#74620  by bellman1
I've been digging into the origins of this song and have learned that it was written by Noah Lewis and recorded by Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers with Noah Lewis on vocals and harmonica back in 1929 or thereabouts. But none of the sources I've found has even asked the obvious question: where did the title come from? The lyrics are about being sent to prison in Nashville. In one version (not the Dead's), the last verse refers to the singer's wife. Could she be the mysterious "Viola Lee"?
 #96320  by jolietbound
The same question about Viola Lee puzzled me no end too so great minds think alike. I have no definite answer but this is my guess. Groups like Gus Cannon & JugStompers often times adapted pre existing songs for themselves. It's well known that Joliet Bound Blues performed around the same time (late 1920s early 30s) has substantially similar lyrics. I was able to find another song vaguely similar called Chain Gang Blues by Ma Rainey. The lyrics follow:

The judge found me guilty, the clerk he wrote it down
Just a poor gal in trouble, I know I'm county road bound
Many days of sorrow, many nights of woe
And a ball and chain everywhere I go
Chains on my feet, padlock on my hand
It's all on account of stealing a woman's man
It was early this morning that I had my trial
Ninety days on the county road, and judge didn't even smile

There were obviously different versions floating around at the time Cannon (Noah Lewis singing) recorded his tune. It is suggestive that Rainey's version centers on a woman rather than men. It's possible there was a variant of this titled Viola Lee by some obscure performer that Cannon or Lewis heard. If Noah Lewis was the songwriter he had a rather careless attitude about song lyrics which might possibly extend to titles. (see para below) I strongly doubt Viola Lee was any legal or other official since that would have invited retribution. By the same token, it wouldn't have been someone Cannon or Lewis knew personally since they wouldn't want their name in a song about jail birds. Oddly enough I have a friend who knew a woman named Viola Lee. She comes from Kentucky so the name may not be that unusual in that region.

Your thought that it might refer to the wife or girlfriend of the jailbirds is also possible. What's interesting about that substitute verse you reference (last stanza in version 1 recorded by Cannon and Lewis) about "fix me supper mama, White Lightning went to my head" is that it is a bit of a non sequitur with the rest of the song. After all the men have been sent off to prison so how is he home with Mama going to bed? Another instance of migrating lyrics occurs in another Cannon song with Noah Lewis called Pretty Mama Blues. In that song the Viola Lee version 2 stanza about "I mailed a letter in the air you know by that I have a friend somewhere" occurs almost verbatim in Pretty Mama Blues. In that song it has a completely different context. These may be stray verses from a different version of the proto song to Viola Lee Blues or more likely just a random verse stuck in there by Noah Lewis. The lyrics on the other songs, Pretty Mama Blues and Going to Germany, that Noah Lewis sang with Cannon are quite disjointed, even more than those sung by Cannon. If he was this casual about song lyrics it is quite possible that he would just grab a song title that appealed to him and apply it whether it fit or not.
Last edited by jolietbound on Sat Apr 16, 2011 6:35 pm, edited 1 time in total.
 #96322  by ugly rumor
People often think that the old blues recordings are of people who only sang blues. That is patently not correct. The old songsters sang blues, but also showtunes, country, popular music, anything that would encourage good tips in the guitar case or piano glass. They recorded blues because that is what the record companies wanted and payed for. Then they were called "race" records, and major labels even went to the length of creating sub-labels to distance their mainstream "white" music from the black or mexican music, in order to not offend the prejudices of the time. Remember, the Ku Klux Klan was at its height in the 1920s, with roughly ten percent of Americans - not adults, but ALL Americans - at that time holding dues-paying membership in that organization. Also, lynchings, race riots in big cities such as Washington D.C., Tulsa, Oklahoma, Detroit, New york, Atlanta, were occurring regularly. So when a blues group or person recorded for a white man, he usually recorded what he thought the white man wanted to hear. And record scouts wanted what they thought would sell, which after Ma Rainey's recording in 1920, and Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, etc, was blues. So often words didn't really make as much sense, because the black man was projecting himself into what he percieved the white man's perception was. I have several thousand old blues recordings, from obscure to popular, from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The foregoing is from observations I have made to try to understand the proliferation of unmatched and mismatched song lyrics, along with my understanding of the craft.
 #96323  by jolietbound
"So often words didn't really make as much sense, because the black man was projecting himself into what he perceived the white man's perception was"

I strongly agree with your point that these artists played the kinds of songs that recording companies or customers wanted to hear. However I think the more likely reason that the lyrics are often disjointed is that many of these performers just learned from hearing other people play stuff rather than reading music or even writing down lyrics. Many were probably only semi literate. Mix in varying states of inebriation and who knows what you would end up with when you stuck a microphone in front of them. I think Gus Cannon was the first to confess that he took a drink now and then. Some artists like Rev Gary Davis or Willie McTell who were more religiously oriented and had some education tended to perform in a more careful way. All these performers would have been astounded that anyone would be listening to their records a century later.

Your other historical comments are quite relevant and too little known these days.
 #169698  by hammerini
Almost ten years later I have the same questions about that tune, which is one of the Dead's best off of arguably the Dead's best album. I appreciate the answers, and hope the gents who contributed are well and might even read this. I was all ears.
I have always admired two things about this:
First, Did Jerry or Phil, or more likely, Pigpen know of the recent (1961) passing of the song's author, Lewis, at the time they began to rework and play it? The time span between his passing and their play of it was less than five years time.
Secondly, whatever possessed the band members to re-work the song in such an extensive way, to the point of brilliance? It has a dirge-like, or dragging rhythm completely consistent with the lyrical meaning of it - much more than the original. It is also fleshed out musically, such that once it's in your head, it's not easy to displace - in my case anyway. I am fascinated by it.