Bull Moose Jackson, Fare Thee Well, Deacon Jones, Fare Thee Well.
Bull Moose Jackson, I Want a Bowlegged Woman.
It's one of the strangest lyrics in R&B. The song's narrator goes into an empty church one rainy morning, and by the pulpit, lying in a red-draped coffin, is the corpse of Deacon Jones, a notorious figure in the community. Suddenly, an old woman moaning in a pew starts to testify about how the Deacon could "sure could shift his gears." As if summoned, the Deacon's corpse rises from the rain-flooded coffin and starts to talk. After first condemning the living, the Deacon (who may not be dead after all, just dead drunk) starts to boast:
Cause I'm the greatest deacon
The best you've ever seen
Y'all all hate old Deacon Jones
Cause all my chicks are in their teens
Deacon Jones is a minor figure in the great pantheon of African-American folkloric characters, like Shine, the only black man on the Titanic, and Stagger Lee. The Deacon's heyday was in the '40s and early '50s, beginning with Louis Jordan's 1943 "Deacon Jones" and continuing for a decade, including songs by Wynonie Harris ("The Deacon Don't Like It"), Little Esther Phillips ("The Deacon Moves In") and several versions of "Fare Thee Well", in which the dead Deacon, in a profane take on the Resurrection, rises again by the end of the song. The Deacon vanishes, however, by the late 1950s (not too coincidentally, around the time black ministers had begun gaining widespread attention in the civil rights movement).
More on the Jones character and his predecessor Elder Eatmore in this amazing article by Teresa Reed, which includes great old jokes involving the Deacon. I have to share one:
"One Sunday the Preacher got up in the pulpit and he started to preachin'. He said, "You can take all the whiskey and throw it in the river." A old Deacon in the front said, "Amen!" The Preacher say, "You can take all the wine and throw it in the river." The Deacon said, "Amen!" again. The Preacher said, "For my part, you can take all of the alcohol and throw it in the river!" The Deacon say, "Amen!" So the Preacher ended his sermon. The Deacon jumped up and said "Let us sing page 392, "Shall We Gather at the River."
Bull Moose Jackson was one of the finest blues shouters of the 1940s. Born in 1919, Jackson was playing saxophone in Lucky Millinder's big band (Jackson's nickname came from his teasing bandmates) in 1943 when one night the band's singer, Wynonie Harris, didn't show. Millinder pulled Jackson off the bandstand to sing, and a career was born.
In addition to "Deacon Jones," enjoy another '48 hit for Jackson, "I Want a Bowlegged Woman." Both can be found on this massive compilation. See you next week, in which we bring the curtain down on 1948.