Vocalion 04050 – Roy Rogers – 1938

Roy Rogers and Trigger, pictured on a circa 1940s arcade card.

Most of the attention dedicated to cowboys here on Old Time Blues is directed toward the early, more authentic folk singers rather than the singing cowboys of movie fame.  Indeed, I tend to prefer the gritty old cowpunchers with clothes all plastered o’er with dough over the idealized movie star cowboys, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also appreciate a splendid piece of old Hollywood charm—and this disc by the “King of the Cowboys” himself, Roy Rogers, epitomizes that description (although frankly, I tend to favor Gene Autry).

The man who would become Roy Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911, to a family of modest means in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The Slyes moved to a farm in nearby Duck Run when Len was seven-years-old, while his father also worked in a shoe factory in Portsmouth, twelve miles away.  On the farm, he learned horseback riding, and played mandolin for local square dances.  On the eve of the Great Depression, the Slyes packed their bags and left for sunny California.  After working a variety of jobs there, Slye began to seek work singing, yodeling, and playing music professionally.  He sang on the radio with several groups like the Rocky Mountaineers and O-Bar-O Cowboys, with whom he toured the southwestern states.  After the dissolution of the O-Bar-O Cowboys, Slye joined with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer—both of whom he had worked with previously—to form the vocal and instrumental Pioneer Trio, which, with the addition of Hugh Farr, evolved into the Sons of the Pioneers by the time of their recording debut in 1934.  The Sons quickly established themselves on the musical scene with the success of Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, which became an enduring standard of the cowboy genre.  As a California-based cowboy group, the Sons of the Pioneers soon began making regular appearances in western pictures, beginning with Slightly Static in 1935, and before long, Slye was making regular appearances on screen.  His big break came in 1938, when cowboy star Gene Autry held out for a bigger paycheck for his starring role in Under Western Stars; instead, Republic Pictures replaced him with the guitarist from the Sons of the Pioneers, changing his name from Len Slye to the more Hollywood-suitable Roy Rogers.  Eventually, Rogers came to rival, or perhaps even surpass, Autry in popularity, gaining the honorific “King of the Cowboys”.  The 1942 picture Man From Cheyenne introduced Rogers’ trusty palomino steed Trigger, who remained with Rogers until his death in 1965.  On New Years’ Eve of 1947, a year following the death of his wife Arline, Roger married Frances Octavia Smith, better known as Dale Evans, who became the “Queen of the Cowboys” to his “King”; the two remained married until his death.  Much like Autry, Rogers enjoyed success across a variety of media, including radio and comic books, in addition to his movies and records.  As television came to supplant radio as America’s chief form of entertainment in the home, Rogers and Evans starred in a program from 1951 until ’57, and again in 1962.  Rogers made his last film appearance in 1975’s Mackintosh and T.J., and his final television appearances in the following decade.  After enjoying fame in seven decades of the twentieth century, Roy Rogers died from congestive heart failure on July 6, 1998.

Vocalion 04050 was recorded on March 30, 1938 in Los Angeles, California.  Roy Rogers’s singing is accompanied by an unidentified cowboy orchestra—made up of fiddle, steel guitar, organ, accordion, guitar, and string bass—and vocal group.

All the Hollywood theatrics were brought in for the melodramatic “Dust Over the West”—composed by none other than Johnny Marvin—which was nominated for the 1938 Academy Award for Best Original Song, though it lost to Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memory” from The Big Broadcast of 1938.  Nevertheless, the song made enough of a hit that Brunswick also dedicated a special picture label to Horace Heidt and his Brigadiers’ dance band version.  Gene Autry cut a much less theatrical version of the song in 1937—the year before it was published in connection with Under Western Stars—with his own name added beside Marvin’s to the songwriter’s credit.

Dust Over the West, recorded March 28, 1938 by Roy Rogers.

A much more lighthearted number than the previous—though by no means no less theatrical—Rogers follows with “When a Cowboy Sings a Song”, which could practically be an anthem for Roy Rogers career, though it made far less of a success than “Dust”.

When a Cowboy Sings a Song, recorded March 28, 1938 by Roy Rogers.

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.

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Vocalion 04560 – Light Crust Doughboys – 1938

“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, Pitts, Montgomery, and DeArman 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.

Hollywood No. 1 – Roll Grane – 1938

Something about the Great Depression must have given folks World’s Fair fever, for at least five different expositions were held in the United States in the 1930s.  I can’t say I blame them either, a trip to a World’s Fair would probably do a lot to lift my spirits right now, and I’m not even experiencing economic ruin, severe drought, and another world war on the horizon, but I digress.  It seems that these fairs got people to singing, and some of them even had official records released in their honor, to be sold among the countless trinkets and souvenirs that could be brought home from one.  Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition commissioned two pieces, one a pop song by local bandleader Art Kassel, the other a march by the renowned John Philip Sousa—his last composition, in fact.  The 1939 New York World’s Fair got George and Ira Gershwin to pen a song in its honor prior to the former’s untimely demise.

The Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 in San Francisco was not as grandiose an affair, but it still managed to attract the attention of songwriters.  One such individual was Mr. Roll Grane of Oakland, California.  A California native and member of the California Contented Club, which was evidently a heavy promoter of the San Francisco fair, in 1938 he composed a ditty titled “I’m Off to California in the Morning” to bring attention to the event, and to San Francisco’s bridges.  A competent guitarist and vaudevillian vocalist with an eccentric style, Grane himself performed his song for the radio, and copies of the sheet music were distributed around Oakland at conventions in the year preceding the Exposition.  Though the fair attracted significant crowds, Grane himself fell victim to obscurity, and details regarding his life and times are virtually non-existent.

Hollywood No. 1 (matrix number “H5”) was recorded on September 19, 1938, possibly in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, California, and was pressed by the Allied Phonograph and Record Mfg. Co.  It is a single sided record bearing a decorative etching on the reverse.  On it, Roll Grane sings and accompanies himself on guitar; his performance is announced at the beginning by an unknown individual.

Grane sings his own “I’m Off to California in the Morning”—”telling about our wonderful bridges… and exposition”—in a fashion sounding fresh off the vaudeville stage, and the song itself resembles a folksy take on the same sort of theme as the Century of Progress Exposition’s official song “In 1933”, advising listeners to head to California to visit the upcoming Golden Gate Exposition.  This song is Mr. Grane’s sole claim to any sort of lasting fame, and it is probably the only recording he ever made.

I’m Off to California in the Morning, recorded September 19, 1938 by Roll Grane.

Vocalion 04145 – Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats – 1938

Shelly Lee Alley pictured in the Hillbilly Hit Parade of 1941.

Though he never achieved the stardom of contemporaries like Bob Wills or Spade Cooley—or even Milton Brown—songwriter and fiddler Shelly Lee Alley left his mark on music history as one of the founding fathers of the Texas-born, jazz-inflected style of music now called western swing, despite hesitations toward so-called “hillbilly” music.

Shelly Lee Alley was born on July 6, 1894 on his father’s farm in Alleyton, Texas, descended from Stephen F. Austin’s original “old three hundred” settlers.  The Alleys being a musical family, Shelly learned to play the fiddle, and had reportedly composed his first song by the age of six.  During the First World War, Alley led a band at Camp Travis in San Antonio.  After the war, he led several successful dance bands in Dallas, and started out performing on the newly emerging medium of radio early in the 1920s.  Though initially focusing on popular music, by the end of the 1920s, Alley began to shift his focus to the burgeoning form that would later become known as western swing.  Alley was well-acquainted with Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded his “Travellin’ Blues” in 1931, with Alley and his brother Alvin accompanying on fiddles, and “Gambling Barroom Blues” the following year, backed by Clayton McMichen’s band.  In the first half of the 1930s, he played in various fiddle bands around South Texas, and in the middle of the decade, Alley organized a band called “Alley Cats”.  After sitting in on a session with Lummie Lewis and His Merry Makers, Alley began recording with his Alley Cats in 1937.  At various times, the Alley Cats included Cliff Bruner, Ted Daffan, Leon “Pappy” Selph, and Harry Choates, all of whom would become stars in their own right.  Between 1937 and 1940, Alley recorded sixty-seven titles for the Vocalion, most or all his own compositions, followed by a further six for Bluebird in 1941.  Alley disbanded the Alley Cats during World War II, but brought the group back to make one record for the Globe label in 1946.  A consistently sickly fellow who was known to imbibe paregoric, Shelly Lee Alley largely retired from performing in the 1940s.  Alley cut his last record in 1955 for Jet in Houston, singing two of his own compositions accompanied by the Jet Staff Band. Alley died on June 1, 1964 in Houston.

Vocalion 04145 was recorded on May 10th and 11th, 1938 in Dallas, Texas.  The Alley Cats are Shelly Lee Alley and Cliff Bruner on fiddles, Anthony Scanlin on clarinet and tenor sax, Ted Daffan on steel guitar, and on the “A” side Douglas Blaikie on piano and Lester J. Voss on string bass, replaced with an unknown pianist and Pinkie Dawson on “B”.  Alley provides the vocals on both sides.

First, the Alley Cats get low-down and dirty on Alley’s “Try it Once Again”.

Try it Once Again, recorded May 10, 1938 by Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats.

On the back, they get real hot on another of Alley’s compositions: “You’ve Got It”.

You’ve Got It, recorded May 11, 1938 by Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats.