Save the Bones: A Conversation with Danny Barker

Danny Barker is a jazz legend. He has spent his life in the jazz hothouses of New Orleans and New York at times when these scenes were exploding in critical crescendos. He’s played with everyone and has seen everything. His reflections are as follows.

A conversation with Danny Barker can be like talking to a “jazz dictionary”—one with a whole lot of soul. His conversations, and the knowledge and understanding of people, culture and the arts that Danny Barker shares, is a gift. In fact, many published jazz and New Orleans-related works are filled with his conversation. Sometimes people give him credit; sometimes they don’t.

Danny Barker is a man of many qualities. A composer, songwriter, author, actor, historian, comedian, guitarist and banjoist…He is a jazz musician who possesses a keen sense of rhythm and the creative ability to reflect life in song.

The best writing that exists about Danny Barker is his autobiography, A Life In Jazz, published in the U.S. by Oxford University Press and in the U.K. by MacMillan Press. Danny has not only lived “a life in jazz,” through his work it is apparent that he is highly conscious of life around him, socially and culturally.

He has performed and recorded with the best; from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Ethel Waters, Benny Carter, Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, Red Allen, Billie Holiday, his uncles Paul and Louis Barbarin, and of course his beautiful and talented wife, Blue Lu Barker.

In 1953, Danny wrote the song “Save the Bones For Henry Jones,” a comical number about a man, Henry Jones, who does not eat meat. Now, thirty-six years later, Danny has recorded this song and it is available on his most recent offering, a new album appropriately titled, Save The Bones.

Save The Bones is a compilation of eleven songs. Four of them Danny wrote. The other seven he performs with such originality that they are made distinctly his own. This is not a typical jazz album. It is Danny’s first solo recording. One on one with the listener, he uses his voice and guitar to extend his personal conversation into the vernacular of the American folk song.

He explained the title track this way: “I wrote ‘Save the Bones’ when there was a revolution in the recording and publishing business in this country. Many small companies began to spring up everywhere and by that time I had some knowledge of the inner workings, the ins and outs, of the music business. The smaller companies began to compete with the big three, which were Decca, Columbia and Victor.

“There was a restaurant in Los Angeles at Sunset and Vine called Chase’s, and there one day I was having lunch with a young publisher named Michael Golson and he said, ‘Danny, why don’t you write me some songs?’ And in that day when you sold songs to a publisher you signed a contract with twenty or thirty clauses all beginning with ‘the publisher shall have the right to…’ and at the end there was one clause that said, ‘the writer shall have to…’ keep his hands off and leave everything up to the publisher to promote and market the song. You dig?

“Well two weeks later I brought him ten songs. A week after that he called me up told me he had sold one of my songs to Capitol Records. They were a young company on the west coast creating quite a stir. He said ‘Save the Bones’ is going to be recorded by Nat King Cole. I said you’re kidding!

“Nat King Cole was big then. He had ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right,’ ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Nature Boy’ out. He was the first black artist to have his records played on the white juke boxes. You know, back then there were segregated juke boxes and he was the first, with that big, beautiful voice and that trio with Johnny Mercer and Oscar Moore. They were great, man. So they recorded ‘Save the Bones’ for Capitol and it did all right. It all happened in less than one month.”

Danny is a natural when it comes to combining entertainment with education. And the perfect accompaniment for his wisdom and words is the rhythm guitar. This recording is a showcase for Danny’s guitar playing.

“I could always find work because I was reliable and I can play those big fat sweet chords,” he says.

Goethe once wrote, “There is something magical in rhythm; it even makes us believe that the sublime lies within our reach.” Danny’s rhythm is magical: the type of magic that is created by one who grew up in a culture as rich and profound as New Orleans jazz.

“I was raised in a musical family. In my family there are 38 professional musicians who are related or inter-related through birth or marriage. When someone in the family would have a get-together, for whatever reason, there was always music.

“My uncles, Paul and Louis Barbarin, were both great jazz drummers. Paul also wrote songs and he encouraged me to write songs. He wrote ‘Bourbon Street Parade’ and ‘The Second Line’.”

The songs Danny chose to record on Save The Bones express different sides of his personality and interest. Individually they reflect a broad spectrum of American song styles. Together they offer us a little closer look at Danny Barker the person. They are comical, poetical, full of blues, jazz, and a bit of cabaret. He mixes biography with fiction to give new life and meaning to traditional music. The songs are: “Ham and Eggs”, “Save the Bones”, “Bill Bailey”, “I’m A Cowboy”, “Hard Hearted Hannah”, “Nevertheless (I’m In Love With You)”, “Right Key Wrong Keyhole”, “St. James Infirmary Blues”, “You’ve Got To Get Yourself A Job Girl”, “Nobody Knows You When Your Down and Out”, and “When You’re Smiling.”

If this album accomplishes nothing else, it has finally captured on record Danny’s definitive contemporary versions of the songs, “Bill Bailey” and “St. James Infirmary Blues.”

Danny introduces seven songs on the album with conversation, which he uses to place the song into a personal or historical context.

He begins “I’m A Cowboy” with this explanation: “This is a song I wrote to make an audition for Columbia in 19—, in the ’60s, 1960? One of those years. I thought I’d cover about four or five elements of American music styles. And this time I thought I’d jump over into country and western, into hillbilly, Appalachian, that sort of thing, and I composed this song, ‘I’m a Cowboy,’ poor lonesome cowboy, just lost his horse.”

“You’ve Got To Get Yourself A Job Girl,” he explains, “I wrote this song in 1955 for a great blues singer named Wynonie Harris…this type of song was prevalent and very popular in the black population of America. They put the message over.”

Wynonie Harris recorded “You’ve Got To Get Yourself A Job Girl” in 1955 for Vocalion Records.

On the blues classic, “Right Key Wrong Keyhole,” he uses his conversation to adapt this traditionally female song to a male role. His conversation creates a new beginning for the song and in the process the delivery is changed from being sung in the first person to the second.

“Had a little girl, she was beautiful, she was sweet and so neat. We were hitting and missing a couple of c’s, that’s a couple of years, and one day she told me, she said emphatically, she got right to the point; she said you know I’m tired of this hitting and missing. I don’t see you and you come around again like you was here yesterday but it’s been months since you came around. I think you better make some better arrangements and I’m tired of this foolishness.

“I said, you’re kidding baby. She said no I’m not kidding. So I paid her another visit and I put the key in the lock on the door and I heard these words.

“The little girl said, ‘You’ve got the right key but the wrong keyhole…'”

Danny can easily convert his conversation into storytelling. To begin “Hard Hearted Hannah,” he says, “I want to tell you this story, one of my favorite songs and I’ll relate it to you. I love to sing this song because I think its humorous. I saw many men get mixed up with these type of girls, especially the girl from Savannah, Georgia that they call Hard Hearted Hannah. It’s a humorous story and I’d love to relate it. I’ll give you my version of it.”

The album begins and ends on an upbeat. He starts with the eye opener, “Ham and Eggs,” and closes with the popular, “When You’re Smiling.”

Danny can most recently be heard in performance at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe located on Decatur Street in the French Quarter on Friday and Saturday nights.

He is currently at work on a new book, which is a collection of short stories he calls, “Meat Ball Charley and Other Laughing Tales.”

He is featured as a special guest artist on the newest Wynton Marsalis album, “The Majesty of the Blues.”

One can only hope that he might write a sequel to his autobiography and tell us what it was like to perform with Mae West in “The Constant Simmer,” or with Stepin Fetchit in “Lazy Bones,” or about his appearance in the movie “Stormy Weather,” or the made-for-television special, “A Gathering Of Old Men.”

One thing is for sure, no stay in the Crescent City would be complete without acquainting yourself with this man and his work.

Save The Bones is a production of Danny Barker and Carlo Ditta for Orleans Records, Tapes and CDs. This independent record company, based in New Orleans, is also responsible for the 1988 Grammy nominee LP, The Story of My Life, by local blues artist Guitar Slim, Jr. Orleans Records are distributed through retail outlets and by mail: 828 Royal Street, New Orleans, Louisiana 70116.

  • Shannon O’Donnell

    The song was written in 1947, not 1953. How did that get by the fact-checkers?