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Author Topic: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"  (Read 7738 times)

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Offline LeftyStrat

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Question about Lemon's Jack O' Diamonds
« Reply #15 on: February 02, 2009, 04:27:11 PM »
Hello all,

As I've recently attempted to begin listening to Blind Lemon Jefferson again, I've come across a question that has left me rather curious, and I thought I'd ask for some assistance from the great folks here.

Lemon refers to the Jack of Diamonds as "a hard card to beat" in the tracks of the same title, but I'm wondering is, what card game is he referring to?

On the same note, is he referring to the same in "Bad Luck Blues" when he says (according to what I read just now in another thread) "I'll never bet on that deuce-trey-queen no more"?

Anyone out there have the faintest idea?

BTW, if this thread is misplaced, feel free to move it to the appropriate area.
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Offline Rivers

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #16 on: February 02, 2009, 06:07:02 PM »
Lefty, consensus on the marathon Lemon lyrics thread is that Lemon sings "hard card to play". Your post is in exactly the right place, join the rest of us who are wondering what it all means.

Jack is a hard card to play, as in 'lead with, or put down', in a lot of games, since it oftentimes feels like a high card but is beat by several others.

But what is the game in this case, is the question. Logic says it's a game where you lead and play a single card out of your hand each time round. "Bet the jack against the queen..."...why would you do that? Unless you thought your jack was high, but a player on your left was holding a queen.

I know... it was "Screw Your Neighbor"! Now there's a great game!  ;)
« Last Edit: February 02, 2009, 06:18:15 PM by Rivers »

Offline Rivers

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #17 on: February 02, 2009, 06:40:42 PM »
Now you got me researching it again... check this out: http://www.msoworld.com/mindzine/news/card/tips/andrewstiph1.html

I have often thought it could be Hearts but then thought "nah". Read about this variation of Hearts and the Jack O'Diamonds plays on that page that will get you a nice 10 point reduction. They state that this variation on standard Hearts is 'over 70 years old'. I just never considered Hearts to be a hard core gambling game, maybe it's just the people I hang out with.

Just a theory mind you, I'm not saying it's the answer, just that it fits. For more on how hard the jack of diamonds is to play in that variation of Hearts, and also the snippet it was introduced in the late Twenties, see http://zone.msn.com/en/hearts/article/hrtztipsjoeandrews0400.htm

[edited because it's been a while since I played Hearts and had to look up stuff]
« Last Edit: February 02, 2009, 07:43:39 PM by Rivers »

Offline Pan

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #18 on: February 03, 2009, 05:00:49 AM »
Coincidentally (?), the same subject is being discussed on the Blind Man's Blues forum as we speak. Blues musician Hawkeye Herman posted this, which I found interesting:

Quote
... for what it's worth ... the Old West's famous gunman/lawman/gambler Wild Bill Hickok had a very hard time playing the Jack O' Diamonds:

Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok was born in 1837. The first time he was officially referred to as "William" was at Rock Creek Station in Nebraska Territory where he worked for a freight company. He fought in the Civil War and was a lawman in many places in Nebraska and Kansas. Hickok came to Deadwood, South Dakota to take part in the gold rush of 1876. On August 2 1876. Hickok was playing cards with group of friends in Deadwood's "Number 10" Saloon. He was unable to sit with his back against the wall as he usually did, and when Jack McCall came in he shot Hickok in the back of the head, killing him instantly. At the time of his death Hickok was holding black aces and eights with the fifth card, the Jack of Diamonds. For ever after this hand would be known as "The Dead Man's Hand".



Isn't "the dead man's hand" also referred to, in some blues songs' lyrics? I seem to have a faint recollection of this, but can't remember what the exact song might be.


Offline uncle bud

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #19 on: February 03, 2009, 08:38:06 AM »
The Bill Hickok story is tantalizing, though ultimately I don't think it relates to the song and is probably just coincidence. Many of the versions are more about gambling losses and bad luck associated with the Jack of Diamonds, rather than an omen of death, no? I wonder whether the blues song has UK folksong origins, as others have suggested earlier in the thread, and as the quote below suggests.

Quote
Jack O' Diamonds Blues

Old-Time, Texas Style; Breakdown. USA; Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, West Virginia. SEE ALSO: ?Rye Whiskey? "Drunken Hiccups," "The Cuckoo," "Way Up On Clinch Mountain."

ARTIST: Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded two takes of this song in 1926, this is the first take.

CATEGORY: Fiddle and Instrumental Tunes. DATE: Appears in JOAFL as "Drunkard?s Song" 1905 Perrow; Lyrics originated in the mid 1800's as "The Rebel Soldier." First printed version as "The Rebel Prisoner" in the 1874 songbook "Allan's Lone Star Ballads." The Scottish melody ["Robi Donadh Gorrach" set by Nathaniel Gow (1763-1831) as an "An Old Highland Song"] is associated with "The Wagoner's Lad," "The Drunken Hiccups," "Rye Whiskey" "Jack of Diamonds," "Clinch Mountain," "The Cuckoo." .

There is a substantial amount of information on Jack of Diamonds at this page: http://www.bluegrassmessengers.com/master/jackodiamonds3.html from which the above is taken. Nothing about the card game played...

Dorothy Scarborough collected another version published in a 1923 essay:

JACK O' DIAMONDS

Jack o' Diamonds, Jack o' Diamonds,
Jack o' Diamonds is a hard card to roll.

Says, Whenever I get in jail,
Jack o' Diamonds goes my bail;
And I never, Lord, I never,
Lord, I never was so hard up before.

You may work me in the winter,
You may work me in the fall;
I'll get even, I'll get even,
I'll get even through that long summer's day.

Jack o' Diamonds took my money,
And the piker got my clothes;
And I ne-ever, and I ne-ever,
Lord, I never was so hard-run before!

Says, whe'ever I gets in jail,
I'se got a Cap'n goes my bail;
And a Lu-ula, and a Lu-ula,
And a Lula that's a hard-working chile!

from Dorothy Scarborough, "The Blues as Folk Songs" 1923
http://www.sacred-texts.com/ame/cig/cig12.htm


Offline BlueRob

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #20 on: February 03, 2009, 03:26:37 PM »
Hello Lefty, Pan, and all fellow "Lemonistas"--

Indeed, perhaps this is Lemon's own version of an old local (Texas?) folk ballad. A Dallas street crowd ca. 1915-1925 would probably have made the connection easily. I wonder if Lemon wasn't a bit naive about card games, due to inexperience, as his references seem second-hand. It doesn't seem that Lemon is referring to any easily-recognizable card game; perhaps he was just playing to the crowd, in order to solicit more approval and more tips.
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Offline Johnm

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #21 on: February 03, 2009, 04:12:37 PM »
Hi BlueRob,
The lyrics are not exclusive to Lemon, though.  They're sung by virtually everyone else who did "Jack of Diamonds"--Mance Lipscomb, Pete Harris, et al, so I don't see Lemon's naivete about card games being a crucial factor.  Perhaps it was a game like Pitty Pat or Pokeno that we see referenced in blues lyrics but that almost no one knows how to play anymore, at least in these parts.
All best,
Johnm

Offline waxwing

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #22 on: February 03, 2009, 05:38:22 PM »
I think there's a possibility none of them knew what the song meant, either, taking it for an old expression just as those of us who sing it do. It was just an old song handed down that everyone liked so you sang it.

But, if you want to take it literally, I think Hearts is a very common game in prison, along with Gin Rummy. You could keep track of points from day to day, maybe cashing in when the need arises for contraband. And the Jack o' D's is hard to play 'cause you want to be sure it goes to the right person, i.e whoever is currently high man, at least, if you play cutthroat strategy like we used to when we couldn't get a 4th for bridge. You could take serious shit from the other players if it was seen that you didn't deliver when you could have. And laying it on the low man clearly indicated a grudge, unless no other play was possible. Of course, the opposite applies to the Queen of Spades, i.e. don't let it go to the high man, fine to give it to the low man, but with the Queen you mostly want to take it yourself. So, in a way, the Jack is the harder card to play, 'cause you also don't want to end up eating it yourself.

All for now.
John C.
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Offline Rivers

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #23 on: February 03, 2009, 06:54:48 PM »
Quote
But, if you want to take it literally

Aye, there's the rub... It had occurred to me Lemon was just throwing out card jargon, not knowing anything about of which he spoke. That's got to be the last resort in these lyric transcriptions IMHO. I can count on the fingers of no hands the lines we've nailed on this board that were basically meaningless. Just because we haven't figured it out yet is no reason to assume it's gibberish.

There is always a meaning if you dig deep enough. The meaning might be obscured by pronunciation, archaic idioms, surface noise and history but it's there. I'm just glad to be associated with people with such good ears, knowledge, innovation and imagination.

Also based on past experience I still maintain 'context is everything'. I can't think of a tricky case where it wasn't in play somehow.

Waxy, how come you know so much about card games in the slammer? ;)
« Last Edit: February 03, 2009, 06:56:36 PM by Rivers »

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #24 on: February 03, 2009, 07:08:13 PM »
Quote
Perhaps it was a game like Pitty Pat or Pokeno that we see referenced in blues lyrics but that almost no one knows how to play anymore, at least in these parts.

When I worked in a Senior Citizens center in the South Bronx in the mid seventies, Pokeno was THE game amongst the oldsters. Don't know how to play it though.
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Offline banjochris

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #25 on: February 03, 2009, 11:43:34 PM »
And the Jack o' D's is hard to play 'cause you want to be sure it goes to the right person, i.e whoever is currently high man, at least, if you play cutthroat strategy like we used to when we couldn't get a 4th for bridge. You could take serious shit from the other players if it was seen that you didn't deliver when you could have. And laying it on the low man clearly indicated a grudge, unless no other play was possible. Of course, the opposite applies to the Queen of Spades, i.e. don't let it go to the high man, fine to give it to the low man, but with the Queen you mostly want to take it yourself. So, in a way, the Jack is the harder card to play, 'cause you also don't want to end up eating it yourself.

I'm confused, although this has nothing to do with the song. Every game of Hearts I've ever played the Queen of Spades was the bad card you didn't want to take (usually worth 13 points) and I've played a few times where usually the 10 of diamonds was worth negative points. Just curious, and maybe it's played differently in different parts of the country.
Chris

Offline waxwing

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #26 on: February 04, 2009, 01:48:25 AM »
As I remember it Chris (it's been since college, which is like prison, Riv) you try to get points by taking tricks. At the end of each hand each player counts how many hearts they have captured for a point each and whoever captured the queen of spades gets a bonus of 13 points. The jack of diamonds, as you say, was negative points, minus 10. We would set some goal, like 200 and the first person with 100 points was the winner. But, writing this out, I'm starting to doubt my memory. Doesn't quite seem right now?

Google is my friend - you're right, the object is to avoid collecting hearts or the queen o' spades, the jack is good. Low score wins when someone reaches 100. Well, I plead my main interest was bridge, where the object is to take tricks, and I only played hearts under duress. But the same things apply only in reverse, laying the queen on low man, i.e. the leader,  jack to the high man if you can't take it yourself, etc. Sorry for the confusion. I probably couldn't play bridge now either. I was also doing a lot of hallucinogenics in those days, too.

And I'd forgotten totally about "shooting the moon", i.e. taking all the hearts and the queen which reverses the tables and gives every one else 26 points. Ha! 

It also occurs to me that the jack of diamonds represents a cut off point when betting in poker, at least as I learned the finer points of 7 card stud (in grad school). For those I knew who played with some semblance of a system, the minimum holding after the first three cards were dealt was a jack. No face card and you fold without betting in the first round. (In fact, this is about the most important decision you make in any betting game, whether to get out on the first round without betting. Most will pay to see a few cards and then get out, spending a few dollars on every hand, or get strung out all the way chasing what might have been. Those types are the meat and potatoes of any decent player.) Anyway, some I knew would only bet with a jack in a major suit. Either way, the jack of diamonds is sorta on the cusp if you see what I mean, it's the dividing line where you have to make a decision one way or the other. Anything else is cut and dried. No doubt it occupies this position in other card games as well.

But I still think Lemon and the others were singing an old song. Sure, maybe they tried to put a little sense into it by giving it some jargon from a game they knew, but whether the jack had any special value in those games is not necessarily a certainty.

All for now.
John C.
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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #27 on: February 04, 2009, 06:57:09 AM »
Quote
But, if you want to take it literally

Aye, there's the rub... It had occurred to me Lemon was just throwing out card jargon, not knowing anything about of which he spoke. That's got to be the last resort in these lyric transcriptions IMHO. I can count on the fingers of no hands the lines we've nailed on this board that were basically meaningless. Just because we haven't figured it out yet is no reason to assume it's gibberish.

There is always a meaning if you dig deep enough. The meaning might be obscured by pronunciation, archaic idioms, surface noise and history but it's there.

While I'd agree that it should perhaps be the last resort, or close to it, there are surely examples where meaning is elusive at best, gone AWOL at worst. These situations would occur mostly (exclusively? hate to be absolute  :P) when a singer is repeating or reusing lyrics from another song or from the tradition. What does "smokestack lightning" mean? Surely it's a mis-hearing of an earlier lyric, regardless of whether it has become de facto blues poetry. When Lemon sings "I'm sittin' here wonderin' will a match box hold my clothes, I ain't got so many matches, but I got so far to go" is he creating a new, poetically odd verse or is he screwing up a line that should mean "I ain't got so many clothes", hence the cartoonish matchbox-as-suitcase image? Which is the meaning of a similar verse in Ma Rainey's Lost Wandering Blues, recorded three years before Lemon's song, or the meaning of many other versions of the verse. One could I suppose offer interpretations of 'smokestack lightning' or 'I ain't got so many matches', but there comes a point where one is shoehorning size 10 meaning into a size 8 loafer.



Offline dj

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #28 on: February 04, 2009, 07:10:00 AM »
Quote
What does "smokestack lightning" mean?

When I was a young child, in the 1950s, we used to stay overnight at my Grandmother's house in Hopewell Junction NY so we could get up before dawn to watch the circus train come in to town.  My earliest recollection of doing this is also my only recollection of seeing a steam engined train, and I remember how cool it was seeing cinders fly out the smokestack in the dark.  I've always thought that that sight of red hot cinders flying around in the dark, lighting up the smoke, was what "smokestack lightning" referred to.  Maybe, maybe not, but if it is, it's part of a class of lyrics whose meaning has been lost due to changing technology.   

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Query re "Jack of Diamonds"
« Reply #29 on: February 04, 2009, 04:40:43 PM »
While we're digressing into meaning and intentions, I thought I'd add this quote from Bumble Bee Slim, which I coincidentally just came across as I make my way through Paul Oliver's Blues Off the Record. It's regarding the composition of B & O Blues.

"Oddly enough, Slim explains, 'I didn't know there was a B & O Railroad. I just imagined there was. So I wrote the B & O Blues...my baby's gone, she won't come back no more; she left this morning, she caught the B & O... well, I didn't know there was the B & O, really I didn't. A couple o' years later a box car was goin' along. I say to my manager, 'I noticed B & O just like the B & O on the record.' He said, 'yeah, that's the B & O Railroad.'"

Very strange! You'd think he would have just "played smart".  :P Not sure what to believe here, but take it for what you will.

Tags: gambling songs 
 


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