Elijah Wald – Jelly Roll Blues

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Jelly Roll Blues: Censored Songs and Hidden Histories, coming in April 2024 from Hachette Books.

A journey through the censored voices of early blues and jazz, and the deep culture of the Black sporting world, guided by the songs and memories of Jelly Roll Morton.

Morton became nationally famous in the 1920s as a composer and bandleader, but got his start as a singer and pianist entertaining customers in the honky-tonks and bordellos of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. He recorded an oral history of that time in 1938, but the most distinctive songs were hidden away for over fifty years, because the language and themes were as wild and raunchy as anything in gangsta rap.

Those songs inspired me to explore how much other history had been locked away and censored in the early years of the twentieth century, and this book is the result. Full of previously unpublished lyrics and stories, it provides an alternate view of the dawn of American popular music, when jazz and blues were still the private, after-hours music of the Black sporting world. It gives new insight into familiar figures like Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong, and introduces forgotten characters like Ready Money, the New Orleans sex worker and pickpocket who ended up owning one of the largest Black hotels on the West Coast. It is a journey to a fascinating period when a new generation of Black musicians, dancers, and listeners were shaping lives their parents could not have imagined and art that transformed popular culture around the world.

Available in April 2024 from all better bookstores, or online from Indiebound.

"Elijah Wald’s latest excavation of American popular culture reminds us that music is meant to reflect life as it is, despite the genteel aspirations of commercial window-dressers who seek to protect the public from itself. Jelly Roll Blues gives by far the most realistic and satisfying account of Morton’s cultural environment to date, while also revealing the importance of cultural networks that operated beneath the commercial mainstream. Highly recommended."
--Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator emeritus, Hogan Archive of New Orleans Music and Jazz, Tulane University  

"I enjoyed Jelly Roll Blues immensely. Whatever one’s estimate of Morton’s importance and credibility, there is no doubt about his ability to be in interesting places at interesting times, doing interesting things. Wald guides the reader round that world with admirable clarity. For blues scholars and enthusiasts, some of his observations about the history and origins of the form will be required reading.”
--Tony Russell, author of The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray and Rural Rhythm.

"We had plenty of fun, the kind of a fun I don't think I've ever seen any other place. Of course, there may be nicer fun, but that particular kind -- there was never that kind of fun anyplace, I think, on the face of the globe but New Orleans."
--Jelly Roll Morton, Library of Congress Recordings

Introduction: Songs and Silences explores what people were singing in saloons, on farms, on ships, and on the Western prairies before the arrival of mass media... and how those songs were censored and rewritten by folklorists, commercial publishers, and record producers. The first surviving 12-bar blues lyric was sung by a woman named Dink in 1908, and transcribed and censored by John Lomax, whose son Alan made the Morton recordings. By looking at what people actually sang, we get a deeper sense of their lives and viewpoints, and find unexpected connections, like a popular sailors' shanty that was considered "unprintable" and has never before been published in uncensored form -- but is first mentioned in Twelve Years a Slave and resurfaced in cowboy songs, fiddle tunes, a vicious satire of Reconstruction, and blues.

headshot of young Jelly Roll MortonChapter 1: Alabama Bound explores the world of traveling musicians, following the young Ferdinand "Winding Ball" Morton from the neighborhoods of New Orleans, along the Gulf Coast, up to Beale Street in Memphis, and west, playing "every pig pen from Orange to El Paso." In the decades after the Civil War, Black Americans were asserting new freedoms by changing their places, their names, and their worlds, and Morton's journey was both unique and typical. He was singing raw blues and sentimental ballads, playing ragtime dance music, and learning from everyone from rough honky tonk players like Brocky Johnny to his early idol, the gay piano master Tony Jackson, whose "range on a blues tune would be just exactly like a blues singer; on an opera tune would be just exactly as an opera singer."

photo of Zora Neale Hurston and unidentified friend Chapter 2: Hesitation Blues takes its title from the most popular blues song of the 1910s, sung in juke joints, colleges, dance halls, bordellos, and the backrooms of every saloon. Morton sang it at the Library of Congress, but hesitated when he came to a favorite stanza, explaining, “This is a dirty little verse -- couldn't say that." Many singers were hesitant about performing their usual verses for outsiders, and widespread favorites like "Uncle Bud" and "Stavin' Chain" were forgotten or buried in archives. Fortunately, some uncensored versions survived, thanks to singers like Mance Lipscomb and Gary Davis, and scholars like Zora Neale Hurston.

Darby Ram picture coverChapter 3: Winding Ball  takes its title from Morton's original nickname, before he graduated from honky-tonks to theaters and became Jelly Roll. It was also the title of his theme song, which he recorded for the first time at the Library and later censored for commercial discs -- and which sparked a bitter dispute with W.C. Handy, whose claim to be "The Father of the Blues" was matched by Morton's claim to be the inventor of jazz. The phrase had a long and convoluted history, reaching back to the Scottish bawdry of Robert Burns, and paralleled the journey of the "Derby Ram," which traveled from Britain, was embraced by George Washington, picked up and ragged by James Weldon Johnson, and became the most popular jazz funeral march. 

photo of Buddy Bolden Chapter 4: Buddy Bolden's Blues touches on another legendary inventor of jazz, the powerhouse trumpeter Buddy Bolden; explores the evolution of brass band blues; and celebrates forgotten figures like George "The Rhymer" Jones, whose lyrical improvisations--a precursor of modern rap freestyling--made him one of the most popular entertainers in the red light district. Old-timers noted his similarity to Morton, who "did rhyming like George, except Jelly put more music to it." Morton was the first person to record Bolden's theme song, "Funky Butt," and we explore that history and the broad range of songs about the funk of heated bodies in an era before most people had bathtubs, with a side trip to Kid Ory's challenge song, which gave new meaning to an old Mardi Gras Indian chant called "Chock-a-Mo," better known today as "Iko Iko."

photo of Lucille Bogan Chapter 5: Mamie's Blues is named for Mamie Desdunes, the pianist whom Morton recalled as singing "the first blues I no doubt heard in my life." It was a song about the hard life of a New Orleans streetwalker, and this chapter explores the lives and culture of the women who worked the "tenderloin" entertainment districts in the decades before the First World War. It celebrates forgotten figures like Miss Ready Money, who went from picking pockets to owning a grand hotel and nightclub, and Eloise Blankenstein, who ran a house for Black middle class customers between the recognized Red Light Districts of New Orleans, and revisits the songs of their world, from straightforward lyrics of the working life to the classic "Shave 'Em Dry." It was a tough world, but all the early jazz artists recalled those women as the core audience for blues, and their tastes and viewpoints were fundamental in shaping a new style.  

Ma Rainey, "Prove It On Me" advertisementChapter 6: Pallet on the Floor starts with Morton's version of a song known throughout the South, which he expanded into a 15-minute, explicit vignette of a sporting man seducing a working man's wife. There is nothing else like it on record, because the combination of pornography laws and early recording technology would have made any recording close to impossible. This chapter explores how much oral culture was lost in that period through prudery and censorship... then comes up with a formidable collection of uncensored, unpublished material collected by a young Black researcher in New Orleans, which gives a sense what was missing from other collections and how intimately it mapped behaviors and lifestyles that were not documented in any other form, including gay and lesbian worlds that were far more public than most histories suggest .     

cartoon of Frankie shooting Johnny (or Albert)Chapter 7: The Murder Ballad brings the story full circle, to the song that inspired this book: Morton's half-hour-long, 59-verse ballad about a sporting woman who kills a romantic rival, goes to jail, forms a lesbian relationship, and eventually dies in prison, warning the other women not to make her mistakes. By far the longest epic in 12-bar blues form, it was buried for more than fifty years because the heroine speaks in the normal language of streets and saloons rather than the bowdlerized language of middle-class media. This chapter goes back to the 1890s, a golden age of Black sporting ballads -- from "The Bully," which started the ragtime song craze and was traced to a Black bordello in St. Louis, to the songs of "Stackolee," "Duncan and Brady," "Frankie and Albert [or Johnny]," and the New Orleans sagas of "Ella Speed" and the "House of the Rising Sun." Those ballads survived and mutated in the early twentieth century, thanks to singers like Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, and forgotten figures like Sullivan Rock, the New Orleans pianist who sang an epic version of Stackolee for Alan Lomax and inspired Professor Longhair--and to folklorists like the Lomaxes, who preserved Black traditions, but also reshaped and redefined them in a process this book explores and questions.