Looking south on State Street in Chicago. Circa 1933.
If there’s one thing I’m particularly fond of, it’s the swinging Lester Melrose-style Chicago blues of the mid-1930s, by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Memphis Minnie, Blind Boy Fuller, and so many others. This record is one that I think you’ll find is most befitting of that description.
The State Street Boys (not to be confused with the Jimmy Blythe’s State Street Ramblers) were a studio group that managed to blend modern swing music and country blues. They cut eight sides for the American Record Corporation in January of 1935, of which three records were issued on Okeh at the very end of their “race” records series (all of which were re-released on Vocalion shortly thereafter), and the last on Vocalion. The following year, they were reincarnated as the State Street Swingers, with even more jazz in their style.
Vocalion 03002 was recorded on January 10, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois. It was more-or-less concurrently issued on Okeh 8962. Personnel for this session is disputed, and differs for each side. According to the ever-reliable Stefan Wirz’ American Music discographies, both sides feature the talents of Black Bob on piano, and possibly Bill Settles on string bass. The first side features Carl Martin on guitar and singing and Zeb Wright on fiddle, while the second has Big Bill Broonzy on fiddle and singing and Bill “Jazz” Gillum on harmonica.
“Don’t Tear My Clothes”—seemingly the first recording of the blues standard—is one of my personal favorites, and I consider it to be the definitive version. Some sources state the vocalist on this side to be Big Bill rather than Carl Martin, and it does sound a bit like Broonzy. But it also sounds like Carl Martin. I long believed it to be Broonzy myself (with admittedly very little research into it at the time), but I’ve come around to agree that it sounds more like Martin’s voice and guitar picking.
Don’t Tear My Clothes, recorded January 10, 1935 by the State Street Boys.
On the “B” side, Big Bill (and this time it’s definitely him) sings and plays fiddle on “She Caught the Train”—a great opportunity to hear him on an instrument other than his usual guitar. The identity of the second (frankly rather bad) vocalist is unknown, but I would imagine that it would have to be one of the other members of the band.
She Caught the Train, recorded January 10, 1935 by the State Street Boys.
Following in the same vein as popular sibling acts such as the Delmore Brothers, the, Callahan Brothers—consisting of the duo of Homer and Walter (who later adopted the sobriquets Bill and Joe for the sake of brevity)—made a name for themselves in the budding country music industry of the Great Depression-era.
Hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, in the county of Madison, Walter Callahan, born January 27, 1910, and his brother Homer, born March 27, 1912, grew up surrounded by the rich musical culture of the mountain folks. As they were in adolescence, the soon-to-be-famous Jimmie Rodgers was getting his start singing on the radio in nearby Asheville, and in the year of the Singing Brakeman’s demise, 1933, the Callahans got their own big break in the very same town. While singing and yodeling at an Asheville music festival, the brothers were discovered by a talent scout for the American Record Corporation, who invited them to New York for a session. They obliged, and had their first record date on January 2, 1934, a session which produced a hit with “She’s My Curly Headed Baby”. With a two-guitar accompaniment and a repertoire consisting of old sentimental songs such as “Maple On the Hill” to hokums like “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing” to straight blues like “St. Louis Blues”, they were able to produce a string of decently selling records during the times of economic depression. In addition to their work as a duet, the brothers also each recorded solo. Around the time of their recording debut, the duo also began appearing on Asheville’s WWNC, soon moving to WHAS in Louisville, and then to WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. Walter retired back home for a brief period in the late 1930s, leaving brother Homer to continue solo for a time.
Reunited at the end of the 1930s, Walter and Homer changed their names to Joe and Bill, respectively, and went to Texas to begin performing on KRLD in Dallas. There, they became early members of the station’s Big D Jamboree when it debuted in the late 1940s. They also recorded transcriptions to be played on the Mexican border blaster stations, bringing their music to an even wider audience. In 1945, they made an appearance with Jimmy Wakely in the Western movie Springtime in Texas. They continued singing on the radio and on records into the 1950s. Also in the 1950s, Homer/Bill worked as manager to Lefty Frizzell. Walter/Joe retired back home once again by the end of that decade, this time for keeps, and became a grocer. He died in North Carolina on September 10, 1971. Homer stayed in Texas and in music for the rest of his long life, which came to an end on September 12, 2002.
Conqueror 8274 was recorded In New York City on January 3 and 2, 1934, respectively, the Callahans’ first sessions. Homer and Walter Callahan sing and yodel, accompanied by their own two guitars.
From the second day of the Callahan Brothers’ first sessions, the duo sings and yodels the lonesome song “I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name”.
I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name, recorded January 3, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.
On the reverse, the brothers sing a hot hillbilly take on W.C. Handy’s famous “St. Louis Blues”, cut on their first record date.
St. Louis Blues, recorded January 2, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.
The last thing we heard from the East St. Louis blues king Peetie Wheatstraw was a couple of swing-blues sides from the tail end of his career. Now, let us direct our attentions eight years earlier toward the beginning of his recorded legacy.
A cropped version of the only known photograph of Wheatstraw, pictured in Decca catalog.
Though the only known photograph of William Bunch—better known as Peetie Wheatstraw—depicts him holding a National metal-bodied resonator guitar, the artist played piano on the overwhelming majority of his recordings, while guitar was provided by the likes of Charley Jordan, Kokomo Arnold, or Lonnie Johnson. Other times he played nothing at all, only singing and leaving his accompaniment solely to other musicians. But that depiction of Peetie was not entirely inaccurate; it is said that he started out his musical career on the guitar and learned to handle the instrument with proficiency, before switching to piano later on. By the time he made his first records in 1930, he was primarily playing piano, developing a signature formula which he continued to use for the majority of his more than one-hundred-fifty sides. In 1932 however, Wheatstraw had a pair of stand-out sessions which departed from his standard formula. On a recording trip to New York City in March of 1932, Wheatstraw first played piano for Charley Jordan on a series of sides, then Peetie picked up the guitar himself, and, on March fifteenth and seventeenth, he laid down four blues songs unlike any other that he recorded: “Police Station Blues”—later echoed by Robert Johnson in his “Terraplane Blues”—and “All Alone Blues” on the former day, and “Can’t See Blues” and “Sleepless Nights’ Blues” on the latter. Afterward, he returned home to East St. Louis, and didn’t cut another record for two years, by which time he had settled into his formula, and never touched a guitar again, at least on records.
Vocalion 1727 was recorded on March 15, 1932 in New York City. Peetie Wheatstraw sings and plays guitar on both sides. Both sides were also reissued around 1938 to ’39, each on separate records, with the first side appearing on Vocalion 04592 and the second on Vocalion 04912.
First, despite whatever technical limitations Peetie may have had, he dishes out a wonderful performance on “Sleepless Nights’ Blues”, a great classic of equal or perhaps greater merit than his more popular “Police Station”, earning its way into the Yazoo compilation St. Louis Blues 1929-1935, The Depression.
Sleepless Nights’ Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).
Reusing many of the licks heard on the previous side (though actually vice-versa, since this one was recorded earlier), Wheatstraw next sings “Can’t See Blues”. Like his piano playing, Wheatstraw had a very idiosyncratic style of playing guitar (which is to say, he typically followed a very similar pattern in all of the songs he played).
Can’t See Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).
“Now listen ev’rybody from near and far, if you wanta know who we are—we’re the Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill!”
For more than eight decades and counting, the national song of the greatest state on earth has been played by the Light Crust Doughboys of Fort Worth, Texas, from their beginnings with Bob Wills and Milton Brown, they were among the earliest groups to pioneer the jazzed up hillbilly music we now call western swing.
The Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill on the air in the early 1940s. From left-to-right: Zeke (Muryel Campbell), Cecil Brower, Bashful (Dick Reinhart), announcer Parker Willson, Abner (Kenneth Pitts), Snub (Ramon DeArman), Junior (Marvin Montgomery), and Knocky Parker. Pictured in the WFAA-KGKO-WBAP 1941 Combined Family Album.
The venerable Light Crust Doughboys got their start in 1931, when W. Lee O’Daniel, a manager of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company in Saginaw, Texas, set out to hire musicians to promote the company’s product on the radio waves. Meanwhile, the Wills Fiddle Band, consisting of fiddler Jim Rob Wills, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, and singer Milton Brown, were eager to secure a corporate sponsor as the Great Depression tightened its grip. They had previously worked under the employ of an electric lamp company as the “Aladdin Laddies”, and Wills convinced O’Daniel and Burrus to sponsor the act in 1931. Newly christened the “Light Crust Doughboys”, after the flour Burrus produced, they made their radio debut under O’Daniel’s management around the beginning of 1931, with announcer Truett Kimsey establishing their famous introduction: “the Light Crust Doughboys are on the air!” Soon after, O’Daniel canceled the show because he didn’t like their “hillbilly” music. Fortunately, they’d already built a sizable base of fans, and public outcry forced O’Daniel to reinstate their program. The original lineup of Doughboys made one record—against O’Daniel’s wishes—for RCA Victor as the “Fort Worth Doughboys”, but it wasn’t long before the members parted ways. Milton Brown got fed up with O’Daniel’s management (he required that they also work factory jobs for Burrus) and left to form his own Musical Brownies, while Bob Wills was fired for consistent unreliability the following year, so a new group of musicians assumed the mantle of Doughboys. By the time the band recorded again in 1933, this time for Vocalion, only Arnspiger remained from its original roster, and new members included Leon Huff and Ramon DeArman. Come 1935, W. Lee O’Daniel was fired from Burrus Mill, and founded his own flour company with a new radio band to match, but the Doughboys stayed put.
All throughout the Great Depression years, thousands of listeners tuned their radios to listen in on the Light Crust Doughboys on stations across the Southwest. On the side, they continued to record successfully for Vocalion (and later Okeh and Columbia, once the label was discontinued in 1940), and even appeared in movies such as the Gene Autry picture Oh, Susanna! In 1936, they hired tenor banjo player Marvin (“Smokey”) Montgomery, who would become a mainstay of the group, composing many of the pieces they played, and eventually becoming the band’s de facto leader. As was so often the case, when World War II rolled in, many band members went off to fight, and Burrus canceled their show in 1942. After the war was through however, the band was reinstated in 1946, fronted by singer and fiddle player Jack Perry, though it never recovered its prewar popularity, and only lasted a few years. Yet an end for the Doughboys wasn’t to be, for in the 1960s, Marvin Montgomery revived the group, and he continued to be involved with the group until shortly before his death in 2001. Management of the group was assumed by Art Greenhaw in 1993, and the Doughboys shifted their focus more toward gospel music. To this day, though the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company is long gone, the Light Crust Doughboys remain the “official music ambassadors of the Lone Star State,” by decree of the state’s legislature.
Vocalion 04560 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on November 30, 1938. The Light Crust Doughboys are Buck Buchanan and Kenneth “Abner” Pitts on fiddles, Muryel “Zeke” Campbell on steel guitar, “Knocky” Parker on piano, Marvin “Junior” (later “Smokey”) Montgomery on tenor banjo and tenor guitar, Ramon “Snub” DeArman on guitar, and Jim Boyd on string bass.
First, the Doughboys sing and meow Marvin Montgomery’s “Pussy, Pussy, Pussy”, a perfectly innocent little ditty about a young girl who’s looking for her pet cat—honest! This song proved quite a hit in coin machines and even attracted the attention of Fats Waller. The Doughboys followed it up the next year with “We Found Her Little Pussy Cat”, and in fact the song proved popular enough that it remains in the Doughboys’ repertoire even in the modern day.
Pussy, Pussy, Pussy, recorded November 30, 1938 by the Light Crust Doughboys.
Next, they take it slow and easy on an instrumental performance of Joe Sullivan’s “Gin Mill Blues”, served as straight up, if rather barrelhouse jazz for the most part, with only a dash of “hillbilly” flavor, highlighting the talent of pianist Knocky Parker.
Gin Mill Blues, recorded November 30, 1938 by the Light Crust Doughboys.
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.