| Sheet music cover, by artist Jimmy Swinnerton (29).|
The melodramatic article “Origin of “Blues” (or Jazz)” is well known to blues scholars but one that is rarely commented upon. The article appeared shortly after the first commercial blues song ‘Crazy Blues’ was recorded by Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds on August 10, 1920.
The Leightons, authors of the article, began as a pair of minstrels who performed in blackface to the accompaniment of guitar and banjo before moving on to composing Tin Pan Alley songs performed on record by themselves and others. They might be better described as song-hunters than composers because almost all their songs, as was the practice of the time, were bought cheaply, or outright stolen, from naive black and white singers and copyrighted, a business matter Tin Pan Alley regarded as unremarkable. Perry Bradford, composer and pianist on ‘Crazy Blues,’ spent much of his time fighting lawsuits in copyright court.
The people, stories and songs mentioned in the article deserve a closer look so I have transcribed the original and added my own thoughts, notes and explorations [within] the text. “Burt” Leighton appears in most other historical sources as “Bert.”
ORIGIN OF “BLUES” (OR JAZZ) by The Leightons (Frank and Burt)
From Variety, Friday, Jan 26, 1922.
In Butte, Montana, when life was harsh, spectacular, percussive, uncertain, two boys climbed to the cinders from the rods beneath a freight car. They were explorers. The equipment they packed consisted of a guitar and a banjo. They were pushing deep into the forbidden regions of the underworld, then flourishing in every American city and, while making a flighty living as troubadours from bar to bar, from dive to dive, were collecting material which gives the clue to the original sources of the jazz wave now rippling over the world.
[According to ‘Monarchs of Minstrelsy’ (1911) James Albert “Bert” Leighton was born in Altamont, Illinois December 29, 1878 and joined Barlow Brothers Minstrels August 21, 1899. He died at San Francisco on February 10, 1964. Frank Leighton was born April 14, 1880 near Cowden, Illinois and began his career as a blackface performer in a medicine show on June 1, 1897 and toured with Burt Sheppard’s Minstrels (1898) and Vogel and Deming’s Minstrels (1899). Leighton and Leighton made their first appearance together at Poughkeepsie, New York on December 8, 1900. In 1903 the pair toured with Quinlan and Wall’s minstrels and in 1904 with Lew Dockstader’s Minstrels.
The Leighton Brothers first heard of the song ‘Casey Jones’ from their brother William, an engineer on the Illinois Central. William heard it from Wallace ‘Wash’ Saunders, a Negro engine ‘wiper’ employed by the same railroad, and passed the song along.
Compositions: ‘There’s a Dark Man Coming with a Bundle’, Eb’ry Dollar Carries Trubbles Ob its Own,’ ‘The Message of the Old Church Bell,’ ‘Ain’t Dat a Shame,’ and others.]
Butte received the wanderers well. The silver pieces that flew into the caps of the strollers between numbers were of generous proportions. For the songs the boys gave were songs native to the surroundings; songs of the Mississippi river traffic, of the railroad, of the mines and the cattle ranges. Not one could have been printed. Their most pungent verses were marred, according to accepted standards, by phrases of medieval frankness. What our old ballads have lost in passing into print, these songs retained.
In a stuffy room, reeking and rattling with crude revelry, the singers found an accompanist on the piano, a mulatto girl, hollow-eyed, who turned her back on the throng at intervals to manipulate a hypodermic syringe that flashed against the brown of her lean arm. With her, the two singers hushed the racket with such choice outpourings of sentiment as:
Listen now white folks, while I tell to you,
Coons without a habit are mighty few;
Some have a habit of dressing neat,
But my bad habit is to sleep and eat.
I’ll tell all you coons you’ll soon be dead,
If you don’t stop sniffin’ coke in your head,
There’s two bad habits that I have barred,
That’s fightin’ ‘bout the girls an’ workin’ hard.
Oh, that is a habit I never had,
That kind of a habit is mighty bad.
I’m tellin’ you, white folks, I’m mighty glad,
That is a habit I never had.
[You can listen to ‘That is a Habit I Never Had’ by Billy Murray (1904) HERE. Bob Roberts also recorded the song.]
“Dell’s got a song of her own,” said the white proprietor, “Let ‘em have it, Dell.”
The mulatto struck a minor chord and, in a husky soprano, wistful and pain-fraught, she voiced the lament of the forsaken woman –
“I never loved but one woman’s son,
Fare thee, honey, fare thee well,
And I hope and trust I never love another one,
Fare thee, honey, fare thee well,
I worked out in the rain, I worked out in the snow,
What all I done for that man nobody will ever know,
He woke up one morning and skipped with all my dough
An’ just said -- Fare thee, honey, fare thee well.”
I done all that a poor ol’ gal could do,
I fed him pork chops, cooked him kidney stew;
I even knelt down on my knees and blacked his shoe,
All for that man, that measly man.”
That was the first time, or one of the first times, that the Leighton Brothers conceived the idea of commercializing the pathetic lamentation of the unfortunates of the underworld.
That was an origin of the blues, and the blending of the blues and ragtime created the jazz now prevalent, although the authentic composition, springing from the deeps of Negro woe in haunts of urban vice, is seldom found in music shops.
[Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds, Georgia White and Count Basie recorded “Fare Thee, Honey, Fare Thee Well.” Peter Muir, author of “Long Lost Blues” sings the original version HERE. The song is also known as “Dink’s Song,” and under that title was a favorite during the sixties folk revival. Odetta, Kate and Anna McCarrigle, Cisco Houston, The Punch Brothers, Harry Belafonte, Dave van Ronk, and Jeff Buckley all recorded the song. Bob Dylan sings it HERE.]
The explorers, Frank and Burt Leighton, now standard variety artists, belonged to a group of American minstrels, most of whom died young after going down into strange places to bring up the songs of Negro outcasts, of cowboy, miner and gambler. The Negro was the true singer of that feverish section of America. Before the Civil War the Negro population was rural. The black man had his sorrows and his “spirituals” and jubilee songs were chants of barbaric somberness. These are preserved intact. Some of the motives have been ambitiously elaborated, but only a chorus of Negro voices can capture the primitive swing and appeal of them.
After the war, the Negro quarters of industrial cities began to grow. Black folks and yellow huddled in slumsand the child nature of many succumbed to vice. It is only fair to state that the rag-time melody, which Negro leaders are glad to have credited to their race, grew in lawless haunts. The Negro lives at his worst with an abandon utterly lacking in white debauchery. He never acquired the hard cynicism of the white sinner. He laughs, loves, fights, gambles with an ardor the colder race cannot imitate. When the outburst of hot animalism dies down, and the dicer has lost his last dime, the gunman or the razor wielder is in a gaol cell, the lover and his mistress are torn apart by jealousy or death, then the black man’s soul is overwhelmed with grief which translates itself into song.
In Memphis a colored gambler lost his “high-yallow” girl to a rival. He lured the lady back into his clutches and returned her to the new love, dismembered and packed in a trunk. The lover, who beheld the handiwork of outraged passion, ran screaming into the street, stark mad. The vengeful one was caught, and while the gallows were being prepared for him, composed ‘The Death House Blues,’ which he played on the piano in the sheriff’s home, and sang with all his heart a few hours before the trap fell beneath his feet. The song consisted of numerous verses on the order of the following:
“I’m sittin’ in the jailhouse behind the stone wall,
And a brown-skinned gal was the cause of it all;
In the morning at half-past nine, hacks and hearses will form in line,
Friends and relations will gather ‘round
To carry my body to the buryin’ ground.”
[One of the song-thieving Leighton Brothers was probably in the audience at Death Row, pen in hand, and ready to rush the song off to the song publishers while the body was still cold (I’m joking). ‘Death House Blues’ was recorded by Bessie Smith and Margaret Johnson in the twenties. Son House uses a similar motif in ‘Death Letter Blues.’ The song became associated with the Scottsboro Boys in the thirties. Topical songs of protest, ‘The Scottsboro Boys Shall Not Die,’ ‘Song for the Scottsboro Boys,’ and ‘'The Death House Blues,’ were all written about a criminal case that made history. In 1938 New York’s Hall Johnson Choir, male and female, performed a song called ‘Scottsboro’ which contained the lyric “Paper come out, done strowed de news, bout seven po’ chillun, done moan the Death House Blues.” – The Age, July 16, 1938.]
To one who has glimpsed the sources of jazz music, there is always a shock to be received when some sweet young thing, tinkling the piano in the sanctity of a good American Methodist home, sings:
“Won’t you come home, dear daddy, please dear come home,
She cries the whole day long.
I’ll do the cookin’ honey, I’ll pay the rent,
I know I’se done you wrong.
Remember that rainy evenin’ I drove you out
With nothin’ but a fine tooth comb,
I know I’se to blame, now ain’t that a shame,
Dear daddy won’t you please come home!”
She, or her mother, or her brother, or her chums, know the real meaning of the words they carol.
[‘Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey.’ The song probably originated in a bar or brothel, with filthy lyrics, hence the dire wink from the author. See further below.]
Billy Considine, famous in the sporting world, sat in Hammerstein’s Victoria theatre, New York, and heard, for the first time, the Leightons sing their sterilized version of “Frankie and Johnnie.”
“I held my breath,” he said afterward, “I thought you boys had gone balmy, and I knew if you sang the real verses there would be a riot. I laid ‘Betsy’ (his revolver) on my lap and figured I’d do my best to save you from being mobbed.”
But Mr. Considine had no cause for alarm. The minstrel men who discovered the coon song placed it on the market in strongly censored form. “Frankie and Johnnie,” a standard ballad of dance halls and “joints” from coast to coast, remained obscure to the polite world until published by the Leightons. They have recorded more than 100 original stanzas of the ballad. Versions and tunes are varied. How barren and how empty are the words in print when once they have been heard to the sob and twang of a guitar, with a mixed company of harmonists to join the refrain:
“He was my man, an’ he done me wrong.”
Frankie she was a good girl, most everybody here knows,
Went out and spent most a hundred dollars for Johnnie’s new set of clothes,
‘Cause he was her man, but he done her wrong.
Some of the conclusions of Frankie and Johnnie are as follows:
Frankie she dashed around the corner, peeped through a window so high,
There she saw her lovin’ Johnnie makin’ love to Nelly Bly.
Oh Lord my man, he’s doin’ me wrong.
Frankie came back around the corner, this time it wasn’t for fun,
Underneath her silk komono, she had a great big .44 gun.
Lookin’ for her man, ‘cause he done her wrong.
Johnnie he ran down the hallway, cryin’ oh, Frankie, don’t shoot!
But Frankie she fired her .44 gun five times with a rooti-toot-toot.
She killed her man ‘cause he done her wrong.
The judge he said unto Frankie, there ain’t no use to cry to me,
The jury done brought in the verdict of murder in the first degree.
You killed your man ‘cause he done her wrong.
Send for the rubber-tired hearses, go get the rubber-tire hacks,
Take my lovin’ Johnnie to the graveyard and never, never bring him back.
He was my man, but he done me wrong.
The ballad in its reconstructed shape is popular in Y.M.C.A. parlors. “Frankie and Johnnie” is a specimen of the authentic coon song, and was taken from a true happening.
The story of this song’s ascent into respectability is the story of the authentic coon song, not the counterfeit produced in tin-pan alley by the commercial exploiters. The first line informs the experienced ear whether the jazz composition is real or faked. Few white men have been able to create the rag-time of the true quality, although many have been skillful in adaptations of the tunes created by nameless Negroes.
[Frankie Baker, the real life murderess who achieved folk-fame through the topical ballad ‘Frankie and Albert (or Frankie and Johnny)’ died in the mental wing of a hospital in Pendleton, Oregon on January 10, 1952 age 75. In the early morning hours of October 16, 1899, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Frankie Baker shot Allen Britt “at their quarters in the rear of Targee Street.” Baker was acquitted, having acted in self-defense after Britt, who preferred “Albert” to Allen, threatened her with a knife. Frankie was quoted in a newspaper as saying “That song got it all wrong. It was just an old Harrington and Richardson .38 and I only shot once.”
The title was originally ‘Frankie and Albert’ and supposedly composed by one Jim Dooley (race unknown) of St. Louis. Jim Dooley died in 1932. It was Tin Pan Alley songsters Ren Field and the Leighton Brothers who adapted and copyrighted it as ‘Frankie and Johnny.’ ‘Frankie and Albert’ probably began as a bawdy St. Louis whorehouse piano song (although songsters with guitars entertained in the same establishments). Ed Cray collected a large amount of filthy stanzas and recorded them in his book The Erotic Muse, 1969, Oak Publications. One of the milder verses is:
Frankie went looking for Johnny.
She hung out a sign on the door:
“No more fish for sale now,
Go find you another whore.”
He was her man.
But he done her wrong.
Some folklorists claimed the song was in circulation before 1899 and was based on a similar St. Louis murder circa 1850. Another says a song of that title was sung by white soldiers during the Civil War of 1860-65. No doubt that the version we know today was based on Frankie Baker’s murder of Allen Britt but the melody may be older.
‘Frankie and Albert’ was recorded by Jewell Long, Mance Lipscomb, Joe Callicot, Leadbelly, and Eric Von Schmidt. Those songs can all be heard HERE. ‘Frankie and Johnny’ was recorded by Frank Crumit, Louis Armstrong, JimmieRodgers, Johnny Horton, Mae West, Elvis Presley, Roscoe Holcomb, Memphis Slim, Gene Vincent, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, Lindsay Lohan, Tiny Grimes, and hundreds more. An early piano roll can be heard HERE. Jimmie Davis, two time governor of Louisiana, recorded a comic take on the song as ‘The ‘Shot-gun Wedding.’]
The Leightons, young men yet, represent the only active survivors of the pioneers in the discovery of jazz. With them less than two decades ago were Hughie Cannon, Gutter Wilson, Johnny Queen and Ben Harney.
[Gutter Wilson was, I assume, Walter Wilson, who supplied music to many Johnny Queen lyrics. There was an earlier Johnny Queen, a banjo playing minstrel and comedian connected with Harrigan and Hart’s theatre for many years. He died in February 1884. Harney’s ‘Mr. Johnson Turn Me Loose’ is HERE, ‘Cakewalk in the Sky’ is HERE. Bessie Smith recorded the song as well (HERE). Harney was from New Orleans and some writers who knew him claimed he was passing for white.]
By what miracle of self-respect and good sense they avoided the pitfalls which swallowed up many of their old comrades, they can’t explain. Hughie Cannon, who wrote “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey” as a sequel to the Leighton’s “Bill Bailey, Ain’t Dat a Shame,” died in the charity ward of a hospital in Toledo before he was forty. Hughie’s songs, which netted publishers tens of thousands, were sold by him in bar-rooms where he played the piano for a living. A round of drinks for the house and a suit of clothes was the price he received for “Goo-Goo Eyes,” the favorite of a season, and is still remembered as the fore-runner of the deluge of coon songs.
[John Dobbs 1901 recording of ‘Goo-Goo Eyes’ HERE is quite similar to the tune of ‘Frankie and Johnnie.’ Then of course, there was ‘Barney Google with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes’ HERE.]
“Casey Jones” was given out by the Leighton’s. They frankly admit that their work in connection with this classic consisted of selecting a series of clean verses and standardizing a tune. Many of the Negro ballads require a variation of the melody with each stanza, and change the refrain to fit the unfolding of the story. They sold this song outright for $5,000. No one ever identified the author of “Casey Jones.” He was undoubtedly a Negro engine wiper in the railway yards of a Southern city in the United States. A haunting tune and a verse or two start such a song in rirrulation (sic). Gifted ones add to it; it grows from town to town; it produces off-shoots; it would die in a few years if it were not preserved, expurgated, by a publisher. Two-thirds of its character is lost, of course, when it becomes conventionalized.
[Vulgar lyrics to ‘Casey Jones’ can be found in Ed Cray’s The Erotic Muse (1969). Sample:
Casey Jones was a son-of-a-bitch,
Drove a hot steam engine through a forty foot ditch,
Pissed on the whistle and he shit on the bell
And he went through Chicago like a bat out of hell.
Ed Cray is also author of “Ramblin’ Man, the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie.”]
Following are some of the songs the Leighton’s wrote which became popular:
“Ain’t Dat a Shame.”
“Fare Thee Well, Honey, Fare Thee Well.”
“I Got Mine.”
“There’s a Dark Man Coming with a Bundle.”
‘Bill, You Done Me Wrong.”
“Frankie and Johnnie.”
And numerous other songs which did not obtain such wide popularity.
(Frank and Burt Leighton are the earliest singers of “blues” known in vaudeville. That type of song was their dependence almost as an act. They have grown to be so strongly identified with “blues” it is expected of them. Especially “Frankie and Johnnie,” mentioned by them in the above article. But comparatively in recent vaudeville times were the “blues” a strange song style to an audience. A minute percentage of the audience knew what it was all about. The Leighton’s had to work harder in those days to get across the “blues” than now, when almost all popular song-singing turns, even to sister acts, are using one or more. The sister acts found the “blues” songs were easy to harmonize).
“I Come with Dulcem Strain” - Early Negro Minstrelsy HERE.
Ernest Hogan, The Unbleached American HERE.
Steamboat Bill, Casey Jones, and The Wreck of the Old '97 HERE.
May Irwin, Queen of Ragtime HERE.
Bert Williams, King of Comedy HERE.
The Cuckoo Song HERE.
James A. Bland (1854-1911) HERE.
The Ballad of Sam Hall HERE.
Shake Raggers and Buzzard Roosters - Origins of Ragtime Music HERE.
Eugene Stratton (1861-1918) HERE.
Pioneer Recording artist George W. Johnson HERE.