Sunday, April 16, 2017


 Nina Simone performed “Little Liza Jane” throughout her career. 

(For more information about our film, please see: “Behind the Scenes at the Li’l Liza Jane trailer shoot.”)

In 1927, the poet Carl Sandburg declared, “There are as many Liza songs in the Appalachian Mountains as there are species of trees on the slopes of that range.” This unmagnified observation would help introduce one of two “Liza” compositions in his crucial effort, The American Songbag, a celebrated, voluminous compilation that bestowed significance upon numerous folksongs. “Liza Jane” depicted lonesome drifters who attempted to ranch the “flat prairies and level horizons” on the western plains of the Appalachians, but a second tune, “Good-By Liza Jane,” apparently accompanied a Midwestern circus as a minstrel song. The character, Liza Jane, is rather incidental to the silliness of the circus minstrelsy—a horse falls partway down a well, a snail bursts through the tail of the goose that swallowed it, a woman crosses a bridge that that wasn’t yet built—but in the mountain range version, Liza Jane (the character) assumes more prominence. In that piece, the narrators make jugs of molasses in order to “sweeten little Liza Jane” and contrast the hardest work of their lives (“a-brakin’ on the train”) with the easiest, “a-huggin’ little Liza Jane.” Questions about the relationships of these variations as well as their origins might not persevere in the inquisitive mind of the listener would the song not persevere among recording artists. Nina Simone, for example, delivered stirring renditions of “Li’l Liza Jane” throughout her career, including a fabulous live performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960. Wynton Marsalis, David Bowie (as Davie Jones), The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Pete Seeger, Taj Mahal, Vince Gill, Duane Eddy, Doc Watson, Slim Harpo, and Fats Domino, among others, recorded the song. (Some of these recordings, Dear Reader, leap out of the ol’ phonograph better than others!) In many renditions of the tune, Liza Jane represents an object of courtship, one who eludes the promises of gifts and affection with elegiac steadfastness. 

 The Hill Billies recorded “Mountaineer’s Love Song” in 1926. 

Step Back
When investigating John Lomax’s early 1930s recordings in the penitentiaries (and other areas) of Louisiana, the writer Joshua Clegg Caffery encountered “Little Liza Jane,” terming it a “crossover dance number” performed by African American string bands and jug bands. In his book, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings, Caffery parses a version of the song performed by Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones. The most charming passage of the tune, “Some people tell me Liza don’t steal, Little Liza Jane / And I caught little Liza in my cornfield, Little Liza Jane,” stamps a humorous realization onto a piece that otherwise, according to Caffery, veers between “unrelated episodes constructed out of stock phrases.” Even as that might be an unfair qualification, the author draws an incontrovertible distinction between Stavin’ Chain’s version of “Liza Jane” and the repertoire of Appalachian fiddle tunes such as “Susan Jane” and “Lasses Cane,” songs quite similar to the mountaintop variation introduced by Sandburg (although not the minstrel piece.) Terming them “second cousins once removed,” Caffery still acknowledges distant lineage between the Louisiana and Appalachian compositions. Many early recordings of “Li’l Liza Jane” predate the Lomax field recordings, among them these two popular versions: Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band recorded “Li’l’ Liza Jane—One Step” in 1917 and The Hill Billies recorded “Mountaineer’s Love Song” in 1926, both in New York City. The former, recorded by white musicians, carries the African American melody, whereas the latter, its “second cousin once removed,” clips along with obvious Appalachian fiddling qualities. While “Mountaineer’s Love Song” doesn’t mention Liza Jane in its title, the singers frequently recall her throughout the piece. Neither rendition, however, accounts for the genesis of “Li’l Liza Jane”—not nearly. The untraceable Countess Ada De Lachau published sheet music for a version of the song, “Li’l Liza Jane,” that was performed as entr’acte incidental music for a thriving Broadway three-act comedy, Come Out of the Kitchen, starring Ruth Chatterton, an actress who knew Amelia Earhart and would later fly solo several times, herself, across the United States, in addition to becoming a best-selling novelist. Broadway audiences heard “Li’l Liza Jane” as many as 224 times between the play’s opening in October 1916 and closing in May 1917, not long after Congress voted to declare war on Germany as part of the mobilization for World War I. Don Tyler, in his book, Music of the First World War, cannot classify “Li’l Liza Jane” easily, dubbing it “part folk song, part [minstrel] song, part early jazz, and part early country.”

Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones is pictured during 
John Lomax’s field recording sessions in 1934.

Step Back, Twice
According to The American Songbag, one C.W. Loutzenhiser of Chicago recalls seeing a performance of the minstrel song “Good-By Liza Jane” as a child attending the circus. No date accompanies this information, but we can assume that minstrels may have been performing versions of the song in the nineteenth century. (According to Caffery and other sources, Liza and Eliza were stock characters in many minstrel shows.) At least two writers published scores earlier than the mysterious Countess Ada De Lachau, one being Harry von Tilzer’s “Good Bye Eliza Jane” (1903) and the earliest being Eddie Fox’s “Good Bye Liza Jane” (1871.) The Fox version doesn’t appear to lampoon blacks, and instead, bills itself as a “comic song,” offering rural themes and silly couplets such as “Chickens and hens have gone to roost / A hawk flew down and bit an old goose.” The von Tilzer sheet music, on the other hand, portrays two black men in a stereotyped cover image and narrates a dialect-heavy scenario in which Eliza Jane has betrayed a lover, who then demands his belongings and promises to skip town before having to pay the rent. To be sure, the song’s estimable legacy exceeds sheet music and popular recordings, and we must take an important moment to understand that “Li’l Liza Jane” also served as a dancing game, or more specifically, a “Stealin’ Partners” dance-game song. In her 1918 collection, Negro Folk Songs, Book 4, the ethnomusicologist Natalie Curtis Burlin informed the tune “‘Liza Jane” as one during which an unaccompanied man would dance in the center of a circle, surrounded by couples. He would ‘steal’ a female partner, and the resulting single man would repeat the process, amid joyous lyrics in which a suitor urges Liza Jane to follow him, to Baltimore: “I got a house in Baltimo’, L’il’ ‘Liza-Jane / Street-car runs right by ma do’, L’il’ ‘Liza-Jane / O Eliza, L’il’ ‘Liza-Jane / O Eliza, L’il’ ‘Liza-Jane.” (As an aside, Natalie Curtis Burlin famously spent time transcribing songs on Native American reservations, including one stay accompanied by her pal, Theodore Roosevelt.) Additionally, Burlin would note an observation by Charles N. Wheeler, who wrote about a tune, “‘Liza Jane,” sung by African American soldiers in France, during World War I, perhaps the New York 15th (Colored) Regiment. According to his article in the Chicago Tribune, Wheeler related the words, probably sung as cadence, which began, “I’se got a gal an’ you got none—L’il’ ‘Liza Jane / House an’ lot in Baltimo’—L’il ‘Liza Jane.” 

The Countess Ada De Lachau helped popularize  
the song by publishing this sheet music in 1916. 

Roots in Slavery, Africa, and England
Whether or not the African American soldiers drew from Countess Ada De Lachau, they nevertheless restated her entry to “Li’l Liza Jane,” a phrase—“I’se got a gal an’ you got none”—that reinforces, however in reverse, the basic situation of the stealing partners dance game. The placement of Baltimore in many versions of “Li’l Liza Jane” may comment on some of the song’s evolutionary twists or may offer poetic convenience, seeing as “Baltimore” can be (and is) end-rhymed with words like “door” and “floor,” both evidence of house ownership, and both cited as reasons why Liza Jane should follow her suitor. The Countess Ada De Lachau’s sheet music, despite being billed as a “Southern Dialect Song,” contains a curious English tilt, “I will take good care [of] thee,” a line that Nina Simone maintains in her 1960 Newport appearance. Many of the African American recordings of “Li’l Liza Jane” offer melodic parallels to the African song of welcome, “Funga Alafia.” While several sources corroborate this observation, a listener can simply verify the claim by playing virtually any recording of the African American “Li’l Liza Jane” and virtually any recording of “Funga Alafia.” It might follow that the melody of “Funga Alafia” accompanied enslaved Africans as they were brought to the United States. How then the melody became affixed to English words, and where these English words ultimately originated, may be anybody’s guess, but one slave narrative from the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration confirms that a version of “Li’l Liza Jane” was being sung in Louisiana before the Civil War. This blogger found the narrative of Lucy Thurston extremely painful to read, but she recited, at 101 years of age, quite a few lines of the Liza song she sang: “Hair as [black] as coal in de mi--ine / Lil Liza Jane / Eyes so large and big and [fine] / Lil Liza Jane / OHooooo Lil Liza, Lil Liza Jane / OHooooo Lil Liza, Lil Liza Jane.” Indeed, the score by Countess Ada De Lachau emphasizes a refrain similar to Lucy Thurston’s rendition. “Ohe—————Liz – a, Li’l Liz – a – Jane,” it reads, with weight placed on the “Ohe,” before plunging toward the name of the woman who, either lightheartedly or earnestly, the crooner courts.

Slim Harpo and His King Bees play “Little Liza Jane” in 1961.

Apologies, Further Listening, and Listening
“I apologize for the imperfections in this work,” wrote Carl Sandburg, in the prefatory material to The American Songbag. “No one else is now, or ever will be, so deeply aware and so thoroughly and widely conscious of the imperfections in these pages.” Your humble blogger would like to express the same feelings—obviously on a much smaller scale—as those of Sandburg, a stately character revered for his writings, politics, and humility alike. To the contrary, The American Songbag stands out as a work of massive significance. Together with a few other sources, including The Acoustic Music Sourcebook and the online Traditional Tune Archive, it led me to a host of electrifying Appalachian-themed recordings of the song. Look for Uncle Am Stuart “Old Liza Jane” (1924), Fiddlin’ John Carson, “Goodbye Liza Jane” (1926), Tenneva Ramblers “Miss Liza Poor Gal” (1928), Bradley Kincaid “Liza up the ‘Simmon Tree” (1928), and Charlie Poole “Goodbye Liza Jane” (1930), among others already mentioned. Don’t neglect its second cousin once removed, either. Among others already mentioned, seek Huey “Piano” Smith and His Rhythm Aces “Little Liza Jane” (1956), Fats Domino “Lil’ Liza Jane” (1959), Art Neville “Little Liza Jane” (1965), Scott Dunbar “Little Liza Jane” (1970), and the Slim Harpo version, “Little Liza Jane,” that sits atop this concluding paragraph. What is it about Slim Harpo, man? Recorded blurry from the public address system at the National Guard Armory on Sage Avenue in Mobile, Alabama, on July 1st,1961, the King Bees and their leader play this version Through-The-Roof. By then, more than one hundred years had elapsed between Lucy Thurston singing “Li’l Liza Jane” in slavery and James “Slim Harpo” Moore inhabiting the song as part of a raucous celebration. The shouting and hollering in 1961 ought to learn us a thing or two about the magnificence of human transformation.

Likely personnel for Slim Harpo’s version of “Little Liza Jane”—James “Slim Harpo” Moore (vocals and harmonica), Rudolph Richard (guitar), James Johnson (bass guitar), Sammy Brown (drums), and Willie Parker (tenor sax).

Sources of Information
Carl Sandburg, The American Songbag  (Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1927)
Nina Simone recording information for Nina at Newport (1960)
Joshua Clegg Caffery, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings (LSU Press, Baton Rouge, 2013)
Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones recording information for “Little Liza Jane” (1934)
Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band recording information for “Li’l’ Liza Jane—One Step” (1917)
The Hill Billies recording information for “Mountaineer’s Love Song” at Discogs (1926)
Come Out of the Kitchen production information at Internet Broadway Database
Ruth Chatterton entry at Wikipedia
“Li’l Liza Jane” (song) entry at Wikipedia
Don Tyler, Music of the First World War (ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, Calif., 2016)
Harry von Tilzer sheet music for “Good Bye Eliza Jane” (1903) at Library of Congress
Eddie Fox sheet music for “Good Bye Liza Jane” (1871) at Library of Congress
Natalie Curtis Burlin, Negro Folk Songs, Book 4 (G. Schirmer, New York, 1918)
Natalie Curtis Burlin entry at Wikipedia
Countess Ada De Lachau sheet music for “Li’l Liza Jane” (1916) at Duke University Library
Lucy Thurston Works Progress Administration slave narrative (late 1930s)
Traditional Tune Archive (various pages) 
Martin Hawkins, Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge (LSU Press, Baton Rouge, 2016)
Slim Harpo Sting it Then! (1961) at AllMusic

No comments: