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ALADDIN 3056; APRIL 1950

 
 

 

What kind of sick twisted joke is this?

Amos Milburn, the most dominant rock artist of the 1940’s, is now reduced to cutting a song about square dancing?!?! A hayseed social event that takes place in smelly barns where first cousins dosey-do with one another while the mule hitched in the back hides its head in shame?

What’s next for Milburn’s exploration of music from around the world? A rousing cover of The Flying Red Horse Polka? Soon you’ll tell me that he’s going to be performing a piano concerto with The New York Philharmonic… unless that will interfere with his desire to take up the zither and start playing beer halls for tips.

Of all the ill-advised cockamamie ideas Aladdin Records were suddenly toying with this far-fetched travesty had to be the absolute wor… wait a minute… what’s that you say?

You mean Milburn was on board with this one from the start? He’s not using it as evidence against the company for trying to wreck his career so he wriggle free of his contract? There’s no sign he’s holed up in some back room with a bottle of whiskey and razor blades contemplating ending his life over this embarrassing turn of events?

It actually sounds like he’s ENJOYING himself??!?!?!

Nahhh, that can’t be. This is just an added punchline to that sick twisted joke, isn’t it?
 

 

Follow Me Out To The Barn
Most songs reflect the culture of those who make it – and those who listen it – and rock ‘n’ roll took this to the extreme from the very beginning.

The long-silenced voices of young Black America grew in volume as rock ‘n’ roll took hold in the late 1940’s and while the sounds still mostly failed to infiltrate the white mainstream there was an undeniable groundswell of power at work here that had the potential to bring much needed focus to a segment of society who were still being forcibly denied a seat at the table.

Rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t alone in their efforts to bring a sense of legitimacy and respect to a culture outside the buttoned-down conservatism of mid-century America. Country music had recently shed its hillbilly moniker and was now having many of their songs either being covered by pop acts or in some cases seeing the original versions cross into the pop listings.

Of course it goes without saying that since country artists were white themselves this was a much easier leap to make, but there was still a cultural gap between the generally poorer, less educated rural listener who championed country music and their more well-heeled sophisticated city-dwelling cousins who dictated the tastes of the pop community. But progress, however incremental it may be, was still progress and so the culture being celebrated in country music was viewing recent events as a positive.

But that still doesn’t quite explain why Amos Milburn of all people, arguably the artist with the most diverse scope within the rock field already, felt a need to venture outside that realm for material that – with a title like Square Dance Boogie – could hardly hide its allegiance to another form of music which was vying for a similar broader acceptance.

If you wanted to be particularly harsh you could easily bring yourself to accuse him of throwing in with a rival and turning his back on rock ‘n’ roll, couldn’t you?

Hmmm, not quite… especially once you hear it.
 

Swing Your Partner
The odd thing about this is that it wasn’t white country acts that had really mined this topic before on record, it was black artists all along.

There are a number of late 1940’s and early 1950’s songs by this title, nominally unconnected but certainly in the same spirit, which were put on record and while they didn’t become hits per say they obviously were heard by someone because the same subject, the same approach… the same title… got used and re-used again and again.

Our old pal Sammy Price, black session pianist at major label Decca, wrote a song under this title which white country act Johnnie Lee Wills laid down in 1947… the same year Poison Gardner, a black pre-rock act on Imperial Records cut a song by that name as well.

A few years later, in 1954, Cliff “King” Solomon, a black bandleader who came along just a little late for what might’ve been a great career in an earlier style, had a song with this same title (written by a young Quincy Jones no less!) which was quite good.

In 1950, where we are now, Cliffie Stone, white country act, did a tune by this name as well which probably fits the image most of us have of this dance in which a bunch people wearing plaid shirts and cowboy boots join together in a precise ritual in which they stomp around together to the accompaniment of fiddles, a few drunken “Yee-Haw” cries in between sips of Moonshine.

But Amos Milburn’s Square Dance Boogie is another beast altogether. Putting both the setting and the theme aside this is a pure rocker from the pen of Jessie Mae Robinson, the top black female songwriter in the business who’d already contributed some classic sides to Milburn’s catalog.

Furthermore, if you didn’t understand English you’d never know this was anything but typical Milburn fare, an uptempo song fueled by horns, piano, backbeat and an infectious spirit of after hours fun and because of that irrepressible spirit any reservations you have regarding its lyrical content flies out the window.
 

I’m Gonna Show You Squares…
Right away the song comes hurtling at you at full speed, horns blaring in rhythmic unison, sending the unsuspecting listener recoiling… either in shock or in momentary panic as they see an onrushing band in full gallop which anyone scanning the title surely wasn’t expecting.

Maybe that was the single best decision made by Robinson in writing this – as well as producer Maxwell Davis and Milburn himself in constructing the arrangement – that notion of immediately pulling the rug out from underneath you with a classic bait and switch.

Aladdin Records, either through a genuine attempt to expand their market or a case of not actually listening to the final product before issuing it, helped to dupe the public that Square Dance Boogie was something it was not by releasing the single with a picture sleeve that showed Amos dressed in the typical square dancing garb, the company promoting it as “Milburn goes hillbilly with a boogie beat”.
 


 

It’s the last part of that sentence (“boogie beat”) that is the most relevant here as the pieces fall together in deadly fashion. The horns are muscular, Amos’s piano is jumpy, the drums are both insistent and consistent and once Milburn starts to sing with a cocky vocal strut – though the lines themselves draw your attention due to the unusual scene he puts himself in – he’s as endearing as we’ve heard him in more than a year, all of which comes across seeming every bit as familiar to his fans as the blue and silver label the song appears on.

Once you get your bearings the lyrics are obviously going to fuck with your perception of the term, the setting and the type of people most likely to actually participate in square dances, but if you allow yourself to relax the literal meaning for a more generalized one wherein it doesn’t matter WHAT specific dance you’re doing, but instead it’s the social event OF a dance or party or drunken festivities of any kind that matters most, then you might feel more comfortable taking part yourself.

Yet Milburn for his part is perfectly content to mine the specifics of the square dancing theme, the lyrics being both instructive and descriptive, eager to get people jumping. Meanwhile The Chickenshackers boisterously shout back at his commands in the chorus, their voices are intentionally ragged sounding as if they’ve been helping themselves to the original form of mountain dew that’s surely being passed around.

You won’t find a more energized vocal performance than this, loose enough to feel improvised, yet constructed tightly enough to stay on track no matter how much they all cut loose.
 

Me And My Band Are Gonna Play Some Corn
Oh yes… the band. We almost forgot about them after that rousing start, didn’t we? Well, fear not because this is the same crew of roughnecks that are used to tearing up chicken shacks across the tracks and there’s not a fiddle or a jug being blown into for rhythm in sight.

Instead what we get is two saxophones intertwining during the solo, the tenor leading the charge in sultry fashion as the other adds to its exotic nature with deeper tones that keep you transfixed.

The second time around it gets even wilder, starting off with a high squealing introductory note before it takes off into a prolonged solo that carries Square Dance Boogie to the finish line, its stratospheric highs being offset by the other horns circling around down below, everyone gassed and having a ball.

Yeah, you can definitely make the case that the same effect could’ve been gotten had they changed the setting to one more appropriate for our background, we won’t argue that, but that they still managed to be so convincing stepping slightly outside their own experiences – while being smart enough to keep it firmly within the rock parameters musically where they were most comfortable – shows that the urge to cut loose and live it up are a universal trait, even if the ways in which its done vary from one culture to another.

Since on record we can’t even see them dancing, only envision them in our own minds shaped by our whatever pre-existing images we each have, then it hardly matters.
 

If You Can’t Swing, Get Out Of The Way
The decision to expand the fanbase in some small, probably superficial, way wasn’t unique to Aladdin, Milburn or rock ‘n’ roll, and so you can understand all of their motives even if you question their judgement on feeling the need to do so in the first place.

What you can’t question though are the results and Square Dance Boogie, while it may stand as the least likely premise conceived for a rock act to date, far exceeds anybody’s expectations precisely because it doesn’t pander to that subject in a way that removes the performers from the artistic equation.

This is a pure-blooded, full-throated rocker through and through and a damn good one at that. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover and if ever you needed proof of that, Amos Milburn is more than happy to provide that for you here… and then some.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Amos Milburn for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)