A few years back, Marshall Wyatt was perusing the used compact discs at Reader's Corner in Raleigh - something he does often, as a record collector and record-label magnate. Wyatt came across a compilation with a song by Teddy "Big Boy" Edwards, a Depression-era blues singer. Called "Who Did You Give My Barbecue To? - Part 1," it was a captivating little banjo-blues number from 1934.
That inspired Wyatt's newest album, songs about barbecue. The just-released "Barbecue Any Old Time: Blues From the Pit - 1927-1942" (Old Hat Records) offers two dozen succulent songs about the beloved Southern fare.
"I've always loved barbecue, of course, especially the Carolina variety, and that song got me started looking for more songs about barbecue," Wyatt says. "I found pretty much all of them. There actually aren't that many specifically about barbecue, but there are a ton of songs about meat - 'Smoked Meat Blues,' 'I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop,' 'Fat Meat Is Good Meat.' It's all compatible and fits together under the banner of barbecue."
"Barbecue Any Old Time" is the eighth release on Wyatt's Old Hat Records, a label that specializes in music from the old-time era. The new album shows the craft and fanatical attention to detail that Wyatt brings to all his projects, with extensive liner notes, credits and period photos vivid enough to make the mouth water.
When he was deciding on a track list, Wyatt considered broadening it to include country songs about barbecue. He didn't, for two reasons. First, most of the old hillbilly tunes about barbecue were more comedy skits set to music than songs. And second, they tended to be about cooking pigs over hickory logs and not much else.
Not just about food
"The black blues songs about barbecue tend to be more interesting because they're more metaphorical," Wyatt says. "They're about sex, food and other great pleasures of life. Most of these songs have a celebratory tone. A few don't; 'Smoked Meat Blues' is a lament. But they're mostly upbeat and revel in the joys of life. ... I also wanted to get variety - countrified blues, some more urban songs, jazz, some vaudeville. To me, it all kind of hangs together."
Raleigh native Wyatt is a collector and historian, and he can quote chapter and verse about every song and performer on the album. Of note is Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon, who appears twice. On the opening song "Down at Jaspers Bar-B-Que" (from 1928), Jaxon portrays a barbecue joint as a veritable Sodom of earthly pleasures in the agitated voice of a carnival barker. Later, on "Gimme a Pig's Foot and a Bottle of Beer," he sounds tired and worn out.
Other highlights include 1936's "Barbecue Bust" by the Mississippi Jook Band, which rollicks along powered by kazoo and piano; "Pigs' Feet and Slaw," a 1929 ragtime raveup by Tiny Parham; Durham blues icon Brownie McGhee's washboard-driven title track; and the minstrel-era "Ham Bone Am Sweet," updated for 1933 by The Four Southern Singers with the sort of harmony vocals that eventually turned into rhythm and blues.
Chicken songs next
Given the decline of the record industry, it's not surprising that Wyatt is looking into alternative sales venues. He's hoping to sell most of his copies at barbecue restaurants and festivals (the best place to order it now is his website, oldhatrecords.com). And it sets the stage for Wyatt's next Old Hat compilation, songs about chicken, which he hopes to release in 2012.
"There are so many chicken songs," he says. "It seems like a novelty, but they're musically amazing. Barbecue is like a religion throughout the South, so I'm hoping the barbecue community will buy this CD."