Thu 13 Sep 2007
It was Mamie Smith's recording of "Crazy Blues" in 1920 that set off the blues craze, proving there was indeed a substantial market for blues records. Record companies sought to repeat the success by signing numerous blues ladies including some of the era's most celebrated singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey and Ida Cox. In addition to the big stars there were countless second and third stringers who recorded, most of whom have faded into obscurity. Mary Johnson of St. Louis (sometimes billed as "Signifying Mary") came late to the game, making her debut in 1929, cut just shy of two dozen songs, achieved modest success and never recorded again after 1936 despite living until 1983. while it's true that Johnson wasn't in the same league as Bessie and Ma, she left behind a small, very impressive body of work that merits more attention.
Johnson got her start in show business as a teenager in St. Louis. and frequently worked with Lonnie Johnson who she married in 1925. They had six children together and divorced in 1932. Strangely the two never recorded together. Johnson was a fine singer with a clear, low, moaning style that came across well on record. She also wrote a number of moving songs, many filled with vivid violent and sexual imagery and an unrelenting bleak view of the world. Johnson was blessed with superb backing musicians throughout her brief career that elevated her recordings above many of her contemporaries. She was accompanied by either Henry Brown, Judson Brown, Roosevelt Sykes, or Peetie Wheetstraw on piano, many selections featuring trombonist Ike Rodgers, guitarists Tampa Red and Kokomo Arnold and violinist Artie Mosby.
She recorded 8 selections in 1929, 6 sides in 1930, two in 1932, four in 1934, and two final numbers in 1936. All of the 1929 sides feature the fine piano of Henry Brown and trombonist Ike Rogers on five of the eight sides. On her first coupling from May 7, 1929 is the superbly mournful "Muddy Creek Blues" sporting some prominent low down trombone from the always fine Ike Rogers. Johnson's sets the tone for future records with a slow, deliberate, moaning vocal that perfectly suites the somber and chilling lyrics:
I went to the muddy creek this morning with my razor swinging in my hand (2x)
I said good morning Mr. Tadpole have you seen anything of my man
I say I'm black and evil, you sure don't know my mind (2x)
I'll cut you're throat Mr. Tadpole, drink you're blood like cherry wine
The phrase "black and evil" was echoed a few months later by fellow St. Louis singer Alice Moore in "Black And Evil Blues", her biggest hit which also featured Ike Rogers. Two days later Johnson waxed one more 78 with the same group; "Black Men Blues" sans Rogers and "Western Union Man"were strong blues in the same mold as her first numbers. Her final session in November 1929 yielded four more numbers, notably "Barrel House Flat Blues" and "Key To The Mountain Blues." The latter is a surreal, sexual number as she sings "My man's in the mountain(2x)/And I got the mountain key" before a lengthy passage where she moans suggestively in response to Roger's seductive trombone lines and makes spoken asides like "play it for your freakish mama" and "Oh it feels so good." She never cut anything else quite like this and oddly the song was covered by Jesse Thomas who recorded it in Los Angles in1948 as "Mountain Key Blues."
Johnson cut six sides at two sessions in 1930. The April 8, 1930 was outstanding do in large part to the shimmering slide guitar of Tampa Red and the excellent piano of the under recorded Judson Brown. The two work beautifully behind Johnson on the mournful "Three Months Ago Blues" with Tampa shinning on "Dawn Of Day Blues" and the magnificent "Death Cell Blues" which opens in tough, forthright fashion:
I killed my man last year, lord, the man I really love
He did not treat me right now he's with the good lord above
Woman don't never love so hard, until you take your good man's heart
When they put you in the death cell the whole world seems dark
(spoken) Lord, lord I'm bound for the death cell
"Friendless Gal Blues" has echoes of Lonnie Johnson's "Friendless And Blues" from 1938. The themes of alienation an loneliness, of being adrift in an unforgiving world, are wonderfully evoked by Johnson's moaning, moving delivery punctuated by Tampa's sympathetic slide:
I'm just a friendless little girl
I'm traveling from door to door
Everywhere I go they tell me that I can't come here no more
People I ain't got no mother, I ain't got no dad
Trouble is the only thing that I have ever had
The next day she cut two more strong numbers with backing just from Judson Brown who's marvelous ragtime flavored playing is heard to good effect particularly on "Morning Sun Blues."
1932 found Johnson cutting one 78; "Rattlesnake Blues" and "Mary Johnson Blues" which Chris Smith notes "are clearly a response to the recent, acrimonious end of her marriage." Once again she's in good company with Roosevelt Sykes on piano, in quite lively fashion on the former number, and violinist Curtis Mosby on the latter track.
Johnson was back in the studio in 1934 with old friends Henry Brown and Ike Rogers on board. Four songs were cut at three sessions including "Those Black Man Blues" and remake of 1929's "Black Men Blues" which was a modest hit. Perhaps she was running out of inspiration as she also cut a variation of Joe Pullum's huge hit "Black Gal What makes Your Head So Hard?" which Pullum cut just five months prior. Her version, "Black Gal Blues", is quite good as she emulates Pullum's delivery which makes the song sound different than anything else she recorded and also fiddles with the lyrics giving it her own personal stamp. Perhaps the standout is the gorgeous "Peepin' At The Risin' Sun" featuring terrific piano from the ever reliable Henry Brown who also gets plenty of room to stretch out on the fine "Deceitful Woman Blues."
Johnson's final sessions were done in 1936 at three different sessions with only two songs released and four numbers unissued. The May 22 session saw only "Delmar Avenue" issued with heavyweight support from Peetie Wheatstraw on piano and Kokomo Arnold on guitar. Johnson immortalizes the well known St. Louis thoroughfare on a solid number that finds her voice sounding a bit heavier then usual: "Sitting on Delmar Avenue, watching the cars go by(2x)/Well I could not see nothing but the blue clouds in the sky." Henry Brown described the avenue this way to Paul Oliver: "Deep Morgan …they call it Delmar Avenue now …That was all just them low-down sportin' houses and receration parlours you know, call 'em receration parlours. Like a barrelhouse joint." The next day she cut "I Just Can't Take It" which bears a resemblance to the "Dirty Dozens" with stomping piano support from Wheatstraw as Johnson exhorts him to "play it Peter, play it."
After these recordings Mary Johnson abandoned the blues for religion. Supposedly she recorded some religious sides but these were never issued. Paul Oliver interviewed her in 1960 for his book "Conversation With The Blues" and described her this way: "Living with her mother Emma Williams in an apartment on Biddle Street, St. Louis, above the premises of a wholesale dealer in live fish, Mary Johnson has known considerable poverty for many years" Sadly it's common story and despite a fairly successful career as a blues singer it had little marked improvement on her way of life and left no safety net for later years. While her early sides are admired by collectors she remains virtually forgotten today.
Muddy Creek Blues (MP3)
Death Cell Blues (MP3)