The song Darktown Strutters Ball has always puzzled me. Not so much the song itself, which we’ll get into, but rather the term “Darktown.” Yet context makes a difference as you’ll hear when you start my show (click the arrow in the box below).
First, thank you Azizi Powell, a blogger that chronicles African American culture, for her hard work in pulling together the information about this song that allowed me to be comfortable enough to feature it on my show. Here’s her article.
Shelton Brooks, a Canadian-born composer who settled in Detroit, wrote some great hits, back in the day when music success was measured by how many sheets of the music you sold. Darktown Strutters Ball sold over three million copies. But coming out at the infancy of recorded music, the song was an early hit for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band — the all-white New Orleans band that capitalized early on what is not-so-arguably an African American creation.
Ms. Powell’s research indicates that there most likely really was a “Darktown Strutters Ball” and it was, as the lyrics suggest, a coveted ticket to have. Like any good song, the listener can find many reasons to associate with it. The opportunity to get dressed up and go out on n the town. The date night. The dancing.
Using the word “darktown” to refer to a community of color is not appropriate. But in the context of this song it seems to be okay, though some bands have chosen to not use the term in the song. Which is okay too. It’s a song with a catchy melody, danceable beat and the chorus has a great vibe to it. I won’t belabor this point because you should either listen to my show or read Ms. Powell’s article (or both!).
You will hear five versions of the song. And I was showing some restraint. I feature Treme Brass Band, Gerald French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, the Young Olympians and Lena Prima. But you’ll also hear other songs, several about dancing, as well. Thanks for tuning in and consider subscribing. Cheers.
Two June CD releases are burnishing the city’s country music reputation and you’ll hear tracks from both in today’s show. Start it rolling and then learn more about Shawn Williams and Gal Holiday.
Shawn Williams’ second album Motel Livin’ is a gripping compendium of lyrical songs that leave me a bit unnerved but fully entertained. Her voice haunts and I’m going to enjoy digging deeper into this new release. I play “Best of Me” and later “Buried Alive.”
More upbeat and more battle worn is Gal Holiday and her Honky Tonk Revue with the new release Lost & Found. Almost a decade before The Deslondes formed, Gal Holiday (aka Vanessa Niemann) broke ground on the new wave of country in New Orleans. And true to her band’s name, you can dance to her music. I play “Found Myself Instead” and “Desert Disco.”
While Luke Winslow-King’s music has been difficult to describe, I’ve never thought of it as country until his latest release Blue Mesa. You can listen to his “After the Rain” and decide for yourself.
To keep the roots vibe rolling, I follow these sets up with The Big Dixie Swingers with “I Haven’t Got a Pot,” Eric Lindell with a live version of “Bayou Country” and The Radiators doing “Straight Eight.” Also, an encore performance of Albanie Falletta who charmed the smart attendees of her concert at Traditions Cafe in Olympia Sunday night.
Jazz sets follow and if you’re patient enough I finish with Dash Rip Rock’s “Let’s Go Smoke Some Pot” in honor of the State of Oklahoma adopting a medical cannabis initiative this week.
Oh and I almost forgot, while digging through the KAOS studio’s vinyl vault I found Danny Barker’s 1988 release Save the Bones and I played his version of “St. James Infirmary.” Struck by his riffing on the traditional lyrics description of his funeral, I thought about Fred Johnson’s description of how Danny Barker’s traditional funeral came about that I recorded in October of 2017 in his office in New Orleans. You’ll get to hear the story as well on this show.
“Now Basin Street is the street where the folks all meet. In New Orleans, land of dreams.”
Basin 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.”
Williams 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.
My radio station, KAOS, was going bananas last week when Scott Stevens, host of Spin the Globe, devoted a full hour to songs about this beloved fruit. My time-slot colleague (his Friday show anchors the KAOS world programming slot that I kick off on Mondays [Now moved to Thursdays] with Gumbo YaYa starting at 10 a.m.) played 18 banana songs from around the world.
As I was listening to King Sunny Ade wax on about “Sweet Banana,” I was thinking I could do a show like that, right? Scott may have the whole world to draw from, but New Orleans is the home of the banana gangster Sam Zemurray, the man who parlayed the resale of overripe bananas dumped at the New Orleans port into a banana dynasty (and screwed Honduras and Guatemala in the process). Surely, I can find enough music from New Orleans to do my own banana show.
So I checked my catalog of New Orleans music and found nothing. Okay, there was the Fathead Newman tune “Montana Banana” recorded with Dr. John in 1991 — an instrumental.
If I did more research, I might find some songs but if my log was showing nothing, I knew I wouldn’t have much to work with. So what other fruit or vegetable might I use for a show? I grabbed a banana, peeled it and gave it deeper thought with each bite. (uh oh, sudden flash of the “Brothers McMullen” banana scene.)
Last year, I did a show on food where I didn’t even break a sweat. New Orleans musicians have no trouble singing the praises of red beans, jambalaya, gumbo, chicken, shrimp and barbecue–though if you read my post from that show, Louis Armstrong’s “barbecue” is not something you find on the grill.
Holy Sucrose, Batman! New Orleans is also known for sugar. The Jesuit missionaries in the mid-1700s grew the stuff in downtown New Orleans (before they built the Superdome and those other buildings).
The Chalmette Domino Sugar refinery is one of the successes of post-Hurricane Katrina, returning to operation relatively quickly after the deep flood waters receded from its St. Bernard parish home. The state produces roughly two billion pounds of white death a year. And let’s not forget, the city has hosted the “Sugar Bowl” every year since 1935.
It’s kind of cheating, though. I mean, not all the “sugar” songs are about real sugar. Songwriters love metaphors and sugar lends itself well to that. Not to mention, that in New Orleans, the word “sugar” is a popular term of endearment used by almost everyone, including grocery clerks and bus drivers to complete strangers.
So not surprisingly, I have several New Orleans style versions of the 1927 jazz standard “Sugar” with the phrase “I’d make a million trips to his lips, if I was a bee. Because they are sweeter than any candy to me.”
But there’s also Sugar Foot Strut (Armstrong), Sugar Foot Stomp (Oliver), Sugar Blues (Preservation Hall Jazz Band) and Sugar Shack (Flavor Kings). There’s also Corey Harris’ Sugar Daddy and Percy Mayfield’s Sugar Mama.
It’s close enough. I’ll be sprinkling sugar throughout Monday’s sweet show.
‘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?
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 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
His hometown and the world mourn his passing on October 25, 2017. Click on my show in honor of his 87th Birthday and read the blog post I wrote in 2015.
Fats Domino turns 87 today. While perhaps debatable everywhere else, in my mind he’s the real King of Rock n’ Roll. And, he also has his professional DNA in ska and reggae.
“Be My Guest” hit 8 in the popular music charts in 1959–one of four Domino songs that got into the Top 40 that year. Not bad, considering he only recorded six songs.
“Be My Guest” marked a decade of Domino getting young people of all backgrounds to dance together. And with lyrics like “Come on baby and be my guest/Come join the party and meet the rest,” Domino made it a world dance party.
That dancing was particularly important in Jamaica where disk jockeys held dance parties in the street. As the unofficial northern capital of the Caribbean, New Orleans has had a long history with Jamaica. Island workers would arrive in New Orleans to work in canefields and return home with armloads of R&B records. Many argue that ska developed its rhythm from the shuffle and boogie beats that were emanating from Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans at the time.
“Be My Guest” was a huge hit in Jamaica and its 4/4 time with the drummer hitting hard on the offbeat apparently became the foundation of ska. Its not that Fats was the only inspiration. Professor Longhair, Smiley Louis and other R&B stars of that period were essential. But Domino was top dog, often covered (e.g. Super Cat’s My Girl Josephine) and paid homage in songs like Derrick Morgan’s “Fat Man.”
Bob Marley said reggae started with Fats Domino, according Rick Coleman, author of “Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Whether it did or not, there are lot of people on this planet dancing because of Antoine “Fats” Domino. That alone is worth honoring the day of his birth.
“Oh love, oh careless love, you’ve fly to my head like wine.”
Words of caution during this season of Valentine? Perhaps. But it’s also the opening to another enigmatic traditional song with uncertain origins that has become a New Orleans standard.
Like St. James Infirmary, Careless Love took its form from the 19th Century folk tradition. The song didn’t get locked down until it was recorded in the 1920’s, most notably Bessie Smith’s recording with Louis Armstrong on cornet. Even since then, the song’s lyrics have been malleable, adapted to jazz, blues and even bluegrass.
The song’s strong association to New Orleans is most likely the result of Buddy Bolden who performed the song regularly at the turn of the 20th Century. Buddy Bolden and his band performed a more bluesier and improvised form of ragtime and inspired jazz pioneers such as Kid Ory, King Oliver and Bunk Johnson who followed.
While there are no recordings of Bolden and his band, there are literally hundreds of other recorded versions of Careless Love, including those by Pete Seeger, Janis Joplin, Lead Belly, Madeleine Peyroux, Big Joe Turner, Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles.
With the onset of African American History Month, I thought it worthwhile to address the role of New Orleans in launching Rock n’ Roll. Cause the very fact that the city’s contribution is relatively unknown is a reflection in part of the broader subjugation of the African-American credit for creating the music in the first place.
Whether you date the beginning of Rock n’ Roll to Louis Jordan’s Saturday Night Fish Fry, Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight, Fats Domino’s The Fat Man, or even the non-New Orleans recording of Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston, what’s abundantly clear is that this music originated from African Americans–not white boys like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley.
Alan Freed, the white deejay credited for popularizing the term Rock n’ Roll, essentially used the term to rebrand Rhythm and Blues which was associated with black music. For that matter, the term Rhythm and Blues was created by a Billboard Magazine writer in 1949 to replace the previously used term “Race Music.”
Back to New Orleans, many of these early Rock hits were recorded in the J&M Studio on Rampart Street on New Orleans — located within a Russell Wilson touchdown pass of Congo Square where people of color (free and enslaved) gathered on Sundays and practiced the drum beats and rhythms that fueled jazz, swing, jump blues and Rock n’ Roll. The studio also recorded a great many other early Rock hits, including almost all of Little Richard’s hits.
Through radio, white youth were exposed to black artists–a wonderful testament of the integrating power of the air waves. In a bizarre twist, some white deejays hosted “Rhythm and Blues” shows and pretended to be black when introducing the songs. To sound authentic, a New Orleans deejay hired an African American to write his script.
While Fats Domino is unlikely to be included in the pantheon of civil rights leaders, his music and performances went a long way toward breaking down the walls of segregation. First, his records sold more than any artists other than Elvis during the 50s. (One million copies of The Fat Man were sold within the first three years of its release)
But it was in Domino’s performances where push came to shove. After all, can you really stand still to his music? (Go ahead, try!) Even though performance halls attempted to segregate white and black audiences, dancing ensued and elbows rubbed, flummoxing police and other security who often caused riots by trying to break up the mingling.
That mingling particularly scared Southern segregationist who contributed to the public venom poured on Rock n’ Roll, providing more than the usual incentive for music promoters to put a white face on this popular music.
Yet Domino continued to perform throughout the country, at a time when black musicians often had to sleep in their cars or buses because hotels would not accept them.
When he appeared on television, his band, all African American musicians, were often hidden from sight.
If you’re interested in learning more about Fats Domino during his period, I recommend “Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock n’ Roll” by Rick Coleman. It was Coleman’s book who tipped me off to the Pat Boone shadow. Boone recorded a number of African American rock numbers, illustrating just how easy it is to sap the soul from a number.
You cannot truly understand New Orleans music without having some awareness of the Black Indians of Mardi Gras, or what is more commonly referred to as “Mardi Gras Indians.”
This more than century-old tradition of certain African Americans in New Orleans wearing elaborately designed, handmade suits in honor of Native Americans on Mardi Gras Day belies any easy explanation.
I like the Folklife in Louisiana tribute to Allison “Tootie” Montana as a good starting point on this unique folk tradition. (I also highly recommend again the book “Nine Lives” which features Tootie’s story from the perspective of his wife, Joyce Montana).
Tootie Montana was known as the Chief of Chiefs for his role in elevating the practice of “masking” and “suiting” up to a high art. In an effort to diminish the violent history of Mardi Gras Indian gangs, Montana incorporated sequins, beads and large garish feathers into his suit, using egg cartons for an undercarriage that provided a three-dimensional look. His stunning suit changed the game by swapping the battlefield weapons of guns and knives with needle and thread.
While you should feel lucky and relatively safe if you ever have a chance to observe a Mardi Gras tribe in full display, the violent tradition still colors their music and rituals. Make no mistake about it, there is still rivalry. But instead of who is the toughest, the goal is who is the prettiest.
A percussion-driven music is an essential part of this tradition with the tambourine being the most common instrument. The songs speak to the traditions and history of the Mardi Gras Indians, using words with origins that reside deep in the linguistic stew of New Orleans and is more simply stated as “creole.”
Author Jay Mazza who was lucky as an outsider to observe a Mardi Gras Indian practice, describes the music this way in his book Up Front and Center:
“The lyrics of Mardi Gras Indian music are based on boasting and improvised vocal rhymes. Each Indian took a turn until he ran out of words, began repeating himself or was pushed out of the spotlight by another Indian.”
Not surprisingly, the words, rhythms and vibe of the Mardi Gras Indian have worked into New Orleans music in countless ways.
Songs like Jock-O-Mo by Sugar Boy Crawford and Iko Iko by The Dixie Cups draw their origins from Mardi Gras Indian chants. Earl King’s historic “Big Chief” which was recorded with Professor Longhair has references to the Chief’s “Spy Boy and Flag Boy” both important roles in the tribe. These were musicians who borrowed from the tradition.
It wasn’t until the early 70s, that the world heard the real thing outside of New Orleans. Bo Dollis, Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, and Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles collaborated on recordings, starting with the single Handa Wanda and later two albums in 1974 and 1975 respectively. Both continued to record and perform with their own gang and other musicians over the years. Last Tuesday, January 20, Bo Dollis died and the city is mourning. Monk continues to perform and will be at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
The Wild Magnolias recordings were followed closely by an album release of Wild Tchoupitoulas. George Landry, otherwise known as Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, fronted a powerful group of musicians, including his nephews Cyril, Art, Charles and Aaron Neville, in a seminal album of Mardi Gras Indian songs. On the back and inside cover of the Neville Brothers’ release Fiyo on the Bayou where they reprise some of the songs, you’ll find a tribute to Chief Jolly.
If you are a Treme fan, then you’ve witnessed the fictional story of Albert Lambreaux, the Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame. The model for this character is the real chief of the Guardians of the Flame, Donald Harrison Sr. whose son, Donald Harrison Jr. has applied his highly regarded jazz musicianship to fusing jazz and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms in some of his recordings, including Spirits of Congo Square.
To get more detail on the music of Mardi Gras Indians, I recommend this article by former WWOZ Show Host Thomas Morgan. To hear more of this music as well as other great New Orleans music, be sure to tune in on Monday for Sweeney’s Gumbo Ya Ya.