Victor P-79 – Smoky Mountain Ballads – 1941

In the year of 1941, the venerable folklorist and song collector John A. Lomax—best remembered for his 1910 book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, his field recordings made for the Library of Congress in the 1930s, and his discovery of the legendary Lead Belly—set out, at the age of seventy-four, to assemble a groundbreaking album of folk music from the Great Smoky Mountains of the southeastern United States.  He selected from the catalog of the Victor record company (and their subsidiary label Bluebird) a total of ten masters of traditional mountain folk music recorded by relatively contemporary musicians and groups by the likes of Uncle Dave Macon, the Monroe Brothers, and the Carter Family.  It was late in his illustrious career, and only one of the numerous remarkable accomplishments to his name.

The album cover for Smoky Mountain Ballads, edited by John A. Lomax.

John Avery Lomax was born on September 23, 1867, in Goodman, Mississippi, but he got to Texas as fast as he could.  His parents James Avery and Susan Frances Lomax brought the family by wagon to “the low cedar-clad hills of Bosque County,” north of Meridian, Texas, where young John was reared.  Growing up on what was then the western frontier, Lomax was exposed to cowboy ballads and folk songs sung by a former slave hired to work on the family farm, and he began to do what had seldom yet been done: collect them and write them down.  At twenty-one, he left farm life behind and enrolled in college in Granbury.  After graduating, he became a schoolteacher around the region of his upbringing.  In 1895, he entered the University of Texas in Austin, graduating two years later with a major in English literature.  While there, he showed his collection of folk songs to one of his English professors, who decried them “cheap and unworthy.”  The dejected Lomax then burned them behind his dormitory and turned his focus to his studies.  After his graduation, he married Bess Brown—with whom he would have four children, Shirley, John Jr., Alan, and Bess—and taught English for a stretch at Texas A&M.  In 1907, he attended Harvard as a graduate student under Professors Barret Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge.  Unlike his professor at U.T., they encouraged his interest in cowboy songs and ultimately helped him receive a Sheldon grant to research them.  Thus, in 1910, at the age of forty-three, John A. Lomax published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, with a foreword by former president Theodore Roosevelt, the first in a series of song collections he would compile.  With U.T. professor Leonidas Payne, he also established the Texas Folklore Society in 1909.  From 1910, Lomax also worked an administrative job at the University of Texas, until Texas governor Jim “Pa” Ferguson’s feud with academics got him fired in 1917.  So he moved to Chicago to work as a banker in a firm operated by the son of one of his former professors, and later worked with U.T. alumni groups after Ferguson’s impeachment.

After his wife passed in 1931, at his son John Jr.’s encouragement, Lomax set off on a lecture tour that ultimately resulted in his involvement in the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song.  Having previously recorded some Texas folksingers like Newton Gaines on wax cylinders, he arranged with the Archive to provide him with portable recording equipment, with which he would traverse the American South in search of traditional folksingers to record for posterity in the Library of Congress, preferably ones untainted by the influence of modern popular culture—those who still adhered to an older tradition.  With his son Alan behind the wheel of his Ford sedan, the Lomaxes began their journey in their home state of Texas in June of 1933, visiting rural prison farms in search of musical convicts whose incarceration had separated their traditional repertoires from the dissemination of popular music.  They were first turned away at the gates of the prison in Huntsville, but they soon found success when they arrived at the Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas.  There, they discovered sixty-three-year-old James “Iron Head” Baker and seventy-one-year-old Moses “Clear Rock” Platt,two “habitual criminals” who had spent the better part of their lives in the Texas prison system.  Lomax recorded them singing hollers such as “Go Down Old Hannah”, “Old Rattler”, and “Black Betty”, ultimately making return trips to collect more of their music.  Lomax eventually grew fond of “Iron Head”, and send him small amounts of money, which were reciprocated in the form of small handcrafted trinkets.  Eventually, Lomax secured Baker’s parole to act as his assistant, though the arrangement was short-lived.  Soon after, they ventured on to Louisiana, where they paid a visit to the State Penitentiary at Angola.  Locked away behind the prison walls was a singer and guitarist who would become Lomax’s greatest discovery: the forty-five-year-old Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.  After recording Lead Belly in several performances in July of 1933, Lomax returned a year later with superior equipment to capture more of his extensive repertoire in better quality.  This time, Lead Belly requested that Lomax deliver a song he had prepared as a plea for his pardon to Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen.  Lomax obliged, and Lead Belly was released later that year (though the state insisted that the song had nothing to do with it).  Required to find work or face re-incarceration, Lead Belly convinced Lomax to take him on as a driver and aide in his travels. Ultimately, Lomax traveled several hundred-thousand miles and preserved hundreds of songs by numerous performers, both in and out of prison, for the Library of Congress.

With Lead Belly along, Lomax went back to Yankeeland to begin a new series of lecture tours featuring the folksinger.  Not long afterward, the partnership between the folklorist and the folksinger ended quite acrimoniously, as Lead Belly sued Lomax for payment that he believed had been withheld—though they later recovered a friendly acquaintanceship.  In 1934, he remarried, to Miss Ruby Terrill, whom he had first met in 1921 while she was the dean of women at the East Texas State Normal College in Commerce.  His associated with the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Music continued after his field work had more-or-less concluded.  In 1947, with his son Alan, he wrote and published Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, a memoir of his life on the road in search of America’s native song.  John A. Lomax died from a stroke on January 26, 1948; an ailing Lead Belly gave his last concert in Austin, Texas, honoring the late folklorist.  His legacy was carried on by his sons John Jr., Alan, and Bess, and his influence continued to be felt, both in the field of folklore scholarship and in folk music for the decades to come.

Continue reading

Brunswick 7184 – Gene Campbell – 1930

The enigmatic Gene Campbell was among the most exemplary of the Texas blues musicians to record in the beginning of the Great Depression, yet nothing much is known of the elusive guitarist and singer; he had a more prolific recording career than most of his contemporaries, and in fact bears the distinction of being the only guitar-playing country blues singer recorded by Brunswick in Texas (all others were backed by jazz bands), yet all but very few substantial details surrounding his life and times have been lost to time.

An account related in the early 1960s to the esteemed researcher Mack McCormick by fellow Texas blues musician James “Smokestack” Tisdom—a protégé of Campbell’s—suggests that the singer’s proper name was Willie Gene Campbell and that he hailed from San Antonio and was born around 1902.  Lyrics such as “born in Texas, raised in Texas too” in his “Western Plain Blues” and mention of “Waco, Dallas, Fort Worth, or San Antonio” in his “Don’t Leave Me Here Blues”, further pointed to Campbell’s roots in the Lone Star State.  Queries of public records have as yet yielded no conclusive information regarding Campbell.  He seems to have spent at least a portion of his life drifting across the region of his origin, and it is possible that he at one time belonged, in some respect, to the loose group of songsters and blues moaners known to hang around the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas that included the likes of Ramblin’ Thomas, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Huddie Ledbetter.  It was in Dallas that Gene Campbell made his first two recordings in November of 1929, beginning his rather brief recording career with commanding performances of “Mama, You Don’t Mean Me No Good No How” and “Bended Knee Blues” (Brunswick 7139).  In his work, he demonstrated a strong and smooth singing voice somewhat reminiscent of his contemporary “Texas” Alexander and an idiosyncratic but deft guitar style echoing that of the influential Lonnie Johnson, that may have employed a flatpick.  Many of his songs dealt with the familiar subject matter of woman troubles, and most shared a similar melody and structure, spiced up with a variety of embellishments.  His first record must have impressed the Brunswick people, because the following year, he traveled to their headquarters in Chicago to cut a further ten sides.  Among those ten recorded at his second session was the two-part “Freight Train Yodeling Blues” (Brunswick 7161), which echoed both the themes and melodies popularized by “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, and illustrated Campbell’s variegated repertoire.  When Brunswick returned to Dallas that November, Campbell recorded another four songs.  He returned to Chicago one final time for two days in January of 1931 to make his last eight, resulting in a grand total of twenty-four sides as his recorded legacy, and making him the most prolific of the handful of country blues players to be recorded by Brunswick, and the second most prolific artist in their 7000-series of “race” records, behind only calypsonian Lionel Belasco.  James Tisdom reported that Campbell was still living in the early 1960s and working as a rice farmer in Bay City, but was no longer active as a musician.    Unfortunately, McCormick was not able to locate Campbell if he was indeed still living at that time, and his fate remains undetermined.

Brunswick 7184 was recorded around May of 1930 in Chicago, Illinois, at Campbell’s second session.  Gene Campbell sings the blues, accompanying himself on the guitar.

Though you may not be able to read the label, Campbell first sings “Lazy Woman Blues”, imploring his girl that she “must get a job, or [she] must leave.”  The lyrics of this song were closely mirrored seven years later in a song called “Trifling Woman” by Fort Worth blues musician Black Ace (B.K. Turner), further suggesting Campbell’s Texas roots, as well as his influence on fellow artists in the region.

Lazy Woman Blues, recorded c. May 1930 by Gene Campbell.

On the reverse, he moans another verse of romantic discontent on the rather morose sounding “Wish I Could Die”.

Wish I Could Die, recorded c. May 1930 by Gene Campbell.

Victor V-40311 – Stuart Hamblen – 1930

Texas-born singer, songwriter, and storyteller Stuart Hamblen made his greatest hit with gospel songs in the 1950s, but many years earlier he got his start as pioneering singing cowboy, and helped push along the birth of “country and western” music in the days when the genre was narily yet zygotic.

Stuart Hamblen, pictured on a 1930 Victor flyer.

Carl Stuart Hamblen was born on October 20, 1908 in Kellyville, Texas, four miles west of Jefferson, the son of itinerant Methodist preacher Dr. J.H. Hamblen.  As a boy, he spent much of his time traveling with his father on his evangelical pursuits, eventually taking the young Stuart to Hamlin, Texas, out Abilene way.  There he encountered the lore of the western cowboy, and his songs, as well as that of black field hands.  He attended McMurry College with intentions to become a teacher, but instead was drawn to music.  In 1926, Stuart Hamblen began singing on KFYO in Abilene, by some accounts making him radio’s first singing cowboy.  Three years later, he won a talent contest in Dallas, and used the cash prize to secure passage northward to Camden, New Jersey, home of the Victor Talking Machine Company, where he aimed to make some records, following much in the footsteps of his antecedent Carl T. Sprague.

On June 6, 1929, Hamblen made his recording debut with four sides for Victor, singing and strumming his guitar to “The Boy in Blue”, “Drifting Back to Dixie”, “When the Moon Shines Down Upon the Mountain”, and “The Big Rock Candy Mountains, No. 2”.  Thereafter, the young man went west, to California, where he became “Cowboy Joe” on Los Angeles’ KFI.  Meanwhile, he made a further ten sides for Victor through 1931, culminating with his own popular compositions “My Brown-Eyed Texas Rose” and “My Mary”, both later popularly covered by the likes of the Light Crust Doughboys, Milton Brown, and others.  By the middle of the 1930s, Hamblen had formed a western band called his “Covered Wagon Jubilee” (or simply his “Gang”), which at one point included guitarist Wesley Tuttle, and with whom he recorded again, first making a pair of unreleased sides for the American Record Corporation in 1934, before signing with Decca for another nine that year and the next, of which all but one were released.  Those proved to be his last records for nearly a decade, none of which ever seemed to sell very well, and he focused primarily on his radio work.  From the late 1930s through the ’40s, Hamblen also appeared in several motion pictures, several of which starred Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne.  In 1938, he ran for Congress in California, as a Democrat.  During World War II, he wrote and sang some patriotic songs, and recorded again for Russian spy Boris Morros’ American Recording Artists (ARA) label in 1944.

At the height of his singing cowboy fame, Stuart Hamblen built up quite a reputation as a hard drinker, gambler, and all-around hellraiser.  He’d get drunk, shoot out streetlights, and get sent to jail, only to have his sponsors bail him out so he could be on the radio the next day.  But that changed when Billy Graham came to Los Angeles on his first Crusade in 1949.  Hamblen’s wife persuaded him to attend the revival, and the reverend turned his life around.  Hamblen experienced a religious awakening, and announced the very next day on his radio program that he was “hitting the sawdust trail.”  From then on out, he dedicated his work to sacred music, composing “It is No Secret (What God Can Do)” and “This Ole House”, and recording far more prolifically—and successfully—than ever before, with sessions for Columbia, RCA Victor, and Coral.  He also prominently supported the temperance movement, and, after his radio show was canceled because he refused to do advertise beer, he renewed his political ambitions in 1952 with a presidential run on the Prohibition Party ticket, garnering 72,949 votes.  He also remained associated with Billy Graham, who credited much of his success to Hamblen’s timely conversion.  Hamblen was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and was honored with “Stuart Hamblen Day” Los Angeles on February 13, 1976 and later with “Stuart Hamblen Days” in Jefferson, Texas.  Following a battle with brain cancer, Stuart Hamblen died at the age of eighty on March 8, 1989.

Victor V-40311 was recorded in Hollywood, California on August 21, 1930.  It was released on October 17th of that year, and sold a total of 1,826 copies.  Hamblen is accompanied by his own guitar, as well as unidentified players on steel guitar and fiddle.

Hamblen sounds rather like Ernest Tubb (who would not make a record for another six years) as he sings and yodels his own composition “Sailor’s Farewell”.

Sailor’s Farewell, recorded August 21, 1930 by Stuart Hamblen.

On the reverse, he sings a cowboy’s tale of heartache on another original composition: “By the Sleepy Rio Grande”.

By the Sleepy Rio Grande, recorded August 21, 1930 by Stuart Hamblen.

Victor 23580 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1930/1931

Jimmie Rodgers gussied up in a tuxedo, with his signature “Blue Yodel” Martin guitar, circa 1930.

After ascending to stardom with hits like “Sleep Baby Sleep” and “Blue Yodel”, Jimmie Rodgers began relentlessly touring across the United States, often to his own physical detriment.  In the summer of 1930, Rodgers was in Hollywood.  While there he had a total of ten recording sessions between the thirtieth of June and the sixteenth of July.  During that time, he recorded a total of fourteen sides, including such classics as “Moonlight and Skies”, “Pistol Packin’ Papa”, and “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)”, and was backed by a variety of talent including Lani McIntire’s Hawaiians and Bob Sawyer’s Jazz Band.  On his final Hollywood session, Rodgers recorded only a single title, another installment in his “Blue Yodel” series titled “Standin’ On the Corner”.  For accompaniment, he was joined by a young trumpeter who had just arrived in California for an engagement at Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in Culver City, an up-and-coming talent named Louis Armstrong, and his wife Lil on piano.  How exactly this rather unlikely collaboration came to be is lost to time; Armstrong in later years recounted that he’d “been knowin’ Jimmie for a long time,” and “Jimmie said, ‘man, I feel like singin’ some blues,’ [and Louis] said ‘okay daddy, you sing some blues, and I’m gonna blow behind you,’ and that’s the way the record started!”  It certainly wasn’t the first time Rodgers had been backed by jazz players.  Likely, the session was engineered by Ralph Peer, who was acquainted with Armstrong as well as Rodgers.  In any event, the resulting music etched into hot wax that day became the stuff of legend, three great American styles of music—jazz, blues, and “hillbilly”—all crossed paths to make something even greater, brought together by two of the greatest figures in all of America’s rich musical legacy: Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong.

Victor 23580 was recorded in two separate sessions, the first on July 16, 1930 in Hollywood, California, and the second on June 15, 1931 in Louisville, Kentucky.  Victor files report a total of 25,071 copies sold—not bad for 1931.  The 78 Quarterly included the disc in their “Rarest 78s” section of the tenth issue, suggesting “less than fifteen?”  Frankly, I suspect that there are quite a few more copies out there than that, but it is regardless one of Rodgers’ more sought after records due to the accompaniment.  On the “A” side, Rodgers is accompanied by Louis and Lil Armstrong on trumpet and piano, respectively.  On “B” he is accompanied by Cliff Carlisle on steel guitar, Wilber Ball on guitar, and his own ukulele.

On the “A” side, Jimmie sings and yodels that rough-and-tumble blues number, the ninth entry in his famous series, “Blue Yodel Number 9 (Standin’ On the Corner)”.  The song bears considerable resemblance to another blues song on which Louis played four years prior: “The Bridwell Blues” by Nolan Walsh, which featured a similar piano and trumpet accompaniment and the opening lines, “I was standing on the corner, did not mean no harm… and a police came, nabbed me by my arm,” raising questions over whether Rodgers was familiar with Armstrong’s work, or, conversely, that Armstrong had an uncredited hand in composing the song.  “The Bridwell Blues” itself was preceded by “Standing On the Corner Blues” by Ozie McPherson, further cementing Jimmie Rodgers’ foundation in the blues, and the “standin’ on the corner” lyric dates back at least to the 1895 Ben Harney and John Biller composition “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon but You’ve Done Broke Down”, likely earlier.

Blue Yodel Number 9, recorded July 16, 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the reverse, Jimmie sings another dilly: “Looking for a New Mama”.  This is one of only two recorded sides that have Jimmie playing ukulele (the other being “Dear Old Sunny South By the Sea” from 1928).  Ralph Peer in later years opined that Rodgers’ peculiar techniques on the guitar were carried over from his skill on the ukulele.  Jimmie also claimed proficiency on banjo and steel guitar, though he was never recorded playing either.

Looking for a New Mama, recorded June 15, 1931 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Romeo 5025 – Sammy Sampson/Georgia Tom – 1930

Big Bill with his Gibson Style O guitar, as pictured in the 1941 Okeh race records catalog.

Previously on Old Time Blues, we took a look at one of the earliest records made by the illustrious Big Bill Broonzy, featuring the two rambunctious rags “Saturday Night Rub” and “Pig Meat Strut”.  Now that the time to pay birthday tributes to Mr. Broonzy has rolled around yet again, we turn our attention to another piece of work dating to one month earlier in Big Bill’s long and extensive career.

After his first 1927 and ’28 Paramount records brought little commercial success, Big Bill took a hiatus from recording.  Come 1930 however, he made his triumphant return, sitting in on an American Record Corporation session on April 8th, backing Frank Brasswell on two characteristic blues sides, then joining with the “Famous Hokum Boys”, under the auspices of founding member Georgia Tom Dorsey, to cut a re-do of the classic “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing” and three hot guitar rags.  The following day, Bill got his own time in the limelight—after a fashion—when he recorded three solo efforts of his own, “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, “Grandma’s Farm”, and “Skoodle Do Do”, all released under the pseudonym “Sammy Sampson”.  Bill continued to record under that name—excluding the results his three or four excursions to Richmond, and one to Grafton—until 1932, when the ARC (and Bluebird, for a time) finally decided to start putting out his records under his own name, albeit without his last name credited, which didn’t make it onto labels until he started recording for Mercury in 1949 (save for composer credits, which were often attributed to “Willie Broonzy” of “Williard Broonzy”).

Romeo 5025 was recorded on April 9 and 10, 1930 in New York City.  “Sammy Sampson” is, of course, a pseudonym for Big Bill Broonzy. It was also issued on Oriole 8025 and Jewel 20025, and side “A” also appeared on Perfect 157 backed with “Skoodle Do Do”.  The 78 Quarterly speculated “more than thirty [copies] on all labels,” making it perhaps not quite rare, but rather scarce nonetheless (if we’re going to split hairs), while the Perfect issue was estimated at “less than fifteen”.

On his outstanding “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, Big Bill is accompanied by his usual partner in his early days, the flatpicking Frank Brasswell, on second guitar.  To be frank, Big Bill’s earliest works were sometimes rather hit or miss; this one’s a hit—enough of one that it was covered by Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys about six years later.  It’s like rock ‘n’ roll twenty years early, only better—one of Bill’s best recordings, in my opinion.

I Can’t Be Satisfied, recorded April 9, 1930 bu Sammy Sampson.

On the flip-side, Georgia Tom Dorsey sings “Mama’s Leaving Town” in a characteristic style much in the same vein as his “Grievin’ Me Blues”—in fact, the two have very similar melodies.  He is accompanied by Broonzy on guitar.  If the song was a little peppier and hokumier, it probably would’ve been credited to the “Famous Hokum Boys”.

Mama’s Leaving Town, recorded April 10, 1930 by Georgia Tom.