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The Earliest Appearances of Archetypal Lyric Phrases

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Rivers:
>> mailed it in the air

...which features later in Garfield Akers / Joe Calicotts' Cottonfield Blues, 1929

Which got me googling "airmail history": http://www.airmailpioneers.org/history/Sagahistory.htm

[edit later: Aha, I knew we'd discussed this phrase, through the miracle of weeniecampbell search technology here we have the definitive discussion: http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?amp;Itemid=128&topic=4865.0 - The late, much lamented Dingwall nails it in post #10. I added the 'formula' tag to it. I will try to figure out which one was the earliest. I think Manuel's Sippie Wallace reference from '24 will likely be the winner]

Actually Shorty George is another archetypal reference we've discussed, I will find it.

dj:
Bunker Hill kindly sent me the article posted below.  It was written by Görgen Antonsson and originally posted to deja.com in 1998.  I thought its tracing of the lyric "fattening frogs for snakes" might be of interest here.

Antonsson starts his lyric trail with a Virginia Liston song from June 3, 1925.  But I recently heard Clara Smith's Don't Advertise Your Man, recorded in New York City on April 23, 1924, which pushes the lyric back by a year.  Smith sings:
   Your head will hang low and your heart will ache,
   You are fattening a frog for a [vampire] snake...

(I think vampire is correct - Smith pronounces it "vamp-air".)  According to Bob MacLeod's composer list, composer credit on Clara Smith's record goes to Jimmy Foster.
Smith's Don't Advertise Your Man is easily found on youtube, and worth a listen not only for Smith's slow, stately, but impassioned singing but also for the accompaniment of Porter Grainger on piano and Clarence Conaway on ukulele.  Having the piano and uke chording away together gives a very interesting sonority to the accompaniment.

 

Fattening Frogs For Snakes – history 25/09/1998

I've just spent two hours listening to and comparing the seven songs predating Sonny Boy Williamson's 1957 "Fattening frogs for snakes" that has the "frogs and snakes" metaphor in its title or lyrics (there might be more of the later ilk that I don't know of, of course).

The oldest I find is Virginia Liston's "I'm sick of fattening frogs for 
snakes" (3 June 1925):
   I dressed him all up, though he was no good, 
   
   he played with all the girl's in the neighborhood. 
   
   So now I'm tired of fattening frogs for snakes.

This is a rather trite performance, not helped by the reed-organ 
accompaniment. (It has one couplet of some merit, though: "The gals around 
here are just like leeches, / they [tarry?] in your orchard and steal your 
peaches.") In spite of the title, she sings "tired of" throughout. 
  Rosetta Crawford's "I'm tired of fattenin' frogs for snakes" (1 Feb 
1939) is another (and better) version of this song.

The song that both Carrie Edwards and Clara Smith recorded in 1932 (CE: 
"Fattening frogs for snakes", 17 Feb, CS: "(I'm tired of) Fattening' frogs 
for snakes", 25 March) is a different song with the refrain:
   I done got tired, I mean real tired, 
   
   of fattening frogs for snakes.
Apart from the title phrase, I can't see this song relating to either the 
earlier or any of the later "Frogs for snakes" songs.

Now we're getting warmer as we come to Bumble Bee Slim's "Fattenin' frogs 
for snakes" (11 July 1935):
   You got your breakfast in the morning, your dinner on time. 
   
   I let you spend my dollar, just like you spend my dime. 
   
   I'm gettin' tired, baby, fattening frogs for snakes. 
   
   All these many years, baby, I'm just now seen my mistake.

The Mobile Strugglers' "Fattenin' frogs" (July 1949) is a take on this; 
less coherent, with fewer verses (three, Bumble Bee's had five) and with a 
lyrical change, "Spent my last dollar like you spent my last dime" that is interesting (see below).

Memphis Slim's "I see my great mistake" (30 Oct 1940) is obviously based on the Bumble Bee Slim song, using a variation of the refrain:
   You know I'm tired of fattening frogs for snakes. 
   
   After all these long many years, baby, I just see my great mistake.
All verses, however, are new.

And so we arrive at Sonny Boy Williamson's "Fattening frogs for snakes" (8 
Feb 1957), which belongs in the same "reworking" category as Memphis Slim's 
song:
   It took me a long time to find out my mistake. (2) 
   
  (Sp.: It sure did, man.) 
   
   But I bet you my bottom dollar, 
   
  I'm not fattening no more frogs for snakes.
   
  I found out my downfall back in 1930. 
   
  (Sp.: I started checkin'!) 
   
  I found out my downfall from 1930. 
   
  I'm tellin' all of my friends, 
   
  I'm not etc.
 
  Here it is 1957, I've got to correct all of my mistakes. 
 
  Oh man, 1957, I've got etc. 
 
  I'm tellin' my friends, including my wife, and everybody else, not 
fattening etc.

The refrain as well as "mistake" is found in both Bumble Bee Slim's, the 
Mobile Strugglers', and Memphis Slim's recordings. As the "dollar" 
reference is wanting from Memphis Slim's song, it, IMO, is less likely to 
be Sonny Boy's source of inspiration. 
   Now then, which of the others was his source? Hard to say really; Bumble 
Bee Slim was an immensely popular singer during the 1930s, whose records 
were targeted at an African-American audience, whereas Mobile Strugglers 
was recorded by American Music, a label for New Orleans jazz fans targeting 
at their likes. That would make Bumble Bee Slim the most likely candidate. 
But then there's the tempting correspondence between "last dollar" 
(Mobile Strugglers) and "bottom dollar" (Sonny Boy Williamson) ... 
   I'll doubt that we'll ever know.  (Neither of the two European recordings issued has anything to add 
except that Sonny Boy apparently continued "checking", settling on his 
downfall starting in 1938.)

Görgen Antonsson
 
[Thanks to Alan Balfour and Richard Spottswood who made some useful 
suggestions in private correspondence]

uncle bud:
Thanks for that dj (and BH). I can push it back by a couple more years at least, as I recently noticed this while browsing through African American folklorist and Fisk University professor Thomas W. Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise and Otherwise. Talley's work was published in 1922 and he started work on it sometime around the end of WWI, though obviously much of the material he collected would be much older. Here's the entry for Fattening Frogs for Snakes:


FATTENING FROGS FOR SNAKES

    You needn' sen' my gal hoss apples
    You needn' sen' her 'lasses candy;
    She would keer fer de lak o' you,
    Ef you'd sen' her apple brandy.

    W'y don't you git some common sense?
    Jes git a liddle! Oh fer land sakes!
    Quit yo' foolin', she hain't studyin' you!
    Youse jes fattenin' frogs fer snakes!

dj:
Good catch, uncle bud.  I get the feeling that if more work had been done earlier on African American folklore, we'd find a very large percentage of early blues lyrics there. 

Johnm:
Thanks to all concerned for the background.  I always assumed Sonny Boy Williamson came up with the line.
All best,
Johnm

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