefully arranged and brilliantly swinging — but in terms of Dave’s repertoire the most significant Morton record was an album recorded in 1939 as a commercial follow-up to his Library of Congress sessions, featuring Morton alone at the piano and titled New Orleans Memories. It was reissued on LP in the 1950s with one side of instrumentals and one of Morton singing. There were five songs on the latter side, all of which Dave played, and eventually I learned them as well, in roughly equal parts from Dave and Morton.

“Buddy Bolden’s Blues” was a descriptive title for a song Morton credited to Bolden, who led one of the defining New Orleans jazz bands at the turn of the twentieth century.  As he explained at the Library:

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.

Buddy_BoldenThat theme, “funky butt, funky butt, take it away,” has often been glossed by jazz historians as a reference to farting, possibly because the historians were more comfortable with pre-adolescent naughtiness than with adult sexuality. Bolden was famous for the audience of prostitutes who patronized his dances, and everyone in that world seems to have associated the “funk” in his lyrics with the strong smell of female bodies after a long night’s work. In my book, Jelly Roll Blues, I quote a brilliantly imagined recreation of Bolden’s performances from the New Orleans musician and historian Danny Barker:

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:
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…

Zora Neale Hurston recorded a variant of this song in Florida, with a verse that made that theme explicit:

I’m so glad the law is passed,
he women in Tampa got to wash they ass.

This was a key song in Dave’s history, because it was a standard part of his repertoire in the late 1950s (though the only recording was unissued until the Mayor of MacDougal Street CD), mayor cd and he expanded it in the early 1960s into a guitar transcription of the classic ragtime composition, “St. Louis Tickle” — the first full transcription of a piano rag to guitar, which inspired generations of ragtime guitarists. Morton always insisted that the main strain of “St. Louis Tickle” was stolen from Bolden, and I’m guessing it was this connection that led Dave to work out the rest of the composition, first as a solo piece, and then in an string band arrangement for his Ragtime Jug Stompers. He would go on to arrange several other piano rags, including Morton’s masterpiece, “The Pearls” — which I’ve covered in another post, along with numerous Morton pieces I picked up from Dave: “Mamie’s Blues,” “Winding Ball” (a.k.a. “Winin’ Boy”), “Michigan Water,” and “Sweet Substitute.”