The Nic Nacs with Mickey ChampionGonna Have A Merry Xmas Blues, Blues Christmas Vol. 2
Mabel ScottBoogie Woogie Santa Claus Blues, Blues Christmas
Frankie ''Half-Pint'' JaxonChrist Was Born On Christmas Morn Blues, Blues Christmas
Titus Turner Christmas Morning BluesBlues, Blues Christmas
Jimmy ButlerTrim Your TreeBlues, Blues Christmas
Cecil GrantHello Santa Claus Blues, Blues Christmas
Harman Ray Xmas Blues Blues, Blues Christmas
Champion Jack DupreeSanta Clause BluesBlues, Blues Christmas Vol. 4
Jimmy McCracklinChristmas Time Part 1Blues, Blues Christmas Vol. 3
Roy Milton & His Solid SendersNew Year's Resolution BluesBlues, Blues Christmas Vol. 2
Johnny Otis OrchestraHappy New Year, BabyBlues, Blues Christmas
Jimmy ButlerTrim Your Tree Blues, Blues Christmas
Big Joe TurnerChristmas Date BoogieBlues, Blues Christmas
Lil McClintockDon't Think I'm Santa Claus Blues, Blues Christmas Vol. 4
LeadbellyChristmas Is CominBlues, Blues Christmas Vol. 3
Leroy CarrChristmas In Jail (Ain't It A Pain)
Tampa RedChristmas & New Year's BluesBlues, Blues Christmas
Rev. J.M. Gates Did You Spend Christmas Day In JailBlues, Blues Christmas
Rev. Edward ClaybornThe Wrong Way to Celebrate ChristmasBlues, Blues Christmas
Black AceChristmas TimeBlues, Blues Christmas
Lowell FulsonLonesome CBlues, Blues Christmas Vol. 2hristmas Part 1Blues, Blues Christmas Vol. 2
Hop WilsonNew Merry Christmas Baby Blues, Blues Christmas Vol. 3
Charles BrownChristmas Blues Legend!
Goree Carter Christmas BluesBlues, Blues Christmas Vol. 4
Lonnie JohnsonHappy New Year DarlingBlues, Blues Christmas
Robert NighthawkMerry ChristmasBlues Southside Chicago
Jimmy WitherspoonHow I Hate To See Christmas Come Around Blues, Blues Christmas
Larry DarnellChristmas Blues Blues, Blues Christmas
Butterbeans & SusiePapa Ain't No Santa ClausBlues, Blues Christmas
Mary Harris w/ Peetie Wheatstraw & Charlie JordanHappy New Year BluesBlues, Blues Christmas
Julia LeeChristmas SpiritsBlues, Blues Christmas
Bukka WhiteChristmas Eve Blues Memphis Swamp Jam
Lightnin’ HopkinsMerry ChristmasBlues, Blues Christmas Vol. 2
Gatemouth Moore Gate’s Christmas BluesGreat Rhythm & Blues Oldies Vol. 7
Harry ''Fats'' Crafton w Doc Bagby Orchestra Bring That Cadillac BackBlues, Blues Christmas
J.B. SummersI Want A Present For ChristmasBlues, Blues Christmas
Fats WallerSwingin’ Them Christmas BellsBlues, Blues Christmas Vol. 2

Show Notes:

Paramount Christmas Greetings Ad

I've been doing a Christmas blues show for many years and was always frustrated with the lack of a really good collection of early blues Christmas songs. In 2005 I hooked up with the Document label to put together a 2-CD, 52 track collection of blues and gospel songs from the 1920's to the 1950's called Blues, Blues Christmas. The record proved to be popular and a second volume was released in 2009,  a third volume in 2013 and this year sees the fourth volume. You can read the notes to these by visiting my writing page. Many of today's tracks come from those collections.

On October 30, 1889 banjoist Will Lyle made history by recording "Jingle Bells" – the very first Christmas record. Although no known copies of this recording survive, one of the earliest vocal examples of "Jingle Bells" does survive on an Edison brown wax cylinder entitled, "The Sleigh Ride Party." The first commercial Christmas blues record was cut by Bessie Smith. Her classic "At The Christmas Ball" inaugurated the Christmas blues tradition when it was recorded in November 1925 for Columbia. A year later, circa December 1926, the gospel Christmas tradition was launched when the Elkins-Payne Jubilee Singers recorded "Silent Night, Holy Night" for Paramount Records. After these recordings it was off to the races with numerous Christmas blues numbers recorded by singers of all stripes, a pace that continued as blues evolved into R&B and then rock and roll. It’s almost certainly the case that many of these songs were recorded at the prompting of the record companies. Like any business they were always looking for a new angle or gimmick to sell records and advertised these Christmas records boldly, often with full-page ads, in black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and magazines like Billboard.

Perhaps more than any other music, the blues is deeply enmeshed in a particular culture, entangled in the era of segregation, in the era of Jim Crow and in the era of slavery. In his classic Screening The Blues Paul Oliver wrote “for the Negro, Christmas has a deep-rooted significance beyond that of the religious meaning of the celebration itself; a more worldly one of which has none the less firmly established itself in his folkways. Since far back in slavery Christmas has signified a rest, a break in the year's routine which no other festival affords, proving an opportunity for a man to be with his family and, for a brief period at any rate, from the rigorous monotony of rural labor.” The annual Christmas Ball was something looked forward to all year and as Oliver astutely notes “there may have been a change of venue–a Harlem cellar dive for the 'quarters' and a jazz band instead of the fiddles, but there was probably little difference in kind and certainly in spirit at the Christmas Ball described by Bessie Smith…”


Among Paramount's biggest blues stars of the 1920's were Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake who made their debuts for the label several months apart – Jefferson in December 1925 or January 1926 and Blake around August of 1926. Paramount ramped up their blues and gospel recordings considerably in 1927 and a new Jefferson and Blake record appeared every month. Paramount resorted to several novel promotions for their big artists; In 1924 Ma Rainey's sixth release was labeled "Ma Rainey's Mystery Record" with prizes given to the best title while Charlie Patton's "Screamin' And Hollerin' The Blues" was listed as by The Masked Marvel with a corresponding advert that bore a drawing of a blindfolded singer – looking nothing like Patton – and the clue that he was an exclusive Paramount artist. Similarly, so successful was Jefferson, that a special yellow and white label was produced for Paramount 12650, "Piney Woods Money Mama" b/w ‘Low Down Mojo Blues" which bore his picture and the wording "Blind Lemon Jefferson's Birthday Record." In a similar vein Christmas records can be seen as just another promotional tool with ads for these records appearing annually in black newspapers every holiday season. Befitting his stardom, Lemon's lone holiday record "Christmas Eve Blues" b/w "Happy New Year Blues", was given a full-page advertisement in the December 12th, 1928 edition of the Chicago Defender. In Paramount's 1928 late fall Dealers' Supplement the label advertised scores of "CHRISTMAS, SPIRITUAL AND SERMON RECORDS THAT ARE DEPENDABLE SALES PRODUCERS" and warned that they "SHOULD BE IN YOUR STOCKS NOW." Blind Blake received the large sized treatment in the 1929 edition of the paper for his "Lonesome Christmas Blues," (also sharing the page was Leroy Carr's "Christmas In Jail – Ain't That A Pain?") his only Christmas record. The flip was "Third Degree Blues" – apparently Blake only had enough holiday spirit for one side!

Blind Blake wishes you a Merry X-mas

The trend continued with more frequency in the 30's. Here are a few notable songs: Butterbeans & Susie "Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus" (1930), Charlie Jordan "Santa Claus Blues" ["Christmas Christmas, how glad I am you are here/ Well I ain’t had a chicken dinner for this whole round year/Shiny bones and naked bones gleaming from around my plate/ …So pass me that chicken, the turkey, duck and the goose/Well all you birds gonna be one legged when I turn you-a-loose"] (1931) and "Christmas "Christmas Blues" (1935), Kansas City Kitty & Georgia Tom "Christmas Morning Blues" (1934), Verdi Lee "Christmas "Tree Blues" (1935), Tampa Red "Christmas And New Years Blues" (1934), Peetie Wheatstraw "Santa Claus Blues" (1935), Bumble Bee Slim's "Christmas And No Santa Claus and "Santa Claus Bring Me A New Woman" (1936), Black Ace "Christmas Time Blues (Beggin' Santa Claus)" (1937), Casey Bill Weldon "Christmas Time Blues" (1937), Bo Carter "Santa Claus" (1938), Walter Davis "Santa Claus" (1935), Sonny Boy Williamson I "Christmas Morning Blues" (1938).

Mary Harris, who cut two sides for Decca at an October 31, 1935 session is most certainly Verdi Lee who cut sides on the exact same date, also in the company of fellow St. Louis musicians Peetie Wheatstraw and Charlie Jordan. It was a holiday themed session with the group cutting "Christmas Tree Blues", "No Christmas Blues", "Happy New Year Blues", "Christmas Christmas Blues" and "Santa Claus Blues" (the latter two with vocals by Jordan and Wheatstraw respectively). Paul Oliver noted that "it would be pleasant to think that each singer was inspired by the others to create a blues on the same subject but at this date, with Christmas two months away, it is more likely that it was a deliberate promotional device by Rev. J.M. Gates: Will The Coffin Be Your Santa Claus[producer] Mayo Williams."

In the 40's there was of course more blues Christmas songs but there was a new music brewing called R&B. Evolving out of jump blues in the late '40's, R&B laid the groundwork for rock & roll. The era's biggest Christmas song was undoubtedly the immortal "Merry Christmas, Baby" cut by Charles Brown & The Blazers in 1947. This perennial classic has been covered numerous times including versions by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Lena Horne , Lou Rawls, Booker T. & the MG's, Otis Redding, James Brown and countless others. Charles Brown's smooth ballad style has become synonymous with Christmas ever since remaking "Merry Christmas, Baby" many times, cutting many other Christmas songs and full length albums including 1961's Charles Brown Sings Christmas Songs and Cool Christmas Blues in 1994.

Notable blues and R&B songs from this period include: Champion Jack Dupree's "Santa Claus Blues" (1945), Gatemouth Moore "Christmas Blues" (1946) [recut in 1977 as "Gate's Christmas Blues"], Little Willie Littlefield "Merry Xmas" (1949), Mabel Scott "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" (1947), Harman Ray "Xmas Blues" ["Hold it, hold it man/Don’t play me no jingle bells the way I feel this Christmas/Only kind of bells I want to have anything to do with is some of them mission bells/Man, play me the blues long, loud and lowdown"] (1947), Boll Weavil "Christmas Time Blues" (1947), Big Joe Turner "Christmas Date Boogie "(1948), Thelma Cooper "I Need A Man (For Xmas)" (1948), Smokey Hogg "I Want My Baby For Christmas" (1949), Amos Milburn "Let's Make Christmas Merry Baby" (1949), Harry Crafton "Bring That Cadillac Back" ["I let you eat my turkey on Christmas morn/When I looked around you and my Cadillac was gone"] (1949), Felix Gross "Love For Christmas" ["You can have your turkey and your dressing/Sweet cakes and apple pie/Blue Champagne and Rock & Rye/Everything that money can buy"] (1949), J.B. Summers "I Want a Present For Christmas" (1949 ["Santa Claus, Santa Claus/Hear my plea/Open up your bag and give a fine brown baby to me/ …You can stop by my chimney/Drop her in the chute/ Leave your reindeer outside/Come in and get my loot"] .

One other song from this era is the downright odd "Junior's a Jap Girl's Christmas for His Santa Claus" (1942) a Library of Congress recording by Willie Blackwell that defies categorization. Other non-R&B Christmas songs from the 40's include a few by Leadbelly such as "Christmas Is A-Coming", "The Christmas Song", "On A Christmas Day", Sylvester Cotton "Christmas Blues" (1948), Washboard Pete [aka Ralph Willis] "Christmas Blues" (1948), Alex Seward & Louis Hayes "Christmas Time Blues" (1948), Walter Davis "Santa Claus" (1949).

Clyde Lasley: Santa Came Home DrunkThere was a time you could hit the charts with an instrumental as pianist Lloyd Glenn well knew, scoring big with "Old Time Shuffle Blues" which hit #3 on the R&B charts in 1950 and "Chica Boo" which hit #1 in 1951. He seemed to have a knack for being on hit records, accompanying T-Bone Walker on his 1947 hit "Call It Stormy Monday", and in 1949 he joined Swing Time Records as A&R man, recording a number of hits with Lowell Fulson, including "Everyday I Have The Blues" and the #1 R&B hit "Blue Shadows." In sunny Los Angeles on April 1951 he waxed the shuffling "(Christmas) Sleigh Ride." Glenn's distinctive piano work can also be found on a five-song session Jesse Thomas waxed for Swingtime also in April 1951 which included "Xmas Celebration." Glenn was also present when Lowell Fulson cut his classic two-parter, "Lonesome Christmas Pt. 1 & 2 "in 1951.

The 50's produced many more Christmas gems including: Lowell Fulson's oft covered ""Lonesome Christmas" (1950), Cecil Gant "It's Christmas Time Again" and "Hello, Santa Claus" (1950), Roy Milton "Christmas Time Blues" (1950), Johnny Otis & Little Esther Phillips "Far Away Blues" [also known as "Faraway Christmas Blues"] (1950), Jimmy Liggins "I Want My Baby For Christmas" (1950), The Nic Nacs with Mickey Champion "Gonna Have A Merry Xmas" (1950), Larry Darnell "Christmas Blues" (1950), Sonny Parker with Lionel Hampton "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" (1950), Lloyd Glenn "Sleigh Ride" (1951), Sugar Chile Robinson "Christmas Boogie" b/w "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1950), Titus Turner "Christmas Morning" (1952), Lightning Hopkins "Merry Christmas" (1953), Chuck Berry "Run, Rudolph, Run" (1958) and "Merry Christmas Baby" (1958), John Lee Hooker "Blues for Christmas" (1959).

The 60's, less so in the 70's, produced a number of strong Christmas blues songs including at least one blues classic, Little Johnny Taylor's "Please Come Home For Christmas" (1969) which has become an oft covered holiday classic. Other notable 60's songs include: Sonny Boy Williamson II "Santa Claus" (1960), Lightnin' Hopkins "Santa" (1960) and "Heavy Snow" (1962), Black Ace "Santa Claus Blues" (1960), B.B. King "Christmas Celebration" (1960), Hop Wilson "Merry Christmas, Darling" (1961), Robert Nighthawk "Merry Christmas Baby" (1964), Lowell Fulson "I Wanna Spend Christmas With You" (1967), Louis Jordan "Santa Claus, Santa Claus" (1968), Charles Brown "New Merry Christmas Baby" (1969) featuring Earl Hooker, Bukka White "Christmas Eve Blues" (1969). In the 70's: Jimmy Reed "Christmas Present Blues" (1970), Lee Jackson "The Christmas Song" (1971), Clyde Lasley "Santa Came Home Drunk (1971), Albert King "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'" (1974) and "Christmas Comes But Once A Year" (1974), Eddie C. Campbell "Santa's Messin' with the Kid" (1977).

Freddy Ling: I Hear Jingle BellsThere seems to be a dearth of quality Christmas songs in the 70's and 80's. By the late 80's the rise of the CD caused the demise of the 45 record which was one of the main vehicles for putting out holiday songs. However in lieu of the 45 labels began releasing Christmas themed compilations and there have been a number of very good collections. Some of the best include: Austin Rhythm and Blues Christmas (1989) from the Antone's label [reissued on Epic in 1986 and Sony in 2001], Alligator Records Christmas Collection (1992), Ichiban Blues At Christmas Vol. 1-4 (1991-97) [Best of Ichiban Blues at Christmas was issued 2002], Bullseye Blues Christmas (1995), Stony Plain's Christmas Blues (2000), Blue Christmas (2000) from the Dialtone label, Blue Xmas (2001) on Evidence. A number of artists issued Christmas themed records including Charles Brown, Huey "Piano' Smith, Johnny Adams, B.B. King and Etta James. Also with the dominance of the CD age labels went back into their vaults to put together compilations of classic Christmas blues.

Michael SpörkeInterview
Big Mama ThorntonCotton Picking BluesThe Complete 1950 1961
Big Mama ThorntonI Smell A RatHound Dog: The Peacock Recordings
Big Mama ThorntonRock-A-Bye BabyHound Dog: The Peacock Recordings
Big Mama ThorntonYes, BabyHound Dog: The Peacock Recordings
Big Mama ThorntonHound DogHound Dog: The Peacock Recordings
Big Mama ThorntonMy StoryThe Complete 1950 1961
Big Mama ThorntonStop Hoppin' On MeHound Dog: The Peacock Recordings
Big Mama ThorntonThey Call Me Big MamaThe Complete 1950 1961
Big Mama ThorntonOne More River Saved
Big Mama ThorntonBig Mama's Coming HomeThe Complete 1950-1961
Big Mama ThorntonLife Goes OnAll Night Long They Played The Blues
Big Mama ThorntonBall N' Chain Ball And Chain
Big Mama ThorntonLittle Red RoosterLive In Europe
Big Mama ThorntonMy Heavy Load Ball And Chain
Big Mama ThorntonSession BluesIn Europe
Big Mama ThorntonI'm Feeling Alright With The Muddy Waters Blues Band)
Big Mama ThorntonLooking The World OverIn Europe
Big Mama ThorntonEverybody's Happy But MeSassy Mama!
Big Mama ThorntonJailJail
Big Mama ThorntonThat Lucky Old SunLive At Ann Arbor 1970
Big Mama Thornton Unlucky GirlBall And Chain
Big Mama ThorntonRock MeGunsmoke Blues

Show Notes:

Big Mama ThorntonWillie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton is probably best remembered for two songs that became huge for Elvis and later Janis Joplin. "Hound Dog" held down the top slot on Billboard's R&B charts for seven weeks in 1953 and Elvis had an even bigger hit with it in 1956. Joplin covered "Ball and Chain" on her debut album which became a million seller. Thornton moved to Houston where she signed with Don Robey's cutting some terrific sides but no hits to match "Hound Dog." After Houston she settled in California where she cut a few singles and struggled playing small club dates. After new management she began to play festivals including the American Folk Blues Festival and cut some fine albums for Arhoolie. She cutting records for Mercury and Vanguard through the 70's and touring up until her death in 1984. Today we feature Big Mama's music and hear my interview with Michael Spörke who has written the biography Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music.

As Spörke writes: "Willie Mae moved in the house of relatives in Barbour County Alabama, and found herself a job washing and cleaning spittoons in the local tavern. One night the tavern's regular;r vocalist go drunk so Willie Mae convinced the tavern owner that she could do the job. She never looked back after that." As she related to writer Ralph Gleason: "I like my own old down home singing, with the feeling.I learned to sing blues by myself. …My singing comes from experience, my own feeling. I got my own feeling for everything. I never had no one teach me nothing. I never went to school for music or nothing. I stayed home to take care of my mother who was sick. I taught myself to sing and to blow harmonica and even to play the drums by watching other people. I can't read music but I know where I'm singing! If I hear a blues I like, I try to sing it in my own way. It's always best to have something of your own. I don't sing like nobody but myself." Her big break came through singer Diamond Teeth Mary who met Willie Mae when she was working on a garbage truck and  happened to hear her singing. Mary told her about a singing contest for Sammy Greens Hot Harlem Revue. At fourteen years old, she won the contest and began traveling with the Revue.

Thornton’s career began to take off when she moved to Houston in 1948.She made her debut in 1950 cutting "All Right Baby b/w Bad Luck Got My Man" for the tiny E&W label on Houston's Dallas Avenue. She signed a a five year recording contract with Don Robey's Peacock Records in 1951. Thornton played at Robey's Bronze Peacock club and toured the Big Mama Thornton AdChitlin' Circuit. Thornton cut some solid records before "Hound Dog", such as "Cotton picking Blues" and  "Let Your Tears Fall Baby" but nothing hit the charts. Robey negotiated a deal with Johnny Otis in which he would take some of Robey's artists on tour with the revue and that he would also record them. Sh was apparently a big hits as the Chicago Defender proclaimed that Thornton "stopped the show in the Tacoma, Oakland and Richmond auditoriums, as well as in Stockton, Sacramento, Bakersfield and the Elks Auditorium in Los Angeles." While on tour with Otis she cut "Hound Dog." The son was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller especially for Thornton. Otis brought Leiber and Stoller  to see her to see if they could come up with something for her. As Stoller recalled:  "we saw Big mama and she knocked me cold. she looked like the biggest, bad-ass, saltiest chick you would ever see. And she was mean, a 'lady bear' as they used to call 'em. She must have been 350 pounds and she had all these scars all over her face. I had to write a song for her that basically said 'Go fuck yourself' but how do you do it without actually saying it? ..She was a wonderful blues singer with a great moaning style, but it was as much her appearance as her blues style that influenced the writing of Hound Dog." The song went to number one on the R&B charts and was the biggest record Peacock ever had.

Unable to follow the success of  "Hound Dog" she left peacock in 1957 and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, playing clubs in San Francisco and L.A. but not recording again until 1961. In 1961 she waxed 45's for Irma and Bay Tone. During the latter session she cut "Ball and Chain" but was not released. Her fortunes took an upswing with new manager Jimmy Moore and "the big festivals and shows came back into Big Mama Thornton's life…" Her first big festival shows the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival which she would play again in 1966 and 1968. In 1965, she toured with the American Folk Blues Festival package in Europe. As Spörke writes: "Big Mama was always put on at the end of each show. She was the highlight." During the festival she got the chance to record an album for Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie label. Big Mama In Europe featured an all-star backing band that included Buddy guy, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Walter Horton, Eddie Boyd and others.

Back in the States after her European tour she cut a few singles for Sotoplay, Kent and the terrific "Life Goes On" for Galaxy. In 1966 she cut her second album for Arhoolie, Big Mama Thornton Vol. 2: The Queen at Monterey with the Chicago Blues Band. The album found her backed by a crack Muddy Waters band that included James Cotton, Sammy Lawhorn and Otis Spann among others. 1968 saw the release of the album Ball and Chain on Arhoolie.

While the black audience was turning away from the blues there was a growing appreciation for blues and roots music among white audiences that would benefit Thornton greatly. Between 1966 and 1969 she was in great demand in campuses, clubs, folk festivals and rock festivals. She played in places like the Fillmore and the Ash Grove, sharing the stage with rock bands like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. It was during this period she met Janis Joplin and members of Big Brother & the Holding Company. It was at a club that they heard her perform "Ball and Chain." As Joplin  said " she sings the blues with such heart and soul. I have learned so much from her and only wish I could sing as well as Willie Mae." Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company's performance of "Ball 'n' Chain" at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and release of the song on their number one album Cheap Thrills renewed interest in Thornton's career and was the song that made Joplin famous.

Big Mama Thornton at the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival


By 1969, she signed with Mercury Records. Mercury released her most successful album, Stronger Than Dirt, which reached number 198 in the Billboard Top 200 record chart. Thornton then signed a contract with Pentagram cutting a gospel album called Saved. Thornton's last albums were Jail and Sassy Mama for Vanguard Records in 1975. Thornton never stopped touring until her passing in 1984, including a return to Europe on 1972. As Spörke writes: "The newspapers, for the most part, wrote that she was found dead, alone in a boarding house, but her friends say  that this is not the truth. It seems more realistic that she had gathered together her old buddies one last time on July 25, 1984. Around six in the evening, rumor has it, she phoned her sister Mattie. She sang for her, her favorite song, 'That Lucky Old Sun.' Then she went to the sofa, drank some gin and milk, fell to sleep and never got up." As Johnny Otis said at her funeral: "Don't waste your sorrow on Big Mama. She's free. Don't fell sorry for Big mama. There's no more pain. No more suffering in a society where the color of skin was more important than the quality of your talent."


Kip LornellInterview
Fats Jefferson Hard Luck Blues North Florida Fives
Elroy Hart North Florida Fives North Florida Fives
Fats Jefferson Married Woman North Florida Fives
Willie Morris Broke Down Blues Goin' Back To Tifton
Tom CarterSome Got 6 Months Goin' Back To Tifton
C.D. DobbsAberdeen WomanGoin' Back To Tifton
Blind Donald DawsonRack 'Em SlowGoin' Back To Tifton
Peg Leg Sam Hand Me DownThe Last Medicine Show
Peg Leg Sam Who's That Left Here Awhile AgoThe Last Medicine Show
Guitar Slim Worried Blues Greensboro Rounder
Guitar Slim War Service BluesGreensboro Rounder
Guitar Slim Come On Down To My HouseAin't Gonna Rain No More
Pernell CharityCome Back, Baby, ComeThe Virginian
Pernell CharityFind Me A Home Pernell Charity
Pernell CharityI'm Climbing On Top Of The Hill The Virginian
Irvin Cook & Leonard Bowles I Wish to the Lord I'd Never Been BornVirginia Traditions: Non-Blues Secular Black Music
John CephasRailroad BillVirginia Traditions: Non-Blues Secular Black Music
Lewis HairstonBile Them Cabbage Down Virginia Traditions: Non-Blues Secular Black Music
Clayton HorsleyPoor Black Annie Virginia Traditions: Non-Blues Secular Black Music
Carl Hodges Leaving You, MamaVirginia Traditions: Tidewater Blues
Corner MorrisGoing Down The Road Feeling GoodVirginia Traditions: Tidewater Blues
Jamie AlstonGoin' AwayAin't Gonna Rain No More
Wilbert Atwater Can't Get A Letter From Down The Road Ain't Gonna Rain No More
Jamie AlsonSix White Horses Ain't Gonna Rain No More
Joe & Odell Thompson Going Down The Road Feeling Bad Ain't Gonna Rain No More

Show Notes:

North Florida FivesFrom the 1960's through the 80's there were folklorists, researchers and dedicated fans such as David Evans, George Mitchell, Sam Charters, Chris Stratwichz, Mack McCormick, Bruce Jackson, Peter B. Lowry, Tary Owens, Art Rosenbaum, Pete Welding, Bengt Olsson, Glenn Hinson, Tim Duffy, Axel Küstner and Kip Lornell who actively sought out and recorded rural blues. Over the years we have featured many of them and today we spotlight the field recordings of Christopher “Kip” Lornell who captured some remarkable, undiscovered musicians in the 1970’s. Lornell was gracious enough to let me talk with him a couple of weeks back which I've edited for today's program.

Lornell began conducting blues research while still in high school. As an undergraduate in New York and North Carolina he interviewed and recorded local blues artists, resulting in articles in Living Blues and other periodicals and albums on the Flyright, Trix, and Rounder labels. Lornell served for four years as the staff folklorist at Ferrum College’s Blue Ridge Institute documenting music from Virginia on the groundbreaking Virginia Traditions series of albums which included some of his field recordings. Since 1992 Lornell has taught courses in American Music & Ethnomusicology at George Washington University and more recently works as a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1997 Lornell received a Grammy for his work on the boxed set The Anthology of American Folk Music for Smithsonian/Folkways. Lornell has published numerous articles, liner notes and books. His books include: Melody Man: Joe Davis and the New York Music Scene, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (coauthored with Charles Wolfe), Shreveport Sounds in Black and White (Editor), Happy In Service Of Lord: African-American Sacred Vocal Harmony, Exploring American Folk Music, Virginia's Blues, Country, and Gospel Records, 1902-1943 among others. Our focus on today's program is Lornell's blues field recordings from the 1970's which include the following albums:  Pernell Charity: The Virginian (some tracks recorded by Pete Lowry), Ain't Gonna Rain No More: Blues And Pre-Blues From Piedmont North Carolina, Virginia Traditions: Non-Blues Secular Black Music, Virginia Traditions: Tidewater Blues, Goin' Back To Tifton, North Florida Fives, Guitar Slim: Greensboro Rounder and The Last Medicine Show where he assisted Pete Lowry.

Peg Leg Sam Jackson: Born For Hard Luck

We open the program with selections from two long out-of-print records released on the Flyright label in 1974:  Goin' Back To Tifton and North Florida Fives. Lornell was just out of High School when he made these recordings following what would because a practice for him which is to look in your own backyard. He correctly assumed that since Albany had significant black population there would be some blues musicians. In hindsight he wishes he had done a similar exploration for religious singers but at the time it was blues that was his primary interest. Most of the musicians were probably rusty and didn't play much anywhere but there some fine performances including some piano players who were recorded far too infrequently during this period. Not all blues musicians from the south came to Chicago and in fact quite a number came to New York such as Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee, Rev. Gary Davis and others. It's not surprising some of them went farther into upstate New York.  The most famous, of course, is Son House who settled in Rochester in 1943.

Lornell eventually connected with Pete Lowry who was teaching at SUNY New Paltz. In his voluminous research, writing and recording Lowry has become perhaps the most renowned expert on the blues of the Southeast and is credited with coining the term Piedmont Blues. Between 1969 and 1980 he amassed hundreds of photographs, thousands of selections of recordings, music and interviews in his travels through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. He formed the Trix label in 1972 as an outlet to release his recordings. Around this time Lornell got an NEA Federal Youth Grant and hooked up with Lowry to do some field recording in the south. One of the artists Lornell recorded was Pernell Charity. Charity spent his whole life around Waverly, VA. The Virginian is his only album released on the Trix label. As Lowry told me: "Pernell is a Kip Lornell discovery, done during his Federal Youth Grant year – I was his mentor and supervisor for that! I did the first tapes for him, then got them back – then did a few sessions on my own later, when I got my NEA Folkarts grant." Lornell wrote the liner notes and noted that "the phonograph record has had an important effect in shaping the song repertoire of many blues musicians…such is the case with Pernell Charity… It was the records of Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, and Blind Lemon Jefferson that inspired Pernell to take up guitar."

 Guitar Slim: Greensboro Rounder
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Lornell was also involved with Lowry in recording one of the last medicine shows. The show was  presided over by Chief Thundercloud 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 and Kip Lornell in Pittsboro, North Carolina in 1972. The recordings issued on a 2-LP set of music and spoken word issued on the Flyright label titled The Last Medicine Show.

James “Guitar Slim” Stephens was first recorded in the early 70's by Lornell who recorded him on several occasions in 1974 and 1975. His first LP, Greensboro Rounder, was issued in 1979 by the British Flyright label and are comprised of these recordings. Green also appears on the anthologies Eight Hand Sets & Holy Steps and Ain't Gonna Rain No More: Blues And Pre-Blues From Piedmont North Carolina. Green's final recordings were made in 1980 by Siegfried Christmann and Axel Küstner for the Living Country Blues USA series of albums. Other songs from 1980 appear on the album Old Time Barrelhouse Blues which also includes sides by Memphis Piano Red. Green passed away in 1991.

The Virginia Traditions series consisted of nine albums issued between 1978 and 1988  by BRI Records, a label operated by the Blue Ridge Institute of Ferrum College. The recordings, made in various settings between the mid-1920's and the mid-1980's, range from African American work songs to Anglo American ballads to a cappella sacred music and stringband tunes. As the  Blue Ridge Institute's staff folklorist, Lornell was involved with the series, producing, writing liner notes and compiling tracks which included some of his own field recordings. He was most deeply involved in the volumes Non-Blues Secular Black Music and Tidewater Blues which is where we draw our selections form. Smithsonian Folkways has made the entire series available via their website.

BRI00001 BRI00006
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The final record we look at today is the anthology Ain't Gonna Rain No More: Blues And Pre-Blues From Piedmont North Carolina. The album includes performances recorded in North Carolina in the mid 1970's by Dink Roberts, Joe & Odell Thompson, Jamie Alston, Wilbert Atwater, John Snipes,and Guitar Slim and it contains a mixture of banjo and guitar numbers. It should be noted that during the interview both Kip and I were under the impression this had not been issued on CD but it appears that Rounder did reissue on CD about eight years ago.

Related Listening:

Kip Lornell Radio Feature (2 hours, 4 min., mp3)

Charlie 'Dad' Nelson Michigan Shoe BluesRare Paramount Blues 1926-1929
Tommie Bradley Four Day BluesTommie Bradley - James Cole Groups 1928-1932
Harlem Hamfats Southern BluesHarlem Hamfats Vol. 1 1936
Smoky BabeShake, Shake MattieWay Back in the Country Blues
Herman E. Johnson Depression BluesLouisiana Country Blues
Curtis Jones Weekend BluesTrouble Blues
Cecil Gant My House Fell DownCecil Gant Vol. 7 1950-1951
Meade Lux Lewis Meade's BlueMeade Lux Lewis 1941-1944
Papa Charlie Jackson I'm Alabama BoundFat Mouth Blues
Papa Charlie JacksonUp the Way BoundFat Mouth Blues
Johnny Wright I was In St. LouisDevil's Jump: Important Indie Label Blues 1946-57
Joe Morris Midnight GrinderAnytime, Anyplace, Anyplace
Plas Johnson Worrying BluesHam Hocks and Cornbread
Sylvester Weaver Devil BluesSylvester Weaver Vol. 2 1927
Bo Weavil Jackson You Can't Keep No Brown Backwoods Blues 1926-1935
Blind Blake Guitar ChimesThe Best Of Blind Blake
Forest City Joe Memory Of Sonny BoyRobert Nighthawk / Forest City Joe: Black Angel Blues
Peck Curtis & the Blues Rhythm BoysThe Death Of Sonny Boy WilliamsonMississippi Delta Blues: Blow My Blues Away Vol. 1
Elmore Nixon, Henry Hayes & His Four Kings Alabama BluesBoogie Uproar: Gems From The Peacock Vaults
Bea Johnson & Jim Wynn & His Band No Letter BluesBoogie Uproar: Gems From The Peacock Vaults
Gus Jenkins Drift OnThe Flash Records Story
Sam Collins New Salty DogJailhouse Blues
Freddie Keppard's Jazz Cardinals w/ Papa Charlie Jackson Salty DogPapa Charlie Jackson Vol. 2 1926 - 1928
Kokomo ArnoldSalty DogsKokomo Arnold Vol. 3 1936-1937
Little Brother Montgomery Salty DogRare Chicago Blues 1962-68
Bill GaitherWintertime BluesBill Gaither Vol. 4 1939
Lightnin' Slim Wintertimes Blues Winter Time Blues
Jasper LoveDesert BluesI Have To Paint My Face
Otis Spann Beat-Up TeamOtis Spann Is the Blues
Cora Phillips John HenryMusic from the Hills of Caldwell County
Dewey Corley & Mose Vinson Rains All Night Tennessee Blues Vol. 1
Fred McDowell & Johnny Woods Fred's BluesMemphis Swamp Jam

Show Notes:

Charlie 'Dad' Nelson: Michigan Shoe BluesAn entertaining mix show for today featuring several tracks by Papa Charlie Jackson who was spotlighted in last week's show on blues banjo. In addition we spina set of sides revolving around the song Jackson made famous, "Salty Dog", a couple of songs revolving around both Sonny Boy's, plus we hear from several outstanding piano players, some fine jump blues, plenty of classic pre-war blues and more.

As Jas Obrecht wrote: "Launching his recording career in 1924, Papa Charlie Jackson was the first commercially successful male blues singer. A relaxed, confident crooner and seasoned 6-string stylist, he became one of Paramount's more popular artists, with 33 discs by 1 930. His classic versions of "Salty Dog," "Shake That Thing," "Alabama Bound" and "Spoon-ful" set the template for many covers that followed." In The Paramount Book of the Blues it claims that he came from New Orleans: "From the ancient-historical city of New Orleans, came Charlie jackson-a witty-cheerful-kind hearted man-who, with his joyous sounding voice and his banjo, sang and strummed his way into the hearts of thousands of people."  Jackson began recording in 1924 for the Paramount label, playing a hybrid banjo-guitar 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.

The oldest recordings of "Salty Dog" is credited Papa Charlie Jackson who recorded the song in 1924. According to writer Jas Obrecht, "Old-time New Orleans musicians from Buddy Bolden’s era recalled hearing far filthier versions of 'Salty Dog Blues' long before Papa Charlie’s recording." In his Library of Congress interviews, Jelly Roll Morton recalled a three-piece string band led by Bill Johnson playing the number to great acclaim, probably before 1910. The song has been recorded by Papa Charlie Jackson (1924), Clara Smith (1926), Freddie Keppard’s Jazz Cardinals (1926), the McGee Brothers (1927), The Allen Brothers (1927, 1930, 1934), Sam Collins (1931), Kokomo Arnold (1937),  the Morris Brothers (1938, 1945), Flatt and Scruggs (1950), Blind Willie McTell (1956), Mississippi John Hurt (1963), and Johnny Cash among others.

We hear from a whole batch of fine pianists today including Curtis Jones, Cecil Gant, Meade Lux Lewis, Otis Spann and Jasper Love. Jones scored a huge hit in 1937 with “Lonesome Bedroom Blues.” In 1929, Curtis Jones left Dallas working his way through the Mid and Southwest via Kansas City, then traveling to New Orleans where he finally made his way to Chicago. Arriving there in 1936, he formed his own group and began playing at rent parties and in Southside joints or bars and was soon spotted by Vocalion talent scout Lester Melrose. Over the next five years Curtis Jones was in the studio on no fewer than twenty occasions, recording some hundred titles. is career picked up during the 60's blues revival where he cut several records and eventually moved to Europe where he remained until his death in 1971.

Papa Charlie Jackson: Fat Mouth Blues
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Cecil Gant was an army private who allegedly got his first break while performing for a war bond rally in 1944. He scored a massive hit the same year with “I Wonder” the first release on the new Gilt-Edge label. Gant was a first rate ballad singer in the vein of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown but he was also a superb bluesman who could lay down some storming boogie-woogie. Gant recorded prolifically for the L.A. labels Gilt-Edge and 4 Star and in Nashville, which was probably his hometown, for Bullet, Dot and Decca, meanwhile playing in nightclubs throughout the country. Between 1944 and 1951 he waxed over 150 sides before his untimely death in 1951 at the age of 38.

Pianist Jasper Love was recorded in Clarksdale in 1960 by Chris Strachwitz and recorded there again in 1968 by William Ferris. Over a dozen sides were recorded at the 1960 sessions but only two were issued on the anthology I Have To Paint My Face: Mississippi Blues 1960. The two later sides appear on the collection Bothered All The Time. Love was related to pianist Willie Love who cut sides for the Trumpet label in the 50's.

I've played Otis Spann often on the show and along with the less recorded, Little Johnny Jones, probably the finest of the post-war Chicago piano players. "Beat-Up Team" comes form Otis Spann Is The Blues, the first album I ever picked up by Spann and arguably his finest. I think this record captures the depth of his playing better than any other.

We spotlight some fine 50's blues including some jump blues, from Joe Morris, Plas Johnson, plus a pair of tracks from the vaults of Peacock Records.Alabama's Joe Morris began his career as a jazz trumpet player, working with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Bostic, but his legacy rests with his 1950s work as leader of the more R&B-oriented Joe Morris Orchestra. Morris signed with the then fledgling Atlantic Records, and his "Anytime, Any Place, Anywhere" (with a fine vocal by Laurie Tate) put the new record company on the map when it soared to number one on the R&B charts in 1950. The Joe Morris Orchestra functioned as the unofficial house band for Atlantic in the early to mid-'50s, and several future Atlantic stars passed through its ranks, including Ray Charles and Lowell Fulson. In addition to working for Atlantic, Morris also recorded sides for Decca and Herald. He died in 1958.

Born in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, Plas Johnson and his pianist brother Ray first recorded as the Johnson Brothers in New Orleans in the late 1940s, and Plas then toured with R&B singer Charles Brown. After army service, he moved to Los Angeles and began session recordings as a full-time musician, backing artists such as B.B. King and Johnny Otis as well as scores of other R&B performers.

We spin two numbers from a recent 2-CD, 50 song collection called Boogie Uproar: Gems From The Peacock Vaults. The Peacock label was founded by Don Robey in 1949 to promote his new artist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. The label was named after Robey's Bronze Peacock in Houston. Robey added the Duke label to his operation in 1952, gaining full control of the label in 1953. We played tracks by Bea Johnson and Elmore Nixon. I don't have any information on Johnson outside of eight sides she cut in 1949 backed by the Jim Wynn band with four of the sides going unissued. By his early teens, Nixon was already backing Peppermint Harris on his Gold Star debut. Thereafter he recorded with many Texas artists as a member of alto saxophonist Henry Hayes’ Four Kings, including Carl Campbell, Milton Willis, L.C. Williams, Hubert Robinson, Ivory Lee and Hop Wilson. His debut record, "Foolish Love", was made in 1949 for Sittin' In With. Other sessions followed for Peacock, Mercury Records, Savoy Records and Imperial Records, the latter in 1955. During the mid-60s, he worked with Clifton Chenier, recording on Chenier’s sessions for Arhoolie Records and with Lightnin’ Hopkins for Jewel. At other times he led his own band, working around Texas and Louisiana.

Freddie Keppard's Jazz Cardinals w/ Papa Charlie Jackson - Salty Dog We spin a pair of songs dealing with the death of Sonny Boy Williamson I and II. In the history of the blues there were a number of tributes to those blues who passed: Rev. Emmett Dickenson's "The Death Of Blind Lemon", King Solomon Hill's "My Buddy, Blind Papa Lemon", Scrapper Blackwell's "The Death of Leroy Carr", Bill Gaither's "Life Of Leroy Carr", Memphis Minnie's "Ma Rainey", Brownie McGhee's "Death Of Blind Boy Fuller", Booker T. Washington's "Death Of Bessie Smith", Robert Pete Williams' "Goodbye Slim Harpo", Forest City Joe' "Memory Of Sonny Boy" and Peck Curtis & the Blues Rhythm Boys' "The Death Of Sonny Boy Williamson."

Forest City Joe was raised in the area around Hughes and West Memphis, AR, and even as a boy played the local juke joints in the area. He hoboed his way through the state working road houses and juke joints during the 1940s, and late in the decade hooked up with Big Joe Williams, playing with him around St. Louis, MO. Beginning in 1947, he also began working the Chicago area, and a year later had his one and only session for the Chess brothers' Aristocrat label. He also appeared with Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy "Rice Miller" Williamson (aka Sonny Boy II) on radio shows in the West Memphis area. He recorded for Atlantic Records in 1959 and the same year f in Hughes, AR by Alan Lomax. He was still performing until his death in 1960, in a truck accident while returning home from a dance.

Peck Curtis worked on the Biscuit Time show for about twenty-five years in Helena. Robert Jr. Lockwood claims to have bought Peck his first set of drums shortly after Lockwood and Williamson hired him, in early 1942. During his tenure on King Biscuit Time, Peck also played jukes and nightclubs with Houston Stackhouse, Joe Willie Wilkins, Driftin’ Slim, and others in Arkansas and Mississippi. Curtis and fellow King Biscuit entertainer Robert "Dudlow" Taylor recorded in Helena for the Modern label in 1952. Folklorist George Mitchell also recorded Peck reciting the story of "The Death of Sonny Boy Williamson" and singing a few more songs with Houston Stackhouse and Robert Nighthawk in 1967.


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