Victor 19427 – Vernon Dalhart – 1924/1925

Producing many of the earliest “country” music hit records in the wake of Fiddlin’ John Carson’s unexpected success, Texas-born, city-bred Vernon Dalhart has been the subject of some controversy as to his merits and authenticity, but if Jimmie Rodgers be the “father” of country music, and Uncle Dave Macon the grandfather, then surely the polished, classically trained Vernon Dalhart must be some great-uncle.

Vernon Dalhart, pictured in the Victor catalog.

Marion Try Slaughter II was born on April 6, 1883, in the east Texas town of Jefferson, the son of Bob and Mary Jane Slaughter.  When he was ten, his father was killed by his uncle in a dispute, and he later moved with his mother to Dallas.  In his teenage years, he spent some time as a cowhand in west Texas for a summer job.  Aspiring to sing opera, Try studied at the Dallas Conservatory of Music, then set out for New York to strike it big.  Deeming “Try Slaughter” an unsuitable name for an operatic tenor, he instead adopted the name of two west Texas towns for his stage name: “Vernon Dalhart”.  Soon, he began recording professionally for Edison and other record companies, mostly singing popular songs of the day.  In the dawning days of “country” music on records, Dalhart got wind of Henry Whitter’s 1923 recording of “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97”, and brought the tune to the attention of the Edison company.  He recorded the song for Thomas Edison on May 14, 1924, and then set about doing it again for Victor.  Victor bigwig Nat Shilkret agreed to record the song on the condition that Dalhart produce a suitable number for the “B” side.  He obliged in the form on “The Prisoner’s Song”, adapted from an old folk song he had heard from his cousin Guy Massey.  For the session, Dalhart was paired with Victor staff whistler and guitarist Carson Robison and violinist Lou Raderman.  Billed on the label as “mountaineer’s songs”, the resulting record sold a reported seven million copies, notwithstanding Dalhart’s remakes on other labels.  The runaway success relaunched the singer’s career as a “hillbilly” singer, and, teamed with Robison, he continued to find success singing disaster songs and weepy ballads like “Death of Floyd Collins” until the end of the decade.  Following a series of disagreements regarding royalties and Dalhart’s replacement of fiddler Murray Kellner with his friend Adelyne Hood, Robison broke away from the act to strike out on his own.  In the decade that followed, Robison’s success grew while Dalhart’s waned.  By 1930, his stream of successful songs had gone dry, and he recorded only sporadically through that decade.  He made his final recordings in 1939, with a group called the Big Cypress Boys, drawing their name from a bayou back home in Jefferson, Texas.  Afterward, he retired from professional performance and began coaching voice in Bridgeport, Connecticut, before going on to a number of non-musical odd jobs until his death from a heart attack on September 14, 1948.

Two different versions of Victor 19427 were made, the first was recorded acoustically on August 13, 1924, which was re-made electrically on March 18 of the following year, both session in New York City.  For both versions, Dalhart is accompanied by Carson Robison on guitar, Lou Raderman on violin, and his own harmonica.  Both the acoustical and electrical versions are posted herein, in that respective order.  In the interest of unnecessarily full disclosure, the media featured in this post is sourced from three different copies of the record, one for the acoustical takes, one for the electrical takes, and one for the labels (as neither of the transferred copies have particularly presentable labels).

On the first side of his big hit record, Dalhart rather joyfully sings of disaster and death on Henry Whitter’s “Wreck of the Old 97”, one of the most popular railroad songs ever made.  Regardless of questions of Dalhart’s authenticity as a folk singer, I would posit that these songs are indubitably a part of Americana.

Wreck of the Old 97, recorded August 13, 1924, and March 18, 1925 by Vernon Dalhart.

Following Dalhart’s introduction, “The Prisoner’s Song” became one of the biggest hits of the 1920s, inspiring numerous covers, dance band arrangements, organ solos, and translations into Spanish, Italian, Polish, and other languages.  Dalhart himself recorded the song a number of times, and it remained widely known and recorded into the 1950s.  In spite of Dalhart’s copyrighting the song in his cousin’s name, some accounts suggest that the finished product was mostly a result of Nat Shilkret’s re-arrangement, and Shilkret in later years spoke of the song as “the one that guy stole from me.”

The Prisoner’s Song, recorded August 13, 1924, and March 18, 1925 by Vernon Dalhart.

Silvertone 4042 – Daddy Stove Pipe – 1924

The illustrious “Daddy Stove Pipe” (not to be confused with “Stove Pipe No. 1” or “Sweet Papa Stovepipe”) holds a number of important distinctions; he was one of the earliest male country blues performers to record, he may have been the oldest, and while definitely not the most prolific, he was surely among the longest-lived.

The man ‘neath the stove pipe, Johnny Watson, was reputedly born on April 12, 1867, in Mobile, Alabama.  He’s said to have begun his musical life in Mexico around the turn of the twentieth century, playing twelve-string guitar in a mariachi band.  Later, he trouped with the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, which produced a fair number of prominent black entertainers of the era, including “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Butterbeans and Susie.  By the 1920s, he had taken up performing on Chicago’s Maxwell Street as a one-man band, playing guitar and harmonica and singing.  In the spring of 1924, Stove Pipe traveled to Richmond, Indiana, to cut a record at the Starr Piano Company’s “shack by the track” studio.  There, he laid down three sides, “Sundown Blues”, “Stove Pipe Blues”, and “Tidewater Blues”, of which only the first two were released.  It is evident that he hit the road after his first session, because by the time he recorded again, in 1927, he was in Birmingham, Alabama, where he waxed three more sides (of which, again, only two were issued) for Starr when they brought down their mobile recording unit.  This time around, he was billed as “Sunny Jim” and was joined by an unidentified whistler known only as “Whistlin’ Pete”.  In the 1930s, Stove Pipe settled down in Greenville, Mississippi with his wife Sarah, who joined him on the remainder of his pre-World War II recordings as Mississippi Sarah, singing and blowing the jug.  They made their first records as a duo for Vocalion in Chicago in October of 1931, waxing eight sides, all of which were released this time.  They returned to Chicago four years later for another session—which turned out to be their last—this time for Bluebird, yielding four sides, two more records.  Sarah met an untimely demise in 1937, and Daddy Stove Pipe took to traveling again, playing with Cajuns in Louisiana and Texas and returning to Mexico.  Eventually, he returned to Chicago’s Maxwell Street, and he became known as a fixture there.  He was recorded once last time in 1960 by Björn Englund and Donald R. Hill, playing and singing songs such as “The Tennessee Waltz”, producing four tracks which were released on the Heritage label LP Blues From Maxwell Street (later reissued on a number of other labels).  Watson contracted pneumonia following a gallbladder operation, and he died in Chicago on November 1, 1963.

Silvertone 4042 was recorded in Richmond, Indiana, on May 10, 1924, and originally released on Gennett 5459.  It was also issued on Claxtonola 40335.  Unfortunately, it is recorded rather faintly, which causes the harmonica and guitar to be somewhat drowned out by the surface noise on this worn copy, especially near the beginning of each side, though Watson’s vocals are still relatively prominent.  I will defend its merits in saying that I have never yet encountered a particularly clean-playing example of these sides.

On the “A” side, Watson plays and sings the delightful “Sundown Blues”.  Examination of the contemporaneous photograph depicting Daddy Stove Pipe seated next to an acoustical recording horn reveals him holding an unusual nine-string guitar, with the first, second, and third strings doubled as would be on a twelve-string guitar (as opposed to Big Joe Williams’ unique configuration), which may be the instrument played herein.

Sundown Blues, recorded May 10, 1924 by Daddy Stove Pipe.

On the reverse, Stove Pipe sings his eponymous “Stove Pipe Blues”, another arrangement of “floating” verses.  “Got the Stove Pipe Blues [and] I can’t be satisfied.”

Stove Pipe Blues, recorded May 10, 1924 by Daddy Stove Pipe.

Okeh 40188 – Jack Linx and his Society Serenaders – 1924

In another installment in Old Time Blues continuing series on territory jazz bands, let us turn our attentions to a hot little group from deep down south: Jack Linx’s Society Serenaders.

Scarcely any information seems to be available regarding Jack Linx and his Society Serenaders.  Based in Birmingham, Alabama, they formed in the first half of the 1920s and played gigs around town.  In 1924, they traveled to Atlanta for the first of several sessions for the Okeh record company.  They returned to Atlanta every subsequent year until 1927—twice in 1925.  In that three year recording career, they cut a total of twenty-three sides for Okeh—including jazz standards like “Tiger Rag” and “Sweet Georgia Brown”, and original compositions like “Don’t You Try To High-Hat Me“—of which all but four were released.  When the Starr Piano Company brought their Gennett mobile recording laboratory down to Birmingham, Linx’s band cut three more sides, though all were rejected, this time calling themselves the “West Lake Ramblers”.  In 1929, the band secured a position as the house band of Birmingham’s stately new Thomas Jefferson Hotel and adopted the name “Jeffersonians” accordingly, and they played on local radio station WAPI the same year.

Okeh 40188 was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia on August 28, 1924 by Jack Linx and his Society Serenaders, their first released record from their first session, consisting of their second and third recorded sides.  It was also released in the United Kingdom on Parlophone E 5263.  The Society Serenaders consist of Coleman Sachs on cornet, Jack Linx on clarinet, soprano sax, and alto sax, Sidney Patterson on clarinet and alto sax, Seibert Traxler on clarinet, tenor sax, and baritone sax, Eph Tunkle on piano, Maurice Sigler on banjo, Frank Manning on tuba, and Carroll Gardner on drums.

First up, they play hotter than you might expect from a band called the “Society Serenaders” on an out-of-this-world rendition of Wendell Hall’s hit “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”, with a low-down and slightly raunchy vocal by banjoist Maurice Sigler.  Interestingly, it seems to be the only side they recorded to have a vocal.

It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’, recorded August 28, 1924 by Jack Linx and his Society Serenaders.

On the “B” side, they play the Art Kassel and Mel Stitzel novelty composition “Doodle Doo Doo”—which served as the theme song for the former’s Chicago-area band—featuring a dandy rag-style piano solo by Tunkle.

Doodle Doo Doo, recorded August 28, 1924 by Jack Linx and his Society Serenaders.

Okeh 40339 – Jack Gardner’s Orchestra – 1924

In Old Time Blues’ continuing series honoring the musical heritage of Texas, we pay due tribute to the bandleader whose orchestra bears the distinction of producing the earliest commercial recordings made within the borders of the Lone Star State: the Dallas-based pianist and songwriter Jack Gardner.

Jack Gardner and his Orchestra, pictured on 1925 sheet music for “Dallas, I Love You”.

Jack was born Francis Henry Gardner on August 14, 1903, in Joliet, Illinois.  He took up playing piano while a young boy, and began playing professionally after the family relocated to Denver, Colorado, reportedly appearing with Boyd Senter’s band.  He was also a competent and relatively prolific songwriter best remembered for the 1927 hit “Bye-Bye, Pretty Baby”.  Many sources state that Gardner moved to Chicago in 1923 and remained there until 1937, but, unless there were two different pianists named Jack Gardner, that cannot be accurate as at least in the middle years of that decade, he was director of the house band at the stately Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, Texas. (Editor’s note: as it turns out, there were two Jack Gardners, so this article is outdated.  Please take it with a grain of salt, it will be rewritten in due time!)  When Ralph S. Peer of the Okeh record company brought mobile recording equipment to a dealer’s warehouse in Dallas in 1924, Gardner and his orchestra had the special privilege of being the first to make commercial recordings in the state of Texas.  Upon Okeh’s return to Dallas the following year, his orchestra had another session, this time introducing the talent of local singer Irene Taylor, who would later go on to be featured by the most popular orchestra in the United States: Paul Whiteman’s.  Gardner may have been in Chicago as early as the end of 1925, at which time he is suggested as a possible instrumentalist with Fred Hamm’s orchestra, one of a number of groups managed by Chicago impresario Edgar A. Benson.  He had definitely made it to the toddling town by 1928, at which time he began sitting in with jazz bands such as those of Wingy Manone and Jimmy McPartland.  In 1939, Gardner went to New York City to assume the role of pianist first with Sandy Williams, then in Texas-raised trumpeter Harry James’s orchestra, a position which he held for around a year before returning to Chicago.  After an active period there, Jack Gardner returned to Dallas, where he remained until his death on November 26, 1957.

Okeh 40339 was recorded around the middle of October of 1924 (though Brian Rust’s Jazz and Ragtime Records suggests September), in Dallas, Texas, the Gardner band’s first session.  Though the orchestra’s personnel is only tentatively identified, it probably includes at least some of the following members: Johnnie Mills and Charlie Willison cornets, Stanton Crocker on trombone, Robert B. Dean, Robert K. Harris, and Bernie Dillon on reeds, Jack Gardner on piano, Earl D. McMahan on banjo, Ralph W. “Cricket” Brown on tuba, and Bob Blassingame on drums.  Dillon White sings the vocal on side “A”, and may also be an instrumentalist.

First, Dillon White sings the vocal on “Who? You?”, one of Jack Gardner’s own compositions.  I must admit that White’s vocal gives me a little chuckle every time I listen to it (“Who? Yoouu!“), but that band sure could play!

Who? You?, recorded c. October 1924 by Jack Gardner’s Orchestra.

They follow with a wild, eccentric jazz tune, another Gardner original: “Who’d a Thunk It”.  One thing you can say for certain: the folks in Texas did like their jazz played hot!

Who’d a Thunk It, recorded c. October 1924 by Jack Gardner’s Orchestra.

Paramount 12252 – Ma Rainey Acc. by Her Georgia Jazz Band – 1924

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”.  It made enough of an impact to be covered by Barbecue Bob’s brother Charley Lincoln in 1927 and was later adapted by the Carter Family as “Jealous Hearted Me” in 1936.

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.