Jelly Roll Blues: Censored Songs & Hidden Histories

Sometimes, those of us interested in music of the late 19th or early 20th century feel fortunate at the number of recordings available for us to hear. Other times, it’s hard to avoid the depressing notion that there are major gaps in the historical record. We know that only a small number of people were recorded and that the repertoire they recorded was chosen by a recording industry that, apart from chronicling cultural history, had its own agenda: avoiding controversy and making money. Not only was a great deal of music not recorded, it’s hard to shake the thought that song lyrics were seriously watered-down and that much of the recorded history did not deliver the real thing.

After you read Jelly Roll Blues, you will know that it did not. Author Elijah Wald clearly shows that from the beginning many voices have been suppressed and that significant musical/cultural history has been lost to prudery and censorship.

Red Wood Coast

Black vernacular speech has long been of interest to Wald, who wrote The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama (Oxford University Press, 2014). What set the book Jelly Roll Blues in motion were two things he heard in the well-known recordings that Jelly Roll Morton made in 1938 at the Library of Congress, recorded by Alan Lomax. The first is the language used by Morton to recreate the music of his youth, which was more profane—more real—by far than any previous versions of those songs that Wald had heard. The second was Morton’s version of The Murder Ballad—a very long (30-minute) saga in blues format; the first of this kind of form that Wald had ever heard.

This is the jumping off point for the author to explore why so much was lost, not just to recordings, but in song books of music that have been collected since the 19th century. One reason was self-censorship. Black performers, especially women, were unlikely to trust collectors, who were almost universally white and male. A second reason is that publishers would not print “unacceptable” lyrics. A third reason was the censorship imposed by the collectors themselves. Wald saw this very clearly in the difference between the notes that had been taken by John Lomax (Alan’s father) and the published songbook versions. Lomax softened the language in his transcriptions, saying they had to be toned-down for “so-called polite society.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone researching this area more thoroughly than Wald. And yet, as he is the first to admit, it is very difficult to pin down the real facts surrounding the creation of a song. The why of a song is provided by the lyrics themselves. Even if there are many versions, the generative idea behind a song remains: sexual bragging or frustration; two-timing; money; violence feared, occurring and repaid; maltreatment by the police; the difficulty of just getting by. However, the specific who, where and when of a song are a lot more difficult to relate authoritatively.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Wald provides an enormous amount of context to try and explain the possible geneses of songs. In the process, he gives us an in-depth view of life in New Orleans and other cities like St. Louis with large black communities. He describes in detail the sometimes mundane sometimes brutal or violent lives—especially of the “sporting” class—that transpired in brothels, saloons and places of employment and relaxation.

Wald notes that there are limits to what even the most extensive research can unearth. We may know the first documented recording of what we now call a 12-bar blues song (Wald says “Dink’s Blues,” recorded in 1908 or 1909 by John Lomax), but we will never know the first person or people to put a blues in this format. Nor will we ever know the extent to which songs about homosexuality or lesbianism were actually performed. This kind of material could not be easily packaged and it didn’t make the transition into the commercial world of the modern music recording and publishing industry.

Even the meanings of words or phrases used in the lyrics are subject to wide interpretation. Wald discusses the possible etymologies of words like sporting, toast, booty and cock. He uses phrases like hog eye, funky butt, purry tongue, Winding Ball, and shave ‘em dry to type certain kinds of songs, while explaining that there are as many interpretations of the phrases themselves as there are variations in the lyrics of these songs.

Some of these categories are pretty well-known; for example, Bully songs, Pallet on the Floor, John Henry, Stagolee, or Sweet Back Man. But if you think you know the lyrics to songs in these categories, you probably don’t. Yes, there’s profanity, but there’s also an edge, a perspective, and a mother-wit expressed here that make the more familiar lyrics seem denatured at best. And of course, there is the often dramatic shift in perspective that occurs when a song rooted in the experience of a black community gets translated and bowdlerized in order to make it acceptable, as Lomax said, to polite society. But here, another one of the difficulties in explaining the lineage of a song arises. For, as Wald explains, there may have been dirtier versions devised—as some gangsta rap was—that were calculated specifically to titillate white audiences. As the antiques shows would have it: for export only.

But there was also sharing and cross-pollination. Oh Didn’t He Ramble was a descendent of an English ballad about rams. The word funky probably came from an English word for tobacco fumes. The expression Winding Boy or Winding Ball may come from poet Robert Burns, whose collection of dirty Scottish songs found its way to America in the 19th century.


There are many “who knew?” moments in Jelly Roll Blues and so much that I haven’t even touched on. If you have the desire to take a leap into the sporting world of bawds, hustlers, “censored songs and hidden histories,” look no further than this authoritative book.

Jelly Roll Blues
by Elijah Wald
Hachette Books
Hardcover, ‎352 pages; $30
ISBN: 978-0306831409

 | Website

Steve Provizer is a brass player, arranger and writer. He has written about jazz for a number of print and online publications and has blogged for a number of years at: He is also a proud member of the Screen Actors Guild.

Or look at our Subscription Options.