Song of the Week – Heebie Jeebies, The Boswell Sisters

Ignored            Obscured             Restored

Today’s SotW is coming to you from the great city of New Orleans.  It is quite a bit different than most of my posts.  For starters, it reaches back to the early 1930s, by far the oldest song I’ve ever featured.  It is “Heebie Jeebies” by NOLA’s own Boswell Sisters.

The Boswell Sisters were a trio of real-life siblings led by Connie Boswell, who was unable to walk due to a childhood bout with polio, and her sisters Martha and Vet.  As a result, the group typically performed with Connie and Martha seated at the piano with Vet standing behind them.  This was a ploy designed to disguise Connie’s disability.

When you first hear this song, it will remind you of other female, harmony vocal groups, like the Andrew Sisters, whom the Boswells preceded and influenced.  But don’t be fooled.  The Boswells were classically trained musicians but were also jazz hipsters true to their New Orleans roots.  In fact, the original recording of “Heebie Jeebies” was originally recorded by New Orleans jazz icon Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five in 1926.

But don’t take my word for it.  In his book Eminent Hipsters, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen discusses the Boswells’ version of “Heebie Jeebies.”

The Boswells could have just remade the record in their key.  Instead, they bust the piece out by giving it a nuanced dramatic structure complete with tempo changes, ritenutos (slowdowns), additional lyrics, new melodic material, special vocal effects and their unmatchable group dynamics…

After a wordless introduction, the Sisters rip into the chorus.  They’ve got the heebie jeebie blues and the only cure is to bring the feeling to critical mass by doing the heebie jeebie dance.  Then Martha’s piano slows to an easy blues tempo and Connie, in an ethereal solo, explains the situation:

I been havin’ ‘em – havin’ ‘em all day long

I got the heebies but I can’t go wrong

‘Cause when I got ‘em I just roll along

Now listen everybody while I sing this song…

The newly composed melody and lyrics in this section totally change the character of the piece.  Suddenly, having a case of the heebie jeebies isn’t all that funny.  It’s a specific sort of agitated depression, and moreover, now stated by Connie as a gentle blues, it’s a state of mind specific to women.  Banishing the blue devils with a beat, Martha and Vet then join in at the faster tempo.  One chorus later, they paraphrase Armstrong’s scat vocal, but arranged as an ensemble for all three voices.  Finally, they correct the Hot Fives’ famously flubbed hokum finish, and all is well again on Camp Street.  The Boswells have transformed Armstrong’s party tune into a sonic moving picture of a woman’s inner life over a day’s time.  And all this without sacrificing any jazz heat.

Here’s the Louis Armstrong version for context.

There are two items of note regarding Armstrong’s recording.  The first is that accounts of the recording session have reported that his scat vocal was spontaneous because he dropped his lyric sheet during the take.  The other point of interest is what Fagen referred to as the “famously flubbed hokum finish.”  Wikipedia describes it as “a line (that) is delivered too early, leaving the break over which it should have been spoken completely empty.”

If you like this song by the Boswell Sisters, dig a little deeper.  There are treasures to be discovered!

Enjoy… until next week.

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