Jelly Roll Morton: Winin’ Boy Blues

Here’s some of the finest blues singing and piano ever recorded. “Winin’ Boy Blues” was played by Jelly Roll Morton on a solo session he made for General Records in 1939. It was reissued by Commodore in 1946 in the album, New Orleans Memories, then again around 1970. The latter reissue was one of my first jazz purchases and I listened to it over and over again. Morton’s singing felt so direct and unaffected that I was surprised a few years later to hear him hailed as one of the greatest of jazz and blues singers. For me, the assertion was a wonderfully useful and enduring eye-opener about what to value and what to avoid in blues singing.

A year before the session for General, Morton spent a total of eight hours with Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress talking, singing and playing songs from his younger days in New Orleans. Encouraged by Lomax, Morton sang the most ribald versions he recalled of the songs, and for many years only edited versions of the LOC tapes were commercially released. (A heavily doctored transcript of the tapes formed the basis of Lomax’s bio of Morton, Mister Jelly Roll, The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz.”) But in 2005 Rounder Records released the collection complete and unexpurgated. And a few days after I got a copy, I ended a night of Jazz à la Mode with a few tunes from the set. “Tiger Rag” was the opener, “Winin’ Boy” the close. It was a rare instance in which I played something on the air that I hadn’t auditioned first, but given how well I knew the studio version of “Winin’ Boy,” I figured the LOC to be the same so I let it play. Then I left the air studio for the library across the hall to pull some records for the following night’s show and got back only to hear the final strains of Morton’s blues.

A day or two later I ran into a friend who mentioned how much she enjoyed hearing the Morton, “especially that ‘Winin’ Boy’! Thanks for playing it.” I didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later when I had a chance to sit down and listen to the collection. And damn if I didn’t suddenly discover why my friend had mentioned the tune, for in the LOC version of “Winin’ Boy,” Morton gives a straight reading of the first two verses before descending, like the proverbial snake in the grass (one of his metaphors, as it happens), into one of the most salacious records I’ve ever heard. And to think I’d just played it on WFCR! I was aghast and my brow produced a bead of sweat. When I related the story a year later to my jazz history class, one of the students said he’d heard the show on the night in question and wondered if it was my swan song as a deejay? Look below to hear the “smutty” record under discussion. But first, give a listen to the sublime and relatively sacred edition of “Winin’ Boy Blues.”

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