Entries tagged with “Gus Cannon”.

Papa Charlie JacksonAll I Want Is A SpoonfulPapa Charlie Jackson Vol. 1 1924-1926
Papa Charlie JacksonI Got What It Takes But It Breaks My Heart To Give It AwayPapa Charlie Jackson Vol. 1 1924-1926
Papa Charlie JacksonPapa, Don't Tear Your PantsBlues Images Vol. 9
Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon w/ Banjo IkeyRock Me MamaFrankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon Vol. 1 1926-29
Banjo IkeyYou're Bound To Look Like A Monkey When You Get OldBanjo Ikey Robinson 1929-1937
Banjo IkeyGet Off Stuff Banjo Ikey Robinson 1929-1937
Gus CannonPoor Boy, Long Ways from HomeMaster of Memphis Blues
Gus CannonCan You Blame The Colored ManMaster of Memphis Blues
Gus CannonMy Money Never Runs OutGood for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-37
Jimmie StrothersI Thought I Heard My Banjo SayField Recordings Vol. 1: Virginia 1936-1941
Jimmie StrothersGoin' To RichmondField Recordings Vol. 1: Virginia 1936-1941
Gus CannonBring It With You When You ComeRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 2: The Great Jug Bands
Gus CannonMadison Street RagBlues Images Vol. 5
Papa Charlie JacksonLong Gone Lost JohnBroadcasting The Blues
Papa Charlie JacksonDrop That SackPapa Charlie Jackson Vol. 1 1924-1926
Papa Charlie JacksonSkoodle-Um-SkooBlues Images Vol. 3
Whistler & His Jug BandLow Down BluesThe Jug and Washboard Bands - Vol. 1 1924-1931
Whistler & His Jug BandJug Band SpecialRuckus Juice & Chitlins Vol. 2
Sylvester Weaver Six-String Banjo PieceSylvester Weaver Vol. 1 1923-1927
Sidney StriplingSeassafool (Sebastopol) Deep River of Song: Georgia
Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug BandRocking Chair BluesClifford Hayes & The Louisville Jug Bands Vol. 2 1926-1927
Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug BandShe's In The African-American Folk Songs From West Tennessee
Will SlaydenSpoonfulAfrican-American Folk Songs From West Tennessee
Will SlaydenSo Glad Living Country Blues USA: Introduction
Rev. Gary Davis Mister Jim aka Walkin' Dog BluesThe Guitar and Banjo of Reverend Gary Davis
Frank Hovington You Rascal YouLonesome Road Blues
Bill WilliamsBanjo Rag Low and Lonesome
Howard Armstrong; Tom Armstrong; Ted Bogan; Ikey Robinson My Four ReasonsLouie Bluie
Dink RobertsGeorgia BuckBlack Banjo Songsters Of North Carolina And Virginia
Dink RobertsHigh SheriffBlack Banjo Songsters Of North Carolina And Virginia
Joe Thompson and Odell ThompsonJohn HenryBlack Banjo Songsters Of North Carolina And Virginia
Irvin Cook and Leonard BowlesMomma Don't AllowBlack Banjo Songsters Of North Carolina And Virginia
John JacksonGoin' up NorthBlack Banjo Songsters Of North Carolina And Virginia
Elizabeth CottonMedley: Here Old Rattler Here/Sent for My Fiddle Sent for My ...Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs
Etta BakerGoing Down The Road Feeling BadOne Dime Blues
Papa Charlie Jackson
Papa Charlie Jackson

For sometime it seems that guitar has eclipsed every other instrument to be the the one most commonly associated with the blues. It wasn't always the case and if one looks at the history of black music it's littered with pianos, harmonicas, violins, mandolins, jugs and other instruments. The banjo has a long history in African culture with early depictions dating back to the 1770's and in much of the nineteenth-century minstrel tradition the banjo was identified with black music. The earliest recordings of black banjo music date back to the 1890's. By the 1920's, at the time of the first blues recordings, the banjo was in decline largely replaced by the guitar. The two principal blues banjoists to record in the 1920's were Papa Charlie Jackson and Gus Cannon. Banjo from this era can also be heard in some jug bands and field recordings. The banjo declined even further in the post-war era with scattered recordings, mostly non-commercial, through the decades. If there was a revival of the banjo in the post-war era it was in folk music, propelled by Pete Seeger. There were a few black folk artists whose recordings blurred boundaries with the blues including artists featured today like Elizabeth Cotton, Etta Baker and others. On today's show we follow a somewhat chronological path of blues banjo on record from the 1920's through the 1970's.

Little is known of Papa Charlie Jackson's background. In the 1924 The Paramount Book of the Blues (which is the source of Jackson’s best known photograph) it claims that he came from New Orleans. Jackson began recording in 1924 for the Paramount label, playing a hybrid banjo-guitar (six strings tuned like a guitar but with a banjo body that gave it a lighter resonance) and ukulele. Jackson spent his teen years as a singer/performer in minstrel and medicine shows. He is known to have busked around Chicago in the early '20s, playing for tips on Maxwell Street, as well as the city's Westside clubs beginning in 1924. In August of that year, Jackson made his first record, "Papa's Lawdy Lawdy Blues" and "'Airy Man Blues," for Paramount. He followed this up a month later with "Salt Lake City Blues" and "Salty Dog Blues," which became one of his signature tunes. Most of his records during the next decade are self-accompanied blues (Paramount, 1924–1930; OKeh, 1934), but he also recorded with, or provided accompaniment for, Lottie Beaman, Blind Blake, Lucille Bogan, Bill Bronzy (1935, ARC unissued), Ida Cox, Amos Easton, Teddy Edwards, Hattie McDaniel, Ma Rainey, and Freddy Keppard’s Jazz Cardinals. Jackson supposedly died in Chicago in 1938.

Jackson’s most important impact probably lies in the fact that he paved the way for other male blues artists, not least his Paramount mates Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson, at a time when the business was dominated by female singers. As Stephen Calt wrote: "Jackson was an entertainer and one of the first blues recording artists to rely primarily on his own material, and the first blues singer to record happy-go lucky, up-tempo music that made him popular among the black record-buying public."

A remarkable musician, Gus Cannon bridged the gap between early blues and the minstrel and the pre-blues that preceded it. His band of the '20's and '30's, Cannon's Jug Stompers, along with contemporaries, The Memphis Jug Band, recorded the finest jug music of the era. He learned early repertoire in the 1890's from older musicians, notably Mississippian Alec Lee. The early 1900's found him playing around Memphis with songster Jim Jackson and forming a partnership with Noah Lewis, whose harmonica wizardry would be basic to the Jug Stompers' sound. In 1914, Cannon began work with a succession of medicine shows that would continue into the 1940's.

Cannon's recording career began with Paramount sessions in 1927 cut under the name Banjo Joe and also made sides with Blind Blake. In 1928 he began recording as Cannon's Jug Stompers, cutting over two-dozen sides with the group through 1930 for Victor. He returned in 1956 to make a few recordings for Folkways Records and made some college and coffee house appearances with Furry Lewis and Bukka White. In 1963 the Rooftop Singers had a hit with "Walk Right In" and in the wake of that recorded an album for Stax Records in 1963. He cut a few other scattered sides before his death in 1979.

Gus Cannon
Gus Cannon circa 1920

Another early musician to record with the banjo was Ikey Robinson. Robinson was an excellent banjoist and singer who recorded both jazz and blues from the late '20s into the late '30s. After working locally, Robinson moved to Chicago in 1926, playing and recording with Jelly Roll Morton, Clarence Williams, and Jabbo Smith during 1928-1929. He led his own recording sessions in 1929, 1931, 1933, and 1935. His groups included Ikey Robinson and his Band (w/ Jabbo Smith), The Hokum Trio, The Pods of Pepper, Windy City Five, and Sloke & Ike. Robinson also accompanied blues singers such as Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon, Georgia White, Eva Taylor and Bertha "Chippie" Hill among others. In addition to a pair of early songs we also spin him revisit a song he did with Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon, "My Four Reasons", this time with a group consisting of Howard Armstrong, Tom Armstrong and Ted Bogan.

Banjo was featured in blues bands and seems well suited for  jug bands and today we hear from Whistler & His Jug Band and Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug Band. Whistler & His Jug Band was a long-lasting and popular group that recorded for several labels from the mid-'20s through the early '30s, and influenced many of the jug bands that followed. They first entered the recording studios in September, 1924 when they traveled to Richmond, IN to cut several sides for the Gennett label. The second recording trip took them to St. Louis in April, 1927 recording ten sides for Okeh. They cut their final sides in 1931.

The origins of jug bands can be traced to Louisville, Kentucky around the turn of the century. It was Earl McDonald who took the reins from the Cy Anderson Jug Band. McDonald formed his own band and proved himself a shrew promoter, headlining dates in New York and Chicago. Also based in Louisville was Clifford Hayes who took up the violin at an early age and joined Earl McDonald’s Louisville Jug Band in 1914. Both men backed singer Sara Martin on ten sides in 1924 listed as Sara Martin and Her Jug Band. The two men had a falling out and thereafter led separate bands. Among the bands Hayes worked with were the Dixieland Jug Blowers and the Old Southern Jug Band.

A number of the banjo tracks heard today were made as field recordings including sides by Jimmie Strothers, Sidney Stripling, Will Slayden, Frank Hovington and several tracks from the album Black Banjo Songsters Of North Carolina And Virginia. Jimmie Strothers was a blind banjo and guitar player from Virginia who recorded 15 tracks for Alan Lomax and Harold Spivacke in 1936. Biographical details are sketchy, but Strothers was apparently a medicine show entertainer for a time before going to work in the mines, where an explosion took his eyesight, forcing him to earn a living as a street singer. Things changed even more drastically when he was convicted of murdering his wife with an axe and was sent to the state penitentiary in Lynn, VA, which was where Lomax and Spivacke, working on a field recording project for the Library of Congress, found him.

Sidney Stripling cut ten sides accompanied by his own banjo in 1941 at Fort Valley State College in Georgia. He was recorded by John Wesley Work III for the Library of Congress.

In 1952, Charles McNutt was a young anthropology student in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was also a student of the banjo, and he developed an interest in the instrument’s African (and African-American) roots. Influenced by the field recordings of John and Alan Lomax, McNutt set out to locate and record an African-American banjo player near his home of Memphis, Tennessee. His journey led him to Will Slayden, a sharecropper in his 60s who had given up the instrument when he became a Christian some two decades prior. McNutt rented a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, loaned Slayden an $8 banjo, and captured an afternoon of history using a hand-held microphone.

Black Banjo Songsters Of North Carolina And Virginia is a collection of artists recording songs on the banjo and captured  between 1974 and 1997. From this collection we hear fine tracks from Dink Roberts, Joe Thompson and Odell Thompson, Irvin Cook and Leonard Bowles and perhaps most famously John Jackson.

Black Banjo Songsters Of North Carolina And VirginiaWe conclude the show with two wonderful female guitarists, Elizabeth Cotton and Etta Baker who's music falls somewhere between folk and blues. Cotton was among the most influential guitarists to surface during the roots music revival. Cotten was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the early weeks of 1895. After first picking up the banjo at the age of eight, she soon moved on to her brother's guitar. By the early '40s, Cotten had relocated to Washington, D.C., where she eventually began working for the legendary Charles Seeger family and caring for children Pete, Peggy, and Mike.When the Seegers learned of Cotten's guitar skills a decade later, they recorded her for Folkways, and in 1957 she issued her debut LP, Folksongs and Instrumentals. The track "Freight Train," written when she was 12, became a Top Five hit in the U.K. She recorded several other album for Folkways.

Etta Baker was born Etta Lucille Reid in Caldwell County, North Carolina, of African American, Native American, and European American heritage. She played both the 6-string and 12-string forms of the acoustic guitar, as well as the five-string banjo. Baker played the Piedmont Blues for ninety years, starting at the age of three when she could not even hold the guitar properly. She was taught by her father, Boone Reid, who was also a longtime player of the Piedmont Blues on several instruments. Etta Baker was first recorded in the summer of 1956. She recorded several albums for Rounder and Music Maker.

Gus Cannon Poor Boy A Long Way From HomeMemphis Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927-34
Gus Cannon InterviewAmerican Skiffle Bands
Blind Blake & Gus CannonHe's In The Jailhouse NowThe Best of Blind Blake
Donald Hill Interview
Gus CannonI Met Mr. Toad Recordings Provided By Don Hill
Gus CannonShow Me The Way To Go HomeRecordings Provided By Don Hill
Gus CannonWalk Right In Recordings Provided By Don Hill
Cannon's Jug StompersMinglewood BluesRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 1
Cannon's Jug StompersViola Lee BluesWhen The Sun Goes Dow
Cannon's Jug StompersPig Ankle Strut Gus Cannon Vol. 1 1927-1928
Cannon's Jug StompersGoing To Germany Gus Cannon & Noah Lewis Vol. 2 1929-1930
Noah LewisSelling The JellyGus Cannon & Noah Lewis Vol. 2 1929-1930
Gus CannonCan You Blame The Colored ManMasters of the Memphis Blues
Gus CannonInterviewAmerican Skiffle Bands
Gus CannonMy Money Never Runs OutGood for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-37
Cannon's Jug StompersMadison Street BluesBlues Images Vol. 5
Cannon's Jug StompersBig Railroad Blues Ruckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 1
Cannon's Jug StompersHeart Breakin' BluesGus Cannon Vol. 1 1927-1928
Cannon's Jug StompersFeather BedBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Memphis Willie B. & Gus CannonSitting Here ThinkingBlues: Music from the Documentary Film
Gus Cannon Make Me A Pallet On Your FloorWalk Right In
Gus Cannon Come On Down To My HouseWalk Right In
Cannon's Jug StompersFourth And BealeGus Cannon & Noah Lewis Vol. 2 1929-1930
Cannon's Jug StompersLast Chance Blues Ruckus Juice & Chitlins Vol. 2
Cannon's Jug StompersWalk Right In When The Sun Goes Down
Gus Cannon Goin' Back (To Memphis, TN)On The Road Again
Gus Cannon Salty DogWalk Right In
Cannon's Jug StompersTired Chicken BluesGus Cannon & Noah Lewis Vol. 2 1929-1930
Cannon's Jug StompersPrison Wall BluesGus Cannon & Noah Lewis Vol. 2 1929-1930
Gus Cannon Walk Right InWalk Right In

Show Notes:

Gus Cannon
Gus Cannon circa 1920

A remarkable musician, Gus Cannon bridged the gap between early blues and the minstrel and the pre-blues that preceded it. His band of the '20's and '30's, Cannon's Jug Stompers, along with contemporaries, The Memphis Jug Band, recorded the finest jug music of the era. On today's program we spin many of the classic Jug Stompers songs, songs Gus cut under his own name, sides he cut with others, a fascinating interview Cannon did in he 50's plus we talk to Don Hill who recorded Cannon in 1961. Much of the information for today's show come from the notes to Cannon's Jug Stompers The Complete Works 1927-1930 (issued first on Herwin then Yazoo) written by  Bengt Olsson. Olsson was a fine writer, an expert on Memphis blues and these notes notes are perhaps the best piece written on Gus Cannon.  A link to the notes is provided below.

Songs Cannon recorded, notably the raggy "Walk Right In," were staples of the folk repertoire decades later, and Cannon himself continued to record and perform into the 1970's. He learned early repertoire in the 1890's from older musicians, notably Mississippian Alec Lee. The early 1900's found him playing around Memphis with songster Jim Jackson and forming a partnership with Noah Lewis, whose harmonica wizardry would be basic to the Jug Stompers' sound. In 1914, Cannon began work with a succession of medicine shows that would continue into the 1940's. His recording career began with Paramount sessions in 1927 cut under the name Banjo Joe and also made sides with Blind Blake. In 1928 he began recording as Cannon's Jug Stompers, cutting over two-dozen sides with the group through 1930 for Victor. He returned in 1956 to make a few recordings for Folkways Records and made some college and coffee house appearances with Furry Lewis and Bukka White. In 1963 the Rooftop Singers had a hit with "Walk Right In" and in the wake of that recorded an album for Stax Records in 1963. He cut a few other scattered sides before his death in 1979.

Cannon's Jug Stompers
Cannon's Jug Stompers circa 1928

Cannon's first instrument was home-made but he soon ran away from home where he played banjo around work camps. "Gus grew up with banjo & fiddle songs – 'John Henry & all that mess' – all around him, as most of his brothers (nine in all & most older than Gus) played an instrument or two & would frequently get together with other musicians in the area." Around the turn of the century Cannon was in Clarksdale where he came under the influence of Alec Lee, 15 year his senior, who played with a knife on songs like "Poor Boy" and "John Henry." "Alec Lee was the first guy I heard playing on a Hawaiian guitar ..used a knife." About two years later Cannon recalled playing down by the Sunflower river. "..I was playing for Saturday night balls – that's when us colored folks had ourselves a time. Man I played the hell out of that banjo for $2.50 a night…" Cannon wasn't playing professionally at this time, still working different day jobs.

Cannon started out with medicine shows like Dr Hangerson's , Dr Stokey's, Dr Willie Lewis' and Dr W.B. Milton. From Virginia to Arkansas, billed as Banjo Joe, he worked for some ten years, 1914 -1928. He was accompanied by Hosea Woods, a longtime friends who could play guitar, violin and cornet and also sang. "I had to have a shot of liqueur before the show. If I didn't it seemed like I couldn't be funny in front of all them people. When I had one it seemed like all them people was one and I would throw up the banjo in the air and really put on a show." In 1916 Cannon moved North of Memphis to Ripley to work on a farm. There he teamed up with local musicians harmonica player Noah Lewis and guitarist Ashley Thompson. The trio played around the area until 1920. They would be reunited when Cannon formed his jug band in Memphis in 1928.

Back in Memphis, Will Shade had started the Memphis Jug Band. They became very popular in Memphis, often playing in Church Park, where Gus saw them. The Madison Rag AdMemphis Jug Band first recorded for Victor in February 1927 and over the next four years recorded 57 sides. By 1930 there were seven different jug bands active in Memphis. In 1928 Ralph Peer from Victor, who had previously recorded the Memphis Jug Band, returned to Memphis looking for other jug bands to record. Charlie Williamson, the manager of the Palace Theater, recommended Gus. By this time Gus had had a harness made for his jug so that he could wear it around his neck and play banjo at the same time. Gus called up Noah Lewis and Ashley Thompson and on Jan 30 1928 they recorded 4 sides in an old auditorium as Cannon's Jug Stompers.

The first recordings did well and in Sept 1928 an additional 10 sides were cut; 4 on Sept. 5 with Avery replacing Thompson, 2 more on Sept. 9 and then 4 more on Sept. 20 with Hosea Woods added on kazoo. The band’s major musician was Noah Lewis who demonstrated remarkable breath control, inventiveness, and mastery of his instrument. Lewis was born in Henning, Tennessee, and raised in the vicinity of Ripley. He played in local string bands and brass bands, and began playing in the Ripley and Memphis areas with Cannon. He cut seven sides under his own name at sessions in 1929 and 1930. Recording as Noah Lewis' Jug Band, he was backed on two numbers by Sleepy John and Yank Rachell with just Estes backing him on two other numbers cut a couple of days apart. Lewis died in poverty of gangrene brought on by frostbite in Ripley, Tennessee, in 1961.  As Cannon recalled: "Lawd, he used to blow the hell outa that harp. He could play two harps at the same time …Y'know he could curl his lips 'round the harp & his nose was just like a fist. Noah, he was full of cocaine all the time – I reckon that's why he could play sou loud and aw, he was good!"

After Cannon's Jug Stompers final sessions in 1930 Cannon would no record again for over two-decades. In 1957 he recorded a few sides for Sam Charters for Folkways which includes an interview which is featured on today's show. The recordings were issued on the album American Skiffle Bands. While recording in the South in the early 1960's, producer, writer Charters was inspired not only by the sound of Furry Lewis’s guitar, but by the patterns of movement in his hands and fingers as he played. Thus Charters decided to make a film that would document aspects of the blues that couldn’t be put on a phonograph record. In the summer of 1962, Charters journeyed through St. Louis, Memphis, Louisiana, and South Carolina to shoot the film The Blues and record this soundtrack. Artists featured in addition to Lewis are J.D. Short, Baby Tate,  Sleepy John Estes and Gus Cannon who performs "Sitting Here Thinking" with Memphis Willie B.

Gus Cannon
Gus Cannon listens to his first record album on Stax
Photo: Bob Williams/The Commercial Appeal files

In 1961 Dave Mangurian and Donald Hall recorded Gus Cannon, Will Shade and Laura Dukes over two days in Memphis. The recordings have been issued as bootlegs on Will Shade & Gus Cannon 1961 (Document) and  Memphis Sessions (1956 – 1961) (Wolf). It turns out that Donald Hill is a Professor at SUNY Oneonta, just a few hours from my house. I got in touch and Donald graciously made some time to talk about recording Gus and his friends over fifty years ago. Mangurian and Hall headed to Memphis after a spending time in Clarksdale where they recorded Wade Walton and spent time in jail on "suspicion" another word for "white outsiders." In Memphis they looked up Memphis Minnie and Son Joe and and managed to record Will Shade, Laura Dukes, and Gus Cannon in Shade's apartment on Fourth Street, just off Beale. "We recorded over two days. The musicians drank a lot as did some of the visitors who heard the music and joined us. We recorded a variety of configurations, including Shade on vocal, washtub bass, harmonica, and guitar; Laura Dukes, vocal and banjo-uke, Gus Cannon on vocal and banjo; and several others that came by to sing a tune or two. …Shade, Cannon and Dukes were real professionals."

In 1963, Cannon's vocals and banjo-playing were accompanied by Will Shade on jug and Milton Roby on washboard for this Stax Record release titled Walk Right In. It appears that he recorded at the Stax studio simply because he lived in the neighborhood. Only 500 copies of this album were pressed. Cannon was also featured in The Devil’s Music—A History of the Blues on BBC TV in 1976. Cannon passed in 1979, obituaries, including that published in Living Blues magazine, gave his age as ninety-six, although some reference sources give birth years of 1883 and 1885.

Related Reading:

Cannon's Jug Stompers The Complete Works 1927-1930 [PDF] (Liner notes by Begnt Olsson)




Andrew and Jim Baxter K.C. Railroad BluesWhen The Sun Goes Down
Mississippi John Hurt FrankieAvalon Blues: The Complete 1928 OKeh Recordings
Blue Boys Easy WinnerBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Charlie Butler Diamond JoeA Treasury Of Library Of Congress Field Recordings
Geeshie Wiley Last Kind Words BluesMississippi Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927-35
Lottie Kimbrough Wayward Girl BluesBefore The Blues Vol. 1
Richard ''Rabbit'' Brown I'm Not JealousNever Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Papa Harvey Hull & Long ''Cleve'' Reed Don't You Leave Me HereThe Songster Tradition 1927-1935
Willie Walker Dupree BluesMy Rough And Rowdy Ways Vol. 1
Joe Evans & Arthur McClain Two White Horses In A LineBefore The Blues Vol. 1
Mississippi Mud Steppers Jackson StompVintage Mandolin Music
Mississippi Sarah & Daddy Stovepipe Greenville StrutRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 2: The Great Jug Bands
Henry Thomas Fox And The HoundsTexas Worried Blues 1927-1929
Henry Thomas Red River BluesTexas Worried Blues 1927-1929
Lil McClintock Furniture ManBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Gus Cannon Can You Blame The Colored ManMasters of Memphis Blues
Luke Jordan Traveling CoonThe Songster Tradition 1927-1935
Jim Jackson I'm Gonna Start Me A Graveyard Of My Own Jim Jackson Vol. 1 1927-1928
Jim Jackson I'm A Bad Bad Man Jim Jackson Vol. 1 1927-1928
Jaybird Coleman I'm Gonna Cross the River of Jordan - Some O' These DaysAmerican Primitive Vol. I: Raw Pre-War Gospel
Papa Charlie JacksonLong Gone Lost JohnBroadcasting The Blues
LeadbellyBlack Girl (In The Pines)Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Lead Belly Legacy, Vol. 1
Crying Sam Collins My Road Is Rough And RockyCrying Sam Collins 1927-1931
Jaybird ColemanI'm Gonna Cross the River of Jordan - Some O' These DaysAmerican Primitive Vol. 1
Cannon''s Jug Stompers Bring It When You ComeRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 2: The Great Jug Bands
Coley Jones Traveling ManThe Great Race Record Labels Vol. 2 - Columbia
William Moore Tillie LeeRagtime Guitar Blues 1927-1930
Cow Cow Davenport Alabama Strut Mama Don't Allow No Easy Riders Here
Pink Anderson & Simmie Dooley Papa's 'Bout To Get MadGood for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Show
Alabama Sheiks Travelin' Railroad Man BluesViolin, Sing The Blues For Me
Charlie Patton Gonna Move To AlabamaBlues Images Vol. 4
Tennessee Chocolate Drops Vine Street DragBefore The Blues Vol. 2
Birmingham Jug Band Bill WilsonRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 1: The Great Jug Bands
Dallas String Band Dallas RagBefore The Blues Vol. 2

Show Notes:

Today's program is a long delayed sequel to a show I did almost exactly two years ago. I finally got motivated to do a follow-up after several interesting conversations with Stephen Wade who I interviewed on the show a couple of weeks back. In his book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us, he discusses some of the music floating around before the blues emerged as the dominant black popular music and also illustrates the huge amount of cross pollination there was between white and black music. Wade suggested that to really illustrate this cross pollination I should include some white artists. While I agree with this, the focus on this show has always  focused on African-American music, namely the music that falls in the standard blues discographies. Still you can hear the commingling of white and black music in selections today by Joe Evans and Arthur McClain (The Two Poor Boys), Mississippi Mud Steppers and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops among others.

Henry Thomas: The Fox And The HoundsAs Richard Nevins writes: "Before the Civil War there did not exist in America two distinct bodies of music, one white and one black. Both groups shared a common tradition and repertoire. …Throughout most of the 1800's black and white fiddlers were playing the same tunes the same way, white and black banjo players were playing the same tunes the  same  way …black and white guitar players were doing the same tunes in the same exact tunings …and most importantly of all, white and black fundamentalist church congregations were singing the same hymns in the same limited modal scales, the exact same scales that defined the secular ballads of that  time …and later (1910-20) became the melodic base of what was to become the blues."

"Before The Blues" is something of catch-all phrase that can mean a number of things; the fact is that prior to the blues there was quite a bit of black music on record, stretching all the way back to the 1890's, recorded both in the United States and Europe. Recent years have seen a huge amount of research into this period with several important books ( Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs", and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919 and Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America 1850-1920 to name a few) and and reissues of early black music issued. What I'm talking about, however, is some of the older black music styles that were captured on record in the 1920's, often labeled blues even though it was clearly something different.

In the 1920's and 30's when black music first came on record blues scholar Paul Oliver noted that "for a dozen years a remarkable documentation of black vocal traditions was purchasable on commercial releases. …The diversity of singers, entertainers, jazz bands, preachers and other black artists represented on these records was remarkable.” Prior to the blues, reaching back to the nineteenth century there was a variety of black music before it got on record; there was ragtime, black vaudeville, minstrels, coon songs, work songs, dance tunes, medicine show entertainers, sheet music that found its way into black music and emphasis on banjo and fiddle music among other types. Songs were spread by traveling songsters, black road troupes, minstrel shows, tent shows and medicine shows. Although this music was not captured on record when it was in vogue many of these forms found their way onto records when blues was being recorded. Older musicians, born in the 1860's through the 1880's, learned early forms of black music that they brought to their records when they had the opportunity to record in the 20's and 30's. Some of it was shaped to fit the blues, the popular music of the day, while other songs remain more or less intact as performed by blacks decades prior. This was the  music of men like Henry Thomas, Jim Jackson, Frank Stokes, Daddy Stovepipe, Papa Charlie Jackson, the music of the jug and string bands and the music of the songsters and ballad singers. The records these men, and to a lesser extent women, recorded gives us a fascinating glimpse of the era before the rise of the blues. These older styles didn't disappear but remained parallel to the blues. An example of this is that as late as the mid-1910s the term "up-to-date coon shouter" was routinely applied to the likes of Clara Smith, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith; but around 1916 they were redefined as "blues singers." As Richard Nevins points out: "By the early 1920's back country black musicians who were songsters conversant with a wide spectrum of American genres began  recasting the modal song part of their repertoire into Mississippi Sarah & Daddy Stovepipe: Greenville Strutblues. This transition required very little alteration and all at once they were blues musicians. Of course with the huge popularity of blues everywhere, they also commenced calling all the rest of their repertoire blues, even rags, breakdowns, and tin pan alley selections. The record companies were even worse, sticking the word blues at the end of almost all black secular music…" Below is some background on some today's artists and songs.

Henry Thomas, billed as "Ragtime Texas", was born in Big Sandy, Texas in 1874, and began his musical career as an itinerant songster, and recorded twenty-three songs from 1927 to 1929. He accompanied himself with the guitar and the quills, a folk instrument made from cane reeds. “Flailing his guitar”, Tony Russell writes, “in now forgotten country dance rhythms, whistling delicate melodies on his panpipes, gruffly chanting rag songs and blues, Thomas is a figure of almost legend.” The portrait Thomas presents on his twenty-three recordings cut for Vocalion between 1927 to 1929 provides, Russell notes, “a wholly absorbing picture of black-country music before it was submerged beneath the tidal wave of the blues.” Mack McCormick wrote one of the best pieces on Henry Thomas (Henry Thomas: Ragtime Texas – Complete Works 1927 to 1929, Herwin, 1975). Here's an excerpt: "He left behind a total of 23 issued selections which represent one of the richest contributions to our musical culture. It's goodtime music reaching out from another era: reels, anthems, stomps, gospel songs, dance calls, ballads, blues and fragments compressed in a blurring glimpse of black music as it existed in the last century. It's the songs that came out of the shifting days when freedmen and their children were remaking their lives in a hostile nation."

Born in the 1880’s, Jim Jackson was an experienced medicine show performer and occasional street singer. The Mississippi born Jackson had one of the biggest blues hits of the 20’s with his “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues.”  His recordings represent one of the richest veins of pre-blues music to be issued on record. Among these are songs like “I’m A  Bad Bad Man” which draws on a composition from 1894 and “I’m Gonna Start Me A Graveyard Of My Own” which dates to 1901. Barrelhouse pianist Speckled Red shared the stage with Jim Jackson in 1928 while touring through Mississippi and Alabama with the Red Rose Minstrels & Medicine Show. Red remembered Jackson as "a big fat feller, weighed about 235 pounds. Tall, stately feller too, and he danced, sang, played git-tar, cracked jokes." Jackson's long career with traveling shows began in 1905, and much of his repertoire was rooted in the 19th century. Among these are songs like “I’m A Bad Bad Man” which draws on a composition from 1894, “I’m Gonna Start Me A Graveyard Of My Own” which dates to 1901 and “Bye, Bye, Policeman”, played on the first show, which references a song from 1895.

Gus Cannon launched his medicine show career in 1914 when he joined Doc Stokey of Clarksdale, Mississippi. A tour with Doc Benson's show took Cannon to Chicago in 1927, Coley Jones: Travelling Manwhere he auditioned for Paramount Records and recorded a session with ace guitar picker Blind Blake. Cannon was in his mid-40's and his repertoire dates from the turn of the century on tunes like ”My Money Never Runs Out”, "Can You Blame The Colored Man" and one of the earliest blues, "Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home."

Chris Smith wrote: "[Joe] Evans & [Arthur] McClain are reported to have come from Fairmount, in eastern Tennessee, a region where blacks were outnumbered 12 to one by whites, and this goes some way to explaining the evident hillbilly influences on their music. Otherwise, all we know about 'The Two Poor Boys' is in the grooves oft heir 78s.” They cut 20 sides at sessions in 1927 and 1931.

Born circa 1880, Richard "Rabbit"  Brown spent much of his life in New Orleans where he was reported to have worked as a street singer and singing boatman on Lake Ponchartrain.  On March 11, 1927, Brown cut six sides for the recording pioneer Ralph Peer. Brown was a very much the songster and his recordings are an interesting mix of original blues, pop covers and "event" songs like his "Sinking Of The Titanic."

Born in Teoc, Mississippi in 1893, John Hurt moved to the town if Avalon at the age of two which remained his home for the rest of his life. Hurt cut two sessions in 1928 for the Okeh label and would not record again until 1963. Hurt’s repertoire includes blues from when he was growing up as well as ballads like “Stack O’ Lee” and  “Spike Driver Blues”, which references John Henry, and “Louis Collins” and “Frankie.”

Johnny Watson, alias Daddy Stovepipe was born in Mobile, Alabama, on April 12th 1867 and died in Chicago, November 1st 1963. A veteran of the turn of the century medicine shows, he was in his late fifties when he became one of the first blues harp players to appear on record in 1924. He later recorded with his wife, Mississippi Sarah, in the 1930s and spent his last years as a regular performer on Chicago's famous Maxwell Street, where he made his last recordings.

Crying Sam Collins was born in 1887, his stomping ground the Mississippi-Louisiana border region with a style similar to King Solomon Hill and Ramblin Thomas who were from the same region. Collins’ music draws from the era of minstrel and medicine show tradition reflected in songs like ‘Yellow Dog Blues”, “Salty Dog”, “Hesitation Blue’ and the first recorded version of “The Midnight Special.” His masterpieces, “Lonesome Road Blues” was a version of “In The Pines” which dates back to the 1870’s, and “My Road Is Rough And Rocky” which is a version of ”Long Gone.”

Pink Anderson & Simmie Dooley: Papa's 'Bout To Get MadBorn in 1891, Charlie Patton was older than the other Delta musicians who recorded during the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s, and he seems to have developed many of the themes that are now considered basic to the Delta blues repertoire. Remembered by history as a blues musician, Patton had grown up in the pre-blues era, and he played the full range of music required of a popular rural entertainer. Even though his recording career was sparked by the blues craze, only about half of his roughly fifty records can reasonably be considered part of that then-modern genre. The others are a mix of gospel and pre-blues music like “Runnin’ Wild Blues”, "Elder Greene", "Gonna Move To Alabama"  and “Prayer Of Death.”

Howard Armstrong was part of a whole generation of African-American string-band artists who played Americana in the 1920’s and 30’s for black and white audiences alike, everything from Tin Pan Alley tunes to gospel and blues. A field-recording team from Vocalion was in Knoxville twice between August 1929 and April 1930; setting up a temporary recording studio at radio station KNOX in downtown Knoxville’s St. James Hotel, where they recorded something approaching 100 tracks by several dozen musicians and musical groups from the region. It was during this session that a Vocalion record producer, looking for a memorable name that would spur sales, christened the Martin, Armstrong and Armstrong group, the “Tennessee Chocolate Drops.” They recorded one 78, “Knox County Stomp b/w Vine Street Drag.”


Stovepipe #1 & David Crockett A Chicken Can Waltz the Gravy AroundGood For What Ails You
Beale Street Sheiks Chicken You Can Roost Behind The MoonBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Jim JacksonBye Bye PolicemanGood For What Ails You
Jim JacksonI Heard The Voice of a PorkchopGood For What Ails You
Chief ThundercloudSpoken Word The Last Medicine Show
Peg Leg SamWho's That Left Here Awhile AgoThe Last Medicine Show
Pink Anderson & Simmie DoleyPapa's 'bout to Get MadGood For What Ails You
Pink Anderson & Simmie DoleyGonna Tip Out, TonightGood For What Ails You
Beans Hambone & El Morrow BeansGood For What Ails You
Alec Johnson Mysterious CoonGood For What Ails You
Ben CovingtonAdam & Eve in the GardenGood For What Ails You
Chief ThundercloudSpoken Word The Last Medicine Show
Peg Leg Sam JacksonGreasy GreensThe Last Medicine Show
Gus CannonMy Money Never Runs Out Good For What Ails You
Cannon's Jug Stompers Bring It with You When You ComeRuckus Juice & Chitlins Vol. 2
Memphis SheiksHe's in the Jailhouse, NowThe Best Of
Frank Stokes I Got MineThe Best Of
"Big Boy" George Owens The Coon Crap GameSinners & Saints 1926-1931
Lil McClintockFurniture ManBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Henry ThomasRailroadin' SomeTexas Worried Blues
Hezekiah Jenkins Shout, You CatsGood For What Ails You
Peg Leg Sam JacksonBorn For Hard LuckThe Last Medicine Show
Peg Leg Sam JacksonHand Me DownThe Last Medicine Show
Papa Charlie JacksonScoodle Um SkooGood For What Ails You
Blind Willie McTellAtlanta StrutGood For What Ails You
Daddy Stovepipe & Mississippi Sarah The SpasmGood For What Ails You
Pink AndersonTravelin' ManMedicine Show Man
Peg Leg Sam JacksonJohn HenryThe Last Medicine Show

Show Notes:

Pink Anderson & Arthur "Peg Leg Sam" Jackson

Medicine shows flourished in the years following the Civil War when America’s patent medicine industry was booming and governmental regulations were few. They were called “med shows” or “doctor shows” and music was always a crucial part of the act. Onstage musicians served up comic songs, parodies, popular favorites, novelties, folk songs, dance tunes and instrumental specialties. In the early decades of the 20th century new musical forms such as jazz and blues were added to the mix. The musical acts were designed to draw a crowd before the “doctor” would step up and offer a remedy to cure the ailments of the crowd. The medicine show acts incorporated much from the minstrel shows, which by the 1840’s, were hugely popular. By the dawn of the 20th century the medicine shows were less extravagant, often including a lecturer-manager, a song-and-dance man, a blackface comedian, a string band and perhaps a comedian or ventriloquist, traveling by truck from one obscure town to the next during the spring and summer months, playing in rented lots or an open field. Many noted bluesmen spent time on these shows including artists like Frank Stokes, Jim Jackson, Gus Cannon, Howard Armstrong and Pink Anderson. Some of the medicine show veterans made records in the 20’s and 30’s and some of their recorded output gives us a glimpse of the type of music played on these shows. Today’s show features many of these artists and the songs they performed on the medicine show circuit. The bulk of these songs and much of the notes come from the fantastic 2-CD Old Hat release, Good For What Ails You, which comes with a 72-page color booklet detailing the history of the medicine shows with a profusion of rare photographs and previously unseen photos and illustrations.

In addition we spin music and spoken word from the last traveling medicine show featuring musician Arthur "Peg Leg Sam" Jackson and Chief Thundercloud. This was one of the last true medicine shows presided over by Chief Thundercloud (Leo Kahdot) who was still hawking “Prairie King Liniment” from the tailgate of his station wagon at fairs and carnivals in the Southeast in the early 70’s. In his heyday he traveled will a full cast of comediennes, dancers, singers and musicians, numbering as many as sixteen. In later years his lone partner was Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson, a medicine show veteran who learned the ropes back in the 30’s from Pink Anderson. The duo was recorded and filmed by Pete Lowry in Pittsboro, North Carolina in 1972. A subsequent, now very rare,  2-LP set of music and spoken word was issued on the Flyright label titled The Last Medicine Show.

Doctor Franklin Street's Washaw Indian Medicine Show, Hot Springs, AK, 1919.
Onstage, in blackface, are Jim Jackson (left) and Gus Cannon (right).

From the notes to Good For What Ails You, Marshall  Wyatt writes: "A performance usually commenced at sundown, on a wooden platform framed with striped canvas and lit with kerosene torches, or possibly a string of electric lights powered by a portable generator„ As the crowd, or "tip" gathered, the banjoist might render a medley of familiar tunes, tapping time with his feet and blowing a rack-held mouth harp. Next came a rapid-fire exchange of jokes and patter between Jake and a straight man, then more music and dancing, followed by the Professor's first pitch of the evening, often for an inexpensive product like soap or candy to soften customers for things to come. The entertainment continued with specialty acts, such as mind-reading or magic, alternating with comic songs, contests, and slapstick. The doc would probably deliver three lectures at crucial intervals during the course of a two-hour show, each promoting a different remedy. Florid oratory was entertainment in itself, and many a skillful pitchman followed the advice of Fred Foster Bloodgood: "Never use one word, when four will suffice." Showmen knew that a buying fervor was best cultivated in an atmosphere of sustained excitement. Typically, as the pitchman completed his harangue, entertainers dashed into the crowd, brandishing bottles of the doctor's elixir, while a contingent of musicians remained on the platform to strike up a raucous tune. If the doctor's pitch had "turned the tip" then such calculated chaos would cement the deal. Performers, rapidly exchanged their bottles for dollar bills, and created a sense urgency with cries of  "S·o-o-ld Out, Doc!" as they rushed back to the stage to replenish their supply. The evening's performance closed with an afterpiece, often a stock comedy routine or perhaps a promised special attraction, such as snake handling or sharp shooting, saved for last in order to discourage early departures. On the final day in town, a "blow off" was not uncommon, that is, high-pressure selling used to liquidate remaining stock before moving on."

Peg Leg Sam was a member of the last authentic traveling medicine show, a harmonica virtuoso, and an extraordinary entertainer. All of today's tracks by him have been extracted from The Last Medicine Show album. Born Arthur Jackson, he acquired his nickname after a hoboing accident in 1930. His medicine show career began in 1938 and ended in the early 70's "Peg" delivered comedy routines, bawdy toasts, and monologs; performed tricks with his harps (often playing two at once); and served up plenty of blues. He cut some albums in the 70's and was the subject of the film, Born for Hard Luck which was produced by Tom Davenport in 1976. Jackson died in in 1977.

Peg Leg Sam Jackson: Born For Hard Luck

Sam's mentor, Pink Anderson, spent many years on the road with medicine shows and learned guitar from his early partner Simmie Dooley, and older musician who was born in 1881. They recorded four titles together in 1928, one of which gives today's show its title. Anderson was born in South Carolina and toured throughout the Southeast mainly with William R. Kerr’s Indian Remedy, remaining with the show for some thirty years. He was employed not only as a musician and a singer but as a dancer and comedian. Anderson was extensively recorded by Sam Charters in 1961 resulting in three albums of material.

A whole constellation of Memphis artists performed on the medicine show circuit including Jim Jackson, Gus Cannon, Will Shade and Frank Stokes. Jim Jackson, who was taught guitar by his father, and was singing, dancing, and strumming the strings to attract crowds for peddlers of patent medicine as early as 1905. By 1915, Jackson was spending more and more time on the road with minstrel shows. Tall and weighing in at 235 lbs, he commanded attention with his booming voice, a knack for telling jokes, and his friendly, and a way of putting a song across. He toured with the Red Rose, Silas Green, and Rabbit's Foot Minstrel companies, sometimes in the company of Gus Cannon, guitarists Furry Lewis, and Will Shade, and pianist Speckled Red. Jackson traveled to Chicago in October 1927 to make his first phonograph record. "Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues" which was a huge seller. Jackson made further records in 1928, 1929 and his final ones in 1930 before passing in 1937.

Read Booklet (PDF)

"My Money Never Runs Out” has roots from the turn of the century and was composed by Irving Jones and published in 1900. Jones published songs as early as 1892, several of which found their way onto race records in the 1920’s. Today we hear the song as performed by Gus Cannon who recorded the song thirty years later with his band Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Cannon launched his medicine show career in 1914 when he joined Doc Stokey of Clarksdale, Mississippi. He later joked that Stokey's tonic sold "one bottle for a quarter, or three for a dollar!" A tour with Doc Benson's show took Cannon to Chicago in 1927, where he auditioned for Paramount Records and recorded a session with ace guitar picker Blind Blake.

The origins of the song "He's In The Jailhouse Now" aren’t clear but it was performed as early as 1919 by Marshall & Davis, a black vaudeville team and became a favorite of black traveling shows and jug band in the 1920’s. The song was recorded by Jim Jackson, Gus Cannon, Whistler’s Jug Band, Blind Blake among others. Will Shade, leader of the Memphis Jug Band cut his teeth in medicine shows as did members of his band and today we spin their version of the song.

Frank Stokes and partner Dan Sane recorded as The Beale Street Sheiks, a Memphis answer to the musical Chatmon family string band, the Mississippi Shieks. By most accounts Stokes was already playing the streets of Memphis by the turn of the century, about the same time the blues began to flourish. As a street artist, he needed a broad repertoire of songs and patter palatable to blacks and whites. A medicine show and house party favorite, Stokes was remembered as a consummate entertainer who drew on songs from the 19th and 20th centuries with equal facility. Solo or with Sane and sometimes fiddler Will Batts, Stokes recorded 38 sides for Paramount and Victor. Of today's featured songs, “I Got Mine” was published by a white composer in 1901 and taken up by black songsters. Big Boy Owens’ "The Coon Crap Game" is a variation of the same song.