Bill GreensmithInterview
Juke Boy BonnerB.U. BluesThings Ain't Right
Juke Boy BonnerWhere I LiveThings Ain't Right
Juke Boy BonnerCall Me Juke BoyGoin' Down To Louisiana
Joe DeanMexico Bound BluesDown In Black Bottom
Joe DeanI'm So Glad I'm Twenty-One Years Old Today Shake Your Wicked Knees
Dr. HepcatHattie GreenLyons Avenue Jive
Sparks BrothersLouisiana BoundSparks Brothers 1932-1935
Sparks BrothersTell Her About MeSparks Brothers 1932-1935
Juke boy BonnerYakin' in My Plans45, Blues Unlimited 101
Juke boy BonnerRunnin' Shoes 45, Blues Unlimited 101
Big Maceo Wintertime BluesBig Maceo with Tampa Red
Big Maceo Kid Man BluesBig Maceo Vol. 1 1941-1945
Big Maceo Detroit Jump Big Maceo Vol. 2 1945-1950
Big Maceo Chicago Breakdown Big Maceo Vol. 2 1945-1950
Louise Johnson By The Moon And StarsJuke Joint Saturday Night
Louise Johnson On The Wall Juke Joint Saturday Night
The Four Blazes w/ Red HollowayWomen, WomenMary Jo
Sunnyland Slimw/ Red HollowaySunnyland Slim 1952-1955

Show Notes:

Blues UnlimitedAs Bill Greensmith writes in the introduction to Blues Unlimited: Essential Interviews from the Original Blues Magazine: "Bexhill-on-Sea is a sleepy seaside town in East Sussex on the south coast of England., seemingly populated by old ladies and retired servicemen. …It was unquestionably the most unlikely of locations for the birthplace of Blues Unlimited, the world's first publication devoted solely to the blues. …Bexhill was home to both Simon Napier and Mike Leadbitter, Blues Unlimited's founding editors. …In April 1963, six months after the first AFBF [American Folk Blues Festival] toured Europe, the first issue of Blues Unlimited was published." The magazine was an outgrowth of The Journal of the Blues Appreciation Society formed in May 1962. The first issue was a success, selling out all 180 copies. By issue thirteen the run was up to one thousand and photos included for the first time. Greensmith wrote: "Researchers, discographers, and enthusiasts from Europe and the United States soon began to freely contribute articles, interviews, reviews, and information. …The early BU's managed to covey a wonderful sense of adventure; the enthusiasm was palpable. The early '60's saw the rediscovery of several artists who had recorded in the '20's and '30's, and Blues Unlimited was among the first to report the findings. …From today's vantage point it is sometimes easy to forget the time and context which BU began operating. Few blues artists had ever been the subject of an article or formal interview before appearing in BU. The magazine hit issue one hundred in 1973 and three issues later Simon Nappier stepped down with Mike Leadbetter taking sole ownership. Sadly, in November the next year Leadbitter died of meningitis at the age of 32. BU forged ahead with a five-person editorial committee talking over including Bill Greensmith. BU soldiered on until 1987 with a final double issue, 148/149.

I got into blues seriously when I was around sixteen and picked up my first Blues Unlimited right before the magazine went under. The magazine was a revelation and I even remember where I first picked it up – it was at tiny store called See Hear in the East Village that specialized in strange zines and other publications. Over the years I managed to pick up some of the back issues. The articles and reviews that appeared in the lengthy run of  Blues Unlimited are a treasure of information about the blues, much of the information remains unsurpassed, and locked away, more or less inaccessible unless you were picking up the magazine form the beginning. As far as I know you can't access back issues at any library and there is no archive online. This is why the new book is so valuable, even if it gives us just a brief look at the wealth found in those old BU's. Hopefully there will be a sequel.   On today's Show I air an interview I conducted with Bill Greensmith a few weeks back. Bill was a wonderful and knowledgeable interview. Even though we chatted for over an hour we only touched on a few of the artists (chosen by my interest) featured in the book and today's show revolves around those artists. Below is some background.

Juke Boy Bonner's musical career began as a child, singing in a gospel group and by the age of twelve he had taught himself the guitar. In 1947 he moved to Houston, winning first prize in a talent show at the Lincoln Theatre in the city. This success lead to regular gigs at lounges, bars and juke joints throughout the Houston area, however the chances to record were strictly limited and by the mid-fifties he headed for the West Coast. In 1957, Bonner made his recording debut for the Irma label, in Oakland, California cutting four sides. Just two sides were issued, "Rock With Me Baby"/"Well Baby." He returned to touring the South, frequenting bars and juke joints in Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana, where he cut three sessions for Goldband Records in Lake Charles in 1960, billed as Juke Boy Bonner — The One Man Trio. Some of these sides found their way to a European release on a Storyville album and attracted attention from European blues enthusiasts. But the breaks didn't come Juke Boy's way until 1967, when sterling work primarily by editors of Blues Unlimited magazine led to recording opportunities for the small Flyright label and for an eventual European tour. During the late 60's, Bonner suffered from bouts of ill health and underwent major stomach surgery. He earned a meager living playing gigs in Houston.

Blues Unlimited raised enough money for Juke Boy to cut a 45 for the Blues Unlimited label in Houston in 1967. Chris Strachwitz, owner of Arhoolie Records, on a field trip to Texas heard the record and cut an album with him in December 1967. Further sessions followed for Arhoolie in Houston during 1967, 1968 and 1969. Passport difficulties prevented him from joining the 1968 Folk Blues Festival Tour. He found his way to Europe in 1969 where he cut the album Things Ain't Right for Liberty. Throughout the early and mid-seventies his popularity grew and he continued to tour Europe as well as playing dates in Houston, however he couldn't match his European popularity at home. He became dogged by ill health, divorced from his wife and living in a small rented 10ft by 10ft room in a rundown house in the heart of Houston's black ghetto. Bonner was reduced to unloading trucks and collecting aluminum cans to make a living. The frustration and bitterness are reflected in the comments made by a longtime friend to the Houston Chronicle: "He used to say he could go to Europe and earn $1000 dollars but he couldn't make $50 in his hometown." He died in 1978. The week of his death the Houston Chronicle ran the headline: “Weldon ‘Juke Boy’ Bonner, well known in Europe, dies alone in his hometown.”

Simon Napier and Mike LeadbitterAaron and Marion (he changed his name to Milton in 1929) were twins born to Ruth and Sullie Gant in Tupelo, Mississippi. The brothers cut four sessions as the Sparks Brothers, the first for Victor and the other three for Bluebird, between 1932 and 1935. Milton cut two songs for Decca in 1934 under the name Flyin' Lindberg. Aaron backed a number of St. Louis artists at their second session: Elisabeth Washington, Tecumseh McDowell, Dorotha Trowbridge, James "Stump" Johnson and Charlie McFadden. The brothers' led rough and tumble lives reflected in songs that dealt with gambling, jail, alcohol, woman, hoboing and railroads. In spite of their lyrics and rough background, the music the brothers made was surprisingly tender and wistful. They excelled at thoughtful, mid-tempo blues such as "East Chicago Blues", "Down On The Levee" and "4X11=44" a reference to number combination for playing policy.

Milton possessed a strong, nasal voice that is extremely appealing while Milton had a warm, sensitive vocal that occasionally dips into a mellow falsetto. Aaron was an exceptional and versatile piano player as Chris Smith appraises: "Aaron's playing features the steady chordal basses typical of St. Louis, and a very inventive right hand, endowed with melodic grace and propulsive energy. He was also a capable boogie playe r, with a singing line and a fondness for medium tempos." Aaron's fine abilities as an accompanist extend to his backing a trio of St. Louis ladies. Elisabeth Washington was an appealing, slightly nasal singer with a good sense of delivery; "Riot Call Blues" and "Whiskey Blues" (1933) are particularly tough blues with the latter opening with the line "Everyday I have the blues" a song that the brothers would debut two years later. Mike Rowe with help from Charlie O'Brien wrote the definitive pice on the Sparks Brothers in Blues Unlimited 144 published in 1983. The bulk of the information came from an interview with the brothers' uncle, Aaron Sparks.

Joe Dean recorded one great 78 in 1930: “I'm So Glad I'm Twenty-One Years Old Today b/w Mexico Bound Blues" for Paramount, who dubbed him ‘‘Joe Dean from Bowling Green.’’ Dean was born in St. Louis on April 25, 1908. Raised by his widowed mother, Dean began by playing house parties and small clubs. Dean worked in a steel mill, playing intermittently, until the 1950's. He remained musically active on a part-time basis into the 1960's. He eventually became the Rev. Joe Dean and died on June 24 1981. He was interviewed by Mike Rowe for Blues Unlimited 127 in 1977.

Lavada Durst, known as Dr. Hepcat, who was a disciple of Robert Shaw but who recorded infrequently. He worked in baseball for much of his life, training players and announcing games, and it was from the latter activity that he graduated to working as a DJ, broadcasting over KVET, a white station in Austin. There he developed the persona of Dr.Hepcat, with an extraordinary line in jive talk. He also made a few records of his own, but despite his high profile on radio, it appears that these can't have sold very well, as they are extremely rare, even one issued on the comparatively major independent label Peacock; the other two were on the local Uptown label, one issued under the pseudonym of Cool Papa Smith. He made a handful of latter day recordings before passing in 1995. Dr. Hepcat was interviewed in Blues Unlimited 129 in 1978.

Blues writer Chris Smith wrote the following about Big Maceo: “On both slow blues and boogies, Big Maceo played powerful, sometimes challengingly chromatic bass figures and anvil-sparkling right-hand flourishes and solos. He could be a jovial singer, but more typical were husky, plaintive, fatalistic accounts of trouble with women and the law.  …His playing and Tampa Red’s amplified guitar foreshadow the sound of postwar Chicago.” Maceo had a profound influence on postwar Chicago piano despite a relativley sparse discography; his short career spanned the years 1941 through 1950, where he recorded just over three dozen sides as well as backing partner Tampa Red on eighteen sides and providing session work behind Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jazz Gillum and John & Grace Brim.

Blues Unlimited Number OneMaceo's first session fielded 14 sides, with the first single becoming the most important of his career: "Worried Life Blues". At the conclusion of the war, Melrose immediately brought his stable of blues artists back to the studio. Maceo resumed his work with Tampa Red. Maceo recorded more sides in 1945 including his classic piano instrumental "Chicago Breakdown." Unfortunately, Big Maceo's career was cut short after he suffered a stroke in 1946 that left him almost completely paralyzed on his right side. Over the next few years, he would attempt to record several more times despite his handicap, and still remained a fine singer. Occasionally other pianists would play while he sang.

Louise Johnson was barrelhouse pianist and girlfriend of Charlie Patton’s who went to Grafton to make records with Patton, Willie Brown and Son House in 1930. She cut four sides at that session, her sole recorded legacy. From the book Preachin' The Blues Dan Beaumont writes: "North of Robinsonville, Patton directed Ford to visit the Kirby plantation where they picked up a young woman named Louise Johnson, who was one of Patton’s girlfriends. Johnson sang and played piano in a barrelhouse operated by a Liny Armstrong.  Willie Brown had heard her playing, and he then introduced her to Patton who soon found time for her.  House remembered her 'nice-lookin’…’bout twenty-three, twenty-four years old.'  And like her boyfriend Patton, she 'didn’t do nothin’ but drink and play music; she didn’t work for nobody…' Somewhere along the trip her and Patton had a fight and she became House's girlfriend. "Back in Mississippi, the foursome played in a barrelhouse on the Kirby plantation near Lula for a brief time, then went their separate ways.  According to [Stephen]  Calt and [Gayle] Wardlow, House saw Louise Johnson only once after 1930. He thought she had moved to Helena, Arkansas.  Another report had her playing in the 1930's on the King and Anderson plantation near Clarksdale.  Then she vanished from view." Bob Hall and Richard Noblet wrote the definitive piece on her in Blues Unlimited 115 in 1975. No additional information has turned up on her since.

Bill Greensmith writes to in the preface to the Red Holloway interview: "The Chicago R&B and jump music scene of the 1940s and '50s happily coexisted alongside the more celebrated and familiar down-home amplified style of Muddy Waters. Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter. …In 1974 Mike Leadbitter, in a column titled 'Chicago Flipside', was one of the first people to bemoan the fact that these artists, the clubs they performed in, and the companies who were recording them were largely undocumented." Red Holloway was very much part of this scene and Bill Greensmith conducted a wonderful. candid interview with him that was published in Blues Unlimited 117 and 118 in 1976. Today we close the show with  Holloway backing The Four Blazes and Sunnyland Slim.

John TeftellerInterview
Jim Jackson My Monday BluesBlues Images Vol. 13
Blind Blake Wabash RagBlues Images Vol. 13
Charlie KyleWalking BluesBlues Images Vol. 13
Jed DavenportBeale Street BreakdownBlues Images Vol. 13
Jaydee ShortTar Road BluesBlues Images Vol. 13
Jaydee ShortFlaggin’ It To GeorgiaBlues Images Vol. 13
Willie BrownM & O Blues Blues Images Vol. 3
Willie BrownFuture BluesMasters of the Delta Blues
King Solomon HillMy Buddy, Blind Papa LemonBlues Images Vol. 2
Son HouseMississippi County Farm BluesBlues Images Vol. 2
Hattie HydeSpecial QuestionBlues Images Vol. 13
Hattie HydeT & N O BluesBlues Images Vol. 13
Charlie McCoy Country Guy BluesBlues Images Vol. 13
Charlie McCoy Boogie WoogieBlues Images Vol. 13
Blind Lemon JeffersonSee That My Grave's Kept CleanBlues Images Vol. 13
Blind Lemon Jefferson ’Lectric Chair BluesBlues Images Vol. 13
Blind Willie JohnsonWhen The War Was OnBlues Images Vol. 13
Blind Joe Reynolds Ninety-Nine BluesBlues Images Vol. 2

Show Notes:

2016 Blues Calendar Today's program revolves around record collector John Tefteller who's record collection contains some of the rarest blues 78's in existence. I spoke with John a couple of weeks back and I'll be airing the interview today. According to his website he has the world's largest inventory of blues, rhythm & blues and rock & roll 78's with over 75,000 in stock. Every year around this time Tefteller, through his Blues Images imprint, publishes his Classic Blues Artwork Calendar with a companion CD that matches the artwork with the songs. The CD’s have also been one of the main places that newly discovered blues 78’s turn up. This year marks the thirteenth year of the calendar and CD's and once again Tefteller has turned up newly discovered sides which I'll be featuring today. Among those are newly discovered sides by J.D Short, Charlie McCoy and Hattie Hyde. Several years ago Tefteller uncovered a huge cache of Paramount promotional material. Paramount marketed their "race records", as they were called, to African-Americans, most notably in the pages of the Chicago Defender, the weekly African-American newspaper, and sent promotional material to record stores and distributors. In later years they created artwork to advertise their records for mail order. Tefteller bought a huge cache of this artwork from a pair of journalists who rescued them from the rubbish heap some twenty years previously and  has been reprinting the artwork in his annual calendars. This year's calendar contains some great ads and fabulous photos, some not seen before. Check out Tefteller's website Blues Images for more details.

Tefteller's reissue are not only noteworthy for the newly discovered records but also for the quality of the mastering which make these old, often battered 78's sound so good. In the past the mastering was done by Richard Nevins of Yazoo records.This time out a brand new method has been used to make these records sound even better. The method is a mix of using old equipment and new computer technology. If you want to know more you'll need to listen to the interview. This technology will also be used in  a series to air on PBS and BBC called American Epic which will be devoted to early American music.

Among the newly discovered 78's are records by Jaydee Short, Charlie McCoy and Hattie Hyde. Eighty-four years after it was recorded and originally released, J.D. Short's, Paramount 13091, "Tar Road Blues" b/ w "Flagin' It To Georgia" has been found. As Tefteller said: "It turned up shoved into the back of an old Victrola record player cabinet along with a stack of other Blues records from the same time period." To other other 78's by Short have yet to be found: "Steamboat Rousty" b/w "Gittin' Up On The Hill" and "Drafted Mama" b/w "Wake Up Bright Eye Mama" both recorded at the same Paramount session in 1930. Singer Hattie Hyde cut one record in Dallas in 1929 for Victor with backing from an unknown guitarist and harmonica player. Tefteller attributed the record to Memphis singer Hattie Hart backed by the Memphis Jug Band but this appears to Jaydee Short: Tar Road Bluesbe incorrect. It's still a fine record that's never been heard since it was released so nothing to complain about. The Charlie McCoy 78, "Country Guy Blues" b/w "Boogie Woogie" is also a one-of-the-kind record and a typically excellent one by McCoy.

The rest of today's playlist is all made up from 78's from Tefteller's collection. From his latest CD we hear classic tracks by Jim Jackson, Blind Blake, Charlie Kyle, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willie Brown  and others. Speaking of Kyle, there's a fabulous photo of him in the calendar that's has not been published before. Kyle played 12-string guitar and was said to have been from Texas where he 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. One of the two Jefferson songs played today is his "See That My Grave's Kept Clean" which Son House used the melody for on his 1930 recording of "Mississippi County Farm Blues" also featured today and discovered several years back. Other records played today are something of a greatest hits of Tefteller's past discoveries including legendary sides by Blind Joe Reynolds, King Solomon Hill and others.

Jenni WernerLiterary Director, Geva TheaterInterview
Dan BeaumontAuthor of Preachin'
the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House
Steve GrillsMusicianInterview
Son House Levee Camp Moan Son House With Studs Terkel, Chicago 1965
Son House Don't Mind People Grinnin' In Your Face Son House With Studs Terkel, Chicago 1965
Son House My Black Mama, Pt. 1Blues Images Vol. 2
Son House My Black Mama, Pt. 2Blues Images Vol. 2
Son House Death LetterFather of the Delta Blues
Son House Mississippi County Farm Blues Blues Images Vol. 4
Son House Walkin' Blues Legends of Country Blues
Son House Louise McGee Father of the Delta Blues
Son House Empire State ExpressSon House With Studs Terkel, Chicago 1965
Son House Pony BluesLegends of Country Blues
Son House Preachin' The Blues Part 1Legends of Country Blues
Son House The Jinx Blues Part 1 The Real Delta Blues
Son House Delta Blues Screamin' & Hollerin' The Blues

Show Notes:Son House Geva Banner

This week Geva Theatre presents Journey to the Son: A Celebration of Son House from August 26 through August 29th. The four-day festival weaves together music, theatre, film, audio recordings, storytelling and lectures to celebrate the life of Son House. There will be musical performances by John Hammond, John Mooney, Chris Thomas King, Joe Beard, Steve Grills as well as musical workshops. Another highlight will be the dedication of an official Mississippi Blues Trail marker on Friday, August 28 near the site where Son House resided in the Corn Hill Neighborhood of Rochester. There will also be the debut of the play, Revival: The Resurrection of Son House, by Keith Glover. In addition there will be lectures by author Dan Beaumont, Son's old manager, Dick Waterman, and Jim O'Neal founder of Living Blues magazine. On today's show we  have several folks involved in this event in the studio including Geva's Literary Director Jenni Werner, Dan Beaumont author of Preachin' the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House, and musician Steve Grills.

When I was a teenager discovering the blues one of the first albums that really captivated me was Son House's Death Letter – I still have it – (the UK equivalent of Father of the Folk Blues), his stunning return to the studio after dropping out of sight for nearly twenty-five years. As author Dan Beaumont wrote: "In 1943 Son House left Mississippi, and, for all that is known of his life over the course of the next twenty-one years, he may well have fallen off the face of the earth. But this he did not do-instead he did the next best thing. He moved to Rochester, New York." As a teenager living in the Bronx I too knew nothing of Rochester outside the fact it was in some nether region of New York State – the farthest I had been was the Catskills, one hundred miles upstate. But as I read Dick Waterman's liner notes, Rochester and the address 61 Greig Street was burned in my memory. That was where Dick Waterman, Phil Spiro and Nick Perls finally tracked Son down on June 23rd, 1964. Waterman became Son's manager and the following year he was signed to Columbia and played the Newport Folk Festival. Son had several good years on the comeback trail; he toured the US playing folk festivals and the coffeehouse circuit and did tours of Europe as well. He also performed locally in Rochester at several different venues, all of which are long shuttered. Memories of Son's local performances are vividly burned into the memories of all who had a chance to witness him in action.

Son House rediscovery
The men who found Son House: Nick Perls, Dick Waterman, Son House, Phil Spiro.
Photo taken June 23, 1964 in front of 61 Greig Street.

Son's rediscovery in Rochester was newsworthy, making it into Newsweek, Downbeat and the May 29, 1965 edition of the Rochester afternoon newspaper, The Times-Union, with a story titled Son House Records Blues Again and a follow-up article and interview in July titled Hunt for 'Blues' Singer Of Thirties Ends in City. It must have been a bit bewildering to Son who was living a very low-key life in Rochester as Dan Beaumont notes: "There for twenty one years he lived amidst almost total obscurity. Indeed, what is known of his life in that city from 1943 to 1964 is so slight, so slender, that his biographer's task becomes well nigh impossible."

I came to Rochester in the late 1980's for college and have been up here ever since. Over the years I met numerous people who fondly recalled Son House and when I started doing my yearly radio birthday tributes to Son, it brought more people out of the woodwork who gladly shared their memories with me. So it's puzzling that the City has never honored Son in any way. At least Cab Calloway (born in Rochester in 1907) has a plaque honoring him, albeit tucked away on a nondescript side street in an equally nondescript park. For years myself and others thought someone should rectify this sorry state of affairs; a plaque, a statue or something to honor one of the pivotal figures in blues history, a major influence on both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and who's recordings are among the most powerful in blues history. It would be a shame to let Son's memory slip back to the years before he was rediscovered in Rochester, but the sad fact is there was nothing tangible that shows he ever made this city his home for a good part of his life (1943-1976). This year finally marks a change as a Mississippi Blues Trail marker (only the 13th outside of Mississippi) will be dedicated to Son at the Corner of Grieg and Clarissa St., close to the spot where he was rediscovered. Son's actual residence at the time, 61 Grieg Street, no longer exists, a causality of urban renewal.

Son House Times-Union
Article from Rochester's Times-Union, July 14, 1964

Back in 2007 myself and others launched the modest Hot Blues For The Homeless concert which evolved into Hot Blues For The Homeless …A Tribute To Son House. The concert was successful, raised a good amount of money for the Rochester homeless and raised some local awareness of Son House with good coverage in the local media. Out of the concert rose the Son House Apartments which provide housing for the homeless. After a few years I got burned out on the project but I'm glad a major institution like the Geva is picking up the torch.

Stephen WadeInterview
Kelly PaceRock Island Line The Beautiful Music All Around Us
LeadbellyRock Island Line Leadbelly Vol: 4 1944
Nashville Washboard Band Soldier's JoyThe Beautiful Music All Around Us
Nashville Washboard Band Kohoma Blues Too Late, Too Late Vol. 10 1926-1951
Blind James Campbell & His Nashville Street Band Buffalo GalBlind James Campbell & His Nashville Street Band
Vera Hall Another Man Done GoneThe Beautiful Music All Around Us
Willie TurnerNow Your Man Done Gone Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1: Secular Music
Big Joe Williams Please Don't Go Big Joe Williams Vol. 1 1935-41
Baby Doo Caston I'm Gonna Walk Your LogChicago Blues Vol. 2 1939-1944
Leadbelly & Golden Gate Quartet Alabama BoundAlabama Bound
Dennis Gainus You Gonna Look Like A Monkey A Treasury Of Field Recordings Vol. 1
Grover Dickson & Group Grizzley Bear A Treasury Of Field Recordings Vol. 1
Dudley Alexander and Washboard Band Baby, Please Don't Go A Treasury Of Field Recordings Vol. 1
Joel HopkinsBetter Down The Road A Treasury Of Field Recordings Vol. 1
Jack Jackson & Lightnin' Hopkins The Slop A Treasury Of Field Recordings Vol. 1
Mance Lipscomb Tom Moore's Farm A Treasury Of Field Recordings Vol. 2
R.C. Forest & Gozy Kilpatrick Tin Can Alley A Treasury Of Field Recordings Vol. 2
R.G. WIlliams & Group Hammer RingA Treasury Of Field Recordings Vol. 2
Prisoners Chopping In The New Ground Negro Prison Camp Worksongs
Prisoners Go Down Old HannahNegro Prison Camp Worksongs
Jesse "G.I. Jazz" Hendricks and groupRattlerNegro Folklore from Texas State Prisons
Johnny Jackson & Group Raise 'Em Up Higher Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons

Show Notes:

The Beautiful Music All Around UsOn today’s program we spotlight some great field recordings captured between the 1930’s through the 1960’s. In the first hour we talk with Stephen Wade about his new book The Beautiful Music All Around Us which presents the fascinating back stories of thirteen performances captured on Library of Congress field recordings between 1934 and 1942. Through prodigious research, Wade sought out the performers on these recordings, their families, fellow musicians, and others who remembered them and reconstructs their lives and how the music was tied to the larger community. Wade is also known for his long-running stage performances of Banjo Dancing and On the Way Home. He also produced and annotated the Rounder CD collections A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings and Black AppalachiaIn the second hour we spotlight field recordings made by Mack McCormick and others around Houston plus recording made Texas prisons  by Bruce Jackson in the 1960’s and  Pete & Toshi Seeger, John Lomax Jr., Chester Bower and Fred Hellerman in 1951.

Through the dilegence of a relatively small number of dedicated researchers we know an amazing amount of information about early blues musicians. I'm no expert on country music but I imagine the case is similar. For all our knowledge there are many gaps; a fair number of the blues artists were itinerant musicians, traveling from town to town, or state to state and the other factor comes down to the fact that the white establishment wasn't all that concerned with documenting African-Americans, and if they were listed on census records, court documents, etc. that information is often inaccurate. The artists and songs Wade covers in The Beautiful Music All Around Us were biographical blanks, leaving leaving behind little of their origins, and seemingly impervious to discovery after so many decades. Through dogged research Wade has been able to flesh out the lives of folks like Bozie Sturdivant, Ora Dell Graham and Kelly Pace and find the origins and stories behind iconic songs such as "Rock Island Line" and "Another Man Done Gone." Our show has always focused on African-American music but Wade's book covers much wider territory, and illustrates the cross pollination there was between white and black music. Our focus for the first hour plus is some of the African-American artists covered in Wade's book: Kelly Pace, Nashville Washboard Band and Vera Hall.

In October 1934 John Lomax set up his recording equipment at Cummins State Prison in Little Rock, Arkansas  and recorded a group led by Kelly Pace singing "Rock Island Line." The story of that song and its singer is one of my favorite chapters in Wade's book, fleshing out Kelly from those who knew him, he comes across as fascinating, talented man who simply could not stay out of trouble, spending half his life behind bars. "My brother," said Kelly's brother Lawrence, "was a songster. He sang all sort of songs – songs of the church, of the blues, dance songs, work songs …You couldn't beat him working. He didn't wait till the dew is off. He'd say 'I'm going to get 400 pounds of cotton.' And when you was done half-way, he done cut out and coming back. …Kelly, he was something else.'"

Handbill from lecture given at the Library of
Congress (click to enlarge)

Wade also unlocks the origins of that famous song: 'Rock Island Line' begin its journey in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the repair shops of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. Based on a traditional form and arising within a commercial setting, the song, like a trunk line whose branches radiate across the countryside, soon moved beyond this work site making new stops, shifting its contents, and streamlining its load. It migrated from a gospel quartet that the Arkansas prisoners performed to a rhythmic fable that Huddie Ledbetter created as he traveled with John Lomax as chauffeur, auto mechanic, and musical demonstrator. Eventually the song reached an incalculable number of players, singers, and listeners via skiffle, rock and roll, country, pop, and the folksong revival."

John Work IV recalled to Wade when his father, John Work III, welcomed a quartet of street musicians called the Nashville Washboard Band into his home in 1942. As Wade writes "the musicians faced them in a row, seated side by side, lodged between the Works' radio set on one end and their Steinway parlor grand on the other. One band member chorded his banjo-mandolin, and another the guitar, but Work IV fixed most on the string bass a third member of the band had cobbled together from a length of laundry wire, a broomstick, and a lard can. …[T]he band's fourth member, who was blind, sat between, who was blind, set between two washboards mounted on a sawhorse and hinged in the shape of a V. He had attached to them an assemblage of frying pans, tin plates, and a metal bell, each registering different tones. Wearing sewing thimbles on his fingers, he tapped, clocked, and hammered this clattering array of stove-top resonators and corrugated surfaces." John Work IV recollected "These people were the music. …They could just play on and on, and the house would reverberate." Twenty years after a group calling themselves Blind James Campbell And His Nashville Street Band were recorded by Chris Strachwitz for Arhoolie Records. The group members knew the earlier group, linking the two in a long, if largely undocumented, tradition of black street bands.

Treasury of Field Recordings Vol. 1 Treasury of Field Recordings Vol. 2
Read Liner Notes Pt.1 / Pt. 2

In 1940, in Livingston, Alabama, Vera Hall sang "Another Man Done" twice into John Lomax's recording machine. The song became Hall's signature number and when Alan Lomax included the number for one of the Folk Archive's first releases the song entered the mainstream, recorded by Johnny Cash, Harry Belafonte, John Mayall, Odetta and numerous others. In the chapter on Vera Hall, Wade provides background on Hall, the conditions she grew up in and the meaning behind the song. "When Vera recorded "Another Man Done" she told John Lomax that she learned it from her guitar-playing husband. …When writer-collector Harold Courlander came to Livingston in February 1950, he recorded both Vera singing 'Another Man Done,' as well as someone she knew: Willie Turner, a twenty-seven-year-old  confined at Camp Livingston. With his two fellow inmates, he sang and recorded 'Now Your Man Done Gone,' a piece they otherwise sang on the county road gang. …Two days before Courlander recorded Willie Turner at Camp Livingson, he stopped forty miles away in Marion, Mississippi. There he recorded a singer identified in his notes "only as Cora, who sang 'Baby Please Don't Go' . . . the same song, but with some variance in the lyrics." That song was first recorded commercially by Big Joe Williams in 1935. These songs "fit within a larger family of songs that "fit within a larger family of songs that include 'I'm Alabama Bound,' 'Don't Ease Me In,' 'Don't Leave Me Here,' and 'Elder Greene's in Town.' This network of songs that arises by the late nineteenth century uses a consistent verse pattern and, largely, a recurring subject matter."

There is a connection between the albums featured in the second hour: A Treasury Of Field Recordings Vol. 1 & 2, Negro Prison Camp Worksongs and Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons. As Mack McCormick writes in the notes to A Treasury Of Field Recordings: "The various collecting projects which have funneled into this final selection were initiated in 1951 when Pete Seeger visiting Houston, bringing together Ed Badeaux, John Lomax Jr., Chester Bower and Harold Belikoff, resulting in the founding of the Houston Folklore Group. At that time recordings were made at two of the Texas prison farms." The recordings McCormick is talking about resulted in the album Negro Prison Camp Worksongs with some songs from that session appearing on A Treasury Of Field Recordings. The recordings Bruce Jackson made over a decade later for the album Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons were recorded at the same Texas prisons and it's likely some of the same prisoners were recorded.

Negro Prison Camp Worksongs
 Read Liner Notes

A Treasury Of Field Recordings Vol. 1 & 2 were compiled by Mack McCormick and issued on the British 77 label in 1960. Sponsored by the Houston Folklore Group and the Texas Folklore Society, these Fields recordings were collected around Houston by McCormick and other collectors like Ed Bradeux, Pete Seeger, John Lomax and others. The 36 selections contained in this set were drawn from over 400 items recorded over a nine year period. The original recordings are housed at the University of Texas and the Library of Congress. As the notes state it portrays "A panorama of the traditions around Houston – the city and its neighboring bayous, beaches, prisons, plantations, plains and piney woods…” And as John Lomax writes about this collection “This is one good, long look at the guts of America – songs sung by those who make them up and pass them along, showing the character of themselves, the flavor and spirit of their lives.” Below is information on some of the albums' performers.

Joel Hopkins was Lightnin's older brother and first gave him a guitar. Joel traveled the south with tent shows and traveling caravans. Lightnin's other brother, John Henry also played guitar. The three were recorded together in Waxahatchie, TX in 1964. The results were issued on Arhoolie under the title Hopkins Brothers: Lightnin', Joel, & John Henry .

As Mack McCormick writes in the notes: "When his wife is away at church, Jack Jackson will sit down at his piano and sing "sinful" songs. Sometimes when she has an evening prayer meeting he'll invite someone like Lightnin' over to 'kick it around.' Lightnin' has ceased working with pianists (though he stills plays primarily in jook joints (for dancing) and Jack has established himself in business on the corner of Milam and Prarie in Houston's downtown business district."

Tom Moore was a powerful plantation owner who farmed land along the Brazos river in Texas. Asked about the song, sung on this collection by Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins, he replied: "They're happy people – they don 't always mean what they sing. He laughed deprecatingly, 'Only I best never catch one of them singing that song.'" As McCormick notes: “In order to protect him [Mance Lipscomb] and his family, his name is withheld from his recording of 'Tom Moore's Farm'. …The simple fact is that the singer and Tom Moore are neighbors, the one a poor laborer, the other a powerful and vindictive man who has long felt the song to be a thorn in his side.”

Recorded by Pete & Toshi Seeger in the winter of 1951 at two Texas prison farms, Negro Prison Camp Worksongs, released on the Folkways label, represents some of the oldest and most traditional work songs found among African American prison communities in the southern United States. In 1951, when Pete Seeger as one of the successful Singing group, The Weavers, was booked to appear at a Houston hotel ballroom, he wrote John Lomax, Jr. suggesting that he ask permission for them to visit the nearby prison farms with recording equipment. The governor granted permission and the group, with Chester Bower providing the tape machine and assisting, visited Ramsey and Rechine farms on consecutive Sunday afternoons.

Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons
 Read Liner Notes

A couple of months back we devoted half a show to recordings made by Bruce Jackson in the 60's at Texas prisons. Today we feature selections from Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons (Elektra, 1965) which I omitted last time. Jackson wrote: “I started recording in Texas prisons in July 1964. I think Texas had about 12,000 prisoners in 14 prisons back then …My primary interest in Texas was the black convict worksongs, which seemed to me to be part of an unbroken musical tradition going back to West Africa….”

Stephen Wade Interview/Feature  (75 min,. mp3)


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