[This is an updated version of an article I wrote in 2006]
When people think of the blues the sound is usually associated with guitar, piano and harmonica. Although little-heard on commercial recordings after the 1940s, the mandolin played an important role in blues and early rural black music. W.C. Handy makes mention of the mandolin, although not explicitly calling it blues, in his early writing. In 1903 Handy's orchestra was playing a dance in Mississippi when a member of the audience asked if a local group could perform for the crowd during the band's break. Handy agreed, and marveled at the ragged trio as it mounted the stage. With guitar, mandolin, and bass the trio pounded out an "up" number that threw the dancers into a frenzy drawing applause and cheers when they finished.
In the 1880's a foreign group called the Spanish Students (subsequent groups used the same name) caused a sensation playing their native mandolin-like bandurrias, aiding greatly to the mandolin's popularity. Soon mandolin clubs and orchestras appeared throughout the country and by the end of the nineteenth century significant numbers of mandolins were being produced. As new popular music styles emerged after World War I interest in the instrument began to decline and many disposed of their instruments. Large numbers of used, low priced mandolins were now available and began to find there way into the hands of Southern rural musicians. By the 1920's companies such as Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward were aiding to the trend by making inexpensive mandolins available through mail order catalogs, enabling those in rural area to easily attain them. Southern musicians embraced the mandolin because of it's capacity as a lead instrument and it is likely that the instrument's similarities to the fiddle contributed to it's broad acceptance. In addition to having a common tuning, the mandolin and the fiddle also share some performance characteristics, and since the technique of mandolin picking is similar to that of the guitar, many non-fiddle-playing musicians were able to emulate the sound of the fiddle to a certain extent by the use of double stops and sustained tremolo picking on the mandolin.
The mandolin can be heard on numerous recordings of the 1920's and 1930's particularly on several black string band and jug band recordings. The most famous of all the jug bands was the Memphis Jug Band who waxed some 80 or so sides between 1927 and 1934. The band was a collective of talented musicians, mostly street singers, that worked in various groupings and that were almost always led by singer/harmonica player Will Shade (a.k.a Son Brimmer). In 1927 when Charlie Polk, who usually played the jug, couldn't make a session, Shade added Vol Stevens to the group. Stevens played a banjo-mandolin, which resembles a mandolin neck attached to a small banjo body. Played as a mandolin, the banjo skin gives the instrument more volume and a percussive sound. His work can be prominently heard on songs like "State of Tenessee Blues", "Snitchin' Gambler Blues", "Evergreen Money Blues" and "Peaches In The Springtime." Stevens also recorded with Charlie Burse, Picaninny Jug Band plus two tracks under his own name: "Vol Stevens Blues" and "Baby Got The Rickets (Mama's Got The Mobile Blues."
During the 20's and 30's jug bands flourished throughout the South and Mid-West. Bands like the obscure Walter Taylor's Washboard Band in Indiana, King David's Jug Band in Cincinnati ("Rising Sun Blues"), Georgia's Scottdale String Band and the Birmingham Jug Band in Atlanta featuring unknown mandolinists playing banjo-mandolins. The Birmingham Jug Band's eight recordings are characterized by a prominent lead mandolin and equally prominent harmonica; gruff, heavy vocals; and a throbbing rhythm enforced largely by the insistently pounding jug.In Texas the Dallas String Band were quite popular led by mandolinist Coley Jones as the band performed dance music and blues. Standouts from the group include "Dallas Rag" and "Sweet Mama Blues." In Mississippi there were bands such as the one organized by Tommy Bradley which featured Eddie Dimmitt on mandolin on several songs such as "When You're Down and Out" and the Chatmon family who put together a string band who became famous as the Mississippi Sheiks. The Chatmon Brothers – Sam, Lonnie and Bo form the group's core with Walter Vinson added later. It should be noted that the group never recorded with a mandolin player.
The Mississippi Sheiks influenced a number of musicians like Carl Martin who played guitar and mandolin, featuring the mandolin in his later work with Howard Armstrong and Ted Bogan. Carl Martin was born near Stone Gap, VA, on April 1, 1906. His main instrument was mandolin but he also mastered the guitar.Martin not only performed solo, but also spent much of his career in a trio featuring Ted Bogan (guitar) and Howard Armstrong (violin). The trio enjoyed a career that spanned five decades and was known under several different monikers, including the Four Keys, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, and the Wandering Troubadours. Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong initially traveled all over the south entertaining at medicine shows, county fairs, and on the radio. Following years of playing solo, Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong reunited in the early '70s and played the folk and blues festival circuit all over the country. Martin cut a session for Testament in 1966 where he prominently play mandolin. In 1966 Pete welding gathered together four veteran Chicago blues musicians (three of whom were playing electric blues at the time) and had them re-create the style of a 1920s/'30s string band. Carl Martin (60 at the time) was part of the original era, and he is heard on violin and guitar. Also featured in different combinations are Johnny Young on mandolin, guitarist John Lee Granderson, and John Wrencher on harmonica; all four musicians have their spots taking vocals. In addition Martin appears on the Testament compilation "Mandolin Blues" featuring tracks by Johnny Young, Yank Rachel and Willie Hatcher who last recorded in 1938. In the pre-war period Hatcher played mandolin on 1938 sessions by Speckled Red and Sonny Boy Williamson I.
A local musician, Charlie McCoy, followed the Mississippi Sheiks and eventually teamed up with individual members for recording sessions. McCoy played mandolin with Bo Chatmon (a.k.a. Bo Carter), Walter Vinson on sessions under their own names as well as with them in a group called the Mississippi Blacksnakes and with Vinson in the Mississippi Mud Steppers. With the latter band he cut his classic instrumental "Jackson Stomp", based on the seminal "Cow Cow Blues", (the song was modified as "The Lonesome Train That Took My Baby Away" at a Charlie McCoy session with Bo Carter on guitar) and with the Mississippi Blacksnakes he waxed the bawdy "Grind So Fine."
Charlie McCoy ranked among the great blues accompanists of his era and his deft mandolin/guitar work can be heard on numerous recordings from the late 1920's through the early 40's. His younger brother Joe McCoy was another great sideman who's slide style was most notably preserved on the landmark recordings of his wife Memphis Minnie. In addition to playing in jug and string band settings, McCoy proved that the mandolin had a place in the blues. McCoy was recording regularly by the late 1920s, often alongside Walter Vincson and sat in with many other Delta bluesmen who passed through the Jackson area in the years to follow, appearing on guitar and mandolin. A prime example is his work accompanying delta legend Ishman Bracey on two 1928 sessions. He played second guitar on a some sides and mandolin on "Brown Mama Blues." He also made notable recordings on mandolin backing his sister-in-law Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy, Curtis Jones, Monkey Joe, Mary Butler and others. Between 1936 and 1939, he also cut a number of sessions with the groups Papa Charlie's Boys including the memorable "Let My Peaches Be" and the Harlem Hamfats, (the latter also featuring his brother) with his mandolin playing featured prominently on a number of sides such as "Growling Dog", "Bad Luck Man" and "What You Gonna Do." McCoy also cut scattered sides under his own name between 1929 and 1935 cutting notable numbers like "Your Valves Need Grinding" and "Last Time Blues." The war cut short McCoy's career, and he made no more recordings after 1942, dying in Chicago on July 26, 1950.
Perhaps the primary mandolin player of the early era was James "Yank" Rachell. He met Sleepy John Estes in the early 1920's and by 1929 they began recording for Victor, cutting several sessions into 1930 with Estes handling the bulk of the vocals backed by Jab Jones on piano and piercing mandolin from Rachell. Notable recordings by the group include "The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair", "Diving Duck Blues" and "Whatcha Doin'." Rachell cut sides on both guitar and mandolin in 1934 for Victor and ARC. In 1938 he participated in the legendary Aurora, Illinois, Bluebird sessions with notable mandolin playing backing Sonny Boy Williamson I on numbers such as "Decoration Blues", "Down South", "Shannon Street" and a session with Elijah Jones. Rachell cut two dozen sides under his own name for Bluebird in 1938 and 1941 in the company of Sonny Boy Williamson I, Elijah Jones, Big Joe Williams and Washboard Sam. Rachell is in peak form on sides like "Texas Tommy", "Peach Tree Blues", "Lake Michigan Blues" "It Seems Like A Dream" and "I'm Wild And Crazy As it Can Be." Rachell retired from music and moved to Indianapolis in 1958. His wife passed away in 1961, and afterward he resumed performing. In 1962, Rachell was re-united with Nixon and Estes, and the three of them began performing on the college and coffeehouse circuit, recording for Delmark as Yank Rachell's Tennessee Jug Busters. Estes died in 1977, and from that time Rachell worked mainly as a solo act. He recorded only sporadically in his last years and died in 1997.
Like Rachell, Howard Armstrong was also from Tennessee. He played violin, mandolin, and guitar in the black string band style and made a few recordings in the twenties and thirties. Howard Armstrong a.k.a. "Louie Bluie" was rescued from obscurity when he was the subject of the "Louie Bluie" film documentary in the 1980s, produced by Terry Zwigoff (more famous for his film Crumb). Armstrong, as "Louie Bluie", issued a 1934 single under that name – "Ted's Stomp" b/w "State Street Rag" which features Armstrong's mandolin on the latter side. In his youth he was in bands with Carl Martin and guitarist Ted Bogan, including the Four Aces and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. Armstrong revived his career in the 1970s and he reunited with Bogan and Martin to tour college campuses, coffeehouses and festivals. Armstrong passed in 2003.
Other notable pre-war mandolin sessions were the six sides cut in 1920 by guitarist Nap Hayes and mandolin player Matthew Prater and a 1931 session by Joe Evans and Arthur McClain who also recorded as the Two Poor Boys. Nothing is known about the Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater except that they were from Vicksburg, Mississippi. The versatile Joe Evans and Arthur McClain were from East Tennessee and may have formed part of a circle of players in the Knoxville area that included Carl Martin and Howard Armstrong.
Although the mandolin is not an instrument commonly associated with Chicago blues, it has been used by Chicago-based string bands or on Chicago-made recordings by artists such as Carl Martin, Charlie and Joe McCoy, and Yank Rachell. However, the only artist to use it successfully in the later electric blues format was Mississippi-born bluesman Johnny Young. It was Charlie McCoy who inspired Young to pick up mandolin. Unlike Yank Rachell, whose mandolin playing retained an older string-band feel, Young's style was firmly grounded in a more contemporary postwar blues idiom, and he interacted well with other electric blues artists. Through his life, he had worked with the major figures of blues history, including Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Walter Horton, and Otis Spann. Young was also a skilled guitarist and a fine vocalist. He made his earliest recordings in 1947 for Ora Nelle where he cut "Money Taking Woman" b/w "Worried Man Blues" and "My Baby Walked Out" b/w "Let Me Ride Your Mule" in 1948 for Old Swingmaster. Young's mandolin activity declined as Chicago's African-American blues audience demanded a more modern and urban sound and Young remained unrecorded in the 1950's. During the late '60s, an emerging white blues-revival audience proved eager for Young's mandolin styling and he cut several records for labels such as Testament, Bluesway, Arhoolie ("Moaning And Groaning") and Blue Horizon before passing in 1974.
Two mandolin players, Luther Huff and Herb Quinn, had roots in the pre-war era but made their records in the post-war era. Luther and brother Percy were born in Fannin, MS. Both men spent time in Jackson where they were influenced by the music of Slim Duckett, Tommy Johnson, Ishmon Bracey and Charlie McCoy. Under Luther Huff's name the duo cut four sides for Trumpet in 1951. Herb Quinn was born in 1896 and dominated the music of Tylertown, MS where Tommy Johnson spent a good deal of time. He was proficient on mandolin, violin, string bass and piano. He had a string band that played in the region six nights a week for both black and white dances and taught many younger musicians in the area. Quinn recorded three sides under his own name in 1966 as well as backing Roosevelt Holts, Babe Stovall and Isaac Youngblood.
With the subsequent deaths of Yank Rachell in 1997 and Howard Armstrong in 2003 the old time string band and mandolin traditions have virtually disappeared. A few modern day revivalists keep the mandolin tradition alive including Taj Mahal, Steve James, Johnny Nicholas, Andra Faye (Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women), Rich DelGrosso, Big Jack Johnson, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Billy Flynn.
Selected Mandolin Blues Discography
The Jug Bands
Memphis Jug Band Complete Recorded Works Vol 1 1927 – 1928 (Document DOCD-5021)
Memphis Jug Band Complete Recorded Works Vol 2 1928 – 1929 (Document DOCD-5022)
Memphis Jug Band Complete Recorded Works Vol 3 1930 (Document DOCD-5023)
Best of the Memphis Jug Band (Yazoo 2059)
Dallas String Band – Texas Black Country Dance Music 1927-35 (Document DOCD-5162)
Memphis Jug Band with Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers (JSP)
Memphis Shakedown: More Jug Band Classics (JSP)
Ruckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 1: The Great Jug Bands (Yazoo 2032)
Ruckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 2: The Great Jug Bands (Yazoo 2033)
Charlie McCoy 1928 – 1932 (Document BDCD-6018)
Charlie & Joe McCoy:
Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order Vol. 1 (1934-1936) (Document BDCD-6019)
Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order Vol. 2 (1936-1944) (Document BDCD-6020)
w/ The Harlem Hamfats:
Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 1 (1936) (Document DOCD-5271)
Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order Vol. 2 (1936-1937) (Document DOCD-5272)
Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order Vol. 3 (1937-1938) (Document DOCD-5273)
Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order Vol. 4 (1938-1939) (Document DOCD-5274)
Complete Recorded Works (1928-1941) Document (DOCD-6017)
w/ Ishman Bracey
Ishman Bracey / Charley Taylor – Complete Recorded Works (1928-1929) (Document DOCD-5049)
w/ Memphis Minnie
Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4 (1938-1939) (Document DOCD-6011)
Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 5 (1940-1941) (Document DOCD-6012 )
Louie Bluie – Soundtrack from Terry Zwigoff 1985 documentary (Arhoolie 470)
Louie Bluie (Howard Armstrong and friends) (Blue Suit Records)
Carl Martin / Willie '61' Blackwell 1930 – 1941 (Document DOCD-5229)
Carl Martin – Crow Jane Blues (Testament)
Nap Hayes & Matthew Prater
String Bands 1926 – 1929 (Document DOCD-5167)
Luther & Percy Huff
Delta Blues – 1951 (Alligator)
Johnny Young and Big Walter, Chicago Blues (Arhoolie CD325)
Johnny Young- Blues Masters Vol.9 ( Blue Horizon BM4609)
Can't Keep My Foot From Jumping (ABC/Bluesways BLS 6075)
The Chicago String Band (Testament Records T220)
Johnny Young and His Friends (Testament Records T2226)
James "Yank" Rachell Vol.1 (1934-38) (Wolf Records – WSE 106)
James "Yank" Rachell Vol.2 (1938-41) (Wolf Records – WSE 107)
The Blue Goose album (released on CD by Random Chance)
Blues Mandolin Man" (Blind Pig – also released on CD by Random Chance)
Chicago Style (Delmark)
Tennesee Jug Busters (Delmark)
Rich DelGrosso – Get Your Nose Outta My Bizness! (Independent)
Billy Flynn – Chicago Blues Mandolin -(Easy Baby)
Alvin Younblood Hart – Territory – (Haniba)l
Alvin Younblood Hart – Down In The Alley (Memphis International)
Steve James- Fast Texas- (Burnside)
Steve James- Art & Grit – (Discovery)
Rags, Breakdowns, Stomps & Blues: Vintage Mandolin Music 1927-1946 – (Document DOCD-32-20-3)
Mandolin Blues – (Testament TCD-6004)
Mississippi String Bands & Associates 1928 – 1931( Document BDCD-6013)
Violin, Sing the Blues for Me (Old Hat Records )
Early Mandolin Classics, Vol. 1 (Rounder CD1050 )
-Komara, Ed. Encyclopedia of the Blues vol. 2 K-Z, Routledge, New York, 2006.
-Russel, Tony and Smith, Chris. The Penguin Guide To Blues Recordings, penguin, London, England, 2006.
-Dixon, Robert M.W., John Godrich, Howard W. Rye. Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943. 4th edition. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997.
-DelGrosso, Rich. Mandolin Blues, Living Blues no. 79 March/April 188 (p 22-4).