Show Notes:

It ain't but the one thing I done wrong
I stayed in Mississippi just a day too long

(Mississippi Prison Song)

Todays show deals with blues songs about prison, both commercial recordings and field recordings by actual prisoners. In the segregation era down south it wasn't hard for African-Americans to find themselves going to prison over a host of offenses. They were often treated harshly and unfairly by the Low Down Jail Houselegal system. Unfortunately even today the prison system has a disproportionate number of African-Americans and tales of being unfairly targeted by the criminal system all too common.

As for blues singers, their very profession was a dangerous one. The criminal element in the south gravitated to the black sectors of cities like New Orleans, Memphis or Atlanta, sectors that were treated as "wide open" and virtually beyond the law. It was the rough and tumble world of gambling joints, saloon, brothels and juke joints that employed the blues singer and there was always the possibility of trouble with the law. Memphis in the 1920's, for example, was known as the "Murder Capital of America", with over hundred homicides a year, 90 percent of the victims were black. Many blues singers were victims and many were perpetrators; men like Bukka White, Texas Alexander, J.T. Smith, Son House, Pat Hare and Lightnin' Hopkins all did stints in prison.

Folklorists like John and Alan Lomax, Harry Oster, Lawrence Gellert and Bruce Jackson went to southern prisons like Parchman Farm, Angola, Huntsville, Sugar Land, Ramsey Prison Farm and others to record blues and work songs. On the surface the songs described incidents and experiences of the singers but on the other hand I think they can be viewed as a subtle form of protest against an unjust system. African-Americans had little or no outlet to voice their opinions and concerns prior to the civil rights eraBama outside of recorded music. In The Land Where The Blues Began, Lomax had this to say regarding prison songs: "They tell us the story of the slave gang, the sharecropper system, the lawless work camp, the chain gang, the pen." Bruce Jackson, who recorded in southern prisons in the 1960's and 70's, explained: "Southern agricultural penitentiaries were in many respects replicas of nineteenth-century plantations, where groups of slaves did arduous work by hand, supervised by white men with guns and constant threat of awful physical punishment . . .. It is hardly surprising that the music of plantation culture — the work songs — went to the prisons as well." A New York Post reporter wrote as late as 1957: "The state penitentiary system at Parchman is simply a cotton plantation using convicts as labor. The warden is not a penologist, but an experienced plantation manager."

In 1932 John Lomax was retained by the Library of Congress to make recordings. Lomax and his son Alan hit the road with 500 pounds of recording equipment and covered sixteen thousand miles over six months. As Lomax explained: “Our best field was the southern penitentiaries…we went to all eleven of them…"
It was on that trip that they ran across Leadbelly and secured his early parole. "We agreed to make a record of his petition on the other side of one of his favorite ballads, 'Goodnight Irene'. I took the record to Governor Allen on July 1. On August 1 Leadbelly got his pardon. On September 1 I was sitting in a hotel in Texas when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and there was Leadbelly with his guitar, his knife, and a sugar bag packed with all his earthly belongings. He said, 'Boss, you got me out of jail and now I've come to be your man'" This tale by Lomax, while colorful, has been in dispute as are many of his other recollections. On today's program we play "Midnight Special" a song that's become closely associated with Leadbelly. This version with the Golden Quartet is probably my favorite of this oft recorded song.

Bukka White

The Lomax's continued to visit and record in prisons in the 1940's and 1950's. Alan Lomax returned to Parchman Farm in 1947-48 and made some remarkable recordings, armed with state-of-the-art technology, a cassette machine. These sides were originally issued as the LP Negro Prison Songs and reissued on CD as Prison Songs Vol. 1: Murderous Home by Rounder. Lomax gathered the prisons best lead signers for these recordings, all simply known by their nicknames: men like Bama, 22, Alex, Bull, Dobie Red, and Tangle Eye. During this period Lomax interviewed and recorded Joe Savage and said of him “he was by far the youngest and most damaged.” Jumping to 1980 we hear Savage recount his prison experience and sing on his harrowing "Joe's Prison Camp Holler."

Bukka White was recorded by Lomax in Parchman Farm in 1939. He was Convicted of murder and sentenced to life in 1937. He was still under contract for Vocalion ("Shake 'em On Down" was a big hit from the session). Lomax recorded him doing two numbers: "Sic 'Em Dogs On" and " Po' Boy." He was released two years later probably through the actions of his music agent Lester Melrose. His recordings from 1940 show the prison experience was still on his mind on songs like "Where Can I Change My Clothes" (prison clothes), "District Attorney Blues" and his famous "Parchman Farm Blues:"

Judge give me life this mornin' down on Parchman Farm (2x)
I wouldn't hate it so bad, but I left my wife in mourn

Oh listen you men, I don't mean no harm (2x)
If you wanna do good, you better stay off old Parchman Farm

We got to work in the mornin', just at dawn of day (2x)
Just at the settin' of the sun, that's when the work is done

Recorded just a few days apart were a group of fine female singers. Woman in Mississippi were rarely sent to the state penitentiary but Parchman did open a woman's camp in 1915. They canned vegetables, ran the prison laundry and worked dawn-to-dusk shifts in a sewing room making clothes, bedding and mattresses for the entire farm. Lomax recorded some of these woman in the Woman’s Sewing Room in 1939, including the remarkable Mattie May Thomas. We feature her singing unaccompanied on "No Mo’ Freedom" and "Dangerous Blues" where she describes a violent life:

You keep talking about the dangerous blues
If I had my pistol I'd be dangerous too
You may be a bully, but I don't know
But I'll fix you so you won't gimmie no trouble, in the world I know

Less well known than the Lomax's was Bruce Jackson who recorded extensively in the 1960's and 70's: "I started recording in Texas prisons in July 1964. I think Texas had about 12,000 prisoners in 14 prisons back then (they’ve got more than 150,000 prisoners in 105 state-run and private prisons now). My primary interest in Texas was the black convict worksongs…" Pete Seeger and Toshi Seeger, their son J.B. SmithDaniel, and folklorist Bruce Jackson visited a Texas prison in Huntsville in March of 1966 which resulted in the film and book, Wake Up Dead Man. Another remarkable recording Jackson made was an LP by J.B. Smith titled Ever Since I Have Been A Man Full Grown issued on Takoma, of which we play "I Got Too Much Time For The Crime I Done." The centerpiece is the title track, a 24-minute opus drawing on imagery and lyrics from a wide variety of traditional sources.

One of the most well known images of the old justice system is the chain gang. The chain gangs originated as a way to create extensive quality roads. Convict labor in road work was more economically efficient than using compulsory free labor as they could be worked harder, for longer hours, and over a more sustained period of time. Georgia was the first state to begin to use the chain gang system to work male felony convicts outside of the prison walls. The chains were wrapped around the prisoners' ankles, shackling five prisoners together while they worked, ate, and slept. Chain gangs became very economically and politically popular among most southern politicians as they witnessed convicts working from sunup to sundown in Georgia. We spin chain gang tales today by Kokomo Arnold, Ma Rainey and Fred McMullen's harrowing "De Kalb Chain Gang" (De Kalb County, Georgia):

Ahh liquor and a gun, cause me ache and pain (2x)
And they give me six to twenty years, on the De Kalb county gang
And I tell all you people that ain't no place to go (2x)
Well they treat you cruel, dog you from morning til' night

There were also female chain gangs and Ma Rainey tells their tale on her "Chain Gang Blues" from 1925:

The judge found me guilty, the clerk he wrote it down (2x)
Just a poor gal in trouble, I know I'm county road bound

Many days of sorrow, many nights of woe (2x)
And a ball and chain everywhere I go

Chains on my feet, padlock on my hand (2x)
It's all on account of stealing a woman's man

Several of the blues artists featured today knew first hand about the prison experience. Among them were Texas Alexander who served at least two prison terms including a stint in Paris, Texas, for allegedly killing his wife. Alexander's songs reflected prison life in songs like "Levee Camp Moan Blues" and "Penitentiary Blues." Alexander's one time running partner, Lightnin' Hopkins, did a mid-1930’s stint in Houston’s County Prison Farm. Son House's career was interrupted when he shot a man dead at a house party in Lyons, MS in 1928 and was quickly sentenced to imprisonment at Parchman Farm. He ended up only serving two years of his sentence and was released in 1929 or early 1930. His "County Farm Blues" is a vivid description of southern justice:

Down South, when you do anything, that's wrong (3x)
They'll sure put you down on the county farm

Put you down under a man call "Captain Jack" (2x)
He sure write his name up and down your back

Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade (3x)
Wish to God that you hadn't never been made

On a Sunday the boys be lookin' sad (3x)
Just wonderin' about how much time they had

J.T. "Funny Papa" Smith 's career purportedly came to an abrupt end during the mid-'30s, when he was arrested for murdering a man over a gambling dispute; Smith was found guilty and imprisoned, and is believed to have died in his cell circa 1940. He describes the prison life in our selection "County Jail Blues" plus "Hard Luck Man Blues" and the unissued "Life In Prison Blues." Pat Hare, who wrote and recorded "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" in May 1954, then took the song's message a step further and killed his girlfriend and a police officer in mysterious circumstances eight years later. He received a life sentence in 1964 for this double murder and spent the last sixteen years of his life in a Minneapolis jail, dying of cancer in 1980.

Angola Prisoner's BluesDiscovered in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Robert Pete Williams became one of the great blues discoveries during the folk boom of the early '60s. In 1956, he 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 folklorist Dr. Harry Oster and Richard Allen. The pair recorded Williams performing several of his own songs, which were all about life in prison. Our selection today, "Prisoner's Talking Blues", is one of his more memorable prison songs. 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 Louisiana, but his recordings,which appeared on Folklyric, Arhoolie, and Prestige, among other labels , were popular and he received positive word of mouth reviews. In 1964 he played the Newport Folk Festival. Williams made many other recordings circa 1959-160 in Louisiana's notorious Angola Prison. In addition to several Williams CD's available, Oster's prison recordings can be found on collection like Angola Prisoner's Blues, Prison Worksongs and Angola Prison Spirituals all reissued on Arhoolie.

One of our final numbers is Calvin Leavy's "Cummins Prison." Leavy is currently serving life plus 20 years in Cummins Prison for drug dealing. Ironically Leavy made this record twenty years before he was busted. He cut a follow-up called "Free from Cummins Prison." He even wore a fake prison uniform in one of his publicity photos long before he was arrested. I heard Leavy was up for parole but haven't heard anything since.

Christmas In Jail
Son House Colimbia Photo

Front cover of Father of the Folk Blues

Photographer: Dick Waterman

When I was a teenager discovering the blues one of the first albums that really captivated me was Son House's Death Letter -I still have it – (the UK equivalent of Father of the Folk Blues), his stunning return to the studio after dropping out of sight for nearly twenty-five years. As author Dan Beaumont writes in his yet-to-be published Son House manuscript: "In 1943 Son House left Mississippi, and, for all that is known of his life over the course of the next twenty one years, he may well have fallen off the face of the earth. But this he did not do-instead he did the next best thing. He moved to Rochester, New York." As a teenager living in the Bronx I too knew nothing of Rochester outside the fact it was in some nether region of New York State – the farthest I had been was the Catskills, one hundred miles upstate. But as I read Dick Waterman's liner notes, Rochester and the address 61 Greig Street was burned in my memory. That was where Dick Waterman, Phil Spiro and Nick Perls finally tracked Son down on June 23rd, 1964. Waterman became Son's manager and the following year he was signed to Columbia and played the Newport Folk Festival. Son had several good years on the comeback trail; he toured the US playing folk festivals and the coffeehouse circuit and he did tours of Europe as well. He also performed locally in Rochester playing concerts at the UR, the Black Candle (later called Studio 9) and the Regular Restaurant in the Genesee Co-Op on Monroe Ave.. The Black Candle was run by Armand Schaubroeck who now operates the world famous House of Guitars. Memories of Son's local performances are vividly burned into the memories of all who had had a chance to witness him in action.

Son's rediscovery in Rochester was newsworthy, making it into Newsweek, Downbeat and the May 29, 1965 edition of the Rochester afternoon newspaper, The Times-Union, with a story titled "Son House Records Blues Again." It must have been a bit bewildering to Son who was living a very low-key life in Rochester as Dan Beaumont notes: "There for twenty one years he lived amidst almost total obscurity. Indeed, what is known of his life in that city from 1943 to 1964 is so slight, so slender, that his biographer's task becomes well nigh impossible. …The reasons for this sorry state of affairs are, I suspect, at least two. The first is the sorts of interviews that were done with House after his rediscovery. The interviews were done mostly by young, white blues fans-not by journalists or academics-and for these interviewers a period in which House all but ceased performing and even playing was of little interest. …The second reason is, in fact, simply surmise. House had an amusing phrase he would use when asked about the blues being played in the 1960s. It was a phrase he used to dismiss much of the blues music of that period. 'It's not the blues,' he would say. 'It's just a lot of monkey junk.' The blues so dominated House's life-we have now established the price that he had paid for it-that a period in which he all but ceased playing it may well have seemed to him simply so much ‘monkey junk.'"

61 Greig StreetI came to Rochester in the late 1980's for college and have been up here ever since. Over the years I met numerous people who fondly recalled Son House and when I started doing my yearly radio birthday tributes to Son, it brought more people out of the woodwork who gladly shared their memories with me. So it's puzzling that the City has never honored Son in anyway. At least Cab Calloway (born in Rochester in 1907) has a plaque honoring him, albeit tucked away on a nondescript side street in an equally nondescript park. For years myself and others thought someone should rectify this sorry state of affairs; a plaque, a statue or something to honor one of the pivotal figures in blues history, a major influence on both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and who's recordings are among the most powerful in blues history. It would be a shame to let Son's memory slip back to the years before he was rediscovered in Rochester, but the sad fact is there is nothing tangible in this city that shows he ever made this city his home for a good part of his life.

Hopefully this will be the year when he finally receives some recognition from his adopted city. This year marks a sequel to last year's successful Hot Blues For The Homeless concert I was involved in, this year billed as Hot Blues For The Homeless …A Tribute To Son House. I'm hoping this year's modest concert will be the start of something big. I've also heard an unconfirmed rumor that the city plans to honor Son with a plaque which would be welcome news. If you live in Rochester, live close by are just visiting on June 8th make sure to help us celebrate the memory of Son House. As Dick Waterman reflected: "If in his prime he had been recorded as much as Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson or Robert Johnson, he would be considered the pre-eminent artist of his time. …If the blues were an ocean distilled…into a pond…and, ultimately into a drop..this drop on the end of your finger is Son House. It's the essence, the concentrated elixir."

"Looking for the Blues"
The cover of Newsweek, July 13, 1964 and the article about the 'rediscovery of Son House. The lead story in the magazine was about disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi and the violence there.

"Finding 'Son' House"
The article that Dick Waterman wrote in The National Observer in July 1964 about how he and Nick Perls and Phil Spiro found Son House in Rochester, NY.

"I Can Make My Own Songs"
An interview with Son House, in his own words, by Julius Lester from Sing Out!, July 1965.

Son House Ontario Place 1964 (Link)
An early rediscovery concert at Washington's Ontario Place by John Meid

Son House Discography (Link)



In the past few weeks I've been listening quite a bit to the field recordings by George Michell that Fat Possum has been reissuing and it prompted me to investigate some of the other field recordings in my Murderous Homecollection. Today's program spotlights several amazing prison songs recorded by the tireless Alan Lomax. "Levee Camp Holler" by Bama is a stunning acapella blues from the collection Prison Songs, Vol. 1: Murderous Home (originally issued as Negro Prison Songs in 1957). This is an incredible collection recorded at Parchman Farm in 1947-1948. As Lomax wrote, these songs "…tell us the story of the slave gang, the sharecropper system, the lawless work camp, the chain gang, the pen." We also play a couple of remarkable selections Lomax recorded at the women's wing of of Parchman Farm back in 1939 which come from Document's Field Recordings, Vol. 8: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi (1934-1947). Beatrice Perry's "I Got a Man on the Wheeler (Levee Camp Blues)" is a haunting number about the men in her life sung acapella while Lucille Walker sings an acapella version of "Shake 'em On Down." A week prior to these recordings Lomax recorded two numbers by Bukka White at Parchman and from that session we play Bukka's tour-de-force version of "Po' Boy." We jump ahead to hear some field recordings made in 1980 by music researcher Axel Kuestner and recording engineer Siegfried A. Christmann. With their station wagon and portable recording equipment they hit the road spending 2-1/2 months documenting blues, gospel, field hollers and work songs throughout the South. Hundreds of hours of tape was used and the resulting project came out as 14 LP's on the German L&R label. The tracks by Son Thomas, Guitar Frank and Archie Edwards come from the 3-CD Living Country Blues on Evidence, culled from the original LP's. The entire series has just been issued on CD.

As usual there's a fair bit of blues from the 1920's and 30's including the opening set featuring music from Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr. The pair were perhaps the greatest and most popular of the piano/guitar duos and cut many sides together between 1928 up until Carr died in 1935. Scrapper's "My Old Pal Blues (Dedicated to the Memory of Leroy Carr)" was cut just a few months after Carr passed and is a heartfelt tribute to his long-time partner:

I woke up this morning, couldn't hardly get out of my bed (2x)
When I got the news, that Leroy Carr was dead

I run to the window, and I throwed up the blinds (2x)
I stood there wondering, and just couldn't keep from crying

The day of his funeral, I hated to see Leroy's face (2x)
Because I know there's no one, could ever take his place

Then off to the funeral, then to the burying ground (2x)
My heart was breaking, as they lowered him down

He's done singing, he's done playing, you'll never hear his voice no more (2x)
He was a real good pal, and I'll miss him everywhere I go.

Scrapper's "Bad Liquor Blues" is from the same session while the duet with Carr on "Memphis Town" isCrying Sam Collins atypical of their sound which has something of a vaudeville sound.

Lots more country blues including a cut by King Solomon Hill and his occasional partner Sam Collins. Collins cut some dozen-and-a-half issued sides between 1927-1931 and many others that were never issued. He was a good bottleneck guitarist with a marvelous voice. I first heard "My Road Is Rough And Rocky" (unissued at the time) on the Yazoo LP Lonesome Road Blues where Stephen Calt wrote: "His magnificent singing, however, offsets his musical ineptitude" which I think is a bit harsh! Another fascinating cut is "Voice Throwin' Blues" by the mysterious Walter "Buddy Boy" Hawkins. Little is known about Hawkins who cut a dozen sides for Paramount between 1927-1929. This cut feature his voice throwing abilities as he sings the "Hesitation Blues" between his two voices, marking this as one of the strangest songs in the annals of blues. Luke Jordan's "If I Call You Mama" is an exceedingly rare record that only surfaced in the 1990's. Jordan recorded 12 tracks for Victor Records at two sessions in 1927 and 1929, ten of which have survived on 78's, including his classic versions of "Church Bell Blues," "Pick Poor Robin Clean," and "Cocaine Blues.

I always like to play some piano blues and today's show features a set of rare piano numbers by the obscure Blind Leroy Garnett with the wonderful James "Boodle It" Wiggins on vocal, Rudy Foster who cut only one 78 and a track by one of my favorites, Jimmy Yancey. We also play two later piano masters from New Orleans, Professor Longhair and James Booker. Longhair's rollicking "Between Midnight And Day"is from his second session in 1949 while "Classified" is the title track from one of Booker's best studio records.

Lil Green
Lil Green

We spotlight a bunch of great female singers today including Esther Phillips, Big Maybelle, Lil Green and Ella Johnson. I've been playing Esther Phillips for years and think she ranks as one of the great woman blues singers although I'm not sure I've convinced many people. The problem may be that she was too versatile for her own
good, tackling not only blues but pop, soul, country and yes, even disco. The gospel tinged "Scarred Knees" is one of my favorites off her From A Whisper To A Scream album which is probably best known for her harrowing version of "Home Is Where the Hatred Is." Lil Green is from an earlier era yet vocally she reminds me of Esther. Green first learned her craft in the church and country jukes down in Mississippi. After moving to Chicago in the 1930s, she teamed up with Big Bill Broonzy and they worked the club circuit together. Her composition "Romance in the Dark" was a 1940 Bluebird hit and in 1941 she followed it with the best selling "Why Don't You Do Right?" She moved east and for the next ten years she enjoyed a successful career touring theaters and clubs and recording for RCA, Aladdin and Atlantic. She died in Chicago in 1954 at the age of thirty-five. Most blues fans of have heard of Big Maybelle and we play one of her earliest numbers from 1947, "Dirty Deal Blues", featuring veteran Lonnie Johnson on guitar.


Joe Callicott

In the 1920's and 1930's all the major labels were deeply invested in the blues, sending mobile recording units all over the south in search of talent. In the late 1950's and early 1960's the major labels were no longer recording blues, although that would change as the blues revival kicked into gear. Instead of mobile recordings units there was a committed group of collectors roaming the south in search of the old time bluesmen that appeared on their cherished 78's; men like Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Bukka White, Furry Lewis and Son House. They most certainly weren't looking for a minor figure like Joe Callicott, who waxed a lone 78 in Memphis in 1930, the year before played second guitar on Garfield Akers' "Cottonfield Blues Parts 1 & 2." It was the indefatigable field recorder George Mitchell who found him in Nesbit, Mississippi off Highway 51 not far from Hernando and short distance from Brights were Akers was supposedly born. It appears Mitchell was looking for Callicott although it's unclear if he was tipped off about his whereabouts or if it was his own initiative: "On that Saturday in Hernando, we pulled up in front of a cluster of Black men shooting the bull in front of the courthouse and spitting tobacco juice on the sidewalk. …I asked if anyone had ever heard of Joe Callicott." He was directed to Nesbit, seven miles south where he was greeted by a smiling, friendly man: "How y'all doing? Have a seat. I'm Joe."

Callicott's "comeback" was about as short as his first recording career, lasting from the summer of 1967 through the summer of 1968; he recorded nineteen sides for Mitchell either late August or early September (split between Revival's Deal Gone Down and Arhoolie's Mississippi Delta Blues – "Blow My Blues Away" Vol. 2) four sides at the 1968 Memphis Country Blues Festival (split between The 1968 Memphis Country Blues Festival and Stars Of The 1969-1970 Memphis Country Blues Festival) and seventeen sides for Blue Horizon in 1968 which have all been issued in 2007 as Furry Lewis & Mississippi Joe Callicott: The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions. For a complete listing of his recordings visit the Joe Callicott discography.

Deal Gone Down I first encountered the Callicott's music on Mississippi Delta Blues – "Blow My Blues Away" Vol. 2 and found myself going back to those recordings often. He was a good, if unspectacular guitarist, picking out simple, gently surging melodies in a manner that brings to mind Mississippi John Hurt, but as a singer he was magnificent. There's a timbre and warmth to his vocals that immediately draw the listener into his world and even in his old age he was still capable of delivering a beautiful falsetto in the manner popularized by Tommy Johnson. Callicott's music is often compared to medicine show artists from the area as Paul oliver noted in the liners to the original Blue Horizon LP: "Nesbit is only a score of miles south of Memphis in the red earth country of De Soto county. From here and the adjacent Tate and Marshall counties a number of the old-style songsters lived …Among them were the medicine show and jug band musicians like Jim Jackson from Hernando four miles from Nesbit, Frank Stokes, a blacksmith who lived some fifteen miles further south in Senatobia, and Gus Cannon from Red Banks, about the same distance to the east." David Evans noted that Callicott: "…shows a close musical affinity to his old friend Frank Stokes. Both have a kind of quavering vocal delivery, which combined with clear diction and a good feeling for lyrics can be very effective in putting across the meaning of a song." Callicott's recordings for Mitchell are superior to those on Blue Horizon, captured in beautiful form on mostly traditional material like "Laughing To Keep From Crying", the title drawn from a line drawn from Virginia Liston's "You Don' Know my Mind" from 1923, an unusually detailed version of "Frankie And Albert", "Roll And Tumble" and others. Callicott seems distracted and less focused on the Blue Horizon session possibly due to the presence of Bill Barth (second guitar) and Bukka White (whistling). He does turn in some fine performances including "Hoist Your Window And Let Your Curtain Down", "Joe's Troubled Blues", the ancient "War Time Blues" which probably dates back to World War I (Yack Taylor's "Those Draftin' Blues" is lyrically and melodically similar) and a fine version of Akers' "Dough Roller Blues" which sports the arresting lyric: "I'll cut your throat woman/Drink your blood like wine."

Cottonfield Blues-Part 1Of those early recordings, "Cottonfield Blues Parts 1 & 2" is a classic Mississippi blues hollered over a the throbbing groove of the amazingly tight twin guitars of Akers and Callicott. Callicott explained the set up: "I kept him chorded up good, trackin' him…You hear them bases? Well, that's me. Hear them little strings? Well, that's him…And when that guy would get to playin', I'm tellin' you the truth-we'd sit face to face. And we changed up [i.e., swapped guitar lead]…and you wouldn't know it." The duo were swept up by one of those mobile recording unit as Gayle Wardlow explained in his groundbreaking article, Garfield Akers and Mississippi Joe Callicott: From the Hernando Cotton Fields: "In the fall of 1929 Brunswick/Vocalion Records made its initial field trip to Memphis to record talent for its Vocalion 1000 and Brunswick 7000 Race series. The session at the Peabody Hotel was highlighted by the first recorded appearances of Garfield Akers, Mattie Delaney, and Kid Bailey, concomitantly with veterans Memphis Minnie and Tampa Red. Callicott recorded his lone 78, "Fare Thee Well Blues/Traveling Mama Blues", for Brunswick in 1930 at a second session in Memphis where Akers also recorded again ("Dough Roller Blues/Jumpin' and Shoutin'").

It's worth quoting Oliver again from the concluding paragraph of his liner notes: "A wider recognition came almost too late but Joe appeared at the 1968 Memphis Blues Festival and was looking forward to a European trip. Back at his home, with the birds whistling and witnessed by his wife and their bellcow, he recorded his last testament; he died early in 1969 and with him went the last echoes of Mississippi country music of the earliest phase of the blues."

Fare Thee Well Blues [1930](MP3)

Traveling Mama Blues [1930] (MP3)

Garfield Akers – Cottonfield Blues (Pt. 1) [1929] (MP3)

Garfield Akers – Cottonfield Blues (Pt. 2) [1929] (MP3)

Laughing To Keep From Crying [1967] (MP3)

Goodbye Baby Blues [1967] (MP3)

Dough Roller Blues [1968] (MP3)

Joe's Troubled Blues [1968] (MP3)



Show Notes:

Today's show spotlights Pete Welding's Testament label. Welding had a fascinating career; not only was he a writer of note, he was an A&R man for Epic, Playboy, and for many years at Capitol's special products division. In 1994, the Hightone label bought the Testament label and reissued all of the blues albums that were available plus some unissued sessions. From Pete welding: "I started Testament Records in 1963 to issue some of the recordings of blues and black folksong I had been making over the previous four or five years. During that time I had recorded, first in my hometown of Philadelphia and then in Chicago where I moved at the beginning of 1962, a fair number of artists whose music, I felt, deserved to be heard. Having a good-paying job at the time, I didn't have to worry overmuch about the records paying for themselves, so I put out what I thought was interesting and worthwhile. Come to that, Testament never had any commercial pressures behind its releases, so these were as irregular as they were unusual and, I hope, valuable in documenting a number of the music's overlooked genres and performers. some unreleased sessions. " You can find out more about Welding and Testament by visiting the Pete Welding pages. Testament issued quite a number of records and below I discuss some of the more interesting ones featured on today's program.

Welding clearly thought highly of Robert Nighthawk and Johnny Young: "Another artist who served as Robert Nighthawk & Houston Stackhousetalent scout was Johnny Young, a fine, vastly underrated singer-guitarist-mandolinist who, like Big Joe, I recorded fairly extensively over the years both as featured performer and as accompanist to others. I issued the first of the many Young recordings I made on the compilation album Modern Chicago BluesJohnny Young and Friends…presents this fine traditional blues artist in the entirety of his multi-faceted talent, as singer, guitarist and mandolinist in settings that range from solo performances to small-amplified ensembles. It's one of the albums I'm proudest of doing, and one that still gives me great listening pleasure… I was unable to record a whole album's worth of performances by the peripatetic Nighthawk but I did manage to do most of one in a session that resonates in my mind as perhaps the single finest one I was ever privileged to do. The combination of Robert's lightly amplified guitar and controlled intensity, Young's acoustic rhythm guitar and Wrencher's quietly probing unamplified harmonica is breathtaking, almost chamber music-like in the perfection of its interlocking parts. This is my favorite Testament session. I'm Gettin' Tired, from the album Robert Nighthawk/Houston Stackhouse, is a good example of why I still feel so." Young pops up on quite a number of Testament recordings including the excellent The Chicago String Band an ad hoc group consisting of Carl Martin, John Lee Granderson and Big John Wrencher. The aforementioned Johnny Young and Friends is good but he cut better records for Arhoolie and Bluesway. Better is Robert Nighthawk/Houston Stackhouse which is a classic and there are also several other fine Nighthawk sides scattered on other Testament compilations.

Like Nighthawk and Young, John Lee Granderson and Big John Wrencher could be heard most Sunday mornings during the warm weather months performing on Chicago's Maxwell Street open-air market area. In addition to the full length Hard Luck John, he cut sides on other Testament compilations with further sides appearing on various anthologies. Hard Luck John is a real gem featuring him in solo performances, duets, trios, and small electric combos with sterling backup from musicians like Johnny Young, Jimmy Walker, Bill Foster, Carl Martin, and others. He was a wonderful singer, tackling a mix of originals andCarl Martin cover of Arthur Crudup and Sonny Boy Williamson. It's too bad Welding didn't get around to recordings an album by Wrencher who would have to wait until the 70's for albums under his own name.

It's Johnny Young we owe thanks again for the "rediscovery" of Carl Martin. In 1966, Pete Welding with the help of Johnny Young, recorded Martin resulting in the terrific Crow Jane with Young playing accompaniment. Martin plays guitar and mandolin, tackling with gusto traditional material like "Corrina, Corrina", "John Henry", "Liza Jane" and then there's two takes of the remarkable "State Street Pimp."

Among other artists Welding recorded more extensively were Johnny Shines and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Welding cut Johnny Shines: Masters of Modern Blues Vol. 1 in 1966, Standing At The Crossroads in 1971 and Johnny Shines with Big Walter in 1969. All are fine records but the standout is Standing At The Crossroads with Shines performing solo and ranks among his finest efforts. "I was excited to find Johnny. He was one of the people that I was looking for all the time I was in Chicago. …I thought he was a marvelous player and just a wonderful, soft-spoken, scholarly man. I had the luxury of recording him over a long period of time. He came up with some pieces that he hadn't played in a long time. I would interview him and during the course of the interview, he would start remembering all those old songs he had played. He'd start reconstructing them, and when we got together, he would record them." Welding record two albums by Fred McDowell in 1964: My Home Is In The Delta and the stunning Amazing Grace. "While most of Fred's many recordings over the years were of traditional Mississippi Mississippi Fred McDowellblues, he was equally, convincingly adept at religious song. This is well illustrated here by the stunning "Jesus Is On The Main Line" on which he was joined by the Hunter's Chapel Singers of Como, Miss with whom he performed on Sunday mornings when at home in Como. It's one of the highpoints of the album of Mississippi Delta spirituals Amazing Grace I recorded with the group in February of 1966."

Welding issued a nice mix of modern Chicago blues as well as some very fine traditional material. Among the traditional albums were fine one by Bill Jackson, Blind Connie Williams and Jack Owens. "I started off with an album by Maryland singer and 12-string guitarist Bill Jackson who I had first met almost a decade earlier and had recorded fairly extensively. …Bill was one of the foremost discoveries I made during these years… Long Steel Rail, the album from which it has been drawn, was the first sampling of the black folksong traditions of rural Maryland and, three decades after its release, remains one of the albums I am proudest of having produced." Jack Owens was recorded by David Evans, who ran into him in Bentonia, Mississippi in 1966 resulting in the superb It Must Have Been The Devil with partner Bud Spires. Owens was a contemporary of Skip James and played in a similar style. "Blind streetsinger Connie Williams, originally from Florida where he attended the same school for the blind that Ray Charles did a few years later, is another Philadelphia find…he was a superlative guitarist in the highly musical East Coast style." Welding recorded him in 1961 resulting in the album Philadelphia Street Singer.

Modern Chicago BluesThere were several interesting compilations issued on the label including Modern Chicago Blues, Can't Keep From Crying, The Sound of the Delta, Mandolin Blues, San Diego Blues Jam plus a few unissued collections issued later by Hightone such as Down Home Slide, Down Home Harp and Bottleneck Blues. Modern Chicago Blues is among the strongest with excellent sides by Nighthawk, Young, Maxwell Street Jimmy while Mandolin Blues features fine tracks by older generation artists like Willie Hatcher, Carl Martin, Ted Bogan and Can't Keep From Crying is a moving collection of 13 topical songs on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy cut in the weeks following his death.

Today's show is just a small sampling of the great music Welding cut for his Testament label over the course of roughly a decade. Thankfully all the label's records are available on CD thanks to the Hightone label. The only record that seems to be omitted is The Legendary Peg Leg Howell the comeback record of 75 year old Peg Leg Howell which was recorded in 1963.


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