29 June 2016

Post 409: 'BIG CHIEF BATTLE-AXE'

Thomas S. Allen (1876 - 1919) of Massachusetts - a prolific composer and violinist - wrote Big Chief Battle-Axe in 1907. It's a good romping number in three parts (four if you count the Bridge). I'm pleased to say it is still played by some bands.

The first time I heard this tune was in 1993, on a recording made that year by Chris Tyle's Silver Leaf Jazz Band; and it made an impression on me. I entered it into my mini-filofax storage system. It is usually played in Ab, but I put it in the key of Bb, to suit my cornet - a transposing instrument.
C is the section on which to 'stick' for the purpose of solos. Improvising on it is easy because the chord sequence follows the Four-Leaf Clover chord progression.

It is interesting that when I went to New Orleans for The French Quarter Festival in April 2016, among the performers I heard were Tom Saunders, Lars Edegran, Steve Pistorius and Tom Fischer - all of whom played on that Silver Leaf Jazz Band CD 23 years earlier.

I like to play along with Tuba Skinny performing this tune on YouTube, though in this performance they use only the Bridge and Section C. They also play it in Bb, not Ab. Click here to watch and hear them.

Big Chief Battleaxe is a firm favourite in the traditional jazz repertoire.

For example, the influential Bunk Johnson recording may be heard BY CLICKING HERE.

Listen to the minor-key opening, and what do you think of? Possibly a scene from one of those black-and-white Cowboys-and-Indians movies of the 1940s. You picture a Big Chief, with feathered head-dress, long hair, and painted face, looking down from his horse at some settlers who pose a threat to his territory. In a curious pared-down version of English, he says firmly and with dignity to his tribesmen: 'White man need water. Give white man water.'

And then comes a brighter, jaunty melody in the major key. It perhaps makes you think of a happier moment when his tribespeople are enjoying a dance round the fire as the sun goes down.

Thomas S. Allen wrote the words for it as well as the melodies. Maybe you will be as surprised as I was to discover that it actually had words. And when I looked recently at the original sheet music, I was astonished to read those words and also discover what the composer had in mind. The 'Big Chief' was in fact just a painted wooden advertising sign outside a tobacconist's shop. Allen had the fanciful idea of this 'Big Chief' falling in love with an advertising sign across the road (a princess advertising stogies [cigars]). Eventually they went away together. Allen actually described the song as 'A Comic Indian Novelty'.

Listen to the bit of music Tuba Skinny plays between 51 seconds and 1 minute 9 seconds (the major-key theme) in the video indicated above. The words that go with it are:

‘Big Chief Battleaxe loves yer true;
all day long I gaze at you.
I don't care for this job any more.
If you’ll say you’ll be my bride,
then we’ll take a good long ride
far away from this tobacco store.’


The words of the song in full are:

Upon a stand, with a tomahawk in his hand,
stood an Indian chief of the bold Comanche band.
Ten years or more he’d been standing at the door
as an advertising sign for an old tobacco store
He longed to meet the princess so sweet
who held a bunch of stogies out on the opposite side of the street.
When she inquired if his tomahawk arm was tired,
then he shook his little head and he answered back so sweet:
'Big Chief Battleaxe loves yer true;
all day long I gaze at you.
I don't care for this job any more.
If you’ll say you’ll be my bride,
then we’ll take a good long ride
far away from this tobacco store.’

Sad to relate was this Indian warrior’s fate,
for they threw him in the dump.
But the Big Chief said ‘You wait!’
One dreary night, when the moon was out of sight,
then he stole a hobby horse and he rode with all his might.
He looked around and the princess he found
Then they both jumped on the hobby horse
and they started off with a bound.
And now today they are hundreds of miles away
But they don’t forget the time when the Big Chief used to say:

‘Big Chief Battleaxe loves yer true;
all day long I gaze at you.
I don't care for this job any more.
If you’ll say you’ll be my bride,
then we’ll take a good long ride
far away from this tobacco store.’

On the front cover of the sheet music, you can see the advertising figure Allen imagined, for years looking across the street at the princess!

Musicians may be interested to note that Allen composed his piece in 2/4 time and in the key of Ab. I think most bands today play it in Bb.

Here is an extract: