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To entire generations of music lovers in the 20th Century “standards” were venerated compositions that demanded the respect of whatever artist was attempting to include it in their catalog.

Though a measure of individual interpretation was to be expected anytime somebody new approached one of these standards there was a definite limit to just how far you could take things. Radical reinvention wasn’t just frowned upon but was seen as sacrilegious in some quarters. It was almost as if by doing so an artist was thought to be slandering the good name and lasting reputation of the originator of that work, not to mention mocking… even taunting… the upstanding music community who collectively took it upon themselves to maintain the decency and honor of their respectable musical heritage.

Naturally rock ‘n’ roll had no such regard for the blind worship for dead songsmiths and looked to put their own stamp on these hoary old tunes.


Respect For Your Elders
Maybe we better clarify the term standards, just so everybody is on the same page since we’ll be referring to it frequently over the next two decades of rock ‘n’ roll.

Though standards often referred to older compositions that had been revived numerous times over the years the terminology shifted somewhat with the popularization of records in the 1930’s and ‘40’s.

The full definition of the term includes songs that are widely covered, which was the common practice during this era when it was the song itself, not a specific version, that audiences wanted to hear. That’s why you’d have a half dozen or more singers all tackling the same song at the same time, all in slightly different ways perhaps, but mostly sticking to a very similar musical structure.

As such they became part of a wide array of artists’ “standard repertoire” of songs… something that any number of acts, whether they recorded it or not, would sing to good acclaim on the bandstand or radio performances. Unlike the way this would be viewed in the future there was nothing underhanded or deceptive about this practice, it was a common act and widely accepted by artists, record labels and audiences alike.

Each week during this era we’re in today Billboard magazine would have what they called their Honor Roll Of Hits, which compiled the most popular songs, not the most popular records, which was a separate chart altogether. The HRH, as it was dubbed, listed the songs which had the most currently popular versions available. So for January 1949 a song like On A Slow Boat To China had versions by Lu Clinton, Benny Goodman, Kay Kyser, Snooky Lanson, Eddy Howard and many others listed side by side, telling the public all who’d cut this song. It was now a “standard” as the definition went, a song that you could be assured of hearing played no matter what club you went to or what radio program you listened to.

But older songs still held a little bit more cachet in this regard simply because they’d survived the changing trends and the turnover in audiences that happened over the years. The longer a song had been able to retain widespread appeal the more entrenched it became as a true standard of popular music.

So Stephen Foster’s Old Folks At Home, which dates back to 1851 and is the source of the record we’re reviewing today, was understandably one that was more respected than most as it neared its centennial and any attempts to drastically alter it for a modern audience, especially a rock audience made up of two demographics looked down upon by society as a whole, would likely not be well received.

Except of course by those two demographics – young black rock fans.

Musical Progress?
Ironically though any disgust the guardians of musical taste might’ve had with 17 year old Little Willie Littlefield coming along and giving the song a good shaking, would’ve already been leveled a few years earlier at a more respected figure in black music, Albert Ammons, one of multiple boogie woogie pianists who drew widespread acclaim from white society during that brief craze in the early 1940’s.

Ammons had cut two versions of Foster’s song using the title Swanee River Boogie and pepped it up quite a lot to fit his style. The first rendition came in 1936 when he was on major label Decca recording with The Rhythm Kings and with Decca’s major label push behind it the song reportedly sold a million copies. A decade later, now on Mercury, he cut another version and it hit #5 on the race music charts. By 1949 whatever disgust some in white America might have had for him perverting the song had probably long since faded away.

When Littlefield was casting about for songs to cut it’s hardly surprising he’d land on this one. It was almost certainly something he’d been playing in clubs since he got his start as a fourteen year old… in 1946, when Ammons had hit with it that second time.

Because the song had such a recognizable melody, even when juiced up in a boogie progression, it was something that wouldn’t require many spins to make an impression. Since the top side – Boogie Woogie Playgirl – was a vocal performance this would also serve to offset that, giving listeners a distinct difference to better get a sense of Littlefield’s true scope as an artist.

But he couldn’t just imitate the Ammons record, not only had that come out in a much different musical era it was also a different cultural era and so in order to set himself, and rock ‘n’ roll, apart Littlefield would have to re-invent the re-invention of Ammons.

Unfortunately Littlefield can’t quite do that. He’s a good pianist but not in Ammons class and even if he were there’s not a lot that can be done unless you blow up the arrangement, add a few more musicians – as in more than just Willie himself, as he takes this alone – and since Ammons was the one who in ’46 added an electric guitar to break the monotony of the keyboards up Little Willie was facing an uphill battle.

Rollin’ The Boogie
But let’s not criticize Littlefield too much for an instrumental B-side remake of a standard done to death over the years. His playing is cruder than Ammons for sure, but isn’t that one of rock’s rather endearing qualities in of itself? Its amateurish attitude.

Scoff if you want but one of the primary reasons why rock still thrives in the Twenty First Century when other forms have become museum pieces is because each generation thinks they can pull it off themselves with little or no formal music training. Garage bands and underground hip-hop acts who hope their mixtape will draw notice are evidence of the do-it-yourself spirit of rock ‘n’ roll as it progresses over the years.

For a teenager like Littlefield this was the sensible route to take, play your ass off and hope you get noticed. It worked too, as Eddie’s Records was established specifically to record him and that in turn sent him up the proverbial ladder of record labels, each stop getting bigger and in time the hits would follow.

So Swanee River might seem like a safe choice to make in that regard, a familiar song done in a basic style that had already proven successful, but whereas Ammons was showcasing technical prowess in his version, Littlefield’s take on it embodies the youthful drive and exuberance that would set rock apart.

He plays for all he’s worth too, pounding the keys, locking down the rhythm with his strong left hand while showing off his dancing right hand. It goes on thirty seconds too long but when you’re caught up in the moment I suppose it’s hard to stop playing, but an edit to close it out after two minutes flat would’ve left a stronger impression on you.

But the real story is how it’s a step or two further away from the Ammons school and a step or two closer to the Fats Domino school around the corner. Ammons’ version was being used in the early 1950’s as the theme song to Hoss Allen’s radio show on powerful WLAC radio, which spun black rock ‘n’ roll out of Nashville for more than two decades, its signal reaching most of middle America. Hearing that was what Fats said inspired him to cut his own version.

But if you listen to Domino’s 1952 recording – and don’t worry, we will soon enough – it has more in common with Littlefield’s than Ammons.

Down The River
There’s not much chance mainstream adult America heard this record – the B-side of a teenage rocker on a tiny label out of Texas without much distribution, no promotion and few if any connections to radio – so there was no criticism over Littlefield’s rendition and it likely did nothing to promote his career.

But it wasn’t without impact to those who did hear it, as Domino from neighboring Louisiana later proved, and around Houston where Littlefield’s reputation was growing it’s hard to see how this wasn’t going to be a favorite at dances and rowdy clubs. It may not be anything special from a technical point of view but it’s hard to complain about a really solid melody getting such a vigorous working over.

The era of the standard in music being a way of life for all artists was still going strong in 1949, but it wouldn’t be long before rock ‘n’ roll’s rise essentially ended it as an accepted order of business. With the growth in popularity of rock, a music which relied almost exclusively on original material, songs were no longer seen as common property, available for anyone to do with as they pleased. The mainstream music industry was slow to catch on to this change in perception however but after the backlash they got when white pop stars were trying to cover black rock records for hits in the mid-1950’s and had scorn and derision heaped upon the perpetrators the practice fizzled out. In time no pop act looking to be taken seriously would be permitted to cover songs that were climbing the charts as their forebearers had done, not if they wanted to remain respected.

The idea of “standards” as a consistently viable option for scoring hits died with that change.

But the ironic exception to that rule (well, aside from Christmas songs) is when a rock act goes back and hauls an old standard out of the mothballs to breathe new life into it. Over the years rock artists who’ve revived such classics as Summertime, At Last and My Way have kept those songs alive long after most other pop tunes from the era they originally appeared in have been forgotten.

Such is the case to a degree with Swanee River, not due to Littlefield exactly, but those like him which have kept it from slipping away completely.

No word on whether the stuffy rock critics who decried all of this commotion as it took away spins from their beloved pop standards ever came around on the idea of rock ‘n’ roll playing savior to the songs they cherished.

Somehow I doubt it.


(Visit the Artist page of Little Willie Littlefield for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Hal Singer (April, 1949)