Sunday, October 02, 2005

Show 5 - Drinking Canned Heat and Jake



Show 5 - Drinking Canned Heat and Jake

When prohibition was on, people still needed a drink. Sometimes you could get bootleg alcohol, but sometimes you had to improvise from what you could get legally. There are quite a few prohibition-era songs about alcohol substitutes. Canned heat was a term for the cans of sterno or other portable heating fuels that you see around campgrounds. People drink it, usually strained through a sock or some kind of cloth. It will get you drunk and also maybe kill you or cause you to go blind. It still goes on today, but drinking Canned Heat was pretty common during the prohibition years after the passage of the Volsead Act or the 18th amendment in 1920 until its repeal under the 21st amendment in 1933.

Tommy Johnson, years before Robert Johnson, was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil. From accounts of his life, Tommy Johnson faced a constant struggle with alcoholism. His powerful songs reflect this. Let’s listen to Canned Heat Blues which is deep in the blues but has an almost Hawaiian feel to it:
Crying, canned canned heat, mama, crying, sure, Lord, killing me
Crying, canned heat, mama, sure, Lord, killing me
Takes alcorub to take these canned heat blues

Crying mama, mama, mama, you know, canned heat killing me
Crying mama, mama, mama, crying canned heat is killing me
Canned heat don't kill me, crying, babe, I'll never die

I woke up, up this morning, with canned heat on my mind
Woke up this morning, canned heat was on my mind
Woke up this morning, with canned heat, Lord, on my mind


Crying, Lord, Lord, I wonder, canned heat, Lord, killing me
Jake alcohol's ruined me, churning 'bout my soul
Because brownskin women don't do the easy roll


I woke up, up this morning, crying, canned heat 'round my bed
Run here, somebody, take these canned heat blues
Run here, somebody, and take these canned heat blues

Crying mama, mama, mama, crying canned heat killing me
Believe to my soul, Lord, it gonna kill me dead
Sloppy Henry recorded a similarly themed song in 1928 accompanied by Peg Leg Howell. It tells the story of a fight leading to murder leading to the county jail:

I live down in the alley, full of canned heat as I can be, honey as I can be
Oh my baby I live down in the alley, full of canned heat as I can be
Look like everybody in the alley, sure done got mad with me

Liza bought so much canned heat, won't sell her no more, won't sell her no more
Hear me talking, Liza bought so much canned heat, won't sell her no more
She's got the cans and the labels laying all around her door

Canned heat whiskey will make you sleep all in your clothes, lay down in your clothes
Everybody say canned heat whiskey make you sleep all in your clothes
When you wake up next morning, feel like you stayed outdoor

I said whiskey, whiskey, many folks' downfall, many folks' downfall
Aawwww whiskey, many folks' downfall
When I can't get my whiskey, I ain't no good at all

Walked in my room, the other night
Man come in, he want to fight
Took my gun, my right hand
Hold me folks I don't wanna kill no man


When I said that, struck me across my head
Watch out, I fired and the man fell dead
I said, canned heat whiskey drove me to the county jail
Got me laying up on my bunk and I got nobody to go my bail

Memphis’ Will Shade recorded a song about getting involved with women who drink too much canned heat. Better Leave That Stuff Alone with Will Shade on guitar with Jab Jones on piano from 1928:

People across the waters, they're crying for meat and bread
People across the waters, they're crying for meat and bread
And the womens down on Beale Street crying for that old canned heat every day

I give my woman a dollar to get herself something to eat
I give my woman a dollar to get herself something to eat
She spent a dime for neckbones and the ninety cents for that old canned heat


If your woman says she don't drink corn liquor, don't think she's nice and sweet
If your woman says she don't drink corn liquor, don't think she's nice and sweet
If she don't drink that old corn liquor, bet your bottom dollar she drinks that old canned heat


Now just look what a difference a little money can buy
Now just look what a difference a little money can buy
Before a woman spend fifty cents on corn liquor, she'll buy that box of canned heat on the sly


Canned heat is just like morphine, it crawls all through your bones
Canned heat is just like morphine, it crawls all through your bones
And if you keep on using canned heat mama, you soon get to the place you just can't leave it alone

When you catch a woman begging nickels and dimes, all up and down the street
When you catch a woman begging nickels and dimes, all up and down the street
She's only hustling them people to get that stuff they call that old canned heat

Like Sterno Fuel, another form of alcohol that was available legally during Prohibition was called Jake. Jake was a ginger extract from Jamaica that was sold for medicinal purposes but was approximately 70% alcohol. When drank in large quantities, another chemical in Jake caused deterioration of the spinal cord. In the 20s and 30s, Jake drinkers were immediately identifiable when people spotted a telltale shuffle in their walk cause by semi-paralysis in the legs. Many songs were recorded about that Jake walk. Here’s one from the Mississippi Sheiks, “Jake Leg Blues:

You thought the lively man would die when you made the country dry
When you made it so that he could not get not another drop of rye
But I know that you will feel bad when you see what he had had
When you see him coming with a lot of dough, if you listen I will tell you so.

Oh well, it's here he comes, I mean to tell you here he comes
He's got those jake limber leg blues
Here he comes, I mean to tell you, here he comes
He's got those jake limber leg blues


When you see him coming, I am going to tell you
If you sell him jake, you'd better give him a crutch, too
Oh well, it's here he comes, I mean to tell you, here he comes
He's got those jake limber leg blues, oh step on it


Oh well, it's here he comes, I mean to tell you here he comes
He's got those jake limber leg blues
Here he comes, I mean to tell you, here he comes
He's got those jake limber leg blues


He could be named Charley, and he could be named Ned
But if he drank this jake, it will give him the limber leg
Oh well, it's here he comes, I mean to tell you here he comes
He's got those jake limber leg blues
Let’s finish where we started with another personal take on drinking Canned Heat and Jake from Tommy Johnson including lyrics about Jake affecting his legs.


Alcohol, alcohol, crying, sure Lord's killing me
Alcohol, mama, sure, Lord, killing me
Alcohol don't kill me, I believe, Lord, I'll never die


I woke up early this morning, crying, alcohol around my bed
Woke up this morning, alcohol was around my bed
Says, I'm gonna get drunk, I'm gonna have to speak my trouble in mind


Mmm, mmm, mmmm, mmm,  mmm
I ain't gonna be here long
Says, I'm leaving town, I'm going to worry you off my mind


I drink so much of Jake, till it done give me the limber leg
Drinking so much of Jake, till it done give me the limber leg
If I don't quit drinking it every morning, sure gonna kill me dead


Mmm, mmm Mmm, alcohol gonna kill me dead
And if it don't kill me, Lord, it sure gonna put me down


I woke up, up this morning, crying, alcohol on my mind
Woke up this morning, alcohol was on my mind
I got them alcohol blues and I can't rest easy here
Prohibition caused people not only to drink bootleg moonshine, but legally available substances like Canned Heat and Jake which caused serious health problems. Though even with the end of prohibition, this didn’t end. Drinking sterno still occurs and drinking cough syrups and other medicines still seems to be common all over the US. These songs from the late 1920s, capture this drinking phenomenon and the problems it came with in that time beautifully.

Songs:
Canned Heat Blues - Tommy Johnson
Canned Heat Blues - Sloppy Henry
Better Leave That Stuff Alone - Will Shade
Jake Leg Blues - Mississippi Sheiks
Alcohol and Jake Blues - Tommy Johnson

3 comments:

php blogger said...

It's easy to forget the lengths that people have and will go to for a good high. When the government makes one drug illegal people just resort to using one that's worse but easier to come by (can you say crystal meth?).

Mike Rugel said...

Yup... it's pretty extraordinary what people will do. I like how the songs reflect that its the same thing over and over again in different eras.

Rebecca Davis said...

I'm excited to come across your fascinating blog. Thanks for doing this. There is much here to explore.

Being a big Canned Heat fan, the first thing I did was search for relevant posts, and located this one on the original Tommy Johnson song (after which the band was named). I'm sharing it with fellow Canned Heat fans, and hope they'll continue on to hear the original tunes you've discussed here.

I hope you'll take a few moments to check out my website at http://blindowlbio.com. It's dedicated to Canned Heat founder and blues scholar Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson. In my bio of Wilson, available through the site, I've discussed how the members of Canned Heat re-enacted Tommy Johnson's drinking of Sterno. It was a rather unpleasant initiation ritual for the band, with Johnson's own recipe brought back from the deep South by friend and musicologist David Evans.

Thanks again for this fabulous blog. I really like what you're doing here.