I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say

DISCUSSED: New Orleans, Buddy Bolden, Non-Marching Musical Agglomerations, Divinity Students, Dementia, Pimps and Prostitutes, The Ping Pong, Funky Butt Hall, Jelly Roll Morton, Scatological Variant Lyrics, Abe Lincoln, Olfactory Denotation, Spiritual Surrender, The White Middle-Class Ear

I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say

Luc Sante
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The Union Sons Hall stood at 1319 Perdido Street, between Liberty and Franklin, in the area of New Orleans known in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Back o’ Town, which was among other things the unofficial black prostitution district, as distinct from the official white one, Storyville, a few blocks away. The hall was built sometime after 1866, when several “free persons of color” formed the Union Sons Relief Organization of Louisiana and bought a double-lot parcel for its headquarters. The only known photograph of the place was taken in the 1930s, a decade or so after it had become the Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, and by then it certainly looked like a church, although this being New Orleans it is not impossible that it always had a steeple and Gothic arched windows. Anyway, it was a church on Sunday mornings for much of its existence, originally leased to the First Lincoln Baptist Church for that purpose. On Saturday nights, meanwhile, it was rented for dances which lasted until early light, so that the deacons must have put in a hard few hours every week washing up spilled beer and airing out the joint before the pious came flocking. At night it was known as one of the rougher spots in a rough area. It was razed in the late 1950s, along with most of the immediate neighborhood, its site now lost somewhere under the vastness of the Louisiana State Office Building.[1]

It is remembered solely because of those dances, and primarily because some of them featured Buddy Bolden and his band. Jazz is too large and fluid a category of music to have had a single eureka moment of origin, let alone a sole inventor, but just about everybody agrees that no nameable person was more important to its creation than Buddy Bolden. He was a cornet player, born in 1877, and he got his first band together sometime around 1895. He was known for playing loud—stories of how far his horn could be heard sound like tall tales, but are so numerous there must be something to them—and for playing loose and rowdy. He was by all accounts the first major New Orleans musician to make a virtue of not being able to read a score. You can begin to get an idea of how distinctive his band was from looking at photographs. The traditional-style brass bands of the era wore military-style uniforms, complete with peaked caps, as their parade-band successors do to this day; the getups proclaim unison and discipline, even if the New Orleans version allowed for more latitude than was the rule among the oompah outfits active in every American village of the time. The orchestras—the term was then applied to non-marching musical agglomerations of virtually any size or composition—dressed in mufti, but their sedate poses attest to rigor and sobriety. The John Robichaux Orchestra may have had a big drum, as shown in an 1896 portrait, but its legendarily virtuosic members look as serious as divinity students, and by all accounts they played as sweetly.

Buddy Bolden’s band, on the other hand, is clearly a band, in the sense in which we use the word today. In the only extant photograph, circa 1905, each member has chosen his own stance, with no attempt at homogenization. They all rode in on different trolleys, the picture says, but up on the stage they talk to each other as much as to the audience. Drummer Cornelius Tillman is unaccountably absent. Shy Jimmy Johnson disappears into his bull fiddle. B-flat clarinetist Frank Lewis sits gaunt and upright as a picket. Willie Warner holds his C-clarinet with the kind of delicacy you sometimes see in men with massive hands. Jefferson “Brock” Mumford, the guitarist, looks a bit like circa-1960 Muddy Waters and a bit like he just woke up fully dressed and out of sorts. Willie Cornish shows you his valve trombone as if you had challenged his possession of it. Buddy Bolden rests his weight on his left leg, holds his little horn balanced on one palm, shoulder slumping a bit, and allows a faint smile to take hold of his face. You could cut him out of the frame and set him down on the sidewalk outside the Three Deuces in 1944, alongside Bird and Diz, and then the smile and the posture would plainly say “reefer.” You could cut him out of the frame and set him down on the sidewalk outside right now, and passing him you would think “significant character, and he knows it, too,” and spend the rest of the day trying to attach a name to the face.

You can’t hear the Bolden band, of course.They may actually have cut a cylinder recording around 1898, but the beeswax surfaces of the time were good for maybe a dozen plays, so it’s hardly surprising that no copy has ever been found.And then Bolden suddenly and dramatically left the picture. In March, 1906, he began complaining of severe headaches, and one day, persuaded that his mother-in-law was trying to poison him, he hit her on the head with a water pitcher. It was the only time in his life that he made the newspapers. His behavior became more erratic, he lost control of his own band, and then he dropped out of that year’s Labor Day parade in midroute—no small matter since the parade was an occasion for strutting that involved nearly every musician in the city. Not long thereafter his family had him committed for dementia. His induction papers cite alcohol poisoning as the cause, but modern scholars suggest it might have been meningitis. In any case he remained incarcerated and incommunicado in the state Insane Asylum at Jackson until his death in 1931, aged fifty-four. He missed the leap of the New Orleans sound to Chicago and beyond, the rise of Louis Armstrong (who, born in 1901, may have remembered hearing Bolden play when he was five), the massive popularity of hot jazz that finally allowed acquaintances and quasi-contemporaries such as Freddie Keppard and Bunk Johnson to record, however fleetingly or belatedly. His name became known outside Louisiana only when white researchers from the North began knocking on doors in the late 1930s. He achieved worldwide fame as a ghost.

But let’s get back to the Union Sons Hall. It’s a Saturday night in July, 1902, and the temperature outside is in the lower nineties, with 83 percent humidity.The hall is typical for its place and function, an open room maybe twenty by fifty feet, made of white pine that hasn’t seen a new coat of paint in a few decades, with no furniture besides a table for the ticket-taker and a series of long benches lining the walls, and no decor besides some old bits of half-shredded bunting tacked to the molding about ten feet up. There’s a small raised stage at one end, with nothing on it but a few chairs and maybe Tillman’s drums. People start trickling in around nine.They are local people, mostly single and mostly young, teamsters and plasterers and laundresses and stevedores and domestic servants and barbers and sailors and cooks. A few pimps and prostitutes are in the company as well, and a number of persons of no account, bearing names that may right then mean plenty in the neighborhood but will be preserved only as marginalia in the police records: Grand Jury, Cinderella, Pudding Man, Hit ’Em Quick, Ratty Kate, Lead Pencil, Two Rooms and a Kitchen. Someone may be selling glasses of beer from a keg in the corner, but many in attendance will have brought stronger sustenance in pint bottles. Within half an hour the room is already fetid with cigar smoke. As more and more people crowd in, the heat rises, and the air circulation slows to an ooze, and the air gradually becomes a solid, a wall composed of smoke and sweat and beer and rice powder and Florida water and bay rum and musk and farts.

By this time the band has been playing for a while. They have walked in through the crowd, carrying their instruments, jumped onstage and fallen to without fuss or fanfare. All of them are seated except Jones behind his bass, but they stand to take solos, and then the footlights reflected by tin disks make them look distended and not quite real. They have begun, per tradition, with the sugary stuff, “Sweet Adeline” and “A Bird in a Gilded Cage,” maybe even given the nod to the sacred up front:“Go Down Moses,” “Flee as a Bird.” Maybe they’ve allowed some blues to trickle in, or proto-blues from the age-old fakebook: “Careless Love.” To our ears they’re playing these chestnuts pretty straight, with none of your cubist reconfiguration of the standards—that will come a couple of decades later, with Satchmo—but on the other hand the tunes are densely filigreed with embellishments and arabesques, and when Bolden plays you hear not so much the perfection of technique as the full range of the human voice. After a while they start to want to rag it, though, and Bolden calls out his transition number,“Don’t Go Way Nobody,” and then they throw down with “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” which maybe Buddy wrote. By now they are as loud as if they stood in front of Marshall stacks, and the inside temperature is the kind to make cartoon thermometers balloon dangerously at the top, and the people on the floor are crazy, doing the Shimmy and the Ping Pong and the Grizzly Bear, shouting and stomping, losing sundry articles of clothing, in some cases dropping down cold along the wall.

But the band needs air. They need to fill their lungs to blow, remember? And the air is this yellow soup with filaments of monkey shit running around in it. So Bolden stands up, slices laterally with his hand, and the music stops, abruptly, right in the middle of the third chorus of “All the Whores Like the Way I Ride.” Then he stomps hard once, twice, three times to get the crowd’s attention. “For God’s sake open up a window!” he bellows. “And take that funky butt away!” The crowd laughs. People look around to see who the goat is or to shift blame away from themselves, as somebody with a pole topped with a brass hook finally pivots open the tall windows. Everybody knows that this will mean noise complaints and then probably a police raid, but nobody leaves. Finally Bolden blows his signature call, and the machine starts up again. Afterward, people straggling home keep hooting, “Take that funky butt away!” For days they shout it in the streets when they’re drunk, or they approach their friends very seriously, as if to convey something of grave significance, then let loose: “Take that funky butt away!” Various Chesters and Lesters in the area become “Funky Butt” for a week or a month, or for the rest of their natural lives. And then the hall, which everybody calls Kinney’s after the head of the Union Sons, starts being referred to as Funky Butt Hall, and the name sticks.

Cut to a week later, to a dance at the Odd Fellows and Masonic Hall, a couple of blocks down on Perdido and South Rampart. In the second part of the set, right after “Mama’s Got a Baby Called Tee-Na-Na,” when everything is getting loose and crazy, Willie Cornish stands up and starts singing:“I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say / Funky butt, funky butt, take it away…” There is a silence from the crowd, and then pandemonium. People can’t believe what they’re hearing. It’s as if the band had looked into their minds. And the song is more than a joke. It’s a fully worked-out rag, immediately memorable on its own merits, while the words are irresistibly singable, a banner headline set to music. If there were records available, and people owned record players, storekeepers would not be able to keep copies on their shelves. Within a week or two dockworkers are singing it, and well-dressed young people are whistling it, and barbers are humming it, and drunks are caterwauling it. New verses proliferate. The tune, which instantly calls up the memory of the original words, is annexed by comedians and political campaigners and every sort of cabaret singer. Most of the versions are filthy, some are idle, some topical. For a long time the song goes unrecorded on paper, since even its title is unprintable, until an enterprising—not to say larcenous—ragtime publisher finally copyrights a wordless piano arrangement entitled, for some reason,“St. Louis Tickle.”

For anyone who spent time at the dances and parades of black New Orleans at the very beginning of the century, though, the song will remain Bolden’s monument, his living memory for decades after he is first locked up and then stone-cold dead, as the long line of graybeard interviewees of the earnest young Northern jazz fans knocking on doors from the 1930s to the 1960s will attest. Buddy Bolden wrote other songs, some of them—although attribution is always uncertain—more famous than he ever was, but “Funky Butt” is not merely his song; in alchemical fashion it has replaced the man himself. But no version of the lyrics was set down until an entire generation and then some had gone by.

Jelly Roll Morton, the Ancient Mariner of New Orleans jazz, finally recorded it three times in 1938 and 1939, once with the all-star New Orleans Jazzmen (including Sidney Bechet, Sidney de Paris, Albert Nicholas, Wellman Braud, and Zutty Singleton) and twice solo, accompanying himself on piano.The first of the solo recordings was made at the Library of Congress, where Morton spent three weeks reminiscing, orating, quoting, and singing for Alan Lomax’s disc recorder, laying down songs and versions of songs so lavishly obscene they were not issued commercially until 1993. Morton copyrighted the song in his own name the next year, but for Lomax’s recorder he paid tribute to Bolden—“the most powerful trumpet player I’ve ever heard, or ever was known.”2 This was around the same time that Bunk Johnson was alleging to William Russell and Stephen Smith that he had played with Bolden (he had to fiddle with the dates a bit to make his case), and five years after E. Belfield Spriggins published, in the Louisiana Weekly, the very first serious article on jazz ever printed in the state, in the course of which he gave Willie Cornish’s version of the origin of “Funky Butt”:

It seems that one night while playing at Odd Fellows Hall, Perdido near Rampart, it became very hot and stuffy and a discussion among members of Bolden’s band arose about the foul air.The next day William Cornish, the trombonist with the band, composed a “tune” to be played by the band. The real words are unprintable but these will answer: “I thought I heard Old Bolden say / Rotten gut, rotten gut / Take it away.”3

Very little else has ever surfaced about the song or its origin. Russell and Smith’s assertion that the number was “inspired by some ‘low-life’ women who had worked on a boat with the band”4 sounds bizarre, and it was possibly concocted by Bunk Johnson. Morton remains the only person to have recorded the song who heard it played by Bolden’s band. All three of his versions are consistent in lyrics and tempo—most contemporaries agree that they are far too slow. There are reminiscences galore of the song’s scatological variant lyrics, but none ever seem to have been published, and Morton’s version, in a series of recordings notable for probably containing the most uses of the word “fuck” previous to 1987 or so, is remarkably chaste. Besides the main verse, which is all most people know—funky butt, take it away, open up the window, let the bad air out— there is a second one in Morton’s published version and on his second solo recording, about Judge Fogarty sentencing somebody to thirty days’ sweeping out the market (a frequent punishment for minor infractions then) and something about Frankie Dusen (a trombone player who took over Bolden’s band when he became incapacitated) demanding his money. Edmond “Doc” Souchon, a local musician, recalled a version from his childhood:“Ain’t that man got a funny walk / Doin’ the Ping Pong round Southern Park / Black man, white man, take him away / I thought I heard them say.”5 (The Ping Pong was a dance.) Bolden’s biographer Donald Marquis suggests that the tune predated Bolden, that it was carried down the river, and he cites as corroboration words that do sound older than 1902:

I thought I heer’d Abe Lincoln shout,

Rebels close down them plantations and let the niggers out.

I’m positively sure I heer’d Mr. Lincoln shout.

I thought I heer’d Mr. Lincoln say,

Rebels close down them plantations and let all them niggers out.

You gonna lose this war, git on your knees and pray,

That’s the words I heer’d Mr. Lincoln say.6

Morton’s recordings, for all their testamentary aspect and intent, can actually be seen as marking the start of a second life for at least one aspect of the song. Although funk is a versatile word, with secondary denotations of fear and depression and second-order thievery, the phrase funky butt would have clearly signified an odiferous posterior for at least a century before Bolden famously used the phrase, and in context it can still be so interpreted. In the glossary of hepcat jive that Mezz Mezzrow inserted at the end of his memoir, Really the Blues (1946), funk is defined as “stench,” and funky as “smelly, obnoxious.” In less than a decade, however, the meaning of the word had begun to turn, at least in jazz circles, particularly on the West Coast.The scat singer King Pleasure, backed by Quincy Jones, put out a record called Funk Junction in 1954, and 1957 saw the issue of Creme de Funk by Phil Woods and Gene Quill, and of Funky by Gene Ammons’s All-Stars. In 1958 beatnik fellow-traveler John Clellon Holmes employed funk in a strictly musical sense in his novel The Horn, and not much later the word was being applied favorably to a performance by Miles Davis. By 1964 even the New York Times was throwing it around.

The word was in general currency from the early 1960s on as a musical term signifying some combination of authenticity, earthiness, greasiness, muscularity, perspiration, and the presence of one or more of the following: fuzz-tone bass, hoarse cries produced on the lower register of the tenor sax, a bottom-heavy and high-hat-intensive drum style, and a particularly dirty sound obtainable on the Hammond organ. The turning point came in 1966 when Arlester Christian wrote, and recorded with his band Dyke and the Blazers, the epochal “Funky Broadway,” which was covered and made into a huge hit by Wilson Pickett the following year. The way funky was employed in the lyrics did not refer to music, although it retained many of the cluster of meanings associated with musical use: authenticity, earthiness, greasiness, etc. All of these dove-tailed with and enlarged usefully upon the word’s original olfactory denotation, welcoming the noxious odor and giving it a room and a new suit without actually rehabilitating it. From there it was a short step to Arthur Conley’s “Funky Street” (1968), Rufus Thomas’s “Funky Chicken” (1970), Toots and the Maytals’“Funky Kingston” (1973), and “Funky Nassau” by the Beginning of the End (1973), among many. James Brown virtually bought the franchise, from “Funk Bomb” (1967) through “Ain’t It Funky,”“Make It Funky,” “Funky Side of Town,” “Funky President,”“Funky Drummer,” and scads more from all quadrants of meaning by a man who spent a year or two calling himself “Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk.” He had no peers atop the funk pyramid, or at least that was the case until George Clinton (of Funkadelic) concocted something like a theology of funk. (One of my proudest possessions is a T-shirt I can’t fit into anymore that is emblazoned with the legend “Take Funk to Heaven in 77.”) Clinton, in full evangelical feather, instituted a principle of spiritual surrender he termed “Giving up the Funk.” This was mana, total communion with the life force manifested as a fried fish.

Funk has climbed down from those heights. It has been devalued by George Michael’s “Too Funky,” and the Eagles’“Funky New Year,” and “Funky Funky Xmas” by the New Kids on the Block, not to speak of the lingering memory of Grand Funk Railroad. But the word has not been shucked. It is too valuable. It appears in hiphop strictly as a place-marker (the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Machine Gun Funk,” Too $hort’s “Short but Funky,” OutKast’s “Funky Ride,” etc.), but it is a place-marker that will not go away anytime soon. Payments are kept up on the word. Its license is renewed. It is periodically removed from the shelf and dusted off and cradled, occasionally taken for a spin to shake out the knots. The day will come before very long when it is immediately necessary once again, when all of its putative substitutes have been tarnished and made risible, when “ghetto” has been redeveloped and “real” become irredeemably fake—when it will have acquired a previously undreamed-of nuance temporarily undetectable by the white middle-class ear. It awaits a further development of the process set in motion on the rickety stage of some fraternal hall in uptown New Orleans in the year 1902 or thereabouts. It permanently embodies the voice of Buddy Bolden, speaking through a cloud. ✯

1 This piece draws heavily on Donald M. Marquis’s In Search of Buddy Bolden, First Man of Jazz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978; New York: Da Capo, 1980), a heroic piece of historical detective work that represents pretty nearly the last word on Bolden, who nevertheless remains a specter about whom more stories can be refuted than proven. Mention should also be made of the website maintained by Carlos “Froggy” May—www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/5135/Bolden.html—which has stayed abreast of more recent scholarship, faint trickle though it is.
2 Anamule Dance, volume two of Jelly Roll Morton: The Library of Congress Recordings, Rounder Records 1092. Also see Alan Lomax, Mister Jelly Roll (New York: Grove Press, 1950).
3 E. Belfield Spriggins, “Excavating Local Jazz,” Louisiana Weekly, April 22, 1933, p. 5. Quoted by Marquis, who sadly notes that “in 1965 Hurricane Betsy struck [Spriggins’s] house and totally destroyed all the notes and records of his very early jazz research. His wife reports that he has been in such a serious state of depression since that he will not or cannot speak to anyone including herself.” (Marquis, p. 109)
4 in Jazzmen, edited by Frederick Ramsay Jr. and Charles Edward Smith (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1939; New York: Limelight Editions, 1985), p. 13.
5 Jazz Review, May 1960.
6 Marquis, pp. 109-110, quoting Danny Barker, “Memory of King Bolden,” Evergreen Review, March 1965, pp. 67-74.
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