Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Barbecue Any Old Time: Blues From The Pit 1927-1942


For decades John Morthland has been writing about music for the likes of Creem, Rolling Stone and Texas Monthly. He has also been part of every Texas Monthly Top 50 tasting team to date, and provided an essay in one of my favorite Texas BBQ books. His barbecue and music credentials are staggering which is why I am so pleased that he chose this blog to express his thoughts on a new compilation released today called Barbecue Any Old Time: Blues From The Pit 1927-1942. Take it away John:

If you think barbecue and blues are inseparable today, you should have been around in the 1930s. It was a time when recordings were finally blowing sheet music away as the primary means of selling music. And it was a time when barbecue joints were replacing occasional family and community gatherings as the primary venue in the South for smoked meats, as pointed out in this CD’s liner notes by Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Museum of the New South in Charlotte NC. One of the results of the confluence of these two developments is the 24 tracks by various musicians compiled on Barbecue Any Old Time: Blues from the Pit 1927-1942.

Old Hat Records is a specialty label run by 78 rpm record collector Marshall Wyatt out of his home in Raleigh NC. In the past, he has released anthologies of African-American fiddle music, medicine show songs, hillbilly blues and other vernacular American sounds. The music is digitally remastered and exquisitely packaged, with period photos and extensive liner notes; this one is no exception, and it makes for a romping good time.

For one thing, this was also an era when black Americans (then the sole market for this music) didn’t really distinguish between jazz and blues; though more than a few of these tracks featuring horns and piano are what we now label “jazz,” back then they were usually lumped in with guitar blues, and combining them here lends this package both variety and swing. And even the guitar blues are the more ragtimey, Piedmont blues of the East Coast, jaunty and upbeat compared to the darker sounds of the Mississippi Delta (where the musicians, when their stomachs started growling, were more likely to sing about “hot tamales, baby”). Finally, the good-timing tunes here are what the music industry called “novelty songs,” “double entendre” blues even though in reality their entendre couldn’t be much more single. (It does not take a whole lot of brainpower, after all, to figure out what Charlie Campbell means when he sings, over a plunkety-plunk rhythm, “Pepper Sauce Mama, you make my meat red hot.”)

That kind of party atmosphere prevails from beginning to end. Hanchett argues that these lyrics reflect the increased affluence of black Americans recently moved from the country to the city; in his view, barbecue became analogous then to the bling of today’s hip-hoppers, a prestige commodity available to anyone with the bucks to pay for it and the desire to flaunt it. I fear he’s stretching the point a little too far here; these songs could just as easily be celebrating the ability of poor people to make the most out of what little they are able to obtain. But in either case, barbecue is synonymous with good times. In fact, even the bad times are good when they’re described with the sly humor of “Big Boy” Teddy Edwards in “Who Did You Give My Barbecue To, Parts 1 and 2.” Brownie McGhee reworked that song slightly and claimed it as his own on “Barbecue Any Old Time.”

You want wacky? Bogus Ben Covington’s one-of-a-kind, mock-gospel “I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop” satirizes the Scottish hymn “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” (Covington also worked carnival sideshows as “The Human Pretzel.”) Back on the sexual front, Bessie Jackson (aka Lucille Bogan), supported by Josh White on guitar and Walter Roland on piano, offers her tender “barbecue” for sale “behind the jail” on the seductive “Barbecue Bess,” while Savannah Churchill, over a nifty jazz septet, throws her hat in the ring boasting “Fat Meat Is Good Meat.” Memphis Minnie, with her wicked guitar and lusty vocals, raves about her man’s “Pig Meat on the Line.” Georgia White applies a little more polish to her version of “Pigmeat Blues,” which features a 20-year-old guitarist named Les Paul making his recording debut. Then there’s Vance Dixon and His Pencils with the comical tall tale “Meat Man Pete (Pete, the Dealer in Meat),” Hank Jones and His Ginger (actually, guitar whiz Lonnie Johnson and his brother James) with the ethereal, otherworldly instrumental “Barbecue Blues”—if I die of overeating, this is what I’ll want played at my funeral--and the husband-and-wife vaudeville team Hunter and Jenkins with the insinuating “Meat Cuttin’ Blues.” And talk about your party atmosphere: high-pitched Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon, arguably the Jimmy Scott of his time, kicks the album off with “Down at Jaspers Bar-B-Que,” an excited survey of the goings-on at an establishment owned by Chicago drummer Jasper Taylor.

But when it comes to the pairing of music with barbecue, one Robert Hicks takes the prize. He was the pitmaster and waiter at Tidwell’s Barbecue Place, in the upscale Atlanta suburb of Buckhead. A nimble 12-string guitarist and expressive singer, he was also the evening’s entertainment there. In 1927, he cut his debut single, the forlorn “Barbecue Blues,” bearing the immortal line “So glad good looks don’t take you through this world.” Columbia Records changed his name to Barbecue Bob and promoted the single with photos of him in chef’s whites and advertising copy that dripped with barbecue clich├ęs (“cooked to a turn,” “plenty of vocal seasoning,” etc.) It was a hit, and Barbecue Bob went on to make a total of 62 recordings over the next three years before dying of pneumonia at age 29. In a more just world, he would be a genuine American culture hero.

(For more information about Barbecue Any Old Time: Blues from the Pit 1927-1942, check out the web site Old Hat Records)

- John Morthland

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DISCLAIMER:

Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.

-THE PROPHETS OF SMOKED MEAT