When I was a child my parents were friends with a glamorous Parisian, Jewish family, the Kukurudz-es. (They later moved to L.A., where they ended up befriending the family of fellow philosopher, Marshall Abrams.) Everybody's favorite memory of our visits occurred during a long Passover dinner, when Mrs. Kukurudz intoned from the far end of the room to the children's table in her classy British Voice, "Eric stop eating your Matzo-ball soup with a fork!" (This is still often repeated when I am trying to offer innovative solutions to engineering problems around me.) When she was not teaching me etiquette, Mrs. Kukurudz was the VIP manager at the Hotel Intercontinental in Paris. She made me a fan of Jerry Lewis (who was a regular guest of hers). And that is how I discovered Lewis' rendition of The Birth of the Blues. (For the "eating soup with a fork"--version see this Lawrence Welk's recording. Even Alice Lon can't save it.] His friend, Sammy Davis Jr., performs the most moving version of it on a Lewis Telethon.]
Now I am very fond of "The Birth of the Blues," because it tells the origin myth of the art from within the tradition and simultaneously extends the tradition. [This is as good a definition of philosophy as any.] As regular readers of this blog know, this process is something that fascinates me [recall here, here, and here]. According to the lyrics the blues were actively created by folk at a particular, yet timeless place (the Southland) that wished to innovate ("some people long ago Were searching for a different tune"). The blues are a mixture of a) pre-existing "rhythm;" b) imitation of nature ("the breeze in the trees Singing weird melodies And they made that the start of the blues"); c) the history of punishment ("from a jail came the wail Of a down-hearted frail"); d) the copying of bird-songs transformed by musical instruments ("whippoorwill Out on a hill They took a new note Pushed it through a horn 'Til it was worn Into a blue note"). So, we get an origin story and the essential ingredients of the art. Aristotle would approve.
Lewis is now best known as a comedian beloved by the French. But he was, of course, also part of a popular duo with Dean Martin. Now Martin plays a very dubious role in a remarkable 1965 rat pack recording of the Birth of the Blues in my former old home-town St. Louis; the performance includes Johnny Carson (who turns out to be a remarkably good singer), who, I think, makes a racially tinged joke with the St. Louis audience applauding. [Go here for the back story on the show, which was a fund-raiser for a rehab home for ex-convicts.] It's possible that Sammy Davis Jr. makes the joke. (It's hard to tell.) Either way, it matters because "The birth of the blues" is, of course, in part the story of white-black relations (cf. the Bing Cosby movie with that title); I call it a "myth" because slavery is the unnamed presence, if not rhythm, of the song.
The Sinatra-Armstrong rendition is the classic exemplar of telling the origin myth of the art from within the tradition and simultaneously extending the tradition. I insert a version with French sub-titles; the two masters of the art even introduce each other as "Professor."
Now, while reflecting on this piece with my son Avi we discovered the clip below from the movie, The Best Things In Life are Free.The conceit is quite clever; the somewhat stiff composer shares the song with the woman he is trying to impress, who has an extensive sexualized fantasy about another man (or men), while he is singing to her. Interestingly, the jail is mixed Black/White, but once the seduction and illicit love unfolds in the fantasy-scene (which has amazing dancing by Sheree North), the Black men disappear from the scene entirely--a fitting metaphor for the effacement that the song instantiates. Yet, despite the multiple effacements the version in the Best Things in Life does tell the story of the song's origins in the roaring twenties of Tin Pan Alley (it was written by Ray Henderson, Lew Brown and, Buddy G. DeSylva and they are the subjects of the 1956 movie).
One final twist in this narrative. If I am not mistaken the great Cab Calloway made the song famous. (Here is a recording; I have not been able to find a filmed version.) Yet, while all sources [wikipedia and this guy who seems to know what he is talking about] insist he is singing the same song, Calloway has thoroughly domesticated the lyrics. In his version, the song is a self-help tune on how to learn how to play the blues at home, like learning etiquette. UPDATED [WITH CORRECTION]: As Neil Levy points out below, Calloway is performing "Learning the Blues."