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Jelly Roll Morton Complete Library of Congress Recordings

1. “The Murder Ballad” (recorded summer 1938; available on The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax, Rounder, 2005)

There are days when I think that Morton’s 30-minute song novella, “The Murder Ballad,” from the Library of Congress sessions with Lomax, is the jazz recording I’d most recommend to a being visiting from another galaxy. To him/her/them/it, I would say, “We are human, and this is what we sometimes do to each other, but this song is also what we can do as humans—or some can, anyway.” Yes, roughhouse language like that deployed in this murderous epic was around in the 1930s, though not a lot of people featured it for posterity. But when we talk about the all-time long cuts—Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” whatever your preferred version of the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” is, the Beatles’ infamous vamp on “Helter Skelter”—we must pay respect to the man who did it first and conceivably best. Simple question: What have you ever heard that is vaguely like this? Terrifying, ribald, raw, evocative, cunning, cutting, and loaded with so much straight-up Jelly Roll. When introducing it to that imagined alien, I might add, “This fellow invented jazz,” as plain as I might say, “We breathe oxygen.”