One could be forgiven for thinking that the man namechecked in the title of the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ new record Lost Songs of Doc Souchon is some mythical character out of legend from the misty streets of old (very old) New Orleans. Or a fantastical creation from the vivid imagination of the Zippers’ co-founder and leader Jimbo Mathus.
But it turns out that Mr. Edmund “Doc” Souchon (1897-1968) was indeed a real person. A jazz musician, journalist, nightclub manager, and collector/protector of New Orleans music, he was also involved in founding both the National Jazz Foundation and the New Orleans Jazz Museum. His primary interest was in the city’s string band music, some of which pre-dates even Dixieland.
Lost Songs of Doc Souchon features ten tracks of Mathus originals and covers by songwriters and performers like Lead Belly, Jelly Roll Morton, Stephen Foster, the Rev. Fred Lane, New Orleans Willie Jackson and…Frankie Valli (via a very, um, dramatic cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”).
And while Zippers music has always based in the hot jazz/blues/calypso of the 1920s and ‘30s, this record also includes jump/jive oompah (“Animule Ball,” “She’s Ballin’”), torchy ballads (“Mr. Wonderful,” “Summer Longings”), upbeat camp (“I Talk to My Haircut”), and shambolic laziness (“Cookie”).
Mathus has stated elsewhere that it was inspired by “mysterious characters from the history of New Orleans jazz music” and its “hidden roots and hidden thread.”
“It’s a hidden history of New Orleans and the foundation of the music, even before the uptown Creole bands,” Mathus – who splits his living time between Mississippi and New Orleans – offers now. “Everybody knows Louis Armstrong and hot jazz that went on to become swing, but this is before that, the Buddy Bolden pre-recorded era. That was the concept. So we did public domain songs and things you’d hear in the old social and benevolent clubs or ice cream parlors or pavilions around Lake Pontchartrain along with new material in that [spirit].”
Mathus – who peppers his talk with words and phrases like “ghostly” and “spirit animals” came to the story of Doc Souchon through his friendship with the late Mississippi guitarist/singer/songwriter/producer Jim Dickinson. The two formed a friendship in the ‘90s when the Squirrel Nut Zippers had burst onto the scene and for a brief second captured the MTV generation with their song and video for “Hell.”
“I was passing through Mississippi on my way to New Orleans, and Jim told me that I needed to find this old record called Doc Souchon Recalls Early New Orleans Days,” Mathus recalls. He parked his car at a recording studio near Esplanade Avenue and Chartres Street in the city, and was headed to get an iced coffee at one of his favorite places on Decatur Street. At the time, there were numerous rummage shops dotting the pre-gentrification area, and the display at one of them stopped Mathus cold.
“The first little junk shop I passed had this little table out front with a bunch of little odds and ends on it, and right there dead center on the table was that album!” he says, still incredulous after all these years. “So I said ‘Thank you Jim,’ gave them my few dollars and started listening to it. There are songs on there you’d never hear anywhere else, that were only performed in like a vaudeville house and weren’t recorded. They made like 500 copies, and I found one.”
More recently, Mathus spent about two months in New Orleans around Mardi Gras time just gigging from club to club. He’s also reflected on his Zippers bandmates, most of them fairly new to the band (though not new to him) when he reconstituted the group in 2016 after a long hiatus for touring, put out the 2018 record Beasts of Burgundy, and toured more.
“They’re all incredibly talented, humble, and hardworking people. There’s a high level of talent in this band, and there are singers and arrangers on the record other than me,” he says. The acoustic, spooky track “Train on Fire” reunites Mathus with the man and the fiddle of Andrew Bird, arguably the best-known alumni of the Zippers whose own career has taken off quite nicely.
The partnership will continue next year with the release of their duo album These Thirteen. “I was instrumental in helping him get started, and he did some iconic work in the band. And now he’s super well known, deservingly known,” Mathus reflects. “I think this was him wanting to give back to me and also help me and bring my name up, and for that I’m eternally grateful. I been at this thing for a long time and helped a lot of people. I think a rising tide helps all boats. I’ll pull the wagon before I tell someone else to.”
Lost Songs of Doc Souchon also has a cover of the standard “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The 1929 song by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen was also a wildly successful campaign song for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s equally successful 1932 campaign for the nation’s top job.
“Back then, a song could get a man elected president!” Mathus says in wonder. “Or a ticket off of the plantation like Muddy Waters. Or released from prison – that’s how Lead Belly got out of Angola! But today…that song is a twisted joke in today’s climate. Dark humor has always been part of our scenario.”
The new Zippers record isn’t the only one that Mathus appears on this month. He’s also part of the one-off supergroup the New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers along with old friend Jim Dickinson, Jim’s sons Luther and Cody (of the North Mississippi Allstars), and blues greats Charlie Musselwhite and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Much like Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes, the record Vol. 1 (Stony Plain) is a fun-filled affair of friends and like minds, recorded in 2007 over two afternoons but not released until now. Jim Dickinson passed away in 2009.
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“I was sort of always included in the Dickinson family, when I was first having an awakening about Mississippi music and its impact on the world,” Mathus says. “We just got set up and sort of passed the mike around and they’re all one-takes. We’d just sit around and talk and bullshit and someone would go ‘Well, I’ve got a song.’ To hear Jim on it is great. It makes me think of his final words, ‘I’m dead. I’m not gone.’”
Finally, the pandemic put the kibosh on the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ planned summer tour, but Jimbo Mathus is actually OK with that.
“I’ve been on the road for 25 years and released dozens of albums, so I’m kind of just resting and recharging my batteries from all those years of stress and making albums and touring and promoting them, so it’s been kind of a nice reset for me,” he offers. “But I hate what’s going on in the world. I’ve just been keeping my head down and my eyes wide. And I never thought I’d be seeing my wife this much! It’s been a blessing.”
Songs of Doc Souchon comes out September 25. For more in the record and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, visit SNZippers.com