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.

Song of the Week – Nice Nice Very Nice, Ambrosia; Nice Very Nice, Dave Soldier & Kurt Vonnegut; High Society, Louis Armstrong

Ignored           Obscured            Restored

Today’s SotW was written by guest contributor, Matthew Wells.  Matthew and I have been friends for over 40 years.  He was among the first guest contributors to the SotW, way back in 2009.

I came up with the idea of posting about a song inspired by a science fiction novel several years ago but didn’t feel qualified to write it.  I knew Matthew was my man!  In addition to being a successful playwright, he has a scifi novel in his top drawer that should be published.  Read on!

When you think about songs based on works of science-fiction books, there are obvious ones that come to mind, like “Rocket Man” by Pearls Before Swine, which is based on the Ray Bradbury story of the same name, and “1984” by David Bowie (he wanted to do a stage musical based on the book, but couldn’t get the rights from the Orwell estate).

And then there’s “Fifty-Third Calypso,” from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, otherwise known as “Nice, Nice, Very Nice:”

Oh, a sleeping drunkard

Up in Central Park,

And a lion-hunter

In the jungle dark,

And a Chinese dentist,

And a British queen—

All fit together

In the same machine.

Nice, nice, very nice;

Nice, nice, very nice;

Nice, nice, very nice—

So many different people

In the same device.

The Calypso is part of a religion, invented by a man called Bokonon and named after himself, whose believers accept that life is meaningless but still want some kind of hope to cling to, even if it’s a lie.

There are three musical versions of it that I could find.  The earliest is from the self-titled first album of the prog-rock group Ambrosia, in 1975.

In their version, the group added an additional stanza and a bridge:

Oh a whirling dervish
And a dancing bear
Or a Ginger Rogers and a Fred Astaire
Or a teenage rocker
Or the girls in France
Yes, we all are partners in this cosmic dance

Nice, nice, very nice
Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device

I wanted all things to make sense
So we’d be happy instead of tense

The mix of organ, horns, and drums give this version a spacy, psychedelic feel, like the musical version of a trippy religious experience.  Kurt Vonnegut is credited as co-writer on the song, and from all accounts, he liked this version.  In a letter he wrote to the band in 1976, he says:

“I was at my daughter’s house last night, and the radio was on.  By God if the DJ didn’t play our song, and say it was number ten in New York, and say how good you guys are in general. You can imagine the pleasure that gave me.  Luck has played an enormous part in my life.  Those who know pop music keep telling me how lucky I am to be tied in with you.  And I myself am crazy about our song, of course, but what do I know and why wouldn’t I be?  This much I have always known, anyway: Music is the only art that’s really worth a damn.  I envy you guys.”

The song also shows up in “Ice-Nine Ballads,” a 1997 collaboration between Vonnegut and Dave Soldier in which Soldier’s arrangements for songs based on Cat’s Cradle are accompanied by Vonnegut’s voiceovers.

In this version, Vonnegut’s voiceover has the offhand cool of William S. Burroughs, and Soldier’s arrangement sounds like a Frank Zappa B-side. (Odd fact: Soldier is the musical persona of Columbia University neuroscientist David Sulzer.)

To me, these two versions of Vonnegut’s lyric are nice, nice, very nice enough, but neither of them meet the challenge of turning the song into an actual calypso, like something that could have been sung by Harry Belafonte.  Or Louis Armstrong.  Why Armstrong?  Because the tune in my head is pretty much the same as Cole Porter’s “High Society,” which Armstrong sings at the beginning of the 1956 movie.  To me, it has the right tempo, and the right tune:

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Ditty Wah Ditty, Ry Cooder (w/ Earl “Fatha” Hines) & Weather Bird, Louis Armstrong w/ Earl “Fatha” Hines


The first time I was introduced to jazz great Earl “Fatha” Hines was when my cousin Tom V. (an excellent guitarist and contribution to SotW) played Ry Cooder’s recording of “Ditty Wah Ditty” from the album Paradise and Lunch (1974) for me. This is a version of the Blind Blake composition, not the song by Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley that shares the same title (although many spelling variations exist). Hines duets with Cooder on this track.

Hines was over 70 years old when “Ditty Wah Ditty” was released. Still, his playing was impeccable. His improvisational runs and glissandos are a thing of beauty.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also give you something to listen to from Hines’ early, influential recordings with Louis Armstrong from the late 1920s. My selection is “Weather Bird.”

The liner notes to The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz call “Weather Bird” a “mounting, unencumbered duet… the fullest statement on record of the encounter of the trumpeter (Armstrong) and pianist Earl Hines.”

Hines’ duets with Armstrong are cited as some of the most important jazz recordings ever pressed. Hines is credited with inventing the piano style known as the trumpet-style. Its main characteristic is a right hand that plays chords that were typical of horn sections of the day. Hines was a major influence on Art Tatum, another pianist that many jazz aficionados consider one of the greatest ever.

Enjoy… until next week.