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MERCURY 8164; JULY 1950



One of the recurring topics in this ongoing in-depth analysis of how rock ‘n’ roll music evolved is the importance of “the riff”.

An intentionally repetitive, but nonetheless invigorating, musical passage designed to hook listeners with its catchy simplicity, the riff formed the bedrock of the parade of hits that launched rock into the stratosphere.

But while riffs generally refer to instrumental hooks – sax, piano and guitar most prominently – it was theoretically possible to have other kind of riffs crop up from time to time, such as the the vocal riff that Professor Longhair tries to convey with this fairly obscure B-side which only remained on the market a short time before being ignominiously pulled for a replacement…

Oh well, those are the breaks I suppose.


He Kept Talkin’
There are some fairly good ideas found within this song which aren’t fleshed out quite enough to make it work seamlessly, although as with most of Professor Longhair’s material it’s still enjoyable enough to be worth a few spins no matter its ultimate fate.

With the much more deliberately paced Her Mind Is Gone that adorns the top side of this original release of Mercury 8184, they needed something a bit more lively to contrast with it and in that regard this fits the bill.

Kicking off with a thudding bass line on piano, some oddly skipping drums and blaring horns, Oh! Well is anything but subtle and reserved.

The most striking feature early on however isn’t the musical attack, though that’s hard to ignore, but rather Fess’s incessant chanting of the title in rhythm to the churning groove behind him. Because it’s just two words, and not very big words at that, which reveal absolutely nothing whatsoever about the ensuing plot, they’re intended to have the same trance-like effect that a musical riff would normally have wherein the cyclical pattern is doing its best to hook you.

But words are different than notes played on an instrument because they have meaning that our supposedly highly evolved minds want to decipher, so rather than accept them merely for the tonal qualities they bring to the table, you find yourself wondering where they’re going to lead in a story and that breaks the spell just enough to make it verge on annoying the more he repeats it.

Thankfully he segues into an actual plot eventually, but by the time he does we’re almost a third of the way through the song and we have yet to figure out what he’s talking about.

Once we DO learn though we’re pleasantly surprised at the cleverness. The “well” has a double meaning, the first being the rather innocuous declaration of casual indifference… “oh well” you say with a verbal shrug, indicating you don’t care much for whatever has just been implied by something… but then the meaning shifts to a description of the method of drawing water from the ground.

The idea itself is a neat trick and unfortunately slightly more witty than the rest of the song which is just a series of lyrical riffs – there’s that word again – about how a well is “just another hole in the ground”.

If you’re inclined to smile the first time you hear the play on words, you may grow weary of it the second time through even though the rest of the lyrics leading up to that “punchline” are fairly descriptive, but it’s just that there’s no point to any of it beyond that rather mild attempt at a laugh. No insight into humanity, no euphemism for the futility of life as epitomized by digging your way to sustenance, not even a follow-up joke about falling into that hole or pulling something unexpected out of it.

Like ‘Fess says, it’s just another hole in the ground… err… another hole in the song?

A Shovel On His Shoulder
But just because it doesn’t have a deeper meaning doesn’t mean his recounting of this trifle of a story isn’t rather enjoyable in a lighthearted breezy sort of way.

As always with ‘Fess the joy is found in his casually upbeat delivery that suggests even a pointless task as digging a hole – or listening to a man who will be digging that hole in this case – is a lot more fun than it would appear.

The music certainly helps in this aim, as the saxophones are lusty without getting overheated while his piano is locked in and at times seems bordering on ferocious in how he keeps bruising the keys while playing the same slow circular boogie, like the rising and falling of the tide, almost comforting in its surging power.

The instrumental break strives to maintain that feel, the sax improvising just enough to keep your interest as ‘Fess keeps the rhythm on a tight leash.

All of this is much more effective than it has any right to be… simple to the point of simplicity, repetitive without quite being agonizingly redundant and directionless without ever getting utterly lost.

Oh! Well is a ride on a slightly sped up merry-go-round, taking you around in circles but moving just a little too briskly to safely jump off.

But because ‘Fess sounds like he’s having a ball you don’t really want to jump off either. You’re content to ride around in circles with him, hoping maybe there’s something surprising still to come, but knowing that won’t likely be the case… and it isn’t.

When the vocals return after the break he doesn’t even bother wrapping the story up in a normal sense, just repeatedly telling us “goodbye”, closing out with another verbal riff that sounds just good enough that we don’t complain even though when we finally do step off the ride we realize we’re right back where we started and a little bit dizzy to boot.


Down The Road I Went Walkin’
If you had to listen to any rock artist sing and play what is essentially a somewhat loosely improvised riff-based song of no consequence the guy who should be near the top of your list is Professor Longhair who will at the very least keep you from complaining when being taken for a ride.

It’s hard to get annoyed at someone as cheerful as ‘Fess even though when we stop to study what he’s giving us we see how flimsy it all is. The disappointment isn’t in what he gives us though, but rather what he doesn’t, since the theme itself could’ve easily been built up into something much better and even – dare we say it – something bordering on profound.

But then again, is something profound really what you want out of Professor Longhair?

If you’re seeking elaborate themes, lyrical puzzles and erudite lyrics there’s plenty of other artists to fill that role from Elvis Costello to Leonard Cohen, which suits their strengths, just as this more direct approach suits ‘Fess. After all, they could never hope to hook you with little more than a few interlocking riffs – vocal, musical and otherwise – like Oh! Well manages to do, so in that sense we should be perfectly happy with the results.

As a composition this is pretty slight stuff… as an arrangement it’s utterly uncomplicated… as an artistic statement it’s hardly draws any water… but as a reflection of Professor Longhair’s ebullient spirit this no-frills throwaway is not just another hole in the ground.


(Visit the Artist page of Professor Longhair for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)