Looking south on State Street in Chicago. Circa 1933.
If there’s one thing I’m particularly fond of, it’s the swinging Lester Melrose-style Chicago blues of the mid-1930s, by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Memphis Minnie, Blind Boy Fuller, and so many others. This record is one that I think you’ll find is most befitting of that description.
The State Street Boys (not to be confused with the Jimmy Blythe’s State Street Ramblers) were a studio group that managed to blend modern swing music and country blues. They cut eight sides for the American Record Corporation in January of 1935, of which three records were issued on Okeh at the very end of their “race” records series (all of which were re-released on Vocalion shortly thereafter), and the last on Vocalion. The following year, they were reincarnated as the State Street Swingers, with even more jazz in their style.
Vocalion 03002 was recorded on January 10, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois. It was more-or-less concurrently issued on Okeh 8962. Personnel for this session is disputed, and differs for each side. According to the ever-reliable Stefan Wirz’ American Music discographies, both sides feature the talents of Black Bob on piano, and possibly Bill Settles on string bass. The first side features Carl Martin on guitar and singing and Zeb Wright on fiddle, while the second has Big Bill Broonzy on fiddle and singing and Bill “Jazz” Gillum on harmonica.
“Don’t Tear My Clothes”—seemingly the first recording of the blues standard—is one of my personal favorites, and I consider it to be the definitive version. Some sources state the vocalist on this side to be Big Bill rather than Carl Martin, and it does sound a bit like Broonzy. But it also sounds like Carl Martin. I long believed it to be Broonzy myself (with admittedly very little research into it at the time), but I’ve come around to agree that it sounds more like Martin’s voice and guitar picking.
Don’t Tear My Clothes, recorded January 10, 1935 by the State Street Boys.
On the “B” side, Big Bill (and this time it’s definitely him) sings and plays fiddle on “She Caught the Train”—a great opportunity to hear him on an instrument other than his usual guitar. The identity of the second (frankly rather bad) vocalist is unknown, but I would imagine that it would have to be one of the other members of the band.
She Caught the Train, recorded January 10, 1935 by the State Street Boys.
Following in the same vein as popular sibling acts such as the Delmore Brothers, the, Callahan Brothers—consisting of the duo of Homer and Walter (who later adopted the sobriquets Bill and Joe for the sake of brevity)—made a name for themselves in the budding country music industry of the Great Depression-era.
Hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, in the county of Madison, Walter Callahan, born January 27, 1910, and his brother Homer, born March 27, 1912, grew up surrounded by the rich musical culture of the mountain folks. As they were in adolescence, the soon-to-be-famous Jimmie Rodgers was getting his start singing on the radio in nearby Asheville, and in the year of the Singing Brakeman’s demise, 1933, the Callahans got their own big break in the very same town. While singing and yodeling at an Asheville music festival, the brothers were discovered by a talent scout for the American Record Corporation, who invited them to New York for a session. They obliged, and had their first record date on January 2, 1934, a session which produced a hit with “She’s My Curly Headed Baby”. With a two-guitar accompaniment and a repertoire consisting of old sentimental songs such as “Maple On the Hill” to hokums like “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing” to straight blues like “St. Louis Blues”, they were able to produce a string of decently selling records during the times of economic depression. In addition to their work as a duet, the brothers also each recorded solo. Around the time of their recording debut, the duo also began appearing on Asheville’s WWNC, soon moving to WHAS in Louisville, and then to WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. Walter retired back home for a brief period in the late 1930s, leaving brother Homer to continue solo for a time.
Reunited at the end of the 1930s, Walter and Homer changed their names to Joe and Bill, respectively, and went to Texas to begin performing on KRLD in Dallas. There, they became early members of the station’s Big D Jamboree when it debuted in the late 1940s. They also recorded transcriptions to be played on the Mexican border blaster stations, bringing their music to an even wider audience. In 1945, they made an appearance with Jimmy Wakely in the Western movie Springtime in Texas. They continued singing on the radio and on records into the 1950s. Also in the 1950s, Homer/Bill worked as manager to Lefty Frizzell. Walter/Joe retired back home once again by the end of that decade, this time for keeps, and became a grocer. He died in North Carolina on September 10, 1971. Homer stayed in Texas and in music for the rest of his long life, which came to an end on September 12, 2002.
Conqueror 8274 was recorded In New York City on January 3 and 2, 1934, respectively, the Callahans’ first sessions. Homer and Walter Callahan sing and yodel, accompanied by their own two guitars.
From the second day of the Callahan Brothers’ first sessions, the duo sings and yodels the lonesome song “I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name”.
I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name, recorded January 3, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.
On the reverse, the brothers sing a hot hillbilly take on W.C. Handy’s famous “St. Louis Blues”, cut on their first record date.
St. Louis Blues, recorded January 2, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.
The last thing we heard from the East St. Louis blues king Peetie Wheatstraw was a couple of swing-blues sides from the tail end of his career. Now, let us direct our attentions eight years earlier toward the beginning of his recorded legacy.
A cropped version of the only known photograph of Wheatstraw, pictured in Decca catalog.
Though the only known photograph of William Bunch—better known as Peetie Wheatstraw—depicts him holding a National metal-bodied resonator guitar, the artist played piano on the overwhelming majority of his recordings, while guitar was provided by the likes of Charley Jordan, Kokomo Arnold, or Lonnie Johnson. Other times he played nothing at all, only singing and leaving his accompaniment solely to other musicians. But that depiction of Peetie was not entirely inaccurate; it is said that he started out his musical career on the guitar and learned to handle the instrument with proficiency, before switching to piano later on. By the time he made his first records in 1930, he was primarily playing piano, developing a signature formula which he continued to use for the majority of his more than one-hundred-fifty sides. In 1932 however, Wheatstraw had a pair of stand-out sessions which departed from his standard formula. On a recording trip to New York City in March of 1932, Wheatstraw first played piano for Charley Jordan on a series of sides, then Peetie picked up the guitar himself, and, on March fifteenth and seventeenth, he laid down four blues songs unlike any other that he recorded: “Police Station Blues”—later echoed by Robert Johnson in his “Terraplane Blues”—and “All Alone Blues” on the former day, and “Can’t See Blues” and “Sleepless Nights’ Blues” on the latter. Afterward, he returned home to East St. Louis, and didn’t cut another record for two years, by which time he had settled into his formula, and never touched a guitar again, at least on records.
Vocalion 1727 was recorded on March 15, 1932 in New York City. Peetie Wheatstraw sings and plays guitar on both sides. Both sides were also reissued around 1938 to ’39, each on separate records, with the first side appearing on Vocalion 04592 and the second on Vocalion 04912.
First, despite whatever technical limitations Peetie may have had, he dishes out a wonderful performance on “Sleepless Nights’ Blues”, a great classic of equal or perhaps greater merit than his more popular “Police Station”, earning its way into the Yazoo compilation St. Louis Blues 1929-1935, The Depression.
Sleepless Nights’ Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).
Reusing many of the licks heard on the previous side (though actually vice-versa, since this one was recorded earlier), Wheatstraw next sings “Can’t See Blues”. Like his piano playing, Wheatstraw had a very idiosyncratic style of playing guitar (which is to say, he typically followed a very similar pattern in all of the songs he played).
Can’t See Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).
Though unquestionably a truly legendary figure in the history of jazz, the legacy of Joe Oliver has been overshadowed that of his foremost disciple: Louis Armstrong. But to some of us moldy figs, Joe Oliver is still king.
King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band around 1923. From left to right: Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, Honoré Dutrey, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Lil Hardin, and Bud Scott. Pictured in Jazzmen, 1939.
Joseph Nathan Oliver was born in Aben, Louisiana and moved to New Orleans in his youth. The date of his birth is uncertain, but December 19, 1881 is the most probable candidate; the same date in 1885, and May 11, 1885 have also been posited. At first taking up the trombone, Oliver soon switched to cornet. As a youth, Joe Oliver lost sight in his left eye in a fight, and often played with a derby hat tipped down over it. He won the title “King” of New Orleans cornettists, which had earlier belonged to Buddy Bolden, from Freddie Keppard one night in 1916. Oliver took up in Chicago in 1919 and founded his famous Creole Jazz Band, soon becoming a fixture in the Windy City. In 1922, he sent for his young protégé Louis Armstrong, who was back home in New Orleans, to join him in the city. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band waxed their first phonograph record sides for the Starr Piano Company, makers of Gennett records, in their famous “shack by the track” in Richmond, Indiana on April 5, 1923. They made a total of thirteen sides for Gennett before moving on to record fifteen more for Okeh, four for Columbia, and three for Paramount, before breaking up in 1924. Thereafter, he recorded some landmark duets with Jelly Roll Morton for Marsh Labs in Chicago in 1925, and soon started a new band, the Dixie Syncopators, which began recording for Brunswick/Vocalion in 1926. The Dixie Syncopators, which at various times included Luis Russell, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, and other luminaries, stuck together until the end of 1928, after which Russell took over the reins. In 1927, at the height of his success, Oliver was offered the position of house bandleader at Harlem’s Cotton Club, but he declined, hoping to hold out for more money. Instead, the gig went to Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. On the side, Oliver also recorded occasionally as a sidemen with jazz bands such as Clarence Williams’ various orchestras and Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang‘s Gin Bottle Five, and with blues singers like “Texas” Alexander, Victoria Spivey, and Lizzie Miles. Thanks in no small part to his penchant for sugar sandwiches washed down with a bucket of sugar water, Oliver by this time had developed gum disease, which limited his ability to play cornet. Nonetheless, he signed with Victor in 1929 to record with a new orchestra, which often featured his nephew Dave Nelson, though his own involvement was frequently relegated to directing. In 1931, Oliver went back to Brunswick for three final sessions, from which the last three titles were released on Vocalion under the pseudonym “Chocolate Dandies”, and he never recorded again. He continued to tour with a band until money ran out, leaving him broke and stranded, in a Savannah, Georgia, where he found work as a janitor in a pool hall. Joe Oliver died penniless of arteriosclerosis on April 10, 1938
Okeh 4918 was recorded June 23, 1923 in Chicago, Illinois. King Oliver’s (Creole) Jazz Band consists of Joseph “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong on cornets, Honoré Dutrey on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin on piano, Bud Scott on banjo, and Baby Dodds on drums.
A re-doing of the same tune King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band originally recorded for Gennett in April of 1923, “Dipper Mouth Blues”, composed by Oliver and Armstrong is certainly the group’s most famous efforts. Oliver famous cornet solo beginning one minute and seventeen seconds into the recording was hugely influential to the genre, and frequently imitated in subsequent years. After Louis Armstrong left the band, he took “Dipper Mouth” with him to Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, and the piece was re-arranged by Don Redman and recorded as “Sugar Foot Stomp”. Henderson kept the piece in his repertoire after Armstrong’s departure and recorded it at least thrice more.
Dipper Mouth Blues, recorded June 23, 1923 by King Oliver’s Jazz Band.
On the reverse of this disc is Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong’s composition: “Where Did You Stay Last Night?”. Armstrong kept the tune in his repertoire and in later years performed it with his All-Stars.
Where Did You Stay Last Night?, recorded June 23, 1923 by King Oliver’s Jazz Band.
The Carter Family—Maybelle, Sara, and A.P.—in the late 1920s, pictured in the Victor catalog.
I have written of the illustrious Carter Family before, more than once, but nothing I’ve so far published has done justice to their tremendous impact and legacy. In fact, I doubt whether I would be able to write anything that could honor their legend sufficiently. Nonetheless, I will do my best to pay them a worthy tribute, and I cannot think of a better record to accompany that attempt than the one herein. Not only is it without question among their finest works, but it contains, according to legend, the song that brought the Carters together, and the song that tore them apart.
The saga of the original Carter Family begins with the birth of Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter in Maces Spring, Virginia, on December 15, 1891. The son of Robert C. Carter and Mollie Arvelle Bays, growing up ‘midst the Blue Ridge Mountaintops fostered in the young Carter a love for music, and he took up the fiddle, but never achieved much note for his musicianship on the instrument. Music making did not put food on the table however, and so Carter found work as a traveling salesman, peddling fruit trees. It was in this line of work that he encountered the youthful Sara Elizabeth Dougherty, sitting on her porch and strumming her auto-harp. Far A.P. Carter, it was love at first sight, and they were married on June 18, 1915. In the following decade, Sara’s cousin Maybelle (who was also married to Carter’s brother Ezra) joined the couple and they formed a music group—the Carter Family.
Come the summer of 1927, A.P. got word of a record session to be held in Bristol, Tennessee, about twenty-five miles away from their homeplace in Maces Spring. He convinced Sara and Maybelle to make the journey, and they arrived late on the night of August first, and auditioned for Mr. Ralph S. Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company. That day and the next, the Carter Family cut six sides: “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”, “Little Log Cabin By the Sea”, “The Poor Orphan Child”, “The Storms are On the Ocean”, “Single Girl, Married Girl”, and “The Wandering Boy”. Their first records were released that November, and proved successful enough to bring the Carters back to the Victor studio for further recordings, and they did so prolifically. Between then and the end of 1934, they waxed over one-hundred-fifty sides for the Victor company. To ensure that the group had enough material to ensure continued financial success, A.P. set out to canvas the mountains in search of good songs, which he then copyrighted in his own name. In one such travel, Carter encountered the black musician Lesley Riddle, and the two became friends. Riddle impressed both his folk repertoire and his method of guitar playing upon the Carters.
In 1935, the Carter Family began recording for the American Record Corporation, but all was not well behind the microphone, for A.P.’s long song-hunting stretches away from his family drove Sara into the arms of A.P.’s cousin Coy Bayes. Sara and A.P.’s marriage dissolved in 1936, but the Carter Family stuck together as a music group for the time being. From 1936 until 1938, they recorded for Decca, before returning to the ARC for a string of records on their Okeh label in 1940. In the meantime, the Carter Family had relocated to Del Rio, Texas, from where they commuted to Mexico to perform on “border blaster” radio station XERA in Villa Acuña, Coahuila. The 500,000 watt station could be heard across most of the United States, and put the sounds of the Carters on the hearth of countless American homes, inspiring a wave of up-and-coming musicians. In some of these radio appearances, they were joined by the Carter children: Janette, Joe, Helen, June, and Anita. In October of 1941, the original Carter Family traveled to New York City to record one final session with the RCA Victor Company, for their Bluebird label. Around that time, they were photographed for a spread in Life magazine, scheduled to be published on December 8, 1941. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurring the very day before, needless to say it was bumped from the publication. And thus, as the war broke out, the original Carter Family broke apart; Sara moved to California with her new husband, A.P. and Maybelle returned to Maces Spring, where he opened a general store.
That was not the end of their story however, Maybelle Carter continued the musical tradition with her children—Helen, Anita, and June—performing as “Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters” in the years to come, landing a place on the Grand Ole Opry in 1950 and remaining active until the 1970s. The original member reunited occasionally, as well, resulting in several sessions for Acme Records in the 1950s. A.P. Carter died on November 7, 1960, his dying wish to keep the music alive. Maybelle passed on October 23, 1978. The last surviving member of the original trio, Sara Carter Bayes died on January 8, 1979. A.P. Carter’s last wishes were fulfilled with the establishment of the Carter Family Fold in Maces Spring, Virginia, founded by his daughter Janette in 1979 and devoted to the preservation of old-time Appalachian folk music. The beloved legacy of music put forth by the Carter Family remains indelibly attached to the American experience, and shows no sign of faltering as the years go by.
Victor V-40089 was recorded on February 15th and 14th of 1929, respectively, at Victor’s home in Camden, New Jersey. The Carter Family consists of Sara on auto-harp and Maybelle on guitar, both of course singing. A.P. joins in singing on side “B”.
The story goes that when A.P. Carter met Sara while traveling door-to-door peddling fruit trees, she was sitting out on her porch singing “Engine One-Forty-Three” and playing her auto-harp, and he fell in love at first sight and approached with matrimonial intentions. The song tells the true story of a wreck on the C & O line on October 23, 1890 near Hinton, West Virginia. This recording also bears the distinction of being one of the five songs by the Carter Family that were included by Harry Smith in his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music.
Engine One-Forty-Three, recorded February 15, 1929 by the Carter Family.
While the previous is said to be the song that birthed the Carter Family, the following is said to have eventually broken them up. After her divorce, Sara Carter wasn’t happy performing on border radio with her ex-husband, while her lover Coy Bayes was in California. One show, she dedicated a performance of “I’m Thinking To-Night of My Blue Eyes” to Bayes, and he rushed down to Del Rio to sweep her off her feet and back west, leaving A.P., Maybelle, and the children to return home to Maces Spring, and thus bringing the story of the original Carter Family to its close. A standard of the Carters’ repertoire, they recorded it twice, and many other artists covered it subsequently.
I’m Thinking To-Night of My Blue Eyes, recorded February 14, 1929 by the Carter Family.