Bully of the Town

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BULLY OF THE TOWN. Old-Time, Country Rag and Song Tune. USA; Georgia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, Arizona, Missouri, northeast Tenn. G Major. Standard tuning. AABB. The song "Bully of the Town" was originally written by Charles E. Trevathan (a southern sports writer, horse judge and amateur musician) in 1895 for the stage show "The Widow Jones" which opened at the Bijou Theater, New York City that September. It was sung in the production by Trevathan's girl-friend, May Irwin. "Bully of the Town" is mentioned as one of the frequently played tunes in a 1931 account of a LaFollette, northeast Tennessee fiddlers' contest. The Skillet Lickers (in the configuration of Gid Tanner and Clayton McMichen on fiddles, Riley Pucket on guitar and vocals, and Fate Norris on banjo) recorded the song in Atlanta on April 17th, 1926, one of eight sides for Columbia records. Wayne W. Daniel (in his book Pickin' on Peachtree: A History of Country Music in Atlanta, Georgia, 1990) opines: "The output from this historic recording session makes for a rather unimpressive list of what even there were long-familiar tunes and songs: "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane," "Bully of the Town," "Pass around the Bottle and We'll All Take a Drink," "Alabama Jubilee," "Watermelon on the Vine," "Don't You Hear Jerusalem Moan," "Ya Gotta Quit Kickin' My Dog Aroun'," and "Turkey in the Straw."" Musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph recorded the tune from Ozark Mountain fiddlers for the Library of Congress in the early 1940's. It was also in the repertoire of fiddler Tommy Magness (1911-1972), born in north Georgia near the southeastern Tennessee border.

Blues researcher John Garst convincingly finds that the song "Bully of the Town" was developed from an earlier blues ballad called "Ella Speed," based on a real-life incident in New Orleans in the middle years of the "Gay 90's." Garst relates that in September, 1894, Ella was a twenty-eight year old black or mullato prostitute living in a "sporting house" on what is now Iberville Street in the French Quarter. She was the object of the obsessive attentions of Louis "Bull" Martin or Martini, a bartending white Italian-American whom she had met several months previously at another establishment, and who wanted to set her up in an apartment as his mistress, a not uncommon arrangement at the time. Ella, however was lukewarm to him-she liked his money, but didn't care much for the man-and at any rate, she already had a husband, one Willie Speed. Louis was a bully who had been arrested and tried on three separate occasions on assault and battery charges, and who at the time of the murder was wanted by the constable for yet another brutal beating, that of an elderly black man near his place of work. Louis reportedly became enraged at the thought that she might be fond of another man (whether Willie or not). One night, after a day spent recreating, dining and drinking, they returned late to the bordello in which she was staying and, feeling the effects of their partying, retired at around 2:00 AM. The next time Ella was seen was in the morning when she screamed and emerged from her second story room, saying "Help me, Miss Pauline!, Louis shot me!" She collapsed in the hallway, just as the onrushing Madame spied Louis in the doorway, holding a smoking pistol. Louis disappeared, and soon a deputy arrived followed by an ambulance; but too late, for Ella had been shot through the breast with the bullet piecing her heart, left lung and liver, from which wounds she soon bleed to death.

A manhunt was raised to find Louis, who after a day turned himself in at the residence of a police Captain. He was arrested, held and charged with murder. After a trial a jury found him guilty of manslaughter, despite Louis's claim the shooting was an accident, and if Louis had counted on getting off easy with the reduced finding he was mistaken, for Judge John H. Ferguson (originally from Massachusetts) sentenced him to twenty years in prison, which Garst says was a stiff sentence for the time.

Garst thinks that the song "Ella Speed" appeared soon after the initial shooting and was based on newspaper accounts. "Ella Speed" appears in the collected papers of John A. Lomax (in a Texas version from 1909) and Carl Sandburg included it in his volume American Songbag (1927). Under the title "Bill Martin and Ella Speed," it was recorded several times by Leadbelly between 1933 and 1950, and in fact was recorded by several blues performers, including Mance Lipscomb, Tom Shaw, Tricky Same, Finious Rockmore, Lightnin' Hopkins and Jewel Long (as researched by John Cowley). Garst bases his hypothesis that "Ella Speed" was the model for "Bully of the Town" on three points: 1) the fact that "Bully" appeared a year or two after the "Ella" song, 2) the fact that Louis was a bully and the subject of a massive police hunt, as intimated in both songs, and 3) the similarity between the melodies of "Ella" and "Bully." He believes Trevathan heard "Ella Speed" from a black musician friend named Cooley, and that Trevathan substantially rewrote it, ending up with "Bully of the Town" (Trevathan gave several accounts of how he came to write the song).

Source for notated version:

Printed sources: Phillips (Traditional American Fiddle Tunes, vol. 2), 1995; p. 26. Ruth (Pioneer Western Folk Tunes), 1948; No. 96, p. 34.

Recorded sources: County 526, "The Skillet Lickers, vol. 1" (1973. Orig. rec. 1926). Gennett 6447 (78 RPM), 1928, Tweedy Brothers (W.Va. brothers Harry, Charles, and George who played twin fiddles and piano). Jim Martin Productions JMP201, Gerry Milnes (et al) - "Gandydancer." Marimac 9017, Vesta Johnson (Mo.) - "Down Home Rag." Rounder Records, Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers - "The Kickapoo Medicine Show" (appears as the 4th tune of the Kickapoo Medecine Show skit). Tradition TLP 1007, Etta Baker - "Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians" (1956).




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