23 May, 2010

"James Alley Blues" - Richard (Rabbit) Brown

Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track Five: "James Alley Blues" performed by Richard (Rabbit) Brown. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in New Orleans on March 11, 1927. Original issue Victor 20578A.

Richard "Rabbit" Brown is believed to have been born in 1880 in or near New Orleans. He was raised in Jane Alley, part of the notorious "Battlefield," a neighborhood so dangerous the police reportedly refused to go there to quell disturbances after dark. A young Louis Armstrong was born and raised in the same neighborhood. There is speculation that the young Armstrong would have heard Brown perform, which seems likely given that the two lived in the same area.

Brown performed on street corners and in nightclubs, as well as working as a singing boatman on Lake Pontchartrain. He was reportedly a small man, which may account for his nickname, "Rabbit." He recorded six sides for Victor in 1927, including this recording of "James Alley Blues" ("James Alley" was a corruption of "Jane Alley," sometimes referred to by residents as "Jane's Alley"). According to Smith's notes, Brown was "one of the earliest musicians to learn the twelve bar 'blues' chord pattern" and was "the first and most important New Orleans folk singer to record." Nothing is known of Brown's life after 1930, except that he died in 1937.

Some well-written articles on Brown can be read at "The Blues Trail" and at "Blues World".

In 2003, the Dust-to-Digital box set Goodbye, Babylon was released. It included a track by a singer credited as Blind Willie Harris which was recorded in New Orleans in 1929. The liner notes point out striking similarities between Harris and Rabbit Brown, leading to some speculation that "Blind Willie Harris" might have been a pseudonym used by Brown. It was a fairly common practice for blues and other secular artists to employ a pseudonym when recording religious material (although this practice was actually imposed by the record labels, who feared that religious listeners would not buy records by blues artists).

"James Alley Blues" is a lament employing the twelve-bar blues form. In each stanza, a line is sung and repeated, followed by a third line which rhymes with the first. The relative simplicity of the lyric contrasts with Brown's strong instrumental accompaniment on the guitar. Brown performs a strong bass-line and delicate guitar figures on the higher strings simultaneously.

The times ain't now nothin' like they used to be.
Oh, times ain't now nothin' like they used to be.
And I'm tellin' you all the truth. Whoa, take it from me.

I done seen better days, but I'm puttin' up with these.
I done seen better days, but I'm puttin' up with these.
I could have much a better time with these girls down in New Orleans.

Cause I was born in the country, she thinks I'm easy to rule.
Cause I was born in the country, she thinks I'm easy to rule.
She try to hitch me to a wagon, she wanna drive me like a mule.

You know, I bought her the groceries and I pay the rent.
Yeah, I buy her the groceries and I paid the rent.
She try to make me to wash her clothes, but I got good common sense.

I said, if you don't want me, why don't you tell me so?
You know, if you don't want me, why don't you tell me so?
Cause it ain't like I'm a man that ain't got nowhere to go.

I been give you sugar for sugar, let you get salt for salt.
I give you sugar for sugar, let you get salt for salt.
And if you can't get 'long with me, we'll it's your own fault.

How you want me to love you, and treat me mean?
How do you want me to love you, you keep on treatin' me mean?
You're my daily thought and my nightly dream.

Sometime I think that you're too sweet to die.
Sometime I think that you're too sweet to die.
And another time I think you ought to be buried alive.

The lyric describes a contentious relationship between the speaker and his lover. After describing how times "ain't nothing like they used to be" and how he'd have a "much better time with these girls down in New Orleans," he goes on to complain of his treatment. His woman "drive[s] [him] like a mule" and tries to "make [him] wash [her] clothes." These are fairly common concerns in blues lyrics, complaining of a woman as a "mean mistreater." The lyric becomes chilling towards the end when he states that "sometime[s] [he] think[s] [his woman is] too sweet to die," but that "another time [he] think[s] [she] ought to be buried alive."

While Bob Dylan recorded an unreleased version of "The House Carpenter" and borrowed the melody of "A Lazy Farmer Boy" for his "Hard Times In New York," "James Alley Blues" contains a lyric that Dylan echoes in a completely original composition, "Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)."

Well, it's sugar for sugar and salt for salt.
If you go down in the flood, it's gonna be your fault.

This is not the first time that a lyric from the Anthology is echoed in a Dylan lyric, as we will see in "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground."

"James Alley Blues" is the fourth song in a row to deal with romance and heartbreak. Smith appears to have placed this song in sequence with "I Woke Up One Morning In May" for both thematic reasons (both songs deal with bad relationships. One from the point of view of a woman, the other from that of a man) and because both songs were recorded in New Orleans by native Louisianians. In fact, "James Alley Blues" is the only track on the Anthology in which Smith includes the location of the recording in his notes. Why was this? Was it an error on Smith's part, or was he trying to draw the listener's attention to the connection between these two selections?

Thanks to Ian Nagoski for his input into the lyric.

The Shameless Plug Department: The sixth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is finally up! It's an all fiddle episode featuring fiddle tunes from both black and white artists, as well as three tracks from the Middle East! 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!

I would like to announce that beginning May 9, 2010, I will be hosting "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

Here's video of ex-Byrds frontman, Roger McGuinn performing a solo acoustic version of "James Alley Blues."

Here's an extremely faithful rendition of "James Alley Blues" performed on a steel bodied guitar by Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Finally, here's Jeff Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett of Wilco performing a version of "James Alley Blues" during a television appearance.

Download and listen to Richard "Rabbit" Brown - "James Alley Blues"


  1. http://www.marcomahler.com/album2010/Marco_Mahler-James_Alley_Blues.mp3

  2. I love the David Johansen and the Harry Smith version

  3. I think there's a mistake. Dylan used the melody of 'Down on Penny's Farm' for Hard Times in NY town.