Jay Farrar, "Outside the Door"
and St. Louis blues.

Those of you who already bought Jay Farrar's fabulous new solo album Sebastopol (and who are, I expect, digging it as much as I am) have certainly heard the gorgeous song "Outside the Door" by now, and may have been wondering about all the various references in the song.

The song references a lot of old St. Louis blues musicians and long-demolished neighborhoods in that city. My friend Michael Pemberton, a blues fan and native of St. Louis, did a bunch of research on the references in the song and came up with plenty of fascinating stuff, starting off with a page about St. Louis pre-war blues:

Peetie Wheatstraw
William "Peetie Wheatstraw" Bunch was born December 21, 1902 in Ripley, Tennessee, and died December 21, 1941 in East St. Louis, Illinois of fatal injuries from an automobile accident. Known as "the Devil's Son-In-Law" and "the High Sheriff from Hell". Proficient on piano and guitar, he had many recordings for Vocalion and Decca, often accompanied by guitarist Charley Jordan. He operated The St. Louis Club with Big Joe Williams.

Thomas "Barrel House Buck" McFarland
Born in Alton, Illinois, in 1903 and was active on the St. Louis blues scene through the 1930's. He moved to Detroit in 1951 and has been inactive musically since, save for a documentary recording he made for Folkways Records, under Charters' supervision in 1961. He died in '62. The Folkways (3554) was recorded Alton, Illinois, 12 May '61 per Blues Records, inconsistant with Welding's Detroit information.

James "Steady Roll" Johnson
Born 189?, played piano, violin, guitar and was a vocalist as well. Originally from New Orleans, brother of jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson; both moved to St. Louis after their entire family perished in a massive flu epidemic.

J.D. "Jelly Jaw" Short
"One of the more archaic sounding of the Delta musicans, JayDee Short relocated in St. Louis in 1923. Born in Port Gibson, Mississippi in 1902. He started playing guitar in Hollendale under the tutorage of Willie Johsson, and developed his own style while a young man in the Clarskale area." "It's Hard Time" is perhaps the greatest blues song that takes the depression as its theme. It would appear that Joe Stone is actually a pseudonym for JayDee Short.

The Great Depression, starting in October of 1929, hit St. Louis harder than many cities. On the riverfront sat the country's largest "Hooverville" of people economically displaced by the Depression who were living in ramshackle temporary housing, sarcastically named for President Herbert Hoover. One St. Louis worker in four was out of work. People struggled through 1933 and 1934, despite early relief programs in the New Deal. Local relief roles topped 100,000 in 1934. [from an online history of St. Louis]

Deep Morgan
Deep Morgan was the name of an area in St. Louis (on Delmar St. near the Mississippi River) that was a major center of blues in St. Louis in the 1920s.

"Come On In My Kitchen"
A song by legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his astonishing musical talent.

Michael points out that during the time that the Vieux Carré Commission in New Orleans was getting organized and preparing to save and preserve the historic French Quarter of that city, St. Louis was demolishing the original downtown area to make room for the park that surrounds the Arch, and making plans to bulldoze Mill Creek; eventually the bustling entertainment district known as Gaslight Square would get the ax as well.

Walk the stretch of Olive Street from Pendleton to Whittier, and you'll find hardly a trace of what was once Gaslight Square. Other than a historic marker and a few buildings, it has vanished - the jazz, the poetry, the fine dining, the gaiety. "Perhaps nothing fills St. Louisans with as much wistfulness and regret as Gaslight Square. It's the ghost that keeps haunting people," [St. Louis' "First Lady of Jazz" Jeanne] Trevor said recently.

No one can say exactly when Gaslight Square emerged with its singular identity. In the mid-'50s, the street began to attract an assortment of saloons, eateries, and antique stores, and an iconoclastic group of customers, some associated with what we've come to call the Beat Generation..And then Gaslight began to flicker. Landlords raised their rents, forcing out antique shops and other interesting but marginal operations. In came the entrepreneurs who lacked any vision beyond turning a buck. Some muggings, a murder, and by the late '60s Gaslight had been snuffed. Jack Parker's O'Connell's was the last saloon to leave the neighborhood in 1972.

The song laments the fact that the singer "heard you can't find Mill Creek anymore". It was a poor, mostly African-American neighborhood razed in the late 1950s. From the African-American Heritage of St. Louis", here's a bit about Mill Creek:

TThe Mill Creek Valley, running from 20th Street to Grand, and from Olive to the railroad tracks on the south, was home to a large African American population. Along with cheap tenements that housed black laborers and more substantial housing, the area was home to a thriving entertainment area in the Chestnut Valley, the district along Chestnut and Market streets near 20th. Scott Joplin and other musicians played ragtime and jazz music here at Tom Turpin's Rosebud Cafe and other nightspots. The Mill Creek and nearby areas were home to such institutions as the Pine Street YMCA, the Wheatley YWCA, Vashon High School, St. Paul AME Church, St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church and School, and Union Memorial United Methodist Church. After World War II, thousands of rural blacks from the South moved into the area. When a massive civic improvement bond issue, which included plans to redevelop the Mill Creek area, passed in 1954, the area's estimated population was nearly 20,000 persons, or roughly 5,600 families, nearly 95 percent black. Demolition of housing and other structures in the valley began in 1959.
This is probably more than you ever wanted to know about one Jay Farrar song, but it's a song rich with history. I love all this stuff, myself.


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