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Article MT290

Gee, But Ain't it Grand …

The House of David Blues

Some years ago - in fact, if I'm honest, it was quite a number of years ago - I came across a recording of the song The House of David Blues performed on an old Folkways LP by the singer and fiddler Arthur Smith.1  The words went as follows:

Arthur's tune went something like this:

Apparently Arthur Smith would sometimes claim that he had written the song.  In actual fact he claimed to have composed quite a number of pieces, some of which were clearly on the go before Arthur got his hands on them!  So what about The House of David Blues?  Was this composed by Arthur Smith, or not?

In 1923 Elmer Schoebel, Billy Meyers and Irving Mills wrote a song called The House of David Blues, but, although the tune is related to Arthur Smith's tune, the words are somewhat different.  (Schoebel, by the way, is perhaps best known for his composition Bugle Call Rag.)  Their song had been inspired by the activities of a religious sect known as the House of David, which had been founded in America in 1903.  It seems that the sect was best known for its fund-raising activities through amusement parks and bearded baseball teams.  As to what they actually believed, well, that was anyone's guess.  Here is the text to the Schoebel, Meyers and Mills song:

Not long after I heard Arthur Smith's recording I also heard three other recordings which employed Arthur's tune.  These were Robert Johnson's 1936 recording of Hot Tamales (re-issued on CBS 467246 2), a recording of Whose Gonna Do your Sweet Jelly Rolling by the oddly-named "Whistling Rufus" (re-issued on Document DOCD-32-20-5) and a c.1950 recording of the East Coast bluesman, Curley Weaver, singing his version of an old song Trix (or Trixie) (re-issued on Document BDCD-6014).  The Robert Johnson song begins as follows. It soon becomes apparent that the young lady has, in fact, rather more than the tamales that are for sale.2  And, interestingly, Curley Weaver's Trixie also had something to offer: As I said, Curley Weaver's tune is the same as that employed by Arthur Smith, and Curley's final verse includes the lines Ever since ham is a dollar a pound/ I've eaten so many rabbits I'm hopping around, as does Arthur Smith's version.  So, clearly, there is a connection here between Arthur Smith's version of The House of David Blues and Curley Weaver's Trixie.  But this connection does not always apply to other versions of Trixie.  In 1930 female blues singer Lucille Bogan recorded another song called Trixie to a different tune: Apparently, in the 1980s, an American feminist praised this song for being an example of a woman rejecting the degradation of prostitution, when, in fact, Bogan was actually complaining that she could not get enough customers (known as tricks)!4

Before we go on to have a look at some other blues singers, I should, perhaps, add that Arthur Smith was not the only white old-timey musician to record The House of David Blues.  Fiddler Clayton McMichen and his "Melody Men" recorded a version for Columbia Records on November 1st, 1926, the vocal being taken by Riley Puckett (Columbia CO 15130-D), although versions recorded in 1930 by Kentucky fiddler Ted Gossett, for Gennett Records, and in 1935 by the Cherokee Ramblers, for Decca Records, still remain unissued.

And the song's tune was also popular with early jazz bands.  Two influential recordings were made in 1923, shortly after the tune was published.  These were by The Virginians: House of David Blues (Victor 19140) and The Dixie Daisies (Cameo 428).  Others soon followed, sometimes titling the piece The Hummer Rag or else Old Mule Rag.  King Oliver recorded the tune as Sweet Lovin' Man when he recorded it in 1923 (re-issued on BBC 3CD 821), although Fletcher Henderson retained the original title when he recorded the piece for Brunswick records in 1932.  And don't let us forget that the jazz standard Mama Don't Allow is also the same tune.5  And this brings us to an interesting point, namely how many times the tune to House of David Blues was used by singers for other song texts.

Firstly, though, we do have one question to ask.  And that is, whether or not the tune used for House of David Blues is actually an original tune, or was it a tune that had been used before 1923 for other songs?  I ask because at least one other song which uses the tune, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, has the feel of a Minstrel song to it, and, as such, could predate 1923, although, to be fair, I have no evidence to support this supposition.

This is how Bogus Ben Covington (Ben Curry) recorded Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in 1928 (Paramount 12693 - reissued on Old Hat CD-1005). Two years later, James Cole's Washboard Four recorded another, and shorter, version of the song, this time with slightly different words (Champion 16149 - reissued on Document DOCD-5189: *Presumably these names should read "Abel" and "Cain".

A couple of other performers who had played in the Minstrel Shows, Gus Cannon and Papa Charlie Jackson, also used the tune for two of their songs, Bring It With You When You Come and You Put it in, I'll Take it Out.  There is an amazing, and somewhat bizarre, photograph of Gus Cannon and another blues singer, Jim Jackson, taken in 1929, when they were members of Doctor Franklin Streets' Washaw Indian Medicine Company.6  The odd thing (to my way of thinking) is that both artists, who were of course Afro-Americans, are "blacked up", so that they look like "minstrels"!  I am old enough to remember white singers with painted black faces singing on the "Black and White Minstrel Show", but the concept of black people being "blacked up" is totally beyond me.  Cannon left the Medicine Show at the end of 1929.  He later said that, "I had to have a shot of liquor before the show.  If I didn't it seemed like I couldn't be funny in front of all them people.  When I had one it seemed like all of them people was one and I would throw up the banjo in the air and really put on a show."

The House of David Blues tune has also taken its place in Country Music, having been recorded in 1936 by the Western Swing master Milton Brown (Decca 5255).  Here the tune was used for a set of words titled Baby Keeps Stealin' (Decca 5255) and many later Country stars have recorded this song.  However, Brown was not the first to record Baby Keep Stealin', because a group of blues musicians, the Mississippi Sheiks, had previously recorded the piece in 1930 (Decca 8843 - reissued on Document DOCD-5083).  As can be seen from the Okeh record label, the song is credited to one member of the Sheiks, the blues singer Bo Carter, who became well-known for his double-entendre songs, such as Banana in Your Fruit Basket, Pussy Cat Blues and Your Biscuits are Big Enough for Me, etc. Two years earlier, in 1928, another black string-band, The Memphis Jug Band, used the tune for the song, Take Your Fingers Off It (also known as Sugar Pudding) re-issued on JSP7745), which, like Robert Johnson's Hot Tamales, was full of sexual innuendo.  Interestingly, the lines Now old lady Dinah, she's long and tall/She could stretch herself from wall to wall in the second verse, is similar to Curley Weaver's Trixie verse I got a girl she's long and tall/Sleeps in the kitchen with her head in the hall. For some reason or other quite a number of female blues singers used The House of David Blues tune for songs that often had titles with a double meaning.  These include Barrel House Annie's If it Don't Fix (Don't Force It) (re-issued on Document DOCD-32-20-5), Edith Wilson's How Come You Do Me Like You Do, Nellie Lutcher's Hurry on Down to My House Baby, Margaret Carter's I Want Plenty of Grease in My Frying Pan (re-issued on JSP 77161), Georgia White's I'll Keep Sitting On It, and a number of songs recorded by Lil Johnson, such as If You Don't Give Me What I Want and Take It Easy Greasy (both re-issued on DOCD-32-20-5).  Perhaps the oddest use of the tune can be heard on the track The Hottest Stuff in Town (re-issued on Document DOCD-32-2-5) as performed in 1935 by Whistling Bob Howe and Frankie Griggs, who talk, rather than sing, their way through the tune!

One white girl singer who liked the tune was 'Betty Lou', a singer who recorded with Hartman's Heartbreakers in the mid-1930's.  The band, led by Dick Hartman, specialised in 'Party Records' with the vocalist sounding like a breathless, wide-eyed teenager, though just exactly who 'Betty Lou' was, remains a mystery.  Songs such as Let Me Play With It, Give it to me Daddy, Fetch it on down to my House, Oh Sweet Daddy Oh P'shaw, A Night in Carolina, No Huggin' or Kissin', It Feels so Good and Please Mr Moon Don't tell on Me all use The House of David tune.  Here are the words to Let Me Play With It (or, as near as I can get it!): In the late 1920s and early 1930s there seems to have been a fad for Yo-Yo's.  Blues singer Rufus Perryman, better known as Speckled Red, recorded The Right String - But the Wrong Yo Yo in 1930.  (Brunswick 7151, re-issued on JSP77141) and Robert Hicks (better known as 'Barbecue Bob') recorded a Yo Yo Blues, accompanied by a stunning 12-string slide guitar (Columbia CO14479, re-issued on Document DOCD-5047).  In both these cases the singers did not us The House of David Blues tune.  But another 12-string guitarist and singer, Blind Willie McTell, did use the tune for his 1935 recording of Let Me Play With Yo' Yo Yo (re-issued on JSP 7711) a song that was similar, in some ways, to 'Betty Lou's' Let Me Play With It.  This is Blind Willie's take on the subject: Blind Willie McTell clearly liked the tune, because he also used it for a number of other songs, such as Razor Ball and Southern Can is Mine (Both re-issued on JSP7711).

Another singer who really liked the tune was East-coast man Blind Boy Fuller, who used it for such pieces as What's That Smells Like Fish? (re-issued on Document DOCD-32-20-5), Truckin' My Blues Away, Baby You Gotta Change Your Mind and Log Cabin Blues (re-issued on Document DOCD-5091), Truckin' My Blues Away No.  2 and If You Don't Give Me What I Want (Both re-issued on Document DOCD-5092), Put You Back in Jail and Throw Your Yas Yas Back in Jail (All re-issued on Document DOCD-5093).  Log Cabin Blues, by the way, is Blind Boy Fuller's take on Nellie Lutcher's Hurry on Down to My House Baby, mentioned above, and to Bob Wills' Western Swing version, called Bring It On Down To My House.  In 1937 another Carolina bluesman, Eddie Kelly, also recorded Come on Round to My House Baby, under the group title of Eddie Kelly's Washboard Band, and, at the same recording session, he also used the tune for another song, If You Think I'm Lovin' You, You're Wrong (Both pieces re-issued on Document DOCD-5168).


In 1923 the song House of David Blues was published.  The tune, which may have been based on an earlier Minstrel Show tune such as Adam and Eve in the Garden, was recorded by a number of early jazz bands.  From the late 1920s onward blues singers, especially those along the East Coast of America used the tune for a variety of blues and songs, many of which were full of sexual innuendo.  I have traced quite a few of these songs, but I would not be surprised to find that there are many more that I have missed.  And what of today?  Not long ago Mississippi blues singer Sam Chatmon used the tune for the song God Don't Like Ugly (issued on the Arhoolie CD I Have to Paint My Face - CD 432), while Arlo Guthrie's composition Alice's Restaurant seems to have borrowed from the tune.  And, finally, how's about this version of the jazz classic Jah Dah, played by the Eric Byrd Trio?


I could not have written this short piece without the help of Frank Weston, who managed to remind me of numerous songs that used the House of David Blues tune.  Also, my thanks to my daughter, Aimee, for transcribing the music to House of David Blues from my rather inadequate 'singing'.

Mike Yates - 28.11.13


1.  Grand Ole Opry - The McGee Brothers and Arthur Smith, Folkways LP FW02379 (first issued 1957).

2.  Just in case you don't know, tamales are a Mesoamerican food made from maze dough, which is steamed or boiled in a leaf.  They can be filled with meat, cheese, fruit or vegetables and are often seasoned with hot chillies.

3.  The term monkey-man can have several meanings, but, in this instance, it refers to a possible punter who will pay the prostitute for her services.

4.  According to Stephen Calt (Barrelhouse Words - a Blues Dialect Dictionary, University of Illinois Press, 2009) the phrase Tricks ain't walking' was likely a streetwalker's catchphrase indicating a dearth of business'.

5.  For a non-jazz version, see Mama Don't Allow No Music on the 1975 Doc Watson double album Memories (Re-issued on CD by Gott Disc).

6.  The photograph can be seen in the booklet (pp.70-71) which accompanies the double CD Good for What Ails You.  Music of the Medicine Shows 1926 - 1937 Old Hat Records CD-1005.

Article MT290

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