Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Old Dog Blue" - Jim Jackson


Set Two: Social Music; Disc One; Track Nine: "Old Dog Blue" performed by Jim Jackson. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in Memphis on February 2, 1928. Original issue Victor 213878 (41827).

Jim Jackson was born sometime between 1884 and 1890 in Hernando, Mississippi. His father taught him to play guitar. Around 1905, Jackson began performing in medicine shows. By 1912, he was performing at local dances, houseparties, and juke joints, sometimes in the company of Gus Cannon (later leader of Cannon's Jug Stompers, a jug band which appears on the third disc of the Anthology). Around 1915, Jackson began performing as a member of a minstrel troupe (it was not uncommon for African-Americans to perform in blackface during the 19th and early 20th centuries). Jackson also began making regular trips to Memphis during this period, performing on and around Beal Street with Cannon, Will Shade or Furry Lewis. In 1927, Jackson came to the attention of Parmount Records talent scout H.C. Speir. Believing Jackson to be a drug addict, and therefore unreliable, Speir sold Jackson's contract to Vocalion Records. It was at Vocalion that Jackson recorded one of his most popular numbers, "Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues, Parts 1 & 2." The record sold very well, and some have theorized that this may have been the first million selling record (although no such records were kept at the time). In any case, the popularity of "Kansas City Blues" led Jackson to a second recording session, this time for Victor Records in 1928. At this session, Jackson recorded this version of "Old Dog Blue." Jackson would record his final session in 1930, when the Depression cut short his recording career. Jackson returned to Hernando, Mississippi to perform locally until his death in 1937.

According to Smith's liner notes, "Old Dog Blue" is a "dance tune with original words replaced by narrative lyrics." The title and original lyrics of this tune remain unknown to me. If anyone has any further information, please e-mail me at wheredeadvoicesgather1@gmail.com.

I'm going back where I come.
I'm going back where I come.
I'm going back to Giles County.
My wife died and left me a bounty.
Me and them pretty girls ganged around.
That's the reason I'm going to Giles County.

Had an old dog whose name was Blue.
You know Blue was mighty true.
You know Blue was a good old dog.
Blue treed a possum in a hollow log.
You can know from that he's a good old dog.

Blue treed a possum out on a limb.
Blue looked at me and I looked at him.
Grabbed that possum, put him in a sack.
"Don't move, Blue, 'til I get back."

It rained, it rained, yeah.
It rained, it rained, yeah.

Who been here since I been gone?
Little bitty girl with the red dress on.
Who been here since I been gone?
Little bitty girl with the red dress on.

Old Blue's feet was big and round.
Old Blue's feets was big and round.
Never 'lowed a possum to touch the ground.

Me and Blue went out on a hunt.
Blue treed a possum on hollow stump.
You know Blue was a good old dog.
Blue treed a possum in a hollow log.
You will know from that he's a good old dog.

But old Blue died and I dug his grave.
I dug his grave with a silver spade.
I laid him down with a golden chain.
And at every link I called his name.

One Blue, you good dog you.
One Blue, you good dog you.

Blue laid down and died like a man.
Blue laid down and died like a man.
Now he's treein' possums in the promised land.
I'm goin' to tell you just to let you know,
Old Blue's gone where good dogs go.

When I hear old Blue bark.
When I hear old Blue bark.
Blue treed a possum in Noah's Ark.
Blue treed a possum in Noah's Ark.


The existing narrative provides one of those lyrical parallels of which Smith was so fond. The previous track, "Old Country Stomp" (also by an African-American musician playing in a style that predates the blues) contains lyrics that speak of "going away" and "going back to Baltimore." Jackson begins "Old Dog Blue" with the words, "I'm going back to Giles County." There are Giles Counties in both Virginia and Tennessee. Given Jackson's Mississippi origins and the fact that this song was recorded in Memphis, it's likely that the Giles County referred to in this song is the one in Tennessee. The speaker then goes on to describe how his "wife died and left [him] a bounty," leaving him surrounded by "pretty girls." Whether he's going back to Giles County to get away from the "pretty girls" who "gang around" or whether he's going back to court the girls is unclear. An interesting essay on the blog The Celestial Monochord takes this as a sexist remark, especially in light of the speaker's grief at the later death of his dog. Personally, I don't think it is evidence of sexism, or if it is, it is not evidence of sexism on Jackson's part. Marriages for love are a relatively recent invention. In earlier times, a woman might be married to a man because her father did business with him, or because a political alliance between the two families would be mutually advantageous. In any case, it is likely that such marriages were not terribly happy ones, and in such cases the death of a spouse might not be treated terribly seriously. In Uncle Dave Macon's recording of "Way Down The Old Plank Road" (a song which appears on the third volume of the Anthology), Macon sings:

My wife died a Friday night, Saturday she was buried,
Sunday was my courting day, Monday I got married.


This doesn't mean that either Jackson or Macon were sexist (although both probably adhered to the inherently sexist attitudes of the period), but that song lyrics referring to the death of a spouse in a humorous or callous manner were common and were part of the pool of floating folk lyrics that many songwriters drew from.

In the subsequent verses, "Old Dog Blue" tells the story of the speaker's late dog, a dog that is described as "good" and "true." There are frequent references to Blue "tree[ing] possum[s]," certainly laudable behavior from a hunting dog. When Blue dies, he is described as dying "like a man." The speaker digs Blue's "grave with a silver spade" and lowers "him down with a golden chain," an image that comes up again in "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," another song that appears later on the Anthology, this time in a recording by Blind Lemon Jefferson. The lyric which describes calling Blue's name with "every link" of the golden chain is similar to the song "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," also known as "Gospel Plow."

According to Smith's notes, the one verse that might come from the original dance song is the verse that contains the lyric:

Who been here since I been gone?
Little bitty girl with the red dress on.
Who been here since I been gone?
Little bitty girl with the red dress on.


The image of the "girl with the red dress on" is a recurring image in several dance songs. One that springs immediately to mind is Ray Charles's "What'd I Say," in which he sings:

See the girl with the red dress on.
She can do the Birdland all night long.


While "Old Dog Blue" contains narrative lyrics, I stop short of describing the song as a ballad. It contains story elements, but it does not tell a story in the same way that "Henry Lee" or "Stackalee" tell a story. "Old Dog Blue" is rather filled out with floating verses, some of which might have come from an actual ballad.

"Old Dog Blue" is the second of two guitar driven songs in a row that feature pre-blues African American artists. The next three songs return us to Acadia and the Cajun people therein.

The Great-Minds-Think-Alike Department: Check out The Old, Weird America , another blog on Smith's Anthology. While my blog focuses on history and close lyrical reading (as well as my laughable attempts at musical analysis), The Old, Weird America helps give a broader view of the artists and the songs by providing downloads of other songs by the artists in question, as well as variant recordings of the selection. It's an excellent blog and is well worth visiting.

The Shameless Plug Department (what?): The fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is still the most recent. It is my intention to do a fifth episode in the near future, although for the time being I am busy acting in the Capital Repertory Theatre production of To Kill A Mockingbird. As soon as I have more time, you can rest assured that I will do a new episode of the podcast. In the meantime, you can listen to this all-blues episode where you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Here are the Byrds with a rocking version of "Old Dog Blue" recorded in 1970 at the Kralingen Pop Festival in the Netherlands.



Download and listen to Jim Jackson - "Old Dog Blue"

2 comments:

  1. I invite readers to go read my essay on Old Dog Blue more attentively. You'll see that sexism is a possible interpretation that I entertained along the way toward a more nuanced view. So, I believe Stern has misrepresented what I wrote by taking it out of context.

    Regards, The Celestial Monochord

    ReplyDelete
  2. I apologize if I misinterpreted your remarks. I found your essay to be very interesting and I plan on rereading it.

    ReplyDelete