I wrote four thousand more words of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong on Thursday, which puts me within spitting distance of finishing yet another chapter. I think that’s just about enough for one week, don’t you? I’m going to try to get the fourth chapter locked up today, after which I’ll put the book aside for a couple of weeks and think about other things.
Here’s one more little taste before I go:
“Gut Bucket Blues,” the third Hot Five recording, made the biggest splash, for obvious reasons. It starts out with a twangy single-string banjo solo over which Armstrong unexpectedly speaks a few cheery words of encouragement in the same gravelly voice first heard on record a year before in “Everybody Loves My Baby”: “Aw, play that thing, Mr. St. Cyr, lawd! You know you can do it–everybody from New Or-leans can really do that thing. Hey, hey!” He puts his cornet to his lips and starts to blow, and the rest of the band comes tumbling in behind him. They play two collectively improvised blues choruses, after which the other musicians solo, with Armstrong good-naturedly introducing each one in turn: “Ah, whip that thing, Miss Lil! Whip it, kid! Aw, pick that piano, yeah…Ah, blow it, Kid Ory, blow it, kid…Blow that thing, Mr. Johnny Dodds! Ah, toot that clarinet, boy.” Then Armstrong takes center stage with a simple, penetrating solo that returns again and again to a flatted third–the same “blue” note around which King Oliver built the first chorus of his “Dipper Mouth Blues” solo. The other horn players come back for a final ensemble chorus, to which Armstrong appends a two-bar break prefaced by one of his patented upward rips.
That’s all there is to “Gut Bucket Blues,” and according to Johnny St. Cyr it didn’t take much longer to come up with the number than it did to play it. Elmer Fearn, the producer of the session, asked for a blues, and St. Cyr offered to start it off with a unaccompanied banjo solo: “So we made a short rehearsal and cut the number. When Mr. Fern [sic] asked, ‘What shall we name it?,’ Louis thought for a while and then said, ‘Call it The Gut Bucket.’ Louis could not explain the meaning of the name. He said it just came to him. But I will explain it. In the fish markets in New Orleans the fish cleaners keep a large bucket under the table where they clean the fish, and as they do this they rake the guts in this bucket. Thence The Gut Bucket, which makes it a low down blues.”
In 1966 Armstrong would tell a reporter that “all songs display my life somewhat, and you got to be thinking and feeling about something as you watch them notes and phrase that music–got to see the life of the song.” The same thing, it seems, was already true in 1925: his music even then was a self-portrait, a reflection of his vast experience of the world. He might well have said, with Montaigne, that “I have no more made my book than my book has made me: ’tis a book consubstantial with the author, of a peculiar design, a parcel of my life.”
That’s all, folks. See you Monday!