Okeh 45057 – Dave Cutrell/Mc Ginty’s Oklahoma Cow Boy Band – 1926

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).

Victor 20122 – Carl T. Sprague – 1926

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.

Columbia 14194-D – “Peg Leg” Howell – 1926

One of the great heroes of the country blues (one of R. Crumb’s Heroes of the Blues, at least) is Peg Leg Howell, a musician holding the great distinction of being among the earliest male country blues artists to make records.

Joshua Barnes Howell was born on a farm in Eatonton, Georgia on March 5, 1888, placing him in an older generation of blues songsters to record, alongside the likes of Lead Belly, Jim Jackson, and Henry Thomas.  He learned to play guitar when he was twenty-one, but continued to work on the farm until his disgruntled brother-in-law blew off his right leg with a shotgun (hence the nickname “Peg Leg”).  Thereafter, Howell found work in a fertilizer plant, and later began running bootleg liquor, which landed him in jail in 1925.  After he got out, an A&R man for Columbia Records heard him playing on Decatur Street in Atlanta, and he was invited to cut a record while they were in town.  He recorded a total of four sides on November 8, 1926, amounting to two records.  Howell returned to the Columbia microphone for a further seven sessions between April of 1927 and April of 1929 when the company made field trips to Atlanta, making for another eleven solo sides, eight with his “Gang” consisting of Howell with fiddler Eddie Anthony and guitarist Henry Williams, four with mandolin player Jim Hill, two with Anthony alone, and another two with another fiddler who may have been Ollie Griffin.  He probably also appeared on two additional sides accompanying Waymon “Sloppy” Henry on Okeh in August of ’28, and may have been the unidentified “Tampa Joe” to Eddie Anthony’s “Macon Ed” on another eight sides; if so, it would stretch Howell’s recording career another year into December of 1930.  Following his last record date, Howell continued to play around Atlanta, and went back to bootlegging.  Howell laid his guitar down in 1934 following the death of his friend and frequent musical collaborator Eddie Anthony, and he returned to bootlegging liquor.  In 1952, his other leg was lost to “sugar diabetes.”  Howell was rediscovered eleven years later by a trio of young blues aficionados and researchers—George Mitchell, Roger Brown, and Jack Boozer—who convinced him to make a few more recordings.  After a little practice to get himself back in playing condition, Howell recorded ten final sides for a Testament LP in 1964, including several “re-does” of his old 1920s recordings.  Peg Leg Howell died in Atlanta on August 11, 1966, at the age of seventy-eight.

Columbia 14194-D was recorded on November 8, 1926 in Atlanta, Georgia by “Peg Leg” Howell, accompanying himself on the guitar.  These are Peg Leg Howell’s first two recorded sides, and his second issued record.

First up, Peg Leg sings and plays in Spanish (open G) tuning on the classic “Coal Man Blues”, his first recorded side, and one of his best in my book.  This was one of the ten sides Howell re-recorded in his old age.

Coal Man Blues, recorded November 8, 1926 by “Peg Leg” Howell.

Next, Howell’s “Tishamingo Blues” bears an early utterance of those immortal words “I’m goin’ to Tishomingo to have my hambone boiled; these Atlanta women done let my hambone spoil,” that have come to pervade the blues vernacular from Cab Calloway to Milton Brown, albeit with “Tishomingo” changed to “Chicago” and “Cowtown”, respectively.  Note that while this song is almost entirely different from Spencer Williams’ 1917 “Tishomingo Blues”, it does recycle Williams’ “I’m going to Tishomingo; because I’m sad today” lyric.

Tishamingo Blues, recorded November 8, 1926 by “Peg Leg” Howell.

Victor 20293 & 20507 – Five Harmaniacs – 1926/1927

Styling themselves as cowboys, the Five Harmaniacs were a novelty jug band that had a short-lived but apparently successful run on vaudeville in the middle part of the 1920s.  During that run, they also made a series of recordings for a number of companies in 1926 and ’27.  The group cut their first side, titled “Harmaniac Blues”, in Chicago for Paramount in June of ’26 as the Harmaniac Five.  They followed with four sides for Victor, two for Brunswick, two for Edison, and one for Gennett, all of them recorded in New York.  They also made radio appearances across the United States.

There is conflicting information surrounding the identities of the members of the Five Harmaniacs.  Brian Rust lists Claude Shugart as the jug and washboard player, Jerry Adams on comb, Percy Stoner on kazoo and banjo, with Wade Hampton Durand, Walter Howard, and Ned Nestor filling out the rest of the band, each taking some part on banjo, guitar, harmonica, and ukulele.  The 1978 LP release The Five Harmaniacs – 1926-27 (Puritan 3004) lists an entirely different personnel including Syd Newman on harmonica, kazoo, and washboard, Dave Robertson on harmonica and washboard, Roy King on banjo, ukulele, and jug, Jerry Adams on comb, Walter Howard on guitar, and Claude Shugart on ukulele. Claude Shugart is incorrectly identified in some sources as Clyde, and Wade Durand (incorrectly) as Wayne.  The Mainspring Press asserts that “the usual members of this group were Jerry Adams, Hampton Durand, Walter Howard, Ned Nestor, Clyde Shugart, and Percy Stoner,” with that information apparently recorded in Brunswick ledgers from their session with that company.

C. Shugart is listed as the vocalist on the label of “Sadie Green Vamp of New Orleans”, confirming his presence in the Harmaniacs.  He may have also played kazoo and possibly banjo.  Rust’s identification of Shugart as playing jug is likely incorrect, as jug can be heard during his vocal on “Sadie Green”.  It is also certain that Walter Howard was the vocalist on “What Makes My Baby Cry?”, and surviving evidence indicates that he played the guitar as well.  With Jerry Adams listed on comb in both sources, he most likely did in fact fill that role, and may have doubled on banjo.  It would not have been uncommon in this type of band for each member to have played more than one instrument, and they may have switched back and forth periodically.  As all sources confirm Howard, Shugart, and Adams as members, there is little evidence to cast doubt on their presence, but the identities of the other members are unconfirmed, at least in my research.

Walter Howard was born in 1897 and hailed from Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.  His brother Edgar, who played banjo, was also a musician of some merit.  Wade Hampton Durand was born in Indiana in 1877, and was working in music as early as the turn of the century.  In 1918, he worked as a musical director in Los Angeles, and by 1940, he was an arranger in New York, living in a hotel that played host to a host of other musicians.  Durand died in 1964.  While Durand is confirmed as the co-composer of “Coney Island Washboard” and “Sleepy Blues”, his instrumental role in the Harmaniacs, if any, is uncertain.  It has also been posited that Jerry Adams real name was Harold Whitacre.

The two discs, four sides, featured in this post account for the Five Harmaniacs’ full recorded output for the Victor Talking Machine Company.

Victor 20293 was recorded September 17, 1926 in New York City.  C. Shugart (be it Clyde or Claude) provides the vocals on pop hit “Sadie Green Vamp of New Orleans”.

Sadie Green Vamp of New Orleans, recorded September 17, 1926 by the Five Harmaniacs.

On the other side, they play the first ever recording of the now classic “Coney Island Washboard”, composed by Durand and Adams, with words by Shugart and Ned Nestor, as an instrumental.

Coney Island Washboard, recorded September 17, 1926 by the Five Harmaniacs.

The Harmaniacs returned to the Victor studio five months later and recorded Victor 20507 on February 5, 1927.  Walter Howard recites the vocal on the rollicking “What Makes My Baby Cry?”,

What Makes My Baby Cry?, recorded February 8, 1927 by the Five Harmaniacs.

On the flip, they back it up with the little bit bluer sounding instrumental “It Takes a Good Woman (To Keep a Good Man at Home)”.

It Takes a Good Woman (To Keep a Good Man at Home), recorded February 8, 1927 by the Five Harmaniacs.

Updated on December 1, 2016, June 24, 2017, and April 29, 2018.

Vocalion 15498 – Red Nichols and his Five Pennies – 1926

Red Nichols, late 1930s/early 1940s. Down Beat photo by Gordon Sullivan.

Red Nichols, late 1930s/early 1940s. Down Beat photo by Gordon Sullivan.

The eighth of May, 2016 marks exactly 111 years after the birth of jazz cornetist Red Nichols.  Nichols was one of the most popular and prolific jazz musicians of the roaring twenties.  I believe this disc was his first record with his famous “Five Pennies.”

Loring “Red” Nichols was born May 8, 1905 in Ogden, Utah.  Nichols took up the cornet, the primary “jazz” instrument of the day, and was a child prodigy.  Nichols joined a Midwestern jazz band in the early 1920s, and moved on to New York by 1923.  In New York, he met trombonist Miff Mole, with whom he played for many years.  In 1926, Nichols signed with the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, and recorded prolifically with his band, the “Five Pennies,” which often consisted of some of the best white jazz musicians in New York.  Although his records were among the best-selling hot jazz records of the 1920s, musical styles began to change as the Great Depression rolled in, and Brunswick dropped Nichols in 1932.  He continued to record throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, but never saw such fame as he had known in his days of yore.  In 1959, Danny Kaye starred in The Five Pennies, a biographical picture loosely based on Nichols’ life.  At the end of his life, Red Nichols played in Las Vegas, where he died of a heart attack in 1965.

Vocalion 15498 was recorded December 8, 1926 in New York City by Red Nichols and his Five Pennies.  It was also issued on Brunswick 3407 and in the “race” series on Vocalion 1069.  The band includes Nichols on cornet, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet and alto sax, Arthur Schutt on piano, Eddie Lang on guitar, and Vic Berton on the drums.  Though many of his “Five Pennies” groups were actually much larger, this one is true to its name.

First, the Five Pennies play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Washboard Blues”, a different take than the one released on Brunswick.  We last heard this tune as it was sung by the lovely Connie Boswell seven years after this side was cut.

Washboard Blues, recorded December 8, 1926 by Red Nichols and his Five Pennies.

Washboard Blues, recorded December 8, 1926 by Red Nichols and his Five Pennies.

Nichols’ composition “That’s No Bargain” is a sizzling hot side marred only by some stressed grooves during a loud section in the middle.  Fine modernistic jazz.

That's No Bargain, recorded December 8, 1926 by Red Nichols and his Five Pennies.

That’s No Bargain, recorded December 8, 1926 by Red Nichols and his Five Pennies.