Lifting the Veil

Reverend Gary Davis recorded prolifically in the post-war years starting with a few scattered sides in the 1940's, more in the 1950's and really picking up steam in the 1960's. A pleasant surprise in recent years are the number of unreleased Davis sides that have surfaced. Among the notable ones include: If I Had My Way: Early Home Recordings, Demons and Angels: The Ultimate Collection a 3-CD set featuring many unreleased treasures, Sun of Our Life – Solos, Songs, A Sermon, 1955-1957 and Document's Reverend Gary Davis: Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964.

Now comes Lifting The Veil: The First Bluesmen – Rev. Gary Davis & Peers an eclectic collection from World Arbiter that gathers up six unreleased home recordings by Davis circa 1956-1957. In addition the liner notes include a fascinating excerpt from an unknown, unpublished oral history of Davis compiled in 1951 by Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold, the wife of Alan Lomax. Another treat are four previously unknown Leadbelly tracks from a 1941 radio broadcast, when he hosted a weekly radio show. Rounding the set out are 78's from the Harry Smith Collection including sides by Gus Cannon, Buddy Boy Hawkins, Edward Thompson, Leola Wilson, Big Bill Broonzy, Ramblin' Thomas, Rube Lacey, William Moore and Charlie Patton.

The Davis sides are generally well recorded and are a nice, if minor, addition to his recorded legacy. Five of the six songs are instrumentals as Davis displays his remarkable guitar style on the propulsive "Lost John", the stately "Soldier's Drill", "Mountain Jack", the lovely "Slow Blues In E" and a driving version of his "I Didn't Want To Join The Band." "Come Down To See Me Sometime" is a gorgeously sung folk number underpinned by Davis' complex, melodic finger picking. The four Leadbelly sides are well recorded and while short, are a nice addition to his voluminous recording legacy. The most interesting is "Sermon On Pancakes", and to be honest I don't even know what to say about this surreal, wonderful number that uses pancakes as a religious metaphor ("Now this is a sermon. Big stream of molasses up in heaven and a big stream of honey, a lot of flapjack") . Leadbelly also serves up terrific versions of the traditional "The Blood's Done Signed Your Name" and "Gallows Pole" and the powerful "Leaving Blues."

The remaining tracks are blues classics that have all been reissued many times before and in generally better sound than those presented here. Also I should note that the song listed on the back as "Goin'Crazy" by Ramblin' Thomas is actually his "Sawmill Moan." One nice touch is that lyric transcriptions are provided for all the songs. The oral history included is a fascinating document and stems from a 300+ page manuscript. Davis was a true philosopher who expounds on his early life, religion, racism and human nature. World Arbiter has made the entire booklet available on their website.

All in all an interesting an eclectic collection handsomedly packaged. This is obviously a set geared towards collectors and I would imagine that the combination of unreleased tracks and the oral history will provide a compelling reason to pick up this attractive collection.

Leadbelly – Sermon On Pancakes (MP3)

Rev. Gary Davis – I Didn't Want To Join The Band (MP3)



Night And Day Blues 78

One of two missing Blind Blake 78's (Paramount 13123) has been discovered. "Night And Day Blues" b/w "Sun To Sun" was discovered in 2007 when it was retrieved from an old steamer trunk in a trailer park in Raleigh, NC, and acquired by Old Hat Records. As Drew Kent wrote in the notes to Blind Blake: All The Published Sides: "In either May or October 1931, Paramount cut four Blake sides which have vanished: Dissatisfied Blues/Miss Emma Liza and Night And Day Blues/Sun To Sun. Any record collector sharp eyed enough to uncover these is guranteed fame, but probably not fortune."

Some have commented that Blake's considerable talents went in decline by 1930. There may be some truth to this although "Righteous Blues" cut circa December, 1930 finds Blake in peak form. Thankfully Old Hat has provided sound samples of the newly discovered sides and they find Blake in fine form. Both are straight ahead mid-tempo blues numbers with "Night And Day Blues" finding Blake in particularly good voice and laying down a fine solo. After this session Blake simply vanished without a trace. Several years ago I talked with blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow who hinted that he had solved the mystery of Blake's disappearance – of course he didn't tell me! Perhaps one day all will be revealed.

There have been some great blues discoveries in recent years including a lost Blind Willie McTell record issued this year plus records by Son House, Blind Joe Reynolds and King Solomon Hill. There are still records to be found, most famously a pair of lost Willie Brown 78's.

The Blake records were acquired by Old Hat along with records by Charley Jordan, Buddy Moss, Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Jackson, Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell, Casey Bill, Georgia Tom, and the duo of Daddy Stovepipe & Mississippi Sarah, to name just a few. I'm happy to hear Old Hat now owns the records as the company has issued some terrific collections featuring great sound and incredibly researched booklets. Make sure to visit the Old Hat Website for more details.

Miss Emma Liza Ad

An ad for the missing Blake record "Miss Emma Liza."
Image from the 2006 Classic Blues Artwork Calendar.





Juke Joint Blues Lightnin' Special

In previous posts I've spotlighted some of JSP's pre-war blues box sets but for the past couple of weeks I've been captivated by a pair of recent post-war ones; Juke Joint Blues: Good Time Rhythm & Blues 1946-1953 and Lightning Special: Volume 2 of the Collected Works. The music spans a fascinating period, roughly the first decade of post-war blues, when the blues was evolving into what would be called R&B and a short hop later to rock and roll. The music on these sets however is a throwback; this is rough and tumble down-home blues geared towards an audience that was still eager to hear earthy rural blues. Many of these listeners were still in the south while many other were transplanted southerners still eager to hear the older styles. These were exciting times with numerous small labels throwing their hat in the ring to try to cash in on the market. Some labels became famous like Sun, Modern, Excello, King and had a fair bit of success while others like Rockin', Miltone, Delta remain all but forgotten outside of hardcore collectors. And of course there were plenty of artists eager to give it a go with down-home artists like Lightning Hopkins, Li'l Son Jackson, John Lee Hooker and Smokey Hogg achieving a good amount of success while the vast majority toiled with little or no luck, cutting a handful of sides and drifting back into obscurity. Both these sets collect some exciting, rawboned music by the famous and forgotten making for a varied and immensely entertaining survey of the blues in the immediate post-war era circa 1946 to 1956. Neil Slaven's notes are typically informative with the Hopkins being particularly interesting. It should be noted that most of these sides have appeared elsewhere and potential buyers may have to way the sets' merits against what they already own. In a way JSP seems to be stepping on the toes of the Boulevard Vintage label which for the past few years has been issuing excellent, well annotated multi-CD sets of down-home blues divided into different geographic regions and there's much overlapping between the two labels (I'm far too lazy to actually count duplications but there’s quite a number).

Juke Joint Blues: Good Time Rhythm & Blues 1946-1953, there's a mouthful of a title, is perhaps a bit loose thematically but gathers together 212 tracks of vintage down-home blues from performers based all over the map, predominantly from the south. JSP has done a marvelous job compiling this box which boasts nary a dud in the bunch and generally quite good sound-wise. There's plenty of well known performers like down-home stalwart Lightning Slim who's somber blues are heard to fine effect on half a dozen tracks including downtrodden gems like "I Can't Live Happy" and "I Can't Be Successful" but rocks to good effect on "Bugger Bugger Boy" modeled on Muddy's "Hootchie Cootchie Man." Slim employed a number of fine harmonica partners, many of whom are featured here; there's Lazy Lester belying his name on the pounding "Lester's Stomp", there's the marvelous country tinged "Pebble In My Shoe", the only record by Wild Bill Phillips and terrific sides by the still active Schoolboy Cleve who blows some wild, wide toned harp on the torrid "She's Gone" and puts it way in the alley on "Strange Letter Blues" laying down some stunningly raw, over amped harmonica. Of course when it comes to raw, over amped harmonica nobody beats Papa Lightfoot who's vicious "Wine, Women, Whiskey" sounds like he's singing and playing from the bottom of a garbage can and who can resist a line like "come on baby talk some trash to me." His "Jump the Boogie" and the chugging "Mean Old Train" are almost as ferocious. There's quite a number of talented harp players including classic sides by the still active Jerry McCain including his blistering "Courtin' In a Cadillac" and the menacing "That's What They Want" ("They don't want no man ain't got no cash/They’ll tell you right quick they don't mess with trash/That's what they want/Money honey"). Lesser-known but first rate are the four sides Little Sam Davis cut for the Miami based Rockin' label in 1953 backed by a young Earl Hooker. Davis was an expressive singer who reminds me a bit of Baby Face Leroy and fine upper register harp player who shines on "Goin' Home To Mother" and the throbbing "1958 Blues. Hooker cut some sides under his own name at the same session which are collected here including wild instrumentals "Alley Corn" and "On the Hook", the bopping "Ride Hooker Ride" with a fine, unknown smoothed voiced singer while Hooker takes the vocals on the magnificent cover of "Sweet Black Angel" showing his mastery of Robert Nighthawk's style. Getting back to great harp men there's some marvelous tracks by the sparsely recorded Coy Hot Shot Love and Ole Sonny Boy who's style is reminiscent of Papa Lightfoot, even sparking conjecture that he might indeed be Lightfoot although my ears say no. In addition to Hooker there's also a passel of terrific guitarists like Johnny Lewis aka Joe Hill Louis who cooks on the Elmore James styled "Jealous Man", Lafayette Thomas who's moody instrumental "Deep South Guitar Blues" I believe is seeing the light of day for the first time, Wright Holmes who's "Good Road Blues" showcases a unorthodox guitarist who sounds like nobody I know and bottleneck ace John Lee who's 1951 Federal session has been justly celebrated, sounding like a date that could have been recorded fifteen years earlier. Speaking of which there's a few pre-war recording artists that make the cut including the last sides by the under appreciated Clifford Gibson, three numbers by Texas piano man Alex Moore including a pair of rippling boogies and Skoole-Dum-Doo & Sheffield which masks the identity of Seth Richard who first recorded back in 1929.

Most of the music on Lightning Special: Volume 2 of the Collected Works was recorded in Texas cities like Dallas and Houston with a batch also cut in the recording centers of New York and Los Angles. This set is a perfect compliment to the above set gathering up 106 sides of dusty, down-home Texas blues recorded between 1951 and 1956. This set is a sequel to JSP's Lightning Hopkins: All The Classics 1946-1951, which was issued a few years back. The title is something of a misnomer as it not only features Hopkins but also some of his associates and like minded peers such as Thunder Smith, Lil' Son Jackson, Soldier Boy Houston, Frankie Lee Sims, Manny Nichols, Ernest Lewis, L.C. Williams and J.D. Edwards. Hopkins is of the course the star and during the first decade of his career, 1946 to 1956, he laid down his greatest music for a myriad of small labels like Sittin' In With, Herald, Aladdin, TNT, Gold Star and several others. The tricky thing about Lightning is that he makes it sounds so easy as he pulls down a seemingly endless storehouse of tales and antidotes from his life and community and casually tosses off some amazing guitar licks. Much of it was improvisatory and rooted in the way he worked the local clubs as Chris Strachwitz noted on his first trip to Houston to see Lightning': " He would just improvise constantly, that whole evening. …He was simply the community poet who would tell people what they like(d) to hear. And he would argue with the woman in front of him, "Whoa, woman, you in the black dress!" And then he would just go into this musical tirade about her, and she would yell back at him! It was real two-way communication. It was like a church service in a totally non church atmosphere." Lightning's genius was the way he translated this to his studio recordings. Sure he would tell his interviewers: "It's people that move me. I don't like playing to the wall. …I need the amen. Like a preacher preaching, if he don't get the amen he can't do it. …They get me in that big room and they go watch me through the glass wall and I don't feel like nothing. Oh, course those records are good, 'cause everything I do is good – but they ain't the best. The best only happens when I'm feeling easy." Lightning must have been feeling pretty easy during this period maintaining an exceptionally high standard particularly on some remarkable sides for Herald such as ruminative numbers like "Shine On Moon", "Remember Me", "Lonesome in Your Home", "Life I Used to Live" plus stomping boogies like "Had a Gal Called Sal", "Moving On Out Boogie" and the wild "Hopkins Sky Hop." Also quite good are a pair of 1956 numbers he waxed for Chart before a three year absence from the studio and an interesting duet from 1954; "Walkin' the Streets" and "Mussy Haired Woman" are a perfect marriage of vocals and over-amped guitar while "That's Alright Baby" features the down-home vocals of Ruth (Blues) Ames is the only female duet that I think I've ever heard him perform.

There were a number of artists "who hung out in Lightning’s orbit" like drummer/singer/tap dancer L.C. Williams. Williams was a strong singer, often back by Lightning on guitar and piano, who cut a number of excellent sides between 1947 and 1951. Eight sides are collected here including moody down-home numbers like "Strike Blues", "The Lazy J" and boogies like "You Can't Take It with You Baby" and the bouncy "Boogie All the Time." When Lola Ann Cullum decided to take Lightning and pianist Thunder Smith to Los Angeles to record for Aladdin she had Smith in mind to be the star. Smith was a solid pianist and appealing singer, if not star material, as he displays on the half dozen sides here including the rollicking "Little Mama Boogie" and fine mid-tempo fare like "Big Stars are Falling" and "West Coast Blues" one of several numbers with Lightning on guitar. Frankie Lee Sims claimed to be a cousin of Lightning but the association helped him little on the charts. Sims possessed a wonderful gravelly voice and a powerful boogie guitar style. His four session 1948 debut for Blue Bonnet is included, and while solid, doesn't match the terrific sides he waxed for Specialty and Ace. Nothing is known of J.D. Edwards but Lightning backs him on pair of numbers including the stomping "Hobo" with Lightning unleashing some torrid over-amped guitar. One artist that's sadly overlooked is singer Luke "Long Gone" Miles a Lightning protégé who cut some fine sides for Smash and World Pacific in the early 1960's. Unfortunately Miles made his recordings a tad late to make it on to this set which, like all JSP sets, takes advantage of the European 50 year copyright law.

Lightning's personal connection to the other artists are tenuous outside of a similar style; Lil' Son Jackson recorded for Gold Star and was right up there in sales with Lightning', Manny Nichols was a powerful, rough voiced singer who brings to mind Tommy McLennan, Ernest Lewis worked in a similar vein although "In My Girlish Days" finds him backing a marvelous, mysterious singer who went by the handle singer Miss Country Slim. I found myself quite captivated by Soldier Boy Houston's (Lawyer Houston was his real name) eight sides. I first heard him on an Atlantic LP years ago and he's a very appealing singer with a light tenor voice backing himself with some springy guitar work. His songs are captivating tales packed with loads of descriptive detail, much seemingly based on his real life experiences: "In the Army Since 1941", "Lawyer Houston Blues" ("My name is Lawyer Houston and I'm a private first class/It seem like everywhere I go I got to have a special privilege pass'), "Lawton, Oklahoma Blues" (When I re-enlisted in the Army/They send down to Fort Sill/We'll I learned that the women in Lawton will get a good soldier killed").


Schoolboy Cleve – Strange Letter Blues [From Juke Joint Blues] (MP3)

Earl Hooker – Ride, Hooker, Ride [From Juke Joint Blues] (MP3)

Lightning Hokins – Walking The Streets [From Lightnin' Special] (MP3)

J.D. Edward – Hobo [From Lightnin' Special] (MP3)




Muskie's Juke Joint, which follows Big Road Blues, will be doing a special extended program which will take over my time slot next week airing from 5PM to 10PM. Dave Moskal will be doing his final show after hosting Muskie's Juke Joint for the past fifteen years. I'll be sitting in for a bit plus there should be a bunch of special guests. Make sure to tune in, it should be lots of fun! Big Road Blues will resume on February 17th. Muskie's Juke Joint will continue with Dave's longtime fill-in Doc taking the reins.



Show Notes:

In my continuing attempt to raise the profile of piano blues here's a show devoted to some of the best barrelhouse and boogie-woogie piano of the 1920's and 1930's. Last year I did several piano based shows including a spotlight on the remarkable group of Texas piano men who who made records 1920’s and 30’s. This show, which takes it's title from a line in Romeo Nelson's "Head Rag Hop", is a much broader look at early piano blues featuring some of the best piano records of the era.

The Dirty DozenI remember exactly when I became enthralled with the early piano blues. I was was in Tower Records in NYC (still in in high school) browsing through blues records when I stumbled across the LP The Piano Blues Volume Twenty: Barrelhouse Years 1928-1933. I soon realized that this was the tail end of a groundbreaking piano series on Magpie Records. The Magpie series was the first attempt to present the the full breadth of piano blues in a systematic fashion. Each volume was built around a particular theme, featured excellent notes and terrific sound quality with records culled from the vast collection of producer Francis Smith (sadly I've heard that Smith is in the end stage of a terminal illness). The series concluded in 1984 after twenty-one volumes and has yet to be surpassed. A number of years ago Yazoo Records launched their own piano blues series also using 78's from Smith's collection. As far as I can tell the series has stopped but they issued a number of excellent collections all of which are featured on today's show. A list of their piano compilations can be found here and they've also issued single artist collections: Dreaming the Blues: The Best of Charlie Spand and The Way I Feel which spotlights Lee Green and Roosevelt Sykes.

While the piano blues is something of a declining art form it flourished on record in the 1920’s-30’s and with the boogie-woogie craze of the 1940’s. To quote Peter J. Silvester's A Left Hand Like God: A History of Boogie-Woogie Piano: "Originating in barrelhouses and entertainment spots that served the black labor force who worked in the lumber and railroad industries throughout the deep south, it could be heard later at rent parties in Chicago, buffet flats in St. Louis and other black urban centers like Birmingham, Al and several towns in Texas among others. When the music evolved into boogie-woogie entering New York nightclubs like Café Society, pianists such as Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons became stars. In the 1940’s the boogie-woogie craze hit big but faded by the 1950’s."

Today's show stops just short of the boogie-woogie craze, spanning 1928 to 1939. This was an era before mass media and many of today's recordings bear a distinct regional style. As Bob Hall wrote: "At the start of the recording era blues piano consisted of a variety of distinctive regional styles, particularly in Southern states such as Texas and Mississippi, and there were 'schools' of pianists in many of the major cities having significant migrant black populations, for example Birmingham, St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago." St. Louis, for example, was an extremely fertile piano town boasting piano men like Roosevelt Sykes, Peetie Wheatstraw, Henry Brown, Aaron Sparks, Walter Davis, Stump Johnson, Eddie Miller among many others. It's not surprising that Chicago had a lively scene including Pinetop Smith, Jimmy Yancey, Romeo Nelson, Cripple Clarence Lofton and others. Birmingham and Detroit were another prime piano towns with Jabbo Williams, Walter Roland and Cow Cow Davenport from the former and Charlie Spand, Will Ezell from the latter. In future shows I plan to do several piano programs with a narrower, regional focus.


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