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
Read Liner Notes

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
Read Liner Notes Read Liner Notes

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gus Cannon
Gus Cannon circa 1920

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guitar Slim Little BoyGreensboro Rounder
Guitar Slim Worried BluesGreensboro Rounder
Lum Guffin Moaning And Groaning Blues Walking Victrola
Lum Guffin Railroad Blues Walking Victrola
Shortstuff Macon Moanin' Introducing Mr. Shortstuff
Shortstuff Macon Great Big LegsIntroducing Mr. Shortstuff
Maxwell Street Jimmy Me And My Telephone Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis
Maxwell Street Jimmy Drifting From Door To Door Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis
Maxwell Street Jimmy Crying Won't Make Me Stay
Modern Chicago Blues
Guitar Slim Penitentiary Moan Blues Greensboro Rounder
Guitar Slim War Service Blues Greensboro Rounder
Guitar Slim Lovin Home Blues Greensboro Rounder
Lum Guffin Johnny Wilson Walking Victrola
Lum Guffin Old Country BluesOld Country Blues
Shortstuff Macon Short Stuff's Corrina Hell Bound & Heaven Sent
Shortstuff Macon My Jack Don't Drink Water No More Hell Bound & Heaven Sent
Shortstuff Macon Tight Like ThatHell Bound & Heaven Sent
Maxwell Street Jimmy Make Some Love To You Chicago Blues Live At The Fickle Pickle
Maxwell Street Jimmy Long Haired Darlin' Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis
Guitar Slim Won't You Spread Some Flowers On My Grave Living Country Blues Vol. 8
Guitar Slim – Bad Luck Blues Living Country Blues Vol. 8
Lum GuffinOn The Road Again Walking Victrola
Lum GuffinJack Of Diamond Walking Victrola
Guitar Slim Come On In My Kitchen Living Country Blues USA: Introduction
Guitar Slim Lula's Back In Town Living Country Blues vol. 10

Show Notes:

 Guitar Slim: Greensboro Rounder
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I was talking last week on the air during our pledge drive about radio and how the landscape has changed with iTunes and services like Spotify and Pandora. What I tried to emphasize is that even with these services there is a vast amount of material that has never been digitized and hence you will never hear on these services. This is certainly the case with the blues. When CD's starting coming out many of us assumed everything would be made available but there remain many, many great albums that remain long out-of-print with little chance of ever getting reissued. If you look in the The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings, one of my favorite resources, there's a thousand pages listing blues CD's but one could come up with a hefty companion volume of all the recordings that have not made it onto CD and therefore not included in that book. Those recordings are featured regularly on this show and make up something of a forgotten history of the blues. There are many artists who's complete output remains unissued on CD, making their achievements virtually forgotten. With companies like Document and Yazoo, almost all of the pre-war materiel has been reissued. Similarly labels like Ace and Classics, among others, have done a good job covering the post-war era. The most glaring oversight is some of the great, little known bluesman who were captured in the 1960's and 70's, many of these field recordings, and issued almost exclusively on small labels. Our ongoing Forgotten Country Blues Heroes continues spotlighting these artists.

From the 1960's through the 80's there were folklorists, researchers and dedicated fans such as David Evans, Pete Welding, 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. Today's program spotlights a batch of superb, little known, artists who were recorded during this period, almost all of whose recordings remain out-of-print: Guitar Slim Stephens, Lum Guffin, Short Stuff Macon and Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis.

 Lum Guffin: Walking Victrola
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James “Guitar Slim” Stephens was born on March 10, 1915, near Spartanburg, South Carolina. He began playing pump organ when he was only five years old, singing spirituals he learned from his parents and reels he heard from his older brother pick on the banjo. Slim was so small that his feet would not even reach the organ pedals, so he had one of his brothers do the pumping while he practiced the keys. Within a few years, Slim was playing piano. When he was thirteen, Green began picking guitar, playing songs he heard at local “fling-dings,” house parties, and churches. A few years later he joined the John Henry Davis Medicine Show, playing music to draw crowds to hear the show master’s pitch; this took him throughout the southeastern Piedmont. It seems as if traveling was in Slim’s blood from that point on; for in the next twenty or so years, he moved throughout the eastern United States living in such cities as Richmond, Durham, Louisville, Nashville, and Waterbury, Connecticut. In 1953 he arrived in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he lived for the remainder of his life playing both guitar and piano–singing the blues at house parties and spirituals at church.

Green's was first recorded in the early 70's by Kip 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 from the 1970's. 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. I'll be spotlighting more sides by Slim on an upcoming show devoted to the field recordings of Kip Lornell.

Begnt Olsson recorded Lum Guffin between 1972 and 1974, with a few tracks appearing on anthologies and the rest on his only full-length album, Walking Victrola, issued on the Flyright label in 1973. Further field recordings were made in 1978 by Gianni Marcucci and issued on his Albatros label. Guffin performed as a street musician around Binghampton, Memphis during the depression with his sometime partner, mandolin player ‘Chunk’ McCullough or at home for various social gatherings, picnics, dances, etc. Guffin also performed in a fife and drum band during the time of these recordings. He passed in 1993.

 Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis
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Regarding Short Stuff Macon the liner notes to his Folkways album (Hell Bound And Heaven Sent recorded in 1964) 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.” In 1964 Macon recorded for the Spivey label 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. Macon passed in 1973.

Maxwell Jimmy Davis was Born Charles W. Thompson on March 2, 1925 in Tippo, MS. He learned to play guitar from John Lee Hooker while still a teenager, developing an insistent single-chord technique similar to that of his mentor; Davis and Hooker regularly gigged together in Detroit throughout the '40s, with the former settling in Chicago early the next decade. There he became a fixture of the West Side's Maxwell Street marketplace area. Davis recorded for Sam Phillips in 1952 but those sides were never issued .Live tracks from 1963 at Chicago's Fickle Pickle have been issued on different albums and there were some sides cut for the Testament label circa 1964.65. In 1965 he recorded his only full-length album, Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis for Elektra. His last recordings were from the late 80's. He passed in 1995.



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