Victor 19813 – Carl T. Sprague – 1925

It’s come time we heard again from one of my favorite cowboy singers: Carl T. Sprague.  This is a record that I’ve had since my earliest days of collecting, one of about a hundred that I inherited from my great-great-grandfather.  As such, it’s been in my family since its original purchase in 1925.  Like many of that bunch however, the condition leaves something to be desired.  I’ve been searching fruitlessly for a replacement copy for some time, but as of yet no cigar.  (If you happen to have a copy you’re looking to get rid of, let’s talk.)  It escaped my interest for a long while after it arrived in my possession; before I’d listened to it, I assumed it was just a run of the early vocal record like all the Henry Burr and John Steel and whatnot that the old folks seemed so fond of.  Once it finally made its way onto my turntable, I realized I had been missing out.  It piqued my interest in old folk music and introduced me to Carl T. Sprague.  I later delved deeper to uncover more about the history of both songs, and became even more enthralled.  Suffice to say, it’s since become one of my favorite folk music records.  Both songs were popular comical songs in the second half of the nineteenth century, and both were scarcely recorded in the next century.  Though Sprague is credited on the labels as composer of both sides, the songs actually predate his birth by quite a few years.  Both were originally published on broadside song sheets, as was common practice in the several centuries preceding 1900.

Victor 19813 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on August 3 and 5, 1925.  It was released in December of that year, and cut from the catalog in 1928.  They are among the earliest electrical recordings made, only a few months after Victor introduced their new process.  The Discography of American Historical Recordings notes that Victor’s “Special Booklet 1925” as a source.  I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it’s possible that this record never saw widespread release.  Obviously staples of his repertoire, Sprague re-recorded both these sides in 1972 for his eponymous LP.

First, is Sprague’s first recorded side, “Kisses”, a song which dates back to the days of broadside song sheets.  It was originally published in 1882 as “Sock Her on Her Kisser”.  Another version was recorded in 1941 by Lewis Winfield Moody for the Library of Congress by Robert F. Draves, under the title “Everybody Has a Finger in the Pie”.  Chubby Parker of WLS recorded “The Kissing Song” in 1931, which may be a version of the same song, but having never heard it, I cannot confirm.  Canadian folklorist MacEdward Leach collected a version of the song as “Turtle Dove” in Newfoundland in 1951.  The DAHR makes note that a re-make (take “5”) of “Kisses” was recorded on June 22, 1926; this take appears to be the originally issued one (“3”).  Sprague’s 1972 re-recording of the song was titled “Kissing”.

Kisses, recorded August 3, 1925 by Carl T. Sprague.

On “B”, Sprague sings another popular humorous ditty titled “The Club Meeting”, also known as “I’ve Only Been Down to the Club”, seemingly the first of only a very few recordings of the song.  Like the previous, this song was originally published on a broadside; it appears to have been originally published by E.H. Harding of New York in 1876, words and music by Joseph P. Skelly, also known for the memorable 1884 song “A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother”, recorded by Vernon Dalhart and others.  Al Hopkins’ Buckle Busters (a.k.a. Hill Billies) recorded the song as “Down to the Club” in 1927 for Brunswick, the lyrics to which were transcribed and printed in the songbook “The Roaming Cowboy”, Book No. 2, published by the “border blaster” radio station XEPN of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico in the mid-to-late 1930s.  Another version was sung by Sam Bell of Tuolumne County, California for the Library of Congress in 1939, recorded by Sidney Cowell Robertson.  Additional recordings were made by Walter Coon for Gennett in 1930 as “The Club Had a Meeting” and Billy Vest for Columbia in 1931 as “The Club Held a Meeting”, but neither were released.  (And my apologies for the label butchery, you can thank my great-great-grandfather’s fondness for writing numbers all over his records and my own attempt to get the junk off.)

The Club Meeting, recorded August 5, 1925 by Carl T. Sprague.

Columbia 15038-D – Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers – 1925

Unquestionably one of the foremost names in “old-time” music during the 1920s, as well as one of the leading figures in the development of what would become “country music” is the original North Carolina Rambler: Charlie Poole.

Charlie Clay Poole hailed from Randolph County, North Carolina, in the town of Franklinville, where he was born on March 22, 1892, the son of an Irish immigrant.   As did his parents before him, Charlie went to work in a textile mill, but his real interest was in making music.  Unable to afford a proper instrument, he fashioned his first banjo out of a gourd.  As the result of a childhood incident in which he bet friends that he could catch a baseball without wearing a mitt, he learned to play the instrument in a unique three-fingered style of picking.  In addition to his musical proclivities, Poole also had a reputation as a rounder and hell raiser supreme.  After years toiling away his youth in the mill, Poole saved up enough money to purchase a Gibson banjo, then quit his job to pursue a career as a musician.  Joined by his brother-in-law Posey Rorer, who played fiddle, and a host of other local musicians, he entertained at local functions.  With the addition of guitarist Norman Woodlieff, the trio traveled to New York City in July of 1925 to make their first records for Columbia as the “North Carolina Ramblers”, producing four sides for which they received seventy-five dollars pay.  Their first record turned out to be a hit, and Poole, along with Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, helped to make Columbia into a powerhouse of old-time music in the genre’s earliest years on record, and he was one of the best-selling artists in their “Old Familiar Tunes” series.  Thereafter, the North Carolina Ramblers returned to New York once a year—twice in 1930—to make further records, with two excursions to Paramount and Brunswick on the side, ultimately resulting in a total of eighty sides cut, of which all but ten were released.  Membership within the band changed as years passed; Woodlieff was replaced with former railroad engineer Roy Harvey, and Lonnie Austin and Odell Smith came to take Rorer’s place, but Charlie Poole always remained constant as the North Carolina Ramblers’ nucleus and main attraction (though members of the group did make several records without him).  Aside from recording, the North Carolina Ramblers also toured Vaudeville and appeared on radio around the Appalachian region.  After his last recording session, Poole and band were invited to Hollywood to provide music for a Western movie in 1931.  Unfortunately, before leaving for the west, Poole suffered a heart attack and died at the age of thirty-nine on May 21, 1931.

Columbia 15038-D was recorded on July 27, 1925 in New York, New York.  Sales figures have been reported as an astounding 102,451 copies.  It is Charlie Poole’s first released record, consisting of his third and fourth recorded sides.  The North Carolina Ramblers are Posey Rorer on fiddle, Norman Woodlieff on guitar, and of course Poole on the banjo.

First, Poole sings what could probably be considered the definitive recording of the old folk song “Can I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight Mister”.

Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister, recorded July 27, 1925 by Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers.

On the reverse, they play the classic “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues”—my personal favorite of the North Carolina Ramblers’ recordings—referring to the card game called “Georgia skin”, a game of chance popular in the South in those days, both for playing and singing about.

Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues, recorded July 27, 1925 by Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers.

Perfect 11580 – Miss Lee Morse and her Blue Grass Boys – 1925

The lovely Miss Lee Morse, pictured in a 1932 publication.

Long before Bill Monroe ever had his Blue Grass Boys, Lee Morse had him beat to the punch, though with music not remotely similar.  She sang, she yodeled, she played guitar—what’s not to love?

Lee Morse was born Lena Corinne Taylor on November 30, 1897 to to Pleasant John—a Texas Ranger-turned-traveling preacher—and Olive Taylor, the only girl of twelve children.  Her younger brother Glen would go on to be a U.S. Senator of Idaho and run for Vice President in 1948 on the Progressive ticket.  She was touted professionally for her Southern upbringing, but she was born Cove, Oregon, though her family did have roots south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  She made her professional debut in an Idaho movie house in 1918, and later sang at the 1920 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.   Thereafter, Morse was discovered by vaudeville big shot Will King, and left her domestic life behind for a career in show business, adopting “Lee Morse” as her professional name.  Though only five feet and under a hundred pounds, Morse possessed a deep singing voice—much like her younger contemporary Connie Boswell—which recorded well using the acoustical technology that preceded the advent of electric recording, and on her earliest records was credited as “Miss Lee Morse” to ensure that listeners would not confuse her for a male singer.  In 1923, Morse signed with Pathé and began making records, staying with them until switching to Columbia four years later.  On stage, she appeared in the musicals Hitchy-Koo of 1922, and Artists and Models in 1923.  She was slated to appear in 1930’s Simple Simon, but her alcoholism—a problem she may have developed in an effort to combat crippling stage fright—caused her to lose the part to Ruth Etting.  On the silver screen, Morse starred in three shorts, two Paramount: A Million Me’s [sic] and Song Service, and one Warner Bros.: The Music Racket, all in 1930.  Her career slowed down as the Great Depression killed off record sales, and she switched from Columbia to Bluebird in 1933, making two discs for the fledgling dimestore label, then to Decca in 1938, producing another two.  The rest of that decade was largely spent singing in nightclubs to make ends meet.  In the 1940s, Lee hosted a local radio program in Rochester, New York, and she made her final phonograph records for Decca in 1950.  Lee Morse died suddenly and unexpectedly on December 16, 1954.

Perfect 11580 was recorded on May 7, 1925 in New York City.  It was also issued on Pathé 25146.  These mid-1920s acoustic Pathé pressings are afflicted with a background rumble  as a result of their recording process, which entailed mastering it first on a large cylinder, then dubbing it to a disc.  I’ve tried to equalize out most of the rumble without detriment to the quality of the music, I hope the transfers will be pleasing to your ears.

First, Lee sings a jubilant rendition of a “roaring twenties” classic, Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson’s timeless “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”.  This is perhaps my personal favorite Lee Morse side, and certainly my favorite version of this song.

Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby, recorded May 7, 1925 by Miss Lee Morse and her Blue Grass Boys.

On the “B” side, Morse sings one of her own compositions, “An Old-Fashioned Romance”, and it’s a darn good one at that!  On top of that, what a fine orchestration, topped off with a nice little Chicago-style ride out at the end.  Morse recorded this tune again in 1927, after moving to Columbia Records.  In my opinion, this one is the better of the two.

An Old-Fashioned Romance, recorded May 7, 1925 by Miss Lee Morse and her Blue Grass Boys.

Victor 20502 – Ernest Rogers/Vernon Dalhart – 1927/1925

Ernest Rogers, as pictured in a 1930 Victor catalog.

It’s no secret that I have sort of a thing for obscure—but excellent—musical artists of the 1920s and ’30s (also em dashes, if you haven’t noticed).  One of my most enduring favorites within that category is Mr. Ernest Rogers.  (Funny how so many of my favorite people are named “Rogers”, or some variation on that!)

William Ernest Rogers was born on October 27, 1897 in Atlanta, Georgia.  He was crippled by infantile paralysis at the age of two, but that evidently didn’t slow him down.  He attended Emory University—where he was the champion debater, a member of the glee club, mandolin club, and literary society, and founder of the campus newspaper, the Emory Wheel—and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1920.  After college, Rogers found work as an editor, reporter, arts critic, and features writer for the Atlanta Journal, with whom he remained until 1962.  He married Bertha Turnipseed and they had one child, Wallace.  On the side, Ernest sang and played the guitar, and reportedly served as a performer and announcer on the Atlanta radio station WSB.  His repertoire consisted primarily of vaudevillian material, including such songs as “Steamboat Bill”, “Waitin’ for the ‘Robert E. Lee'”, and “Willie the Weeper”, as well as a few compositions of his own, like “My Red-Haired Lady” and “Let Me Be Your Man in the Moon”.  He made his first record for the Columbia Phonograph Company in January of 1925, during their second field trip to Atlanta, cutting two sides, which were issued.  Two years later, the Victor Talking Machine company brought their recording equipment to Atlanta, and Rogers cut another two sides.  Victor must’ve liked him, because he had two more sessions with them in May of ’27 and February of ’28, producing a further eight sides.  Of the twelve sides he recorded, all but two were released.  Following the culmination of his recording career, Ernest Rogers continued to have success in the literary world, publishing relatively successful books: The Old Hokum Bucket in 1949, and Peachtree Parade in 1956, both compilations of his newspaper columns.  Ernest Rogers died on October 9, 1967 in Atlanta.

An entirely different and unrelated Ernest Rogers recorded “Baby, Low Down, Oh, Low Down Dirty Dog” for John A. Lomax in Angola Prison Farm in July of 1934.

Victor 20502 was recorded in two quite separate sessions: the first side was at the Elyea Talking Machine Co. in Atlanta, Georgia on February 17, 1927, while the second was recorded almost two years earlier in New York City on June 25, 1925.  It was released in May of 1927, and remained Victor’s catalog all the way into 1944.

First, Ernest Rogers sings a classic vaudeville song by the name of “Willie the Weeper”, or in this case “Willie the Chimney Sweeper”.  You may notice more than a passing similarity to Cab Calloway’s famous “Minnie the Moocher”, which drew heavily on the song.  Rogers recorded “Willie the Weeper” at his first session for Columbia, as well—I’ve never heard that version, but I’d assume it’s much the same as this one.

Willie, the Chimney Sweeper, recorded February 17, 1927 by Ernest Rogers.

On the reverse, our ol’ pal Vernon Dalhart sings a perfectly solid rendition of another old vaudeville standby, “Casey Jones”, with Carson Robison on guitar, and harmonica and Jew’s harp played by Dalhart himself.  Say what you will about Dalhart, but this record—both sides—truly is a great piece of Americana.

Casey Jones, recorded June 25, 1925 by Vernon Dalhart.

Victor 19639 – Connie Boswell/Boswell Sisters – 1925

In 1925, the Boswell Sisters had made quite a name for themselves in their hometown of New Orleans.  Three years prior, they had won a talent contest for WAAB radio, which earned them a three day gig at the Palace Theatre.  They were regularly engaged around town, particularly at functions of the Young Men’s Gymnastic Club, whose promotive director had taken a shine to the Bozzies.  It was a YMGC function where the sisters were noticed by vaudeville headliners Van and Schenck, who were at the time playing at the Orpheum.  They loved the Boswells’ act, and promised to pull some strings in their favor when they returned to New York.  Very soon after that, they cut their first record.  E.T. King of the Victor Talking Machine Company was in town with mobile recording equipment, just in from Houston on the first such “field trip” they ever made (though not the first recording session held in New Orleans).  The Boswell Sisters were the first artists to record for Victor in New Orleans, they cut three sides, “You Can Call Me Baby All the Time”, “I’m Gonna Cry (The Cryin’ Blues)”, and “Pal o’ Mine” on March 22, 1925, followed by “Dad” and “Nights When I Am Lonely” on the 25th.  Only two of those five were issued.  Other artists to record on the historic New Orleans field trip were Tony Parenti’s Famous Melody Boys, Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra, and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.  Reportedly the Boswells’ record was mistaken for a “race” record, and as a result kept out of many record stores.  Nonetheless, the sisters were eager to head to Camden and cut a few more, though fate held them in New Orleans until 1928.

Victor 19639 was recorded on March 22 and 25, 1925 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  These recordings were made acoustically, shortly before Victor commenced mainstream electrical recording (though they had made several prior to these).  It is the Boswell Sisters first record, as well as their only record made in the 1920s.

Tragically, this record arrived in my possession broken in three pieces, the result of incompetent packing (one of the worst jobs I’ve ever seen), and can be seen on the “wall of shame” on Old Time Blues’ guide to packing 78s.  I couldn’t allow a record this rare and this great to remain in pieces however, so I set about repairing it.  After warming up by repairing two other broken discs, I carefully lined up the grooves, setting the pieces as tightly together as possible, and superglued the edges and run-out to hold it together.  Fortunately, it tracked, and played with clicks.  After transferring, I painstakingly removed every click the cracks caused, and equalized out the rest of the thumps.  The end result exceeded my every expectation of what this broken record could sound like.  A few slight clicks still remain, but I believe you’ll find that it sounds quite clean, all things considered (seeing as it has the equivalent of four cracks to the label in it).

First, in the style of her idol Mamie Smith, seventeen-year-old Connie belts out “I’m Gonna Cry (Cryin’ Blues)”, accompanied on piano by her sister Martha.  Young Vet joins in later on to help Connie vocally imitate a hot instrumental break.

I'm Gonna Cry (Cryin' Blues)

I’m Gonna Cry (Cryin’ Blues), recorded March 22, 1925 by Connie Boswell.

Next, all the sisters join in on “Nights When I Am Lonely”, which features the Bozzies’ trademark style of scat known as “-ggling” (that’s pronounced “gulling”).  On this side, they are accompanied on piano by Vitaly Lubowski, who had recorded the previous day with Tony Parenti’s Famous Melody Boys.

Nights When I Am Lonely

Nights When I Am Lonely, recorded March 25, 1925 by the Boswell Sisters.