Jake Leg

“Jake Leg,” by Dan Baum.  The New Yorker, 9/15/2003.

I was talking with my neighbor, a young woman who was walking her dog, Jake. I told her “Jake” was an easy name to remember because a well-known blues song is The Jake Leg Blues. She had never heard of jake leg, so I educated her:

“Jake” was a commercial Jamaican ginger extract with a ridiculously high alcohol content which men drank during prohibition, and especially white men. They had done this for years with no problem, but in 1930 the manufacturer added an adulterant to get around the Treasury Department’s new rules on solids content.  The adulterant, tricresyl phosphate, was later found to be toxic to the spinal cord, producing a characteristic high-stepping, foot-slapping walk that quickly became known as the “jake-walk” or the “jake-leg.”

It has been estimated some 50,000 men were affected, but exact numbers were never available because the white, middle aged men who were drinking jake were embarrassed by the habit and hid their condition. In a few cases, the effects were temporary, but most victims lived with their condition for the rest of their lives.

Why this was just a white-man’s affliction is a mystery, but it is thought black men of that time had other sources of cheap, illicit alcohol. Blacks did write songs about it, and perhaps more had the condition than was thought. There are several performances of the song online, but none are intelligible.  One set of lyrics goes:

You thought the lively man would die,
When you made the country dry,
When you made it so, that he could not get,
Not another drop of rye,
But I know that you will feel bad,
When you see what he have had,
When you see him coming with a lot of dough,
If you listen I will tell you so.

Oh well, it’s here he comes, I mean to tell you here he comes,
He’s got those jake limber leg blues
Here he comes, I mean to tell you, here he comes
He’s got those jake limber leg blues

When you see him coming, I am going to tell you,
If you sell him jake, you’d better give him a crutch too,
Oh well, it’s here he comes, I mean to tell you, here he comes
He’s got those jake limber leg blues, oh step on it.

Oh well, it’s here he comes, I mean to tell you here he comes,
He’s got those jake limber leg blues,
Here he comes, I mean to tell you, here he comes,
He’s got those jake limber leg blues.

He could be named Charley, and he could be named Ned,
But if he drank this jake, it will give him the limber leg,
Oh well, it’s here he comes, I mean to tell you here he comes,
He’s got those jake limber leg blues.

Another version makes more sense:

I can’t eat, I can’t talk
Been drinkin’ mean jake, Lord, now can’t walk
Ain’t got nothin’ now to lose
Cause I’m a jake walkin’ papa with the
jake walk blues.

(A woman sings)
Listen here papa, can’t you see
You can’t drink jake, and get along with me
You’re a jake walkin’ papa with the jake walk blues
I’m a red hot mama that you can’t afford to lose.
Listen here daddy, while I tell you once more
If you’re gonna drink jake don’t you knock at my door.

(The man replies)
Listen here mama have to call your hand
I’m a jake walkin’ papa from jake walk land.
I’m not good lookin’ and I’m not low down
I’m a jake walkin’ papa just hangin’ around

Now I’ve made this song and it may not rhyme,
But I’m a jake walkin’ papa just havin’ a good time.
My daddy was a gambler and a drunkard, too.
If he was living today he’d have the jake walk too.
When I die you can have my hand
Gonna take a bottle of jake to the promised land.

Spoken:
Now I’m feelin’ kinda drunk, brother
Be a wearin’ jake socks after awhile
You know they call them iron socks
You know, I bet you don’t know one from the other,
Brother, which is the other?

What are “iron socks?”  I couldn’t find anything on them, but I suspect some sort of metal orthopedic boot to hold the foot in position.  The condition today would be called foot-drop that has many other causes.  The victim with a dangling foot, has to lift their leg higher than normal, fling the foot forward, and bring it down quickly to get it to land flat.  A lightweight plastic brace would be used today, but it does not cure.  That all sounds like jake leg to me.

RWalck@Verizon.net (a jake walkin’ papa with the jake walk blues)

 

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About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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