A Black and Tan Ball
1. ‘Do You Call That A Buddy’
Orignal Recording: Louis Jordan
While most murder ballads seem to revolve around sadness and tragedy, this song takes its time savoring the various possibilities of the violent act. While it was originally recorded by Louis Jordan, the extreme color and humor of the song was most memorably captured by the amazing Howard Armstrong with his friends Carl Martin and Ted Bogan.
While we did not have the pleasure of meeting or playing with Armstrong, the stories of his exploits are legion, and have been recounted to us by everyone from Phil Wiggins to Armstrong’s sometime accompaniests Elijah Wald and Andy Cohen. Armstrong often taught fiddle at the Pt. Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival, and is the subject of the movie that bears his nickname, Louie Bluie:
Phil first recorded “Do You Call that a Buddy” on the album “No Fools No Fun” with longtime partner, John Cephus. As Sir Wiggins tells it, when trying to re-write the song, he asked his bandmates to give him 3-syllable words that had to be fatal. Words like difinistrate, decapitate, and exsanguinate, all highlight the creativity that came come when performing murderous acts. Heebie jeebies!
The version by Martin, Bogan & Armstrong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM_0hvntvKM
Masterful musicians including Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, and Dr. John also recorded this song.
2. Shanghai Rooster & the Dominecker Hen
Orignal Recording: Mick Kinney
We learned this tune from our friends Frank Maloy and Mick Kinney. This was an old time tune from the state of Georgia that Frank Maloy learned from his Uncle Joe Bullington. Frank was 88 years old when he taught it to us at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in 2015. We studied the song more closely after absorbing Mick Kinney’s recording of it on his wonderful album of traditional tunes, “In Dear Old Georgia.” Although Mick was raised in Wisconsin, he has lived in Georgia since the 1970s, and according to Frank, “Mick knows more ‘o them backwoods, hairy-legged fiddle tunes than anyone.”
Georgia fiddlin’ has a great tradition, and we find it particularly special with its trademark “greasy” style of playing, and lines that imitate all sorts of sounds. Songs like “Shanghai Rooster,” or “Rabbit Under A Collard Leaf” suggest a deeper understanding, perhaps even a closeness to the country life, and the sounds that make up that environment. Frank Maloy and other all-too-obscure fiddle masters like Fonzie Kennemer are all lucky enough to have healthy chunks of their respective repertoires carried on by Mick Kinney and his sons.
Like so many of the sources for tunes described here, the personality and verve of people like Frank and Mick can only be reflected, never captured. As this excellent profile of Mick puts it, “his quick wit and inner muse both revolve at 78 rpm.”
3. How’m I Doing?
Original Recording: The Mills Brothers
We learned this from the inimitable Mills Brothers. We took their 4-part harmony and distilled it down to 3 parts, highlighted by Phil’s beautifully rich, deep voice. This is a fun piece to sing, because it’s inherently silly: “Twee twee twee, twah twah!” Whispering sweet nothings, and having fun doing it. The Mills Brothers had a long career, and played a huge part in demonstrating the class, dignity and beauty of Black culture.
4. Po’ Howard
Original Recording: Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly
Po’ Howard was a fiddler that went around to all the dances, colloquially called the “Sooky Jumps.” References have taken the song back to Great Britain with the song “Old Ponto is Dead,” which had roots from the children’s tune, “Pompey is Dead.” This confirms a story about a Black fiddler who busked around London around the 1780’s with a verse from his will, “Thus poor Black Billy’s made his Will,/ His Property was small good lack,/ For till the day death did him kill/ His house he carried on his back./ The Adelphi now may say alas!/ And to his memory raise a stone:/ Their gold will be exchanged for brass,/ Since poor Black Billy’s dead and gone.
Leadbelly himself said in an interview, “He was the first fiddler after Negroes got freed in slavery times. Po’ Howard was a Negro, used to play for ’em at the sooky jumps and the number he played it was “Po’ Howard, Po’ Boy.” …Because they dance so fast, the music was so fast and the people had to jump, so they always called them sooky jumps…Sooky, well that’s a cow – sometimes when you tell it “sooky, sooky, sooky”, you know, sookin’ the cow away.”
5. Struttin’ With Some BBQ
Original Recording: Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five
Probably one of the best visuals of self-worth: struttin’ down the street, maybe wearing some dapper clothes, some swagger in your step, all the while chompin’ down on a chicken leg, or a fall-off-the-bone rib.
The story goes that this song was written by Louis Armstrong, but credited to his wife, Lil’ Hardin Armstrong, as part of their divorce settlement. The Hot Fives and Sevens recordings represent some of the finest music ever recorded. “Struttin’” was recorded in 1927 with Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, Lil’ Hardin Armstrong on piano, Kid Ory on trombone, and Johnny Dodds on clarinet, and of course the inimitable Louis Armstrong on trumpet.
These recordings redefined jazz music. With this exquisite collection of musicians (not to mention guitarists Lonnie Johnson & Eddie Lang, pianist Earl Hines, and drummers Zutty Singleton & Baby Dodds), they completely changed the face of jazz music from a previously group dynamic to the featured soloist style.
6. Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me
Original Recording: Duke Ellington Orchestra featuring Cootie Williams
A classic ballad that Duke Ellington originally wrote as a show piece for his trumpet player, Cootie Williams. Bob Russell added lyrics and the song became known after Duke had a number one hit with it in 1944. Dozens of classic versions have followed. Phil likes to observe that, while the melody is undeniably lovely, the lyrics make this a nasty song. Each time we would perform the song with Phil as we toured around Europe together, he made a fervent prayer that his wife wouldn’t see any video or hear any recording of him singing such a cruel ballad.
7. John Henry
Original Recording: Sid Hemphill
John Henry is an old American Hero story. There’s a lot of truth to the story, but it still rings more like fable. He became a hero for Black people in America as a man who was big, strong, and fought the advancement of technology (as a replacement to Black railroad jobs) by challenging and beating a steam-powered steel-driving machine.
This version we got from Sid Hemphill and Lucius Smith, two Black musicians who spent their lives playing dances and picnics in the northern hill country of Mississippi. Sid taught his entire community how to play their instruments, Lucius was one of his many students. They played string-band music, and were stern about the distinction between what they played and the upstart music called blues. They didn’t play that devil’s music. Lucius would tell his grandson, that it wasn’t community music, it was devil’s music. That’s why he didn’t like it.
8. Longin’ For My Sugar
Original Recording: Leroy Carr
Leroy Carr was one of America’s blues piano greats. His playing and singing style were laid back, sophisticated, and helped usher in the urban blues style found in the early days of the Chicago blues scene. Sharing the stage with the beautiful styles of Scrapper Blackwell, the two of them brought an elegance and finesse to urban blues. Playing this song with Phil was a testament to his dexterity, virtuosity, and ability to really absorb the true roots of a song.
9. Guitar Rag
Original Recording: Sylvester Weaver
Sylvester Weaver’s song “Guitar Rag” is considered one of the first blues guitar instrumentals. The song became a classic western swing standard after Bob Wills recorded it as “Steel Guitar Rag.” The version on the album was taught to us by Phil, who played the song for years with the mighty John Cephas.
10. ‘Hard Time Blues’
Original recording: Lane Hardin, 1935
We discovered this song the old-fashioned way, from a 4-disc compilation album of songs entitled “Ain’t Times Hard: Political & Social Comment In The Blues.” After buying this stupendous box set at the Down Home Music store while on tour in the Bay Area, we drove around absorbing a stunning collection of music that seemed to expose every variety of struggle faced in the United States. While most of the songs could technically be classified as “blues,” songs like Lane Hardin’s “Hard Time Blues” demonstrate just how wide and variable this music can be. We were captivated by this recording the first time we heard it, but it took well over a year to work up a version of it that we felt was worthy of recording.
Like so many songs, Hard Time Blues speaks to the wounds of the history of racism and classism. But not in-so-much with the hatred and bigotry, but with the greed and commodification of things that led to the recessions of the 1870’s, the early 1900’s and, of course, the Great Depression after WWI.
11. Bullfrog Blues
Original Recording: William Harris
According to the guitar master John Miller: “William Harris recorded “Bull Frog Blues” on October 10, 1928 in Richmond, Indiana. Harris is one of the early Mississippi-born musicians like Freddie Spruell, who doesn’t seem to fit in with the other music that came out of Mississippi from that period, at least based on the recorded evidence. He backed himself out of D position in standard tuning for “Bull Frog Blues”, and with the exception of John Hurt’s playing, that position was relatively under-utilized by Mississippi musicians.”
12. Bad Man Ballad
In their songbook, “American Ballad & Folk Songs,” John & Alan Lomax printed lyrics collected from an unnamed inmate at Parchman Farm penitentiary in Mississippi. Upon reading them, they clearly appeared to be an adaptation of the classic ballad, “Little Sadie.” This ballad was recorded by everyone from Clarence Ashley to Doc Watson, but the lyrics collected by the Lomaxes are the only documentation we’ve found to indicate that Black Americans included it in their repertoires. To the best of our knowledge, no one else has recorded this version of the song’s lyrics.
13. Stop & Listen Blues
Original Recording: Mississippi Sheiks, 1930
This song was such a big hit for the Mississippi Sheiks that they recorded two follow up songs, “Stop & Listen Blues #2” and “New Stop & Listen Blues.” Sam Chatmon, whose brother Lonnie can be heard playing fiddle on the original recording, was still performing the song when he was filmed singing it in 1966.
Read more about the song by clicking here to see a discussion of it in David Evans’ Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues.
We performed with Phil on Celtic Music Radio during our tour in Glasgow, hear the whole session here:
Advance copies are available to members of the press who contact email@example.com – stay tuned here to read liner notes and the story behind the making of this new album of classic tunes!
- Do You Call that a Buddy
- Shanghai Rooster & the Dominicker Hen
- How’m I Doin’
- Poor Howard
- Struttin’ With Some Barbeque
- Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me
- John Henry
- Longin’ For My Sugar
- Guitar Rag
- Hard Time Blues
- Bullfrog Blues
- Bad Man Ballad
- Stop & Listen Blues