Big Sound Saturdays: Valentine’s Day Blues

 

What’s everyone doing this weekend? I, personally, spent Friday night in The Pit trying to figure out how to make a condensed and an expanded version of blues Valentine’s Day that captures the elation, the bummer, the prickliness, and the hilarity that is this made-up holiday. On Sunday, I’ll play the longer version on the radio and potentially get one of the phone calls I used to get in my New York radio days when I had a V-Day show, a mouth-breather asking if he could pick me up from the studio and take me out to dinner. See what I’m talking about? Alone, together?

Just to say that Big Sound Saturdays was extra fun to build this week, and I do recommend sitting through all of the ten-song prewar classic and country blues, hokum, and jug band hit machine that is “I’m Gonna Kill Myself,” a title taken from the mix’s first track, performed by an exhausted-sounding Laura Smith (and this, from the excellent and topical compilation “Baby, How Can It Be?,” off the Dust-to-Digital label):

I wanna die

I wanna die

I wanna die, die, die ‘til I die

I’m gonna kill myself!

The song is amazing, just Smith and a tinkly piano that answers to the title’s eponymous chorus riff with four single notes that make up a stripped-down 1-4-5 blues progression, an unbeatable deflation of love and sadness. It’s also not the only call-and-response: Jed Davenport And His Beale Street Jug Band’s “You Oughta Move Out Of Town” is just a group of riff-y vignettes featuring harmonica, jug, and violin that answers over and over to the title line, code-switching between cheating, fancy—“gonna build me a house out on the sea, so you women come see for me”—and jelly roll.

Most of these tunes are goofy, winky innuendos, a happy accident on my part, I can’t stay away! Lil Johnson’s “Meat Balls” is a particularly nasty, fleshy song that’s usually situated alongside innuendo greats like “Sam, The Hot Dog Man” (track two of this mix) and Bo Carter’s pantheon of nasty blues songs—“Pig Meat,” “Cigarette Blues,” “Banana In Your Fruit Basket” (!), and from this mix, “It’s Done Got Wet,” a slicing jug celebration of the end of Prohibition performed with the Beale Street Sheiks and a nod to the healthy combination that is love, heartbreak, and liquor. “I Had To Give Up Gym” is “I Had To Give Up Jim” in slant, and I swear that every time I listen I can hear Ikey Robinson (banjo, ukulele) and “Georgia Tom” Dorsey (pianist and this song’s composer) grinning through their unremitting sex jokes.

But “Meat Balls” is so much more than a flirty innuendo! There really should be a new category for the butcher blues, where sex and death don’t meet in “petite mort” but in the flamboyant and extenuated meat-carving of Lillian Glinn’s “Packing House Blues” (“a bucket of blood, a butcher knife is what I crave…”), Bessie Tucker’s exhausted plea-threat “Got Cut All To Pieces,” Victoria Spivey’s delicious “Blood Thirsty Blues” (“blood, blood, oh, look at all that blood…”), and, here, in Johnson’s own butcher fantasy:

I’m looking for a butcher, he must be long and tall—

If he wanna grind my meat cause I’m wild about my meat balls.

The sweeter death is, ha ha, “It’s Murder,” performed by Lil Armstrong & Her Swing Band and structured around jubilant shouts of the title, always changing, “now when my baby caresses me, it’s murder! / But if he ever dispossessed me, I would commit murder!,” all deflated danger and big band dance. The Red Hot Jazz Archive calls Lil Hardin-Armstrong, composer, band-leader, pianist, arranger, singer, and second wife of Louis Armstrong, the most prominent woman in early jazz, and it’s Armstrong that takes the mix’s final track. Blind Willie McTell’s sweet and cloying “Warm It Up To Me” and the Georgia Cotton Pickers’ plaintive version of “She’s Coming Back Some Cold Rainy Day” are both love-sick messages to their sweethearts, one coy, the other lonely, both stashed in the mix’s middle, but Ethel Waters’ track at the heart of this mix is a different ilk. For celebrating solitude, there’s no place like the blues.

I can smile, I can wink, I can go take a drink –

And I don’t have to worry what my hubby will think!

Because, I’m no man’s mama now!

Get it fixed!

I’m no man’s mama now!

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