The life and times of the musician known as Bo Weavil Jackson are shrouded beneath a veil of mystery and obscurity; even his true identity remains an uncertainty. In fact, it would be difficult to know less about a person. He made six records, had a remarkably poorly lit photograph taken of him, and then disappeared into oblivion. This intrigue, of course, only serves to enhance his appeal as a bluesman, much as it might confound historians.
The man called “Bo Weavil” is said to have truly been named James Jackson (or perhaps James Butler or Sam Butler) and is believed to have hailed from Alabama, probably born sometime in the 1890s. Queries of public records reveal far too many possible results to be narrowed down by the few vague details known. Indeed, he referred to Birmingham in his “Jefferson County Blues”. He was playing for spare change on a Birmingham street corner when he was “discovered” by record salesman and talent scout Harry Charles in 1926, who referred him to Chicago to make some records for Paramount, by whom he was promoted as having “come down from the Carolinas.” There, he waxed six sides, including a version of “When the Saints Come Marching Home” and perhaps the first recording of “Crow Jane”, which are counted among the earliest recordings of country blues by a male performer, in the wake of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s historic debut recordings with the same company only a few months prior. The following month, Bo Weavil headed to New York to cut another six sides for Vocalion (two of which were unissued but exist in the form of test pressings), this time under the moniker “Sam Butler”. His recordings reveal that he was a nimble slide guitarist with a unique approach to performance, and his repertoire consisted of a mixture of blues and sacred songs. What became of Bo Weavil after his brief recording career drew to a close is entirely unknown; perhaps he went back home to Alabama, perhaps he started a new life in New York, perhaps he got run over by a freight train trying to hobo his way back south—we may never know. Purportedly, another man adopted the moniker of “Bo Weavil Jackson” in the Mississippi Delta in the decade following “Sam Butler’s” recording career.
Paramount 12389 was recorded around August of 1926 in Chicago, Illinois. It is Bo Weavil Jackson’s first released record, consisting of his third and first recorded sides, respectively, and quite certainly his best-selling.
Firstly, Bo Weavil Jackson demonstrates his eccentric and unpredictable slide guitar work on his tour de force “You Can’t Keep No Brown” (though the last line in the song coupled with the absence of the title verse suggests that perhaps it should have been titled “Long Distance Blues”). He recorded an entirely different version of this song for Vocalion, but this one, if you could compare the two, is the superior version in my opinion.
You Can’t Keep No Brown, recorded c. August 1926 by Bo Weavil Jackson.
On the “B” side, Bo Weavil sings “Pistol Blues”, which is in actuality a rendition of the folk blues “Crow Jane”; while Julius Daniels’ 1927 recording of “Crow Jane Blues” is often credited as the first recording of the song, Bo Weavil’s predates it by more than a year.
Pistol Blues, recorded c. August 1926 by Bo Weavil Jackson.
In Old Time Blues’ tradition of honoring the great figures of Texas fiddle, we have chronicled the lives of pioneers like Eck Robertson and Moses J. Bonner, legends like Bob Wills and Hoyle Nix, and lesser-known outsiders like Elmo Newcomer. Now, it comes the time to pay due tribute to one of the more recent Texas giants: the late, great Johnny Gimble.
One of nine children of telegraph operator James Frank Gimble and his wife Minnie, John Paul Gimble was born in the East Texas city of Tyler on May 30, 1926, and raised a few miles outside of town in the community of Bascom. He started out in music young, playing fiddle and mandolin in a band with his brothers that eventually became known as the Rose City Swingsters on local radio and functions. He distinguished himself from other fiddlers by favoring a five-stringed instrument, as opposed to the typical four-string fiddle. He parted their company in 1943 to play banjo with singer-turned-politician Jimmie Davis on the trail of his gubernatorial campaign. At the age of eighteen in 1944, he enlisted in the U.S. Army to aid in the war effort. Upon his discharge, he returned to Texas to form a new band with his brothers called the Blues Rustlers, but soon struck out on his own once again to join Buck Roberts’ Rhythmairs—one of the top bands in Austin—in 1948. With the Rhythmairs, Gimble made his first record, fiddling and singing on their only disc on Fred M. Caldwell’s Lasso label. From there, he was drafted into Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, a most prestigious position which he held until 1951, though he continued a sporadic association with Wills afterward. Back home in Texas once again, Gimble married and settled for a time in Dallas, where he worked as a session musician and in local bands such as those of Dewey Groom, Bill Boyd, and Al Dexter at ballrooms and on radio shows like KRLD’s Big D Jamboree and on television. For part of that decade, Gimble played music part time while also working as a barber in Waco. In the late 1960s, he moved to Nashville, where he found enormous success as a studio musician on a veritable scadzillion country records. When he finally returned to Texas again in the 1980s, Gimble established himself as an elder statesman of western swing, playing in groups with the old greats of the genre, until he was the last old great remaining. He carried the tradition into the twenty-first century, and continued to play quite prolifically until shortly before his death at his Texas Hill Country home on May 9, 2015. Among numerous pre-and-posthumous honors, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2018.
Lasso L-104 was recorded in 1948, most probably in Austin, Texas. The Rhythmairs were known to consist of Johnny Gimble, Joe Castle, Gerald “Jerry” Chinnis on fiddles, Eldon “Curly” Roberts on steel guitar, “Pee Wee” Poe on piano, Carlton Roberts on rhythm guitar, Buck Roberts on bass, and Shorty Oakley on drums, though whether all of those members or different members participated in this session is unknown.
On the “A” side, Gimble sings the vocal refrain and does his hep little fiddle-and-humming in harmony thing on “Don’t You Darken My Door Anymore”. Incidentally, leader Buck Roberts’s grandson Jason today carries on the western swing torch as a fiddler and leader of both his own band and the modern iteration of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys.
Don’t You Darken My Door Anymore, recorded 1948 by Buck Roberts and the Rhythmairs.
In the tradition of naming waltzes after towns in Texas—like the successful “Bandera Waltz”, “Westphalia Waltz”, and “Houston Waltz”—the Rhythmairs play Johnny Gimble’s instrumental composition, the “Shiner Waltz”, on the “B” side.
Shiner Waltz, recorded 1948 by Buck Roberts and the Rhythmairs.
Another one of those hidden figures of the blues who made a few records at one session and promptly disappeared into obscurity, few details are concretely known about the life of Texas-Louisiana musician “Stick-Horse” Hammond, who made a small handful of records in 1950 demonstrating a gritty and rather archaic style of rural blues. As such, the facts presented within this article should to taken as tentative, at best.
One of at least five children of B.B. and Laura (spelling uncertain) Hammond, “Stick-Horse” was born Nathaniel Hammond in Palestine, Texas, on April 16, 1896, (according to public records), though a date in the preceding month has also been proffered, as well. According to a draft card presumably attributable to the same Hammond, he was of medium height with a heavy build as an adult. Per the same source, he worked on the Union Pacific Railroad around the time of the First World War, and was at the time living in Denver, Colorado. Perhaps resulting from that profession, he purportedly lost a leg (much like his white contemporary “Peg” Moreland), and ostensibly adopted the nickname ‘Stick-Horse” from the peg-leg he relied upon thereafter. Later in life, he reportedly turned to life as a traveling musician, playing around his home state before settling in Taylortown, Louisiana, in the vicinity of Shreveport, where he began farming on the share. Around 1950, Hammond was “discovered” by country singing star Zeke Clements—who was then appearing on the KWKH Louisiana Hayride—and brought to town to cut a record for former disc jockey Ray Bartlett. Clements later recalled that “they drove around for two or three days getting him drunk enough to record.” In all, Hammond produced six sides for Bartlett’s “Job” label, four of which were picked up by larger record companies (Royalty Records of Paris, Texas, and Gotham Records of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, respectively). Sometime later, the plantation on which Hammond farmed was visited by record executives Stan Lewis and Leonard Chess in hopes of signing the bluesman to the fledgling Chess Records. Unfortunately for the songster, the big boss ran off the city slickers with a shotgun, swiftly snuffing out any hopes for the continuation of Hammond’s brief career as a record artist. Remaining in Taylortown for the rest of his life, “Stick-Horse” Hammond died in Shreveport on May 27, 1964.
Royalty RR-906 was recorded at the J&M Record Shop presumably at 728 Texas Street in Shreveport, Louisiana, sometime in the year of 1950. It was originally released on Job 105. “Stick-Horse” Hammond sings the blues and accompanies himself on electric guitar.
On the “A” side, “Stick-Horse” sings a low-down country blues rendition of fellow Texan Curtis Jones’s “Highway 51”.
Highway 51, recorded 1950 by “Stick-Horse” Hammond.
Boasting ninety years of continuous operation, and an active recording career only slightly shorter, the venerable Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill of Fort Worth, Texas, can rightly lay claim to the title of longest-running western swing band in the music’s history.
The original lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys, circa 1931; from left-to-right Milton Brown, Derwood Brown, announcer Truett Kimsey, Bob Wills, and Herman Arnspiger.
The progenitor of the Light Crust Doughboys was born when aspiring jazz singer Milton Brown joined forces with Jim Rob Wills and his Wills Fiddle Band (consisting of Wills and guitarist Herman Arnspiger) in 1930. Finding success in local dance halls, they soon took their act on the radio, bringing on Brown’s younger brother Derwood and fiddler-banjoist-guitarist Sleepy Johnson. After a brief sponsorship by the Aladdin Lamp Company as the “Aladdin Laddies”, they convinced W. Lee O’Daniel of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company to take the group on as the “Light Crust Doughboys” in 1931, drawing their name from the brand of flour produced by the mill. After two weeks of successful broadcasts, O’Daniel canceled their show, citing distaste for their “hillbilly music.” Fortunately, the will of the people prevailed and the Doughboys were brought back by popular demand (under the stipulation that the boys also work day jobs at the mill). Though O’Daniel initially forbade his band from recording, the Doughboys managed to get in a brief recording session during the RCA Victor Company’s 1932 field trip to Dallas, cutting one record under the rather thinly veiled pseudonym “Fort Worth Doughboys”. Not long after that session, the original lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys began to disintegrate under O’Daniel’s rather draconian leadership. Brown found the arrangement too stifling, and quit the band in 1932 to form his own Musical Brownies, ultimately achieving much greater success than he could have found as a Doughboy and cementing his position as the founder of western swing before his untimely death in 1936. Wills, on the other hand, was fired in 1933 as an unreliable employee, and thereafter moved to Waco to form his Playboys. O’Daniel subsequently hired a new group of musicians and evidently retracted his embargo on recording, bringing the group to Chicago for a 1933 session followed by consistent record dates afterward. W. Lee O’Daniel himself was fired from the Burrus Mill in 1935, after which he founded his own mill and string band to go with it—the Hillbilly Boys—while the Light Crust Doughboys managed to carry on just fine without him.
Bluebird B-5257 was recorded on February 9, 1932, at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas Texas. It was originally issued on Victor 23653, which sold a total of 1,246 copies, and also reissued on Electradisk 2137, Sunrise S-3340, Montgomery Ward M-4416 and M-4757, and, in Canada, on Aurora 415. The Fort Worth Doughboys are Milton Brown, singing, Bob Wills on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, and Sleepy Johnson on tenor guitar.
Whether it is to be considered the first western swing record remains a point of contention among historians of the genre; some argue that the music thereon lacks the improvisational element of jazz music, and thus cannot be considered western swing. Personally, I am of the “smells-like-a-rose-no-matter-what-you-call-it” mindset, and it sounds like western swing to me. At the very least, it should be unanimous that it is a crucial predecessor to the subsequent western swing movement.
On the obverse, the Doughboys play Milton Brown’s adaptation of the Famous Hokum Boys’ (Georgia Tom Dorsey, Big Bill Broonzy, and Frank Brasswell) 1930 hokum blues number “Nancy Jane”.
Nancy Jane, recorded February 9, 1932 by the Fort Worth Doughboys.
And on the reverse, they play Brown’s own composition “Sunbonnet Sue”, which to my ear seems to have drawn some melodic inspiration from the 1930 popular song “Sweet Jennie Lee” (who incidentally received mention in the lyrics alongside some other popular gals from songs of the day).
Sunbonnet Sue, recorded February 9, 1932 by the Fort Worth Doughboys.
Against odds stacked against him, the guitar evangelist and musical visionary Blind Willie Johnson rightly secured his place as a gospel music pioneer and veritable legend in the annals of American music. While he found neither great fame nor fortune during his life, his rousing religious songs and inspired slide guitar have received much admiration from music lovers, and the convoluted details surrounding his life have inspired much interest from researchers (and as such, some of the facts presented herein are of rather tenuous accuracy) in the decades since.
Willie Johnson was born to “Dock” (variously reported in source documents as Willie, Sr., or George) and Mary Johnson in Pendleton, Texas (though other sources have suggested Independence, some one-hundred miles southeast), in January of 1897; his draft card gave a date of the twenty-fifth, while his death certificate proffered the twenty-second. He spent most of his life from childhood to adulthood in Marlin, Texas. His mother died when he was four years old, and his father later remarried. It is widely believed that Johnson became blind around the age of seven, though the cause of his blindness is not definitively known; the most popular story—based upon an account by his alleged widow Angeline—asserts that he was blinded by lye water thrown by his stepmother during a marital dispute with his father (and accounts differ as to whether the lye was meant for Willie or his father). A perhaps more plausible theory suggests that he became blind from viewing a solar eclipse which would have been visible from Texas on August 30, 1905, through a piece of broken glass. No matter the unfortunate circumstance, Johnson found religion and thus aspired preach the gospel. Inspired by fiddling evangelist Blind Madkin Butler, he learned to play guitar in a distinctive style using a steel ring for a slide to accompany his coarse, false bass singing (though he naturally possessed a pleasant singing voice). He traveled from town-to-town, playing and singing his religious songs on street corners around the Brazos Valley, sometimes sharing the space with Blind Lemon Jefferson and his blues songs. Around the middle of the 1920s, Johnson met Willie B. Harris, who would soon become his (possibly second) wife and singing partner, and with whom he would have one daughter in 1931. He made his first recordings on December 3, 1927—one day after fellow Texas gospel blues man Washington Phillips made his own debut—for Columbia, who had set up a temporary recording laboratory in Dallas, Texas, possibly at the Jefferson Hotel. His religious songs proved quite successful, some records rivaling the popular Bessie Smith’s blues songs in sales figures. Ultimately, Johnson had three more sessions in Dallas, New Orleans, and Atlanta, producing a total of thirty issued sides for the Columbia Phonograph Company—plus an additional two unreleased masters credited in the company ledgers to “Blind Texas Marlin”, which are speculated to have been pseudonymous recordings of secular material, or which may have simply been a clerical error—before the crush of the Great Depression curtailed their field recording activity and thus ended his recording career. Sometime in the 1930s, Johnson left his family in Marlin for the Gulf Coast, where he eventually settled in Beaumount, evidently with a woman named Angeline (with whom he may have had relations concurrent to his marriage to Harris), purportedly the sister of blues guitarist L.C. Robinson. He continued to sing on street corners in the vicinity, and may have appeared on the radio on KTEM in Temple in the early 1940s, according to an anecdote related by Houston folklorist Mack McCormick, and operated a “house of prayer” in Beaumont. A decade after his recording career had concluded, John A. Lomax expressed interest in Johnson’s music in an interview with another Blind Willie in 1940, but McTell perplexingly informed the ballad hunter that the gospel singer was dead, according to a letter he had received from Johnson’s wife. His house in Beaumont reportedly burned in the middle 1940s, and Blind Willie Johnson died on September 18, 1945, from a cause reported as malarial fever.
As with so many of history’s truest luminaries, Blind Willie Johnson’s greatest fame was achieved posthumously. Only seven years after his demise, Harry Smith included his 1930 recording of “John the Revelator” in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music, presenting Johnson’s music to a new generation of folkies. In 1977, Johnson’s instrumental “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was selected among the twenty-seven musical recordings included on the Voyager Golden Record, sending the blind pilgrim’s celestial music to an appropriate venue amongst the stars.
Columbia 14624-D was recorded in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 10 and 11, 1929, respectively. It was not released until October of 1931, making it Johnson’s last issued record. Reportedly, only 900 copies were pressed, and it is the only of Johnson’s records to be listed in the “Rarest 78s” column of 78 Quarterly, with an estimate of fifteen or fewer copies known to exist (though whether or not it actually is his rarest record is debatable)—this copy, incidentally, appears to match the description of the one which formerly belonged to Mr. Roger Misiewicz. Blind Willie Johnson sings both sides in his growling false bass voice and eschews his slide in favor of chording the frets with his bare fingers, he is joined by Willie B. Harris on the second side.
On the first side, recorded the former date, Willie sings “Sweeter as the Years Roll By”—an apt title for his final record—a folk interpretation of Lelia Naylor Morris’s 1912 hymn “Sweeter as the Years Go By” (which in fact are the lyrics Johnson sings in the evidently mis-titled song).
Sweeter as the Years Roll By, recorded December 10, 1929 by Blind Willie Johnson.
On the traditional spiritual “Take Your Stand”, Johnson’s vocals are complimented by the soprano of his wife Willie B. Harris. The song was also recorded by Elders McIntorsh and Edwards in 1928, and by Charley Patton (under the pseudonym “Elder J.J. Hadley”) as the first part of his “Prayer of Death” in June of 1929.
Take Your Stand, recorded December 11, 1929 by Blind Willie Johnson.