Why Don’t You Do Right?

“Why don’t you do right?” a pop standard with blues overtones, was written in 1936 by the black bluesman Kansas Joe McCoy. Curiously, it was first recorded as “The Weed Smoker’s Dream” by McCoy’s band, the Harlem Hamfats.

The classic version is by Peggy Lee, which she performs here with Benny Goodman and his band.  She doesn’t get to sing the whole song (go here for a full performance), but Goodman, as usual, wails on the clarinet.

The Wikipedia description of the song is pretty funny, as it’s absolutely straightfaced:

The song tells the narrative of a woman who is complaining about her partner’s apparent financial insolvency. She states that he was financially well off in 1922, but now has nothing. She claims it is because he wasted it on other women, and that these lovers will no longer show any interest in him now that he’s poor. She claims that he tricked her into a relationship where all he has to offer her is ‘a drink of gin’. She ends each verse asking why the man doesn’t ‘do right’ by her, and then throws him out, insisting that he go earn a living in order to support her.

You might remember that Jessica Rabbit did a steaming animated version of the song in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Hard to believe that pathbreaking movie is now 23 years old!


  1. Posted December 7, 2011 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    Benny Goodman’s music wins out for me, but Amy Irving’s Jessica Rabbit still has me drooling; but then so does Kathleen Turner’s smoky Jessica Rabbit talking voice.

  2. Posted December 7, 2011 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    But then, for those of a slightly different taste…

    • Posted December 7, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

      My dad used to play his big-band records every Sunday morning, so I used to wake up to this kind of music while I was a teenager. Your posts over the past year or so have rekindled my interest – swing is quite unlike the other stuff I have in my iTunes library! I find I like Benny Goodman in particular – although my dad was a huge Glenn Miller fan. (I wish he were still alive to argue about it!) So, thanks Jerry.


  3. Dominic
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    You could give an evolutionary/sexual selection interpretation of the people in the song!

  4. steve oberski
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    And “Who Killed Roger Rabbit?” was spot on about the collusion between the auto industry and politicians that killed urban transit systems in US cities.

  5. Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    That’s a nice sultry version, but I like the
    original “Weed Smokers Dream” since it was a
    little rougher around the edges and had a nastier feel.

    In addition to his work with the Harlem Hamfats, Kansas Joe McCoy was known as the ex-husband of Memphis Minnie, who I believe also recorded that song, although I haven’t been able to hear her version.

    The Harlem Hamfats made some really fun recordings, and one that readers here might like is “Hallelujah Joe Ain’t Preachin’ No More”. Here’s a YouTube video of it (the visual part is useless, but the song is great). If you watch it on YouTube, you can also play their
    version of “Weed Smokers Dream” by clicking the link on the upper right hand side of the page.


  6. daveau
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    First, “the Harlem Hamfats” is already taken as a band name? Damn!

    Second, that Wikipedia description could apply to a good number of blues tunes. Damn near snorted out my tea on my keyboard.

    • Mike
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      Sounded like Jeeves explaining the lyrics to Bertie Wooster.

  7. NoJoy
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    I like the Shivers’ version: .

  8. NoJoy
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Hmmm. Link didn’t work. I’ll try to embed. If it doesn’t work, feel free to delete my comments.

    • Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Love the clarinet (John Doyle?), but the vocals seem to be trying a little too hard. Instrumentally, it’s great, though.

  9. Dan L.
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I’m fairly certain the film is “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. Note that Roger Rabbit is alive at both the beginning and end of the movie.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Yep, you’re right. I changed it; thanks!

  10. Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    It has always fascinated us that the music style and themes that have taken over the world — the blues — came from very inauspicious beginnings.

    They emerged in one little area of the US, that was the poorest area in the country then — REALLY poor. These people and artists had nothing. They were treated worse than farm animals. You don’t lynch your farm animals for fun.

    Our guess is a brain-based one and “evolutionary.”

    Stripped to bare necessities, these original blues artists literally had to discover musical and lyrical hooks to eat. So they uncovered the most popular ones and thus universal to the human brain/conditions.

    Survival of the songs, chords and lyrics that got the most people to dance and thus had the most “offspring.”

  11. Doug Frink
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Came across this while learning this song for my ‘ukulele cover version, and since you seem to be an evolutionary biologist who likes jazz, I thought you might my little song about the origin of sex, “Love is old, love is new”. Here’s a link:

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