Last of the Great Furniture-in-Mouth Blues Singers

But the group couldn’t transfer that energy from Club Matinee to the recording studio. It is, after all, difficult to capture the sound of a man dancing with a table in his mouth.

                    The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Preston Lauterbach

As the bus slows to a halt at the flag stop just outside Itta Benna, Mississippi, I rub my eyes, startled awake by the sun breaking over the horizon.  It strikes me that it’s universal–like the blues!–how it rises in the east here, just as it does back in the city where I come from.

I’ve made the journey to the Mississippi Delta with my reel-to-reel tape recorder to try to capture for posterity the sound of America’s native musical gift to the world.  The sound that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll–and unlike a lot of ethnomusicologists I don’t stint on the apostrophes when I use that term.  Why use one when two will do?

What sound is that, you ask?  Yes you did–I heard you out there on the other side of the computer screen.  The sound–so difficult to capture in the sterile atmosphere of a recording studio!–of the real, down home furniture-in-mouth blues singers.

They’re a dying breed.  When I was in college I saw some of the greats–Johnny “Side Table” Dawkins; Bobby “Tilt-top” Barnes; Leonard “Footstool” Davis–but that was in an auditorium, not in a juke joint where the patrons are there to hear the real heavy-lifting, furniture-based blues.  No, it’s not the same when you’re surrounded by fellow liberal arts majors eyeing each other, looking to find suitable upper-middle-class mating prospects.

Tilt-top table blues.


I head into town and reach the railroad tracks that separate the black from the white district and decide to make a few inquiries of the idlers I find sitting behind a feed and grain store, sipping from Nehi Orange Soda bottles.

“You guys know where I can find some old-school home furnishing blues around here?” I ask tentatively.

Three men look me over cautiously.  They’re wary of outsiders, having been used as local color in too many roots revival magazine articles, too much creative writing submitted to Southern literary journals.  I can’t blame them; how would you like to be trapped in a free verse poem about moanin’ blues like a lonesome freight train whistle or a hound dog howlin’ at the moon risin’ or a woman cryin’ ’cause somebody done dropped a “g” on her foot?

“Well, I might know where you could hear some,” one old man says as he eyes me up and down.  “Then again, I might not.”

I know the game.  You’ve got to pay the piper if you want to do good field research.  I reach in my wallet and pull out a five dollar bill and a complimentary Starbucks drink card my wife has earned for her daily tall iced latte.

“Here you go,” I say as I give the currency to the man.  One of his friends pulls the Starbucks card out of his hand to get a better look at it.

“What’s this?” he asks.

“It’s good for a grande latte,” I say, showing off my bilingual skills with a little Starbucks Esperanto.

“Man–this ain’t Mexico!” the man says.

“Naw–thass Starbucks talk,” the third says.  “This town ain’t big enough to have one,” he says to me.

I nod, and I can feel a little smile of smug satisfaction creep over my mouth, like one of those canker worms that drop out of trees on silk threads like Army Rangers descending a cliff–to use a double-bankshot simile.  I know I’m way back in the country now if I got here before Starbucks.

“You want to go to Nate Newbill’s Sportin’ Club,” one of the men says.  “That’s where you’ll hear the nicer interior decorating music.”

I get directions, thank the men and find a cab to take me to the outskirts of town where, as the old blues song goes, you won’t find no iceman hangin’ around.  It’s early in the day, but time stands still when a furniture-in-mouth blues singer gets going.  I enter a darkened, ramshackle building and note a dice game going on in a back room behind beaded curtains.

“Hello, baby,” the club’s hostess says by way of greeting.  “We’re having a sale on floor models today,” she says with a suggestive wink.  “Sectionals, couches–whatever you want.”

I’m tempted, but I’ve got a wife at home.  She could never forgive me if I came back with an STD–a sofa-transmitted disease.

“No thanks,” I say politely.  “I’m here for the music.”

“Suit yo’self,” she says dismissively as her interest in me flees with the prospect of a sales commission.

I order a Jax Beer and ask the bartender if there’s any entertainment.

“Swags and Jabot is takin’ a break,” he says.

I can hardly believe my ears.  Arthur “Swags” Patman and Willis “Jabot” Sumlin are two of the greatest blues-home furnishing musicians alive.  They had a couple of regional hits in the fifties–”Take Down Yo Curtain Mama, I Want to See the View” reached #4 on the Billboard Race Music chart–but they never made it out of the south the way Louis Jordan and Roy Brown did.

Swags ‘n’ Jabots


“That is, unlest they too drunk to go on,” the bartender says, raising an eyebrow to indicate that punctuality and sobriety aren’t the duo’s strong suit.

“Thanks,” I say.  “Do you mind if I set up my tape recorder on the bar?”

“Naw, go right ahead,” he says wearily.  “One mo ethnomusicographer making his academic bones offa the down-home sounds of my humble little juke joint don’t bother me.  Next year this time, you be sittin’ in a faculty lounge, showin’ off yo Ph.D., and I still be here pullin’ beers and servin’ shots and . . .”

I get the message and take another fin out of my wallet and lay it on the bar.  “Thass mighty nice of you, Professor,” he says.  “Lemme go see what Swags and Jabot is up to.”

He disappears out the back door and I take in the surroundings as I sip my beer.  Man, this is the real thing.  Slabs of ribs on an open barbecue pit, chitterlings, grits, collard greens–the vegetable that tastes like your front lawn.  There’s a juke box playing “I Can’t Sit Down (You Got Too Many Throw Pillows on That Damn Couch),” the R&B organ number that opened up the Stan’s Record Room Hour of Funk on radio station KAAY when I was growing up.

This arrangement always gives me the blues.


The back door opens and the bartender enters followed by Swags and Jabot, who look like they’ve just spent a double shift hauling refrigerators up third-floor walk-up apartment house stairs.

“This young man was axin’ about you,” the bartender says.

It’s all I can do to stop myself from gushing like a bobby-soxer autograph hound.  “I am so excited to meet you guys,” I say.

“Same here,” Swags says.  He extends a huge hand to shake mine, which is lost inside his giant paw.  “Oops,” he says as he hands it back to me.  “That happens all the time with you skinny white doctoral candidates.”

Jabot is the more business-like of the two.  “You know, we only gets paid to play from night to morning.  If we gonna do a special request so you can take our music back home for a bunch of white punks on dope to cover and make millions a dollars off of, we gonna need some . . . compensation, you dig?”

I’m feeling like a walking ATM machine, but these guys deserve it.  They laid the foundation for crappy Chicago rock bands like The Shadows of Knight and The Buckinghams to make a lot of bad imitations of black music.

“Here,” I say, pulling out a twenty for each of them.  They break into sneaky big grins, like cats who see a human walk out the door after forgetting to close the door to the canary’s cage.

“Well, allright then!” Swags says as he picks up a foam-covered bar stool and puts it in his mouth.  He nods to Jabot, who counts off the beat–”one, two, three, four”–blows a few notes on his harmonica, and Swags begins to sing:

“Amph yur Hoothie Koothie mang, everybodyth knowth ah am!”

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