Thursday, December 6, 2007

Georgia Grind

Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 2:36
Written by Spencer Williams
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8318
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

I’m glad that my Itunes landed on this song today because it allows me to delve into a little amateur sleuthing to attempt to trace the evolution of “Georgia Grind” and “Shake That Thing.” Armstrong recorded “Georgia Grind” twice in his career and both fine versions will be discussed in a little bit. For years, though, I’ve always been struck about how “Georgia Grind” and “Shake That Thing” share the exact same melody and in some versions, even some of the lyrics. So if you’re just here for Pops, scroll down while, but if you like sorting through 1920s jazz, blues and popular music history, stick with me!

An obvious first question is what came first, “Georgia Grind” or “Shake That Thing”? All signs seem to point to “Shake That Thing,” though do not be confused: Ford Dabney wrote a ragtime piece titled “Georgia Grind” in 1915 but it has nothing to do with the Spencer Williams tune Armstrong recorded in 1926 (certain websites claim Williams wrote in 1915…wrong!). Some versions of “Shake That Thing” credit the tune to “Traditional” but from what I can tell, it really belongs to New Orleans banjoist Papa Charlie Jackson, who recorded the first version of the song in May 1925. It’s pretty uptempo compared to some later versions, but a lot of the hallmarks are there, including the line about the “Jellyroll king.” Jackson’s version is not available to listen to for free on the Internet but I bought it off Itunes and it’s a lot of fun. (Jackson-Armstrong connection: Jackson also recorded with Freddie Keppard, singing another New Orleans favorite, “Salty Dog.” He also wrote and recorded a song called “Drop That Sack” but it has nothing to do with Armstrong’s composition of he same name.)

Anyway, Jackson’s record must have been something of a hit because by the end of 1925, it was already being covered by the likes of Clarence Williams’s Blue Five (December 15, 1925) and Ethel Waters (December 23, 1925). Waters slowed it down to give it more of a blues feeling. Her version is available on YouTube (no video, just the record) so if you’d like to hear it, here ‘tis:

The “Shake That Thing” craze continued into 1926 with Jimmy O’Bryant’s Washboard Band waxing it in January and Abe Lyman’s California Ambassador Orchestra recorded a hot version on February 1. The Lyman one is also on YouTube…again, no visual except for a picture of Lyman but the record comes through in beautiful clarity and as some of the posters discuss, this thing rocks and rolls!

So with one “Shake That Thing” cover after another being recorded, it was only a natural to have a copycat version soon appear. Enter our friend Spencer Williams (this marks two Williams entries in a row…I can probably do a month on him alone!). Williams perhaps remembered the title of the Dabney piece but more to point, Jackson’s first line referenced the peach state: “Now down in Georgia, they got a dance that’s new/ There ain’t nothin’ to it, it is easy to do/ Called ‘Shake That Thing.” Williams then borrowed a line that had been around for years:

Papa, Papa, just look at sis, out in the backyard shaking like this

On his Library of Congress recordings, Jelly Roll Morton sings this line on more than one occasion, including on “Michigan Water Blues” and “Hesitating Blues.” He sings it as:

Mama, mama, look at is, she’s out on the levee, doin’ the double twist

Obviously, Williams substituting “shaking like this” for “double twist” is a sly wink to “Shake That Thing.” Otherwise, both tunes are identical, though even I’ll admit, there are traces of this melody in many other blues tunes, including “Hesitating Blues.” And Joe Oliver’s solo on “Jazzin’ Babies Blues,” the one that Armstrong would borrow many times throughout the years, also has a “Shake That Thing”-type feel to it. But it does appear that Armstrong’s Hot Five was the first group to take a crack at the “Georgia Grind” so if you’d like to hear how they did, click here.

Now I like “Georgia Grind” because it’s one of those Hot Five records that didn’t set out to change the world, instead only aiming to entertain its listeners. It was recorded on the same day as “Heebie Jeebies,” “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Muskrat Ramble,” three tunes that indeed change the world and more power to ‘em, but “Georgia Grind” is one those reminders that young Louis “the artist” also had quite a bit of “the entertainer” in him as well. And by sharing the vocal with his wife Lil, why, it’s a practical blueprint for the duets with Velma Middleton of later years (more in a bit).

Armstrong starts the record at the V chord of the blues as the simples means for an introduction. He plays the melody in a very straight-forward fashion with Dodds and Ory sounding very comfortable (this didn’t always happen). We’re not even 30 seconds in and here comes Lil with the vocal:

Papa, Papa, look at sis, out in the backyard shaking like this,
Doing that Georgia Grind, that old Georgia Grind,
Now everybody’s talking about that old Georgia Grind.

I can shake it east, I can shake it west, but way down south I can shake it best,
Doing that Georgia Grind, I said dirty Georgia Grind,
Now everybody’s raving about that old Georgia Grind.

Ory then plays the melody for a few bars before improvising a simple solo that practically screams his name. Then Pops steps up to the mike for a good-time vocal. He was still in his enthusiastic, half-speaking, half-shouting days and I love it:

Come in here gal, come in here right now, out there trying to be bad and you don’t know how,
Doing the Georgia Grind, ohhhh, the Georgia Grind,
Everybody’s trying to do the Georgia Grind.

Say Old Miss Jones was bent and gray, saw the Georgia Grind, through her stick away,
She did the Georgia Grind, yessir she went crazy about the Georgia Grind—you know one thing?
Everybody’s trying to do the Georgia Grind.

I love those two choruses. Armstrong sings with more soul and feeling than those in the soul and R&B music world of today. I can’t imagine another pure blues singer doing better than Armstrong on words like “Everybody,” where he bends the first syllable beyond the blue horizon. And that quick, “You know one thing” would become something of a trademark. After the vocal, Johnny Dodds takes an eight-bar solo before Pops leads the rideout for the final four bars. No high notes, no stop-time solos, no dazzling feats of rhythmic risk-taking. Just some straightforward lead horn and a fun vocal and that’s all I need. After listening to it, I feel entertained and for Pops, that was mission accomplished.

With a big name like Spencer Williams behind it, it only made sense that the “Georgia Grind” would spread much like “Shake That Thing” had only months earlier. On March 18, Duke Ellington recorded it under the banner of The Washingtonians. Ellington creatively took it at an up tempo but using long meter to keep the same feel of the melody over the double-timing rhythm section. You can hear that version by clicking here. Thomas Morris and His Seven Hot Babies recorded it on July 13 and just eight days later, Jelly Roll Morton accompanied Edmonia Henderson on her version of the tune. After that, “Georgia Grind” kind of disappeared but the lyrics would be used again and again in a hundred incarnations. In April 1928, Henry Williams recorded something called “Georgia Crawl” which “borrowed” more than a little from “Georgia Grind.” It begins with the “Papa, Papa, look at sis” chorus, continues with the “I can shake it east” chorus and even has Pops’s “Come here right now” segment. Blind Willie McTell would also sing about a “Georgia Crawl” in some of his early 30s blues tunes while Coot Grant and Kid Wilson sung about “shaking it east.”

As the years went on, “Georgia Grind” more or less disappeared, only being performed by some European trad bands that remembered the Hot Five record. “Shake That Thing” lived on, though, in both blues and New Orleans jazz circles, though the lyrics often changed. When Kid Ory recorded it for Good Time Jazz in 1954, he opened his vocal by singing, “Mama, mama, look at sis” from “Georgia Grind.” Today, John Brunious of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has made it a feature of his, though he adds in some new lyrics. That might be why the band credits it on one of the C.D. releases as a “Traditional” composition and not one from Papa Charlie Jackson.

But back to our hero, Mr. Armstrong, he wasn’t quite done with “Georgia Grind,” either. When he tackled the massive Autobiography project of 1956 and 1957, “Georgia Grind” was one of the tunes selected for the Hot Five recreations, overseen by Bob Haggart. The performance follows the 1926 original to a tee, though the tempo is a little slower, which I think is an improvement. And I always like to point out that in recreating the Hot Fives and Sevens for the Autobiography, Pops didn’t feel the need to recreate the chunky feel of the original rhythm section. Times had changed and Pops was clearly more comfortable with the All Stars’s swinging feel, augmented by George Van Eps’s smooth electric guitar comping. Pops again plays the intro and one chorus up front, playing a dazzling phrase at the 16 second mark as the I chord turns to the IV. It’s a short burst of velocity that shows that even in his mature style, he was more than capable of the quick flurries that marked his younger playing days.

Velma plays the role of Lil here and it’s a perfect fit. Elsewhere on the Autobiography, Velma had to play the role of the blues queens of the 1920s and though she did a professional job, it wasn’t exactly her forte and as a result, those sides are pretty forgettable (besides some stirring obbligatos from Pops). But “Georgia Grind” was right in her bag and as she sings, Pops can be heard interacting with her, which he didn’t do with Lil in 1926. He answers her lines and even repeats the title phrase after she sings it. It’s really a duet in the true sense of the word. Trummy takes a smooth trombone spot before Pops takes over. His shouting days were pretty much behind him but he still speaks part of his lines and his reading of the phrase “Georgia Grind” is priceless. Pops continues on with his vocal—the “you know one thing” line is still there—while Edmond Hall offers fine support behind him. Hall then takes a hot solo before Pops leads the final rideout chorus. On the original record, he only entered for the last four bars but here he takes a full one. Trummy’s ready to play, entering before Hall’s solo is even finished and Pops sounds very bluesy in his lead playing. The song has such a great feel that I wish they could have jammed a couple of more choruses, but I’ll take what I can get (though Pops does get to stretch out a bit at a similar tempo on the very exciting “Snag It” from the Autobiography).

So regardless of rather you prefer to shake that thing or do the Georgia grind, have a ball, but remember—stay out of the backyard and if I catch you, I’m telling Papa!

(That might be the strangest sentence I’ve ever written.)

2 comments: said...

Shake That Thing is also a lame song by pop reggae/rap hybrid Sean Paul.


helene Lee said...

In "Banjo", his account of his stay in Marseilles among black sailors of all nationalities in 1927, Jamaican writer Claude McKay recounts a night when a group of them, led by a banjoist, played a version of "Shake that thing" with the following lyrics:
Old Uncle Jack, the Jelly-roll king
just got back from shaking that thing
he can shake that thing
He can shake that thing
For he is a Jelly-roll king
Oh, Shake that thing !
Old bother Mose is sick un bed
Doctor says he is almost dead
From shaking that thing, shaking that thing
He was a Jelly-roll king
Oh, shake that thing ! »