ARTISTSONGALBUM
Andrew and Jim Baxter K.C. Railroad BluesWhen The Sun Goes Down
Mississippi John Hurt FrankieAvalon Blues: The Complete 1928 OKeh Recordings
Blue Boys Easy WinnerBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Charlie Butler Diamond JoeA Treasury Of Library Of Congress Field Recordings
Geeshie Wiley Last Kind Words BluesMississippi Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927-35
Lottie Kimbrough Wayward Girl BluesBefore The Blues Vol. 1
Richard ''Rabbit'' Brown I'm Not JealousNever Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Papa Harvey Hull & Long ''Cleve'' Reed Don't You Leave Me HereThe Songster Tradition 1927-1935
Willie Walker Dupree BluesMy Rough And Rowdy Ways Vol. 1
Joe Evans & Arthur McClain Two White Horses In A LineBefore The Blues Vol. 1
Mississippi Mud Steppers Jackson StompVintage Mandolin Music
Mississippi Sarah & Daddy Stovepipe Greenville StrutRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 2: The Great Jug Bands
Henry Thomas Fox And The HoundsTexas Worried Blues 1927-1929
Henry Thomas Red River BluesTexas Worried Blues 1927-1929
Lil McClintock Furniture ManBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Gus Cannon Can You Blame The Colored ManMasters of Memphis Blues
Luke Jordan Traveling CoonThe Songster Tradition 1927-1935
Jim Jackson I'm Gonna Start Me A Graveyard Of My Own Jim Jackson Vol. 1 1927-1928
Jim Jackson I'm A Bad Bad Man Jim Jackson Vol. 1 1927-1928
Jaybird Coleman I'm Gonna Cross the River of Jordan - Some O' These DaysAmerican Primitive Vol. I: Raw Pre-War Gospel
Papa Charlie JacksonLong Gone Lost JohnBroadcasting The Blues
LeadbellyBlack Girl (In The Pines)Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Lead Belly Legacy, Vol. 1
Crying Sam Collins My Road Is Rough And RockyCrying Sam Collins 1927-1931
Jaybird ColemanI'm Gonna Cross the River of Jordan - Some O' These DaysAmerican Primitive Vol. 1
Cannon''s Jug Stompers Bring It When You ComeRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 2: The Great Jug Bands
Coley Jones Traveling ManThe Great Race Record Labels Vol. 2 - Columbia
William Moore Tillie LeeRagtime Guitar Blues 1927-1930
Cow Cow Davenport Alabama Strut Mama Don't Allow No Easy Riders Here
Pink Anderson & Simmie Dooley Papa's 'Bout To Get MadGood for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Show
Alabama Sheiks Travelin' Railroad Man BluesViolin, Sing The Blues For Me
Charlie Patton Gonna Move To AlabamaBlues Images Vol. 4
Tennessee Chocolate Drops Vine Street DragBefore The Blues Vol. 2
Birmingham Jug Band Bill WilsonRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 1: The Great Jug Bands
Dallas String Band Dallas RagBefore The Blues Vol. 2

Show Notes:

Today's program is a long delayed sequel to a show I did almost exactly two years ago. I finally got motivated to do a follow-up after several interesting conversations with Stephen Wade who I interviewed on the show a couple of weeks back. In his book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us, he discusses some of the music floating around before the blues emerged as the dominant black popular music and also illustrates the huge amount of cross pollination there was between white and black music. Wade suggested that to really illustrate this cross pollination I should include some white artists. While I agree with this, the focus on this show has always  focused on African-American music, namely the music that falls in the standard blues discographies. Still you can hear the commingling of white and black music in selections today by Joe Evans and Arthur McClain (The Two Poor Boys), Mississippi Mud Steppers and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops among others.

Henry Thomas: The Fox And The HoundsAs Richard Nevins writes: "Before the Civil War there did not exist in America two distinct bodies of music, one white and one black. Both groups shared a common tradition and repertoire. …Throughout most of the 1800's black and white fiddlers were playing the same tunes the same way, white and black banjo players were playing the same tunes the  same  way …black and white guitar players were doing the same tunes in the same exact tunings …and most importantly of all, white and black fundamentalist church congregations were singing the same hymns in the same limited modal scales, the exact same scales that defined the secular ballads of that  time …and later (1910-20) became the melodic base of what was to become the blues."

"Before The Blues" is something of catch-all phrase that can mean a number of things; the fact is that prior to the blues there was quite a bit of black music on record, stretching all the way back to the 1890's, recorded both in the United States and Europe. Recent years have seen a huge amount of research into this period with several important books ( 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 to name a few) and and reissues of early black music issued. What I'm talking about, however, is some of the older black music styles that were captured on record in the 1920's, often labeled blues even though it was clearly something different.

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." As Richard Nevins points out: "By the early 1920's back country black musicians who were songsters conversant with a wide spectrum of American genres began  recasting the modal song part of their repertoire into Mississippi Sarah & Daddy Stovepipe: Greenville Strutblues. This transition required very little alteration and all at once they were blues musicians. Of course with the huge popularity of blues everywhere, they also commenced calling all the rest of their repertoire blues, even rags, breakdowns, and tin pan alley selections. The record companies were even worse, sticking the word blues at the end of almost all black secular music…" 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 panpipes, 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.” Mack McCormick wrote one of the best pieces on Henry Thomas (Henry Thomas: Ragtime Texas – Complete Works 1927 to 1929, Herwin, 1975). Here's an excerpt: "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."

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. Among these are songs like “I’m A Bad Bad Man” which draws on a composition from 1894, “I’m Gonna Start Me A Graveyard Of My Own” which dates to 1901 and “Bye, Bye, Policeman”, played on the first show, which references a song from 1895.

Gus Cannon launched his medicine show career in 1914 when he joined Doc Stokey of Clarksdale, Mississippi. A tour with Doc Benson's show took Cannon to Chicago in 1927, Coley Jones: Travelling Manwhere he auditioned for Paramount Records and recorded a session with ace guitar picker Blind Blake. Cannon was in his mid-40's and his repertoire dates from the turn of the century on tunes like ”My Money Never Runs Out”, "Can You Blame The Colored Man" and one of the earliest blues, "Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home."

Chris Smith wrote: "[Joe] Evans & [Arthur] McClain are reported to have come from Fairmount, in eastern Tennessee, a region where blacks were outnumbered 12 to one by whites, and this goes some way to explaining the evident hillbilly influences on their music. Otherwise, all we know about 'The Two Poor Boys' is in the grooves oft heir 78s.” They cut 20 sides at sessions in 1927 and 1931.

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.  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.”

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.

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.”

Pink Anderson & Simmie Dooley: Papa's 'Bout To Get MadBorn 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", "Gonna Move To Alabama"  and “Prayer Of Death.”

Howard Armstrong was part of a whole generation of African-American string-band artists who played Americana in the 1920’s and 30’s for black and white audiences alike, everything from Tin Pan Alley tunes to gospel and blues. A field-recording team from Vocalion was in Knoxville twice between August 1929 and April 1930; setting up a temporary recording studio at radio station KNOX in downtown Knoxville’s St. James Hotel, where they recorded something approaching 100 tracks by several dozen musicians and musical groups from the region. It was during this session that a Vocalion record producer, looking for a memorable name that would spur sales, christened the Martin, Armstrong and Armstrong group, the “Tennessee Chocolate Drops.” They recorded one 78, “Knox County Stomp b/w Vine Street Drag.”

 

Share