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As we crossed over the border into unconventional America, the road, as it usually does, became a muddy lane with axle-threatening ruts and crevasses - Alan Lomax, heads out to Panola and Tunica counties

Author Topic: Mystery Titles  (Read 9577 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Mystery Titles
« on: November 18, 2006, 05:05:25 PM »
Hi all,
I have been baffled in the past when I've discovered Country Blues songs with titles that appear nowhere in the song's lyrics.  There are numerous examples of this--Teddy Darby's "Built Down On The Ground" and "My Laona Blues" and Sleepy John Estes's original recording of "Milk Cow Blues" fall into this category, to name just a few.  I was stuck.  Why in the world would a song have a title based on a phrase that never gets mentioned in the song?

Recently, Blues collectors (and player, in Stewart's case) Don Kent and Michael Stewart were in Seattle on a record-collecting trip and I had a chance to visit with them briefly.  Somehow, the subject of these songs with the mystery titles came up, and Don Kent posited a very logical and, I think, plausible explanation for the seemingly inexplicable titles.  He suggested that in performance, songs tended to be played far longer than was possible in the renditions recorded on 78s, and that most likely, the musician performing the song on record simply had not had a chance to arrive yet at the verse that contained the title phrase.  He said in several instances, with rediscovered Blues players, when he heard the same song performed without the time constraints imposed by the 78 record's potential length, the singer eventually got to a verse containing the title phrase that had gone unsung on the original recording.  As far as I'm concerned, this line of reasoning satisfactorily explains a question that had mystified me for years.  I was sure glad to hear it, too, because I don't know that I ever would have come up with it, left to my own devices.
All best,
Johnm     

Offline Pan

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #1 on: November 19, 2006, 05:09:11 AM »
I have always wondered where does the title for Blind Boy Fullers' "Piccolo Rag" come from.
I have later heard that the word "piccolo" (or Pick-a-Low ? ) refers to a juke-box in the southern dialect. Still, I fail to see what this has to do with the song's lyrics. You might just have provided the answer, Johnm, and I thank you for that!  :D

Yours

Pan

Offline Stuart

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #2 on: November 19, 2006, 10:18:30 AM »
Hi John:

Given that Don Kent's explanation is supported by fact, I agree that it certainly applies to the specific cases that he had in mind, and probably applies to many other cases as well. Whether his explanation applies to all cases of Country Blues songs with titles that appear nowhere in the song's lyrics, is of course the subject of a long thread that probably belongs in another forum!

But this is an interesting subject/topic. It might be worthwhile for us to make some mental notes along the way as we listen, just to try to get a sense of the various relationships between titles and song content. First line, last line, chorus, refrain, theme, something catchy in the song, etc. (RJ's "Malted Milk," "Love in Vain," Blind Blake's "Police Dog Blues", HT's "Fishing Blues" and so on). No need for a overly academic comprehensive analysis, just a little food for thought that will probably yield some interesting observations and entertaining curiosities.

My Best,

Stuart

P.S. As a tangentially related (and somewhat wacky) afterthought, the source of titles for instrumentals is another topic of interest.
« Last Edit: November 19, 2006, 11:54:22 AM by Stuart »

Offline banjochris

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #3 on: November 19, 2006, 10:46:13 AM »
I'm sure I've heard a '60s Sleepy John recording of Milk Cow where he sings the title verse. Cannon's Jug Stompers' "Viola Lee" falls into that category too, I believe. Oh, and the Paramount "You Can't Keep No Brown" by Bo Weavil Jackson -- I've always wondered if that was issued with the wrong title, given the number of times he sings the title on the Vocalion recording.

If nothing else, I think this phenomenon highlights something about the people running the recording sessions. Were they really listening to the words? Or did they just feel it wasn't worth the money to use up another wax disc on a second take when that was the only problem with the performance. IIRC, there are two takes of "Viola Lee," and neither one mentions her. And speaking of that, although the title verse is sung in both takes, I've always felt that they did a second take of Luke Jordan's "Church Bell Blues" because he didn't sing enough on the first one.
Chris

Offline Johnm

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #4 on: November 19, 2006, 12:01:53 PM »
Hi all,
You guys make some good points.  The Don Kent explanation suffices for some oddly titled Blues, but certainly not all of them.  Sometimes the odd title may be a result of poor listening on the part of the engineer/record company, as Chris suggests.  I remember Frank pointing out that Lemon's "Right Of Way Blues" must have been intended to be "Ride Away Blues", and that certainly makes more sense.  Also Harry Chatmon's "When You Left" opens with the line,
   "When your left eye goes to twitchin'"
Maybe "Left Eye Blues" would have made more sense for that song.  In these two instances, I think you encounter the Lady Mondagreen syndrome, where a phonetic approximation of what the performer was singing yields an altogether different sense than was intended.
All best,
Johnm

Offline dj

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #5 on: November 19, 2006, 12:52:48 PM »
Quote
There are numerous examples of this--Teddy Darby's "Built Down On The Ground" and "My Laona Blues" and Sleepy John Estes's original recording of "Milk Cow Blues" fall into this category

It's interesting to note that John's three examples are from early in the artists' recording careers - the Darby songs from his second session and the Estes piece from his third - when presumably they were still recording pieces of their core repertoire and not stuff made up specifically for recording, and when they were not yet overly familiar with the recording process, and so not necessarily thinking of what would fit into a three minute recording.

Offline banjochris

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #6 on: November 19, 2006, 06:06:13 PM »
Lemon's "Right of Way" is the correct title. The line is "Got a high brown girl, up the right-of-way somewhere." He's referring to a road or railroad. -- I copied this from an online dictionary: "The strip of land over which facilities such as highways, railroads, or power lines are built."

On the bad listening to titles by recording personnel, Charlie Patton's Hammer/Hammock Blues is one of the standout dumb ones.

Offline Chezztone

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #7 on: November 20, 2006, 05:49:11 PM »
Chris -- Sure, we know what a right of way is, but I agree with John, Lemon is singing about a gal who likes to Ride Away, and someone misinterpreted that and wrote it down as Right of Way. My favorite in this vein is Rubin Lacy's "Ham Hound Crave." I think it's really "Ham Hocks & Gravy" (and named my CD after it).

Offline banjochris

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #8 on: November 20, 2006, 06:44:04 PM »
I agree with John, Lemon is singing about a gal who likes to Ride Away, and someone misinterpreted that and wrote it down as Right of Way.

But then the line would be: "Got a high brown girl, up the ride away somewhere." Don't make sense that way.
Chris

Offline phhawk

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #9 on: November 20, 2006, 08:10:50 PM »
I'll admit I'm a bit cynical regarding record companies, but I think that another reason that might be considered for some titles that do not appear in the song, is that the relative low regard that record companies had for blues recordings compared to popular music.  This might also affect the accuracy with which that they noted the titles. The record company might well have just made up a title if they didn't properly record the title at the time, or perhaps didn't like the real title. For instance, It's my understanding that Booker White's name was changed to Bukka by the record company without his approval. Also, when you consider that some of the artists never even heard their own records it suggests there was plenty of room for mistakes. 

Offline Johnm

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #10 on: November 20, 2006, 10:24:59 PM »
I agree with you Phil, that the record companies in many instances did not even bother to give the appearance of making an effort to give a song a sensible title.  How else can you explain a title like Ishmon Bracey's "Family Stirving"?  And while we're at it, I just thought of another Mondagreen--Mose Mason's "Molly Man", which should be " 'Male Man", since it is a tamale vendor's cry.  On second thought, 'Male Man looks pretty weird, especially if you miss the apostrophe at the front end.  Oh well.
All best,
Johnm

Offline phhawk

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #11 on: November 20, 2006, 11:07:20 PM »
Johnm, Maybe it could be spelled Malley Man. I have to say, you guys never cease to amaze me with the depth of your blues knowledge. Anyway, now that we've solved (possibly) the phenomeneon of mystery titles; time for a scotch on the rocks. Here's to Weenie Campbell.

Offline dj

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #12 on: November 21, 2006, 02:30:08 AM »
I'll agree that record companies held country blues and country blues singers in low regard in the 1920s and 30s.  But to be fair, let's not forget that record companies and their personnel were from the North and didn't necessarily have much knowledge of the South or Southern culture.  If you've never heard the name Booker and someone with a heavy accent that you're not familiar with pronounces the name (and that person is illiterate, or at least you assume he is, either he can't spell his name for you or you don't even ask), chances are you'll get the name wrong.  Same thing with tamales.  Whoever wrote down the title for Molly Man had probably never heard of a tamale.

I love Charley Patton's music, but I'm glad my life doesn't depend on perfectly understanding his sung lyrics!   :P

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #13 on: November 21, 2006, 07:51:33 AM »
I'm sure I've heard a '60s Sleepy John recording of Milk Cow where he sings the title verse.

He sings the milk cow verse twice in the version on the Legend of Sleepy John Estes.


Offline uncle bud

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Re: Mystery Titles
« Reply #14 on: November 21, 2006, 07:59:48 AM »
I agree with John, Lemon is singing about a gal who likes to Ride Away, and someone misinterpreted that and wrote it down as Right of Way.

But then the line would be: "Got a high brown girl, up the ride away somewhere." Don't make sense that way.
Chris

The line would be something like "Got a high brown girl, love to ride away somewhere". With "love to" sounding like "luv tuh". I like this theory but am on the fence, because like Chris, I am really hearing "up the right of way somewhere", especially in the 2nd line. I think in the first line it's a coin toss. :) A great song though.

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