This occasion’s serenade is provided by the obscure but outstanding string duo of Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater, who play here a couple of snappy rag numbers on mandolin and guitar.
Napoleon “Nap” Hayes and Matthew Prater were a pair of black musicians hailing from Vicksburg, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Hayes was likely born in 1885 in West Corinth, Mississippi, and Prater in New Albany in either 1886 or on June 30, 1889. With Hayes on guitar and Prater on mandolin, the two played raggy music in a style not too disparate from that of the Dallas String Band. In February of 1928, they traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to record a total of eight sides for Okeh Records, out of which all but two were issued. Half of those eight featured vocals and violin by Lonnie Johnson (though some sources, including Discography of Okeh Records, cite a different Johnson—T.C. Johnson—who recorded at the same field trip as part of the minstrel-esque trio Johnson-Nelson-Porkchop). Out of those three discs, only one was released in the 8000 “race” series, while the other two were in the 45000 “hillbilly” series. Each record was credited differently, one under their own names as Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater, another as “The Blue Boys”, and one with Johnson as “The Johnson Boys”. Of note, those sides included a piece titled “Easy Winner”, which, despite taking the name of another of his rags, was in fact a take on Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”. That session accounted for the entirety of Hayes and Prater’s recorded legacy, and their later lives are as yet undocumented.
Okeh 45231 was recorded February 15, 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee by Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater. Hayes plays guitar, while Prater takes the raggy mandolin. I picked this record up in a junk shop, and it’s not in the most wonderful condition, but it plays quite well in spite of it. Not bad for a record that made the 78 Quarterly’s list of “The Rarest 78s”!
The duo first play a peppy rendition of Scott Joplin’s 1903 rag “Something Doing”, here styled as “Somethin’ Doin'”.
Somethin’ Doin’, recorded February 15, 1928 by Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater.
As an answer to the first tune, on the flip they play the folk rag “Nothin’ Doin'”, a little bluer—and a little cleaner playing—than the previous side. I’m hearing a bit of Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” interpolated in this tune (“oh-oh, honey what’s the matter now”).
Nothin’ Doin, recorded February 28, 1928 by Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater.
The incomparable Blind Lemon Jefferson truly was an artist without parallel. Having cut his first disc in 1925 or ’26, he was one of the earliest male country blues musicians to record, and the success of his records paved the way for more blues artists to have their music immortalized in wax. His peculiar yet virtuosic style of singing and guitar playing set him apart from all his contemporaries, and caused him to be seldom imitated (and interestingly, many of his early imitators were white; see Larry Hensley, Roy Shaffer). Considering both the quality and originality of his work, as well as the volume of his output, it would seem fair to consider Blind Lemon Jefferson one of the greatest heroes of the Texas blues.
Blind Lemon Jefferson, as pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues, 1927.
Like so many early blues people, much of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s life is shrouded in mystery. He is usually said to have been born in September 24, 1893, though he claimed a date of October 26, 1894, himself. July of 1897 has also been proffered by some sources, and his obituary suggested he was born about a decade earlier. He learned to play guitar in his childhood or teens. As an adult, he weighed about two-hundred-fifty pounds, and has been described as a snappy dresser, always wearing a John B. Stetson hat and a box-back suit from the Model Tailors in Dallas, and conversely as “fat, and a slovenly dresser.” Lemon reported his profession to census takers in 1920 as a musician, his employer the “general public,” and outside of music he was said to have worked as a wrestler in Dallas. He played and sang at functions around Freestone County and on street corners, honky tonks, and bordellos in Dallas, most notably on the east end of Elm Street called Deep Ellum, and even on the interurban railway that ran from from Waco north to Denison. He was known to have worked with Lead Belly, and may have also associated with Washington Phillips and the Dallas String Band. Like fellow Paramount artists Charley Patton and Blind Blake, only one published photograph of Lemon is known to exist (though at least one phony has been reputed as a second one, and there may well be another authentic but unpublished one in private hands).
As with his life, there is much legend surrounding the demise of Blind Lemon Jefferson. It’s known that he died on a cold winter day in Chicago—around ten o’clock in the morning on December 19, 1929. Some claim that he was poisoned by a jilted lover (much like the fate that befell Robert Johnson some nine years later). Others have supposed that he was robbed of a royalty payment and murdered by a guide hired to help him find his way to the train station. More reliable accounts suggest that he either died of a heart attack in his car and was abandoned by his driver, or became disoriented trying to find his way through a snowstorm and died from hypothermia. His death certificate stated “probably acute myocarditis,” supporting the heart attack hypothesis. In any event, Paramount Records paid for his body’s return to Texas by train, accompanied by Texas piano man Will Ezell, to be buried in the Wortham Negro Cemetery (now called the Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery). His funeral was reportedly attended by two or three hundred people, both black and white. Lemon’s passing inspired a small wave of tributes, and Paramount released a memorial record in his honor, featuring Walter and Byrd singing “Wasn’t it Sad About Lemon” and Rev. Emmett Dickinson’s sermon on the “Death of Blind Lemon”, comparing Jefferson to Jesus Christ. Had Lemon survived into the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, his impact would likely have been enormous. Today, Lemon’s grave marker (placed in 1997) bears the epitaph “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you; see that my grave is kept clean.”
The tombstone of Blind Lemon Jefferson in Wortham, Texas, as it appeared eighty-eight years and one day after his death. Kept clean at the time, as it were.
Paramount 12608 was recorded around February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois by Blind Lemon Jefferson. It also appeared on Broadway 5059, though I’m not certain whether or not anyone has ever seen one of those, I know I haven’t. It was released that March or early April, and first advertised in the Chicago Defender on April 7, 1927.
Now, I ordinarily prefer not to make posts honoring artists on the anniversaries of their deaths, but rather to celebrate their lives; under the circumstances however, this record seems an appropriate case to make an exception, for it contains Lemon’s legendary “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”. This song, together with “Match Box Blues” and “That Black Snake Moan” could be viewed as a sort of triumvirate of Lemon’s most famous and perhaps most influential songs. A folk song sometimes known as “Two White Horses in a Line” or (in later years) “One Kind Favor”, Lemon first recorded the song in October of 1927, issued on Paramount 12585, backed with “He Arose from the Dead” under his sanctified pseudonym “Deacon L.J. Bates”. That version was pulled soon after release and replaced with “Where Shall I Be”, while Lemon recorded a new version of “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” several months later, which saw release under his own name on the record you see and hear here. Son House used the melody for his “Mississippi County Farm Blues”, which he recorded for Paramount in 1930, and many others have since performed and recorded Jefferson’s original. In 1934, John A. Lomax recorded a bottleneck guitarist named Pete Harris singing the song in Richmond, Texas under the title “Blind Lemon’s Song”, demonstrating the impact of Jefferson’s recording, and in 1952, Harry Smith included the song in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music.
See That My Grave is Kept Clean, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
On the reverse, technically the “A” side, keeping with the rather morbid theme, Lemon sings “‘Lectric Chair Blues”, another excellent blues, even if it lacks the same grandeur as the previous one. The original Chicago Defender advertisement said of the song: “Salty tears—wet tears—big, round tears—all kinds of tears and heart throbs, and you should put yourself in his place to feel just as blue. ‘Lectric chair is the next place he’s gonna sit down in, and he ain’t tired either, so he don’t wanta sit down.”
‘Lectric Chair Blues, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
“Thumbs Up—On the Spot.” Jimmie Rodgers donning his brakeman attire for a famous studio pose. Circa 1930.
This is the first Jimmie Rodgers record I ever owned, I picked it up at a little record store down in Austin that unfortunately no longer bothers stocking 78s. I hadn’t been collecting for long at the time—mostly I just had a bunch of records inherited from my great-great-grandfather and some junk from used bookstores—and that was one of my first forays into record stores to look for 78s. My musical knowledge wasn’t so vast then, but I’d heard Jimmie’s “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)” and I wanted to find a copy of that one. When I picked up this one, I couldn’t really recall which number of Blue Yodel that one was, and I hoped this one might’ve been it. I took it to the listening station in the store, and it wasn’t, but that was okay, it was only $3.99, and I wanted it anyway. When I got home, I listened to it over and over and—though the sound was a little rough, especially on the cheap equipment I had at the time—I fell in love with both sides just the same as I had with “Mule Skinner Blues”, and so began my quest to find more.
Since my original posting of this record, I’ve come into possession of a considerably cleaner copy (about an “E-” as opposed to my original “V”, for those versed in the VJM record grading system), so I’ve replaced the transfers and label scans accordingly.
Victor 21291 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on February 15 and 14, 1928, respectively. It was issued that June and remained in the catalog until 1936. Jimmie Rodgers is accompanied by his own guitar, and by Ellsworth T. Cozzens on steel guitar on the “A” side and on ukulele on “B”.
On the “A” side, Jimmie sings the second installment in his Blue Yodel series, “Blue Yodel No. II (My Lovin’ Gal, Lucille)”. I’d argue it’s one of his best, but then, aren’t they all?
Blue Yodel No. II (My Lovin’ Gal, Lucille), recorded February 15, 1928 by Jimmie Rodgers.
On the “B” side is another of Singing Brakeman’s classics, his eponymous “The Brakeman’s Blues (Yodeling the Blues Away)”.
The Brakeman’s Blues (Yodeling the Blues Away), recorded February 14, 1928 by Jimmie Rodgers.
Here are a pair of top jazz sides by Jimmie Noone’s band, taking their name from the Apex Club, a speakeasy in Chicago, where the band played. Noone’s band was a small group, only a quintet, but they were an exemplary one, and played in a sophisticated style.
Jimmie Noone, a Creole, was born in Cut Off, Louisiana, April 23, 1895 (I share a birthday with him, as a matter of fact), and made his way to New Orleans in 1910, where he played with some of the top jazz men, Keppard, Celestin, Ory, et al. Later in the decade, like his contemporary, Joe Oliver, he migrated to Chicago, and played with the King after arriving there. In 1926, he began leading a small band at Chicago’s Apex Club, on the second floor of 330 East 35th Street, and began recording with that band for Vocalion in 1928. A young Benny Goodman was profoundly influenced by his work on the clarinet. That arrangement lasted until the club was raided by federal agents in 1930. Noone continued to perform and record with various star-studded bands of New Orleans jazz men, and became a driving force in the dixieland jazz revival in the early 1940s. Noone continued performing right up until his death of a heart attack in 1944, at which time he was playing in a band on Orson Welles’ radio program. In Noone’s honor, Kid Ory composed “Blues for Jimmie” as a tribute to the man, who was remembered as a cordial man and a professional performer.
Vocalion 1188 was recorded in Chicago, June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (misspelled “Noones'” on the label). The small but outstanding band features the talent of Jimmie Noone on clarinet, Joe Poston on alto sax, Earl Hines on piano, Bud Scott on banjo and guitar, and Johnny Wells on drums.
The first tune is an instrumental, “Forevermore”, showcasing Noone’s distinctive style of clarinet and Hines’ always excellent piano work.
Forevermore, recorded June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.
On the reverse, they play “Ready for the River”, with a vocal duet by Jimmie Noone and Joe Poston. Not the cheeriest song ever written, but Noone and his band make a lady out of it. In the words of hobo and criminal-turned-author Jack Black in his 1926 book You Can’t Win, “ready for the river” describes a state of mind when one is at such a point when life gets so grim that one is inclined to jump in the water with weights tied to their feet and end it all.
Ready for the River, recorded June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.
To me, the records made in the 1920s and 1930s on labels like Gennett and Paramount (manufactured by the Starr Piano Company and the Wisconsin Chair Company, respectively) seem to be a part of Americana. They were distinctively American companies made in America’s heartland, and recorded a large amount of music by and for the American common man. While today’s record, though indeed a Gennett, is not one of those vernacular types, it is a “New Electrobeam” by an excellent New York dance band.
Gennett 6506 was recorded June 18, 1928 in New York City by the New Yorkers, a Carl Fenton orchestra. The vocal refrains are by Carl Mathieu, who also sang as a member of the Peerless Quartet.
“Carl Fenton” was, however, not a real person. Fenton began “life” in the early 1920s as a pseudonym for Gus Haenschen, an executive and studio band leader with Brunswick Records, whose name was “ill-suited” for record labels given attitudes toward Germans following World War I (plus, just look at it, it’s like a mess of letters). This “Carl Fenton” recorded for Brunswick between 1920 and 1927. In 1927, Reuben Greenberg, who had been a member of the band, bought the name from Haenschen and began using it to lead his own band, which recorded with Gennett and later had a pivotal role with the QRS label made by Cova around 1930. In 1932, Greenberg legally changed his name to Carl Fenton, thus bringing the fictional bandleader into reality.
The band first plays a very nice syncopated version of “You’re a Real Sweetheart”, strangely credited to “Kahn-Fioritta”, even though the song was actually written by Irving Caesar and Cliff Friend. Vocalist Carl Mathieu seems to miss his cue a little bit on this side.
You’re a Real Sweetheart, recorded June 18, 1928 by The New Yorkers.
On the reverse, they play another great one, the 1928 hit “Dusky Stevedore”, this time correctly credited to Andy Razaf and J.C. Johnson.
Dusky Stevedore, recorded June 18, 1928 by The New Yorkers.