“Good blog today, Paul. I got the 1st book (How Blues Evolved Ebook Volume 1) this morning. Thanks for all the good info!”
nora j mckiddie (@mckiddie_j) Michigan, USA, October 29, 2013.
Like many people, you probably thought mentioning drugs in songs started in the sixties, but – no, no, no – drug references in songs started way earlier.
One old number you’re probably familiar with would be the Cole Porter classic, ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You, written around 1932 and included in the Broadway show ‘Anything Goes’. Porter’s second verse, as many of you will know, was originally:
|The lyricist’s lyricist, Cole Porter.
Some get a kick from cocaine,
I’m sure that if
I took even one sniff,
That would bore me terrifically, too,
Yet, I get a kick out of you.
This had to be changed in 1936 when the ‘Anything Goes’ stage show became a movie and Hollywood’s 1934 Production Code banned all drug references in films. Cole Porter effortlessly substituted the offending line with, ‘Some like the perfume in Spain’.
It fitted so perfectly, Porter had no need to rewrite the lines that
followed. Has there ever been a more elegant lyricist?
Long before that dopey phrase Wacky Backy came along, there was ‘Wacky Dust’ in 1938, an ode to cocaine by Ella FitzGerald and the Chick Webb Orchestra. Here’s the link, but you have to wait 72 seconds before Ella kicks in with the lyrics.
|A young Ella FitzGerald.
But talking of so-called ‘Wacky Backy’ – of a more bluesy feel is the magnificent ‘Reefer Head Woman’ also in 1938 by Bill ‘Jazz’ Gillum and his Jazz Boys. And what a line up it is: Jazz Gillum on vocals and blues harmonica, Big Bill Broonzy on rhythm guitar, Washboard Sam on washboard, and the 16-year old white guitar sensation, George Barnes, on electric lead. (See the white kid who wrote the book on electric blues guitar – 12 June archive.)
Recorded in March 1938, these Chicago sessions included the second electric blues guitar recordings ever known and were produced by the legendary Lester Melrose. Young George Barnes even got a writing credit on Reefer Head Woman. Have a listen by clicking the link below.
Aerosmith, as a matter of fact, did a great blues version of Reefer Head Woman back in 1979. If you’re into classic blues rock, American-style, it’s well worth a listen on the next link.
|Boy George. Young George Barnes in Chicago c 1938.
Jazz Gillum, incidentally, was the first to record ‘Key To The Highway’ in its now classic eight bar arrangement, together with Big Bill Broonzy, in 1940. Charles Seeger recorded it first, also in 1940, but in a 12-bar blues progression.
|Bandleader and harp player Jazz Gillum.
But let’s trawl back to earlier days.
Old song lyrics are packed with drug references that we don’t even realise are drug references today.
Cab Calloway’s famous ‘Minnie The Moocher’ started life as an elegy to smoking opium in 1931.
Minnie was “A red-hot Hoochie Coocher” and if you don’t know what that was, why not check my 18 September archive.
In the original song, cocaine-fiend Smokey Joe takes Minnie to a Chinese opium den to “kick the gong around”, as they used to say.
(My mother once told me of seeing Chinese opium dens in Limehouse,
London, in the 1930s, so they weren’t confined to America.)
In one version of the song, Minnie dies in an insane asylum, just like real life blues legend Buddy Bolden died in an insane asylum in 1931, in yet another example of art imitating life.
|Cab Calloway in his zoot suit.
A year earlier, in 1930, the Memphis Jug Band recorded ‘Cocaine Habit Blues’ based on an earlier blues about cocaine called “Take a Whiff On Me”, which I remember being recorded by the raucously brilliant and
much copied English jug band, Mungo Jerry.
Indeed, I saw Mungo Jerry make their debut at England’s Hollywood
Festival the previous year in Staffordshire, where they blew the roof off – or they would have blown the roof off, had the field they played in boasted a roof.
I was covering the festival as a young music journalist and Mungo Jerry stole the show ahead of Black Sabbath (see Brummie Blues – 30 April archive); Traffic; Ginger Baker’s Air Force; Grateful Dead on their UK debut; Jose Feliciano (see the most surprisingly brilliant blues guitarist I ever saw – 24 June archive) and many other big names.
Take a Whiff On Me was also the forerunner to Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Have a Drink On Me’, which is, today, probably the better known song.
|Memphis Jug Band cut Cocaine Habit Blues in 1927.
Incidentally, Mungo Jerry’s massive worldwide hit, ‘In The Summertime’, released during the Hollywood Festival in May 1970,
was the world’s first 33rpm maxi-single.
Number one on the charts in over 20 countries, In The Summertime sold over 30 million copies, making it one of the best selling singles (even though it was a maxi-single) of all time.
But, once again, I digress. Let’s get back to talking about Take a Whiff on Me. Here are some of Lead Belly’s lyrics for the song, recorded in 1934.
Walked up Ellum and I come down Main
Tryin’ to bum a nickel just to buy cocaine
Ho, ho, honey, honey take a whiff on me
|The legendary Lead Belly.
Take a whiff, take a whiff, take a whiff on me
Everybody take a whiff on me
Ho, ho, honey, honey take a whiff on me
Went to Mr. Lehman’s on a lope
Sign in the window said ‘No more coke’
Lead Belly’s penultimate verse is:
Cocaine’s for horses, not for men
Doctors say it’ll kill you, don’t say when.
This ‘horses’ verse above is also included in my favourite version of the song, Luke Jordan’s ‘Cocaine Blues’ recorded in 1927 in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s marketed as a guitar ragtime and is a great example of how Piedmont-style finger picking from the eastern USA also influenced the blues. And what a voice Luke has. Here it is:
Talking of favourites, whenever I get the chance I wax lyrical about the fantastic Lonnie Johnson. To me, Lonnie is the most influential blues guitarist who ever lived (see 17 June archive). Below is a link of Lonnie,
on acoustic guitar, with composer and vocalist, Victoria Spivey, on ‘Dope Head Blues’ also recorded in 1927.
Just give me one more sniffle
Another sniffle of that dope (sung twice)
I’ll catch a cow like a cowboy
And throw a bull without a rope
Doggone, I’ve got more money
Than Henry Ford or John D. ever had (sung twice)
I bit a dog last Monday
And forty doggone dogs went mad
Feel like a fightin’ rooster
Feel better than I ever felt (sung twice)
Got double pneumonia
And still I think I got the best health
Go get my airplane and drive it up to my door
|A younger Victoria Spivey
Oh, Sam, go get my airplane
And drive it to my door
I think I’ll fly to London
These monkey men makes mama sore
The President sent for me
The Prince of Wales is on my trail (sung twice)
They worry me so much
I’ll take another sniff and put them both in jail.
To put the lyrics in a historical context: John D. is, I imagine, the American industrialist and billionaire John D. Rockefella; the President in 1927 was Calvin Coolidge, and the Prince of Wales would later become the English King Edward V111 who abdicated the British crown to marry American divorcee, Mrs Wallace Simpson.
I’ve read that Edward and Mrs Simpson liked a snort or two of the marching powder themselves, as the composer suggests, but who in high society didn’t in those days?
Victoria’s Spivey’s song also contains the earliest reference I’ve come across to Monkey Men/Man, nearly 40 years before either the Rolling Stones and Toots and the Maytals mentioned the mythical half man/half beast in separate songs in 1969.
The BIG 390-page print book America’s Gift is at