Today’s (tonight’s) post will be a quick one because I spent my time on another idea that didn’t work out! I’m gonna talk about Louis Jordan, one of the all-time great African-American entertainers, who (this isn’t just my opinion) doesn’t get his due in jazz circles. Specifically, I want to try investigate coded meanings in his songs and lyrics.
Louis Jordan was a famous hit-making bandleader who churned out dozens of singles in the 40s and 50s. They’re in a distinctive style, with heavy piano basslines, powerful swing/shuffle grooves, bluesy harmonised vocals, lots of blues vocabulary in general, and sax and piano solos.
Jordan’s persona as a singer is also distinctive – he is hip, ironic, and uses a lot of jive talk and witty rhymes. His music has been called proto-rap and proto-rock’n’roll, and Chuck Berry, Little Richard and James Brown were all influenced by him. I really like a lot of his music, for one thing because it grooves and has great riffs and solos, but also because of the humour and double entendres in the lyrics.
I’m going to speculate that Jordan covertly attacked white oppression in his songs. But let’s start with an obvious double entendre from 1946 just to see how he works.
So, to put it bluntly, this song is about the sexual potential of underage girls, as you may have guessed from the title. The innuendo is transparent, but by placing himself in the moralising position of warning males away from girls who are too young, Jordan somewhat lightens the effect. It’s still a creepy song by today’s standards! Not one of my favourites.
“Blue Lite Boogie” (1950) is not so bad, because Jordan plays up the humour and pathos of his persona, the guy who’s too old and uncool for a really hip party, “I was like a chaperone”. But the undercurrent of teenage sexuality can still be pieced together. The partygoers are “bobby-soxers” doing “the boogie real slow with the blue light way down low”. They are too young to drink, seeing as the police find only “ice cream and lemonade” after a raid. Plus the atmosphere of the tune is so blue it borders on the debauched! But I quite like that nasty vocal harmony.
Let’s move on to “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”. This song has been covered by the white Western Swing band Asleep At The Wheel, as well as by B.B. King and James Brown! All the cover versions present it as a light-hearted number. A late version by Louis Jordan on French TV is extremely interesting for its introduction:
– this is for a white audience
– Jordan plays up to the stereotype that black Americans like chicken. He visibly decides to switch to an exaggerated accent “And I’m sure that – you know ah lu-uv chicken.”
– he references his previous song about chickens, which could only be “This Chick’s Too Young To Fry”
I’m not well-informed enough to know a name for Jordan’s use of stereotype, but I think I recognise it. It’s an evasive maneouvre of acting out what’s expected of a black performer so as to let the white audience think they have his measure, while they actually don’t at all. And Jordan references “Too Young To Fry” which is built on innuendo, but in such a way that only someone who knew his back catalogue would understand. So, this song is getting an introduction heavy with double meaning.
What is the song about? It is sung in the persona of “us”, the “chickens”. It’s a song of protest addressed to a farmer who “shouts”, “butts in”, “stompin’ around and shakin’ the ground”, disturbing the chickens who have their own business to attend to, “We got things to do”. There are references to the farmer’s authority as manager – he does the locking up of the property – and that he menaces the chickens with a gun. A final element is that this is music for urban black people, for whom the rural countryside was a memory of even more extreme racism than they experienced in the cities.
So, I think the farmer represents terrorising white authority and the chickens black people who just want to be left alone. Interestingly, in the 70s performance, Jordan gives some genuinely disturbing shouts “oh no uh uh oh no” over the song’s ending, eyes wide as if with fear, before switching instantly to his genial smile. I’d tentatively interpret it as an angry challenge to his audience to recognise to real meaning of the song.
I have no idea if B.B. King, James Brown and Asleep At The Wheel thought about this perspective on the song. Maybe they all did.
A more light-hearted, yet more viciously ironic look at a similar theme is “Cole Slaw”. I’m certain that this song is slagging off Southern whites for their European diet and manners. It’s also an absolutely bad-ass honking horn arrangement.
The lyrics are very funny with their silly rhymes on “-aw”, yet cuttingly sarcastic, “it ain’t nothing but some cabbage raw”, “just a simple Southern treat”, “that’s good strategy without a flaw”. Frankly I think this is a simmeringly angry song. The ending confirms it, with a mocking repetition of “cole slaw” followed by dark hits on a V7 with sour bends up to its 3rd and b7th.
Okay, one more for you, which, if I’m right, is also a mocking song but with a more problematic target.
“Five Guys Named Moe” brought Jordan to the attention of white audiences and was his early breakthrough hit. It’s about a band whose members are all called “Moe” and who “came out of nowhere” to be “the talk of rhythm town”. Jordan presented this (as you see in the video) as if the “five guys named Moe” were his band. However, a quick look at Wikipedia shows that the notable Moes in the US were all Eastern European Jews. I don’t have much more to go on, but I think this song might be satirising the success of Jewish pop songwriters and musicians. The use of a moment of barbershop harmony at 0:29 is interesting. Although barbershop was probably an African-American style originally, by its 1940s revival it seems to have been coded as white. For instance, Norman Rockwell depicted it thusly in 1936:
So, Jordan was not including barbershop harmony to be hip. I have read that anti-Semitism was widespread in black communities in the first half of the 20th century, and I suspect, that, although it’s a nifty tune, “Five Guys Named Moe” might be a reflection of that. Check out Joe Jackson’s great version by the way (off his album of jump blues covers, Jumpin’ Jive, that first introduced me to Louis Jordan’s songs, featuring pumping electric bass by Graham Maby – not as swinging as the originals but an excellent effort).
To finish, a tune that I’m not really sure if I’ve figured out.
There is definitely some Signifying and double entendre going on here. For one thing, unlike his earlier hits, “Beans And Cornbread” (1949) makes references to traditional, rural black styles of work and church music. Check out the interlocking of the vocal harmony with the bluesy hollers, “I’ll be ready”. Even more countrified are the wordless vocal effects at 1:03 and 1:28. The whole outro references the call and answer of a preacher and his congregation. Jordan puts overwrought tremblings and whoops in his voice, then hams up a naive gospel ending over a corny I V I cadence. This is in contrast to the key-changing slickness of the intro. What the heck is going on?
The lyrics describe how two food items, beans and cornbread, have a fight, then “Beans” goes on a sentimental rant about how they should be friends and socialise together all the time, “Every Saturday night, we should hang out!” And a long list of foods that go together are referenced.
There’s one line that might be the key, “Beans told cornbread, it makes no difference what you think about me, but it makes a whole lot of difference what I think about you.” So, very clearly, theirs is not a friendship of equals. My tentative reading is that, basically, “Beans” represents whites who are offensively over-familiar to blacks (“Cornbread”) and who use their privileged position to insist on fraternity while ignoring injustice.
Hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. As always, please leave a comment if you have any, and also follow the blog to make sure you won’t miss my weekly posts! Till next time.