baby seals blues

Franklin “Baby” Seals

A debate still rages among musicologists and other blues historians over what was the first published blues song, who wrote it and who performed it. Many historians credit W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” (1912) with the honor while others claim another song called “Baby Seals Blues” (August 1912) was first because its publication predated “Memphis Blues” by several months. The problem with this argument is that Hart A. Wand’s instrumental “Dallas Blues” (which had nothing to do with the Texas city) had been published five months earlier in the same year. However, a couple of aspects of “Baby Seals Blues” that all can agree on is that: 1) it was the first blues song published by an African American, and 2) it was the first published blues song featuring vocals.

Some of the song’s lyrics:

“I got the blues, can’t be satisfied today.
I got them bad, want to lay down and die.
Woke up this morning ‘bout half past four, Somebody knocking at my door,
I went out to see what it was about, they told me that my honey gal was gone,
I said, Bub that’s bad news, So sing for me them blues.”

“(She) Honey baby mamma do she do she double do love you, (Spoken) YEAH HOO
I Love you ba-a-be don’t care what you do, (Spoken) SUEY
(He) Oh sing ‘em, sing ‘em, sing them blues ‘cause they cert’ly sound good to me,
I’ve been in love these last three weeks, and it cert’ly is a misery,
There ain’t but one thing I wish was right. I wish my honey babe was here tonight,
(She) Honey babe, Mammas coming back to you,
(He) Come on babe, Oh sing ‘em, sing ‘em, sing them blues,
‘Cause they cert’ly sound good to me.”

The song, of course, was named after its writer. Wikipedia describes him as follows: “African American Franklin ‘Baby’ Seals was born in Mobile, Alabama, around 1880 [d. 1915]. He first came to public attention in 1909 as the pianist at the Lyric Theatre in Shreveport, Louisiana. In 1910 his ragtime ‘coon song’ [minstrel show genre that lampooned blacks] called ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’ (unrelated, except in title, to the later song by Jesse Stone) was published by Louis Grunewald & Co. in New Orleans. The same year, he directed and performed in shows in Houston and Galveston, Texas.”

In 1909, Seals had teamed up in Texas with Miss Floyd Fisher, who was known as “The Doll of Memphis.” The synergy of the two helped produce “Baby Seals Blues,” which was published in St. Louis, Missouri  in August 1912, with words and music credited to Baby F. Seals, and stating that it was featured by Seals and Fisher [his wife], “that Klassy Kooney Komedy Pair.” The sheet music stipulated that it was to be played “very slow.” The reason: the fast and furious rhythm and beat of ragtime was all the rage around the turn of the century, so the newly emerging blues sound was to distinguish itself by being played slower.

Seals was also a visionary; he had always tried to promote his vaudeville blues style in the black theaters of the north. Although he largely succeeded in that task, he and his wife ironically became the biggest act on the black vaudeville circuit of the south between 1912 and 1914, just as WWI started to explode in Europe. Also exploding at that time in the United States was African Americans’ interest in hearing their own music, the blues, played publicly.

Irwin Bosman, writing in No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music, puts Seals’ career into context: “The 1910’s rising popularity of the blues on the performance stage and on music sheets, provided the fertile soil for the flourishing of the commercial recordings of blues in the 1920’s. It is in this context that I measure the role played by Franklin Seals. His historic renown mainly derives from his famous 1912 composition, but this is a one-sided, incomplete picture. Seals is grossly underestimated as a live artist on the vaudeville stage.”

A contemporary correspondent for the Indianapolis Freeman wrote that the blues, like the one published by Franklin Seals, was of a “clever nature” and “more consciously developed than most blues presentations of the time.” The early blues music sheet was thus a hybrid form, building on the popularity of ragtime, but introducing idioms coming from the African American folk, or country, blues. The new genre was slowly capturing the attention of the public.

Then came Mamie Smith’s 1920 release of “Crazy Blues,” which was perhaps the tipping point for the rising popularity of blues music. Her recording sold an astonishing 75,000 copies in the first month. Smith’s success with “Crazy Blues” came as a complete surprise to record labels, but they soon realized that making records of blues songs was profitable. The rest is history.

Baby Seals Blues

dirty blues

1937 Hudson Terraplane

The golden Age of the Blues started in the early 1920s, just after the end of World War I, especially after Mamie Smith (1883-1946) recorded her epoch-making “Crazy Blues” in 1920. The blues craze also coincided with the decade known as the “Roaring Twenties” when alcohol consumption was officially banned, giving rise to “speakeasies” where illegal booze flowed along with raunchy music and even dirtier dancing. 

While whites were enjoying speakeasy freedoms, African-Americans were still subject to segregationist Jim Crow laws. Their nocturnal entertainment was largely limited to black-owned juke joints and other shabby establishments. Since practically everyone in these joints was black, the environment gave black entertainers the opening to say (or sing) whatever they wanted using dirty words and to perform (then) socially unacceptable moves they could not make elsewhere. Female blues singers ruled during those days and they did not hesitate to use dirty expressions on stage to get a laugh or to liven up the crowd. Dirty Blues was thus born in this milieu.

“Dirty blues encompasses forms of blues music that deal with socially taboo subjects and obscenity, including sexual acts and/or references to drug use of some kind. Due to the sometimes graphic subject matter, such music was often banned from radio and only available on a jukebox. The style was most popular in the years before World War II, although it had a revival in the 1960s,” states Wikipedia.

Many blues songs used innuendo, slang terms, or double entendres, such as Lil Johnson’s “Press My Button (Ring My Bell)” (“Come on baby, let’s have some fun / Just put your hot dog in my bun”). However, some of these songs were very explicit. The most extreme examples were rarely recorded at all, Lucille Bogan’s obscene song “Shave ‘Em Dry” (1935) being a rare example. It was noted by one music historian as “by far the most explicit blues song preserved at a commercial pre-war recording session.” Her lyrics are too filthy to list here; it’s a real wonder they were ever published at all.

Known as the “Queen of Dirty Blues,” Lil Johnson extensively employed this style of blues music, using extended analogies or euphemisms to make sexual innuendoes. The following lyrics were in a 1937 recording:

“Got out late last night in the rain and sleet,

Tryin’ to find a butcher to grind my meat,

Yes, I’m lookin’ for a butcher,

He must be long and tall,

If he want to grind my meat,

Cause I’m wild about my meatballs.”

Dirty blues were not totally confined to female singers, however. A good male example would be Bo Carter (1893-1964), who often used fruit in his lyrics as a sexual metaphor, such as in his song “Banana in Your Fruit Basket.” A part of the lyrics goes like this:

“Let me put my banana in your fruit basket, then I’ll be satisfied,
Now, I got the washboard, my baby got the tub,
We gonna put ‘em together, gonna rub, rub, rub.”

Another case was the great Robert Johnson’s 1936 “Terraplane Blues,” in which he used the famous 1930s Hudson automobile as a sexual symbol, saying his car would not even start after another man had driven it for a while.

“I’d said I flash your lights, mama, you horn won’t even blow,
Somebody’s been runnin’ my batteries down on this machine,
I even flash my lights, mama, this horn won’t even blow,
Got a short in this connection, hoo well, babe, it’s way down below.”

As the blues slowly morphed into rock ‘n’ roll in the post WWII period, some rockers continued the dirty blues style in their lyrics. Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” (Chess Records, 1955) comes to mind as the song’s lyrics concern a girl who keeps cheating on her man. This idea is conveyed via a car chase in which the singer is following (in his V8 Ford) his girlfriend, who is driving her Coup de Ville, and drag racing a man driving a Cadillac. Not quite to the Terraplane Blues level, but close. Interestingly, the Terraplane car went out of production the year after Johnson recorded the song in San Antonio, Texas.

Robert Johnson sings “Terraplane Blues”

gunsmoke blues

The early days of television, on flickering black and white screens, produced some memorable weekly fare, from game shows to sitcoms derived from radio programs. One of its most enduring formats was the venerable western, a kind of modernized morality play where the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black (just so the audiences did not get confused). When television became popular in the late 1940s and 1950s, TV westerns quickly became an audience favorite, with 30 such shows airing during prime-time in 1959. Such shows were originally aimed at children but quickly matured and attracted the attention of older generations due to the portrayals of rugged, individualistic cowboys and other loners overcoming impossible odds to protect justice in the wild west.

One of the top western shows was “Gunsmoke,” starring James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon of Dodge City, Kansas. After running for nine years on the radio, it appeared for over 600 episodes on CBS television between 1955 and 1975, gathering an approval rating of 88%. It was the most-watched TV show between 1957 and 1961. A little less-known fact was that several of the show’s crew members loved blues music. 

One weekend in November 1971, blues freak Link Wyler, and his buddies from the Gunsmoke TV crew gave into temptation. On production hiatus, they bolted Hollywood to go and film blues superstars Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, and George “Harmonica” Smith, who were then barnstorming the Pacific Northwest with their bands. The resulting two-hour documentary film called “Gunsmoke Blues” captured some of the best performances of those living legends ever put on celluloid. Recorded at the University of Oregon in Eugene, the songs included: 1) “Early in the morning”; “Ball and chain” by Willie Mae Thornton (Big Mama Thornton) 2) “Juke” by Walter Jacobs; “Leaving Chicago” 3) “Hide and seek” by Ethel Byrd, Paul Winley; “Shake, rattle and roll” by Charles Calhoun. 4) “Mannish boy” by McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters), Mel London, Ellis McDaniel; “Hoochie coochie man” by Willie Dixon; “Long distance call”, and “Got my mojo working” by Muddy Waters.

“The results, released here for the first time, is some of the best shot footage ever seen of these performers working their own element. Oh, 35mm cameras might’ve yielded better quality images, but in terms of where these guys placed themselves, on-stage or in the tour van, and how close they got to their subjects, and how they set up the audio feeds, this is as good a piece of work as was ever seen on Monterey Pop, and better than most other concert material of its era,” wrote Bruce Eder in the All Music Website.

In 2004, this material was compiled by producer Toby Byron (who made the wonderful “Masters of American Music” series for PBS) and it was released by Universal on DVD. This DVD re-release is also sold by Germany’s Bear Records, which specializes in selling hard-to-find recordings such as early blues records. Many American music lovers may be surprised to find out that some ­­70% of all blues recordings are currently sold in the European market.

Why would European listeners find solace in American blues music? “The blues are Black survival music. While many songs deal with the everyday issues, others from blues’ earliest beginnings up to contemporary times are blatantly political. It’s important to note that the act of this singing was more than entertainment for plantation overseers or solely expressions of sadness. In its purest form, the slave’s singing was an act of protest. Its beauty and expression transcends the pervasive hell that was the environment that allowed them to be enslaved,” wrote William C. Anderson on the Pitchfork Website.

Concerning arresting an abused starving sodbuster’s wife Marshal Matt Dillon once said: “Blaming her would be like blaming the night for being dark.” One of the blues-loving staff of Gunsmoke must have written that line.

The full documentary can be viewed here:

ethiopian Delineating

A majority of blues scholars seem to believe that American blues started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from field hollers emanating from the cotton fields, from work songs of prison gangs and from black versions of spirituals sung in black churches. All that may be true, but some scholars suggest that the basis for the blues was laid decades earlier in the northeastern part of the United States that did not have large cotton plantations like those in the south. They argue that a new style of music emerged in the early 1800s due to the intense curiosity of Northerners concerning the strange musical sounds coming from the black slaves interned on those cotton plantations.

“Around 1823, a musical style emerged in the northeastern United States that saw white performers mimicking, and later parodying, the distinctive style of black music found on the slave plantations of the southern states. This new form of song and dance soon became known as Ethiopian delineating; delineating meaning to depict in words and gestures. The purpose of Ethiopian delineating, apart from providing entertainment, was to give northern audiences, white and black, an opportunity to experience a snapshot of plantation life and hear southern slave songs for themselves,” explains Paul Merry in How the Blues Evolved, Volume One.

Merry, himself a blues musician and author of several books on blues history, also points out that Ethiopian delineating predated minstrelsy by about two decades. These early entertainers delineated from the slaves’ point of view, their white faces greased black although they were yet to be known as minstrels. “In a world of stilted formality, the tunes of these new-fashioned slave songs were refreshingly catchy. Their infectious rhythms harked back to old Africa. The lyrics, sung in pigeon-English in a comic plantation patois [dialect], made audiences laugh, even when not written deliberately to be funny,” Merry continues. “These Ethiopian songs of the 1820s and 1830s are considered by most experts to be the origin of today’s blues and the starting point of virtually all popular modern music. Some historians describe this Ethiopian delineating as minstrelsy. However, Ethiopian song, Ethiopian dance and Ethiopian opera, as the performances were also called, only become generically known as minstrelsy in the 1840s.”

According to Merry, the first person to perform a slave song wearing blackface, in 1799, was a German oboist by the name of Johann Christian Gottlieb Graupner (1767-1836), who had been inspired by street music that overwhelmed him after wandering by mistake into a slave quarter in Virginia in 1795. This story has led to Graupner being acknowledged, by some music historians, as the Father of Negro Songs in America. However, an American writer and musician, Shlomo Pestcoe,  revealed it was actually Gottlieb Graupner’s English wife who did the performing. The lady in question was the acclaimed opera singer, Catherine Comerford Hillier, who performed her husband’s slave-inspired song, “The Gay Negro Boy,” in an interlude between acts at the Boston theatre.

Was there one particular person or act that forged these early forms of American roots music into what was to become the blues years later? Merry believes it was a visiting (white) comedian from England who pulled off this magical transition. “From September 1822 to May 1823, Charles Matthews successfully toured his one-man show across the United States [to the delight of American audiences]. This must be considered the exact moment that black slave music started the 90-year evolutionary journey that culminated in blues, as a form of music, being captured on paper and specifically named, for the first time, in March 1912 [by W.C. Handy].”

Before reading Merry’s book, I had more or less accepted the well-worn historical analysis that the blues had indeed originated in the late 19th century in the American South. However, it only stands to reason that the black slaves imported to southern plantations long before then would have brought their own African musical forms with them. Now I can envision a much earlier birth to an American style of music that is truly unique and has strongly influenced other musical forms. As Muddy Waters put it: “The blues had a baby and that baby was called rock and roll.”