Sunday, 24 May 2015

Blue Drag

This was going to be a blog post all about Gypsy Jazz, and how jazz fused with traditional European folk music to make something different and rather special.  But I got distracted, investigating just one Gypsy Jazz standard - Blue Drag.

It starts a few days ago, when I stumbled over this clip.  The Smoking Time Jazz Club of New Orleans always bring a smile to my face: this one features some very tasty tenor sax playing:

The tune - unnamed in the title - reminded me a bit of Comes Love, or of Bei Mir Bist Du Schön, with that slightly klezmerish feel (that clarinet!).  The comments gave up its name: Blue Drag, and a bit more digging suggested it was by one Josef Myrow, Russian-born, but, in America, a prolific composer of popular tunes in the early 20th C.  So that explains the slight eastern tinge I was hearing.   

So of course I did what I often do when I find a new tune that intrigues me - I looked for other versions on the web, and that led to a little mystery, and to the discovery of a bunch of musicians I had not come across before.

First the history.  We start in America.  As far as I can work out, the oldest recording of this is by Earl Hines in July 1932.  I think this one is a little later (but of better sound quality), but although there's some nice playing, to my ears the melody is not outlined very clearly.  However, the Washboard Rhythm Kings recorded the tune later that same year, giving a clean rendition of the tune and lyrics:see here.

Now I've learned that fans of Gypsy Jazz regard this tune as one of the standards of that genre. And that means Django Reinhardt enters the picture. So, three years later, and across the Atlantic: Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli (et Le Quintette du Hot Club de France, naturellement) were picking up all sorts of American jazz tunes and making them their own.  So let's hear what the Hot Club (who recorded it in April 1935) made of this:

Hold on! Is that even the same tune?  The main melody (as sung by the Washboards: "Blue drag, It sure is draggin' me down/ I'm almost scraping the ground" etc) doesn't even show up! It has been replaced by a slow "doo-wop doo-wop-wop doo wah" riff on the violin.  If not for the fact that the middle eight ("the rhythm, blue rhythm ..." ) is still there, I'd think it was a completely different tune.  Now I am baffled.  I find the sheet music for this in a collection of "Band In A Box" tunes, and it's definitely the "doo-wop" Django version.  

So I go searching and Youtube gives me any number of other versions (pick of the bunch below) and some use the "Washboard" tune, and some use the "Django" tune.  I am no closer to understanding what's going on here.

Now, let's bring in a character called Freddy Taylor.  Read a mini biography here.  We learn that in the mid 1930's, Freddy was in Paris with his own band and he was also working with the Hot Club de France as a vocalist.  And he too recorded Blue Drag (with His Swing Men from Harlem) in April 1935, also in Paris!  

Here is Freddy's lovely recording. It has the "Django" doo-wop riff as an intro and an outro, while keeping the "Washboard" tune for the main body of the piece. 

Mystery solved? Could this be the missing link?  Could Freddy have introduced this tune to Django, who took the intro/outro and used it for the main melody?  

A bit more digging and I find this in a biography of Django: "...the Quintette [recorded] four more sides: Fletcher Allen's stately Blue Drag ..." Fletcher Allen?  Who he?  It turns out Fletcher Allen was one of Freddy Taylor's Swing Men from Harlem.  I'm guessing that he brought the tune to the party even if he didn't actually write it. 

Now, I don't think there's anything particularly magical or special about this tune: it's a simple enough piece of popular music, that happens to have been taken up as a vehicle for all sorts of musicians.  What is special is how this tune exemplifies the connections that music creates between people, places and times, how the cultures cross-fertilise each other. And on a personal level, how it leads me to discover all sorts of new things.

Oh, and one of the things I discovered was what a shotgun shack is.  As in the Talking Heads lyric. See?  Everything connects.

Manouche will have to wait for another day.

I promised you the pick of the bunch:
  • Tcha-Badjo in Mexico:
    They start off singing 16 bars of the Django "doo- wop" and then head straight into the "Washboard" - in fact very true to the Freddy Taylor song structure. 
  • Danube's Banks (on the banks of the Danube, presumably From Hamburg):
    Very cool, very middle-Europe.  Classy.
  • The Wiyos:
    Western-style kazoo insanity. Trust me, you won't regret playing this clip.

  • Allen Toussaint from New Orleans
    Who plays it with great finesse - why have I never heard this great R & B pianist before?
  • New Orleans Jazz Vipers

And, if you've stuck with me this far, how about this bizarrity? In my imagination this was recorded after a boozy afternoon in Paris; Freddy Taylor and Fletcher Allen have just left, and Django and friends, somewhat the worse for wear, are trying to remember how that tune went: Django sings, (click on the link.  Go on, I dare you. How bad can it be?)

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