J.T. Smith Howling Wolf Blues No. 1 The Original Howling Wolf 1930-31
J.T. Smith County Jail BluesThe Original Howling Wolf 1930-31
J.T. Smith Honey Blues The Original Howling Wolf 1930-31
Texas AlexanderDeep Blue Sea BluesTexas Alexander Vol. 1927-1928
Texas AlexanderThe Risin' SunTexas Alexander Vol. 1927-1928
Texas AlexanderSabine River Blues Texas Alexander Vol. 1927-1928
Henry ThomasTexas Worried Blues Texas Worried Blues
Henry ThomasCottonfield BluesTexas Worried Blues
Henry ThomasRailroadin' SomeTexas Worried Blues
Gene Campbell Somebody's Been Playin' PapaGene Campbell 1929-1931
Gene Campbell Robbin' and Stealin' BluesGene Campbell 1929-1931
Gene Campbell Overalls Papa BluesGene Campbell 1929-1931
Blind Lemon JeffersonOne Dime BluesThe Best Of
Blind Lemon JeffersonMatch Box BluesThe Best Of
Blind Lemon JeffersonThat Crawlin' Baby Blues The Best Of
J.T. SmithSeven Sisters Blues Part 1The Original Howling Wolf 1930-31
J.T. SmithFool's BluesJ. T. ''Funny Paper'' Smith 1930-1931
J.T. SmithHoppin' Toad FrogThe Original Howling Wolf 1930-31
Texas Alexander Boe Hog BluesTexas Alexander Vol. 1927-1928
Texas Alexander Johnny Behren's BluesTexas Alexander Vol. 2 1928-1930
Texas Alexander Seen Better Days Texas Alexander Vol. 2 1928-1930
Henry ThomasWoodhouse BluesTexas Worried Blues
Henry ThomasDon't Ease Me InTexas Worried Blues
Henry ThomasBull Doze BluesTexas Worried Blues
Gene Campbell "Toby'' Woman BluesToo Late Too Late Vol. 2
Gene Campbell Face to Face Blues Gene Campbell 1929-1931
Gene Campbell Wedding Day Blues Gene Campbell 1929-1931
Blind Lemon Jefferson'Lectric Chair BluesThe Best Of
Blind Lemon JeffersonSee That My Grave Is Kept CleanThe Best Of
Blind Lemon JeffersonRambler BluesThe Best Of
Henry Thomas Bob McKinneyTexas Worried Blues
Texas AlexanderTell Me Woman Blues Texas Alexander Vol. 2 1928-1930
Blind Lemon JeffersonLong Lonesome BluesThe Best Of

Show Notes:

To quote Tony Russell from the Penguin Guide To Blues: "All the companies involved in the blues business in the '20s and '30s made frequent recording trips to Dallas and San Antonio, and the music they collected and issued is a rich, colorful mixture of theatre and club artists, street singers and pianists circuit-riding the logging camps." In the 1920's Dallas became a recording center primarily because it is a geographical hub. The major race labels, those catering to a black audience, held regular sessions in Dallas. Okeh, Vocalion, Brunswick Columbia, RCA, and Paramount sent scouts and engineers to record local artists once or twice a year. Quite a number of sessions were also recorded in San Antonio with a few others cut in Fort Worth. Today we spotlight five of those artists: J.T. "Funny Papa" Smith, Texas Alexander, Henry Thomas, Gene Campbell and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

As Stephen Calt And Woody Man wrote in the notes to Funny Papa Smith: The Original Howling Wolf 1930-1931: "J.T. Smith ranks among the most significant Texas blues guitarists of the Twenties, along with Blind Lemon Jefferson and Little Hat Jones. His works are decidedly less offbeat than those of of the latter musicians; instead, they are practically definitive of what is known as Texas blues-playing. although Smith himself lived in Oklahoma at the time of his recording sessions. What little is known of him points up the possibility that he a pioneer of this very style, for he is believed to have been born more than a decade before the turn of the century. …Smith's lyrics were no less extraordinary than the variety of his blues-playing, and he remains one of the few recorded bluesman who could not only claim originality for his efforts but who made a real art of blues composition.

Smith was a minstrel who wandered about the panhandle region, performing at fairs, fish fries, dances and other community events (often in the company of figures including Tom Shaw, Texas Alexander and Bernice Edwards). Any lasting recognition Smith might have earned from a wide blues audience was undercut by a Depression recording debut and a recording career that  was short-circuited after the artist (an avid gambler) murdered a man in a gambling fracas. Between 1930 and 1931 he had recorded some twenty issued sides, more than any Texas artist of the period besides the even more obscure Gene Campbell. Evidently Smith's commercial billing as "Funny Paper Smith" was a gaffe on the part of record company officials. When Texas bluesman Tom Shaw met in Wickoffs, Oklahoma – a small town in the southwest corner of the state, between Grandfield and Frederick – te name "Funny Papa Smith"  was plainly stitched on his stovepipe hat and the work-overalls he customarily wore as the overseer of a local plantation. He was better known simply as Howling Wolf", the title of his debut recording. "That;s the one that made him famous," Shaw says of the song, which Smith recorded in two two-part versions.

…Shaw dates the killing episode to the latter part of 1930, but it more likely occurred the following year, as the first phase of Smith's recording career continued until the spring of 1931. In 1935 he recorded some eighteen sides (including Life In Prison Blues) but none of the works were released. A Fort Worth bluesman known as "Little Brother" who accompianed him on that date afterwards did a postwar version of Howling Wolf as Willie Lane." It's though smith passed away in 1940.

Texas Alexander was a Texan through and through, born in Jewett, Texas in 1900, passing in 1954 in Richards some seventy miles south (both towns lie about halfway between Dallas and Houston) and who was vividly remembered by fellow Texas bluesmen such as Lightnin' Hopkins, Lowell Fulson, Buster Pickens and Frankie Lee Sims. Alexander didn't play an instrument, although he did carry a guitar around in case their was a guitarist around who could accompany him when he sang on city streets or bars. Alexander's songs had a distinctly rural, southern viewpoint as evidenced in song titles such as "Corn-Bread Blues", "Levee Camp Moan Blues", "Farm Hand Blues", "Bantam Rooster Blues", "Bell Cow Blues", "Work Ox Blues", "Rolling Mill Blues" and "Prairie Dog Hole Blues" among others. "To the renters and 'croppers", Oliver wrote, "who had left the farms and bottom land plantations for the city, the voices of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Rambling Thomas or Texas Alexander were singing for them, sharing their own experiences and predicament. Crowds would cluster round them on Central Tracks and the coins would clatter-nickels and dimes-in their hats and tin cups." Alexander's lyrics are consistently interesting, often drawing on traditional motifs but stamped forcefully with his own personality, many of which finding their way into common blues parlance. Throughout his songs there is a frankness about sexuality that goes beyond the stock double entendre as well as strong anti-religious streak.Alexander was popular and prolific, cutting sixty-four issued sides between 1927 and 1934, first for Okeh and then for Vocalion. He had he good fortune to work with superb accompanists such as guitarists Little Hat Jones, Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang, Carl Davis, Willie Reed to the string band blues of the Mississippi Sheiks and the jazz bands of King Oliver and the mysterious His Sax Black Tams. Alexander didn't fare well in the post-war era; he was supposedly passed over by an Aladdin talent scout in favor of his then partner Lightnin' Hopkins (a demo tape was purportedly made) and made one final, rather unsatisfactory record for the Freedom label in 1950 before passing in 1954.

Alexander made his greatest records in the company of Lonnie Johnson at six sessions cut for Okeh between August 1927 and November 1928 at recording dates in San Antonio and New York City. Alexander's erratic sense of timing made him a challenge to work with as Lonnie Johnson related to Paul Oliver: "He was a very difficult singer to accompany; he was liable to jump a bar, or five bars, or anything. You just had to be a fast thinker to play for Texas Alexander. When you been out there with him you done nine days work in one! Believe me, brother, he was hard to play for."

All of Texas Alexander's recordings have been reissued on three volumes on the Matchbox label with good notes from Paul Oliver but rather uneven mastering. Unfortunately there is no single CD collection of Alexander's since Catfish's 98° Blues has been deleted. Also worth noting is the LP Texas Troublesome Blues on Agram which contains a very detailed booklet on Alexander's life and music. The Agram booklet written by Guido Van Rijn incorporated most of Lawrence Brown's 1981 research conducted with friends and relatives in Richards, Texas (Alexander's last residence 1951-54) which may be the only source where that information can found.

It was Mack McCormick who uncovered just about all we know about Henry Thomas which was published in the notes to Henry Thomas – "Ragtime Texas": Complete Recorded Works – 1927 to 1929 in Chronological Order on the Herwin label (read the entire notes below). McCormick's quest for information on Thomas began with an an encounter of a man he met in Houston in 1949 that he later became convinced was Henry Thomas. he even made a wire recording of the man which is now buried somewhere in McCormick's vast archive. As McCormick wrote: "As more of those old recordings came to light it became apparent that Henry Thomas was a singular and important figure. He left behind a total of 23 issued selections which represent one of the richest contributions to our musical culture. it"s goodtime music reaching out from another era: reels, anthems, stomps, gospel songs, dance calls, ballads, blues and fragments compressed in a blurring glimpse of black music as it existed in the last century. It's the songs that came out of the shifting days when freedmen and their children were remaking their lives in a hostile nation."Furthermore, "Ragtime Texas" was apparently the nickname by which he was known by other transients who rode the rails. McCormick explains, It's a hobo moniker. It isn't so much a musical designation as it is an assumed title of the same order as "Chicago Red" and "T-Bone Slim" and other such celebrities. It's a name to be written on water towers and box cars. Moreover it's a moniker remembered in parts of Oklahoma and Louisiana and Texas, but known best along a 150-mile strip of East Texas. This is the area he came from and it's here that fragments of his story have turned up."

Henry Thomas, nicknamed "Ragtime Texas", was born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas by most accounts, a town which lies roughly between Dallas and Shreveport. The 1874 date marks him as one of the eldest-born blues performers on record."Flailing his guitar", Tony Russell writes, "in now forgotten country dance rhythms, whistling delicate melodies on his panpies, gruffly chanting rag songs and blues, Thomas is a figure of almost legend." The portrait Thomas presents on his twenty-three recordings cut for Vocalion between 1927 to 1929 provides, Russell notes, "a wholly absorbing picture of black-country music before it was submerged beneath the tidal wave of the blues." Thomas embodied the term songster, cutting blues, rags, country stomps, refashioned coon songs and square dance numbers. Thomas was the archetypal rambling musician who went wherever the railroads would take him. According to Mack McCormick, as told to him from a former railroad conductor, "Ragtime Texas was a big fellow that used to come aboard at Gladewater or Mineola or somewhere in there. I'd always carry him, except when he was too dirty. He was a regular hobo, but I'd carry him most of the time. That guitar was his ticket." Speaking of his famous "Railroadin' Some", William Barlow calls it the most "vivid and intense recollection of railroading" in all the early blues recorded in the 1920's. As for his guitar, Stephen Calt ranked his work "with the finest dance blues ever recorded…its intricate simultaneous treble picking and drone bass would have posed a challenge to any blues guitarist of any era." The pan pipes also linked him to an earlier era and are most evocative in perhaps his best-known composition, "Bull Doze Blues", a song reworked by Canned Heat as "Going Up The Country", some 40 years after the original. After making his final recordings in Chicago in 1929, Henry Thomas disappeared completely from sight. Befitting his near-mythic stature some reports claim to have seen him perform as late as the mid-1950's on Texas street corners. It is believed that he most likely passed away sometime during this period. All of Thomas' recordings can be found on Texas Worried Blues on Yazoo and Henry Thomas ('Ragtime Texas') 1927-1929 on Document with little difference in sound quality although the Yazoo features detailed notes by Stephen Calt.

The following was extracted from Paul Swinton's A Twist Of  Lemon in issue 121 of Blues & Rhythm magazine (read the entire article below): "Although he was not the first male country blues singer/guitarist to record, Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first to succeed commercially and his success influenced previously reluctant record companies to actively seek out and record male country blues players in the hope of finding a similar talent. Throughout the’20s Lemon spearheaded a boom in ‘race’ record sales that featured male down-home blues singers and such was the appeal of his recordings that in turn they were responsible for inspiring a whole new generation of blues singers." Jefferson was the most heavily advertised blues artist, just behind Lonnie Johnson and Bessie Smith, with forty-four ads appearing in the Chicago Defender between 1926 and 1930.During the course of his career recorded 110 sides including alternate takes.

Jefferson was still a teenager when he moved into Dallas. The black community in Dallas were settled in an area covering approximately six blocks around Central Avenue up to Elm Street, the centre of which was Deep Ellum, a bustling thoroughfare full of bars, clubs and brothels. In its heyday, guitarists like Little Hat Jones and Funny Papa Smith were among the numerous blues artists seen on these streets. …Jefferson continued to travel far and wide, followed the cotton crops and visited most of the major cities in the South. …Occasionally he would have a young man to ‘lead’ for him (both the young Josh White and Aaron ‘T Bone’ Walker were both employed in this capacity at one time) and as he moved from state to state, he would occasionally hitch up with other musicians.

By 1925 Paramount Records was doing good business with its ‘race’ series. It mainly consisted of big-selling female vaudeville blues singers like Ida Cox and Ma Rainey, banjo player ‘Papa’ Charlie Jackson and various Jazz outfits. They had managed to set up some unique distribution arrangements, being the first company to instigate a mail order service and also to secure major southern wholesalers for their ‘race’ records. The majority of their affairs were handled in either Port Washington, Wisconsin, by Art Liably, whose official title was ‘recording director’, but who mainly took charge of sales, or in Chicago by Mayo Williams (the first ever coloured executive in a white recording company), who had control of Artists & Repertoire. Liably had secured a deal with Dallas record store manager R. T. Ashford to sell Paramount records. Soon after, either Ashford or possibly pianist Sam Price (who at this time was working as a salesman under Ashford), contacted Liably with the suggestion that they record a local celebrity. In due course Jefferson was bought to the studio in Chicago and one of the most successful recording careers of the pre-war era began. Jefferson’s first release, ‘Booster Blues’ & ‘Dry Southern Blues’, came out in or around March 1926. It captured the imagination of black record buyers and became a massive hit. …Throughout 1926 there was a constant supply of new releases from Jefferson, ‘Black Horse Blues’, ‘Jack O’ Diamond Blues’ and ‘That Black Snake Moan’ were among these classic numbers. At times there was a near perfect harmonic and rhythmic counterpoint between voice and guitar and after the delivery of each line, instead of a repetitive fill, Jefferson produced a staggering array of original licks and single string runs. …So popular were Jefferson’s releases, that on more than one occasion the masters that pressed a particular 78 became so overused and worn out that Jefferson would have to return to the studio to re-make the title.

The continuing successful sales of Jefferson’s records and the resulting increase in his fame would seem to have guaranteed large attendances for the personal appearances that he made throughout the country and especially in his home state. …Although Jefferson is said to have remained a resident of Dallas, Texas, he traveled north on so many occasions, it is not surprising that current research by Chris Henderson suggests that Jefferson spent some time resident in South Calumet Avenue, on Chicago’s South Side12 and a recent interview with the son of Paramount founder/ president Otto Moeser revealed that BLJ would stay at the Moeser residence on Grand Avenue, Port Washington, Wisconsin. In the last year of his life Jefferson was as popular as ever and still traveling extensively." Lemon's last recording session was on Tuesday 24th September 1929. Swinton notes that drawing from various sources, "it seems reasonable to conclude that BLJ probably died of a heart attack on or around the 18/19th December 1929. …After BLJ’s death, none of the northern newspapers printed the news of his demise, in fact for a couple of months, Paramount continued to issue records and accompanying advertisements as if nothing had happened."

Virtually nothing is known about vocalist-guitarist Gene Campbell other than the fact he recorded 24 solo selections (two songs are lost). Campbell recorded on five sessions in Dallas and Chicago within a 14-month period between 1929 and 1931. What happened to him after the final Jan. 23, 1931 record date is not known. Tony Russell wrote the following about Campbell: " Many echoes in his vocal and instrumental phrasing and tone reveal Campbell as a student of the work of Lonnie Johnson – not only Johnson's own records but also his accompanists to Texas Alexander ….There are also fleeting similarities in Campbell's guitar playing to that of Little Hat Jones and, in 'Robbin' and Stealin' Blues', Carl Davis. …There is something striking about his work -and in this respect it is impossible not to be reminded of J.T. Smith, a contemporary and fellow Texan who recorded for the same company – namely, his literacy and his ability to stay focused on the subject of the subject of a song and not fall back on formulaic verses."

A Twist Of  Lemon by Paul Swinton,  Blues & Rhythm No. 121 (PDF)

Henry Thomas – "Ragtime Texas": Complete Recorded Works notes by Mack McCormick (PDF)
(you may have to magnify and rotate to read this but it's well worth the effort)