There are fair number of artists who might have achieved the success of Jimmie Rodgers, but, for whatever reason, did not. Some, like Atlanta’s Ernest Rogers, were not musicians by profession, and only recorded a few songs on the side. Others perhaps lacked something that Rodgers had, be it talent, charisma, ambition, or maybe simply luck. Regardless of the circumstances, in the wake of the Singing Brakeman’s monumental success were a drove of excellent-yet-underappreciated artists who left behind recorded legacies ranging from one song to dozens. One such artist is “Buddy” Baker, a vaudevillian performer who made only two records for Victor in 1928, about whom there have previously existed nary any publicized biographical details, and about the same number of decent sounding recordings of his work.
Research reveals that “Buddy” was in fact Ernest H. Baker, and was born on May 17, 1902, in Escambia County, Alabama, the son of John and Rebecca Baker. In his teenage years he worked in a mill, but he pursued a career in music when he came of age. He traveled to Chicago in June of 1928 to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and cut six sides on the twenty-first and two more the following day. Of those eight, only four were released: “Penitentiary Blues” and “Box Car Blues” on Victor 21549, and “Matrimonial Intentions” and “Alimony Blues” on Victor V-40017. Of the four unissued sides were “I Want My Mammy”, “Nobody Knows What’s On My Mind Blues”, and “Razor Jim”. Baker returned to the Victor studio one year later in Camden, New Jersey to wax four more, including “It’s Tough on Everybody” and “The Rambling Cowboy”, but this time, none were released. His four surviving recordings depict an artist with a clever sense of diction and a penchant for simplistic scat singing, and a unique approach to a guitar method typical of his time. At the time of his recording career, he was living with his family in Mobile, Alabama, and began performing on radio station WODX around the time of its inauguration in 1930. Later, he seems to have taken up in Ohio, where he found work as a welder for Babcock and Wilcox. Probably in 1932, he married a woman named Jessie. Baker died from peritonitis, resulting from a perforated ulcer, in Barberton, Ohio, on May 24, 1937, and his body was shipped back home to Alabama to be buried in his family’s plot in Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery. Like Jimmie Rodgers, Buddy Baker was gone from the world at only thirty-five.
Victor 21549 and V-40017 were recorded on June 21, 1928 at 952 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. On both, Ernest “Buddy” Baker sings and accompanies himself on guitar. 21549 purportedly sold a total of about 9,400 copies, while sales figures for V-40017 are not available.
Baker’s “Penitentiary Blues” is one of many renditions of the old folk ballad “Little Sadie”—also known as “Bad Lee Brown”—which was later adapted into the western swing repertoire as “Cocaine Blues” (not to be confused with the unrelated Luke Jordan and Dick Justice song of the 1920s). Preceding Clarence Ashley’s “Little Sadie” (which used a different melody) by more than a year, this version is likely the earliest recording of the classic folk song, though the song itself existed for at least several decades prior to first being recorded. Other early (pre-“Cocaine”) recordings of the song include “Seven Foot Dilly” John Dilleshaw’s unissued “Bad Lee Brown” for Okeh in 1929 and Riley Puckett’s “Chain Gang Blues” for Bluebird in 1934. Woody Guthrie must have had a copy of Baker’s record, because he recorded a nearly identical version under the title “Bad Lee Brown” in 1944. As “Cocaine Blues”, it was introduced in 1947 by T.J. “Red” Arnall as a member of W.A. Nichol’s Western Aces on the S & G label. It inspired contemporary covers by Roy Hogsed on both Coast and Capitol and Billy Hughes on King, and was famously revived by Johnny Cash in his 1968 Folsom Prison concert.
On the reverse, Baker sings a real blues number, “Box Car Blues”, with some clever songwriting and a little Emmett Miller style yodeling added in for flavor.
On the first side of his second (and final) record, Baker sings “Matrimonial Intentions”, showcasing more of his guitar playing. This song was covered by Jack White in the 2017 American Epic Sessions, which saw modern artists recording covers of 1920s and ’30s songs on 78 RPM with acoustic instrumentation. White put together a fine performance of it, and he’ll always have my respect for digging up such an obscure old title.
Finally, Baker concludes his brief career on records with “Alimony Blues”, bemoaning divorce with some fairly inventive guitar work.