“The Dark Town Strutters’ Ball” and “Vierd Blues”
I started to write this because one recent morning I awoke humming my father’s favorite song, The Dark Town Strutter’s Ball. As I hummed, I also heard Vierd Blues by Miles Davis moving through my mind on another, separate track. My father had been dead fifteen years. I have no idea why both songs, considering that I always believed both belonged to me came into my head at the same time that morning.
My father was a dour man. He seemed always angry, especially with me. When I was small, I had no idea why he frowned more than he smiled. I felt he was impatient with not only me, but with everything. He was economical with his praise. He rarely indulged in effusive hand clapping. He usually said little to me, other than insisting that I study harder because good marks in school were his idea how to get ahead. In many ways, he was right. As a small child, I remember he and my mother had frequent arguments that were usually about money. I was not happy to hear them yelling at each other. When I was older, I understood what was going on, not because he revealed his emotions to me, but because I started to read history and had a better understanding of the tough times that formed him, what we now call The Great Depression.
Money was very tight in the Depression years of the late 1930s. Often, there was none, or there was just enough to sustain how my family lived. My father once had a grand future, so he told me. Then came the crash and with it, his dream of becoming rich and successful vanished. In later years, I learned being rich and being successful were one in the same for him. His dream deferred, he had become heart broken. I know now that he had every right to be. The life he planned for himself fell apart, as it did for millions of other people. He was not alone in missed opportunity. He called it his failure. Not the failure of the country. His failure.
He sold what he called general insurance. Not life insurance. When he was an old man, he told me that he could not sell life insurance because he could not look a person in the eye and tell them they would someday die. We had a distant relationship because he worked very hard. During the week, I only saw him briefly in the morning and at dinnertime. On Sunday he would take me on his travels, what he called his visits to clients to collect the premiums they owned him for the insurance he had sold them. It was the only time we bonded. He did not own a car. Not many people we knew owned cars in Brooklyn at that time and during World War Two. A car was a luxury. We used public transportation. We rode the subway all over the city. We sometimes took the trolley car – my favorite – when it was on his route, but we rarely used buses. Buses regurgitated gas fumes. The gas fumes made me sick. I am sure the fumes affected my father, but he would never admit to a weakness. Anyway, everyone he had to see lived or worked close to a subway or a trolley line so we did not regularly use the bus.
Men dressed differently in those days. Today we would call it conservative. He wore a suit, a white shirt, a plain tie usually with a small pattern, and dark high socks held up with a garter belt around his calf. He had one pair of brown shoes and one pair of black shoes. He shined the shoes himself. His always highly polished shoes impressed me greatly. I recall seeing photos of him shortly after he married my mother. He wore two-tone brown and white shoes, a handsome suit with a vest and a straw boater on his head. He was a handsome man and dressed something like a dandy. Seeing those early photos I understood how my mother, a petite and beautiful woman, could easily fall in love with him and eventually settle down and marry before just before The Great Depression became a harsh reality. The suits he wore during the Depression, though, were worn, shiny and baggy.
When he got older, he once explained that as a young man he and he friends would go to as many Broadway shows as they could. He told me he and his friends would sometimes appear on stage as extras in costume, each young man carrying a spear while singing in the chorus. In later years, I wondered where that man went. Though I knew, it was a place I could not accept.
When I was small, and when my father was not out seeing clients, he often came to my room and in a sweet, soft voice, he would try his best to sing me to sleep. It was not the usual lullaby, but a song from his youth, “The Dark Town Strutter’s Ball.” I remember him singing it to my children on occasion and that I, too, sang it in a more gruff voice, especially to my two sons. Though my father has been dead for many years, he died at 96 in 1996, for some reason of late I have been singing the first verse to myself. I can find no reason why the words and music have been echoing inside my head. With the help of Google, I did some research. I learned that Sheldon Brooks first published “The Dark Town Strutters’ Ball” in 1917. Described as an early jazz song, the Original Dixieland Jazz band recorded a version of it in January 1917. You can find many versions of the song online because many well-known artists recorded it over the years. Listen to one version at Http://tinchicken.com/sogns/old/darktown.htm
It is a warm, fun song with a delightful, soft melody. These are the words he sang to me on many nights. I still hear them sung gently and with delight.
“I’ll be down to get you in a taxi, Honey
Better be ready ‘bout half past eight;
Now, Dearie, don’t be late
I wanna be there when
the band starts playing.”
I still enjoy the almost rinky-dink, old jazz and happy sound of “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” But growing up in Brooklyn, other music affected me more. It was music that I traveled to Manhattan to hear when I was fifteen years old, barely tall enough to reach over the bar for an illegal beer on 52nd Street where I wandered from joint to joint to see the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and other great musicians.
Miles’ music and all early bop musicians was the only music I cared for. What Miles played and what my father listened to was vastly different. Clearly, I listened to music far different from what my father enjoyed. My father and I never discussed music and just as well. We had other things to talk about, usually how I was wasting my present time and the dangers that awaited me in the future if I did not get my act together.
As I struggled to define myself, I always had Miles Davis, his trumpet, his love of the blues and how he used the blues to create his modern sound. His music lodged itself forever in me. I had Charlie Parker and Lester Young. I had Ben Webster and Sonny Rollins. I had Bud Powell and Tommy Flannigan. At one time after college, I lived in a railroad style flat near Columbia University. Ale was my drink of choice. Camel, the cigarette I loved. I spent many days and nights alone in my room listening to Miles’ Collectors Items and especially Vierd Blues. This was soulful Miles. This was subdued Miles. This had become my anthem. There were no words. The tune is simple. Miles uses an open horn. The sound is almost mournful, yet it moved me in the way that no music has moved me since. When I hear it today, as I did when I started writing this, it still moves me in ways that I still cannot describe or understand.
Yet despite modern jazz, and its meaning in my life, with Miles as the ultimate in cool and Dark Town, the epitome in some ways of early, classic jazz, the words my father sang to me resonate still. Listening to my father sing to me in his low pitched voice is one of the better memories I have of him and for that I will always cherish these verses. My father’s bedtime words to me on many nights are still some of the best memories I have of him.
“Remember, when we get there, Honey
The two steps, I’m gonin’ have ‘em all
Goin’ to dance out both my shoes
When they play the “Jelly Roll Blues”
Tomorrow night at the Dark Town Strutters’ Ball.”