Friday, June 02, 2006

Fattening Frogs? What?

The title Fattening Frogs for Snakes refers to a song by the great blues harmonica player, Sonny Boy Williamson II.

Sonny Boy Williamson II

Sonny Boy Williamson II was one of the key figures in the history of the blues. He was born Rice Miller, but stole the name Sonny Boy Williamson from another harp player of the time ('blues harp' or just plain 'harp'=blues slang term for harmonica). They are now known respectively as Sonny Boy Williamson I and II. It is a reasonably regular moniker, in a musical genre characterised by lots of strange names. Some of my favourite blues names off the top of my head include Pinetop Perkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightnin’ Slim and Taj Mahal (who I managed to see live with his Phantom Blues Band - brilliant stuff).

Like many other of the great blues icons, there is a certain amount of confusion about when Sonny Boy II was born. I have even heard that he lied about the year of his birth in order to get the drop on Sonny Boy I in his claim to the name. Sonny Boy II was from Mississippi, and was a virtuoso on the harp. It’s rumoured that he could play with no hands, by inserting the entire harmonica into his mouth or holding it between his top lip and his nose.

One thing that’s interesting about old-time blues lyrics is the way it seems to be the men that are persecuted rather than the women. Blues songs are populated by women who walk all over the long suffering bluesmen, going out late and not coming back home, spending all their man's money, and evicting them from their own homes in the freezing cold (see the Sonny Boy Williamson II track ‘Nine Below Zero’). A good example of this is Sonny Boy’s classic song, ‘Help Me’, which has become a harmonica standard, in which he pleads for help with the housework (seriously):

I may have to wash
I may have to sew
I may have to cook
I might mop the floor
But you help me babe
I can’t do it all by myself
You know if you don't help me darling
I'll find myself somebody else

I was in Bruxelles once when the Mary Stokes Band was playing, and I was very proud of myself when they agreed to play a request of ‘Help Me’. They had just rejected another couple of calls for requests, but I obviously fooled them into thinking I was a blues purist. Then they proceeded to blow me away with a great version of the song. They had the last laugh when I bought their CD.

The song title ‘Fattening Frogs for Snakes’ seemingly refers to an old American proverb about putting loads of energy into something and not reaping the benefits. If you spend ages fattening up a frog with lots of delicacies, and then a big snake slips into his cage and eats him, you’ve pretty much wasted loads of your time and effort. If I had a penny for every frog I lost this way...

My research on Google tells me that ‘Fattening Frogs For Snakes’ was used as the title of a book about the old blues musicians by a fellow called John Sinclair. He compares the years of musical craftsmanship of the Delta blues musicians to fattening frogs for snakes. According to his take on things, these (mostly African American) blues men and women spent years honing their craft, and then suddenly all these white musicians swooped in in the 60s and had huge success by appropriating blues music.

So, the fatted frog was eaten by the snake-like new wave of British musicians – people such as Eric Clapton, John Mayall, The Animals and The Rolling Stones. There’s no doubt that these guys are true fans of the blues, but they did make it big by ripping off the blues stylings of pioneers like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf. Lots of these guys died in misery and poverty (although there are plenty more like BB King who got plenty of recognition).

Anyway, that’s the source of my blog title - just in case it seemed a little esoteric…


Mervyn said...

Paul ,

I think I remember being in Bruxelles with you and another atypical or two who shall remain nameless for the time being pending their approval to be named, when that band was playing. I recall that you were quite interested in the music they were playing. Didnt know that it would lead to such great things as a Blog website.

I have to admit that I wasnt taken by the Blues then, but now a few years later, I would see myself listening to the words of the songs for humour. As the fellow says they were not called the Blues because they were sad songs (although sometimes they sound depressing), but rather because they were loaded with pure and unadulterated 1930's American filth.

Anyway its great site with some intersting articles. Will check back while I am on my career break. All the best with the Masters, and other worthwhile projects. Mervyn

Paul said...

Nice one Merv. That was a good night. That career break's a great move.

Anonymous said...

If you wrongly think that singing the blues refers to singing "filthy lyrics", where do you think the the word "jazz" comes from? If you cannot figure it out, ask me and I will post the answer.


Patrick said...

Just came across your post regarding Fattening Frogs for Snakes, and wanted to add my bit.
It seems as though Sonny Boy "borrowed" more than his name. The song title was first penned and recorded by Bumble Bee Slim in 1935. Sonny Boy’s lyrics appear to bear more than a casual resemblance to the original version, as the chorus lines are nearly word for word.

Anonymous said...

Nice article. I'm pretty sure that photo is of Sonny Boy I though.

(Sonny Boy II looks like this:

Anonymous said...

Sonny Boy was the greatest harp player in my opinion. He played without cupping the harp in his hands like most harp players do. It gave the harp a more biting tone and his signature sound. The recording of "Fattenin' Frogs For Snakes" was made with the Yardbirds (with Eric Clapton) so they new about him and held him in high esteem. He was real fed up though. He probably wondered "now why do all the white boys want to jam with me?"

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the link, but unfortunately it seems to be offline... Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please reply to my post if you do!

I would appreciate if a staff member here at could post it.