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.

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.

Vocalion 15943 – Bačova Česka Kapela – 1935

Of the crazy quilt of ethnicities comprising the cultural mosaic of Texas, the contributions of the Czechs are not to be diminished.  From Shiner Bock to kolaches and plenty more, the bounties brought to the people of Texas by way of Czechoslovakia are nigh innumerable.  Among those, polka has made a particular, if sometimes overlooked, impression on Texan culture, with a unique flavor of the dance music originating in central Texas which can to this day not only be heard in its pure form, but also in its influences on the state’s official musical genre, western swing.

One of the leading purveyors of polka music for much of the twentieth century, Bačova Česka Kapela (“Bača’s Czech Band” in English) of Fayetteville, Texas, was originally founded in 1892 by Frantisek “Frank” J. Bača, a first generation Texan, born March 8, 1860, whose father emigrated from Bohemia.  In addition to his own thirteen children, the band included local musicians from around the central Texas Czech country.  Bača was proficient on several instruments, and his band quickly gained popularity at local functions and SPJST dances.  They quickly established themselves as one of Texas’ most popular polka orchestras, alongside the likes of Joe Patek’s Orchestra of Shiner.  A national tour was planned, but was aborted following the Frank Bača’s death on May 3, 1907.  Subsequently, leadership of the the Kapela was assumed by his son John R. Bača.  Under his directorship, the Bača band made their first record in Chicago in 1924, for Okeh and their ethnically oriented subsidiary Odeon, under the name “Baster’s Ceska Kapela”.  They made their radio debut in 1926, playing on Houston’s KPRC.  When the Okeh company visited San Antonio five years later, they furthered their recorded legacy with a session which produced eight sides in June of 1929.  They made another sixteen in two record dates on the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth of August, 1935, when Okeh’s successor Vocalion made a field trip to Texas.  Further recordings were made for local labels like Waco’s Humming Bird Records after the Second World War.  John Bača died on April 16, 1953, and the Bača baton was passed on to his nephew Gil, whose father Ray had led an offshoot of the original band since 1932.  A distinctive pianist, Gil Bača led the family band to great acclaim until his death on October 15, 2008, bringing the multi-generational history of Bačova Česka Kapela  to its close.  Many of their recordings were reissued on the Arhoolie compilation Texas-Czech Bohemian-Moravian Bands.

Vocalion 15943 was recorded on August 27, 1935, in San Antonio, Texas.  It was also released—evidently concurrently—on Columbia 263-F, which remained in “print” for a considerable length of time.  On all issues, it seems to have been Bačova Česka Kapela’s best-selling record.

Firstly the Kapela plays a boisterous polka titled “Já Jsem Mladá Vdova”, or in English, “Young Widow”, in an arrangement by Adolf Snec.

Já Jsem Mladá Vdova (Young Widow), recorded August 27, 1935 by Bačova Česka Kapela.

On the flip, they play another deceptively titled upbeat polka number, “Dobrunoc (Goodnight)”, an original Frank J. Bača composition.

Dobrunoc (Goodnight), recorded August 27, 1935 by Bačova Česka Kapela.

Brunswick 6181 – Herman Waldman and his Orchestra – 1931

In Old Time Blues’s continuing appreciation of both territory jazz bands and artists and musicians from Texas, we now turn our attention to one of the most successful dance orchestras from the state of Texas: that of Herman Waldman.

Bandleader Herman Waldman was born in New York City on January 26, 1902 (by his own account, though some sources suggest a date of two days later), the son of Austro-Hungarian immigrants Morris and Anna (née Sororowitz) Waldman.  The family had taken up residence in Dallas, Texas, before Herman was twenty.  As a youth, he worked as a clerk in a railroad office.  A violinist, Waldman had formed his orchestra by the latter years of the 1920s.  They were said to have had engagements at Dallas’s Adolphus and Baker Hotels, which also hosted the talents of Alphonso Trent and Jack Gardner at different times.  The band was playing hot when they recorded for the first time as part of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company’s field trip to Dallas in October of 1929.  That session produced only one record: the hot jazz “Marbles” and “Waiting”.  When Brunswick ventured to San Antonio two years later, Waldman’s orchestra recorded once again, again producing only one record.  In addition to their sparse recordings, the Waldman band toured around the southern and southwestern states, reportedly appearing at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City.  In between their recording sessions, a young trumpeter named Harry James joined Waldman’s band, before moving on to the nationally successful Ben Pollack’s orchestra.  In the midst of the Great Depression, the group made their final recordings, this time for Bluebird, at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, on April 3, 1934, this time making two records.  By that time, scarcely any trace of the hot band that produced “Marbles” back in ’29 was audible; instead, they played popular tunes in the fashion of the sweet dance bands prevalent in the day, though they did so with the proficiency of any of the big New York orchestras.  Though they never recorded again, Waldman and his orchestra were still going at least as late as 1941.  Herman Waldman died in Dallas on March 7, 1991.

Brunswick 6181 was recorded on the afternoon of August 31, 1931, in San Antonio, Texas.  Waldman’s band is made up of Rex Preis and Ken Switzer on trumpets, Bill Clemens on trombone, Bob “Baldy” Harris and Jimmy Segers (or “Segars”) on clarinet and alto sax, Arno “Tink” Navratil on clarinet and tenor sax, Herman Waldman on violin, Tom Blake on piano, Vernon Mills on banjo, Barney Dodd on tuba, and Reggie Kaughlin on drums.

On the first side, Waldman’s orchestra plays “Got No Honey”, a composition by band members Arno “Tink” Navratil and Jimmy Segers, and seemingly the only recording of this song.  Trumpet man Ken Switzer takes the vocal.

Got No Honey, recorded August 31, 1931 by Herman Waldman and his Orchestra.

On the flip-side, they play a competent rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Lazy River”.  Banjoist Vernon Mills sings the lyric, joined by a trio consisting of Switzer and two others.

Lazy River, recorded August 31, 1931 by Herman Waldman and his Orchestra.

Bluebird B-6926 – Riverside Ramblers – 1937

The Hackberry (a.k.a. “Riverside”) Ramblers, Floyd Rainwater, Luderin Darbone, Lonnie Rainwater, and Lennis Sonnier, pictured in the 1937 Bluebird Records catalog.

With a career spanning eight decades, the illustrious Hackberry Ramblers doubtlessly rank among the most prolific and well-known bands of the Cajun country, and surely among the earliest to gain note outside of their region of origin.

The long and storied history of the Hackberry Ramblers starts in the beginning of the 1930s, when fiddler Luderin Darbone met guitarist Edwin Duhon in Hackberry, Louisiana.  Darbone was born on January 14, 1913, in the Evangeline Parish of Louisiana; his father worked in the oilfields, and moved the family around the southwestern part of the state and the corresponding region of Texas while Luderin was growing up, eventually settling in Orangefield, Texas.  He got his first fiddle at the age of twelve and learned to play through a correspondence course; his playing was influenced by the burgeoning western swing music in Texas at that time.  Duhon was born on June 11, 1910, to a French-speaking family in Youngsville, Louisiana.  He took up the popular instruments of guitar and accordion in his teenage years.  Both young Cajuns moved to Hackberry, Louisiana, in 1931, and soon started playing music together.  Darbone and Duhon (alongside Texas steel guitarist Bob Dunn) gained the distinction of being among the earliest to amplify their music electrically, using a public address wired to Darbone’s Model A Ford.  Soon, other local musicians joined in to fill out the ranks, and the duo became a proper band.  The band took the name “Hackberry Ramblers” in 1933, after the town of their origin, and began playing on the radio and at local dance halls.  Duhon left the band soon after as work made him travel, and his role of guitarist was filled by Lennis Sonnier.  Guitarist Floyd Rainwater and his brother Lonnie on steel guitar also joined, their own places later filled by Floyd and Danny Shreve—with Darbone being the only constant member.  The Ramblers played a repertoire as varied as their membership, consisting of traditional Acadian French melodies like “Jolie Blonde”, blues songs like “On Top of the World”, western swing like “Just Because”, jazz such as “You’ve Got to Hi-De-Hi”, and even popular tunes like “Sonny Boy”.  On August 10, 1935, they made their debut recordings for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label.  Their engagement with RCA Victor lasted until 1938 and resulted in a total of eighty-one sides, of which all but one were released.  A sponsorship deal with Montgomery Ward changed their name to “Riverside Ramblers”—after Ward’s eponymous line of tires—on radio and some of their records.  The group temporarily disbanded at the end of the 1930s, when Darbone quit music for a time.  They reorganized after World War II when Harry Choates’ version of “Jole Blon” brought Cajun music to the charts, and recorded again, for DeLuxe Records in 1947 or ’48, and continued to make records sporadically in the following decades.  The group remained active, with Darbone and Duhon at the helm, until 2004.  Edwin Duhon died on February 26, 2006, at the age of ninety-five.  Luderin Darbone survived him by nearly three years, until his own death at the same age on November 21, 2008.

Bluebird B-6926 was recorded on February 22, 1937 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  It was released on April 28, 1937.  The Riverside Ramblers are Joe Werner on harmonica, guitar, and vocals, Lennis Sonnier on guitar, and Luderin Darbone on fiddle.

First, Joe Werner sings his own composition, “Wondering”, which found greater popularity when it was covered by Webb Pierce in 1951, becoming the young country singer’s breakthrough hit and earning him the nickname “The Wondering Boy”.  Even on a sentimental song such as this one, they cannot fully shake off the rough and ragged, good-time feel endemic to Cajun music.

Wondering, recorded February 22, 1937 by the Riverside Ramblers.

On the reverse, they play and sing a rousing rendition of Riley Puckett’s “Dissatisfied”.

Dissatisfied, recorded February 22, 1937 by the Riverside Ramblers.

Bluebird B-6513 – The Tune Wranglers – 1936

The Tune Wranglers, as pictured in the 1937 Bluebird catalog.  Standing, left-to-right: Eddie Duncan, Bill Dickey, Eddie Whitley; seated: Tom Dickey, Buster Coward.

Pioneering, barnstorming cowboy string band from San Antonio, Texas, the Tune Wranglers made a name for themselves both for their rollicking and raucous music and as one of the earliest bands to play in the style that would later be known as western swing.

Much like their contemporaries Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, the Tune Wranglers began with a partnership between a guitarist and a fiddler: respectively Edwin Portavent “Buster” Coward, born December 11, 1903, in Chesterville, Texas, and Thomas Ephraim “Tom” Dickey, born November 29, 1899, in Markham, Texas.  Dickey learned fiddle as a child, and got his professional start on Mexican border radio in 1929.  Coward too started music young, playing guitar, and also served as the most frequent vocalist and de facto bandleader as the group’s most prominent and constant member.  The duo organized the first incarnation of the band in 1935 and began touring all across the region and making appearances on radio stations WOAI and KTSA in San Antonio, Texas.  They added to their ranks hot shot tenor banjoist Joe Barnes (a.k.a. “Red Brown”), pianist Eddie Whitley, and upright bassist J. Harrell “Curley” Williams.  They made their recording debut before long, on an RCA Victor field trip to San Antonio on the twenty-seventh-and-eighth of February, 1936.  In seven sessions from 1936 to 1938, they recorded a series of seventy-nine sides for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, all made in San Antonio.  Their widely variegated repertoire consisted of popular songs like “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'” (many of which had their title altered, likely in a royalty dodge by producer Eli Oberstein, who did the same to recordings by fellow San Antonians Boots and his Buddies), old cowboy ballads like “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, blues like “Red’s Tight Like That”, jazz like “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, Mexican numbers like “Rancho Grande”, and original compositions such as “Texas Sand”.  Some of their instrumental recordings were released under the name “Tono Hombres” for the Mexican market.  They added steel guitar before their third record date, played by the prolific Eddie Duncan, and a number of other musicians sometimes sat in or replaced others, including pianist George Timberlake, and banjoist Eddie Fielding.   Most every member took a turn singing at one point or another.  Tom Dickey parted ways with the band in 1937 to lead another band called the Show Boys, with whom he recorded for Bluebird in 1938; he later made further recordings for the Folkraft label in the latter part of the 1940s, still operating out of San Antonio.  His position in the Tune Wranglers was filled by first by Ben McKay and later by Leonard Seago.  By 1938, the band included a reed section consisting of twins Neal and Beal Ruff, the former of whom also doubled on tenor banjo.  The Wranglers moved to Fort Worth in 1939 to begin appearing on KFJZ, but disbanded soon after around 1940.  Tom Dickey later operated a cafe in San Antonio, and died in that city on August 24, 1954.  Buster Coward later worked as a flying instructor and died from a coronary at his home near Boerne, Texas, on April 28, 1975.

Bluebird B-6513 was recorded on February 28, 1936, in San Antonio, Texas.  It was released on August 26 of the same year and remained in “print” for decades to come.  This pressing dates to the mid-1940s.  It was also issued on Montgomery Ward M-4766; “Texas Sand” was reissued on RCA Victor 20-2070 around 1946, backed with their other big hit: “Hawaiian Honeymoon”.  The Tune Wranglers are Buster Coward singing and on guitar, Tom Dickey on fiddle, Red Brown on tenor banjo, Curley Williams on string bass, and Eddie Whitley on piano.

Penned by guitarist and vocalist Buster Coward, “Texas Sand” became something of a standard in Texas country music, and was later covered by Webb Pierce in one of his earliest recording sessions.

Texas Sand, recorded February 28, 1936 by the Tune Wranglers.

As marvelous as the first side is, I do believe the Wranglers managed to really outdo themselves on the “B” side with their tour de force performance of “Lonesome Blues”, also featuring Buster Coward’s strong vocal talent and hot performances by every member of the band.

Lonesome Blues, recorded February 28, 1936 by the Tune Wranglers.