1940’s Blues


ARTISTSONGALBUM
Interview Pt. 1Jeff Place
Leadbelly Black GirlThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Leadbelly Been So Long (Bellevue Hospital Blues) The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 2Jeff Place
Leadbelly Irene (Goodnight Irene)The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Leadbelly CottonfieldsThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 3Jeff Place
Leadbelly Fannin StreetThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 4Jeff Pace
Leadbelly Noted RiderThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 5Jeff Place
Leadbelly Silver City BoundThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Leadbelly One Dime BluesThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Leadbelly & The Golden Gate Quartet Alabama BoundAlabama Bound
Interview Pt. 6Jeff Place
LeadbellyWNYC- Folk Songs of America ProgramThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 7Jeff Pace
LeadbellyRock Island LineThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
LeadbellyShorty GeorgeLeadbelly: The Remaining LOCR Vol. 3 1935
Interview Pt. 8Jeff Place
Leadbelly The TitanicThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Leadbelly Jim Crow BluesThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Leadbelly The Bourgeois BluesThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 9Jeff Place
Leadbelly & Josh WhiteMother's Blues (Little Children Blues)Leadbelly: Important Recordings 1934-49
LeadbellyDiggin' My PotatoesThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 10Jeff Place
Leadbelly I'm On My Last Go-RoundLeadbelly: Important Recordings 1934-49)
Leadbelly Don't You Love Your Daddy No More Leadbelly & Josh White (Reamaining Titles) 1937-1946
Leadbelly When a Man's a Long Way from HomeLeadbelly Vol. 5 1944-1946

Show Notes:

Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways CollectionToday's program is our first show devoted to Lead Belly who I haven't played all that much on the show over the years. I remember picking up my first Leadbelly album back in High School. It was a self-titled album on Columbia collecting some of his 1930's blues sides. For whatever reason the album didn't make much of an impression on me. It was only years later, after picking some of the collections on Document that I got a better appreciation of the sheer breadth of his repertoire and talent. Today's show is inspired by a recent 5-CD box set on the Smithsonian Folkways label, The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, that serves as an excellent career retrospective and has an informative booklet with essays by Robert Santelli and Jeff Place. We play a number of tracks from the box set plus chat with producer Jeff Place, who I spoke with a couple of weeks back.

Lead Belly's recording career began with recordings made in 1933 by John and Alan Lomax at Angola prison and after his release from prison he recorded prolifically right up until his death in 1949. Lead Belly never had much success among black audiences, his commercial blues recordings did not sell, but he found success among the folk music audience. He became a fixture in New York City's folk music scene befriending and performing with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, and a young Pete Seeger. Lead Belly was also the first blues musician to see success in Europe when he traveled there in 1949. He died later that year in New York City.

As Robert Santelli writes in the notes: "Lead Belly was a man of contradiction and complexity. It was hard to truly know him, said the people who tried, and it was next to impossible to place him in a particular music style or form and have him remain there for long. He was a folk musician who also played the blues. He knew his share of work songs and field hollers, having sung them while picking cotton and doing farm chores. He learned prison songs while incarcerated, and he sang them like a man who had seen life’s underbelly. Spirituals and gospel tunes came naturally to him. He gave new life to old ballads whose origins were buried in the past. He could sing children’s songs when kids were present. And at house parties and local fish fries, if someone wanted to hear a few standards or a pop hit of the day, he could sing and play them too. Lead Belly moved through American music genres and song circles naturally and effortlessly, never seeing the boundaries and categories that were created for commodity’s sake by men with bow ties and clean suits. He was the very definition of a 'songster,' an old-time, old-school human jukebox of a performer and recording artist who never quite realized just what an American music treasure he had become in his life."
LeadBelly
Huddie Ledbetter was born January 15, 1888, in the Caddo Lake District near Mooringsport in the northwest corner of Louisiana, near the Texas and Arkansas lines. Two of Huddie’s uncles, Bob and Terrell, were musicians and introduced him to new songs. His uncle Terrell gifted him a small accordion when was seven years old. He would acquire a guitar around 1903. Huddie had become adept at all sorts of musical styles, and found that he could pick up a few extra cents playing at local country dances, or “sukey jumps." By the time Huddie left Mooringsport in 1906, he had fathered two children out of wedlock and had a bad reputation locally. After some rambling to New Orleans and other places, he landed in Shreveport. Along the way he had learned all types of songs, including popular songs of the early 1900s. Around 1910, a now-married Huddie moved to Dallas, Texas. According to Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell in The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly: "Sometime during his wanderings – probably late in 1910, when he was living near Dallas – Huddie acquired his first twelve-string guitar." Leadbelly told may tales of how he picked up the instrument. One of the less fanciful stories is recounted in the book: 'I saw one of those old 12-string Stellas sitting in the window of a Dallas store. The year before I heard a man play it in one of those traveling medicine shows where they sold a cure-all for fifty cent a a bottle.' Captivated by the loud, ringing sound of the instrument, Leadbelly  had spent the rest of the night hanging around the medicine show tent listening to the man play. Shortly, thereafter, when he finally saw one of the twelve-strings for sale; 'the price of the guitar was $12', he recalled, 'I had to have it.'" In 1912, he met and started playing as a duo with Blind Lemon Jefferson who in the 1920's would become one of the best-selling blues artists in the country.

In June 1915, Huddie was involved in an altercation and was sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang. Huddie escaped and fled to New Orleans, and then back to Mooringsport. He could not stay there, and so, traveling with his wife, he began going by the name Walter Boyd and went to live with relatives in DeKalb, Texas. In December 1917, Lead Belly found himself in a confrontation, a gun was fired, and Will Stafford lay dead. 78-rpm-rare-blues-leadbelly-record-alabama-bound-on-hmv-mh-160-must-see-ee_5789957Huddie claimed it was self-defense but was sentenced to between 7 and 30 years in a Texas prison. He began at the Shaw State Prison and later was transferred to the notorious Sugarland Prison. He was released in 1925.

He would be free for just five years; in 1930 another fight landed him in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison for six to ten. Lead Belly became known around the prison for his singing and guitar playing. John and Alan Lomax arrived at Angola on July 16. Lead Belly was suggested to them as a good singer to record, and they realized they had really made a “find.” The Lomaxes made 12 recordings and returned the following July to record 15 more songs. He had a special one prepared, “Governor O.K. Allen.” He asked if John Lomax would deliver a recording of the song to Allen’s office. Lead Belly had previously written asking for a pardon as well. It is not known whether Allen listened to the song, but Lead Belly was officially granted a pardon on July 25, 1934.

He returned to Shreveport and began to lobby John Lomax for a job. Alan was suffering from an illness, and John needed a driver. In the fall, performing this role, Lead Belly took off with them on a recording trip. He would sometimes warm up the prisoners by singing his songs and showing them the kinds of things Lomax wanted. Lomax was anxious to present his new discovery to a meeting of the Modern Language Association in Philadelphia, which launched the flurry of sensationalism that accompanied Lead Belly’s arrival on the scene. Finally it was the big move to New York. In 1935, the Lomaxes had lobbied for Lead Belly to sign a recording contract with the American Recording Corporation (ARC). Of the 43 songs Lead Belly recorded for ARC, only six saw the light of day.

In breadth and number, the greatest collection of songs Lead Belly ever recorded were the hundreds he did for the Library of Congress. The two Lomaxes were acting as his managers and took two thirds of the cut. Eventually there was a falling out and Leadbelly moved to Shreveport then Dallas. He eventually decided to give New York City another try. During the same time period, Lead Belly was being introduced to singers in New York who came from a strong protest song background. In April 1939, Lead Belly recorded a session for the small Musicraft Records and the following year for the Library of Congress. Throughout 1941 and early 1942, Lead Belly had a weekly show on WNYC’s The American School of the Air called Folk Songs of America. He also made recordings for RCA in 1940, some backed by the Golden Gate Quartet.

The commercial labels that recorded Lead Belly didn’t know how to market his music. For better or worse, Lead Belly’s strongest audience turned out to be the music fans involved in the folk revival, mainly in New York. City. Around this time Leadbelly Leadbelly Columbia Albumbegan recording for Moe Asch and his Asch label. Lead Belly recorded mainly for Asch for the rest of his life. In 1945, Asch Records went out of business and was followed by Asch’s second label, Disc Recordings of America. Lead Belly continued to record for Disc. During that time and for years to come Lead Belly’s apartment at 414 East 10th Street was a hub of musical activity. His niece Tiny Robinson remembers “it being like a friendly hotel that would receive musical guests like Sonny and Brownie, Bill Broonzy, Burl Ives, Eartha Kitt, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Harry Belafonte."

In 1948 Lead Belly was recorded extensively  by Fredric Ramsey. These sides were eventually released by Smithsonian Folkways as a 4-CD set titled Lead Belly's Last Sessions. In the late 1940's, Lead Belly began to feel something was physically wrong. In 1948, at a show in Paris during his trip to Europe, he found he could not continue playing his guitar. He was taken to a Parisian doctor who diagnosed Leadbelly with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He died in New York at Bellevue Hospital a little over a year later on December 5, 1949.

Over the next few years, a series of memorial LP's honoring Lead Belly were released by both the new Folkways label and Stinson Records, and many of Lead Belly’s numerous friends took part in memorial concerts. The band the Weavers, featuring Pete Seeger, celebrated Lead Belly’s music on stage, recording “Rock Island Line,” “Silvy,” and “Goodnight Irene” (among others). "Goodnight Irene” became a huge hit in 1950.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Blind Willie McTellDark Night BluesThe Classic Years 1927-1940
Blind Willie McTellLoving Talking BluesBest Of
Blind Willie McTellMama, Let Me Scoop For YouBest Of
Seth RichardsLonley Seth BluesRare Country Blues Vol. 1 1928-1937
Seth RichardsSkoodeldum BluesRare Country Blues Vol. 1 1928-1937
Ed Andrews Time Ain't Gonna Make Me Stay A Richer Tradition
Julius Daniels Ninety-Nine Year BluesWhen The Sun Goes Down
Willie BakerNo No BluesCharley Lincoln 1927-1930 & Willie Baker 1929
George CarterGhost Woman BluesBlues Images Vol. 11
George CarterWeeping Willow BluesBlues Images Vol. 11
Freddie SpruellMilk Cow BluesMississippi Blues Vol.2 1926-1935
Charlie KyleKyle's Worried BluesRare Country Blues Vol. 1 1928-1937
Uncle Bud WalkerStand Up Suitcase BlueMississippi Moaners
Charlie HicksDepot BluesCharley Lincoln 1927-1930 & Willie Baker 1929
Charlie HicksMama, Don't Rush MeCharley Lincoln 1927-1930 & Willie Baker 1929
Too Tight HenryThe Way I Do Rare Country Blues Vol. 3 1928-1936
Too Tight HenryCharleston Contest pt 1 Rare Country Blues Vol. 3 1928-1936
Barbecue BobHow Long Pretty MamaThe Essential
Barbecue BobBarbecue BluesChocolate To The Bone
Barbecue BobGoing Up The CountryChocolate To The Bone
Winston Holmes & Charlie TurnerKansas City Dog WalkKansas City Blues 1924-1929
Louis LaskyHow You Want Your Rollin' DoneBlues Images Vol. 3
John Byrd & Washboard WalterBilly Goat BluesRare Country Blues Vol. 2 1929-1943
John Byrd & Washboard WalterOld Timbrook BluesRare Country Blues Vol. 2 1929-1943
Mae Glover & John ByrdI Ain't Givin' Nobody NoneI Can't Be Satisfied Vol. 1
Leadbelly The Bourgeois BluesLeadbelly: Important Recordings 1934-49
Leadbelly New York CityLeadbelly: Important Recordings 1934-49
Leadbelly Noted Rider BluesThe Remaining LOCR Vol. 5 1938-1942
Blind Willie McTellSearching The Desert Blues Best Of
Barbecue BobCalifornia BluesChocolate To The Bone
Lonnie Johnson & Eddie LangMidnight Call Blues Lonnie Johnson Vol. 5 1929-1930
Lonnie JohnsonUncle Ned, Don't Use Your HeadLonnie Johnson Vol. 7 1931-1932

Show Notes:

Kings of the Twelve StringToday's show was inspired by a query from a listener who asked me about an album called Kings of the Twelve String. The album was in the catalog of the Piedmont, Gryphon, and Chesapeake labels in the 1960's and was then reissued twice by Flyright, first in 1973 and then again in 1978. I have the latter copy on Flyright and there was apparently a twelve page booklet which unfortunately my copy does not have. So on today's program we spotlight some great 12-string blues performances from the pre-war era, featuring several tracks from the Kings of the Twelve String album.

In the he 19th and early 20th century twelve-strings were regarded as “novelty” instruments. It was not till the 1920's and the 1930's that 12-string guitars became a major part of blues and folk music, where their sound made them ideal as solo accompaniment for vocalists such as Lead Belly and Blind Willie McTell. According to Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell in The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly: "The twelve-string in general was introduced into the United States from Mexico and Latin America, which had a long and complex history of double-stringed instruments. By 1900 a company a company called Lyon and Healy was producing them for sale in the states, and a 1928 catalog listed five different models under various brand names." The first recording of a male country blues singer seems to have been by a twelve-string guitarist called Ed Andrews who was recorded for Okeh in Atlanta in March or April 1924. However, in the history of the blues, artists who played the 12-string as their primary instrument were relatively few. For some reason Atlanta was the home of several 12-string players including Blind Willie, Barbecue Bob, Charlie Hicks, Julius Daniels, Willie Baker and George Carter. Other 12-string players featured today include Freddie Spruell, Uncle Bud Walker, Too Tight Henry, John Byrd and some exceptional performances by Lonnie Johnson among others.

Today we play several sides by Blind Willie McTell and the music of his fellow Atlanta bluesmen, just about all who were inspired by McTell. Like Memphis, Atlanta was a staging post for musicians on their way to all points. It’s not surprising then that the first country blues musician, Ed Andrews, was recorded there in 1924. The company that recorded him, Okeh, barbecue bob 2was one of many to send their engineers to Southern cities to record local talent. Companies like Victor, Columbia, Vocalion and Brunswick made at least yearly visits until the depression. McTell was born in Thomson, Georgia, near Augusta, and raised near Statesboro. He played a standard six-string acoustic until the mid-'20s, and never entirely abandoned the instrument, but from the beginning of his recording career, he used a 12-string acoustic in the studio almost exclusively. He was A major figure with a local following in Atlanta from the 1920's onward, he recorded dozens of sides throughout the 1930s' under a multitude of names — all the better to juggle "exclusive" relationships with many different record labels at once — including Blind Willie, Blind Sammie, Hot Shot Willie, and Georgia Bill, as a backup musician to Ruth Mary Willis. Willie's recording career began in late 1927 with two sessions for Victor records, eight sides including "Statesboro Blues." He recorded prolifically through the 1930's a did a session for the Library of Congress in 1940 under the supervision of John Lomax. The newly founded Atlantic Records took an interest in Willie and cut 15 songs with him in Atlanta during 1949. The one single released from these sessions, however, didn't sell, and most of those recordings remained unheard for more than 20 years after they were made. In 1950, along with his friend Curley Weaver, he cut sides for Regal. McTell cut his final sides for record store owner Ed Rhodes in 1956, who had begun taping local bluesmen at his shop in Atlanta in the hope of releasing some of it. These turned out to be the only tapes he saved, out of all he'd recorded.

Barbecue Bob was the name given by Columbia Records talent scout Don Hornsby to Atlanta blues singer Robert Hicks. Hicks is widely credited as being the singer who more than any helped to popularize Atlanta blues in its formative period. Born to a family of sharecroppers in Walnut Grove, GA, Robert Hicks and his brother, Charley "Lincoln" Hicks relocated with them to Newton County. There the Hicks brothers came in contact with Savannah "Dip" Weaver and her son, Curley Weaver. With the Weavers, the Hicks boys learned to play guitar and sing. Robert Hicks was the first of this group to "break out"; Hicks' first Columbia record, "Barbecue Blues," recorded in Atlanta on March 25, 1927 and was a big hit. Over the next three years he made 62 sides for Columbia. Hicks died in 1931 of pneumonia. He was only 29. His brother, Charley, cut a total of twelve sides between 1927 and 1930.

Among the other Atlanta artists featured are Willie Baker, George Carter, Julius Daniels and Ed Andrews. Baker was a contemporary of the Hicks brothers and cut nine sides in 1929.  He was remembered to play around Patterson, Georgia, and it is possible that he saw Robert Hicks play in a medicine show in Waycross, Georgia. Other than tOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhat, nothing further is known. Nothing is known of George Carter other then he cut four sides for Paramount in 1929. Bruce Bastin related that when Edward "Snap" Hill, a boyhood friend of Curley Weaver and the Hicks brothers was played a tape of one of Georg Carter's songs it prompted him to say: "He's from Atlanta" although he knew nothing about him. Julius Daniels cut eight songs for Victor at two sessions in 1927. The aforementioned Ed Andrews left behind two songs in 1924, "Barrel House Blues b/w Time Ain't Gonna Make Me Stay."

Unlike Atlanta there were few Mississippi artist who recorded on the 12-string. Among those featured today are Uncle Bud Walker, Freddie Spruell and transplanted Mississippian John Byrd. Walker cut one 78, "Look Here Mama Blues" b/w "Stand Up Suitcase Blues", recorded on July 30, 1928, in Atlanta, GA, and released by OKeh Records. Freddie Spruell recorded ten tracks for OKeh, Paramount, and Bluebird between 1926 and 1935. Spruell could well be considered the first Delta blues performer to record when he cut "Milk Cow Blues" in Chicago on June 25, 1926. Spruell also backs Washboard Sam on "Ocean Blues b/w Y.M.V. Blues", Sam's 1935 debut recording for Bluebird. Spreull's Social Security file indicates he was born on December 28, 1893, and although he is generally considered a Mississippi bluesman, it appears he moved to Chicago with his parents as a small boy, and his ties to the Delta are more stylistic than geographical.

John Byrd was born in Mississippi around the 1890's era. At some time in his youth he relocated to Louisville, Kentucky. It may have been in Louisville where he became friends with "Washboard" Walter Taylor. He made his debut recordings in 1929 as a solo gospel artist cutting one record for Gennett as "Rev. George Jones and his Congregation". That record was issued but during the same period other recordings by him or as a member of "Washboard Walter's Trio" were unissued. Byrd and Taylor moved on to Paramount Records where Byrd cut his only solo 78 in 1930. He also found session work as a guitarist backing singer Mae Glover.

According to Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell in The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly: "Sometime during his wanderings – probably late in 1910, when he was living near Dallas – Huddie acquired his first twelve-string guitar." Leadbelly told may tales of how he picked up the instrument. One of the less fanciful stories is recounted in the book: 'I saw one of those old 12-string Stellas sitting in the window of a Dallas store. The year before I heard a man play it in one of those traveling medicine shows where they sold a cure-all for fifty cent a a bottle.' Captivated by the loud, ringing sound of the instrument, Leadbelly  had spent the rest of the night hanging around the medicine show tent listening to the man play. Shortly, thereafter, when he finally saw one of the twelve-strings for sale; 'the price of the guitar was $12', he recalled, 'I had to have it.'"

v20658b4Others featured artists include Seth Richards, Charlie Kyle, Too Tight Henry, Louis Lasky, Winston Holmes and Charlie Turner and Lonnie Johnson. Seth Richards recorded a couple tracks under his real name in 1928, which would be his last recordings until he recorded as Skoodle Dum Doo and Sheffield in 1943. Kyle was said to have been from Texas and may have traveled to Memphis in 1928 along with female blues singers Bessie Tucker and Ida Mae Mack to record. Six of his songs were recorded, only four were issued resulting in two 78's. Born in Georgia in 1899 'Too Tight' toured extensively during the 1920's as with both Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson. In Memphis he worked with Jed Davenport. He was considered at the time as a master of the 6 and 12-string guitar. He recorded one 78 in 1928 and one in 1930. In the early 1940's he became a popular and regular performer on a Memphis based radio show. Lasky cut fives sides in 1935 as well as backing Anna Lee Chisholm, Big Bill, Memphis Minnie and Washboard Sam. It's been suggested he was a influence on Big Bill's guitar style. Nothing is known about Lasky's background but his style suggests a older musician. Turner played rack harmonica and guitar, and was an accomplished player of blues and ragtime and Holmes sang, and played guitar. Holmes backed Kansas singer Lottie Kimbrough at a 1926 session and cut six sides with Charlie Turner at a 1928 session. 12-string guitar was not Lonnie's primary instrument but he did play it on his historic duets with Eddie Lang ("Midnight Call Blues" – my favorite of the duets and a the favorite of Lonnie biographer Dean Alger) and to dazzling effect on his 1931 classic, "Uncle Ned, Don't Use Your Head", both featured today.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Doctor Clayton Roaming GamblerDoctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton Black Snake Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton '41 BluesDoctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Robert Junior Lockwood & Sunnyland Slim Doctor Clayton And MeConversation With The Blues
Doctor Clayton Pearl Harbor Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Walter BrownConfessin' the Blues Walter Brown 1945-1947
Doctor Clayton Confessin' the Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton Doctor Clayton BluesDoctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor ClaytonWatch Out Mama Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor ClaytonCheating And Lying Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Robert Nighthawk Cheating And Lying Blues And This Is Free
Pat Hare I'm Gonna Murder My Baby Mystery Train
Doctor Clayton Gotta Find My Baby Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Pete Franklin I Gotta Find My BabyGuitar Pete´s Blues
B.B KingGotta Find My BabyThe Vintage Years
Doctor Clayton Honey Stealin' Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton My Own Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton On the Killin’ Floor Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Willie Mabon I'm Hungry I Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Doctor Clayton Moonshine Woman Blues Doctor Clayton: 1935-1942
Doctor Clayton Moonshine Man Blues Doctor Clayton: 1935-1942
B.B KingThe Woman I LoveThe Vintage Years
Doctor Clayton Ain't No Business We Can Do Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton Angels In Harlem Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Little Son Willis Harlem Blues Down Home Blues Classics: California & The West Coast
Larry Davis Angels In HoustonAngels In Houston
Doctor Clayton I Need My BabyDoctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
B.B KingWalking Doctor BillThe Vintage Years
Doctor Clayton Copper Coloured MamaDoctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton Ain't Gonna Drink No More Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton Root Doctor Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Willie 'Long Time' Smith My Buddy Doctor Clayton Doctor Clayton & His Buddies 1946-1947

Show Notes: 


My buddy my buddy Doctor Clayton, he has been here and gone
But you know he waved his hand, and told me to carry on
We used to drink gin, beer and whiskey, and walk together all night long
But now he has passed away, and told me to carry on

(Willie "Long Time" Smith, My Buddy Dr. Clayton, 1947)

Doctor Clayton

Over 60 years after his untimely death the exceptional singer and masterful songwriter known as Doctor Clayton is little spoken of today. Clayton worked strictly as a vocalist (by some accounts he could play piano and ukulele), employing an impressive falsetto technique, later refined into a powerful, swooping style that was instantly recognizable. In addition he was an unparalleled songwriter, writing mostly original material with a rare wit, intelligence and social awareness. Clayton's vocal style was widely emulated and a number of his songs became blues standards. Despite the high esteem he was held in by fellow blues artists and his popularity during his lifetime Clayton's fine blues recordings remain largely ignored. On today's show we spotlight some of his best numbers and play covers by his many admirers. The title of today's show comes from the 1941 number "Slick Man Blues."

As Chris Smith wrote: "…Clayton was an artist of genuine stature and originality, and as a result a star in black entertainment circles. Sunnyland Slim, his piano player for a number of years on club dates, recalls that he toured extensively in a bus which featured his distinctly bespectacled, grinning face on its side, and was always welcomed by club owners for his crowd pulling abilities. …What makes Doctor Clayton's work so striking is that his singing was far more powerful, more passionate, and at the same time more humorous, than many of his fellow Bluebird artists."

Further, he noted,"Clayton, let us remember, was immediately disadvantageous, in the terms of American society, by being black, and thus having his horizons forcibly narrowed by institutionalized racism. …He created in his songs a fantasy world of success in the terms of the ghetto, as a gambler, pimp and master of success with women (though he also evinced (incredibly enough) a wry appreciation of the realities of life). He was also handicapped on the personal level, by his alcoholism and a lack of self-preservation; his projection in song of himself as a hustler supreme is thus even more poignant by virtue of the fact that he was quite incapable of attaining success even in the demeaning terms which were all that white America allowed blacks to consider."

Peter Joe Clayton was born April 19, 1898 in Georgia, by most reports, although claimed he was born in Africa and that he moved to St. Louis with his parents. In St. Louis he married and had four children, was employed as a factory worker and started his singing career. In 1937 tragedy struck when a fire burned down his house, killing his wife and children. He began drinking and living recklessly, a pattern that continued throughout his life. In his book Big Bill Blues Big Bill Broonzy reminisced about Clayton with obvious fondness: "Doctor Clayton was a good hearted boy. He wouldn't get a room, he wore tennis shoes in winter time and slept on pool tables and in alleys and basements, anywhere he could, because all the money he made from singing he would drink it up, or lose it in some kind of game." He certainly cut and odd figure usually sporting strange hats and oversized glasses sans the lenses. Robert Lockwood recalls coming back from St. Louis after recording with Clayton to find him in a sorry state of affairs: "When I got back here, Doctor Clayton didn't have no shoes! What happened was, after the recording session, the Doctor had taken the money he had made and bought everybody drinks and food at the club that night. …And when Doctor Clayton passed out, they stole his money and everything he had. They took his shoes off, took his coat. And when he woke up, he didn't have shit." Many of Clayton's songs deal with tough times and 1942's "On The Killing Floor" (the theme was used in Howlin' Wolf's 1964 song "Killing Floor" and Willie Mabon's "I'm Hungry" uses some lines from the song) seems to echo his reckless lifestyle:

"Please give me a match to light this short that I found
I know it looks bad for me, picking tobacco off the ground
I was in my prime not so very long ago
But high priced whiskey and woman done put me on the killin' floor
Lord it's zero weather and I ain't got a lousy dime
I'm walking from door to door and I can't find a friend of mine"

From the same session was another down-and-out tale, "Ain't No Business We Can Do":

I went down to Eli, got my suit out of pawn
Took the last little change I had left, and put some new shoes on
I took a real slow stroll, right down the avenue
A high yeller asked me, could she go 'long too
I said, "Hey good-lookin' have you got any cash on you?
'Cos if you broke like me, ain't no business we can do"

Prices goin' up every day, all kind of meat is too high
If you ain't rich or got a good job, neckbones is all you could buy
The best friend you got, will even tell you a lie
And let me tell you buddy, you better keep some kinda cash on you
'Cos when you broke, outdoors and hungry ain't no business you can do

But according to his sometime partner Blind John Davis there was another side to Clayton: "He was a brilliant fellow. He went to 52nd grade in school and he could sing opera, he could sing semi-classics, he could sing the blues and everything."

Clayton moved to Chicago with partner Robert Lockwood to pursue his musical career with the aid of Charley Jordan who had connections with the Columbia and Decca labels. Clayton was supposed to record for Decca but ended up hooking up with Lester Melrose of Bluebird. As Lockwood related later: "Doctor Clayton started singin', and Melrose had a baby. …He had to have Doctor Clayton! Yeah! Lester Melrose heard Doctor Clayton sing, and he went crazy." It has been suggested that a 1930 78 by Jesse Clayton, "Neckbone Blues b/w Station House Blues" may mask the first recording by Doctor Clayton.

He first recordings we are sure of were for Bluebird in 1935 cutting six sides, four of which went unissued, and he didn't record again until 1941. Between 1941-1942 he recorded four sessions for Bluebird and Okeh backed by pianist Blind John Davis with guitarist Robert Lockwood and bassist Ransom Knowling on some sides. Knowling also plays tuba on some sides as Clayton alternatley exhorts him to "Kill yourself, Mr.Ransom", "Blow your horn, Mr.Ransom", and "Toot your horn, Mr. Ransom". This period included many memorable sides including wartime numbers like "'41 Blues" and "Pearl Harbor Blues" (cut three months after the attack). In "'41 Blues" Clayton offers his solution to end hostilities:

War is raging in Europe, up on the water, land and in the air
If Uncle Sam don't be careful, we'll all soon be right back over there
This whole war would soon be over if Uncle Sam would use my plan
Let me sneak in Hitler's bedroom with my razor in my hand"

In "Pearl Harbor Blues" he had this to say:

"On December the seventh, nineteen hundred and forty one
The Japanese flew over Pearl Harbor, dropping bombs by the ton
This Japanese is so ungrateful, just like a stray dog on the street
Well he bite the hand that feeds em', soon as he get enough to feed

Doctor ClaytonClayton's "'41 Blues" was covered by Jazz Gillum as "Wartime Blues" recorded just two days before Pearl Harbor. Other numbers during this period include the oft covered "Cheating And Lying Blues" and "Gotta Find My Baby" plus memorable sides like "Watch Out Mama", "Moonshine Woman Blues" (covered by B.B. King in 1959 as "The Woman I Love" with an overdubbed version charting in 1968) and "Ain't No Business We Can Do." Slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk was recorded playing "Cheating And Lying Blues" in 1964 live on Maxwell Street which also combined the lyrics form "Ain't No Business We Can Do" and Pat Hare's 1954 "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" was a direct descendant of "Cheating And Lying Blues" ("I'm gonna murder my baby if she don't stop cheating and lying/Well I'd rather be in the penitentiary than to be worried out of my mind").

After these sessions the Petrillo ban put a temporary ban on recording activity and Clayton was out of the studio for several years. Clayton got off to a bad start for a February 1946 session when all four numbers were rejected. His next session was in August 1946 with a small group led by "Baby Doo" Caston with all six sides issued. These sessions included the oft-covered "Angels in Harlem" (covered by Smokey Hogg and by Larry Davis as "Angels In Houston" and by Little Son Willis as "Harlem Blues"), "Hold That Train Conductor" (covered by B.B. King in 1961) and "I Need My Baby" (covered by Smokey Hogg in 1951 as "Walking Dr. Bill" and by B.B. King under the same title as Hogg's in 1960 and hitting number 23 on the R&B charts), "Root Doctor" and perhaps ironically "Aint Gonna Drink No More." Also cut during this period was "Copper Colored Mama" which King covered as "The Woman I Love" in 1954. "Root Doctor" was probably Clayton's theme song, and according to Sunnyland Slim, much bawdier when performed live. The song was a cover of Walter Davis' 1935 "Root Man Blues."

Clayton’s records were steady sellers and he regularly appeared at Chicago clubs such as Sylvios working with Robert Lockwood and Sunnyland Slim and toured widely. Attesting to this popularity was Sunnyland Slim who recorded as "Doctor Clayton's Buddy" on his debut 1947 session and Willie Long Time Smith who in 1947 recorded the tribute, "My Buddy Doctor Clayton" written by Lester Melrose. Clayton died on January 7th 1947 in Chicago, of pulmonary tuberculosis at Chicago's Cook County Hospital. According to Big Bill only ten people attended Clayton's funeral including himself and Tampa Red. Echoes of his vocal style survived in the music Professor Longhair, Jimmy Witherspoon and particularly early B.B. King. King covered several of Clayton's compositions and offered this praise: "Well, Doctor Clayton was the man that I used to idolize; just about everything he did I used to sing along with it for hours."

Related Reading:

I'm A First Class Root Doctor (Talking Blues 5, 6, 7 by Chris Smith, 1977) [PDF]

Ain't Gonna Drink No More (Blues & Rhythm 24 by Tony Burke, 1986) [PDF]

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Skip James Devil Got My WomanComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James Cypress Grove BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards Roamin' and Ramblin' BluesDelta Bluesman
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards Water Coast BluesDelta Bluesman
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards Spread My Raincoat DownDelta Bluesman
Skip James Hard Time Killin' Floor BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James Drunken SpreeComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James Cherry Ball BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Muddy Waters Country Blues (Number One)Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Muddy Waters I Be's TroubledMuddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Muddy Waters RosalieMuddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Skip James Illinois BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James How Long BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James 22-20 BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Fiddlin' Joe Martin Fo' Clock Blues Walking Blues
Fiddlin' Joe Martin Going to Fishing Walking Blues
Muddy Waters You Got To Take Sick And Die Some Of These DaysMuddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Muddy Waters Ramblin' Kid BluesMuddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Robert Lockwood Little Boy BlueWindy City Blues
Robert Lockwood Black Spider BluesWindy City Blues
Skip James Hard Luck ChildComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James If You Haven't Any Hay Get On Down The RoadComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James Cherry Ball BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards Hellatakin' BluesDelta Bluesman
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards Wind Howlin' BluesDelta Bluesman
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards The Army BluesDelta Bluesman
Skip James I'm So Glad Complete 1931 Recordings
Skip James Special Rider BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Muddy Waters Take a Walk With MeMuddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Muddy Waters I Be Bound To Write To You (First Version)Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Robert Lockwood Take a Little Walk with MeWindy City Blues
Robert Lockwood I'm Gonna Train My BabyWindy City Blues

Show Notes:

Today's show is the fifth in a series of shows devoted to great early Mississippi blues artists. The bulk of the artists are relatively well known and on today's show we capture the recordings they made at the start of their career.  Mississippi produced some of the most powerful blues singers and guitarists of the 1920's and 1930's although one could say that the intense interest in Mississippi has taken the spotlight away from other regions that have equally notable blues traditions. Today we feature early recordings by Skip James, Fiddlin' Joe Martin, Honeyboy Edwards, Muddy Waters and Robert Lockwood. The earliest recordings come from the remarkable 1931 session by Skip James while all the other recordings are from the early 40's. The sides by Fiddlin' Joe Martin, Honeyboy Edwards and Muddy Waters are from field recordings made by Alan Lomax while the Robert Lockwood sides were his first commercial recordings for Bluebird.

Skip James
The only photograph of Skip James in his youth


Skip  James
grew up at the Woodbine Plantation in Bentonia, Mississippi and as a youth learned to play both guitar and piano. The music of Skip James and fellow Bentonia guitarists such as Henry Stuckey and Jack Owens is often characterized as a genre unto itself. The distinctive approach is notable for its ethereal sounds, open minor guitar tunings, gloomy themes, falsetto vocals, and songs that bemoan the work of the devil. Stuckey learned one of the tunings from Caribbean soldiers while serving in France during World War I, and said that he taught it to James, who went on to become the most famous of Bentonia's musicians. Inspired by Stuckey, James began playing guitar as a child, and later learned to play organ. In his teens James began working on construction and logging projects across the mid-South, and sharpened his piano skills playing at work camp “barrelhouses.” In 1924 James returned to Bentonia, where he earned his living as a sharecropper, gambler and bootlegger, in addition to performing locally with Stuckey.

James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, for his historic 1931 session for Paramount Records, which included thirteen songs on guitar and five on piano. He was sent to Paramount by talent scout H.C. Speir who was impressed by James' audition, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” alluded to the Great Depression, while the gun-themed “22-20 Blues” provided the model for Robert Johnson's “32-20 Blues,” and the haunting “Devil Got My Woman” was the likely inspiration for Johnson's “Hell Hound on My Trail.” As Tony Russell wrote of this session: "It would be difficult to hear them without some sense of awe, even if they were not quit as good as we might wish, but they are, in fact awesome in their singularity and aching beauty."

James’s records sold poorly, and later in 1931 he moved to Dallas, where he served as a minister and led a gospel group. He later stayed in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Hattiesburg and Meridian, Mississippi, occasionally returning to Bentonia. He returned to Bentonia in 1948 and sometimes played for locals at the newly opened Blue Front Cafe, although he did not earn his living as a musician. He later lived in Memphis and Tunica County, where he was located in 1964 by blues enthusiasts who persuaded him to begin performing again.  After his rediscovery James relocated to Washington, D. C., and then to Philadelphia to play folk and blues festivals and clubs. He recorded several albums and gained new renown from the rock group Cream’s 1966 cover of his song “I'm So Glad,” but the somber quality of much of his music and his insistence on artistic integrity over entertainment value limited his popular appeal. James died in Philadelphia on October 3, 1969.

Muddy Waters & Son Sims

I corresponded with record collector John Tefteller recently who had this to say regarding the rarity of James' 78's: "As far as Skip James Paramount's: There are about 20-25 that have survived, if you include the Champion release and 15 or less if you leave that one out. They are some of the rarest and most desirable 78 rpm records of all time. There are a couple of them for which only one or two copies in playable condition exist. Rarest one has to be "Hard Time Killin' Floor" with "Cherry Ball" a close second. Think about those numbers 15-25 copies TOTAL, that are still known to exist in this world. They are the stuff every collectors dreams are made of!"

Over eight decades Honeyboy Edwards knew or played with virtually every major figure including Charley Patton, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He was probably best known, though, as the last living link to Robert Johnson. The two traveled together, performing on street corners and at picnics, dances and fish fries during the 1930s. Edwards had earlier apprenticed with Big Joe Williams. Unlike Williams and many of his other peers, however, Edwards did not record commercially until after World War II.

Field recordings he made for the Library of Congress under the supervision of the folklorist Alan Lomax in 1942 are the only documents of Edwards’s music from his years in the Delta. In an interview with Mary K. Lee he recalled his first recordings: "He recorded me in 1942 on a Monday in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He drove up to the house in a brand new '42 Hudson and I was there with my auntie. She had never seen no white folk with a big car like that, in '42. She said, "That man has a big car." He asked her, "David Edwards lived here?" She said, "I don't know. He stays here sometime." But she's scared to tell him yeah. He said, "Well I just want him to do some recording. I want him to make records for me and everything. I'm from Washington. D.C., from the Library of Congress and I want him to record for me." She then said, "Let me see if he's around here anywhere." She said, "There's a man out there in a big car." And I said, "That's the one I've been saying I expected. Tell him I'm here." She said, "Yeah, he's in here asleep. He'll be out in a few minutes though." I got up, put on my clothes and went out to the car. We went to Clarksdale, Mississippi on highways 49 and 61. I rented a room in a house there and he rented a place in a school for the recording. We started recording about eleven, but a storm came up around a little before twelve and broke up the recording. We had to stop mid-way in the recording. Came up like a tornado. We stopped for about an hour and when it blew over we started the recording again and got through the session. He gave me twenty dollars and that was more money than I had in a long time. At that time that was a lot of money. He'd recorded Muddy Waters and Son House the same week before he got to me. He was getting most of the black blues that he could find down through there then.."

Honeyboy Edwards
Silent color film  footage of David “Honeyboy” Edwards, shot by Alan Lomax for the Music Division in 1942

Commercial prospects for Edwards were scant, however — a 1951 78 for Artist Record Co., "Build a Cave" (as Mr. Honey), and four 1953 sides for Chess that laid unissued until "Drop Down Mama" turned up 17 years later on an anthology constituted the bulk of his early recorded legacy, although Edwards was in Chicago from the mid-'50s on.

The Muddy Waters recordings featured today were made as part of a joint field recording trip sponsored by the Library of Congress and Fisk University, whose John Work accompanied Alan Lomax on his trip and whose voice can be heard on portions of the interviews with Muddy. The songs that were recorded in the two sessions (in the summers of 1941 and 1942) were not all issued by the Library of Congress at the time. Lomax said "I was the editor of the first five-album set, and my opion of Muddy was so good that we included TWO of his songs. I think he was the only person – I couldn't make up my mind which of his two blues was the best, so we put them both in."

In the summer of 1941, Lomax went to Stovall, Mississippi on behalf of the Library of Congress to record various country blues musicians including a young Muddy Waters. "He brought his stuff down and recorded me right in my house," Muddy recalled in Rolling Stone, "and when he played back the first song I sounded just like anybody's records. Man, you don't know how I felt that Saturday afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice. Later on he sent me two copies of the pressing and a check for twenty bucks, and I carried that record up to the corner and put it on the jukebox. Just played it and played it and said, 'I can do it, I can do it.'"Lomax came back in July 1942 to record Muddy again. The Library of Congress sessions were eventually released as Down On Stovall's Plantation on the Testament label.The complete recordings were re-issued on CD as Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings by Chess.

Fiddlin' Joe Martin learned guitar and trombone as a boy, later adding mandolin and bass fiddle. He switched to washboard and drums in the 40s after damaging his hands in a fire. He worked with many Delta blues singers, including Charley Patton, Willie ‘Hambone’ Newbern, Johnnie Temple, Memphis Minnie, Willie Brown and Son House, recording with the last two for the Library of Congress in 1941. Martin played drums for Howlin’ Wolf until Wolf moved north, but his most eRobert Lockwood: Take A Little Walk With Menduring association was with Woodrow Adams; he appeared on all Adams’ recordings, and they worked Mississippi juke joints together until Martin’s death. Martin also appears on the anthology High Water Blues, recordings made between 1965 and 1970, mainly in Louisiana and Mississippi by folklorist David Evans.

Born in 1915, Robert Lockwood was one of the last living links to Robert Johnson. When Lockwood's mother became romantically involved with Johnson in Helena, AR, Lockwood suddenly gained a role model and a close friend – so close that Lockwood considered himself Johnson's stepson. Robert Jr. learned how to play guitar very quickly with Johnson's help. By age 15, Lockwood was playing professionally at parties in the Helena area. He often played with his quasi-stepfather figure Robert Johnson as well as with Sonny Boy Williamson II and Johnny Shines. Lockwood played at fish fries, juke joints, and street corners throughout the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s. Lockwood played with Sonny Boy Williamson II in the Clarksdale, Mississippi area in 1938 and 1939. He also played with Howlin' Wolf and others in Memphis, Tennessee around 1938. From 1939 to 1940 he split his time playing in St. Louis, Missouri, Chicago, Illinois and Helena.

On July 1st 1941, Lockwood made his first recordings with Doctor Clayton for the Bluebird label in Aurora, Illinois and on July 30th he recorded the four songs which were released as the first two 78s under his own name: "Little Boy Blue" b/w Take A Little Walk With Me" (Bluebird B-8820) and "I'm Gonna Train My Baby b/w "Black Spider Blues" (Bluebird B-8877). These songs remained in his repertoire throughout his career. Also in 1941, Lockwood and Williamson began their influential performances on the daily King Biscuit Time radio program on KFFA in Helena. Lockwood would not get back on record again until 1951.

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