The Village News Community Calendar Columns Shops & Businesses Galleries & Antiques Residents Visitors
Late Breaking News Fun Stuff Family Real Estate Restaurants Organizations Photo Gallery

The Village News, Bellport's Paperless NewspaperColumns The History Of The Blues
 by Ed Davis

Ed DavisIn a world where change comes seemingly every other week, for something to survive for more than a century is rare indeed. The blues has done that.

The foundation upon which all other American music is based, the blues has attracted millions of fans all over the world, but most of them know little, if anything at all, of its fascinating history.

For serious scholars, a huge volume of literature exists and more is being published every year, but if you’re a casual listener who might like to know a little more about the blues and its history, presents this ongoing series which will follow the rise of the blues in the nineteenth century, its spanning of the twentieth century, and its continued existence in the twenty first.

Your guide will be Mr. Ed Davis. Ed has been addicted to the blues since 1954. In 1985 he joined the staff of Stony Brook University's radio station WUSB and for fourteen years he was one of the co-hosts on the long running Tuesday night blues show. In 1990 he started the Friday morning show, Blues With a Feeling, which he hosted for eight and a half years.

Ed was a founding member of the Long Island Blues Society, serving as its vice-president for eight years. For the first several years of the Blues Society’s newsletter, he wrote a column on blues history and has also lectured many times on the same subject.

White Boys Playing The Blues

Just as the blues in the Thirties were evolving, so too was Country Music. And just as the Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers, and several of his contemporaries were strongly influenced by the blues, so too were a pair of American musical giants instrumental in the development of two new sub-genres of Country Music.

The first to make his mark was the fiddle playing Bob Wills. He was born in 1905 in the most musically diverse part of America –East Texas. This area was populated by several distinct ethnic groups, each with its own musical heritage,

There were settlers from Appalachia whose musical roots stretched across an ocean and back centuries in time to the traditions of England, Scotland and Ireland. There were immigrants from Germany and Bohemia who brought European melodies and the accordion which was quickly adopted by two other important groups.

The Cajuns used it for the three types of dance melodies which formed the basis of their music – the one step, the two step and the waltz. Mexicans not only took to the instrument but also incorporated the polka into their Tex-Mex traditions. Naturally the black inhabitants of the area added their contribution as well – the blues.

Born into a musical family, (his father was a noted country fiddler,) Wills was influenced by all of the musical traditions that surrounded him as well as the emerging sounds of Dixieland, big band jazz and Tin Pan Alley pop tunes, all of which, of course, were tinged with the blues.

He grew up playing with his father. Until 1929 his only experience was playing for dances, but a stint with a medicine show launched him on a full time musical career. Starting with a guitar player and a singer he formed a trio he called the Wills Fiddle Band.

They landed a radio show in Dallas in 1931. While they soon broke up, Wills found another singer and, blessed with a talent for innovation, began to build his legendary Texas Playboys.

The Thirties were prime time for big bands so he went about putting one together.
Starting with a fiddle section with a feel for jazz, he added an instrument not previously used in Country Music, the steel guitar. With the addition of a horn section, piano and drums he had a big band (sometimes as many as seventeen pieces) whose sound and repertoire was unlike that of bands from urban areas in the East and Midwest. Western Swing had been born.

Wills drew his inspiration and much of his material from his various musical influences. As noted in the installment on Memphis Minnie, “What’s The Matter With The Mill?” was part of his repertoire. An internet search for Wills doing the number will lead to a You Tube video of his 1936 Vocalion recording with a twelve piece band. The recording is nothing like Minnie’s version. The tempo is faster, it uses some different lyrics, it’s hokey, it’s corny, it’s wonderful!

Other Wills videos on You Tube will find the sound to be much bluesier. From that same period, another Vocalion record, his version of the blues standard “Trouble in Mind,” features a more conventional approach to the number with some fine Jazz-tinged fiddling. Again from 1936, another You Tube video, his rendition of The Mississippi Sheiks’ classic “Sitting On Top Of The World,” is quite bluesy.

No less bluesy is another version of the tune done in 1951 with a seven piece band. This one was not a studio recording but a video of a live performance.

Yet again from 1936 he adapted a piece by Sylvester Weaver, the seminal “Guitar Rag,” calling it “The Steel Guitar Rag.”

Wills went on to enjoy a lengthy and highly successful career with The Playboys. He introduced many well known numbers including “San Antonio Rose,” “Faded Love,” and “Take Me Back To Tulsa.” He was a major influence on not just Western Swing bands but on many mainstream Country artists including Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and especially Merle Haggard.

And, while he drew heavily upon the blues as a part of Western Swing, his music cross pollinated the blues as well. Just listen to the music of the great Texas bluesman, Gatemouth Brown, who will himself be the subject of a future installment, and the Bob Wills influence will be obvious.

While Wills and a few other pioneers of the genre were developing Western Swing in Texas and Oklahoma, a mandolin player from Kentucky was embarking on a musical career that would span two thirds of a century and make his name synonymous with the style of music he invented virtually single-handed.

Born in the town of Rosine in 1911, Bill Monroe grew up in a musical family. His older brothers had taken the fiddle and the guitar leaving Bill, the youngest child, to play the mandolin. Both of his parents died by the time he was sixteen so he lived with his fiddle playing uncle, Pen Vandiver, who taught him a repertoire of fiddle tunes as young Bill accompanied him at dances in the area. His introduction to the blues came around the same time from another local musician, a black guitar player with the highly unlikely name of Arnold Schultz whom Monroe held in high esteem.

Still in his teens he moved to Indiana to live and work with his brothers, Birch and Charlie. With a friend they formed a group to play dances and house parties. Birch and the friend soon left the group. Bill and Charlie continued as a duo and embarked upon a professional career performing on radio shows in the Midwest and the Carolinas from 1934 to 1936.

Signed by RCA Victor, they recorded sixty sides for Victor’s Bluebird subsidiary between 1936 and 1938 when they ceased working together. Without any of his family with him for the first time, he formed a short lived group in Little Rock, Arkansas, before moving on to Atlanta and forming what became The Blue Grass Boys, named in honor of his native state.

With Monroe preferring to sing the high harmony tenor vocals rather than the lead, he forged a style of music featuring five stringed instruments – guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo and bass fiddle. Marked by tight vocal harmonies and fast tempos where each band member executed solos displaying instrumental virtuosity, named after his prototype band, the style remains to this day known as bluegrass.

Monroe achieved exposure to a nationwide audience when he auditioned successfully for the Grand Ole Opry in 1939 with a rousing rendition of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Muleskinner Blues” (Blue Yodel # 8). The blues would remain an integral part of Monroe’s sound.

Over the years, he constantly attracted and featured topnotch talent. Whenever a musician left his band, another was waiting to take his place. In addition to his vocal and instrumental skills Monroe was a talented song writer.

Monroe’s influence was such that in the mid Fifties a young man beginning a recording career which also combined Country music with the blues, put his own spin on the Monroe penned “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” as one side of his very first record.

His name? Elvis Presley.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Sylvester Weaver, Century Of The Blues, Disc 2

Guitar Rag

Bob Wills, The Essential Bob Wills 1935-1947

Steel Guitar Rag

Bill Monroe, Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ Blue Grass, 80 Years of American Music,
Disc 1

Mule Skinner Blues

Rocky Road Blues

Blue Moon Of Kentucky


Comment Click to send us a comment


Social, Political, Economic, Cultural and Technological Forces Affecting The Blues

Evolution of the blues was never just about musicians and their music. Various inventions, laws and changing social and economic conditions all exerted their influences upon the blues, and indeed, all other types of American music.

Until the invention of the phonograph in the late nineteenth century, the only way anyone ever heard any music was to be in the presence of the musician performing it. Since the blues was not recorded until 1920, about a quarter of a century after the first appearance of the genre, the influences upon most players were limited to what they could glean from more experienced musicians in their area. This explains why early blues evolved basically into three regional styles – Delta, Texas and East Coast.

When blues recording began, it became possible for musicians to hear the records of others whom they probably would never have come in contact with otherwise. They took from them musical ideas they could incorporate into their own styles. Early windup phonographs enabled countless Americans, both black and white who lived in rural areas without electricity, to enjoy records. By the Twenties, Americans were buying about one hundred million annually.

Black people would see advertisements for blues records in widely circulated black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. Their circulation in the South depended, to a large degree, upon a network of distribution agents consisting of railroad sleeping car porters. Each man would drop the papers at stops along his train’s route for local agents to distribute.

When the Great Depression began in 1929, it plunged America into a decade long period of financial hardship for millions of people. Black people, already on the bottom of the economic ladder, were especially hard hit. So pervasive was the Depression’s effect, not one single blues recording session took place in the final quarter of 1932.

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, conditions for the blues improved. Speakeasies could operate openly; many new clubs opened and blues recording began again.

Demand for these new recordings was not based solely on purchases for home enjoyment. Coin operated phonographs had been in existence for over forty years but they were cumbersome affairs with multiple turntables. Over the years, better technology led to what became the modern jukebox. Microphones and recording technology had also evolved to the point where by the mid Thirties the improved jukebox was able to deliver a decent sound when the shellac coated 78 rpm records were played.

The word “jukebox,” did not come into use until about1940. The machines had found their first great wave of popularity in “jukes.” Jukes were little joints where black people went to drink and dance. The word is a corruption of a word in the Gullah language meaning disorderly, rowdy or wicked, which is exactly what many jukes were. (Gullah is a language which combines English and a West African tongue spoken by descendants of people taken from that culture as slaves. They were mainly used on plantations along the coast of northern Georgia and South Carolina where rice and indigo were raised.)

As recording techniques continued to improve, the demand for jukeboxes grew. By the end of the Second World War about three quarters of all records produced in America went to supply jukeboxes. By that time, recordings of blues, jazz and Western Swing (more about this in our next installment) often featured electric guitars. A number of different individuals as well as a few guitar manufacturers had been working on the development of electric guitars since the early Thirties.

The first instruments to be recorded were the hollowed bodied arch top models, such as the one Memphis Minnie used to record “Me and My Chauffer” in 1941. Big Bill, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson and Arthur Crudup, a man who was a major influence on Elvis Presley, were among the first blues musicians to go electric. Development of the solid body electric guitar, which would revolutionize music all over the world, would not come to fruition until the Fifties.

Blues records were being bought primarily by black people, but from the early Twenties a small group of white intellectuals, who had discovered the music, were listening to and writing about the blues. The most perceptive of them were able to recognize the fact that the blues was nothing less than an enormous contribution to American culture. Two men in particular, each with a different agenda, were to play significant roles in documenting the blues.

The first of them, John A. Lomax, was an eminent folklorist with a desire to preserve all sorts of American folk music. His earliest work, published in 1910, was an anthology of cowboy ballads, something he had been interested in since his childhood days in post Civil War Central Texas. He had planned to publish a companion anthology of the music of black Americans including, of course, many widely known blues of the oral tradition era, but for various reasons the project never saw the light of day. Eventually though, in 1932 through an arrangement with the Library of Congress which provided him with portable recording equipment, he undertook a project to make field recordings for the Library’s Archive of American Folklore.

With his son Alan he set off on a series of trips which would ultimately yield thousands of recordings for the Library. He knew that the penitentiaries and prison farms of the South held a huge number of black inmates who might know songs he wanted to collect. He was especially interested in prisoners who had been incarcerated for many years, reasoning that their music would be uncontaminated by the jazz and the popular tunes favored by free Americans.

His most famous discovery was Huddie Ledbetter, known as “Lead Belly.” He was a twelve string guitarist serving a sentence for murder in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. He had an enormous repertoire of all sorts of songs, including, of course, many blues.

Freed from Angola, he worked briefly for Lomax as a driver and a liaison with black prisoners, convincing them to record. He went on to become the darling of a group of left wing white intellectuals in New York, making many commercial recordings and performing both in America and in England for about fifteen years.

The Lomaxes conducted their work not only in prisons but also in black churches, on plantations and any place else they could find musicians. Occasionally they would encounter men who were professionals. Among the many blues singers they recorded were Blind Willie McTell and Son House whose early commercial recording careers were over.

The field recordings continued until 1942 when the war effort made the acetate discs they had been using unavailable. Lomax died of a stroke in 1948 leaving behind a priceless body of work, much of which would have been lost but for his efforts.

John Henry Hammond, the father of the contemporary bluesman, John Hammond Jr., came from a background far different than did Lomax. A New Yorker, he was a member of the enormously wealthy Vanderbilt family. He studied classical music in his youth, playing viola and piano, but in his teens he became far more interested in jazz and blues, hanging around clubs in Harlem. Hearing Bessie Smith perform live in 1927 had a profound impact on his life.

In 1931 he dropped out of Yale University to pursue a career in the music business. He wrote for trade publications and worked as a talent scout and record producer. The list of those whose careers he was instrumental in advancing reads like a Who’s Who in American Music. From Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Big Joe Turner in the Thirties to Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughn. He had a major role in influencing the shape of American music.

One of his most important contributions affected not just American music, but American life in general. Beginning in the Thirties he devoted much of his efforts to eliminating the racial divide that existed in America. He started by convincing Benny Goodman to hire some great black musicians for his band, something almost unheard of in those days.

In his quest to advance racial relations he conceived the idea of presenting a history of black music in a concert format before an integrated audience. Even in New York City, the racial divide in the nation at the time was such that despite his reputation, he had trouble attracting sponsorship for the concert. The fact that Benny Goodman and some other white musicians were on the bill complicated his efforts. He was turned down by a number of organizations including surprisingly, the NAACP.

He eventually received funding from The New Masses, the journal of the American Communist Party. (The Communist Party was about the only discrimination free organization in the country at the time, accepting anyone who wanted to join. Perhaps that explains why for all his accomplishments-All American football player, movie actor, concert baritone- the great Paul Robeson, embraced communism.)

Finally funded, the first “Spirituals to Swing” concert was presented in Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1938. The concept was to present African American music chronologically beginning with the Negro Spirituals of the nineteenth century followed by ragtime, blues and jazz leading to the big swing bands of the era.

As was mentioned in the installment about him, (K. C. and Big Joe) Big Joe Turner appeared with his piano player partner, Pete Johnson, and two other boogie woogie pianists, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. Other blues artists included the Twenties blues diva, Ida Cox, two jazz singers with a strong feel for the blues, Helen Humes and Count Basie’s vocalist, Jimmy Rushing, Big Bill Broonzy and a young harmonica player who would soon come to prominence through his association with two important East Coast guitarists and who will be the subject of a future installment, Sonny Terry.

Big Bill was not originally intended to be part of the program. Hammond had traveled down South to try to find Robert Johnson for the show but by then he was already dead. So, he recruited Big Bill to fill the slot intended for Johnson. Although by 1938 he had not played any Country Blues or performed solo for several years, Hammond disingenuously presented him as an Arkansas sharecropper.

The concert was such an artistic success that a second one was presented on Christmas Eve of 1939, but far beyond their cultural importance, Spirituals to Swing was a pioneering effort in the crusade for equal rights for black Americans.

Hammond served in the military during the Second World War. Renewing his association with Columbia Records in the Fifties, he signed the folksinger Pete Seeger and the African musician Babatunde Olatunji and discovered Aretha Franklin. In 1961, he signed Bob Dylan and produced some of Dylan’s early recordings.

By the time he retired in 1975, he had played a pivotal role in Columbia’s reissuing Robert Johnson’s complete recordings and signed Canadian singer- songwriter-poets, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. He continued as a talent scout and in 1983 he discovered another guitarist who will be featured in a future installment, Stevie Ray Vaughn.

In a well deserved tribute, in 1986 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the year before he passed away.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Lead Belly, King Of The 12 String Guitar

Four Day Worry Blues

Albert Ammons, Boogie Wooge Stomp

Albert Ammons - St. Louis Blues

Meade Lux Lewis – Chapel Blues

Pete Johnson – Mama’s Blues

Big Joe Turner, 1938 - 1941

Joe Turner, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, A. Ammons – Café Society Rag

Rumble + Scratch – Capitol Blues Collection Sampler

Sonny Terry – Whoopin’ The Blues


Comment Click to send us a comment

Meanwhile, Back In The South – Part 3

Blind Boy Fuller

The greatness of major figures throughout blues history usually lay in the fact that they were innovators. The first blues giant who did not fit into that category was the East Coast guitarist Blind Boy Fuller.

Born sighted in North Carolina in 1907, Fulton Allen (his real name) grew up in a family with no musical heritage. He began playing guitar in his youth, fashioning a style that was eclectic rather than innovative. He listened to the records of Blind Blake and Blind Willie Mc Tell, the two giants of Twenties East Coast Blues. He also drew upon the work of Blind Lemon Jefferson and several of his East Coast contemporaries, Josh White, Buddy Moss and most especially Gary Davis whom he heard play live quite often.

He married young and worked a day job but very shortly after, he began to experience eye problems. By the time he was twenty two he was blind and unable to work.

He and his wife moved to Durham where for a time they depended on public welfare, but as he became accustomed to his blindness, he began to earn a living playing on the streets. The Durham area contained a number of cigarette factories. Tobacco manufacturing was not as hard hit economically as most of the nation during the Great Depression so there were opportunities for a street musician to make some money.

By 1934 he had acquired a manager, local businessman J. B. Long, who hung the name Blind Boy Fuller on him. A year later Long brought him and Gary Davis up to New York to record where he did twelve sides over the course of four days. Among the pieces he did was the first of many good time dance numbers he would go on to record throughout his short career.

“Step It Up And Go” would become a blues standard. At the same session, with Davis on second guitar, he did “Rag Mama Rag” which would be covered by one of the finest musical groups of the Sixties, The Band.

He would eventually record about 120 sides which included double entendre hokum numbers, the up-tempo dance numbers and straight ahead blues dealing with all the misfortunes of life a poor blind black man faced.

In 1937 he began recording with the last of the great country harmonica players, Sonny Terry, who along with his long-time partner, Brownie McGhee, will be the subjects of a future installment.

Fuller played a finger picking style on a National resonator guitar. His ability to reformulate elements of both traditional and contemporary material into something uniquely his own made him a major influence on many players who came after him including the great white Country guitarist, Merle Travis, who himself influenced many fine players including Chet Atkins and Doc Watson.

By 1940 Fuller’s health was failing rapidly, probably in part from the same cause of many musicians’ deaths, severe alcoholism. He died on February 13, 1940 from a variety of serious ailments.

Gary Davis

Born in South Carolina in 1896, blinded in infancy, Gary Davis taught himself to play harmonica, banjo and guitar as a child. Influenced by Blind Blake, the guitar would be his main instrument as he developed a unique style using just his thumb and forefinger to pick.

In the mid Twenties he settled in Durham where he met and influenced Blind Boy Fuller and, like Fuller, acquired J. B. Long as his manager. Somewhere in this period he became a devout Christian, eventually becoming an ordained Baptist minister. From then on he was known as the Reverend Gary Davis.

He began to play more religious music and fewer blues. In the Forties he moved to New York where after years of living in obscurity he was rediscovered during the Blues Revival of the Sixties.

His unique style influenced many young white up-and-coming musicians. He actually gave lessons to, among others, David Bromberg, Stefan Grossman, Dave Van Ronk, Woody Mann and Roy Book Binder. Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Jorma Kaulonen and Keb Mo were all influenced by him.

He was to spend the rest of his life playing clubs, concerts, and music festivals both in America and abroad. He died of a heart attack en route to a concert date in 1972.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Blind Boy Fuller, East Coast Piedmont Style

Rag Mama Rag

I’m A Rattle Snakin’ Daddy

Sweet Honey Hole

Cat Man Blues

I’m A Stranger Here

Gary Davis, Preachin’ The Gospel – Holy Blues

Lord, I Wish I Could See

Century Of The Blues – Disc 2

Twelve Gates To The City


Meanwhile, Back In The South - Part 3 Comments...

3/5/12, Mickey Fisher wrote...

A wonderful compendium on blues history. Neglected by most, I was happy to see you touch on the contribution of Georgia blues, although once again the vastly underrated guitar wizard Curley Weaver isn't mentioned. Poor Curley has always been overshadowed by his more famous playing partner.


Comment Click to send us a comment


Meanwhile, Back In The South – Part 2

Robert Johnson

For many years after his death in 1938, though his influence on those who came after him was enormous, very little was known about Robert Johnson. A musical genius, his talent matured so quickly that those who knew him perpetrated the legend that he had gained it by selling his soul to the Devil.

Born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, he was the illegitimate child of a married woman with ten other children by her husband who never forgave her. Robert grew up around Robinsonville, raised by his mother and her second husband. He was known by a number of different names as a child but as a teenager he took the name of his biological father - Johnson.

His first instrument was the harmonica which, according to Son House, he played pretty well, but he really wanted to play the guitar. Sometime in 1930 he began to hang around places in the Robinsonville area where House and Willie Brown were playing. When they would take a break, Robert would pick up one of the guitars and try to play. By all accounts, he was not very good.

He left the area in1931 and returned to the place of his birth in Hazlehurst. Using Hazlehurst as a base, he traveled about the Delta for a little over a year.

When he returned to the Robinsonville area, House and Brown were awestruck at the level of his ability. Myths about the Devil not withstanding, Robert’s newfound proficiency was the result of intense practice.

From that point on, Johnson was a professional musician. He began to travel widely, roaming all up and down the Delta. As his reputation grew his travels took him far outside the region. He visited St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit (where he actually crossed over the border and ventured on up into Canada) and New York.

He was often accompanied on his travels by a young Johnny Shines. Shines had first been influenced by a man whose reputation would not be made for more than another decade –Howlin’ Wolf – but his constant exposure to Johnson morphed his style to the point where he became virtually a clone.

Johnson’s genius was such that he could be engaged in conversation with someone while a jukebox or a radio played a tune he was unfamiliar with. Picking up his guitar, he could play the song perfectly.

He could play in the styles of Lonnie Johnson, whom he often claimed to be related to, Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell and others. As a professional musician, he would play anything an audience wanted to hear including waltzes, polkas, pop tunes, Country music, even Duke Ellington numbers.

In Jackson, a white man named H.C. Speir who ran a music store served as a talent scout for a number of different record companies. Almost every Mississippi blues singer of any consequence was discovered by Speir.

In 1936, it was Johnson’s turn. Speir gave his name to ARC Records and in November of that year he was taken to San Antonio for his first recording session where he recorded sixteen sides over the course of three days.

While not the first guitarist to use a walking bass derived from boogie woogie piano, “ I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago” which both became blues standards popularized a style which would affect the way countless guitarists played.

His material, much like Leroy Carr’s, did not just endlessly recast standard blues lyrics known as floating verses. Rather, he intentionally developed themes in his songs.

At that first session, he also recorded “Cross Road Blues,” “Come On In My Kitchen,” “Walking Blues,” “Rambling On My Mind,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” and the most commercially successful number of the lot, “Terraplane Blues.”

He would record again in Dallas in June of 1937, bringing his total output to twenty nine songs with alternate takes of twelve of them. There was also a rumor that he did a single take of a very bawdy number for the engineering crew which was destroyed.

He was not to live much longer. An inveterate womanizer, he had countless brief affairs in his short life. When a woman caught his eye he went after her boldly, not caring if a jealous boyfriend or husband was part of her life.

In August of 1938 he had been playing around Three Forks, Mississippi for several weeks where the wife of the owner of the club he was working caught his eye. Her husband was quick to realize she was cheating on him. He resolved his problem by giving Robert a bottle of poisoned whiskey. For three days he writhed in agony before dying on August 16, 1938. He was twenty seven years old.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings, Disc 1

Kindhearted Woman

I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom

Come On In My Kitchen

Terraplane Blues

They’re Red Hot

Cross Road Blues

Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings, Disc 2

Preaching Blues

If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day


Comment Click to send us a comment


Meanwhile Back In The South – Part One

By the mid – thirties, Chicago was the center of the Urban Blues scene, but the emergence of the new style did not spell the end of older ones. Charley Patton, Blind Blake and Blind Lemon had passed away but the rest of the first generation Country Blues guitar greats continued playing in the usual way.

Their ranks were joined by a number of great players who were just coming to prominence. From Mississippi came Bukka White, Big Joe Williams and Bo Carter.

White, who disliked the name “Bukka,” (his name was Booker but it had been misspelled on his early recordings and the name stuck) was a cousin of B. B. King. His earliest releases were Gospel numbers but he also played bottleneck blues on his National guitar. He was probably the first to record “Shake ‘Em On Down” which he did for Vocalion in 1937.

By the time it was released, he was unable to take advantage of its popularity. Incarcerated at the infamous Parchman Prison Farm for a shooting, he might have languished there but for the efforts of the Chicago record producer, Lester Melrose, who arranged his parole in 1939.

He recorded again in 1939 and 1940. For the next two years he worked club dates in major Northern cities. He served in the U. S. Navy from 1942 to1944.

After the war he settled in Memphis, playing only occasionally for the next two decades. He was among the group of older musicians whose careers were resurrected by the Blues Revival of the 1960’s. He spent the rest of his life playing throughout the U. S. and in Europe. He died in 1977.

Big Joe Williams was noted for being the originator of the standard, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” which countless numbers of other players who came after him recorded. He was also famous for being the only nine string guitar player.

In his youth, he played in many rough places where fights would often break out. More than once he had to smash his guitar over someone’s head to save his life. After destroying several good guitars that way, he began using cheaper boxes but, dissatisfied with their sound, he started adding extra strings to produce a fuller, richer tone, making his guitar’s sound so unique it was easily recognizable.

Where Bukka White’s career stagnated until the Blues Revival, Big Joe never stopped playing. He hoboed everywhere, playing anyplace he could get a gig. Periodically he would manage to procure recording dates, showing up on a number of different labels. The Blues Revival brought him a wider audience than he had ever had in his prime and he spent the rest of his life performing and recording until he passed away in 1982.

Bo Carter’s real name was Armenter Chatmon. Born in1893, he was a member of the musical Chatmon family of Mississippi Sheiks fame. Like so many other Southern black men, he worked as a sharecropper, occasionally playing music with his brothers. His first recordings were done with his brother Lonnie and Charlie McCoy in 1928. Among them was the first version of the traditional piece “Corrine Corrina” put down on a record.

After a gap of several years he began a solo recording career, cutting over a hundred sides. Though he was a fine guitarist, he was known for recording numbers that were blatantly sexual in theme with titles like “Banana In Your Fruit Basket”, “My Pencil Won’t Write No More”, “Smoke My Cigarette Baby” and “Ram Rod Daddy”.

He made his final recordings in 1938 by which time he had become blind. By 1940 he had basically retired from music. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in 1964.

Three musicians from Tennessee all had long careers both working solo and most often as a trio. The oldest of them by about a decade was guitarist “Sleepy” John Estes. For years it was believed that the nickname resulted from him being afflicted with narcolepsy, but that was not so. He suffered an eye injury at a very early age, leaving the blind eye with an unnatural look.

Born in 1899, by his late teens he was playing professionally. By 1920 he was already working with harmonica player Hammie Nixon and one of the very few mandolin players in the history of the blues Yank Rachell, though neither of them had yet reached their teens.

Estes’ early recording career lasted from 1929 to 1941 for a number of different labels. Rachell and Nixon first recorded in 1934 with Son Bonds, a friend of Estes and then in 1935 and 1937 with Sleepy John.

For many years they worked fish fries, parties, dances, labor camps and medicine shows. When music jobs were not available, they all would work outside of music.

Blessed with longevity, all three had their careers resurrected in the Blues Revival of the Sixties. Estes died in 1977, Nixon in 1984 and Rachell in 1997.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Bukka White
Legends Of The Blues – Vol. 1

Fixin’ To Die Blues

Slide Guitar – Bottles, Knives & Steel
Bukka’s Jitter Bug Swing

Special Stream Line

Century Of The Blues – Disc 1
Shake ‘Em On Down

Big Joe Williams
Century Of The Blues – Disc 4
Baby Please Don’t Go

Legends Of The Blues – Vol. 1
Don’t You Leave Me Here

Piney Woods Blues
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl

Bo Carter
Raunchy Business: Hot Nuts & Lollypops
My Pencil Won’t Write No More

Banana In Your Fruit Basket

Sleepy John Estes
Century Of The Blues – Disc 2
Divin’ Duck Blues


Comment Click to send us a comment


K.C. & Big Joe

Everyone knows that jazz was born in New Orleans. Like all other forms of American music, it was influenced by the blues but besides the multicultural makeup of the city’s inhabitants, there was another very important reason why the Big Easy gave birth to jazz.

At the end of the Civil War, all of the Confederacy’s military bands were mustered out there. So many musicians left their instruments there that, unlike the blues where poverty-stricken musicians were often forced to start out on homemade instruments, the pawnshops were full of quality instruments available at low cost. A trumpet in New Orleans was like a harmonica in the Delta – cheap and easy to come by.

So while jazz originated in NOLA, it matured in St. Louis, Chicago and, most especially, in Kansas City. Like most American cities, it had a sizable black population. When it became apparent in the late nineteenth century that Reconstruction was not going to offer black Americans anything remotely like equality in the South, the first of several northward migrations took place. Kansas City was the destination of many blacks.

Its location made it the crossroads of America, a hub for road and rail transportation.
Among other things flowing into the city were new musical ideas.

Big band jazz had begun in the Twenties with nationally known orchestras both white (Paul Whiteman, Gene Goldkette) and black (Duke Ellington, Benny Moten) along with what were known as Territory Bands, outfits that did little or no recording and played in limited areas of the country. While jazz in places like New York City was becoming more sophisticated, Kansas City musicians held fast to the basics, namely the blues.

Under a corrupt local government, gambling flourished and Prohibition was ignored in a town full of clubs that never seemed to have a curfew. Music often went on past sunrise as musicians pushed each other to excel.

Not surprisingly, a number of important figures emerged from this scene. Best known were Count Basie who began with Benny Moten in 1929, Charlie Parker who would become one of the founding fathers of bebop in the Forties and Jay McShann, the originator of the blues standard, “Confessin’ The Blues.”

One major figure who was not part of the big band scene was Big Joe Turner, the first of the great male blues shouters. A Kansas City native, he was born in 1911.

By the time he was fourteen he was part of the club scene working first as a cook and then as a bartender. With a voice that suited his 6’2” three hundred pound body, he had no need for amplification as he sang from behind the bar.

He soon teamed up with boogie woogie pianist Pete Johnson. In 1936 they made their first New York appearance on a bill with Benny Goodman, then headed back home.

They returned in 1938 as part of John Hammond’s historic From Spirituals to Swing concert, of which more will be discussed in a future installment. Two other boogie piano players, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis also appeared. All four men would go on to a lengthy New York engagement at a club called Café Society.

Big Joe began his recording career at that time, cutting tunes he was to record many more times through the years. These included “Piney Brown Blues,” “Roll ‘Em Pete,” “Cherry Red” and “Wee Baby Blues.”

For the next decade he recorded for several labels accompanied sometimes by Johnson, sometimes with various small combos and with Count Basie’s orchestra. In these different phases he moved from big band jazz to Rhythm and Blues and then to the field where he had his greatest success – as a Rock ‘n’ Roll star!

This came about as a result of his 1951 signing with Atlantic Records. He cut several hits for Atlantic including “Chains Of Love,” “Sweet Sixteen,” his first million seller, and “Honey Hush,” his second.

In 1954 at the age of forty three he became a most unlikely teen idol with the release of his best known hit, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” at the dawn of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era. Covered by Bill Haley with Turner’s earthy lyrics sanitized, the song became a huge national hit. It brought Big Joe a much wider audience than he had ever known, especially when Elvis Presley recorded it too, early in his career.

Joe went on to record quite a few more hits. His run ended in 1958 after placing twenty numbers on the national Rhythm and Blues charts, four of them million sellers.

This phase of his career over, Big Joe returned to performing and recording with small combos and appearing at music festivals. He was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 1983.

Suffering from arthritis and diabetes he died of a heart attack in 1985. He was inducted posthumously to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Big Joe Turner 4 CD Set, JSP Records, Disc A, 1938-1941

Roll ‘Em Pete

Cherry Red

Piney Brown Blues

Wee Baby Blues

Atlantic Rhythm And Blues, 1974-1974

Disc 1

Chains Of Love

Sweet Sixteen

Disc 2

Honey Hush

Shake Rattle And Roll


Comment Click to send us a comment


Peetie Wheatstraw, St. Louis, Piano Players And The Camps

There was just one major figure of the Urban Blues in the Thirties who did not ever reside in Chicago. William Bunch was born in Ripley, Tennessee, on December 21, 1902. He called himself Peetie Wheatstraw and sometimes referred to himself as the Devil’s Son-In-Law or the High Sheriff From Hell. He spent most of his adult life in St. Louis, leaving only periodically to record in Chicago.

Only one known photograph of him exists. The photo shows him holding a National resonator guitar, which he played quite well, but he was better remembered as a piano player.

He was as prolific as he was popular. Beginning in 1930, he recorded 161 sides, an output among pre-World War Two artists topped only by Tampa Red, Big Bill, Bumble Bee Slim and Lonnie Johnson who had a five year head start on him in the studios.

While all the others were significant influences on younger musicians coming up, Peetie represented something of an evolutionary dead end in the blues. His Melrose Sound personified everything wrong with the blues in the Thirties. Stereotypical, repetitive, even monotonous, he had almost no impact at all upon young players.

Whether he would have been able to reinvent himself and go on in music will never be known. Out joyriding with some friends celebrating his thirty ninth birthday, he was killed when the car collided with a freight train.

By the time Peetie Wheatstraw arrived in St. Louis in the late Twenties, the city had been home to a thriving music scene for decades. Ragtime, which was America’s popular music for the first two decades of the Twentieth Century, had its birth in central Missouri in the town of Sedalia where the great Scott Joplin had been formally trained in the 1880’s.

There were a number of other fine composers of rags besides Joplin and by the time he published the best known of all ragtime pieces, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1885, St. Louis had become the center for the music. Composed of elements of European dance music and marches, ragtime is the only other musical form besides the blues which can be definitively cited as a forerunner of early jazz.

Since ragtime was performed predominantly by solo pianists, St. Louis become a Mecca for piano players, many of whom were playing the blues by the Twenties. More than a few of them had honed their skills in the camps.

The camps represented opportunities for countless black men in the South to perform back-breaking, often dangerous labor for long hours at shamefully low wages.

They could be levee camps. Rivers prone to flooding required constant building and maintaining of levees.

They could be logging camps. Vast areas of the South were covered with forests.

They could be turpentine camps. Not all forests were cut down for timber. In the days before water soluble paint, oil based paints required turpentine to thin them and to clean paint brushes. The turpentine came form resins extracted from pine trees.

What these camps all had in common were terrible living conditions. There had to be something to keep a man from leaving, so these camps offered certain enticements. There were prostitutes, of course, and there were crude barrooms. Stretching a plank across two barrels gave rise to calling such places “barrelhouses.” There was no credit offered, cash only. This was the origin of the phrase, “cash on the barrelhead.”

The only other amenity offered was music. Every camp had a piano played by one of a number of itinerant musicians who moved around the circuit. Some of them never got the opportunity to record. Well remembered but unknown by their real names were players like Chicken Shoulders, Skinny Head Pete and Papa Lord God, but some of the best of them did make it into the recording studios, most notably Roosevelt Sykes and Little Brother Montgomery.

Sykes, known as “The Honeydripper,” was born in Arkansas in 1906. At the age of fifteen he was already playing in the camps. Eventually he found his way to St. Louis where he met “St. Louis Jimmy” Oden who originated the blues standard, “Going Down Slow.”

Sykes made his recording debut in 1929 with the “Forty-Four Blues,” which became another blues standard and his signature tune. He and Oden moved to Chicago in 1934 where he lived for twenty years until playing opportunities no longer existed for him. In 1954 he moved to New Orleans. He returned to recording in the Sixties for labels documenting disappearing blues styles. He died in The Crescent City in 1983.

Eurreal “Little Brother Montgomery,” born in Louisiana in 1906, was working the barrelhouses in Louisiana camps before he reached his teens. He arrived in Chicago in 1928 where he made his first records. His signature tune was the “Vicksburg Blues,” a variant of the “Forty-Four Blues.”

He enjoyed a long career. In the Sixties he made several tours of Europe and played blues festivals in the U.S. into the Seventies. He died in 1985.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Peetie Wheat Straw

Crazy With The Blues – Blues Classics, Disc 1

Sweet Home Blues – Legends Of The Blues, Volume 1

Roosevelt Sykes

The Honey Dripper – Blues Classics, Disc 1

Henry Ford Blues – Legends Of The Blues, Volume 2

Little Brother Montgomery

Bass Key Boogie – Blues Piano Orgy


Peetie Wheatstraw, St. Louis, Piano Players And The Camps Comments...

3/23/2011, Brian Whittaker wrote...

I've listened to and enjoyed the Blues most of my life including most if not all of your stint at USB with your cohorts. Looking forward to reading the full text. Took me a while to get over Tuesday not being Bluesday.


Comment Click to send us a comment


Tampa Red Et Al

Along with Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, who had lived in the Windy City since the mid-Twenties, helped usher in the era of the Urban Blues in Chicago. He had already achieved his place in blues history when he and Georgia Tom (Professor Thomas A. Dorsey) recorded the smash hit, “It’s Tight Like That,” in 1928, but by 1932 they had parted ways. (See “Wrapping Up The Twenties – Part Two”)

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the music scene in Chicago blossomed as more and more clubs opened. Backed by his band, the Chicago Five, he was one of the hottest acts in town. He also did a great deal of session work, playing on recordings of many other artists.

Working with the producer Lester Melrose at Bluebird Records, a subsidiary of Victor, he and his band developed the Bluebird Beat, also known as the Melrose Sound, which just about standardized instrumental backing on blues recordings throughout the business. Their playing foreshadowed the emergence of Jump Blues in the Forties.

He recorded prolifically on into the early Fifties, working often with the great piano player, Big Maceo Merriweather, the originator of the blues standard, “Worried Life Blues.” His tone with his slide, as fluid as liquid silver, influenced many fine players who came after him.

Among them were Robert Nighthawk who himself was an influence on Muddy Waters and Elmore James who also drew upon Tampa’s songwriting talent. One of the numbers most associated with James, “It Hurts Me Too,” was a Tampa Red composition destined to become a blues standard.

Less well known was the fact that he also served as a vital link connecting blues artists newly arrived from the South with the Chicago music scene. With the help of his wife, who also served as his agent, his house served as a combination boardinghouse, rehearsal space and booking agency headquarters.

The most productive years of his career ended in 1953 after his wife died. Like many musicians, he was a heavy drinker. With her death, he descended into alcoholism, dying penniless in Chicago at the age of seventy one in 1981, the same year he was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame.

While he, Minnie, and Big Bill were the dominant figures in the Thirties, there were other artists who enjoyed great popularity during the decade, but whose careers were of a much shorter duration.

Born in Georgia in 1905, Amos Easton, who was known as Bumble Bee Slim, arrived in Indianapolis in 1928 where he came under the influence of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. He made his first recordings in 1931 shortly after moving to Chicago.

His vocal delivery and material were very much in Carr’s style, laid back and at times either wistful or light-hearted and humorous. His approach anticipated the origins of Chicago Blues and its more polished urban sounds.

Working within the framework of the Melrose Sound with the musicians who typified that sound, he recorded over one hundred fifty sides for Vocalion, Decca and to a lesser extent, Bluebird, between March of 1934 and June of 1937. Eventually the sound became so formulaic that he seemed to tire of it.

He returned to Georgia in 1937. In the Forties he moved to Los Angeles. He recorded sporadically in the Fifties and made his last recordings in 1962. None of them had the impact of his earlier work though he continued to perform until his death in 1968.

Another Georgian whose star shone brightly in the Chicago of the Thirties was Kokomo Arnold. He had been living in the North since his teens in Buffalo, New York and in Pittsburgh, working outside of music which he viewed strictly as a sideline.

In 1929 he arrived in Chicago where he was a bootlegger until Prohibition ended in 1933. A short sojourn in Memphis produced his first recordings under the name Gitfiddle Jim but he was soon back in Chicago.

Kansas Joe McCoy introduced him to Mayo Williams who was by then producing records for Decca for whom Arnold was to record eighty eight sides between September of 1934 and May of 1938. His earliest releases presented him as a solo artist. A left-handed slide guitarist playing in open tunings, both his slide work and his fingering showed him to be a superior musician,

His first session produced a number destined to become a blues standard. “Milk Cow Blues” was covered by, among many others, a young Elvis Presley who recorded it for Sun Records.

The other side of the record was “Old Original Kokomo Blues.” A young Mississippian who cited Arnold as an influence, Robert Johnson turned the song into his “Sweet Home Chicago.”

After a dispute with Decca, he simply walked away from a successful career. When he was contacted by researchers during the Blues Revival of the Sixties, he showed absolutely no interest in returning to music.

He passed away in November of 1968 at the age of sixty seven.

There was one more artist who was extremely popular in the Thirties. Though he recorded in Chicago, his base of operations was another Midwestern city with a thriving blues scene in the Twenties and Thirties. Tune in next time to read all about him.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Tampa Red

Denver Blues – Great Blues Guitarists, String Dazzlers

Green And Lucky Blues – More Slide Guitar Classics

You Can’t Get That Stuff No More – The Slide Guitar, Bottles, Knives and Steel

Turpentine Blues – Legends Of The Blues, Volume Two

Things “About Comin” My Way – Blues Classics, Disc 1

Kokomo Arnold

Old Original Kokomo Blues – Century Of The Blues, Disc 1

Milk Cow Blues – Blues Classics, Disc 1

Bumble Bee Slim

Bricks In My Pillow – Century Of The Blues, Disc 3


Comment Click to send us a comment


Big Bill

Born in Scott, Mississippi in 1893, Big Bill Broonzy grew up on a farm in Arkansas. Like countless other young blacks who became musicians, he started out playing a homemade instrument, a violin fashioned from a cigar box. With a friend, he played parties and picnics.

By 1915 he had married and was working his own farm. He was contemplating becoming a preacher and had decided to give up the violin, but an offer that was too good to pass up (fifty dollars and a new violin for four days of playing) made him continue making music.

In 1916 a drought destroyed his crops and killed his livestock so he turned to coal mining until taken in the military draft for World War I. Returning after two years in the army, he found life in the South intolerable.

He moved up to Chicago in 1920 where he met Papa Charlie Jackson who taught him to play the guitar. In 1927 he convinced Mayo Williams of Paramount Records to record him. The record wasn’t very good and neither was another from a session a year later, but in 1930 he recorded something much better, a piece called “How You Want It Done” which he flat picked rather than the finger picking style for which he would become known.

In the depths of the Great Depression, neither Bill nor Paramount were doing well. Picked up in 1932 by Lester Melrose, the music publisher and recording director for the Gennett and Champion labels, he was finally developing his own style.

Some recordings he had done for the American Recording Corporation were released on half a dozen budget labels and he was becoming better known. On some of those sides he recorded with a jug band.

When he moved over to the Bluebird label in 1934, his popularity grew rapidly as his style became more sophisticated. He was using a fine piano player known as Black Bob on his recordings, strong, rhythmic numbers sung in a warm ingratiating voice. He would not record unaccompanied again until 1951.

Around 1936 he, along with Memphis Minnie and Tampa Red, began using small instrumental groups with drums, bass, and horns or harmonicas. During this period he was quite active on the Chicago club scene and also toured with Minnie.

A prolific songwriter, he wrote over three hundred fifty songs for himself and others. The best known of these compositions was “Key To The Highway” which quickly became a blues standard.

A major figure on the Chicago blues scene on into the Forties, he served as mentor to a young Muddy Waters when Muddy first came to town, but the times, and the blues, were changing. After World War II ended a strike by the American Federation of Musicians was settled. Bill recorded for Mercury from 1948 to 1951 in the newly emerging style called Rhythm and Blues using larger groups and some electric instruments. Somewhere in this period he recorded “Black Brown And White,” a strong protest against prejudice and segregation.

By that time, as was the case with Memphis Minnie, the all-electric sound pioneered by Muddy Waters made Bill’s music sound dated. To keep his career alive, he reinvented himself. Returning to his earlier solo blues roots, he found himself a new audience of white intellectuals both at home and in England where he was among the first blues artists to perform,

He came back to Chicago in 1956, but his career was nearly over as his health began to fail. He developed throat cancer and passed away in1958.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Great Blues Guitarists, String Dazzlers

How You Want It Done

Big Bill Broonzy, Good Time Tonight

Long Tall Mama

I Want My Hands On It

News & The Blues, Telling It Like It Is

Unemployment Stomp

Legends Of The Blues, Volume One

Spreadin’ Snakes Blues

Century Of The Blues, Disc 4

Key To The Highway

Big Bill Broonzy, Black, Brown & White

Black, Brown And White


Comment Click to send us a comment


Memphis Minnie

Once Leroy Carr made his recording debut, the blues entered a new phase in its evolution. Led by three major figures who had all made their first records in the late Twenties, the Thirties ushered in the era of the Urban Blues.

Centered in Chicago, this type of blues was pioneered by Tampa Red, whom we have already been introduced to, Big Bill Broonzy and the greatest female figure in blues history, Memphis Minnie.

Born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana in 1897, she grew up in Mississippi in a town about twenty miles from Memphis. She began playing music at a very early age, starting on the banjo when she was seven years old. She got her first guitar three or four years later. From the beginning, she was always a finger picker, but unlike Country Blues guitarists, she did not ever work solo.

By the age of eighteen she was playing with one of the great Mississippi guitarists, Willie Brown, friend and associate of Charlie Patton and later on, Son House. Brown provided the rhythm and the bass lines as Minnie played lead. Playing for tips, they would do pop tunes as well as blues.

In the early Twenties she settled in Memphis, playing the bars and on the streets with several different jug bands. By 1929 she was married to, and playing with, Kansas Joe McCoy, a guitarist whose ability equaled Minnie’s. Their duets were marked by fascinating interplay between the two instruments.

Discovered by a talent scout for Columbia Records, Minnie’s first recordings were made with Joe in 1929. By then she was one of the first players to use the metal-bodied National guitar. At their first session, with Joe on the vocal, they recorded a piece that Led Zepplin would remake decades later, “When The Levee Breaks.”

This partnership also would yield two important pieces with Minnie doing the singing. “What’s The Matter With The Mill?” which later became part of the repertoire of Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing, and is still being done by bar bands today. The other, “Bumble Bee,” proved so popular that she redid it several times during her career and Charlie Patton did it at his last recording session with his wife Bertha Lee on vocal.

By 1933 Minnie had made it up to Chicago where, legend has it, she bested the reigning king of the Windy City blues scene, Big Bill Broonzy, in a guitar contest. Shortly thereafter, her partnership with Joe dissolved both professionally and maritally.

She began using piano, drums and horns on her recordings. By 1935 she was part of a group of musicians working for Lester Melrose, a producer and talent scout who supplied blues artists for various labels, standardizing a sound used to back a number of different performers. Known as the “Melrose Sound,” Minnie began to increasingly allow other instruments to play the bass, treble and rhythm parts. Her guitar work began to sound more like blues guitar work sounds today, bending strings and playing strategically placed riffs to punctuate the work of the other instruments.

In 1939 she married another blues guitarist, Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlers who was to remain her partner and husband until his death in 1962. Their work together backed by piano, bass and drums solidified her Urban sound.

In the early Forties, she began playing a wood-bodied electric arch top guitar with which she recorded some of her most often covered numbers including the autobiographical “In My Girlish Days” and her signature tune, “Me And My Chauffeur.”

In live performance, she continued to be quite popular but blues recording styles were changing. Jump Blues bands were supplanting the Urban Blues and by the time Muddy Waters pioneered the all electric Chicago Blues in the late Forties, her recording career was coming to an end.

In 1957 she suffered a debilitating heart attack, which ended her performing days. After Lawlers died, she spent her declining years in a nursing home, passing away in 1973.

As a fitting tribute to her greatness, she was part of the first group of performers to be enshrined in the Blues Hall Of Fame in 1980.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Century of The Blues, Chrome Dreams

When The Levee Breaks, with Kansas Joe


The Essential Memphis Minnie, Classic Blues

What’s The Matter With The Mill, with Kansas Joe

Frankie Jean

Nothing In Rambling

Black Rat Swing, with Little Son Joe


Memphis Minnie, HooDoo Lady, 1933-1937, Columbia

Down In The Alley

Please Don’t Stop Him


The Essential Memphis Minnie, Classic Blues

In My Girlish Days

Me And My Chauffer


Comment Click to send us a comment


A Big Change

While Tampa Red and Georgia Tom both cast giant shadows upon early blues, another duo using the same instruments proved to be even more influential. In this case though, the piano player was the more important of the two.

Leroy Carr was the first real transitional figure in the blues. Born in 1899 in Nashville, his childhood and early youth were unlike those of most blues musicians of his day. An only child, he grew up in a stable middle class environment. His father was steadily employed, working for Vanderbilt University as a laborer.

He attended school throughout his youth, holding a part time job while in high school. He took a job in a clothing store after graduating in 1915.

In 1918 he came under the influence of a country piano player named Ollie Akins, the first of several keyboard men he was to learn from. His professional career began in 1922 playing at a local dance hall backing a male singer. When the singer left town, Leroy began to sing himself.

Still living at home and holding on to his day job, he was being increasingly urged by friends to go up to Chicago and try to secure a recording contract. Finally, in 1928 he took the train north.

In Chicago, Mayo Williams, the recording director of Vocalion Records suggested that Leroy should work with a guitarist who had been playing around town for several years.

Leroy, with his middle class background, urban upbringing and education approached the blues as an art form rather than as a collection of standard verses from older blues endlessly recycled in one song after another. Never having known the unrelenting backbreaking toil of farm labor, his singing was far less intense than rural singers.

With his soft piano accompaniment, his recordings were greatly enhanced by the guitar playing of Scrapper Blackwell. Blackwell, whose real name was Francis Black, rather than playing bunches of chords, provided what would today be called single string leads. These melodic solo passages dressed up Leroy’s playing and singing the way embroidery decorates cloth. Their playing styles meshed so perfectly together that Leroy insisted that Scrapper’s name also be included on their records.

To quote Samuel Charters, the author of the first scholarly work on the blues, “The Country Blues,” published in 1959,“ Their first record was so successful that their reputations were made a few weeks after they began working together.” That record was to become the first of a number of their recordings which would become blues standards, the enormously popular “How Long, How Long Blues.”

Easy to imitate, Leroy’s style became the dominant approach to the blues up until about the time of the Second World War. He never returned to live in the South. He married and lived quietly in Indianapolis, leaving only for occasional club work and recording in Chicago.

Things appeared to be going quite well in Leroy’s life but after a few years, his relationship with Scrapper was becoming strained. In 1934 Tampa Red talked him into leaving Vocalion to record for Bluebird, a subsidiary of RCA. While they were signing the contracts at the Bluebird studios, an argument broke out. Scrapper felt that Leroy was getting all the recognition and more of the money from their recordings together. After they calmed down, they did a bit of recording but Scrapper got angry again and finally had to be thrown out of the studio.

Leroy went on to record alone, but without Scrapper the magic disappeared. He would not live much longer. Always a heavy drinker, he died of acute alcoholism in Indianapolis in the spring of 1935.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

The Best of Leroy Carr, Columbia/Legacy

How Long, How Long Blues

Prison Bound Blues

Papa’s On The Housetop

Midnight Hour Blues

Hurry Down Sunshine

Blues Before Sunrise

A Big Change Comments...

2/26/2010, Toby Walker wrote...

Keep 'em coming!!!


Comment Click to send us a comment


Wrapping Up The Twenties- Part Two

As we have seen in the second installment of our history of the blues, female “City Blues” singers often sang with just piano accompaniment. For the first few years of blues recording, this was the role of the piano.

Soon enough though, the piano would come to be recorded as a solo instrument or the featured instrument in small groups starting a tradition that has continued down through the years. There has never been a time since the twenties when there were no great blues pianists.

The first keyboard man to make a name for himself was Charles “Cow Cow” Davenport. Born in Alabama in 1894, by 1912 he was making a living as a professional musician. He played ragtime in brothels in New Orleans, in barrelhouses, at house parties, or anywhere else he could get work. By 1924, he was working as the accompanist of a blues singer named Dora Carr.

He made his mark on blues history in the summer of 1928 with his recording of a seminal boogie woogie number with his left hand playing a walking bass line. His “Cow Cow Blues” proved so popular that he was known for the rest of his career, which lasted another twenty years, as “Cow Cow” Davenport.

Five months later, another Alabaman, Clarence Smith, who had been living in Pittsburgh and backing blues singers, including Ma Raney, recorded a piece for Vocalion Records in Chicago. As was the case with Davenport, the song, “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” one of the most important boogie woogie records of all time, was so identified with him that he was forever to be known as “Pinetop.”

Not only did the song influence every boogie woogie pianist who came after him, but in 1938, the big band leader, Tommy Dorsey, recorded it with his full band. Unfortunately, Smith never lived to see any of this. Several months after cutting his landmark recording, he was killed accidentally by a bullet meant for someone else. He was twenty five years old.

As important as these two numbers were, neither was known for selling an extraordinary number of records. With a population only a fraction of today’s, and a far larger percentage of Americans living in poverty, a hit blues record might sell seventy or eighty thousand copies. However, the early days of the blues did have two well-remembered mega-hits.

In October of 1927, another veteran of the medicine shows, Jim Jackson, went into the studios of Vocalion Records and recorded a two-sided blues called, “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues,” Parts 1 and 2. Released in December of that year, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

An excellent piece of material, the song became a blues standard still well known today. It must have sold on the strength of the song because when great blues guitarists and great blues singers of the Twenties are discussed, no one mentions Jim Jackson.

Such was not the case with another number which went on to become a blues standard. The performers were every bit as important as the song, a raucous bawdy piece called “It’s Tight Like That.”

Tampa Red and Georgia Tom invented the hokum style of blues. Hokum is much like jug band music but minus the jug or the other homemade instruments.

Tampa Red was a young guitar player born in Florida but living in Atlanta whose real name was Hudson Whittaker. The first blues artist to record with a National steel-bodied resonator guitar, his slide playing was smoother and more urbane than that of the country guitarists. He would go on to become a major figure of 1930’s blues as part of a career that extended into the Fifties.

His piano playing partner, Georgia Tom, had an absolutely fascinating career. He started in the early Twenties as accompanist to Ma Raney before teaming up with Tampa Red. Their association was brief. In the early Thirties, after tragedy in his personal life, he began writing religious songs. At first, because of his blues background, acceptance by churches was slow, but in 1932 he founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.

The individual who coined the term “Gospel Music,” Dorsey, who from that point on was known as Professor Thomas A. Dorsey, wrote over eight hundred songs including “there Will Be Peace In The Valley,” a number which sold over a million copies for both the Country singer, Red Foley, and Elvis Presley. Dorsey lived to a ripe old age. By the time he passed away in 1993, he was a legend in Gospel music.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Blues Classics: Disc #1

Cow Cow Davenport - Cow Cow Blues

Pine Top Smith - Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie

Jim Jackson - Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues, Pt. 1

Tampa Red & Georgia Tom - It’s Tight Like That

Wrapping Up The Twenties Comments...

2/3/2010, Steve Brauch wrote...

Great column, Ed. Many thanks. Came to your site from Toby Walker's, and I'm very glad I did! I'm facilitating a continuing education course up here in southern Massachusetts on the roots of American folk music - your column will be a fine resource. Thanks again, Steve (a former Long Islander).


Comment Click to send us a comment


Wrapping Up The Twenties - Part One

So far our history of the blues has covered the City Blues, the great first generation Country Blues guitarists, early harmonica players and jug bands, but still more remains to be mentioned about blues of the Twenties.

Blues and jazz had existed side by side with only the most tentative borders between them for over a decade, but the blues was about to exert its influence on another uniquely American art form. In August of 1927, Ralph Peer, who had already played a very important role in the recording of many early landmark blues, held auditions in Bristol, Tennessee. Within two days he discovered and signed the two acts destined to have an enormous influence on the early days of Country Music.

The Carter Family’s music was Appalachian white but The Singing Brakeman, Jimmy Rodgers, owed much of his style to the blues. He had traveled about the South since childhood with his railroad worker father. His first exposure to the blues probably came from hearing the singing of the black work gangs who maintained the tracks and roadbeds.

In his short (1927-1933), but meteoric career, the Father of Country Music recorded thirteen of his famous blue yodels including one (Blue Yodel #8 ) with Louis Armstrong backing him on cornet. He also recorded with jug bands and, among other blues, covered Blind Blake’s “He’s In The Jailhouse Now.”

While the white Rodgers wove black music into his oeuvre, the black string band, The Mississippi Sheiks, built their careers performing for primarily white audiences. The Sheiks were guitarist Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon who played guitar and violin. They were sometimes joined by Lonnie’s brothers, Sam, who also played guitar, violin and Armenter, who would become far better known in the Thirties as Bo Carter and Charlie McCoy who played banjo and mandolin.

Their music was similar to jug band music but not as hokey. They were best known for originating the blues standard, “Sitting On Top Of The World.”

With the guitar to this day still the most important blues instrument, 1927 brought an important technological advance. A luthier named John Dopyera invented the resonator, an aluminum cone which when placed inside a metal-bodied guitar made the instrument louder.

He formed the National String Instrument Company and began manufacturing resonator guitars. A National had three of the aluminum cones joined together. The increased volume helped the guitar to be heard when played in bands with other instruments.

A year later Dopyera and four of his brothers formed the Dobro Manufacturing Company. The Dobro had only one resonator, but with the cone inverted, it was both louder and cheaper to manufacture than the National.

Though the invention of the electric guitar was soon to become a reality, it would never replace the resonator guitar as the instrument of choice for players of traditional blues. Today, more than eighty years later, Nationals and Dobros are both still highly prized by such musicians.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Century Of The Blues, Disc #1

Jimmie Rogers - Mule Skinner Blues

Mississippi Sheiks - Sittin’ On Top Of The World


Comment Click to send us a comment


Jug Bands

In the South in the 1920’s, the overwhelming majority of black people were poor. Singing and dancing were about their only forms of entertainment. Much of their music was performed by small groups where the sound of guitars and harmonicas were augmented by homemade instruments, most of which were used for percussion. A bass could be fashioned from a galvanized washtub, a broomstick and a length of clothesline. Washboards, cowbells, spoons, bones (the shin bones of cows) and kazoos were all commonly used.

These little groups were known as “jug bands” because quite often a jug was part of the ensemble. A jug player would make buzzing sounds with his lips while blowing across the mouth of the jug. A skilled player could create a surprising range of sounds.

Quite naturally, as blues began to be recorded, some of the better bands found their way into the studios. These bands for the most part consisted of veterans of vaudeville and the medicine shows.

Among the earliest to record were the Dixie Jug Blowers from Louisville and the Birmingham Jug Band. Their repertoires consisted mainly of dance band jazz which by the Twenties had supplanted Ragtime as America’s popular music.

But the finest of these groups came from the Memphis area and their music was mostly Country Blues. The two most famous were the Memphis Jug Band and Cannon’s Jug Stompers.

The Memphis Jug Band made their first recordings in February of 1927 for Ralph Peer, the man who had produced the very first blues recording for Okeh Records in1920 but who had since moved over to Victor Records.

The leader of the group was Will Shade who played guitar or harmonica depending on who else played on a particular session. Quite a few different musicians recorded with the band during the seven years of its existence including a very young Walter “Shakey” Horton who would go on to become one of the greatest Chicago Blues harmonica players of all time. The heart of the group was Will Shade and Charlie Burse, who played a four string tenor guitar and sang duets with Shade. To quote Samuel Charters, the author of the first scholarly work on the blues, “They drank hard together, played hard together, and created a new musical style.”

Probably the greatest of all the jug bands was Cannon’s Jug Stompers who were led by the banjo playing Gus Cannon. Born in 1883, he was older than almost all first generation blues musicians.

Starting out, as most bluesmen did, on a homemade instrument, by 1900 he had a real banjo. For the next twenty years he worked at cotton farming or any odd job he could find, playing music on the side, but by 1918 he was working regularly with the medicine shows.

In November of 1927 he went up to Chicago to audition for Paramount Records. He impressed the producer, Mayo Williams, but Williams couldn’t use him by himself so he brought in Blind Blake and told them to work something out. They did seven sides together including one of Blake’s best known numbers. “He’s In The Jailhouse now.”

Back in Memphis, Cannon heard that Victor was coming down in January and they wanted him to put a jug band together. He recruited two old friends, guitarist Ashley Thompson, and the great harmonica player, Noah Lewis. Cannon of course played banjo but he also had a jug in a harness around his neck which he played at the same time.

At their first session in January of 1928, Cannon and Thompson alternated the vocal chores. Among the pieces they recorded were Cannon’s signature tune, “Madison Street Rag” and with Thompson on the vocal, they did one of the earliest recorded variants of the classic Delta piece, “Rolling & Tumbling” which they called the “Minglewood Blues.”

Cannon didn’t think Thompson played a strong enough bass line so on two sessions in September of 1928 he replaced him with Elijah Avery. At the second on September 20. They recorded a number Grateful Dead fans would be familiar with, “Viola Lee Blues.”

Their final session came a few weeks later in October when they recorded a piece that became a huge hit in the Sixties for a one hit wonder of the Folk Music Era. The group was the Rooftop Singers. The song was “Walk Right In.”


Editor’s Note:

If you like the idea of a Jug Band, we have one right here in Bellport. It’s The Better Late Than Never Jug Band and it was formed as a result of the bi-weekly Acoustic Jam that’s held in the Community Center about every other week, year round. If you’d like more information, here’s a link for The Better Late Than Never Jug Band’s web site and a link to our Acoustic Jam’s page. We’ll be sure to let you know when the BLTN Jug Band will be playing in town.


Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Good Time Blues, Columbia/Legacy
Memphis Jug Band

Mary Anna Cut Off

Gator Wobble


Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Yazoo
Cannon Jug Stompers

Cairo Rag

Madison Street Rag

Minglewood Blues

Viola Lee Blues

Walk Right In



Comment Click to send us a comment


Early Harmonica Masters

While the dominant approach to Country Blues in the Twenties was the solo performance by a singer-guitarist, there were other ways the music was performed and recorded, ways just as vibrant and just as influential in the evolution of the blues.

If there is one perfect instrument to accompany a blues guitar, it is the harmonica because like the guitar, the harp, as it is alternately referred to, is capable of bending notes to produce blues tones. Popular in the U. S. since about the time of the Civil War, it has much to offer an untrained musician.

To begin with, while quality musical instruments of any type are usually expensive, harmonicas were always cheap and easily available. Add to that the fact that they are small, light and easily transported so a would-be harmonica player could slip one in a pocket and pull it out to play any time the opportunity presented itself for even a few minutes of practice.

Since there were no recordings of harmonica music to learn from, most early players were self-taught. The result was an abundance of idiosyncratic styles. No single master of the instrument sounded like any other.

As the blues entered the recording era in the Twenties, any number of outstanding country harmonica players were recorded. While their names today are unknown to all but the most rabid enthusiasts of early blues, artists like Kyle Wooten, Freeman Stowers and Jaybird Coleman were obvious masters. One among their numbers, however, achieved a much wider fame.

DeFord Bailey’s story is one of the most unusual in all of American music. A hunchbacked operator of a shoeshine stand, it seems almost inconceivable that he became one of the earliest stars of the Grand Ole Opry.

He made his first appearance on the show in 1925 before the program even had that name. In fact, Bailey played a key role in the incident which resulted in the show adopting the name by which it became world famous – a story just a bit too long to be repeated here.

Through the late Twenties he made more appearances on the Opry than any other artist. The fact that he was black seemed to make little difference to either the show’s cast or its audience. With the exception of the legendary Uncle Dave Macon, he was the most popular performer on the Opry where he remained throughout the Thirties, making his final performance in 1941.

There is one more distinction that DeFord Bailey can claim. While Nashville, the home of the Opry, is world famous as “Music City,” he was the very first artist to record there.

Bailey and the others mentioned above were all known as solo performers but another great harp player of the era, Noah Lewis, made his reputation as a member of a type of ensemble quite popular in the Twenties and Thirties, the jug band.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Harmonica Masters, Yazoo

Choking Blues, Kyle Wooten

Man Trouble Blues, Jaybird Coleman

Medley of Blues, Freeman Stowers

Ice Water Blues, DeFord Bailey


Comment Click to send us a comment


First Generation Guitar Wizards of Mississippi

Of all the places that have produced blues artists - and today that includes virtually anywhere in America, Canada, Australia, the British Isles and almost every country in Europe - the state of Mississippi has produced more of the all-time greats than anyplace else.

In the 1920's, dozens of great Country Blues guitarists called the Magnolia State home. Headed by Charley Patton and Son House, first generation masters included Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Furry Lewis and others. Oddly though, as a group, they did not record until after the greats of Texas and the East Coast made their debuts.

Patton was a bit older than the others. There is some doubt as to the date of his birth, but he and the blues were born about the same time. A bantam rooster of a man, he possessed a huge voice which served him well in an era where amplification was unknown.

In 1900 his family moved to the enormous Dockery Plantation. There he met his mentor, Henry Sloan, who was playing a very early style of blues. Sadly, Sloan was never recorded.

By the time he was nineteen, Patton was already an accomplished guitarist and was writing his own songs. One of his earliest compositions, the "Pony Blues" which he recorded at his first session for Paramount Records in 1929 was included in the Library of Congress 9 National Recording Registry as a song that is culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.

Unlike other musicians who traveled throughout the South, he rarely ventured outside the Delta region. He became well known for his guitar mastery, influencing many fine players younger than he was. In addition, he was known for his showmanship, often playing with the guitar behind his back or his neck.

He recorded about forty sides for Paramount but he suffered from a bad heart, and soon after he made his final recordings, ten sides for Vocalion, he passed away in 1934.

Son House was born in 1902. Self taught on guitar, he did not begin playing until he was in his mid-twenties. Torn between the blues and the church, he actually spent some time as a preacher in his youth, but the pull of the blues upon him was powerful and he left the church behind.

His guitar style featured strong repetitive rhythms. Usually playing bottleneck style, his music was meant for dancing. His strong voice carried above the noise of the places where he played.

He made his first recordings for Paramount in 1930, but by then the Depression had taken hold of the country so his output for Paramount was only about a dozen sides. His recordings of songs like "Death Letter Blues" and "My Black Mama" are absolute masterpieces.

He continued to play around the Delta until about the start of World War II. A major influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, he left music and settled in Rochester, New York and worked for the New York Central Railroad.

The great modern day slide guitarist, John Mooney lived in Rochester in his youth and absorbed much of House's style, not only instrumentally but vocally as well.

House was rediscovered and returned to music in the Blues Revival of the nineteen sixties playing before primarily white audiences at festivals, in coffee houses, and on college campuses. He also made many new recordings, both live and in the studios.

His second career lasted nearly a decade before he retired due to poor health. He died in 1988 at the age of eighty-six.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

The Music Of Charlie Patton

Hang It On The Wall

Century Of The Blues

Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues, Charlie Patton

My Black Mama (Part One), Son House

Future Blues, Willie Brown

Canned heat, Tommy Johnson

Devil Got My Woman, Skip James

Stack O’ Lee Blues, Mississippi John Hurt

Blues Classics

Billy Lyons And Stack O’ Lee, Furry Lewis

First Generation Guitar Wizards Of Mississippi Comments...

9/2/2009, Kate Hines wrote...

I have been reading and re-reading every word. I like the music selections very much. For someone like me, who knows almost nothing of the Blues, these articles have been an eye-opener. All I can say is "MORE!"

Comment Click to send us a comment


First Generation East Coast Guitar Masters

Not long after Blind Lemon Jefferson made his debut recordings for Paramount Records, the label signed a man whose guitar style played a major role in creating a regional style of blues and which to this day continues to inspire contemporary acoustic players. Oddly enough though, for as well known and influential as he became, very little has ever been known about Blind Blake.

For starters, no one has ever proven what his real name was. For many years it was believed that it was Arthur Phelps, although lately even that has come into question. The date and place of his birth are unknown but some researchers think he may have come from Jacksonville, Florida.

What is not in dispute is that his playing was strongly based on ragtime piano. Ragtime was for the first two decades of the Twentieth Century America's popular music. Like the blues, ragtime evolved several different regional styles. Blake's style was fashioned upon East Coast piano rags, so it seems probable that he came from somewhere in the East.

He made the first of about eighty sides he was to do for Paramount in 1926 and was immediately a successful recording artist. Very soon he began to cast a wide net of influence vocally as well as instrumentally. He sang in a laidback wistful manner which was to become the model for blues vocals in the Thirties.

But of course, it was his guitar mastery which influenced so many less experienced players. His ragtime rhythms served as a prototype for what became known as Piedmont Blues, a style quite distinct from either Texas or Mississippi Delta Blues, and much favored by players of the Appalachian region. A number of them would leave their marks on 1930's blues.

Even today, talented contemporary pickers will try their hands at a Blind Blake piece, but there is one among them who has modeled his entire career upon that of Blind Blake's. The enigmatic Leon Redbone has absorbed Blake's guitar style as if by osmosis. Not only that, but he has recorded any number of Blake's originals. Indeed, Redbone's signature tune," Diddie Wa Diddie" is a Blind Blake piece.

Toward the end of his recording career Blake's records began to fall short of the artistic level of his earlier work. It may have been because he, like so many other musicians, was a very heavy drinker. This possibly led to his passing away shortly thereafter. A mystery man to the end, no one knows where or when he died.

The only other first generation blues guitarist from the East Coast as influential as Blake was a man who never matched his success as a recording artist. Blind Willie McTell never had a hit record yet his talent was so evident and his approach to blues guitar so unique that from 1927 to 1933 he recorded over sixty sides for five or six different companies using a different alias for each.

He differed from all other first generation masters in one quite significant way. His guitar was a wood-bodied Stella-a twelve string Stella. Among important Twenties guitarists, the only other twelve stringer was Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), and he is regarded more as what Southern blacks called a songster, a man whose repertoire is more important than his playing.

If playing a twelve string wasn't enough to set McTell apart from the others, on some numbers he used a slide. It is his slide work, rather than the up tempo ragtime numbers he was also proficient at which has inspired countless contemporary players to tackle pieces from his repertoire. Although most of them play metal bodied six string resonator guitars, they all capture the essence of his style. Remarkably, not one of them sounds exactly like McTell, and none of them sound exactly like anyone else, but half a century after his death, young players still strive to capture his sound.

Ironically, the McTell piece that more people are familiar with than any other is one of his two signature pieces - the other is "Broke Down Engine," -which was recast by the Allman Brothers into something almost unrecognizable to those familiar with McTell's original. It's title? "Statesboro Blues."

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Blind Blake – Georgia Bound

West Coast Blues

Diddie Wa Diddie

Police Dog Blues

Blind Willie McTell – The Classic Years, A CD Set

Statesboro Blues

Talking To Myself

Broke Down Engine

Georgia Rag

Savannah Mama



First Generation East Coast Guitar Masters Comments...

5/3/2011, Toby Walker wrote...

Blake and McTell... two of my favorite old time rag/blues musicians. Way to go Ed... keep 'em coming!!!


8/25/2009, Linda Davis wrote...

Beautifully written and knowledgeable.

8/23/2009, Doc Blues wrote...

A fantastic series with deep insight, detail and love of the subject. I've saved them on my computer as reference works! Hats off to the writer.

Comment Click to send us a comment


First Generation Guitar Wizards - Lonnie Johnson

Of all the first generation blues guitar greats, one man stands out for the absolute brilliance he brought to blues guitar technique. Lonnie Johnson grew up in a musical family in New Orleans absorbing the sounds of his native city. His first instrument was the violin, but once he began to concentrate on the guitar, he developed a sophisticated style, fluid and melodic, yet swinging at the same time. Contemporary guitarists who possess the necessary skills have managed to replicate the techniques of virtually every other master of the six-string, but no one else has ever completely captured the sound of Lonnie Johnson.

He was thirty-six when he made his first recordings in the fall of 1925. Within days of winning a talent contest, he attracted the attention of a scout for Okeh Records. From then until 1932 he recorded about one hundred thirty sides that were amazing in their diversity.

He did solo recordings, both instrumentally and with vocals. He did a series of double entendre duets with Victoria Spivey and also with Spencer Williams. He served as accompanist on the recordings of others, most notably Texas Alexander, a raw country singer who played no instrument himself. Texas Alexander was known for his idiosyncratic vocals, which made him difficult to follow.

Johnson's brilliance went beyond the blues. He recorded with both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington's orchestra. He also did a series of remarkable guitar duets with Eddie Lang, the guitarist in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, the so-called "King of Jazz." These duets may possibly have been the first integrated recordings in America, a fact that was kept hidden by billing Lang as "Blind Willie Dunn."

He was absent from records from the time he left Okeh in 1932. He spent the Depression in Chicago until he began a five year stint with RCA Victor's subsidiary, Bluebird Records, in 1939. He was as successful as ever.

In 1947 he signed with King Records of Cincinnati, a company which had been primarily producing what, at the time, were still called "Hillbilly" records, but had branched out into recording black artists. He soon enjoyed one of his all-time biggest hits, “Tomorrow Night," a lovely ballad which the young Elvis Presley recorded early in his career.

By this time, Johnson was playing electric guitar, which could not begin to match the musical depth of his earlier acoustic work. During the Fifties he was forced to find work outside of music, but in the early Sixties he returned to recording with several new albums and eventually toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival, of which more will be discussed in a future installment.

In 1969, Johnson was hit by a car in Toronto. He never recovered, dying of his injuries a year later.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Hot Fingers

I Done Told You

Mean Bedbug Blues

Playing With The Strings

Work Ox Blues



Comment Click to send us a comment


"First Generation Guitar Wizards of Texas"

Since 1920, early blues recordings were dominated by women singers performing the more sophisticated City Blues. Increasingly however, record companies were receiving requests from America's black population for Country Blues records.

One of the major record companies employing blues singers, Paramount Records of Chicago, was the first to attempt to meet the growing demand for Country Blues. In July of 1924 they recorded a veteran entertainer, Papa Charlie Jackson.

At the time, he was about forty years old. Singing and playing a six string banjo-guitar, he recorded a piece called the "Original Lawdy Lawdy Blues." It was the first of some sixty odd sides he was to record for Paramount but, pioneer though he was, he and his music slipped into obscurity. He is little remembered today.

He was shortly to be followed into the recording studios by a number of Country Blues giants whose material and guitar styles serve as inspiration to this day for contemporary performers.

The first of these was a fat blind man from East Texas with a dazzling guitar technique. Born in 1897, Blind Lemon Jefferson was the stuff legends are made of. While still in his teens, he left his family to earn a living as a street singer. A habitual wanderer, people recalled seeing him as far away as Virginia.

In 1925 he recorded the first of seventy nine sides for Paramount. His signature tune was "Matchbox Blues," of which about half a dozen versions found their way on to recordings. They differ enough from one another to show that he never played a piece the same way twice.

He was successful enough to own a car and employ a driver, something few black men of his day could even aspire to. But a living legend's stature grows exponentially when he shuffles off this mortal coil, especially if his death is both memorable and unusual.

In February of 1930, Lemon completed a recording session for Paramount and headed out into a howling snowstorm. Somehow or other he missed his ride and froze to death on a Chicago street corner. His body was found in a snowdrift the next morning. He was thirty three years old.

Another blind string dazzler from Texas could not have been any more the antithesis of Blind Lemon. Where Lemon was interested in little besides whiskey and loose women, Blind Willie Johnson never performed anything but hymns and other religious music, but his slide guitar technique was so great he has always been ranked with the all time blues masters.

Born around the turn of the century, he lost his sight as a child. Long before welfare or disability payments existed, music was one of very few ways a poor blind black man could make a living.

From his youth he played and sang in churches, for religious meetings, and on the streets. In January of 1928, the first of thirty sides he was to do for Columbia over the next three and a half years was released. By then, the nation was at its lowest point in the Great Depression and phonograph records were selling extremely poorly, but Blind Willie was to continue singing and playing for the rest of his life.

In 1949 he died in Beaumont, Texas of pneumonia after a hospital refused to admit him because he was blind.

Blind Willie and Blind Lemon were the two towering figures of first generation Texas blues, but they ranked no higher than guitar monsters from Mississippi, the East Coast, or a man from New Orleans- which surprisingly, does not have a great blues tradition-Lonnie Johnson.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Maxwell Street Blues, Papa Charlie Jackson, Century Of The Blues – Disc 2, Cut 6

Matchbox Blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Century Of The Blues – Disc 2, Cut 1

Blacksnake Moan, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Great Blues Guitarists String Dazzlers – Cut 15

Nobody’s Fault But Mine, Blind Willie Johnson, Great Blues Guitarists String Dazzlers – Cut 10

Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time, Blind Willie Johnson, Preachin’ The Gospel: Holy Blues - Cut 1



Comment Click to send us a comment


"The Recording Era Begins"

America in 1920 was an openly racist nation. Segregation was universally in force throughout the South and was not unknown in the North. Black Americans were systematically discriminated against in housing, employment and education. Among the avenues of opportunity they had been largely excluded from was the fledgling recording industry.

The blues had been around for over twenty years and hundreds of songs had been published in sheet music form since 1912. The songwriters, both black and white, were composing pieces in what came to be known as the "City Blues" style.

City Blues were sung primarily by women, some of them white. They were usually accompanied by a piano player or a small combo featuring horns.

As popular as the blues was becoming, the music had not yet found its way on to records. But in the spring of 1920, after months of rejection, a determined and resourceful young black songwriter named Perry Bradford convinced Ralph Peer, the recording director of a new label, Okeh Records, that there was money to be made in recording a black singer.

Mamie Smith's first record was released in July of that year. It sold well enough for Peer to record her again. At her second recording session on August 10, 1920, she made recording history with a number called "The Crazy Blues." This was the very first blues ever recorded.

Okeh quickly became a major record company. Suddenly black blues singers were a hot commodity as record companies realized that America's black population constituted an untapped market. They would advertise their latest releases in major black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender which were widely circulated in both the North and the South.

Most large cities had sizeable black populations. World War 1 resulted in hundreds of thousands of black people leaving the harsh existence of plantation life or the virtual peonage of tenant farming. They found employment in the factories, the mills and the shipyards. With regular paychecks, many of them found, for perhaps the first time in their lives, that they had some disposable income. Able to buy things other than the bare necessities, they eagerly snapped up the windup phonographs of the era - and blues records!

For the first few years, all the blues being recorded were in the more sophisticated City Blues style. America's first great black recording stars included Clara Smith, Trixie Smith, Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, the mentor of the greatest of them all, the incomparable Bessie Smith.

The era of the great women City Blues singers lasted roughly until the onset of the Great Depression, but after the first few years of blues recording, the newly transplanted residents of the urban black ghettoes began to express a longing for the type of music they were familiar with- the Country Blues.

Country Blues used lyrics and harmonic patterns quite similar to City Blues, but the singing styles and rhythms were those of people working in groups in the fields. Instead of women accompanied by a variety of instruments, the Country Blues generally featured a man singing while accompanying himself on guitar with a highly developed interplay between voice and instrument.

It would not be long before this would become the dominant style of blues on recordings.

Click below to hear a small portion of each track:

Crazy Blues, Mamie Smith, Rhino Blues Masters – Vol. 2

Railroad Blues, Trixie Smith, Rhino Blues Masters – Vol. 2

Yonder Comes The Blues, Ma Rainey, Rhino Blues Masters – Vol. 2

Down Hearted Blues, Alberta Hunter, Century Of The Blues – Disc 3

I’m A Mighty Tight Woman, Sippie Wallace, Century Of The Blues – Disc 3

Careless Love Blues, Bessie Smith, Century Of The Blues – Disc 3



The Recording Era Begins Comments...

4/27/2009, Chris Taylor wrote...

I LOVE this column! Bob & I have been fans of the blues (as well as lots of other music) and this is just one more facet that I personally find fascinating- and so convenient- a huge history, available a little bit at a time, which is about all my crazy lifestyle can absorb at the moment! Thanks for putting it together!

4/26/2009, Toby Walker wrote...

Not only is this a joy to read, but the recorded examples breathe even more life into Ed's story. Keep up the good work.

4/23/2009, Irv Gordon wrote...

What a great treat to find such information on Loved the music selections as well as the musical history lesson...another great service from Ed Davis and

/22/2009, Kate Hines wrote...

I enjoyed the second installment as much as the first. Especially enjoyed the song selections. Looking forward to the next article!

Comment Click to send us a comment


"The Beginning Of The Blues"

No one knows for sure exactly where or when the blues began, but in the early 1890's newspapers and magazines began to mention a previously unknown style of music being performed by black musicians throughout the South. Almost overnight, this music was being heard from Texas to Virginia.

Combining elements of African and European music, shaped by political, economic and social conditions, its development was aided by the availability of good guitars. The Martin Guitar Company, which had even then been in business for over fifty years, began to market instruments by mail order at prices within the means of black musicians. With its ability to sustain notes longer, the guitar quickly replaced the banjo as the instrument of choice. It was perfect for the blues.

In its infancy, the music was not yet called "blues," though the use of the word to describe a mood or feeling goes back to the sixteenth century. Musicians referred to their pieces as "jigs" or "reels" but by 1910 the term blues was common and the music was becoming increasingly popular. However, the only way a musician could learn a blues song was to hear someone else perform it. The dissemination of songs this way is known as “oral tradition.”

This helps to explain why songs such as "Frankie & Johnny" or "Stack-O-Lee," which are still well known today, exist in so many different versions. Either a musician could not remember exactly how a number was performed or he purposely made changes to suit himself.

The recording industry in America at that time was still in its infancy and no blues had yet been recorded. Not until 1912 were the first blues even published in sheet music form. Ironically, the first piece to appear in print, the "Dallas Blues," was composed by a white man, a fiddler from Oklahoma named Hart Wand. Just weeks later the "Memphis Blues" by W.C. Handy, the so-called "Father of the Blues," was published.

In actuality, Handy, whose most famous composition was the "St. Louis Blues," was never a bluesman. A formally trained musician who led society orchestras, Handy was the first to recognize the commercial possibilities of the blues.

From that point, a great many blues compositions by composers both black and white were published, but the first blues recordings would not make an appearance for nearly another decade.

Ed Davis

The History Of The Blues Comments...

3/29/2009, Kate Hines wrote...

OK, you've caught my attention. When will there be more?

Comment Click to send us a comment