The Signifying Monkey
Well, well. I didn't expect this post to take so long. A couple of versions of the same song - another that sounds similar, a bit of googling and some late nights, later ... a couple of glasses of wine, maybe. Definitely.
The first was Signifying Monkey by Smokey Joe Baugh which came out on Sun 228 in 1955 - 50 years ago ferchrisake. A shuffling story of a smartass monkey winding up the King of the Jungle (Mr Lion). Wonderful drummer and walking boogie beat, and it turns out the guy is white. Who knew? Smokey Joe Baugh is a blond, white kid from Arkansas. and then his Bio says that he and band mate Paul Burlison (what of the Rock'n'Roll Trio?) (Yes) played with Howlin' Wolf. Pardon. As we were talking about over at Music You Won't Hear ...
OK. in the words of Paul Burlison ... "I was playin’ with a guy named Shelby Follin in a country band over at KWM (radio) in West Memphis, Arkansas. That’s where I met Chester Burnett – Howlin’ Wolf. He was playin’ on the same station, late in the afternoon. One day, Wolf came in and was standin’ outside the glass window, lookin’ in while we were doin’ our show. Shelby was singin’ this country song that kind of had a little bluesy feel to it, so I put a couple of blues licks on it. Wolf nodded at me, gave me a thumbs-up sign. So when I came out the studio that day he says, “You want to play the blues with me today?” He came on right after us, and I’d been listening to him all the way home every evening. I said, “Yeah, I’d love to!”
So Spooky Joe Baugh was standing there. He had a song out on Sun Records called “Signifying Monkey.” Had a gravelly voice like Louis Armstrong and he says, “Well, then, you go back in there and play the guitar and I’m goin’ in there and play the piano,” and Wolf just says, “Well, c’mon, then.”
... and Smokey Joe sounds so Black that he gets invited up to play The Apollo Theatre in Harlem. That's a make or break crowd, according to the story of The Ravens first show there. A tough crowd. Jimmy Ricks was nervous as hell (until they heard him sing of course). I can just imagine the scene if blond Smokey Joe turned up there ... or can I ... maybe I can't. But hang on why the invite in the first place ... on the strength of a decent single out of Memphis? Well. It turns out that the Signifying Monkey is Archetypal in Afro-American culture. A Trickster. So Smokey Joe Baugh wasn't the first to record the story. Since that's what it is - a kind of hip morality tale. A Sufic lesson on life in the fast lane. One of many oral tradition stories and songs - check out the collection Yo' Mama for more info.
My favourite academic resource, though, is Shittalking, as you'll understand.
There are earlier versions of this song(see the pics at Vocal Group Harmony) as I was saying, and if anyone has copies I'd love to hear them. In the meantime check out Get Your Ass In The Water and Chuck Berry's 1962 version, Jo Jo Gunne.
But wait - that other song label in the picture is of the other song I wanted to talk about. 'The Monkey and The Baboon' is another Toast, another Hip Morality Tale (definitely not tail). Dr John's version he learned from Georges Landry, being from his exellent album Creole Moon.
So along side each other check out the following: