Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Cake Walkin’ Babies

One of my favorite pieces of jazz music today (I have a lot of favorites) is the recording of Cake Walkin’ Babies (From Home) by the Clarence Williams’ Blue Five which featured a young Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. The recording can be found on the first of the 5-disc compilation Ken Burn’s Jazz as well as on the Louis Armstrong CD that is part of that series.

The song was recorded in January 1925 in New York and despite the primitive recording techniques you can still feel the energy that resulted as these two great jazz giants attempted to best one another on this recording. As with many great jazz numbers, there is a backstory that goes with this one. It was said that Sidney Bechet, who played the soprano saxophone, was the only musician of that era who ever came close to equaling the great Louis Armstrong. At the time of this recording, Louis was a youngster who was just beginning to establish his reputation while Bechet was the established veteran who wasn’t quite ready to share the spotlight with this upstart.

There was supposedly an earlier recording of this tune by the same group at a different studio. During that recording Bechet had aggressively dominated the number and literally elbowed the young Louis out of the picture. But that recording had some problems so they decided to record it a second time at another studio and this time Louis was ready.

Here is how Geoffrey Ward, author of “Jazz: A History of America’s Music,” the companion book to Ken Burns’ movie, describes the recording:

“The record remains mostly an ensemble piece, but each man plays a furious solo and each takes a swooping break so dramatic it still takes the listener’s breath away. The contest seems more or less a draw up to that point. Then, Armstrong suddenly launches into a series of ripping, tearing, rhythmically complicated runs that no other musician of the day, not even Sidney Bechet, could match.”

He’s not kidding. You can tell when Louis suddenly turns it on and never lets go. Toward the end of the number you can hear Bechet desperately trying to break back in with Louis fighting him off. It is awe inspiring.

The lineup for the recording is:

Louis Armstrong, coronet
Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophone
Charlie Irvis, trombone
Clarence Williams, piano
Buddy Christian, banjo
Eva Taylor, vocals

While overshadowed by the dynamic duo, there is a vocal segment to the number that is sung by Eva Taylor, wife of band leader Clarence Williams, which I think is pretty good. As with a lot of musical numbers of the 1920s, the vocal part is treated like an accompaniment to the piece and serves almost like a break in the middle so the musicians can catch their breath.

I found the following lyrics for the song on the web:

“Here they come, look at 'em, syncopatin',
goin' some, ain't they demonstratin'?
Talk of the town, teasin' brown pickin' 'em up and layin' 'em down
Dancin' fools ain't they syncopatin'2?
They're a class of their own
Now the only way to win is to cheat 'em,
you may tie 'em but you'll never beat 'em
Strut your stuff, they're the cake walkin' babies form home”

But this is what I hear when I listen to the song:

Here they come, those struttin’ syncopaters,
goin’ some, look at those demonstrators
Talk of town, green and brown, pickin’ em up and layin’ em down
Why your friends and fools, that’s what they like to call them, they’re in a class all alone,
The only way for them to lose is to cheat ‘em
You may tie them, but you’ll never beat them
Spread your stuff, boy, you won’t do nothin’ different, cake walkin’ babies from home

The same website notes that a cakewalk was a black American entertainment having a cake as prize for the most accomplished steps and figures in walking. Also, a stage dance developed from walking steps and figures typically involving a high prance with backward tilt. It is also used to indicate a one-sided contest or an easy task.
The term syncopatin' is defined as a rhythmical alteration which consists in welding into one tone the second half of one beat with the first half of the beat which follows.


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3:36 PM  
Anonymous Lucia Dessi said...

I am one who loves this song. I just want to tell something about the lyric, which is quite difficult to understand. This is what I hear when Eva Taylor sings:

"Here they come, those struttin’ syncopators,
goin’ some, look at those demonstrators
Talk of town, green and brown, pickin’ em up and layin’ em down
PRANCIN' fools, that’s what they like to call them, they’re in a class all alone,
The only way for them to lose is to cheat ‘em
You may tie them, but you’ll never beat them
PRANCE your stuff, boy, you won’t do nothin’ different, cake walkin’ babies from home.

Does anyone agree?

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