Going beyond the lyrics in Basin Street Blues

“Now Basin Street is the street where the folks all meet. In New Orleans, land of dreams.”

basin streetBasin Street Blues is another New Orleans jazz standard with a fascinating back story.

The song was composed by Spencer Williams and originally recorded by Louis Armstrong – two New Orleanians who grew up on and around Basin Street. However, when the song was recorded in 1928, the street no longer existed. City leaders, anxious to erase the area’s reputation for legal prostitution, had changed the street’s name to the innocuous “North Saratoga.”

For a time, Williams actually lived in Mahogany Hall on Basin Street with his aunt, the famous bordello’s owner and manager, Lulu White. He would later commemorate the business in a song called Mahogany Hall Stomp. Basin Street was a key arterial and border to the famed Storyville–a 16-block area that for 20 years up to the U.S. entry into World War 1 was a city-regulated zone of prostitution. The many brothels and saloons that sprung up provided a regular and contented audience for the nascent music called “Jass.”

Basin_Street_Blues_Columbia_78_1931_CharlestonWilliams version of Basin Street was a 12-bar blues tune without lyrics. In the 1928 and 1932 Armstrong recordings, Satchmo scats the song’s vocal parts. But in 1931, Jack Teagarden sang the song with a group called The Charleton Chasers with lyrics, that according to Teagarden’s recollection, were written by him with the help from Glenn Miller.

It was also at that time that the more “come hither” like opening verse was added, making the song a musical advertisement for folks to come and visit New Orleans. (What were they thinking?) Teagarden, by the way, wasn’t from New Orleans. However, the famous trombonist died of a heart attack in a New Orleans hotel after a 1964 performance.

Because of the song’s popularity, the city changed the name back to Basin Street. But by that point, the Storyville legacy was long gone and the street really wasn’t a place for tourists to visit.

As often happens with great songs, the lyrics are malleable. I don’t think I’ve heard a version with the same set of lyrics. Armstrong and Teagarden routinely played the song in front of audiences as well as recording it several times.  Teagarden was usually faithful to the lyrics he wrote. Armstrong some times skipped the opening stanza of “Won’t you come along with me to the Mississippi,” preferring to start with the line that I quote at the beginning of this post.

One notable change is that the early versions of the song by Armstrong and Teagarden contain this line “Basin Street is the street where the dark and light folks meet.” But I haven’t had much luck finding it sung that way in versions after the 1940’s. Given that Storyville was a place where white customers could listen to music played by African Americans and have sex with African Americans and Creoles, the song’s line is perhaps the most genuine part of the song.

Won’t you listen along with me as I play a few versions of Basin Street Blues on my show this Thursday. Here’s the podcast of that show!