Research in Music with Jessica Rumsey – Oily Blues

What does music research look like?  This is the seventh post in a series that highlights music research by students in a Baylor School of Music class taught by Dr. Laurel Zeiss, a recipient of the 2022 Special Collections Teaching Fellowship.  These students worked beyond traditional research and learned how to engage with primary sources in the Baylor Libraries’ Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Sheet Music.   Enjoy exploring this unique collection through our new scholars’ works.

Oily Blues by Raymond Francis

by Jessica Rumsey

The Teapot Dome Scandal occurred during the 1920s and provided the backdrop for the 1928 musical piece Oily Blues with words by A.A. Granger and music by Raymond Francis. The piece alludes to the Presidential Election of 1928, but the historical context of the piece starts back in 1921 at the beginning of the political scandal. Republican Warren G. Harding was President of the United States and Albert Fall was the Secretary of the Interior. Oversight of the U.S. Navy federal oil reserves was passed to Fall under Harding’s direction. One of these oil reserves was in Wyoming and shaped like a teapot so was nicknamed the Teapot Dome. Fall leased the entirety of the Teapot Dome, and two other oil sites in California, to Harry Sinclair with the Mammoth Oil Company and to Edward Doheny with the Pan-American Petroleum Company. Sinclair and Doheny were granted exclusive drilling rights. Fall had not allowed for any competitive bidding for the leases and the arrangements were hidden from the public until the Wall Street Journal revealed the dealings. The Senate investigated the leases, and ultimately, by 1929, Fall was charged for accepting bribes from oil companies to drill on federal land. The above explains the inspiration for the title Oily Blues and the corresponding references to the Republican party’s scandal of the 1920s within the three verses.

Oily Blues predates the Republican win in the Presidential Election of 1928, so the song’s premise is the Democrats’ optimistic account of the nation’s shifting ideology as the Teapot Dome scandal hurt the Republican party platform. The piece is written in the first-person perspective of a Democratic party member. Within the first verse, the lyrics indicate the Democrats’ confidence that they will win the election with lines like, “they are in a bad position we have all the ammunition…” and “we have certain information and the evidence is strong.” The Democrats flaunt their supposed advantages in the election after the Senate investigation of the Teapot Dome Scandal provided Republicans unwelcome public attention. Composed in strophic form, the second and third verses are intentionally reminiscent of the content in the first. However, they similarly add issues of prohibition and rising resentment from the rural population to reassert dwindling Republican support. The primarily eighth-note, syllabic rhythm makes the message in each verse explicit for the listener.

The score’s cover art presents these historical ideas in a comedic fashion. The cover illustrates a donkey bucking an elephant out of the capitol building as symbols of the respective political parties. Further, the capitol building appears to be sinking into a lake of oil, so the picture conveys how Republicans have placed the nation in unwanted situations. The oil looks splattered across the cover to signify how the Teapot Dome Scandal tainted Republicans’ reputation. Intended to be sung with vigor, the words of Oily Blues harp on the Republican party’s slipping grasp on the American people and the advantages such provides for the rising Democratic party.

music cover

Works Cited

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