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The first woman I had, made me get down on my knees. And she had the nerve to ask me if I liked Limberger cheese - Peetie Wheatstraw, The First Shall Be Last

Author Topic: I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland-Jesse Johnson  (Read 1873 times)

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Offline dj

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I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland-Jesse Johnson
« on: September 30, 2009, 06:08:06 PM »
The recent post about Devil At The Confluence, a book concerning pre-war blues in St. Louis, got me to thinking about Jesse Johnson.  Johnson only recorded one song, the two part "I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland", which was waxed on September 7, 1929 for Paramount.

It is Johnson's fate to have perhaps the most unkind review in The Penguin Guide To Blues Recordings: "The artists on St Louis (Document DOCD 5181) didn't record enough to get a CD to themselves; in the case of Jesse Johnson, one must be glad."  I'm not sure if the reviewer was talking about Johnson's voice, or the song he recorded, or both, but I think that review is just flat-out wrong.  The record is really a duet between Jesse Johnson and his wife, Edith North Johnson.  Both the duo and the song they recorded seem to have come out of the tent show/circus/vaudeville tradition.  It seems to have been a commonplace in that tradition for the female half of a duo to be the blues shouter and for the male half to play the comedian and to sing in a fairly flat, unaffected voice, presumably to better show off the female.  Jesse Johnson does indeed sing in a flat style, but on the strength of one record, we cannot assume that that is all he is capable of.  We know, for instance, that Joe McCoy used such a style in his early duets with Memphis Minnie, but displayed a much broader range when he sang on his own.

The song itself is wonderfully odd.  I've listened to it a hundred times and still don't know what to make of it.  Both part one and part two start with Jesse Johnson half singing, half talking to a very simple piano accompaniment by an unknown pianist, basically two chords in a "and ONE and    and THREE and   " rhythm, with the chord change on the one and three.  When he gets to the chorus, he is joined by Edith along with Baby Jay on cornet and Ike Rodgers on trombone.  The band jumps into a jazzy tempo, Edith belts the blues, and the song is transformed.  When Edith sings her verses, the band keeps up its jazzy accompaniment.

Lyrically, Jesse's verses are slightly humorous, in a biblical vein on part one and in a thoroughly secular way on part two.  Edith sounds like she's singing straight gospel, but on part one she's really again doing "bible-based humor", for want of a better term.  But on part two, she really sings straight gospel, switching from "Egyptland" to "Jerusalem" in the last verse which seems very sincere, sort of in the tradition of a hymn to close the show.  I really wish I knew more about this song - where and when it was written, where and when it was usually performed, and how it was received by its audience.  I find it fascinating and endlessly thought-provoking.

Note that Jesse and Edith sing slightly different texts on the chorus.  I have transcribed both verses the first time the chorus appears.  Subsequent returns to the chorus exhibit only minor variations until the last chorus, when Edith sings "I wish I'd died in Jerusalem" to echo her last verse.  Here is "I Wish I had Died In Egyptland":



I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland

Jesse Johnson with His Singers

Part 1:

 Jesse:
   The Lord got a great gob of what is this
   The Lord got a great gob of what is that
   God commanded plants to grow
   God commanded sea to roll
   God commanded the bird to fly
   In his mouth he had a seed
   From that seed it sprung a root
   From that root it sprung a vine
   From that vine it sprung a shade
   And 'long came a cutworm and cut it down

Chorus:
 Jesse:
   Now amen and Halleluia
   And amen and I wish I had died in Egyptland
 Edith:
   Now hey Lord and Halleluia
   And hey Lord and way down in Egyptland

 Jesse:
   Your neighbor go 'bout and she talk about you
   Your neighbor go 'bout and she talk about me
   I had an old aunt and she do the same
   She get to lyin' so fast she couldn't call no name

   Chorus

 Edith:
   Now they told there's a tree in the paradise 
   Hey Lord done fell on me
   And the persons called it the tree of life
   Hey Lord done fell on me

   Chorus

   It's a way over yonder in the harvest field
   Hey Lord done fell on me
   Where the angels are workin' with the carriage wheel
   Hey Lord done fell on me

   Chorus

   I wish I'd a died when I was young
   Hey Lord done fell on me
   I would not have this great long race to run
   Hey Lord done fell on me

   Chorus

Part 2:

 Jesse:
   I went to the river, could not get across
   I jumped on a bullfrog, thought it was a hoss
   Hoss wouldn't pull, sold him for a bull
   The bull wouldn't holler, sold him for a dollar
   The dollar wouldn't pass, I throwed in the grass
   The grass wouldn't grow, sold it for a hoe
   Hoe wouldn't dig, sold it for a pig
   Pig wouldn't squeal, sold it for a wheel
   Wheel wouldn't run, sold it for a gun
   Gun wouldn't shoot, sold it for a boot
   Boot wouldn't fit, got rid of it

   Chorus

 Edith:
   Now let me tell you what you can't do
   I wish I'd a died in Egyptland
   Can't serve the Lord and the Devil too
   I wish I'd a died in Egyptland

   Chorus

   Well I ain't been to heaven but I've been told
   I wish I'd a died in Egyptland
   The streets are pearl and the gates are gold
   And I wish I'd a died in Egyptland

   Chorus

   I never will forget that day
   I wish I'd a died in Jerusalem
   That my Lord washed my sins away
   And I wish I'd died in Jerusalem

   Chorus           
« Last Edit: July 03, 2020, 12:06:16 PM by Johnm »

Offline Johnm

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Re: I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland
« Reply #1 on: September 30, 2009, 07:02:28 PM »
Thanks very much for your post, dj.  I really like your posts about the stylistic outliers like Jesse Johnson and Biliken Johnson, whom I would be very unlikely to encounter or hear if left to my own devices.  It's good to hear about the people who were off the beaten path.
All best,
Johnm

Offline dj

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Re: I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland
« Reply #2 on: July 07, 2010, 01:26:39 PM »
Thanks to Devil At The Confluence, I now know quite a bit more about Jesse Johnson.  I'll summarize here, as it may be of interest to someone.  The guy sure led a varied and fascinating life!

Johnson was born in Tennessee in 1883, making him 46 years old when he recorded I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland.  Jesse had at least two brothers, Harry and the pianist James "Stump" Johnson.  He moved to St. Louis in 1904.  Devil At The Confluence doesn't state explicitly, but strongly implies that Johnson did something in the way of entertainment at the World's Fair.  After the fair, he worked in "a variety of other show-biz jobs" until 1919, when he opened the Deluxe Music Shoppe in St. Louis.  Around the same time he also started promoting local dances and concerts and managing musical acts like Creath's Jazz-O-Maniacs.  With the rise of race recording, Johnson served as a talent scout and "facilitator" for the record industry.  As time went by, Johnson branched out into other businesses, including a restaurant and a taxi company.  He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1946.   

Offline bluesSTL

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Re: I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland
« Reply #3 on: July 18, 2010, 12:31:07 PM »
Edith Johnson strongly denied that Jesse had ever sang on any recording when she was interviewed in the early 1960s.
I'm not sure where it was published that she or Baby Jay or Ike Rogers were on that recording of "I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland" but I'm pretty sure that that information would be incorrect. She reacted like she had never heard the song at all.

The assumption that the song was recorded by the St Louis entrepreneur Jesse Johnson, is based on the session log which shows that it was performed amidst a batch of recordings made by St Louis blues artists who had been organized and brought to the studio that day, likely by Jesse Johnson. And it was likely that Jesse drove the car and was present for the session.

But denials by Edith as well as by Jesse's son and nephews refute that Jesse had any musical ability or desire beyond managerial involvement. Not one believed that Jesse would have ever sang anything.

In early articles about Jesse's career in St Louis, he is mentioned as an emcee and dance instructor for the social events he organized. One article said that Jesse Johnson would be introducing a new dance style. The idea of Jesse ever dancing or being a dance instructor was also strongly denied by his family members when interviewed in the 1990s.

My best guess for why these apparently erroneous facts remain is because this was Jesse's way of promoting himself.
Some early recordings by St Louis artists like Lonnie Johnson and others include label credit for Jesse. Sometimes even as composer.


Offline dj

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Re: I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland
« Reply #4 on: July 18, 2010, 04:05:34 PM »
Thanks for that, bluesSTL.  Lots to think about there.

An observation:  Whoever is doing the male vocal on I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland is not so much singing as melodically talking. 

And a question:  Was Edith religious in her later days?  In other words, might she have denied the involvement of both herself and Jesse because she was embarrassed about the irreligious aspects of the song?  I'm not making the case for or against here, just wondering.

I've never compared the female vocal on I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland with any records known to have been by Edith.  I'll have to do that. 

Whoever this record was by, it is a wonderful performance. 

Offline bluesSTL

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Re: I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland
« Reply #5 on: July 18, 2010, 08:11:05 PM »
Interesting observation, dj and perceptive.
Not embarrassment, but yes, in the conversation she seemed modest and
reluctant to accept the fact that her recordings were of any special quality or importance.

There isn't anything to indicate that Edith was heavily religious - like the elderly Mary Johnson
who had retired to only singing in her church by the 1960s and felt that her early music was improper,
refusing to perform any of them.

Edith's memory was sharp, recalling the day Victoria Spivey came in and how well Black Snake Blues sold.
And it isn't obvious by her responses whether she was being coy or sensitive about anything necessarily.

Offline dj

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Re: I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland
« Reply #6 on: July 19, 2010, 05:24:23 AM »
Well what do you know?  I just listened to the four recordings I have by Edith Jonson, and I would not say that her voice sounds like the female voice on I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland.  It's possible that Edith both pitched and used her voice differently when singing in a religious style than when singing blues.  But from the difference in the voices I would think it likely that the female singer is not Edith.

Thanks for getting me to revisit this, blueSTL.

On the other hand, if Jesse wasn't a singer, that would strengthen the case that the male voice is indeed Jesse.   ;)   

Offline killerblues

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Re: I Wish I Had Died In Egyptland
« Reply #7 on: January 08, 2013, 03:20:11 PM »
So does anyone know where Edith was buried?

 


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