On May 23, 1938, legendary jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton sat down to the piano at Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress to begin to rattle out his life story to folklorist Alan Lomax, a process that would span seven months and yield about eight hours of piano playing and dialogue. Morton started by picking out a simple, elegant blues tune and talking about piano "professors" he had known in the early 1900s, none of whom had recorded, were published or known to Lomax, and little about any of them has been learnt since Morton first mentioned them. He began to sing:
Iâ€™m Alabama bound,
If you like me, sweet baby,
You gotta leave this town.
She said, "Donâ€™t you leave me here,
Donâ€™t leave me here,
But, sweet papa, if you just must go,
Leave a dime for beer."
Pressed for details by Lomax, Morton recalled that the players he'd mentioned were all from Mobile, Alabama, but then clarified that one pianist -- Baby Grice -- was from Pensacola, Florida. Morton continued, "I wrote this tune while I was in Alabama about the year of nineteen-five, when I was about twenty years old. I was considered very good amongst my friends â€” that is, so far as the writing period. And Iâ€™ve always had a kind of a little inkling to write a tune at most any place that I would ever land. (...) But somehow or another, most all [of] those boys kind of felt that I had little composing ideas, and always tried to encourage me to play some numbers -- that is [to] write a number, I mean. So thatâ€™s why I wrote Alabama Bound."
At his last Victor date, more than a year later on September 28, 1939, Morton returned to this number one more time under the title "Don't You Leave Me Here," slipping in a quick couple of verses in the midst of what was otherwise a righteous jazz jam. Morton filed two separate copyrights on the piece under that title in 1939 and 1940; somewhat earlier in 1939 he had also copyrighted the piece "I'm Alabama Bound" under that title as well. And these weren't the first claims Morton had made to the song; "Don't You Leave Me Here" as recorded by Monette Moore with Charlie Johnson's Paradise Orchestra in February 1925 was also credited to Morton, as had been a recording made in February 1927 by obscure blues diva Laura Smith.
Flash forward 20 years to 1958; enter song plugger Harrison Smith -- a man on a mission. Smith and Jelly Roll Morton had been involved as partners in a business arrangement that went sour around 1930, and as Morton was long dead and no longer around to fend for himself, Smith was exacting revenge through publishing punishing prose about Morton in any magazine willing to host it, though most of it wound up in Record Research. A couple of Smith's articles include lists of Morton compositions that Smith insisted he had "stolen." At the end of one particularly long list, Smith includes -- almost as an afterthought -- "Don't You Leave Me Here," which Smith identifies as "The Alabama Blues" with no alternate suggestion of who the composer might have been.
What to do? If Morton did "steal" it, the song had to come from somewhere. With the help of relatively recently developed musicological tools, almost comparable to the field of criminal forensics investigations, one can get reasonably to close to the answer. Experts in the widely divergent, though connected, disciplines of jazz, folk music and the blues aren't always so good about sharing information, but this song exists in all three of these areas. In folk music, it is known by the scholarly handle of "Alabama Bound (II)," a ballad first added to the general folk registry by Alan Lomax and his father, John A. Lomax, in the 1934 collection American Ballads and Folk Songs ; it was eventually recorded by Pete Seeger for Folkways in 1958.
The editors of The Traditional Ballad Index also note that there are common elements between "Alabama Bound (II)" and "Railroad Blues," a piece recorded by singer Trixie Smith in 1925 which she credited to herself. And even earlier than the Lomaxes, around 1915 several fragmentary verses related to this piece were harvested in the Alabama-New Orleans area by different collectors; some of these refer to the "Alabama Bound" lyrics as coming from the mouth of a drunken preacher who "puts his Bible down" and begins to bellow them from the pulpit. The Archive of Folk Song continued to find variants of this version throughout the American South into the late 1930s. This aspect of "Alabama Bound" reached even early white country groups such as the Tennessee Ramblers, who recorded it in variant form as "The Preacher Got Drunk and Laid His Bible Down" in 1928. In 1929, another variant idea was recorded as "Elder Greene Blues" by legendary Delta bluesman Charley Patton, who gave the errant elder a name and suffused the lyrics with his own personal mythology. These variants got so far away from the original traditional idea that it appears only Henry Thomas, a Texas-based songster born in 1874, got down something that might reflect the original source ballad in a version he recorded for Vocalion in 1929 under the title of "Don't Leave Me Here."
However, this folk and blues universe is expanding, rather than contracting, as it would need to do if we are to get to the bottom of this matter. In their 1996 essay It Cert'ly Sound Good to Me: Sheet Music, Southern Vaudeville, and the Commercial Ascendancy of the Blues, first published in the scholarly journal American Music, musicologists Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff pinpoint the first sheet music publication of "I'm Alabama Bound" to a New Orleans-based theater pianist named Richard Hoffmann, whose ragtime two-step of that name was printed and sold through a local department store in 1909. It was popular enough that New York-based Columbia Records artist Charles A. Prince recorded it with his military-styled band in November of that year. Hoffman, however, didn't claim the tune as original, but acknowledged his piece was based on a traditional song called "The Alabama Blues." Bearing a 1909 copyright date, but not published till 1912 is Blind Boone's "Ragtime Medley No. 2 -- Strains from Flat Branch," the second strain of which is "I'm Alabama Bound." This is believed to be the earliest published piece to contain a boogie-woogie bassline. Boone recorded it as a piano roll, also in 1912.
With the title "The Alabama Blues," that seems to nail it -- it is given exactly as Harrison Smith reports it. Jelly Roll Morton certainly didn't write the song in Mobile in 1905, and one would assume Morton probably learned it as a New Orleans-based hit in 1909 when everyone else did. However, Morton had a lot more up his sleeve than just trick cards. Firstly, Morton wasn't in New Orleans in 1909, or at least he wasn't trying to be; he was working as a vaudeville clown with the minstrel group Benbow's Chocolate Drops throughout the South in these years. His reputation in New Orleans was already so badly injured by his years as a sporting house pianist and gambler that he probably had good reason to stay away. Secondly -- unlike Louis Armstrong, who adopted the birthdate "July 4, 1900" simply because he'd been an orphan and didn't know his real birthdate -- the discovery in 2005 of a visa Morton had taken out to work in Mexico in 1921 reveals that Jelly Roll Morton really knew that he'd been born in 1890. But by 1938, he was backdating himself to appear five years older -- for the longest time "1885" was the accepted birthdate for Morton, only to be undone decades after his death by virtue of a baptismal registry discovered in a New Orleans church.
So by 1938, with every date Morton was subtracting five years; if you listen to the original recording of the commentary quoted above you can almost hear, through his stammering, Jelly Roll doing the math in his head. Recalculate the date to 1910, and it results in an epiphany: Morton was still touring with Benbow's Chocolate Drops and Pensacola, Florida was one of the major stops on their retinue. The wrong and right answer is included in his statement to Alan Lomax -- "about the year of nineteen-five, when I was about twenty years old," and he changes the location of his narrative from Mobile to Pensacola. Perhaps he learned the piece from Baby Grice, or more likely from the husband and wife comedy duo of Watkins and Watkins, as per Abbott and Seroff: "On a bill with Ma Rainey at the Belmont Street Theater in Pensacola, Florida in February 1910, Watkins and Watkins were 'featuring a new act written by themselves entitled 'I'm Alabama Bound.'"
In the samples below, one will note that these various permutations of "Alabama Bound" are more different from one another than they are recognizably common. Jelly Roll Morton's incarnations are neither ragtime, blues nor folk, but pure jazz; the orchestral version is sophisticated, urban and spiced with swing, whereas the solo version is sad, mournful and moving -- elements that set both of them apart from the rest. Despite Harrison Smith's assertion that Morton was nothing more a musical thief, in this case, Morton has as much right to claim "Don't You Leave Me Here" as Charley Patton does for "Elder Greene" and on down the line. Morton just simply drew a cup up to the flowing stream of the blues and pulled himself a draught, and this seems to have been an integral way in which American popular music was able to transform and grow in his times. In an era rife with paranoia about rights administration, digital sampling and rampant accusations of piracy, this is food for thought.
Henry Thomas: Don't Leave Me Here
Pete Seeger -- Alabama Bound
The Tennessee Ramblers -- The Preacher Got Drunk and Laid His Bible Down
Charley Patton -- Elder Greene Blues
Trixie Smith -- Railroad Blues
Monette Moore with Charlie Johnson's Paradise Orchestra -- Don't You Leave Me Here
Jelly Roll Morton -- I'm Alabama Bound
Jelly Roll Morton -- Don't You Leave Me Here
For anything Jelly Roll Morton, check out Mike Meddings' excellent UK based site Ragtime -- Blues -- Hot Piano