Sat 3 May 2008
In the 1920's and 1930's all the major labels were deeply invested in the blues, sending mobile recording units all over the south in search of talent. In the late 1950's and early 1960's the major labels were no longer recording blues, although that would change as the blues revival kicked into gear. Instead of mobile recordings units there was a committed group of collectors roaming the south in search of the old time bluesmen that appeared on their cherished 78's; men like Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Bukka White, Furry Lewis and Son House. They most certainly weren't looking for a minor figure like Joe Callicott, who waxed a lone 78 in Memphis in 1930, the year before played second guitar on Garfield Akers' "Cottonfield Blues Parts 1 & 2." It was the indefatigable field recorder George Mitchell who found him in Nesbit, Mississippi off Highway 51 not far from Hernando and short distance from Brights were Akers was supposedly born. It appears Mitchell was looking for Callicott although it's unclear if he was tipped off about his whereabouts or if it was his own initiative: "On that Saturday in Hernando, we pulled up in front of a cluster of Black men shooting the bull in front of the courthouse and spitting tobacco juice on the sidewalk. …I asked if anyone had ever heard of Joe Callicott." He was directed to Nesbit, seven miles south where he was greeted by a smiling, friendly man: "How y'all doing? Have a seat. I'm Joe."
Callicott's "comeback" was about as short as his first recording career, lasting from the summer of 1967 through the summer of 1968; he recorded nineteen sides for Mitchell either late August or early September (split between Revival's Deal Gone Down and Arhoolie's Mississippi Delta Blues – "Blow My Blues Away" Vol. 2) four sides at the 1968 Memphis Country Blues Festival (split between The 1968 Memphis Country Blues Festival and Stars Of The 1969-1970 Memphis Country Blues Festival) and seventeen sides for Blue Horizon in 1968 which have all been issued in 2007 as Furry Lewis & Mississippi Joe Callicott: The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions. For a complete listing of his recordings visit the Joe Callicott discography.
I first encountered the Callicott's music on Mississippi Delta Blues – "Blow My Blues Away" Vol. 2 and found myself going back to those recordings often. He was a good, if unspectacular guitarist, picking out simple, gently surging melodies in a manner that brings to mind Mississippi John Hurt, but as a singer he was magnificent. There's a timbre and warmth to his vocals that immediately draw the listener into his world and even in his old age he was still capable of delivering a beautiful falsetto in the manner popularized by Tommy Johnson. Callicott's music is often compared to medicine show artists from the area as Paul oliver noted in the liners to the original Blue Horizon LP: "Nesbit is only a score of miles south of Memphis in the red earth country of De Soto county. From here and the adjacent Tate and Marshall counties a number of the old-style songsters lived …Among them were the medicine show and jug band musicians like Jim Jackson from Hernando four miles from Nesbit, Frank Stokes, a blacksmith who lived some fifteen miles further south in Senatobia, and Gus Cannon from Red Banks, about the same distance to the east." David Evans noted that Callicott: "…shows a close musical affinity to his old friend Frank Stokes. Both have a kind of quavering vocal delivery, which combined with clear diction and a good feeling for lyrics can be very effective in putting across the meaning of a song." Callicott's recordings for Mitchell are superior to those on Blue Horizon, captured in beautiful form on mostly traditional material like "Laughing To Keep From Crying", the title drawn from a line drawn from Virginia Liston's "You Don' Know my Mind" from 1923, an unusually detailed version of "Frankie And Albert", "Roll And Tumble" and others. Callicott seems distracted and less focused on the Blue Horizon session possibly due to the presence of Bill Barth (second guitar) and Bukka White (whistling). He does turn in some fine performances including "Hoist Your Window And Let Your Curtain Down", "Joe's Troubled Blues", the ancient "War Time Blues" which probably dates back to World War I (Yack Taylor's "Those Draftin' Blues" is lyrically and melodically similar) and a fine version of Akers' "Dough Roller Blues" which sports the arresting lyric: "I'll cut your throat woman/Drink your blood like wine."
Of those early recordings, "Cottonfield Blues Parts 1 & 2" is a classic Mississippi blues hollered over a the throbbing groove of the amazingly tight twin guitars of Akers and Callicott. Callicott explained the set up: "I kept him chorded up good, trackin' him…You hear them bases? Well, that's me. Hear them little strings? Well, that's him…And when that guy would get to playin', I'm tellin' you the truth-we'd sit face to face. And we changed up [i.e., swapped guitar lead]…and you wouldn't know it." The duo were swept up by one of those mobile recording unit as Gayle Wardlow explained in his groundbreaking article, Garfield Akers and Mississippi Joe Callicott: From the Hernando Cotton Fields: "In the fall of 1929 Brunswick/Vocalion Records made its initial field trip to Memphis to record talent for its Vocalion 1000 and Brunswick 7000 Race series. The session at the Peabody Hotel was highlighted by the first recorded appearances of Garfield Akers, Mattie Delaney, and Kid Bailey, concomitantly with veterans Memphis Minnie and Tampa Red. Callicott recorded his lone 78, "Fare Thee Well Blues/Traveling Mama Blues", for Brunswick in 1930 at a second session in Memphis where Akers also recorded again ("Dough Roller Blues/Jumpin' and Shoutin'").
It's worth quoting Oliver again from the concluding paragraph of his liner notes: "A wider recognition came almost too late but Joe appeared at the 1968 Memphis Blues Festival and was looking forward to a European trip. Back at his home, with the birds whistling and witnessed by his wife and their bellcow, he recorded his last testament; he died early in 1969 and with him went the last echoes of Mississippi country music of the earliest phase of the blues."
Fare Thee Well Blues (MP3)
Traveling Mama Blues  (MP3)
Garfield Akers – Cottonfield Blues (Pt. 1)  (MP3)
Garfield Akers – Cottonfield Blues (Pt. 2)  (MP3)
Laughing To Keep From Crying  (MP3)
Goodbye Baby Blues  (MP3)
Dough Roller Blues  (MP3)
Joe's Troubled Blues  (MP3)