Sandy Brown Jazz

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On A Night Like This, The Story Is Told ...

Every Tub and Foo Birds Flying



Foo Bird by Horation Archerfish

Foo Bird by Horatio Archerfish


Song and tune titles can have intriguing stories behind them. Many 'Standards' come from stage shows or movies where clearly they relate to the show's storyline. Others can be personal (Waltz For Debby; Song For My Father) or about relationships - love found, love lost. They can be of protest and social commentary (Fables OF Faubus; Strange Fruit) but some at first sight need some explanation - take the tune Every Tub.

Every Tub was composed by Count Basie and Eddie Durham in 1938. The title comes from the saying "Let every tub stand on its own bottom" which apparently was first penned by John Bunyan in his 1678 Pilgrim’s Progress - it is described in this blog ......

'John Bunyan, still dreaming, describes how Christian almost immediately upon leaving the cross and continuing in the way runs into three John Bunyon Pilgrims Progress imagemen: Simple, Sloth, and Presumption.

Bunyan writes: "I saw then in my dream, that he went on thus, even until he came at the bottom, where he saw, a little out of the way, three men fast asleep, with fetters upon their heels. The name of the one was Simple, of another Sloth, and of the third Presumption. Christian then seeing them lie in this case, went to them, if peradventure he might awake them, and cried, you are like them that sleep on the top of a mast,  for the Dead Sea is under you, a gulf that hath no bottom: awake, therefore, and come away; be willing also, and I will help you off with your irons. He also told them, If he that goeth about like a roaring lion, comes by, you will certainly become a prey to his teeth. With that they looked upon him, and began to reply in this sort: Simple said, I see no danger; Sloth said, Yet a little more sleep; and Presumption said, Every tub must stand upon its own bottom. And so they lay down to sleep again, and Christian went on his way."


Illustration by David Scott


'As my girls and I read the above we could see some very pertinent warnings here as follows ..... Presumption: This one scares me the most. This example brings the most conviction. And I must confess I was slow to understand Bunyan here when Presumption's response to Christian's warnings was this: "Every tub must stand upon its own bottom. " I remarked out loud, my girls hearing my confusion, "What does this mean?" It was my youngest who said, "Could it mean that he wants to do it all by himself and he doesn't want anyone to help him." I think she fairly well explained Bunyan's point exactly. In Pilgrim's Progress the characters have names which also describe who they are. If the name, Presumption, is taken with this meaning, "blind or headstrong confidence," as described in the Webster's 1828 Dictionary it fits. Plus it turns out that this phrase is an old proverb calling for one to be independent.......'

"Every tub” was subsequently borrowed by Harvard President John T. Kirkland during the first quarter of the 19th century when critics pressed him to find a location to build up the Divinity School. In response, Kirkland declared, “It is our rule here for every tub to stand on its own bottom.” meaning that each school of the University was an independent entity, responsible for its own management and funding. Since then the phrase has been used in various ways, in the case of the Basie tune  'every person has to take his own part'.

Listen to Every Tub and the Count Basie Orchestra with Ed Lewis, Buck Clayton and Sweets Edison (trumpet); Bennie Morton, Dan Minor and Eddie Durham (trombone); Earle Warren, Ronald “Jack” Washington (alto saxophone); Herschel Evans and Lester Young (tenor saxophone); Freddie Green (guitar); Walter Page (bass) and Jo Jones (drums).




The origin of Flight Of The Foo Birds is less clear. Written by Neal Hefti and featured on The Atomic Mr Basie album in 1957 it could have a number of different source references, but I like to think it is based on the following story.

This Foo Birds tale has been around for a long time. It has changed in the telling, been added to and its location and characters varied. I don't know when it originated but the date could fit with the memory of the person writing the following version, who says: "I remember hearing it at Girl Scout Camp when I was around eleven years old, in the late 1950s. This is the way I recall it:


An American missionary travels to a remote island in the South Pacific. Upon arriving, he is greeted by jubilant tribesmen and dancing hula girls, all chanting a song whose chorus contains the syllable "foo" repeated over and over.

The tribal chieftain tells the missionary that he is just in time for the "Foo Festival," a traditional time of homage and respect for a local bird which is revered as a powerful, godlike being. The missionary smiles and nods at the myths of these simple people, and asks to learn more about the Foo Bird.

The chief says that the bird, although small, is known for its copious faeces. In fact, the chief points out, the whole island is encrusted with dried Foo doo. It is considered to be a great honour for the Foo Bird to fly above your domicile and bless your roof with his droppings. The Foo Bird's excrement brings good fortune and blessings to all the people, and it would be a sin to disturb the piles of Foo poo that have accumulated everywhere.

The missionary is a bit disconcerted by this strange belief, and he begins to say something when he hears a tiny "chirp!" and a blob of avian doody lands on his shoulder. He looks up to see that above him flaps the Foo Bird, ready to drop another load.

Disgusted, the missionary takes out his handkerchief and wipes away the Foo faeces. He drops dead on the spot.

The chief looks at down him sadly and says, "Truly it is written: If the Foo shits, wear it!"


Click here for more suggestions for possible ideas behind the title 'Flight Of The Foo Birds'.


Here's a video of the Count Basie Orchestra playing The Flight Of The Foo Birds.






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Musicians On A Train
Times At Plunketts
Tony, Ronnie and the West End In Wartime
Andy Secrest - First Rate Hot Man In The Making

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