The South Memphis Jug Band was co-led by guitarist and vocalist Jack Kelly and fiddler Will Batts. The group was rounded out by guitarist Dan Sane and Dr. D.M. Higgs on the jug. They are generally considered to be the bluesiest of the Memphis-area jug bands. They made their first recordings in 1933 at a session that saw the recording of twenty three titles, including this version of "Cold Iron Bed." They didn't record again until 1939. Following their initial recording session, the group's line-up underwent several changes in personnel.
Jack Kelly remains something of an enigma. Nothing is known of his background or early years. He formed the South Memphis Jug Band with Will Batts, originally performing under the name "Jack Kelly's Jug Busters." He continued to lead various incarnations of the band until the mid-1950s. Kelly died in Memphis in 1960. His exact death date and cause of death are unknown.
Will Batts was born in Michigan, Mississippi on January 24, 1904. Little is known of Batts' early life. He was working as a farm hand when he reportedly decided to pursue music as a full time profession. Fortunately, Batts' talent as a fiddler was commensurate with his ambition. He joined Kelly's Jug Busters, making his first recordings with the group in 1933. Batts made several recordings with guitarist Dan Sane, as well as with guitarist and vocalist Frank Stokes. Batts made his last known recording with Big Walter Horton in 1952. He died on April 16, 1954.
Guitarist Dan Sane (sometimes spelled "Sain" or "Sing") was born in Hernando, Mississippi on September 22, 1896. He made his debut recordings with Frank Stokes in 1927. He met up with Will Batts and Jack Kelly in the early 1930s and soon joined their jug band. Following his association with Kelly, Sane continued to perform with Stokes until the latter's retirement in 1952. Sane died in Memphis on February 18, 1956.
No biographical information is available at this time on Dr. Daniel M. Higgs.
"Cold Iron Bed" is fairly typical blues lament, primarily focused on a no-good woman (described in the song as a "weed" whom the cows will "mow down"). No explanation is given as to exactly what this woman has done to earn the speaker's anger.
Baby, take me up and lay me down in your cool iron bed. Baby, take me upstairs, lay me down in your cool iron bed. If I don’t get no better, I want you to come and rub my head.
You're a no-good weed, the cows is gonna mow you down. Yeah, you're a no-good weed, the cow is gonna mow you down. And if I were the police, mama, I’d run you clean outta town.
Ever since, ever since my poor mother been dead, Ever since, ever since my poor mother been dead, The rocks have been my pillow, and the cold ground has been my bed.
Baby, I’ll make everything all right. Baby, I’ll make everything all right. If I don’t see you tomorrow, I’ll see you tomorrow night.
"Cold Iron Bed" is a song that Smith might have included in the third volume of the original Anthology set. The song is a series of floating verses that detail the speaker's feelings of anger and resentment towards his woman. Interestingly, however, in the last verse, the speaker seems to relent. He promises that he will "make everything all right" and that he will see her "tomorrow night."
The performance is exceptional, and stands up with the classic jug band recordings included in the original set. There is really no reason this recording couldn't have been included in the original Anthology, except that Smith apparently chose not to. It is possible that Smith had considered including this recording in the aborted fourth volume simply because he had cut "Cold Iron Bed" from the original set.
This extremely bluesy recording sets the stage for the string of four blues recordings in a row that follow.
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Here's Jeff Mitchell performing an impassioned version of "Cold Iron Bed" on a baritone ukulele.