Darktown Strutters Ball . . .where context is important

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

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.

Street music can be magical if you let yourself enjoy it

There is an element of excitement when listening to a street performer–it creates an unplanned moment that forces me to choose between carrying on with whatever I was doing or allow for the aural equivalent of “stop and smell the roses.”

The moment can be magical or quite painful depending on the quality of busker. The beauty of a street performance is you can vote with your feet but if your feet don’t move, you should definitely vote with your wallet.

On Monday’s show, I’ll feature musicians who have played on the streets of New Orleans.

Artesian Rumble Arkestra creates street music magic for Olympia.

But before I go there, let me say that I’ve had many wonderful moments, listening to musicians on sidewalks and parks in Seattle and Olympia. A favorite street event is HonkFest West which has featured one of Olympia’s finest purveyors of street magic, Artesian Rumble Arkestra.

But it’s hard to compete with a 300-year-old city that gave birth to Jazz. New Orleans has a rich tradition of buskers which attracts musicians from all over the world. The city even seems to have its own apprenticeship program.

The wandering Alynda Lee Segarra had not played an instrument until she found a discarded washboard in New Orleans and settled into a routine of playing with street performers. She found her niche, learned banjo and guitar, started singing and wrote her own songs. Now with four major release albums, the singer/songwriter of Hurray for the Riff Raff is playing in venues all over the world.

Alynda Lee Segarra began her music career on the streets of New Orleans. As part of Hurray for the Riff Raff, she now plays larger venues.

Tuba Skinny, a band that plays rag time and traditional jazz, is touring Australia right now but when home, the band often plays on Royal Street.

Meschiya Lake also played with various street bands including Loose Marbles but moved to the night clubs when she formed The Little Big Horns Jazz Band.  You can usually catch her amazing act live at Chickie Wah Wah on Canal Street on Wednesday nights.

The most widely known street performers of New Orleans are the brass bands. With a long tradition of parades, second lines and musical funeral processions, the city has developed a very strong community of brass musicians and bands.  Treme Brass Band and the Rebirth Brass Bands tour the world but can still be found on occasion playing on the streets of New Orleans. The street provides a great place for budding musicians to learn their craft and over time achieve success as evidenced by the Baby Boyz Brass Band and TBC Brass Band.

Grandpa Elliott (Elliott Small) and Stony B (Michael Stone) performing at a corner on Royal Street.
Grandpa Elliott (Elliott Small) and Stony B (Michael Stone) performing at a corner on Royal Street.

One of my favorite street music moments occurred when I was walking along Royal Street in April 2006. The guitarist sounded a little like Robert Cray and the harmonica player had a deep bass voice and looked distinctive in his thick grey beard, farmer overalls, straw hat and sunglasses with one lens punched out.  I listened for several songs and talked with them between songs. I bought their CD and had them sign it—a practice I still do with street performers I enjoy.  Stoney B, the guitarist, has since moved to San Diego where he and his band play regularly at festivals and night clubs. Grandpa Elliott, the harmonica player, became famous as a regular with the Playing For Change band and recordings.

It’s easy to find street musicians while in New Orleans. But you don’t have to visit NOLA, to hear them. I’ll be featuring several sets of music from NOLA street performers, Monday, October 6, starting at 10 a.m. on KAOS, 89.3 FM.  We stream.