Vocalion 1727 – Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law) – 1932

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).

Broadway 8323 – Bud Kelly – 1932

Rex Kelley, a.k.a. Buck Nation, pictured on the cover of Songs Sung by Oklahoma Buck Nation and Tex Ann, circa 1935.

It’s time now to pay a visit to the Great Depression days of guitar strumming cowboy singers in ten-gallon hats and Mexican radio stations blasting their music thousands of miles past the border into United States, free from the auspices of the Federal Radio Commission.  Many of those countless, fairly small time folk singers made their fame on the radio and were never recorded for posterity, and of those who were, many only recorded sparsely.  Falling into the latter category is the performer who appears on the record presented herein: the one relatively prolific but now long forgotten Buck Nation.

Buck was born Rex Frederick Kelley on September 12, 1910 in the American badlands: Burke, South Dakota, a settlement of about three-hundred situated in-between the Missouri River and the Rosebud Indian Reservation.  Dropping the “e” from his last name, Kelly went to traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin early in 1932 to make his debut recordings for the faltering Paramount Records, resulting in six sides.  Adopting the stage name “Buck Nation”, he returned to the studio three years later, this time for Decca, resulting in twenty-two recordings made in January and February of 1935, some solo and others in duet with fellow singing cowboy Ray Whitley, plus several more playing guitar behind Tex Ritter.  Likely around the same time, he and his wife Louise—who performed with him as “Tex Ann”, and later divorced him and married Merle Travis—published a collection of songs titled Songs Sung by Oklahoma Buck Nation and Tex Ann, which included many of the songs he recorded.  Sometime in the 1930s or ’40s, he was one of the numerous cowboy singers to appear on “border blaster” radio, on XEPN in Piedras Negras, Coahuila.  He recorded another ten sides for Bluebird in 1940 and ’41 with Ed and Lloyd West as a member of a Sons of the Pioneers style vocal group and string ensemble called the Airport Boys, which predicted the styles of folksinging groups of the 1950s such as the Kingston Trio.  During World War II, Kelley served as a corporal in the United States Army.  After the war’s end, he recorded once again as a member of the the Six Westernaires with Porky Freeman and Slim Duncan, appearing on the Black and White label in 1946.  Rex Kelley reportedly suffered from a drinking problem, and he died on January 11, 1965.

Broadway 8323 was recorded in January or February of 1932 at the New York Recording Laboratories’ studio in Grafton, Wisconsin by Rex Kelly, accompanying himself on guitar.  It was the fifteenth to last record issued in Broadway’s 8000 “hillbilly” series, and operations at the NYRL ceased around six months later.  Being from 1932 and a Paramount product to boot, it can’t have sold too many copies

On the “A” side, Kelly sings an amiable rendition of a traditional cowboy ballad which you may recognize as the familiar “Streets of Laredo”, under the title that it was given by its purported writer Frank H. Maynard: “Cowboy’s Lament”.  The ballad evolved from the British folk song “The Unfortunate Rake”, the same source that gave way to the famous “St. James Infirmary”, with which it has a degree of lyrical similarity.

Cowboy’s Lament, recorded January/February 1932 by Bud Kelly.

On the “B” side, he sings “Broncho [sic] Mustang”, a song that bears more than a little topical resemblance to its contemporary “Strawberry Roan”, which Kelly recorded previously at the same session.  His style of delivery leads me to believe Mr. Kelly drew considerable inspiration from Frank Crumit (coupled with the fact that he also recorded Crumit’s “Down By the Railroad Tracks”).

Broncho Mustang, recorded January/February 1932 by Bud Kelly.

Conqueror 8066 – Johnny Marvin – 1932

The days of the Great Depression, in spite of the stalled economy, proved to be anything but a time devoid of happening, for times of unrest and discontent always seem to push men to action.

One such action took place on the nation’s capital, during the summer of 1932; thousands of down-on-their-luck veterans of the Great War and their supporters marched on the capitol to demand the government pay their bonuses for their service in the war, which they were not scheduled to receive until 1945.  Dubbed the “Bonus Army”, the protestors built up a Hooverville along the banks of the Anacostia river.  The legislators debated how to respond to the veterans’ plea, but ultimately denied them their bonus.  The Bonus Army’s struggle reached its climax on July 28, 1932, when a riot broke out, resulting in two men being shot and killed by police.  In response, President Hoover called in the Army to “surround the affected area and clear it without delay,” so Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur commanded a contingent of five-hundred infantrymen and six tanks against the protestors, and, despite Hoover’s subsequent order to stop the assault, forced the veterans and their families out of the camp with tear gas, MacArthur claiming that the Bonus Army had been taken over by communists plotting to overthrow the federal government.  The Bonus Army reconvened on Washington following Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933, and the new administration provided more favorable results, compromising with the veterans by offering them jobs in the CCC, or a free ride back home.  Most of them took the job.

Needless to say, a sizable fraction of Americans were outraged by the attack on their own war veterans, and the media came out in support of the “forgotten man”, paying them tribute in films like Gold Diggers of 1933.  On this record, the “Ukulele Ace” Johnny Marvin sings in a “citybilly” style what is most certainly the first song dedicated to the Bonus Army, and probably among the earliest American protest songs on record.

Conqueror 8066 was recorded in New York City on July 28, 1932—the very same day the Bonus Army conflict reached its climax—by Johnny Marvin, who accompanies himself on guitar.  Roy Smeck plays steel guitar, switching to banjo on the “B” side.

Johnny Marvin sings out in support of the dejected veterans on “I’m The Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 1” on the first side of this record.

I’m the Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 1, recorded July 28, 1932 by Johnny Marvin.

Marvin concludes his protest song on the reverse with “I’m the Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 2”.

I’m the Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 2, recorded July 28, 1932 by Johnny Marvin.

Perfect 15754 – Gene’s Merrymakers/Hollywood Dance Orchestra – 1933/1930

President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early 1930s. As pictured in Man’s Advancing Civilization, 1934.

On March 4, 1933, former Governor of New York Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated thirty-second President of the United States of America, having won the election of 1932 by a wide margin.  Following more than a decade of Republican control, Roosevelt ushered in an era of liberal Democrat presidencies (most of them his own) that would last nearly twenty years.  His marked the last inauguration to be held on that date, as the twentieth amendment to the United States Constitution had been ratified earlier in the year, moving the event to its current January 20th date.  Over the preceding winter, the Great Depression had driven the United States’ economy to its lowest depths, with unemployment rated peaking at almost twenty-five percent.  President Hoover, to his credit, was trying in his own way to stimulate recovery, but his efforts proved rather slow to work at best.  Roosevelt offered America a New Deal, and he delivered it.  Mere months after assuming office, Roosevelt got right on it, pushing passage of his first “alphabet soup” New Deal programs, including the TVA, the CCC, the PWA, and the NRA, soon to be followed by the WPA, the FSA, and others.  Granted, Roosevelt’s New Deal was far from a perfect be-all and end-all solution, some programs worked better than others, some were pretty poorly conceived, but they did provide a “Band-Aid” (to quote a former history professor of mine) to the economic ruin, and give thousands of men a job.—and ol’ FDR proved popular enough to be re-elected an unprecedented three times.

Perfect 15754 was recorded in New York on March 16, 1933 (less than two weeks after Roosevelt’s inauguration) and March 4, 1930 (exactly three years prior to the inauguration), respectively.  The personnel of the Gene’s Merrymakers side includes Bunny Berigan on trumpet, bandleader Gene Kardos on alto sax, and Sam Weiss on drums.  The Hollywood Dance Orchestra is a pseudonym for Adrian Schubert’s Salon Orchestra, which may include Bob Effros on trumpet, Miff Mole on trombone, Tony Parenti on clarinet and alto sax, and Charlie Magnante on accordion.  The identities of the remainders of both bands (pianos, basses, etc.) are unknown.

The 1929 song “Happy Days are Here Again”—originally featured in the 1930 M-G-M motion picture Chasing Rainbows—became associated with F.D.R. when his staff made the impromptu decision to play it at the 1932 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  After that, it became his official campaign song, and thereafter became indelibly associated with New Deal Democrats.  In apparent celebration of Roosevelt’s election, the American Record Corporation opted not to reissue Vincent Lopez’s January, 1930 recording of the song (a rather odd, highly syncopated rendition with a “Lopez speaking” introduction which would have sounded somewhat dated a whole three years later), but rather to record a very jubilant new version, albeit a stock arrangement, played by Gene Kardos’ excellent New York-based dance orchestra, with a vocal by studio guy Dick Robertson.

Happy Days are Here Again, recorded March 16, 1933 by Gene’s Merrymakers.

In keeping with the Rooseveltian theme, the reverse features “The Stein Song (University of Maine)”, no doubt celebrating Roosevelt’s promised repeal of the much reviled eighteenth amendment.  Irving Kaufman sings the vocals on this 1930 reissued side.

The Stein Song (University of Maine), recorded March 4, 1930 by Hollywood Dance Orchestra.

Electradisk 1919 – Bill Palmer’s Trio – 1932

One of the major hillbilly music powerhouses of the 1930s was Bob Miller—much like his contemporary Carson Robison, he was equal parts a songwriter, publisher, and musician, as well as an A&R man on the side.  Though well known throughout the Depression years for his hit songs and “hillbilly heartthrobs,” including such mainstays as “Twenty-One Years” and “Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)”, and numerous topical songs such as “Eleven Cent Cotton (and Forty Cent Meat)”, Miller has faded into practical obscurity today.

Bob Miller was born on September 20, 1895 in Memphis, Tennessee.  He was brought up a musician, and was playing piano professionally by the age of ten.  He later graduated to playing on Mississippi steamboats, before heading to New York to work for Irving Berlin as an arranger and copyist.  In 1931, he published “Twenty-One Years”, which would become one of the biggest hillbilly song hits of the decade.  The following year, his “Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)” was met with the same success.  Both songs inspired Miller to write numerous “answer” songs, such as “The Answer to 21 Years” and “Seven Years With the Wrong Man”.  In addition to songwriting, Miller recorded many of his own compositions with small “citybilly” groups for various record companies, including Victor, Champion (i.e. Gennett), and Grey Gull’s many labels.  In 1933, with already a large number of credits to his name, Miller founded his own music publishing company, Bob Miller Inc.  With more than a thousand copyrights to his name, to attempt to list the song hits written by Miller would make for nothing but a mess of text consisting of title after title.  His patriotic “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” (published under the pseudonym “Shelby Darnell”) became a wartime hit when it was recorded by Elton Britt in 1942.  Bob Miller died on August 26, 1955 in New York City.

Electradisk 1919 was recorded November 3, 1932 in RCA’s Studio 1 in New York City by Bob Miller’s Trio as “Bill Palmer’s Trio” and was issued in April of 1933.  It was later issued on Bluebird B-5034, Sunrise S-3132, and—with the sides split up—on Montgomery Ward M-4232 and M-4401.  The ensemble consists of Bob Miller on piano and singing, Barney Burnett on banjo and second vocal, and A. Sirillo on guitar.

Seldom do you see these Electradisks—one of RCA Victor’s early budget labels, sold at Woolworth’s—at all, and it’s even less often that you see material other than the typical dance band pop.

One of the hillbilly hits of the 1930s was Miller’s “Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)”, and was covered by artists ranging from Cliff Carlisle to Jack Payne’s Dance Orchestra.  It was “answered” by such songs as “Seven Years with the Wrong Man” and “Seven Beers with the Wrong Woman”.

Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)

Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman), recorded November 3, 1932 by Bill Palmer’s Trio.

On the reverse, Miller’s trio does another of his compositions of some note, “What Does the Deep Sea Say?”

What Does the Deep Sea Say?

What Does the Deep Sea Say?, recorded November 3, 1932 by Bill Palmer’s Trio.