Playlists


ARTISTSONGALBUM
Julia MoodyPolice BluesTight Women And Loose Bands
Julia MoodyMidnight DanTight Women And Loose Bands
Leroy CarrEleven Twenty-Nine BluesWhiskey Is My Habit, Women Is All I Crave: The Best of Leroy Carr
Furry LewisJudge Harsh BluesWhen The Sun Goes Down
Romeo Nelson1129 Blues (The Midnight Special)Boogie Woogie & Barrelhouse Piano Vol. 2 1928-1930
Big Joe WilliamsAll I Want Is My Train Fare Home A Man Sings The Blues Vol. 1
Big Joe WilliamsCow Cow BluesA Man Sings The Blues Vol. 2
Scott Dunbar It's So Cold Up NorthBlues From The Delta
Lee KizartDon't Want No Woman Telling Me What To DoBlues From The Delta
Lovey WilliamsTrain I RideBlues From The Delta
Roosevelt SykesJivin' the JiveRoosevelt Sykes Vol. 7 1941-1944
Hal SingerDisc Jockey BoogieHal Singer 1948-51
J.B. Lenoir Everybody Is Crying About VietnamBye Bye Bird
Junior WellsVietnam BluesLookout Sam
Smoky BabeBoss Man BluesWay Back in the Country Blues
Smoky BabeGoin' Home BluesWay Back in the Country Blues
Scrapper BlackwellAlley Sally BluesScrapper Blackwell Vol. 2 1934-1958
Robert WilkinsNew Stock Yard BluesMasters of the Memphis Blues
Rocky Fuller (Louisiana Red)The Moon Won't Go DownForrest City Joe & Rocky Fuller: Memory Of Sonny Boy
Robert Pete WilliamsMidnight BoogieBye Bye Bird
Mississippi Fred McDowellI Walked All The Way From East St LouisGood Morning Little Schoolgirl
Arizona DranesI Shall Wear A CrownVintage Mandolin Music
Otis SpannMake A WaySweet Giant of the Blues
Blind Willie McTellLay Some Flowers On My GraveThe Best Of
Peetie WheatstrawBring Me Flowers While I'm LivingPeetie Wheatstraw Vol. 7 1940-1941
Sippie WallaceUp The Country BluesSippie Wallace Vol. 1 1923-1925
Blind Willie McTellStatesboro BluesThe Best Of
De Ford Bailey Up The Country BluesHistory Of Blues Harmonica 1926-2002
Co Cow DavenportPlenty Gals BluesCow Cow Davenport - The Accompanist 1924-1929
Lil JohnsonMinor BluesLil Johnson Vol. 1 1929-1936
Sippie WallaceWoman Be WiseUp The Country

Show Notes:

Julia Moody - Midnight DanToday's mix show has several themes and featured artists running throughout. On deck today we play songs revolving around the term "11-29" and spin a trio of songs based on Sippie Wallace's "Up The Country Blues." We also feature twin spins form Julia Moody, Big Joe Williams and Blind Willie McTell. We hear some fine down-home blues including previously unreleased sides from Smoky Babe and a trio of tracks from the long out-of-print Blues From The Delta album. We spin some fine piano blues by Otis Spann, Arizona Dranes, Cow Cow Davenport, Montana Taylor and Roosevelt Sykes. In addition we play several recordings from the American Fol Blues Festival.

Sippie Wallace made her first record in 1923 and her last in 1984. Thomas grew up in Houston, Texas where she sang and played the piano in her father's church. While still in her early teens she and her younger brother Hersal and older brother George began playing and singing the Blues in tent shows that traveled throughout Texas. In 1915 she moved to New Orleans and lived with her older brother George. During her stay there she met many of the great Jazz musicians like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong who were friends of her brother George. During the early 1920s she toured the TOBA vaudeville circuit where she was billed as "The Texas Nightingale". In 1923 she followed her brothers to Chicago and began performing in the cafes and cabarets around town. In 1923 she recorded her first records for Okeh and went on to record over forty songs for them between 1923 and 1929. “Up The Country Blues b/w Shorty George Blues” was her debut and an immediate success. The songs were written by her brother George. Blind Willie McTell borrowed part of the lyrics for his classic "Statesboro Blues." "Statesboro Blues" was covered famously by Taj Mahal in 1968 and The Allman Brothers in 1971. We also play De Ford Bailey's superb instrumental of "Up The Country Blues" from 1927.Interestingly, in December 1923, just a few months after Sippie's recording, a singer by the name of Tiny Franklin cut six sides backed by Wallace's brother George on piano which included versions of "Up The Country Blues" and "Shorty George Blues,”

"11-29," is a reference found in a number of blues songs dealing with the subject of court sentencing in southern states for criminal behavior. The sentence was often the maximum for a misdemeanor crime, thus keeping the convict in local confinement as long as possible. This interpretation is borne out in a number of blues songs. Blac ks were often given more severe sentences than whites in a local court of law. And the experience of either county or state incarceration during the historical period that shaped early blues lyrics was, in reality, very cruel. We play a trio of songs using the theme including Leroy Carr's "Eleven Twenty-Nine Blues", Furry Lewis' "Judge Harsh Blues" and Romeo Nelson's "1129 Blues (The Midnight Special)."  Charley Patton refers to the "11-29" jail sentence of eleven months and twenty-nine days in "Jim Lee Blues, Part 1" recorded in 1929 which I've played several tomes on the show: "When I got arrested what do you reckon was my fine?/Say they give all coons eleven twenty-nine."

A Man Sings The Blues Vol. 1
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We spotlight twin spins today by Big Joe Williams and Julia Moody. Thes Big Joe Williams  songs were released two four-song EP's on the British Jen label (A Man Sings The Blues Vol. 1 & 2). These sides were recorded in the summer of 1957 in Chicago by Erwin Helfer who plays the piano on these sides.

Not much is know about Julia Moody who cut sixteen sides between 1922 and 1925. She was known to have been involved in the stage prior and after her brief recording career. Our two songs "Midnight Dan" and "Police Blues" come from her final 1925 session and find her backed by a fine jazz band called the Dixie Wobblers. "Midnight Dan" has a dramatic feel which probably owes to Moody's stage background while Police Blues" is a wonderfully sung slow blues:

I walked to the corner, 31st and State (2x)
I was so worried til' I stayed too late
Just standing on the corner, I didn't mean no harm (2x)
Along come the policeman, and took me by my arm
Carried me to the station, and I was full of booze (2x)
That's why I'm worried about those police blues

We play a trio of songs from the album Blues From the Delta which was the companion album to the book of the same name by William Ferris. The recordings were made in the summer of 1968 and included the debut recordings James “Son” Thomas. The album also includes excellent recordings by under-recorded artists such as Lovey Williams, Scott Dunbar and Lee Kizart.

Born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, Robert Brown AKA Smoky Babe had found his way to Scotlandville, Louisiana by the age of 20. It was there that Harry Oster recorded him on several occasions between 1959-1961 with material appearing on the labels Folk-Lyric, Storyville and Bluesville. Smoky cut two full length albums: Smoky Babe and His Friends and Hottest Brand Goin' plus a few scattered sides on different anthologies. The recordings featured today are previously unreleased and have just been issue on Way Back in the Country Blues on Arhoolie Records. As the notes state: "Upon Harry’s death in 2001, his widow Caroline shipped what was understood to be the balance of his tapes. Nowhere in the pile were the unissued Smoky Babe recordings. Recently, in the early stages of preparing a box set of Harry’s work, we noticed that many other known recordings of his were missing from our collection, and reached out again to Caroline to see if any had been overlooked. The following week, a shipment of boxes arrived filled with tapes dating back to Harry’s Louisiana days. Among this last batch were several reels of Smoky Babe containing many unissued recordings as strong as anything previously available. This record represents what we feel is the best of those long lost performances."

The American Folk Blues Festival (AFBF) was an annual event, beginning in 1962, that featured the cream of American blues musicians barnstorming their way across Europe. The recordings from these tours have been collected on numerous anthologies over the years. Toda's AFBF recordings come from the Scout label which was Horst Lippmann's and Fritz Rau's label preceding L + R Records. Lippmann' and Rau were the men responsible for organizing the AFBF. Just about everything on the label was from the concerts and today we feature the following collection: Look Out Sam!Bye Bye Bird…and Up The Country!.

Blues From The Delta
Read Liner Notes

We feature terrific piano blues and gospel piano today from Otis Spann, Arizona Dranes, Cow Cow Davenport, Montana Taylor and Roosevelt Sykes. Leaving Muddy Waters’ group in 1968, Otis Spann made a flurry of recordings, including an album with Fleetwood Mac as his backing band. It was at this point Bob Thiele invited him to record for his Bluestime label. The album, Sweet Giant Of The Blues, has now been reissued by Ace Records. Unfortunately, his health had been compromised by years of alcohol abuse and he died a few months after these recordings at the age of 40.

Arizona Dranes born was born blind in 1889 or 1891. Between 1926 and 1928, Dranes recorded sixteen numbers for OKeh Records and soon became a gospel music star. Unfortunately, her recording career suffered due to misunderstandings between Dranes and the record company’s executives. After 1928 and until her death in 1963, Dranes served the Church of God in Christ by performing at churches around the country, quickly falling into near-complete obscurity (her last public appearance, where she was billed as the “Famous Blind Piano Player,” was in 1947).

Cow Cow Davenport, Montana Taylor and Roosvelt Sykes were some of the great early piano players. We hear Taylor playing superbly behind Lil Johnson's debut record "Minor Blues" which went unissued and hear Davenport on "Plenty Gals Blues" backing obscure singer Memphis Joe (Joe Byrd). Roosevelt Sykes is heard on the jumping "Jivin' the Jive" from 1944 backed by a combo that included Ted Summit on guitar and Jump Jackson on drums.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Bukka WhiteI Am In The Heavenly WayBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhiteThe Panama LimitedBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhiteSic 'Em Dogs OnBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Freddie SpruellMilk Cow BluesMississippi Blues Vol.2 1926-1935
Freddie SpruellMuddy Water BluesMississippi Blues Vol.2 1926-1935
Freddie Spruell4A HighwayMississippi Blues Vol.2 1926-1935
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordHigh Lonesome HillMississippi - the Blues Lineage
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordTimes Is Getting HardDeep River Of Song - Mississippi: Saints & Sinners
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordFarmin' Man BluesMississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1
Bukka WhiteWhen Can I Change My ClothesBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhitePinebluff ArkansasBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhiteShake 'Em On DownBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordMississippi River BluesMississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordLonesome Highway BluesMississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1
Freddie SpruellTom Cat BluesThe Paramount Masters
Freddie SpruellLow-Down Mississippi Bottom ManThe Paramount Masters
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordPaydayMississippi - the Blues Lineage
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordStagolee Alan Lomax: Blues Songbook
Kid BaileyRowdy BluesMasters of the Delta Blues: Friends of Charlie Patton
Kid BaileyMississippi Bottom BluesScreamin' & Hollerin' The Blues
Willie BrownFuture BluesScreamin' & Hollerin' The Blues
Willie BrownM&O BluesBlues Images Vol. 3
Willie BrownMake Me A Pallet On The FloorScreamin' & Hollerin' The Blues
Freddie Spruell Mr. Freddie's Kokomo BluesMississippi Blues Vol.2 1926-1935
Freddie Spruell Let's Go RidingMississippi Blues Vol.2 1926-1935
Bukka WhiteSleepy Man BluesBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhiteParchman Farm BluesBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhiteFixin' To Die BluesBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Willie FordPaydayMississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordStagolee Mississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1
Willie FordSanta Field BluesMississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1
Bukka WhiteAberdeen Mississippi BluesBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhiteBukka's Jitterbug SwingBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940

Show Notes:

TBukka Whiteoday's show is the third in a series of shows devoted to great early Mississippi blues artists, most little remembered today. 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. In the past I've devoted shows to Charlie Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson but I realized that there was still several major figures I hadn't featured in depth like Bukka White, Skip James, Sam Collins and Mississippi John Hurt. I'll be spotlighting these artists alongside several fine lesser known Mississippi artists. At a later date I'll be spotlighting the rediscovery records by some of these artists. Today's shows spans the years 1926 through 1941 featuring records by Bukka White, Freddie Spruell, Lucious Curtis and partner Willie Ford, Willie Brown and Kid Bailey.

Along with Son House and Skip James, Bukka White was one of the major Mississippi bluesmen to be re-discovered during the great blues revival of the 1960’s. His early recordings made between 1930 and 1940 are among the most creative and powerful blues ever recorded. As Keith Briggs wrote in the notes to Document's Bukka White: Aberdeen Mississippi Blues: "Booker’s unique sound was a combination of solid, rocking, rhythms interspersed with vigorous guitar breaks, his ability as a bottleneck slide guitarist and his gritty, heavy voice. He favored the steel bodied National guitar as it’s volume allowed him to be audible over the noise of a good-time crowd. His songs were almost always personal and are among the most creative and descriptive to found on blues records."

White said he was born about five miles south of Houston, Mississippi. Various documents list his birth date between 1900 and 1909, but census data suggests 1904. His father John White, a multi-instrumentalist who performed at local gatherings, gave him his first guitar and other local musicians taught him his signature bottleneck slide technique. Recording agent Ralph Lembo of Itta Bena arranged for White to record his first blues and gospel songs in 1930 in Memphis. Victor only saw fit to release four of the 14 songs Bukka White recorded that day. It is very likely that it is Memphis Minnie, listed as “Miss Minnie”, who lends her voice to two of the Victor titles. Low-Down Mississippi Bottom Man

In 1937 White recorded a minor hit, “Shake ‘Em On Down,” in Chicago, but that year he was also sentenced for a shooting incident to Parchman Penitentiary, where John Lomax of the Library of Congress recorded him. It was as "Washington Barrelhouse White" that White recorded two numbers for John and Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm in 1939. After his release White recorded twelve of his best-known songs at a Chicago session in 1940. Among the songs he recorded on that occasion were "Parchman Farm Blues", "Good Gin Blues," "Bukka's Jitterbug Swing," "Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues," and "Fixin' to Die Blues," all classic numbers.

During the war White settled in Memphis and worked at a defense plant. Bob Dylan recorded "Fixin' to Die Blues" on his 1961 debut Columbia album, and at the time no one in the music business knew who Bukka White was. Two California-based blues enthusiasts, John Fahey and Ed Denson in 1963 addressed a letter to "Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi." By chance, one of White's relatives was working in the Post Office in Aberdeen, and forwarded the letter to White in Memphis. Things moved quickly from there and  by the end of 1963 Bukka White was already recording on contract with Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie. After he began to tour and record again in the 1960's White, still a skilled and energetic performer, became a popular figure on the folk music circuit and traveled as far as Mexico and Europe. He passed in 1977.

Freddie Spruell recorded ten tracks for OKeh, Paramount, and Bluebird between 1926 and 1935. Spreull could well be considered the first Delta blues performer to record when he cut "Milk Cow Blues" in Chicago on June 25, 1926. He recorded two more sides in 1928, including "Tom Cat Blues," and five tracks (under the name Mr. Freddie) on April 12, 1935, a session that yielded perhaps his best song, the rag-inspired "Let's Go Riding," which featured second guitar from Carl Martin. Spruell also backs Washboard Sam on "Ocean Blues b/w Y.M.V. Blues", Sam's d 1935 debut recording for Bluebird. The only known copy of this record recently turned up. 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.

M&O Blues

Little is known for certain of the man whom Robert Johnson called "my friend-boy, Willie Brown" ("Cross Road Blues"). Brown is heard with Patton on the Paramount sessions of 1930 and cut "M & O Blues and" and "Future Blues" at that date. Brown's "Kickin' In My Sleep Blues" b/w "Window Blues" (Paramount 13001) and "Grandma Blues" b/w "Sorry Blues" (Paramount 13099) have yet to surface. As Dan Beaumont wrote in  Preachin' the Blues:  The Life and Times of Son House: "“M&O Blues” and “Future Blues,” are based respectively on Patton’s “Pony Blues” and “Maggie,” and show Patton’s enduring influence on Brown, which, by and by, would be another channel for Patton’s influence on House." In 1941 Alan Lomax recorded Brown with Son House, Fiddlin' Joe Martin and Leroy Williams. Brown played second guitar on three performances by the whole band, and recorded one solo, "Make Me A Pallet On The Floor." Brown died in Tunica, Mississippi in 1952 at the age of 52.

Nothing is known of Kid Bailey outside of his lone 78 "Mississippi Bottom Blues b/w Rowdy Blues." These were recorded on September 25, 1929 at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. Research by Dr. David Evans, professor of music at Memphis State University, has concluded that Kid Bailey may have been a pseudonym for Willie Brown. Son House on hearing this recording instantly recognized his partner Willie Brown. Others dispute that Brown and Bailey are the same person. Gayle Dean Wardlow has said that he "found 5 different source who all saw Kid Bailey in person in Mississippi–3 of them on taped interviews including [Ishman] Bracey who saw him across the river from Jackson and talked to him in person." It seems Wardlow changed his view because in The Life And Music Of Charle Patton he and his co-author, Stephen Calt, point out that  no one interviewed in the post-war period ever knew Kid Bailey well enough to know his real name or where he was from. When Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stephen Calt were doing research in Mississippi in the 1960's, these were some of the reactions when Kid Bailey's "Rowdy Blues" was played:

Rowdy BluesMandy Wigham:  "That sounds just like Willie…  Ain't Willie makin' music on there?  I think that's Willie makin' music."

Elizabeth Moore:  "Him (meaning Willie Brown) and Son could both make that introduction on their music…  sounds like that music and that voice – pretty close there if it ain't him (Brown)."

Confusingly Wardlow also had the following memory from Moore: "Elizabeth Moore who lived in Tunica County on a plantation near Robinsonville and knew Willie Brown and Son House and Robert saw Kid and Willie Brown playing together there in a juke in Robinsonville for a few weeks together. Willie told her they had made a record together but she doubted it as she never saw it. Willie only called him "Kid." Brown is the second guitar but sounds like the lead on "Rowdy Blues" but is barely audible on the other side. That's the connection. She made those comments after she listened to the Kid Bailey record. She said that's Willie's music and it sounded like the way he played– "Rowdy Blues". She also saw Willie and Robert together on many occasions playing together. Bailey played mainly from Leland over to Moorhead and was raised up near Leland at the Triplett community just outside Leland on Highway 82. Booker Miller saw him in Moorhead. But he was only called Kid Bailey–probably a childhood nickname."

In October 1940 John Lomax and his wife came to Natchez, Mississippi from Baton Rouge to look for musicians to record. During that trip they recorded Lucious Curtis, Willie Ford and George Bolwdin. Between Curtis and Ford ten songs were recorded. "'Like I foretold you, I ain't much of a player.'" When Lucious Curtis was there, Willie "followed after" him, but he did it skillfully, watching the leader carefully." So reads the first paragraph of John Lomax's notes for the recording session. He wen on to write that "Lucious Curtis is a honky-tonk, guitar picking Negro, living on a precarious income from pick-ups at dance halls. His 'complementer" Willie Ford has a regular job at a big saw mill but had a 'sad-day' off."Curtis claimed to have made commercial records with Bo Carter but this can't be verifed.

Related Reading:

-"…Ramblin' (Blues Revue Quarterly 8, Spring 1993, p14-17) [PDF]

-Death of a Delta giant (Melody Maker of July, 1971)  [PDF]

-Mississippi Bottom Blues (Mamlish S-3802,  notes byDon Kent & Mike Stewart, 1973) [PDF]

-Willie Brown: Fare Thee Well (Bernard Klatzko, 78 Quarterly no. 2, 1968, 47–50.) [PDF]

-Mississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1 (Flyright-Matchbox SDM 230, notes by John Cowly, 1973) [PDF]

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Skip JamesFour O'Clock BluesThe Complete 1931 Session
Robert JohnsonFrom Four Until LateThe Centennial Collection
Memphis Piano RedStanding At The CrossroadsBlues At Home 4
Memphis Piano RedBarrelhouse Blues (Take 2)Blues At Home 4
Geeshie WileyEagles On A HalfI Can't Be Satisfied Vol. 1
Elvie ThomasMotherless Child BluesMississippi Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927-35
Lee KizartI Got the World in a Jug, Baby, and the Stopper in My HandThe Blues Are Alive And Well
Otis Spann & Walter HortonBloody MurderThe Story Of The Blues Vol. 1
Little Brother MontgomeryCow Cow BluesVocal Accompaniments & Early Post-War Recordings 1930-1954
Memphis SlimFour O'Clock BluesMemphis Slim and the Real Boogie-Woogie
Priscilla Stewart P. D. Q. BluesPriscilla Stewart 1924-1928
Hilda Alexander & Mamie McClureHe's Tight Like ThisGeorge Williams & Bessie Brown Vol. 2 1925-1930
Lil JohnsonI Lost My BabyWhen The Sun Goes Down
Billie HolidayBillie's Blues (I Love A Man)Complete Billie Holiday Lester Young 1937-1946
Floyd JonesPlayhouse1948-1953
John Lee HookerMy Baby's Got Somethin'The Complete John Lee Hooker Vol. 3
Eddie Shaw I've Got To Tell Somebody (2nd version)Have Blues, Will Travel
Texas AlexanderBoe Hog Blues Texas Alexander Vol. 1 1927-1928
Bumble Bee SlimSmokey Mountains BluesBumble Bee Slim Vol. 4 1935
Willie DukesSweet Poplar Bluff BluesMale Blues of the Twenties Vol. 1
Shorty Bob ParkerSo Cold In ChinaKid Prince Moore 1936-1938
Jimmy Lee HarrisRabbit On A LogGeorge Mitchell Collection Volume 5
Big John Henry Miller, Jimmy Lee MillerDown Here By MyselfBluesScene USA Vol. 4 Mississippi Blues
Big Joe WilliamsNorth Wind BluesBig Joe Williams Vol. 1 1935-1941
Little Buddy DoyleHard Scufflin' BluesMemphis Harp & Jug Blowers 1927-1939
Ellis WilliamsSmokey BluesGreat Harp Players 1927-1936
Minnie WallaceField Mouse StompMemphis Harp & Jug Blowers 1927-1939
Charlie SangsterMoaning The BluesBlues At Home 9
Charlie SangsterHesitation Blues (Take 2)Blues At Home 9
Kid Brown And His Blues BandBo-lita American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants
Birmingham Jug BandKickin' Mule BluesJaybird Coleman & The Birmingham Jug Band 1927 - 1930

Show Notes:

Memphis Piano Red: Blues At Home 4While the heart of this program is our weekly theme shows, where I get to dig deep into a particular theme or topic, the monthly mix show give me a bit of a breather and the opportunity to tackle things that don't fit in to our theme shows. The mix shows also usually feature an artist or theme that I plan to feature more in-depth at a future date. One of the things I plan to explore in a series of shows later this year is the remarkable field recordings captured by Giambattista Marcucci in the South in the 70's and 80's. From those recordings we spotlight terrific sides by Memphis Piano Red and Charlie Sangster. Also on deck are some knockout pre-war blues including recordings by Skip James and Robert Johnson that share a common theme, and two ladies, Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thoms, who were recently the subject of an extraordinary article in the New York Times of all places. Along the way we spin a set of fine piano blues, hear from a batch of strong blues women and several fine early bluesmen, both well known and utterly obscure.

One of my favorite Robert Johnson songs is "From Four Until Late" which has a very appealing melody. The song always felt to me like it was related to other songs and it all clicked while skimming through Elijah Wald's fascinating Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Wald had this to say: "Paul Garon points out that "From Four Until Late" has exactly the same melody as Johnny Dunn's "Four O'Clock Blues," an instrumental recorded in 1923. …David Evans notes that Son House or Skip James (House, probably) in the 1960s referred to this melody as the 4 O'Clock Blues." Charley Patton's "Tom Rushen Blues" and "High Sheriff Blues" (both influenced by Ma Rainey's "Booze and Blues") use variants of the melody. So does Skip James's "Yola My Blues Away," which is a 'harmonized' variant, and related pieces include James's "Four O'Clock Blues" and the 1941 version by Fiddlin" Joe Martin under the title "Fo' Clock Blues." Evans points out that Martin may have gotten the tune from Son House or Willie Brown, and Johnson could have learned it from any of these sources." Today we feature the Robert Johnson number, Skip James' "Four O'Clock Blues" and a version later in the show by Memphis Slim.

Geeshie Wiley recorded "Last Kind Word Blues" and "Skinny Leg Blues" in Grafton, Wisconsin for Paramount Records in March of 1930, with Elvie Thomas backing her on second guitar. Thomas also recorded two songs for Paramount at the session, "Motherless Child Blues" and "Over to My House," Wiley, providing second guitar and vocal harmonies. In 1931 Wiley and Thomas returned to Grafton to record two more sides for Paramount, "Pick Poor Robin Clean" and "Eagles on a Half." Nothing was known about either woman until recently when John Sullivan, based on the research of Mack McCormick, published a lengthy article in the New York Times Magazine titled The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie that sent shock waves through the small group of blues scholars and collectors who care about this kind of thing.New York Times Magazine

As Sullivan wrote: "Yet despite more than 50 years of researchers’ efforts to learn who the two women were or where they came from, we have remained ignorant of even their legal names. Their myth was they didn’t have anything you could so much as hang a myth on. The objects themselves — the fewer than 10 surviving copies, total, of their three known Paramount releases, a handful of heavy, black, scratch-riven shellac platters, all in private hands — these were the whole of the file on Geeshie and Elvie…" It's an amazing piece of research, although, ethically the author is on shaky ground. Matt McCormick's daughter wrote a scathing retort published in the New York Observer. For his part, Sullivan wrote a defense in the same magazine. Like many blues collectors, I would love if McCormick's massive archive was made available, I imagine it holds the clues to many blues mysteries and would add immeasurably to out knowledge of blues history. But the bottom line is that it's his research, acquired painstakingly over decades with no outside assistance and he can do what he pleases with it. Sullivan's comment that “You’re not allowed to sit on these things for half a century, not when the culture has decided they matter” and that "Mack McCormick committed a theft—through negligence or writer’s block or whatever reasons of his own—far graver than my citation of interviews L.V. granted him decades ago" is self serving and simply wrong. What culture demands it? There's a handful of collectors and blues fans who care at all about this. I would hardly call that a demanding culture. Sullivan showed a self serving lack of integrity as far as I'm concerned.

Gianni Marcucci came to the States in the 70's and captured some exceptional field recordings in the 70's and 80's in Tennessee and Mississippi. The original albums that collected these recordings are long been out-of-print. All these recordings will be issued as 15 volume series both digitally and on CD on his Mbirafon imprint. I've been corresponding with Marcucci and with his help will be doing an in-depth series of shows on these recordings. At Marcucci's prompting I've pushed this show back until he completes his issuing of the Blues At Home series.In the meantime we play great sides by Memphis Piano Red and Charlie Sangster.

John Williams (a.k.a. Memphis Piano Red) was born an albino in Germantown, Tennessee, in 1904 in a family with 11 children, six of whom played musical instruments. He learned how to play piano at the age of 13 from one of his sisters and was influenced by local Germantown piano blues players. In 1930 he moved to Memphis where he started his musical activity, playing often in Beale Street bars. He hoboed and rode freight trains for more than 25 years, visiting various states, developing a solid barrelhouse piano technique coupled with strong, heartfelt singing. He never had the chance to record 78 rpm race records, and was discovered in the late '60s during blues revival . He recorded sparingly, with scattered sides on various anthologies. These recordings were recorded during two long sessions held in 1972 and 1978 at his home in Memphis. These sessions are now available digitally as Blues At Home 4.

Charlie Sangster' sides come from the ninth volume of the Blues At Home series, featuring this little known artist of Brownsville, Tennessee. Charlie Sangster, born in this small Tennessee town in 1917, earned his living as a farmer. Belonging to a musical family, he learned how to play mandolin and guitar at the age of twelve. His father, Samuel Ellis Sangster, was a blues guitarist who used to play with Sleepy John Estes and Hambone Willie Newbern; his mother, Victoria, was a gospel singer. Charlie played at the fish market and in other social situations with a circle of local musicians, including Charlie Pickett, Brownsville Son Bonds, Hammie Nixon, Yank Rachel, Sleepy John Estes, and Walter Cooper. He also knew and performed with Hambone Willie Newbern during the last part of Newbern’s life. With only the exclusion of five years in Indiana and a period of time in Europe serving with the U.S. Army during World War II, he spent most of his life in Brownsville, living in the house where he was born, where Marcucci discovered him through referral by Hammie Nixon. Marcucci recorded eight sessions between 1976 and 1980, plus an interview in 1982, just one year before his death. He was recorded in 1980 by Axel Kunster.

Priscilla Stewart: PDQ Blues
Ad in the Chicago Defender, Feb 19 , 1927

We spin several forgotten blues ladies today including Priscilla Stewart and Lil Johnson. Stewart is considered a second tier blues singer I suppose but here's something about her singing I find very appealing. Virtually nothing is known about her other than she recorded 25 performances between 1924-1928. In the majority of the cases, she is accompanied by pianist Jimmy Blythe. Unlike many of the other blues ladies from the period, Priscilla Stewart doesn’t seem to have come from a stage background since no mention can be found of her appearing in stage revues of the time. As Alan Balfour writes in the notes to Document's collected CD of her recordings: "'P.D.Q.' was originally an instrumental recorded in November 1926 for Victor by cornet player Thomas Morris. The following month the copyright holders ran a competition to find lyrics for the tune, even offering a prize of a Radiola. On February 12th, 1927 the Chicago Defender announced that the winning lyricist was John Simson. Given the subject matter of the song, Mr. Simson must have misunderstood P.D.Q. to be a railroad (like P.P.B. for Pennsylvania, Poughkeepsie & Boston), rather than the common abbreviation for 'pretty damn quick' ! Nevertheless, in March Vocalion recorded the song with Clarence Lee fronting the Clarence Williams band and Paramount followed shortly afterwards with Priscilla Stewart’s rendition. Paramount undoubtedly hoped such topicality would bring vast sales but it is unlikely that the recording achieved such – it certainly didn’t bring the singer any fame. Priscilla Stewart’s recording career was brief and unspectacular and although she may not have been in the same league as many of her famous contemporaries, somebody at Paramount thought it worth the company’s time and investment to record her. That being the case she certainly deserves the belated recognition that this release will hopefully bring."

Lil Johnson first recorded in Chicago in 1929, accompanied by pianists Montana Taylor and Charles Avery on five songs. She did not return to the recording studio until 1935. From her second session onwards, she had a partnership with the ragtime influenced pianist "Black Bob" Hudson, who provided ebullient support to Johnson's increasingly suggestive lyrics. In 1936 and 1937, she recorded over 40 songs, mostly on the Vocalion label, some featuring Big Bill Broonzy on guitar and Lee Collins on trumpet. Our selection, "I Lost My Baby", is a swinging number most likely featuring Black Bob and Big Bill Broonzy.

Several fine male blues singers spotlighted today including sides by the well known Texas Alexander and Bumble Bee Slim and the obscure Willie Dukes and Shorty Bob Parker. Alexander delivers a fine performance on "Boe Hog Blues" featuring impeccable guitar from Lonnie Johnson while Bumbe Slim sings "Smokey Mountain Blues" in his best Leroy Carr manner backed the superb guitar work of Scrapper Blackwell, Carr's longtime partner. Nothing is known of Dukes and Parker who both waxed six sides in 1930.

 

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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Victoria SpiveyMy DebtBuddy Tate Invites You To Dig A Basket of Blues
Hannah SylvesterBasket of BluesBuddy Tate Invites You To Dig A Basket of Blues
Lucille HegaminNumber 12Buddy Tate Invites You To Dig A Basket of Blues
Victoria SpiveyGrant SpiveyVictoria Spivey & Her Blues
Victoria SpiveyNew York MoanVictoria Spivey & Her Blues
John Henry BarbeeEarly In The MorningChicago Blues -A Bonanza All Star Blues
Homesick JamesQueen's RockChicago Blues -A Bonanza All Star Blues
Victoria SpiveyBrown SkinThree Kings And The Queen
Big Joe WilliamsNo Partnership WomanThree Kings And The Queen
Roosevelt SykesThis Is A New WorldThree Kings And The Queen
Lonnie JohnsonMr Johnson's Guitar TalksThree Kings And The Queen
Lonnie JohnsonFour Shots Of GinThree Kings And The Queen
Shortstuff MaconMoaninIntroducing Mr. Shortstuff
Shortstuff MaconGreat Big LegsIntroducing Mr. Shortstuff
Victoria SpiveyEvery Dog Had Its DayQueen and Her Knights
Victoria SpiveyWe Both Got To DieQueen and Her Knights
Victoria Spivey & Memphis SlimI'm A TigressQueen and Her Knights
Little Brother MontgomeryWest Texas BluesQueen and Her Knights
Otis Spann Ain’t Nobody’s BusinessThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band
Victoria SpiveyTrouble HurtsThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band
Luther JohnsonCreepin’ SnakeThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band
George SmithLookout VictoriaThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band
Roosevelt SykesDresser DrawersVictoria Spivey Presents The All Stars BLUES WORLD of Spivey Records in Stereo
Victoria SpiveyBlack GalVictoria Spivey Presents The All Stars BLUES WORLD of Spivey Records in Stereo
Smokey HoggBells Are ToningVictoria Spivey Presents The All Stars BLUES WORLD of Spivey Records in Stereo
Walter HortonInter-Mision StateSpivey's Blues Parade
Sippie Wallace I'm A Mighty Tight WomanSpivey's Blues Parade
Victoria SpiveyJetSpivey's Blues Parade
Lonnie JohnsonLonnie's Traveling LightSpivey's Blues Parade

Show Notes:

 

Spivey LogoSpivey Records was a blues record label, founded by blues singer Victoria Spivey and her partner and jazz historian Len Kunstadt in 1961. The label was originally called Queen Vee Records, changing the name to Spivey records the following year. I believe only a couple of 45's were issued under the Queen Vee imprint. Spivey Records released a series of blues and jazz albums between 1961 and 1985. Most sessions took place at New York’s famous Cue Studios, some happened late at night at Victoria and Lenny's home studio while others took place at informal setting like hotel rooms or even at Willie Dixon's home in Chicago. Spivey put out some very eclectic records, with varying quality but through Spivey's connections she managed to get top notch artists to record for her including Big Joe Williams, Lonnie Johnson, Roosevelt Sykes, Otis Spann, Memphis Slim among many others. Spivey died in 1976 but the label continued until the death of Len Kunstadt in 1996. The whole catalog included some forty albums. Today is part one of our selective look at the Spivey label, focusing on the records and sessions done before Spivey passed away. The bulk of the Spivey catalog has never been issued on CD.

Spivey's companion Len Kunstadt was the editor and publisher of Record Research magazine, which he founded in the late 1950's and was Spivey's agent, manager and long time partner. In an interview with Norbert Hess he had this to say: "Victoria knew the musicians and scouted for new talent. This went on for 16 years. In my opinion, from 1961 up to her death in 1976, she was more creative than ever before. Her fantastic way of winning over Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters for our company, and her concern for Bob Dylan. Sometimes I thought she was crazy. I could tell a lot of stories. The musicians would have killed for her. At first, they didn't like her, but after a split second they became her fans up to the very end. She was sometimes a little difficult because she was a genius."

Spivey Records Adspivey-ad
One of the many ads featured in Record Research magazine. Spivey had a semi-regular column called Blues Is My Business.

Before summarizing today's featured albums it's worth giving some background on Spivey's career. Spivey learned to play piano and sing when she was quite small, and by age twelve she was performing at the Lincoln Theatre, until the manager discovered she couldn’t read music. She continued to play at house parties and clubs, learning from local musicians such as John Calvin, and occasionally sharing a gig with Blind Lemon Jefferson. By age twenty, she had moved to St. Louis, where she made her first record for OKeh, the legendary "Black Snake Blues." The year 1928 saw Spivey teaming up with Lonnie Johnson to record a number of double-entendre vocal duets that sold quite well, but she continued to write songs and record for OKeh until she took time off to appear in King Vidor’s film Hallelujah in 1929. When she returned to the recording studio in late 1929, she was under contract to Victor. Spivey continued to record throughout the 1930s, for both Decca and Vocalion, and as her recording career ended, she hit the road, traveling with the Olsen and Johnson’s "Hellzapoppin’" troupe, owning a club in East St. Louis, and finally retiring to work in the church. But in the 1960's she came out of retirement to appear at clubs such as Gerdes Folk City. Before forming her label she reunited with Lonnie Johnson appearing on his album Idle Hours for Bluesville in 1961, he in turn backed her on her album Woman Blues and she also appeared on Songs We Taught Your Mother alongside Alberta Hunter and Lucille Hegamin. There was also a session for Folkways in 1962. Beginning in 1962 Spivey wrote a semi-regular column in Record Research called Blues Is My Business.

Buddy Tate Invites You To Dig A Basket of Blues
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Buddy Tate Invites You To Dig A Basket of Blues, issued in 1962, was the first album on the Spivey label. As Len Kunstadt wrote in the liner notes: "This may well be the very first record company ever organized and owned by a Negro vintage blues queen." The album featured 1920's blues queens Hannah Sylvester, who first recorded in 1923 and Lucille Hegamin who in November 1920 became the second African-American blues singer to record, after Mamie Smith. This is an excellent album with all three ladies in fine form backed by a good band with a horn section that included Buddy Tate, Eddie Barfield and Dick Vance

Victoria Spivey & Her Blues is the second Spivey album, recorded in 1962, and featuring Spivey backed by Eddie Barfield and Pat Wilson who both appear on the previous record. According to the notes: "When Miss Spivey entered the recording studio in February of 1962 she demanded absolute freedom, 'to sing the way she damned please.' …She really had the blues that day and she wanted the recording engineer to capture all of it on tape. Without reservation, she was granted all her demands. This recording session was on the tail end of a tough year for Miss Spivey where sickness, disappointment (both personal and in business) and loneliness had taken its toll. She wrote hundreds of blues in 1961 because she really had them. These were not thought of as for commercial exploitation but were blues written as an escape mechanism for a troublesome world." The Queen is in excellent form on a set of very personal songs; "Grant Spivey" is a dedication to her father, "Talk About Moanin'" is about her early Texas mentor Robert Calvin while "Buddy Tate" is dedicated to her longtime musical friend.

Three Kings And The Queen
Read Liner Notes

According to the notes from Chicago Blues -A Bonanza All Star Blues: "All these blues sounds you will hear were luckily captured at a reunion in honor of Quenn Victoria Spivey by many of he old blues buddies at a real down-to-earth romping blues party with all the clamor of merriment, clinking glasses, shuffling feet, knocks at every door." The recordings were done in Chicago on Spivey's first visit to the city in 25 years and put together by Willie Dixon. The album features great artists like Homesick James, Willie Dixon, St. Louis Jimmy, Sunnyland Slim and others but suffers from poor recording.

The fourth Spivey album was Three Kings And The Queen featuring pianist Roosevelt Sykes, guitarists Lonnie Johnson , Big Joe Williams, and Victoria Spivey on four vocal selections apiece. With the exception of the closing "Thirteen Hours" (which has Spivey joining Sykes for a piano duet) and a pair of Big Joe Williams tracks (which feature the harmonica of Bob Dylan), all of the performances are unaccompanied. This is a strong outing with everyone in good form. This was not Dylan's first recording session as he had already recorded his debut album Bob Dylan for Columbia Records on March 19, 1962. In in 1965 column in Record Research Spivey recollected back to her first meeting with Dylan: "I was just thinking about little BOB DYLAN. The years flashed backed to 1961 when I furst met him at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village, New York City. He was the sweetest kid you would ever want to meet. He would say Moms, this Moms, that Moms, always trying to get my attention. He was a doll. I was so proud of him then because he really had some talent which was just ready to explode. And did it! Just a couple of years later he was on his way to becoming a world idol in his field. …Bob knew about my little record company SPIVEY and my plans to record Big Joe, and he wanted 'in too.' What a sight as little Bob was carrying Big Joe's unusual guitar to the studio! And did they play well together! …Yes, this is Bob before Dame fortune was to reward him for his great talent."

Spivey Records AdMuddy, Victoria, SpannMuddy, Victoria, SpannSpann, Spivey, Muddy
Otis Spann, Victoria Spivey and Muddy Waters, 1964. Spann holds a copy of the Spivey album Chicago Blues.

Regarding Short Stuff Macon the liner notes to his Folkways album (Hell Bound And Heaven Sent) had this to say: "Short Stuff has now begun traveling the sparse and fickle concert circuit with Big Joe Williams, who, in a trip back to Mississippi, 'discovered' him, liked his 'deep down' music, remembered his father and mother, and decided to take him with him.” The same year those recordings were made they cut sides for the Spivey label which were issued on the album called Introducing Mr. Shortstuff. He appeared one final time on the album Goin’ Back to Crawford alongside Big Joe and others on a 1971 session.

Queen and Her Knights was the sixth Spivey release, issued in 1965, and features Spivey alongside Lonnie Johnson, Memphis Slim, Sonny Greer and Little Brother Montgomery. This is another strong album featuring Spivey in fine form particularly on the playfully risque "I'm A Tigress", a duet with Memphis Slim. Slim delivers a fine rendition of 'TB Blues" amd Lonnie and Little Brother are in typically good form.

The Muddy Waters band cut two albums for Victoria Spivey's Spivey label: The Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band (1966) and The Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band Vol. 2 (1968). The Muddy Waters records are the only ones I know that have been issued on CD. These came out on the Japanese P-Vine label with several extra tracks. In a column in Record Research after Otis Spann died, Spivey had this recollection of the session: "One day I asked Otis if he would make an LP for my little company. And before I could catch my breath his answer was this, 'you are my mother and nobody better not try to stop me.' I was very happy so we set the date – and he got the band together. And the morning that the recording was to be, at 11 AM, I walked into the Go Go blub and there was my child sitting there with his little head on the table with his own coat over his shoulders. I heard he had been there all night long to make sure he would not disappoint me. Tears almost came to my eyes. We went to the studio with the rest of the boys. They gave me some session. Otis and the band were playing SOME blues and I mean THEY WERE PLAYING!"

Victoria Spivey Presents The All Stars BLUES WORLD of Spivey Records in Stereo was the eleventh record on the Spivey label. The album comprises of sessions recorded at Willie Dixon home in Chicago in 1969 and sessions done in New York in 1970. Dixon is helped out by hs Blues All Stars which include Sunnyland Slim, Johnny Shines, Clifton James and Cryin’ Marie Dixon. Accoring to the notes there's big news: "ATTENTION: SMOKEY HOGG IS NOT DEAD!!" At least that's what Victoria Spivey thought when she "rediscovered" him in Brooklyn, N.Y. and what Len Kunstadt thought when he penned the liner notes for the album. Smokey actually passed in 1960. The imposter was Willie Anderson Hogg. who calimed to have recorded in the pre-war era but these sides for Spivey are his only know legacy.

Spivey's Blues Parade was the twelfth album on the Spivey label recorded in a variety of locations: the Walter Horton track was recorded in an informal session in a New York hotel room while the track featuring Sonny Boy Williamson was recorded in Germany during the 1963 AFBF.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Lonnie JohnsonBlue Ghost BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonMr. Johnson's SwingLonnie Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1940
Lonnie JohnsonRoamin' Rambler BluesLonnie Johnson Vol. 2 1926-1927
--=Dean Alger Interview=--
Lonnie JohnsonAway Down in the Alley BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonUncle Ned, Don't Use Your HeadUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonHave to Change Keys to Play These BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonMidnight Call BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonBackwater BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonTomorrow NightUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
ElvisTomorrow NightUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Red Nelson w/ Lonnie JohnsonHome Last NightRed Nelson 1935-1947
Lonnie JohnsonNew Orleans BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Otis Spann w/ Lonnie JohnsonTrouble In Mind Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonDon’t Ever LoveUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonFalling Rain BluesThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie JohnsonCan't Sleep AnymoreThe Original Guitar Wizard
Louis ArmstrongI'm Not RoughThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie Johnson & Clara SmithYou're Getting Old on Your JobYou're Getting Old on Your Job
Lonnie Johnson Lines In My FaceLosing Game
Lonnie JohnsonLonnie's Traveling LightSpivey's Blues Parade

Show Notes:

Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson (left) in 1941. Photo by Russell Lee (Library of Congress).


Dear old New Orleans, they call it the land of dreams

Yes, dear old New Orleans, it’s known for the land of dreams
It’s my old hometown, it’s dear old New Orleans

I first spoke with Dean Alger back in 2009 when his biography of Lonnie Johnson was very much a work in progress. Back then the book was tentatively titled The Second Most Important Musician of the Twentieth Century. Dean sent me some rough chapters back then and I was impressed with what I saw but I was bit skeptical as I knew that writing a biography on someone like Lonnie, who was always reticent to give details of his life plus the sheer length of his career, would make this a daunting job. I'm happy to say that Dean has done a fine job tackling the task and the now published and retitled The Original Guitar Hero and The Power of Music, is not only well researched look at Lonnie's life and music but also goes to great lengths to place Lonnie's music in a cultural context.

Lonnie has always been one of my favorites and I've probably devoted more shows to him than anyone else. Despite his huge influence and impressive output I don't think Lonnie ever gets the respect he deserves. It's an odd thing among blues collectors that many worship the obscure and rare, the rough and unpolished, and dismiss those artists who were more polished and those that had a high degree of popularity like Lonnie. Dean clearly understands Lonnie's influence as he writes "…Lonnie Johnson was the leading original force in moving the guitar to be the dominant instrument of the second half of the twentieth century to today. …Further Lonnie's singing influenced major singers in twentieth century music…" This combination, Dean notes, made Lonnie "the first musician to present the smoother, more sophisticated 'urban blues' (in contrast to the old Country Blues) which were a prime force leading to Rhythm & Blues and then Rock & Roll."

Lonnie Johnson was a true musical innovator who's remarkable recording career spanned from the 1920's through the 1960's. During that time his musical diversity was amazing: he played piano, guitar, violin, he recorded solo, he accompanied down home country blues singers like Texas Alexander, he played with Louis Armtrong's Hot Fives, recorded with Duke Ellington, duetted with Victoria Spivey and cut a series of instrumental duets with the white jazzman Eddie Lang that set a standard of musicianship that remains unsurpassed by blues guitarists. In Johnson's single-string style lie the basic precedents of such jazz greats as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, while being a prime influence on bluesman as diverse as Robert Johnson, Tampa Red and B.B. King. Thus Johnson enjoys the rare distinction of having influenced musicians in both the jazz and blues fields. While his guitar skills have been justly celebrated less has been said about his bittersweet vocals, tinged with a world weary sadness and capable of a rare subtly and nuance. It was a perfect match for his well crafted and imaginative songs filled with dark imagery, longing and an unflinchingly misogynist view of woman and love.

Lonnie Johnson BookOn today’s program we cover a wide swath of Johnson’s career, spinning tracks spanning from 1927 to 1963. The bulk of the tracks from were selected by Dean. Most of those tracks come from a CD he calls the Ultimate "Best Of" Lonnie Johnson, a 23 track selection that is a companion to he book and available through Dean's website. Below is background on some of the songs played today.

Either the 1927 version "Roamin’ Rambler Blues" or the 1942 was a favorite recording of B.B. King. As Dean notes: "Lonnie's singing on his 1927 recording is particularly resonant, with a mellow feel. My ears tell me that Lonnie was the influenced one here, since he seems to have drawn on the resonant, mellow, soulful Texas Alexander offered on sides on which Lonnie accompanied him that same day. The song had quintessential Lonnie J guitar work; and he embellished each vocal line at the end with elegantly finger-picked descending lines, with a harmonic jump up the scale at the end, employing his exquisite touch and tone."

On February 21, 1928 Lonnie cut four remarkable instrumentals: "Away Down in the Alley Blues", "Playing With The Strings", "Stompin' 'em Along Slow" and "Blues in G." As Dean writes: "Playing With The Strings" received more attention, but "Away Down in the Alley Blues" was an even better composition and display of unequaled guitar virtuosity. …Of special importance is the masterful thematic  coherence. In the midst of all that, he also keeps an underlying propulsive beat going, and regularly adds exquisite harmonic touches. He guitar work on these recordings exemplifies how Lonnie enlarged the language of the guitar for jazz and blues."

"The Lonnie Johnson-Eddie Lang duets have been celebrated ever since as among the great guitar achievements of the century in popular music. But amazingly, in December 1931, Lonnie may have exceeded even those duets  in what is one of the most stunning virtuoso guitar performances on record. The recording in question is "Uncle Ned" (full title: "Uncle Ned, Don't Lose Your Head"). …Lonnie takes this old Negro folk song and turns it into a vehicle for the most dazzling, blaze-fingered, virtuoso guitar work."

"The ten guitar duets Lonnie and Eddie Lang recorded were landmarks in guitar history. As British blues and popular music writer Tony Russell has written: "It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this handful of discs." They were also sociological landmarks as the first full partner interracial recordings." From these sessions we play "Midnight Call Blues" and "Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues."

"Backwater Blues" was recorded by Bessie Smith February 17, 1927 and covered by Lonnie  a month later and again in 1948. Today we feature the later version. Dean comments that "…many have missed the artistic value of this "Backwater Blues" because they have too narrow a notion of great guitar playing as being only about fast finger-work and razzle-dazzle. Musical art is much more than that, which Lonnie demonstrated with this recording. He tops it off with truly masterful singing. From the first notes, Lonnie employs rich, resonant vocal tone, among his best ever, great dynamics and nuance, and with his vocal lines and inflections he compellingly conveys the meaning of the lyrics and the feeling of people experiencing  this natural disaster. In short with this recording, Lonnie Johnson refuter demonstrated he'd reached the level of greatness as a singer."

Lonnie recorded the biggest hit of his career, “Tomorrow Night,” for King Records in Cincinnati, released in 1948.That song resonated with musicians who became legendary: B.B. King, Buddy Guy & Robert Lockwood, Jr., all told me they were moved by it. BB covered it on his 2008 CD, One Kind Favor. Bob Dylan covered it, using Lonnie’s phrasing, on his 1992 CD, Good As I Been To You. (Dylan and Lonnie connected at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village in 1961, and cd-lonnie-bedbugLonnie gave Bob some tips on guitar.) The other most notable musician influenced by “Tomorrow Night” was Elvis Presley.  As Peter Gurlanick reported in his major Elvis biography: "In 1953 to 1954, 'Tomorrow Night" was a song Elvis sang all the time.”

"Home Last Night" finds Lonnie playing lead electric guitar on a son sung by Red Nelson. "This recordings has a driving Rhythm & Blues feel, rockin' rhythm and style on the guitar by Lonnie, and what, seven to ten years later, became the essence of the early electric guitar and overall sound of the recordings that established the new musical genre of Rock & Roll."

"Don't Ever Love" comes from Lonnie's 1960 comeback for Prestige/Bluesville titled Blues By Lonnie Johnson. "Most striking on "Don't Ever Love" is Lonnie's vocal artistry. The man who was an ultimate virtuoso guitarist  in popular music  sings with such power, nuance, dynamics, expressiveness, timing, and meaningful phrasing on this recording that shows, even more compellingly, how he had achieved the level of greatness in his singing, as well."

In 1963 Lonnie toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. During that tour he recorded a wonderful session with pianist Otis Spann in Copenhagen for the Storyville label. From that session we feature "Trouble In Mind."

"New Orleans Blues" is one of my favorite Lonnie songs issued on the album Blues, Ballads, and Jumpin' Jazz, Vol. 2 which also features Elmer Snowden. Elmer asks Lonnie to sing one from his old hometown and Lonnie responded with this beautifully, dreamy nostalgic number. As Dean writes: "He sings the lyrics with an extraordinary depth of feeling, with excellent timing and phrasing,with knowing strategic use of syncopation , and with verve, yet in a smooth lyrical manner." Along with "Backwater Blues" and "Don't Ever Love", Dean lists this as one of Lonnie's finest vocal performances.

Like "Backwater Blues", "Broken Levee Blues", recorded the same year is another response to the great flood of 1927. In addition to the fine singing and playing, Dean notes that the song has a "deeper dimension. …The song's lyrics express striking protest about the means by which the levees along Mississippi were maintained, a system which a few years later was called a new from of 'Mississippi Slavery' by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP." As David Evanes notes: "In many places Black men who tried to leave the area, even those who were simply passing through, were arrested by White police and National Guard troops and forced to work on the levees"

Related Listening:

-Dean Alger Interview/Feature (95 min., MP3)

 

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