Victor 23696 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1932

A rare snapshot of Jimmie Rodgers in the early 1930s, atop a ’31 Chrysler and holding a puppy.

As Jimmie Rodgers’ successful recording career entered its fifth year, he was at the height of his fame, and times had never been better—or worse—for the Blue Yodeler.

In 1932, Jimmie Rodgers was living in Texas, “a state he dearly loved.”  He had moved into his custom built brick manor in Kerrville in 1929 to help ease his tuberculosis with the fresh hill country air, but left for a modest home at 142 Montclair Avenue in San Antonio only three years later, where he hosted a weekly radio program on KMAC.  Progressively declining health had forced him to curtail his touring schedule, but staying put just wasn’t in his nature, and he continued to motor around the region in his blue Cadillac.  At the same time, the record industry—which had made Rodgers a star five years earlier—was too in ill health; the Great Depression, combined with the emerging medium of radio, had record sales dropping fast.  By the time the industry hit bottom, Jimmie Rodgers was Victor’s best-selling record artist, hence the Depression-era adage that a typical Southerner’s shopping list was “pound of butter, a slab of bacon, a sack of flour, and the new Jimmie Rodgers record.”  In spite of the circumstances against his favor, Rodgers kept up his recording schedule during 1932, producing a total of twenty-one sides over course of the year.  In February, he was in Dallas to cut seven sides at the Jefferson Hotel, accompanied first by a hillbilly band including future western swinger Bill Boyd on such tracks as “Hobo’s Meditation”, and then by a Hawaiian quartet with his longtime collaborators Billy and Weldon Burkes.  On the thirty-first of July, he departed for Camden, New Jersey for a productive session with Clayton McMichen, Slim Bryant, and Oddie McWinders, that resulted in such memorable numbers as “Peach Pickin’ Time Down in Georgia” and “Whippin’ That Old T. B.”.  Afterward, he traveled on to New York for an audition with NBC, which resulted in a pilot on WEAF but did not materialize further, and another session that produced four sides, including “Miss the Mississippi and You”.  With talks of a tour of England with McMichen—as Carson Robison had done earlier the same year—Jimmie had big plans, and didn’t intend on stopping, but the dire state of the economy and direr yet state of his health put a damper on such lofty ambitions.

Victor 23696 was recorded on February 6 and 4, 1932, respectively, at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas, Texas.  It was issued on August 12 of that year, and sold only 7,746 copies—not bad for Depression-era sales, but still, not too many for their best-selling artist.

First, Jimmie sings another installment in his famous series, “Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ in My Back Yard)”, and a blues song it truly is.  Previously on Old Time Blues, we’ve heard Jimmie’s first, second, eighth, ninth, and last Blue Yodels.  Maybe we’ll eventually get them all on here.

Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ In My Back Yard), recorded February 6, 1932 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the flip, Jimmie croons a tune about the moon in June predicting the country music styles yet to come in the decade, such as might have appealed to a common Depression-era record buyer’s sensibilities—and it does appeal to my own Depression-era sensibilities—”Mississippi Moon”.  He is accompanied by a Hawaiian style string band made up of Billy Burkes on steel guitar, and Weldon Burkes and Fred Koone on guitars.

Mississippi Moon, recorded February 4, 1932 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Keynote 106 – Talking Union – 1941

As the Great Depression gave way to the war economy at the beginning of the 1940s, many formerly unemployed workers were called back to the shops.  As such, many of them found it prudent to unionize and protect their rights.  In their support, a group of left-leaning folksingers offered to their cause what they knew best: music.  In the memory of the late labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, the Almanac Singers made Talking Union with a simple message: “Don’t mourn for me—organize.”

The album cover of Talking Union;  “Dedicated to the Memory of Joe Hill.”

The Almanac Singers organized in 1940 when Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Millard Lampell came together over a mutual love for folk music and leftist politics.  Sometimes Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Sis Cunningham, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Bess Lomax Hawes, and others would join in as well.  They drew the name from one of the two books in every rural household: the almanac and the Bible—the latter to latter to help them through the next world, the former to help through this one.  Aligned with the Popular Front, their intention was to fight fascism and racism, oppose the war, and elevate the working peoples by singing “the old tunes working people have been singing for a long time,” in the spirit of old Joe Hill.  “Sing `em easy, sing `em straight, no holds barred,” they professed.  In the spring of 1941, they group made their first records for New York record shop owner Eric Bernay, a six disc album titled Songs for John Doe, opposing American involvement in the war in Europe, pressed on their own vanity label by Keynote Recordings and distributed primarily through communist bookstores.  Despite low circulation and controversy surrounding the first album, they followed up a few months later with another, Talking Union, “dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill,” this time appearing on the Keynote label.  Reissued by Folkways Records in 1955, it proved to be their most popular work.  Subsequently, the Almanac Singers recorded two non-political albums of folk music: Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads, and Sod Buster Ballads.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Alamacs reversed their stance on the war and recorded Dear Mr. President, another Keynote album.  Outside of recording, the Almanac Singers performed for workers, pioneering the mold of the modern folk music group by wearing working clothes and encouraging audiences to join in their song.  As the war ramped up in 1942, the Almanacs were targeted by U.S. intelligence who deemed their message “seditious,” and were routinely smeared by the media until their final dissolution at the end of 1942 or beginning of ’43.  The breakup did little to stifle the careers of its former members; Seeger and Hays both enjoyed long careers as folksingers, while Lampell went on to Hollywood to become a successful screenwriter.

Keynote 106—Talking Union—is a three-disc album comprised of K 301 through K 303.  It was recorded circa May of 1941 in Central Park West, New York City, and released the following July.  The Almanac Singers are Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Carol White, Sam Gary, and Josh White; Seeger plays banjo and White plays guitar.  The album is dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill.

Continue reading

Vocalion 05551 – Charlie Burse and his Memphis Mudcats – 1939

Standing alongside Will Shade and Gus Cannon as a jug band mainstay of the 1920s and ’30s, “Laughing” Charlie Burse’s exuberant vocals and bright tenor guitar work was the life of the party on numerous records by the Memphis Jug Band and his own group, the Memphis Mudcats, yet he seems not nearly as well-remembered or biograhpied as many of his peers.

Charlie Burse was born in Decatur, Alabama, on August 25, 1901, son of Robert and Emma Burse.  He learned to play the banjo and guitar in his youth, earning him the nickname “Uke Kid”, and he left his family home in Sheffield, Alabama, for Memphis in the 1920s.  His musicianship on the four-string tenor guitar garnered the notice of Will Shade, who invited Burse to join his Memphis Jug Band in 1928 in replacement of guitarist Will Weldon.  He made his debut recordings with the Memphis Jug Band on September 13, 1928, playing guitar and backing up Shade’s vocals on “A Black Woman is Like a Black Snake” and “On the Road Again”.  Burse stayed with the band—playing tenor guitar or mandolin—for the remainder of their recording career, rising to become a top-billed vocalist by their last session in 1934 and subsequent breakup.  He continued to play around Memphis with Shade, and several years later organized his own band—the Memphis Mudcats—updating the out-of-style jug band instrumentation to include reeds and dispense with the jug in favor of string bass.  With the Mudcats, Burse recorded again, cutting twenty sides for Vocalion on a Memphis field trip in July of 1939.  All the while, he maintained a day job as a laborer in a number of trades including painting and carpentering.  He did not find his way behind a recording mike again until 1950, when he waxed “Shorty the Barber” for Sam Phillips in a style not too dissimilar from his earlier records, gaining the distinction of becoming one of the earliest to record at what would soon become Sun Studio.  The folk revival in the 1950s brought new fame to Burse and Shade, who recorded for Sam Charters and Alan Lomax, and he appeared on television with Shade in 1958, performing the old Memphis Jug Band version of “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues”.  He continued his musical partnership with Will Shade until his death from heart disease on December 20, 1965.

Vocalion 05551 was recorded in two separate sessions in 1939, the first on July 8, and the second on July 15, both in Memphis, Tennessee.  The Memphis Mudcats consist of Charlie Burse on tenor guitar and vocals and otherwise unknown musicians playing alto saxophone, piano, bass, and percussion. One of the members may be Robert Carter, who provided vocals on another of the group’s songs, and it would stand to reason that the percussionist could possibly be Charlie’s brother Robert Burse.

The Mudcats first play a slow, but far from down-in-the-dumps number: “Dawn of Day Blues”.

Dawn of Day Blues, recorded July 8, 1939 by Charlie Burse and his Memphis Mudcats.

They up the tempo on the flip for the mildly hokumesque number “You Better Watch Out”, rather reminiscent of “Bottle it Up and Go”, which Burse recorded twice with the Memphis Jug Band in 1932 and ’34.

You Better Watch Out, recorded July 15, 1939 by Charlie Burse and his Memphis Mudcats.

Victor 19171 – Wendell Hall – 1923

One of the foremost exponents of the ukulele craze in the 1920s, Wendell Hall—the Red Headed Music Maker—enjoyed a fruitful career beginning with his introduction of the wildly popular “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”, and could perhaps be viewed among the earliest artists to “cross over” from popular to hillbilly style music.

Wendell Woods Hall was born on August 23, 1896, the youngest of three sons born to minister George and church organist Laura Hall of St. George, Kansas.  His family moved to Chicago around the turn of the century, and there young Wendell got his start in music.  He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1917, but fell ill during the flu epidemic the following year and did not see combat; instead, he spent some time entertaining his fellow troops following his recovery.  Following his return home, he found work as a song plugger for the sheet music industry.  Before long, he struck out on the vaudeville circuit singing and playing the xylophone, but soon—like his contemporary Cliff Edwards—switched to the more inexpensive and portable ukulele.  On occasion, he was known to double on guitar or tiple.  He began publishing popular songs in the early 1920s, and by 1923 he’d arrived in New York to embark on a successful career as a radio and recording artist.  He made his debut on September 28, 1923, in a session for Gennett records, cutting the first of several versions of his big hit “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”.  The following month, he re-did the number for Edison and Victor, beginning a successful engagement with the latter which produced a string of popular records and lasted until 1933, interrupted by brief stints for Brunswick in 1925 and ’26 and for Columbia in 1927.  Hall’s rural-flavored novelty songs often blurred the line between popular and “hillbilly” music, and he frequently collaborated with the country guitarist, whistler, and fellow Kansan Carson J. Robison, who made his first records with Hall.  With the smash success of “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'” and other successful records behind his belt, Hall introduced and marketed a signature “Red Head” model of ukulele, manufactured by the Regal Musical Instrument Company, and instructional booklets on “Wendell Hall’s Ukulele Method”.  He remained a popular radio artist into the 1930s after the Great Depression had killed off his record career, but began to falter as the ukulele fell from favor later in the decade.  Nonetheless, he remained an active musician and music publisher, and made a brief comeback in the early 1950s.  Wendell Hall died on April 2, 1969 in Mobile, Alabama, and was buried in Manhattan, Kansas.

Victor 19171 was recorded in New York City on October 12, 1923.  It was released on the twenty-third of the following month.  It reportedly sold more than two million copies, and Hall later re-recorded both sides electrically on July 29, 1925, to keep them technologically up-to-date.  This record was transferred at 76.59 RPM, as is widely accepted for acoustical Victor records of this era.

Firstly, the Pineapple Picador sings his biggest hit composition, that old chestnut “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”.  Hall later followed up with the “Second Installment” in 1925 and “Part 3” in 1933.  The simple but humorous ditty proved enormously popular with artists in a wide range of genres.

It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’, recorded October 12, 1923 by Wendell Hall.

Actually recorded first at the session, Hall sings his “theme” song “Red Headed Music Maker” on the “B” side, interpolating “Red Hot Blues”.

Red Headed Music Maker, recorded October 12, 1923 by Wendell Hall.

Decca 5018 – Stripling Brothers – 1934

The two Stripling Brothers have had the Old Time Blues limelight shined at them once before, when they played for us their tour de force breakdown “The Lost Child”, but, with that article dedicated primarily to the honor of the great record man Joe Bussard, I have yet to delve deeply into the duo’s history.  Fortunately, the time has now come to rectify that oversight.

The story of the brothers Stripling began in Alabama, in the county of Pickens, on the eighth of August, 1896, with the birth of Charlie Melvin Stripling.  His brother Ira Lee followed him into the world almost two years later on June 5, 1898.  As a youth, Charlie learned to fiddle from a neighbor called “Uncle Plez”—properly Pleasant C. Carroll, born circa 1850—who imparted the old-time traditions of the middle nineteenth century on the young man.  Soon, brother Ira took up the guitar to back Charlie up, ordering a six dollar instrument from a catalog.  Soon the pair was taking on fiddle contests and conventions, competing for cash prizes.  Not content with his meager earnings as a sharecropper, Charlie Stripling set out to win the first prizes to help bring the bacon home to his wife and six kids, and so was bent on becoming the finest fiddler in the region.  Like quite a few fiddler of his time, he supplemented his old-time repertoire with more modern “fox-trot” melodies to please a less geriatric audience.  The team played dances and functions around the area, and began performing on Birmingham radio station WAPI.  When the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company ventured down south to Birmingham late in 1928, the Striplings cut their first record for the company’s Vocalion label.  Subsequently, the pair went on to record quite prolifically for regional old-time artists of their day, traveling to Chicago the following year to make a further sixteen sides for Vocalion.  Five years later, they traveled all the way to New York to record for the newly founded Decca company, making a total fourteen more sides.  When Decca came to New Orleans in 1936, the Striplings had their fourth and final session, rounding out their discography with another fourteen sides.  By the end of their recording career, the Stripling Brothers netted a total of twenty-one records, with four sides unissued by Decca.  Though the vice grip of the Great Depression took the brothers off of records, and Ira retired from music to dedicate his time to managing the store he owned, Charlie Stripling continued fiddling for the rest of his life.  He was joined sometimes by his sons Robert and Lee, and later formed a band when his sons went off to war, but he never made another record.  Charlie Stripling died on January 19, 1966.  He was survived for a little more than a year by Ira, who passed on March 11, 1967.

Decca 5018 was recorded on September 10, 1934 at the Pythian Temple on 135 West 70th Street in New York City, and is the Stripling Brothers’ first released record on the Decca label.  As with all of the Striplings’ records, the instrumentation consists of Charlie on fiddle and Ira on guitar.

First, the brothers break it down on the lively “Possum Hollow”.

Possum Hollow, recorded September 10, 1934 by the Stripling Brothers.

Next, they play that ubiquitous fiddle melody, the waltz known as “Wednesday Night”.

Wednesday Night, recorded September 10, 1934 by the Stripling Brothers.