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Friday, October 24, 2014

What The Words "Darktown Strutters Ball" REALLY Mean

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a two part series on the Jazz classic "Darktown Strutters Ball".

Part I provides information & comments about the meaning of the words in the title "Darktown Strutters Ball". It also provides a sound file & lyrics of that early Jazz classic, and information about the song's composer, Shelton Brooks.

Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2014/10/ella-fitzgerald-darktown-strutters-ball.html for Part II of this series. Part II showcases a 1936 example of "Darktown Strutters Ball" that was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb band. That post also includes other two brief excerpts of biographies of Shelton Brooks as well as a bonus video of Shelton Brooks singing one of his other compositions.

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Shelton Brooks for his musical legacy and thanks to the other performers who are featured in sound files that are showcased in this post. Thanks also to the publisher of this featured soundfile and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

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WHAT THE WORDS "DARKTOWN STRUTTERS' BALL REALLY MEAN

DARKTOWN
In the now classic 1917 song "Darktown Strutters' Ball", "darktown" is a referent for a section of Chicago where Black people lived.

In my opinion, in the context of the Jazz song "Darktown Strutters' Ball", the word "darktown" isn't racist, but a similar word "darkie" is. That said, some use of the word "darktown" is racist.

Read this comment posted by Marjorie Searl (September 12, 2011) in http://www.harmonicdissidents.org/issue-3-columns/letters-issue-3/ as a response to a question about "Is the song "Darktown Strutters' Ball" racist:
"It’s interesting and horrifying to google “Darktown” and see how many horribly racist images come up. Currier & Ives did a whole series called the “Darktown” series and it is a challenge for museums to deal with this material, although it is part of the art historical record."... http://www.harmonicdissidents.org/issue-3-columns/letters-issue-3/

It seems likely to me that the phrase "Darktown" may have been informally given to that section of Chicago as a statement of fact. And there's nothing wrong with being dark. In contrast the word "darkie" was probably coined by White people as a referent to Black people. "Darkie" has blackface minstrel origins. Unlike the word "darktown" in the song "Darktown Strutters' Ball", the word "darkie" evokes offensive stereotypes of Black people who speak in exaggerated dialects. Contrast that with the lack of dialect in the "Darktown Strutters' Ball" song and the images of Black people in that song who are wearing formal, fashionable clothing and taking a taxi to arrive at the an elite ball.

That said, I believe that nowadays it would be socially inappropriate to refer to a neighborhood or neighborhoods where Black people live as "darktown" or refer to other neighborhoods using color referents. Read additonal comments that I wrote about the word "darktown" in the pancocojams post on Blind Willie McTell - "Georgia Rag http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2014/10/blind-willie-mctell-georgia-rag-sound.html

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STRUTTERS
In the 1917 Jazz song "Darktown Strutters' Ball" the word "strutters" is an equivalent term for "dancers". After studying the original lyrics to that song, it seems clear to me that that word doesn't refer to a particular dance called the "Strut" that was done at that ball. Instead, the dancers competed for a prize (or prizes) by "dancing out both of their shoes" doing "the two step", "the classic buck and wing", the wooden clog", "Walkin The Dog", and probably other African American originated social dances. (The 1936 version that Ella Fitzgerald sung included the lyrics "Shim sham wins them all" meaning dancing the "Shim Sham" (the Shimmy) would win the dance competition for that couple.)

That said, it's interesting to read comments on a discussion thread of word reference forum about the meaning of "strutters" in the "Darktown Strutters Ball" song. Here's the first commeent in that discussion and one response:

blue baron, 17th July 2009 [Native language:Dutch]
"'Darktown Strutters' Ball.' is one of the earliest traditional jazz songs to become a standard. The words and music, by Shelton Brooks, were inspired by a ball at the 1915 Pacific-Panama Exposition in San Francisco.

What is the meaning of "strutter" in this title?"

**
Franzi (Native language:(San Francisco) English) 17th July 2009
"You're probably best off searching for books on jazz history. Google books has, for example, Jazz Dance by Marshall & Jean Stearns, which contains quotes like:
"He was a strutter in the cakewalk tradition and an eccentric dancer who employed legomania, a rhythmic twisting and turning of the legs."

http://books.google.com/books?id=KT-Y5ddqmTEC&printsec=frontcover

There appear to be many, many jazz groups called "The [something] Strutters".

Here is a reference to the dance (which I suppose probably preceded the use of 'strutter' as a noun for a certain kind of person): "In November 1937, Dancing Times reported a new dance craze: 'Such steps as the Shag, the Flea Hop, the Strut, and the Walk are combined with the new Big Apple.'"

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/good-questions--dragging-out-the-lobster-theory-1392545.html*

From the Online Etymology Dictionary: "To strut (one's) stuff is black slang, first recorded 1926, from strut as the name of a dance popular from c.1900. "
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=strut
-snip-
*This quote appears midway in the article and is excerpted from the response to the question "Why is New York called "The Big Apple". [Note that the Big Apple dance doesn't refer to New York City. Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-big-apple-dance-secular-dance-that.html for a panococjams post on the Big Apple dance.]

Another commenter to that discussion,Eamnyc22, gave the definition of "to strut" as "to walk proudly or haughtily." That blogger also wrote that "If I had to guess, the original dance probably looked a lot more like what African-Americans today call "stepping" (the dancers are called "Steppers")"
-snip-
I disagree with that analogy unless the commenter is referring to the "strolls" (also known as "party walks") that historically Black (African American) fraternity and sorority members do. (Visit this page of my cocojams cultural website to view videos of steppin' and strolls. "The Camel Walk" is a mid to late 20th century African American originated dance form that reminds me of fraternity/sorority strolls and thus may be similar to "The Strut" dance. That movement is called "riding" when it is performed by members of the Black fraternal order The Prince Hall Shriners. Visit this page of my zumalayah blog (a blog that I admit to neglecting) for this post on "rince Hall Shriners Riding (Doing The Camel Walk)" http://zumalayah.blogspot.com/2013/05/prince-hall-shriners-riding-doing-camel.html
-snip-
But an even closer connection can be made between the 19th century Strut dance and the Cakewalk dance.

Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2015/04/strut-miss-lizzie-information-lyrics.html for a pancocojams post on the song "Strut Miss Lizzie".

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THE STORY BEHIND THE "DARKTOWN STRUTTERS BALL" SONG
From http://www.harmonicdissidents.org/issue-3-columns/letters-issue-3/, posted by TheProf, January 11, 2012 [excerpt]
"The “Darktown Ball” was, in fact, a real event, but it did not start out as being for the higher classes. It was originated by the ladies of the evening in the Darktown area of Chicago. They decided to create the ball as their way of showing that, for at least 1 night per year, they were just as good as everyone else. It was by invitation only and, over time, became THE most sought after ticket. Even the Major of Chicago could not attend without an invitation.

The composer was Shelton Brooks, a black man who was celebrating the event and the fact that it had become such an important part of the city’s history..."
-snip-
The word "ball" is still used to refer to a formal event where dancing is the main activity. Almost always balls include eating a catered meal, drinking alcoholic beverages, and being entertained by some performance act or acts. (Notice the reference to the "Baby Dolls" that is given in the original lyrics to this song. My guess is that the "Baby Dolls" were a group of young women who performed some kind of dance act on stage.)

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SHOWCASE VIDEO: "The Darktown Strutters' Ball" The American Quartet 1918 (with lyrics)



Brent Abrahamson, Published on Jul 30, 2013

It's a Southbridge Old Time Radio Nostalgia Song.

"The Darktown Strutters' Ball" American Quartet 1918 (with lyrics)
-snip-
Southbridge Old Time Radio is from Southbridge, Massachusetts.
**
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Quartet_(ensemble)
“The American Quartet was a four-member vocal group that recorded for various companies in the United States between 1899 and 1925".
-snip-
Those vocalists were Anglo-American.
**
"Darktown Strutters' Ball" begins at 1:44 in this sound file.

The words to that song are superimposed on the screen and are found below.

**
Here's my transcription of the radio host's introductory comments:
"This is Brent Abrahamson your host on Southbridge Old Time Radio.

As we look back at very old songs in our American history, we’re faced with a significant problem –How do we deal with ethnic songs, songs sung in dialect? It’s not a pleasant part of our music history to explore. Yet, it is one which we should not forget. Some recordings from the early 20th century were indeed filled with racial stereotypes. They were even known as “coon songs”. Some belong in the dust bin of history.

Smash hits such as the "Darktown Strutters Ball" may deserve special recognition. First of all the song was written by a Canadian, the Black composer Shelton Brooks. Second, it depicts an African American annual event in Chicago when people got all dressed up and let themselves go, refusing to play the second class citizen that society had assigned them to, at least for one night. It reflects an attitude that signaled determination to break the bonds. Finally, it’s a catchy tune. The American Quartet clearly had fun singing it. And, it’s been recorded, minus the dialect many times since. So with all that said, Here is the American Quartet 1918 with Dark Town Strutters Ball.
-snip-
Transcription by Azizi Powell. Additions and corrections are welcome.

For the most part I agree with Brent Abrahamson's comments. To be clear, I don't consider the use of the word "darktown" in that song to be racist. However, Black composed songs about Black people can be offensive- Ernest Hogan's "All Coons Look Alike to Me" is just one example.

Also, when Brent Abrahamson says that [Darktown Strutters Ball has "been recorded, minus the dialect many times", I think that by "dialect", he means African American vernacular words such as "highbrowns". That isn't what I think of when I hear or read the word "dialect".
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THE LYRICS TO "DARKTOWN STRUTTERS BALL"

Words and Music by SHELTON BROOKS
Published 1917, by Will Rossiter

[Verse 1.]
I've got some good news Honey,
An invitation to the Darktown Ball,
It's a very swell affair,
All the "highbrowns" will be there,

I'll wear my high silk hat, and a frocktail coat,
You wear your Paris gown. and your new silk shawl,
There ain't no douby about it babe,
We'll be the best dressed in the hall.

[Chorus]
I'll be down to get you in a Taxi honey,
You better be ready about half past eight,
Now dearie don't be late,
I want to be there when the band starts playing.

Remember when we get there,Honey,
the two steps I'm goin' to have em all,
Goin' to dance out both my shoes:
When they play the "Jelly Roll Blues,"
Tomorrow night at the Darktown Strutter's Ball.


[Verse 2.]
We'll meet our hightoned neighbors,
an exhibition of the "Baby dolls,"
And each one will do their best,
Just to outclass all the rest,

And there'll be dancers from ev'ry foreign land,
The classie, buck and wing, and the wooden clog:
We'll winn that fifty dollar prize,
When we step out and "Walk the Dog."

[Chorus]

From http://parlorsongs.com/content/d/dktownstrutters-lyr.php

Those same lyrics are also found on http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/c/chet_atkins/darktown_strutters_ball.html. That page also provides some explanations of some of those lyrics but doesn't give any explanations for the word "darktown" or "strutters".

One of the terms it does explain is "highbrown" -"Either light-skinned or well-to-do African-Americans. Compare with 'high-yellow" as a designation for persons of mixed race, and lighter complexion".

For what it's worth, I think that "highbrown" originally meant a light skinned Black person, but in the context of this record means a well-to-do Black person. Note that because of various reasons, until at least the mid 20th century, light skin color was generally considered a criteria of elitism for African Americans. I also think that the word "hightones" probably has the same meaning.

Another phrase that that site explains is "Walking the Dog" -
The composer of this song ["Darktown Strutters Ball"] Shelton Brooks also wrote a song and invented a dance known as Walkin' the Dog. The lyrics to the song describe how to do the dance"a song that Shelton Brooks wrote in 1916".
-snip-
Click http://parlorsongs.com/content/w/walkinthedog-lyr.php for the lyrics to Shelton Brooks' Walkin' The Dog".

By the way, besides its title and the fact that the song is about a "new dance craze", and the song includes some dance instructions, Shelton Brooks's "Walkin The Dog" is nothing like the Rufus Thomas' 1963 song of the same name.

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ADDENDUM - INFORMATION ABOUT SHELTON BROOKS
Here are links to two biographies of Shelton Brooks and brief excerpts from those websites.
From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shelton_Brooks
"Shelton Brooks (May 4, 1886 – September 6, 1975) was a Canadian composer of popular music and jazz,[1] who wrote some of the biggest hits of the first third of the 20th century"...

Brooks' works include Some of These Days, At the Darktown Strutters' Ball,[3] I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone, Every Day, All Night Long, Somewhere in France, Swing That Thing, That Man of Mine, There'll Come A Time, and Walkin' the Dog."

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From http://jass.com/sheltonbrooks/brooks.html
"Shelton Brooks was born to Native American & Black parents in Amherstburg, Ontario, on May 4, 1886...

Along with W. C. Handy and William Grant Still, the dean of black classical composers, Brooks was honored in San Francisco at the ASCAP-sponsored Festival of American Music in 1940. He died in Los Angeles on September 6, 1975."

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Visitor comments are welcome.

24 comments:

  1. Hi there,
    Thanks for this informative post about Darktown Strutters' Ball. I would love to have your opinion about something. I have a band that performs the music of the Jazz Age, mostly 1920s & early '30s, but sometimes reaching back to the teens. We all love this song and would like to add it to our repertoire. While I agree that it doesn't seem to contain racist sentiment, I wonder if people will be troubled by a Caucasian jazz trio performing it. I'm not so worried about the mostly white "p.c. police" (though well-meaning, they'll find anything to get upset about), but how about our African-American audience members? I don't plan on singing the verses, just the chorus.

    Thanks again for the post. All the best,
    Sunga Rose

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Greetings, Sunga Rose.

      I can't speak for any other Black people, but a band singing that chorus wouldn't bother me, unless they sung it in black face and/or with exaggerated Southern Black ldialect..

      I also think it would be great if the band would share some information about this song before performing it.

      Thanks again for visiting pancocojams.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for the quick reply. That's a great idea to share a bit about the song before we perform it. I love to give some history of the music & era when we have an attentive audience.

      Best,
      Sunga

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    3. Greetings!

      I can imagine that it must be difficult to play live gigs when the audience isn't attentive.

      I wish your band much success.

      Delete
  2. I play this tune on my Ukulele, it's a lovely lively little number & I enjoy playing it. I have wondered in the past 'where it came from & what it's meaning might be'. Now I know. As Azizi Powell stated above, Unless it is sung in a derogatory way, the song still remains just a lovely lively little tune, which has a history behind it. It should be shared. Although that said, you can not please everybody all the time unfortunately !! Clive Wilkinson. Plymouth UK

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment, anonymous.

      However, the words that you ascribed to me might give the wrong impression that I have no problem what so ever with the "Darktown Strutters Ball" song.

      I have real concerns about this song being shared in certain ways and in certain venues.

      Delete
  3. Thank you, Azizi Powell, for the work you put into this. I have always loved this song - the excitement of the event just shines through in the words and music. My thought about the Baby dolls - I have always assumed it referred to the women in attendance who enjoyed showing off their finery: their dresses, jewelry, shoes and hairstyles, kind of like being in the Easter Parade. Anyway, I really enjoyed all the info, and especially hearing the American Quartet sing. Thanks again. (I'm choosing "Anonymous because I don't know how to use any other profile selection - I'm Czarinakat)

    ReplyDelete
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    1. You're welcome, Czarinakat.

      I appreciate your comment. And how fitting is it to mention the Easter Parade on the day before Easter. I'm old enough to remember the fancy hats women and girls would wear for Easter Parades. Do they even have such parades anymore? :o(

      I'm not sure how commenters who don't have a Word Press or other internet presence that is listed under 'Reply as' add their names to their comments.

      I'm glad you and others figured out a way around that by adding your name at the end of your comment.

      Best wishes!

      Delete
    2. My hometown of Holyoke in Western Mass. has an event that we always called The Drag (absolutely no clue why) and when I was a kid in the 50's we'd "walk the Drag" every Easter to show off our new Easter outfits, including a new hat complete with the elastic that went under your chin to keep it on your head, new dress, church coat, and white gloves. It pretty much died out in the 60's, but has been revived in a different way with vintage car displays, egg hunts, and the Easter Bunny. Fun, but probably won't create the same simple memories of being all dressed up and enjoying the air of a beautiful Spring afternoon. Enjoy your day. Czarinakat

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    3. Hi Czarinakat!

      I hope your Easter has been good.

      Thanks for sharing memories of walking the Drag. I guess "walk the Drag" came from the slang phrase "the main drag = The principal street of a city or town."
      main drag

      Actually, I can't remember being in an Easter parade, except perhaps for my church's Sunday School hosting one when I was growing up (also in the 1950s).

      But "Put On Your Easter Bonnet" ("The Easter Parade") song made a strong impression on me.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYac9O3GYTM

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    4. I really didn't mean to get into a running dialog with you - I'm sure you have enough to do with your research and blogspots - but I definitely have enjoyed our little exchange. I just don't want you to feel obligated in answering!
      I am chuckling because as I checked back on this page I was and still am watching that very movie, "Easter Parade", on TCM! As soon as I read "the main drag" I thought, "duh"! Of course that is it. My thoughts are like little fluttering birds, sometimes they land, and sometimes they just fly away. Obviously "the main drag" was one that flew away! I'd be worried if I hadn't always been like this to one degree or another. :o) Hope you also have had a good Easter. Czarinakat

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    5. No problemo, Czarinakat.

      I'm enjoying our conversation.

      I can also be reached at azizip17 at yahoo dot com.

      Delete
  4. Azizi,

    Thank you so much for all of the research and hard work you have put into this song. I am a 72 year old white man who loves playing the Ukulele, and have for nearly 60 years. I am a member of a ukulele club that goes around to retirement and nursing homes and plays old familiar songs for the people who live there. Believe me when I say that we don't have difficulty getting folks to join in, and the smiles are enough reward to keep us going.

    I also love to do some research on the songs we sing. Mostly to make sure that all of the words for the entirety of all of the song are available to us. Often only choruses are what most folks hear, and it is far more fun to be able to sing the introductions and verses as well.

    Occasionally, I am fortunate to run across Blogs like this, where I can learn about the history of the song. When I do, I share it with my fellow ukulele club members, and we figure ways to share with our audiences.

    We have one member who has done research on the benefits of music for the elderly, and have found that research shows that it does more than just enrich and entertain, but it has a healing effect. We have even seen and heard reports about some of our nursing home audience members who have had a history of being very recluse, when they heard our music, began to move, make sounds, even talk and sing along, sometimes for the first time in years. I truly believe that there is something deep within the human spirit that craves what only music can provide.

    Thanks again, and keep up the good work.
    Paul

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    Replies
    1. Greetings, Paul.

      Thank you for your comment and thanks for the work that you and your fellow ukulele club members do with sharing songs with people living in nursing and retirement homes.

      I also enjoy learning about some old and some new songs and agree with research that indicates that music can have healing effects.

      And, like you "I truly believe that there is something deep within the human spirit that craves what only music can provide."

      Best wishes!

      Delete
  5. Thank you so much for this wonderful information. I am white, but I would LOVE to go back in time and go to that Darktown Strutter's Ball. I'll bet it was a lot of fun.

    I so appreciate the music and dance that Black people brought to America. Boogie-woogie, ragtime, jazz, blues, swing, doo-wop, rock and roll, etc. I think if it was not for that, we might all still be just listening to classical. My favorite composer of all time is Fats Waller, and I wish so badly that someone famous would bring his music back. My husband plays the Darktown Strutter's Ball on his guitar whenever he performs. We only know the chorus and I had no idea there were verses! Thank you SO much for sharing them. Now I just have to find the melody to the verses. Thanks again! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment Carolyn Jorgensen Potter.

      I'd also add many Shanties, and old time Banjo music, and Spirituals, and Gospel Music, and Hip Hop and more :o)

      Delete
    2. Hi, Azizi! I'm a singer/songwriter from NYC, and I play in both a duo and a 5-piece classic band. Even though our main repertoire is blues, classic rock, pop, country, rockabilly, and originals songs, my duo, BlueBird, performs songs from the entire musical spectrum, including songs from the medieval folk canon, and classic jazzy pop. I just thought you might be interested to know that we play "Darktown Strutter's Ball," since it's one of the classic jazz songs we enjoy. Because of that, I was researching the original lyrics, since I was aware that the song as sung these days is actually only the refrain of the (longer) original version. That led me here to your wonderful blog! I copied the original verses you have here (but still cannot find the music for it.) In the meantime, though, I thought you also might be interested to know that -- in the original verses -- the reference to the dance called "Walk The Dog" appears in another song from that era, which I also like. It's called "Jazz Baby," by Blanche Merrill, written in 1919 (just a couple of years after "Darktown Strutter's Ball," was written.) The lyric in that song references the dance that (supposedly) Shelton Brooks also might have written or created, about "walking the dog." The lyric in "Jazz Baby" reads: "That 'walk-the-dog and ball-the-jack' that caused all the talk / is just a copy of the way I naturally walk"! So Blanche Merrill might have been following up the Shelton Brooks song with her take on dance or his song. Just a bit of musical trivia you might enjoy....and thanks for your interesting and informative blog!

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    3. Leigh Harrison, thanks for sharing information about a 1919 reference "walking the dog". I just love learning trivia like that. I'll have to add that info to my pancocojams post on Rufus T"Walking The Dog".

      I'm glad you found this blog. I tried to look up some YouTube videos of your group. Please post some links or send them to my azizip17 at yahoo dot com email address.

      Thanks again!

      Delete
    4. Here's a link to the lyrics for that 1919 composition "Jazz Baby": http://lyricsplayground.com/alpha/songs/j/jazzbaby.shtml

      Here's a link to a sound file of that song sung by
      "Marion Harris (April 4, 1896 – April 23, 1944) was an American popular singer, most successful in the 1920s. She was the first widely known white singer to sing jazz and blues songs." [excerpt from that sound file's summary]
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQNJ1Xf9dDk.

      Delete
    5. Hmm.
      It turns out that I haven't done a blog post on Rufus Thomas' "Walking The Dog" yet (I probably published a post on that song in one of my now de-activated websites. So, I'll have to publish one here. And when I do, I'll hat-tip you Leigh Harrison, for alerting me to that 1919 song.

      In the meantime, here's a link to a Rufus Thomas post that features his "Funky Chicken" record" http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2012/05/rufus-thomas-crowd-control-at-wattstax.html.

      Delete
    6. Greatly enjoyed the back story and the many insights of the comments. One thing is lacking, IMO: Although perhaps embarrassing, I think that--among all the explanations of dance steps and "strut"--a few words might be addressed to "Jelly Roll Blues." The title's sensual implications are well known but I've been wondering whether it really existed as music. If so, by whom? Don, Portland OR

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    7. Hi donwolfe.

      Thanks for providing an opportunity to share information about "Jelly Roll Blues". Here's an excerpt from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jelly_Roll_Blues:
      ""Original Jelly Roll Blues", usually shortened to and known as "Jelly Roll Blues", is an early jazz fox-trot composed by Jelly Roll Morton. He recorded it first as a piano solo in Richmond, Indiana, in 1924, and then with his Red Hot Peppers in Chicago two years later, titled as it was originally copyrighted: "Original Jelly-Roll Blues". It is referenced by name in the 1917 Shelton Brooks composition "Darktown Strutters' Ball"."...

      Here's a link to a YouTube example of Jelly Roll Morton - The Original Jelly Roll Blues https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Le95FX1Ei-Y.

      And, here's a link to information regarding the jazz meanings of the term "jelly roll" http://www.apassion4jazz.net/etymology.html.

      Delete