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11 May 2015

Post 208: WHO COMPOSED 'YOU'VE BEEN A GOOD OLD WAGON BUT YOU DONE BROKE DOWN'?

You may have been told that You've Been a Good Old Wagon But You Done Broke Down, made famous by Bessie Smith's 1925 recording, was composed by Ben Harney and John Biller in 1895.

So let's get this straight right away. The song those two men wrote is NOT the one made famous by Bessie.

Yes, they wrote a song with the same title. Here, for example, is the beginning of their Chorus. You can see at once that it is a quite different song from Bessie's.
This sort of confusion occasionally occurs with our repertoire, when two different songs are written by different composers, but they both use the same title. There are at least two songs called Oh, Baby, for example; and there are two very different numbers both called Once in a While.

So who did write Bessie's song for her?

The best answer I can come up with is Stuart Balcom and Bessie Smith herself. I found that in a record catalogue. I guess Bessie wrote the words and Stuart may have been a pianist. He seems to have achieved no fame as the composer of any other tune. Elsewhere Stuart's surname (always in connection with this song) was spelt Balcomb, Balcolm or Balcon. I will accept Balcom, as that was the version to appear most frequently.

So who was Stuart Balcom? If you can provide information, please let me know. Meanwhile, I can add that he might just possibly have been a pen-name of Perry Bradford (1893 - 1970), the vaudeville performer, music entrepreneur and composer. Although Perry Bradford was better known for working with the blues singer Mamie Smith, he was certainly in the right place at the right time to have worked with Bessie on this song. More recent artists have attributed it to him. I find this theory plausible.

Meanwhile, to hear Bessie singing You've Been a Good Ol' Wagon,
and to hear Erika Lewis singing it (much more recently),