Singing the Blues During the Floods

Blues singers, it seems, can use any heartbreak or tragedy as an excuse for a song. Maybe your momma done you wrong, or your old daddy's been hangin' with a bad woman, or maybe you just need a spoonful of somebody's precious love. If you listen to any blues music at all, you know what I'm talking about.

Even the mighty floods served as inspiration, as you can see from this sheet music sent to me by a friend (don't laugh — I still have a few of those, mainly in jails around the country). Blue Belle, an exclusive artist with Okeh Race Records, sings about the "High Water Blues" (also known as the "Cryin' for Daddy Blues.")

The actual description of this cheerful tune may be hard for you to read, and it's definitely worth repeating here: "Blue Belle is now an Exclusive Okeh Artist! The great, green waves are rising high ... like giant, yellow-eyed monsters they have menaced Blue Belle with death ... she has raised her voice in song ... all the horror of "High Water Blues" is waiting for you on this record. You see the stricken maiden ... her struggle to safety ... she holds you like a spell with her brooding Blues."

The artwork shows poor Blue Belle, sitting in a little boat, about to be swamped by a tidal wave. Then there's the happy sales pitch: "Get your slow-dragged Blues today, No. 481." Slow-dragged?

I wasn't able to find out much about Blue Belle, but a quick Internet search turned up plenty on Okeh Records. You can look that up yourself, but it's interesting that it was formed by a German fellow named Otto K.E. Heinemann in 1916, using his own initials for the name of the company. They cranked out hundreds of catchy tunes from the 1920s through the 1940s, and the Okeh Race Records label was designed to showcase recordings by African-American artists.

The company folded in the 1930s, was revived, folded again, was revived, and was finally incorporated into Columbia records. I can't make sense of their complicated history, but I must say they produced some astounding records. One of them was titled, "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um." Another one, called simply "The Laughing Record," featured several minutes of a man and woman doing just that — laughing.

Now why didn't I think of that?

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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