Monday, December 19, 2011

Track 10: Minor Drag

Posted by Benson

Minor Drag is an instrumental piece originally performed by Thomas “Fats” Waller.  Although Waller’s family was originally from Virginia, they moved to New York before Fats was born.  Fats grew up in Harlem, and later launched his career there under the tutelage of renowned Harlem pianist James P Johnson.

James P Johnson
Like Rosetta Howard, Fats grew up in a stridently evangelical household.  His early musical experience came from playing harmonium at his father’s church when he was ten years old.  Fats’s serious introduction to what his father called “music from the Devil’s workshop” was when he started practicing with Johnson.  In 1922, Johnson was asked to take over piano at a club on Fifth Avenue and 135th street called Leroy's.  Johnson couldn't do it on account of having to do a show, so he recommended Fats, which launched his career.  

Like Johnson, Fats was a pioneer of the "stride" style of jazz piano, a unique musical style that helped to transform then-popular ragtime piano into Jazz.  Stride is also significant in that it was a departure from New Orleans jazz that began to shift the staccato of New Orleans-style jazz into a more "swinging" style that grew in popularity throughout the late 1930s and 40s.

Stride piano, or Harlem Stride as it is sometimes called, is an improvisational style with a more swinging, steadier beat than ragtime.  The player’s left hand tends to move or “stride” up and down the keyboard, which is how the style got its name.  Stride itself is somewhat distinct from the Jazz piano style popularized in New Orleans at the same time by folks like Professor Long Hair and Jelly Roll Morton.  The New Orleans pianists tended to have a more rustic or “out of tune” style with a harmony layered above the melody.  Jelly Roll also preferred walking bass lines in sixth as opposed to the stride style in which the left hand bass was more often walked at an octave or tenth.

Minor Drag therefore comes out of a more East Coast than New Orleans sound.  Even so, songs like Minor Drag had a significant impact on the development of Jazz around the country.  Minor Drag first appeared with Ain’t Misbehavin, which Fats recorded for Victor Records in 1929.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Track 5: Delta Bound

Posted by Benson

Delta Bound is easily Doug's favorite track on the CD.  I absolutely love it as well.  I think the song resonates with any Louisianian, but it has a particular resonance for me because I spent all of my college years in the Midwest.

I got my undergrad at The Ohio State University, which is a capital school by the way.  The great thing about OSU is that it's in Columbus, Ohio.  The unfortunate thing about OSU is that it's in Columbus, Ohio.  Ohio is certainly an interesting state, but for a Neworleanian it is a bit cold, and bleak, and grey, and bland.  But if you have to be in Ohio, Columbus is the best place to be.  It's a big city with lots of things going on, plenty of great restaurants, and a vibrant night life.  It isn't New Orleans by any stretch of the imagination, but the transition from New Orleans to Columbus was not as jarring as I had imagined.

After I graduated from OSU, however, I went to grad school at Ball State University in the...lovely...Muncie, Indiana.  Yea, that's the city that was the test case for the Middletown Studies, "middletown" being the "classic," "average," or "typical" American city.  In other words, Muncie was small and bland enough to be the poster child for late 1920s Middle-American identity anxieties.  This is ironic because Delta Bound was being recorded by Rosetta Howard around the struggling New York Blues scene in 1937, the same year Middletown in Transition: A study in Cultural Conflicts was published.  

Delta Bound resonates with me because it reminds me of the feeling of driving home to Louisiana for the holidays.  I used to do the whole 14 hour drive in one day, leaving around 4 or 5 a.m. and getting in after dark.  Every time I'd hit the Louisiana border I'd pull over at the rest stop and bask in the sensations of being home.  I'd feel the weight of the air, run my hands through the grass, and take in the sounds of south Louisiana.  Even though I was just across the border from Mississippi, I always imagined that I could detect a difference as soon as I crossed the state line.  It was a visceral experience that had as much to do with the physical environment as it did with the culture or even with my family.  Simply being in the environment was a deeply fulfilling experience.  When my wife started making the yearly trip with me, I even used to tell her that the clouds in Louisiana were different from clouds anywhere else. 

But as fulfilling as those experiences were, they were rare and special.  Now that I'm back in Louisiana for good, I always feel a contentment with my environment.  But that feeling has become part of everyday life, and so it's hardly remarked until it's missed.  I love Delta Bound because it reminds me what it is like to be away from Louisiana.  It reminds me of the yearning that grows the longer you're away from home.  Hearing it allows me to recapture, if only for an instant, the fulfillment of running my fingers through the grass off I-59.  Although the moment is fleeting, the best part about hearing Delta Bound is that it reminds me I am already home.  

Delta Bound was recorded by Rosetta Howard in 1937-38 while she was playing with the Harlem Hamfats.  Rosetta is a bit of an enigmatic figure, because unlike many of the previous artists we've discussed, Rosetta did not enjoy wide-ranging popularity in her time.  Nevertheless, she has left her mark on the Jazz and Blues tradition, and her music has touched many souls.  

Down on the delta,
Where there is shelter
No helter skelter,
No blues around.

I’m on my way now,
Most any day now,
I’m delta bound.

When night is falling,
My heart is calling

It keeps on calling,
I’m going down.

I’m on my way now,
Most any day now,
I’m delta bound.

Every time I close my eyes,
I seem to see Louisiana.
All the folks there are singing,
In their free and easy manner.

I been a rover,
But, now that over,
Knee deep in clover,
I’ll soon be found.

I’m on my way now ,
Most any day now,
I’m delta bound.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Track 4: Rock Me

Posted by Benson

This week we're taking a look at track 4 on the CD: Rock Me by Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Erica introduces this song by explaining that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is one of her favorites, and it is easy to see why.  Rock Me is a spiritual song about beseeching and thanking the Lord for guiding and protecting you throughout your life.  In typical gospel fashion, it is an evangelical song expressing joy in one's faith and jovial submission to the will of God.  But what is truly interesting about Rock Me is something that may not be readily apparent to modern audiences.

Today, I think we've become well accustomed to the merging of musical traditions, and it doesn't seem strange, new, or unique to hear a devotional song accompanied by music that draws a heavy influence from Jazz and Rock traditions, as Rock Me does so well.  But back in the 1930s when Sister Rosetta Tharpe was recording Rock Me, she was a musical pioneer.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, and grew up playing then traditional Gospel music.  A wunderkind by any standards, Rosetta began performing at the age of four, traveling to tent revivals around the South where she accompanied her mother, who both played and preached, on stage.  But in addition to being exposed to Gospel music at such a young age, Rosetta discovered Blues and Jazz, first in the South and later after her family moved to Chicago in the 1920s.  As you know, the Blues traveled up the Mississippi from New Orleans and gained a second wind (pun intended) in Chicago in the 20s.

Rosetta played Gospel in public, but in private she was enamored with Jazz, and she began experimenting with incorporating Blues and Jazz rhythms into her Gospel music.  Although Rosetta's mixture of Gospel music with more secular styles tended to shock churchgoers, it enjoyed an explosion of popularity among secular audiences.  Accordingly, Sister Rosetta Tharpe became the first great recording star of Gospel music, and was even known at the time as the "original soul sister."

She broke new ground with her music, and brought the light of the Gospel even in the "darkest" nightclubs and concert halls, delighting her fans and having a lasting influence on the Gospel musical style.

Rock Me

Won't you hear me singing
Hear the words that I'm saying
Wash my soul with water from on high
While the world of love is around me
Evil thoughts do bind me
But Lord, if you leave me,
I will die

You hold me in thou bosom
Till the storms of life is over
Rock me in the cradle of thou love
Only feed me till I want no more
Then you take me to your blessed home above

Make my journey brighter
You make my burden lighter
Help me to do good wherever I can
Oh, let thou presence thrill me
Your love is kindness to me
Then you hold me
Hold me in the hollow of thou hand

You hold me in thou bosom
Till storms of life is over
Rock me in the cradle of thou love
Only feed me till I want no more
Then you take me to your blessed home above

Friday, November 18, 2011

SAVE THE DATE! 5th Annual DGA Crawfish Boil, March 10, 2012

We now have an official date for the 5th Annual DGA Family and Friends Crawfish Boil!

Friends Coastal Restaurant has been reserved, Tuba Skinny has been booked, and final preparations are underway!

The 5th Annual DGA Family and Friends Crawfish boil will be on March 10th, 2012.  We're looking forward to seeing all of you there, so make sure to mark your calendars.  March is absolutely the most beautiful time to visit New Orleans.  The weather is gorgeous and all of the best seafood is in season.

We'll be sending out save the date cards soon, so keep any eye on the mail.  Later, we'll follow those up with official invitations and this years' wrist bands.

We will post more details about the event as we get them, so keep an eye on the blog.  This year we're planning to have two live bands.  We haven't settle on who will be opening for Tuba Skinny, but we'll let ya'll know as soon as we have the band booked.

Track 7: He Likes it Slow

Posted by Benson

I realize that I have been skipping around the CD with little in the way of a clear organizational scheme, but this week we're going to take a look at track 7: He Likes it Slow.  Rest assured that eventually we'll cover every song on the CD, but today I really wanted to introduce ya'll to a very interesting song originally written by some colorful vaudeville characters: Butterbeans and Susie.

Butterbeans and Susie were a mid-century African-American comedy duo whose stage performances featured comedic sketches, banter, dance numbers, and blues numbers.  Butterbeans and Susie were played by Josie Edwards and Susie Edwards (Susie Hawthorne).  The two met in 1916 and married on stage shortly thereafter, but they did not perform as a comedy team until the 1920s.  

They had been touring with a black husband and wife comedy team known as Stringbeans and Sweetie May, and on the death of Stringbeans (Butler May), Josie and Susie agreed to take over the act as Butterbeans and Susie.

The act consisted chiefly of marital quarrels with a dynamic not unlike the Odd Couple.  Susie was elegant and presented an air of composure and sexiness while Butterbeans acted the fool in his characteristic too-small pants, tiny bowler hat, and floppy shoes.  His loud and belligerent affectation belied a naturally care-free disposition and sweet affection for Susie.  Butterbeans' foibles were often the cause of friction between him and his wife, but by the end of every show, Butterbeans and Susie would be getting along happily.  Their comedy often focused on married life, but they also dealt with issues related to black life in general.  

On stage, the duo could be rather racy or salacious at times.  They sang provocative songs full of double entendre and Susie would sometimes perform risque dances.  They published several blues records and even appeared in a feature film.  In 1926 the duo recorded He Likes it Slow with the famous Louis Armstrong's Hot Five.

He Likes is Slow is an amusing and suggestive song.  Butterbeans and Susie's stage act could stray into realms that weren't fit for recording in the mid-1900s, but He Likes it Slow only turns suggestive towards the end.  As was typical of the Butterbeans and Susie comedic styling, the song is sung from the perspective of a wife who is complaining about her husband.  She complains that in many things, "he likes it slow," suggesting that his plodding outlook on life leaves little room for excitement or romance.  However, being slow isn't all bad, she says, because he also takes his time "when he starts making love."

I got the sweetest man you know
I’m crazy about him but he’s so slow
And when he takes me out to have a talk
He never has a taxi he makes me walk

What I’m telling you is true
Everything he goes to do
He likes it slow when he calls to play
He likes it slow when he goes to pray

Just like a snail that man of mine
But I never have to hurry, I just take my time
When he calls he never brings no news
Always got them low down blues.

But when he starts to making love on me
And starts to huggin me so tenderly
The reason papa makes me feel so sweet
Because he likes it slow, honey, in the morning,
Because he likes it slow.

DGA Dining: Market, Boston MA

Posted by Benson

The DGA team is in Boston at least several times a year.  Not only is Boston a great city to visit, but it also has a wide range of excellent restaurants.  Although I’ve been to Boston many times over the years, I’d never eaten at Market, a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant in the W hotel.  This was actually a little odd because both Matt and Doug rave about Market, and they usually make an effort to go when they’re in town for any appreciable length of time.  Well, Doug and were just up in Boston and he insisted that I get the full Market experience.

Market is a chic little restaurant in the W Boston hotel on Stuart Street.  It is located in what I understand is Boston’s up and coming theatre district.  Jean-Georges apparently says, commensurate with his idea of the hotel as a home, that Market is like a casual family kitchen.  The website also indicates that the food is “Inspired by the casual, simple elegance of the setting.”  Personally, I think the restaurant came off as pretty chic, with more than a twist of hip.  Of course, I might have gotten that impression because of the fashion show going on. 

Apparently, W Hotels is pretty big into fashion.  Little did we know, but the same night Doug and I reserved a table at Market, Fashion Next was featuring Bibhu Mohapatra.  I had no idea that we’d be getting a sneak peek at the 2012 collection.  Not to split hairs, but fashion models usually don’t prance around in my kitchen.

Even forgetting the fashion show, Market really doesn’t come off as a cozy family kitchen.  It is a small restaurant with a modern, classy décor full of clean lines and geometric shapes.  The service is brisk, professional, and excellent.  The food is both nuanced and imaginative, but its delicate portioning and sophisticated flavors just don’t scream casual.  As an aside, I’ve noticed that service in many Boston restaurants has a pretty brisk pace, but it may just seem that way to me because I’m from New Orleans. 

Dining in New Orleans tends to be rather leisurely, with an often relaxed almost languid pace.  Doug and I both got the Market Menu, Market’s daily chef’s tasting menu with wine pairings.  We were in and out if the restaurant in less than two hours.  A similar meal at Restaurant August in New Orleans, for example, would easily have taken three.

In terms of the meal, Market is pretty special.  As I mentioned, Doug wanted me to have the full Market experience, so we ordered the Market Menu with wine pairings.  This was a five course menu with an appetizer, soup, two entrees, and desert.  The portions were small, but this not only facilitated the pace of the meal, it also allowed us to enjoy each course without feeling overstuffed by the end of the meal.  We started with an appetizer of Maine Diver scallop sashimi over a square of warm crunchy rice with a chipotle emulsion and scallion. 

Sadly, the appetizer was the only dish that was not excellent.  The essential problem was that the incredibly delicate flavor and texture of the raw scallop was overwhelmed by a disproportionately large block of what was essentially a fried rice cake.  The rice cake filled the mouth, requiring an undue amount of mastication while the thinly sliced scallop all but evaporated.  Compounding the problem was the rich chipotle emulsion.  The smoky flavor of the chipotle, combined with the fried flavor of the rice, simply overwhelmed the scallop.

Although it embarrassed Doug, I informed the waiter that the appetizer had much more in common with a tater tot than scallop sashimi (he asked how I enjoyed it).  Although the comparison was rather unkind, the dish had, in fact, summoned up clear memories of elementary school lunches.  This eventually precipitated a visit from the maître d’, who was apparently surprised that we both thought the “warm crunchy rice” was too much for the delicate scallop.

The rest of the meal was fantastic.  The soup was a butternut squash soup with ginger and pumpkin seeds.  I’ve just now read that off of the menu (yes, I took one home).  I don’t think that’s accurate.  I believe the dish was butternut squash soup with tofu cream, fresh basil, and toasted pine nuts.  Whichever is accurate, the soup was delicious.  The flavors were distinct and very complimentary.  The wine pairing was a bit overwhelming, but it complimented the pine nuts very well and served to cleanse the palette, allowing you to once again fully appreciate the flavor of the fresh herbs.

This was followed by slowly cooked Atlantic salmon with homemade black olive oil and a vibrant passion fruit sauce.  Doug absolutely loved it.  He’s often tried to slow cook salmon, but it is a very tricky task.  This dish was cooked perfectly.  The salmon was beautifully moist and fell apart easily while still remaining sufficiently firm.  The intense sweet citrus flavor of the passion fruit was a really exciting, and it followed the soup very nicely.

In my opinion, the crowning achievement was the soy glazed short ribs with an apple-jalapeno puree and rosemary crumbs.  This was a wonderfully rich dish, but the richness of the meat was tempered by the tart flavor of the apples.  The short rib was topped by thinly shredded fresh apple, which offered up a sweet flavor and slight crunch.

Finally, the desert was a salted caramel ice cream sundae with caramel popcorn and chocolate sauce.  By this point in the meal I was a bit tipsy, but it was one of the better deserts I’ve had in a while.  Of all the courses, the sundae was the closest to what I would consider casual and comforting.  The addition of the caramel popcorn was a uniquely perfect compliment.  It was plated in such a way to keep the kernels from soaking in the ice cream and yet there was enough to enliven almost every bite.  The chocolate sauce was a dark semi-sweet drizzle that went well with the salty undertones of the sundae.

All in all, I’d say that Market is a fantastic restaurant to visit when you’re in Boston.  Don’t go expecting a cozy, casual atmosphere though.  What you’ll find is a classy restaurant with an understated chic.  The food is delicate, creative, and experimental; and it is prepared with fresh, local ingredients.  You will find good service from a responsive wait staff; just-right portion sizes for a modest, satisfying meal; and dishes based on simple concepts that often surprise you.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Track 8: Six Feet Down

Posted by Benson

Today were going to take a closer look at Track 8 on the Tuba Skinny CD: Six Feet Down.

Thus far we've examined the history of of some of the classic Jazz and Blues songs that Tuba Skinny performs, and take a look into the lives of the legendary artists who performed and recorded them almost a century ago.  There are plenty more fantastic classic New Orleans Jazz and Blues songs on the CD to talk about, but Six Feet Down is unique among them.

As you may have already gleaned from the back of the CD sleeve, Six Feet Down is an original song by Erica Lewis, lead vocalist for Tuba Skinny.  It is Erica's amazing voice that helps to keep the wonderful sounds of traditional New Orleans music pulsing with vitality.  When she sings, she seems to channel the spirit of the great blues singers like Billie Holiday, Sister Rosetta Tharp, and Rosetta Howard.  At the same time her performances are captivating because of her astounding presence, the passion that courses through her voice, and the unique personality that enlivens songs we've loved for years.

It is interesting to see Erica perform, because she always seems to be surprised by the reaction she gets from appreciative fans.  We are addicted to the power and passion of her voice and intrigued by the discontinuity between the way she pours her soul into her music and her modesty about her role in reinvigorating century old music for a new generation of captivated listeners.  And yet Erica contributes far more than her voice to this unique musical tradition.  In Six Feet Down Erica does not merely reinterpret and reinvigorate classic songs from a bygone era of American musical history, although this is itself no mean feat.  With her own music, Erica carries this tradition forward, encouraging it to flourish by recreating it.

Six Feet Down is a plucky song.  It strikes me as a song about how one should strive to enjoy life for its own sake rather than dwell in the inevitable troubles that abound in our day to day lives.  "We ain't got time for sitting around," Erica says, because one day soon you will be sittin' six feet down.  And no matter what is happening in your life, that the world will keep going, that the "sun still shines as we pass by," is as inexorable as your own mortality.  You can spend that time regretting your troubles or worrying about the world falling down, but what a waste that would be.  Leave your troubles behind you, she reminds us, and remember that the world will keep on spinning no matter what you do, and laugh until you're six feet down. 

Six Feet Down

If you ask me one thing I’ll tell you darlin’
We ain’t got time for sitting around
You be waiting on your lover ,
but he’s gone and found another
and it’s time to get on up and leave this town

You ask me how can I be laughing
When this world is falling down
I’ll be laughing till I’m dead my little darlin’
I’ll be laughing till I’m six feet down

When the sun still shines as we pass by
I’ll be laughing till I’m dead my little darlin’
I’ll be laughing till I’m six feet down

Friday, November 4, 2011

Track 9: Yellow Dog Blues

Posted by Benson

Railroads have always been an integral part of the blues; not only in inspiring the boogie rhythms of countless rural guitarists, barrelhouse pianists and horn blowers, but also the lyric content of the blues singer.  On track 9, Tuba Skinny performs a song that features one of the most famous southern railroads: Mississippi’s so-called “Yellow Dog”.  Yellow Dog Blues was written by W. C. Handy, the Father of the Blues, and recorded by Bessie Smith in 1925.

According to Handy, in 1903 he heard a lean, raggedy, black guitarist playing in railroad depot in Tutwiler, Mississippi.  Handy heard the man singing of going to the place where the “Southern cross the Yellow Dog”.  For those of you that don’t know turn of the century railroad slang, the “Southern” was the Southern Railway which began operations in 1894.  The "Dog" was the Yellow Dog, a vernacular name for the Yazoo Delta Railroad.  “Dog” or “short-dog” was railroad slang for a local or branch line.  Handy’s story about how the Yazoo Delta railroad acquired the name “Yellow Dog” goes something like this:

When a black trackside worker was asked what the name of the railroad was, the man looked up at a nearby locomotive and, seeing the initials “Y.D.” on the tender, replied, “Yaller Dawg, I guess.”

Unfortunately, Handy’s anecdote never explained why the worker’s best guess was “Yaller Dawg,” but we can take a guess.  The Yazoo Delta was, in fact, a branch line, or “Dog” in the local slang, and it turns out that the Yazoo Delta locomotive was yellow.  In other words, hanging around a Yazoo Delta rail line in 1903, the initials “Y.D.” could as easily have stood for Yaller Dawg as Yazoo Delta.

It also turns out that the Southern railroad did indeed cross the “Yellow Dog” in the town of Moorhead, Mississippi in the Yazoo River Delta, making Moorhead the place where the “Southern cross the Yellow Dog.”

Written for the vaudeville stage, the song I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone? was first popularized by Sophie Tucker.  The lyrics tell of a woman named Susie Johnson who bets on a horse race using a tip from a swindler named Jockey Lee, who subsequently runs off with her money.  It is most noted for its performance in a 1933 movie, She Done Him Wrong, in which it was sung, quite suggestively, by Mae West.

Miss Susie Johnson is a crazy as can be
About that easy riding kid they call Jockey Lee
Now, don't you think it's funny, only bets her money
In the race friend Jockey's goin' to be

There was a race down at the track the other day
And Susie got an inside tip right away
She bet a hundred to one that her little Hon
Would bring home all the mon

When she found out Jockey was not there
Miss Susie cried out in despair....

I wonder where my easy rider's gone today
He never told me he was goin' away
If he was here he'd win the race
If not first, he'd get a place
I never saw that Jockey trailing anyone before

I'm losing my money, that's why I am blue
To win a race, Lee knows just what to do
I'd put all my junk in pawn
To bet on any horse that Jockey's on
Oh! I wonder where my easy rider's gone

Oh! I wonder where my easy rider's gone
He went to put my brand new watch in pawn
I see him comin' round that turn
What a trail that man can burn
He's gonna win because my dough is on the nose

Just watch my Jockey's easy rider stance
He'll hit that home stretch, win it by a mile
I want him to win this spree
And keep a-goin' till he comes to me
Oh! I wonder where my easy rider's gone

Oh! I wonder where my easy rider's gone

In 1915, W.C. Handy wrote an answer song to I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone? which he called Yellow Dog Rag.  Unfortunately for Handy, Yellow Dog Rag sold poorly, so in 1919, he retiled it Yellow Dog Blues to take advantage of the explosion blues popularity.  After the song was renamed, it started selling rather well, and became a classic of the genre.

As an answer song, Yellow Dog Blues explains what became of Jockey Lee.  Bessie Smith recorded Yellow Dog Blues in 1925, and Erica sang a wonderful version of it at the crawfish boil.

Ever since Miss Susan Johnson lost her Jockey, Lee,
There has been much excitement, more to be;
You can hear her moaning night and morn.
She wondering where her Easy Rider's gone?

Cablegrams go of inquiry,
Telegrams go off in sympathy
Letters come from down in "Bam"
And everywhere that Uncle Sam
Has a rural delivery.

All day the phone rings, it's not for me,
At last good tidings fill my hearts with glee,
This message came from Tennessee.
Dear Sue your Easy Rider struck this burg today,
On a south-bound rattler beside the Pullman car.
I Seen him here an' he was on the hog

Easy Rider's gotta stay away,
He had to vamp it, but the hike ain't far.
He's gone where the Southern cross' the Yellow Dog.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Track 3: You've Got To Give Me Some

Posted by Benson

Track 3 on Tuba Skinny: Live at Friends is a wonderfully sultry song called You've Got To Give Me Some originally recorded by Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues.

Bessie Smith is an interesting character.  She was far and away one of the most popular blues artists of the 1920s and 30s, drawing huge crowds with her rich, powerful, and clear voice.  She is perhaps best remembered for her song, Downhearted Blues, which kicked off her career with Columbia Records in 1923.  

Before signing with Columbia, Bessie primarily performed on the vaudeville circuit.  She was born somewhere between 1894 and 1898 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  She started as a street musician in Chattanooga, but in 1912 she was discovered by the famous Ma Rainey who asked Bessie to join her travelling show as a dancer and a singer.  Bessie stayed with Ma Rainey's travelling show until 1915 when she joined the vaudeville circuit and eventually built up her own following in the south and along the east coast.

Those were the heydays of the classic blues, the times when the stars of the vaudeville began to record - the reportedly first recording of a black American was Crazy Blues by the fabulous Mamie Smith (not related with Bessie Smith) in 1920. Oddly enough, the talent scouts looking for more female singers like Mamie Smith considered the voice of Bessie Smith as 'too rough' to be recorded.

Bessie Smith recorded about 160 songs for Columbia between 1923 and 1931, some of which were her own compositions.  She wrote Back Water Blues after witnessing a flood destroy homes and property; Poor Man's Blues, which lamented the differences between the haves and have-nots in America in the 1920s; and on Mama's Got the Blues she sang about preferring the virility of black men over "brown-skinned" ones.

Toward the end of the 1920s there was a period in which the blues was slipping in popularity and Bessie's career started to lag.  Frank Waller, who recorded and produced all of her recordings with Columbia, thought that singing bawdy material might help to rejuvenate her career.  Thus, in 1929 she recorded You've Got To Give Me Some, a raucously sultry song filled with thinly-veiled sexual references.  In spite of the provocative nature of the You've Got To Give Me Some, as well as another bawdy track called Kitchen Man, Bessie's sales did not immediately improve.  

Nevertheless, in spite of the lagging popularity of the blues, Bessie's powerful voice and electrifying stage presence kept her a star right up until her tragic death in a 1937 automobile accident.  She has remained legendary blues icon ever since.

Although Erica's astounding voice pays apt tribute to the Empress of the Blues, her version of You've Got To Give me Some is much more reserved than the original.  On the CD, Erica sings:

Loving is the thing I crave
For your love I'll be your slave
You gotta give me some, please give me some
Can't you hear me pleading, you gotta give me some

Hear my cryin' on my bended knees
If you wanna put my soul at ease
You gotta give me some, please give me some
You gotta give me some, please give me some
I can’t wait all day you gotta give me some

To the milkman I heard Mary scream
Said she wanted a lots of cream
You gotta give me some, please give me some
I can’t wait all day you gotta give me some

Sweet as candy in a candy shop
Is just your sweet sweet lollypop
You gotta give me some, please give me some
Cant you hear me beggin, you gotta give me some

As provocative as that may be, consider it against Bessie's original lyrics, and keep in mind that the original was recorded 83 years ago:

Loving is the thing I crave
For your love I'll be your slave
You gotta give me some, yes give me some
Can't you hear me pleading, you gotta give me some

Said mister Jones to old butcher Pete,
I want a piece of your good old meat
You gotta give me some, oh give me some
I crave your round steak, you gotta give me some

Sweet as candy in a candy shop
Is just your sweet sweet lollipop
You gotta give me some, please give me some
I love all day suckers, you gotta give me some

To the milkman I heard Mary scream
Said she wanted a lots of cream
You gotta give me some, oh give me some
Catch it when you come sir, you gotta give me some

Hear my cryin' on my bended knees
If you wanna put my soul at ease
You gotta give me some, please give me some
Can't stand it any longer, you gotta give me some

Seeper called to Pele-Mele, sugar lump
Said I'm going crazy about your hump
You've got to give me some, please give me some
I can't wait eight days, you gotta give me some

Jay bird said to the peckerwood,
I like to peck like a pecker should
But give me some, yes give me some
I'm crazy about them worms, you've gotta give me some

Next week we'll defy convention and skip down to Track 9 on the CD, Yellow Dog Blues, another Bessie Smith classic.  It seems fitting to take Erica's tack and remember the Empress of the Blues for her less exploitative work.   

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What's a Jockamo Anyway?

Posted by Doug

I'm a fan of Abita Jockamo IPA.  While it isn't my all time favorite beer, it is an excellent and characterful IPA with a spicy aroma, rich hops, and pleasantly sweet malts.  I've recommended this beer several times to folks who aren't native New Orleanians, and it invariably provokes the following question: "What's a Jockamo anyway?"

It's a natural question, especially since the label seems to be decorated with a man in some sort of garish chicken costume.  As the label indicates, Jockamo refers to the so-called 'Mardi Gras Indians' that have been a staple of New Orleans culture for more than 250 years.  To those who don't live in New Orleans, the Mardi Gras is an indelible marker of the city; wildly unique, bizarrely inscrutable, and possessed of a taboo-fueled chic.  For many, this pall of mysterious otherworldliness is a big part of what gives Mardi Gras its charm.  But as you dig deeper into the history of the Mardi Gras, and New Orleans culture, I think you'll find that, far from shattering an illusion, knowing the story behind such befuddling traditions like the Mardi Gras Indians will make them all the more alluring.

With that in mind, I'll do my best to answer that pressing question: "What's a Jockamo anyway?"

Jockamo is a word that is hard to trace linguistically.  In New Orleans culture, it is associated with the Mardi Gras Indians.  The Indians are African-American social groups that parade at Mardi Gras and other times, especially St. Joseph’s Day.  Mardi Gras Indians have been parading in New Orleans at least since the mid-19th century. The tradition was said to have originated from an affinity between Africans and Indians as minorities within the dominant culture, and blacks' circumventing some of the worst racial segregation laws by representing themselves as Indians.  There is also the story that the tradition began as an African American tribute to American Indians who helped runaway slaves. These slaves married into the tribes on occasion.  An appearance in town of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in the 1880s was said to have drawn considerable attention and increased the interest in masking as Indians for Mardi Gras.  When Caribbean communities started to spring up in New Orleans, their culture was incorporated into the suits, dances and music made by the "Indians".

In the late 19th century and early years of the 20th century, the tribes had a reputation for brawling with one another.  This part of Mardi Gras Indian history is immortalized in James Sugar Boy Crawford's song, "Jock O Mo" (better known and often covered as "Iko Iko"), based on their taunting chants.  The story tells of a "spy boy" or "spy dog" (i.e. a lookout for one band of Indians) encountering the "flag boy" or guidon carrier for another band.  He threatens to set the flag on fire.  The song has been covered by dozens of musicians, but the most popular versions around New Orleans is by Dr. John.  The line in the song is “Iko! Iko! Jockamo fe na ne.”  In the Dr. John version, this call is followed by the line, “My spy boy told your spy boy, Gonna set your flag on fire.”

As the 20th century progressed, physical confrontation gave way to assertions of status by having better suits, songs, and dances.  Generations ago when Mardi Gras Indians came through neighborhoods, people used to run away; now people run toward them for the colorful spectacle.  If you have spent any time watching the HBO series, Treme’, you have probably noted that there is still some tension between the Indians and the NOPD – presumably because of the history of altercation and likely also the history of race relations in the City.  The Indians work all year on their suits, painstakingly hand piecing and beading the entire outfit.  The suits are usually worn only once and a particularly well made and attractive suit is called “pretty.” 

Louisiana Creole lingua specialists believe now that the words originated as: Ena! Ena! Akout, Akout an deye Chaque amoor fi nou wa na né Chaque amoor fi na né.  In English, this equates to: Hey now!  Hey now! Listen, listen at the back.  All the love made our king be born.  All the love made it happen.  The “back” would be a reference to the second line. 

In a 2009 Offbeat Magazine article, however, the Ghanaian social linguist Dr. Evershed Amuzu said the chorus was "definitely West African," reflecting West African tonal patterns. The article also notes that the phrase ayeko—often doubled as ayeko, ayeko—is a popular chant meaning 'well done, or congratulations' among the Akan and Ewe people in modern-day Togo, Ghana, and Benin.  Both groups were heavily traded during the slave trade, often to Haiti, which served as a way station for Louisiana. 

At the end of the day, the precise history of New Orleans traditions can often be as elusive to New Orleanians as to those visiting the city.  Even so, what is certain is that traditions such as the Mardi Gras Indians have grown out of a rich tapestry of cross-cultural interaction and exchange.  They owe their origins to the natural cultural diversity of this bustling port city, and they are weighted with the evolution of our common experience; not as New Orleanians, but as Americans.  The location and relative antiquity of New Orleans can often make the city seem strange and unique, even foreign, but New Orleans is a microcosm of the cross-cultural contact and shared experiences upon which we have built, and are continuing to build, our society.  Many of the City's conspicuous events or traditions, then, can serve as entry points into understanding the ways in which we have constructed our lives, and what that means for our future.

That summation is a little on the heavy side, but I think it is a provocative idea and one that we've been thinking about in terms of the upcoming ASTC conference in New Orleans.  Keep an eye on the blog for further and more developed ruminations on this concept.  And don't forget, Chaque amoor fi na né!