Monday, June 15, 2009

70 Years of "Shanty Boat on the Mississippi"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded June 15, 1939
Track Time 3:07
Written by Jim Eaton and Terry Shand
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rugert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 2729
Currently available on CD: It's on Mosaic's new Armstrong boxed set, as well as volume six of the indispensable Ambassador series
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a couple of cheapie compilations

I know this tune isn't quite in the same pantheon as others I have lavished with anniversary celebrations ("West End Blues," "Basin Street Blues," "The Saints," etc.) but I think it's a magical recording that deserves to be celebrated as often as humanly possible. Instead, it's an almost completely forgotten number. I couldn't believe that searches on and Itunes yielded exactly zero other versions from anyone else besides Armstrong. I know it's a sentimental melody, but like last week's "Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby," I think it's ripe for revising.

The tune was written by the team of Jim Eaton and pianist Terry Shand, responsible for songs of the period such as "Dance with a Dolly," "I'm Gonna Lock My Heart" and one tune that was an absolute home run for Armstrong, "I Double Dare You." At least that tune has been justly praised by numerous writers and has gone on to have a life of its own after Armstrong's recording of it. But if you haven't heard "Shanty Boat on the Mississippi" in a while--or ever at all--you can change all of that by clicking here:

The record opens up with the lovely sound of alto saxophonist Charlie Holmes crooning the tender melody. I have to admit that sometimes, if this tune plays while my Ipod is on shuffle, I'm almost fooled into thinking it's a Teddy Wilson record or another similar endeavor of that era. A Holmes break sets up Armstrong's very passionate vocal. The represented a trifecta of sorts for Pops: it has a beautiful, sentimental melody, pretty chord changes and a nostalgic yearning for something from his younger days growing up in the south. It's probably the backwards-looking lyrics that have prevented this tune from catching on but Armstrong never minded reveling in his past and he just sounds like he loves the tune. Also, the melody tests his range, a test he always managed to pass with his deceptively flexible tenor range.

As charming as the vocal is, it's the trumpet solo that has the power to raise goose bumps. The band really plays with an emotional charge, driven by the great Sid Catlett's emphatic drumming. Armstrong starts off in his lower register, playing with a mellow, almost modern-sounding tone. He does hit one slight clam, a testament to a little trouble he was having that day. He opened up the session with a flawless "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" but then struggled with "Poor Old Joe," needing to re-record it later in the year. But after the slight missed note, Armstrong seems to grow furious with himself and begins playing with almost inhuman passion, turning in a dazzling break.

After the break, Catlett begins laying down the press rolls, pushing Armstrong harder and harder into another terrific break. The band takes the bridge and then it's up to Pops to take the record out. Once again, he demonstrates the trouble he was having that day by slightly cracking his first note but again, passion, power and pure will overcome it all. The arrangement allows Armstrong to dramatically play over stop-time accents...and play he does, scaling the ascending melody in complete command of his horn. It's one of those, "He's not going to make it!" moments but sure enough, he makes it, all the way up to an insane high concert Eb. He ends with a closing gliss to a lower Bb and there's a brief hint of strain to it. God, how he pushed himself. It's a remarkable test of strength and a record that deserves to be celebrated. Agreed?

Very little has been written on this song


Michael Steinman said...

A day late, it occurs to me that there's also Louis's own LAZY 'SIPPI STEAMER GOIN' HOME -- recorded by Bobby Hackett on HELLO, LOUIS! and more recently by Scott Robinson and Mark Shane on Scott's JAZZ AMBASSADOR. I wonder if Louis's nostalgia for songs like this dates back to his boyhood (wishing he could be on one of those boats) or if it reflects his pleasure at playing on one as a member of Fate Marable's orchestra. (Then . . . there's also DUSKY STEVEDORE, but a man could get carried away with posts on THE NAUTICAL LOUIS, right?)

Applause, applause!

Suze Lewis said...

I just found a copy of a Louis Armstrong LP that has Shanty Boat on the Mississippi on one side and Baby Won't You Come Home on the other side. I haven't been able to find any reference to this album anywhere else and if I search the Record # Decca 2729, it brings up another record altogether. Any ideas? Is this a find or not?