A Postage Stamp of Jelly Roll Morton

Licked By All 2:
A Postage Stamp of Jelly Roll Morton

by Stuart Broomer
Copyright © 1996, 1998 Stuart Broomer

In a recent piece (Coda 264, p. 31) I was critical of the U.S. Postal Service for its handling of the 1994 blues stamps, for erasing a cigarette from Robert Johnson's mouth and for perhaps omitting Blind Lemon Jefferson because of his name. My complaint still stands: you can't commemorate the past while bowdlerizing it. It would be petty, however, to withhold praise where it is due, and the Postal Service deserves credit for the quality, and even the bravery, of the 1995 32 cent jazz stamps. It's an important event not just for jazz history but for the postage stamp as well. In a singular gesture the Postal Service has broken with its own censorious past and liberated the stamp from its long thrall to the Victorian age that gave it birth.

In many ways the stamp of Jelly Roll Morton completes the iconography of the stamp, which now becomes a monument to its own oral fixation - or perhaps, fixative (the psychohistory of the post office: it erases Johnson's cigarette because it wishes to monopolize orality). Morton's business card declared him the inventor of jazz, blues and ragtime. He was a man who marked himself for greatness, so it's entirely fitting that he should somehow complete that history. Fax machines, e-mail, private carriers, and government cutbacks may soon end the postage stamp as we've known it, the smallest and most intimate of stateemblems. It will carry on only in a composite picture of old world orders for collectors, but the Morton stamp has made that picture more comprehensive, and more interesting as well.

What makes the stamp so special is that name "Jelly Roll," that archaic linguistic wedding of sex and sweet baked goods. The term became widespread with the dispersal of jazz and blues recordings in the twenties. Ma Rainey sang "My man says sissy's got good jelly roll" in 1926. In 1927 Peg Leg Howell sang "I never been to church and I never been to school,/ Come down to jelly, I'm a jelly-rollin' fool." By 1936 the term was almost domesticated in "New Jelly Roll Blues" when white country singer Al Dexter sang "Now we are married, I get jelly all the time."

The term had already entered American literature, however opaque the context, in Gertrude Stein's novella of black life, "Melanctha," written in 1906 and published, in Three Lives, in 1909. When Melanctha Herbert wanders the streets, a workman calls out to her. "'Heh, Sis, look out or that rock will fall on you and smash you all up into little pieces. Do you think you would make a nice jelly?' And then they would all laugh and feel that their jokes were very funny." Here the inference is less plain than it was to become, but the men's laughter is prompted by the double entendre.

Stein knew something about American black language, knowledge gleaned from work with the poor in Baltimore and Boston. She also knew something about the post office, including Anthony Comstock among the characters in her opera The Mother of Us All. Building on his power base in the New York YMCA, Comstock worked as a special unpaid postal inspector in the late nineteenth century. In addition to old masters' nudes and an occasional Tolstoy novel, he targetted the then inter-related themes of free love, contraception, and women's suffrage, destroying mail and having offenders prosecuted.

Unfortunately, the newly enlightened attitude of the Postal Service is not universal: as one government agency celebrates Morton, another continues to suppress his work. When Morton recorded for the Library of Congress, he included a collection of bawdy songs. Paul Oliver, writing in 1991 (in the notes to Raunchy Business: Hot Nuts and Lollipops, Columbia/Legacy), noted that the Library had taken years even to list the titles among its holdings and had never issued the recordings.

Still, the Postal Service has found a way to put a name for sexual intercourse and genitalia on a stamp. Had someone else, less powerful, thought of such a ribald object in a more prudish past or future, it might have been banned from the mails. Now, with the Postal Service's imprimatur, it can be used to send other things. Some might wish, however, that Tipper Gore would take steps to have a parental advisory label added.

This article first appeared in Coda: The Journal of Jazz and Improvised Music, Issue 267, May/June 1996.

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