Paramount 12637 – Ramblin’ Thomas – 1928

Out of the marshlands of northwestern Louisiana, where the Sabine River demarcates the edge of Texas, came Willard Thomas, a rambling character whose mournful singing and sliding steel guitar would epitomize the sound of a world where the blues was all around.

Willard Thomas was born in Logansport, Louisiana, right on the Texas border, around 1902, one of at least eight children of farmers Joel and Laura Thomas.  His father played fiddle and Willard and his two brothers, Joel Jr. and Jesse, took up the guitar.  Thomas purchased a guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalog, which came with a metal slide for playing Hawaiian steel guitar.  Making good use of the hardware, he taught himself to play slide guitar in a rather idiosyncratic style, though also proving to be a fairly versatile player.  Like many bluesmen in the region, Thomas took up in Deep Ellum in Dallas, alongside the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Coley Jones, and Huddie Ledbetter.  He made his way around San Antonio and Oklahoma, where he no doubt encountered other musicians, such as “Texas” Alexander., and reportedly even associated with King Solomon Hill in Shreveport, with whom he shared some elements of musical style.  At some point along the way, he picked up the nickname “Ramblin'” Thomas, attributable either to his style of living or his style of playing, if not both.  Perhaps at the behest of Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had a session around the same time, Dallas music seller R.T. Ashford arranged for Thomas venture to Chicago, Illinois, in February of 1928 for a session with Paramount Records, netting a total of eight titles of which all were released.  He returned to Chicago that November for another seven titles, including a memorable rendition of the blues staple “Poor Boy Blues” (a.k.a. “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home”), and possibly accompanied fellow Texas blues singer Moanin’ Bernice Edwards on another two.  Finally, he made four recordings for Victor in their field trip to Dallas in February of 1932, one of which—”Ground Hog Blues”—bears considerable resemblance to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ in My Back Yard)”, recorded three days earlier at the same sessions; Jesse Thomas would later claim that Rodgers’ Blue Yodel was inspired by his brother’s song.  Willard Thomas reportedly died of tuberculosis around 1944 or ’45 in Memphis, Tennessee.  Outside of his recording career, most details surrounding Thomas’ life remain shrouded in obscurity.  Brother Jesse “Babyface” Thomas also performed fairly prolifically over a lengthy career, recording first in Dallas in 1929, then reemerging after World War II as the “Blues Troubadour” on a number of different labels.

Paramount 12637 was recorded in February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, featuring Willard Thomas singing and accompanying himself on slide guitar.  Be advised before listening that this rare record is in pretty sorry shape.  I’ve tried to get it as listenable as I can with the resources available to me, but it’s about the worst sounding record I’ll ever post on Old Time Blues (I have some dignity, you see).  If your ears can’t stomach the noise, I wouldn’t blame you—you can go on over to YouTube and look it up in better quality (I recommend this transfer).

First, Thomas plays and sings his mournful slide guitar opus, “So Lonesome”, the first title recorded at his first session and one of his best remembered songs.

So Lonesome, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.

On the flip, Thomas sings another outstanding blues of a rather deep shade: “Lock and Key Blues”, his third recorded side.

Lock and Key Blues, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.

Okeh 45227 – Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band – 1928

Though one of the most prolifically recorded Texas fiddlers prior to 1930, precious little has been chronicled of the life and times of Oscar Harper.  With ten issued sides (one not) to his credit, Harper ranked behind only Eck Robertson, Bernard Cartwright of the Cartwright Brothers, and Daniel H. Williams of the East Texas Serenaders, and tied with Samuel Peacock of Smith’s Garage Fiddle Band and “Red” Steeley of the Red Headed Fiddlers, for number of recordings behind his belt (assuming my tallies are accurate).

Oscar Hamilton Harper was born on February 10, 1888, most probably in Ashdown, Arkansas, very close to the Texas border (though in later years, he claimed to have been born in Texas, and may actually have), one of the ten children of Robert and Mary Ann Harper.  Having lived in the state for a time prior to Oscar’s birth, the Harpers returned to Texas in the last decade of the nineteenth century, settling in the region to the east and north of Dallas.  Oscar joined in his family’s work as farmers in his youth, and by 1910 was working as a hired hand on a farm in Rockwall, Texas.  The circumstances surrounding his introduction to the instrument are obscure, but he presumable took up fiddle playing at some time during his formative years.  In 1918, Harper was drafted into the U.S. Army, but did not see action overseas, and was discharged as a private less than a year later following the war’s end.  No less than two months after his discharge, he married Alline Daisy Gaskey on May 10, 1919, in Kaufman County and had at least six children.  By the 1920s, he had settled in Terrell, Texas, where he was known to play with fellow resident fiddlers by the likes of Ervin Solomon and Prince Albert Hunt.  Some suggest that Harper worked as a barber, but no records appear to corroborate this.  In March of 1928, Harper traveled with his nephew Doc and Prince Albert Hunt to San Antonio to record for the Okeh record company, who were conducting a field trip there.  With the duo of Oscar and Doc dubbed “Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band”, the session resulted in three sides and one released record, featuring two popular waltz numbers.  Some sources suggest that he also sat in on Prince Albert Hunt’s “Blues in a Bottle” record, waxed immediately after his session.  Harper’s two man string band made another disc in October of ’29 for Vocalion, and again recorded for Okeh the following month, this time billed simply as “Oscar and Doc Harper”, both times in Dallas.  Among the melodies he recorded at the latter session were the original Texas-flavored pieces “Terrell Texas Blues” and “Dallas Bound”.  By 1930, Harper had retired from farm labor and was working as a full-time musician on the radio and at local dances.  At one such function in February of 1942, Harper was recorded by John A. Lomax for the Library of Congress playing traditional fiddle tunes like “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, with a band including Prince Albert Hunt’s old associate Harmon Clem on guitar.  In the second half of the 1930s, the Harpers moved from their farm in Terrell to Dallas, residing at 1913 Gano Street (now the site of Dallas Heritage Village).  Oscar Harper died from complications of uremia in Dallas on February 5, 1952.

Okeh 45227 was recorded on March 8, 1927, in San Antonio, Texas.  Harper’s String Band is Oscar on the fiddle and Doc Harper on the guitar.  It was Harper’s best-selling record.

The rough-hewn, rather slipshod, yet entirely melodic character of Harper’s playing heard in his “Kelly Waltz”, punctuated by Doc’s strong guitar rhythm, exemplifies the sound of early Texas fiddle music.

Kelly Waltz, recorded March 8, 1928 by Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band.

The Harpers fiddle another upbeat waltz tune on the reverse: “Bouquet Waltz”.

Bouquet Waltz, recorded March 8, 1928 by Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band.

Brunswick 6181 – Herman Waldman and his Orchestra – 1931

In Old Time Blues’s continuing appreciation of both territory jazz bands and artists and musicians from Texas, we now turn our attention to one of the most successful dance orchestras from the state of Texas: that of Herman Waldman.

Bandleader Herman Waldman was born in New York City on January 26, 1902 (by his own account, though some sources suggest a date of two days later), the son of Austro-Hungarian immigrants Morris and Anna (née Sororowitz) Waldman.  The family had taken up residence in Dallas, Texas, before Herman was twenty.  As a youth, he worked as a clerk in a railroad office.  A violinist, Waldman had formed his orchestra by the latter years of the 1920s.  They were said to have had engagements at Dallas’s Adolphus and Baker Hotels, which also hosted the talents of Alphonso Trent and Jack Gardner at different times.  The band was playing hot when they recorded for the first time as part of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company’s field trip to Dallas in October of 1929.  That session produced only one record: the hot jazz “Marbles” and “Waiting”.  When Brunswick ventured to San Antonio two years later, Waldman’s orchestra recorded once again, again producing only one record.  In addition to their sparse recordings, the Waldman band toured around the southern and southwestern states, reportedly appearing at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City.  In between their recording sessions, a young trumpeter named Harry James joined Waldman’s band, before moving on to the nationally successful Ben Pollack’s orchestra.  In the midst of the Great Depression, the group made their final recordings, this time for Bluebird, at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, on April 3, 1934, this time making two records.  By that time, scarcely any trace of the hot band that produced “Marbles” back in ’29 was audible; instead, they played popular tunes in the fashion of the sweet dance bands prevalent in the day, though they did so with the proficiency of any of the big New York orchestras.  Though they never recorded again, Waldman and his orchestra were still going at least as late as 1941.  Herman Waldman died in Dallas on March 7, 1991.

Brunswick 6181 was recorded on the afternoon of August 31, 1931, in San Antonio, Texas.  Waldman’s band is made up of Rex Preis and Ken Switzer on trumpets, Bill Clemens on trombone, Bob “Baldy” Harris and Jimmy Segers (or “Segars”) on clarinet and alto sax, Arno “Tink” Navratil on clarinet and tenor sax, Herman Waldman on violin, Tom Blake on piano, Vernon Mills on banjo, Barney Dodd on tuba, and Reggie Kaughlin on drums.

On the first side, Waldman’s orchestra plays “Got No Honey”, a composition by band members Arno “Tink” Navratil and Jimmy Segers, and seemingly the only recording of this song.  Trumpet man Ken Switzer takes the vocal.

Got No Honey, recorded August 31, 1931 by Herman Waldman and his Orchestra.

On the flip-side, they play a competent rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Lazy River”.  Banjoist Vernon Mills sings the lyric, joined by a trio consisting of Switzer and two others.

Lazy River, recorded August 31, 1931 by Herman Waldman and his Orchestra.

Bluebird B-6926 – Riverside Ramblers – 1937

The Hackberry (a.k.a. “Riverside”) Ramblers, Floyd Rainwater, Luderin Darbone, Lonnie Rainwater, and Lennis Sonnier, pictured in the 1937 Bluebird Records catalog.

With a career spanning eight decades, the illustrious Hackberry Ramblers doubtlessly rank among the most prolific and well-known bands of the Cajun country, and surely among the earliest to gain note outside of their region of origin.

The long and storied history of the Hackberry Ramblers starts in the beginning of the 1930s, when fiddler Luderin Darbone met guitarist Edwin Duhon in Hackberry, Louisiana.  Darbone was born on January 14, 1913, in the Evangeline Parish of Louisiana; his father worked in the oilfields, and moved the family around the southwestern part of the state and the corresponding region of Texas while Luderin was growing up, eventually settling in Orangefield, Texas.  He got his first fiddle at the age of twelve and learned to play through a correspondence course; his playing was influenced by the burgeoning western swing music in Texas at that time.  Duhon was born on June 11, 1910, to a French-speaking family in Youngsville, Louisiana.  He took up the popular instruments of guitar and accordion in his teenage years.  Both young Cajuns moved to Hackberry, Louisiana, in 1931, and soon started playing music together.  Darbone and Duhon (alongside Texas steel guitarist Bob Dunn) gained the distinction of being among the earliest to amplify their music electrically, using a public address wired to Darbone’s Model A Ford.  Soon, other local musicians joined in to fill out the ranks, and the duo became a proper band.  The band took the name “Hackberry Ramblers” in 1933, after the town of their origin, and began playing on the radio and at local dance halls.  Duhon left the band soon after as work made him travel, and his role of guitarist was filled by Lennis Sonnier.  Guitarist Floyd Rainwater and his brother Lonnie on steel guitar also joined, their own places later filled by Floyd and Danny Shreve—with Darbone being the only constant member.  The Ramblers played a repertoire as varied as their membership, consisting of traditional Acadian French melodies like “Jolie Blonde”, blues songs like “On Top of the World”, western swing like “Just Because”, jazz such as “You’ve Got to Hi-De-Hi”, and even popular tunes like “Sonny Boy”.  On August 10, 1935, they made their debut recordings for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label.  Their engagement with RCA Victor lasted until 1938 and resulted in a total of eighty-one sides, of which all but one were released.  A sponsorship deal with Montgomery Ward changed their name to “Riverside Ramblers”—after Ward’s eponymous line of tires—on radio and some of their records.  The group temporarily disbanded at the end of the 1930s, when Darbone quit music for a time.  They reorganized after World War II when Harry Choates’ version of “Jole Blon” brought Cajun music to the charts, and recorded again, for DeLuxe Records in 1947 or ’48, and continued to make records sporadically in the following decades.  The group remained active, with Darbone and Duhon at the helm, until 2004.  Edwin Duhon died on February 26, 2006, at the age of ninety-five.  Luderin Darbone survived him by nearly three years, until his own death at the same age on November 21, 2008.

Bluebird B-6926 was recorded on February 22, 1937 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  It was released on April 28, 1937.  The Riverside Ramblers are Joe Werner on harmonica, guitar, and vocals, Lennis Sonnier on guitar, and Luderin Darbone on fiddle.

First, Joe Werner sings his own composition, “Wondering”, which found greater popularity when it was covered by Webb Pierce in 1951, becoming the young country singer’s breakthrough hit and earning him the nickname “The Wondering Boy”.  Even on a sentimental song such as this one, they cannot fully shake off the rough and ragged, good-time feel endemic to Cajun music.

Wondering, recorded February 22, 1937 by the Riverside Ramblers.

On the reverse, they play and sing a rousing rendition of Riley Puckett’s “Dissatisfied”.

Dissatisfied, recorded February 22, 1937 by the Riverside Ramblers.

Decca 46186 – Ernest Tubb – 1949

Ernest Tubb reading fan mail in the early 1940s. Pictured in Ernest Tubb Radio Song Book No. 1.

Old Time Blues and I extend our warmest wishes for a Merry Christmas to all of our valued readers!

I always try to put up a suitable selection for the holiday, though in some past years, I’ve let it fall by the wayside in the chaos of the season.  But not this time.  In celebration of this year’s yuletide, I present an Ernest Tubb bookend to an Ernest Tubb year—the third of his records posted in 2019, the first year during which any of his records have entered the Old Time Blues spotlight.  This record holds a special significance to me, for it is one of several in my possession which originally belonged to my great-grandmother, who was in fact a first cousin to Ernest Tubb, though I’m not sure that she knew it.  On it, the Texas Troubadour croons two colors of Christmas, in performances of the holiday classics “White Christmas” and “Blue Christmas”.

Decca 46186 was recorded on August 26, 1949, at the Castle Studio in the Tulane Hotel at 206 8th Avenue North in Nashville, Tennessee, and was produced by Paul Cohen; the two sides account for the entirety of Tubb’s session that day.  Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours are Tommy “Butterball” Paige on lead electric guitar, Jack Shook and Tubb himself on guitars, Jack Drake on string bass, and Owen Bradley on the organ.  There sounds to be a steel guitar present, but I’m not sure who’s playing it.  Backup vocals are provided by the Three Troubadettes: Anita Kerr, Alcyone Bate Beasley, and Dottie Dillard.

On the first side, E.T. sings us a heartfelt rendition of Irving Berlin’s famous “White Christmas”, though, growing up in Texas, a white Christmas would surely not be “like the ones he used to know.”  Tubb recorded an earlier take of “White Christmas” with his full band two years prior, but it was never released and is reported as “lost”.  Move it on over, Bing Crosby!

White Christmas, recorded August 26, 1949 by Ernest Tubb.

While the Christmastime staple “Blue Christmas” is most commonly associated with Elvis Presley, who recorded it in 1957, and the first recording was made in 1948 by Doye O’Dell, I consider Ernest’s rendition to be the definitive.

Blue Christmas, recorded August 26, 1949 by Ernest Tubb.