Thursday, December 22, 2011

That's What the Good Book Says

by Alex Abramovich

Dedicated readers of the Boogie Woogie Flu (which is to say, you people, with too much time on your hands) could tell you right off that if (1) "Good Rockin’ Tonight" (2) "Rocket 88" (3) "Rock Around the Clock" (4) "That’s Alright, Mama" and (5) "Maybellene" have anything common, it's that, at one time or another, some music critic (which is to say, someone with too much time on his or her hands) has put them forth as candidates for “first rock and roll song.”

Now, this is the sort of argument that no one’s going to win. You could just as easily cue up (6) “Cow-Cow Boogie,” which Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse recorded in 1942 (though, I’ve always preferred Ella Fitzgerald’s 1943 cover)—

"Cow-Cow Boogie" mp3
by Ella Fitzgerald & The Ink Spots, 1943.
available on Ella: Legendary Decca Recordings

Singin' his cowboy songs

He's just too much

He's got a knocked out western accent… with a Harlem touch

He was raised on loco weed

He's what you call a swing half breed

Singin' his “Cow Cow Booogie” in the strangest way:

‘Comma ti yi yi yay
‘Comma ti yippy yi yay

—and which sets cowboy songs, Harlem accents, jazz cigarettes… all the basic rock and roll ingredients, bubbling together, while Elvis et al. are still in short pants. Or, you argue for Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and the Robins, who tossed yet another song onto the stack (or, as Jim Morrison would have had it, funeral pyre) of “first rock and roll songs,” sixty-some years ago.

"That's What the Good Book Says" mp3
by The Robins, 1951.
available on Leiber & Stoller Present the Spark Records Story

(7) “That’s What the Good Book Says” was recorded by the Robins, in Los Angeles, in 1950. “We let loose with something we had just written,” Leiber recalled, as “a different take on the bible than what I’d studied in Hebrew school:

Well, back in the days of old King Saul
Every night was a crazy ball
The cats smoked hay through a rubber hose
And the women, they wore transparent clothes
That’s what the good book says, boy,
That’s what the good book says….”

"The Robins dug our new creation myth and cut ‘That’s What the Good Book Says’ a month later. It came out in early 1951. A real record. Our very first, with our names on it, although misspelled. But it was real.”

The rest of this first, real Leiber & Stoller record, is worth quoting in full:

Now Moses said to old Pharoah,
“You’ll have to let my people go

If you don’t take their chains off and set them loose,

I’m going to put the plague on all of your Jews”

That’s what the good book says, boy

That’s what the good book says

Now the snake said to Eve,
“You listen to me, go and take that apple off the tree.”
Now, the Lord tried to guide her, but he was blind

She said, “this apple cider tastes mighty fine!”

That’s what the good book says, boy,

That’s what the good book says….

The devil was sitting on a nest of coals,

Giving boiled brew to the sinnin’ souls

They was taking that brim and mixing with wine

And having their self a real crazy time

That’s what the good book says, boy,

That’s what the good book says….

Leiber and Stoller with The Coasters (formerly The Robins) at Atlantic Records

What a great song to write, straight out of the gate! One that turns the bible upside down, and shakes it. It’s got Jewish authors. African-American singers. A heavy backbeat. Bacchanalian (or, pace Jim Morrison, Dionysian) lyrics. Gospel shadings. References to the biblical Exodus (or, as Bob Marley would have put it, “movement of Jah people”). A xylophone solo that anticipates Jimi Hendrix’s work with the Band of Gypsies... Why has Greil Marcus not written a book about this song? What would Christopher Hitchens, or Vaclev Havel have made of it? And was it even included in Jim Dawson and Steve Propes’ 1992 book, What Was the First Rock 'N' Roll Record?

None of us can answer these questions. (I’ve heard that Havel and Lou Reed had this song on repeat, in Prague, as they plotted the Velvet Revolution; according to Wikipedia, their conversation went unrecorded.) But we do know that the Robins, who started off as the “A-Sharp Trio,” in San Francisco, in 1945, eventually turned into the Coasters, and went on to record more than a few classic Leiber & Stoller songs. In parting, here’s Paul McCartney, singing along to one of those songs, talking about John Lennon, and (I think) crying:

top illustraion: Michelangelo's "The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden" at the Sistine Chapel


Anonymous said...

Hi there,
an interesting post, as usual, but in verse 2 it sounds more like 'juice' than 'Jews' to me!

DJ Dod

steven hatcher said...

Good post but surely Ella & Co. are taking a spin/referring to Leadbelly's song variously known as either "On the Western Plain," "Western Cowboy," "Old Chisholm Trail," or "Cow Cow Yicky Yicky Yea." Both Moses Asch and Alan Lomax recorded versions of this in the late '30s, early '40s. And variants of Leadbelly's version were recorded by John Lomax in and around Texas during the '20s & '30s. Just sayin'.


The Basement Rug said...

keep on this thread - I love stuff like this. I got sucked into the roots of rock 'n' roll search while sorting my records a couple of years ago and also agree that hints were there as early as 1942-1946 in many recordings.

Alex said...

Hmm. It might be juice. Jews would be better, wouldn't it? Steven - thanks. I haven't heard any of those songs, and will listen post-haste! And Rug: good luck, down there in the rabbit hole.