Friday, January 28, 2011

I want a big butter and eggs man

A big butter and eggs man is a “small time big shot,” as Laurence Bergreen has it,[i] and the way Louis Armstrong sings it, the lyrics’ plea is even more obvious. Listen to "I want a big butter and eggs man"—it's at the end of this post.

“I’m your big butter and egg man, but I’m different honey, I’m from way down South…now listen, baby, I’ll buy you all the pretty things that you think you need, as long as I can keep this cornet up to my mouth. Oh, I’ll play you a little butter and cheese, and if you say please, I’ll even hit high C’s. Cause I’m your butter and egg man. Come here baby, kiss me! Big butter and egg man from way down in the South!”

Armstrong recorded "Big Butter and Eggs" in Chicago in November 1926 with his Hot Five, Louis on cornet and singing the vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodd, clarinet; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo…and May Alix, vocal. It’s all that business with May Alix that slathers the butter on the eggs. Earl Hines’s recollection of the moment was that Louis was smitten by May and lost it every time he looked at her. ”He didn’t know whether to sit down, stand up, or what,” said Hines, observing from the piano, “but May got a kick out it and had fun with him, and whole house cracked up.” In subsequent performances, May tried her best to coax the lyrics out of him. She would sing out, “I want a butter-and-egg man” and wrap her arms around him, as he visibly melted, and “everybody in the band would get up and shout, ‘Hold it, Louis! Hold it’.”[ii]

Now I’m in one of those sticking places….sources conflict on the pianist on this recording. It would have to be Hines if this story is “true,” but Dan Morgenstern’s liner notes for Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, name Lil Hardin as the pianist. Louis and Lil’s marriage had hit the skids but she might be playing piano with The Hot Five on this recording. I keep telling myself all the nitty gritty fact checking isn’t essential, but when I hit discrepancies in sources, I’d like to know. One way or the other, I can’t leave out the May Alix story.

The vocal performance is vaudeville but the music is something else and many have made a big deal about Louis’s cornet here. Morgenstern writes “he constructs a cornet chorus that is sublime, from the initial triple call through the supremely relaxed reinvention of the melody”.[iii] Lawrence Gushee analyzes the “particularly effective uses of Armstrong’s practice of displacing phrases an octave down, and of embedding the pitches of the original melody in a long descending line with both a prefix and a suffix.”[iv]

So now you’ve listened to the song, but there’s more to this story. I found a different Butter and Eggs (no man) about a year ago when I was deep in Elizabeth Bishop’s poems. In “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” she mentions the wildflower:

Enter the Narrows at St. Johns
the touching bleat of goats reached to the ship.
We glimpsed them, reddish, leaping up the cliffs
among the fog-soaked weeds and butter-and-eggs.

I’d never run across this wildflower. It’s common I was told. Most everyone around here can identify it blooming along roadsides midsummer on. I started looking too early and was sorely discouraged. Then one day in July I went out for a bike ride and saw drifts of them along the road that follows Lake Cossayuna. They’re stunning, the orange almost buried in the pale yellow cups. Late August I was shocked to see them volunteering in my garden. I wonder how many years they’d been springing up behind the garage to my blind eyes.

Back to the BIG butter and eggs man. After finding the song, ferreting around in search engines, Bob Dylan’s lyrics in “The Levee’s Gonna Break” also showed up:

I woke up this morning butter and eggs in my bed
I ain’t got enough room to even raise my head.

Here’s a poem for the day:

Linaria vulgaria

Her life in her hands,
it was hers, after all.
Take names, she said,
they set meaning’s course,
their renegade crossings.

Her life in her hands,
days she handled it
like butter-and-eggs
careening along
roadsides among
goats, fog-soaked weeds.

Her life in her hands.
She went for a guide,
Peterson would do:
from across the sea
they came unseen as seeds.

Sown at seaports
along railroad tracks
riding buses deep down south.
Non-natives or native,
she needed to find them,
her life in her hands.

In a matter of time
they opened wide out,
deep-throated orange uvulas
dropped in lemon petals,
her life in her hands.

No matter. Turns out
wildflowers small part
in the heart of it.
Her life in her hands,
big butter and egg man,
he could handle it.

She learned to say please,
laugh aloud at high C’s,
butter and eggs deep
down under her skin,
her life in his hands.

She woke, no room
for her head, butter
and eggs filled her bed.
Pretty things, pretty flowers.
All the same she said.

Her life in her hands.

[i] Laurence Bergreen, Louis Armstrong: an Extravagant Life, (Broadway Books: New York, 1997), 289.
[ii] Bergreen quoting Stanley Dance, “Earl Hines Remembers Louis,” Village Voice, July 4, 1977.
[iii] Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Notes, 16.
[iv] Lawrence Gushee, “The Improvisation of Louis Armstrong,” In the Course of Performance, Bruno Nettl with Melinda Russell, eds., Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998, 291.



  1. Butter and eggs reminds me of a difference between the cornet and the trumpet. They differ in timbre (the quality of the music note or sound.) The trumpet is often used in fanfares for its bright and cutting sound. The cornet is mellow, round, like most conical instruments. The piping of a conical instrument gets bigger and bigger as it reaches the bell, a little bit like the shape of butter and eggs. And yet butter and eggs is like the delicate throw-away (the flower you never noticed) and in the song it is the hardy stick-around.

  2. One more thing: and why I seem obsessed with timbre (it is something that comes up in conversation more often than I would like to admit)
    A conversation with Patrice Malatestinic, a horn player (conical) and me, a trombone player (cylindrical)
    The mellow (french horn) and the bright (trombone)

    Patrice talked about the vibrations that meet the body and make it feel right. Recently I had heard that the vibration of a cat's purr helps it regrow bone. I don't know if this is true but I want to think it is.
    Patrice talks about horn playing that sounds like a banshee and how it drives her crazy. I agree but with a criticism of a certain famous trombone player who has an abrasive sound.
    We agree that we are both looking for a specific sound. And we both know what it is when we hear it or play it.