Henry ThomasRun, Mollie, RunTexas Worried Blues
Henry ThomasOld Country StompTexas Worried Blues
Gus Cannon My Money Never Runs OutGood for What Ails You
William Moore Ragtime MillionaireBroadcasting The Blues
Luke Jordan Pick Poor Robin CleanBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Texas Alexander Levee Camp MoanBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Andrew & Jim Baxter Bamalong BluesBefore The Blues Vol. 1
Bogus Ben Covington Adam And Eve In The GardenAlabama Black Country Dance Bands 1924 - 1949
Frank Stokes Chicken You Can Roost Behind The MoonBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Frank Stokes I Got MineThe Best of Frank Stokes
Peg Leg Howell Beaver Slide RagViolin, Sing The Blues For Me
Henry Williams & Eddie Anthony Georgia CrawlFolks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow!
Daddy Stovepipe & Mississippi Sarah The SpasmGood For What Ails You
Bo Chatman Good Old Turnip Greens Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow!
Beans Hambone & El Morrow BeansGood For What Ails You
Cannon's Jug Stompers Feather BedBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Jim Jackson I Heard the Voice of a PorkchopGood For What Ails You
Jim Jackson Bye, Bye, PolicemanGood For What Ails You
Richard ''Rabbit'' Brown Never Let The Same Bee Sting You TwiceNever Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Papa Harvey Hull Hey! Lawdy Mama -The France BluesNever Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Pink Anderson & Simmie Dooley Gonna Tip Out, TonightGood For What Ails You
Mississippi John Hurt Stack O'Lee Blues Avalon Blues - 1928 Recordings
Mississippi John Hurt Spike Driver’s BluesAvalon Blues - 1928 Recordings
Furry Lewis Kassie JonesBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Joe Evans & Arthur McClain John HenryBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Alec Johnson Next Week SometimeMississippi Strings Bands & Associates
Hambone Willie Newbern Nobody Knows (What The Good Deacon Does)Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Stovepipe #1 & David Crockett A Chicken Can Waltz the Gravy AroundGood For What Ails You
Crying Sam Collins Lonesome Road BluesBefore The Blues Vol. 1
Charlie Patton Elder GreenScreamin' & Hollerin' The Blues
Mississippi Sheiks He’s In The Jailhouse Now Mississippi Sheiks Vol. 2 1930-1931
Blind Blake Champaign Charlie Is My Name The Best of Blind Blake
Hezekiah Jenkins Shout, You CatsGood For What Ails You

Show Notes:

This show originally aired 11/7/10

The blues emerged around  1900, rapidly became very popular and was widespread by the teens. When recording started, there were still musicians around who performed material from the older traditions – men generally called songsters. Originally a 'songster' was a songbook but the term was adapted by African-Americans to mean a singer, as Howard Odum noted in  1911: "In general 'songster' is used to denote any Negro who regularly sings or makes songs: 'musicianer' applies often to the individual who claims to be expert with the banjo or fiddle." In the 1920's and 30's when black music first came on record blues scholar Paul Oliver noted that "for a dozen years a remarkable documentation of black vocal traditions was purchasable on commercial releases. …The diversity of singers, entertainers, jazz bands, preachers and other black artists represented on these records was remarkable.” Prior to the blues, reaching back to the nineteenth century there was a variety of black music before it got on record; there was ragtime, black vaudeville, minstrels, coon songs, work songs, dance tunes, medicine show entertainers, sheet music that found its way into black music and emphasis on banjo and fiddle music among other types. Songs were spread by traveling songsters, black road troupes, minstrel shows, tent shows and medicine shows. Although this music was not captured on record when it was in vogue many of these forms found their way onto records when blues was being recorded. Older musicians, born in the 1860's through the 1880's, learned early forms of black music that they brought to their records when they had the opportunity to record in the 20's and 30's. Some of it was shaped to fit the blues, the popular music of the day, while other songs remain more or less intact as performed by blacks decades prior. This was the  music of men like Henry Thomas, Jim Jackson, Frank Stokes, Daddy Stovepipe, Papa Charlie Jackson, the music of the jug and string bands and the music of the songsters and ballad singers. The records these men, and to a lesser extent women, recorded gives us a fascinating glimpse of the era before the rise of the blues. These older styles didn't disappear but remained parallel to the blues. An example of this is that as late as the mid-1910s the term "up-to-date coon shouter" was routinely applied to the likes of Clara Smith, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith; but around 1916 they were redefined as "blues singers." Eventually these older styles were eclipsed by the popularity of blues although these older styles were still being performed in black communities into the 60's, 70's and beyond.

I've long been fascinated by this, for lack of a better term, pre-blues material and today's program will be the first installment of a multi-part feature. I'm far from an expert on the black musical styles before the blues but luckily I was able to draw on some excellent books, several of which have been published in recent years. In addition to these books, I finally got around to reading Paul Oliver's excellent Songsters And Saints published in 1984 and a valuable resource for today's program. Since then several superb books have been published; Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs", and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919 and Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850-1920. In addition there are several fine anthologies of pre-blues recordings. Among those featured today are Before The Blues Vol. 1-3 on Yazoo, Document's 3-CD set Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice: Blues, Ballads, Rags And Gospel In The Songster Tradition plus several on Old Hat including the 2-CD Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937, Folks He Sure Do Pull Some Bow!: Vintage Fiddle Music 1927-1935 and Violin, Sing The Blues For Me: African-American Fiddlers, 1926-1949. Below is some background on some today's artists and songs.

Henry Thomas, billed as "Ragtime Texas", was born in Big Sandy, Texas in 1874, and began his musical career as an itinerant songster, and recorded twenty-three songs from 1927 to 1929. He accompanied himself with the guitar and the quills, a folk instrument made from cane reeds. “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.”

The song "Pick Poor Robin Clean" has shadowy origins but it likely dates to the turn of the century. The song was picked up by songster Luke Jordan who recorded the number in 1927. The song was also recorded by Elvie Thomas & Geechie Wiley in 1931. Jordan was born January 28, 1892 , possibly either Appomattox or Campbell county, Virginia he died June 25, 1952, Lynchburg, Virginia. The blues scene in pre-war Virginia was poorly documented at the time and few of its members managed to record. Post-war research by Bruce Bastin reveals that Jordan was a key figure in the blues enclave centered around Lynchburg. Victor Records discovered him in 1927 and he recorded for them in Charlotte, North Carolina, in August of that year. Jordan's records sold well enough to justify transporting him to New York for a further two sessions in November 1929.

Frank Stokes and partner Dan Sane recorded as The Beale Street Shieks, a Memphis answer to the musical Chatmon family string band, the Mississippi Shieks. By most accounts Stokes was already playing the streets of Memphis by the turn of the century, about the same time the blues began to flourish. As a street artist, he needed a broad repertoire of songs and patter palatable to blacks and whites. A medicine show and house party favorite, Stokes was remembered as a consummate entertainer who drew on songs from the 19th and 20th centuries with equal facility. Solo or with Sane and sometimes fiddler Will Batts, Stokes recorded 38 sides for Paramount and Victor. Of today's featured songs, “I Got Mine” was published by a white composer in 1901 and taken up by black songsters while “Chicken You Can Roost Behind The Moon” has its roots in a song published in 1899. “Chicken” was a Coon song, a genre of music popular primarily in the 1880’s and 1890’s, that presented a racist and stereotyped image of blacks that were sung by both whites and blacks.

”My Money Never Runs Out” also has roots from the turn of the century and was composed by Irving Jones and published in 1900. Jones published songs as early as 1892, several of which found their way onto race records in the 1920’s. Today we hear the song as performed by Gus Cannon who recorded the song thirty years later with his band Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Cannon launched his medicine show career in 1914 when he joined Doc Stokey of Clarksdale, Mississippi. He later joked that Stokey's tonic sold "one bottle for a quarter, or three for a dollar!" A tour with  Doc Benson's show took Cannon to Chicago in 1927, where he auditioned for Paramount Records and recorded a session with ace guitar picker Blind Blake. ”My Money Never Runs Out” was advertised, with a short extract on the back cover by another piece by Irving Jones called “Ragtime Millionaire.” The song may be one of the earliest to make reference to the blues. We hear the song today as recorded by William Moore who recorded the number for Paramount in 1928. A resident of Tappahannock, Virginia, Moore recorded sixteen sides for Paramount in 1928.

Peg Leg Howell was born in 1888, arrived in Atlanta in 1923 and was recorded by Columbia in November 1926. The first session featured Howell solo and are certainly appealing but it’s the rough, exciting stringband music he recorded with His Gang that really grabs attention. The gang consisted of Henry Williams on guitar and the infectious alley fiddle of Eddie Anthony. Williams and Anthony recorded together without Howell on “Georgia Crawl” b/w “Lonesome Blues” on April 19, 1928. Unfortunately the trio only made a handful of recordings as Williams apparently died in jail in January 1930 while serving time for vagrancy and Anthony passed in 1934, after which Howell gave up music. Many of Howell’s blues verses date to shortly after the turn of the century. “Georgia Crawl” may be related to a song published in 1913 as the 'Georgia Grind", a later done by pianist Jimmy Blythe with the song picked up by several bands and singers including Duke Ellington's Washingtonians and Louis Armstrong. It's impossible to say where the duo picked up the tune.

Pink Anderson spent many years on the road with medicine shows and learned guitar from his early partner Simmie Dooley, and older musician who was born in 1881. They recorded four titles together in 1928. Anderson was born in South Carolina and toured throughout the Southeast with a variety of medicine shows during 1915-1945, picking up work wherever he could. He was employed not only as a musician and a singer but as a dancer and comedian. Anderson was extensively recorded by Sam Charters in 1961 resulting in three albums of material. From the notes to the compilation Good For What Ails You, Marshall Wyatt gives us some background on the medicine show: " Medicine shows flourished in the years following the Civil War when America's patent medicine industry was booming, and governmental regulations were few. Often called "med shows" for short, or simply "doctor shows," they were also extolled as "psysic operas" and their route was known as the "kerosene circuit" for the fuel that illuminated their stages at night. Whatever the name, music was always a crucial ingredient. Onstage, musicians served up a variety of comic songs, parodies, popular favorites, novelties, folk songs, dance tunes, and instrumental specialties. In the early decades of the 20th century, new musical forms, such as as jazz and blues, were added to the mix. …Such noted bluesmen as Sleepy John Estes, Sonny Terry, and Big Joe Williams spent time with the med shows, as did a whole constellation of Memphis singers and jug-band musicians, including Will Shade, Jim Jackson, and Frank Stokes.

Born in the 1880’s, Jim Jackson was an experienced medicine show performer and occasional street singer. The Mississippi born Jackson had one of the biggest blues hits of the 20’s with his “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues.”  His recordings represent one of the richest veins of pre-blues music to be issued on record. Among these are songs like “I’m A  Bad Bad Man” which draws on a composition from 1894 and “I’m Gonna Start Me A Graveyard Of My Own” which dates to 1901. Barrelhouse pianist Speckled Red shared the stage with Jim Jackson in 1928 while touring through Mississippi and Alabama with the Red Rose Minstrels & Medicine Show. Red remembered Jackson as "a big fat feller, weighed about 235 pounds. Tall, stately feller too, and he danced, sang, played git-tar, cracked jokes." Jackson's long career with traveling shows began in 1905, and much of his repertoire was rooted in the 19th century. "Bye, Bye Policeman" quotes the chorus of Ernest Hogan's "La Pas Ma La", published in 1895.

Born circa 1880, Richard "Rabbit"  Brown spent much of his life in New Orleans where he was reported to have worked as a street singer and singing boatman on Lake Ponchartrain.  Our selection, “Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice” was based on a song published in 1900. On March 11, 1927, Brown cut six sides for the recording pioneer Ralph Peer. Brown was a very much the songster and his recordings are an interesting mix of original blues, pop covers and "event" songs like his "Sinking Of The Titanic."

Born in Teoc, Mississippi in 1893, John Hurt moved to the town if Avalon at the age of two which remained his home for the rest of his life. Hurt cut two sessions in 1928 for the Okeh label and would not record again until 1963. Hurt’s repertoire includes blues from when he was growing up as well as ballads like “Stack O’ Lee” and  “Spike Driver Blues”, which references John Henry, and “Louis Collins” and “Frankie.”

Furry Lewis was a Memphis singer who was born in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1893. He joined Jim Jackson on a medicine show as early as 1906 and worked such shows regularly for the next fifteen years. Prior to honing his musical skills he worked the shows as a comedian, sold corn medicine and liniment oils, or did vaudeville sketches, often in blackface. In 1927, Lewis made two trips to Chicago alongside his old friend Jim Jackson, with the purpose of cutting records for Vocalion. The sessions produced five sides in April and another six later in October of that year. Over the next two years, a total of 23 sides in all were recorded by Lewis for both the Vocalion and Victor labels.

Johnny Watson, alias Daddy Stovepipe was born in Mobile, Alabama, on April 12th 1867 and died in Chicago, November 1st 1963. A veteran of the turn of the century medicine shows, he was in his late fifties when he became one of the first blues harp players to appear on record in 1924. He later recorded with his wife, Mississippi Sarah, in the 1930s and spent his last years as a regular performer on Chicago's famous Maxwell Street, where he made his last recordings.

Daddy Stovepipe, Gennett Records Studio, 1924
Photograph From Talking Machine World

Hambone Willie Newbern had just one session, in Atlanta in 1929, at which he immortalized himself by making the first recording of "Roll And Tumble Blues". He was born about 1899, so John Estes, to whom Newbern gave some guitar tips believed. They met in Mississippi, working on medicine shows, and songs like "She Could Toodle.Oo", "Way Down In Arkansas" and "Nobody Knows (What The Good Deacon Does)" come from that background. Newbern was also capable of writing very personal blues like "Dreamy·Eyed Woman", and "Shelby County Workhouse Blues."

Crying Sam Collins was born in 1887, his stomping ground the Mississippi-Louisiana border region with a style similar to King Solomon Hill and Ramblin Thomas who were from the same region. Collins’ music draws from the era of minstrel and medicine show tradition reflected in songs like ‘Yellow Dog Blues”, “Salty Dog”, “Hesitation Blue’ and the first recorded version of “The Midnight Special.” His masterpieces, “Lonesome Road Blues” was a version of “In The Pines” which dates back to the 1870’s, and “My Road Is Rough And Rocky” which is a version of ”Long Gone.”

Born in 1891, Charlie Patton was older than the other Delta musicians who recorded during the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s, and he seems to have developed many of the themes that are now considered basic to the Delta blues repertoire. Remembered by history as a blues musician, Patton had grown up in the pre-blues era, and he played the full range of music required of a popular rural entertainer. Even though his recording career was sparked by the blues craze, only about half of his roughly fifty records can reasonably be considered part of that then-modern genre. The others are a mix of gospel and pre-blues music like “Runnin’ Wild Blues”, "Elder Greene" and “Prayer Of Death.”

Alec Johnson and Ben Covington were two other artists who's repertoire drew on a pre-blues song book. While nothing is know of Johnson’s background, the six sides he cut in 1928 strongly reflect the minstrel and coons songs just before the turn of the century; songs like “Next Week Sometime” which was published in 1905 while “Mysterious Coon” harks back to an even earlier period. Covington worked in minstrel shows and earned his name for pretending to be blind to help him earn extra money. According to bluesman Big Joe Williams, Covington toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, as well as various medicine shows and carnivals, and even worked as a sideshow attraction known as "The Human Pretzel." He recorded about a dozen sides between 1928 and 1932,  playing harmonica, banjo and mandolin.