Out of all the countless blues musicians whose lives are shrouded in obscurity, it would be rather difficult to pick one about whom less is known than Seth Richard. Indeed, historians like Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc have been able to piece together a small few biographical details, which is more than can be said about some of his contemporaries, but even that remains rather tentative.
Seth Richard was born around 1905, purportedly in North Carolina, whereabouts of Halifax County, though Bedford County, Virginia origins have also been proposed. Likely, he spent his early years in the vicinity of southern Virginia and northern Carolina. Given that all of his recordings were made in the New York and New Jersey and two of his titles reference streets in Newark, New Jersey, it would seem probably that Richard lived a considerable part of his life in that area, but that is purely speculation. As a musician, he was counted alongside Barbecue Bob, Blind Willie McTell, and Lead Belly as one of the handful of blues artists to adopt the twelve-string guitar. He was in New York City in 1928, when he went to Columbia Records to make but a single record, which became a rather decent seller in the “race” catalog. Thereafter, he went silent until late in 1943, when he (probably) resurfaced to cut four sides including the wartime “Gas Ration Blues” under the pseudonym “Skoodle-Dum-Doo”, after one of the songs he recorded for Columbia fifteen years prior, for Irving Berman’s Regis and Manor record labels with a harmonica player known only as “Sheffield” (possibly John Sheffield). Whatever became of Seth Richard after his brief and well spread-apart recording career is unknown.
Columbia 14325-D was recorded on May 15, 1928 in New York City. Seth Richard sings, accompanying himself on twelve-string guitar and kazoo. The DAHR notes takes “2” and “3” as issued for both sides; these are both take “2”.
First, Richard sings the plaintive and eponymous “Lonely Seth Blues”.
Lonely Seth Blues, recorded May 15, 1928 by Seth Richard.
Next, Seth gets wild on his signature song, “Skoodeldum Doo”, a jazzed up adaptation of Papa Charlie Jackson’s “Skoodle-Um-Skoo”.
Skooodeldum Doo, recorded May 15, 1928 by Seth Richard.
Long before the days of so-called “country and western” music, real working cattlemen sang and played their songs out on the range. Regrettably, being so far away from centers of civilization, only relatively little of that authentic cowboy music was fortunate enough to be recorded for posterity before commercial hillbilly music took off. However, a handful of real cowboy singers and musicians did make it into the studio, including the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, founded by former Rough Rider Billy McGinty, which, unlike many contemporaries, would later go on to achieve nationwide acclaim.
The Oklahoma Cowboy Band, directed by Otto Gray, broadcasting from the General Electric station WGY, Schenectady, N.Y. around 1930. Left-to-right: Otto Gray, Rex, Florence “Mommie” Gray, Owen “Zeb” Gray, “Chief” Sanders, Lee “Zeke” Allen, and Wade “Hy” Allen. Pictured in Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, 1930.
Band founder and financier William M. “Billy” McGinty of the Indian Territory was a true cowboy of legendary stature. Born in Missouri on New Year’s Day of 1871, he started out punching cattle at the age of fourteen, on a ranch in Kansas. During those years, he got to know old west legends by the likes of outlaw Bill Doolin and built up a reputation for being able bust any bronc, no matter how tough it were. Following the loss of the Battleship Maine, he went south to join up with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, going on to become a hero at the Battle of San Juan Hill—Roosevelt said of him, “we had no better or braver man in the fights”. When the war was through, he came back home to become a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Sometime in the early 1920s, McGinty founded the Oklahoma Cowboy Band of local musicians around Ripley, Oklahoma. The band made their first radio appearance in 1925 on Bristow, Oklahoma’s KFRU, and their first record for Okeh the following year. McGinty later retired as the band’s manager to focus on his ranch in Ingalls and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, leaving Otto Gray, who raised midget cattle in Stillwater and had previously served as the band’s director, to assume his position and lead the band to great national success. McGinty published an autobiography titled The Old West, as Written in the Words of Billy McGinty in 1937. In his later years, he served stints as president of the Roosevelt Rough Riders Association and the Cherokee Strip Cowpunchers Association. Billy McGinty died on May 21, 1961 at the age of ninety, and was buried in the Ingalls Cemetery.
Okeh 45057 was recorded in St. Louis, Missouri in May of 1926 by Dave Cutrell and McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band (Otto Gray, director). Both the DAHR and Rust and Laird’s Discography of OKeh Records, 1918-1934 place the recordings in Atlanta, Georgia in March of that year, but earlier pressings on the state “Recorded in St. Louis” on the label, and Victoria Spivey made her first recordings on the adjoining matrices in St. Louis on May 11, 1926, likely placing these around that date. The May date is further corroborated by Tony Russell’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942. Although the label credits McGinty’s band as accompanying Cutrell’s vocal on the first side, he is backed only by a single guitar, likely his own. The personnel of McGinty’s Cowboy Band for this session is unknown, but it may include Cutrell. McGinty’s band cut two additional unissued sides that day, the titles and contents of which are lost to time.
Dave Cutrell’s recording of “Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special” holds the distinction of being the first recorded version of the traditional prison song “The Midnight Special”. It was subsequently recorded by Wilmer Watts and his Lonely Eagles for Paramount around April of 1927 as “Walk Right in Belmont”, blues man Sam Collins for Gennett that September, and again by Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band in March of 1929. In the next decade, the song came to be associated with Lead Belly, who made his first of at least five recordings of the song at his second Library of Congress session with John Avery Lomax while still incarcerated at Angola Prison Farm on July 1, 1934. Since then, it has been recorded countless times in a variety of styles and genres.
By many accounts, the song spins a story of a prisoner at Texas’ Sugar Land penitentiary longing to receive a pardon from the governor. The titular Midnight Special was a train that came in the middle of the night to take pardoned ex-convicts away, so as to avoid the threat of extrajudicial action by people in town, and legend had it that if the Midnight Special shone its light on you, you were soon to be pardoned. Cutrell adds two humorous verses of his own mentioning band leaders Billy McGinty and Otto Gray: “Mr. McGinty’s a good man, but he’s run away now with a cowboy band.” and “Now Otto Gray, he’s a Stillwater man, but he’s manager now of a cowboy band.”
Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special, recorded c. May 1926 by Dave Cutrell.
On the “B” side, with fiddle, guitar, banjo, and ‘cello, McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band plays a rousing instrumental of “Cow Boy’s Dream” that puts you right there by the campfire. In my opinion, this side is one of only a few records that capture the mystique of the wide open space of the Old West. It also appears that whoever was typesetting the labels for Okeh that day wasn’t too fond of compound words.
Cow Boy’s Dream, recorded c. May 1926 by Mc Ginty’s Oklahoma Cow Boy Band (Otto Gray, Director).
Texas boy Carl T. Sprague was among the first cowboy singers to make records, with his first session taking place in 1925. He also holds the uncommon distinction of being perhaps my favorite cowboy singer.
Sprague as pictured in Victor’s 1930 catalog of Old Familiar Tunes.
Carl Tyler Sprague was born in Brazoria County, Texas, near the town of Manvel, on May 10, 1895. His family was involved in the thriving cattle business, through which the young Sprague learned the traditional songs of the cowboy. He attended Texas A&M to study agriculture, but was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. After the war’s end, he returned to Texas A&M, and graduated with a degree in animal husbandry. After graduating, he was employed as an athletic instructor at the university, a position which he held from 1922 until 1937, and acquired the nickname “Doc”. Following the success of Vernon Dalhart’s “mountaineer’s songs”, Sprague wrote to the Victor Talking Machine Company expressing interest having them record some of his cowboy songs. They apparently obliged, and Sprague traveled to Camden, New Jersey to make two test recordings. Victor must’ve liked them, because two months later, he returned to record a series of ten sides in sessions on the third, fourth, and fifth of August, 1925, half of which were issued. His first record, “When the Work’s All Done This Fall”, became quite a hit, and proved that people were interested in hearing the song of the cowboy. That was followed by a further three sessions over the following three years in Camden, Savannah, Georgia, and Dallas, producing eighteen more sides, all of which were released. In spite of his records’ success, singing was but a hobby for Sprague, and he did not pursue a music career outside of record-making. He left his post at Texas A&M in 1937 and opened a store in Bryan, and when the Second World War rolled in, he served once again, as a recruiter. The folk revival of the 1960s brought Sprague back into music, and he played and lectured around the country, and recorded two LPs in 1972 and ’74. Carl T. Sprague died on February 21, 1979 in Bryan, Texas, where he had called home since 1920.
Victor 20122 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on June 22, 1926, at Sprague’s second series of sessions. The record was released in December of the same year, and remained in the catalog all the way until 1944, perhaps indicating it was Sprague’s greatest success. Sprague is accompanied by two fiddles played by H.J. McKenzie and C.R. Dockum.
Stark, bleak, and sorrowful, “O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy)” is a mesmerizing, repetitive, and minimalistic piece, with Sprague’s vocal backed by the beat of his guitar and the forlorn fiddle’s croon, which I feel really encapsulates an archetype of cowboy music. The song has been featured in recent years on Dust-to-Digital’s evocative multimedia collection I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs (1880-1955).
O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy), recorded June 22, 1926 by Carl T. Sprague.
On “B”, Sprague sings “The Cowboy’s Dream”, a less depressing and rather enchanting melody. It also provides a demonstration of Sprague’s distinctive and simple-yet-pleasing style of playing guitar, which from both aural and photographic evidence, seems to have been done on a metal-bodied resonator, or at least it was by the end of his recording career in 1929.
The Cowboy’s Dream, recorded June 26, 1926 by Carl T. Sprague.
Bing Crosby in the early 1930s, as pictured in the Eveready Book of Radio Stars, c. 1932.
Old Time Blues has honored the iconic Bing Crosby before, with a look at his theme song “Where the Blue of the Night”, at which point I eulogized him quite thoroughly. But now let us turn our attention two years earlier to Der Bingle’s first solo effort, while he was still just one of Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys.
Born on May 3, 1903 in Tacoma, Washington as Harry Lillis Crosby, Bing got his nickname from a local girl, after a popular comic strip in the Spokane Spokesman-Review called The Bingville Bugle. That is unless you’d prefer to take Bing’s own version of how he acquired the moniker: when he was “a mere broth of a lad,” he liked to play cops and robbers (or cowboys and Indians, by another account), and carried around a pair of toy six-guns all the time, saying “bing! bing! bing!” in imitation of firing. One way or the other, Crosby was inspired by Al Jolson to turn from binging to singing. While he was in college at Gonzaga University, Bing joined a band of high school students, including Al Rinker, called the Musicaladers. Later, Bing dropped out of college to go with Rinker south to California (he got the last laugh though, when Gonzaga U awarded him an honorary doctorate), where the duo cut their first record in 1926: “I’ve Got the Girl” and another unissued title with Don Clark’s Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel Orchestra (evidently before Earl Burtnett took over the gig), albeit recorded a bit too slow. With help from Rinker’s big sister Mildred Bailey, the pair got their big break later that year when they were hired by Paul Whiteman to sing—with the addition of singer and songwriter Harry Barris—as the Rhythm Boys. Though the Rhythm Boys made several records of their own, Bing didn’t make his solo recording debut until 1929. Crosby remained with Whiteman’s troupe, recording for Victor and Columbia, until 1930; the band had traveled to California to make their blockbuster motion picture King of Jazz, and the Rhythm boys decided to stick around afterward to try and make it big in Hollywood. They made one record with Gus Arnheim’s Cocoanut Grove Orchestra for Victor—”Them There Eyes”—but parted ways thereafter, so Bing embarked upon his solo career in earnest. He continued to sing with Arnheim’s orchestra until 1931, when he signed with Brunswick. He continued to record for Brunswick until producer and manager Jack Kapp “poached” him for his new Decca label in 1934. The rest (as they so often say) is history, Bing continued to skyrocket to stardom through the 1930s and 1940s, securing his position as one of pop-culture’s first “superstars,” which he maintained until his death on October 14, 1977.
Columbia 1773-D was recorded on March 14, 1929 in New York City. It is Bing Crosby’s first solo record, though many more preceded it with Bing taking a secondary role. Bing is backed by Matty Malneck on violin, Roy Bargy on piano, and the seldom heard Ed “Snoozer” Quinn on guitar.
First up, Bing sings the charming Jo Trent and Louis Alter composition “My Kinda Love”, delivering a performance quite a bit jazzier than he would later become known for.
My Kinda Love, recorded March 14, 1929 by Bing Crosby.
He backs it up with “Till We Meet”, another fine performance. You may note that Bing in these earlier days tended to sing in a higher register than in his “crooner” days.
Till We Meet, recorded March 14, 1929 by Bing Crosby.
Madam “Ma” Rainey, as pictured in The Paramount Book of Blues, 1927. Perhaps the most flattering portrait of Rainey.
Earning the honorific “The Mother of the Blues”, Madam “Ma” Rainey is Indisputably a legend of the blues. Her jazz-inflected vaudevillian blues served to define the genre as it was to be on records and helped to pave the way for future blues recordings by male and female artists alike.
“Ma” Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 (according to most sources, with September 1882 being another possibility). By her own account, she was born in Columbus, Georgia, though latter-day research implicates Russell County, Alabama as the place of her birth, though the former was her hometown in any event. She began her career in the show-business in her early teenage years, when she won a talent contest in Columbus. By the turn of the century, she was performing in southern minstrel shows. In 1904, Pridgett married William “Pa” Rainey and the two toured as part of the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels troupe, later forming an act called Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. In her travels across the southern states, Rainey encountered a young Bessie Smith in Chattanooga and took her under her wing, teaching her the blues. Come December of 1923, traveled to Chicago and began recording for Paramount Records, an association which lasted through 1928 and produced nearly one hundred recordings. On records, she was accompanied at first by Lovie Austin’s Blues Serenaders, Paramount’s “house” jazz band, before beginning to front her own “Georgia Jazz Band” which at times included the likes of Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Buster Bailey, and Fletcher Henderson, with occasional collaborations with Blind Blake, Papa Charlie Jackson, and Tampa Red and Georgia Tom on the side. In the middle of the 1920s, she toured on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit. After the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Rainey retired from performing and returned home to Georgia, managing two or three theaters in Columbus and Rome. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey died in Rome, Georgia on December 22, 1939.
Paramount 12252 was recorded on October 15 and 16, 1924 in New York City. Ma Rainey’s Georgia Jazz Band is made up of members of Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, including Howard Scott on cornet, Charlie Green on trombone, Don Redman on clarinet, Fletcher Henderson on piano, and Charlie Dixon on banjo. On the second date, Scott and Redman are replaced by Louis Armstrong and Buster Bailey on cornet and clarinet, respectively.
First up is “Jealous Hearted Blues”, a largely “floating verse” twelve-bar blues song containing lyrics like “it takes a rockin’ chair to rock, a rubber ball to roll,” later notably included in “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues”.
Jealous Hearted Blues, recorded October 15, 1924 by Ma Rainey Acc. by Her Georgia Jazz Band.
On the reverse, Ma Rainey sings a legendary performance of her immortal “See See Rider Blues”—often in later years (incorrectly) called “C. C. Rider”, here erroneously titled “See See Blues” on the label. Later pressings corrected this error.
See See [Rider] Blues, recorded October 16, 1924 by Ma Rainey Acc. by Her Georgia Jazz Band.