It seems these mix show end up as tributes to an increasing number of blues artists who've passed recently. This time out we pay our respects to Magic Slim and Precious Bryant. Along the way we spin a pair of bluesy numbers by Louis Armstrong, play a few sets of pre-war blues, spotlight some interesting field recordings as well as some jump blues from the post-war era.
I was lucky enough to catch Magic Slim on several occasions and he always delivered the goods, which is to say a good dose of gutbucket blues. After battling health problems Slim passed at the age of 75 on Feb. 21st. His mentor was Magic Sam, whom he knew as a child in Mississippi and who offered early encouragement. “Magic Sam told me don’t try to play like him, don’t try to play like nobody,” he once recalled. “Get a sound of your own.” It was also Magic Sam who gave a teenager named Morris Holt the stage name Magic Slim when the two performed together in Chicago in the 1950's. He recorded his first single, “Scufflin’,” in 1966 and formed the Teardrops with his younger brothers a year later. Magic Slim and the Teardrops eventually became the house band at a local nightclub, Florence’s. They went on to tour and record regularly, headlining blues festivals all over the world, and to win numerous awards, including the 2003 Blues Music Award as band of the year. Magic Slim recorded prolifically, cutting his first album for the French MCM label in 1977 with follow-ups on labels like Blind Pig, Alligator and Wolf. Among my personal favorites of Slim voluminous discography would be Grand Slam (Rooster), Raw Magic (Alligator) and the series on Wolf titled Live At The Zoo Bar (five vols. I think?) which really capture Slim and the Teardrops in prime form.
Unfortunately I never got to see Precious Bryant who passed away on January 12th. She was born in Talbot County, GA and went on to play numerous festivals including the Chattahoochee Folk Festival, the National Down Home Blues Festival in Atlanta (recordings by her appear on the companion albums), the King Biscuit Blues, Newport Folk Festival, Utrecht Blues Festival in Utrecht, Holland and others. She never went on tour and didn't release an album until Fool Me Good in 2002 although a few scattered sides were recorded in the field by George Mitchell. It was Mitchell, who discovered her in 1969 while documenting the lower Chattahoochee scene. She cut a follow-up album, The Truth, in 2005 and the same year cut an album on the Music Maker label.
When not listening to blues I do listen to quite a bit of jazz, particularly the older stuff, and have listened to Louis Armstrong's hot Fives and Hot Sevens countless times. I suspect, like many, I haven't really listened to many of his recordings after this period. Some time back I picked up the 4-CD box set C'est Si Bon: Satchmo in the Forties on the Proper label which is where today's tracks come from. Satchmo set the bar so high on those early recordings they're pretty much unsurpassable but this set very worthwhile. Lots of good stuf from big band sides, duets with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and great live recordings from the Town Hall and Symphony Hall with the All Stars. One of the songs, "Back o' Town Blues", was first recorded as an instrumental by the Original Memphis Five in 1923 on the Edison label.
From the pre-war era we spin some fine blues ladies including Monette Moore and Jenny Pope plus obscure male artists such as Frank Tannehill and 'Talking' Billy Anderson. Moore began her career accompanying silent films in Kansas City and then toured the vaudeville circuit as a pianist and singer. In the early 1920's she made her way to New York and became active in musical theater. Her recording career began in 1923. In 1927 and 1928 she was singing with Walter Page's Blue Devils in the mid-West. She returned to New York in 1929 and was very active in musical theater and cabaret work until the late 1930's. In the early 1940s, she moved to Los Angeles and performed in clubs, recorded with Teddy Bunn and the Harmony Girls and had small parts in a couple of films. From 1951 to 1953 she appeared on the Amos 'n Andy television program and recorded with George Lewis. Moore passed in 1962. From 1925 we spin her "Black Sheep Blues" (Virginia Liston cut the same song a few months later) which is not the same song as Pigmeat Terry cut in 1935 but offers a similar sentiment:
When you're thinking of black sheep Just take a look at me I'm the blackest of black sheep That ever left old Tennessee
Lord from the straight and narrow path I've strayed From the straight and narrow path I've strayed With regrets and sorrows I have paid
Just a black sheep roamin' round the town (2x) Like a tramp I'm always out and down
While Moore cut some fifty sides during her prime Jenny Pope was much less documented. Pope was married to Will Shade leader of the famous Memphis Jug Band. Pope cut six sides at three sessions in 1929 and 1930. She may have recorded with the Memphis Jug Band under the name Jennie Clayton. Pope delivers a great performance on "Bull Frog Blues", not to be confused with the William Harris song of the same name, with great piano playing from Judson Brown.
Little is known about Frank Tannehill and Billy Anderson. A pianist from Dallas, Texas Frank Tannehill backed Pere Dickson on his two 1932 recordings made in his hometown. Tannehill began his own recording career with two songs recorded in Chicago in 1937. 1938 found him in a San Antonio studio waxing four more songs. His third and final session was in 1941 in Dallas for a four song session. He was never heard from again. Nothing is known about Billy Anderson, other than the fact that two records were recorded under his name in 1927 and that he may have been from Georgia.
Moving up the 1940's we spin some fine jump blues from ladies like Fluffy Hunter and Madonna Martin as well as Big Joe Turner and Al Wichard among others. Krazy Kat was a great British label that put out some really interesting anthologies. From the aptly title Tough Mamas we spin rocking tracks from Fluffy Hunter and Madonna Martin. Big Joe Turner's jumping "Wine-O-Baby Boogie" features the mighty Pete Johnson on piano and comes from the album Tell Me Pretty Baby a fine collection of late 40's sides issued on Arhoolie. Al Wichard's "Geneva Blues" features Jimmy Witherspoon on vocals. Wichard was born in Welbourne, Arkansas, on August 15th, 1919 but the steps by which he arrived in Los Angeles as a drummer in 1944 remain shadowy. He managed to record with Jimmy Witherspoon and Jay McShann within weeks of his arrival, and in April 1945 was the drummer on Modern’s first session, accompanying Hadda Brooks. Wichard's is collected on the reissue on Ace, Cake Walkin’: The Modern Recordings 1947-1948.
Last week I did a whole show devoted to great out-of-print records and today we feature a couple from the Albatros label: Mississippi Delta & South Tennessee Blues and Way Back Yonder Vol. 1. Albatros is an interesting label that has not been all that well served on CD. The label was active from the early 70's through the early 80's issuing reissues of pre-war recordings, folk material and most interestingly, to me anyway, is several volumes of field recordings by label owner Gianni Marcucci. Marcucci came to the States in the 70's and captured some fine field recordings between 1976 and 1978 in Tennessee and Mississippi. Several of these collections have long been out-of-print including all three volumes of the Way Back Yonder series, the collections Mississippi Delta & South Tennessee and I Got The Blues This Morning and single artists albums by Eugene Powell (Police In Mississippi), Carey Tate (Blues From The Heart) and Jack Owens (Bentonia Country Blues). A while back Marcucci formed the Mbirafon imprint which so far has issued collections of field recordings of Sam Chatmon and Van Hunt. I've heard through the grapevine there was a Eugene Powell 2-CD planned. The label hasn't issued anything in awhile and I wouldn't be surprised if Marcucci got discouraged due to general lack of interest in these kinds of project. I, for one, hope he forges ahead. I should also mention that are three Albatros collections available on CD: Tennessee Blues Vol. 1, 2, and 3 which have very good performances from Laura Dukes, Dewey Corley, Bukka White and others.
Around 1960 a considerable interest for all folk sources for American music evolved among students in the Northeast, and soon spread to the whole country. The blues revival doesn’t refer to the rebirth of the music, the blues never went away, and certainly the electric brand of blues was still popular in urban centers like Chicago, but a new found interest in the music among young white listeners. In a addition there was a small band of enthusiasts who began to collect what information they could on the blues artists of the past. Writers like Samuel Charters and Paul Oliver wrote serious studies of the blues while other like Chris Strachwitz and John Fahey formed labels and tracked down these older blues artists. In addition several down-home artists who had not previously recorded were brought to light, most importantly Mance Lipscomb, Fred McDowell, Robert Pete Williams and Jesse Fuller. Unlike those who recorded back in the 1920's and 30's for the commercial record companies and black consumers, those who recorded in the 1960's and 70's were being recorded primarily for a new found white audience, with the records issued usually on tiny specialist labels. Men like George Mitchell, Davis Evans and Sam Charters undertook a different mission. They made field recordings during this era were a sort of a parallel undercurrent to the more famous artists. What they recorded in the rural communities of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960’s was a still thriving, if largely undocumented, blues culture.
Fred McDowell was born in 1904 in Rossville, TN, and was playing the guitar by the age of 14 with a slide hollowed out of a steer bone. His parents died when Fred was a youngster and the wandering life of a traveling musician soon took hold. The 1920s saw him playing for tips on the street around Memphis, TN, the hoboing life eventually setting him down in Como, MS, where he lived the rest of his life. There McDowell split his time between farming and keeping up with his music by playing weekends for various fish fries, picnics, and house parties in the immediate area. This pattern stayed largely unchanged for the next 30 years until he was discovered in 1959 by folklorist Alan Lomax. Lomax set the scene in his The Land Where The Blues Again: "Fred was a quiet, sulky-voiced stoop-shouldered fellow, eager to record. That very evening he invited in a couple of neighbors to help out-one man to play second guitar, and his aunt, Fannie Davis, to provided the wind section by blowing on a fine-toothed comb wrapped in toilet paper. We recorded outdoors after dark, by flashlight. No wind was blowing, and the katydids were out of season, so we could take advantage of the living quiet of open air and the natural resonance of the earth and the trees. The mixer and the stereo had room for this multidimensional sound, with one mike for Fred's voice, one for his picking and its backup, and one for his aunt's humming and wheezing through the comb. The sound we captured made us all deliriously happy. …When we played his recording back to him, he stomped up and down on the porch, whooping and laughing and hugging his wife. He knew he had been heard and felt his fortune had been made."
The results of those first recordings were released as part of an American folk music series on the Atlantic label. McDowell, for his part, was happy to have some sounds on records, but continued on with his farming and playing for tips outside of Stuckey's candy store in Como for spare change. It wasn't until Chris Strachwitz, folk-blues enthusiast and owner of the fledgling Arhoolie label, came searching for McDowell to record him that the bluesman's fortunes began to change dramatically. Two albums, Fred McDowell Vol. 1 & Vol. 2, were released on Arhoolie in the mid-'60s which caused a huge stir among the blues revival scene. The success of the Arhoolie recordings suddenly found McDowell very much in demand on the folk and festival circuit, Working everything from the Newport Folk Festival to coffeehouse dates to becoming a member of the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe. McDowell was well documented on film, and by the end of the decade, he was signed to do a one-off album for Capitol Records (I Do Not Play No Rock 'N' Roll) and his tunes were being mainstreamed into blues-rock by artists like Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones. Unfortunately McDowell was diagnosed with cancer while performing dates into 1971. His playing days suddenly behind him, he lingered for a few months into July 1972, finally succumbing to the disease at age 68.
Robert Pete Williams did some playing at house parties in the 30’s. In 1956, Williams shot and killed a man in a local club. Williams claimed the act was in self-defense, but he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Angola prison, where he served for two years before being discovered by Oster and Richard Allen. The pair recorded Williams performing several of his own songs, which were all about life in prison.Williams' first recording appeared on the anthology Angola Prisoners' Blues in 1959 and was issued by the Louisiana Folklore Society. Impressed with the guitarist’s talents, Oster and Allen pleaded for a pardon for Williams. The pardon was granted in 1959, after he had served a total of three and a half years. For the first five years after he left prison, Williams could only perform in Louisiana, but his recordings — which appeared on Folk-Lyric, Arhoolie, and Prestige, among other labels — were popular and he received positive word of mouth reviews. In 1964, Williams played his first concert outside of Louisiana — it was a set at the legendary Newport Folk Festival. Williams’ performance was enthusiastically received and he began touring the United States, often playing shows with Mississippi Fred McDowell. During the 60’s and 70’s he performed at several festival including the 1966 American Folk Blues Festival. He passed in 1980.
The almost free-form blues of Robert Pete Williams is quite different from the blues of his contemporaries as Tony Russell notes: "The typical Williams piece is a reflective blues underpinned by hypnotically repetitive guitar figures, generally in a modal structure. Sometimes his source of inspiration fills him with a tense, nervous excitability, which which he acts out in frantic boogie playing. At other tomes he deserts the conventions of blues or boogie woogie and spins long free-form narratives or soliloquies." Peter Gurlanick wrote about seeing him for the first time in his book Feel Like Going Home: "…It was difficult to approve the banalities of most blues singers after listening to Robert Pete Williams. More than anyone else, he shatters the conventions of the form and refuses to rely on any of the cliches, wither of music or of lyric, which bluesmen after bluesmen will invoke.
Born and raised in Georgia, Jesse Fuller began playing guitar when he was a child, although he didn't pursue the instrument seriously. In his early twenties, Fuller wandered around the southern and western regions of the United States, eventually settling down in Los Angeles. After spending a few years in Los Angeles, Fuller moved to San Francisco. While he worked various odd jobs around the Bay Area, he played on street corners and parties. Fuller's musical career didn't properly begin until the early '50s, when he decided to become a professional musician; he was 55 years old at the time. Performing as a one-man band, he began to get spots on local television shows and nightclubs. However, Fuller's career didn't take off until 1954, when he wrote "San Francisco Bay Blues."The song was recorded by Rambling Jack Elliot who said in his opening monologue: "Oakland is right across the bay from San Francisco .That's where Jesse Fuller lives. Jesse Fuller plays the 12-string guitar. A livin' Leadbelly. Guitar and harmonica too. Electric. Also has a kinda 5-string …bass-like thing on the floor, that he plays with his foot. Called a foot-doola. And Jesse wrote this song. And I'll sing it to ya now, 'cause I sing it all day long."
The song helped him land a record contract with the independent Cavalier label, and in 1955 he recorded his first album, Folk Blues: Working on the Railroad with Jesse Fuller. The album was a success and soon he was making records for a variety of labels, including Good Time Jazz and Prestige.In the late '50s and early '60s Jesse Fuller became one of the key figures of the blues revival, helping bring the music to a new, younger audience. Throughout the '60s and '70s he toured America and Europe, appearing at numerous blues and folk festivals, as well as countless coffeehouse gigs across the U.S. Fuller continued performing and recording until his death in 1976.
Mance Lipscomb was born in Navasota, Texas, northwest of Houston, on April 9, 1895. Music ran in Lipscomb's family, and after his mother bought him a guitar when he was 11, he began accompanying his fiddler father at local dances. Before long, Lipscomb was in demand for "Saturday Night Suppers" in and around Grimes County, Texas. In addition to his family, Lipscomb picked up musical pointers from Texas blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson. A traveling performer asked Lipscomb to go on tour in 1922, but Lipscomb said no, and until the 1960s he rarely left the area in which he was born. He worked as a tenant farmer (he disliked the term "sharecropper") for various employers, and most of his musical appearances were at local functions. One day in 1960 encountered music researchers Chris Strachwitz and Mack McCormick on a job site. They were looking for "Lightnin'" Hopkins, who had just left the area, but they agreed to listen to Lipscomb's music instead. Strachwitz was in the process of forming his California-based record company, Arhoolie, and a group of songs recorded around Lipscomb's kitchen table were put together on the album Mance Lipscomb: Texas Songster and Sharecropper, Arhoolie's debut release. Lipscomb's name quickly became well known among blues and folk music fans. He appeared at the Texas Heritage Festival in Houston in 1960 and 1961, then capitalized on his California connection and made appearances for three years running (1961-63) at the large Berkeley Folk Festival held at the University of California. In between festival appearances he appeared at folk coffeehouses in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas, and he made several more recordings for Arhoolie.
What made Lipscomb stand out from the other Southern blues performers recorded during this period was the diversity of his repertory. As Paul Oliver wrote: "he was, and is, a 'songster'; in other words he did not restrict himself to a particular idiom as many blues singers have done but, coming from a generation of musicians who prided themselves on their versatility, embraced many forms, of which the blues was just one. Mance's life spans the history of the blues and the formative years of his musical development are well rooted the older traditions. At this point in time it is important to realize that this seventy-year young man is a living embodiment, and genuinely one of the last great exponents of the Southern Negro folk song forms before the blues, and the mass media which popularized it, swept them aside." His recordings provided examples of song and dance forms with both white and black roots–waltzes, two-steps, children's songs, jigs, reels, polkas and other styles. In the late 1960s, as interest in the blues mounted, Lipscomb experienced still greater success. He appeared at the Festival of American Folklife, held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1968 and 1970, and he performed at other large festivals, including the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1970 and the Monterey Jazz Festival in California in 1973. Among the many musicians who became Lipscomb fans was vocalist Frank Sinatra, who issued a Lipscomb recording, Trouble in Mind, on his Reprise label in 1970. He appeared that year in Les Blank's film and two years later was featured in a French blues documentary, Out of the Blacks Into the Blues. Lipscomb suffered from heart trouble in the mid-1970s and gradually retired from the stage. He passed in 1976.
At Izzy young's Folklore Center, MacDougal Street, NYC,
l-r Sam charters, Izzy Young, Memphis Willie B., Furry
Lewis, and Gus cannon, 1964 (Photo by Ann Charters)
Samuel Charters played a central role in the folk revival of the 1950's and 1960's. His fieldwork, extensive liner notes, production efforts, and books served as an introduction to many who had never heard of artists like Lightnin' Hopkins and Robert Johnson. Charters was born in 1929 and graduated from Sacramento City College in 1949. In 1951, at the age of 21, he moved to New Orleans. After a two-year stint in the Army, he began to study jazz, but soon felt himself drawn to rural blues. Encouraged by fellow jazz researcher Frederic Ramsey, Charters began recording jazz and blues artists in 1955. The following year Folkways Records began issuing his recordings. Charters work as a field recorder and researcher would be poured into his first book in 1959, The Country Blues. "…The Country Blues was the first full-length treatment of the topic," wrote Benjamin Filene in Romancing the Folk, "and its evocative style inspired thousands of whites to explore the music." Unlike the more formal music histories written by Paul Oliver, Charters' book was a popular history designed to pass on his enthusiasm for the blues to others. A companion album, also titled The Country Blues, would simultaneously be released on Folkways' RBF reissue series for which Charters produced about twenty albums. His other claim to fame during this period was his re-discovery, after a lengthy search, of Sam Lightnin' Hopkins who he recorded for Folkways in 1959.
In the 60's Charters wrote several books including The Poetry of the Blues and The Bluesmen. A 1961 trip for Prestige Records yielded records by Furry Lewis, Memphis Willie B., Baby Tate and Pink Anderson. Charters visited St. Louis to do recording sessions in 1961 and 1962 resulting in several albums by Henry Townsend, Henry Brown and Edith Johnson, Dady Hotcakes, J.D. Short, Speckled Red and Barrelhouse Buck. In 1963 he was hired by Prestige as an A&R representative, and oversaw the Bluesville and Folklore series.
Sam charters recording Sleepy John Estes,
Brownsville, TN, 1962 (Photo by Ann Charters)
Charters' Prestige recordings of Homesick James, Billy Boy Arnold, and Otis Spann were some of the first electric blues releases aimed at the revival market. He continued in this vein as an independent producer for Vanguard with the influential three-volume anthology Chicago: The Blues Today as well as solo albums by Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite.
In the early 70's Charters moved to Sweden where he worked as a producer for Sonet. The twelve-volume series Legacy of the Blues resulted in a similarly titled book. He also recorded zydeco albums during this period by Clifton Chenier and Rockin' Dopsie.
On today's program we track recordings charters made from the late 1950's through the early 70's'. Much of the background on today's artists come from Charters' own writings, either taken from the original liner notes or Walking A Blues Road: A Blues Reader 1956-2004 a collection of his writings issued in 2004. The First half of the show is devoted primarily to acoustic blues artists. As Charters wrote: "In the first years of the blues rediscoveries there was a heady level of excitement just at finding that the blues was more than names on old phonograph records. For any of us who had come to the blues through our interest in classic jazz or through our involvement in the folk movement, the modern electric blues was considered with some wariness as an intrusion on the 'folk' spirit of the blues. For myself, there was also a sense of urgency. The younger blues artists in places like Chicago or Detroit could wait – whatever we thought of their style of the blues. The older blues artists who were still living in rented rooms or tenement apartments in cities like Memphis or Atlanta didn't have so many years ahead of them, and if we didn't save their stories and their music their rich legacy would slip away from us."
"My life as a record producer began with a duet session that I set up and recorded with Billie and Dee Dee [Pierce] in the spring of 1954. …The material from the session was released by Folkways as part of the series I recorded and complied with some tracks done by other field collectors in the city titled The Music of New Orleans. Billie and Dee Dee were included in Volume Three of the series, Music of the Dance Halls… …If you're interested in the old New Orleans jazz styles there are still a dozen places to hear bands, even if most of them don't have music every weekend, and you never know who's going to play unless one of the musicians calls you. What we knew about Luthjen's was that every night on the weekends Billie Pierce would be sitting on the bench of the place's much battered piano and singing the blues, and her husband Dee Dee Pierce would be sitting on an old kitchen chair beside her, adding the lyric trumpet fills that are an indispensable musical complement to the classic blues style." From the above mentioned album we play "Married Man Blues."
We spin a pair of cuts by Lightnin' Hopkins who Charters located after a lengthy period of not recordings. "On a windy winter morning in January 1959 I was driving along Dowling Street, in Houston, Texas. I stopped at a red light and a car pulled up beside mine. The window was rolled down, and a thin, nervous man, wearing dark glasses, leaned toward me.
'You lookin' for me?'
'Are you Lightnin'?'
'Lightnin", I said, 'I sure am.'
"I had been looking for lightnin' Hopkins, off and on, for the five years that had passed since I first heard him on record. …I was in and out of Houston for the next five years, recording, interviewing musicians, and asking about Lightnin' Hopkins. …When I finally found him he was anxious to begin recording again, and after I'd rented an acoustic guitar for him I carried the tape recorder I had in the trunk of my car into his shabby room on Hadley Street. He sang all afternoon, becoming more emotional and even more musically exciting as the hours passed." The results were issued on a self-titled album on Folkways. The results helped introduced his music to an entirely new audience. Soon after Hopkins went from gigging at back-alley gin joints to starring at collegiate coffeehouses, appearing on TV programs, and touring Europe. He was recording more prolifically then ever, laying down albums for World Pacific, Vee-Jay,Bluesville, Bobby Robinson’s Fire label, Candid, Arhoolie, Verve and, in 1965, the first of several LP’s for Stan Lewis’ Shreveport-based Jewel logo. During the 70's his recording activity slowed, cutting just a handful of sessions for verve and Sonet with several live collections issued. He was still touring widely and made trips to Mexico, Japan and Germany. After a final gig at Tramps in New York in November 1981 he returned to Houston where his health declined rapidly. He passed January 30, 1982.
Charters visited St. Louis to do recording sessions in 1961 and 1962 resulting in several fine albums of material. As Charters wrote: “I first visited St. Louis on the long research trip for The Country Blues in January 1959 …We were in the city again for two recordings trips, the first in May of 1961, and the second, to film J.D. Short for the documentary film The Blues, in the summer of 1962. Two of the albums, by Henry Townsend and Barrelhouse Buck, were released at the time of recording. One album, with J.D. Short, was released as part of the Legacy of the Blues series in 1973, and the other albums were released by Folkways in 1984.
George “Daddy Hotcakes” Montgomery was born in Georgia and came moved to St. Louis in 1918. He began singing the blues as a youngster and worked as an entertainer during the 1920’s. Sometime in the late 30’s he had an opportunity to record through blues artist and talent scout Charlie Jordan but the recording session fell through. He was still occasionally playing parties when Charters recorded him in 1961. These are his only recordings. As Charters wrote: "I am still also as surprised -when I listen to what we recorded in his room over the next two or threes days – at the complete, natural spontaneity of his blues. …Using his imagination and a store of familiar blues phrase to help him through occasional hesitations he simply made up the songs as he went along. I had some of the same experience when I recorded Lightnin' Hopkins and Robert Pete Williams but even as loose and free as they were with their blues I still could anticipate most of what they were going to do. With George, however, I never could be sure what might come next if I asked him to repeat anything." …The songs George recorded in his room – as far as I know these were his only recordings -made me conscious again of the haphazard circumstances that left their mark on what we knew of the blues. How many singers were there like George, who missed a recording trip because they didn't get the times right? How many were there who never were heard by anyone who knew where to send them to get their songs on record?" these recordings were issued on Folkways under the title The Blues in St. Louis, Vol. 1: Daddy Hotcakes (originally planned to be issued on Bluesville).
While in St. Louis Charters cut an excellent album by veteran bluesman Henry Townsend backed his friend Tommy Bankhead. The results were issued on Bluesville as Tired of Being Mistreated and on Folkways as The Blues in St. Louis, Vol. 3: Henry Townsend. Townsend was one of the only artists to have recorded in every decade for the last 80 years. He first recorded in 1929 and remained active up to 2006. "One of the things that was most intriguing for me about working with Henry was that this was the first time I'd ever recorded anyone playing an electric guitar. …The first blues they ran down together wiped out an lingering prejudices I had against electric instruments. It wasn't electric guitars that had changed the blues. It was the life in the African American ghettos, the new society, experiences of the people who created the blues that had changed, and it was the new instrument and their changes sound that expressed the new conditions of their lives."
Charters also recorded a fine session by Edith Johnson and Henry Brown. The results were issued on the album The Blues in St. Louis, Vol. 2: Henry Brown and Edith Johnson – Barrelhouse Piano and Classic Blues. Edith Johnson recorded eighteen sides in 1928/29 as “Edith North Johnson”, “Hattie North” and “Maybelle Allen.” Henry Brown worked clubs such as the Blue Flame Club, the 9-0-5 Club, Jim’s Place and Katy Red’s, from the twenties into the 30’s. Recorded for Brunswisck with Ike Rogers and Mary Johnson in 1929, for Paramount in Richmond and Grafton in ‘29 and ‘30. He served in the army in the early ’40s, then formed his own quartet to work occasional local gigs in St. Louis area from the ’50s, and worked the Becky Thatcher riverboat, St. Louis in 1965. In addition to his pre-war recordings, he was recorded by Paul Oliver in 1960 and by Adelphi in 1969.
J.D. Short recorded two sessions in the early ’30s for Paramount and Vocalion, then quickly faded into obscurity. Charters recorded Short at his transplanted home base of St. Louis in 1961. As Charters writes in the notes: “The recording that we did in his house that summer – mostly in the kitchen to get away from the noises in the street – was his last, but we didn’t have any idea of it. I was filming him for a sequence in The Blues and trying to get his ideas about the backgrounds and the aesthetics of the blues for The Poetry Of The Blues so we recorded a lot of music – new versions of songs he’d done before – new songs – and his own comments about the styles and the music.” Short unexpectedly passed away shortly after this session at the age of 60. Charters' recordings of Short can be found on the albums J.D. Short and Son House: Blues from the Mississippi Delta and album as part of The Legacy of the Blues series released in the 70's.
St. Louis was always a good piano blues town, and in addition to recording Henry Brown, Charters also captured Barrelhouse Buck and Speckled Red. Barrelhouse Buck McFarland cut his final session for Folkways and an unissued session in 1961 that was belatedly released a few years back on Delmark. The recordings Charters made were released on Folkways as Backcountry Barrelhouse. He died shortly afterward. McFarland was born in Alton, Illinois in 1903 in the same area as two other exceptional piano players, Wesley Wallace and Jabbo Williams, all three of which made names for themselves on the bustling St. Louis blues scene. McFarland got his shot in the recording studio waxing ten sides; two for Paramount in 1929, two for Decca in 1934 and four more for Decca in 1935, which were not issued. Speckled Red (born Rufus Perryman) was born in Monroe, LA, but he made his reputation as part of the St. Louis and Memphis blues scenes of the ’20s and ’30s. In 1929, he cut his first recording sessions. One song from these sessions, “The Dirty Dozens,” was released on Brunswick and became a hit in late 1929. In 1938, he cut a few sides for Bluebird. In the early ’40s, Red moved to St. Louis, where he played local clubs and bars for the next decade and a half. Charlie O’Brien, a St. Louis policeman and something of a blues aficionado “rediscovered” Speckled Red on December 14, 1954, who subsequently was signed to Delmark Records as their first blues artist. Several recordings were made in 1956 and 1957 for Tone, Delmark, Folkways, and Storyville record labels. The recordings Charters made were issued on Folkway under the title The Barrel-House Blues of Speckled Red.
Charters also spent time in Memphis getting to know and record some of the city's pre-war blues recording artists. "Will Shade, the guitar and harmonica player who had organized the Memphis Jug Band for victor Records in 1927, had remembered Furry in a conversation in February 1959. …I looked out the window, over the roofs toward Beale Street, and said to him, thinking out loud as much as anything else, 'I certainly would like to have heard some of those old blues singers, Jim Jackson, Furry Lewis, John Estes, Frank Stokes…' Will leaned out of his chair and called to his wife, Jennie Mae, who was working in the kitchen. 'Jennie Mae, when was the last time you saw that fellow they call 'Furry'?' '…Furry Lewis you mean? I saw him just last week.'" Charters eventually found Furry: "He no longer had a guitar and he hadn't played much in twenty years, but when I asked him if he could sing and play he straightened and said, 'I'm better now than I ever was.'" Lewis returned to the studio under Charters' direction, first cutting a self-titled album for Folkways in 1959 and then two albums for the Prestige/Bluesville label in 1961.
"Usually I stop by Will's whenever I'm in Memphis, and over the years he's led me to other singers like Gus Cannon, Charlie Burse and Furry Lewis. …I stopped by in April 1961 …he mentioned that one of the blues singers he's known in the 1930s has stopped by his place a few weeks before. 'His name's Willie B. I don't know what all his name is, but that's what we call him. Willie B. He's one of those real hard blues singers like you're always asking about. …He"ll sing the real old hard blues for you.'" Charters recorded Borum at a session at the Sun studios for Prestige's Bluesville label, with one more session to follow. The albums were issued as Introducing Memphis Willie B. and Hard Working Man Blues. Borum, was a mainstay of the Memphis blues and jug band circuit. He took to the guitar early in his childhood, being principally taught by his father and Memphis medicine show star Jim Jackson. By his late teens, he was working with Jack Kelly's Jug Busters. This didn't last long, as Borum joined up with the Memphis Jug Band. Sometime in the '30s he learned to play harmonica, being taught by Noah Lewis, the best harp blower in Memphis and mainstay of Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers. Willie B. began working on and off with various traveling Delta bluesmen, performing at various functions with Rice Miller, Willie Brown, Garfield Akers, and Robert Johnson. He finally got to make some records in 1934 for Vocalion backing Hattie Hart and Allen Shaw, but quickly moved back into playing juke joints and gambling houses with Son Joe, Joe Hill Louis and Will Shade until around 1943, when he became a member of the U.S. Army. Memphis Willie B. passed in 1993.
In South Carolina Charters made important recordings by Pink Anderson and Baby Tate. Anderson was born in South Carolina and early on sang in the streets for pennies. He was self-taught as a guitarist and toured throughout the Southeast with a variety of medicine shows during 1915-1945, picking up work wherever he could. He was employed not only as a musician and a singer but as a dancer and comedian. Anderson recorded four titles in 1928 with his partner Simmie Dooley but did not make another record until 1950 for Riverside, sharing an album with Rev. Gary Davis. Anderson continued to work at parties, street fairs, and medicine shows during the first half of the 1950s before retiring for a time due to ill health. But in 1961 the Bluesville label sent Charters to record him. He recorded three albums of unaccompanied performances by Anderson, documenting him in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Carters also recorded one album by Anderson that was issued on Folkways as Carolina Medicine Show Hokum And Blues. Anderson stayed active on a part-time basis up until the time of his death in 1974.
Guitarist Baby Tate recorded only a handful of sessions, spending the bulk of his life as a sideman, playing with musicians like Blind Boy Fuller, Pink Anderson, and Peg Leg Sam. When he was 14 years old, Tate taught himself how to play guitar. Shortly afterward, he began playing with Blind Boy Fuller, who taught Tate the fundamentals of blues guitar. For most of the '30s, Baby played music as a hobby, performing at local parties, celebrations, and medicine shows. Tate picked up music again in 1946, setting out on the local blues club circuit. In the early '50s, Baby moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he performed both as a solo act and as a duo with Pink Anderson. In 1962, Charters recorded Tate for the album, See What You Done Done for Bluesville. The following year, he was featured in Charters' documentary film, The Blues. For the rest of the decade, Baby Tate played various gigs, concerts, and festivals across America. With the assistance of harmonica player Peg Leg Sam, Baby Tate recorded another set of sessions in 1972. Pete Lowry recorded him extensively in 1970 but theses sides remain unreleased. He died on August 17, 1972.
Charters first foray into recording Chicago electric blues were a batch of albums for Prestige/Bluesville including sessions by Otis Spann, Homesick James and Billy Boy Arnold. Born in Chicago, Billy Boy was gravitated who was a big influence. Still in his teens, Arnold cut his debut 78 for the obscure Cool logo in 1952. "Arnold made an auspicious connection when he joined forces with Bo Diddley and played on the his two-sided 1955 debut smash "Bo Diddley"/"I'm a Man" for Checker. That led, in a roundabout way, to Billy Boy's signing with rival Vee-Jay Records. Arnold's "I Wish You Would," utilizing that familiar Bo Diddley beat, sold well and inspired a later famous cover by the Yardbirds. Thhe group also took a liking to another Arnold classic on Vee-Jay, "I Ain't Got You." Other Vee-Jay standouts by Arnold included "Prisoner's Plea" and "Rockinitis," but by 1958, his tenure at the label was over. Other than an excellent Samuel Charters-produced 1963 album for Prestige, More Blues on the South Side, Arnold retained a low profile until signing with Alligator in the 90's.
Homesick James was playing guitar at age ten and soon ran away from his Tennessee home to play at fish fries and dances. His travels took the guitarist through Mississippi and North Carolina during the 1920s, where he crossed paths with Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Boy Fuller, and Big Joe Williams.Settling in Chicago during the 1930s, Williamson played local clubs. Williamson made some fine sides in 1952-53 for Chance Records. James also worked extensively as a sideman, backing harp great Sonny Boy Williamson in 1945 at a Chicago gin joint called the Purple Cat and during the 1950s with his cousin, Elmore James. He also recorded with James during the 1950s. Homesick's own output included 45's for Colt and USA in 1962, and the album for Blues On The South Side produced by Charters.
"I came to Chicago for the first time in the winter of 1959, as part of the long research trip for the book The Country Blues. …For the next few years I was in and out of Chicago – and after so many nights down on the south side listening to the bands, I was becoming more and more impatient to go into a recording studio to document some of the unforgettable music I was hearing. But the companies I was involved with – Folkways and Prestige – either didn't have the money for the sessions, or they weren't ready to record the electric blues." Fortunately Charters hooked up with Vanguard Records who were more receptive to the idea.
In early 1966, Vanguard issued three-volume set, Chicago/The Blues/Today!. Every artist on the three volumes had recorded before (some, like Otis Rush and Junior Wells, had actually seen small hits on the R&B charts), but these recordings were largely their introduction to a newer — and predominately white — album-oriented audience. This series accurately portrayed a vast cross section of the Chicago blues scene as one could hear it on any given night in the mid-'60s. Rather than record full albums (which Charters had neither the budget nor the legal resources to pull off), each artist simply came in for a union-approved session of four to six songs, with each volume featuring three different groupings. Other notable records Charters cut for Vanguard include Buddy Guy's A Man And The Blues,the guitarist's first album away from Chess and Junior Wells' It's My Life Baby, a mix of studio recordings and live tracks recorded at Pepper's Lounge in Chicago.
Charters and his family moved to Sweden in1971 and began working with a local record company called Sonet. He was eventually asked to do a blues series for the label. The series, Legacy of the Blues, ran to twelve albums with Charters producing the series as well as writing extensive liner notes for each. The notes were expanded for a book of the same name which was published in 1975. The entire series has been reissued on CD by Verve in 2006. As was often the case, Charters was able to coax some exceptional performances resulting in some excellent albums by Memphis Slim, Robert Pete Williams and Snooks Eaglin.
Willie B. Thomas, Harry Oster, and Butch Cage 1960 (photographer: David Gahr)
Harry Oster was teaching at Louisiana State University a well-received lecture on Old World traditional ballads prompted a colleague to suggest that he apply for a grant to collect local folklore. "Before long," he recalled, "I found a profusion of unusual material – ancient French ballads, Cajun dance music, Afro-French spirituals… I got the idea that I should issue with my own funds a long-playing record to be called A Sampler of Louisiana Folk Songs." This and succeeding records such as Folk Songs of the Louisiana Acadians, the first LP of Cajun music, appeared under the auspices of the Louisiana Folklore Society, which Oster created with a couple of friends. Later recordings were on his own label, Folk-Lyric. Oster's greatest discovery came on a trip to the state penitentiary at Angola. Oster found many impressive blues singers, among them Robert Pete Williams. The singer's intense improvised narratives about prison life and the events that had brought him there, were presented to the world on the 1959 album Angola Prisoner's Blues. Oster was also the first to record Snooks Eaglin, the fiddle-and-guitar duo Butch Cage and Willie Thomas, blues guitarist Smokey Babe and Georgia street musician Reverend Pearly Brown. Oster left Louisiana in 1963 to teach at the University of Iowa, where he remained until his retirement in 1993, working on the American Dictionary of Folklore and pursuing his passion of making and disseminating records. His Folk-Lyric catalogue was acquired by Arhoolie Records and has largely been transferred to CD.
Oster formed his Folk-Lyric label in 1959 and in an interview described the label’s genesis: “Eventually I heard that RCA had a customs pressing plant in Indianapolis and I started sending stuff to them and getting stuff professionally printed. I would send out review copies to major newspapers like New York Times, Down Beat Magazine, Saturday Review, and some newspapers. They gave them good attention and I got in touch with some distributors. My label was essentially one-man operation. I would find performers, record them, edit the tapes, take photographs, write liner notes, etc. I would generally press about 300 copies. I borrowed $5,000 from a bank to subsidize the operation. I also did some assignments for other companies, and that helped finance it also. I did one record for Elektra which was eventually sold to Folkways. I did some for Prestige Bluesville and Prestige International.”
Oster explained to an interviewer his approach to field recording: “I actually operated rather differently than some of people who've found old time blues singers. Usually they track down someone who recorded in '20s or 0s and disappear from sight for a while. I sort of went about it in a quite different way, which in fact produced some interestingly different results, more offbeat performances and more unusual repertoire. Anyhow, I talked to a psychologist who'd done some research in a prison and he suggested I go see the head of institutions for the state and get his permission to get access to the prison and ask him to spell out the specific privileges that I wanted to have, lot of which should be the right to call out a specific convicts, in other words, to get someone excused from work for the day or afternoon so he could be interviewed and recorded by me. The head of institution was quite cooperative and friendly, probably influenced by the fact that I was teaching in a state university. He wrote to the warden and asked him to cooperate with me. The warden was cooperative too and he suggested the good way to proceed would be to start with the recreational director and go down from there. They had a choir of black singers who did spirituals and he said that would be a good place to make contacts. I started there and they gave me some leads on prison work songs and I started going into the different camps. These camps were not maximum security camps and people worked in fields in in daytime.”
The recordings onAngola Prisoner’s Blueswere recorded in 1959 and 1960 at Camp H in Louisiana’s Angola Prison. An impromptu studio was set up in the tool room. Oster uncovered many fine bluesman like Hogman Maxey, Guitar Welch, Otis Webster, Roosevelt Charles and most importantly Robert Pete Williams. Roosevelt Charles was classified a habitual criminal and spend most of his adult life in prison. Charles was recorded extensively by Oster both in Agola and on the outside in 1959 and 1960. A full album of his recordings appeared on Vanguard which is long out of print with other cuts showing up on various anthologies. Many of his sides remain unissued. Oster considered Charles one of his most gifted finds. Another talented performer was Robert Welch, called “Guitar” and “King of the Blues” by the other convicts and was born in Memphis in 1896. He learned from the records of Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson and played in bands starting in the late 30’s.
Robert Pete Williams, however, was in a class by himself as Oster wrote in the liner notes: “The blues of Robert Pete Williams are more original, more directly personal, and more evocative in their expression of love, frustration, and despair.” Williams did some playing at house parties in the 30’s. In 1956, Williams shot and killed a man in a local club. Williams claimed the act was in self-defense, but he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Angola prison, where he served for two years before being discovered by Oster and Richard Allen. The pair recorded Williams performing several of his own songs, which were all about life in prison. Impressed with the guitarist's talents, Oster and Allen pleaded for a pardon for Williams. The pardon was granted in 1959, after he had served a total of three and a half years. For the first five years after he left prison, Williams could only perform in Lousiana, but his recordings — which appeared on Folk-Lyric, Arhoolie, and Prestige, among other labels — were popular and he received positive word of mouth reviews. In 1964, Williams played his first concert outside of Louisiana — it was a set at the legendary Newport Folk Festival. Williams' performance was enthusiastically received and he began touring the United States, often playing shows with Mississippi Fred McDowell. During the 60’s and 70’s he performed at several festival including the 1966 American Folk Blues Festival. He passed in 1980.
The album Prison Worksongs focuses on recordings of worksongs recorded in Agola Prison and on the outside between 1959 and 1963. By this point the prison worksong was a dying tradition but Oster managed to record some fine material. "I’'ve always been fascinated with black worksongs, “ Oster recalled, “group work songs, and I had heard that they were essentially extinct in the regular world because of mechanization of farming, and the only place to find them would be in southern prison farms. I decided it would be a good idea to do some recordings in the prison camp in Angola, and I made my first trip there in 1957.”
The songs on the album Country Negro Jam Session were recorded in Southwestern Louisiana between 1959 and 1962, some in Angola Prison, others at house parties around Baton Rouge (the remaining 5 titles on CD reissue were recorded by Chris Strachwitz and Paul Oliver in 1960). In it's earliest incarnation, the first 14 tracks of the 25 title program were released on Dr. Oster's now-defunct Folk Lyric label, and then re-released on Arhoolie intact after Chris Strachwitz purchased the Folk Lyric catalog. Oster did a series of field recordings, informal jams with a group of obscure blues men and women, only one of whom, Robert Pete Williams, won fame. Otis Webster was recorded extensively by Oster in 1959 and 1960 all in Angola Prison. Many of the sides remain unissued. Willie B. Thomas (vocal & guitar) and James ‘Butch' Cage (vocal & fiddle) make up a good part of Country Negro Jam Session. The duo’s string band music is reminiscent of Peg Leg Howell and his gang and the two play not only blues but also pop, and religious music. They also back singer/guitarist Clarence Edwards on several numbers. Butch Cage was born in 1894 near Meadville, MS, and whom Oster describes aptly in the liner notes as "a great representative of the now virtually extinct 19th century black fiddle tradition", while Willie B. Thomas was born near Lobdell, LA in 1912.
Born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, Robert Brown AKA Smoky Babe had found his way to Scotlandville, Louisiana by the age of 20. It was there that Oster recorded him on several occasions between 1959-1961 with material appearing on the labels Folk-Lyric, Storyville and Bluesville. As Oster wrote in the liner notes to his Bluesville album: “In February 1960 I was present at a jam session in Scotlandville at the house of the sister of Robert Pete Williams, Mable Lee. …Smoky, who lives a short distance from Mable Lee Williams, swaggered in – a muscular wiry man of about 5’ 8”, wearing a hat tilted at a rakish angle. His guitar was in pawn so I loaned him mine. As soon as he played a few bars, rich, full, resonant, and excitedly rhythmic, I knew here was an outstanding bluesman.” Nothing is know about his later life.
New Orleans pianist and singer Billie Pierce played jazz and blues with her cornetist husband Dede. The two recorded and toured extensively in the 1950’s and 60’s. Oster issued an LP of them titled Gulf Coast Blues with some other titles appearing on the anthology Primitive Pianothat also has tracks by Bat Robinson and Speckled Red. Billie Pierce was a marvelous blues, ragtime, and jazz pianist and a very expressive singer who grew up in Florida where she accompanied Bessie Smith at a Pensacola theatre in the early 1920s. She later moved to New Orleans where she played professionally in honky tonks and later spent much time working for Preservation Hall and touring all over the world with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Her husband, De De Pierce was one of the most joyful and powerful New Orleans trumpeters as well as a superb vocalist specializing in the unique, regional Creole French patois.
Blind from boyhood, Snooks Eaglin played everything he heard on records and the radio, be it jazz, blues, pop or country. When not playing R&B in the New Orleans clubs, Eaglin busked with an acoustic guitar, which is how Harry Oster first encountered him. Besides issuing an LP of Eaglin’s on his Folk-Lyric label, Oster licensed material to other companies with material appearing on labels like Storyille and Bluesville. In an interview Oster recalls how he came across Eaglin: “I heard of him through Richard B. Allen who was first associate curator and then curator of the Jazz Archive in the Tulane University. He had encountered Snooks Eaglin who was young blind man singing on the porch of his house. Snooks Eaglin was different than performers like Robert Pete Williams for example. He actually was not a real specialist in blues, he was a popular performer and he wanted to be more popular. And he was. But he could do a lot of blues and he had a wonderful memory. His father said that he didn't really make up songs. He was like a mockingbird, he had everybody's song but his own.”
Other artists featured today include Herman E. Johnson of Scotlandville who was recorded in 1961 and Clarence Edwards. Johnson's tracks appeared on the LP Louisiana Country Bluesalongside sides by Smoky Babe. Born near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Clarence Edwards began playing blues in the area in his teens. He was taped by Oster between 1959 and 1962 and by Chris Strachwitz for Arhoolie in 1970. He quit music for a stretch and cut his debut album in 1990. He did festival appearances in the US and Europe before his death in 1993.
5/26/13: European Blues I
6/2/13: European Blues II
6/9/13: Mix Show
6/16/13: David Evans
6/23/13: Rerun Show
6/30/13: Talking Blues
7/7/13: Chicago Greats
7/14/13: Field Recording Special
7/21/13: Chicago Blues 1960's I
I'm always on the hunt for good blues records. Below is a list of some records I'm currently looking for. Purchase or trade is fine and I don't mind getting a copy on disc or swapping digitally.
Blues From The Delta (Matchbox)
Washboard Willie - Whippin' That Board (Barrelhouse)
High Water Blues (Flyright)
James 'Son' Thomas, Lee Kizart & Lovey Williams: The Blues Are Alive And Well (XTRA)
Mabel Hillary - It's So Hard To Be A Nigger (XTRA)
Snooks Eaglin - Message to New Orleans (Heritage)
The Foddrell Brothers - Patrick County Rag (Outlet)
Rabbit Muse - Sixty Minute Man
Victoria Spivey - Queen and Her Knights (Spivey)
Encore For The Chicago Blues (Spivey)
Way Back Yonder ...Original Country Blues Volume 2, 3 (Albatros)
I Got The Blues This Morning (Albatros)
Cary Tate - Blues From Heart (Albatros)
The Legacy Of Tommy Johnson (Saydisc Matchbox )
Memphis Sessions 1956-1961 (Wolf)
Texas Piano Professors (Catfish)
Catfish, Carp & Diamonds: 35 Years of Texas Blues (Catfish)
George & Ethel McCoy - Early In The Morning (Adelphi)
Things Have Changed: An Anthology of Today's Blues from St. Louis (Adelphi)