A contemporary of artists such as Bradley Kincaid, and an antecedent of the likes of Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger, mountain balladeer Emry Arthur, with songs like “Man of Constant Sorrow”, was an important member of the first generation of popular American folk singers on records.
Emry Paul Arthur was born on September 17, 1902 in Wayne County, Kentucky. His father was a respected singer and amateur song collector in the area; his mother died when he was in infancy. Like his brothers, Emry followed in his father’s musical footsteps, learning to play a guitar; however, a hunting accident cost him a fingertip and limited him to a simple yet effective strumming style. In adulthood, the search for work brought him to Indianapolis. At the beginning of 1928, Arthur traveled a short ways to Chicago to make some records with his banjo-playing brother Henry for Vocalion. They sold better than might’ve been anticipated, and Arthur returned to record quite prolifically over the following year, until his marriage broke up and sent him to Wisconsin. There, he found employment with the Wisconsin Chair Company in Port Washington, and recorded for their Paramount label in 1929 and ’31, sometimes in duet with his new wife Della Hatfield. He also recorded for William Myers’ Lonesome Ace in 1929, providing guitar accompaniment for Dock Boggs on his four sides for the label. Following a single unissued recording for Gennett in 1931, Arthur took a four year recording hiatus, returning in 1935 for one session with Decca. All-in-all, Arthur’s recording activities resulted in a total of nearly one hundred sides from 1928 to 1935; of particular note are his 1929 “Reuben, Oh Reuben” and two recordings of Dick Burnett’s “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, one for Vocalion in 1928 and one for Paramount in 1931. After the conclusion of his recording career, Emry Arthur returned to Indianapolis, where he remained, with Della, until his death on August 22, 1967.
Vocalion 5264 was recorded on August 30, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois; Arthur’s ninth session. He recorded unreleased takes of both sides the previous month. Emry Arthur accompanies himself on the guitar.
An all around classic folk song, Arthur’s “Train Whistle Blue[s]” shares much in common with “K.C. Railroad Blues” recorded by Andrew and Jim Baxter, and “K.C. Moan” by the Memphis Jug Band.
On the reverse, Emry sings another fine blues, “Empty Pocket Blues”, also drawing many floating verses from folk music tradition.