Big Chief EllisDices, DicesRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Big Chief EllisBig Chief's BluesRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Dan Pickett Baby How LongShake That Thing! - East Coast Blues 1935-1953
Dan Pickett 99 1/2 Won't DoShake That Thing! - East Coast Blues 1935-1953
John LeeDown At The DepotRural Blues Vol. 1 1934-1956
John LeeAlabama Boogie Rural Blues Vol. 1 1934-1956
Rich AmersonBlack WomanNegro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1
Joe BrownMama Don't Tear My ClothesNegro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1
Red Willie SmithKansas City BluesNegro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1
Robert McCoyGone Mother BluesBye Bye Baby
Robert McCoyBye Bye BabyBye Bye Baby
Horace SprottSmoked Like LightningMusic from the South Vol. 2
Philip Ramsey and Horace SprottI Feel Good Now, Baby Music from the South Vol. 5
Albert Macon & Robert ThomasDon't Nothing Hurt Me But My Back and SideGeorge Mitchell Collection Vol. 2
Albert Macon & Robert ThomasMean Old FriscoUnissued Recording by Axel Künster
Perry Tillis Kennedy MoanOn The Road Again
David Johnson Let The Nation Be FreeSouthern Comfort Country
Davie Lee Meet Me in the Bottoms Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 6
Vera HallBlack WomanClassic Blues from Smithsonian
J.W. WarrenRabbit On A LogLife Ain't Worth Livin'
J.W. WarrenHoboing Into HollywoodUnissued Recording by Axel Künster
Wild Child Butler Axe and the WindMr. Dixon's workshop
Jerry McCainEast of the SunStrange Kind Of Feelin'
East York School (Ala.) I'm Goin' Up North Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1
Willie Turner Now Your Man Done GoneNegro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1
Enoch Brown Complaint Call Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1
Moochie ReevesKey To The HighwayThe Rural Blues: A Study Of The Vocal And Instrumental Resources
Mobile Strugglers Memphis BluesAlabama Black Country Dance Bands 1924-1949
Johnie LewisBaby, Listen to Me HowlAlabama Slide Guitar
Johnie LewisYou Gonna Miss MeAlabama Slide Guitar
Lonzie ThomasDragaround No. 1The George Mitchell Collection Volumes 1-45
Jimmy Lee HarrisDon't The Moon Look Lonesome #1 George Mitchell Collection Vol. 5
Eddie HodgeSitting On Top of The WorldThe George Mitchell Collection Vols. 1-45
John Lee Blind's Blues Rural Blues Vol. 1 1934-1956
Dan Pickett Ride to a Funeral in a V-8 Shake That Thing! - East Coast Blues 1935-1953

Show Notes:

John LeeBlues writer Chris Smith noted that “Alabama attracted many folklorists, from John Lomax on down, seeking the oldest styles of black music in a state which long had a reputation for backwardness, poverty and racism. …Despite flourishing gospel quartet and piano traditions, the state’s blues are comparatively under-represented on 'race' records.” And as Paul Oliver underscored: "…Alabama was largely neglected by the location recording units and even by the talent scouts…." In the post-war era the recording companies no longer recorded on location and most folklorists focused on nearby Mississippi rather than Alabama. Still, several fine Alabama artists made commercial records in the immediate post-war era including pianist Big Chief Ellis and exceptional guitarists such as Dan Pickett who cut records for Gotham in 1949 and John Lee who recorded for Federal in 1951. In later years a pair of harmonica players made their mark, Jerry McCain beginning in the 1950's and Wild Child Butler in the 60's. Some notable field recordings were made in the post-war era including recordings in the 1950's by Harold Courlander, Fredric Ramsey and Sam Charters. Begnt Olsson did some recording in Alabama in the 70's while  George Mitchell recorded several fine Alabama bluesmen in the 80's. Axel Künster did some field recordings in the 90's and 2000's which have not been issued. I want to thank him for giving me permission to play a couple of these unissued  sides.

Those who made commercial recordings made their recordings out of state including Big Chief Ellis, Dan Pickett and John Lee. A self-taught player, Big Chief Ellis performed at house parties and dances during the 1920's. He traveled extensively for several years, working mostly in non-musical jobs. After a three-year army stint from 1939–1942, Ellis settled in New York. He started recording for Lenox in 1945, and also did sessions for Sittin' In and Capitol in the 1940's and 50's, playing with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee for Capitol. Though Ellis reduced his performance schedule after moving from New York to Washington D.C., his career got a final boost in the early 1970's. He recorded for Trix and appeared at several folk and blues festivals until his death in 1977.

Negro Folk Music of Alabama Vol.1 Negro Folk Music of Alabama Vol. 3
Read Liner Notes (PDF) Read Liner Notes (PDF)

Dan Pickett did one recording session for the Philadelphia-based Gotham label in 1949. His real name was James Founty who was born in Pike County, Alabama on August 31, 1907. Five singles were issued by the label while the rest of the titles weren't unearthed until four decades later (with some alternate takes of some issued titles to boot). He passed away in Boaz, Alabama on August 16, 1967, a few days short of his 60th birthday. Decades after his death, Pickett a biographical mystery. Blues researcher Axel Künster went to Alabama in 1993 to see what he could dig up. He found Founty's surviving family, obtained the only known photograph that shows Founty and was able to piece together some information on his life. Künster published a two page teaser about the trip in Juke Blues where he wrote: "Until the whole story is published in Juke Blues, I'll just tell you this much: [Founty was] a classic rambler in the best blues tradition…"Künster wrote that over fifteen years ago and still no full article has been written. In 2010 John Jeremiah Sullivam wrote an article on Pickett for The Oxford American that published the Pickett photo, transcribed an interview with Künster and provided a bit more information on Pickett's life.

Alabama bluesman, John Lee was born May 24, 1915, in Lowdnes County, AL. He learned his distinctive knife slide guitar style from his uncle, Ellie Lee, and spent the 1930s playing jukes and house parties before settling in Montgomery in 1945. Federal's Ralph Bass auditioned him there, and impressed with what he heard, recorded five sides in 1951: "Down At The Depot", "Baby Please Don't Go", "Alabama Boogie", "Baby Blues" and "Blind's Blues." Two unreleased sides, "In My Father's House" and "Slappin' The Boogie" were issued a few years back on the JSP compilation Devil's Jump: Indie Label Blues 1946-1957. By 1960 John Lee had retired from active performing. It was blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow who tracked him down in 1973 after a three year search. Wardlow wrote his story in Blues Unlimited in 1975 (Down at the Depot: The Story of John Lee). He recorded the album Down At The Depot for Rounder Records in the early 70's. During his comeback John Lee performed at Boston's Down East Festival and the National Folk Festival in Washington.

The "Mobile Strugglers" on the porch with neighbors, Mobile, Alabama, Sunday afternoon, July 18, 1954. Left to right: Moochie Reeves, Ollie Crenshaw, Tyler Jackson. From the book A Language of Song by Sam Charters.


There has been some good field work done in Alabama, although it pales in comparison to nearby states such as Georgia and especially Mississippi. On his travels and through research grants, Harold Courlander pursued his interest in ethnohistory and folklore by collecting stories, making recordings, and writing books and articles about a variety of African cultures. The result of his travels and studies was the publication of more than thirty-five books and many sound recordings. Courlander also took numerous field trips to the south, recording folk music in the 1940s and 1950s. From 1947–1960, he served as a general editor of Ethnic Folkways Library and recorded more than 30 albums of music from different cultures. In 1950, he did field recordings in Alabama which resulted in the six album series, Negro Folk Music of Alabama for the Folkways label.

Music from the South, Vol. 2
Read Liner Notes (PDF)

Another Folkways researcher was Frederic Ramsey. Perhaps his greatest discovery was Horace Sprott. Alabama songster and harmonica player Horace Sprott was born February 2, 1890, the son of former slave Bessie Ford, and his surname was taken from the Sprott Plantation where he was born. Ramsey encountered Sprott in Marion, AL, in 1954, and recorded him in seven sessions held in April and May of that year. Ramsey recorded in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana under a Guggenheim grant with the results issued on the ten album series, Music from the South released on Folkways.Two albums of the series were solely devoted to Sprott's recordings.

Sam Charters recorded Alabama artists Moochie Reeves and the Mobile Strugglers for Folkways. The Mobile Strugglers first recorded for Bill Russell's American Music label in 1949 and were recorded again by Sam Charters in 1954. Charters recorded one song by Moochie Reeves in Mobile, Alabama in 1954 of which he wrote: "The recording was done in a back-yard in Mobile, Alabama, late in the afternoon, with dozens of neighbors dancing to the music away from the microphone and the children keeping carefully quiet so they could sit behind the musicians' chairs while they were playing. It captures much of the easy going style of these small instrumental groups playing the rural blues." The song was issued on the Folkways anthology The Rural Blues: A Study Of The Vocal And Instrumental Resources and the compilation The Country Blues Vol. 2 which sports Reeves ' photo on the cover.

George Mitchell recorded prolifically in the field and did some recordings in Alabama. Among those he recorded from the state were J.W. Warren, Albert Macon & Robert Thomas, Jimmy Lee Harris, Lonzie Thomas and Eddie Hodge. One of he J.W. Warren cuts and one of the  Albert Macon & Robert Thomas featured today are unissued recordings made by Axel Künster and used by permission (got late word from Axel that "Mean Old Frisco", featured today, has been issued on the recent Bear Family compilation, The Roots Of It All Acoustic Blues Vol. 4)

Bengt Olsson who first came to the United States in 1969, first to Chicago and then to Memphis were he made some recordings. Olsson was back in 1971, where he made recordings in Memphis and Alabama. He recorded several talented artists including Lum Guffin (his album Walking Victrola was issued on Flyright), Lattie Murrell, David Johnson and Bishop Perry Tillis, the latter two recorded in Alabama. Olsson record Tillis and Johnson (they were neighbors) in Coffee County, Alabama after randomly picking the place on the map. In addition to the Lum Guffin record, Olsson's recordings have been issued on three compilations on the Flyright label.

Albert Macon & Robert ThomasA couple of other artists worth mentioning are Robert McCoy and Johnie Lewis. McCoy was born in 1912 in Aliceville, AL but raised on Birmingham's North Side and by 1927 was a well-known local artist. Between March 3rd and April 7th 1937, ARC Company sent a mobile recording unit on a field trip firstly to visit Hot Springs, Arkansas and, then to Birmingham, Alabama in search of new talent. Sometime between 18th and 24th March the unit arrived in Birmingham and, over a two week period set about recording a number of gospel and blues musicians. Among those were Charlie Campbell, Guitar Slim and James Sherrill (Peanut The Kidnapper) all of whom were backed by the piano of Robert McCoy who did not record under his own name. In 1963 McCoy was recorded by Pat Cather, a teenaged Birmingham blues fan. Cather issued two albums on his Vulcan label: Barrelhouse Blues And Jook Piano and Blues And Boogie Classics. Some of these recordings were reissued on Delmark several years back.

Johnie Lewis was born on a farm near Eufaula, Alabama but spent much of his life playing at various small clubs around Chicago. He was recorded in Chicago in 1970 and 1971 resulting in the album Alabama Slide Guitar issued on Arhoolie.

Long John HunterStrange Feeling Ooh Wee Pretty Baby
Long John HunterSo Long Ooh Wee Pretty Baby
Long John HunterBorder Town Blues Ooh Wee Pretty Baby
Earl Thomas Sugar Girl Blues Piano Blues Vol. 6 1933-1938
George HannahAlley Rat Blues Piano Blues Vol. Vol. 3 1924-c.1940's
Kingfish" Bill TomlinMean and Unkind BluesBarrelhouse Piano Blues and Stomps 1929-1933
Peg Leg' Ben Abney Way Down In TownPiano Blues Vol. 6 1933-1938
Jim Bunkley Segregation BluesJim Bunkley & George Henry Bussey: George Mitchell Collection
Jim Bunkley Blues Came From TexasJim Bunkley & George Henry Bussey: George Mitchell Collection
George Henry Bussey Blues Around My BedJim Bunkley & George Henry Bussey: George Mitchell Collection
L.C. GreenRemember Way BackJuicy Harmonica Vol. 3
Hop WilsonI Ain't Got No WomanSteel Guitar Flash
Blue Smitty Cryin'Drop Down Mama
Joe Houston Shuckin'Combo Records Vol. 3: Central Ave Scene 51-57
Joe Houston Jumpin' The BluesTexas Blues Vol. 2: Rock Awhile
Joe Houston Houston ShuffleRockin' At The Drive-In
Edmonia HendersonWho's Gonna Do Your LovingLovie Austin 1924-26
Ford & Ford Skeeg-A-Lee BluesLovie Austin 1924-26
Lovie Austin & Her Blues Serenaders Lovie Austin 1924-26Lovie Austin 1924-26
The Florida Kid I'm Going Back On The FarmGoing Back On The Farm: Bues In Chicago 1940-1942
Carolina SlimAin't It SadRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Will Ezell & Slim Tarpley Alabama HustlerWill Ezell 1927-1931
Will Ezell Playing The DozenWill Ezell 1927-1931
Clarence GarlowJumping For JoyHouston Jump 1946-51
Elmore NixonMarried Woman BluesHouston Might Be Heaven
Mojo WatsonI Kept On TryingBlues Guitar Blasters, Vol. 1
Ida Cox Wild Women Don't Have The BluesThe Essential
Alberta Hunter With Lovie Austin And Her Blues Serenaders Downhearted Blues Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin and Her Blues Serenaders
Ollis Martin Police And High Sheriff Come Ridin' HomeEssential Alabama Blues 1926-1952
J.B. Smith Poor Boy, Number TwoNo More Good Time in the World for Me

Show Notes:

Long John HunterThe past few months have seen numerous deaths in the blues community including several collectors and researchers such as Don Kent, George Paulus, Mack McCormick and Steve LaVere plus musicians such as Otis Clay, Long John Hunter and Joe Houston. Today we pay tribute to the latter two gentlemen as well as spotlighting artists such as L.C. McKinley, several pianists including Lovie Austin, some fine field recordings plus lots more.

Long John Hunter died on January 4th at the age of 84.  Hunter made his debut in 1954 with a single for Don Robey's Houston-based Duke label, "She Used to Be My Woman b/w Crazy Baby," which preceded his move to El Paso in 1957. He found employment playing at the Lobby Club in Juárez, Mexico where he remained there for over thirteen years. Hunter's recording output was slim, a few obscure singles waxed from 1961 to 1963 for the tiny Yucca logo out of Alamogordo, New Mexico. His 1992 full-length debut for Spindletop, Ride With Me, was the first step in gaining him greater recognition. A pair of albums released later in the decade for Alligator, Border Town Legend (1996) and Swinging from the Rafters (1997), exposed him to wider audience. His last album was released in 2009. Back in the 90's Norton issued a collection of his early singles, Ooh Wee Pretty Baby!.

Tenor sax man Joe Houston passed on Dec. 28th at the age of 89. Born July 11, 1926, in Bastrop, Texas, as a teenager  Houston was hired by Chicago bandleader King Kolax. He subsequently worked the road with the likes of Savannah Churchill, Wynonie Harris, Big Joe Turner, Amos Milburn, even a young Little Richard. In 1949, inspired by the sudden outbreak of honking sax hitmakers such as Big Jay McNeely, Paul Williams and Hal Singer, Houston switched from alto to tenor sax and developed a supercharged, aggressive new sound. After Los Angeles’ Modern Records leased his 1951 “Blow Joe Blow” from Texas indie Macy, Houston moved to L.A., where he spent the rest of his life and career. Houston became a staple on the Central Avenue club circuit, playing on innumerable shows, dances, record dates and frequent coast-to-coast tours. He cut a slew of instrumentals for Modern, Crown and a dozen other labels. He scored his only two chart hit singles in 1952 with "Worry, Worry, Worry", and "Hard Time Baby" both of which peaked at #10 on Billboard's R&B singles chart. If you're looking for Houston's vintage recordings the Ace label has issued two excellent collections: Blows Crazy and Rockin' At The Drive In.

Joe Houston
Joe Houston

We feature two sets by pianist/bandleader Lovie Austin today. Austin was the house musical director for Paramount in the the early 1920's. In 1923, Lovie Austin decided to make Chicago her home, and she lived and worked there for the rest of her life. Her early career was in vaudeville, where she played piano and performed in variety acts. Accompanying blues singers was Lovie's specialty, and she can be heard on recordings by Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter and others. She led her own excellent band, the Blues Serenaders, which usually included trumpeters Tommy Ladnier, Bob Shoffner, Natty Dominique, or Shirley Clay on cornet, Kid Ory or Albert Wynn on trombone, and Jimmy O'Bryant or Johnny Dodds on clarinet, along with banjo and occasional drums. The band recorded for Paramount between 1923 and 1926. Austin's skills as songwriter can be heard in the classic "Down Hearted Blues", a tune she co-wrote with Alberta Hunter. Singer Bessie Smith turned the song into a hit in 1923. In 1961 she recorded Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin's Blues Serenaders, as part of Riverside's Living Legends series. She passed away in Chicago in 1972.

We play several other fine, if obscure, piano players today including  a pair by Will Ezell plus sides by Peg Leg Ben Abney, George Hannah, "Kingfish" Bill Tomlin and Earl Thomas. Born in Texas, pianist Ezell played in the jukes around Shreveport before moving to Detroit and Chicago. He was a frequent accompanist for Paramount Records and even took Paramount’s star, Blind Lemon Jefferson's body back to Texas for burial. Ezell cut sixteen sides for the label between 1927 and 1929 and backed artists such as Lucille Bogan, Elzadie Robinson, Bertha Henderson, Blind Roosevelt Graves and others. The other pianists left behind just a handful of sides and little or no biographical information. Abney cut six sides in Charlotte, NC on June 22, 1936. In his song, "Way Down in Town," he sings "Way Down in Polack Town," which echoes Jabo Williams' 1932 number "Polock Blues." The reference also shows up in songs by Clifford Gibson and Big Joe Williams. Polack Town was a name given to a black section of St. Louis. Hannah recorded for Vocalion in 1926 and Paramount in 1929 and 1930, "Kingfish" Bill Tomlin cut four sides for Paramount in 1930, while Earl Thomas left behind four sides for Decca in 1936.

L.C. McKinley relocated to Chicago in 1941 and began playing professionally around 1947.  In the early 1950's, McKinley was a regular performer at the 708 Club, where he variously topped the bill or played accompaniment in the first half of 1954 with the Ernest Cotton Trio. He began a working association with Eddie Boyd in the early 1950's and, in 1952, McKinley and Cotton backed Boyd on the latter's recording of "Five Long Years." McKinley backed Boyd on several other sides as well as backing Curtis Jones during this period. In 1953 he recorded for Parrot Records, although his work was not released, he signed to States Records in 1954,  in 1955, hooked up with Vee-Jay Records and in 1959 he cut sides for Bea & Baby Records. McKinley made his last recordings in 1964. He died in Chicago in January 1970, aged 51.

J.B. Smith: No More Good Time in the World for MeWe hear some fine field recordings by Jim Bunkley, George Henry Bussey and J.B. Smith. Both Jim Bunkley and George Henry Bussey were from Georgia and were recorded in the field in 1969 by George Mitchell. As Mitchell wrote in the liner notes: "Sadly, this album is a memorial to Jim Bunkley. He was killed in a head-on collision on a rainy day in October, 1970. I learned of his death about a month later when I visited his home to tell him his recordings were going to be issued." The recordings by Bunkley and Bussey were first issued on a shared album on the Revival label then subsequently on Rounder and most recently by Fat Possum. 50 years ago, Bruce Jackson first went to Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, Texas, to record the unaccompanied songs of J.B. Smith, an inmate serving 45 years there for the murder of his wife. He returned the following June in 1966 to record more, and that year John Fahey’s Takoma Records released an LP, Ever Since I Have Been A Man Full Grown. No More Good Time In the World For Me, is a recent new two-disc set from Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital issued last year, which includes the original LP plus 15 more sides. Maybe the reissue of the year?

Robert Johnson Come On In My KitchenThe Centennial Collection
Robert Johnson Ramblin' On My MindThe Centennial Collection
Manny NicholsForgive MeRural Blues Vol. 1
Nathaniel TerryI Don't Know WhyRural Blues Vol. 1
Lightnin' Hopkins & Thunder SmithCan't Do Like You Used To Rural Blues Vol. 1
Bukka White Black Crepe BluesBig Daddy
Bukka White Gibson Hill Big Daddy
Lafayette "Thing" ThomasI Had A DreamOakland Blues
L.C. RobinsonTrain Time BluesOakland Blues
Dave Alexander Love Is Just For Fools Oakland Blues
Joe Willie Wilkins It's Too Bad45
Coy “Hot Shot” WilliamsFreight Train Blues45
Jimmy DeBerry & Walter HortonHard Hearted WomanEasy
Jimmy DeBerry & Walter HortonEverybody's Fishin'Back
Shakey Jake People, PeopleFurther On Up The Road
Sunnyland SlimPut Me In The Alley Slim's Got His Thing Goin' On
Country JimPhillipine BluesRural Blues Vol. 2,
Bill "Boogie Bill" WebbLove Me MamaRural Blues Vol. 2,
Papa George Lightfoot Wine, Women, WhiskeyRural Blues Vol. 2,
Sonny Boy NelsonPony Blues Memphis Blues Caravan Vol I
Furry LewisBlues , "Mother" StoryMemphis Blues Caravan Vol I
Houston StackhouseCrying Won't Help YouTreasury of Field Recordings Vol. 1
Papa George Lightfoot I Heard Somebody CryingGoin' Back to the Natchez Trace
Papa George Lightfoot Goin' Down That Muddy RoadGoin' Back to the Natchez Trace
George “Harmonica” Smith West Helena WomanBlues With a Feeling
George “Harmonica” Smith Mellow Down EasyBlues With a Feeling
George “Harmonica” Smith Too LateBlues With a Feeling
Robert JohnsonFrom Four Until LateThe Centennial Collection
Robert JohnsonHell Hound On My TrailThe Centennial Collection

Show Notes:

Stephen C. LaVere & Willie Coffee, source: Blues & Rhythm 153
From Robert Mugge's film Hellhounds on my Trail

When I heard that Steve LaVere died I had mixed emotions. Like many in the blues community, LaVere's appropriation of Robert Johnson's estate and his litigious nature when it came to any unauthorized use of Johnson's image and music, left a bad taste in my mouth. On the other hand LaVere did devote his life to the music as a producer, researcher and promoter and I don't don't doubt his sincerity to the music. That should count for something. With that in mind today's show is not exactly a tribute but more a recognition of a lifetime spent devoted to the blues.

Stephen C. LaVere died Dec. 27th at the age of 72 in his home in Greenwood, Mississippi. For good or bad, LaVere will be forever linked to Robert Johnson. In the early 70's LaVere entered into a legal agreement with Johnson's half sister Carrie Thompson which transferred the rights to Johnson's photos, songs and other memorabilia to LaVere. Thompson received fifty percent and LaVere the other half. LaVere was given the two known photos of Johnson. A third photo was in the possession of researcher Mack McCormick who also passed away recently. LaVere was instrumental in Sony's Robert Johnson box set in 1990 which sold a million copies and making LaVere quite a bit of money as well as earning him a Grammy. Eventually, Claude Johnson, Johnson's son, was named sole heir. LaVere moved to Greenwood, MS in 2001 to open the Johnson inspired Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum and Gallery. LaVere's interest in blues goes back to the 1960' when he did reissues for Liberty Records including a pair of collections of Imperial Recordings that were influential. Later in the 60's he produced a series of excellent blues records with Pete Welding for World Pacific. In the late 60's also tracked down and recorded legendary harp man Papa George Lightfoot. LaVere also promoted local musicians, ran a record store in Memphis, photographed blues musicians, and wrote a number of liner notes and articles in various blues magazines. LaVere was one of the founders of the Memphis Blues Caravan tour in the 70's, and produced/recorded a number of Memphis musicians including Bukka White, Joe Willie Wilkins, Walter Horton and Jimmy DeBerry.  LaVere's business operations were run through his Delta Haze Corporation, which as the website states, "is engaged in the preservation and promotion of traditional American blues." Most recently LaVere contributed research and previously unseen photos to Bear Family's mammoth Sun Records box set.

Robert Johnson Box SetIt's ironic that Mack McCormick passed just about a month before LaVere. Both men's lives were shaped by Robert Johnson although that obsession led them down different paths. In 1972 as a Smithsonian field researcher, McCormick, who had been on Johnson’s trail for more than a decade, located Johnson’s two half-sisters and came away with not only photos of Johnson and members of his family but, reportedly, first publication rights as well. McCormick, who had a reputation as an inspired researcher and an excellent writer, had gone as far as to travel to Mississippi on the Rolling Store, a bus that had been converted into a canteen for sharecroppers—and, in a 1976 Rolling Stone piece, he told writer Peter Guralnick that he had even tracked down and interviewed Johnson’s killer. McCormick intended to write about this and other revelations in a book about Johnson that he had tentatively titled Biography of a Phantom. In 1977 McCormick's said the manuscript was 12 chapters and a 150,000 words. In a 2002 profile by Michael Hall in Texas Monthly, McCormick revealed that he suffers from crippling “manic-depressive illness,” and that he had abandoned his Johnson book. “It ain’t happening anymore,” he told Hall. “I lost interest.”

Robert Johnson did not leave a will when he died in 1938 at 27. He was destitute, but his estate later made millions. In 1990, Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings was finally released by Sony and eventually went gold. LaVere was listed as a producer, and the biographical essay published in the boxed set’s accompanying booklet carried his byline (LaVere also wrote the notes and produced the follow-up 2011 collection, The Complete Recordings: The Centennial Collection). When Mack McCormick heard about LaVere’s deal, he contacted Columbia and notified the label that his agreement with Johnson’s half-sisters preceded LaVere’s. Columbia put the anthology on hold for 15 years. In the mid 70's  LaVere had discovered, that Johnson's songs were not public domain, and any surviving family members were entitled to royalties. At the time, he could only find Robert's half sister, Carrie Thompson, who was living in Maryland. She agreed to hire LaVere as the agent for the Robert Johnson Estate. As Frank Digiacomo wrote in Vanity Fair: "It put a nice chunk of change in LaVere’s pocket, and it also cemented his status as the gatekeeper to all things Robert Johnson. In that role he soon became known for litigious ways." Eventually Johnson's estate was awarded to his son, Claude Johnson in 1998.

As for the man himself, Tony Russell wrote perceptively of Robert Johnson: "To see Johnson clearly the reader needs to steer a steady course between fanatics and debunkers, understanding the context of his music – the undeniable influence of [Son] House and Lonnie Johnson, his many allusions to records that were around him when he was learning his trade – but at the same time recognizing the skill with which he synthesized those elements, and the wholly individual character of much of his finished work. In particular, Johnson deserve to be acknowledged as the master of the complete blues: the song conceived as a dramatic whole rather than am arbitrary sequence of scenes, of verses casually pinned to a formulaic accompaniment. Th emotional architecture of a performance like 'Come On In My Kitchen', the tender erotic plea echoed by tremulous slide guitar, or of 'Hellhound On My Trail', a distraught, fragmented reconsideration of Skip James's 'Devil Got My Woman', the intricate interdependence of voice and guitar in 'Walkin' Blues' and 'Preachin' Blues' – all this attests to a concept of blues composition that was beyond the scope of many of Johnson's contemporaries."

Joe Willie Wilkins 45LaVere was employed in 1968 as reissue coordinator for the Liberty label. He produced the influential albums Rural Blues Vol. 1 & 2 which collected sides from the vaults of the New Orleans based Imperial label. These have since been reissued on CD by the BGO label. LaVere also produced records around this time for World Pacific. LaVere and Pete Welding produced a series of four albums  in the late 60's in a series entitled BLUESMAKERS for that label. Some of these have not been reissued on CD. The albums were Shakey Jake's Further On Up the Road, George “Harmonica” Smith's Blues With a Felling – A Tribute to Little Walter, Sunnyland Slim's Slim's Got His Thing Goin' On and the anthology Oakland Blues featuring sides by Lafayette Thomas, Dave Alexander and L.C. Robinson.

Thanks to a handful of terrific 1950's sides, the name of Papa Lightfoot was revered by 1960's blues enthusiasts. LaVere tracked him down in Natchez, MS cutting an album for Vault in 1969 (since reissued by the Ace label). His comeback was short-lived and he died in 1971. He cut sessions for Peacock in 1949 (unissued), Sultan in 1950, and Aladdin in 1952 preceded an amazing 1954 date for Imperial in New Orleans. His final pre-rediscovery sides were cut for Savoy in 1955.

LaVere lived in Memphis for a time and was involved in promoting and recording several musicians from the area including  producing Bukka White's last album, Big Daddy, in 1974 of which he was nominated for a Grammy, recording the first sides by Joe Willie Wilkins under his own name and  conceived the Memphis Blues Caravan, a traveling revue of blues veterans. The albums  Memphis Blues Caravan Vol I & II feature artists who performed in the revue. In 1973 LaVere’s Mimosa label released Wilkins’s first recordings under his own name, a 45, “It's Too Bad b/w Mr. Downchild.” A full-length album titled Joe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys was released by Adamo that included some live performances and studio recordings. In 1976 Wilkins also played the Monterrey Jazz Festival and appeared in the BBC Television series The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues. He passed March 28, 1979 in Memphis.

Coy "Hot Shot" Love got his one moment of glory in the recording studio on January 8, 1954, when he entered Sam Phillips' Sun Studios to record "Wolf Call Boogie" b/w "Harmonica Jam," backed by Mose Vinson at the piano, Pat Hare on guitar, Kenneth Banks on bass, and Houston Stokes on the drums. Love did cut one more 45 recorded  by George Paulus of Barrelhouse Records at LaVere's Record Shop in Memphis in mid August 1973. The songs are "Hot Shot Boogie, Foxchase Boogie b/w Freight Train Blues" issued as a 45 under the  Mr. Bo Weevil imprint.

In the 50's Jimmy DeBerry cut some sides with Walter Horton for Sun. In 1972 producer LaVere reunited DeBerry and Horton for sessions designed to recreate their earlier partnership. Two albums worth of material, Easy and Back were issued on the Crosscut label.

Related Articles

Steve LaVere Bibliography (excerpted from A Blues Bibliography Second Edition by Robert Ford)

LaVere, Steve. Papa George Lightfoot: Natchez Trace. USA: Vault LP 130, 1969

LaVere, Stephen C. “Alexander George: Papa Lightfoot!” Blues Unlimited no. 68 (Dec 1969): 12.

LaVere, Steve. “Schoolboy Cleve!” Blues Unlimited no. 69 (Jan 1970): 22.

Napier, Simon A.; LaVere, Steve; Curtiss, Lou.“Thomas Shaw.” Blues Unlimited no. 75 (Sep 1970): 14.

Leadbitter, Mike; LaVere, Steve. “Mike’s Blues: Papa Lightfoot.” Blues Unlimited no. 81 (Apr 1971): 18.

LaVere, Steve. The Memphis Blues Again. USA: Adelphi AD-1009-S, c1971

Eagle, Bob; LaVere, Steve. “Hard Working Woman: Mississippi Matilda: Matilda Witherspoon.” Living Blues no. 8 (Spring 1972): 7.

LaVere, Steve. “Papa Lightfoot.” Living Blues no. 13 (Summer 1973): 6.

LaVere, Steve. “Memphis Minnie.” Blues-Link no. 2 (Oct/Nov 1973): 31–32.

LaVere, Steve. Bukka White: Big Daddy. USA: Biograph BLP 12049, 1974.

Slaven, Neil. "From Channel 4 Till Late: (Or Where Do We Go from LaVere?)." Blues & Rhythm no. 70 (Jun 1992): 22.

LaVere, Stephen C. Memphis Blues Caravan. Vol. 1. & 2 USA: Memphis Archives MA7008-7009, 1994.

Lightnin' Hopkins Look out Settegast Here Me and My Partner Come Blues from East Texas
Jack Johnson & Lightnin' HopkinsThe SlopTreasury of Field Recordings Vol. 2
Texas Alexander ? Boar Hog BluesThe Unexpurgated Folk Songs Of Men
Buster PickensYou Got Good BusinessThe Unexpurgated Folk Songs Of Men
Lightnin' Hopkins Tim Moore's Farm Treasury of Field Recordings Vol. 2
Mance LipscombTim Moore's Farm Treasury of Field Recordings Vol. 2
Lightnin' HopkinsHello England The Rooster Crowed In England
Lightnin' HopkinsBeggin' Up And Down The Street The Rooster Crowed In England
Lightnin' HopkinsChildren's BoogieThe Rooster Crowed In England
Henry ThomasTexas Worried BluesTexas Worried Blues
Henry ThomasDon't Ease Me InTexas Worried Blues
Henry ThomasRailroadin' SomeTexas Worried Blues
Joel HopkinsI Ain't Gonna Roll For The Big Hat Man No MoreRural Blues Vol. 2 1951-1962
Joel HopkinsGood Times Here, Better Down The RoadTreasury of Field Recordings Vol. 1
Robert ShawPeople, PeopleTexas Barrelhouse Piano
Robert ShawPut Me In The Alley Texas Barrelhouse Piano
Robert ShawThe Ma Grinder Texas Barrelhouse Piano
Mance Lipscomb Jack O' DiamondsTexas Sharecropper & Songster
Mance Lipscomb FreddieTexas Sharecropper & Songster
Mance Lipscomb Big Boss ManTexas Sharecropper & Songster
Gozy Kilpatrick Goin' To The River Treasury of Field Recordings Vol. 2
Dennis GainusYou Gonna Look Like A MonkeyTreasury of Field Recordings Vol. 1
Jealous James StanchellAnything From A Foot Race To A Resting PlaceTreasury of Field Recordings Vol. 2
Lightnin' Hopkins That Gambling LifeAutobiography in Blues
Lightnin' Hopkins Baby!Country Blues
Buster PickensSanta Fe TrainEdwin 'Buster' Pickens - 1959 to 1961 Sessions
Buster PickensJim NappyEdwin 'Buster' Pickens - 1959 to 1961 Sessions
Buster PickensThe Ma Grinder No 2Edwin 'Buster' Pickens - 1959 to 1961 Sessions

Show Notes:

Mack McCormick, 1986. Photo: Carlos Antonio Rio

The blues, particularly the early history, has an air of mystery and myth that's accrued over the years and is a big part of what draws people to the music. You need look no further than the mythic status attained by Robert Johnson. Johnson was also one of the subjects pursued by Mack McCormick, to be the subject of his decades-in-the-making book, Biography of a Phantom (in 1977 McCormick's said the manuscript was 12 chapters and a 150,000 words). McCormick has also been long in the possession of the third Robert Johnson photo which he got from Johnson's relatives. That project along with numerous others were started and never completed leaving McCormick's legacy frustratingly incomplete. One bright spot is his book on the history of Texas blues, done in collaboration with Paul Oliver, will finally be released after decades in limbo. “Da Vinci never finished his paintings,” he told The Houston Press in 2008. “He got bored by the time he got to the corners.”

That title to the Robert Johnson book can also been seen as metaphor for McCormick himself, a man wrapped in a myth of his own. Robert Burton "Mack" McCormick passed away on Nov. 18 at the age of 85, remaining something of an enigma to the end. As Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records said: "Mack is one of the most important Texas vernacular-music historians. McCormick discovered and recorded living musicians, like Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins, and re-imagined the lives of dead ones, like Robert Johnson. He’s written dozens of magazine articles and album liner notes. He’s worked for the Smithsonian Institution." Writer Peter Guralnick noted that "Mack set out to live his life on his own terms with all the passion of someone who has made a vocation of his avocation. He pursued it in territories where there were no maps and no rules.”

McCormick's fame, or infamy depending on who you ask, to tied to his massive archive of blues research amassed after a lifetime of mostly lone research. It's an archive few have seen. In 1977 McCormick wrote an open  letter to Blues Unlimited in which he said as much: "…I realized that there is a general feeling, particularly in England, that Mack McCormick is sitting on top of a mountain of material that he won't publish. I learned too that I'm regarded with some grumpiness. To reply to this, let me first of all admit that it is true. In 1958 when I began serious documentary recording and field research it was not my plan to acquire such a mountain." And as Michael Hall wrote in in Texas Monthly in 2002: "McCormick calls his archive the Monster, a term of both affection and fear. Inside the Monster are secrets—on the origin of the blues, on the story of Texas music, and on the lives of some of the greatest musicians in American history. …Much of the archive sits in storage in Houston, much more at a place McCormick owns in the mountains of Mexico. And it’s in danger. The pages are fading, the tapes need restoring, and McCormick is sufficiently hoary to worry about dying suddenly with no home for it all." Now that McCormick's gone, blues collectors are once again asking what's to become of his life's work. As of now that question is very much up in the air.

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

Today's show is one that I had planned for awhile but kept putting it off hoping that I would get around to interview McCormick. Unfortunately hat never happened. While we don't know what recordings lie in McCormick's vast archives there's a sufficient amount of material he did release which is what I've drawn on for this program,  a good chunk from long-out-of-print albums.

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

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

The Unexpurgated Folk Songs of Men
Read Liner Notes (PDF)

The anthology The Unexpurgated Folk Songs of Men was collected and recorded by McCormick. The contents were described in the notes as "…An informal song-swapping session with a group of Texans, New Yorkers, and Englishmen exchanging bawdy songs and lore, presented without expurgation…" The album was originally issued in a generic white cover without any printing. Song titles are listed on the disc labels, but none of the many performers are credited anywhere on the release. Included inside the cover sleeve was a large, 14-page booklet explaining the history of the songs, as well as a large disclaimer presenting the recorded material as a scholarly document which, along with the generic white sleeve and anonymous performers, were evidently measures taken against possible charges of obscenity. Some of the performers have been ostensibly identified by researchers. The album was later reissued with a cover as Raglan R 51.

In Alan Govenar's book Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues, he writes: "Lightnin’ Hopkins first met Mack McCormick around 1950 through McCormick’s mother, who was then working as an X-ray technician at the Telephone Road office of a doctor whose patients included Bill Quinn of Gold Star Studios. …During the fall of 1958, [Sam] Charters heard about McCormick from Frederic Ramsey at Folkways, who suggested that Charters contact McCormick in Houston and Asch in New York about recording Lightnin’. …McCormick was interested in getting to know Charters and invited him to stay at his house in January 1959. Together they went looking for Lightnin’." Recordings were made in Hopkins' apartment with the recordings released on Folkways in August of that year. "Once Charters left Houston, McCormick went and recorded Hopkins himself. Between February 16 and July 20, 1959, McCormick, somehow overcoming the difficulty Charters had encountered, recorded forty-six songs with Lightnin’ in six different informal sessions." Around twenty sides remain unissued. The recordings from these sessions resulted in four albums released in early 1960: Country Blues and Autobiography In Blues issued on the Tradition label, Blues from East Texas was issued on Heritage (a split LP with Joel Hopkins on one side and Lightnin’ on the other) and The Rooster Crowed In England issued on the British 77 Records label. As McCormick wrote in the notes to the latter album: “This album was prepared with the frank intention of arousing interest among the public and agencies who govern the European concert halls. …Until only a few months before making these recordings, Sam Lightnin' Hopkins knew of England only vaguely as a place 'over across the water' …a place he'd heard of thru friends who visited there while in the army. He was startled and dubious when I told him that some of the greatest enthusiasm for the blues was centered in places 'over across that water.'” Apparently this issued on a Document CD circa 1998 which was strictly limited edition of 100 copies, never sold, but given away at Document wrap party in Vienna. That release was titled Lightnin' Hopkins 1954 & 1959 with extra tracks from other places. McCormick also wrote the notes and produced several of Hopkins' Bluesville albums.

Read Liner Notes (PDF)

McCormick also recorded Lightnin's brother, Joel. Joel was Lightnin's older brother and first gave him a guitar. Joel traveled the south with tent shows and traveling caravans. Lightnin's other brother, John Henry also played guitar. The three were recorded together in Waxahatchie, TX in 1964. The results were issued on Arhoolie under the title Hopkins Brothers: Lightnin', Joel, & John Henry. Joel was first recorded in 1959 by McCormick.

In the summer of 1960 Paul Oliver came to the United States with the aid of a State Department grant and BBC field recorder to record blues. As Oliver's journey progressed west he teamed up with Chris Strachwitz and Mack McCormick who had been roaming around Texas looking for blues singers. The recording of Buster Pickens was a result of this collaboration. Pickens lone album for Heritage, the self-titled Buster Pickens, was recorded over several sessions in 1960 and 1961 and released in 1962. Two years ago I persuaded Document Records to reissue the album (Edwin "Buster" Pickens: The 1959 to 1961 ) and I had the pleasure of writing the liner notes.

In August 1960 Chris Strachwitz, Mack McCormick and Paul Oliver were in Navasota, Texas. Oliver recalls the events vividly: "'Just wait. We've got something for you to hear that will set you back on your ears! Exasperatingly, Mack McCormick and Chris Stratchwitz would say very little else, about their new-found 'discovery' but their ill-suppressed excitement was assurance enough that we were soon to hear something special. …A few weeks before, Chris and Mack had been on a search for songsters and blues singers in East Texas. A man named 'Peg Leg' had told them that the best guitar picker around was Mance Lipscomb an opinion that was confirmed by others in the area”. …Much of the music that Mance played for them that evening was recorded and issued on Arhoolie F 1001 'Mance Lipscomb – Texas Sharecropper and Songster'; the balance of the record was taped when Mack and Chris took my wife and me to visit him on 11 August." Other recordings McCormick made of Lipscomb appear on the album Trouble On Mind on the Reprise label.

Also during this trip Robert Curtis Smith met by chance Paul Oliver and Chris Strachwitz in Wade Walton's Big Six barber shop in Clarksdale, Mississippi. This led to him recording some tracks that year and in 1961, which in turn saw the release of The Blues of Robert Curtis Smith: Clarksdale Blues in 1963 for the Bluesville label. Liner notes were written by Mack McCormick. Curtis also appeared on an anthology of recording that Strachwitz and Oliver made in Mississippi during this trip originally titled I Have To Paint My Face: A Random Collection Of Mississippi Delta Blues and issued on Arhoolie. Original notes were by McCormick but these were replaced by notes by Strachwitz when this was issued on CD in 1995 with the title I Have To Paint My Face: Mississippi Blues.

Read Liner Notes (PDF)

One of McCormick's lesser-known accomplishments involved the documenting and recording of barrelhouse Texas piano players. In 1963 McCormick recorded a pianist by the name of Robert Shaw in Austin and released Shaw's Texas Barrelhouse Piano album on McCormick's short-lived Almanac label. Shaw came from Houston and his style was not only a Houston style but a specifically Fourth Ward style, one similar to but distinct from the Fifth Ward style. Through dogged interviews, research, and a little luck, McCormick was able to piece together how this style began. In 1960 McCormick took a job as a census taker in Houston, asking to be put in the Fourth Ward. During this assignment, he discovered more than 200 professional barrelhouse piano players, all of whom, he learned, got their chops from a man named Peg Leg Will.

As some point McCormick became obsessed with Henry Thomas, known as Ragtime Texas, and one of the oldest singers recorded, having been born in 1874. McCormick thinks he may have met Thomas in downtown Houston in 1949 although he was well past his prime. Thomas' music gives us a glimpse of black music before the blues. Thomas cut 23 sides between 1927 and 1929 for Vocalion. By visiting the towns mentioned in a railroad song of Thomas’s, "Railroadin’ Some," and analyzing his accent, Mr. McCormick found his way to Upshur County, Thomas’s birthplace, and, interviewing people who had known him, put together a rich, evocative history of his life and times. The research formed the liner notes he wrote for Henry Thomas Completed Works 1927 to 1929 issued by Herwin in 1974. The album's booklet includes an authoritative biography on Thomas and complete lyrics for all of the songs. These notes rank among the all-time best in the field of blues research.

Related Articles

Mack McCormick Bibliography (excerpted from A Blues Bibliography Second Edition by Robert Ford) (PDF)

A Who's Who of the Midnight Special (By Mack McCormick, Caravan 19, 1960) (PDF)

Lightnin' Hopkins: Blues (By Mack McCormick, Jazz Review 3, no. 1, Jan 1960, 14–17) (PDF)

The Houston Record Men (By Chris Strachwitz, Jazz Report 2, no. 8, May 1960, 9–10) (GIF)

Liner Notes (Mance Lipscomb: Texas Sharecropper and Songster, Arhoolie, 1960)

Liner Notes (I Have To Paint My Face: A Random Collection Of Mississippi Delta Blues, Arhoolie, 1960))

Liner Notes (Lightnin’ Hopkins: Country Blues, Tradition TLP 1035)

-Liner Notes (Lightnin’ Hopkins: Autobiography in Blues, Tradition TLP 1040, 1960) (PDF)

Liner Notes (Mance Lipscomb: Trouble In Mind, Reprise, 1961) (GIF)

-The Sound of Houston (By Pete Welding,  Saturday Review 44, Jan 14, 1961, 54–55) (PDF)

L.C. Williams (By Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick, Jazz Monthly 7, no. 1, Mar 1961,  15) (PDF)

Liner Notes (Robert Curtis Smith: Clarksdale Blues, Bluesville, 1961) (GIF)

Liner Notes (Lightnin’ Hopkins: Walkin’ This Road by Myself, Bluesville BV-1057, 1962) (PDF)

Liner Notes (Robert Shaw: Texas Barrelhouse Piano, Almanac, 1963) (PDF)

The Damn Tinkers (By Mack McCormick, American Folk Music Occasional no. 1,1964: 5–13) (PDF)

An Open Letter from Mack McCormick (By Mack McCormick, Blues Unlimited 117 Jan./Feb., 1976, p.17) (PDF)

A Case of the Blues (By Gregory Curtis, Texas Monthly May, 1977) (PDF)

The Search for Robert Johnson (UK television documentary film, 1991  – features Mack McCormick) (link)

Mack McCormick Still Has the Blues (By Michael Hall, Texas monthly, April, 2002) (PDF)

Mack McCormick Interview (By Andrew Brown, Jan., 2006) (PDF)

The Collector: Mack McCormick's Huge Archive of Culture and Lore (By John Nova Lomax , Houston Press, Nov. 19, 2008) (PDF)

The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie (By John Jeremiah Sullivan, New York Times, April 13, 2014) (link)

Finding Mack McCormick (Lecture by Alex LaRotta, 2014) (link)

Mack McCormick, Student of Texas Blues, Dies at 85 (By William Grimes, New York Times, Nov. 25, 2015) (link)

Remembering Mack McCormick (Observer, Nov. 25, 2015) (link)

Historian Mack McCormick Made an Impact on Texas Blues (By Andrew Dansby, Houston Chronicle, November 27, 2015 ) (link)


Next Page »