Vocalion 1094 – Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas” – 1927

An  advertisement for “Cottonfield Blues”, as reprinted in The Devil’s Music, 1976.

One of the great figures of country blues, one of those who have attained a near legendary status, is Henry Thomas, also known by the nickname “Ragtime Texas”.  One of the oldest rural black musicians to record (though not the oldest—Daddy Stovepipe was born seven years earlier), Thomas predated contemporary songsters like Jim Jackson, Lead Belly, and Charley Patton as well as many fellow Texas musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and “Texas” Alexander.

Henry Thomas was born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas, one of nine children in a family of sharecroppers; his parents were former slaves.  In his youth, he determined that he was not to live his life as a farmer, and turned to the life of a songster.  He left his home around the time he was sixteen, and lived the life of a hobo and itinerant musicianer.  Thomas learned to play the “quills” (an instrument much like panpipes), and later the guitar to accompany his singing.  Like any songster worth his salt, Thomas learned to play a variety of styles from minstrel songs, to folk ballads and blues, to rags and dance tunes.  His music earned him the hobo nickname “Ragtime Texas”.  On the Texas & Pacific and M-K-T lines, Thomas hoboed all around Texas and the South (much of which he outlined in his “Railroadin’ Some”), bringing his music with him and expanding his repertoire all the way.  He sang of his home state of Texas, of his life as a hobo, and plenty more.  His travels likely brought him to the World’s Fairs of Chicago and St. Louis in 1893 and 1904, respectively.  In 1927, Thomas traveled to Chicago to cut a record for Vocalion, recording four sides, of which three were released.  Over the following years, he returned to Chicago for five further sessions, netting a total of twenty-three titles from 1927 to 1929.  Little to none of what happened after his final recordings is known.  Many sources claim that he died in 1930, but others claimed to have seen him in Houston in 1949, and around Tyler, Texas in the 1950s.  Long after the end of his life, Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” served as the primary inspiration for the band Canned Heat’s 1968 famous hippie anthem “Going Up the Country”.

Vocalion 1094 was recorded on June 30, 1927 (other sources suggest a date of April 19 or July 5 of the same year) in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Henry Thomas’ first issued record, and, aside from an unissued cut of “The Fox and the Hounds”, his first recorded sides.

First, Thomas sings and whistles his fantastic rendition of the perennial folk ballad “John Henry”, putting his own unique spin on the tale of the legendary steel driving man.

John Henry

John Henry, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.

Turn the record over and Ragtime Texas next delivers a driving performance on “Cottonfield Blues”, bearing some musical resemblance to the “Hesitation Blues”.  Unusual as Thomas music is—what with the quills and the droning guitar—I can’t get enough of it.  It’s truly entrancing, wondrous music!

Cottonfield Blues

Cottonfield Blues, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.

Victor 21291 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1928

“Thumbs Up—On the Spot.”  Jimmie Rodgers donning his brakeman attire for a famous studio pose.  Circa 1930.

This is the first Jimmie Rodgers record I ever owned, I picked it up at a little record store down in Austin that unfortunately no longer bothers stocking 78s.  I hadn’t been collecting for long at the time—mostly I just had a bunch of records inherited from my great-great-grandfather and some junk from used bookstores—and that was one of my first forays into record stores to look for 78s.  My musical knowledge wasn’t so vast then, but I’d heard Jimmie’s “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)” and I wanted to find a copy of that one.  When I picked up this one, I couldn’t really recall which number of Blue Yodel that one was, and I hoped this one might’ve been it.  I took it to the listening station in the store, and it wasn’t, but that was okay, it was only $3.99, and I wanted it anyway.  When I got home, I listened to it over and over and—though the sound was a little rough, especially on the cheap equipment I had at the time—I fell in love with both sides just the same as I had with “Mule Skinner Blues”, and so began my quest to find more.

Victor 21291 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on February 15 and 14, 1928, respectively.  It was issued that June and remained in the catalog until 1936.  Jimmie Rodgers is accompanied by his own guitar, and by Ellsworth T. Cozzens on steel guitar on the “A” side and on ukulele on “B”.

On the “A” side, Jimmie sings the second installment in his Blue Yodel series, “Blue Yodel No. II (My Lovin’ Gal, Lucille)”.  I’d argue it’s one of his best, but then, aren’t they all?

Blue Yodel No. II (My Lovin’ Gal, Lucille), recorded February 15, 1928 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the “B” side is another of Singing Brakeman’s classics, his eponymous “The Brakeman’s Blues (Yodeling the Blues Away)”.

The Brakeman’s Blues (Yodeling the Blues Away), recorded February 14, 1928 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Updated with improved audio on July 6, 2017.

Brunswick 4597 – Billy Murray and Walter Scanlan – 1929

Billy Murray, as pictured in 1921 Victor catalog.

In commemoration of the anniversary of the birth of the “Denver Nightingale”, recording pioneer and prolific record artist Billy Murray, I present the latest record of him currently in the Old Time Blues collection.

William Thomas Murray was born on May 25, 1877—the same year Edison invented the phonograph that he later would help to proliferate—in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, son of Patrick and Julia Murray.  Murray later quipped, “I squalled for the first time in 1877, and so did the phonograph. I didn’t do very much for ten years after that, but neither did the phonograph.”  The Murrays moved to Denver in 1882, and by sixteen, Billy was performing professionally.  Murray made his first of hundreds of phonograph recordings for Peter Bacigalupi in San Francisco in 1897, and was recording regularly and professionally in the New York area by 1903.  Over the following decades, Murray recorded a huge multitude of songs, in various styles and genres, for virtually every record label in operation.  Coinciding with the advent of electrical recording in 1925, the public’s tastes were changing, and Murray began to fall from favor.  To adjust to the new recording systems, he softened his singing voice, though his work became more sporadic.  In the 1920s, he often worked as a vocalist for dance bands; he appeared on Jean Goldkette’s memorable recording of “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover” in 1927, featuring Bix Beiderbecke.  Starting in the late 1920s, Murray lent his voice to animated cartoons, providing the voice of Bimbo, and others, in shorts made by Fleischer Studios.  He worked sporadically on radio through the 1930s, including appearances on the WLS National Barn Dance.  In 1940, Murray made a series of recordings for Bluebird, accompanied by Harry’s Tavern Band, and made his last recordings in 1943 for the Beacon label with fellow recording pioneer Monroe Silver, known for his “Cohen” character.  After retiring in 1944 due to heart issues, Billy Murray died suddenly of a heart attack at a Guy Lombardo show on Long Island on August 17, 1954.

Brunswick 4597 was recorded in September or October of 1929 by Billy Murray with his frequent duet partner Walter Scanlan (whose real name was Walter van Brunt).

First, the duo sings humorous number from the 1929 Sono Art-World Wide talking picture The Great Gabbo, in which it was performed by Erich von Stroheim in the titular role, with his ventriloquist dummy.

Icky, recorded September/October 1929 by Billy Murray and Walter Scanlan.

On the reverse, Murray and Scanlan sing another comic song most frequently associated with Eddie Cantor, “My Wife is On a Diet”.

My Wife is On a Diet, recorded September/October 1929 by Billy Murray and Walter Scanlan.

Victor V-38079 – Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra – 1929

A portrait of a young Ellington.  Circa late 1920s.

Last time we commemorated the anniversary of the birth of the legendary Duke Ellington, born  April 29, 1899, with his famous “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)”; this time we celebrate with one of his classic hot jazz records of the 1920s.  Ellington’s life has already been covered in that post, so I needn’t go over it again in this one.

Duke Ellington made his motion picture debut in 1929, along with Fredi Washington of Imitation of Life fame, in the Harlem Renaissance jazz film Black and Tan (see here for an exceptional transfer of the film on YouTube).  In it, Ellington plays a down-on-his-luck bandleader, whose ailing girlfriend—played by Washington (whom he was reportedly dating in real life at the time)—finds him employment at a nightclub, where she succumbs to her illness while performing a dance routine.  Ellington and his band play such jazz classics as the titular “Black and Tan Fantasy”, “Black Beauty”, “The Duke Steps Out”, and “Cotton Club Stomp”.  Not too long after, Duke and his band traveled to Hollywood for their first “big time” movie appearance in the Amos ‘n’ Andy feature Check and Double Check.  One of only a handful of films of that type, I fully recommend viewing Black and Tan.

Victor V-38079 was recorded on May 3, 1929 in New York City.  Ellington’s Cotton Club Orchestra is made up of Arthur Whetsel, Cootie Williams, and Freddie Jenkins on trumpet, “Tricky Sam” Nanton on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet and tenor sax, Johnny Hodges on clarinet, alto sax, and soprano sax, Harry Carney on clarinet, alto sax, and baritone sax, Duke Ellington on piano, Fred Guy on banjo, Wellman Braud on string bass, and Sonny Greer on drums.

First up, Ellington and the boys get hot on the outstanding “Cotton Club Stomp”.  This stomp is one of the pieces played by Ellington and his orchestra in Black and Tan, in which it is danced by Fredi Washington.

, Cotton Club Stomp, recorded May 3, 1929 by Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra.

Next, they play a late oriental fox trot, “Arabian Lover”, from the Cotton Club Revue.

Arabian Lover, recorded may 3, 1929 by Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra.

Vocalion 1188 – Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra – 1928

Here are a pair of top jazz sides by Jimmie Noone’s band, taking their name from the Apex Club, a speakeasy in Chicago, where the band played.  Noone’s band was a small group, only a quintet, but they were an exemplary one, and played in a sophisticated style.

Jimmie Noone, a Creole, was born in Cut Off, Louisiana, April 23, 1895 (I share a birthday with him, as a matter of fact), and made his way to New Orleans in 1910, where he played with some of the top jazz men, Keppard, Celestin, Ory, et al.  Later in the decade, like his contemporary, Joe Oliver, he migrated to Chicago, and played with the King after arriving there.  In 1926, he began leading a small band at Chicago’s Apex Club, on the second floor of 330 East 35th Street, and began recording with that band for Vocalion in 1928.  A young Benny Goodman was profoundly influenced by his work on the clarinet.  That arrangement lasted until the club was raided by federal agents in 1930.  Noone continued to perform and record with various star-studded bands of New Orleans jazz men, and became a driving force in the dixieland jazz revival in the early 1940s.  Noone continued performing right up until his death of a heart attack in 1944, at which time he was playing in a band on Orson Welles’ radio program.  In Noone’s honor, Kid Ory composed “Blues for Jimmie” as a tribute to the man, who was remembered as a cordial man and a professional performer.

Vocalion 1188 was recorded in Chicago, June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (misspelled “Noones'” on the label).  The small but outstanding band features the talent of Jimmie Noone on clarinet, Joe Poston on alto sax, Earl Hines on piano, Bud Scott on banjo, and Johnny Wells on drums.

The first tune is an instrumental, “Forevermore”, showcasing Noone’s distinctive style of clarinet and Hines’ always excellent piano work.

Forevermore

Forevermore, recorded June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play “Ready for the River”, with a vocal duet by Jimmie Noone and Joe Poston.  Not the cheeriest song ever written, but Noone and his band make a lady out of it.

Ready for the River

Ready for the River, recorded June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.