From the era of slavery to the first recording for a pop icon
Before the world knew him as David Bowie, a young singer-saxophone player named Davie Jones recorded his first single, “Liza Jane,” with his band The King Bees. The year: 1964. More than a hundred years earlier, enslaved people in Louisiana and Georgia sang “Li’l Liza Jane” as a work song or reprieve from labor at Saturday evening dances.
Country fiddlers played the tune in the moonshine hollers and hamlets of east Tennessee. The poet Carl Sandburg noted, “There are as many Liza songs in the Appalachian Mountains as there are species of trees on the slopes of that range.” While traveling minstrels may have introduced some versions of the tune, other renditions carry the melody of “Funga Alafia,” a West African song of welcome.
A sassy woman entices suitors from Baltimore to New Orleans
Sometimes Li’l Liza Jane is a poor gal. She isn’t always true to her man, turning him upside down and toward despair. A possum implores Liza to shake all the persimmons down. Some renditions employ salty or silly lyrics. By turns a black woman and a white woman, Liza Jane is frequently addressed by suitors who are swooning, frustrated, and heartbroken.
“Li’l Liza Jane” became an American standard: taught to children at music camps, sung by military units as cadence, and recorded by Nina Simone, Fats Domino, Art Neville, Duane Eddy, Little Richard, Pete Seeger, The Band, Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly, Ramsey Lewis, and many, many others. In New Orleans, Liza Jane is the prettiest girl ever seen. In Baltimore, the street car runs right by her door.
Extraordinary musicians premiere New interpretations of the tune
The insights of scholars, cultural icons, and lovable rabble will be joined by renowned musicians recording new interpretations of the song. Together, they will inhabit a joyful tune that has traversed three centuries and transcended geography, poverty, race, and musical genres.
Can this uniquely American anthem brighten a fractured country?