Scott DunbarWho Been Foolin' YouFrom Lake Mary
Scott DunbarLittle Liza JaneFrom Lake Mary
Scott DunbarMemphis MailFrom Lake Mary
Bill WilliamsLow And LonesomeLow And Lonesome
Bill WilliamsLucky BluesLow And Lonesome
Bill WilliamsBill's ragLow And Lonesome
Bill WilliamsToo TightLow And Lonesome
Babe StovallCorrine CorinnaBabe Stovall
Babe StovallWoman bluesBabe Stovall
Babe StovallSee See RiderSouth Mississippi Blues
Babe StovallBig Road BluesLegacy Of Tommy Johnson
Frank HovingtonGone With The WindGone With The Wind
Frank HovingtonLonesome Road BluesGone With The Wind
Frank HovingtonMean Old FriscoGone With The Wind
Frank HovingtonWho's Been Fooling YouGone With The Wind
Scott DunbarEasy RiderFrom Lake Mary
Scott DunbarSweet Mama Rollin' StoneFrom Lake Mary
Scott DunbarForty-Four BluesFrom Lake Mary
Bill WilliamsSome of These DaysThe Late Bill Williams
Bill WilliamsMake Me a Pallet on the FloorThe Late Bill Williams
Bill WilliamsRailroad BillThe Late Bill Williams
Bill WilliamsBlake's RagThe Late Bill Williams
Babe StovallHow Long BluesBabe Stovall (Southern Sound)
Babe StovallGood Morning BluesBabe Stovall (Flyright)
Babe StovallWorried BluesThe Old Ace
Babe StovallThe Ship Is At The LandingThe Old Ace
Frank HovingtonFlyright BabyLiving Country Blues Vol. 8
Frank HovingtonGot No Lovin' NowGone With The Wind
Frank HovingtonI'm Talking About You1948-1952
Frank Hovington90 Goin' NorthLiving Country Blues Vol. 8

Show Notes:

For today's show we continue with our ongoing series I call Forgotten Blues Heroes. For this installment we spotlight four great bluesmen who didn't get the opportunity to record until the 1960's and 1970's: Scott Dunbar, Bill Williams, Babe Stovall and Frank Hovington. As the blues historian Paul Oliver wrote: "Throughout the Sixties, it seemed there was one 'discovery' or 'rediscovery' of a blues singer after another; a succession of methodical searches, happy accidents and dramatic events which brought not only a number of legendary figures to life, but also revealed that the wealth of talent in the black traditions had been even greater than might have been supposed."

All of today's featured artists were old enough to have been recorded earlier but opportunity passed them by until the blues revival of the 1960's. In addition to the resurrection of the legendary artists of the past like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White and Skip James there were a slew of older artists uncovered who got a chance to make some recordings such as Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Pete Williams and Mance Lipscomb to name a few. Unlike those who recorded back in the 1920's and 30's for the commercial record companies and black consumers, those who recorded in the 1960's and 70's were being recorded primarily for a new found white audience, with the records issued usually on tiny specialist labels. The benefit wasn't in sales of records so much as it was the fact that these recordings would be an entry way into the festival and coffeehouse circuit. Unfortunately many of these small labels never lasted into the CD era and hence many great albums remain long out of print. The bulk of today's recordings fall into that category.

 Scott Dunbar
Scott Dunbar

In the notes to his sole album, From Lake Mary issued on the Ahura Mazda label in 1970, Karl Micheal Wolfe wrote that "Today Scott Dunbar is a fisherman and guide on Lake Mary, father of six, and resident blues singer of Woodville and rural Wilkinson County, Mississippi. There everyone knows old Scott. We hope this record will make him known to a wider audience." Prior to the recordings in 1970 Dunbar was recorded by Frederic Ramsey, Jr. in 1954 as part of field recordings done under a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Ramsey's recordings appeared on the ten volume series Music from the South on Folkways with four of Dunbar's recordings on Music From The South Vol. 5: Song, Play And Dance and one side on Music From The South Vol. 10: Been Here And Gone. Three more issued sides were recorded in 1968, which appeared on the album Blues From The Delta, the companion album to William Ferris' influential book of the same name.

Dunbar gave up the juke joints because they were too dangerous and in later years played primarily for whites. William Ferris wrote in Blues From The Delta that "I recorded thirty-seven songs during my visits with Dunbar and of these, two thirds were sung white style in the key of C. " The thirteen songs on From Lake Mary are mostly blues, likely selected to appeal to the blues revival market while the vast majority of recordings from this session have not been issued, forty-eight unissued sides in total.  At lengthy recording sessions n February, April and August of 1970 Dunbar proves to be a true songster, laying down songs like "Wabash Cannonball", "Sally Good'n", "Blue Heaven", "Tennessee Waltz" and  "You Are My Sunshine." In 1994 Fat Possum reissued From Lake Mary on CD with no additional tracks.Dunbar passed away at the age of 90 in 1994 with his death largely unnoticed outside of a couple of obituaries in blues magazines and a recorded legacy of  nineteen issued sides.

Bill Williams, was a 72-year old bluesman from Greenup, Kentucky, when he made his debut for Blue Goose in the early 1970's. Stephen Calt wrote that "The previously unrecorded Williams ranks among the most polished and proficient living traditional bluesmen, and has a large repertoire embracing ragtime, hillbilly, and even pop material. He is also the only known living associate of Blind Blake, his own favorite guitarist. …Disbelief is the inevitable reaction to incredible Bill Williams, a former partner of Blind Blake who is without doubt the most technically accomplished living country blues guitarist. …While living in Bristol, Tennessee in the early 1920's Bill met the peerless Blind Blake who was then living with an elderly woman (perhaps a relative) in a desolate nearby country area. For four months Bill worked as Blake's regular second guitarist…" Williams cut just two LP's, both for Blue Goose: Low And Lonesome and The Late Bill Williams 'Blues, Rags and Ballads plus had one song on the anthology These Blues Is Meant To Be Barrelhoused.

From the notes to The Late Bill Williams 'Blues, Rags and Ballads, Stephen Calt wrote: "For a guitarist of such uncommon ability Bill Williams enjoyed an all-too brief period of public recognition. Within fifteen minutes of the time he first picked up an instrument in 1908 he was accomplished enough to play a song, but he was still completely unknown beyond his home town of Greenup, Kentucky before Blue Goose recorded him in the fall of 1970 and issued an album (Low and Lonesome) that brought him unqualified acclaim as a 73-year old folk find. A brief series of concert engagements (notably at the Smithsonian Institution and the Mariposa Folk Festival) followed, along with an extended recording session in New York, before a heart ailment brought about his musical retirement. In October of 1973, nearly three years to the day of his recording debut, he was fatally stricken in his sleep. This memorial album and its soon to be released sequel will constitute the remainder of Bill's musical legacy."

Jewell "Babe" Stovall was a Mississippi-born songster who was born in 1907 in Tylertown, MS, Babe was the youngest of 11 children, most of them musicians. Stovall learned guitar when he was around eight years old, and was soon playing breakdowns, frolics, and parties in the area, even meeting and learning "Big Road Blues" from Tommy Johnson. He moved to Franklinton, LA, in the 1930s, and split his time between there and Tylertown for several years, picking up whatever work he could as a farmhand. In 1964 he moved to New Orleans, where he was "discovered" working as a street singer in the French Quarter, his act featuring crowd-pleasing antics like playing his National Steel guitar behind his head and shouting out his song lyrics in a voice so loud that it carried well down the street. He recorded an LP for Verve in 1964, simply titled Babe Stovall (re-released on CD by Flyright in 1990), and did further sessions in 1966 released on Southern Sound as The Babe Stovall Story and with Bob West in 1968 (which form the basis of The Old Ace: Mississippi Blues & Religious Songs, released on Arcola in 2003), and became active on the folk and blues college circuit, as well as holding down a house gig at the Dream Castle Bar in New Orleans. Stovall died in 1974 in New Orleans.

Bruce Bastin called Frank Hovington or Guitar Frank as he was also known, "one of the finest singers to have been recorded during the 1970's…steeped in a tradition which is as much part of him as is the countryside about him." Bastin and Dick Spotswood recorded Frank in 1975, issuing the album Lonesome Road Blues on the Flyright label (reissued in 2000 as Gone With The Wind with several additional tracks). Frank was still in fine form when he reluctantly agreed to perform for Axel Küstner and Siegfried Christmann in 1980. The results were issued as part of their remarkable Living Country Blues series. Hovington started on ukulele and banjo as a child and teamed with Willliam Walker in the late '30s and '40s playing at house parties and dances in Frederica, Pennsylvania. Hovington moved to Washington D.C. in the late '40s, and backed such groups as Stewart Dixon's Golden Stars and Ernest Ewin's Jubilee Four. Hovington moved to Delaware in 1967 where he passed in 1982.


Sylvester Weaver Photo

In part one we followed Sylvester Weaver's career up through his April 1927 sessions. Up to that point Weaver had only sang lead on two numbers but in upcoming sessions would sing on several numbers. Weaver sang in a careful, deliberate manner which revealed a fine baritone. What wasn't evident was his lyric ability which displays a wicked wit and some very imaginative an unusual imagery. I'll be reprinting many of these lyrics and want to thank John M. and the folks at Weenie Campbell who have done a remarkable job transcribing Weaver's lyrics.

One of Weaver's duties for Okeh was apparently as talent scout. On April 27th April, 1927 he received the following Western Union cable from Tom Rockwell, OKeh's Director of Recording:

Report with Jug-band as soon as possible.

Wire me Chase Hotel when you leave and if quartet and girls is coming.
T.G. Rockwell

It's clear from this that Weaver was in charge of bringing talent to the OKeh studio in St. Louis for the session on April 29th and 30th. The jug band mentioned in the cable is Whistler and His Jug Band which had recorded for Gennet in 1924. The others taking part in the session were Helen Humes and the Kentucky Jubilee Four. The Kentucky Jubilee Four cut four religious sides on April 29th and Helen Humes made her debut the next day. Although Lonnie Johnson played on Humes' two issued sides, Weaver may have played on the session too since one of the unissued titles is "Stomping Weaver's Blues."

On August 30th Weaver accompanied Sara Martin for the last time in New York on a four song session and the following day cut six solo sides, two of which were unissued. Martin's sides are particularly strong and Weaver's playing is as tasteful and inventive as we've come to be expect. "Black Hearse Blues" is a commanding performance with dark, unique lyrics:

Old dead wagon, don't you dare stop at my door (2X)
You took my first three daddies, but you can't have number four

Smallpox got my first man, booze killed number two (2X)
I wore out the last one but with this one, I ain't through

Roll on, old black hearse, don't you dare to stop (2X)
My man ain't fit to die, he's a special liquor cop

Low-down bone orchard, call your corpse cart back (2X)
My daddy's engine still running on my double track

Black hearse, there ain't no use, you sure can't have my man
Black hearse, ain't no use, you sure can't have my man
I'm just using him up on the old installment plan

"Useless Blues" is sung in a lighter manner but showcases Martin singing from the viewpoint of a saucy, independent woman as she explains to her man:

Oh, hey, what's that I heard you say?
Hey, what's that I heard you say?
You are going away and leave me today

If you go away, and leave me today (2x)
Says, you can't come back, so you had better stay

Uh, here's a little lesson I want you to learn (2X)
That if you play with fire you are sure to get burned

Now, you know you used to love me just like a sheik (2X)
But now all you can do is to pat my cheek

So if you want to come back, papa, you've got to get some monkey glands (2X)
'Cause I don't want no cripple man hanging on my hands

Dad's blues AdThe following day Weaver cut four vocal numbers: the instrumentals "Soft Steel Piston" and "Off Center Blues" with the latter two numbers unissued and no copy of "Off Center Blues" found. "Soft Steel Piston" first surfaced in the 1970's and like "Six String Banjo Piece", no file information exists on this number. It was first issued on the album Folk Music In America Vol. 14 – Solo And Display Music part of a 15 LP Library of Congress series to celebrate the Bicentennial in 1976. Both numbers were likely provided titles by Dick Spottswood who compiled and wrote the notes for the series. "Soft Steel Piston" is lovely, gentle mid-tempo number featuring Hawaiian style slide with  Weaver accompanied by guitarist Walter Beasley. "Dad's Blues" is a beautiful twelve-bar blues as is "What Makes A Man Blue" with a musically similar approach.  "Can't Be Trusted Blues" is languorously sung blues as Weaver delivers menacing lyrics quite at odds with his mellow vocals:

I don't love nobody, that's my policy (2X)
I'll tell the world that nobody can get along with me

I can't be trusted, can't be satisfied (2X)
The men all know it and pin their women to their side

I will sure back-bite you, gnaw you to the bone (2X)
I don't mean maybe, I can't let women alone

Pull down your windows and lock up all your doors (2X)
Got ways like the devil, papa's skating on all fours

"Penitentiary Bound Blues" is another mellow number given an exceptional lonesome sounding vocal performance as Weaver really inhabits the persona of a prisoner resigned to his fate:

Thought I was goin' to the workhouse, my heart was filled with strife (2X)
But I'm goin' to the penitentiary, judge sentenced me for life

There'll be rock walls around me, burnin' sand below
There'll be rock walls around me, burnin' land below
There forever, got no other place to go

Goodbye, here's the jailer with the key (2X)
Farewell to freedom, tain't no use to pity me

Gonna get my number, four-eleven forty-four (2X)
Soon be an inmate, steel upon my door

Killed my triflin' woman, folks, I done commit a crime (2X)
Nothin' will release me but old Father Time

Weaver Ad 8504Weaver was back in the studios for two sessions on November 26th and 27th. Walter Beasley appears alongside Weaver on all numbers and Helen Humes recorded eight numbers with the duo. In 1977 Jim O'Neal interviewed Humes (Living Blues No. 52, 1982) and she recalled Weaver and the circumstances behind these recordings:

LIVING BLUES: You made some records with Sylvester Weaver.

HELEN HUMES: Yes, he was the man, he had heard me play with a little band-we had a little Sunday school band and we would go out and play for little dances, you how, and play at the theater and what have you. And Mr. Weaver heard me and he brought Mr. Rockwell out to my house to hear me sing and play. I used to play the piano. So I played and sang for Mr. Rockwell, and he wanted me to come to St. Louis to make this tape. And so 1 went, he tool; my mother with me because I was a little young to travel by myself. So then after I made that, well, he wanted me to call my mother to ask her if I could join a show. And my mother told him no, I'd have to finish school first, and then after I finished school, than whatever I wanted to do, she would go along, you know, if it was something nice.

Was Sylvester Weaver involved with your work very much?

No, no, on that just that particular thing.

Did the producers or the A&R men give those songs to you, or did you have some songs already?

No, they gave 'em to me. Yeah. There, boy, here I am, a little 14-year-old, singing Do What You Did Last Night, [Laughs] and If Papa Has Outside Lovin', Mama Has Outside Lovin' Too. You know I didn't have that. [Laughs.] Yes

One year before her death Humes wrote writer Guido Van Rijn the following letter in response to an inquiry:

"We were playing a theater called The Palace, at 11th and Walnut and Mr. Weaver heard me, and came to me and introduced himself. I had heard of him, but had never met him before. He got my name, address and phone number, and the next time I saw him he was at my house Mr. Rockwell. He became very good friends with my mother and father, and when I made my second session in New York, my mother let me go with Mr. and Mrs. Weaver. He used to play the T.O.B.A. circuit and traveled the south. He was very well-known down there. …I've never heard no one say a bad thing about Mr. Weaver. All his Smoketown friends adored him. He was so nice + friendly and everybody in Ky. adored him."

The Humes recordings are marked by some terrific backing from Weaver and Beasley who, free from vocal duties, lay down some exciting, dramatic accompaniment . While Humes sounds young, she possesses a strong, bright voice with clear diction and really sings these numbers with conviction. The lyrics to many are quite unusual and I assume it was probably Weaver who wrote the numbers.  Take "Cross-Eyed Blues" for example:

Got one superstition, that's the one I really prize (2X)
I don't like nobody who's got a pair of mean crossed eyes

Had a cross-eyed man, hateful as a man could be (2X)
Slept with his eyes open, always looking 'cross at me

Gee, but he was ugly, eyed me every way I turn (2X)
I could feel him lookin', Lordy, how his eyes did burn

Crossed eyes make me shiver, 'cause they're evil, low and mean (2X)
Hateful as the Devil, queerest eyes I've ever seen

Folks who's got them cross-eyes, says they see in vain
Folks who's got them cross-eyes, things they see is always wrong
That's why me and cross-eyes, never gonna get along

If I see a cross-eyed person I was about to meet (2X)
I'd just cross my fingers, then I'd walk across the street

"Alligator Blues" is a similarly strange and intriguing number with a cinematic quality:

Sleepin' in the swamps last night, down in the Everglades (2X)
Woke and found the alligators 'bout to make a raid

Heard 'em talkin' softly, said, "We're gonna have dark meat." (2X)
Gee, their mouths did water, thought that they was gonna eat

My flesh commenced to crawlin', my skin began to itch (2X)
It was time for travelin', but the swamp was dark as sin

Soon the moon was shinin' softly through the old cane brake (2X)
Got myself together for a dash I tried to make

The sweat it was a-popping, hair was standing on my head (2X)
I said, "Lord, have mercy, or that woman's gonna be dead

"Alligator Blues" was advertised in the January 14th, 1928 Chicago Defender as the flipside to "Everybody Does It Now." "Race Horse Blues" is a another humorous number featuring some exciting interplay between Weaver and Beasley and more marvelous wordplay; the third couplet's a real gem:

Went down to the race track, with my money in my hand (2X)
Bet on Chocolate Puddin', but he just an also-ran

On old Fleetfoot Suzy, I done and went and bet the most (2X)
She never did get started, the ponies left her at the post

Never seen a race horse like the one that broke my heart (2X)
Just a rippling has-been, he made my dough from me depart

Darn that lazy jockey, wouldn't do what he was told (2X)
Now I'm in the barrel, sweet papa's left in the cold

Bet on old Speeding Meter, sure thing and he couldn't lose (2X)
Now I'm broke and busted and cryin' with the race horse blues

Similar lyrical invention can be found in "Nappy Headed Blues" and the hilariously vivid ""Garlic Blues." Weaver takes the vocals on six numbers including fine narrative blues like "Chitlin' Rag Blues", "Railroad Porter Blues", the latter advertised in the Chicago Defender with its flipside "Polecat Blues", and more striking lyricism in "Me And My Tapeworm" and "Devil Blues." Dick Spottswood wrote the following regarding "Me And My Tapeworm:"

Polecat Blues 78"This gourmand's confession is one of several intriguing and previously undocumented recordings which have emerged from the CBS archives. No information in their extensive files revealed its existence; a sample pressing was made to determine what the music was. Though we are certain about the performers' identities, the title of the song is taken from song's words."

The song first surfaced in the 1970's along with "Soft Steel Piston" and "Six String Banjo Piece" and, like those numbers appears as part of a 15 LP Library of Congress series to celebrate the Bicentennial in 1976 o the volume titled Folk Music In America Vol. 11 – Songs Of Humor And Hilarity. Why this number wasn't released is anybody's guess. The lyrics are truly remarkable and the numbers sports some marvelous bottleneck that really drive the song home:

Gee, I'm always hungry, can't get enough to eat
Gee, I'm hungry, can't get enough to eat
I'm just like a savage, I could eat a barrel of meat

Set down to the table, ate up everything I could found
Set down to the table, ate up everything I found
Would have ate the dishes if someone hadn't been around

Pot of ham and cabbage, ain't enough to fill mine (2X)
That just makes me peckish, I could eat a dozen fine

Saw my family doctor, said I had a big tapeworm
I saw my family doctor, said I had a big tapeworm
Said I had ate a cow, made me good and firm

Went to the country, broke into a chicken coop
I went to the country, broke into a chicken coop
Stole a dozen chickens, put 'em in a pot of soup

I'm a greedy glutton, eat fifty times a day (2X)
When I'm around a pigpen, they hide the slop away

Guess me and my tapeworm must go further down the road (2X)
'Cause we eat so much, won't nobody give us no board

"Devil's Blues" is another imaginative and humorous number:

Had a dream while sleeping, found myself way down below, my Lord,
I had a dream while sleeping, found myself way down below
Couldn't get to Heaven, Hell's the place I had to go

Devil had me cornered, stuck me with his old pitchfork (2X)
And he put me in an oven, thought he had me for roast pork

Hellhounds start to chasin' me and I was a runnin' fool
Hellhounds start to chase me and I was a runnin' fool
My ankles caught on fire, couldn't keep my puppies cool

Four thousand devils with big tails and sharp horns, my Lordy,
Saw a thousand devils with tails and sharp horns
Everyone wandered, tried to step on my corns

For miles around I heard men scream and yell, my Lord,
For miles around, heard men scream and yell
Couldn't see a woman, I said, "Lord, ain't this Hell?"

This number was surprisingly updated by Lazy Bill Lucas in 1954 for Chance as "I Had A Dream." The two day session was of a remarkably productive, high caliber with Weaver and Beasley proving an unbeatable team. Sore Feet Blues 78Nothing is known of Beasley and when asked Humes did not remember him. The duo cut loose on two instrumentals: the breakneck masterpiece "Bottleneck Blues" and a gorgeous, seductive reading of "St. Louis Blues."

Weaver and Beasley were back in the studio for the final time on November 30th for a five song session. It was Beasley's turn to shine, taking the vocal on four numbers: "Georgia Skin", "Southern Man Blues", "Toad Frog Blues" and "Sore Feet Blues."  "Georgia Skin" is named for the card game celebrated by Peg Leg Howell, Memphis Minnie and others. Beasley draws out his vocals slowly and surely, revealing a very expressive vocal style. The session features superb integration between bottleneck and the accompanying guitar, particularly on "Toad Frog Blues" and "Sore Feet Blues." There seems to be a a bit of conjecture as to who's playing the bottleneck and who's providing accompaniment. Once again we are treated to some imaginative lyrics as in "Toad Frog Blues" which touches on the surreal:

Tadpole in the river, hatchin' underneath of a log (2X)
He got too old to be a tadpole, he hatched into a natch'l frog

If a toad frog had wings, he would be flyin' all around (2X)
He would not have his bottom bumpin' thumpin' on the ground

Ever time I see a toad frog, Lord, it makes me cry (2X)
Make me think about my baby, when he (sic) roll her goo-goo eyes

The humorous "Sore Feet Blues" is another gem sporting a very droll delivery from Beasley:

I got two feet, keeps me with the blues (2X)
Got nineteen corns, can't wear nar' pair shoes

A peg-legged man, he's one lucky fool (2X)
Only got one feet to hurt, he kicks that like a mule

I can't walk, feets hurts me when I stand
I can't walk around, my feets hurts me when I stand
Got to take a lesson, learn to walk on my hands

'Black Spider Blues" is a solo number taken at Weaver's typically relaxed pace with some terrific superstitious imagery:

Saw a big black spider, creepin' up my bedroom wall (2X)
Finds out he was only goin' to get his ashes hauled

Say, if that black spider bit you, it would be "Too bad, Jim" (2X)

Give your heart to the devil and your hips would belong to him

I'm gonna get a black spider, put him in the bottom of your shoe (2X)
That's the only way I can get rid of a jade like you

A rattlesnake is dangerous, a black spider is worser still (2X)
A razor gun, a pistol, will kill you like a black spider will

I been workin' like a work ox, on Saturday night you got my pay (2X)
While you're in the black bottom dance hall, black bottomin' your
time away.

Black spider, black horses, black horses with the curtains down (2X)
Black gal, you and your black bottom be six feet in the ground

Sylvester Weaver's career came to an abrupt end after these recordings. It's unknown why he stopped recording as he appears to have still been quite popular. Of his post-recording career we know that Weaver went into the Chauffeur business. As the blues revival was picking up steam, Weaver died of carcinoma of the tongue on April 4th, 1960 at 2001 Old Shepardville Road in Louisville. It was only two years after his death hat blues researcher Paul Garon, at the prompting of Paul Oliver, spoke to Weaver's widow Dorothy who said she had never heard her husband play. Garon would later open up a Chicago book store named Beasley Books (wonder where he got that name?!) which remains active to this day. Fortunately Weaver's widow saved some of his old records and his scrapbook which has become a prime source of information about Weaver's recording activities. In 1992 the Kentucky Blues Society raised enough funds to place a headstone on the grave of Sylvester Weaver, and this same organization presents its Sylvester Weaver Award annually to "those who have dedicated their lives to presenting, preserving, and perpetuating the blues."

Railroad Porter Blues Ad

Can't Be Trusted Blues (MP3)

Penitentiary Blues (MP3)

Soft Steel Piston (MP3)

Me And My Tapeworm (MP3)

Devil Blues (MP3)

Alligator Blues (MP3)

Race Horse Blues (MP3)

Bottleneck Blues (MP3)

St. Louis Blues (MP3)

Toad Frog Blues (MP3)

Sore Feet Blues (MP3)


Smoketown Strut 78

It's hard to think of the blues without a guitar but in the years when blues first emerged on record it was the blues queens who dominated the market. When the guitar did appear, after several years, it was treated as quite a novelty. The man who introduced the guitar on record was the remarkable guitarist Sylvester Weaver, a man of many talents who cut a significant body of work at the dawn of the blues recording era but remains little remembered today. Not only does he have the distinction of making the first solo recordings of blues guitar playing in 1923 but he was also the first to provide guitar accompaniment on record, backing the popular Sara Martin. Through the end of 1927, when Weaver decided to retire from music, he recorded a total of 26 sides under his own name, two dozen sides backing Sara Martin and eight sides accompanying a teenaged Helen Humes. Weaver was a consummate guitarist, displaying brilliance and invention on just about every session he was involved with, whether providing tasteful backing to female singers, playing deft slide or showing off his ragtime picking style. He also happened to be a fine banjo player, a mannered but superb blues singer and a lyricist of rare wit and invention.

Sylvester Weaver & Sara Martin
Sylvester Weaver & Sara Martin

Relatively little is known about Weaver although we are lucky that  he left behind a rare paper trail with several of his records advertised, a number of mentions in the black press of the time and most importantly the discovery of his scrapbook in the 1970's. Weaver was born on July 25, 1897 in Louisville, Kentucky, a resident of Smoketown, a neighborhood one mile southeast of downtown Louisville.  In fact Weaver lived his entire life in the Louisville area. From his death certificate we know that his father was Walter Weaver, his mother was Mattie who's maiden name was Emery and that he died of cancer on April 4, 1960 in Louisville. In Louisville blacks lived in separate colored districts: Uptown, Downtown and Smoketown.  Most of the area's blues artists came from Smoketown which acquired its name from the dirty smoke from the many small industrial plants burning soft coal for power and heat. The area had many saloons which featured blues singers playing guitar or piano in the back rooms. Smoketown has been a historically black neighborhood since the Civil War. With its shotgun houses and narrow streets, the neighborhood was a densely populated area with a population of over 15,000 by 1880. African American property ownership was rare, with most living in properties rented from whites. Weaver immortalized the area in the 1924 recording "Smoketown Strut." Outside of this biographical sketch little else is known and he was little remembered by his peers. The only artist to have anything to say about Weaver was Lonnie Johnson. Paul Oliver reported that Johnson "was very impressed by Weaver's guitar playing – in fact he very  seldom spoke about anyone else's work, but Weaver obviously  (in person anyway) was someone he respected." In all his years of intrepid blues research, Oliver writes, "Lonnie was the only blues singer I ever met who recalled Weaver." It was Johnson who gave Oliver the tip that Weaver was from Louisville as Oliver recalled: "Lonnie told me that while he was working in St. Louis, playing both for Charlie Creath's riverboat band and also at the Booker T. Washington Theatre in 1925, he met Sylvester Weaver who was traveling on tour with Sara Martin."

Weaver likely got on record through Sara Martin, also a native of Louisville, who was born there in 1884. She probably heard Weaver playing in the area and decided to use him on her recordings. Weaver first recorded in New York in 1923, where on October 23 of that year he accompanied Martin on two numbers, "Longing For Daddy Blues" and "I’ve Got to Go And Leave My Daddy Behind," for Okeh. Two Guitar Blues 78weeks later, Weaver cut his first pair of solo recordings, "Guitar Blues" and "Guitar Rag" for the same label. The Sara Martin selections represented the first time on records that a popular female singer had been backed up solely by guitar, and were an immediate success. Two more recordings with Martin were recorded at this session, "Roamin' Blues" b/w "Good-Bye Blues." Both "Guitar Blues" and "Guitar Rag" are smooth, melodic slide numbers probably played with a knife. It was "Guitar Rag" (Weaver recorded it again in 1927) that would prove influential as Dick Spottswood noted: "In 1936 it was recorded by Bob Wills, featuring his popular guitarist Leon McAuliffle, and called 'Steel Guitar Rag.' Without citing Weaver as the source of the melody, McAuliffle's version became a national hit and gave the amplified steel guitar a permanent place in country music." The song later returned to the blues canon when it was recorded on three different occasions in 1953 and 1969 by Earl Hooker.

As for the Martin/Weaver sides, the record companies were quick to capitalize on the novelty as this January 5 Chicago Defender ad makes clear:

WHO'S HEARD the man with the talking guitar?

The first blue guitar record out is the "Roamin' Blues" – a new Okeh. H-m-m-m! Sara Martin chirps, 'em sweet, and Sylvester Weaver certainly plays 'em strong on his big mean. blue guitar.

8104, don't forget that number.

"Longing for Daddy Blues" was actually the first guitar record but that record was not advertised. Early in 1924 Ralph S. Peer of the General Phonograph Corp., Okeh's parent company, wrote Sara Martin:

"ROAMIN' BLUES with guitar accompaniment is the biggest seller you have had since SUGAR BLUES. it might be well for you to rearrange your act so that this is your feature number using guitar accompaniment. It seems to me that this would make a wonderful encore number to be used very near the end of your act."

Another Okeh ad stated the following:

Sara Martin discovered the clever idea of making recordings with a guitar accompaniment, and the first records of this kind pit out have made remarkable impressions in all parts of the country. Sylvester Weaver plays his guitar in a highly original manner, which consists chiefly of sliding a knife up and down the strings while he picks with the other hand. His guitar solos, No. 8109, are having wide sales.

In 1924 Weaver, playing guitar and banjo, accompanied Martin on seven numbers at three sessions, two in Atlanta and one in New York.  One of the best numbers was "Pleading Blues", given a passionate reading from Martin. The number was advertised in the October 18, 1924 edition of the Chicago Defender (Weaver actually plays guitar not banjo on this number):


This blues spreadin' mama will sure satisfy your blues cravin' far, wide and handsome in "Pleading Blues". It's a mighty good tastin' sample of the kind of blues Sara totes. And that ain't all. 'Cause Sylvester Weaver rattles off the banjo accompaniment right snappy!

Point your dogs toward the OKeh store quick, for here's an OKeh Record that sure does leave you feelin' grand!

Sara Martin Ad

The March 21, 1924 session produced  two exceptionally strong blues: "Got To Leave My Home Blues" b/w "Poor Boy Blues" that prominently feature Weaver's dramatic playing, laying down some fine treble runs on the latter number and an exceptionally long solo on the former. As for Sara Martin, Tony Russell made the following observation: "In her early recordings Martin, like many of her contemporaries, sings blues without quite qualifying as a blues singer: her exaggeratedly correct diction, with its rolled 'r's, does little to distinguish her from contemporary white vaudeville artists." Her records took on a different tone once she began working with Weaver: "What is interesting about these records is not so much Weaver's deliberate guitar (and banjo) playing as the power it has to draw Martin still further from her vaudeville background and towards the kind of singing recently introduced on records by Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith."

weaver's Blues AdWeaver cut four solo instrumentals in 1924 at two sessions in New York: "Smoketown Strut", "I'm Busy And You Can't Come In", Mixin' 'Em Up In C" and "Weaver's Blues." "Smoketown Strut" was the lone number cut at a May 28th session and showcased Weaver on a wonderful mid-tempo ragtime number. On June 10th Weaver cut three numbers including the driving "I'm Busy And You Can't Come In" played in a similar style to "Smoketown Strut" and based on the well known tune "Keep-A-Knocking But You Can't Come In." "Mixing Them Up In C" and "Weaver's Blues" are performed in a similar style but at a slower tempo. Weaver hardly played any fast pieces. This latter pairing was advertised in a 1925 Christmas ad in the Chicago Defender: Sylvester Weaver wants you to hear one of his best Okeh records. At the time of the first LP reissue of Weaver's sides, Smoketown Strut (Agram, 1983), this record (OK 8207) was still missing. Weaver was also mentioned in a full-page OKeh records ad in the June 19th, 1924 Chicago Defender: World's greatest Race Artists and they record exclusively for OKeh Race Records. Pictured are Sara Martin, Clarence Williams, Virginia Liston, Sippie Wallace, Ed Andrew and fifteen other artists including Sylvester Weaver "with the talkin' guitar." Speaking of Virginia Liston there is a possibility that Weaver plays on her "Jail House Blues" recorded on January 10, 1924.

Weaver would not record for almost a year when he returned for as six-song session in St. Louis on April 24, 1925 with Sara Martin, banjoist Charles Washington and violinist E.L. Coleman. Coleman, Washington and Weaver back Martin up on "Strange Lovin' Blues" b/w "I Can Always Tell When A Man Is Treatin' Me Cool." Weaver backs Martin unaccompanied on the sides except for the instrumental "Steel String Blues" which was issued under the name Instrumental Trio. Like "Strange Lovin' Blues", Weaver plays slide, probably with a knife, on this draggy instrumental.

Weaver was absent from the studio in 1926 because of the death of Sara Martin's brother. 1927, however, True Love Adwould prove to be Weaver's busiest on record and also his last. The year began with four sessions in April in New York. For the April 6 session he formed a vocal trio with Sara Martin and her future second husband Hayes B. Withers. Four religious titles were recorded with two unissued. "I Am Happy In Jesus" b/w "Where Shall I Be?" features Weaver playing rather sedately on the latter number but more sprightly on the former with just a hint of ragtime flavor. These sides are also the first to present Weaver's vocals on record, albeit as background with Withers' in service to Martin's lead. The following day Weaver accompanied Martin on two superb slow blues "Gonna Ramble Blues" b/w "Teasing Brown Blues."

Weaver returned to the studio to record five solo songs on April 12th and 13th including his first vocals numbers: "True Love Blues" b/w "Poor Boy Blues." Both numbers show Weaver's guitar prowess, soloing at length and with plenty of imagination. Perhaps the length of his solos is due to his lack of confidence as a vocalist but these numbers prove Weaver a fine, if understated vocalist. Weaver delivers his lines in a careful, deliberate manner but possesses a rich, slightly quavering baritone that has an appealingly lonesome quality. The remaining sides feature a terrific update of "Guitar Rag" with a more melodic approach plus Damfino Stump" and "Six String Banjo Piece" which spotlight Weaver on the banjo-guitar. It wasn't until the 1970's that it was announced that a copy of "Damfino Stump" had finally surfaced and one who had heard it suggested a mishearing of Damn Fine Stomp! Cor van Sliedregt, who provides guitar analysis on the Agram LP had this to say: "Fifteen progressions, each of only eight ragtime bars with a richness of harmonic and rhythmic variations. …That Weaver knew his fingerboard inside out, this dynamic instrumental proves. …A 'damn fine' stomp indeed." "Six String Banjo Piece" was a previously unknown and unissued number, which also surfaced in the 1970's. No file information exists on this number and the number was first issued on the album Folk Music In America Vol. 14 – Solo And Display Music part of a 15 LP Library of Congress series to celebrate the Bicentennial in 1976. The title was apparently given by Dick Spottswood who compiled and wrote the notes for the series. This is one of the rare, relatively fast numbers and has the swing and drive of Weaver's best instrumentals.

Guitar Blues (MP3)

Guitar Rag (MP3)

Pleading Blues (MP3)

Got To Leave My Home Blues (MP3)

Smoketown Strut (MP3)

Gonna Ramble Blues (MP3)

True Love Blues (MP3)

Poor Boy Blues (MP3)

Damfino Stump (MP3)

Guitar Rag (1927) (MP3)


Robert Johnson

OK, with the recent high profile articles in Vanity Fair I can honestly say that I've reached my limit regarding Robert Johnson. If you missed this I'm referring to Frank DiGiacomo's Searching For Robert Johnson and his follow-up A Disputed Robert Johnson Photo Gets the C.S.I. Treatment which deal with a possible newly found Johnson photo. At this point more ink has been spilled on Robert Johnson than any other blues artist and while there has been plenty of quality research on the elusive bluesman it's been largely buried in layers of hyperbole, mythology, speculation, romanticism and sheer nonsense.  I have no idea if the new photo is Johnson, nor do I care all that much, and to be fair DiGiacomo's articles are well written and don't wallow in the kind of nonsense that usually makes the rounds. That's no really the point. The point is the relentless scrutiny on Johnson at the expense of so many other worthy blues artists that never get a mention – AKA the Eric Clapton mentality – "he is the most important blues musician who ever lived." Who appointed Clapton the authority on such matters anyway? By the time the Complete Recordings were issued in 1990 (going gold and selling over a million copies by 1994) "mythology had consumed reality" as Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch wrote in Robert Johnson: Lost And Found.

Unfortunately this obsession on every minutiae of Johnson’s life has taken away the focus on his very real talents and perhaps more importantly this lopsided focus on Johnson has obscured the fact that he was very much part of a tradition; his music firmly built on the artists who came before like Lonnie Johnson and Tampa Red who don’t get a shred of the acclaim that Johnson does. Johnson remains one of the blues great artists, his brilliance was in how he borrowed, reshaped, synthesized and added his own brilliance to the music of those who came before to create a powerfully individual style. It would be nice if this intense spotlight on Johnson spilled over to raise the awareness of other equally worthy early blues artists but this doesn't seem to be the case. Instead this endless focus on unverifiable photos, the exact crossroads he sold his soul to the devil, etc. only trivializes his accomplishments while further obscuring those of his contemporaries and predecessors.


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