St. Louis


ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Clifford GibsonBeat You Doing It Clifford Gibson 1929-1931
Clifford GibsonWhiskey Moan Blues Clifford Gibson 1929-1931
Clifford GibsonTired Of Being Mistreated, Pt. 1 Clifford Gibson 1929-1931
Charley JordanStack O' Dollars BluesThe Essential
Charley JordanKeep It CleanThe Essential
Charley JordanJust A Spoonful The Essential
Barrelhouse Buck McFarlandLamp Post BluesPiano Blues Vol. 2 1927-1956
Barrelhouse Buck McFarland Weeping Willow BluesPiano Blues Vol. 2 1927-1956
Barrelhouse Buck McFarland Mercy Mercy BluesPiano Blues Vol. 2 1927-1956
Clifford GibsonIce And Snow BluesClifford Gibson 1929-1931
Clifford GibsonDon't Put That Thing On MeClifford Gibson 1929-1931
Clifford Gibson Drayman BluesClifford Gibson 1929-1931
Charley JordanHunkie Tunkie BluesThe Essential
Charley JordanTough Times BluesCharley Jordan Vol. 1 1930-1931
Charley JordanYou Run And Tell Your DaddyYou Run And Tell Your Daddy
Clifford Gibson Bad Luck DiceClifford Gibson 1929-1931
Clifford Gibson Levee Camp Moan Clifford Gibson 1929-1931
Clifford Gibson Blues Without A Dime Clifford Gibson 1929-1931
Barrelhouse Buck McFarlandMean To MeanPiano Blues Vol. 2 1927-1956
Barrelhouse Buck McFarlandReminiscences Backcountry Barrelhouse
Barrelhouse Buck McFarland20th Street BluesBackcountry Barrelhouse
Hi Henry BrownrTitanic BluesBlues Images Vol. 10
Hi Henry BrownPreacher BluesBlues Images Vol. 10
Hi Henry BrownNut Factory BluesThe Essential
Charley JordanHoney Sucker BluesThe Essential
Charley JordanHell Bound Boy BluesCharley Jordan Vol. 1 1931-1934
Clifford GibsonKeep Your Windows Pinned Clifford Gibson 1929-1931s
Clifford GibsonShe Rolls It Slow Clifford Gibson 1929-1931
Clifford GibsonLet Me Be Your Sidetrack Clifford Gibson 1929-1931
Barrelhouse Buck McFarlandLieutenant Blues Backcountry Barrelhouse
Barrelhouse Buck McFarlandGoodbye BluesAlton Blues
Barrelhouse Buck McFarland Barrelhouse BuckAlton Blues

Show Notes:

Clifford gibson: Beat You Doing ItOn today's show we spotlight several fine forgotten St. Louis blues artists of the 20's and 30's. As blues historian Paul Oliver wrote: "For some reason St. Louis has never had its due as a centre for the blues. …With its ragtime background St. Louis was a Mecca for blues pianists like Speckled Red and Henry Brown, Sylvester Palmer and Roosevelt Sykes, Peetie Wheatstraw, Barrelhouse Buck McFarland and Wesley Wallace. But it was discovered early by the guitarists too, Sylvester Weaver and Lonnie Johnson, Clifford Gibson and Charley Jordan, J.D. Short and Big Joe Williams among them. There were plenty of women singers too, like Mary Johnson and Edith Johnson, Alice Moore or St. Louis Bessie Mae Smith. And while there were big name recording stars like Walter Davis there were many very good but lesser know ones: St.Louis Jimmy, Blind Teddy Darby, Aaron "Pine Top" Sparks, Lawrence Casey, Oscar Carter and many others." And as write Don Kent noted: "The blues men who took St. Louis to be their home are responsible for some of the most magnificent country music to be recorded during the twenties. Inexplicably, the plethora of musical wealth has been left unpublicized and, blueswise, St. Louis has scarcely been tapped for all the information it could yield."

Today we spotlight guitarists Clifford Gibson, who cut close to two dozen sides, and the prolific Charley Jordan who cut roughly double that number plus a good deal of session work. We also spotlight an exceptional singer named Hi Henry Brown who Jordan back on all six of his recordings. Finally we featured sides by pianist Barrelhouse Buck McFarland who cut a handful of fine pre-war recordings and several recordings shortly before his death in the early 60's.

Born in Louisiville, Kentucky, Clifford Gibson moved to St. Louis, Missouri in the 1920's and lived there for the rest of his life. He was born to Letha and William Gibson in 1901. Bluesman James Stump Johnson reported that Gibson was a discovery of his brother Jesse, a local promoter and music store owner. Gibson cut ten sides (four have either never been found or were never issued) in June 1929, four sides in November 1929, eight sides in December 1929 and two sides in 1931. In addition he did some session work backing Ed Bell and Roosevelt Sykes and lasted long enough to wax a few scattered post-war sides in the 1950's and 60's.

Charley Jordan: It Ain't Clean
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Gibson was a guitarist to be reckoned with who's playing is unflaggingly inventive, employing a sharp, limpid tone and, while bearing a high degree of originality, was clearly influenced by Lonnie Johnson. With his unpredictable, scattershot guitar runs he also bears some comparisons to Blind Lemon Jefferson although Gibson was a more sophisticated player. Gibson's two 1931 sides find him in the company of pianist Roosevelt Sykes making a fine team on “She Rolls It Slow." Gibson and Sykes back singer R. T. Hanen (possibly Jaydee Short) on "She's Got Jordan River In Her Hip b/w Happy Day Blues" from the same year. Another fascinating collaboration from 1931 finds Gibson backing country singer Jimmie Rodgers on the unissued "Let Me Be Your Sidetrack" (the issued side features just Rodgers on guitar). Other session work by Gibson includes supporting Ed Bell on a handful of 1929 tracks and backing Jimmy Strange on a pair of 1931 numbers. Gibson stuck around long enough to wax two sides in 1951 and four more in 1960. The 1951 sides are acetates cut at Baul Studios in St. Louis and find Gibson in good shape but pale in comparison to his early work. The 1960 sides were issued on the Bobbin label under the name Grandpappy Gibson. Gibson died as few short years later in 1963, right at the heart of the folk/blues boom, and while highly regarded among collectors, more widespread claim has eluded him.

Charley Jordan is one of the many major figures in the blues of whom we knows surprisingly little. He was born in Mabelvale. Arkansas, around 1850, and is reported to have lead a hobo's life after service in the Army during World War I. By 1925, he was living in St. Louis which was to be his home for the rest of his life. In 1928 Jordan had been shot in the spine in an incident in his other occupation as a bootlegger. Of his guitar playing Chris Smith wrote: "He played it in a clean, confident three-finger expression style that owed a good deal to ragtime, but more to his extraordinary sense of rhythm.

Henry Townsend remembered Jordan well: "I never knew Charley to have another occupation other than music. …Charley was a good guitar player. I highly respected his guitar playing because he could accompany anybody. Piano, another guitar player, or what have you, he was qualified to back it up. When Charley got into music he was full-time with it. He had people everyday rehearsing, trying to put packages together, week in week out. Sometimes it would be months, maybe a year before they recorded, but they'd be there every day. He had a little organized club with people paying membership that would support him in his expense for lights, etc."

Between 1930 and 1937 Jordan waxed close to 50 sides under his own name for Victor, Vocalion, Decca and ARC. He also backed numerous St. Louis artists including Peetie Wheatstraw, Hi Henry Brown, Lee Green, St. Louis Jimmy Oden and others. Jordan also acted as a talent scout for Vocalion and Decca during the 30's. During the 40's he worked around St. Louis with Big Joe Williams but was largely retired by the end of the decade. He passed in 1954.

Buck McFarland was born in Alton, Illinois in 1903 in the same area as two other exceptional piano players, Wesley Wallace and Jabbo Williams, all three of which made names for themselves on the bustling St. Louis blues scene. McFarland was a member of Charlie Creath's Jazzomaniacs and Peetie Wheatstraw's Blues Blowers. He also led his own bands under a variety of names. Between 1929 and 1934 he made 10 records.

Barrelhouse Buck: Backcountry Barrelhouse
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In the late 1950's in St.. Louis, a city detective named Charlie "Lindy" O'Brien tracked down Speckled Red, an oldtime blues pianist and brother of the bluesman Piano Red. O'Brien wasn't out to arrest Red. No, he was a member of the St.. Louis Jazz Club and had been searching for all of the old forgotten bluesmen who had made the city a haven for the blues in the 1920s and '30s. One of the men Speckled Red led O'Brien to was Barrelhouse Buck McFarland. Samuel Charters called O'Brien a "part-time enthusiast" who over the "last ten or so years …helped develop the picture of the music and musicians in the St. Louis area. Over the years he had been collecting records, vert desultorily, and about the time he joined the police force in 1949 he realized there had been considerable recording in the St. Louis area. With the encouragement of a young enthusiast named Bob Koester who was at this time still living in St. Louis and active with the Blue Note Record Shop and Delmar Record Company, O'Brien began making inquiries about many of the St. Louis artists. Since that time the singers he has located have included Speckled Red, Henry Brown, Edith Johnson, Stump Johnson, Walter Davis, Mary Johnson and Barrelhouse Buck among many others, less well known."

McFarland cut his final session for Folkways and an unissued session in 1961 that was belatedly released a few years back on Delmark as Alton Blues. The recordings Charters made were released on Folkways as Backcountry Barrelhouse. He died just a few months afterward.

Don Kent calls Hi Henry Brown "one of the pinnacles of St. Louis musicianship" and says he "may have come from Pace, Mississippi. His three 78's for Vocalion in the early '30s are accompanied by Charlie Jordan 2nd guitar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Clifford GibsonDon't Put That Thing On MeClifford Gibson 1929-1931
Lonnie JohnsonAway Down in the Alley BluesLonnie Johnson Vol. 3 1925-1932
Charley JordanHunkie Tunkie BluesCharlie Jordan Vol. 1 1930-1931
Henry BrownHenry Brown BluesTwenty First. St. Stomp
Roosevelt SykesThe Honey DripperRoosevelt Sykes Vol. 4 1934-1936
Alice MooreRiverside BluesSt. Louis Bessie & Alice Moore Vol. 2 1934-1941
Mary JohnsonPeepin' At The Risin' SunMary Johnson 1929-1936
Edith North JohnsonGood Chib BluesI Can't Be Satisfied Vol. 2
Henry TownsendHenry's Worry BluesSt. Louis Country Blues 1929-1937
Lane HardinCalifornia Desert BluesBackwoods Blues 1926-1935
J.D. ShortIt's Hard TimesSt. Louis Country Blues 1929-1937
---------------------------Kevin Belford Interview---------------------------
Big Joe WilliamsBaby Please Don't GoDevil At The Confluence
Peetie WheatstrawWhat More Can A Man Do?Peetie Wheatstraw Vol. 5
Sparks BrothersEveryday I Have The BluesThe Sparks Brothers 1932-1935
Elizabeth WashingtonYou Put That Thing on MeSt. Louis Girls 1929-1937
St. Louis JimmyGoing Down SlowSt. Louis Jimmy Oden Vol. 1 1932-1944
James ''Stump'' JohnsonThe Duck Yas-Yas-YasJames ''Stump'' Johnson 1929-1964
Barrelhouse Buck McFarlandI Got To Go BluesDevil At The Confluence
Blind Teddy DarbyLawdy Lawdy Worried BluesBlind Teddy Darby 1929-1937
Walter DavisTears Come Rolling DownWalter Davis Vol. 7 1946-1952

Show Notes:

As blues historian Paul Oliver wrote: "For some reason St. Louis has never had its due as a centre for the blues. …With its ragtime background St. Louis was a Mecca for blues pianists like Speckled Red and Henry Brown, Sylvester Palmer and Roosevelt Sykes, Peetie Wheatstraw, Barrelhouse Buck McFarland and Wesley Wallace. But it was discovered early by the guitarists too, Sylvester Weaver and Lonnie Johnson, Clifford Gibson and Charley Jordan, J.D. Short and Big Joe Williams among them. There were plenty of women singers too, like Mary Johnson and Edith Johnson, Alice Moore or St. Louis Bessie Mae Smith. And while there were big name recording stars like Walter Davis there were many very good but lesser know ones: St.Louis Jimmy, Blind Teddy Darby, Aaron "Pine Top" Sparks, Lawrence Casey, Oscar Carter and many others." And as write Don Kent noted: "The blues men who took St. Louis to be their home are responsible for some of the most magnificent country music to be recorded during the twenties. Inexplicably, the plethora of musical wealth has been left unpublicized and, blueswise, St. Louis has scarcely been tapped for all the information it could yield."

Today’s program features many of these artists and in addition, in the second hour, we interview author Kevin Belford who’s Devil At The Confluence is deeply researched and illustrated history of the pre-war St. Louis blues scene. Devil At The Confluence is a gorgeous coffee table sized book, beautifully illustrated by Belford who stuffs the book with drawings of the artists, vintage blues advertisements, label shots and other blues ephemera. The book also features much new information and corrects errors that have persisted for decades. As Belford states on his blog: "Nearly all of the information in Devil At The Confluence on the hundreds of names that I found who had recorded from St Louis in the pre-war blues period is new and unpublished information."

As he explained to me: The St Louis blues are a wider and deeper catalog of blues music. The reason that St Louis has been historically overlooked is because as interest in the blues developed, the general knowledge of blues became narrowly defined and mostly-arbitrarily categorized. Southern, Delta, primitive music. The original blues that the audience bought and craved was not just that, but the later research into the blues was limited to that. St Louis had more artists selling the most records for the longest period than any other Pre-war area. St Louis' blues cannot be contained in a simplified catch-all category. St Louis had it's roots music, uninfluenced by other areas, and the artists were known for mixing it and creating innovative new styles. Creative progress, hybrid and merging is what makes the arts evolve. This is the central concept that I realized when researching and why I decided to do the book. St Louis' artists are often misunderstood and disregarded when the definition of the blues of the 20s and 30s is limited to transient Southern musicians playing a simple, backward style. My profiled artists are not transients through the city. They started their careers in the city, spent significant time in the city, worked amongst the other St Louis artists and in most cases lived in St Louis for the greatest part of their lives."

The second half of the show features a varied set of recordings selected by Belford while the first part is tracks I've selected. Below is some background on today's featured artists. Since it's impossible to cover the St. Louis blues scene in one show I'll be doing a sequel sometime down the road.

Lonnie Johnson moved to St. Louis from his native New Orleans in 1925, making his debut the same year. As writer Don Kent noted: "In a city with many musical influences, few wielded as strong an influence as Lonnie Johnson. If St. Louis could be said to have a dominant figure, it was undoubtedly Lonnie. His impeccable guitar style impressed Clifford Gibson and Henry Townsend, as well as exerting a tremendous stylistic influence on the field as a whole…”

Clifford Gibson was born in Louisville, KY and moved to St. Louis in the 1920's where he was discovered, as was nearly all the city's talent, by Jesse Johnson of the DeLuxe Music Shop on Market Street. He recorded 8 sides for QRS and another 12 for Victor in 1929, all in New York. He was recorded as an accompanist in Louisville in 1931 on two sides with R.T. Hansen (probably J.D. Short) and one, (Let Me Be Your Sidetrack) with country artist Jimmie Rodgers. He was a familiar figure on the streets of St. Louis, playing for tips with his performing dog as a crowd puller, almost up to his death on December 21, 1963. He recorded two 45's for St. Louis' Bobbin label in 1960.

Charlie Jordan came from Helena, Arkansas, and was said to have been a bootlegger in the twenties. He acted as a talent scout for Decca in the thirties and ran a rehearsal studio for local talents" He is reputed to have been shot to death on Ninth St. in 1954. He recorded around 40 sides between 1930 and 1936 for Vocalion, Victor, Decca And ARC.

Henry Townsend arrived in St. Louis just before the '20s began. By the end of the '20s, he had landed a record contract with Columbia and two years later made some recordings for Paramount. During this time, Townsend began playing the piano, learning the instrument by playing along with Roosevelt Sykes records. During the '30s, Townsend was a popular session musician, performing with many of the era's most popular artists. By the late '30s, he had cut several tracks for Bluebird. During the '40s and '50s, Townsend continued to perform and record as a session musician, but he never made any solo records. In 1960, he led a few sessions, but they didn't receive much attention. Toward the end of the '60s, Townsend became a staple on the blues and folk festivals in America, which led to a comeback. He cut a number of albums for Adelphi and he played shows throughout America.Townsend had become an elder statesmen of St. Louis blues by the early '80s, recording albums for Wolf and Swingmaster and playing a handful of shows every year. During the late '80s, Townsend was nearly retired, but he continued to play the occasional concert until his death in 2006.

St. Louis had a number of very talented woman blues singers although they rarely seem to get their due. Woman like Mary Johnson, Alice Moore, Bessie Mae Smith, Edith North Johnson, Irene Scruggs, among others, cut some superb records during the 1920's and 30's.

Alice Moore ranks with Mary Johnson as one of the two best female blues singers in St. Louis during the pre-war period. Alice Moore's recording career can be divided into two time periods (1927-29 and 1934-37). The first set of recordings was made for Paramount and the latter ones were made for Decca. The Paramount recordings feature accompaniments by Henry Brown on piano and Ike Rodgers' gut-bucket trombone. The first Decca recordings feature Brown and Rodgers, but most of the Decca recordings feature her boyfriend, Peetie Wheatstraw, and some of the best have Wheatstraw with Kokomo Arnold.

Mary Johnson (sometimes billed as “Signifying Mary”)made her debut in 1929, cut just shy of two dozen songs, achieved modest success and never recorded again after 1936 despite living until 1983.

Edith Johnson recorded eighteen sides in 1928/29 as "Edith North Johnson", "Hattie North" and "Maybelle Allen." In 1961 she recorded with Henry Brown for Sam Charters, released on Folkways.

Little is known about Lane Hardin whose one coupling for Bluebird “ Hard Time Blues/California Desert Blues” was recorded in Chicago July 28, 193. According to Henry Townsend, Lane Hardin was a "metalworker" probably inferring he worked in a steel mill. Townsend further states that Hardin was "from down South." Hardin was recorded after the war as "Leroy Simpson, cutting some sides for the Modern label.

St. Louis had an abundance of talented blues pianists including Henry Brown, Peetie Wheatstraw, Roosevelt Sykes, Lee Green, Aaron "Pinetop" Sparks, Walter Davis among many others.  Henry Brown worked clubs such as the Blue Flame Club, the 9-0-5 Club, Jim's Place and Katy Red's, from the twenties into the 30's. Recorded for Brunswisck with Ike Rogers and Mary Jonhson in 1929, for Paramount in Richmond and Grafton in '29 and '30. He served in the army in the early '40s, then formed his own quartet to work occasional local gigs in St. Louis area from the '50s, and worked the Becky Thatcher riverboat, St. Louis in 1965. In addition to his pre-war recordings, he was recorded by Paul Oliver in 1960, by Sam Charters with Edith Johnson in 1961 and by Adelphi in 1969.

Pianist Speckled Red (born Rufus Perryman) was born in Monroe, LA, but he made his reputation as part of the St. Louis and Memphis blues scenes of the '20s and '30s. In 1929, he cut his first recording sessions. One song from these sessions, "The Dirty Dozens," was released on Brunswick and became a hit in late 1929. In 1938, he cut a few sides for Bluebird. In the early '40s, Red moved to St. Louis, where he played local clubs and bars for the next decade and a half. Charlie O'Brien, a St. Louis policeman and something of a blues aficionado "rediscovered" Speckled Red on December 14, 1954, who subsequently was signed to Delmark Records as their first blues artist. Several recordings were made in 1956 and 1957 for Tone, Delmark, Folkways, and Storyville record labels.

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Alice Moore

We left off our look at Alice Moore with two sessions she cut in 1934. After 1934 Henry Brown and Ike Rodgers no longer accompanied Alice on record with the piano chair filled for most of the remaining sessions by the popular Peetie Wheatstraw. Moore cut two sessions in July 1935 for a total of six songs with Wheatstraw on the piano for the first session, switching to guitar on the second session as Jimmy Gordon sits behind the piano stool. Once again Moore revises her signature song, this time titling it "Blue Black And Evil Blues." One of the session's best numbers is the typically mournful but lovely "S.O.S. Blues (Distress Blues):"

And I can't use hoodoo, don't know no tricks at all (2x)
And I will do anything lord, to get that mule back in my stall
Spoken: Oh if I only was a gypsy. Oh babe I could read his mind. Play 'em Peter, play 'em for me now.
Yes to lose my love, is putting me in distress
(2x)
And I'm not ashamed to tell you, I'm sending out and S.O.S.

"Death Valley Blues" is a cryptic and dark number:

Let me go down in death valley, and hear the death bells ring (2x)
And holler, death oh death, oh death where is thy sting
And it's please don't, take this pillow out from under my head
(2x)
For I live hard I die hard, tell you I would rather be dead

There a few St. Louis artists who use this theme, although they differ lyrically, including Lonnie Johnson on his "Death Valley Is Just Half Way To My Home", Lee Green's "Death Alley Blues" and Bessie Mae Smith's "Death Valley Moan." Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup also cut "Death Valley Blues."

As Guido Van Rijn notes: "One year later Peetie was back at the piano. On 22 May 1936 James "Kokomo" Arnold (1901-1969) played the guitar. While Wheatstraw continues his continuous melodic lines, Arnold keeps the volume of his guitar somewhat down during the singing, and comes back full force to fill the gaps." Arnold's bold playing works exceptionally well on their six song collaboration with Moore sounding particularly forceful and confident as evidenced on the salacious "Grass Cutter Blues:"

And I woke up this morning, and the rain was falling fast (2x)
And I began to wish that, ask some good man to cut my grass
And it's daddy, daddy, what am I going to do
(2x)
Can you see for yourself, Alice don't want 'nother grass cutter but you

The themes of rootlessness and trying to latch on to a good man to keep her from going astray are perfectly summed up in the evocative "Dark Angel Blues" where she also gives Peetie some good natured ribbing:

And I'm a little dark angel, and I'm drifting through this land (2x)
And the reason I'm driftin', trying to find a real good man
They call me little dark angel, I am my mama's baby child
(2x)
But I want a good man ,to keep me from runnin' wild
Spoken: Well, well, well. People look who is here. Here comes Peetie drunk again. Boy when are you gonna stop drinkin' whiskey? Just stay drunk all the time, all the time. Oh someday you'll quit.

1937 was a productive year but there's been some confusion as to who plays on these sessions. Guido Van Rijn offers the following account: "The last Alice Moore recordings were made during four sessions in 1937. Alice Moore 78'sThere is an unknown string bass on these recordings who accents the first and third beats and plucks and slaps mainly in a four to the bar rhythm. All these recordings are credited to 'Jordan' so we may safely assume that Charley Jordan was present. The accompanists are not very audible. The guitar is probably played with a flat-pick. The melody of the piano is followed with single string runs on the highest strings, frequent choking of the blue notes and an occasional lower bass string run. Sometimes there is a chordal intermezzo on the highest strings. The guitarist must have known Peetie's playing very well as the two form a real team. I think Charley Jordan is the guitarist on the 1937 Alice Moore dates. …On 26 March 1937 Alice recorded "Don't Deny Me Baby" on which Peetie's name is mentioned again. On the tenth session of 26 October 1937 the piano is certainly not by Peetie Wheatstraw. In the solos the right hand switches from higher to lower octaves, uses tremolos and sliding notes. There is a simple octave bass in the left hand and now and then the melody is retarded. This session is clasped in between two Roosevelt Sykes sessions. I have no doubt about the presence of Roosevelt Sykes here. The bass player is far more interesting than his colleague of the eighth and ninth sessions. He has more rhythmic variations and a far greater propulsive power thanks to the use of dotted eighth notes. The guitarist plays hardly audible chords and boogie runs on the lower strings in the first position."

Among the notable songs were "Hand In Hand Woman" which finds Moore kinder to men but overtly aggressive towards women:

I'm gonna get me partner, just to run hand in hand (2x)
But I ain t gonna get no woman, gonna get me partner man
I just came here to tell you girls, I don't run hand in hand
(2x)
Please take my advice, get yourself another man
Because that's my man, and he is just my type
(2x)
And the clothes he wears on his back, they cost me ten dollars a yard
I'm tired of telling you girls, I don't run hand in hand
(2x)
The last girl I run hand and hand with, is the girl that stole my man
These hand in hand woman, they's ain't no friend to you
(2x)
They will take your good man, leave you with these hand in hand blues

More typical are tales of no good men as in "Too Many Men:"

These men, these men, they just won't let me be (2x)
I'm gonna pack my suitcase, and beat it back to Tennessee
If you got too many men, they will stay right on your trail
(2x)
They will get you into trouble ,and no one will go your bail
When you got too many men, you can't even sleep at night
(2x)
Every time you step on the street, some of them want to start a fight
When these men get mad, you don't know what to do
(2x)
They will hypnotize or beat you, and keep you in trouble too
So take my advice girls, don't have too many men
(2x)

While "Midnight Creepers" takes a more ominous viewpoint:

These times is so dangerous, til' a woman can't walk the streets (2x)
There is some dangerous man, trying to make a low down sneak
I'm going to buy me bulldog, he'll watch me while I sleep
(2x)
Just to keep these dangerous men, from making a midnight creep

Better watch your step girls, when you goes out at night (2x)
Because these dangerous men, they sure has got to be too tight
I was scared last night, and the night before
(2x)
But I got me good man, don't have to be scared no more

Moore's demise is sketchy as Guido Van Rijn notes: "In 1960 Henry Townsend stated that Alice Moore had died ten or twelve years previously. This would mean that she died c. 1950. Early in 1954 reports came in that she was still in St. Louis, but no trace of her was found. In 1969 Mike Stewart confirmed that Alice Moore was dead." Alice Moore's complete output can be found on the following Document collections: St. Louis Bessie & Alice Moore Vol 1 1927 – 1929, St. Louis Bessie & Alice Moore Vol 2 1934 – 1941 and Kokomo Arnold Vol 3 1936 – 1937.

Sources:

-Rijn, Guido Van. Lonesome Woman Blues: The Story of Alice Moore, Blues & Rhythm, No 208 (2007), p. 20-21.

-Townsend, Henry and Greensmith, Bill. A Blues Life. University of Illinois Press, Urbana & Chicago, 1999.

-Dixon, Robert M.W., John Godrich, Howard W. Rye. Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943. 4th edition. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997.

-Oliver, Paul. Conversation With The Blues. Horizon Press, New York, 1965.

S.O.S. Blues (Distress Blues) (MP3)

Hand In Hand Women (MP3)

Midnight Creepers (MP3)

Too Many Men (MP3)

Grass Cutter Blues (MP3)

Dark Angel (MP3)

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A;ice MooreBefore World War II St. Louis was a thriving blues town. Henry Townsend, who was an integral part of  the St. Louis blues scene during its formative years, had this to say: "It was a whole lotta fun. You didn't find a dead place in town. Sometimes we'd just get together as a group and just do jamming, you know. Sometimes the jam sessions would last four or five hours. Henry Brown would show up, Peetie Wheatstraw, Robert Johnson was there for a while, and of course Robert Nighthawk, Big Joe Williams, and my main man, Sonny Boy. St. Louis was a hot town for blues in those days, just like Chicago." Likely encouraged by the discovery of Lonnie Johnson in 1925 the record companies began to focus on St. Louis artists and by 1930 most of the artists of consequence had made their recording debuts. Artists such as Lonnie Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw, Roosevelt Sykes and Walter Davis went on to enjoy prolific recording careers while the majority are little remembered today, just names on dusty records. St. Louis also boasted some superb woman singers like Bessie Mae Smith, Mary Johnson, Edith North Johnson and one of the city's best, Alice Moore.

Little Alice, as she was known, achieved a measure of success with her first record, "Black And Evil Blues" cut at her first session 1929 with three subsequent versions cut during the 1930's. In all she cut thirty-six sides: Two sessions for Paramount in 1929 and nine sessions (the final one went unissued) for Decca between 1934 and 1937. The recording gap was likely due to the depression. Moore possessed a penetrating, pinched nasal tone and tendency to elongate certain words that added to the somber intensity of her songs which were almost always taken at a funeral pace. Mike Stewart and Don Kent described her style this way: "Her singing style, with its particular stresses, and choppy, exclaimed phrasing, was not especially unusual. No one, however, converted it to quite such a mannerism." She had the good fortune to record with the city's best musicians including pianists Henry Brown, Peetie Wheatstraw, Jimmie Gordon, possibly Roosevelt Sykes as well as guitarists Lonnie Johnson, Kokomo Arnold and trombonist Ike Rodgers. On record Moore sang mostly hard bitten tales of no good, dangerous men and desperate love in bleak songs like "Lonesome Women Blues", "S.O.S. Blues (Distress Blues)" "Midnight Creepers" and "Too Many Men." Prison and prostitution are recurring themes in songs such as "Prison Blues", "Cold Iron Walls", "Serving Time Blues" and "Broadway St. Woman Blues." On record Moore creates a persona of a vulnerable, good woman at the mercy of a cruel world and predatory, indifferent men while at other times she displays the harder shell of a jaded, good-time woman. She sang with conviction, often addressing woman listeners with pointed advice, frequently punctuating her songs with spoken asides and speaking directly to her accompanists.

Little is known of Moore's background and what is known comes from her arrest files and the recollections of her contemporaries. In fact a photograph of her was published for the first time just recently having been discovered in a 1934 Decca catalog with the caption "Alice Moore, Little Alice From St. Louis." According to Bill Greensmith: "In March 1925 Alice was arrested twice. The first occasion was on 7 March for 'suspicion of gambling.' She gave her address as 2016 Walnut Street, her age as twenty-one, and her birthplace as Tennessee. …She was arrested again on 27 March, although instead of being charged she was sent to the 'Health Department.' Alice was living at 2118 Randolph Street when on 19 September 1926 she was arrested and charged with 'disturbing the peace.'" Henry Townsend told Paul Oliver in 1960: "She was a real nice girl. She was real devoted to her blues singing. From my point of it she was pretty well a nice mixer with the public and a fairly intelligent girl. They used to call her Little Alice – well she was quite small I think at the time they adopted the name to her as Little Alice, but later I think she defeated that name, by getting quite some size – she got extra size before she died about ten or twelve years ago. Henry Brown has played for Alice Moore, for a fact I think he started her out, and she was a devoted blues singer." In 1986 Townsend told Bill Greensmith: "I remember Alice Moore. She was a beautiful person, a kind-hearted person. She was a very nice looking black gal. She was almost what you would call a pretty girl. She had a beautiful smooth skin like velvet. I think that had a lot to do with her death too. It sounds kinda off the wall, but sometimes a lot of things are against a person that don't have an understanding about how to handle it. I think it contributed to her living a little fast. Alice Moore, Ike Rodgers, and Henry Brown was a trio. I never worked with them, but I was around them quite a bit. …Alice seemed to be slightly my senior, but not by no big difference. But from maturity, she seemed to be a little more mature than I was. Her 'Black And Evil' was a hit right away, that first one. She was a pretty black woman ain't no doubt about that but the evil part, she wasn't evil, I don't think. But I never was her man, and that's the only way you're ever going to find that out. She may have been, but she never did show it on the surface; she always showed kindness, everybody like her. I don't know how Alice died or why. It appears to me like I would have heard about it or somebody would have said something about it, as many people that knew her and me. I'm inclined to believe that whenever she died, it was one of the times that I was away for some reason. A lot of the stuff Alice recorded Henry Brown worked with her, but Jimmy Gordon played piano on one of her sessions." In 1960 Henry Brown recalled those days: "Henry Townsend played guitar and Little Alice sang. We'd play joints on Franklin … Delmar …Easton … spots in East St. Louis  – like the Blue Flame Club."

Moore's first four sessions feature complimentary backing from Henry Brown and trombonist Ike Rodgers. Rodgers played rough "gutbucket" trombone, using a variety of tin cans, liquor glasses and other mutes of his own devising. Before moving to Decca in 1934 Moore cut ten songs at two sessions for Paramount in August, 1929 and possibly November of that year. "Black And Evil Blues" was a hit from this session, a dark song underscored by Rodgers' mournful trombone that would set the tone for many subsequent songs. The song was covered by Lil Johnson in 1936 and Leroy Ervin in 1937. Paul Oliver had this to say about the number: "At times the characteristics of African racial features and color have an ominous significance in the blues, which may hint that they are indirectly related to social problems. So the state of being 'blue' is associated with alienation, and is linked with an 'evil mind' or an inclination to violence. Both are coupled with the inescapable condition of being black. …That her hearers identified  with her theme was evident in the popularity of the blues, which she made four times in different versions."

I'm black and I'm evil, and I did not make myself (2x)
If my man don't have me, he won't have nobody else
I've got to buy me a bulldog, he'll watch me while I sleep
(2x)
Because I'm so black and evil, that I might make a midnight creep
I believe to my soul, the Lord  has got a curse on me
(2x)
Because every man I get, a no good woman steals him from me

Notable form these first two sessions are four songs dealing with prison, a place Moore, as mentioned above, knew well: "Prison Blues", "Cold Iron Walls", "Serving Time Blues" and "Broadway St. Woman Blues."  In "Prison Blues" she sings:

The judge he sentenced me, and the clerk he wrote it down (2x)
My man said I'm sorry for you babe, that you are county farm bound
Six months in jail, and a month on the county farm (2x)
If my man had a been any good, he would have went my bond

She offers some pointed advice in "Cold Iron Walls:"

My friends, my friends you let this world of crime alone (2x)
For crime my friends, will keep you from your happy home
My baby, law outnumbers you, a thousand to one
(2x)
And when he gets you, pay for the crime that you have done
When I was in my crime, they's as nice as they can be
(2x)
And now I am in trouble, they have gone back on me
Spoken: Oh blow these blues for me. Nobody know the way I feel. Everybody take my advice.

She sings of overt violence in "Serving Time Blues:"

I laid in jail, oh baby, the whole night long (2x)
I cut my man, because he would not come back home
I told the sergeant, that he could take me to jail
(2x)
Because that (?) doggone good man, to come and go my bail

The judge he slammed the door, said poor girl then rolled his eyes (2x)
And now little girl, you got to serve your time
Six bits ain't no dollar, six months ain't no great long time
(2x)
I am going to the workhouse, baby just to serve my time

There's an allusion to prostitution in "Broadway St. Woman Blues" which is reinforced by the St. Louis police files and the observations of Henry Townsend:

I was standing on a corner, just between Broadway and Main (2x)
And a cop walked up, and he asked poor me my name
I told the cop, my name was written on my (?)
(2x)
And I'm a good-time woman, and I sure don't have to (?)
He said I'll take you to the jail, and see what he will do (2x)
He may give you five years, and he may take pity on you
He took me to the jail, with my head hanging low
(2x)
And the judge said hold your head up, for you are bound to go

"Loving Heart Blues" from her second session is another harsh number that may also allude to prostitution:

Oh Lord if you ever, please make my babe understand (2x)
Understand that I love him, do anything for him I can
I would pawn my clothes for him, walk the street the whole night long
(2x)
And I would steal for him, although I know it's wrong
This world can be cruel babe, cruel as cruel can be
(2x)

Guido Van Rijn notes that "on 17 November 1930 Alice probably recorded for Victor under the pseudonym Alice Melvin. Although these four songs remain unissued, two of the titles, ‘Lonesome Woman Blues' and 'Trouble Blues' were to be recorded by Alice Moore on 24 August 1934." Moore cut two songs apiece at her first Decca sessions in1934, cut six days apart. The records are listed as "Little Alice From St. Louis."  "Black Evil Blues" was a remake of her popular number while "Riverside Blues" features some lovely imagery and is lyrically unlike anything else she recorded. There is no trombone on this song, instead featuring the violin of Artie Mosby a St. Louis violinist of the 1920's and 30's. Guido Van Rijn suggests that he may have been classically trained. Moore's singing is also different, less nasal and more gritty as she sings:

And it's water, water, water, water rolls everywhere (2x)
I can catch this water, but sure can't catch my man
I see a moon in this river, and a moon shining up above
(2x)
But I don't like the moonlight, without the one I love
And I wish I could swim, Little Alice could only float
(2x)
I would jump in the river, and swim down to his boat

And I'm sitting by a river, taking off both of my shoes (2x)
Want to jump in this river, and get rid of these riverside blues

On "Trouble Blues" she's sassy and assertive despite her troubles as she sings:

Spoken: Now let me tell you about me
Now it's Alice, Alice, Alice, Alice Moore is my real right name
All the men like Little Alice, just because she can boot that thing

 

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I first came across the Sparks Brothers some twenty years ago on The Piano Blues Volume Twenty: Barrelhouse Years 1928-1933, the second to last installment of the Magpie label's groundbreaking piano blues series. Featuring the arresting, high pitched vocals of Milton "Lindberg" Sparks and the sensitive, rolling piano of Aaron "Pinetop" Sparks, the songs, "Down On The Levee", "Louisiana Bound" and "East Chicago Blues", made a strong impression on me. I believe it was in the 1990's when Document got around to issuing their complete recorded works on CD.

Sparks Brothers: Down On The LeveeAaron and Marion (he changed his name to Milton in 1929) were twins born to Ruth and Sullie Gant in Tupelo, Mississippi. Soon after the twins were born Ruth married Carl Sparks. According to Cleveland Sparks, uncle of Aaron and Marion: "Piano player Aaron he learned how to play piano before he could holler and shout…it was a coloured fellow teaching him. He had a joint y'know selling bootleg whiskey back in the corner. He just had a crowd there all the time and he just learned to play. His name Arthur Johnson and he been dead so long nobody down there would know him–'cause he was a old man when he was teaching that boy." Henry Townsend, who often accompanied Marion, had this to say: "He just kept getting better and better and got to playing for illegal joints y'know. …Pinetop was doing a lot of house-party playing and uh 'cause this was a trend then. We would go from house-party to house-party and make some money to pay the rent. We'd go from place to place like that I mean it'd be announced at this party before it was over that there would be such and such a place to get their rent paid and Pinetop would play for those kind of parties where they had a piano–and I kinda went around him quite a bit." Now at that time Milton wasn't singing, Pinetop was the star when it come to singing. And so just out of nowhere Milton decided he was going to sing and he'd start. …Aaron got the name Pinetop because "He was very good at the number that Smith made [Pinetop Smith's "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie"]. Yeah he was very good with that number and as most guys do he just started to call himself Pinetop himself y'know. The nickname "Lindberg", Townsend suggests, was probably due to Milton's prowess in dancing the Lindberg or Lindy Hop. In addition to the recollections of Townsend and Cleveland Sparks, biographical background on the brothers was gleaned from their thick police files; Milton was arrested some 50 times for fighting and gambling and other minor offenses while Aaron was picked up 18 times.

The brothers cut four sessions, 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. 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 player, with a singing line and a fondness for medium tempos."

Their first recording date yielded four songs under the name Pinetop and Lindberg. This was an exceptional session as Milton sings wonderfully in his high, powerful nasal voice on the sing-sing "Louisiana Bound" with superb flourishes from Aaron who lays out with a nice mid-tempo solo as Milton encourages him on. The brothers excelled at thoughtful, mid-tempo blues such as "East Chicago Blues", "4X11=44" a reference to number combination for playing policy and "I Believe I'll Make A Change." Throughout Aaron lays down some mellow, highly inventive piano work, a perfect contrast to Milton's almost wistful vocals with Milton encouraging "Pine" on with some engaging spoken patter. "East Chicago Blues" shares similarities to "Chicago's Too Much For Me" which was cut at their second session and is also notable for making reference to a 1917 riot in East St. Louis where many African-Americans were killed, with a similar riot two years later in Chicago:

I was in Chicago I had my good rags on
I'm in this town, got all my new suits in pawn

East Chicago is on fire, East St. Louis is burnin' down…

The following year the brothers were in Chicago where they cut three sides for Bluebird on August 2, 1933. At this session they cut the enduring "61 Highway" that would pass into common blues currency with it's now familiar verse:

61 Highway, longest highway that I know (2x)
It runs from New York City down into the Gulf of Mexico

"Down On The Levee" was a typically sensitive mid-tempo number featuring Milton's fine, mellow delivery and some wonderful right hand flourishes from Aaron. "Chicago's Too Much For Me" was in a similar vein with with more forceful playing from Aaron with Milton probably sharing the sentiments of many who first visited Chicago:

Going back to St. Louis
Chicago's too much for me
I may get in trouble, people don't you see
In St. Louis I had my glad rags on
Now I'm in Chicago got all my glad rags in pawn

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" are Sparks Brothers: East Chicago Bluesparticularly tough blues with the latter opening with the line "Everyday I have the blues" a song that the brothers would debut two years later. Tecumseh McDowell and Dorotha Trowbridge are solid, if unexceptional singers, who stylistically bear some resemblance to the then popular St. Louis singer Alice Moore.

The next year, August 24, 1934, Milton was in Chicago where he cut two songs for Decca as Flyin' Lindburg. Milton recorded with Peetie Wheatstraw on piano, possibly Bill Lowry on violin and unknown clarinetist and guitarist. Milton's powerful vocals easily rise above the small band behind "I.C. Train Blues" (a reference to the Illinois Central) which, while a bit rough and raucous, is nonetheless quite effective. "No Good Woman Blues" is a bit more sedate but equally entertaining.

Milton was absent from a four of the eight songs which comprised their final session on July 28, 1935 which featured guitarist Henry Townsend on seven of the eight numbers. Townsend explained: "Yeah Pinetop sang–Milton was supposed to be the singer of the two when the session was drewed up. Pinetop didn't go there to sing at all–he went to play for his brother Milton. And when we got there, why, just going through measures like musicians carry on, he hummed off a tune or two. So everybody thought he should go ahead and do a number. So he went ahead and did a number. It turned out that his number was the better number after all." Aaron possessed a warm, mellow vocal heard to good effect on the marvelous, melodic "Tell Her About Me", the wistful "Workhouse Blues" and the driving boogie of "Got The Blues About My Baby." The most famous song was "Every Day I Have The Blues" sung in a wonderful high falsetto that may sound surprising to those more familiar with modern versions. Milton's numbers were not up to his usual standards although "Grinder Blues" contains a frank tribute to his wife Janie's charms:

Don't you know I got a little grinder.
She lives in St. Louis, her number is 2721 Stoddard Street.
That little woman grind me to death, boy.
I'm telling you the truth. I don't love nobody but that little woman–her name is Janie.
Hey man I feel a verse coming down

Blues I ain't gonna sing these blues no more (2x)
I got my mind on Janie, mean I swear I got to go

In the 1950's Milton rejoined the church and renounced the blues. He died in 1963. Aaron reportedly died much earlier although no death certificate has been found. There is a hint of an early death in both Cleveland Sparks' and Townsend's recollections.

Sources:

-Russell , Tony and Smith, Chris. The Penguin Guide To The Blues. Penguin Books, London, England, 2006.

-Dixon, Robert M.W., John Godrich, Howard W. Rye. Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943. 4th edition. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997.

-Rowe, Mike and O'Brien, Charlie. Well Them Two Sparks Brothers They Been Here And Gone. Blues Unlimited no. 144 (Spring 1983): 9-14.

-Oliver, Paul. Blues Fell This Morning. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1960.

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