The Biography of a Song

There was a song I heard at a blues dance. I loved it.

…and then I promptly forgot what it was called. I heard it again at another blues dance. I thought, surely, I would remember it. But no such luck. It slipped through my proverbial fingers, again. I could remember a snippet of the chorus: “like a millionaire doooo…” I tried google search after google search, but those aren’t the kind of words that bring up many useful hits (unless, of course, you’re looking for a get rich quick scheme).

The other day I heard it yet again, and, knowing what would happen, I seized the opportunity and quickly asked my partner what the song was called. Luckily, I happened to be dancing with one of the organizers of the dances, and one of the guys responsible for this song being played over and over again. He told me it’s called “Weed Smoker’s Dream”.

I googled it when I got home. I got two renditions, one a grainy, unrestored recording from the 30s or 40s by the Harlem Hamfats:

The rest were really odd versions by people who clearly liked the weed more than the blues. None were the gorgeous version I’d danced to. I tried wikipedia next, and found out that the song was written by the Harlem Hamfats and as I heard put eloquently the other night, “It was not about drugs. And it was not about prostitution. It was about drugs and prostitution.”

The song became popular again a few decades later, in a sanitized version called “Why Don’t You Do Right?” by Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee:

I love her voice, but that’s not the way the song is supposed to sound, at least not to me; her version is much too spunky. It’s next spike of popularity was in the 80s, when the song was used in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” sung by Jessica Rabbit:

In between, there were plenty of covers, by famous performers like Ella Fitzgerald,

Or Sinead O’Connor,

and equally amazing versions by less famous acts like the Carolina Chocolate Drops

(I still can’t find the version I heard. I guess I’ll have to ask.)

It’s incredible to see the differences between the original “Weed Smoker’s Dream,” with its its “why don’t you do now/like some millionaires do,” and the completely different “Why Don’t You Do Right,” asking “why don’t you do right/like some other men do.” So close, yet so, so far away.

It’s also amazing to hear the different versions. I like Ella, Sinead O’Connor, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ versions best, probably because they’re closest to the original version I heard. I can’t help but think that Peggy Lee and, of course, Ms. Rabbit, completely miss the point.

Ella’s version is bugging me. It’s plaintive and bluesy, but there’s something that doesn’t quite fit, something closer to Peggy Lee’s than the Harlem Hamfats: something too controlled, too exalting. I have this issue with her versions of most of the songs I like. It sounds like she’s enjoying playing with the sounds of the song more than actually teasing out the song itself. She plays with the sounds incredibly – but I’m not sure she’s actually singing the song.

It’s amazing to see the song change like that, to see the way a pause here or a lift there can completely change the feel of the song.

Later on the same night that I finally found out the song’s title, the clarinet player finished off another song with a a few trilling notes. The moment when he finished playing, everyone in the room laughed. The song was supposed to end in an unsatisfying way, and he ended in the middle of phrase, catching all the dancers literally off balance. I, for one, had never heard the song before (and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this), but we all knew, instinctively, that the phrase was incomplete.

What I’m trying to say with these loosely related anecdotes is that there’s something to really listening to music, rather than just hearing it. That’s the great thing about jazz – it’s so fluid and complex that it forces you to pay attention. And it’s the great thing about dance, especially blues dance. To convert sound into movement you have to, on some level, try to understand it.

[Update: One of the DJ’s pointed me to the verison I was looking for: White Gost Shivers, Weed Smoker’s Dream:



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