Pete's Blog

Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe #2

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I'm still listening to Jelly Roll Morton's Library of Congress recordings, the ones of him reminiscing and playing toward the end of his life, recorded by Alan Lomax. Some of these recordings have been suppressed until now for their raw language and accounts of violence in the old New Orleans red-light district called Storytown. But these parts aren't what I had expected at all. Lomax is a notoriously patronizing interviewer (Taj Mahal printed an embarrassing transcription of Lomax's interview with Blind Willie McTell on the back of one of his albums) and throughout the first four discs of the set he continually interrupts Morton's talk of music with questions that might charitably be called prurient. He shows a morbid interest in "how the other half lives" - the "other half" evidently represented by Morton, one of the great geniuses of American music but in Lomax's view merely a guide to the lower depths. Finally, in response to Lomax's continual entreaties, Morton launches into a salty version of "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor." This is a common song that I know well, but these verses sure stumped me and I expect they would stump anyone else, too. Not only are they salty, they're peppery. And not only are they peppery, but they're not terribly musical, either. In fact, it would be hard to imagine them being sung to this or any tune in even the lowest of surroundings. Morton was not known as a lyricist, and although he thought of himself as a comic he was (in one sideman's words) "about as funny as a sick baby." But this performance is so crude, so clumsy, so unappealing that to my ears there can be only one explanation - he's putting Lomax on. You want dirty? I'll give you dirty, you giggling little New Deal creep! In fact, as F-word succeeds P-word and P-word succeeds B-word it becomes plain that Lomax has given Morton an opportunity that a black man NEVER got in a Southern town like Washington, DC in 1938: to thoroughly curse at a white man. It's all the more powerful a moment because Lomax has no idea what's going on. And Morton digs the Hell out of it. You can hear the smile he's trying to supress. It's a great moment.

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