Tuesday 6 November 2007

"Michigan Water tastes like Sherry Wine"

This one's for my pal Pam Noles.

I was listening, while working, to the tv playing in another room when I heard a current ad for babies' nappies, or diapers as they say in USA, using the old song Pretty Baby, and I got to thinking about how that must be one of the most enduring of 20th century songs.
Dean Martin recorded it,and sings it here, in case you just flew in from Uranus don't know the number.
It was written by a New Orleans pianist named Tony Jackson (pictured left in the only circulated photo) sometime before 1916, which is the date it was published.
Tony Jackson was born to a poor African American family in Uptown New Orleans, Louisiana on June 5, 1876. Fellow musicians and singers were universal in their praise of Jackson, most calling him "the greatest". Jackson also wrote many original tunes, a number of which he sold rights to for a few dollars or were simply stolen from him; some of the old time New Orleans musicians said that some well known Tin Pan Alley pop tunes of the era were actually written by Jackson. Jackson dressed himself with a pearl gray derby, checkered vest, ascot tie with a diamond stickpin, with sleeve garters on his arms to hold up his cuffs as he played. This became a standard outfit for ragtime and barrelhouse pianists; as one commented "If you can't play like Tony Jackson, at least you can look like him". One of the few tunes published with Jackson's name on it, "Pretty Baby" came out in 1916, although he was remembered performing the song before he left New Orleans. The original lyrics of "Pretty Baby" were said to refer to his male lover of the time. Jackson unfortunately never recorded.

That's a shortened version of the Wikipedia entry. It doesn't say much more than that. There's a separate entry for Pretty baby, and a history of the song here (scroll down), with particular reference to how the names of others got on the credits but apparently don't really belong there.

Finding more info about Tony Jackson and any other songs he wrote isn't easy. I found this great image of a piece of sheet music, I believe from the same year as Pretty Baby, 1916, with lovely cover illo currently at an online Antique sale..

The most comprehensive account of the man I know of is Martin Williams' three pages on him in Jazz masters of New Orleans, 1967, which at least gives us a few other song titles: Baby, I'd love to steal you, When Your troubles will be mine, Some sweet day (louis Armstrong recorded this in 1933, but retrieving a lyric from a Satchmo performance is often impossible; he scats through at least one verse), Such a Pretty thing, and The Naked Dance (a bagnio specialty remembered and played by Jelly Roll Morton during his Library of Congress recordings)

There's also Michigan Water Blues, which has been recorded by several performers of late I think (Michigan water tastes like sherry wine, Misissippi water tastes like turpentine,) and the anecdote about politician Kenneth Keating who said (1959) 'Mr President, i should like to offer a small historical footnote to the current debate with respect to the Lake Michigan water-diversion bill. Frankly, I do not know at this point whether Michigan water tastes like sherry wine, but even if it should, that would still be no justification for diverting it to the Chicago sewer system'

Long time readers of this blog will smirk with amusement as I include this last bit, history's inevitable mockery appended to an obscure artist's meagre biography, "Jackson's death at forty-five in april 1921 was rather bizarre, the result of a seizure of eight weeks of the hiccups which the efforts of doctors could not relieve."



Anonymous Anonymous said...

A podcast from; and bit of information on, Michael Chabon's new book (which comes with some illustrations) 'Gentlemen of the Road'.


Ben Smith

7 November 2007 at 12:10:00 GMT-5  
Blogger James Langdell said...

I found two more of Tony Jackson's songs in the Indiana State University online sheet music site, "I've Got 'em" and "Ice and Snow" ("Don't leave me in the ice and snow").

Here's where they turned up on a search, along with several different covers for "Pretty Baby":


Here's another of Tony Jackson's songs, "Waiting At The Old Church Door" in the Charles H. Templeton collection at Mississippi State University:


7 November 2007 at 16:00:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

your contribution is much appreciated.

Pam tried to post but was having computer trouble. she thanked me for putting up the piece and added:
There's a bit of an entry on him in a book I have called Storyville by (somebody) Rose. It's an old book and it's been a while since I last pulled it from the shelves, but in it the author posits that all the style cues we have for a performer of this period came from Jackson's personal stage style. His life was hell. He was black, gay, had some sort of illness (besides the std) and things didn't actually get better once he fled the deep south for the allegedly more embracing north . Once relocated he performed with some hefty people.

7 November 2007 at 17:38:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous sherry wine said...

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13 September 2010 at 00:50:00 GMT-5  

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