This song has been covered by dozens of artists, the title refrain providing a handy and catchy phrase of defiance broad enough to resonate with angsty teenagers, ornery people, and self-styled iconoclasts alike.
Composed in 1922, and credited to a pair of piano players, Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins, the song is an excellent example of a early blues song that does not follow the 12-bar form that became almost synonymous with the style after the genre was commercialized. Like any blues composer worth their salt, Grainger and Robbins tapped in to vernacular phrases and idioms to construct many of the verses, though there's no evidence to indicate whether the refrain was something they coined or else a phrase already common in songsters' repertoires that they were the first to publish.
"T'ain't Nobody's Business" is a bluesy song that uses a standard trip around the circle of fifths while demonstrating the capability of blues music to run the gamut from tragedy to humor, misery to defiance within a single song.
Many versions include some version of a much-recycled image and phrase,
"If I should take a notion / and jump into the ocean . . ."
More traumatic, tragic and problematic lines lurked in the original lyrics composed by y Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins:
I'd rather my man would hit me, than to jump right up and quit me . . .
I swear I won't call no copper, if I'm beat up by my papa . . .
These regrettable verses were retained by Bessie Smith, Sara Martin (backed by Fats Waller on piano, who did a fast variation of the song years later!), and Billie Holiday:
However, a beautiful intro is also included in these early versions. This short couplet sets up the song as one of defiance and independence, but generally gets forgotten or ignored by artists who've recorded the song more recently:
There ain't nothin' I can do, or nothin' I can say, that folks don't criticize me,
But I'm gonna do just as I want to anyway, I don't care if they all despise me . . .
While many of the blues queens of the 20's recorded the song, an interesting variant developed in Memphis and Mississippi, as demonstrated by the recordings of Frank Stokes and John Hurt, respectively:
Longtime tRp student - and now intern and youth leader - Mariah Roberson points out that the song's refrain is emblematic of an attitude that is all too American: one of denial, independence instead of interdependence, and avoidance rather than addressing a problem. Mariah prefers the leisurely version recorded by Otis Spann:
We are curious to hear your opinions on the song in the comments, and remind you to tag #TheRhapsodyProject and #RhapsodyAdventurers if you are so brave as to upload your own version of the song on your social media platform(s) of choice!
Next month, we'll be celebrating another absolute classic, 'Careless Love." See you soon!
- The Rhapsody Project community leaders