Sun 3 Apr 2016
|James Russell||I Had Five Long Years||Prison Worksongs|
|Robert Pete Williams||Some Got Six Months||Angola Prisoner's Blues|
|Hogman Maxey||Stagolee||Angola Prisoner's Blues|
|Otis Webster||Boll Weevil Blues||Country Negro Jam Session|
|Smokey Babe & Sally Dotson||You're Dice Won’t Pass||Country Negro Jam Session|
|Butch Cage & Willie Thomas||Jelly Roll||Country Negro Jam Session|
|Billie & DeDe Pierce||Nobody Knows When You're Down And Out||Gulf Coast Piano|
|Billie & DeDe Pierce||Jelly Roll||Gulf Coast Piano|
|Speckled Red||Early In The Morning||Primitive Piano|
|Snooks Eaglin||Country Boy Down New Orleans||Country Boy Down New Orleans|
|Robert Pete Williams||Just Tippin' In||I'm Blues As A Man Can Be|
|Smokey Babe||I’m Goin' Back To Mississippi||Hottest Brand Goin'|
|Emanuel Dunn||Working on the Levee, Pt. 1||Prison Worksongs|
|Guitar Welch||Highway 61||Angola Prisoner;s Blues|
|Robert Pete Williams||Mississippi Heavy Water Blues||Country Negro Jam Session|
|Snooks Eaglin||Mama Don't You Tear My Clothes||Country Boy Down New Orleans|
|Smokey Babe||Ocean Blues||Hottest Brand Goin'|
|Herman E. Johnson||I Just Keep Wanting You||Louisiana Country Blues|
|Rev. Rogers, Big Louisiana, & Jose Smith||Stewball||Prison Worksongs|
|Guitar Welch||Fast Life Woman||Angola Prisoner's Blues|
|Clarence Edwards||Smokestack Lightnin’||Country Negro Jam Session|
|Robert Pete Williams||Pardon Denied Again||I'm Blues As A Man Can Be|
|Otis Webster||The Boss Man Blues||Country Negro Jam Session|
|Butch Cage & Willie Thomas||Bugle Call Blues||Old-Time Black Southern String Band Music|
|Odea Matthews||The Moon Is Rising||Angola Prisoner's Blues|
|Roosevelt Charles||Wasn't I Lucky||Blues, Prayer, Work & Trouble Songs|
|Clarence Edwards||You Don't Love Me||Country Negro Jam Session|
|A Capella Group||Angola Bound||Angola Prisoner's Blues|
|Willie B. Thomas, Harry Oster, and Butch Cage 1960 (photographer: David Gahr)|
Harry Oster was teaching at Louisiana State University a well-received lecture on Old World traditional ballads prompted a colleague to suggest that he apply for a grant to collect local folklore. "Before long," he recalled, "I found a profusion of unusual material – ancient French ballads, Cajun dance music, Afro-French spirituals… I got the idea that I should issue with my own funds a long-playing record to be called A Sampler of Louisiana Folk Songs." This and succeeding records such as Folk Songs of the Louisiana Acadians, the first LP of Cajun music, appeared under the auspices of the Louisiana Folklore Society, which Oster created with a couple of friends. Later recordings were on his own label, Folk-Lyric. Oster's greatest discovery came on a trip to the state penitentiary at Angola. Oster found many impressive blues singers, among them Robert Pete Williams. The singer's intense improvised narratives about prison life and the events that had brought him there, were presented to the world on the 1959 album Angola Prisoner's Blues. Oster was also the first to record Snooks Eaglin, the fiddle-and-guitar duo Butch Cage and Willie Thomas, blues guitarist Smokey Babe and Georgia street musician Reverend Pearly Brown. Oster left Louisiana in 1963 to teach at the University of Iowa, where he remained until his retirement in 1993, working on the American Dictionary of Folklore and pursuing his passion of making and disseminating records. His Folk-Lyric catalogue was acquired by Arhoolie Records and has largely been transferred to CD.
|Read Liner Notes|
Oster formed his Folk-Lyric label in 1959 and in an interview described the label’s genesis: “Eventually I heard that RCA had a customs pressing plant in Indianapolis and I started sending stuff to them and getting stuff professionally printed. I would send out review copies to major newspapers like New York Times, Down Beat Magazine, Saturday Review, and some newspapers. They gave them good attention and I got in touch with some distributors. My label was essentially one-man operation. I would find performers, record them, edit the tapes, take photographs, write liner notes, etc. I would generally press about 300 copies. I borrowed $5,000 from a bank to subsidize the operation. I also did some assignments for other companies, and that helped finance it also. I did one record for Elektra which was eventually sold to Folkways. I did some for Prestige Bluesville and Prestige International.”
Oster explained to an interviewer his approach to field recording: “I actually operated rather differently than some of people who've found old time blues singers. Usually they track down someone who recorded in '20s or 0s and disappear from sight for a while. I sort of went about it in a quite different way, which in fact produced some interestingly different results, more offbeat performances and more unusual repertoire. Anyhow, I talked to a psychologist who'd done some research in a prison and he suggested I go see the head of institutions for the state and get his permission to get access to the prison and ask him to spell out the specific privileges that I wanted to have, lot of which should be the right to call out a specific convicts, in other words, to get someone excused from work for the day or afternoon so he could be interviewed and recorded by me. The head of institution was quite cooperative and friendly, probably influenced by the fact that I was teaching in a state university. He wrote to the warden and asked him to cooperate with me. The warden was cooperative too and he suggested the good way to proceed would be to start with the recreational director and go down from there. They had a choir of black singers who did spirituals and he said that would be a good place to make contacts. I started there and they gave me some leads on prison work songs and I started going into the different camps. These camps were not maximum security camps and people worked in fields in in daytime.”
|Read Liner Notes|
The recordings on Angola Prisoner’s Blues were recorded in 1959 and 1960 at Camp H in Louisiana’s Angola Prison. An impromptu studio was set up in the tool room. Oster uncovered many fine bluesman like Hogman Maxey, Guitar Welch, Otis Webster, Roosevelt Charles and most importantly Robert Pete Williams. Roosevelt Charles was classified a habitual criminal and spend most of his adult life in prison. Charles was recorded extensively by Oster both in Agola and on the outside in 1959 and 1960. A full album of his recordings appeared on Vanguard which is long out of print with other cuts showing up on various anthologies. Many of his sides remain unissued. Oster considered Charles one of his most gifted finds. Another talented performer was Robert Welch, called “Guitar” and “King of the Blues” by the other convicts and was born in Memphis in 1896. He learned from the records of Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson and played in bands starting in the late 30’s.
Robert Pete Williams, however, was in a class by himself as Oster wrote in the liner notes: “The blues of Robert Pete Williams are more original, more directly personal, and more evocative in their expression of love, frustration, and despair.” Williams did some playing at house parties in the 30’s. In 1956, Williams shot and killed a man in a local club. Williams claimed the act was in self-defense, but he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Angola prison, where he served for two years before being discovered by Oster and Richard Allen. The pair recorded Williams performing several of his own songs, which were all about life in prison. Impressed with the guitarist's talents, Oster and Allen pleaded for a pardon for Williams. The pardon was granted in 1959, after he had served a total of three and a half years. For the first five years after he left prison, Williams could only perform in Lousiana, but his recordings — which appeared on Folk-Lyric, Arhoolie, and Prestige, among other labels — were popular and he received positive word of mouth reviews. In 1964, Williams played his first concert outside of Louisiana — it was a set at the legendary Newport Folk Festival. Williams' performance was enthusiastically received and he began touring the United States, often playing shows with Mississippi Fred McDowell. During the 60’s and 70’s he performed at several festival including the 1966 American Folk Blues Festival. He passed in 1980.
The album Prison Worksongs focuses on recordings of worksongs recorded in Agola Prison and on the outside between 1959 and 1963. By this point the prison worksong was a dying tradition but Oster managed to record some fine material. "I’'ve always been fascinated with black worksongs, “ Oster recalled, “group work songs, and I had heard that they were essentially extinct in the regular world because of mechanization of farming, and the only place to find them would be in southern prison farms. I decided it would be a good idea to do some recordings in the prison camp in Angola, and I made my first trip there in 1957.”
|Read Liner Notes|
The songs on the album Country Negro Jam Session were recorded in Southwestern Louisiana between 1959 and 1962, some in Angola Prison, others at house parties around Baton Rouge (the remaining 5 titles on CD reissue were recorded by Chris Strachwitz and Paul Oliver in 1960). In it's earliest incarnation, the first 14 tracks of the 25 title program were released on Dr. Oster's now-defunct Folk Lyric label, and then re-released on Arhoolie intact after Chris Strachwitz purchased the Folk Lyric catalog. Oster did a series of field recordings, informal jams with a group of obscure blues men and women, only one of whom, Robert Pete Williams, won fame. Otis Webster was recorded extensively by Oster in 1959 and 1960 all in Angola Prison. Many of the sides remain unissued. Willie B. Thomas (vocal & guitar) and James ‘Butch' Cage (vocal & fiddle) make up a good part of Country Negro Jam Session. The duo’s string band music is reminiscent of Peg Leg Howell and his gang and the two play not only blues but also pop, and religious music. They also back singer/guitarist Clarence Edwards on several numbers. Butch Cage was born in 1894 near Meadville, MS, and whom Oster describes aptly in the liner notes as "a great representative of the now virtually extinct 19th century black fiddle tradition", while Willie B. Thomas was born near Lobdell, LA in 1912.
Born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, Robert Brown AKA Smoky Babe had found his way to Scotlandville, Louisiana by the age of 20. It was there that Oster recorded him on several occasions between 1959-1961 with material appearing on the labels Folk-Lyric, Storyville and Bluesville. As Oster wrote in the liner notes to his Bluesville album: “In February 1960 I was present at a jam session in Scotlandville at the house of the sister of Robert Pete Williams, Mable Lee. …Smoky, who lives a short distance from Mable Lee Williams, swaggered in – a muscular wiry man of about 5’ 8”, wearing a hat tilted at a rakish angle. His guitar was in pawn so I loaned him mine. As soon as he played a few bars, rich, full, resonant, and excitedly rhythmic, I knew here was an outstanding bluesman.” Nothing is know about his later life.
New Orleans pianist and singer Billie Pierce played jazz and blues with her cornetist husband Dede. The two recorded and toured extensively in the 1950’s and 60’s. Oster issued an LP of them titled Gulf Coast Blues with some other titles appearing on the anthology Primitive Piano that also has tracks by Bat Robinson and Speckled Red. Billie Pierce was a marvelous blues, ragtime, and jazz pianist and a very expressive singer who grew up in Florida where she accompanied Bessie Smith at a Pensacola theatre in the early 1920s. She later moved to New Orleans where she played professionally in honky tonks and later spent much time working for Preservation Hall and touring all over the world with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Her husband, De De Pierce was one of the most joyful and powerful New Orleans trumpeters as well as a superb vocalist specializing in the unique, regional Creole French patois.
|Read Liner Notes|
Blind from boyhood, Snooks Eaglin played everything he heard on records and the radio, be it jazz, blues, pop or country. When not playing R&B in the New Orleans clubs, Eaglin busked with an acoustic guitar, which is how Harry Oster first encountered him. Besides issuing an LP of Eaglin’s on his Folk-Lyric label, Oster licensed material to other companies with material appearing on labels like Storyille and Bluesville. In an interview Oster recalls how he came across Eaglin: “I heard of him through Richard B. Allen who was first associate curator and then curator of the Jazz Archive in the Tulane University. He had encountered Snooks Eaglin who was young blind man singing on the porch of his house. Snooks Eaglin was different than performers like Robert Pete Williams for example. He actually was not a real specialist in blues, he was a popular performer and he wanted to be more popular. And he was. But he could do a lot of blues and he had a wonderful memory. His father said that he didn't really make up songs. He was like a mockingbird, he had everybody's song but his own.”
Other artists featured today include Herman E. Johnson of Scotlandville who was recorded in 1961 and Clarence Edwards. Johnson's tracks appeared on the LP Louisiana Country Blues alongside sides by Smoky Babe. Born near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Clarence Edwards began playing blues in the area in his teens. He was taped by Oster between 1959 and 1962 and by Chris Strachwitz for Arhoolie in 1970. He quit music for a stretch and cut his debut album in 1990. He did festival appearances in the US and Europe before his death in 1993.