What goes around comes around, sometimes in very nice ways. I don’t remember if it was a few months or a year, or even two, but in any case sometime after Dominic Kakolobango spent a week taping his favorite records out of my collection, I was in his apartment in Brussels listening to his taped selection of Mississippi John Hurt songs.
I had always named Hurt as one of my favorite singers and guitarists, and played a bunch of his songs, but like most people I thought of his playing as relatively simple and straightforward compared to the work of people like Willie McTell, Blind Blake, or Lemon Jefferson.
So there I was in Brussels, Dominic was at work, and I figured I’d learn a couple of songs I’d always liked. And, for the first time, instead of just playing rough approximations of what I heard, I decided to listen carefully and try to figure out exactly what Hurt was doing…
…which opened up a new world. Because if you actually pay attention to what he played, John Hurt was a superbly quirky guitarist. I’ve already posted about “Richlands Woman,” which I recall as the first song I worked out that day, with its wonderfully economical choice of bass notes. Then I moved on to “Satisfied and Tickled Too,” and found it was missing half a measure, or added half a measure, or was missing or added a beat, but in any case did it consistently in every verse.
That was an interesting experience, because I first tried to count the beats along with his recording, and work it out logically, but I kept getting confused… so I decided to just play along with him, over and over, learning the song like a toddler learns to talk.
It worked, and this became one of my favorite songs. Now I usually play it with my wife Sandrine on clarinet, and she learned the timing the same way – first tried to count it, then just surrendered and played along till it felt natural.
The song is related to a piece the Memphis Jug Band recorded as “You May Leave, But This Will Bring You Back,” and may ultimately derive from a verse-and-chorus sheet music hit from 1898 by Ben Harney (whom I’ve discussed in an earlier post) — though none of the three songs shares much more than the tag line. Hurt’s is my favorite by far, sung from the point of view of a woman who is confident that “it” will bring her lover back — “it” clearly being her todalo.
There has been lots of speculation among blues scholars about the derivation of this word, producing a range of more or less unlikely folk etymologies, but the meaning is clear enough in context: “I pull my dress up to my knees/Give my todalo to whom I please.” And, once one knows that, it clarifies some other mysteries, like the title of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” a euphemistic mis-spelling, suggesting a cheery and childish goodbye rather than a local specialty in one of the fabled jazz towns of the Prohibition era.