Jelly Roll Morton: Don’t Deny His Name

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Illustration by Courtney Spencer

This article appears in our May/June 2015 “Blues Issue,” available now on newsstands. 

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When it comes to the top names in blues originators, Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe – better known as Jelly Roll Morton – isn’t always the first one who comes to mind. He’s regarded as a pioneer of jazz piano in New Orleans, a city which isn’t as strongly identified with the blues as other Southern cities like Clarksdale, Mississippi. But his piano playing, composing and songwriting directly or indirectly impacted many blues and rock artists who would follow.

A member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and a posthumous Grammy winner, Morton is best known for his early jazz contributions, but many of his instrumental pieces had “blues” monikers – “Jelly Roll Blues,” “Muddy Water Blues,” “Beale Street Blues,” “Dead Man Blues” and so on. Morton wrote some vocal pieces, too, lyrically influenced by his teenage years playing piano in the brothels, or “sporting houses,” of New Orleans. Some of these songs, which weren’t commercially recorded, were beyond bawdy; they were outright filthy. He authored songs like “Winin’ Boy Blues,” with a profanity-laced lyric that far precedes anything by David Allan Coe or today’s rappers. Morton sang this song for folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax in a Library of Congress recording in 1938, which today is available in a remastered, eight-disc boxed set titled Jelly Roll Morton – The Complete Library Of Congress Recordings. “Winin’ Boy Blues” – with substantially reworked lyrics – was later covered by artists like Janis Joplin, Leon Redbone and the Grateful Dead. 

I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name.
Oooooh the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name.
I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name.
I can pick it up and shake it like Stavin Chain.
I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name.

That’s all that’s fit to print here, as the subsequent verses become pretty explicit. Written in Creole vernacular at least eight decades ago, the meanings of particular words are always debated. There are half a dozen opinions about what “Stavin Chain” is, from a penis to the name of a male prostitute in New Orleans to an actual chain. Whatever the case, the song is a classic and the artists who cover it normally change the lyrics after the first verse. The set also features the 30-plus minute “The Murder Ballad,” written mostly in traditional AAB blues format with plenty of expletives as well.  

New York pianist Dick Hyman is well-known not only for his piano chops but for his soundtrack contributions to Woody Allen’s movies, and for his innovative Moog synthesizer work that has been sampled by Beck. Hyman is also known for interpreting and recording the music of piano greats such as Morton and recently performed his own symphonic arrangement of Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp” with the Venice, Florida Symphony Orchestra.  

“While it’s very much related, Jelly Roll wasn’t exactly in the same tradition as the Delta blues singers and guitarists,” Hyman said. “He came out of a background of piano players who were principally playing in bordellos in New Orleans. ‘Blues’ was kind of a generic term for pieces that came out of African-American backgrounds back then, so it depends on what definition you’re giving it. The blues, especially then, and especially to musicians, was something that referred to a specific 12-bar pattern, like playing four bars of C, two bars of F, two bars of C, one bar of G, one bar of F, and two bars of C, for instance.” And that basic 12-bar form survives to this day, in the work of practically every blues and rock and roll band that’s ever set foot on stage. 

Morton undoubtedly influenced many keyboardists who followed, directly or indirectly, including other New Orleans piano players like Dr. John and Professor Longhair. His recordings arguably led many piano players who would become blues legends to develop their own playing. Nashville native Leroy Carr, whose classics “How Long Blues” and “Blues Before Sunrise” were resurrected 60 years later by Eric Clapton, came from the Southern piano tradition. Pinetop Perkins, from the Mississippi Delta, played for Muddy Waters in Chicago, where Morton lived and recorded for Victor for several years. Morton was also the brother-in-law of Chicago blues drummer Jimmy Bertrand, who played with Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy and others. 

“Jelly Roll was a very good pianist,” Hyman said. “His time was perfect, and some of his compositional tricks were very ingenious. He influenced so many piano players who were playing the blues, many boogie-woogie piano players, because boogie-woogie was a form of the blues. Players like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson. They were certainly all related.”

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