Daily Archives: February 26, 2009

MOUND CITY BLUE BLOWERS: “NINE O’CLOCK FOLKS”

This Vitaphone short (circa 1931) is ten minutes long, and viewers who suffer from even mild impatience may want to fast-forward through the hillbilly jokes that take up the first four minutes: the man sitting on a box of eggs because his hen has wandered off, the local constable directing traffic (it’s another man and his cow).  Cinematic vaudeville at its finest and broadest, as those city slickers show how dumb the rubes are.

But things start to get hot when the trio from the local cafe, “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” (who are they, really?) sing a low-down melody, an eccentric dancer capers around the stage on clown shoes.  That would be intermitently hilarious vaudeville, but the jazz content would be low.  However, you can begin to hear Red McKenzie creating wailing phrases behind the dancer, as if he couldn’t contain himself.  Then, after some more labored banter, the trio-that-became-a quartet takes the stage for a ferocious ST. LOUIS BLUES — from left to right, there’s Red (blowing his comb wrapped in newspaper into his hat), Josh Billings whacking a suitcase with whiskbrooms and kicking it for bass-drum accents, Eddie Condon and Jack Bland, playing what appear to be Vega lutes.

Josh Billings, by the way, is credited with one of the great wry aphorisms of the last century.  Someone is supposed to have been complaining about how things were in what would later be called the Great Depression.  “Will it ever get better?” lamented the nameless interlocutor.  Billings said thoughtfully, “Better times are coming . . . now and then.”

The rocking interlude is over too soon, and we descend into a drunken-dog act . . .  I find it weirdly significant that Whitey the dog gets star billing, but no matter.  How else would we have seen the Mound City Blue Blowers?  Thanks to Vitaphone, to Roy Mack, the director, to TCM, to Dailymotion, and others.

And now, ladies and gentlemen . . . !

KEEP OFF THE GRASS! (JOE TURNER PLAYS JAMES P. JOHNSON)

Stride is such a triumph of instinct and athleticism that it always amazes me.  Here’s a rare clip of the American pianist Joe Turner (not to be confused with Big Joe Turner) — who appeared in 1931 as one half of a duo backing the singer Adelaide Hall.  The other pianist?  A kid from Ohio named Tatum.

I love what I call Jazz Manglish — so James P.’s title, an admonitory KEEP OFF THE GRASS, is transformed here into KEEPING OUT OF THE GRASS, which is gentler and more descriptive, but hardly the same thing.  We know what it means, though.  And it seems as if stride demands a cigar — think of the Lion and James P. — although Fats got by with cigarettes.  But he was Fats, of course.