UKULELE MUSINGS, 7 January 2022: A Green Light for a Red-Light Song: “Twelfth Street Rag”

Heading into the first few weeks of a wintry new year, some say the days are getting longer.  But it doesn’t seem so to me, and on too many days what purports to be sunlight is not even as bright as the traffic lights I see on my drives around town.  Green light, red light; green light, red light—a syncopation of sorts is set.  So, gentle readers, how does this give us a ride into a musical musing? 

Not much in either of our Yellow or Blue Books jumps out, so my weary (wayward?) mind begins to wander from traffic signals to another colorful connotation: “Red-Light Districts.”

To lead us down this less than PG path, one of the best quotations relative to our musical theme (and today’s news?) comes from our thirty-third President of the United States, that salty-tongued, accomplished piano player from Missouri—Harry S. Truman, seen here entertaining actress Lauren Bacall.

I’ve mused in the past about a couple of less than PG songs from our Blue Book that we enjoy from time to time. These seem pretty innocent and not too, shall we say, “red-lighty”—“Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Lulu’s Back in Town.”  

Yet, if we walk the history of these songs back a bit, and peek at a few of the original lyrics that didn’t quite find their way into our songbooks, we’d learn that both deal with certain “nomadic ladies” popular with gentlemen of the day but, alas, in a manner more periodic than permanent.   

Scholarly research will, of course, turn up dozens if not hundreds of songs from antiquity to today that touch on our colorful theme. 

These are, without question, worthy of scholarly study.  But, for the sake of simplicity, tender ears, and propriety, I’ll focus on just one–that ragtime homage to the composer’s old red-light stomping grounds: “Twelfth Street Rag.”               

 “Twelfth Street Rag” was written in 1914 by Texas-born Euday Louis Bowman (1887-1949), an itinerant pianist and writer of many ragtime, fox trot, and blues songs. 

He wrote “Twelfth Street Rag“—his most successful but, alas, least lucrative song—after a period in which he worked as a piano player in what some might say were the “better bordellos” of the infamous red-light districts of Fort Worth and Kansas City.

To give our song some (ahem) street cred as well as musicological context, he composed a batch of rags—“Sixth Street Rag” “Tenth Street Rag,” “Eleventh Street Rag,” and, last but not least, “Twelfth Street Rag” all named after streets in Fort Worth’s red-light district.  What a cultural homage to his hometown!

Being of considerable musicological interest in our less prurient times, there must be a couple of hundred takes on our tune on YouTube.  Let’s start our red-light tour with one of the best ragtime piano versions of it with some good illustrations of the times.  Click or tap on the next image or link for a look and listen. 

Now, to hear our song in its appropriate musical time capsule, click or tap on the next image or link for veteran bordello musician (Quite true!) Louis Armstrong’s, 1927 take on our tune.  

Our song is, of course, not at all descriptive or tell-all about the shady goings on in a red-light district domicile.  (Far be it from me to muse much in that direction!)  Rather, it’s the epitome of the type of music—raucous, rhythmic, and wildly danceable—frequently found in many of those, shall we say, “boy meet girl” establishments.

Twelfth Street Rag” was written primarily as ragtime or fox trot dance music. Its slangy, syncopated lyrics weren’t added until 1919, endorsed but not written by Baldwin.  To make sure you really have a red-light earworm, click or tap on the next image or link for a listen to the bouncy lyrics.

And, of course, we must have a virtuoso ukulele performance!  Click or tap on the next image or link to hear  Marcy Marxer and friends have a go at our tune.

And, as might be expected, there are a few ukuleles in my collection that bring to mind some—of course demurely innocent and G-rated—red-light denizens and denizettes. 

To end with, here’s a musical challenge: Since so many of us find ourselves isolated and stuck at home these pandemic days, I am sure that we often reach for our favorite little musical instruments to practice, practice, practice and learn new tunes.  So, here is a tutorial that will help you with a chord  melody version of “Twelfth Street Rag.”  Can you learn it?

Twelfth Street Rag” is a relatively easy tune to learn and, who knows, it might give you a career on the streets as a busker—not something else!   

So, as we move back from red-light districts to just plain red and green lights, stay warm, stay safe, stay masked . . .



Back to PG musing next time. Perhaps . . .

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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