Bluebird B-5257 – Fort Worth Doughboys – 1932

Boasting ninety years of continuous operation, and an active recording career only slightly shorter, the venerable Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill of Fort Worth, Texas, can rightly lay claim to the title of longest-running western swing band in the music’s history.

The original lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys, circa 1931; from left-to-right Milton Brown, Derwood Brown, announcer Truett Kimsey, Bob Wills, and Herman Arnspiger.

The progenitor of the Light Crust Doughboys was born when aspiring jazz singer Milton Brown joined forces with Jim Rob Wills and his Wills Fiddle Band (consisting of Wills and guitarist Herman Arnspiger) in 1930.  Finding success in local dance halls, they soon took their act on the radio, bringing on Brown’s younger brother Derwood and fiddler-banjoist-guitarist Sleepy Johnson.  After a brief sponsorship by the Aladdin Lamp Company as the “Aladdin Laddies”, they convinced W. Lee O’Daniel of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company to take the group on as the “Light Crust Doughboys” in 1931, drawing their name from the brand of flour produced by the mill.  After two weeks of successful broadcasts, O’Daniel canceled their show, citing distaste for their “hillbilly music”.  Fortunately, the will of the people prevailed and the Doughboys were brought back by popular demand (under the stipulation that the boys also work day jobs at the mill).  Though O’Daniel initially forbade his band from recording, the Doughboys managed to get in a brief recording session during the RCA Victor Company’s 1932 field trip to Dallas, cutting one record under the rather thinly veiled pseudonym “Fort Worth Doughboys”.  Not long after that session, the original lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys began to disintegrate under O’Daniel’s rather draconian leadership.  Brown found the arrangement too stifling, and quit the band in 1932 to form his own Musical Brownies, ultimately achieving much greater success than he could have found as a Doughboy and cementing his position as the founder of western swing before his untimely death in 1936.  Wills, on the other hand, was fired in 1933 as an unreliable employee, and thereafter moved to Waco to form his Playboys.  O’Daniel subsequently hired a new group of musicians and evidently retracted his embargo on recording, bringing the group to Chicago for a 1933 session followed by consistent record dates afterward.  W. Lee O’Daniel himself was fired from the Burrus Mill in 1935, after which he founded his own mill and string band to go with it—the Hillbilly Boys—while the Light Crust Doughboys managed to carry on just fine without him.

Bluebird B-5257 was recorded on February 9, 1932, at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas Texas.  It was originally issued on Victor 23653, which sold a total of 1,246 copies, and also reissued on Electradisk 2137, Sunrise S-3340, Montgomery Ward M-4416 and M-4757, and, in Canada, on Aurora 415.  The Fort Worth Doughboys are Milton Brown, singing, Bob Wills on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, and Sleepy Johnson on tenor guitar.

Whether it is to be considered the first western swing record remains a point of contention among historians of the genre; some argue that the music thereon lacks the improvisational element of jazz music, and thus cannot be considered western swing.  Personally, I am of the “smells-like-a-rose-no-matter-what-you-call-it” mindset, and it sounds like western swing to me.  At the very least, it should be unanimous that it is a crucial predecessor to the subsequent western swing movement.

On the obverse, the Doughboys play Milton Brown’s adaptation of the Famous Hokum Boys’ (Georgia Tom Dorsey, Big Bill Broonzy, and Frank Brasswell) 1930 hokum blues number “Nancy Jane”.

Nancy Jane, recorded February 9, 1932 by the Fort Worth Doughboys.

And on the reverse, they play Brown’s own composition “Sunbonnet Sue”, which to my ear seems to have drawn some melodic inspiration from the 1930 popular song “Sweet Jennie Lee” (who incidentally received mention in the lyrics alongside some other popular gals from songs of the day).

Sunbonnet Sue, recorded February 9, 1932 by the Fort Worth Doughboys.

Montgomery Ward M-4462 – Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee – 1930

Powder River Jack H. Lee, pictured in his book The Stampede.

Over the past decade-and-a-half-or-so, the Senate of the United States has made a tradition of decreeing the fourth Saturday of every July to be the National Day of the American Cowboy.  Across the western states, the holiday is celebrated with festivals and other such customary jubilations; on Old Time Blues, we shall celebrate the occasion in the only way we know how—with appreciation of an old record.

Born Jackson Martin on the first of October, 1874, Jack H. Lee was counted among the eldest of the more authentic tradition of cowboy singers to cut records in the days before Hollywood Autrys and Rogerses took center stage (though the extent of that authenticity has been called into question).  Purportedly after joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show around 1893, Jack met his future wife Kitty Miller, a native Illinoisan six years his senior, and the two began a long career singing genuine cowboy songs on vaudeville and in rodeos.  Claiming to hail from Montana, they dubbed themselves Powder River Jack and Pretty Kitty Lee and were performing together at least as early as 1898.  Ultimately, the duo became one of the most popular early cowboy acts, though their recorded legacy leaves little evidence of that success.  The Lees were recorded for the first time in November of 1930, with a session for the RCA Victor Company in Hollywood.  The date produced four titles, all of which were released to limited success as the nation plunged into the Great Depression.  They returned to the studio six years later, waxing two sides for Decca in Chicago, which have never been released.  An additional three recordings were made of Jack performing at the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., in May of 1938.  Powder River Jack also published several books of cowboy lore and song folios during the 1930s which demonstrated his penchant for misappropriating authorship of traditional cowboy poetry (even going so far as to claim “Red River Valley” as his own).  Jack Lee died in a car accident on February 24, 1946, in Chandler, Arizona; he was survived for nine years by Kitty, and both are interred side-by-side in the City Cemetery in Mesa, Arizona.  Because of Jack’s tendency to plagiarize, the duo’s merit as cowboy performers has been challenged.  While indeed neither Jack nor Kitty were likely ever working cowhands and much of their backstory was probably fabricated, they did perform and preserve genuine western folk music—even if they wrongfully attributed its origins—and, with that caveat, are no less deserving of recognition than their contemporary early cowboy recording artists.

Montgomery Ward M-4462 was recorded on November 3, 1930, in Hollywood, California.  It was originally released on Victor 23527, of which a total of 2,158 copies were reported sold.  Jack and Kitty both strum their guitars, while the former blows the harmonica on a rack between stanzas.  Jack sings solo vocals on both sides.

“Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail [sic]”, illustrated by Powder River Jack.

Certainly one of the most enticing cowboy songs put to shellac in the 1920s and 1930s and today a standard of the traditional cowboy repertoire, “Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail”, was truthfully written by Gail Gardner in 1917, though Lee claimed the credit on the record and otherwise (much to the former’s chagrin).  Legend has it that Gardner and his chums in Prescott, Arizona, once tarred and feathered Powder River Jack for stealing his song.

Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail, recorded November 3, 1930 by Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee.

“Powder River, Let ‘er Buck”, ostensibly actually written by Jack himself, lent its name to one of his publications in the same year he cut the record.

Powder River, Let ‘er Buck, recorded November 3, 1930 by Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee.

Vocalion 02614 – Sonny Scott – 1933

When the Great Depression rolled in, along with it came the blues.  People had been singing the blues since times untold, yes, but the hard times surely gave them something to sing ’em about.  Unfortunately for us today, the Depression also nearly killed the recording industry, so recordings of blues from the early 1930s are rather scarce, deep country blues even more so.  These two 1933 sides by Alabama or Mississippi musician Sonny Scott are among the few, and offer an opportunity to hear the real blues of the Great Depression afflicted South.

Not much is known about the life and times of blues guitarist and singer Sonny Scott.  In the early 1930s, he reportedly resided in Quitman, Mississippi, and he presumably had some ties to neighboring Alabama, as he was an associate of pianist Walter Roland.  Scott’s friend and student Gress Barnett from Quitman related to researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow that Sonny’s surname was Scarborough, and that he was also known as “Babe”.  “Scott”, presumably, was a corruption of “Scarborough”, if not his given name.  In the Summer of 1933, Scott traveled with Roland to New York City, where they were recorded by the American Record Corporation.  It has been suggested that Scott and Roland had both arrived in Birmingham only recently when they ventured to New York.  From the seventeenth to the twentieth of July, 1933, Scott cut a total of seventeen released sides, eleven solo and six in duet with Walter Roland.  He also participated in the Jolly Two and Jolly Jivers recordings with Roland and Lucille Bogan, resulting in a further eight sides.  The musical content of these recordings ranged from the deep blues of “Hard Luck Man” to upbeat hokum numbers like “Hungry Man’s Scuffle”.  In those recordings, Scott revealed himself to be a competent guitarist.  While Roland continued to record for some time thereafter, frequently accompanying Bogan, Scott went home, never to record again, fading into total obscurity.  Barnett reported that Sonny Scott had died in Shubuta, Mississippi—where his sister was said to have lived—a short time before World War II.

The two sides of Vocalion 02614 were recorded in New York City on July 20 and 18, 1933, respectively.  It is the last issued of Scott’s recordings.  Sonny Scott accompanies himself on guitar.  In their “Rarest 78s” column, the contributors to 78 Quarterly estimated fewer than ten copies of it to exist, with this particular copy listed as having belonged to the late Mr. Steve LaVere.

First, Scott starts in with a snappy little bit, but segues into singing a song of Great Depression misery, “Red Cross Blues No. 2”.  Scott and Roland must have been particularly proud of this number, for they each recorded separate versions of “Red Cross Blues” and “Red Cross Blues No. 2”, and in later years the song was covered by Lead Belly, who presented it as a draft-dodging song from the First World War.  Scott’s and Roland’s versions of this song reference a particular Red Cross Store on Third Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama.

Red Cross Blues No. 2, recorded July 20, 1933 by Sonny Scott.

He sings an archetypal country blues song on the back, though among the more philosophical ones—”Fire-Wood Man”—with some rather profound lyrics: “Lord, a man come in this world, and he have but a few minutes to stay; lawd his head is full of nonsense, and his feet’s all full of pain.”

Fire-Wood Man, recorded July 18, 1933 by Sonny Scott.

Supertone 9741 – Cullen Bros. – 1930

On this Mother’s Day, I take a moment away from Old Time Blues’ usual dedication to long gone musicianers to spend a moment of appreciation for all the beloved mothers of the world, not least my own.

A portrait of motherhood in the roaring twenties.

Though nowadays rather receded from their former stature within popular culture, there once existed nearly an entire genre of “mother songs” dedicated to maternal appreciation, songs like Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “You’ll Never Miss Your Mother ‘Till She’s Gone”, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mother, the Queen of My Heart”, and Rudyard Kipling’s “Mother o’ Mine” to name just two of many.  Hundreds—if not thousands—of songs were published and recorded in the first decades of the twentieth century celebrating the love of a son (or daughter) for his mother.  Indeed, many of them tended a little on the sappy side, but the sentiment behind them, generally, was honest and sincere, and represented a culture which rightfully valued a mother’s love.  The record published herein contains two such songs, originally published in the early decades of the twentieth century, in honor of dear old mother, as sung in duet by the so-called Cullen Brothers (though in fact they were not really brothers and only one was a Cullen).

Supertone 9741 was recorded on May 23, 1930, presumably in Richmond, Indiana.  The “Cullen Brothers” are in fact Billy Cullen and Barney Kleeber.  The instrumentalists on piano, violin, and guitar are unidentified.  The same pairing was also issued on Champion 16045, credited to its true artists, and the “A” side also appeared on Superior 2513, credited to “Ward and Scott”.

Firstly, Cullen and Kleeber sing Arthur Dewey Larkin’s composition “Mother Dear (Do You Hear Me Calling You)”, originally published in 1922.

Mother Dear (Do You Year Me Calling You), recorded May 23, 1930 by the Cullen Bros.

Next, from 1914, they sing H.C. Weasner’s “Just a Dream of Mother” on the “B’ side.

Just a Dream of Mother, recorded May 23, 1930 by the Cullen Bros.

Melotone M 12117 – Dessa Foster and Howling Smith – 1931

Some twenty years before Chester Burnett became famous as “Howlin’ Wolf”, another blues musician claimed that title for his own, a Texas guitarist and singer also known as “Funny Paper” Smith, called such after his eponymous “Howling Wolf Blues”, which he recorded in four parts in 1930 and ’31.  Regrettably, like so many of his contemporaries, very little is known of the life and times of the original “Howling Wolf”.

Most sources suggest that the blues singer and guitarist known as “Funny Paper Smith” was John T. Smith, as is indicated on the labels of the records he made for the Vocalion company in 1930 and ’31.  He is usually said to have been born in East Texas the 1880s or ’90s, and to have died sometime in the 1940s.  Indeed, there are some documents to corroborate that a black musician by the name of John Smith existed in Texas during those years, though aside from sharing the most common name around, there is little to connect him to “Funny Paper”.  It is also frequently suggested that his “Funny Paper” sobriquet was a mistake on the part of the record company, and that his nickname was properly “Funny Papa”.  A good deal of that information seems to derive from the notes of the 1972 Yazoo compilation of some of his material—The Original Howling Wolf—which itself appears to have mostly been derived from an interview with fellow Texas bluesman Thomas Shaw (the same album also erroneously displays an early photograph of the Black Ace purported as Smith, thus staining its claim to accuracy).

Recently released research by the esteemed Mack McCormick—continued by Bob Eagle—has related a compelling argument for a different scenario; they suggest that “John Smith” was merely an assumed name used by the artist to evade trouble back home.  In a 1962 interview, McCormick played one of the Smith’s records for Mrs. Alberta Cook White of Smithville, Texas, who identified the singer as her older brother, Otis Cook, whom she claimed was born there in Bastrop County on April 1, 1910.  She related that he learned to play guitar as a youth and began rambling around the state of Texas, leaving behind life as a farmer in favor of becoming an itinerant songster, playing at local functions and sometimes leaving home for weeks at a time to visit Waco and Dallas, possibly encountering Blind Lemon Jefferson along the way.  He was reportedly known to most of his contemporaries as the “Howling Wolf”, not as “Funny Papa” or “Funny Paper”, and he was described as being a tall, dark-skinned man of about one-hundred-sixty-five pounds (to complicate matters, it was suggested that the “Howling Wolf” name may have been used by more than one musician in Texas around the same time).  Census documents suggest he was incarcerated at Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, Texas, on a charge of attempted arson in the spring of 1930, after which he promptly made for Chicago.  There, “Smith” began his career as a recording artist for Vocalion Records, the details surrounding which are considerably more certain than those surrounding his identity.

Main Street in Smithville, Texas, hometown of Otis Cook, circa 1920s.

Dubbed “‘Funny Paper’ Smith (The Howling Wolf)”, he entered the studio for the first time on September 18, 1930, to make two unreleased test recordings for the Vocalion company, “Hobo Blues” and “Old Rounder’s Blues” for the Vocalion company—the latter perhaps a rendition of Lemon Jefferson’s song of the same name.  He made his debut in earnest the following day, cutting the first two installments of his eponymous, four-part, “Howling Wolf Blues” and two more sides the day after, all of which were issued this time around.  He returned to the studio thrice more before the end of the year to make another five sides.  The following year, he had a further five sessions resulting in fifteen more sides.  Afterwards, “Funny Paper” evidently went back home to Texas.  He resurfaced four years later in Fort Worth to record for Vocalion once again.  From the twentieth through the twenty-third of April, 1935, he cut a total of thirty-two sides—including parts five and six of “Howling Wolf Blues”—on some of which he was joined by Moanin’ Bernice Edwards and Black Boy Shine on pianos and vocals and “Little Brother” Willie Lane on guitar.  Of all those, only his three sides with Bernice Edwards were released, of which only one—a hot “skiffle” record—bore credit to “Howling Smith”; all others were “found to be faulty,” and never released in any form.  In all, his recording activities netted a grand total of fifty-six sides, though only twelve records were issued to his name.  In the late 1930s, “Smith” teamed up for a time with “Texas” Alexander before parting ways near the Oklahoma border, at which point Alexander joined with Lowell Fulson.  Sometime later, Otis Cook is believed to have settled down with a family back home in Bastrop, where he later died on August 29, 1979.  A testament to his reputation in his home state, the “Howling Wolf Blues” later became something of a standard among Texas blues players, with renditions made by his protégé Willie Lane, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Tom Shaw.

Melotone M 12117 was recorded on January 19, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois.  It was also issued on Polk P9013 and later on Vocalion 02699 in 1934.  Dessa Foster and J.T. “Funny Paper” Smith duet and banter on a novelty blues in the manner of those made by Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson for Okeh, while Smith accompanies on guitar.  It has been proposed that “Dessa Foster” is a pseudonym for Mississippi Delta blues singer Mattie Delaney (frankly I’m rather dubious, but some compelling evidence has been presented, and there is a compelling aural similarity).

On the first part of the comic duet “Tell it to the Judge—No. 1”, Howling Smith plays the part of a police officer, barging into Miss Foster’s house with the question: “where that booze at?”

Tell it to the Judge—No. 1, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.

Opening with a fine bit of guitar reminiscent of his work on “Honey Blues”, recorded the following month, Smith assumes the role of the titular judge on “Tell it to the Judge—No. 2”, and he’s not giving any more breaks to “Betty”.

Tell it to the Judge—No. 2, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.