What's That Smell Like Fish? "Keep On Truckin'" and the Origin of the Hot Tuna Name

From the book...

The name Hot Tuna, like the name Jefferson Airplane itself, can be attributed to a play on the language of traditional blues. In "Keep On Truckin'," a song Hot Tuna would record on their third album, and whose lyrics are derived from '20s and '30s blues recordings, the singer asks, "What's that smell like fish? Oh, baby, I really would like to know."

Jorma Kaukonen: Somebody suggested the answer just might be Hot Tuna.

The rest of the story...

"Keep On Truckin'" has its own interesting history, notable if for no other reason than its direct responsibility for the origin of the name Hot Tuna. The song is often credited to Bob Carleton, although Jorma has said he hasn't a clue who that is–Kaukonen learned the song along with dozens of others back in his college days from [his guitar mentor] Ian Buchanan.

The reason Carleton is credited with "Keep On Truckin'," it transpires, is because he wrote a nonsense song in 1918 called "Ja-Da," popularized first in the stage musical Bran Pie by Beatrice Lillie and then a record hit for a crooner named Arthur Fields the following year. "Ja-Da" shares its melody with the song that Hot Tuna would record, hence the copyright credit for Carleton that sometimes turns up when this song is re-released (on Burgers itself it went uncredited). This also explains why, on the Airplane's Flight Log compilation album, "Keep On Truckin'" is subtitled "Ja-Da."

The words to "Ja-Da," however, are a far cry from those of "Keep On Truckin'." For the origin of the lyrics to the Tuna staple, one would have to dig deep into the blues bag for a handful of songs that were passed around during the 1920s and '30s. A good place to start would be guitarist Tampa Red's "What Is It That Tastes Like Gravy?," an 8-bar blues with a melody remarkably similar to "Ja-Da" and filled with double-entendre lyrics that center on a woman's aroma and taste during sexual stimulation and the act of cunnilingus.

From there, fast-forward to 1936 and a blues guitarist named Blind Boy Fuller, a contemporary of [Jorma's main influence] Rev. Gary Davis. Fuller made a series of recordings for the American Record Corporation (ARC), among them one that he called "Truckin' My Blues Away," whose chorus is identical to the Hot Tuna track. A couple of years later, Fuller returned to the same melody for another risque blues called "What's That Smell Like Fish."

Jorma, who began singing a version of "Keep On Truckin'" as early as college, borrowed Carleton's original melody as coopted by Tampa Red and Blind Boy Fuller, the chorus of "Truckin' My Blues Away," and the key phrase and a handful of other lines from "What's That Smell Like Fish" to construct his own classic.

But where Blind Boy Fuller suggested in his song that the answer to the question he posed could very well be "sardines but it ain't in no can," Jorma left the particular kind of fish out of his interpretation and answered instead with the name of his group.


Blind Boy Fuller

Tampa Red

 

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