Jelly Roll’s Storyville

The interview that forever changed the way Alan Lomax interviewed musicians

| May-June 2011

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    Brett Affrunti /

  • jelly-rolls-storyville

At the outset, in May 1938, Alan Lomax did not expect much from his interview with Jelly Roll Morton. As assistant in charge of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, Lomax focused on collecting endangered music: field hollers, hillbilly ballads, the old-time songs of marginal peoples that commercial recording was fast drowning out. So he was intrigued but skeptical when friends told him about Morton, a jazz composer who had generated a string of hit records before his fortunes turned sour in the Depression. For the previous 18 months he had been running a bar above a hamburger joint in the black district of Washington, playing piano, mixing drinks, when necessary tossing out drunks.

Lomax had never been a jazz fan. But friends described Morton as a great source of old melodies, so Lomax arranged to bring him together with a disc recorder in the library’s Coolidge Auditorium. Morton turned up for the session on May 23 sporting gold rings, a hundred-dollar suit, and a diamond-studded incisor, unfurling his satin-lined jacket over the back of the piano like a bullfighter wielding his cape.

At Lomax’s suggestion, Morton opened the interview by singing “Alabama Abound.” Lomax had first heard the song in 1933 sung by a black convict named Bowlegs, whom he and his father, the folklorist John Lomax, had recorded at a Mississippi prison. Bowlegs’ rendition had been slow and mournful, a lament for a vanished lover that was full of the penitentiary’s pain and privation, but Morton played a jaunty, sardonic version that he claimed to have written in a Gulf Coast honky-tonk in 1904. Here the singer, not the lover, was the one who was leaving, and even the abandoned woman did not sound that bothered: She said, “Don’t you leave me here / Don’t leave me here / But sweet papa, if you must go / Leave a dime for beer.”

Between verses Morton recalled his days as an entertainer in the low-down dives from Biloxi to Mobile, composing songs, playing piano, and shooting pool when he spotted an easy mark. “I never will forget, after I beat some guys playing pool, if it wasn’t for one of my piano-playing friends, you’d never heard this record because the guy was gonna knife me in the back, I’m telling you. He said that I only used the piano for a decoy, which he was right.” He played softly while he was reminiscing, and his speaking voice itself became music, guttural and melodic by turns.

For Lomax, all this was dizzying. One simple request for a traditional tune and Morton was spinning in a picaresque novel, full of the laughter of prostitutes, the click of pool cues, and the rattle of loaded dice. “He had a knife right on me. And, of course, he had it in his mind that I was kind of nice-looking. Imagine that, huh? Of course, he wasn’t such a good-looking fellow hisself. He had some awful, rubber-looking lips, I’m telling you.”

His tale called up a subterranean world unlike anything Lomax had ever set out to document. So when Morton concluded by saying, with patrician grandeur, “Is there any other information you would like to ask?” Lomax excused himself and rushed to his office for a boxful of blank discs and a bottle of whiskey. “Jelly Roll,” Lomax resumed, setting the recording machine whirling once more, “tell us about yourself.”

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