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OK, shameless plug time. Blues, Blues Christmas Vol. 2, a sequel to my 2005 release is now out on the Document label and features more  jazz, blues, boogie-woogie and gospel recordings dedicated to the season. With lively Boogie-woogie and R & B, reflective blues and the odd cautionary sermon thrown in for good moral measure, this double CD covers all the bases. The 2-CD set collects 44 numbers spanning from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, many of which have not been anthologized before. Artists include Blind Lemon Jefferson, Rev. A.W. Nix, Blind Blake, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Smokey Hogg, Fats Waller, Jesse Thomas, Gatemouth Moore, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry and many, many others. You can read my notes by visiting the writing page. It also appears that the elusive Blues, Blues Christmas is now back in stock and has been remastered. For some reason this one was extremely hard to come by when it first came out. This one sports an eleven page booklet written by myself and I also compiled all the tracks.  The CD collects 52 numbers spanning from 1925 to 1955, many of which have not been anthologized before. Artists include Bessie Smith, Leroy Carr, Rev. J.M. Gates, Butterbeans & Susie, Lonnie Johnson, Roy Milton, Larry Darnell, Cecil Gant, Lightnin’ Hopkins and many, many others. Just a heads up that I'm not selling these so buy them where available at your favorite store.

Yank Rachel & Shirley GriffithPeach Orchard MamaArt of Field Recording Vol. I
J. T. AdamsRed RiverArt of Field Recording Vol. I
Sam ChatmonI Have To Paint My FaceI Have To Paint My Face
Robert Curtis SmithStella RuthI Have To Paint My Face
Butch Cage & Willie ThomasForty Four BluesI Have To Paint My Face
Little Brother MontgomeryTalking/Vicksburg BluesConversation With The Blues
Otis SpannTalking/People Call Me LuckyConversation With The Blues
Johnny Young & Arthur Spires21 BelowBlues Roots: The Mississippi Blues Vol. 1
Jim BrewerBig Road BluesBlues Roots: The Mississippi Blues Vol. 1
Boogie Bill WebbDooleyville BluesGoin' Up The Country
Arzo YoungbloodFour Women BluesGoin' Up The Country
Babe StovallWorried BluesThe Old Ace
Roosevelt HoltsBig Fat Mama BluesSouth Mississippi Blues
Esau WearyYou Don’t Have To GoSouth Mississippi Blues
Houston StackhouseBye Bye BluesBig Road Blues
Lum GuffinJack Of DiamondsWalking Victrola
Dewey CorleyLast NightOn The Road - Country Blues 1969-1974
Lattie MurrellSpoonfulOn The Road - Country Blues 1969-1974
Elster AndersonBlack And TanUnreleased
George HiggsSkinny Woman Blues 2Unreleased
Lewis "Rabbit" MuseJailhouse BluesWestern Piedmont Blues
Turner FoddrellSlow DragWestern Piedmont Blues
John TinsleyRed River BluesWestern Piedmont Blues
Joe SavageJoe's Prison Camp HollerLiving Country Blues
James Son ThomasStanding At The CrossroadsLiving Country Blues
Joe CallicottCountry BluesGeorge Mitchell Collection Vol. 1 - 45
Cliff ScottLong Wavy HairGeorge Mitchell Collection Vol. 1 - 45
Jimmy Lee WilliamsHave You Ever Seen PeachesGeorge Mitchell Collection Vol. 1 - 45
Johnny Johnson & GroupI'm In The BottomWake Up Dead Man

Show Notes:

I suppose it sounds rather romantic spending your time roaming around the south with a tape recorder recording blues but for all the rewards and exciting discoveries it’s a stressful enterprise, not to mention a precarious way to make a living. These days hardly anyone one does it anymore 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. Much has been written about John and Alan Lomax who scoured the south and beyond making landmark recordings for the Library of Congress from the 1930’s through the 1960’s. Less well known are those that followed in the Lomax’s footsteps; there was folklorists and researchers such as David Evans, Sam Charters, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Frederic Ramsey, Art Rosenbaum, Pete Welding, Chris Strachwitz , Bruce Bastin, Bengt Olsson, Dick Spottswood, Kip Lornell, Glenn Hinson, Tim Duffy, Siegfried A. Christmann and Axel Küstner. 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, men like George Mitchell and I Have To Pain My FacePeter B. Lowry. This was a very different undertaking than 1960’s blues revival which sought out and put back on the circuit such legendary artists of the past as Son House, Skip James, Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt. The field recordings made during this era were a sort of a parallel undercurrent to the more famous artists. What they recorded in the rural communities of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960’s was a still thriving, if largely undocumented, blues culture. The bulk of theses recordings were issued on small specialist labels and many have yet to be reissued on CD. Today's program is the first of a multi-part series on some of these remarkable recordings.

The earliest tracks come from 1960 and were made by Paul Oliver and Chris Strachwitz and come from the albums Conversations With The Blues, a companion to Oliver's landmark book, and I Have To Paint My Face which was issued on Strachwitz's Arhoolie label. The recordings on I Have To Paint My Face were made by Chris Strachwitz in the Summer of 1960, the same year he formed his now legendary Arhoolie record label. That summer Strachwitz and blues scholar Paul Oliver and his wife made a trip through Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas to interview and record older blues artists for a series of programs sponsored by the BBC. Among those recorded were Sam Chatmon, K.C. Douglas, Big Joe Williams, Butch Cage & Willie Thomas, Robert Curtis Smith and others. Conversations With The Blues is a series of interviews, in the artists own words, compiled from interviews with over sixty blues singers. The interviews stem from a trip Oliver made to the United States between June and Goin' Up The CountrySeptember 1960.

Today's program features a number of recordings made by David Evans. It was Evans' investigation into Tommy Johnson in the late 1960’s that we owe a good deal of what we know about Johnson and it was through Evans’ field recordings that Johnson’s influence comes into sharper focus. Evans recorded many men who learned directly from Johnson including Roosevelt Holts, Boogie Bill Webb, Arzo Youngblood, Isaac Youngblood, Bubba Brown, Babe Stovall, Houston Stackhouse and Tommy’s brother Mager Johnson. Long out of print are several important collections of Evans’ field recordings that gather artists influenced by Johnson. Most importantly is The Legacy of Tommy Johnson (1972), the companion LP to Evans’ Tommy Johnson biography featuring all songs that were in Johnson’s repertoire and all of which were learned by the artists from Johnson himself. Today's show spotlights selections from South Mississippi Blues and Goin’ Up The Country. David Evans began making field recordings in 1965 when he spent about five weeks taping blues artists in Mississippi and Louisiana. The collection Goin’ Up The Country released on Decca in 1968 collects some of the best performances he recorded. The album was reissued in 1976 on Rounder and Rounder also released South Mississippi Blues in 1973, another collection of field recordings from the same period. in addition we play a cut by Houston Stackhouse with his partner Carey Mason that stem from recordings Evans made in Crystal Springs, MS in 1967.

Bengt Olsson first came to the United States in 1964, first to Chicago and then to Memphis were he made some recordings. Olsson was back in 1971, where he made recordings in Memphis and Alabama. Olsson recorded several talented artists including Lum Guffin (his album Walking Victrola was issued on Flyright), Lattie Murrell and Perry Tillis among others. Some of Olsson's recordings appear on the CD On The Road – Country Blues 1969-1974.

slp1804Pete Welding was one of the premiere documentarians of the 1960’s blues revival. Welding began recording and interviewing artists in the late 50’s and he began writing a column in Downbeat Magazine in 1959 called “Blues And Folk.” He moved to Chicago in 1962 where he formed his Testament Records label as an outlet for his fieldwork . Other of his recordings appeared on Storyville, Prestige, Blue Note and Milestone. We spotlight some of Weldings' recordings from the album Blues Roots: The Mississippi Blues Vol. 1 recorded by circa 1964/1965.

Between 1969 and 1980 Pete Lowery 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 as an outlet to release his recordings. Lowry set up the Trix Records label in 1972 starting with a series of 45’s with LP’s being released by 1973. It lasted about a decade as an active label dealing mainly with Piedmont blues artists from the Southeastern states. In addition to the seventeen issued Trix albums there is sufficient material for another 40 to 50 CD’s. Many of the artists who had albums released were recorded extensively by Lowry and in most cases there is enough material in the can for follow-up records. In fact Lowry’s unreleased recordings far exceed the released recordings. Today’s program features some unreleased tracks that Lowry was kind of enough to send me.

Living Country Blues USAIn 1980 two young German blues enthusiasts, Axel Küstner and Siegfried Christmann, came to America with the idea to document the remaining country blues tradition. With their station wagon and portable recording equipment they hit the dusty road spending a couple of months documenting blues, gospel, field hollers and work songs throughout the South. As the notes proclaim: “Traveling 10,000 miles by car in 2 1/2 months, they used 180,000 feet of tape and took hundreds of photographs to document various aspects of Country Blues, as well as work songs, fife and drum band music, field hollers and rural Gospel music, performed by 35 artists, some of whom appear on record for the first time.” From October 1st through November 30th the duo rolled through Washington, DC, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Virginia, New Orleans and of course Mississippi. These remarkable recordings were first issued across 12 LP’s titled Living Country Blues USA plus one double set on the German L+R label between 1980 and 1981. They have since been reissued on CD.

From the early 1960’s to the early 1980’s George Mitchell roamed all over the south recording blues in small rural communities where the music still thrived. Many of these recordings have appeared on specialist labels like Southland, Revival, Flyright, Arhoolie and Rounder but are long out of print now. Several years ago the Fat Possum label acquired the Mitchell archive and has been reissuing the recordings.

DTD-08-Cover-ArtArt Rosenbaum is a painter, muralist, and illustrator, as well as a collector and performer of traditional American folk music. His field recordings have been collected on two 4-CD box sets on the Dust-To-Digital label called the Art Of Field Recording. Rosenbaum was also involved in producing several albums for Bluesville in the early 60’s including records by Indianapolis artists Scrapper Blackwell, Pete Franklin, Shirley Griffith, J.T.Adams and Brooks Berry. I'll be spotlighting Rosenbaum's blues recordings as well as interviewing him at the end of January.

The Blue Ridge Institute for Appalachian Studies at Ferrum College in Ferrum, Virginia, released a series of eight LPs in the late 1970s and early 1980s under the group title Virginia Traditions. Each album featured an aspect of traditional Virginia folk music, setting old 78s and field recordings alongside more recent field material. From that series we spotlight three tracks for the album Western Peidmont Blues.

We close the show with Johnny Johnson & Group perfroming "I’m In The Bottom" from the album Wake Up Dead Man. "Making it in hell",  Bruce Jackson says, is the spirit behind the songs that comprise the album and book  Wake Up Dead Man is a collection of prison worksongs taped by Bruce Jackson in 1965 and 1966 in Texas prisons. Research was done at three primary institutions; the Ramsey unit (Camps 1 and 2), Ellis, and Wynne. Allowed complete freedom in these facilities, Bruce Jackson talked with, interviewed, and recorded inmates over time to collect information for this book.

Louis ArmstrongI'm Not RoughThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie JohnsonSteppin' On The BluesSteppin' On The Blues
Lonnie Johnson /Clara SmithYou're Getting Old on Your JobThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie JohnsonI Just Can’t Stand These BluesThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie JohnsonBlue Ghost BluesLonnie Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1940
Lonnie JohnsonMr. Johnson’s SwingLonnie Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1940
Lonnie JohnsonGet Yourself TogetherThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie JohnsonCrowing Rooster BluesThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie JohnsonFriendless BluesMe And My Crazy Self
Lonnie JohnsonFalling Rain BluesMe And My Crazy Self
Lonnie JohnsonCan't Sleep Any MoreMe And My Crazy Self
Lonnie JohnsonLonnie's Traveling LightSpivey's Blues Parade
--=Dean Alger Interview=--
Lonnie JohnsonMr. Johnson's BluesThe Ultimate Best Of
Lonnie JohnsonAway Down In The Alley BluesThe Ultimate Best Of
Lonnie Johnson/Eddie LangHave to Change Keys to Play These BluesThe Ultimate Best Of
Lonnie Johnson/Eddie LangMidnight Call BluesThe Ultimate Best Of
Lonnie JohnsonUncle NedThe Ultimate Best Of
Lonnie JohnsonNo More Woman BluesThe Ultimate Best Of
Lonnie JohnsonBackwater BluesThe Ultimate Best Of
Lonnie JohnsonTomorrow NightThe Ultimate Best Of
ElvisTomorrow NightThe Ultimate Best Of
Lonnie JohnsonMr. Blues WalksThe Ultimate Best Of
Otis SpannTrouble In MindThe Ultimate Best Of

Show Notes:

lonnie Johnson 1935
Lonnie Johnson, Circa 1935

In Urban Blues author Charle Keil notes that when he first approached Lonnie Johnson for an interview the singers response was “Are you another one of those guys who want to put crutches under my ass?” This was in the 1960’s and as writer Billy Altman notes “…the versatile musician, at this point well past 70, was still performing regularly at colleges, clubs, coffeehouses and folk festivals throughout Northeastern United States and Canada. Other elderly artists re-discovered through the sixties blues revival may not have minded that they were being more displayed than booked by promoters, and more scrutinized than enjoyed by listeners. Not Lonnie Johnson, though. His music could never perceived as encrusted archeological artifact. It was vibrant, toe-tapping history that carried with it a lifetime of service to those twin peaks of African-American summitry, jazz and blues.”

Writer Dean Alger goes even further in his work-in-progress book, The Second Most Important Musician of the Twentieth Century, “Louis Armstrong was widely known and highly praised in America and through much of world. But the man who was arguably the second most important musician of the century is largely unknown today. … Lonnie has the extraordinary distinction of being the greatest virtuoso guitarist in the founding generation in both blues and jazz and was a significant influence in the development of both those musical genres into great art forms and powerful means of human expression. Beyond his unparalleled technical virtuosity, he was the prime early figure in developing the full expressive capacity of the guitar. With those qualities he was the most important original force in making the guitar the dominant instrument of the second half of the Twentieth and into the Twenty-first Century. And as prime Founding Father of the powerful, virtuoso guitar solo, he was the principal musical grandfather of the Rock guitar heroes. Thus, there is a strong case for saying Lonnie Johnson was the second most important musician of the 20th Century.” On today’s program we spotlight the remarkable music of Johnson and talk with Alger about his provocative claim.

cd-lonnie-bedbugOn today’s program cover a wide swath of Johnson’s career, spinning tracks spanning from 1925 to 1965. The first dozen tracks were selected by myself, with the remaining sides selected by Dean. Those tracks come from a CD he calls the Ultimate “Best Of” Lonnie Johnson, a 23 track selection that hopes will be a companion to the book when it’s published. While there’s no firm time-frame for publication, I can say that Dean’s book is well written, scrupulously researched and provides much new information and I’m grateful to have been allowed to take an advanced look.  Below I’ve included a previous piece I wrote on Johnson.

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. In an interview with valerie Wilmer he described his approach this way: "I sing city blues. My blues is built on human beings on land, see how they live, see their heartaches and the shifts they go through with love affairs and things like that— that's what I write about and that's the way I make my living. …My style …comes from my soul within. The heart-aches and the things that have happened to me in my life—that's what makes a good blues singer. …I have my own original style, all my life I sang this way. I have also made quite a progress in singing ballads 'cause I sing blues, ballads, swing—anything." Despite his amazing versatility and the longevity of his career, he remains a somewhat under appreciated figure particularly among blues scholars and collectors.

He was born Alonzo Johnson in New Orleans and his year of birth has been variously listed as 1889, 1894 and 1900. He was one of thirteen children, all of whom were groomed to play in their father's string ensemble. "When I was fourteen years old I was playing with my family. They had a band that played for weddings—it was schottisches and waltzes and things, there wasn't no blues in those days, people didn't think about the blues." Johnson began his career in earnest and bought his first guitar. In 1917 Lonnie sailed to London with a musical revue but few details have surfaced regarding this event. When he returned to New Orleans he was greeted with the news that virtually his entire family had been wiped out by the widespread influenza epidemic of 1918. Johnson moved north to St. Louis around this period with his surviving brothers. By this time he already had a successful career as a blues violinist, working steadily not only in New Orleans, but in a jazz band led by coronet player Charlie Creath. After a falling-out with Creath, Johnson discarded the violin and formed a trio with his brother James (Steady Roll), who played violin, and pianist DeLoise Searcy. Big Bill Broonzy, who played in St. Louis (but not with Johnson) recalled that "Lonnie was playing the violin, guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo, and all the things you could make music on. . ."

lonnie-toothache In 1925 Johnson won a Blues contest held at the Booker T. Washington Theatre in St. Louis (for 18 weeks in a row, he said), sponsored by the Okeh record company. Part of the prize was a recording deal with the company. "I had done some singing by then", he recalled, "but I still didn't take it as seriously my guitar playing, and I guess I would have done anything to get recorded – it just happened to be a blues contest, so I sang the blues." His first session in 1925 found him as the featured vocalist with Creath's band and they cut "Won't Do Blues" in November of 1925. By January 1926 Johnson's first 78, "Mr. Johnson's Blues"/"Falling Rain Blues" was on he market. Johnson proved an immediate success and he commenced to recording at an astonishing pace, cutting over 130 sides between 1925 and 1932, more than any make blues singer of the period. In addition to his own records he he appeared prominently on the records of other Okeh artist such as Clara Smith, Victoria Spivey, Texas Alexander and others. He became a respected name to jazz collectors because of his solos on records by Louis Armstrong such as "I'm Not Rough," "Mahogany Hall" and and on Duke Ellington records like "Hot And Bothered" and "The Mooche." He was also celebrated for a series of remarkable duets with white guitarist Eddie Lang (masquerading as Blind Willie Dunn) in 1928-29 that were utterly groundbreaking in their ceaseless invention.

Although Johnson's earlier works continued to be issued until 1935, his live recording prospects in the mid-thirties were largely foreclosed by a dispute with Lester Melrose, the music publisher who largely ruled local recording. Apparently Melrose refused to record him unless he changed his too-familiar guitar style. Johnson refused to do so. The result was he enjoyed no sessions between 1932 and 1937. In person, he appeared in Chicago with the drummer Baby Dodds, and with such popular musicians as Roosevelt Sykes and John Lee (Sonny Boy) Williamson. Eventually he was forced to work outside of music when the Depression was in full swing. Johnson recalled: "I worked for a firm makin' railroad ties in Galesburg, Illinois …I went to Peoria Illinois …and I work' in a steel foundry there. Play the blues at nights…"

Johnson came back to recording life with a contract from Decca in 1937 with the first session recorded on 8th November of that year. During 1938 another session was done for a total of 16 titles. In 1939 he signed a contract with Bluebird. Johnson picked up right where he left off, selling quite a few copies of "He's a Jelly Roll Baker" and cutting wealth of fine material that helped Johnson regain his former popularity. He recorded for Bluebird until 1944. Johnson next cut a half dozen records for the New York based Disc label in 1946 and then made his first amplified performances on record in June 1947 for Aladdin Records. Later that year he started a fruitful association with an emerging independent company in Cincinnati, King Records.

On December 11, 1947 Johnson entered the King Records studio at 1540 Brewster Avenue in Cincinnati, Ohio and recorded what was probably the most successful record of his long career, King 4201 – "Tomorrow Night" – often subtitled on the King label as "Lonnie Johnson’s Theme Song." By 1950 "Tomorrow Night" had sold a million copies. The December 1947 King session marked the beginning of Johnson's six-year stay in Cincinnati spent recording for King Records, playing local clubs and touring occasionally. Johnson recorded prolifically scoring chart sucess with "Pleasing You", "So Tired" and "Confused." In 1952 Johnson made an 11 month tour of England. When he returned to the States his career took a downward turn when he contract with King Records ended in 1952.

The rest of the 50's were a down time for Johnson who spent much of the decade outside of music working construction or toiling as a janitor. In 1959 Samuel Charters' groundbreaking book "The Country Blues" was published which described Johnson's situation in rather morbid terms: "He is not a young man, and the opportunities for an older singer to break into the teenage rock and roll craze that dominates the industry are very slight. For Lonnie it has been a long road, without much of an end." In actuality things took an upswing when a year prior Johnson was rediscovered by jazz enthusiast Chris Albertson which rekindled a major comeback. As Albertson wrote in the liner notes to Johnson's Bluesville debut: "I was interviewing Elmer Snowden on my radio show when I played an old record by Lonnie which I followed up with the remark: 'I wonder whatever happened to Lonnie Johnson?' Elmer replied: 'I saw him in the Supermarket the other day'. A listener then called up and said that he worked with Lonnie at the hotel so I finally contacted him, brought him to my apartment and had him play for me. Having recorded his playing and singing and realizing that he was as good as ever I took the tapes to Prestige and Lonnie was on his way again." Between 1960 and 1962 he cut five albums for the label, three of which were produced by Albertson, and showed that Johnson had lost little despite several years outside of music. He spent the early 1960's working a busy schedule that eventually took him back to Europe for the 1963 American Folk Blues Festival. He also made records in England, Denmark and Germany. As he said to Valerie Wilmer in 1963: "I have enough work now back in the States to do me for the next fifteen years."

As the 1960's rolled on it seemed that the blues revival was passing Johnson by. As singer Barbara Dane noted: "This was largely true, because he was a very sophisticated player in a moment when the world was looking for the rough and earthy Delta players. …Lonnie had a strong attraction for the romantic pop songs like "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" etc. which he played when the audiences were looking for the gritty blues. People during the early '60s searching for blues roots wanted to hear 'funky and back-alley' and Lonnie played clean and uptown. Lonnie craved respect for what he created, like any other musician. The (white) public at that time was mostly looking for someone who could personally introduce them to their fantasy of black culture. In other words, he was out of tune with the times." In 1964 Johnson went to Toronto for a club appearance, found an ardent group of admirers and remained there until his passing. In 1969 he was hit by a car in Toronto where he was hospitalized for several months. He died the following year on June 16, 1970 from the effects of the accident.

James RussellI Had Five Long YearsPrison Worksongs
Robert Pete WilliamsSome Got Six MonthsAngola Prisoner's Blues
Hogman MaxeyStagoleeAngola Prisoner's Blues
Otis WebsterBoll Weevil BluesCountry Negro Jam Session
Smokey Babe & Sally DotsonYou're Dice Won’t PassCountry Negro Jam Session
Butch Cage & Willie ThomasJelly RollCountry Negro Jam Session
Billie & DeDe PierceNobody Knows When You're Down And OutGulf Coast Piano
Billie & DeDe PierceJelly RollGulf Coast Piano
Speckled RedEarly In The MorningPrimitive Piano
Snooks EaglinCountry Boy Down New OrleansCountry Boy Down New Orleans
Robert Pete WilliamsJust Tippin' InI'm Blues As A Man Can Be
Smokey BabeI’m Goin' Back To MississippiHottest Brand Goin'
Emanuel DunnWorking on the Levee, Pt. 1Prison Worksongs
Guitar WelchHighway 61Angola Prisoner;s Blues
Robert Pete WilliamsMississippi Heavy Water BluesCountry Negro Jam Session
Snooks EaglinMama Don't You Tear My ClothesCountry Boy Down New Orleans
Smokey BabeOcean BluesHottest Brand Goin'
Herman E. JohnsonI Just Keep Wanting YouLouisiana Country Blues
Rev. Rogers, Big Louisiana, & Jose SmithStewballPrison Worksongs
Guitar WelchFast Life WomanAngola Prisoner's Blues
Clarence EdwardsSmokestack Lightnin’Country Negro Jam Session
Robert Pete WilliamsPardon Denied AgainI'm Blues As A Man Can Be
Otis WebsterThe Boss Man BluesCountry Negro Jam Session
Butch Cage & Willie ThomasBugle Call BluesOld-Time Black Southern String Band Music
Odea MatthewsThe Moon Is RisingAngola Prisoner's Blues
Roosevelt CharlesEver Heard The Church Bells ToneAngola Prisoner's Blues
Clarence EdwardsYou Don't Love MeCountry Negro Jam Session
A Capella GroupAngola BoundAngola Prisoner's Blues

Show Notes:

Willie B. Thomas, Harry Oster, and Butch Cage 1960 (photographer: David Gahr)

Harry Oster was teaching at Louisiana State University a well-received lecture on Old World traditional ballads prompted a colleague to suggest that he apply for a grant to collect local folklore. "Before long," he recalled, "I found a profusion of unusual material – ancient French ballads, Cajun dance music, Afro-French spirituals… I got the idea that I should issue with my own funds a long-playing record to be called A Sampler of Louisiana Folk Songs." This and succeeding records such as Folk Songs of the Louisiana Acadians, the first LP of Cajun music, appeared under the auspices of the Louisiana Folklore Society, which Oster created with a couple of friends. Later recordings were on his own label, Folk-Lyric. Oster's greatest discovery came on a trip to the state penitentiary at Angola. Oster found many impressive blues singers, among them Robert Pete Williams. The singer's intense improvised narratives about prison life and the events that had brought him there, were presented to the world on the 1959 album Angola Prisoner's Blues. Oster was also the first to record Snooks Eaglin, the fiddle-and-guitar duo Butch Cage and Willie Thomas, blues guitarist Smokey Babe and Georgia street musician Reverend Pearly Brown. Oster left Louisiana in 1963 to teach at the University of Iowa, where he remained until his retirement in 1993, working on the American Dictionary of Folklore and pursuing his passion of making and disseminating records. His Folk-Lyric catalogue was acquired by Arhoolie Records and has largely been transferred to CD.

jgn10034[1]Oster formed his Folk-Lyric label in 1959 and in an interview described the label’s genesis: “Eventually I heard that RCA had a customs pressing plant in Indianapolis and I started sending stuff to them and getting stuff professionally printed.  I would send out review copies to major newspapers like New York Times, Down Beat Magazine, Saturday Review, and some newspapers. They gave them good attention and I got in touch with some distributors. My label was essentially one-man operation. I would find performers, record them, edit the tapes, take photographs, write liner notes, etc. I would generally   press about 300 copies. I borrowed $5,000 from a bank to subsidize the operation. I also did some assignments for other companies, and that helped finance it also. I did one record for Elektra which was eventually sold to Folkways. I did some for Prestige Bluesville and Prestige International.”

Oster explained to an interviewer his approach to field recording: “I actually operated rather differently than some of people who've  found old time blues singers. Usually they track down someone who recorded  in '20s or 0s and disappear from sight for a while. I sort of went about it  in a quite different way, which in fact produced some interestingly different results, more offbeat performances and more unusual repertoire. Anyhow, I talked to a psychologist who'd done some research in a prison and he suggested I go see the head of institutions for the state and get his permission to get access to the prison and ask him to spell out the specific  privileges that I wanted to have, lot of which should be the right to call out a specific convicts, in other words, to get someone excused from work for the day or afternoon so he could be interviewed and recorded by me. The head of institution was quite cooperative and friendly, probably influenced by the fact that I was teaching in a state university. He wrote  to the warden and asked him to cooperate with me. The warden was cooperative too and he suggested the good way to proceed would be to start with the recreational director and go down from there. They had a choir of black singers who did spirituals and he said that would be a good place to make contacts. I started there and they gave me some leads on prison work songs and I started going into the different camps. These camps were not maximum security camps and people worked in fields in in daytime.”

The recordings on Angola Prisoner’s Blues were recorded in 1959 and 1960 at Camp H in Louisiana’s Angola Prison. An impromptu studio was set up in the tool room. Oster uncovered many fine bluesman like Hogman Maxey, Guitar Welch, Otis Webster, Roosevelt Charles and most importantly Robert Pete Williams.  Roosevelt Charles was classified a habitual criminal and spend most of his adult life in prison. Charles was recorded extensively by Oster both in Agola and on the outside in 1959 and 1960. A full album of his recordings appeared on Vanguard which is long out of print with other cuts showing up on various anthologies. Many of his sides remain unissued. Oster considered Charles one of his most gifted finds. Another talented performer was Robert Welch, called “Guitar” and “King of the Blues” by the other convicts and was born in Memphis in 1896. He learned from the records of Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson and played in bands starting in the late 30’s.

Robert Pete Williamsrobertpete-bluesas, however,  was in a class by himself as Oster wrote in the liner notes: “The blues of Robert Pete Williams are more original, more directly personal, and more evocative in their expression of love, frustration, and despair.” Williams did some playing at house parties in the 30’s. In 1956, Williams shot and killed a man in a local club. Williams claimed the act was in self-defense, but he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Angola prison, where he served for two years before being discovered by Oster and Richard Allen. The pair recorded Williams performing several of his own songs, which were all about life in prison. Impressed with the guitarist's talents, Oster and Allen pleaded for a pardon for Williams. The pardon was granted in 1959, after he had served a total of three and a half years. For the first five years after he left prison, Williams could only perform in Lousiana, but his recordings — which appeared on Folk-Lyric, Arhoolie, and Prestige, among other labels — were popular and he received positive word of mouth reviews. In 1964, Williams played his first concert outside of Louisiana — it was a set at the legendary Newport Folk Festival. Williams' performance was enthusiastically received and he began touring the United States, often playing shows with Mississippi Fred McDowell. During the 60’s and 70’s he performed at several festival including the 1966 American Folk Blues Festival. He passed in 1980.

The album Prison Worksongs focuses on recordings of worksongs recorded in Agola Prison and on the outside between 1959 and 1963. By this point the prison worksong was a dying tradition but Oster managed to record some fine material. "I’'ve always been fascinated with black worksongs, “ Oster recalled, “group work songs, and I had heard that they were essentially extinct in the regular world because of mechanization of farming, and the only place to find them would be in southern prison farms. I decided it would be a good idea to do some recordings in the prison camp in Angola, and I made my first trip there in 1957.”

The songs on the album Country Negro Jam Session were recorded in Southwestern Louisiana between 1959 and 1962, some in Angola Prison, others at house parties around Baton Rouge (the prison-worksongsremaining 5 titles on CD reissue were recorded by Chris Strachwitz and Paul Oliver in 1960). In it's earliest incarnation, the first 14 tracks of the 25 title program were released on Dr. Oster's now-defunct Folk Lyric label, and then re-released on Arhoolie intact after Chris Strachwitz purchased the Folk Lyric catalog. Oster did a series of field recordings, informal jams with a group of obscure blues men and women, only one of whom, Robert Pete Williams, won fame. Otis Webster was recorded extensively by Oster in 1959 and 1960 all in Angola Prison. Many of the sides remain unissued. Willie B. Thomas (vocal & guitar) and James ‘Butch' Cage (vocal & fiddle) make up a good part of  Country Negro Jam Session. The duo’s string band music is reminiscent of Peg Leg Howell and his gang and the two play not only blues but also pop, and religious music. They also back singer/guitarist Clarence Edwards on several numbers. Butch Cage was born in 1894 near Meadville, MS, and whom Oster describes aptly in the liner notes as "a great representative of the now virtually extinct 19th century black fiddle tradition", while Willie B. Thomas was born near Lobdell, LA in 1912.

Born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, Robert Brown AKA Smoky Babe had found his way to Scotlandville, Louisiana by the age of 20. It was there that Oster recorded him on several occasions between 1959-1961 with material appearing on the labels Folk-Lyric, Storyville and Bluesville. As Oster wrote in the liner notes to his Bluesville album: “In February 1960 I was present at a jam session in Scotlandville at the house of the sister of Robert Pete Williams, Mable Lee.  …Smoky, who lives a short distance from Mable Lee Williams, swaggered in – a muscular wiry man of about 5’ 8”, wearing a hat tilted at a rakish angle. His guitar was in pawn so I loaned him mine. As soon as he played a few bars, rich, full, resonant, and excitedly rhythmic, I knew here was an outstanding bluesman.” Nothing is know about his later life.

New Orleans pianist and singer Billie Pierce played jazz and blues with her cornetist husband Dede. The two recorded and toured extensively in the 1950’s and 60’s. Oster issued an LP of them titled Gulf Coast Blues with some other titles appearing on the anthology Primitive Piano that also has tracks by Bat Robinson and Speckled Red. Billie Pierce was a marvelous blues, ragtime, and jazz pianist and a very expressive singer who grew up in Florida where she accompanied Bessie Smith at a Pensacola theatre in the early 1920s. She later moved to New Orleans where she played professionally in honky tonks and later spent much time working for Preservation Hall and touring all over the world with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Her husband, De De Pierce was one of the most joyful and powerful New Orleans trumpeters as well as a superb vocalist specializing in the unique, regional Creole French patois.

countrynegroBlind from boyhood, Snooks Eaglin played everything he heard on records and the radio, be it jazz, blues, pop or country. When not playing R&B in the New Orleans clubs, Eaglin busked with an acoustic guitar, which is how Harry Oster first encountered him. Besides issuing an LP of Eaglin’s on his Folk-Lyric label, Oster licensed material to other companies with material appearing on labels like Storyille and Bluesville. In an interview Oster recalls how he came across Eaglin: “I heard of him through Richard B. Allen who was first associate curator and then curator of the Jazz Archive in the Tulane University. He had encountered Snooks Eaglin who was young blind man singing on the porch of  his house. Snooks Eaglin was different than performers like Robert Pete Williams for example. He actually was not a real specialist  in blues, he was a popular performer and he wanted to be more popular. And he was. But he could do a lot of blues and he had a wonderful memory. His father said that he didn't really make up songs. He was like a mockingbird, he had everybody's song but his own.”

Other artists featured today include Herman E. Johnson of Scotlandville who was recorded in 1961 and Clarence Edwards. Johnson's tracks appeared on the LP Louisiana Country Blues alongside sides by Smoky Babe. Born near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Clarence Edwards began playing blues in the area in his teens. He was taped by Oster between 1959 and 1962 and by Chris Strachwitz for Arhoolie in 1970. He quit music for a stretch and cut his debut album in 1990. He did festival appearances in the US and Europe before his death in 1993.


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