Jelly Roll Blues

Censored Songs and Hidden Histories


By Elijah Wald

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A bestselling music historian follows Jelly Roll Morton on a journey through the hidden worlds and forbidden songs of early blues and jazz.

In Jelly Roll Blues: Censored Songs and Hidden Histories, Elijah Wald takes readers on a journey into the hidden and censored world of early blues and jazz, guided by the legendary New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Morton became nationally famous as a composer and bandleader in the 1920s, but got his start twenty years earlier, entertaining customers in the city’s famous bordellos and singing rough blues in Gulf Coast honky-tonks. He recorded an oral history of that time in 1938, but the most distinctive songs were hidden away for over fifty years, because the language and themes were as wild and raunchy as anything in gangsta rap. 

Those songs inspired Wald to explore how much other history had been locked away and censored, and this book is the result of that quest. Full of previously unpublished lyrics and stories, it paints a new and surprising picture of the dawn of American popular music, when jazz and blues were still the private, after-hours music of the Black "sporting world." It gives new insight into familiar figures like Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong, and introduces forgotten characters like Ready Money, the New Orleans sex worker and pickpocket who ended up owning one of the largest Black hotels on the West Coast.

Revelatory and fascinating, these songs and stories provide an alternate view of Black culture at the turn of the twentieth century, when a new generation was shaping lives their parents could not have imagined and art that transformed popular culture around the world—the birth of a joyous, angry, desperate, loving, and ferociously funny tradition that resurfaced in hip-hop and continues to inspire young artists in a new millennium.

  • “I grew up on the old blues: heard it, felt it, danced to it, but a lot of people didn’t hear the real stuff, because somebody else was controlling the narrative. This book is searching out those voices, keeping them from being lost, and helping to transfer that ancestral information to a new generation.”
    Taj Mahal
  • “Elijah Wald has done it again. Both a compelling study of blues pioneer and musical genius Jelly Roll Morton's roots and song craft as well as a meticulously researched history of early twentieth-century, ostensibly ‘taboo’ popular music culture, Jelly Roll Blues offers a clear-eyed exploration of Black modernist era vernacular music that pushed the boundaries of social propriety. This is a book that takes seriously graphic forms of cultural expression as articulations of human desire and as complex manifestations of social and economic lifeworlds shaped by racial and gender pressures and inequalities. A deft archival historian, Wald continues to challenge and expand what we know as well as what we think we know about the early blues.”
    Daphne Brooks, professor of African American Studies, American Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Music at Yale University and author of Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound
  • "This book is riveting. Elijah Wald brings the world of the New Orleans demi-monde to raucous life through his excavation of the censored lyrics of early jazz and blues. Moreover, in showing how women participated in this musical culture—as musicians in their own right, audience participants, and prostitutes enjoying some leisure time after hours—he reveals a world scarcely glimpsed before and all but erased from history. What Wald recovers here borders on the miraculous."
    Emily Landau, author of Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans
  • "Wald’s book is a fascinating exploration of the lyrics, dances and performances of early 20th century Black Americans, much of which has been buried in libraries and archives. He masterfully connects jazz to contemporary popular music, relates the struggles of Black performers, examines the changing standards for censoring popular culture, and adds to the epic that was Jelly Roll Morton’s life.  Essential reading."
    John Szwed, author of Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World and historical notes for Jelly Roll Morton: The Library of Congress Recordings
  • “Elijah Wald is one of our most skilled and affable guides to the hidden, governing currents within the long stream of American music, and with Jelly Roll Blues he navigates one of the most important: the erotic, provocative, and just plain dirty songs at the heart of jazz and blues. With Jelly Roll Morton's legendary 1939 interviews with folklorist Alan Lomax at the center, this book travels into the heart of the sporting life, vividly recounting a time when working women and dandyish men invented a musical language that not only celebrated life's greatest pleasures but told truths that other art forms were too tame to touch. A hot and essential read.”
    Ann Powers, NPR Music Critic and author of Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music
  • "Elijah Wald’s latest excavation of American popular culture reminds us that music is meant to reflect life as it is, despite the genteel aspirations of commercial window-dressers who seek to protect the public from itself. Jelly Roll Blues gives by far the most realistic and satisfying account of Morton’s cultural environment to date, while also revealing the importance of cultural networks that operated beneath the commercial mainstream. Highly recommended."
    Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator emeritus, Hogan Archive of New Orleans Music and Jazz, Tulane University
  • “Elijah Wald’s incisive, deeply researched, and hugely entertaining new book reminds us of the power of stories and storytelling to both shape and illuminate worlds, and what is lost when those narratives are disrupted. Using Jelly Roll Morton’s fascinating 1938 Library of Congress musical memoir as a jumping off point, and through his careful engagement with previously censored lyrics and obscured lives, Wald invites us on an important journey toward correcting incomplete historical accounts of early blues and jazz.”
    Kimberly Mack, associate professor of English at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and author of Fictional Blues: Narrative Self-Invention from Bessie Smith to Jack White
  • "I enjoyed Jelly Roll Blues immensely. Whatever one’s estimate of Morton’s importance and credibility, there is no doubt about his ability to be in interesting places at interesting times, doing interesting things. Wald guides the reader round that world with admirable clarity. For blues enthusiasts, some of his observations about the history and origins of the form will be required reading.”
    Tony Russell, author of The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray and Rural Rhythm
  • A pleasing—and often pleasingly salacious—stroll through the annals of American popular music… An illuminating, deeply researched study of roots music…”
  • “Deep and detailed… a very important piece of music journalism and scholarship.”
    Houston Press
  • “[A] magnificent, raunchy exploration of early blues lyrics…  reminds us that life always was, is and will be funky…. Today we have rap, often in language that Jelly Roll Morton would have been right at home with…. Most mainstream art is proper. But if the blues were proper, it wouldn’t be the blues.”
    Wall Street Journal
  • “One of the most illuminating music writers working today… Wald seeks not only to reconstruct a little-known body of music, but to explore and reveal the social world out of which that music came…. Jelly Roll Bluesenriches our sense of how the world used to sound… and should appeal to any readers who want to deepen their knowledge of the foundations of American music…. truly virtuosic.”
    Boston Globe
  • "An insightful explication of how blues songs were hidden and censored, with a revelatory oral history."
    Library Journal
  • “The amount of time-consuming research in presenting this book must have been legion by Elijah Wald. Its comprehensive cataloguing and annotating the cross currents of bawdy blues, ragtime, and jazz lyrics made this a read that will bring a smile to your face, a snicker to your lips, and fill the hard drive of your memory with words and phrases heretofore unknown to you. Wald’s command of the English language is also quite impressive, and his brilliance shines through…”
    Blues Music Online
  • “Wald provides an enormous amount of context to try and explain the possible geneses of songs. In the process, he gives us an in-depth view of life in New Orleans and other cities like St. Louis with large black communities…If you have the desire to take a leap into the sporting world of bawds, hustlers, ‘censored songs and hidden histories,’ look no further than this authoritative book.”
    Syncopated Times
  • “The author stitches together a dizzying amount of detail on Morton and other blues and jazz musicians, though he’s careful to acknowledge the missing “voices that have been censored and suppressed” due to preservation issues, discrimination, and omission. It’s a riveting deep dive into two great American art forms.” 
    Publisher's Weekly
  • “Excellent… Wald’s book .. . is crammed with insight and exegesis of famous blues charts and their moveable lyrics, no less than with portraits of the famous, infamous and obscure characters associated with them. Exposition of the crude and, to some, unspeakable, coupled with the lifestyles it reflected, offers the reader jazz as refreshing musico-social history from the perspective of the bawdy, the earthy and the racially complex.”
    Jazz Journal
  • "A worthwhile and enjoyable read."
    Americana UK
  • “[Jelly Roll Blues] uncovers a lost continent of working-class culture long suppressed by musicologists and historians as too ribald, earthy and obscene for public dissemination.” 
    Mission Local
  • “While there are many books on early jazz/blues, Wald’s ability to think laterally and research beyond obvious sources means he links what Morton and contemporaries were singing of with other African diaspora communities (in Cuba, Trinidad, Brazil, etc.) while noticing how certain dirty rhymes reach back to fold ballads the likes of Robert Burns recorded… Jelly Roll Blues is… a book that provides much to think about alongside a potted, contemporary biography of Morton, one of the pivotal figures in early modern American popular music.”

On Sale
Apr 2, 2024
Page Count
352 pages
Hachette Books

Elijah Wald

About the Author

Elijah Wald is a musician and author of over a dozen books, including Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the BluesThe Dozens: A History of Rap’s MamaHow the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of Popular Music, and the bestselling Dylan Goes Electric! He has a PhD in ethnomusicology and sociolinguistics and a Grammy for production and liner notes. He lives in Philadelphia.

Learn more about this author