UKULELE MUSING 28, 13 JULY 2019—A CROSS-CULTURAL SONG: “I AIN’T GOT NO BODY, AND NOBODY CARES FOR ME.”
To avoid an accusation of being “un-woke,” let me preface this musing with a bit of musical history.
The early part of the 20th century saw a rise in the popularity of African-American blues and jazz. At that time music by African-American composers and performers was classified by publishers and recording studios as “race music.”
This was also the era when African-American contributions in the fields of visual, literary, and musical arts became known as the “Harlem Renaissance,” a time rooted in the history of cross-cultural communication among the races in America.
This was when black musicians and music were embraced by white audiences, who—before the age of jazz and ragtime—would seldom have accepted African-American performers and their music as more than minstrelsy or, at best, a novelty.
Such were the turbulent, but formative days in the evolution of American popular music. In its heyday, so-called “race” music both celebrated and popularized the work of African-American composers and performers.
This category was a recognition of the growing demand for this musical genre by both black and white sheet music and record buyers—as well as performers—and was the antithesis of those comic Tin Pan Alley songs mostly (but not all) written by white songwriters that mocked and caricaturized immigrant and racial groups, particularly African-Americans.
This, then, is the genesis of many of the enduring songs of this era that are found in our Yellow and Blue books.
Now, on to a tune in our Yellow Book that helps tell this story.
“I Ain’t Got Nobody, and Nobody Cares for Me” is a popular blues song copyrighted in 1915 that fits right in to the music publishers and record producers catalog category of “race music.” It became a perennial standard, recorded by many artists of many generations—both white and African-American—in styles ranging from pop to jazz to country music. In the loosey-goosey music publishing business of the time, some credit Roger A. Graham (1885–1938) with the lyrics and Spencer Williams with the music—both African-Americans.
On the other hand (and as attributed in our Yellow Book), Chicago and St. Louis ragtime pianist and blues composer Charles Warfield (1878–1955) claimed to have originally written the song and copyrighted it in 1914, with himself as the composer and David Young and Davy Peyton as the lyricists—again, all African-Americans. Because of the growing popularity of African-American jazz and blues in Chicago, Frank K. Root & Co., a white music publisher based in that city, acquired both copyrights and published the sheet music in 1916. Ah, the music business in the sweet old days!
1920s Jazz Band Version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40ZRNsyA0sw
Many artists had hit records with the song, starting with Marion Harris in 1917. Famous hit versions in the 1920s included those of Bessie Smith,
Fats Waller, Sophie Tucker, and Louis Armstrong. In the 1930s, it was a hit for Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, Cab Calloway, and Chick Webb. Later it was even recorded by Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, Sammy Davis, Jr., Coleman Hawkins, Rosemary Clooney, and many others—white as well as African-American.
Bessie Smith: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fi_vKZe5NWk
Needless to say, musical funsters liked the “bodyless” title. Marty Feldman, as Igor, sang the first few bars in a scene from the movie Young Frankenstein,
where only his character’s head appears in a line of skulls, thus making it appear as if he literally “had no body.”
In the 1950s Louis Prima and wife Keeley Smith paired “I Ain’t Got Nobody” with the tune “Just a Gigolo” and that musical pairing was copied my many including—of all people—the Village People in a disco version of the medley in 1970s. The two tunes didn’t have a thing to do with each other; they just became one of those musical “couplings.” Go figure!
Louie Prima & Keely Smith Medley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrJ7DQojzIY
What was stacked on and sold from the “race music” shelf over a hundred years ago, “I Ain’t Got Nobody, and Nobody Cares for Me,” has transcended musical boundaries and remains a simple, bluesy jazz standard with a long, long life—well worth listening to and playing.
It has a relatively simple chord progression in the key of F, and is right at home in our Yellow Book. There are many more where this one came from!
This is not a ukulele version but features a tenor guitar—four steel strings that can be tuned DGBE like a baritone uke. Follow the bouncing ball!
Mills Brothers with Tenor Guitar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruLIkHIIuwE
If you want to learn more about this musical era, I recommend Arnold Shaw’s book: BLACK POPULAR MUSIC IN AMERICA—The Singers, Songwriters, and Musicians who Pioneered the Sounds of American Music. Another good read is Phillip Furia’s and Michael Lasser’s book: AMERICA’S SONGS—The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley. Check them out—history you can listen to!