A while back my friend Alastair gave me a couple of discs containing just about all the Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour shows up to that point. I downloaded them all on to my MP3 gadget and often listen to them. I particularly enjoy listening to one on a trip to Glasgow in the car. The hour is then taken up with not only fantastic music spanning much of the twentieth century but also a wealth of comment and quirky information from the Bobmeister.
For instance yesterday on my way to Cambuslang I was treated to a show initially broadcast in January 2008 on the theme of walking. As well as music from Waylon Jennings, Fats Domino, Lou Reed, Jimmy Rogers, Count Baisie and others, (you can download the very show here ) Bob treated me to some fascinating information and two things in particular caught my ear.
Firstly he was talking about Murder Incorporated which was the name given by the FBI to the organised crime groups in the 1920′s to 1940′s responsible for 100′s of murders on behalf of the Mafia and Jewish crime groups. The hit men apparently had conditions of employment, holidays and a pension scheme! (or maybe that was Bob’s little joke). However the irony was that one of the founders of Murder Inc., Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegal was also one of its victims.
Ever wondered where the expression “jakey” came from? It is of course a derogatory term here in Scotland for a habitual irredeemable heavy drinker. I’d guess it came from another subject on the show I listened to. Jamaican ginger extract (known in the United States by the slang name Jake) was a late 19th century patent medicine that provided a convenient way to bypass Prohibition laws, since it contained between 70-80% ethanol by weight.
Jake was not itself dangerous, but the U.S. Treasury Department, which administered the Prohibition laws, recognized its potential as an illicit alcohol source and required changes in the solids content of jake to discourage drinking. The minimum requirement of ginger solids per cubic centimeter of alcohol resulted in a fluid that was extremely bitter and difficult to drink. Occasionally, Department of Agriculture inspectors would test shipments of jake by boiling the solution and weighing the remaining solid residue. In an effort to trick regulators, bootleggers replaced the ginger solids with a small amount of ginger and either castor oil or molasses.
A pair of amateur chemists and bootleggers, Harry Gross and Max Reisman, worked to develop an alternative adulterant that would pass the tests, but still be somewhat palatable. They settled on a plasticizer, tri-o-tolyl phosphate (also known as tri-ortho cresyl phosphate, TOCP, or Tricresyl phosphate), that was able to pass the Treasury Department’s tests but preserved jake’s drinkability. TOCP was originally thought to be non-toxic; however, it was later determined to be a neurotoxin that causes axonal damage to the nerve cells in the nervous system of human beings, especially those located in the spinal cord. The resulting type of paralysis is now referred to as organophosphate-induced delayed neuropathy (OPIDN).
In 1930, large numbers of jake users began to lose the use of their hands and feet. Some victims could walk, but they had no control over the muscles which would normally have enabled them to point their toes upward. Therefore, they would raise their feet high with the toes flopping downward, which would touch the pavement first followed by their heels. The toe first, heel second pattern made a distinctive “tap-click, tap-click” sound as they walked. This very peculiar gait became known as the jake walk and those afflicted were said to have jake leg, jake foot, or jake paralysis. Additionally, the calves of the legs would soften and hang down and the muscles between the thumbs and fingers would atrophy.
Within a few months, the TOCP-adulterated jake was identified as the cause of the paralysis and the contaminated jake was recovered, but it was too late for many victims. Some users recovered full or partial use of their limbs, but for most, the loss was permanent. The total number of victims was never accurately determined, but is frequently quoted as between 30,000 and 50,000. Many victims were immigrants to the United States and most were poor with little political or social influence. The victims received very little assistance, and aside from being the subject of a few blues songs recorded in the early 1930s (e.g. “Jake Walk Papa” by Asa Martin and “Jake Leg Blues” by the Mississippi Sheiks), they were almost completely forgotten.
Dylan played another record, Jake Walk Blues by the Allen Brothers.
If you’ve never heard a Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour make the effort. There are complete shows and clips all over the internet.
They are a absolute joy.