Montgomery Ward M-4462 – Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee – 1930

Powder River Jack H. Lee, pictured in his book The Stampede.

Over the past decade-and-a-half-or-so, the Senate of the United States has made a tradition of decreeing the fourth Saturday of every July to be the National Day of the American Cowboy.  Across the western states, the holiday is celebrated with festivals and other such customary jubilations; on Old Time Blues, we shall celebrate the occasion in the only way we know how—with appreciation of an old record.

Born Jackson Martin on the first of October, 1874, Jack H. Lee was counted among the eldest of the more authentic tradition of cowboy singers to cut records in the days before Hollywood Autrys and Rogerses took center stage (though the extent of that authenticity has been called into question).  Purportedly after joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show around 1893, Jack met his future wife Kitty Miller, a native Illinoisan six years his senior, and the two began a long career singing genuine cowboy songs on vaudeville and in rodeos.  Claiming to hail from Montana, they dubbed themselves Powder River Jack and Pretty Kitty Lee and were performing together at least as early as 1898.  Ultimately, the duo became one of the most popular early cowboy acts, though their recorded legacy leaves little evidence of that success.  The Lees were recorded for the first time in November of 1930, with a session for the RCA Victor Company in Hollywood.  The date produced four titles, all of which were released to limited success as the nation plunged into the Great Depression.  They returned to the studio six years later, waxing two sides for Decca in Chicago, which have never been released.  An additional three recordings were made of Jack performing at the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., in May of 1938.  Powder River Jack also published several books of cowboy lore and song folios during the 1930s which demonstrated his penchant for misappropriating authorship of traditional cowboy poetry (even going so far as to claim “Red River Valley” as his own).  Jack Lee died in a car accident on February 24, 1946, in Chandler, Arizona; he was survived for nine years by Kitty, and both are interred side-by-side in the City Cemetery in Mesa, Arizona.  Because of Jack’s tendency to plagiarize, the duo’s merit as cowboy performers has been challenged.  While indeed neither Jack nor Kitty were likely ever working cowhands and much of their backstory was probably fabricated, they did perform and preserve genuine western folk music—even if they wrongfully attributed its origins—and, with that caveat, are no less deserving of recognition than their contemporary early cowboy recording artists.

Montgomery Ward M-4462 was recorded on November 3, 1930, in Hollywood, California.  It was originally released on Victor 23527, of which a total of 2,158 copies were reported sold.  Jack and Kitty both strum their guitars, while the former blows the harmonica on a rack between stanzas.  Jack sings solo vocals on both sides.

“Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail [sic]”, illustrated by Powder River Jack.

Certainly one of the most enticing cowboy songs put to shellac in the 1920s and 1930s and today a standard of the traditional cowboy repertoire, “Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail”, was truthfully written by Gail Gardner in 1917, though Lee claimed the credit on the record and otherwise (much to the former’s chagrin).  Legend has it that Gardner and his chums in Prescott, Arizona, once tarred and feathered Powder River Jack for stealing his song.

Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail, recorded November 3, 1930 by Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee.

“Powder River, Let ‘er Buck”, ostensibly actually written by Jack himself, lent its name to one of his publications in the same year he cut the record.

Powder River, Let ‘er Buck, recorded November 3, 1930 by Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee.

Vocalion 02614 – Sonny Scott – 1933

When the Great Depression rolled in, along with it came the blues.  People had been singing the blues since times untold, yes, but the hard times surely gave them something to sing ’em about.  Unfortunately for us today, the Depression also nearly killed the recording industry, so recordings of blues from the early 1930s are rather scarce, deep country blues even more so.  These two 1933 sides by Alabama or Mississippi musician Sonny Scott are among the few, and offer an opportunity to hear the real blues of the Great Depression afflicted South.

Not much is known about the life and times of blues guitarist and singer Sonny Scott.  In the early 1930s, he reportedly resided in Quitman, Mississippi, and he presumably had some ties to neighboring Alabama, as he was an associate of pianist Walter Roland.  Scott’s friend and student Gress Barnett from Quitman related to researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow that Sonny’s surname was Scarborough, and that he was also known as “Babe”.  “Scott”, presumably, was a corruption of “Scarborough”, if not his given name.  In the Summer of 1933, Scott traveled with Roland to New York City, where they were recorded by the American Record Corporation.  It has been suggested that Scott and Roland had both arrived in Birmingham only recently when they ventured to New York.  From the seventeenth to the twentieth of July, 1933, Scott cut a total of seventeen released sides, eleven solo and six in duet with Walter Roland.  He also participated in the Jolly Two and Jolly Jivers recordings with Roland and Lucille Bogan, resulting in a further eight sides.  The musical content of these recordings ranged from the deep blues of “Hard Luck Man” to upbeat hokum numbers like “Hungry Man’s Scuffle”.  In those recordings, Scott revealed himself to be a competent guitarist.  While Roland continued to record for some time thereafter, frequently accompanying Bogan, Scott went home, never to record again, fading into total obscurity.  Barnett reported that Sonny Scott had died in Shubuta, Mississippi—where his sister was said to have lived—a short time before World War II.

The two sides of Vocalion 02614 were recorded in New York City on July 20 and 18, 1933, respectively.  It is the last issued of Scott’s recordings.  Sonny Scott accompanies himself on guitar.  In their “Rarest 78s” column, the contributors to 78 Quarterly estimated fewer than ten copies of it to exist, with this particular copy listed as having belonged to the late Mr. Steve LaVere.

First, Scott starts in with a snappy little bit, but segues into singing a song of Great Depression misery, “Red Cross Blues No. 2”.  Scott and Roland must have been particularly proud of this number, for they each recorded separate versions of “Red Cross Blues” and “Red Cross Blues No. 2”, and in later years the song was covered by Lead Belly, who presented it as a draft-dodging song from the First World War.  Scott’s and Roland’s versions of this song reference a particular Red Cross Store on Third Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama.

Red Cross Blues No. 2, recorded July 20, 1933 by Sonny Scott.

He sings an archetypal country blues song on the back, though among the more philosophical ones—”Fire-Wood Man”—with some rather profound lyrics: “Lord, a man come in this world, and he have but a few minutes to stay; lawd his head is full of nonsense, and his feet’s all full of pain.”

Fire-Wood Man, recorded July 18, 1933 by Sonny Scott.

Vocalion 15461 – Bessie Coldiron “The Sunflower Girl of W B A P” – 1926

As Old Time Blues’ parade of long-forgotten Texas recording artists marches ever forward (and backward), we turn our attention to a popular singer who was neither a Texan nor recorded in Texas, but nonetheless made an inextricable contribution to the musical heritage of the state.  Much of the research regarding the Sunflower Girl comes courtesy of Fort Worth’s own illustrious and mononymous Dismuke (of the eponymous Radio Dismuke).

Bessie Coldiron, the Sunflower Girl, in an advertising postcard from KGKO, sister station of WBAP, circa 1939.

Though she was billed as the “Sunflower Girl from Kansas”, Bessie Coldiron was born Bessie Ellen Warrington in Oklahoma on June 4, 1902.  Her father died before she was ten years old, and she grew up in Kansas City with her mother, two brothers, and two sisters.  There, on March 3, 1923, she married Ray Orville Coldiron, a carpenter from Nebraska.  Though residents of Kansas, the Coldirons paid a visit to Fort Worth, Texas, at the end of 1925, during which her singing was noticed by “Hired Hand” Harold Hough (who may have been a relative of hers), announcer at WBAP.  He liked what he heard and invited her to try-out for a spot on the radio, singing songs and accompanying herself on the piano.  Her musical proclivities proved popular with listeners, and thus she began a five month engagement with the Fort Worth radio station as the “Sunflower Girl of WBAP”.  Afterwards, she embarked on a tour of the Majestic-Orpheum vaudeville circuit in the spring and summer of ’26.  Following its conclusion, Bessie returned to Texas and WBAP, but not before she went to the Brunswick-Balke-Collender recording studio in New York City for her first record date.  There she cut four sides on September 16, 1926, and four more one week later, of which all but two were released on the Vocalion label.  She would record again the following June, this time for Columbia in Chicago, cutting four sides in two consecutive days.  All of them were issued this time around, rounding out her scant recording career at five records.  But she continued to enjoy popularity on the radio, appearing sporadically on WBAP and her sister station KGKO until at least the beginning of the 1940s.  It would seem that Coldiron had departed from the station by 1941, as she does not appear in the WBAP-KGKO-WFAA “Family Album” published that year.  In 1930, she was reported as living with her husband in St. Louis, but Bessie and Ray were divorced by 1940, by which time he had already taken a third wife.  Bessie Coldiron died on February 28, 1990, in Hayward, California.  Her ex-husband, incidentally, died in Fort Worth in 1988.

Vocalion 15461 was recorded on September 16, 1926 in New York City.  These sides, from Coldiron’s first session, were originally “test” recordings, but were mastered and released.  Bessie Coldiron accompanies herself on piano on both sides.

First, Bessie sings the utterly wholesome George Olsen creation, “She’s a Cornfed Indiana Girl”.

She’s a Cornfed Indiana Girl, recorded September 16, 1926 by Bessie Coldiron “The Sunflower Girl of W B A P”.

On the flip-side, she sings a charming rendition of “What’s the Use of Crying?”.  I have a set of lyrics to this song written out by my great-grandmother in the front of a textbook from when she was a school girl in Bryan, Texas; perhaps she’d heard it sung by the Sunflower Girl.

What’s the Use of Crying?, recorded September 16, 1926 by Bessie Coldiron “The Sunflower Girl of W B A P”.

Vocalion 15078 – Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra – 1925

Leading a pioneering jazz band on the West Coast, Texas-born pianist Sonny Clay is often credited with spreading jazz music to Australia by way of an ill-fated 1927 tour.

William Roger Campbell Clay, son of William and Lizzie Clay, was born on May 15, 1899, in the small east Texas town of Chappell Hill.  After spending his early childhood in Houston, the Clays relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, when he was nine years old.  It was in that state where the young “Sonny” began his career in music, learning first to play the drums and xylophone, before graduating to playing piano in early jazz groups of the western desert.  In 1916, he continued westward to California, where he would soon make his name.  In the west, he played with Kid Ory and Reb Spikes, and he encountered Jelly Roll Morton in Tijuana around 1920.  By 1922, he had established his own jazz band in Los Angeles, known originally as the Eccentric Harmony Six.  In 1923, his group made one disc for the West Coast-based Sunset label as the “California Poppies”, and a year later Clay waxed two piano solos for the Triumph label.  It was 1926 however, that brought the Clay his most fruitful recording endeavor in the form of a contract with Vocalion.  Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra cut one record at each of four sessions between that year and 1927, as well as an additional four unissued sides from the last.  In 1928, he embarked with his band, including future Duke Ellington vocalist Ivey Anderson, now billed as “Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea”, for a tour of Australia—perhaps making them the earliest American band to bring jazz to their shores.  Though initially finding great success down under, Clay’s tour ultimately ended with a press scandal alleging that the African-American musicians were hosting wild parties rife with drug-crazed interracial sexual abandon, ultimately resulting in their deportation and a subsequent ban on black musicians entering the country which lasted until 1954.  Back in the United States, Clay organized a new orchestra in Los Angeles, playing at the Vernon Country Club.  In the late 1920s and first years of the 1930s, Clay’s Hartford Ballroom Orchestra waxed several discs for his own “Sonny Clay” vanity label (one of which also appeared on Champion), but as the Great Depression progressed, he eventually dissolved his band to work as a soloist for the remainder of the decade.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Clay enlisted in the United States Army, serving as a musician.  Following the War’s end, he sometimes found employment as a piano tuner and postal worker, but continued to work sporadically as a professional musician, into the 1960s, including one final recording session in 1960.  Sonny Clay died on April 10, 1973, in Los Angeles.

Vocalion 15078 was recorded on July 28, 1925, in Los Angeles, California.  The Plantation Orchestra consists of Ernest Coycault on trumpet, W. B. “Woody” Woodman on trombone, Leonard Davidson on clarinet, Sonny Clay on piano, one Fitzgerald (whose first name is unknown) on banjo, and Willie McDaniel on drums and kazoo.

On the first side, Clay’s boys play “Jambled Blues”, in my sincerest opinion one of the brightest shining examples of mid-1920s West Coast jazz excellence ever recorded.

Jambled Blues, recorded July 28, 1925 by Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra.

On the reverse, they dish out some of the same hot stuff on “Bogloosa Blues”, sharing a composer’s credit with fellow West Coast bandleader Herb Wiedoeft.

Bogloosa Blues, recorded July 28, 1925 by Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra.

Supertone 9741 – Cullen Bros. – 1930

On this Mother’s Day, I take a moment away from Old Time Blues’ usual dedication to long gone musicianers to spend a moment of appreciation for all the beloved mothers of the world, not least my own.

A portrait of motherhood in the roaring twenties.

Though nowadays rather receded from their former stature within popular culture, there once existed nearly an entire genre of “mother songs” dedicated to maternal appreciation, songs like Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “You’ll Never Miss Your Mother ‘Till She’s Gone”, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mother, the Queen of My Heart”, and Rudyard Kipling’s “Mother o’ Mine” to name just two of many.  Hundreds—if not thousands—of songs were published and recorded in the first decades of the twentieth century celebrating the love of a son (or daughter) for his mother.  Indeed, many of them tended a little on the sappy side, but the sentiment behind them, generally, was honest and sincere, and represented a culture which rightfully valued a mother’s love.  The record published herein contains two such songs, originally published in the early decades of the twentieth century, in honor of dear old mother, as sung in duet by the so-called Cullen Brothers (though in fact they were not really brothers and only one was a Cullen).

Supertone 9741 was recorded on May 23, 1930, presumably in Richmond, Indiana.  The “Cullen Brothers” are in fact Billy Cullen and Barney Kleeber.  The instrumentalists on piano, violin, and guitar are unidentified.  The same pairing was also issued on Champion 16045, credited to its true artists, and the “A” side also appeared on Superior 2513, credited to “Ward and Scott”.

Firstly, Cullen and Kleeber sing Arthur Dewey Larkin’s composition “Mother Dear (Do You Hear Me Calling You)”, originally published in 1922.

Mother Dear (Do You Year Me Calling You), recorded May 23, 1930 by the Cullen Bros.

Next, from 1914, they sing H.C. Weasner’s “Just a Dream of Mother” on the “B’ side.

Just a Dream of Mother, recorded May 23, 1930 by the Cullen Bros.