Winin’ Boy / Winding Ball (Jelly Roll Morton)

I learned this from Dave Van Ronk, who got it from Jelly Roll Morton, and it’s at this point in the Songobiography because my trip south in 1985 included a brief stint with a trad jazz band in Charleston, SC.

I hitched down from Southport via Myrtle Beach and don’t remember where or who I asked, but I was looking for people who were interested in acoustic blues and someone put me in touch with Michael Tyzack. He was a painter, prominent in the art department at the University, and also played trumpet in a trad band. At that point he was living in a big old house where he let me sleep in a spare room, and getting around in a wheelchair because he’d broken up with a woman who did not take kindly to the situation and smashed him into a wrought iron fence with her car, breaking his legs in multiple places. Unsurprisingly he was feeling rather down, seemed to like having company, and said nice things about my guitar arrangement of “At a Georgia Camp Meeting.” So I stayed two or three days and got to see a bit of Charleston.

I also guested on an outdoor gig with his band, at which my abilities can be judged by the fact that halfway through the first set one of the other musicians leaned over and whispered, “I think you just played one of the right chords.” That was not entirely fair, but fair enough — my only defense was that I did my best to play the wrong chords quietly. Michael and the band’s clarinet player (or maybe trombone?) also set me up with a bar gig that night and played a few songs with me, and this was one of them.

This is generally known as “Winin’ Boy,” but that title is a mistake. Morton sounds like he could be singing those words, so I don’t blame the record folks for getting it wrong, and after they issued it Morton wrote the title that way himself in a couple of letters — but if you listen to him talk about it on his Library of Congress recordings, he clearly says “Winding Ball.”

I devoted a chapter to this song in my book, Jelly Roll Blues, and apparently was Morton’s theme song, though the basic lyric was probably floating around the South before he adapted it, and certainly long before he committed it to disc. Among other things, W.C. Handy heard it performed by a rag-tag trio of mandolin, guitar, and bass at a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi, and was inspired to begin writing adaptations of rural blues, starting with a piece that used this tune, which he titled The Memphis Blues — and which became the first huge national blues hit.

I go into the whole story in my book, and there’s plenty more — starting with the descent of the “winding ball” phrase from the mishearing of a Scottish bird name in a song collected in the eighteenth century by Robert Burns, and including a bitter dispute between Morton and Handy over which of them originated blues and jazz…

…but for the moment, returning to my own experiences, “Wining Boy” became a ’60s blues revival standard thanks to versions by Eric Von Schmidt, Dave Van Ronk, and Ian Buchanan, who recorded a nice guitar version on the Elektra Blues Project LP (which he calls “Winding Boy”), inspiring Jorma Kaukonen’s version with Hot Tuna, which made it even more of a standard. All of those people sang Morton’s cleaned-up version, without the filthy verses that only surfaced later, when daring little record labels began exhuming the material that had been censored in earlier releases. I sing the clean version, too, because those verses really are nasty, though historically illuminating.

As for Michael Tyzack, he was English and his son is also a musician and has a nice page dedicated to his memory. One story he told me that I’ve treasured ever since: he was speaking at a British university and afterwards a woman came up and said she’d loved his lecture, admired his art, and was hoping he could help her with a problem. She was a painter herself, and was working on a still life, and she couldn’t figure out what color the tea pot should be. Mike assumed a thoughtful expression and, after an appropriate pause, said: “Paint it green.”

The woman thanked him and wandered off, and before she got out of earshot he heard her telling a friend: “He said, ‘Paint it green…’ What a genius!”

As for Morton, aside from the book I’ve posted about a half-dozen of his other songs: “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” “Mamie’s Blues,” “Michigan Water,” “Sweet Substitute,” and “The Pearls” — as well as a couple of others he played, which figure as chapters in the book: “Hesitation Blues,” and “Pallet on the Floor.”