Salty Dog Blues
by Richard Matteson
One of the all-time bluegrass favorites is the song Salty Dog. The song is usually associated with the Morris Brothers 1938 "Let Me Be Your Salty Dog," which later became the bluegrass standard "Salty Dog Blues." If you're wondering where the song originates or even what a Salty Dog is you can look on-line and find some of the answers. Most sources online quote the excellent article on the Morris Brothers by Wayne Erbsen:
During the recording session in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the Morris Brothers recorded the song that was their all time hit-"Let Me Be Your Salty Dog." The song was written by Zeke in 1935, but both brothers arranged it. Wiley explained that "I have a different definition of a salty dog than Zeke has. Back when we were kids down in Old Fort we would see a girl we liked and say "I'd like to be her salty dog." There also used to be a drink you could get up in Michigan. All you had to do was say "Let me have a Salty Dog," and they'd pour you one." Zeke remembers that "I got the idea when we went to a little old honky tonk just outside of Canton which is in North Carolina. We went to play at a school out beyond Waynesville somewhere and we stopped at this place. They sold beer and had slot machines. At that time they were legal in North Carolina. We got in there after the show and got to drinking that beer and playing the slot machines with nickels, dimes and quarters. I think we hit three or four jackpots. Boy, here it would come! You know you had a pile of money when you had two handfuls of change. The name of that place was the "Salty Dog," and that's where I got the idea for the song. There's actually more verses to it than me and Wiley sing, a lot more verses." There is little doubt that "Salty Dog" is the most popular number the Morris Brothers ever recorded. According to Wiley, "It's considered a standard. Everybody uses it in the bluegrass field, just about. We're making more money off it now on copyright royalties than we ever did on our record, with other people using it. I reckon that song is known all over the world. When I get my statement every six months, it's being played in every nation under the sun. That song is even popular in Japan! 'Salty Dog' aint one that's gone up to high heaven and then fell completely down. It's just one that's considered a standard. It's our biggest song 'cause it's a good five string banjo number played bluegrass style."
Perhaps the key quote by Erbsen from Zeke is, "There's actually more verses to it than me and Wiley sing, a lot more verses." This certainly implies that it was a song they arranged. One popular country music group, The Allen Brothers recorded the song three times "Salty Dog Blues" (Columbia 1927); "A New Salty Dog" (Victor 1931) and "Salty Dog, Hey Hey Hey" (Vocalion 02818, 1934). To Lee Allen a salty dog was a “common person…who had a good time and did it in the wrong way.” Essentially the Allen’s played a one part song without a chorus:
“Come here, mama, what’s on your mind?
Daddy wants to love you but you won’t give him time
You ain’t nothin’ but a salty dog."
This is one reason the Morris Brothers initially titled their song "Let Me Be Your Salty Dog"- the song was already copyrighted by the Allen Brothers. Still the Allen Brothers did not record Salty Dog first. Their slightly off color lyrics are tame compared to blues singer Clara Smith’s 1926 recording “Salty Dog.” But her version credits Papa Charlie Jackson, Paramount 12236, Chicago, c. August 1924 and Jackson's also the basis for the Morris Bothers' song. Jackson also recorded it with Freddie Kappard and his Jazz Cardinals in 1926.
Here's Papa Charlie Jackson's chorus:
Won't you let me be your salty dog,
I don't wanta be your man at all,
Salty dog, you salty dog.
It's basically the same as the Morris Brothers:
Let me be your Salty Dog,
Or I won't be your man at all.
Honey let me be your salty dog.
SALTY DOG By Papa Charlie Jackson, Paramount 12236, Chicago, c. August 1924.
Lord, it ain't but the one thing grieve my mind,
All these women and none is mine.
CHORUS: Won't you let me be your salty dog,
I don't wanta be your man at all,
Salty dog, you salty dog.
Say, little fish, big fish, swimmin' in the water,
Come on back here, man, and gimme my quarter,
Says, if you gonna be a man, be a man like this,
Save yo' money for a pick'ney twist.
If you gonna be a man, be a man in full,
Hitch him to the wagon and make him pull,
Said, God made a woman, an' made her mighty funny,
Lips around her mouth, just sweet as any honey,
The Morris Brothers (Morris Brothers: Let Me Be Your Salty Dog) not only didn't write the chorus but many of their verses came from other songs. They were floating lyrics used in different songs:
1) I was standing on the corner with the low-down blues
Great big hole in the bottom of my shoes
Baby let me be your salty dog
2) I was down in wild wood sitting on a log
Finger on the trigger and eye on a hog
Honey let me be your salty dog
3) Now look here Sal I know you
Run down stocking and a worn-out shoe
Honey let me be your salty dog
4) I pulled the trigger and the gun said go
Shot fell over in Mexico
Honey let me be your salty dog.
Verses 1, 2 and 4 all are found in earlier blues lyrics with slightly different lyrics. Verse 2 was published by Howard Odum in 1911 and can be found in Frank stokes 1927 recording "You Shall (Be Free)." The Shout Mourner/You Shall Be Free songs use similar off color humorus lyrics which are also found in Salty Dog. The Morris chord progression for Salty Dog was also used by other performers, leaving the Morris version as an arrangement at best. During the 1920s and 30s many country performers claimed they wrote any song that they copyrighted. This was a customary practice because the royalties meant big money in some cases.
Papa Charlie Jackson's version appears to be directly from the African-American tradtion as similar versions were recorded by Mississippi John Hurt and Leadbelly. If anyone deserves credit for the song, it should be Jackson. Here's an explanation of the recording history by Richard Dress [note that Flatt & Scruggs recorded the song in 1950 for Mercury as "Old Salty Dog Blues" sung by fiddler Benny Simms]:
"Papa Charlie Jackson recorded this song for Paramount and for Broadway (as Casey Harris) in 1924 (crediting Charlie Jackson), Clara Smith for Columbia in 1926 as “Salty Dog” (crediting Charlie Jackson), Freddie Keppard’s Jazz Cardinals for Paramount in 1926 as “Salty Dog” (crediting Charlie Jackson), Chas Booker for Gennett in 1927 as “Salty Dog”, the McGee Brothers (Sam & Kirk) with Uncle Dave Macon for Vocalion in 1927, the Allen Brothers (Austin & Lee) for Columbia in 1927, the Booker Orchestra for Gennett in 1928, Oscar Craver (Byrd Moore) for Conqueror in 1928 in a medley, the Paramount Pickers for Paramount in 1928 as :”Salty Dog” (crediting Charlie Jackson), the Allen Brothers (Allen, Austin & Lee) for Victor/Montgomery Ward/Bluebird/RCA/His Master’s Voice in 1930 as “A New Salty Dog”--crediting Austin Allen (Document Records reissued it for the 2000 album Allen Brothers, Volume II), Salty Dog Sam (Collins) for Perfect/Banner/Oriole/Romeo in 1931 as “New Salty Dog”, the Stripling Brothers for Decca in 1934 as “Salty Dog”, the Allen Brothers again for Vocalion in 1934 as “Salty Dog Hey Hey Hey”, the Morris Brothers for Bluebird in 1938 as “Let Me be Your Salty Dog” and for RCA in 1945, and the Modern Mountaineers for RCA in 1946? as “New Salty Dog”. Under the title “Old Salty Dog Blues”, the lead singer was fiddler Benny Sims for this May 1952 Mercury release on a 78 rpm single (Mercury Records reissued the song for the 1958 Flatt & Scruggs album Country Music, Nashville for the 1970/1987 album Golden Hits of Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and for the 1974 album Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Collector’s Classics for the 1976 Flatt & Scruggs album The Vintage Years, Volume II, Time Life Records for the 1982 album Country and Western Classics: Flatt & Scruggs, Rounder Special Series for the 1985 Flatt & Scruggs album Mercury Sessions, Volume I, Deluxe for the 1986/1994 Flatt & Scruggs album 20 Greatest Hits, Mercury Nashville for the 1992 Flatt & Scruggs album The Complete Mercury Sessions and for the 2001 Flatt & Scruggs album The Millennium Collection: The Best of Flatt & Scruggs, Bear Family for the 1991 Flatt & Scruggs box set 1948-1959, Hollywood for the 1994 Flatt & Scruggs album Golden Years, Mercury for the 2001 album The Best of Flatt & Scruggs: The Millennium Collection and for the 2003 Flatt & Scruggs album The Complete Mercury Recordings, JSP Records for the 2003 compilation box set Selected Sides 1947-1953: The Very Best of Bluegrass, Proper Box for the 2004 box set Proper Introduction To Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, and Country Stars for the 2005 Flatt & Scruggs album Foggy Mountain Special). Both Sims and Scruggs worked for the Morris Brothers (Wiley & Zeke) who had already recorded it (see above). Vanguard Records released a version by the Morris Brothers, recorded in 1959, for the 1993 album Bluegrass At Newport. In 1987 Copper Creek Records released a live Stanley Brothers version, recorded in 1958. Lester Flatt, Earl Scrugs & the Foggy Mountain Boys recorded it again with Lester singing lead for their 1963 Columbia Records album Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs At Carnegie Hall (Sony/Columbia reissued that album in 1987 under the same title, Columbia reissued the song for the 1970 Flatt & Scruggs album 20 All-Time Great Recordings, Columbia for the 1973 albums The Best of Flatt & Scruggs and The World of Flatt & Scruggs, Bear Family Records for the 1992 Flatt & Scruggs box set 1959-1963, Koch Records for the 1998 Flatt & Scruggs album At Carnegie Hall, and Sony for the 2000 Flatt & Scruggs album Classics: 36 All-Time Greatest Hits). Columbia Records reissued it for the 1965 Flatt & Scruggs Harmony album Kings of Bluegrass (Volume II) and for the 1973 album The World of Flatt & Scruggs (Sony/Columbia reissued the album in 1987 under the same title) both as SALTY DOG BLUES. In 1986 the Sandy Hook label released a live version recorded in 1953 for their WSM Martha White Biscuit Time Show. Gusto Records reissued the song for the 1977 compilation Thirty Years of Bluegrass and for the 1978 compilation 20 Bluegrass Originals. Among many others, Mississippi John Hurt, the Blue Sky Boys, the Hall Brothers, Barrier Brothers, Elvin Rooks & the Blue Grass Ramblers, Curley Seckler, the Stanley Brothers, Mac Martin, Kingston Trio, Lamplighters, Rainbow Valley Boys, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne Brothers, Roy Clark, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Benny Martin & Josh Graves, Buck White, Jimmy Martin, Bill Emerson, Bill Keith & Jim Rooney, Lost City Mad Dogs, Bluegrass Band, Hal Wylie & Roger Sprung, Log Cabin Boys, Doug Dillard Band, Upland Express, David Grisman, Leon Morris, Bill Wells & Blue Ridge Mountain Grass, Alan Munde, Kentucky Mountain Boys, Smokey River Boys, Old School Bluegrass Band, and Mac Wiseman all recorded versions of this song."
What is a Salty Dog? Certainly in bluegrass circles is would be a "love interest" or a "sweetheart." According to Wiki a Salty Dog may refer to:
Salty dog (slang), a slang phrase with several meanings, including "an experienced sailor" and "a libidinous man"
Salty dog (cocktail), a drink made with vodka or gin and grapefruit juice
Salty Dog Blues, a traditional folk song
According to John Garst: "I think that I recall Ramblin' Jack Elliot, at a concert at the Ash Grove (LA) ca 1960, saying that a Salty Dog was something sold at the concessions on Coney Island, some sort of hot dog on a stick. If this is so, then you can take it from there."
Here's what Dave McKissack from Blacksburg Virginia found: With regard to the term "salty dog," the book "A Sometimes Westering Man" says that this term actually refers to a medicinal device used by some early frontier America communities, especially in the eastern Appalachian ranges. In the fall, during hog butchering season, small sausages or "dogs" were placed in a brine solution and left to soak until the winter cold arrived. At the onset of pneumonia or influenza in a community, these sausages, or "salty dogs" were heated and worn under the clothes, with women placing them inside the bodice or brassiere. It was believed that the combination of brine and hog fat was beneficial because the salt drew noxious vapors from the body while the hog fat insulated the body against cold temperatures.
According to banjo picker Jack Hatfield, "It don't mean nuthin', it's a novelty song." Whether a salty dog is hot dog on a stick, a sausage or it's just some floating lyrics based on an old blues song, I hope this article has given you some food for thought. I recently completed my painting of Salty Dog Blues with lyrics from Papa Charlie Jackson, the Morris Brothers and other sources.