In his notes to this song, Dave Van Ronk wrote, “Jelly Roll Morton, certainly the greatest jazz composer before Ellington and a singer of incredible subtlety claimed to have invented jazz in 1906. There is little point in argument.”
This was one of Morton’s most subtle efforts, and one of Dave’s. Dave stripped the spare piano accompaniment down to an even sparer guitar arrangement, and sang it simply and directly, just telling the story.
On his recording, Morton recalled, “This is the first blues I no doubt heard in my life. Mamie Desdunes, this was her favorite blues. She hardly could play anything else more, but she really could play this number.”
Desdunes (sometimes written Desdoumes) was a well-known singer and pianist in “the District,” as black New Orleanians called the area now generally remembered as “Storyville.” Bunk Johnson recalled playing numerous dates with her and told Alan Lomax: “She was pretty good looking — quite fair and with a nice head of hair. She was a hustling woman. A blues-singing poor girl. Used to play pretty passable piano around them dance halls on Perdido Street. When Hattie Rogers or Lulu White would put it out that Mamie was going to be singing at her place, the white men would turn out in bunches and them whores would clean up.”
The song title is often given as “2:19 Blues,” as if the number was for a train time, but Charles Edward Smith recalled Morton explaining that the 219 was the train that “took the gals out on the T&P [Texas and Pacific railroad] to the sporting houses on the Texas side of the circuit… [and] the 217 on the S.P. [Southern Pacific] through San Antonio and Houston brought them back to New Orleans.” I can find no confirmation that those numbers matched trains on that route, and another scholar has the same trains running between New Orleans and Chicago — so I’m dubious, especially since the matched numbers would make more sense for trains going back and forth on the same line, but Morton assigned them to different lines.
My guess is Morton was improvising an explanation to match the lyric, and very likely shifting the location: there was a 219 train that ran from Memphis to Little Rock, with the 220 returning, and this couplet may well be from Memphis, another strong blues town. On the other hand, another famous blues lyric that mentions the 219 is “Trouble In Mind” (“Gonna lay my head on that lonesome railroad line/ Let the 219 ease my trouble in mind”), by Richard M. Jones, who was also from New Orleans. So I don’t know the answer, and if anyone can clear this up, please write me an email.*
*My address is just my first name at my full name, dot com.