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Author Topic: Ella Speed - Behind The Song  (Read 10125 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Ella Speed - Behind The Song
« on: June 30, 2007, 08:01:05 AM »
The following is lengthy but I hope will pay dividends for those who stick with it.  ;D
Behind The Song - A closer look at some of the music we love
The song history is from John Cowley, an authority on African American music who lives in Hertfordshire, England. John Garst, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of Georgia, provides the historical background.
(Sing Out, Spring 2001, p. 69-70)

As we were preparing the article on Chris Strachwitz and selecting songs to accompany it, we came across an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story about an Athens, Georgia-based retired university professor who had done an impressive amount of research into the origins and background of the classic blues "Ella Speed, " one of Mance Lipscomb's signature pieces recorded by Chris during one of his early trips to Texas. It seemed both a perfect entry for this column and a ideal compliment to the song, and we were very pleased that John Garst and his research partner were willing to share their work with us.

"Come all you pretty girls, and take heed,
Don't you die the death of Ella Speed"

New Orleans
Aug 2lst of 1894

My dear Loui
I am feeling to bad to come and meet you to-night. I am realv sorry the way I treated you. But Loui dear if I did not love you I would not care what you done or were you went to or who you had and I Know you are the same war I am realy sick from it. if I had any money I would get drunk from it you are the hold caus of it. now darling I will awaite for you at your same hour, and don't you go any wher else I am as ever yours until death from your devote girl Ella


Please pay the boy

The letter above was hand written by Ella Speed, a prostitute referred to as an "octoroon" by her "landlady," and sent to Louis "Bull" Martin, white. Ella was the 28-year-old wife of Willie Speed and a mother of two children, one a boy of four. Louis, a 28-year-old bachelor of Italian descent, was a short, stocky tough who worked as a bartender at New Orleans' Dryades Street Market. On the morning of August 15th, 1894 he had severely beaten Sam Johnson, an "old colored man," at the Dryades Street Market. By Monday, September 3rd, he was awaiting trial for assault and battery. That morning, at about 9:30 a.m., in Ella's upstairs room in the house kept by Miss Pauline Jones, black, at 137 Customhouse Street, between Bourbon and Dauphine, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louis shot Ella once with a Harrington and Richardson 0.38-caliber pistol. As police were summoned, Louis walked out of the house. Ella collapsed, sprawled on the floor near the door to her room, and died shortly afterwards.

A massive but unsuccessful manhunt was mounted for Louis, who turned himself in early the next morning. He was held without bail until his capital-punishment murder trial the following May, when he testified that the shooting had been an accident. According to Louis, Ella was despondent over the news that he planned to move to Chicago, leaving her without income to provide board for her son. She somehow got his pistol. Afraid that she would hurt herself, he tried to take it away. In the struggle it went off and Ella was shot through the left breast, heart, left lung, and liver. According to others, Ella and Louis had discussed "going housekeeping" the previous evening.

Before Judge John H. Ferguson, Louis was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years of hard labor in the state penitentiary. By 1901 he was back at his old bartender's job. Ferguson, a Yankee, is remembered for "Plessy  vs. Ferguson," the U.S. Supreme Court case establishing that "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional.

In 1866, at 40 Basin Street, Kate Townsend had built the first of the grand "houses" (brothels) for which Basin Street became famous. In mid 1894, the "landlady" there was Miss Lou Prout and Ella was an "inmate." It was here, probably in May, that Ella and Louis first met.

They quickly formed a "special relationship" - indeed, Louis appears to have become obsessed with her. When Louis discovered that Ella had "special relationships" with other men, he was enraged. His behavior, including frequent threats, alarmed Miss Lou, who asked Ella to leave on that account. She relocated to Customhouse Street three or four weeks before her death. Customhouse, the first street in the French Quarter parallel to Canal Street, is now called Iberville.

Ella's letter to Louis reflects a troubled relationship. According to Miss Lou, Ella strung Louis along for the money he provided, not because she had any affection for him. Her letter can be seen as an attempt to keep a well paying customer.

At about 5 p.m. on Sunday, September 2, 1894, Louis called on Ella. Around 9 p.m. they went to the West End, a nearby resort on Lake Pontchatrain. When they returned to Miss Pauline's place at about 2 a.m. Monday, they both appeared to be "full." Even so, they downed a few more drinks with Miss Pauline and others. Then they ordered and received three dozen oysters and three bottles of white wine, which they shared with another "inmate" in Ella's room. After the meal Louis retired, but Ella stayed up until 6 a.m. or so.

At about 9 a.m. Ella awakened Louis, complained of a headache, and asked for a whiskey cocktail. He ordered and received one for each of them. After Ella complained that the first had been too weak, he got another round, instructing the messenger boy that they should be strong.

At about 9:30, Miss Pauline and a sheriff's deputy, who had spent the night downstairs guarding furniture on which payments were delinquent, heard a muffled shot and a scream. Miss Pauline ran out into the hall and saw Ella standing in her doorway in her chemise, her left breast "on fire," screaming "Help me, Miss Pauline! Louis shot me!" As she ran toward Ella, Miss Pauline saw Louis standing with a pistol in his hand, which he leveled at her, saying "Look out there, Miss Pauline!" Miss Pauline ran downstairs. As the deputy came up, Louis passed him on his way down and walked out. Tears streamed down his face as he fled. The headline in The Daily Picayune the next morning read "NIGHT OF REVELRY ENDS IN MURDER."

T his story fits the pattern of ballads, a dreadful murder, an escaping killer, a moral example - the drama associated with Martin's slaying of Ella and his reputation as a bully are the meat of such topical songs. Some versions of "Ella Speed" share lines with Charles Trevathan's 1895 "coon song" "The Bully Song" ("Bully Of The Town"), a rewrite of a song, perhaps "Ella Speed," that Trevathan had learned from a black friend.

The first well distributed text of "Ella Speed," under the title "Bill Martin & Ella Speed," was in John A. Lomax's and Alan Lomax's seminal American Bal/ads And Folk Songs (1934). Versions had appeared before, notably "Poor Little Ella," in Dorothy Scarborough's The 'Blues ' As Folk Song (1923), and "Alice B.," in Carl Sandburg's American Songbag (1927), the latter changing Ella's name to "Alice B." Both locate the ballad in Texas, the former noting its popularity in "East Texas saw mill districts." The latter outlines a fantastic line of oral transmission - stretching from Galveston, Texas, via Memphis, Tennessee, New Orleans, Louisiana, to a member of the "American Relief Expedition in Armenia, riding on top of a box car in Constan-tinople."

The text in American Ballads And Folk Songs is a composite. It consists of Texas verses collected by John A. Lomax at Prairie View Normal in 1909 and lines from Moses "Clear Rock" Platt garnered at the Central State Farm, Sugarland, in 1933. These are added to a version John and his son Alan obtained from Lead Belly at the Angola Penitentiary, Louisiana, in the same year.

Born in Mooringsport, north Louisiana, in 1888, Lead Belly spent considerable time in Texas, leading to the assumption the song derived from this region. Indeed, Lead Belly told the Lomaxes: "When I was in Dallas, walkin' de streets an' makin' my livin' wid dis box o' mine, de songsters was makin' up dat song 'bout Ella Speed. Bill Martin had jes' shot her down an' lef' her Iyin' in her blood up near de ole T.P. station" (1933), placing ballad events in the early 1910s - when the songster moved to Dallas - and indicating he had not encountered the song before that time.

John A. Lomax and Alan collected further examples in Texas, including a field recording in 1934 by Tricky Sam (Homer Roberson), at the Huntsville Penitentiary. By 1935, Lead Belly interspersed his singing of "Ella Speed" with descriptive narrative and the Lomaxes printed a version in Negro Folk Songs As Sung By Lead Belly (1936).

John A. Lomax obtained two more Texas recordings of "Ella Speed": by Wallace Chains and Sylvester Jones at the Ramsey State Farm in 1939 and Finous Rockmore at Lufkin in 1940. Lomax considered the latter version to be "probably older than Leadbelly's." Rockmore learned the piece "in knee pants around Dallas there, [from] a little feller played guitar they called 'Cakewalk."'

Probably the most familiar rendering of "Ella Speed" is Lead Belly's recording for Capitol in 1944. Less well known is the New Orleans-based "Ella Speed Blues," sung by Dr. Edmond Souchon with Papa Laine's Children (1951) and re-recorded by him in 1959, when he described it as "a story of old Storyville, around 1890, similar to 'Frankie and Johnny."' Souchon's performances are in the mold of other versions of "Ella Speed" and these clues led to discovery of the song's Crescent City origin.

In 1960, Mack McCormick and Chris Strachwitz encountered the Texas songster Mance Lipscomb, whose version of "Ella Speed" is almost as familiar as Lead Belly's. McCormick collected several renditions in Texas, including one by Lightnin' Hopkins (1959) and another with Strachwitz and Paul Oliver from Jewell Long (1960). Thus McCormick noted: "'Ella Speed' is, judging from the number of people who know of the piece, probably the best-known Texas ballad next to 'Casey Jones"' (1960). Mance put the ballad's events in Dallas, Texas, around 1912 and played his version as a breakdown for dancing (Alyn, 1993).

How this New Orleans song of the mid-1890s became such a popular black ballad in Texas during the twentieth century remains to be discovered.

"You may be runnin' around, and
having you a lot ot fun,
Some man gonna shoot you
down, just like Martin done."
?"Doc " Souchon

Offline jostber

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Re: Ella Speed - Behind The Song
« Reply #1 on: July 02, 2007, 03:46:56 AM »
Great story, thanks! The Who(Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend) chose this song by Leadbelly as one of their inspirations on their Mojo Magazine CD some months ago.

Offline Prof Scratchy

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Re: Ella Speed - Behind The Song
« Reply #2 on: July 02, 2007, 10:53:36 AM »
That's a fascinating article. I'd always assumed Louisiana or Texas origins to the story, given Leadbelly's rendition of it.  And now I know that Bill Martin was, in fact, "Bull" Martin. The account places the story much earlier than I'd thought too.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Ella Speed - Behind The Song
« Reply #3 on: July 02, 2007, 11:01:06 AM »
Great story, thanks!
I am only the messenger, those who deserve the thanks are the intrepid Cowley and Garst. ;D

Offline Pan

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Re: Ella Speed - Behind The Song
« Reply #4 on: January 02, 2014, 11:02:39 AM »
Hi all

I just noticed, that Wallace Chains' 1939 version of Ella Speed can be heard at the Library of Congress:

This version has some interesting chord changes. It sounds to me (but I could be wrong). that Chains plays out of G-position, with a capo on the 3rd fret, making the absolute key a B flat major. I get something like this, for the changes (corrections welcome):

Edited to correct: the guitar is tuned down a whole-step, and played out of the C-position, as Johnm kindly suggests on a later post.

C-position, tuned down a whole-step.

||: A7 | A7 | Dm | Dm |

| G7/B | G7/B | C | C ||

|| A7 | A7 | Dm | Ab7/Eb |

| C/E | G7 | C | C :||



Edited to correct the playing position and correct the changes.
« Last Edit: November 13, 2014, 01:49:32 PM by Pan »

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Ella Speed - Behind The Song
« Reply #5 on: January 02, 2014, 12:52:07 PM »
Thanks for the illuminating article.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

Offline Johnm

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Re: Ella Speed - Behind The Song
« Reply #6 on: January 02, 2014, 03:21:47 PM »
Hi Pan,
I believe Chains played the song out of C position tuned a full step low, but if you just transpose the changes you'll pretty much have it.  It's interesting that on the Document CD "Texas Field Recordings", DOCD-5231, "Tricky Sam", also recorded by John Lomax at the Huntsville State Penitentiary does a version very similar to Wallace Chains' version, even to the extent of playing it out of C tuned a full step low and having the second chord as D minor.  Most other people I've heard play "Ella Speed", like Mance Lipscomb and Leadbelly do a straight circle-of-fifths progression on it.
All best,

Offline Pan

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Re: Ella Speed - Behind The Song
« Reply #7 on: January 02, 2014, 03:42:01 PM »
Thanks John! I'll edit my post accordingly!



Offline RB

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Re: Ella Speed - Behind The Song
« Reply #8 on: January 09, 2014, 05:48:59 PM »
Thanks, all, much appreciated.


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