Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra
Recorded April 5, 1930
Track Time 3:20
Written by Turner Layton and Henry Creamer
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, talk; Buck Washington, piano
Originally released on Okeh 41454
Currently available on CD: Volume four of the JSP Hot Five and Hot Seven series has it, as does volume six of Columbia’s old Armstrong series (St. Louis Blues).
Available on Itunes? Yes
April 5 was a good day for Louis Armstrong. On April 5, 1923, he made his very first recordings with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. On April 5, 1930, he waxed two fine performances for OKeh, "My Sweet" and "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me," recording with Willie Lynch's band that would eventually form the basis of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. And on April 5, 1939, Louis successfully revisited his OKeh days for Decca, cutting remakes of "Hear Me Talkin' To Ya," "Save It Pretty Mama," "West End Blues" ad "Savoy Blues" with his big band. (April 5 is also a good day for me; my daughter Ella was born one year ago today!)
But for our purposes, I'd like to celebrate another song Louis recorded on April 5, 1930--80 years ago today--"Dear Old Southland." This song was tailor-made for Louis's operatic tendencies and became a special favorite feature of his, performing it live numerous times in the 1940s and recording it in the studio in 1957. Thus, with your kind permission, I'd like to celebrate the anniversary of this great recording by offering daily blogs on Louis's different versions of it, much as I did last month with "Pennies From Heaven." Come back tomorrow to hear a big band arrangement of the tune Louis broadcasted in 1943. On Wednesday, we'll listen to his duets with pianist Dick Cary. On Thursday, his duets with Earl Hines--their first duets since "Weather Bird" in 1928. And on Friday, Louis's final studio recording of it with Billy Kyle. Sound good?
But today, let's focus on the original, which has long been one of my favorite Louis records from a purely emotional standpoint. The song "Dear Old Southland" is actually based on two African-American spirituals: "Deep River" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," both originally documented in the 1870s. The melodies for both numbers were combined into "Dear Old Southland" by the African-American team of Henry Creamer and John Turner Layton, the men behind such early jazz classics as "After You've Gone," "Strut Miss Lizzie" and "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans." Courtesy of YouTube, here's one of the earliest versions of the tune, recorded by The Columbians in 1921:
For those already familiar with Louis's treatment, this uptempo take might seem a little jarring. By 1928, a slower, more reverent take on the tune could be heard on the first half of this version by Red Nichols, with a vocal by Scrappy Lambert. However, around the 2:15 mark, the band can't help swinging, leading to a hot duet between clarinetist Fud Livingston and guitarist Eddie Lang before Red Nichols and Miff Mole offer up their brand of 1920s modern jazz (Arthur Schut takes the piano interlude). Dig it:
So those are just two of the earlier approaches musicians took towards the tune in the 1920s. By the time Louis got a hold of it, who knows how long he had been playing it--that is, IF he had ever played it before. Because the song was nine years old and because Louis's first recording of it is so damned poised, I'm inclined to believe he had at least run through it a few times before the engineers fired up the wax. At this point, Louis had been recording almost exclusively with big bands for about a year-and-a-half, making records with the orchestras of Luis Russell and Carroll Dickerson, in addition to cutting some Don Redman arrangements in Chicago in late 1928. In the middle of those Chicago dates, Louis cut the seminal duet "Weather Bird," a dazzling sparring contest between Pops and pianist Earl Hines. Today, that record is so lauded, it's easy to assume it must have caused some sensation when it was released. However, it was so different from anything Armstrong had recorded at that point, OKeh decided to sit on it and withheld its release until it had something suitable for a flip side.
Thus, that's how "Dear Old Southland" came to be recorded. Once finished and once approved, it was released with "Weather Bird" as its flip side in 1930. I'm not going to claim "Dear Old Southland" to be an equal of "Weather Bird" because that's like comparing apples and oranges. "Weather Bird" is all about lightening fast reflexes and dazzling virtuosity. "Dear Old Southland" is about opera and is aimed squarely at the heartstrings.
Also, it's unfair to compare Louis's pianistic partners. For "Dear Old Southland," he was teamed with Buck Washington, half of the song-and-dance team Buck and Bubbles. Buck, born Ford Washington Lee, handled piano duties while Bubbles, born John William Sublett, was the main dancer and vocalist. They had a long-running career and knew Louis for decades (Bubbles's most famous filmed sequence occurred in Cabin in the Sky, which also featured Louis). Here's 55 seconds of Buck and Bubbles in action:
Louis loved show-biz acts like that (Bill "Bogjangles" Robinson was one of his heroes) and you could almost hear him laughing at Buck pulling out the cloth to shine Bubbles's shoes in that clip. Washington wasn't a piano revolutionary like Hines, but he was a great entertainer, a solid player and a good friend and colleague of Louis's. How else would you explain not using Willie Lynch's regular pianist, stride great Joe Turner, who was possibly in the studio that day and recorded with Louis the following month?
Either way, I'll quit with the backstory today (at least I won't have to repeat any of it in my next four entries!). Let's just get to the entree. Here's "Dear Old Southland":
A spoken monologue by Louis sets the scene as Washington goes into a pretty introduction. From Louis's slightly hushed, throbbing first note, I'm hooked. Louis is in a pure storytelling mindset, keeping that melody up front and center, but also finding the appropriate holes to fill up with subtle variations and more daring double-timed escapades. (And listen at the :59 mark as Louis trots out his calling card "doddle-doddle-dah-dah" phrase, one that was so central to his playing on "Weather Bird.") Washington's backing is somewhat tentative but I'm really not listening to him...
For the minor, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" section, listen to how Louis sets it up with those urgent stabbing notes, simultaneously setting the tempo and feel for this strain and ratcheting up the intensity level a bit more, causing the listener to lean in a bit. In the natural gaps left by the original melody, Armstrong burbles and broods in his lower register before unleashing some free-floating improvisation, including a tumbling run. This almost scares Washington, who begins plunking out the written melody in single note style, just to keep it afloat until Pops returns from his trip to claim it. Armstrong continues playing in a slightly agitated, yet passionate, mood before taking a break and relaxing with some sweet-toned melody.
For the second go-around of the minor strain, Louis turns up the intensity even higher. As Washington lays down a "Spanish tinge" backing, Louis repeats the same pitch in almost a tempoless fashion seven times before playing his first serious blue notes of the solo. The notes sting and Armstrong pulls back, retreating back to the lower register for more speech-like murmurings and preaching. With Washington trying to hold it together by playing the melody, Louis really lays into a few more blue notes (Washington double-times his backing, but Pops ignores it). After repeating a two-note clarion call, Armstrong builds up to his first big climax, holding, hitting and shaking the hell out of a high concert Ab. Washington's with him as he closes out the minor strain by repeating a two-note riff three times before ending with a gorgeous, singing F.
Washington then fiddles around a bit, swinging the tune in double-timed fashion. For proof that they had rehearsed this, Louis warns him to "watch that chord there, Satchelmouth." Washington still sounds stiff and self-conscious but Louis couldn't be any more relaxed, pacing his entrance and effectively pounding out a series of repeated quarter-notes. Louis continues improvising beautifully while Washington's best moment occurs when Pops takes a brief pause and the pianist quotes what sounds to me like a snippet of "Dixie," an appropriate quote given the title of the song.
But in the middle of this relaxed swinging, Louis stops on a dime and builds up to one of his famed high note endings. In a few years, this is how just about EVERY Armstrong record ended but in 1930, it was still pretty novel for him. If I have been know to lose my emotions at the intensity of Louis's high G, held for nine glorious seconds, before resolving it to the final high A. I'm usually shouting "Bravo" at this point, dabbing a handkerchief at my eye.
Of course, not everyone feels that way. The great John Chilton, for one, was not a fan of this record, knocking Louis's playing as quasi-dramatic (call it what it is, John: FULLY-dramatic!). I think it's one of the great Pops-as-opera-singer-while-playing-the-trumpet moments. What do you think? Listen to it a few more times and feel free to share your opinion. Then come back tomorrow to listen to Louis and his big band tackle it in 1943. Til then!