L’il Liza Jane rises to whatever the occasion demands

‘Fore I die, I’d like to meet (Little Liza Jane)
Gal who made us shake our feet (Little Liza Jane)

Okay I made that part of the song up but therein lies the beauty of the song, L’il Liza Jane. It so engaging and adaptable. Meeting her is definitely on my bucket list. Wouldn’t you like to meet the woman has inspired so many people over the years to sing, chant, dance and make up lyrics on the fly?

First printed in 1916, L'il Liza Jane's history likely dates back to minstrel shows.
First printed in 1916, L’il Liza Jane’s history likely dates back to minstrel shows.

According to the Preservation Hall Foundation, the song  L’il Liza Jane “has been established as a New Orleans jazz standard since as far back as the 1910s.” Without doubt, the song was making the rounds before Sherman, Clay & Co. of San Francisco printed it up in 1916, describing it as a “Southern Dialect Song.”

But who was she? One theory is that Liza (and sometimes Eliza) Jane was a common character name in minstrel shows. If so, then its no surprise that her moniker got attached to a simple song that could be easily adapted to whatever dramatic or comedic situation was required.

The simple structure of each line of a couplet set off by a choral response of “L’il Liza Jane” makes it a communal experience where others on stage and audience members can participate.

In true folk tradition, the song has been played in many musical styles from big brass bands to bluegrass pickers, with lyrics added and amended based on the occasion. There is something about the couplet structure of the lyrics that invites embellishments.

The call and response part is easy to follow. No need to rehearse ahead of time, just figure it out as the song proceeds.

Most of the time, the song is about the attraction and joy of having Liza Jane as your life partner. “I got a gal that I adore”  (this is where you sing “L’il Liza Jane”) “Way Down South in Baltimore. “I don’t care how far we roam (Little Liza Jane) Where she’s at is home sweet home.

Huey Smith, an early New Orleans rocker, recorded a version of L'il Liza Jane in 1956.
Huey Smith, an early New Orleans rocker, recorded a version of L’il Liza Jane in 1956.

Huey Piano Smith, an early R&B and rock and roll performer inspired by Professor Longhair, cut a version of the song with his own set of lyrics but stayed true to the song’s theme.

Hey pretty baby can we go strollin’?
(Little Liza Jane)
Yes, you got me rockin’ When I ought to be rollin’
(Little Liza Jane)

The Black Indians of Mardi Gras use the song with lyrics appropriate to their unique practices but the response part is still the same –“L’il Liza Jane.”

Another Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa is coming up on Monday so imagine that song playing in your head right now (cause I’ll definitely be playing then). I’ll call; you respond.

Got some sweet songs you should hear (L’il Liza Jane)
Bout a Lady I hold dear (L’il Liza Jane)

Tune in Monday, KAOS radio (L’il Liza Jane)
Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa Show (L’il Liza Jane)

Or you can listen to the recording of the show on Mixcloud now!

Professor Longhair “tralla walla” makes us feel fine

This week’s post (and my focus on this week’s radio show) is about the man who sang “we gonna hoola tralla walla malla dalla drink some mellow wine.”

Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair
Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair

Henry Roeland Byrd was a tap dancer, card shark, soldier, cook, laborer and general street hustler. He also was one of the greatest New Orleans piano professors of all time – Professor Longhair.

His iconic “Tipitina” inspired the likes of Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, James Booker, Dr. John and countless others.

Professor Longhair’s style has been described as a rhumba crossed with a blues shuffle.In an interview with Peter Stone Brown not long before he died in 1980, he said:

” I was around a lot of honky-tonk musicians, barrelhouse musicians, blues musicians, and bebop musicians, jazz musicians. I just got a little bit from everybody and used it with what my mother taught me. She played a lot of ragtime music. . . I just mix my ideas up and call it a gumbo. There’s no certain thing at all. It’s just rockin’ rhythm.”

Fess was there at the beginning of the New Orleans Rock and Roll era in New Orleans, cutting his first singles in the J&M Studio (Cosimo Matassa) in 1949.  And in November 1953 with Alvin “Red” Tyler, Lee Allen, Earl Palmer, and Edgar Blanchard backing him up, he recorded “Tipitina” for the first time.

“Girl you hear me calling you. Well you’re three times seven, baby. Knows what you want to do.”

Calibration
Calibration

Born in Bogalusa but raised in New Orleans, Professor Longhair never made the hit parade and never really experienced financial success. By the late 60’s, his career had folded and he was living in poverty. In 1970, Quint Davis and Alison Minor sought him out with the intention of getting him to perform at their fledgling music festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Who they found was a frail, weak man who didn’t seem capable of pounding out his trademark rhythms. But with the help of Davis and Minor, he recovered enough to perform at the second JazzFest in 1971 and demonstrate that, if anything, his playing had gotten better.  His hometown and the world embraced him and his career flourished. Until his death in 1980, he recorded and performed, including at the nightclub created for the purpose of providing him and other aging R&B artists a place to play, named appropriately Tipitina’s.

Join me, won’t you for some Fess and Fess-inspired music this Memorial Day.   Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa kicks off at 10 a.m. on Monday. Here’s a recording of that show on Mixcloud.

Louisiana delta-inspired music taking on a cry for help

Thanks to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High and hundreds of others, there is little doubt that our environment influences music.

The waters that flow through Louisiana originate in 31 states.
The waters that flow through Louisiana originate in 31 states.

 So it should be no surprise that musicians who reside at the tap end of North America’s largest drainage system write songs about rivers, wetlands, swamps and bayous.

Draining all or part of 31 states, the Mississippi River creates a powerful structure for creatives of all types to tell their stories.

In Louisiana, its the swamp that inpires many to “pole the pirogue down the bayou” (Jambalaya). These musicians may not really have swamp water running through their veins (Fire in the Bayou) but they know how to use the water’s magnetic pull to enliven a song.

Sitting at the soggy end of the 2,300 mile system, Louisiana and its bayou communities (including New Orleans) use the river, and its essential estuaries, as a lush backdrop for setting the mood–from boogie to blue.

In recent years, the music has been paying back in the struggle to restore and revitalize the delta environment. The flow of sediment of the Mississippi is less than half of what it was a century ago due to engineering the river to serve too many purposes. This means essential delta beds are not being replenished. Combine this steady decline in sediment, with the speed of climate change, and the bayou and the life and music it supports becomes more fragile by the day.

Tab Benoit started the Voice of the Wetlands to raise awareness about the importance of revitalizing the river system.
Tab Benoit started the Voice of the Wetlands to raise awareness about the importance of revitalizing the river system.

Voice of the Wetlands, started by Louisiana bluesman Tab Benoit, is a non-profit focused on raising awareness about the loss of the wetlands in southern Louisiana.

And as you might expect by an initiative launched by a musician, it uses the music of the Delta to reach the right ears, including performances before Republican and Democratic National conventions and an annual festival in Houma (about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans in bayou country).

The Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars often headlines the festival. Over the years, this recording and live performance ensemble has included Benoit, Dr, John, Cyril Neville, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, George Porter Jr., Waylon Thibodeaux, Anders Osborn and many others. This year’s festival is in October.

Muskrats, alligators, junebugs, and other critters crawl from the swamp into the music.
Muskrats, alligators, junebugs, and other critters crawl from the swamp into the music.

I’ve got close to a full two-hour show of songs about the bayou and bayou country so please tune in this Monday on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa (or catch it on archive) to hear Muskrat Ramble, Bayou Boogie, Swamp Funk and Junebug Waltz and others.

Also, I’d be honored if you subscribed to this blog. (upper right hand corner of this page.)

Milo Music Parlor offers a unique live music experience

It’s not hard catching live music in New Orleans. Musicians in NOLA are like Olympia baristas, they’re just about everywhere and they’re really good at what they do.

Kelcy Mae, center, performed with her band at the Milo Music Parlor in early April.
Kelcy Mae, center, performed with her band at the Milo Music Parlor in early April.

One memorable experience during my visit last month was watching Kelcy Mae perform in an incredibly artful, yet defunct, cafe located in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. The cool thing is that you too could catch a performance of a talented young artist there.

The event is described as “modern-day speakeasy” and when I first arrived at the renovated building on Oretha Castle Boulevard (about a mile walk from Canal Street), my first sense was that I had gotten the wrong address.

The back of the renovated building that serves as Milo Music Parlor
The back of the renovated building that serves as Milo Music Parlor

The building is owned and was painstakingly redone by Elizabeth and Gary Eckman who incorporated original artwork and craftsmanship into their renovation of the century-old building, creating a modern space while retaining the grandeur of the past.

The building doesn’t look like your typical New Orleans music venue. Yet on Tuesdays, the space transforms into the Milo Music Parlor — the brainchild of Kim Vu-Dinh, a self-described music nerd who also runs Milo Records.  Because of Kim’s good sense to keep KAOS on her distribution list, I’ve featured the excellent new music promoted by Milo Records on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.

Each week, Milo’s Music Parlor hosts a different musician or band who performs in this intimate space that feels like a large living room. The additional twist is that about halfway through the performance, the musicians take a break and Kim interviews them for a podcast featured on It’s New Orleans— “web radio for locals, exiles, and lovers of New Orleans everywhere.”

Her first posted podcast is of her interview of Vanessa Neimann who fronts Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue.

milo4Originally from California with a significant detour through Alaska, Ms. Vu-Dinh is an attorney who has clearly found her passion and home in the New Orleans music scene. In introducing Gal Holiday, she insightfully touches on the melting pot music milieu of New Orleans.

“To some it may seem unlikely that this classic honky tonk band called New Orleans home. To others, who’ve heard them, it may come as no surprise that they flourish in a town where tradition in every genre is paid respect with high caliber musicianship.”

As I’ve tried to demonstrate on my show, New Orleans music does not fit tidily into one or two music genres.  It’s not just jazz, or Dixieland, or Iko Iko. Each generation, each neighborhood, seems to contribute a new energy and style that somehow absorbs nicely into the city’s traditions, rhythms and dialect.

In a city that is attracting more than its share of Millennials, uber-talented young musicians continue to make their mark on New Orleans. And you can witness it happening at Milo Music Parlor. The programs are open to the public for an affordable cover charge and the show ends with plenty of time to catch music elsewhere. Check the schedule here. 

Next week, the Music Parlor will host Aurora Nealand who will perform her avant garde solo project Monocle and later in the month David Doucet and Al Tharp of Beausoleil will be at the Parlor.

Consider subscribing to my blog (see upper right corner of page) and catching my shows of New Orleans music on KAOS or the edited versions on Mixcloud