Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The St. Louis Tickle and the Funky Butt.

What is the implication, a smell, a lack of hygiene, or worse? The name seems more suitable for a dirty joint in a bordello district” stated a letter to the Webster-Kirkwood Times newspaper about the St. Louis group, the Funky Butt Brass Band. Surely the writer was facetious using that Victorian reference for a whorehouse, and maybe they were being clever knowing that the statement itself has a history that goes back to when the song was written, a over a hundred years ago.

The St. Louis Tickle” was a song known for many years along the Mississippi river in the late 19th century. It was a dirty ditty and in certain bible-belt Missouri towns just singing it could get you a night in jail.

Ragtime music expert, the late Trebor Tichenor, found that it was well known in rural Missouri as “Funky Butt” and the tune appeared in several early rags. It's there in the chorus of Scott Joplin's “Sarah Dear.”

Tichenor described the unexpurgated version of the song as “a notorious bit of musical low-life,” having heard old-timers tell that as children they would get their faces slapped if they were caught singing it. Jack Conroy grew up in Moberly, Missouri, and recalled only a few lines from when he was a boy:
"Fifteen nickels and a rusty dime,
Will buy a little funky butt any old time.

In 1903, the Pierce City newspaper tells of Missouri's early music legend, Theron Catlen Bennett having success with his tunes in Chicago including the "Tickle." The Chicago publisher rushed it out as an instrumental rag two-step and it went over very well at the St. Louis World’s Fair and then swept the country as an early national popular hit. 

That’s American music history. But then Jelly Roll Morton came along.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 19 June 1904

A third of a century after “The St. Louis Tickle” was a hit song, Morton recorded a song he called “Buddy Bolden's Blues” for the United States Library of Congress and introducing it by saying that, “This tune was wrote about 1902, but, later on, was, I guess I'll have to say it, stolen by some author and published under the title of the 'St. Louis Tickle.'

Morton, the darling of New Orleans jazz fanatics, told this story about how a long time ago in New Orleans this great song was written by some mystery guy and then later another mystery guy used it as his song and then it was stolen from New Orleans by somebody and nobody knew this except Morton.

Right, well, there’s nothing that corroborates Morton’s story or his unknown music legends, yet his story is the story of the “Funky Butt / St. Louis Tickle” song, documented in the official archive of United States history and it’s taught as music history.

What is true is that this bawdy low-life song from Missouri and St. Louis has always offended somebody. And that also sort of sums up the St. Louis blues: there's always been plenty of folk who clean up by slapping foul-mouths and ridding the place of its offensive bordello airs.

Jelly Roll Morton made many dubious self-serving claims and most were never challenged. In many cases, original facts and information about early American music were forgotten in favor of stories Morton told in 1939. Check the blogpost SOAP SUDS.

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