How King Strang Reflects the Nonconformity of Early Jazz – An Interview

Tuesday, January 24. 4:45 PM. A line of guitars lean up against the wall of Retrocade Tattoo on Santa Rosa Street, San Luis Obispo. In front of them, wires are thrown loosely in all directions and two amps sit in gaps among the rat’s nest the cords create.
A shorter man wearing a dark sweatshirt walks out. His hair poofs out of the hood, with him a guitar, a stomp box and kazoo. He is performing in about an hour.

His stage name is King Strang. 

During the hectic moments before the concert, .WAV had the opportunity to interview Strang, a musician from Portland who describes himself as a “ragpunk” artist. This term suits him well as he incorporates old ragtime and dixieland jazz into his music while also exuding a punk attitude. He is standing out in the parking lot now, to the side of what will be his stage later. The owner’s clamor over their last minute setup and arguments can be overheard about the opening acts.

As it turns out, two bands were scheduled to perform before Strang, but they either withdrew from the show or were removed from the lineup by the owner. With all this disorder ensuing, King Strang remains unfazed. It makes sense in a weird way though. He plays jazz; a music defined by its spontaneity and degree of stress. He is used to this type of stuff. As Strang shares more about himself, it becomes clear that he really embodies the characteristics of his work. He is loyal to the history of jazz and its unconventional performance style, he is influenced by the music’s messaging, and his lane in the music industry does not conform to any modern standards.

The conversation starts with Strang’s musical influences. His face lights up as he talks.

“Well, I was in college and we were looking for a song to light a blunt to. I googled marijuana songs on youtube and ‘Marijuana the devil’s flower’ by Mr Sunshine came up. I was like, that sounds hilarious. It was all this old-timey country stuff. And then in the related videos was the Harlem Hamfats… it was all downhill from there.”

King Strang

So, who are the Hamfats and why are they so important to King Strang? A good place to start is their iconic song titled “Weed Smoker’s Dream.” Undoubtedly, this song is how Strang stumbled upon them for the first time, explaining his statement above. However, this song is deeper than just a weed song, and Strang’s affinity towards it expands far beyond its name.

“Weed Smoker’s Dream” exemplifies the Hamfats’ subversive content, which made them popular among underground scenes in the 30s. A long time ago (about 1936) the Hamfats assembled as a group of jazz musicians from Mississippi, New Orleans and Chicago. The Chicago jazz scene brought in musicians from all states, and the Hamfats were a product of the cultural blend that resulted from that. Their music combined blues jazz with dixieland in a really unconventional way. They mainly performed live music that was free from constraint, creating an entertaining and expressive sound that was popular within the underground jazz scene of Chicago.

The song “Weed Smoker’s Dream” is a slow, dark blues march that deals with poverty. It came out at a time when most working class people were at their lowest in the great depression.

“Weed Smoker’s Dream” is sung from the perspective of a poor man who laments what it takes to become rich. There are many different interpretations of the lyrics because they do not explicitly tell one story, but the main agreement is that this man is a drug dealer who feels that his profession has imprisoned him in poverty (cgilde).

The lyric “Why don’t you do now, like the millionaires” stands out when thinking about this mentality. The words can become fairly complex if you consider some of the background: this speaker is a black man in the great depression. He feels as though the solution to getting rich is so easy; just do what the millionaires do. However, the tone of the song implies that there is a division between the speaker and his goals of becoming rich. He sings as though he is stuck. This probably resonated with a lot of the lower classes back in the great depression, as their resentment towards the rich grew as their situations became worse.

The gap between the rich and the poor became so wide it felt like it would never close up. Also, as a black man the speaker undoubtedly has experienced the feeling of being held down in society for a completely irrelevant reason. Although his goals seem achievable in theory, the prevailing sentiment is that they would never come to fruition given his current circumstances, leading to a sense of disillusionment and depression that overwhelms him.

Graphic via King Strang’s Bandcamp Page

Overall, the message of “Weed Smoker’s Dream” is actually quite complex and explains why the Hamfats were so popular among the working class. However, they faced challenges becoming widely accepted because of their subject matter, prevalent in “Weed Smoker’s Dream” that was pretty taboo at the time. In the two years that they were active, The Hamfats played what they wanted to play and did not have any fear for how it would be received. Even though these guys never got to experience the traditional signs of success, they changed jazz through the underground and the movement they created rippled on for generations. 

Not only did the Harlem Hamfats have an influence on King Strang, they were also one of the foundational inspirations to Dixieland Jazz in the early 1900’s. The Hamfats ended up being an inspiration to this genre, but it happened many years after their breakup. One way to achieve musical success within a genre back in the day was to use the messaging found in that genre’s popular songs.

So, as “Weed Smoker’s Dream” started gaining popularity in areas outside of New Orleans, Other artists started picking up on its lyrics for inspiration. By 1942, the Benny Goodman Orchestra had picked up on “Weed Smoker’s Dream” and decided to make their own version of the song, aiming to emulate the popularity of the original work. 

The Benny Goodman Orchestra was a renowned jazz band led by clarinetist Benny Goodman. It formed in the early 1930s and quickly gained popularity, becoming one of the most successful and influential bands of the swing era. Goodman had an idea to rework “Weed Smoker’s Dream” and make it more suitable for a wider audience. He enlisted singer Peggy Lee to rewrite the lyrics and gave it a more family-friendly title. In the end, the song was called “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and the lyrics had transformed into a direct response to the speaker in “Weed Smoker’s Dream”. In an observational paper, Iván Santiago compares the two songs: 

“… we can conversely say that ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?’ is an answer song — the female viewpoint. The woman would be telling her weed-smoking man to get up and away from his haze, to go out and make the money that he was expecting to collect.” (Santiago)

Peggy Lee’s rendition of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” became a hit because it left out the taboo topics of weed, racism and classism. Although the original composer of “Weed Smoker’s Dream” remains unknown, the song gained extreme notoriety in the Dixieland Jazz scene due to its popularity among musicians, especially after Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman made it a hit. Later, this song would come to solidify itself as a Dixieland Jazz standard, a composition widely recognized as a significant contribution to the jazz repertoire. The original songwriter became lost in time as the song itself gained its own personality.

In the early 20th century, it was extremely common for songs to have ambiguous origins. Many songwriters repurposed older songs to fit catchier chord progressions, following the example of Peggy Lee and the Benny Goodman Orchestra. As a contemporary artist heavily inspired by early jazz, King Strang continues to adopt this pattern. When Strang was asked if he intentionally replicates the sound of bands like The Hamfats or other dixieland groups he responded: 

“Oh yeah, usually I just rip off songs completely and just switch the chord progressions around a little bit— take a piece of one and a piece of another. All those old songs have a bunch of similarities, you know”. 

King Strang

In today’s creative culture, when an artist admits to plagiarizing songs, it quickly provokes a negative response from people. Today, intellectual property and copyright laws are strictly enforced, and artistic integrity is often valued over the art itself. In addition, many people turn away from artists that are labeled as copycats.

However, this response is not warranted for Dixieland Jazz; a genre defined by its chord progressions and messaging. From a historical perspective, a strong case can be made that Strang is actually perpetuating the dixieland artform rather than stealing. By tweaking the chords or lyrics of songs, King Strang follows the tradition of many early 20th-century songwriters who were known for their ability to create new songs by repurposing existing ones.

Picture via Punk With a Camera

The process of repurposing older songs has been a common practice throughout the history of music, and Strang does not necessarily shy away from it because of this history. While some would consider him to be “lacking originality” he does not consider his method to be copying. He is simply following in the footsteps of the artists that inspire him. Pretty badass right?

It is extremely interesting to think about Strang’s artform from a contemporary standpoint. Despite being active in the modern music industry, King Strang very much lives the lifestyle of a traditional jazz musician. He seems to value his craft with a similar passion to early groups like The Harlem Hamfats. His disengagement from the problematic climate that surrounds modern music is apparent in the way he holds himself.

For example, Strang seems to be unplugged from a lot of the politics of music that we hear about these days. Most notably, he is not searching to make money. He told .WAV that he had done large tours at big venues before and felt unconnected to the music. During the interview, Strang shared what he was aiming to accomplish with the tour he was currently on.

“This tour I was really like trying to make sure I do a lot of DIY spaces and stuff like this, like a tattoo shop arcade, and then last night was a bike collective and the night before that was Purple House in Oakland which has been a punk house and been in punk hands for like 25 years. Then, Dolores house Co-Op tomorrow. I miss the good old days so I was like, I’m gonna go out and do a DIY tour again. So far, it has not disappointed whatsoever.”

Although he has the opportunity to perform on larger tours it is clear that Strang wants to keep his sound underground; it’s where he naturally gravitates. Like the Hamfats back in the day, Strang really cares about the entertainment and energy over the success and judgment. As his tour came to a close in February, there is a lot on the horizon for King strang.

Reflecting back on this conversation at the Retrocade, it’s obvious that his intentions with music are not going to change soon. From the chord progressions to the DIY venues, Strang is not abandoning the sentiments of jazz anytime soon. With each performance, he brings a much-needed energy back to this old artform. It’s his whole personality, really. It’s clear that jazz holds a significant part of his heart and it’s definitely something that has felt necessary to his life. 

Kaden Anderson writes for .wavzine’s Content Team. He wrote the article. V Pond is part of .wavzine’s Art Team. She made the graphic.