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SPECIALTY 353; MARCH 1950

 
 

 

In the annals of music this record is either one of the best examples of grim irony ever put to wax… or it’s a remarkable case of sheer coincidence.

Either way considering all Jimmy Liggins went through the last time he stepped foot in Mississippi where he nearly lost his life in a bandstand shooting, the appearance of this song with this title just under a year after that incident is almost too unsettling to want to examine.

But if Liggins himself felt comfortable putting it out – though truthfully he might not have had any say in the matter – then we’ll gingerly try and address the song before hightailing it over the state line as quickly as possible.
 

 

Long, Deep And Wide
Though it probably won’t be the last time the topic is raised here, we do have to re-set the particulars of his April 1949 “accident” that makes the title of this song so eerie in retrospect.

Jimmy Liggins, playing a dance in Mississippi in April 1949, interceded twice in a dispute between one of his band, sax player Charlie “Little Jazz” Ferguson, and a patron of that dance who was hitting on Charlie’s wife while her husband was on the bandstand.

The wild story is found in full in our review for Nite Life Boogie but the gist of the story is Liggins tried to quell the dust up and when the manager of the place was told there was a guy in the audience attacking the band he came out brandishing a gun and mistaking Liggins for the assailant shot him in the face.

No beating around the bush for this guy and trying to calmly restore order with the powers of persuasion!

Liggins’s face did all it could to stop the bullet but in the process he lost multiple teeth and nearly had his tongue torn off by the blast and was hospitalized for months by Mississippi’s answer to Yosemite Sam.

As Specialty Records were unsure of Liggins’ ability to sing again – even with his “re-attached” tongue – they waited months before issuing another single, then five months after that cautiously reached back in the vaults for the remaining tracks from his last sessions cut in 1948 before all this happened.

While the top side, Misery Blues, was a really good performance featuring Liggins’ most prominent example of his guitar playing to date, they needed a B-side and – whether completely oblivious to the unintended connotations or just shockingly callous about it – they selected Mississippi Boogie about which the best thing you can say is at least it was an uptempo romp rather than funeral like dirge.
 

Took A Trip Down South
The setting of any song of course is usually more a matter of lyrical scansion or just a quirky random choice than anything, but even without knowing what grisly fate awaited him in the Magnolia State the idea that Liggins would choose to write about such a place as Mississippi is rather surprising.

No state in the union has openly embraced racism over the years more than Mississippi. In 2020 as this is being written they’ve finally been forced to address the fact their state flag contains the Confederate battle emblem, the most noxiously racist symbol in America. All too predictably the current governor opposes its legislative removal because he doesn’t want to lose the support of the redneck constituency that put him in office, so to dodge responsibility for something that now seems inevitable he favors letting the public decide the matter in a vote. Of course Mississippi already voted on this issue in a state referendum back in 2001 and not surprisingly they overwhelmingly supported maintaining the ode to white supremacy.

Maybe none of this should be surprising, after all, Mississippi has been the least educated state in America for most of its history and their ranking at or near the bottom in virtually every single category from health to wealth is what led other poor Southern states to coin the phrase “Thank God for Mississippi” which allows them to avoid the ignominy of being the seen as the worst state in the country.

In fact the only statistic they’re “first” in historically is lynchings. (I know, what a shock, isn’t it?) So given all of this the fact that Liggins would memorialize this backwoods horror house in song is downright bewildering.

But when you get past the uncomfortable setting you’ll find that Mississippi Boogie is somewhat innocuous… in other words, based on its content it really could’ve been any state and if not for the connection to the far more famous Mississippi River and perhaps the fact that the word itself is linguistically interesting, you’d never know you were within its borders if not for the scenery.
 


 
 

Had To Float
At first listen you wonder why we even have to deal with such issues as a poorly chosen title because virtually the entire first minute is devoid of vocals and thus has no lyrics to place the song at any point on a map.

Now had it been an instrumental and they chose this title then it’d be downright indefensible, but when Liggins finally enters after the extended piano boogie that opens this – and is quite good – that’s when the pieces start falling into place.

The story itself might be rather vague but begins to make some sense at least as we find Liggins merely looking to relax in the country and take it easy “under tall pine trees” and so it’s obvious he’s focusing on the qualities of nature rather than quality of life among the populace. But while some of the lines themselves are really clever – “there was plenty of rain, but not much snow” elicits a grin – it’s basically little more than a running commentary that sounds as if he was seeing how long he could spin a tale off the top of his head.

In that way Mississippi Boogie does have an enjoyable vibe to it, he sounds as if he’s having fun while singing and he proves to be a quick wit and shows he can turn a good phrase but there’s not much meat to this thematically. The vocal section is surprisingly brief – barely over thirty seconds all told – and as such the lyrics exist more to tie the song together than to tell a coherent story, which means the initial impression of it as an instrumental disguised as a vocal track is pretty accurate.
 

The Wind Did Blow
So how IS the instrumental aspect of this? Well, as stated the rolling piano boogie of the intro played by Bo Cyphers is fine, he’s got a good rhythmic sense, a solid enough left and a spry right hand and isn’t prone to any unnecessary flourishes that are more distracting than impressive.

He’s joined by a more discreet horn section led by the great Maxwell Davis, producer extraordinaire, as the usual Liggins’ reeds are sitting this session out, for what reason we don’t know, they were still with him on the road at this point as we well know. Maybe when Specialty Records secured Davis’s participation they left the hiring of musicians to him, thinking it a typical studio date with a singer rather than a full band, or it could be the others were relaxing in the Mississippi woods themselves while Jimmy headed to Los Angeles to fulfill his recording contract without them.

Whatever the case you know with Davis helming things Mississippi Boogie is going to be a tight, well constructed arrangement and sure enough they keep things moving behind Liggins’ vocals and then when he quickly steps aside they jump back to the forefront, deftly trading off between each of the horns – a long droning part by Davis’s tenor, sounding almost Dixieland in tone for a few brief seconds. The others are backing him with a short efficient riff that keeps getting repeated until Davis eases into the background and cedes the foreground to the others who know amplify that same riff more and let it sink deeper into your consciousness.

That’s a neat trick, not very complicated technically speaking, but nice to see all the same. They do it again as the trumpet of Bobby Summers slowly emerges from the massed horns to play a counterpoint line to the others down the home stretch. Again it’s nothing special, or even all that memorable, but certainly nicely played and reasonably catchy for this sort of thing.

Basically that same assessment holds for the entire record – somewhat catchy and efficiently played, but not all that memorable or special by the standards of the day.
 


 

That’s All She Wrote
Considering the vast majority of record buyers, even those who were dutifully collecting each and every Jimmy Liggins release since he’d burst onto the scene with the stellar I Can’t Stop It way back in late 1947, were probably unaware of Liggins’ freak misfortune in the state he was now ostensibly singing about. I mean, it’s not like the rock scene was written about in the papers or anything. So in that sense it’s hardly surprising this song came and went without much notice… a modest B-side that fit in fairly nicely with his growing catalog without standing out.

But for Liggins himself, not to mention those of us who are fully aware of the lurid details of his encounter with disaster, not to mention are well steeped in the repellent racial history of the state, Mississippi Boogie almost can’t help but take on a different hue when looked at through these prisms.

We can absolve Liggins and Specialty Records to a degree for their rather questionable decisions regarding the topic and the release itself, but we can’t help but feel unsettled by its presence all the same.

Maybe that’s not exactly fair but then again this was hardly going to be anything more than an afterthought anyway even if it got an “average” score for the musical content as it may have earned. Yet nothing exists in a bubble and so rather than ignore its unintended implications we’re going to acknowledge them and knock this down a point for being “ignorantly oblivious”.

If you’re a Mississippian who’s prone to raise a fuss about such unfairness all I’ll say is don’t complain, the score is still three points higher than your state is used to receiving.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Jimmy Liggins for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)