4 December 2015

Post 319: 'DANGEROUS BLUES' - AND A SAD TALE

There is so much joy in the history of traditional jazz. But frequently it is intermingled with sadness.

Here's a poignant example.
The original cover of Dangerous Blues,
with art-work by Ilah Marian Kibbey
Dangerous Blues was recorded by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1921. You can hear the recording by clicking on here. In more recent times, the tune has been revived by the wonderful young band Tuba Skinny. You can hear them playing it by clicking here. It's a merry enough tune.

But here's the sad tale behind it. The composer of this tune, Billie Brown, was a young lady who died of smallpox very soon after she composed it.

We know that is correct. But unfortunately not much else is known for sure about Billie.

Billie was probably born in 1903 and became something of a child prodigy. She first had some music published when she was only 12 years old. In the next few years, six more of her songs were published.

Billie's mother, Anna Welker Brown (who lived on until 1935), wrote lyrics to most of Billie's tunes, including the words for Dangerous Blues.

Billie's first song was published in Kansas City, and she is believed to have been living there with her mother in a rooming house at the time. One record suggests her mother may have been a music teacher (presumably she taught Billie) and that Billie worked as a pianist in a cafeteria. This was a time in history when it was still normal for children at such an age to have jobs rather than be in school.

By the time of Dangerous Blues, Billie had secured a job as a composer and pianist (piano and song demonstrator) for the J. W. Jenkins Music Company - a large and prosperous musical instrument dealer and music publisher. As well as Dangerous Blues, Jenkins published her Lonesome Mama Blues and Lullaby Moon - both very popular at the time - and also composed in 1921.

Dangerous Blues was a great success and Billie received a good deal of money from royalties during the weeks before she died. As we know, both the blues singer Mamie Smith and The Original Dixieland Jazz Band immediately picked the tune up and recorded it.


And then - how awful! - poor young Billie contracted smallpox and by December 4th she was dead. What a terrible loss to the development of our music.

Another of Billie's songs - What's On Your Mind - was published posthumously.

No sure evidence concerning Billie's father has been found, but he may have died earlier. Her mother Anna re-married when Billie was about 16 years old.

Here is my mini-filofax-stored attempt at Dangerous Blues:

The crazy lyrics of Dangerous Blues appear to be:

Ta de da da de dum. Ta de da da de dum.
There's a funny strain a'stealing through my brain
It drives me 'most insane it seems.
Ta de da da de dum. Ta de da da de dum.
If you listen now, I'll tell you what this
Ta da da de-dum means:
CHORUS:
Oh, I got them dangerous blues.
Naughty doggone dangerous blues.
Can't you hear the music playing soft and sweet?
It's the kind that makes you want to shake your feet.
I think I'm slippin'; I know I'm slippin'.
Ta de da de da de da de da de da de dum.
Weary, dreary dangerous blues;
they're the kind you hate to lose.
I can't even think,
So lay me out in pink.
Every time that saxophone it moans
I want to sink.
'Cause I got them doggone dangerous blues.
Oh, I got them dangerous blues.
Naughty doggone dangerous blues.
Can't you hear the music playing soft and sweet?
It's the kind that makes you want to shake your feet.
I think I'm slippin'; I know I'm slippin'.
Ta de da de da de da de da de da de dum.
Weary, dreary dangerous blues;
they're the kind you hate to lose.
I can't even think,
Can't even sleep a wink.
Every time I hear those mournful blues
I want to sink.
'Cause I got them doggone dangerous blues.


Footnote: a researcher found records of a couple living in Eureka Springs, whose names were William B. Brown and Anna Welker. They adopted in about 1895 a baby with the name Irene Anderson, who is believed to have been born the previous year.  The researcher suggested this could have been Billie's family and that this baby - despite her name - could have been Billie. If so, that would have made her about 27 when she died.

Although this speculation may be true, it raises troubling questions. How come Billie's age was given as 18 on her death certificate? How and why did it come about that her name changed from Irene Anderson to Billie Brown? How come she and her mother are recorded as living in Kansas City, so far (250 miles) north of Eureka Springs? Why did the William Brown in question, still living in Eureka Springs in 1930, describe himself as a widower in the Census of that year?


I prefer to believe the details given on the death certificate.