Melotone M 12117 – Dessa Foster and Howling Smith – 1931

Some twenty years before Chester Burnett became famous as “Howlin’ Wolf”, another blues musician claimed that title for his own, a Texas guitarist and singer also known as “Funny Paper” Smith, called such after his eponymous “Howling Wolf Blues”, which he recorded in four parts in 1930 and ’31.  Regrettably, like so many of his contemporaries, very little is known of the life and times of the original “Howling Wolf”.

Most sources suggest that the blues singer and guitarist known as “Funny Paper Smith” was John T. Smith, as is indicated on the labels of the records he made for the Vocalion company in 1930 and ’31.  He is usually said to have been born in East Texas the 1880s or ’90s, and to have died sometime in the 1940s.  Indeed, there are some documents to corroborate that a black musician by the name of John Smith existed in Texas during those years, though aside from sharing the most common name around, there is little to connect him to “Funny Paper”.  It is also frequently suggested that his “Funny Paper” sobriquet was a mistake on the part of the record company, and that his nickname was properly “Funny Papa”.  A good deal of that information seems to derive from the notes of the 1972 Yazoo compilation of some of his material—The Original Howling Wolf—which itself appears to have mostly been derived from an interview with fellow Texas bluesman Thomas Shaw (the same album also erroneously displays an early photograph of the Black Ace purported as Smith, thus staining its claim to accuracy).

Recently released research by the esteemed Mack McCormick—continued by Bob Eagle—has related a compelling argument for a different scenario; they suggest that “John Smith” was merely an assumed name used by the artist to evade trouble back home.  In a 1962 interview, McCormick played one of the Smith’s records for Mrs. Alberta Cook White of Smithville, Texas, who identified the singer as her older brother, Otis Cook, whom she claimed was born there in Bastrop County on April 1, 1910.  She related that he learned to play guitar as a youth and began rambling around the state of Texas, leaving behind life as a farmer in favor of becoming an itinerant songster, playing at local functions and sometimes leaving home for weeks at a time to visit Waco and Dallas, possibly encountering Blind Lemon Jefferson along the way.  He was reportedly known to most of his contemporaries as the “Howling Wolf”, not as “Funny Papa” or “Funny Paper”, and he was described as being a tall, dark-skinned man of about one-hundred-sixty-five pounds (to complicate matters, it was suggested that the “Howling Wolf” name may have been used by more than one musician in Texas around the same time).  Census documents suggest he was incarcerated at Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, Texas, on a charge of attempted arson in the spring of 1930, after which he promptly made for Chicago.  There, “Smith” began his career as a recording artist for Vocalion Records, the details surrounding which are considerably more certain than those surrounding his identity.

Dubbed “‘Funny Paper’ Smith (The Howling Wolf)”, he entered the studio for the first time on September 18, 1930, to make two unreleased test recordings for the Vocalion company, “Hobo Blues” and “Old Rounder’s Blues” for the Vocalion company—the latter perhaps a rendition of Lemon Jefferson’s song of the same name.  He made his debut in earnest the following day, cutting the first two installments of his eponymous, four-part, “Howling Wolf Blues” and two more sides the day after, all of which were issued this time around.  He returned to the studio thrice more before the end of the year to make another five sides.  The following year, he had a further five sessions resulting in fifteen more sides.  Afterwards, “Funny Paper” evidently went back home to Texas.  He resurfaced four years later in Fort Worth to record for Vocalion once again.  From the twentieth through the twenty-third of April, 1935, he cut a total of thirty-two sides—including parts five and six of “Howling Wolf Blues”—on some of which he was joined by Moanin’ Bernice Edwards and Black Boy Shine on pianos and vocals and “Little Brother” Willie Lane on guitar.  Of all those, only his three sides with Bernice Edwards were released, of which only one—a hot “skiffle” record—bore credit to “Howling Smith”; all others were “found to be faulty,” and never released in any form.  In all, his recording activities netted a grand total of fifty-six sides, though only twelve records were issued to his name.  In the late 1930s, “Smith” teamed up for a time with “Texas” Alexander before parting ways near the Oklahoma border, at which point Alexander joined with Lowell Fulson.  Sometime later, Otis Cook is believed to have settled down with a family back home in Bastrop, where he later died on August 29, 1979.  A testament to his reputation in his home state, the “Howling Wolf Blues” later became something of a standard among Texas blues players, with renditions made by his protégé Willie Lane, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Tom Shaw.

Melotone M 12117 was recorded on January 19, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois.  It was also issued on Polk P9013 and later on Vocalion 02699 in 1934.  Dessa Foster and J.T. “Funny Paper” Smith duet and banter on a novelty blues in the manner of those made by Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson for Okeh, while Smith accompanies on guitar.  It has been proposed that “Dessa Foster” is a pseudonym for Mississippi Delta blues singer Mattie Delaney (frankly I’m rather dubious, but some compelling evidence has been presented, and there is a compelling aural similarity).

On the first part of the comic duet “Tell it to the Judge—No. 1”, Howling Smith plays the part of a police officer, barging into Miss Foster’s house with the question: “where that booze at?”

Tell it to the Judge—No. 1, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.

Opening with a fine bit of guitar reminiscent of his work on “Honey Blues”, recorded the following month, Smith assumes the role of the titular judge on “Tell it to the Judge—No. 2”, and he’s not giving any more breaks to “Betty”.

Tell it to the Judge—No. 2, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.

Talent 709 – Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys – 1949

Although not nearly as widely remembered as his sometime associate Bob Wills, Big Spring bandleader Hoyle Nix made his own indelible mark on western swing, cementing his name in the pantheon of Texas fiddlers.

William Hoyle Nix was born in Azle, Texas, just a little ways northwest of Fort Worth, on March 22, 1918, son of Jonah Lafayette and Myrtle May Nix.  When he was still a baby, the Nixes moved out west to a farm in Big Spring, Texas, where Hoyle and his brothers were reared.  His father played fiddle and mother played guitar, and passed their skills on the instruments down to Hoyle and his brother Ben.  Inspired by his musical hero Bob Wills, Hoyle and Ben Nix formed the West Texas Cowboys in 1946, who soon established themselves as a hit in West Texas dance halls.  In the summer of 1949, Nix brought the band to Dallas to cut their first records for the recently established Talent label, debuting with his own “A Big Ball’s in Cowtown”, which proved to be a hit and became one of the genre’s most popular standards.  Subsequently, Nix’s West Texas Cowboys began touring with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, and Nix’s band expanded to include several former Playboys, including guitarist Eldon Shamblin.  In 1954, Hoyle and Ben established the “Stampede” dance hall outside of their hometown of Big Spring, which still stands in operation to the present day.  Meanwhile, the West Texas Cowboys continued to record somewhat prolifically on local Texas-based labels throughout the 1950s and ’60s, mostly using the new 45 RPM format.  After the dissolution of the Texas Playboys, Bob Wills made regular appearances with Nix’s band.  He made his last recordings in 1977 with the release of an LP on the Midland-based Oil Patch label.  The following decade saw his induction into no fewer than four halls of fame, including (posthumously) the Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1991.  Hoyle Nix died on August 21, 1985, in his hometown of Big Spring.  His legacy was carried on into the next century by his sons Larry and Jody.

Talent 709 was recorded at the Sellers Company Studio at 2102 Jackson Street in Dallas, Texas, around August of 1949.  The West Texas Cowboys are Hoyle Nix on fiddle, Tommy Harvell on steel guitar, Wayne Walker on lead guitar, Ben Nix on rhythm guitar, Charlie Smith on banjo, Loran Warren on piano, and John Minnick on string bass.  It is Nix and the West Texas Cowboys’ first record.

Hoyle sings the vocal on the famous Texas swing anthem “A Big Ball’s in Cowtown”, covered by Bob Wills and others—and it’s a hot number, too.  While Nix gets credit for creating the song, it may actually be traced back a ways earlier to “Big Ball in Town” (Brooklyn, Boston, or some such Yankee town), which was recorded by Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers in 1928.  You may note that it is “a big ball is in Cowtown,” and not—as some listeners understand it—”Big Balls is in Cowtown”; it’s not that kind of a song.

A Big Ball’s in Cowtown, recorded c. August 1949 by Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys.

On the flip—actually the “A” side—brother Ben Nix sings the vocals in a more sentimental mood on “I’m All Alone”, an original composition of his own, with Hoyle backing up with some Willsian hollers.

I’m All Alone, recorded c. August 1949 by Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys.

Vocalion 15943 – Bačova Česka Kapela – 1935

Of the crazy quilt of ethnicities comprising the cultural mosaic of Texas, the contributions of the Czechs are not to be diminished.  From Shiner Bock to kolaches and plenty more, the bounties brought to the people of Texas by way of Czechoslovakia are nigh innumerable.  Among those, polka has made a particular, if sometimes overlooked, impression on Texan culture, with a unique flavor of the dance music originating in central Texas which can to this day not only be heard in its pure form, but also in its influences on the state’s official musical genre, western swing.

One of the leading purveyors of polka music for much of the twentieth century, Bačova Česka Kapela (“Bača’s Czech Band” in English) of Fayetteville, Texas, was originally founded in 1892 by Frantisek “Frank” J. Bača, a first generation Texan, born March 8, 1860, whose father emigrated from Bohemia.  In addition to his own thirteen children, the band included local musicians from around the central Texas Czech country.  Bača was proficient on several instruments, and his band quickly gained popularity at local functions and SPJST dances.  They quickly established themselves as one of Texas’ most popular polka orchestras, alongside the likes of Joe Patek’s Orchestra of Shiner.  A national tour was planned, but was aborted following the Frank Bača’s death on May 3, 1907.  Subsequently, leadership of the the Kapela was assumed by his son John R. Bača.  Under his directorship, the Bača band made their first record in Chicago in 1924, for Okeh and their ethnically oriented subsidiary Odeon, under the name “Baster’s Ceska Kapela”.  They made their radio debut in 1926, playing on Houston’s KPRC.  When the Okeh company visited San Antonio five years later, they furthered their recorded legacy with a session which produced eight sides in June of 1929.  They made another sixteen in two record dates on the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth of August, 1935, when Okeh’s successor Vocalion made a field trip to Texas.  Further recordings were made for local labels like Waco’s Humming Bird Records after the Second World War.  John Bača died on April 16, 1953, and the Bača baton was passed on to his nephew Gil, whose father Ray had led an offshoot of the original band since 1932.  A distinctive pianist, Gil Bača led the family band to great acclaim until his death on October 15, 2008, bringing the multi-generational history of Bačova Česka Kapela  to its close.  Many of their recordings were reissued on the Arhoolie compilation Texas-Czech Bohemian-Moravian Bands.

Vocalion 15943 was recorded on August 27, 1935, in San Antonio, Texas.  It was also released—evidently concurrently—on Columbia 263-F, which remained in “print” for a considerable length of time.  On all issues, it seems to have been Bačova Česka Kapela’s best-selling record.

Firstly the Kapela plays a boisterous polka titled “Já Jsem Mladá Vdova”, or in English, “Young Widow”, in an arrangement by Adolf Snec.

Já Jsem Mladá Vdova (Young Widow), recorded August 27, 1935 by Bačova Česka Kapela.

On the flip, they play another deceptively titled upbeat polka number, “Dobrunoc (Goodnight)”, an original Frank J. Bača composition.

Dobrunoc (Goodnight), recorded August 27, 1935 by Bačova Česka Kapela.

Victor 19699 – Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler” – 1925

Though he left behind only a single record of his music—which, in my learned opinion, is among perhaps the top ten best old-time fiddle records ever made—”The Texas Fiddler” from Fort Worth, Moses J. Bonner, earned recognition in his home state and abroad as one of the finest men to ever pull a bow south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Moses Junior Bonner was born in Franklin County, Alabama, on March 1, 1847.  The family moved west to the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, when he was about seven years of age.  It was there that Bonner, as a child, learned to play fiddle from an older black musician in the area.  Following the death of his father, M.M. Bonner, the family pressed farther west on past Fort Worth, where they settled in Parker County.  At the outbreak of the war between the states, Bonner served in the Twelfth Texas Cavalry, Company E, as a courier under Colonel William Henry Parsons.  After the war, he eventually settled in Fort Worth.  A prominent member of the United Confederate Veterans, Bonner participated in a fiddle contest sponsored by the organization in 1901, losing to fellow veteran Henry C. Gilliland, but becoming a founding member of the Old Fiddlers Association of Texas.  He continued to be active at both veterans’ and fiddlers’ functions in the decades to come, both lobbying for congress to pass pensions for Confederate veterans and winning nine of twelve subsequent fiddle contests in which he participated.  He was also well known at said get-togethers for his lively jig dancing.  In 1911, he tied with Gilliland and Jesse Roberts at the world’s championship contest.  On January 4 1923, Bonner participated in the first known radio “barn dance” program on WBAP in Fort Worth, accompanied by a local string band called the Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra.  Two years later, when the Victor Talking Machine Company brought their equipment down to Houston for their first field recording session in Texas, Bonner waxed two sides—one record—of fiery fiddle medleys, for which he promoted as “The Texas Fiddler”.  Bonner was the only “old-time” musician to participate in the field trip, which otherwise recorded only the dance orchestras of Lloyd Finlay and “Fatty” Martin.  Despite further sessions in Texas over the years that followed, Bonner never recorded again.  He did, however, remain an active participant in Confederate reunions all around the nation, ultimately achieving the honorary rank of Major General.  At the age of ninety-two, Moses J. Bonner died from pneumonia on September 2, 1939.

Victor 19699 was recorded on March 17, 1925, at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas.  Bonner’s fiddling is accompanied on harp-guitar by Fred Wagoner of WBAP’s Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra.  The record was released later in the year, and sold only until sometime in 1926, perhaps only seeing regional sales.

Firstly, Bonner fiddles a medley of “Yearling’s in the Canebrake” and “The Gal on the Log”.  Seventy-eight-years-old at the time of recording, Bonner was by no means lacking in energy on these performances.

1. Yearling’s in the Canebrake 2. The Gal On the Log, recorded March 17, 1925 by Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler”.

On the flip, he plays an interpolation of “Dusty Miller” and “‘Ma’ Ferguson”—the latter honoring the first female governor of Texas Miriam A. Ferguson, who had assumed office only the preceding January.  The “wide-open” character heard in this performance and the other are perfectly exemplary, in my opinion, of early Texas fiddling, sounding far more at home on the range or prairie than than the mountain hollers of the eastern hills.

1. Dusty Miller 2. “Ma” Ferguson, recorded March 17, 1925 by Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler”.

Victor 21361 – Ernest Rogers – 1928/1927

Ernest Rogers in the 1940s, pictured on the dust jacket of his The Old Hokum Bucket, 1949.

We have heard once before from that Atlanta newspaper man and down-home song spinner—and one of my personal heroes—Ernest Rogers, when he graced us with his memorable rendition of the old vaudeville song “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper”.  Now, he’s with us once again, this time with perhaps even better material (though that old dope head Willie is hard to beat).  As I have already biographed Mr. Rogers somewhat thoroughly in the aforementioned article, I urge you to look there for the basic facts.

During his own life, Ernest Rogers was best known as a newsman, rather akin to the South’s answer to Walter Winchell as host and lead reporter of the Atlanta Journal‘s daily “Radio Headlines” program on Atlanta’s pioneering radio station WSB (“Welcome South, brother”).  Today however, it is his musical proclivities—namely the five records he made for Victor in 1927 and ’28—that have won him his most enduring fame, yet his activities in the field were far from limited to making records.  Rogers copyrighted his first song while still a student at Emory University in 1919.  When radio was in its infancy, Rogers joined the staff of Atlanta’s WSB, his crooning and guitar-picking making a hit with listeners at a time when, in Rogers’ own words, “anybody who could sing, whistle, recite, play any kind of instrument, or merely breathe heavily was pushed in front of the WSB microphone.”  In 1922, at the same time he was busy making his name on the radio, his composition “Tune in With My Heart”—celebrating the newly emerging medium—was recorded by popular baritone Ernest Hare.  Rogers made his own recording debut three years later, waxing a memorable—and probably the first—rendition of the vaudeville folk song “Willie the Weeper” coupled with his own composition “My Red-Haired Lady”.  Later in 1925, Francis Craig’s Atlanta-based territory band recorded Rogers’ waltz song “Forgiveness”, featuring the singing of a young James Melton in his first recording, helping to bring the tenor singer to prominence.  The year of 1927 began Rogers’ association with Victor Records, which proved to be both his most fruitful record engagement and his last.  In his first Victor session on the seventeenth of that February, he began with a duet with WSB announcer and director Lambdin Kay titled “Mr. Rogers and Mr. Kay”—probably in the style of the popular comic song “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”—which was never released.  He followed with a remake of “Willie the Weeper”, retitled “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper” but nearly identical to his earlier recording.  The following May, he traveled to Camden, New Jersey, to make six more sides, starting out with a similar re-do of “My Red-Haired Lady”.  “The Flight of Lucky Lindbergh” celebrated the intrepid aviator’s historic journey only two days after he had landed safely in Paris.  On “Let Me Be Your Man in the Moon”, Rogers yodeled nearly three whole months before Jimmie Rodgers made his first record.  Finally, on February twenty-third of the following year, he completed his recorded legacy in a session that mirrored his first Victor session, making two sides of which only one was issued.  Out of a total of twelve recorded sides to his name (including the two unissued), nine were original compositions.  Though his recording career had thus ended, Ernest Rogers’ musical interests were far from their conclusion.  He continued to publish songs in the decades that followed.  Popular hillbilly artist Lew Childre recorded “My Red-Haired Lady” several times during his career [though having not heard the song, I cannot verify that it is indeed the same one].  In his later years, Rogers’ career as a newspaperman had taken precedence over his music-making, but he nevertheless never ceased from entertaining with his homespun ditties when the opportunity presented.

Victor 21361 was recorded in two separate sessions; the first side was recorded on February 23, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia, the second was recorded on May 23, 1927, in Camden, New Jersey.  It was released in July of the same year, and remained in Victor’s catalog until 1931.

Providing stiff competition to his “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper” for the title of Ernest Rogers’ best remembered song—surely thanks in no small part to its reissue on Tompkins Square’s Turn Me Loose—is his “The Mythological Blues”.  Rogers first composed the humorous song during his time at Emory University in 1919—the same year in which he founded the Emory Wheel—but it went unrecorded until his final session nearly ten years afterward.  With its lyrics contrasting ancient Greek and Roman mythology with the modern times of the Jazz Age (“of all the sights saw Jupiter spot ’em, seein’ sweet Venus, doin’ Black Bottom; oh take me back ten-thousand years when they played the Mythological Blues”) it makes for a marvelous swan song.

The Mythological Blues, recorded February 23, 1928 by Ernest Rogers.

On the flip, Rogers sings “I’ve Got the Misery”, but it sure sounds to me like there’s every known indication that he’s got the blues.  This side shines with some of Rogers’ poetry at its most eloquent: “Well, the fire in the stable destroyed the town; but it’s the fire in your eyes that truly burns me down.”

I’ve Got the Misery, recorded May 23, 1927 by Ernest Rogers.