Vocalion 1111 – Furry Lewis – 1927

There are some folks who say that seeing two “elevens” in a row holds some special or otherworldly significance.  Well, I don’t claim to know a thing about that, but I would say that this record does little to refute that proposition, for it constitutes the earliest musical document of a man who would in later years become one of the most beloved ambassadors of the blues during the its latter-day revival: Furry Lewis.

Walter E. Lewis is said to have been born on the sixth of March, likely in 1899 (as suggested by the U.S. Census of 1900), though the man himself claimed to have been born in 1893, and many (older) sources agree with that date.  He hailed originally from the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, but grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was nicknamed “Furry” from a young age for reasons now lost to time.  It was probably around the same time that he took up music, starting out on a homemade cigar box guitar.  He claimed that his first “proper” instrument was given to him by the Father of the Blues himself: W.C. Handy.  In his youth, Furry took to a life of hoboing, which cost him his left leg in 1917, after he got it caught in a coupling between train cars in an ill-fated attempt to ride the blinds.  Thereafter, he returned home to Memphis and played around Beale Street.  Sometime in the early 1920s, Furry encountered songster extraordinaire Jim Jackson, who hooked him up with a job performing in Dr. Willie Lewis’s traveling medicine show.

In April of 1927, Furry traveled to Chicago to cut his first two-and-a-half records (and one unissued side) for Vocalion, who promoted him as singing “blues in a real Southern style.” He returned there in October of the same year to make three more records, plus an unreleased recording of “Casey Jones Blues”.  Finally, when the Victor Talking Machine Company made one of their excursions south, Furry cut eight more sides at the Memphis Auditorium on August 28, 1928, which included some of his finest and best known works.  Though not the most sophisticated of guitar players, he was a master of his own style with relaxed competence, and his natural showmanship, combined with exceptional diction and an amiable personality, made him a magnetic performer.  A career in music did not put food on Furry’s table however, and he spent most of his life in obscurity, working odd jobs for the city of Memphis, primarily as a street sweeper.  He still played music professionally—if only part time—at least as late as 1940, at which time he was enumerated by the U.S. Census in Missouri as a forty-four-year-old musician working for the “carnival”, and married to a blues singer by the name of Anny Mae Bell (though in later years he was quoted as saying “what do I need with a wife as long as the other man’s got one”).

In 1952, Harry Smith included Lewis’s two-part Victor recording of “Kassie Jones” in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music, and when the white folks at large finally came around to appreciating the musical merits of the Afro-American blues during the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early ’60s, Furry was among the first of the drove of still-living bluesmen of the genre’s first generation on records to be “rediscovered” (though really he was there all along).  He was recorded in his Memphis home by Samuel B. Charters in 1959, resulting in a Folkways LP which bring him into a greater spotlight than he had ever known before.  As his style of music enjoyed a surge of popularity the likes of which it had never known before, Furry rose to a position of stardom that exceeded that of his contemporaries; while most of the rediscovered blues greats mostly found their greatest success at folk music festivals and such affairs, Furry’s fame brought him a guest spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1974 and a small role in the 1975 Burt Reynolds movie W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, and he opened for the Rolling Stones on two occasions.  After enjoying his newfound fame for more than a decade, Furry Lewis died in Memphis of heart failure, complicated by pneumonia, on September 14, 1981.

Vocalion 1111 was recorded on April 20, 1927 in Chicago, Illinois.  Furry Lewis accompanies himself on his own guitar on side “A”, but on “B” is instead accompanied by Landers Waller on guitar and Charles Johnson on mandolin (one of whom can be heard in the background making comments).

Though some discographies suggest otherwise, the guitar playing on “Rock Island Blues” is unmistakably Furry’s own handiwork, and the melody closely mirrors that of his “Furry’s Blues” and “Good Looking Girl Blues”.

Rock Island Blues, recorded April 20, 1927 by Furry Lewis.

On the “B” side, Johnson’s mandolin and Waller’s guitar lend an entirely different atmosphere to “Everybody’s Blues”.

Everybody’s Blues, recorded April 20, 1927 by Furry Lewis.

Paramount 12565 – Blind Blake – 1927

Blind Blake was one of the most prolific male blues artists of the 1920s, and one of the most skilled guitarists of all time, yet today details about his life and times are even scarcer than his records.  He turned up in Chicago, recorded one-hundred-and-twenty-some-odd sides, both solo and as an accompanist, then disappeared from sight of the prying eyes of history.  Even among his contemporaries, Blind Blake seemed to be something of an enigma, though they universally hailed his musical abilities.  With all the mystery surrounding Blake, all that is certainly clear is that his virtuosity was second-to-none.

Blind Blake, as pictured in The Paramount Book of Blues, 1927.  A cropped version of the only known photograph of him.

Arthur Blake, misidentified by some sources—including Blind Willie McTell—as Arthur Phelps, was born, reportedly, in 1896.  Paramount’s 1927 Book of Blues stated that he hailed from “Jacksonville, in sunny Florida,” but his death certificate placed his birth in Newport News, Virginia.  Either way, it is probable that Florida served as his home for a large portion of his life.  Whether or not he was born blind is also the subject of speculation; the aforementioned Book of Blues suggested as much, but some have proposed that he was born sighted, but or developed his condition later in life (perhaps as a result of some bad bootleg).  Purportedly on the recommendation of a Florida record dealer, Blake traveled to Chicago and made his recording debut for Paramount Records in July of 1926, accompanying singer Leola B. Wilson, and cut his first solo record a month later: “Early Morning Blues” and “West Coast Blues” appearing on Paramount 12387.  He was noted for his ability to play a guitar like a piano, capable of producing intricate fingerpicked ragtime melodies with a Charleston rhythm—exemplified in such pieces as his tour de force “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown” (Paramount 12892)—and indeed he was also a skilled pianist, though he only demonstrated that ability on one recording: “Let Your Love Come Down”, accompanying Bertha Henderson.  Alongside Blind Lemon Jefferson and Papa Charlie Jackson, Blake became one of the most successful male blues artists on Paramount’s roster, and he collaborated periodically with other artists such as Gus Cannon on titles like “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home” and “My Money Never Runs Out” (Paramount 12588 and 12604), Charlie Spand on the stomping boogie-woogie “Hastings St.” (Paramount 12863), Charlie Jackson on “Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It” (Paramount 12911), and jazz clarinetist Johnny Dodds on several sides including “C.C. Pill Blues” (Paramount 12634).  Blake concluded his recording career with “Champagne Charlie is My Name” and “Depression’s Gone from Me Blues”, the latter set to the popular melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”, recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin around June of 1932 and released on Paramount 13137.  To add further mystery, there is question as to whether the performer of “Champagne Charlie is My Name” actually is Blake at all, or some unknown artist masquerading under his name (personally, I’m under the impression that it probably is Blake, though it is below his usual quality; maybe he was hitting the bottle that day).  Not long after that last session, Paramount Records folded, and Blake never recorded again.  He remained in Wisconsin in the 1930s, living in Brewer’s Hill in Milwaukee with his wife Beatrice, though he was unable to find work during the hard times of the Great Depression.  Blake fell ill with pneumonia in 1933 and died from complications of tuberculosis on December 1, 1934.

Blind Blake’s virtuoso ragtime guitar playing served as a major influence on subsequent generations of blues guitarists, particularly on the style of blues playing that has since come to be associated with the Piedmont, and he exerted a direct influence on more than a few prominent musicians hailing from that region, including Blind Boy Fuller, Josh White, and Buddy Moss, as well as—directly and indirectly—on countless other musicians from around the United States, and even abroad, in the decades since.  Renowned guitarist Rev. Blind Gary Davis drew considerable inspiration from Blake, and once mused that he “ain’t never heard anybody on a record yet beat Blind Blake on guitar.  [He liked] Blake because he plays right sporty.”  In later years, Gus Cannon later recalled that Blake “could see more with his blind eyes than [Cannon] with [his] two good ones.”  Georgia Tom Dorsey remembered Blake as “a good worker and a nice fellow to get along with.”  Race records executive J. Mayo Williams stated that Blake “liked to get drunk and fight.”

Paramount 12565 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, in November and October of 1927, respectively.  It also appeared on Broadway 5053 under the pseudonym “Blind George Martin”.  On side “A”, Blake is accompanied on banjo by Gus Cannon, who was recording for Paramount at the time as “Banjo Joe”, and in fact it is Cannon’s first recording.  Alas, the record is afflicted by a condition endemic to these Paramounts; though not in particularly poor condition and the music is mostly clear and undistorted, poor pressing quality and decades of less-than-optimal storage have resulted in a high level of surface noise behind the music.  To make things worse, both sides were recorded at a rather low volume.  As such, both sides are most assuredly audible (and even enjoyable to my desensitized ears), but I apologize for not being able to offer better quality sound.

First, Blake sings the medicine show favorite “He’s in the Jail House Now”, later popularized by Jimmie Rodgers’ two landmark recordings, though I would consider Blake’s version here to be the definitive.  Other notable versions of the vaudeville staple were recorded by Whistler’s Jug Band in 1924, Earl McDonald’s Louisville Jug Band in 1927, Jim Jackson in 1928, Boyd Senter’s Senterpedes in 1929, the Memphis Jug Band and Bill Bruner, the latter of which drew both on Rodgers and Blake’s versions, in 1930, Eliot Everett’s Orchestra in 1932, and Billy Mitchell in 1936, not counting outright copies of Rodgers’ rendition by the likes of Gene Autry and Frankie Marvin, and the song remains popular on the roots music scene today, with performances by such artists as Dom Flemons and Pokey LaFarge.

He’s in the Jail House Now, recorded c. November 1927 by Blind Blake.

On the reverse, another of Blake’s best, he shows off his guitar-playing prowess on “Southern Rag”, punctuated by spoken interjections in Geechee dialect.  “Now we goin’ on an old Southern r… rag!”

Southern Rag, recorded c. October 1927 by Blind Blake.

Okeh 8480 – Sylvester Weaver – 1927

Blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver bears the tremendous distinction of not only being an outstanding musician, but also a pioneer in the field of recorded blues, with his historic records impressing on artists so far and wide as Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys.

Sylvester Weaver was born on July 25 in either 1896 or ’97, in Louisville, Kentucky.  Most details surrounding his early life are lost to the march of time, but it is quite conceivable that he might have been involved in the rich jug band culture surrounding Louisville, which included groups led by Earl McDonald and Buford Threlkeld, better known as Whistler.  In 1923, he traveled to New York City with blues singer and fellow Louisvillian Sara Martin, who had been recording successfully for Okeh Records since the previous year.  With Martin, Weaver recorded on October 24, 1923 what may have been the earliest vocal blues backed by a single guitar.  He followed with his own first solo record the next month: the instrumentals “Guitar Rag” and “Guitar Blues”, which some suggest comprise the first country blues record by a male artist; though that position is contested, they probably are the earliest solo “country” blues guitar instrumentals, and they without question made an indelible mark on musical history.  Weaver ultimately recorded twenty-five or twenty-six sides between 1923 and ’25, sometimes in New York, sometimes in St. Louis and Atlanta when Okeh made field trips to those cities, before taking a hiatus from his recording career.  His triumphant return came in April of 1927, when he returned to New York with Sara Martin once again to make another series of records.  He continued to record throughout the rest of that year, sometimes joined by fellow guitarist Walter Beasley, and often in accompaniment of singers like Martin or Helen Humes, as well as waxing a few vocal takes of his own.  But in spite of his recording success, at the end of 1927, Sylvester Weaver returned home to Louisville, soon fading back behind the same veil of obscurity that surrounded his early years, and he died there on April 4, 1960.

Okeh 8480 was recorded on April 13 and 12, 1927, respectively, in New York City.  It was released that September.  Both sides are instrumental guitar solos by Sylvester Weaver.

Firstly, Weaver plays his famous “Guitar Rag”, his second recording of the signature piece—the original having been made in 1923—that would later form the basis for Leon McAuliffe’s even more famous “Steel Guitar Rag” as recorded by Bob Wills in 1936.

Guitar Rag, recorded April 13, 1927 by Sylvester Weaver.

On the rather unusually titled rag piece “Damfino Stump”, Weaver plays six-string banjo-guitar, lending to a rather Papa Charlie Jackson-esque sound.  One wonders if perhaps it was meant to be titled “Stomp” rather than “Stump”, though I prefer the latter, personally.

Damfino Stump, recorded April 12, 1927 by Sylvester Weaver.

Columbia 14258-D – Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band – 1927

Of all the hundreds of bands to record jazz, there were only a relative handful that stayed home in New Orleans instead of traveling away to Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York, and were recorded playing what might be described as pure, unadulterated jazz, perhaps akin to what was played by the legendary Buddy Bolden’s band.  Among the New Orleans hometown bands were those of Armand J. Piron, “Papa” Oscar Celestin, and among the finest of them all, Sam Morgan.

In spite of Morgan’s excellence in music, not much is known about his life.  He was born in Bertrandville, Louisiana in the late part of the nineteenth century—most sources state 1895, others offer the date of December 18, 1887.  Part of a musical family, his younger brothers Isaiah “Ike”, Al, and Andrew also turned out to be musicians.  Sam, like his brother Ike and so many New Orleans greats, took up the cornet.  Morgan grew up playing in the brass bands in Plaquemines Parish, and took up residence in New Orleans in the mid-1910s, where he became the director of the Magnolia Brass Band.  A stroke around 1925 forced a year of convalescence, but he soon returned to music as a member of Ike’s band, the leadership of which soon became his own.  With a sound characterized by a strong reed section at the forefront and a walking bass plucked out on the bullfiddle, Morgan’s band became a popular group in the Crescent City, as Morgan touted in his verse of the eponymous song: “ev’rybody’s talkin’ ’bout Sammy, ’cause Morgan’s got the best go here” (or something to that effect, he’s rather hard to understand).  Their repertoire consisted of both hot jazz tunes like “Mobile Stomp” and “Bogalousa Strut” (both of which incidentally drew their names from nearby towns) and traditional hymns and negro spirituals like “Over in the Glory Land” and “Down By the Riverside”.  On the side, Morgan ran some kind of a treasure-hunting service.  When the Columbia Phonograph Company made a field trip to New Orleans in April of 1927, Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band cut four sides at Werlein’s Music Store, followed by another four that October.  Morgan continued to lead his band until 1932, when he suffered a second stroke that put him out of music permanently.  Following several years of ill health, Sam Morgan died on February 25, 1936.

Columbia 14258-D—in the “race” series—was recorded on April 14, 1927 at Werlein’s Music Store on Canal Street in New Orleans.  The band consists of Sam Morgan and Isaiah “Ike” Morgan on cornets, Big Jim Robinson on trombone, Earl Fouche on alto sax, Andrew Morgan on clarinet and tenor sax, Tink Baptiste on piano, Johnny Davis on banjo, Sidney Brown on string bass, and Nolan Williams on drums.

On the first side—also the first recorded at Morgan’s first session—is “Steppin’ On the Gas”, a different piece than the 1925 tune of the same name that Jimmie O’Bryant recorded for Paramount.

Steppin’ On the Gas, recorded April 14, 1927 by Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band.

On the reverse, they play another hot Sam Morgan composition: “Mobile Stomp”.

Mobile Stomp, recorded April 14, 1927 by Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band.

Okeh 45114 – Frank Hutchison – 1927

The last time we heard from the “Pride of West Virginia”—our old pal Frank Hutchison—he gave us two fine songs, joined on one by Sherman Lawson on fiddle.  Now let’s hear from Frank again with two of his most famous performances, played on slide guitar.

Willis Franklin Hutchison was born most probably on March 20, 1897 in Beckley, Raleigh County, West Virginia, but soon relocated to Logan County.  He later dedicated his “Logan County Blues”—a re-working of the tune called “Spanish Fandango”—to that location, in which he spent most of his life.  He learned the blues from local black musicians, and was an excellent guitarist, playing in regular style and flat on his lap using a pocketknife as a slide, and also possessed formidable skill on harmonica.  Like fellow folk musician “Dock” Boggs, Hutchison made his living as a coal miner, and only musicianed on the side.  He was said to have been a large (but slim) fellow with red hair and an extroverted personality, and reportedly walked with a limp, likely a result of an injury in the mines.  In September of 1926, Hutchison became one of the pre-Bristol sessions “hillbilly” musicians on records when he traveled to New York City for a session with the Okeh record company, producing in that session but a single disc.  That was not to be all for Frank Hutchison however, he returned to the city to record again in January of the next year, producing his notable rendition of “Stackalee” included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and eight other titles.  Thereafter, he continued to record for Okeh, in New York and “on location”, until 1929, ultimately leaving a legacy of more than forty recorded sides in all.  After the conclusion of his recording career, Hutchison moved from Logan County to Ohio, but soon settled in the small town of Lake, West Virginia, where he worked as postmaster and operated a store.  A fire claimed Hutchison’s property in 1942, after which he moved to Dayton, Ohio, reputedly entertaining on riverboats.  Frank Hutchison died from liver disease on November 9, 1945.  He was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2018, seventy-three years after his passing.

Okeh 45114 was recorded on April 29, 1927 in St. Louis, Missouri by Frank Hutchison.  It’s worthy of note that both sides are remakes of his first two sides, which were recorded acoustically on September 28, 1926 and released on Okeh 45064.  In my opinion as well as that, I’m sure, of many others, these sides are considerably better and more polished performances than that original record, in addition to being unquestionably superior quality recordings, technically speaking.

First, Hutchison plays what may well be his most famous song, which earned him the scholarly recognition of being one of the earliest white musicians to play the country blues: “Worried Blues”.

Worried Blues, recorded April 29, 1927 by Frank Hutchison.

On the other side, Frank plays another one of his finest, the classic “The Train That Carried the Girl From Town”.  “Breakfast on the table, coffee’s gettin’ cold, some old rounder stole my jelly roll.”

The Train That Carried the Girl From Town, recorded April 29, 1927 by Frank Hutchison.