or… I’ve Got Those Jake Leg,
Jake Walk, Limber Leg Blues.
By 1930 tincture of Jamaica Ginger had been around a long time. As early as the middle 1800s, essence of ginger root extracted into alcohol was an official product listed in the United States Pharmacopeia. Ginger extract was used for maladies such as dyspepsia (upset stomach, indigestion), runny nose and to promote menstrual flow… in some cases, especially dyspepsia, it was reasonably effective.
1920s era postcard:
Peeling harvested ginger in Jamaica
Much of the ginger was produced in Jamaica and imported to the US, where it was processed into a tincture by mixing five grams of ginger (powder or resin) per milliliter of alcohol… yielding a concoction with a minimum of 70% — to as much as 90% –- alcohol.
Extract of Jamaica Ginger – formulated to be taken a drop or two at a time – was, in effect, a bitter and unpalatable 160 proof drink, two ounces of which would contain the equivalent of four shots of whiskey. However, as long as alcohol beverages were readily available, there was no need to use Jamaica Ginger as an alcohol source or substitute.
1880s Jamaica Ginger trading card
(duck… 1880s slang for feeling good)
America goes dry, Jamaica Ginger helps meet the demand for alcohol:
This all changed in 1919 when, following the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the National Prohibition Act (aka the Volstead Act) was passed by Congress. This Act prohibited the manufacture and sale of beverages which contained alcohol — leaving one massive loophole… alcohol could be used in preparations which were designated for medicinal and other non-beverage uses.
Those with economic resources could readily find imported or bootleg alcohol to meet their needs, and those with fewer resources – but who lived in more rural settings – could depend on their needs being met by friends or family with a neighborhood whiskey still. This left others, especially the hard-core alcoholics among the urban and small-town poor, to find less savory alcohol-containing products, and they turned to what was available, including; Sterno (canned heat), shoe polish, perfumes, after-shaves and alcohol-based medications such as Jamaica Ginger extract (or jake, as it was known on the street).
Adulterated Jake; Medical Emergency:
In an effort to increase sales by making their product more palatable to the alcohol-seeking consumer, a number of producers of Jamaica Ginger extract sought to find ways to reduce the bitter taste of the product by reducing the amount of ginger and replacing it with a chemical which had similar properties and which would pass what meager inspection was being done by governmental agencies.
Initially, the adulterant of choice was caster oil… difficult to detect and tolerable to consume. But caster oil was not cheap and a residue could sometimes be detected in the neck of the bottle. Other chemicals were sought.
In 1928 two Boston brothers-in-law, Max Reisman and Harry Gross, petty criminals and bootleggers, set up a full-time business producing and wholesaling Jamaica Ginger extract; and almost from the beginning they sought ways to cut corners and maximize their profits. By mid-summer 1929 they were looking to replace the castor oil adulterant in their product, and after a good deal of trial and error … and black-market research, they settled on a chemical known as Lindol (or TCOP), a fuel additive and plasticizer used in paints. Lindol met their needs for being non-detectable, and was thought to be harmless, having been tested on monkeys and dogs with no ill effects to either of those species.
In January, 1930 Gross and Reisman bought enough Lindol to produce six hundred and forty thousand bottles of contaminated Jamaica Ginger. They shipped the tainted product within a month and the untoward effects of their crime became evident almost immediately.
In late February, 1930, patients began showing up in doctors offices and hospitals with an odd set of symptoms… they were initially seen in Oklahoma – but soon in scattered areas throughout the entire nation east of the Mississippi: Johnson City, Tennessee; Wichita, Cincinnati, Topeka, Mississippi, New England, Rhode Island. The number of impacted individuals is thought to be roughly 50,000 to 100,000, with many tens of thousands of cases of permanent paralysis.
Raised printing reads: F BROWN’S ESS OF JAMAICA GINGER PHILADA
The primary complaints included a numbness below the knees and foot-drop, or inability to use their feet. Dan Baum, in his 2003 article in The New Yorker describes it well: “The patient’s feet dangled like a marionette’s, so that walking involved swinging them forward and slapping them onto the floor.” This produced an exaggerated “zombie-like” shuffle and led to descriptions of the malady such as “jake walk,” and “jake leg. Some patients could not walk at all, others were similarly effected in their upper extremities. The other devastating symptom of jake poisoning was impotence… this symptom was almost universally termed “limber leg.”
The jake-poisoning symptoms, once acquired, were for the most part, life-long and improved only rarely, in a very few cases.
Jake Leg Walk at 78 rpm:
It is little wonder that the jake leg epidemic became fodder for the “event song” on 78 rpm records. Event songs were a common genre of vernacular music… a type of “newspaper of the air” that often told the stories of catastrophes such as train wrecks, murders, floods, wars, cyclones, epidemics, ship sinkings, kidnappings and the passing of celebrities such as Will Rogers or Rudolph Valentino.
Timeliness was important in event songs and the case of tainted Jamaica Ginger poisoning was no exception. In fact, the songs describing jake poisoning played an important informative role in spreading the news about tainted jake and limiting the epidemic.
Allen Brothers “Jake Walk Blues” was initially released on the Victor label in late spring or early summer of 1930, then released on Victor’s discount Bluebird label in 1933.
Although Jake had been mentioned as an intoxicant in song prior to the epidemic, the first post-poisoning 78 rpm jake leg song to hit a Victrola was Ishman Bracey’s “Jake Liquor Blues” on Paramount 12941, recorded in March or April of 1930, some sixty to ninety days after the first documented case of Jamaica Ginger extract poisoning.
That was quickly followed by the Allen Brothers Victor 40303 recording of “Jake Leg Blues” on the 5th of June, 1930 and Narmour & Smith’s recording of “Jake Leg Rag” and “Limber Neck Blues” on June 6th, 1930. The Mississippi Sheiks great “Jake Leg Blues” on Okeh followed on June 10th, 1930. Byrd Moore’s Gennett 17091 recording of “Jake Leg Blues” on September 7th, rounded out the first wave of 1930 recordings.
JAKE WALK BLUES, The Allen Brothers
Lyrics… Jake Walk Blues
The Allen Brothers
From the 1977
Stash ST-110 LP
JAKE WALK, LIMBER LEG DISCOGRAPHY
On 78 rpm:
- Whistler and His Jug Band: “Jail House Blues” (Sept. 25, 1924 Gennett 5614)
- Lemmuel Turner: “Jake Bottle Blues” (Feb. 9, 1928, Victor 40052). Instrumental
- Tommy Johnson: “Alcohol and Jake Blues” (December, 1929, Paramount 12950)
- Ishman Bracey: “Jake Liquor Blues” (Mar/Apr. 1930, Paramount 12941)
- Ray Brothers: “Jake Leg Wobble” (May 28, 1930, Victor 40291)
- Allen Brothers: “Jake Walk Blues” (June 5, 1930, Victor 40303)
- Narmour & Smith: “Jake Leg Rag” (June 6, 1930, Okeh 45469). Instrumental.
- Narmour & Smith: “Limber Neck Blues” (June 6, 1930, Okeh 45548). Instrumental.
- Mississippi Sheiks: “The Jake Leg Blues” (June 10,1930, Okeh 8939)
- Byrd Moore: “Jake Leg Blues” (Sept. 27, 1930, Gennett 17091)
- Ray Brothers: “Got That Jake Leg Too” (Nov. 21, 1930, Victor 23508)
- Gene Autry: “Bear Cat Papa Blues” (April 16, 1931, Conqueror 7838 – and many other labels)
- Dave McCarn & Howard Long: “Bay Rum Blues” (May 19, 1931, Victor 23566).
- Mississippi Sarah & Daddy Stovepipe: “Jake Leg Blues” (October 21,1931, Vocalion 1676)
- Asa Martin: “Jake Walk Papa” (April 5, 1933, Champion 16627)
- Willie Lofton: “Jake Leg Blues” (August 24, 1934, Decca 7076)
- Maynard Britton: “Jake Walk Blues” (1937, Library of Congress 1522)
- Maynard Britton: “Jake Leg Blues” (1937, Library of Congress 1524) [Britton is the only recording artist on this list to have been a victim of jake poisoning.]
- Lightning Hopkins: “Jake Head Boogie” (September, 1951, RPM 346)
- Black Ace: “Beer Drinkin’ Woman” (August 14, 1960, Arhoolie LP 1017). [this is on an LP and was not issued on 78 rpm]
“Jake Bottle Blues” Lemmuel Turner ~ “Jake Leg Wobble” The Ray Brothers
Two April 2012 additions to the Vernacular::Shellac archives.
The records look pretty beat up, but both play better than they appear… two nice instrumentals.
VALUE OF JAKE RELATED 78s:
The above 78s are all more or less valuable to collectors, owing, in part, to the subject matter and the inherent popularity of the recording artist, e.g. Tommy Johnson… as well as to the slow record sales during the Great Depression which severely limited phonograph record production and sales.
Per Jerry Osborne, author of the OFFICIAL PRICE GUIDE TO RECORDS, in his 11/3/2008 Q&A column “Ask Mr. Music”:
“All 16 of these 78s have significant value, though five are more pricey than the others:
Tommy Johnson – “Alcohol and Jake Blues” ($3,000)
Ishman Bracey – “Jake Liquor Blues” ($2,000)
Mississippi Sheiks – “The Jake Leg Blues” ($1,500)
Maynard Britton – “Jake Walk Blues”($1,000)
Maynard Britton – “Jake Leg Blues” ($1,000)
The remaining are in the $100 to $500 range.”
I would add that the average value of collectable 78s has increased significantly since Osborn’s 2008 Q&A column ..… by perhaps as much as 25% to 50% — or more.
The Autry and Hopkins 78s and the Black Ace LP, which Osborne did not mention, are significantly less valuable than the other 78s… they are perhaps in the $20 – $50 range.
JAKE ON LP/CD:
Now for the good news concerning jake song availability:
However, one song is conspicuous by its absence; Mississippi Sarah & Daddy Stovepipe’s: “Jake Leg Blues” (October 21,1931, Vocalion 1676). Not only is it not to be found on Stash-110, it does not appear to have been re-released in any medium and may not be available in any format today.
While the majority of these songs appear on CD reissue (especially in the Document catalog) The 1977 the Stash LP record is long out of print and has not, to my knowledge, been re-released on digital media.
78 rpm Jake Discography
from the 1977 Stash ST-110 LP insert
Jake and Woody:
Although I can find no evidence that he ever recorded a song about jake, Woody Guthrie had first hand experience with Jamaica Ginger extract. On pages 39 & 39 of Ramblin’ Man, Ed Cray’s excellent 2003 Guthrie biography, he relates that Woody moved to Pampa, Oklahoma in 1929 and took a night clerk position in a flophouse in the wide-open “Little Juarez” section of town, … and for spending money he took an additional job:
“At Art Huey’s outdoor root beer stand. Most often the root beer was laced with a vile and sometimes lethal potion known as “jake.” Woody lasted only long enough to sample the wares, get roaring drunk, and then be fired. Guthrie found a second job as a nominal soda jerk in ‘Shorty’ Harris’s purported drugstore in a tough part of town… Once again Guthrie was selling jake …at the soda fountain, in a Coca-Cola or a Nehi soda.”
And, per Cray’s footnote:
Guthrie would later write a Jake Walk blues that concluded:
Jamaica Ginger in a cold root beer
Make your eyes see double and your ear sound
It’ll paralyze your dindong too.
I’m a jake walk Daddy with the jake walk blues.
A text of the song is in the Guthrie Archive, Songs1, Box 2, Folder “J”
[To my knowledge, though Guthrie penned the lyrics, he never recorded the song – bb]
Jake and Elephants:
Although Woody does not make an appearance, a Woody Guthrie type character would have fit right into the great 2006 novel of Depression Era circus life, Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen.
One of Gruen’s important secondary characters is a man who’s circus name is Camel. Camel is a functioning alcoholic who would find his drink where he could and jake was one of his sources. One of the book’s plot lines has Camel falling victim to jake leg, and his handicap is such that the circus management can not tolerate his drag on their bottom line and he faces the danger of being tossed… (literally), off the circus train.
Jacob, the book’s main male character, is befriended by Camel early in the story and Camel is instrumental in Jacob’s getting a job with the circus. How Jacob supports and protects Camel after he succumbs to the ravages of jake poisoning reveals much about Jacob’s character.
It is obvious that Gruen did her homework. Jake first appears in the book when Camel offers Jacob a drink:
He passes me the bottle.
“What the hell is this?” I say, staring at the brackish liquid.
“It’s jake,” he says, snatching it back.
“you’re drinking extract?”
We sit in silence for a minute.
“Damn Prohibition,” Camel finally says. “This stuff used to taste just fine till the government decided it shouldn’t. Still gets the job done, but tastes like hell…”
Weeks later Jacob (who knows something about medicine) is called to Camel’s sick bed:
I make out Camel’s figure in the corner, huddled on a pile of feed sacks. I walk over and kneel down, “What’s up Camel?”
“I don’t rightly know, Jacob. I woke up a few days ago and my feet was all floppy. Jes’ can’t feel ‘em right.”
“Can you walk?”
“A bit. But I have to lift my knees real high ‘cuz my feet are so floppy.”
His voice drops to a whisper. “It ain’t just that, though,” he says. “It’s other stuff, too.”
“What other stuff?”
His eyes grow wide and fearful. “Man’s stuff. I can’t feel nothing… in front.”
Jacob’s bunkmate, the dwarf clown, Walter, is the more worldly wise of the two and has it figured out:
“…What are his symptoms?”
“Loss of feeling in his legs and arms, and… well, other stuff, too.”
“What other stuff?”
I glance downward. “You know…”
“Aw, shit, says Walter. He sits upright. “That’s what I thought. You don’t need a doctor. He’s got jake leg.”
“He’s got what?”
“Jake leg. Jake walk. Limber leg. Whatever – it’s all the same thing.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Someone made a big batch of bad jake – put plasticizers in it or something. It went out all over the country. One bad bottle, and you’re done for…”
There’s a good deal more jake related information and action to follow, and if you’ve not yet read Water for Elephants, do yourself a favor… it’s a great story and Gruen does a terrific job of capturing life on the fringes during the Great Depression, and of weaving the jake leg story into the heart of vernacular America.
Dr. Morgan, pharmaco-ethnomusicologist:
In doing research for this posting, I would like to give all due credit to the late Dr. John Morgan, lover of early American vernacular music and tireless investigator of the jake leg tragedy and its relationship to blues and hillbilly tunes released on 78 rpm records.
Dr. Morgan was a professor at the City University of New York Medical School who, over thirty-plus years, collected the known 78 rpm releases which document the jake leg epidemic of 1930 – 1931. In addition, he researched the epidemic itself and met with a number of the survivors of Jamaica Ginger poisoning.
Morgan’s research was well documented in a great September, 2003 New Yorker article written by Dan Baum: “Jake Leg, How The Blues Diagnosed a Medical Mystery.”
The fine print:
Images and media content: The large majority of images and media content are from my personal collection, these are noted with a “/bb“ at the end of the title when hovering over the image.
Other images and/or media content are deemed “open access” and will be duly credited whenever it is possible. Notice of copyright protection in any Vernacular::Shellac blog does not and will not apply to open access images or media. If I have used any images or content that is copyright protected, please advise and appropriate credit will be given. All Vernacular::Shellac content, excepting that excluded above, is ©2011 by Bill Boslaugh
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