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DECCA 48061; DECEMBER, 1947

 
 

 
By this point in our narrative, December 1947, just passing the three month mark in rock’s journey, we’re starting to see more artists popping up for a second time as release schedules of the (mostly) independent record labels of the day were rather haphazard affairs, putting out product rapidly in hopes something might catch on before they likely went under.

Decca Records was no struggling independent however, they were one of the three so-called “major” labels (along with RCA and Columbia) yet unlike the other two who were probably unaware this music even existed, let alone would ever deign to put it out on their hallowed labels, Decca found themselves dabbling in this stuff from the start.

Now to be fair Decca was no stranger to black music for they had in their midst one Louis Jordan, the biggest star of the 1940’s whose innovations led in a pretty short and direct line to rock itself and who was still at this point churning out hit after hit after hit.

So Decca knew more than the other majors that there was a market for smart, earthy black music even if they weren’t quite sure what it WAS. When they sent this follow-up to Cousin’s Joe’s first noisemaker on their label, Boxcar Shorty & Peter Blue, out to Billboard magazine for review it somehow wound up in the “Folk” section, which is generally where what soon came to be known as country and western, or hillbilly, was categorized under.

Well it’s clearly not that, but it’s hard to say just what this one is, other than pretty darn good.

 

Why Does The Night Fall And It Don’t Break, Why Does The Day Break And It Don’t Fall (and other mysteries)
I suppose the confusion with him was to be expected, for Cousin Joe was among the many at the dawn of rock who’d already made a good deal of records BEFORE rock ever existed. He was an established artist, albeit without any national hits, yet one who was fairly well known and highly regarded by black audiences all over the United States from his touring. Yet even then he was what could best be called a “hybrid”. A little bit of blues, a little bit of jazz, some backwoods stuff that had traces of country (hence, I suppose, the “folk” label this got in Billboard) and even a few gospel-rooted sides (Make Me Strong As Samsonno relation!).

Yet he wasn’t ANY of those exclusively, or even predominantly for that matter. Cousin Joe’s style was at once both borderless, wandering from genre to genre like a drunk in the night, and yet also quintessentially his own. Because you couldn’t root him firmly in any ONE field, that made Cousin Joe a bit more free to drift in and out of whatever style tickled his fancy at the moment. This gave his music both a tremendous versatility AND a tremendous lack of permanency and has more than likely hurt his long term reputation, simply because no genre claims him for their own, thus leaving him excluded from ALL of them, which for an artist of his consistent charm and skill is downright criminal.

His previous effort, the aforementioned Boxcar Shorty, had no such stylistic questions. It was balls to the wall rock ‘n’ roll and since its entire structure was that of the soon to be universal rock hit (in multiple forms) “Stagger Lee”, there can’t be much disputing it. Which means his next outing will look to be housed in the same barn. Yet Sadie Brown, as is obvious from the moment we meet her, doesn’t quite belong in the stables with the rest of these horses, but certainly isn’t out of place at least being in the same barnyard (umm, that doesn’t sound right… forget I mentioned it, Sadie).

But here is where she’s been put and here is where she’ll stay because quite frankly there’s no other place for her. The record ISN’T blues, jazz or folk. It’s certainly not pop, it’s not gospel, it’s not a classical aria, nor a waltz or a jig for that matter. Maybe if Joe hadn’t just established himself as a rocker with one thundering performance a few months back we might not be quite so quick to call this rock either but it’s close enough and he’s at least earned the right after that terrific first entry to get another look his next time out.

Regardless of what you call it, Sadie Brown gives us an insight into just how good of an artist the man born Pleasant Joseph really was. An engaging vocalist with a warm, slightly metallic echo in his throat and a brilliant songwriter with more wit and humor than most, he was simply comfortable in whatever milieu tickled his fancy and already he’s turning out to be one of the more enjoyable surprises in doing this blog, an artist who otherwise would’ve fallen through most historical cracks but who clearly deserves to be far more well-known.
 

Who Had The Nerve To Kill The Dead Sea?
Cousin Joe’s songs in ANY style over the years are musically captivating, lyrically entertaining, charmingly sung, original in their structure and memorable long after the record stops spinning and here is one of his better lyrical efforts. The premise is interesting from the get-go, as he’s heard of a girl who is supposedly very well-endowed in the brains department and he sets out to find whether this rumor is true or not. But rather than race through a perfunctory intro to the story so he can dive into the rich payoff he’s written, Joe takes his sweet time.

Two full – mostly spoken – stanzas, and three choruses in fact comprise the lead-in which takes up half of the entire playing time! The structure alone makes it unusual and by this point, while definitely intrigued by the tale he’s spinning, you’re not quite sure where it’s going, or if it’s going anywhere at all. Yet as always with Cousin Joe you’re always perfectly willing to go along for the ride, wherever it winds up.

The same musicians who backed him last time join him once again yet their style has morphed into something different as befitting this oddly composed tune. Sammy Price’s piano is rather jovial, but a bit sedate all the same, almost not wanting to intrude, just keep you subtly bobbing your head along. There’s a little shuffle beat behind it but nothing to really get you moving. The guitar licks are nice but don’t stand out either. He’s joined by others singing on the choruses yet it’s not meant to be a rousing vocal workout by any means, merely a placeholder to remind you it DOES have some semblance of familiarity which will come in handy later. But what they’ve done, probably without you even realizing it, is led you right down the rabbit hole.

The spry little melody has worked its way into your consciousness, the amused retorts he has to her reputation upon meeting her have piqued your interest, the sing-songy chorus has you humming along unaware that it will ever lead anyplace but in circles. A nice song, a “pleasant” song, to steal his own god-given first name as an appropriate description for it, but hardly something vital.

But then comes the payoff.

Provided you were really paying attention to all he’s been saying he lets you – and her – have it with a seemingly endless roll call of riddles fit for a Sphinx, all based on the idea that when it comes to love at least, brains don’t always settle matters between two people as he asks her essentially: If you’re so smart…

Tell me where the light goes when it goes out?

How many crumbs in a loaf of bread?

Why is a blackberry red when it’s green?
 

Match Wits With Me
They come one after another, the entire second half of the record is made up of questions with no answers. It’s funny… not fall down laughing, split your sides funny, but humorous throughout and will make all but the most stone-faced crack a smile, not to mention try and come up with the answers yourself. The key though to making it work though is how he took the roundabout way to GET here and the uncertainty of where it’s still leading in the end.

That’s the brilliance of it. He’s in absolutely no rush to get there. He knows he’s going to stump her, because, at least in his own way, he’s smarter than she is. While book smarts are her calling card, street smarts are his. He’s not trying to make her look dumb though, he’s just amused by the way his own mind works and is curious to see if her mind works in the same fashion and if so what might become of their shared enjoyment of such ludicrous riddles of life.

His point throughout all of this is a relatively simple one – love HAS no explanation. It’s not a mathematical formula, there’s no scientific hypothesis and logic has nothing to do with making it work.
 

 

Songwriters have been trying to come up with new ways to address this basic fact for longer than anyone can remember yet here he finds a clever alternative approach to the matter. But rather than just come out and say that, to cut to the chase and have her react as if she’s been insulted for her intelligence, thereby rejecting him without another thought, he uses the girl’s, and hopefully the listener’s, own smarts against us to prove his point.

I’d say that makes him, and his lyrics, smarter than us all. Or to add a riddle of my own to the equation: Why do they call it common sense when so few people have it?

Cousin Joe has it in spades. In the end this is a song that’s more clever than cacophonous, but captivating all the same. You can say Cousin Joe veered perilously close to the edge of rock ‘n’ roll with this one style-wise, and I won’t dispute that, but sometimes logic and explanations by the book just don’t cut it, in love OR in music.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Cousin Joe for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)