08 June, 2010

"Bob Lee Junior Blues" - Memphis Jug Band

Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track Ten: "Bob Lee Junior Blues" performed by The Memphis Jug Band. "Vocal solo with kazoo, banjo-mandolin, jug, guitar." Recorded in Atlanta on October 19, 1927. Original issue Victor 21356A (40324).

Will Shade was born on February 5, 1898, possibly in or near Memphis, Tennessee. He was also known as "Son Brimmer," a nickname apparently conferred by his grandmother, Annie Brimmer. Whether his real name was Shade or Brimmer is unknown, nor is anything known of his early life or education.

In 1925, Shade was exposed to the music of the Dixieland Jug Blowers, a jug band based in Louisville, Kentucky. Shade was so impressed that he started his own jug band featuring several local musicians. Aside from Shade, the original members of the Memphis Jug Band were guitarist Tee Wee Blackman, vocalist Ben Ramey, and a jug player known only as Lionhouse. Shade himself played washtub bass, guitar, and harmonica. It was as a harmonica player that Shade exerted the most influence. Among his followers were Big Walter Horton, Sonny Boy Williamson I and II, and Charlie Musselwhite.

Shade was known to hang around other Memphis musicians, including Gus Cannon, Jim Jackson, and Furry Lewis. Shade was also in demand as a session musician, accompanying numerous local artists on his own and with the other members of the Memphis Jug Band. Among his sideman credits is his performance on "He Got Better Things For You" by the Memphis Sanctified Singers.

Active for more than forty years, the Memphis Jug Band had a constantly changing personnel. By the time of the 1927 Victor session that produced "Bob Lee Junior Blues," the group consisted of Will Shade on guitar, Ben Ramey on kazoo, Will Weldon on guitar, Vol Stevens on banjo-mandolin and Jennie Clayton on vocal.

The group was incredibly prolific. Between 1927 and 1934, the Memphis Jug Band made more than eighty recordings for such labels as Victor, Gennett, and Okeh.

As with so many other bands and musicians of the period, the fortunes of the Memphis Jug Band flagged during the Depression. The group broke up after 1934, although individual members of the group continued to perform actively until the 1940s.

Shade made his last recording session in 1963 with Gus Cannon, Sam Lindsay, and Milton Roby. Shade died of pneumonia on September 18, 1966 and was buried in an unmarked grave. In 2008, a group of musicians held a fundraiser and bought a headstone for Shade's grave. Shade and the Memphis Jug Band were also honored in 2009 with a brass note on Beale Street's "walk of fame," the first jug band to be so honored.

For more information on jug bands and the jug as a musical instrument, see the entry for "Newport Blues" by the Cincinnati Jug Band.

The banjo-mandolin is a hybrid developed in the late 19th or early 20th century. It gave the mandolin player the volume of the banjo, as well as a similar sound, without having to learn the banjo's fingering. Like the mandolin, the banjo-mandolin (sometimes called a "manjo") is strung with four "courses" that are tuned identically to the mandolin and the violin. The bridge stands on a banjo-like head that ranges from five to ten inches in diameter (larger heads were favored because they produced a louder sound). With the advent of amplification, the banjo-mandolin went out of style and is now seldom played.

"Bob Lee Junior Blues" is yet another song of lost love.

I can't sleep for dreamin'.
I can't stay awake for tryin'.
I can't sleep for dreamin'.
Can't stay awake for tryin'.
That man I'm lovin',
He's trouble all the time.

Wish my man could holler
Like Bob Lee Junior does.
Wish my man could holler
Like Bob Lee Junior does.
I would follow my daddy
Most everywhere he goes.

And I asked the conductor,
"Let me ride the blinds."
I asked the conductor,
"Let me ride your blinds."
He said, "Buy you a ticket,
This garbage (?) train ain't mine."

Oh, I hate the train
That take my man away.
I hate the train
That take my man away.
But the same train carry him
Gonna bring him back someday.

"Bob Lee Junior Blues" is the third song in a row to feature a female voice. It is a typical lament of lost love, featuring a couple if curiosities. The first is the title, which clearly comes from the line, "I wish my man could holler/Like Bob Lee Junior does." The question is, who is Bob Lee Junior? That the speaker wishes that her man could "holler" like him, suggests that Bob Lee Junior was a vocalist of some kind. Was he somebody who was popular in Memphis during the '20s? Or is the lyric a holdover from some earlier time and place?

The second curiosity is the interpolation of the song "Careless Love" following the last verse. Nowadays, we'd call this a "sample." Back then, it was called a "quote" or a "snatch." Its use here is interesting, since it clearly comments on the action of the song.

"Careless Love" is a traditional song of unknown origin. Like most traditional songs, the lyrics vary from version to version, but they usually deal with heartache and lost love, and sometimes with revenge. One fairly typical verse is as follows:

Love, oh love, oh careless love,
You fly to my head like wine,
You've ruined the life of many a poor girl,
and you nearly wrecked this life of mine.

"Careless Love" has been recorded numerous times, including version by Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and Harry Connick, Jr. W.C. Handy appropriated the melody for his "Loveless Love."

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 a version of "Careless Love" performed by Odetta on the Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour.

Here's another version of "Careless Love" performed by Strange Love, a blues duo consisting of harmonica player Roger Strange and Bob Love on guitar.

Download and listen to The Memphis Jug Band - "Bob Lee Junior Blues"


  1. Or, if you like, Tuba Skinny of New Orleans played a nice Careless Love one day:


  2. The Bob Lee Jr. was a steamship on the Lee Line, which had been founded by James Lee and plied the Mississippi River out of Memphis. It blew a long, loud whistle, and it was named for Bob Lee Jr., James's grandson. Bob Jr. was the son of James's son Robert E. Lee (not the Confederate general!) and there was a Robert E. Lee steamship in the line as well. Stacker Lee (a.k.a. Stagolee) was another of James Lee's sons. He was a captain on the line, and a ship, the Stacker Lee, was named for him. Other ships in the Lee Line included the James Lee, the Rosa Lee, the Georgia Lee, the Peters Lee, the Harry Lee, the Rees Lee, and the Sadie Lee, all named for family members. For extensive information on the Lee Line, see:

  3. Quick correction to what i just wrote: Robert E. Lee was James Lee's nephew, not his son, thus Bob Lee Jr. was his grand-nephew. And i left out the Ora Lee, the Lady Lee, the Bayless Lee, the John Lee, and the Rowena Lee. Sorry for the confusion -- too many Lees!

  4. Will Shade's "real name" was William Shade, Jr. His father was William Shade, Sr. His father died when Will Jr. was 5 years old, and he was raised by his grandmother, Annie Brimmer. So he was known locally as Son Brimmer, but introduced himself as Will Shade and his wife as Jennie Mae Shade in interviews.