Fishing (Blues) (Chris Smith/Sweetie May)

A feminist ragtime cheating song from 1911, which is now known almost entirely in a highly abridged and non-feminist revision by the Texas hobo Henry Thomas — an excellent example of how recordings have muddled our understanding of the past. Thomas turned it into a ditty about fishing that lost the original sense of the chorus:

You say you’re going fishing all the time,
Well, I’m going fishing too.
Bet your life your loving wife
Will catch as many fish as you…

The original was written by Chris Smith, a songwriter and pianist best remembered for “Ballin’ the Jack.” Smith later formed a successful vaudeville duo with the singer/monologuist Henry Troy, advertised in 1923 as “perhaps the best known and most popular Colored artists on the Keith circuit,”* but back in 1911 he was writing for one of the most influential acts in the history of black show business: Butler “String Beans” May, whom Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff convincingly present in their new book The Original Blues as the first major blues star and a dominant figure on the southern theater circuit.

String Beans seems to have hired Smith to produce special material for his act, for example penning the lyrics to “There Never Was and Never Will Be a String Bean Like Me,” and also for his wife and partner, Sweetie May, a New Orleans singer known on the southern circuit as Sweetie Matthews until they married in 1910. This song was presumably written for her — their act, adapted with great success on records by Butterbeans and Susie, typically involved domestic disputes, often won by the woman — and Abbott and Seroff quote a 1911 newspaper review saying “Miss May sang ‘Fishing’ very good, and was well received.”

String Beans and Sweetie May were major stars, widely imitated and familiar to African American theatergoers throughout the country, but he died in 1917 and they never recorded. As a result they have tended to be left out of blues histories — which in general rely far too much on recordings — and Sweetie May’s hit is remembered almost exclusively from a 1928 record by the hobo singer Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas, who had likely learned it at several removes since he didn’t sing the verses and seems not to have understood the original theme.

Thomas’s record was included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and is a wonderful performance with breaks played on reed panpipes. It became a blues revival standard, recorded by Mike Seeger, Jim Kweskin, Taj Mahal, and dozens of others, and is still widely played… I love it and mean no disrespect when I suggest it’s a pity that so few later performers have been aware of Thomas’s source.

As best I can tell, the only person who remembered Chris Smith’s original song was Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, a quirky singer with a phenomenal memory who recorded a  playful version of it in the late 1970s. I learned it off his album, sang it regularly in my touring days, and everybody seemed thrilled to learn the back story of what was now commonly known as “Fishing Blues…” but the Thomas version is still the only one most people are aware of. I eventually hunted down sheet music, thanks to Lynn Abbott, and Chatmon’s lyrics are very close to Smith’s, with the up-to-date addition of miniskirts. So here it is, with hopes that some other singers — especially some women — may start doing this version and talking about Sweetie May and the early vaudeville blues stars.

*I did a fair amount of research on Smith because his song “Don’t Slip Me in the Dozen, Please” is the first thorough description of the African American insult game known as the dozens (or capping, snaps, yo’ mama jokes), so I wrote about it and him in my book The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama (now retitled Talking ‘Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap) — which, as it happens, also includes some great verses from Sam Chatmon. It was amazing how many disparate threads came together in that book.