Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musings–“San Francisco Bay Blues”

UKULELE MUSING NUMBER 22, 1 JUNE 2019—ONE OF AEIOUKER STEVE JEWELL’S FAVORITES, “SAN FRANCISCO BAY BLUES”

Today’s the day many will gather to celebrate the life of Steve Jewell, one of our good ukulele friends who passed away a couple of months ago.  This is one of Steve’s favorites that we often played during our Saturday morning strum sessions at the Forbes Library here in Northampton. It’s a great blues tune written by a great performer.  Let’s give it a go one more time for Steve!   

A one-man-band rendition of the song—featuring a kazoo solo—was recorded by Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller (1896-1976) in 1962 and included in a Smithsonian Folkways compilation title “Friends of Old Time Music.”  

Jesse Fuller, One-Man Band: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhAZsCP7z9Y

“San Francisco Bay Blues” is considered an American folk/blues song and is the best known—and most often performed—composition by Fuller who first recorded the song in 1954.  The song was brought into wider popularity in the early 1960s by club performances by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Bob Dylan.  Covers have been performed by many artists including Jim Croce, Eric Clapton, The Weavers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary just to touch on a few.

 Peter, Paul, & Mary:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wfJhgcxrMI

Fuller was born in Jonesboro, Georgia, and, growing up, worked at numerous jobs: grazing cows for ten cents a day; working in a barrel factory, a broom factory, and a rock quarry; working on a railroad and for a streetcar company; shining shoes; and even peddling hand-carved wooden snakes.   By the age of 10, he was playing the guitar. In the 1920s he worked his way to California and settled in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, where he worked on the railroad for many years as a fireman, spike driver, and maintenance man.  During World War II he worked as a shipyard welder, but when the war ended he found it increasingly difficult to find work.  So, around the early 1950s, Fuller began to consider the possibility of making a living as a musician.

Up to this point, Fuller had never worked as a professional musician, but he was an accomplished guitarist and had busked for money by passing the hat. He had a good memory for songs and had a large repertoire of crowd-pleasers in diverse styles from blues to country.  He began to compose songs, many of them based on his experiences on the railroads, playing them in his syncopated style. When he set out to make a career as a musician, he had difficulty finding reliable musicians to work with. Thus, his one-man-band act was born.

Richie Havens:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yXVwv6MTRU

Fuller could play several instruments simultaneously, particularly with the use of a headpiece to hold a harmonica, kazoo, and microphone. In addition, he would generally include at least one tap dance, soft-shoe, or buck and wing in his sets, accompanying himself on a 12-string guitar as he danced.

His style was open and engaging. In typical busker’s fashion, he addressed his audiences as “ladies and gentlemen,” told humorous anecdotes, and cracked jokes between songs.

During those one-man-band years, Fuller also devised a new kind of instrument he called a “fotdella”, a big six string bass viol that he played with his foot via a system of pedals and levers.   To complete his rig, he had a right foot pedal for the fotdella, a left foot pedal to run a high-hat cymbal, and a harness to hold a harmonica and kazoo. While sitting down in the middle of all this, he also sang and played a twelve-string guitar.  Whew!  No ukulele, however.

Here, however, is a one-man-band version—with ukulele:

Ukulele, One-Man Band: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdx4e1wOIDM

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Fuller became one of the key figures of the blues revival, helping bring the music to a new, younger audience. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s he toured America and Europe, appearing at numerous blues and folk festivals, as well as countless coffeehouse gigs across the U.S.  He continued performing and recording until his death in 1976.

So, let’s celebrate the life of Steve Jewell, his ukulele, and one of his—and our—favorite songs  . . .

Stay Tuned!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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