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.


Skip JamesDevil Got My WomanThe Complete Early Recordings
Jim ThompkinsBedside BluesSon House & The Great Delta Blues Singers
Garfield AkersJumpin' And Shoutin' BluesSon House & The Great Delta Blues Singers
James BrewerI'm So Glad Good Whiskey's BackBlues From Maxwell Street
Arvella GrayRailroad Song And John HenryBlues From Maxwell Street
Sippie WallaceYou Gonna Need My HelpSippie Wallace Vol. 2 1925-1945
Kitty GrayMy Baby's WaysTexas Piano Vol. 2 1927-1938
Lil JohnsonStavin' ChainLil Johnson & Barrelhouse Annie Vol. 3 1937
Cecil GantTrain TimeCecil Gant Vol. 7 1950-1951
Cecil GantOwl StewCecil Gant Vol. 7 1950-1951
Blind Lemon JeffersonRabbit Foot BluesBest Of
J. T. ''Funny Paper'' SmithHoppin' Toad FrogJ. T. ''Funny Paper'' Smith 1930-1931
George ToreyMarried Woman BluesMemphis Blues 1927-1938
Jimmy NolenGlad And Sorry BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Sonny ParkerShe's In The Graveyard NowRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Stavin' Chain (Wilson Jones)(Little) Liza JaneField Recordings Vol. 16 1934-1940
John 'Big Nig' BrayTrench BluesToo Late, Too Late Vol. 5 1927-1964
Walter TaylorThirty Eight and PlusRare Country Blues Vol. 2 1929-1943
Jimmy DeBerryRising Sun BluesMemphis Blues (JSP)
Jimmy DeBerry & WalterWorried, Wonderin' And GladBack
Blind Leroy GarnettMy Lovin' BluesBoogie Woogie and Barrelhouse Piano Vol. 2 1928-1930
Mozelle AldersonTight In ChicagoBarrelhouse Mamas
Raymond BarrowWalking BluesBoogie Woogie and Barrelhouse Piano Vol. 2 1928-1930
Sidney MaidenSan Quentin BluesTrouble An' Blues
Easy BabyGood Morning Mr. BluesGrab Me Another Half A Pint
Billy BranchHootchie Kootchie ManGrab Me Another Half A Pint
Leadbelly & Josh WhiteDon’t Lie BuddyLeadbelly Vol. 3 1943-1944
LeadbellyNew York CityLeadbelly Vol. 6 1947
Skoodle Dum Doo & SheffieldBroome Street BluesRare Country Blues Vol. 2 1929-1943
James TisdomCadillac BluesTexas Country Blues 1948-1951
Ralph WillisAmen BluesShake That Thing: East Coast Blues 1935-1953
Jesse FullerNinety Nine Years And One DarkMove On Down The Line
Homesick JamesFayette County BluesAin't Sick No More

Show Notes:

Cecil Gant Obituary, 1951

As usual a wide range of blues on today’s program spanning from 1926 through the end of the 1970’s. We have several mini-spotlights today including twin spins of Cecil Gant, Jimmy DeBerry, Leadbelly plus a couple of album features. Up first we spin two 1950 tracks by Cecil Gant. Gant, who went by the moniker the G.I. Sing-Sation, 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. The record’s huge success prompted others to form record companies devoted to black music. 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. The Blue Moon label has provided an invaluable service by issuing all of Gant’s recordings across seven CD’s. Listening to these CD’s gives me a renewed appreciation for Gant and the series actually gains strength as it moves along.  One of today's selections, "Owl Stew", was Gant's private tribute a whorhouse on Fourth Avenue North in Nashville. As he explained, the so called " stew in Nashville" is "really the best" and "the price is low, if you get it once, youn gonna want some more." I’ll be featuring Gant more extensively on an upcoming show. For an excllent overview of Gant consult Nick Tosches' Unsung Hereos of Rock N' Roll.

Another great double shot is a pair of tracks by Jimmy DeBerry and Walter Horton cut some twenty years apart. In the 1920’s in Memphis DeBerry hung around with Will Shade and members of the Memphis Jug Band plus legendary figures like Frank Stokes and Jack Kelly. In 1939 the American Record Company set up a field unit in Memphis and recorded Little Buddy Doyle, Jack Kelly, Charlie Burse and ten sides by Jimmy DeBerry and His Memphis Playboys. During the 50’s he worked with Walter Horton as Jimmy & Walter and the duo recorded for Sun in 1953. That year he played on the classic instrumental "Easy" and cut our selection "Before Long" issued as by Jimmy & Walter. The track "Worried, Wonderin' And Glad" was cut circa 1972-73 and comes from the album Back, The Compete Memphis Sessions Vol.2 – 1972 the second of two hard to find albums (the first was titled Easy) DeBerry and Horton cut on the Crosscut label. There are some fine moments on these albums although it should be noted that DeBerry’s timing is idiosyncratic to say the least and the sound quality leaves much to be desired. However, DeBerry is a marvelous singer as he proves on the gorgeous "Before Long" backed by Houston Stokes’ sparse drumming. Twenty year later his voice is more weathered but still expressive and Horton, as always, is superb. The Crosscut sessions were DeBerry’s last. He passed in 1985.

We also pick a pair of fine 1940’s tunes by Leadbelly. Leadbelly  had a vast repertoire that incorporated  ballads, worksongs, spirituals, blues-maxwell-lpcowboy songs, children’s songs and of course blues. Thankfully Leadbelly was recorded in depth in a recording career that stretched from 1934 until his death in 1949. The Document  label alone has issued over a dozen CD’s devoted to his music. Our selections come from the Document collections Leadbelly Vol. 3 1939-1947 and Leadbelly Vol. 6 1947. The latter entry (comprising two Folkways albums from 1947 and a session of unknown origins from the same year) is particularly strong and where "New York City" comes from, a song he originally cut back in 1940. "Don't Lie Buddy"is a wonderful 1944 collaboration between Josh White and Leadbelly.

We spotlight a couple of compilation LP’s (both unavailable on CD) today including two tracks from Blues From Maxwell (read notes – PDF) on the Heritage label and two from Grab Me Another Half A Pint on the Barrelhouse imprint. The music on Blues From Maxwell Street was organized by blues scholar Paul Oliver in 1960 and features tracks by Arvella Gray, James Brewer, Daddy Stovepipe and King Davis. Not only is there some great music but the album also serves as an important document of several fine bluesman who collectively recorded very little. These were also Daddy Stovepipe’s final recordings. His real name was Johnny Watson and he was born in 1867, making him the oldest artist on record. He made his debut in 1924 and more sides in 1931 and 1935 featuring his wife Mississippi Sarah on these later sessions. As Oliver wrote in the notes: "The blues singers of Maxwell Street are many, and many are transitory figures, here today, hopping a freight train tomorrow. Amongst the best and most familiar figures on the street are Blind Grey, Blind Brewer, King David and Daddy Stovepipe … and these are the singers who are featured on this documentary of one of the most colorful Negro streets in the United States." Both Brewer and Gray were recorded live on Maxwell Street in 1964 for the documentary And This Is Free. Those wonderful recordings were issued several years ago on the 3-CD And This Is Maxwell Street and the footage has is now available on DVD. As for Oliver I’m glad to report that the blues preeminent scholar has just released a new book, Barrelhouse Blues that is currently sitting on my desk waiting to be read.

Give Me Another Half A Pint LPGrab Me Another Half A Pint features several excellent lesser-known Chicago artists including Kansas City Red, Sonny Boy McGhee, Alex Randle AKA Easy Baby and the first recordings by a young Billy Branch. "Good Morning Mr. Blues" finds Easy Baby in commanding form. Easy cut just two albums but they’re both knockouts; Sweet Home Chicago Blues cut for Barrelhouse in 1977 features Kansas City red and Eddie Taylor and If It Ain’t One Thing, It’s Another was cut for Wolf in 2000 featuring Taylor’s son on guitar. Easy also appears on the compilation Low Blows. Sadly Easy passed just a month ago. For his part Branch is tough as nails on his two numbers including a gritty reworking of the classic "Hoochie Koochie Man" sporting some new lyrics:

I came to Chicago, in the summer of 69’
I didn’t smoke no reefer, I didn’t drink no wine
When the summer was over, I was a changed man
Now I can turn up a bottle and they call me reefer Dan
And you know I’m here, everybody knows I’m here
Cause’ I’m your Hootchie Cootchie man everybody knows I’m here

As always there’s plenty of blues from the 1920’s and 30’s including cuts by Skip James, Kitty Gray, J.T. "Funny Papa" Smith, Walter Taylor, plus couple of artists who recorded for the Library of Congress among others. Skip James cut just 18 sides (James claimed to have cut 26 sides) for Paramount in 1931 and they remain among the rarest and most treasured blues recordings of the era. James worked as a traveling musician work camps, farms and whorehouses as a pianist. He also earned money as a bootlegger and gambler. In 1964 he made storied a comeback at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and cut several albums before his death in 1969. He hung on just long enough to hear Cream record his classic "I’m Glad"

Practically nothing is known of Texas bluesman J.T. "Funny Papa" Smith and not even a photo has been discovered. He cut 20 sides at sessions in 1930, 1931 plus a batch of unreleased sides in 1935. Thomas Shaw who played with Smith in Okalahoma remembered Smith as a plantation overseer and convicted murderer.  His debut single, the two-part  "Howlin’ Wolf Blues" was a big hit. A June 1931 letter from Brunswick to dealers called it "the biggest selling record on the market today. …It is true that this is a Race Record and you might think therefore that its sales would be confined to your colored trade. Not so. You will be surprised how many white folk will buy it."

Even less is known about some of our other featured artists. Walter Taylor was from Western Kentucky where he was associated with 12-string guitarist John Byrd. Walter cut 7 sides with a trio that included Byrd, heard to good effect on the jaunty hokum number "Thirty Eight and Plus" plus 5 others as a duet with Byrd using the name Washboard Walter. There’s seems to be some disagreement if Washboard Walter and Walter Taylor are the same person. For what it worth I think they are. You can decide for yourself by picking up the excellent Rare Country Blues Vol. 2 1929-1943 on Document. Also from that compilation we play "Broome Street Blues" one of four sides cut in 1943 by the duo of Skoodle Dum Doo & Sheffield who display some stunning interplay between guitar and harmonica plus a keen lyric sense:

I’ve got the Broome Street blues
I been sweeping all over town
I done swept up the gal I love now, I believe I’ll settle down

Kitty Gray and her Wampus Cats cut nine sides (two unissued) at an October 30, 1937 date in San Antonio. The great slide guitarist Oscar "Buddy" Woods plays guitar on the session and is in fine form on "My Baby’s Ways."  Woods also cut a 78 under his own name at the same session. Both sides by Stavin’ Chain (Wilson Jones) and John "Big Nig" Bray were recorded in 1934 just a few months apart In Louisiana by John Lomax for the Library of Congress. Bray's "Trench Blues" is a fascinating song about World War I. Bray actually served in France, one of some 50,000 black troops who were in Europe. Another singer to have served was "Kingfish" Bill Tomlin who cut "Army Blues" about his experiences.


Whistler's Jug BandLow Down BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Whistler's Jug BandJug Band SpecialRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 2
Memphis Jug BandStealin', Stealin'Ruckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 2
Memphis Jug BandOn The Road AgainMemphis Jug Band with Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers
Memphis Jug BandWhitehouse Station BluesMemphis Jug Band with Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers
Cannon's Jug StompersViola Lee BluesMemphis Jug Band with Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers
Cannon's Jug StompersMinglewood BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Cannon's Jug StompersBig Railroad BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Birmingham Jug BandGerman BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 2
Birmingham Jug BandBill WilsonRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Birmingham Jug BandCane Brake BluesJaybird Coleman & Birmingham Jug Band 1927-1930
Ben FergusonPlease Don't Holler, MamaRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Ben FergusonTry And Treat Her RightRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
John HarrisGlad And Sorry BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Louisville Jug BandShe's In The Graveyard NowRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Jed DaveportSave Me SomeMemphis Shakedown
Jed DaveportYou Ought To Move Out Of TownRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Cincinnati Jug BandNewport BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
King David's Jug BandRising Sun BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 2
King David's Jug BandTear It DownRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Noah Lewis's Jug BandTicket Agent BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Noah Lewis's Jug BandSelling the JellyRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 2
Kaiser CliftonCash Money BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Minnie WallaceThe Old Folks Started ItRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 2
Cannon's Jug StompersLast Chance BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 2
Cannon's Jug StompersGoing To GermanyMemphis Jug Band with Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers
Cannon's Jug StompersWalk Right InMemphis Jug Band with Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers
Jack KellyCold Iron BedRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Jack KellyR.F.C. BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 2
Daddy StovepipeGreenville StrutRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 2
Daddy StovepipeThe SpasmGood For What Ails You
Memphis Jug BandK.C. MoanMemphis Jug Band with Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers
Memphis Jug BandCocaine Habit BluesRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 1
Memphis Jug BandYou May Leave, But This Will Bring You BackRuckus Juice & Chittlins Vol. 2

Show Notes:

In the few years they were popular on race records, over a dozen or so jugbands made scores of records in a variety of different lineups.  Paul Oliver noted that by “half-spitting, half-vocalizing into it a player could produce a fruity, resonant sound not dissimilar to that of a tuba.” Memphis boasted a number of important jugbands including Cannon’s Jug Stomper’s, the Memphis jug band and groups led by Jed Davenport, Jack Kelly and Noah Lewis. Louisville was another rich area that claimed bands such as the Dixieland Jug Blowers, Phillip’s Louisville Jug Band, the Kentucky Jug Band and groups fronted by Clifford Hayes, Earl McDonald and Whistler AKA Buford Threlkeld. The Louisville jug outfits were strongly jazz oriented. Other groups included the Birmingham Jug Band, the Cincinnati Jug Band, King David’s Jug Band, the duo of Daddy Stovepipe and Mississippi Sarah. The dominant repertoire of the groups was blues but they also performed common-stock tunes, rags, reels and jazz. There were also a few white groups that used jugs.

Dixieland Jug Blowers
Dixieland Jug Blowers

The origins of jug bands can be traced to Louisville, Kentucky around the turn of the century. It was around the turn of the century when the Cy Anderson Jug Band first appeared on the streets of Louisville, becoming an immediate smash. Between 1900 and 1909 the band played riverboats, carnivals and parties using Louisville as their home base. It was Earl McDonald who took the reins from the Cy Anderson Jug Band and even took lessons from member B.D. Tite. 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.  The Dixieland Jug Blowers were the most sophisticated of the jug bands even employing clarinetist Johnny Dodds on record. Hayes left jugband music for a spell, taking up alto sax in the 20’s but returned to the music and was still leading a jug band when he passed circa 1955.  Vocalist Ben Ferguson and John Harris both recorded with the Louisville Jug Band. Ferguson cut two sides for Victor in 1931 backed by the band while John Harris cut two sides for Victor in 1931 including one with the Louisville Jug Band. These performances featuring Hayes and McDonald were their final collaboration.

Whistler and 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. The group was formed in 1915 in Louisville, KY by guitarist, vocalist and whistler Buford Threlkeld. The band 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 for Whistler & His Jug Band took them to St. Louis in April 1927. On this trip, the jug band recorded 10 songs for Okeh.  In June, 1931the band got to record in their hometown of Louisville

Memphis Jug Band 2-LP (Yazoo 1067)

The last of the Louisville bands to record was the Phillips Jug Band/Kentucky Jug Band a creation of saxophonist Hooks Tilford. He had previously played in brass bands and worked with Ma Rainey who he recorded with in 1925. The following year he formed his first jug band. He recorded three sessions in 1930 under the name the Phillips Jug Band and the Kentucky Jug Band.

Singer, guitarist and harmonica player Will Shade founded the Memphis Jug Band circa 1925/26 to play in the city’s parks, streets and taverns. The idea was to get together a band “something like the boys in Louisville.” When early in 1927 the Victor record company decided to send a field recording unit into the South to record blues, gospel and white country music, it struck gold in Memphis with the city’s pre-eminent jug band, led by Will Shade, also known as ‘Son Brimmer’. Highly respected A & R man Ralph Peer had visited Memphis some months earlier and had auditioned and been impressed by the Memphis Jug Band. His confidence was rewarded with very good sales of their first two records. They recorded more prolifically than any other jugband, cutting 80 odd sides between 1927-1934. They drew from a large pool of local talent with 19 musicians recorded under the band’s name. An early unrecorded incarnation supposedly included Frank Stokes and Furry Lewis. The bands popularity led them to also perform at political rallies, store openings and other civic affairs. They performed at  gigs at like the Chickasaw Country Club, the Hunt Polo Club and at conventions at the Peabody Hotel. They were also hired regularly by Edward H Crump, the local political boss, for private parties and by food stands and restaurants to attract people. They played on the back of trucks advertising Colonial Bread and Schlitz. By the late 30’s jugband music’s popularity ebbed but Shade was still working into the 1950’s and in the last decade of his life made a number of documentary recordings. Shade passed in 1966.

Two artists connected to the Memphis Jug Band were professional gambler Kaiser Clifton and vaudville veteran Minnie Wallace. Clifton cut four sides for Victor in 1930 backed by members of the Memphis Jug Band including Will Shade. Wallace also cut sides backed by members of the Memphis Jug Band including Will Shade in 1929 and 1935. She cut six sides in total plus several sides that were never issued.

Cannon's Jug Stompers
Cannon's Jug Stompers

With popularity of the Memphis Jug band a number of other jug bands had organized in Memphis, including Cannon's Jug Stompers, Jed Davenport's Beale Street Jug Band  and Jack Kelly's Jug Band (later known as The South Memphis Jug Band). The city boasted at least eight jug bands by the end of the 20’s. Harmonica player and singer Jed Davenport is believed to be a medicine show entertainer who was active in Memphis in the 1920’s and 30’s.  He cut two solo sides in 1929 and six sides in 1930 with his Beale Street Jug Band. This was probably and principally a studio conceived recording group as it included; Joe McCoy, and musical (and for a time life) partner of Memphis Minnie and another singer/guitarist who had already recorded, Henry L. Castle, known as Too Tight Henry, Minnie herself was probably in there somewhere too, playing guitar.Also in 1930 Davenport cut two sides with a group called the Beale Street Rounders. Jack Kelly is believed to be from North Mississippi but spent most of his life in Memphis where he sang on the streets and worked with musicians like Frank Stokes, Dan Sane, Will Batts and later Little Buddy Doyle and Walter Horton. In 1933 he cut 14 sides by the South Memphis Jug Band which included Will Batts on violin, Dan Sane on guitar and D.M. Higgs on jug. He cut ten more sides in 1939 with Batts, and Little Son Joe. Kelly’s last known sides were made in 1952 with Walter Horton for the Sun label titled as by Jackie Boy & Little Walter.

Although they sold fewer records, in musical terms Cannon’s Jug Stompers rivaled the Memphis Jug Band. In the early years of the last century Gus Cannon traveled the South with medicine shows. In the late 1920’s, based in Memphis, he formed Cannon’s Jug Stompers. The band played in the streets and parks of Memphis or in outlying west Tennessee towns like Brownsville and Ripley. Cannon first recorded sides for Paramount with Blind Blake in 1927 before recording in 1928 with the Jug Stompers. The group made their final recordings in 1930. Cannon sang and played banjo and jug with the harmonica blower Noah Lewis playing a prime role and as well as singing on some numbers. In addition to recording with Cannon’s Jug Stomper’s, harmonica blower and singer Noah Lewis cut four solo sides in 1929, two in 1930 as Noah Lewis’s Jug Band and two more in 1930 with Sleepy John Estes. After his recording career, Cannon lived in obscurity for some 30 years until his composition “Walk Right In” was recorded in 1963 by the Rooftop Singers and was a hit. After that he did some further recording including the album Walk Right In in 1963 alongside Will Shade for the Stax label. Cannon passed in 1979.

Johnny Watson AKA Daddy Stovepipe was born in 1867 and was from Mobile, Alabama. He was a traveling musician who played harmonica, guitar and sang. He cut three solo sides in 1924, two in 1927, eight sides in 1931 including two with his wife Mississippi Sarah and a four song 1935 session again with his wife on two numbers. In later years he performed on Chicago’s Maxwell Street where he was last recorded in 1960. Those songs appeared on the album Blues From Maxwell Street that has not been issued on CD. He passed in 196


Stovepipe No. 1 was Sam Jones who played harmonica, guitar and stovepipe and likely was the common denominator in the Cincinnati Jug Band led by Walter Coleman and King David’s Jug Band. Possibly born in the 1880’s he spent his life in Cincinnati. He cut a dozen sides in 1924, with several unissued, plus a few sides in 1927. He recorded as a one-man band, with guitarist David Crockett and with King David’s Jug Band (also featuring Crockett) who cut six sides in 1930 and on the two instrumentals the Cincinnati Jug Band cut in 1929.

Of the lesser know artists on today’s program are the Birmingham Jug Band band who recorded 8 rough and ready sides on December 11, 1930. Jaybird Coleman was once though to be a member of the group but this has largely been discredited. Alabama bluesman Ollis Martin is another name hypothesized to have snad and played harmonica on the band’s records.

Today recordings come primarily from three excellent collections: Ruckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 1 &  2: The Great Jug Bands on Yazoo are hands down the best collections of jug band music available with an outstanding track selection, excellent sound and informative notes while JSP's 4-CD set Memphis Jug Band with Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers is a superb box. JSP's 4-CD sequel, Memphis Shakedown: More Jug Band Classics is almost equally worthwile.


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