ARTISTSONGALBUM
James "Pee wee" MadisonLast NightThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band, Vol. 2
Otis SpannWonder WhyThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band, Vol. 2
Muddy Waters BandBlues For SpiveyThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band, Vol. 2
Otis SpannDiving MamaThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band, Vol. 2
Otis SpannShe's My BabyThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band, Vol. 2
Babe StovallMy Brown Is A MistreaterEncore! for the Chicago Blues
Big Joe WilliamsMove Your HandEncore! for the Chicago Blues
John Henry BarbeeSix Week Old BluesEncore! for the Chicago Blues
Olive BrownWoman's LamentEncore! for the Chicago Blues
J.B Lenoir Korea BluesEncore! for the Chicago Blues
Roosevelt SykesDirty Mother Fuyer Encore! for the Chicago Blues
Big Joe WilliamsDrifting BluesKings and the Queen Volume Two
Memphis SimEuropean BluesKings and the Queen Volume Two
Roosevelt SykesSleeping All Day BluesKings and the Queen Volume Two
Bukka White Brownsville Tennessee Spivey's Blues Cavalcade
Johnny Shines, Big Walter Horton & Sunnyland SlimNidnight DarlingSpivey's Blues Cavalcade
Buster BentonI Must Have A Hole In My HeadThe All Star Blues World of Maestro Willie Dixon and his Chicago Blues Band
Carey BellOne Day You're Going To Get LuckyThe All Star Blues World of Maestro Willie Dixon and his Chicago Blues Band
Larry JohnsonMy Hoodoo DoctorThe All Star Blues World of Maestro Willie Dixon and his Chicago Blues Band
Victoria SpiveyI'm Taking OverThe All Star Blues World of Maestro Willie Dixon and his Chicago Blues Band
Otis SpannI'm AccusedUp in the Queen's Pad
Otis SpannVicksburg BluesUp in the Queen's Pad
Sunnyland SlimBlues Drive Me Out Of My MindVictoria Spivey Presents The All Stars BLUES WORLD of Spivey Records in Stereo
Cryin' Marie DixonThree O'Clock In The MorningVictoria Spivey Presents The All Stars BLUES WORLD of Spivey Records in Stereo
Lonnie JohnsonBe CarefulKings and the Queen Volume Two

Show Notes:

Victoria Spivey
Victoria Spivey


Spivey Records was a blues record label, founded by blues singer Victoria Spivey and her partner and jazz historian Len Kunstadt in 1961. The label was originally called Queen Vee Records, changing the name to Spivey records the following year. I believe only a couple of 45's were issued under the Queen Vee imprint. Spivey Records released a series of blues and jazz albums between 1961 and 1985. Most sessions took place at New York’s famous Cue Studios, some happened late at night at Victoria and Lenny's home studio while others took place at informal setting like hotel rooms or even at Willie Dixon's home in Chicago. Spivey put out some very eclectic records, with varying quality but through Spivey's connections she managed to get top notch artists to record for her including Big Joe Williams, Lonnie Johnson, Roosevelt Sykes, Otis Spann, Memphis Slim among many others. Spivey died in 1976 but the label continued until the death of Len Kunstadt in 1996. The whole catalog included some forty albums. Today is part two of our selective look at the Spivey label, focusing on the records and sessions done before Spivey passed away. The bulk of the Spivey catalog has never been issued on CD. Below is a summary of today's featured albums.

10084 10104
Read Liner Notes Read Liner Notes

Spivey's companion Len Kunstadt was the editor and publisher of Record Research magazine, which he founded in the late 1950's and was Spivey's agent, manager and long time partner. In an interview with Norbert Hess he had this to say: "Victoria knew the musicians and scouted for new talent. This went on for 16 years. In my opinion, from 1961 up to her death in 1976, she was more creative than ever before. Her fantastic way of winning over Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters for our company, and her concern for Bob Dylan. Sometimes I thought she was crazy. I could tell a lot of stories. The musicians would have killed for her. At first, they didn't like her, but after a split second they became her fans up to the very end. She was sometimes a little difficult because she was a genius."

Victoria Spivey & Muddy Waters Band
Photo from Otis Spann's 1967 Bluesway session: l to r – Otis Spann, Lucille Spann, Len Kunstadt, Victoria Spivey and Muddy Waters (photo by Denns Chalkin).

Before summarizing today's featured albums it's worth giving some background on Spivey's career. Spivey learned to play piano and sing when she was quite small, and by age twelve she was performing at the Lincoln Theatre, until the manager discovered she couldn’t read music. She continued to play at house parties and clubs, learning from local musicians such as John Calvin, and occasionally sharing a gig with Blind Lemon Jefferson. By age twenty, she had moved to St. Louis, where she made her first record for OKeh, the legendary "Black Snake Blues." The year 1928 saw Spivey teaming up with Lonnie Johnson to record a number of double-entendre vocal duets that sold quite well, but she continued to write songs and record for OKeh until she took time off to appear in King Vidor’s film Hallelujah in 1929. When she returned to the recording studio in late 1929, she was under contract to Victor. Spivey continued to record throughout the 1930s, for both Decca and Vocalion, and as her recording career ended, she hit the road, traveling with the Olsen and Johnson’s "Hellzapoppin’" troupe, owning a club in East St. Louis, and finally retiring to work in the church. But in the 1960's she came out of retirement to appear at clubs such as Gerdes Folk City. Before forming her label she reunited with Lonnie Johnson appearing on his album Idle Hours for Bluesville in 1961, he in turn backed her on her album Woman Blues and she also appeared on Songs We Taught Your Mother alongside Alberta Hunter and Lucille Hegamin. There was also a session for Folkways in 1962. Beginning in 1962 Spivey wrote a semi-regular column in Record Research called Blues Is My Business.

Victoria Spivey Presents The All Stars BLUES WORLD of Spivey Records in Stereo was the eleventh record on the Spivey label. The album comprises of sessions recorded at Willie Dixon home in Chicago in 1969 and sessions done in New York in 1970. Dixon is helped out by hs Blues All Stars which include Sunnyland Slim, Johnny Shines, Clifton James and Cryin’ Marie Dixon. Accoring to the notes there's big news: "ATTENTION: SMOKEY HOGG IS NOT DEAD!!" At least that's what Victoria Spivey thought when she "rediscovered" him in Brooklyn, N.Y. and what Len Kunstadt thought when he penned the liner notes for the album. Smokey actually passed in 1960 and this was Willie Anderson Hogg. He calimed to have recorded in the pre-war era but these sides for Spivey are his only know legacy.

Read Liner Notes

The Muddy Waters band cut two albums for Victoria Spivey's Spivey label: The Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band (1966) and The Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band Vol. 2 (1968). The Muddy Waters records are the only ones I know that have been issued on CD. These came out on the Japanese P-Vine label with several extra tracks. Today we feature tracks from the second volume. Muddy Waters is listed as "Main Stream" for contractual reasons and probably doesn't play on all the tracks. These sessions were recorded after a 1966 date at New York's Cafe Au Go Go. The performance was written up by Len Kunstadt in Record Research 83 (1967) and concludes with "Victoria Spivey, perhaps their greatest fan, and a lucky devil, was fortunate to capture some of the sounds of Otis, George, Luther, Sammy and Francis for the latest release on the Spivey label." As Kunstadt wrote of their live performance: "There was a combustible spark in the atmosphere – and every time Muddy would hit the stand and tell the throng 'He Had Been Mistreated' or he was the 'Hootchie Cootchie Man' or he would confide in you about his 'Five Long Years' the audience exploded into applause and rapport. Muddy and his band were keyed to greatness. OTIS SPANN, Muddy's 'Little Brother', was the anchor man and cohesive agent of the group with his brilliant dominant blues piano."

Otis Spann appears on several Spivey albums including both volumes of the The Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters albums, The Everlasting Blues vs. Otis Spann and Up In The Queen's Pad. As Spivey wrote in a column in Record Research magazine in 1970 shortly after Otis' passing: “He was like a son, a brother and what a pal. Otis came into my life in 1963 during that American Folk Blues Festival (same one with Lonnie!) that toured all over Europe. …The European tour was really fine but Otis and his crazy lovable ways made it wonderful.”

Read Liner Notes

Encore! for the Chicago Blues was the ninth album on the Spivey label and a sequel to Chicago Blues
A Bonanza All Star Blues LPreleased in 1964. According to the notes: "This album is a sequel anthology to Spivey LP 1003 which commentated Victoria Spivey's first visit to Chicago in over 25 years. An informal blues party was given by host Willie Dixon in which such colorful talented artists as Homesick James, St. Louis Jimmy, Sunnyland Slim, Washboard Sam, Koko Taylor, Evans Spencer, John Henry Barbee and Willie himself, Miss Spivey by recording for her youthful record company. …Most of the artists are back again. In addition bonus tracks from studio and field recordings by other fine performers supplement the 'regulars'."

Kings And The Queen Volume Two was issued in 1970 and a sequel to Three Kings And The Queen issued several years earlier. Some of these sessions are likely from the same as the first volume and others probably later. Once again Bob Dylan appears alongside Victoria and Big Joe on a couple of songs. Alos appearing are Lonnie Johnson, Memphis Slim and Roosevelt Sykes. Both volumes of have been reissued on the European Doxy label on 180 gram vinyl only releases.

Spivey's Blues Cavalcade was issued in 1970 and the fifteenth album on the Spivey label. This is a grab bag of tracks with some of these recorded in the 60's – leftover tracks from previous Spivey albums.

By the end of the 1960s, Willie Dixon was eager to try his hand as a performer again, a career that had been interrupted when he'd gone to work for Chess as a producer. He recorded an album of his best-known songs, I Am the Blues, for Columbia Records, and organized a touring band, the Chicago Blues All Stars, to play concerts in Europe. Among the albums he cut during this period was 1973's Victoria Spivey presents The All Star Blues World of Maestro Willie Dixon and his Chicago Blues Band. This is a terrific outing spotlighting a great band that included Buster Benton, Carey Bell, Lafayette Leake and Larry Johnson.

Victoria Spivey began endorsing Otis Spann, telling the world of his genius – in her own inimitable way – via the pages of of her column in Record Research, and sporadically recording him for her Spivey Records label between 1967 and 1969. The sessions that comprise Up In The Queen's Pad were recorded in 1968 and 1969 at Spivey's home in Brooklyn backed by guitarist Sammy Lawhorn. The album was issued posthumously, possibly around 1980. One other song from this session appears on the album Spivey's Blues Showcase.

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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Victoria SpiveyMy DebtBuddy Tate Invites You To Dig A Basket of Blues
Hannah SylvesterBasket of BluesBuddy Tate Invites You To Dig A Basket of Blues
Lucille HegaminNumber 12Buddy Tate Invites You To Dig A Basket of Blues
Victoria SpiveyGrant SpiveyVictoria Spivey & Her Blues
Victoria SpiveyNew York MoanVictoria Spivey & Her Blues
John Henry BarbeeEarly In The MorningChicago Blues -A Bonanza All Star Blues
Homesick JamesQueen's RockChicago Blues -A Bonanza All Star Blues
Victoria SpiveyBrown SkinThree Kings And The Queen
Big Joe WilliamsNo Partnership WomanThree Kings And The Queen
Roosevelt SykesThis Is A New WorldThree Kings And The Queen
Lonnie JohnsonMr Johnson's Guitar TalksThree Kings And The Queen
Lonnie JohnsonFour Shots Of GinThree Kings And The Queen
Shortstuff MaconMoaninIntroducing Mr. Shortstuff
Shortstuff MaconGreat Big LegsIntroducing Mr. Shortstuff
Victoria SpiveyEvery Dog Had Its DayQueen and Her Knights
Victoria SpiveyWe Both Got To DieQueen and Her Knights
Victoria Spivey & Memphis SlimI'm A TigressQueen and Her Knights
Little Brother MontgomeryWest Texas BluesQueen and Her Knights
Otis Spann Ain’t Nobody’s BusinessThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band
Victoria SpiveyTrouble HurtsThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band
Luther JohnsonCreepin’ SnakeThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band
George SmithLookout VictoriaThe Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band
Roosevelt SykesDresser DrawersVictoria Spivey Presents The All Stars BLUES WORLD of Spivey Records in Stereo
Victoria SpiveyBlack GalVictoria Spivey Presents The All Stars BLUES WORLD of Spivey Records in Stereo
Smokey HoggBells Are ToningVictoria Spivey Presents The All Stars BLUES WORLD of Spivey Records in Stereo
Walter HortonInter-Mision StateSpivey's Blues Parade
Sippie Wallace I'm A Mighty Tight WomanSpivey's Blues Parade
Victoria SpiveyJetSpivey's Blues Parade
Lonnie JohnsonLonnie's Traveling LightSpivey's Blues Parade

Show Notes:

 

Spivey LogoSpivey Records was a blues record label, founded by blues singer Victoria Spivey and her partner and jazz historian Len Kunstadt in 1961. The label was originally called Queen Vee Records, changing the name to Spivey records the following year. I believe only a couple of 45's were issued under the Queen Vee imprint. Spivey Records released a series of blues and jazz albums between 1961 and 1985. Most sessions took place at New York’s famous Cue Studios, some happened late at night at Victoria and Lenny's home studio while others took place at informal setting like hotel rooms or even at Willie Dixon's home in Chicago. Spivey put out some very eclectic records, with varying quality but through Spivey's connections she managed to get top notch artists to record for her including Big Joe Williams, Lonnie Johnson, Roosevelt Sykes, Otis Spann, Memphis Slim among many others. Spivey died in 1976 but the label continued until the death of Len Kunstadt in 1996. The whole catalog included some forty albums. Today is part one of our selective look at the Spivey label, focusing on the records and sessions done before Spivey passed away. The bulk of the Spivey catalog has never been issued on CD.

Spivey's companion Len Kunstadt was the editor and publisher of Record Research magazine, which he founded in the late 1950's and was Spivey's agent, manager and long time partner. In an interview with Norbert Hess he had this to say: "Victoria knew the musicians and scouted for new talent. This went on for 16 years. In my opinion, from 1961 up to her death in 1976, she was more creative than ever before. Her fantastic way of winning over Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters for our company, and her concern for Bob Dylan. Sometimes I thought she was crazy. I could tell a lot of stories. The musicians would have killed for her. At first, they didn't like her, but after a split second they became her fans up to the very end. She was sometimes a little difficult because she was a genius."

Spivey Records Adspivey-ad
One of the many ads featured in Record Research magazine. Spivey had a semi-regular column called Blues Is My Business.

Before summarizing today's featured albums it's worth giving some background on Spivey's career. Spivey learned to play piano and sing when she was quite small, and by age twelve she was performing at the Lincoln Theatre, until the manager discovered she couldn’t read music. She continued to play at house parties and clubs, learning from local musicians such as John Calvin, and occasionally sharing a gig with Blind Lemon Jefferson. By age twenty, she had moved to St. Louis, where she made her first record for OKeh, the legendary "Black Snake Blues." The year 1928 saw Spivey teaming up with Lonnie Johnson to record a number of double-entendre vocal duets that sold quite well, but she continued to write songs and record for OKeh until she took time off to appear in King Vidor’s film Hallelujah in 1929. When she returned to the recording studio in late 1929, she was under contract to Victor. Spivey continued to record throughout the 1930s, for both Decca and Vocalion, and as her recording career ended, she hit the road, traveling with the Olsen and Johnson’s "Hellzapoppin’" troupe, owning a club in East St. Louis, and finally retiring to work in the church. But in the 1960's she came out of retirement to appear at clubs such as Gerdes Folk City. Before forming her label she reunited with Lonnie Johnson appearing on his album Idle Hours for Bluesville in 1961, he in turn backed her on her album Woman Blues and she also appeared on Songs We Taught Your Mother alongside Alberta Hunter and Lucille Hegamin. There was also a session for Folkways in 1962. Beginning in 1962 Spivey wrote a semi-regular column in Record Research called Blues Is My Business.

Buddy Tate Invites You To Dig A Basket of Blues
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Buddy Tate Invites You To Dig A Basket of Blues, issued in 1962, was the first album on the Spivey label. As Len Kunstadt wrote in the liner notes: "This may well be the very first record company ever organized and owned by a Negro vintage blues queen." The album featured 1920's blues queens Hannah Sylvester, who first recorded in 1923 and Lucille Hegamin who in November 1920 became the second African-American blues singer to record, after Mamie Smith. This is an excellent album with all three ladies in fine form backed by a good band with a horn section that included Buddy Tate, Eddie Barfield and Dick Vance

Victoria Spivey & Her Blues is the second Spivey album, recorded in 1962, and featuring Spivey backed by Eddie Barfield and Pat Wilson who both appear on the previous record. According to the notes: "When Miss Spivey entered the recording studio in February of 1962 she demanded absolute freedom, 'to sing the way she damned please.' …She really had the blues that day and she wanted the recording engineer to capture all of it on tape. Without reservation, she was granted all her demands. This recording session was on the tail end of a tough year for Miss Spivey where sickness, disappointment (both personal and in business) and loneliness had taken its toll. She wrote hundreds of blues in 1961 because she really had them. These were not thought of as for commercial exploitation but were blues written as an escape mechanism for a troublesome world." The Queen is in excellent form on a set of very personal songs; "Grant Spivey" is a dedication to her father, "Talk About Moanin'" is about her early Texas mentor Robert Calvin while "Buddy Tate" is dedicated to her longtime musical friend.

Three Kings And The Queen
Read Liner Notes

According to the notes from Chicago Blues -A Bonanza All Star Blues: "All these blues sounds you will hear were luckily captured at a reunion in honor of Quenn Victoria Spivey by many of he old blues buddies at a real down-to-earth romping blues party with all the clamor of merriment, clinking glasses, shuffling feet, knocks at every door." The recordings were done in Chicago on Spivey's first visit to the city in 25 years and put together by Willie Dixon. The album features great artists like Homesick James, Willie Dixon, St. Louis Jimmy, Sunnyland Slim and others but suffers from poor recording.

The fourth Spivey album was Three Kings And The Queen featuring pianist Roosevelt Sykes, guitarists Lonnie Johnson , Big Joe Williams, and Victoria Spivey on four vocal selections apiece. With the exception of the closing "Thirteen Hours" (which has Spivey joining Sykes for a piano duet) and a pair of Big Joe Williams tracks (which feature the harmonica of Bob Dylan), all of the performances are unaccompanied. This is a strong outing with everyone in good form. This was not Dylan's first recording session as he had already recorded his debut album Bob Dylan for Columbia Records on March 19, 1962. In in 1965 column in Record Research Spivey recollected back to her first meeting with Dylan: "I was just thinking about little BOB DYLAN. The years flashed backed to 1961 when I furst met him at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village, New York City. He was the sweetest kid you would ever want to meet. He would say Moms, this Moms, that Moms, always trying to get my attention. He was a doll. I was so proud of him then because he really had some talent which was just ready to explode. And did it! Just a couple of years later he was on his way to becoming a world idol in his field. …Bob knew about my little record company SPIVEY and my plans to record Big Joe, and he wanted 'in too.' What a sight as little Bob was carrying Big Joe's unusual guitar to the studio! And did they play well together! …Yes, this is Bob before Dame fortune was to reward him for his great talent."

Spivey Records AdMuddy, Victoria, SpannMuddy, Victoria, SpannSpann, Spivey, Muddy
Otis Spann, Victoria Spivey and Muddy Waters, 1964. Spann holds a copy of the Spivey album Chicago Blues.

Regarding Short Stuff Macon the liner notes to his Folkways album (Hell Bound And Heaven Sent) had this to say: "Short Stuff has now begun traveling the sparse and fickle concert circuit with Big Joe Williams, who, in a trip back to Mississippi, 'discovered' him, liked his 'deep down' music, remembered his father and mother, and decided to take him with him.” The same year those recordings were made they cut sides for the Spivey label which were issued on the album called Introducing Mr. Shortstuff. He appeared one final time on the album Goin’ Back to Crawford alongside Big Joe and others on a 1971 session.

Queen and Her Knights was the sixth Spivey release, issued in 1965, and features Spivey alongside Lonnie Johnson, Memphis Slim, Sonny Greer and Little Brother Montgomery. This is another strong album featuring Spivey in fine form particularly on the playfully risque "I'm A Tigress", a duet with Memphis Slim. Slim delivers a fine rendition of 'TB Blues" amd Lonnie and Little Brother are in typically good form.

The Muddy Waters band cut two albums for Victoria Spivey's Spivey label: The Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band (1966) and The Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band Vol. 2 (1968). The Muddy Waters records are the only ones I know that have been issued on CD. These came out on the Japanese P-Vine label with several extra tracks. In a column in Record Research after Otis Spann died, Spivey had this recollection of the session: "One day I asked Otis if he would make an LP for my little company. And before I could catch my breath his answer was this, 'you are my mother and nobody better not try to stop me.' I was very happy so we set the date – and he got the band together. And the morning that the recording was to be, at 11 AM, I walked into the Go Go blub and there was my child sitting there with his little head on the table with his own coat over his shoulders. I heard he had been there all night long to make sure he would not disappoint me. Tears almost came to my eyes. We went to the studio with the rest of the boys. They gave me some session. Otis and the band were playing SOME blues and I mean THEY WERE PLAYING!"

Victoria Spivey Presents The All Stars BLUES WORLD of Spivey Records in Stereo was the eleventh record on the Spivey label. The album comprises of sessions recorded at Willie Dixon home in Chicago in 1969 and sessions done in New York in 1970. Dixon is helped out by hs Blues All Stars which include Sunnyland Slim, Johnny Shines, Clifton James and Cryin’ Marie Dixon. Accoring to the notes there's big news: "ATTENTION: SMOKEY HOGG IS NOT DEAD!!" At least that's what Victoria Spivey thought when she "rediscovered" him in Brooklyn, N.Y. and what Len Kunstadt thought when he penned the liner notes for the album. Smokey actually passed in 1960. The imposter was Willie Anderson Hogg. who calimed to have recorded in the pre-war era but these sides for Spivey are his only know legacy.

Spivey's Blues Parade was the twelfth album on the Spivey label recorded in a variety of locations: the Walter Horton track was recorded in an informal session in a New York hotel room while the track featuring Sonny Boy Williamson was recorded in Germany during the 1963 AFBF.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Lonnie JohnsonBlue Ghost BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonMr. Johnson's SwingLonnie Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1940
Lonnie JohnsonRoamin' Rambler BluesLonnie Johnson Vol. 2 1926-1927
--=Dean Alger Interview=--
Lonnie JohnsonAway Down in the Alley BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonUncle Ned, Don't Use Your HeadUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonHave to Change Keys to Play These BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonMidnight Call BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonBackwater BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonTomorrow NightUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
ElvisTomorrow NightUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Red Nelson w/ Lonnie JohnsonHome Last NightRed Nelson 1935-1947
Lonnie JohnsonNew Orleans BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Otis Spann w/ Lonnie JohnsonTrouble In Mind Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonDon’t Ever LoveUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonFalling Rain BluesThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie JohnsonCan't Sleep AnymoreThe Original Guitar Wizard
Louis ArmstrongI'm Not RoughThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie Johnson & Clara SmithYou're Getting Old on Your JobYou're Getting Old on Your Job
Lonnie Johnson Lines In My FaceLosing Game
Lonnie JohnsonLonnie's Traveling LightSpivey's Blues Parade

Show Notes:

Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson (left) in 1941. Photo by Russell Lee (Library of Congress).


Dear old New Orleans, they call it the land of dreams

Yes, dear old New Orleans, it’s known for the land of dreams
It’s my old hometown, it’s dear old New Orleans

I first spoke with Dean Alger back in 2009 when his biography of Lonnie Johnson was very much a work in progress. Back then the book was tentatively titled The Second Most Important Musician of the Twentieth Century. Dean sent me some rough chapters back then and I was impressed with what I saw but I was bit skeptical as I knew that writing a biography on someone like Lonnie, who was always reticent to give details of his life plus the sheer length of his career, would make this a daunting job. I'm happy to say that Dean has done a fine job tackling the task and the now published and retitled The Original Guitar Hero and The Power of Music, is not only well researched look at Lonnie's life and music but also goes to great lengths to place Lonnie's music in a cultural context.

Lonnie has always been one of my favorites and I've probably devoted more shows to him than anyone else. Despite his huge influence and impressive output I don't think Lonnie ever gets the respect he deserves. It's an odd thing among blues collectors that many worship the obscure and rare, the rough and unpolished, and dismiss those artists who were more polished and those that had a high degree of popularity like Lonnie. Dean clearly understands Lonnie's influence as he writes "…Lonnie Johnson was the leading original force in moving the guitar to be the dominant instrument of the second half of the twentieth century to today. …Further Lonnie's singing influenced major singers in twentieth century music…" This combination, Dean notes, made Lonnie "the first musician to present the smoother, more sophisticated 'urban blues' (in contrast to the old Country Blues) which were a prime force leading to Rhythm & Blues and then Rock & Roll."

Lonnie Johnson was a true musical innovator who's remarkable recording career spanned from the 1920's through the 1960's. During that time his musical diversity was amazing: he played piano, guitar, violin, he recorded solo, he accompanied down home country blues singers like Texas Alexander, he played with Louis Armtrong's Hot Fives, recorded with Duke Ellington, duetted with Victoria Spivey and cut a series of instrumental duets with the white jazzman Eddie Lang that set a standard of musicianship that remains unsurpassed by blues guitarists. In Johnson's single-string style lie the basic precedents of such jazz greats as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, while being a prime influence on bluesman as diverse as Robert Johnson, Tampa Red and B.B. King. Thus Johnson enjoys the rare distinction of having influenced musicians in both the jazz and blues fields. While his guitar skills have been justly celebrated less has been said about his bittersweet vocals, tinged with a world weary sadness and capable of a rare subtly and nuance. It was a perfect match for his well crafted and imaginative songs filled with dark imagery, longing and an unflinchingly misogynist view of woman and love.

Lonnie Johnson BookOn today’s program we cover a wide swath of Johnson’s career, spinning tracks spanning from 1927 to 1963. The bulk of the tracks from were selected by Dean. Most of those tracks come from a CD he calls the Ultimate "Best Of" Lonnie Johnson, a 23 track selection that is a companion to he book and available through Dean's website. Below is background on some of the songs played today.

Either the 1927 version "Roamin’ Rambler Blues" or the 1942 was a favorite recording of B.B. King. As Dean notes: "Lonnie's singing on his 1927 recording is particularly resonant, with a mellow feel. My ears tell me that Lonnie was the influenced one here, since he seems to have drawn on the resonant, mellow, soulful Texas Alexander offered on sides on which Lonnie accompanied him that same day. The song had quintessential Lonnie J guitar work; and he embellished each vocal line at the end with elegantly finger-picked descending lines, with a harmonic jump up the scale at the end, employing his exquisite touch and tone."

On February 21, 1928 Lonnie cut four remarkable instrumentals: "Away Down in the Alley Blues", "Playing With The Strings", "Stompin' 'em Along Slow" and "Blues in G." As Dean writes: "Playing With The Strings" received more attention, but "Away Down in the Alley Blues" was an even better composition and display of unequaled guitar virtuosity. …Of special importance is the masterful thematic  coherence. In the midst of all that, he also keeps an underlying propulsive beat going, and regularly adds exquisite harmonic touches. He guitar work on these recordings exemplifies how Lonnie enlarged the language of the guitar for jazz and blues."

"The Lonnie Johnson-Eddie Lang duets have been celebrated ever since as among the great guitar achievements of the century in popular music. But amazingly, in December 1931, Lonnie may have exceeded even those duets  in what is one of the most stunning virtuoso guitar performances on record. The recording in question is "Uncle Ned" (full title: "Uncle Ned, Don't Lose Your Head"). …Lonnie takes this old Negro folk song and turns it into a vehicle for the most dazzling, blaze-fingered, virtuoso guitar work."

"The ten guitar duets Lonnie and Eddie Lang recorded were landmarks in guitar history. As British blues and popular music writer Tony Russell has written: "It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this handful of discs." They were also sociological landmarks as the first full partner interracial recordings." From these sessions we play "Midnight Call Blues" and "Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues."

"Backwater Blues" was recorded by Bessie Smith February 17, 1927 and covered by Lonnie  a month later and again in 1948. Today we feature the later version. Dean comments that "…many have missed the artistic value of this "Backwater Blues" because they have too narrow a notion of great guitar playing as being only about fast finger-work and razzle-dazzle. Musical art is much more than that, which Lonnie demonstrated with this recording. He tops it off with truly masterful singing. From the first notes, Lonnie employs rich, resonant vocal tone, among his best ever, great dynamics and nuance, and with his vocal lines and inflections he compellingly conveys the meaning of the lyrics and the feeling of people experiencing  this natural disaster. In short with this recording, Lonnie Johnson refuter demonstrated he'd reached the level of greatness as a singer."

Lonnie recorded the biggest hit of his career, “Tomorrow Night,” for King Records in Cincinnati, released in 1948.That song resonated with musicians who became legendary: B.B. King, Buddy Guy & Robert Lockwood, Jr., all told me they were moved by it. BB covered it on his 2008 CD, One Kind Favor. Bob Dylan covered it, using Lonnie’s phrasing, on his 1992 CD, Good As I Been To You. (Dylan and Lonnie connected at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village in 1961, and cd-lonnie-bedbugLonnie gave Bob some tips on guitar.) The other most notable musician influenced by “Tomorrow Night” was Elvis Presley.  As Peter Gurlanick reported in his major Elvis biography: "In 1953 to 1954, 'Tomorrow Night" was a song Elvis sang all the time.”

"Home Last Night" finds Lonnie playing lead electric guitar on a son sung by Red Nelson. "This recordings has a driving Rhythm & Blues feel, rockin' rhythm and style on the guitar by Lonnie, and what, seven to ten years later, became the essence of the early electric guitar and overall sound of the recordings that established the new musical genre of Rock & Roll."

"Don't Ever Love" comes from Lonnie's 1960 comeback for Prestige/Bluesville titled Blues By Lonnie Johnson. "Most striking on "Don't Ever Love" is Lonnie's vocal artistry. The man who was an ultimate virtuoso guitarist  in popular music  sings with such power, nuance, dynamics, expressiveness, timing, and meaningful phrasing on this recording that shows, even more compellingly, how he had achieved the level of greatness in his singing, as well."

In 1963 Lonnie toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. During that tour he recorded a wonderful session with pianist Otis Spann in Copenhagen for the Storyville label. From that session we feature "Trouble In Mind."

"New Orleans Blues" is one of my favorite Lonnie songs issued on the album Blues, Ballads, and Jumpin' Jazz, Vol. 2 which also features Elmer Snowden. Elmer asks Lonnie to sing one from his old hometown and Lonnie responded with this beautifully, dreamy nostalgic number. As Dean writes: "He sings the lyrics with an extraordinary depth of feeling, with excellent timing and phrasing,with knowing strategic use of syncopation , and with verve, yet in a smooth lyrical manner." Along with "Backwater Blues" and "Don't Ever Love", Dean lists this as one of Lonnie's finest vocal performances.

Like "Backwater Blues", "Broken Levee Blues", recorded the same year is another response to the great flood of 1927. In addition to the fine singing and playing, Dean notes that the song has a "deeper dimension. …The song's lyrics express striking protest about the means by which the levees along Mississippi were maintained, a system which a few years later was called a new from of 'Mississippi Slavery' by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP." As David Evanes notes: "In many places Black men who tried to leave the area, even those who were simply passing through, were arrested by White police and National Guard troops and forced to work on the levees"

Related Listening:

-Dean Alger Interview/Feature (95 min., MP3)

 

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Show Notes:

ARTISTSONGALBUM
Ishman BraceySaturday BluesWhen The Sun Goes Down
Ishman BraceyLeft Alone Blues Ishman Bracey & Charlie Taylor 1928-1929
Ishman BraceyBrown Mama Blues Vintage Mandolin Music
Sam CollinsRiverside BluesJailhouse Blues
Sam CollinsYellow Dog BluesJailhouse Blues
Sam CollinsThe Jail House BluesJailhouse Blues
Otto Virgial Little Girl in RomeAmerican Primitive Vol. II
Otto Virgial Bad Notion Blues American Primitive Vol. II
Willie LoftonPoor Boy BluesBig Joe Williams & the Stars of Mississippi Blues
Willie LoftonIt's Killin' MeBig Joe Williams & the Stars of Mississippi Blues
Willie LoftonDirty MistreaterBig Joe Williams & the Stars of Mississippi Blues
Ishman Bracey Trouble Hearted BluesTrouble Hearted Blues
Ishman Bracey The Four Day BluesJackson Blues: 1928-1938
Sam CollinsDevil In The Lion's DenJailhouse Blues
Sam CollinsPork Chop BluesJailhouse Blues
Sam CollinsHesitation BluesJailhouse Blues
The Mississippi MoanerMississippi MoanMississippi Moaners
The Mississippi MoanerIt's Cold In ChinaAmerican Primitive Vol. II
Rube LaceyMississippi Jail House GroanCountry Blues: The Essential
Rube LaceyHam Hound and GravyChasin That Devil Music
Ishman BraceyLeavin' Town BluesIshman Bracey & Charlie Taylor 1928-1929
Ishman BraceyWoman Woman BluesThe Return Of The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
Sam CollinsMy Road Is Rough And Rocky (How Long, How Long?)Sam Collins 1927-31
Sam CollinsLonesome Road Blues Before The Blues Vol. 1
Otto VirgialGot The Blues About Rome When the Levee Breaks
Otto VirgialSeven Year Itch Mississippi Blues Vol. 4: Delta Blues Goin' North
Willie LoftonDark Road BluesBig Joe Williams & the Stars of Mississippi Blues
Willie LoftonBeer Garden BluesBig Joe Williams & the Stars of Mississippi Blues
Sam CollinsSlow Mama SlowSam Collins 1927-31
Sam CollinsNew Salty DogJailhouse Blues

Today's show is the first of a series of shows devoted to great early Mississippi blues artists, most little remembered today. Ishman Bracey, Rube Lacey and Willie Lofton hailed from the fertile Jackson, MS region. Little is known of Lofton who cut eight titles in 1934 and 1935. Despite cutting only one 78 Lacey was a well-known blues performer in the Jackson area and the Delta until 1932 hen he put his guitar down and became a preacher. Crying Sam Collins was raised around McComb, Mississippi and recorded relatively extensively between 1927 and 1931. Virtually nothing is know of the obscure Otto Virgial and Isiah Nettles, who went by the moniker The Mississippi Moaner.

Ishman Bracey
 Ishman Bracey

"A rare combination of braggart, entertainer, musician, showman and eventually an ordained minister" is how Gayle Dean Wardlow, who interviewed him many times, chose to describe him in Blues Unlimited (No. 142). By Ishmon Bracey's own account to Dave Evans, he was a fighter too, "mixing it" with Saturday night drunks and the jealous lovers who came after his friend Tommy Johnson. It seems that he had always held strong religious sentiments, and had been a member of the Baptist church as a child in Byram, Mississippi. So his eventual ordination as a preacher, which was a personal relief after his "wicked ways" and life "in the world", was not so surprising.

Ishman Bracey was born in Byram, about ten miles south of Jackson, in January 1899, according to census records. He learned guitar from locals Louis Cooper and Lee Jones and moved to Jackson in the late 1920s after encountering Tommy Johnson. Bracey soon became one of the most popular musicians in the Jackson area’s vital blues scene, which consisted largely of musicians who were likewise born in small communities in the area. Jackson blues in the 1920s had a lighter feel than its counterpart in the Delta and sometimes featured the mandolin and the fiddle. Bracey and other musicians often played at dances for both black and white audiences, performing waltzes and ragtime numbers, and otherwise serenaded passersby on the busy streets of Jackson. Bracey’s music came to broader attention after he auditioned for recording agent H. C. Speir, who operated a furniture store on North Farish Street. Speir arranged for Bracey and Tommy Johnson to make their debut recordings at a session for Victor in Memphis in February of 1928. At that session and another for Victor later that year, Bracey was accompanied on guitar and mandolin by Charlie McCoy.

Crying Sam Collins Ad
Black Patti advertisement in the Chicago Defender July 2, 1927

Bracey recorded in more of a jazz mode in late 1929 and early 1930 for the Paramount label in Grafton, Wisconsin, backed by the New Orleans Nehi Boys (Charlie Taylor on piano and “Kid” Ernest Moliere on clarinet, an instrument rarely heard on Mississippi blues recordings). By the mid-‘30s many of the musicians in Bracey’s circle had left the area, and his musical partnership with Tommy Johnson ended. In later city directories he is listed as a laborer or painter. In 1963, when blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow met and interviewed him in Jackson, Bracey had been a Baptist minister for over a decade, and, although he would no longer play blues, he provided important information on the early blues scene in Jackson. He died on Feb. 12, 1970.

When Sam Collins made his recording debut in April, 1927, he was not far short of his fortieth birthday; born in Louisiana in August, 1887, he was raised, according to acquaintances located by Gayle Dean Wardlow, in McComb, Mississippi, just over the border from his native state. lt's not known when he started out in music, but by 1924 he was performing in local barrelhouses at weekends. By this time he had formed a loose and partnership with Joe Holmes from Sibley, La., who recorded for Paramount in 1932 as King Solomon Hill. Collins made his debut in 1972 cutting fives, four issued on the Black Patti label who advertised them as by "Crying Sam Collins and his Git·Fiddle." It seems likely that Collins Iearned his repertoire around the turn of the century, when he was,in his Iate teens and early twenties, for it incorporates a wide spectrum of music from that era and earlier. He cut  close to two-dozen issue sides between 1927-1931 for Black Patti, Gennett, Banner and ARC. Collins left behind a large number of unreleased sides. It's reported that Collins moved to Chicago where he died in 1949.

Rubin Lacy was one of the most talented and influential artists in Mississippi blues during his short career. He was a well-known blues performer in the Jackson area and the Delta until 1932, when he put his guitar down and became a preacher. Lacy played in an elite circle that included Son Spand, Ishmon Bracey, Tommy Johnson, Charlie McCoy, and Walter Vinson. He later moved to the Delta, where he formed his own group, performed with Charley Patton, and inspired artists including Son House, Tommy McClennan, and Honeyboy Edwards. Lacy made four recordings for Columbia Records at a session in Memphis in December 1927, but none were released. The following March he traveled to Chicago, where he recorded two songs for the Paramount label, “Mississippi Jail House Groan” and “Ham Hound Crave." In 1966 blues scholar David Evans located Lacy in Ridgecrest, California, and recorded him preaching and performing gospel songs together with members of his congregation. Lacy died in 1969.

Willie Lofton is a virtual biographical black hole who made four records in the fifteen months between August 1934 and November  1935.It seems he came from Jackson, Miss., where he worked as a barber before journeying to Chicago. He returned south in  1942 and died in Jackson twenty years later.

Big Joe Williams once recalled that Otto Virgil (or Virgial) was from the area of Columbus, MS., and could usually be found playing with another native by the name of Tom Turner. Virgial had a community in Sunflower County on Halloween Day of 1935 on his mind when he recorded four songs that also included "Got The Blues About Rome". He was probably living in Chicago at the time of his one and only session.

Mississippi Jail House Groan

The Mississippi Moaner was the name used by Isaiah Nettles when he recorded five sides for Vocalion Records in Jackson, MS, on October 20, 1935. Only one 78 from the session was ever officially released, "Mississippi Moan" b/w "It's Cold in China Blues" (a version of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Long Lonesome Blues"). A credible singer and a fine guitar player, Nettles lived in Carlisle, MS (in Claiborne County), as late as 1936, but his trail vanishes after that date.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
James "Son" ThomasHighway 61 Blues Give My Heart Ease
James "Son" ThomasCrawling KingsnakeThe Blues Are Alive And Well
James "Son" ThomasBottle 'Em Up And GoMississippi Delta & South Tenessee Blues
Turner FoddrellCrow Jane Unreleased/Pete Lowry
The Foddrell BrothersPatrick County RagPatrick County Rag
The Foddrell BrothersBoogie In The MorningPatrick County Rag
Cecil BarfieldI Woke Up CryingThe George Mitchell Collection
Cecil BarfieldHooks In The WaterSouth Georgia Blues
Cecil BarfieldTrue Love South Georgia Blues
Guitar ShortyMy Mind Never ChangedCarolina Slide Guitar
Guitar ShortyI'm Going HomeCarolina Slide Guitar
Guitar ShortyGoin' Down in GeorgiaCarolina Slide Guitar
James 'Son' ThomasCairo BluesLiving Country Blues: Vol. 5 Mississippi Delta Blues
James 'Son' ThomasMama Don't Low No Guitar Playing Round HereLiving Country Blues: Vol. 10 Country Boogie
James 'Son' ThomasCatfish BluesLiving Country Blues: Vol. 5 Mississippi Delta Blues
The Foddrell BrothersHaunted HousePatrick County Rag
The Foddrell BrothersI Got A WomanClassic Appalachian Blues From Smithsonian Folkways
Cecil BarfieldLonesome House Blues The George Mitchell Collection
Cecil BarfieldI Told You Not To Do ThatThe George Mitchell Collection
Cecil BarfieldHoochie Coochie ManUnreleased/Axel Künster
Guitar ShortyDon't Cry Baby Alone In His Field
Guitar ShortyWorking Hard Alone In His Field
Guitar ShortyHold On BabyCarolina Country Blues
James "Son" ThomasAfter The WarGateway To The Delta
James "Son" ThomasTrain Fare BluesGateway To The Delta
James "Son" ThomasHigh Brown Son Thomas Plays And Sings Delta Blues
The Foddrell BrothersLonesome Country Boy BluesThe Original Blues Brothers
The Foddrell BrothersGoing Up The CountryThe Original Blues Brothers
The Foddrell BrothersSlow DragThe Original Blues Brothers

Show Notes:

Son Thomas
James "Son" Thomas, photographed by Bill Ferris in Leland, Mississippi, 1968

The days of finding country blues performers still playing in their local communities seems to be a thing of the past and with that so too are the days of field recording.  These days hardly anyone one undertakes field recording and the sad fact is that blues has largely disappeared as integral part of African-American rural communities; most of the old timers have passed on and few of the younger generation are interested in blues, particularly traditional blues. From 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, Kip Lornell, Glenn Hinson, Tim Duffy, and Axel Küstner who actively sought out and recorded rural blues. Some were hunting for the famous names who made records in the 1920’s and 1930’s, others were seeking to fill in biographical blanks regarding some of the older musicians coveted by collectors and then there were those who were seeking to document the blues tradition as it still existed in rural communities. What they recorded in the rural communities of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas and Mississippi during this period was a still thriving, if largely undocumented, blues culture. As George Mitchell wrote: "As late as 1969 a country bluesman who at least occasionally played could be located in most small towns of Georgia. In 1976, there are very few active blues musicians left in the state! In the short span of seven years, one of the world's most vital and influential forms of music as it was originally performed has all but died out in Georgia, and probably in the rest of the South as well." I would say that even up through the early 1980's were still some fine players still active. Today's program spotlights  a batch of superb artists from this period,: the Foddrell Brothers, James "Son" Thomas, Cecil Barfield and Guitar Shorty (John Henry Fortescue).

Marvin and Turner Foddrell
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Born in the Yazoo County community of Eden on October 14, 1926, James "Son"Thomas made his first recordings for folklorist Bill Ferris in 1968 (earliest sides appear on the compilations Blues From The Delta and The Blues Are Alive And Well). He later traveled throughout the United States and Europe to perform at blues concerts and exhibit his artwork. Thomas died in Greenville on June 26, 1993.

Thomas was one of the most recognized local musical figures in Mississippi during the 1970s and ’80s. He performed throughout the state at nightclubs, festivals, private parties, government social affairs, colleges, and juke joints. He also toured and recorded several blues albums in Europe, and his folk art was featured at galleries in New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Thomas learned guitar as a youngster after hearing his grandfather, Eddie Collins, and uncle, Joe Cooper, at house parties in Yazoo County. He later saw the two blues legends he regarded as his main influences, Elmore James and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, as well as Bentonia bluesman Jack Owens.

Thomas' performances had been confined to juke joints and house parties until he met Bill Ferris, who began recording and filming Thomas and other local bluesmen in 1968. The Xtra and Matchbox labels released the first recordings of Thomas, who later made albums for the Mississippi-based Southern Culture, Rustron, and Rooster Blues labels as well as companies in France, Holland, and Germany. He also appeared in several documentary films. Among his best recordings were made by Axel Küstner and Ziggy Chrismann in 1980 and issued as the Living Country Blues USA series on the German L&R label. By 1980 Thomas was a regular on the festival circuit but had recorded little, just a handful of sides scattered on obscure anthologies. After 1980 he toured Europe, recorded prolifically, including several very strong albums.

Marvin and Turner Foddrell were born into a musical family near Stuart in the Virginia Piedmont and for the major parts of their lives played regularly only at community gatherings, never professionally. Marvin and Turner were sons of a regionally renowned mult-instrumentalist, Posey Foddrell, who was proficient on fiddle, mandolin, piano, banjo, and guitar and played both with black and integrated groups. The family had lived in the Stuart area for several generations and they rarely ventured any significant distance from their home, where Turner ran a grocery store on Highway 8, and where the brothers were "discovered" by a local deejay during one of their impromptu jams. Discovered in the 1970s', the Foddrells became a regular fixture at the annual Blue Ridge Folklife Festival at nearby Ferrum College (the college's Blue Ridge Institute recorded the brothers extensively) and were also featured at many other festivals including some in Europe. The Foddrell Brothers recorded only two commercial records: The Original Blues Brothers (1981) on Swingmaster and Patrick County Rag (1983) on Outlet. They also appeared alongside more famous traditional musicians on a number of recorded anthologies. Both brothers have since passed away. Pete Lowry recorded them extensively in 1979 but none of these recordings were ever issued. Turner’s son Lynn joined the brothers on the 1982 and 1983 performances at the Celebration of Traditional Music. After Marvin’s death, Turner had continued to perform with Lynn. With Turner succumbing to lung cancer on Jan 31, 1995, the baton was passed onto Lynn.

South Georgia Blues
Read Liner Notes

One of the the most striking musicians recorded by George Mitchell was Cecil Barfield, and I agree with Mitchell’s assessment that he was some kind of genius. Mitchell called him "probably the greatest previously unrecorded bluesman I have had the pleasure of recording during my 15 years of field research." …Cecil was illiterate, but he was a genius. He couldn't read or write, but he was a highly intelligent person. I would stay up for hours, just talking to Cecil. …People from Germany and Italy wanted to have him come play, but he was not going anywhere." He began playing blues at five years old, using a cooking oil can he had rigged up with a neck and one string. He took up guitar at 12, and started playing rag and dance pieces before developing his distinctive bottleneck style. As Mitchell recalled: "We were recording Cecil in this tiny sharecropper's shack in some guy's plantation." Needless to say the plantation owner was not happy who called the sheriff on Mitchell.

Using the name William Robertson, in fear of endangering his welfare checks, he cut the LP South Georgia Blues for Southland in the mid-70's with several other tracks appearing on Flyright’s Georgia Blues Today (reissued by Fat Possum). I imagine Barfield is an acquired taste but to me he is simply mesmerizing; his music, with his droning, lightly distorted electric guitar coupled with his powerful mushed mouth, nasal singing, is hypnotic. Barfield has some originals but his genius is in the way he transforms well known songs by Frankie Lee Sims ("Lucy Mae Blues"), Lightnin’ Hopkins ("Mojo Hand"), J.B. Lenoir ("Talk To Your Daughter") and others into something startlingly original. Mitchell recorded Barfield extensively and there were a couple of digital collections available at one point. Art Rosenbaum and Axel Küstner also record Barfield. Barfield was born in 1922 and was farmer all his life until a back injury forced him to retire.  On how he came up with his songs he told Art Rosenbaum "your heart feels a certain way, then your mind follows, then you hands follow that."

Pete Lowry called Guitar Shorty (John Henry Fortescue) "One of the most spontaneous musicians around; right up there with Lightnin' Hopkins, maybe more so." He cut a pair of unissued sides for Savoy in 1952, the long out-of-print album  Carolina Slide Guitar (Flyright, 1971) and an album for Lowry's Trix label, Alone In His Field, before passing in 1975. During his brief period of recording he played at the Chapel Hill Blues Festival and at coffee houses in the same town. Performances of him at the Chapel Hill Blues Festival can found on the Flyright albums Carolina Country Blues and Another Man Done Gone.

Guitar Shorty
Guitar Shorty, photo by Kip Lornell.

As Lowry wrote: "Born John Henry Fortescue in the town of Beihaven, N.C. at an unknown ttme, Shorty is possibly in his early forties. I am convinced that Shorty has no idea how old he is, and isn't of major importance. He now lives in Elm City. N.C. a very small town between Rocky Mount and Wilson – he lives in poverty in a house next to one of the fields he often works in…  the white man across the way owns it all. Life is hardly romantic, unless one is masochistic and likes starving, getting drunk, and waking in jail on occasions. When not working, he drinks, plays in the streets (that's how McLean met him the first time), or often in a church on Sunday (with his wife Lena)." As Danny McClean recalled: "I first met Shorty in the summer of 1970. There he was, just walking down the street playing guitar with Lena tagging along behind him. Shorty didn't sound like Blind Boy Fuller or Gary Davis or pick like Elizabeth Cotton. He played better when I first met him than he has since. He played really beautiful slide – weird things like maybe only Robert Johnson could have done. All the best things I heard him do never got on to tape it seems. They happened riding to his house in my car or on a visit when I didn't bring a tape recorder. He isn't nervous when he plays to a tape but it's never as good."

 

 

 

 

 

 

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