John Henry (MP3)
Cottonfield Blues (MP3)
I've always been intrigued by the old blues advertisements and have been collecting them for some time. The bulk of these appeared in the Chicago Defender and I'm fortunate to have access to all the old back issues through a university library. Other ads stem from promotional material sent by the record companies to record stores and distributors. Outside of scanning ads from the Chicago Defender I've grabbed additional ads from books, periodicals and the web. It should also be mention that record collector John Tefteller uncovered a huge cache of Paramount promotional material a few years back. Tefteller bought a huge cache of this artwork from a pair of journalists who rescued them from the rubbish heap some twenty years previously. The depression essentially killed off Paramount's advertising budget so many of these images were never sent out and hence have not been seen by anyone since they were first produced. Tefteller has been making these evocative ads available in his Classic Blues Artwork Calendars since 2004 with a book of these advertisements planned for the future.
As writer Elijah Wald summarizes: "For roughly ten years, from the dawn of the blues recording boom in 1920 until the Depression temporarily destroyed the 'race record' industry, blues was the most popular music in black America, and the Chicago Defender was the principle venue for record advertisements aimed at African American consumers." Wald has compiled a handy index of Chicago Defender ads on his website.
|Mamie Smith Ad, 1922|
The following background is taken from the Chicago Defender website: "On May 5, 1905, Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded the Chicago Defender in a small kitchen in his landlord's apartment, with an initial investment of 25 cents and a press run of 300 copies. The Chicago Defender's first issues were in the form of four-page, six-column handbills, filled with local news items gathered by Abbott and clippings from other newspapers. Five years later, the Chicago Defender began to attract a national audience. By the start of World War I, the Chicago Defender was the nation's most influential Black weekly newspaper, with more than two thirds of its readership base located outside of Chicago." The paper began publishing on a daily basis in 1956.
Once a week I will be presenting an ad or two with some background as well as audio clips. I don't plan on putting these up in any particular order and will omit the large number of early ads mainly devoted to the classic female singers like Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Sara Marin, Alberta Hunter, Lucille Hegamin and the like. Since I'm doing a show on early Texas blues today I thought I'd reproduce the ads for Henry Thomas' magnificent two-part 78 debut, "John Henry" b/w "Cottonfield Blues" cut on July 1, 1927. Vocalion seem to have had faith in this new artist issuing separate ads for both sides. In 1928 Thomas issued six sides with Vocalion placing four ads in the Chicago Defender.
Henry Thomas, nicknamed "Ragtime Texas", was born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas by most accounts, a town which lies roughly between Dallas and Shreveport. The 1874 date marks him as one of the eldest-born blues performers on record. The honor for oldest goes to Johnny "Daddy Stovepipe" Watson born in Alabama in 1867 and who first recorded in 1924. "Flailing his guitar", Tony Russell writes, "in now forgotten country dance rhythms, whistling delicate melodies on his panpies, gruffly chanting rag songs and blues, Thomas is a figure of almost legend." The portrait Thomas presents on his twenty-three recordings cut for Vocalion between 1927 to 1929 provides, Russell notes, "a wholly absorbing picture of black-country music before it was submerged beneath the tidal wave of the blues." Thomas embodied the term songster, cutting blues, rags, country stomps, refashioned coon songs and square dance numbers. Thomas was the archetypal rambling musician who went wherever the railroads would take him. According to Mack McCormick, as told to him from a former railroad conductor, "Ragtime Texas was a big fellow that used to come aboard at Gladewater or Mineola or somewhere in there. I'd always carry him, except when he was too dirty. He was a regular hobo, but I'd carry him most of the time. That guitar was his ticket." Speaking of his famous "Railroadin' Some", William Barlow calls it the most "vivid and intense recollection of railroading" in all the early blues recorded in the 1920's. As for his guitar, Stephen Calt ranked his work "with the finest dance blues ever recorded…its intricate simultaneous treble picking and drone bass would have posed a challenge to any blues guitarist of any era." The pan pipes also linked him to an earlier era and are most evocative in perhaps his best-known composition, "Bull Doze Blues", a song reworked by Canned Heat as "Going Up The Country", some 40 years after the original. After making his final recordings in Chicago in 1929, Henry Thomas disappeared completely from sight. Befitting his near-mythic stature some reports claim to have seen him perform as late as the mid-1950's on Texas street comers. It is believed that he most likely passed away sometime during this period. All of Thomas' recordings can be found on Texas Worried Blues on Yazoo and Henry Thomas ('Ragtime Texas') 1927-1929 on Document with little difference in sound quality although the Yazoo features detailed notes by Stephen Calt.