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.

Broadway 8089 – Georgia Melody Boys – 1927

There were some artists of yesteryear who created a truly unique sound, and made music that was without parallel (for better or for worse).  Names like Washington Phillips—who played what he called a “manzarene”, possibly two modified zithers played simultaneously, to accompany his sanctified singing—come to mind.  In this case (partly because I don’t have any of Mr. Phillips’ records), we’ll look at the Golden Melody Boys, a truly obscure duo whose sound was aptly characterized by Tony Russell as “a bubbling sixteen-string polyphony.”  While I count eighteen (the American tiple has ten strings), they certainly made music like no other that I am aware of.

The Golden Melody Boys—Dempsy “Demps” Jones and Philip Featherstonhaugh (or “Featherstonehaugh”, or “Featherstone”)—were a musical duo hailing from Ceder Rapids, Iowa.  Demps was born on November 9, 1890 in Fountain Run, Kentucky; Phil on November 4, 1892 in Illinois.  Phil could play a mean mandolin, and Demps was skilled on guitar, banjo, and the rather out-of-the-ordinary tiple.  Aside from their musical proclivities, Dempsy was the Linn County Recorder, and worked variously on the side as a baseball player, a newspaperman, in construction, and for Quaker Oats.  Phil, apparently, was more or less of a bootlegger.  They were playing together as early as 1925, and played on Earl May’s KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, as well as a number of other stations.  They made their recording debut in October of 1927 for the New York Recording Laboratories (makers of Paramount, Broadway) in Chicago, and cut a total of eighteen sides for them over the following year, all of which but one were released.  Dempsy followed up with six solo re-recordings of earlier titles for the Starr Piano Company (for their Champion and Superior labels) on November 19, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana.  Jones stayed in Iowa, starting a family band in the 1930s which apparently continued all the way into the days of television, while Featherstonhaugh moved west.  Jones died on April 10, 1963 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Featherstonhaugh on March 1, 1969 in Beaumont, California.  As of late, their “Gonna Have ‘Lasses in de Mornin'” made its way into PBS’s grand project American Epic.

Broadway 8089 was recorded circa October of 1927 in Chicago, Illinois.  The Golden Melody Boys (here under the rather thin pseudonym “Georgia Melody Boys”) consist of Demps on tiple and Phil on mandolin.  Demps provides the vocals.  It was their first released record, and was also issued on Paramount 3068.  Jones recorded both these songs again in their 1931 Gennett session.

“My grandfather’s hat was too big for his head, it was caused by drinking Milwaukee beer,” is the first line in “The Old Tobacco Mill” (a parody of the old “My Grandfather’s Clock”), and is just the sort of whimsical, often nonsensical lyrics that characterize the bulk of the Golden Melody Boys’ recorded output.

The Old Tobacco Mill, recorded October, 1927 by the Georgia Melody Boys.

On “The Cross Eyed Butcher”, we’re treated to two stories for the price of one, first that ot the titular butcher, then of a fellow’s dental follies, with a nice little instrumental break in-between.  Demps’s vocals rather remind me of Frank Crumit, who—incidentally—was also a tiple player.

The Cross Eyed Butcher, recorded October, 1927 by the Georgia Melody Boys.

Brunswick 7000 – Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band – 1927

One of the most dominant figures in jazz music in the 1920s—alongside the likes of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson—was Clarence Williams, who had his finger in just about every pie there was in the world of music for more than a decade in the 1920s and ’30s.

Clarence Williams was born on October 8, 1893 (though some sources suggest 1898, it has been suggested that that was fabricated for “vanity” purposes), in Plaquemine, Louisiana, of Creole and Choctaw descent.  He began singing and playing piano at a young age, and ran off to join Billy Kersand’s minstrels at the age of twelve.  He later settled in New Orleans, where he played professionally, and began composing songs, starting a music publishing company with fellow jazz musician Armand J. Piron.  A few of his many noted compositions include “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home”, the “Royal Garden Blues”, and “Shout, Sister, Shout”.  Williams and Piron later started a touring vaudeville act, which brought him in to contact with W.C. Handy, who invited to duo to join him in an Atlanta concert.  In 1921, Williams moved to Chicago and opened a music store, and the following year married blues singer Eva Taylor, with whom he frequently collaborated.  Williams first recorded a pair of vocal sides for Okeh in September of 1921, which were unissued, but he soon followed with more successful session the next month, producing four recordings, all of which were released.  From then on, he recorded extensively, often as an accompanist for blues singers, such as Bessie Smith or his wife Eva Taylor, or as leader of studio groups such as his “Blue Five”, “Washboard Band”, “Jug Band”, or “Jazz Kings”.  The bulk of his recordings were made for Okeh, Columbia, and Vocalion, but he also appeared on Bluebird, Brunswick, and numerous other labels.  During the 1920s, Williams was supervisor of “race” records for Okeh.  With his hand in virtually every facet of the music industry, Williams became one of the most commercially successful and influential people in jazz.  He continued to record fairly prolifically throughout the 1930s, up until his retirement in 1943, at which point he sold his back-catalog to Decca Records.  Clarence Williams died in Queens, New York on November 6, 1965.  He was survived by his wife, Eva Taylor, who passed in 1977.

Brunswick 7000 was recorded on March 8, 1927 in New York City.  It was the first record released in Brunswick’s 7000-series of “race” records, before their signature “lightning bolt” styled label was introduced.  Williams’ Washboard Band was made up of Ed Allen on cornet, Carmelo Jari (or Jejo) on clarinet, Clarence Williams on piano, and Floyd Casey on washboard.  Clarence Lee sings the vocals.  Different takes of both sides were released on Vocalion 1088.

First up is the train-themed “P.D.Q. Blues”, played slow.

P.D.Q. Blues, recorded March 8, 1927 by Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band.

Next, they play a stomp, the “Cushion Foot Stomp”, to be precise.

Cushion Foot Stomp, recorded March 8, 1927 by Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band.

Victor 20715 – Frank Crumit – 1927

Frank Crumit with tiple. As pictured in The Eveready Book of Radio Stars.  Circa 1932.

I like Frank Crumit.  He was a consummate vaudevillian with a pleasant voice and proficient with all manner of stringed instruments—and he made great music.  His favorite food was gravy.  So it seems only appropriate that Old Time Blues pay tribute to him and his distinguished body of work sooner or later.

Crumit was born on September 26, 1889 in Jackson, Ohio, son of Mary and Frank, Sr.  He made his stage debut in a minstrel show at only five years old.  He received a degree in electrical engineering from Ohio University, but left that career behind when in 1912, the opportunity of becoming a singer with Paul Biese’s orchestra presented itself.  Before long, Crumit struck out as a vaudeville star of his own, billed as the “One-Man Glee Club”.  Throughout the 1910s and ’20s, he starred in musical shows like Betty, Be Good, Greenwich Village Follies of 1920, and Tangerine.  Working on Tangerine, he met Julia Sanderson, who was starring in the show, and (though both were married) it was love at first sight.  The two later divorced their respective spouses and married in 1927.  Crumit made his first recording for the Columbia Phonograph Company in December of 1919, “My Gal”, appearing on the reverse of Al Jolson’s “Swanee” (Columbia A2884).  He remained with Columbia until 1923, when he switched to Victor, with whom he stayed until moving to Decca in 1934.  Among his plentiful song successes were “A Gay Caballero”, “The Song of the Prune”, “Abdul Abulbul Amir”, and “I Married the Bootlegger’s Daughter”.  As radio became the nation’s favorite form of entertainment, Crumit’s recording career took a backseat as he and wife Sanderson ascended to radio stardom as “the ideal couple of the air.”  As record sales dragged during the Great Depression, the Crumits remained one of the most popular acts on the air, hosting such programs as the Blackstone Plantation and the quiz show The Battle of the Sexes.  Frank Crumit died suddenly of a heart attack on September 7, 1943, one day after what was to be his final radio show was broadcast.

Victor 20715 was recorded on May 11 and April 8, 1927, respectively, in New York City.  It was released in August of ’27, and, like a number of Crumit’s records, remained in the catalog until 1944.  On the “A” side, Crumit is accompanied by Andy Sannella on clarinet and Nat Shilkret on piano.  Crumit accompanies himself on guitar on both sides (this is unconfirmed by the DAHR for the second side, but seems most likely).

First, Crumit does a fabulous take on the folk song “Frankie and Johnnie”, with a hot little ensemble accompanying.  This is my personal favorite version of the song, surpassing even Jimmie Rodgers’ famous rendition.  Outstanding performance.

Frankie and Johnnie, recorded May 11, 1927 by Frank Crumit.

Next, Crumit sings one of his more famous tunes, and another of my favorites, the 1877 music hall song “Abdul Abulbul Amir”.  This song’s success inspired Crumit to follow up with “The Return of Abdul Abulbul Amir” and “The Grandson of Abdul Abulbul Amir”.  The song’s popularity persisted into the 1940s, and in 1941, Crumit wrote revised lyrics for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cartoon Abdul the Bulbul-Ameer.

Abdul Abulbul Amir, recorded April 8, 1927 by Frank Crumit.

Vocalion 1094 – Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas” – 1927

An  advertisement for “Cottonfield Blues”, as reprinted in The Devil’s Music, 1976.

One of the great figures of country blues, one of those who have attained a near legendary status, is Henry Thomas, also known by the nickname “Ragtime Texas”.  One of the oldest rural black musicians to record (though probably not the oldest—Daddy Stovepipe was purported to have been born seven years earlier), Thomas predated contemporary songsters like Jim Jackson, Lead Belly, and Charley Patton as well as many fellow Texas musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and “Texas” Alexander.

Henry Thomas was born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas (which in spite of its name is neither big nor particularly sandy), one of nine children in a family of sharecroppers; his parents were former slaves.  In his youth, he determined that he was not to live his life as a farmer, and turned to the life of a songster.  He left his home around the time he was sixteen, and lived the life of a hobo and itinerant musicianer.  Thomas learned to play the “quills” (an instrument much like panpipes), and later the guitar to accompany his singing.  Like any songster worth his salt, Thomas learned to play a variety of styles from minstrel songs, to folk ballads and blues, to rags and dance tunes.  His music earned him the hobo nickname “Ragtime Texas”.  On the Texas & Pacific and M-K-T lines, Thomas hoboed all around Texas and the South (much of which he outlined in his “Railroadin’ Some”), bringing his music with him and expanding his repertoire all the way.  He sang of his home state of Texas, of his life as a hobo, and plenty more.  His travels likely brought him to the World’s Fairs of Chicago and St. Louis in 1893 and 1904, respectively.  In 1927, Thomas traveled to Chicago to cut a record for Vocalion, recording four sides, of which three were released.  Over the following years, he returned to Chicago for five further sessions, netting a total of twenty-three titles from 1927 to 1929.  Little to none of what happened after his final recordings is known.  Many sources claim that he died in 1930, but others claimed to have seen him in Houston in 1949, and around Tyler, Texas in the 1950s.  Long after the end of his life, Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” served as the primary inspiration for the band Canned Heat’s 1968 famous hippie anthem “Going Up the Country”.

Vocalion 1094 was recorded on June 30, 1927 (other sources suggest a date of April 19 or July 5 of the same year) in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Henry Thomas’ first issued record, and, aside from an unissued cut of “The Fox and the Hounds”, his first recorded sides.

First, Thomas sings and whistles his fantastic rendition of the perennial folk ballad “John Henry”, putting his own unique spin on the tale of the legendary steel driving man.

John Henry

John Henry, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.

Turn the record over and Ragtime Texas next delivers a driving performance on “Cottonfield Blues”, bearing some musical resemblance to the “Hesitation Blues”.  Unusual as Thomas music is—what with the quills and the droning guitar—I can’t get enough of it.  It’s truly entrancing, wondrous music!

Cottonfield Blues

Cottonfield Blues, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.