A rag, a bone, and a hank of hair

by John MacBeath Watkins

As almost no one knows, I was born in Louisiana and haven't been back since. However, my mother, who was born in Oregon and has frequently returned, picked up some songs in Louisiana that have stayed with me. I remember as a child she sang for me St. James Infirmary Blues, the bluest of the blues, and Shortnin' Bread. But most of all, I remember Blues in the Night, and an odd lyric, "a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair."

That last turns out to be a Kipling lyric, from The Vampire.

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair
(Even as you and I!)

I suspect Mom didn't know that, she always sang it as a blues lyric. She would sing it, in fact, with the Lois Armstrong version of Blues in the Night, the version she sang to me as a child.

Blues in the Night
is a song I always associated with Lois Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, but it was written by Harold Arlen (born Chaim Arluck) and Johnny Mercer. So in fact, it was written by a Jew and a Southern white of Scottish descent, Mercer being the great-grandson of a Confederate general. Mercer and Arlen had learned about the blues from African-American culture, especially Mercer, who grew up in Savannah, Georgia, where he hunted for the records of Louis Armstrong and Ma Rainey. Mercer got involved in musicals and married a girl from the chorus line, Ginger Meehan, but didn't tell his parents until after the wedding, probably because Ginger was Jewish.

So at least one of those blues songs my mother would sing me to sleep with was not so much African American as mongrel American, an example of how much Whites learned from Blacks long before that was supposed to be happening, and since my mother associated it with Louis Armstrong, it reached me because it was popularized by an African-American artist.

Is this a great country, or what?


  1. I was trying to remember some of the songs I grew up with to sing to my grand daughter. All I could remember were Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Blow ye Winds in the Morning--a song about killing whales for a vegetarian child?! Of Course I emphasized the winds, not the whales.

  2. Perhaps 'What shall we do with the drunken sailor' would be more appropriate. Or not.

    I'd go with the Beatles songbook, 'Rocky Raccoon' for example...



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