DEAR JERRY: You have deciphered song lyrics for others, and now I have one I can't solve.
In Gene Autry's “Bear Cat Papa Blues” (Gennett 17687), the first verse seems to end with “she messed around with the other men, drink whiskey, Jay canned wine.”
I've seen wine in a box, but never in cans. Perhaps at the time of this recording, Jay canned his wine.
Otherwise, I'm not at all sure of what I'm hearing.
Geoff Tompkins, Harrisburg, Pa.
DEAR GEOFF: That Gene Autry would confound you is a surprise, as he is known for clear articulation.
But after playing this song I understand the confusion, which has nothing to do with Gene's pronunciation.
As for Jay, he may have canned peaches, but never wine.
Seriously, what you hear as “drink whiskey, Jay canned wine” is really “drink whiskey, jake and wine.” There is no audible difference between the two.
Jake in this context is an illicit Jamaican alcoholic beverage, and sold in the 1930s during Prohibition.
Containing ginger dissolved in alcohol and mixed with inexpensive, substandard and hazardous ingredients, jake sold primarily to indigents. Most of these men developed paralysis of the lower extremities from the poisonous concoction, and never walked again without the aid of a cane or crutch.
Those with the resulting malady, called Jake Leg, dragged their lifeless leg when walking, in a distinctive gait known as the Jake Walk.
Despite the single mention of jake in “Bear Cat Papa Blues” (1931), it is not really a jake song. Still, over a dozen recordings specifically about jake-related conditions do exist. Their titles alone make the jake theme clear:
(1929) Tommy Johnson - “Alcohol and Jake Blues” (Paramount 12950)
(1930) Allen Brothers - “Jake Walk Blues” (Victor 40303)
(1930) Ishman Bracey - “Jake Liquor Blues” (Paramount 12941)
(1930) Ray Brothers - “Jake Leg Wobble” (Victor 40291)
(1930) Narmour & Smith - “Jake Leg Rag” (Okeh 45469)
(1930) Mississippi Sheiks - “The Jake Leg Blues” (Okeh 8939)
(1930) Byrd Moore - “Jake Legs Blues” (Gennett 17091)
(1930) Ray Brothers - “Got That Jake Leg Too” (Victor 23508)
(1931) Mississippi Sarah & Daddy Stovepipe - “Jake Leg Blues” (Vocalion 1676)
(1933) Asa Martin - “Jake Walk Papa” (Champion 16627)
(1934) Willie Lofton - “Jake Leg Blues” (Decca 7076)
(1937) Maynard Britton - “Jake Walk Blues” (Library of Congress 1522)
(1937) Maynard Britton - “Jake Legs Blues” (Library of Congress 1524)
Mr. Britton knew a lot about the jake blues. He is the only one on our list to be a real-life victim of the anguish told in these songs.
A few scattered post-'30s tunes exist with a jake connection, but our focus is that decade, with 1930 being the epicenter of the outbreak, and year for most of the recordings.
Honorable mention also goes to three other titles that don't exactly fit into the above group:
(1928) Lemuel Turner - “Jake Bottle Blues” (Victor 40052). This instrumental predates the Jake Leg outbreak, with the connection here being the jake bottle rather than the then-unknown affliction.
(1930) Narmour & Smith - “Limber Neck Blues” (Okeh 45548). Another instrumental, as is their “Jake Leg Rag,” but without “Jake” in the title. The inspiration here is impotence, a less publicized symptom. Erectile Dysfunction is also the focus of “The Jake Leg Blues,” by the Mississippi Sheiks. They call it the “jake limber leg blues.”
(1931) Dave McCarn & Howard Long - “Bay Rum Blues” (Victor 23566). These thirsty boys declare their need for booze during Prohibition, but are quite aware of the epidemic of 1930 and admit their fear of jake. The suggested alternative is bay rum:
“Our Uncle Sam has taken our liquor away from us
When we make home brew he raises an awful fuss
We're all afraid of ginger [jake] but we'll drink bay rum or bust
Now some use bay rum just for a tonic
But take it from me it's best for your stomach”
Perhaps they should have said “best for your stomach … and all points south.”
IZ ZAT SO? All 16 of these 78s have significant value, though five are more pricey than the others:
Tommy Johnson - “Alcohol and Jake Blues” ($3,000)
Ishman Bracey - “Jake Liquor Blues” ($2,000)
Mississippi Sheiks - “The Jake Leg Blues” ($1,500)
Maynard Britton - “Jake Walk Blues” and “Jake Legs Blues” ($1,000 each)
The remaining 11 are in the $100 to $500 range.