Keynote 106 – Talking Union – 1941

As the Great Depression gave way to the war economy at the beginning of the 1940s, many formerly unemployed workers were called back to the shops.  As such, many of them found it prudent to unionize and protect their rights.  In their support, a group of left-leaning folksingers offered to their cause what they knew best: music.  In the memory of the late labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, the Almanac Singers made Talking Union with a simple message: “Don’t mourn for me—organize.”

The album cover of Talking Union;  “Dedicated to the Memory of Joe Hill.”

The Almanac Singers organized in 1940 when Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Millard Lampell came together over a mutual love for folk music and leftist politics.  Sometimes Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Sis Cunningham, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Bess Lomax Hawes, and others would join in as well.  They drew the name from one of the two books in every rural household: the almanac and the Bible—the latter to latter to help them through the next world, the former to help through this one.  Aligned with the Popular Front, their intention was to fight fascism and racism, oppose the war, and elevate the working peoples by singing “the old tunes working people have been singing for a long time,” in the spirit of old Joe Hill.  “Sing `em easy, sing `em straight, no holds barred,” they professed.  In the spring of 1941, they group made their first records for New York record shop owner Eric Bernay, a six disc album titled Songs for John Doe, opposing American involvement in the war in Europe, pressed on their own vanity label by Keynote Recordings and distributed primarily through communist bookstores.  Despite low circulation and controversy surrounding the first album, they followed up a few months later with another, Talking Union, “dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill,” this time appearing on the Keynote label.  Reissued by Folkways Records in 1955, it proved to be their most popular work.  Subsequently, the Almanac Singers recorded two non-political albums of folk music: Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads, and Sod Buster Ballads.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Alamacs reversed their stance on the war and recorded Dear Mr. President, another Keynote album.  Outside of recording, the Almanac Singers performed for workers, pioneering the mold of the modern folk music group by wearing working clothes and encouraging audiences to join in their song.  As the war ramped up in 1942, the Almanacs were targeted by U.S. intelligence who deemed their message “seditious,” and were routinely smeared by the media until their final dissolution at the end of 1942 or beginning of ’43.  The breakup did little to stifle the careers of its former members; Seeger and Hays both enjoyed long careers as folksingers, while Lampell went on to Hollywood to become a successful screenwriter.

Keynote 106—Talking Union—is a three-disc album comprised of K 301 through K 303.  It was recorded circa May of 1941 in Central Park West, New York City, and released the following July.  The Almanac Singers are Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Carol White, Sam Gary, and Josh White; Seeger plays banjo and White plays guitar.  The album is dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill.

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Gold Star 662 – Lightnin’ Hopkins – 1949

Dating to four years after the close of the second World War, these two sides are a little past the typical era of material presented on Old Time Blues, but their excellence earns them a position among the ancients.  They are the work of the artist who succeeded Blind Lemon Jefferson as “King of the Texas Blues”—and perhaps the coolest man to ever walk the earth—the legendary Lightnin’ Hopkins.

The man who would become “Lightnin'” was born Sam John Hopkins on the fifteenth of March in either 1911 or 1912, in Centerville, Texas, located halfway between Dallas and Houston.  He moved with his mother to neighboring Leona after the death of his father in 1915.  While attending a church picnic in nearby Buffalo, Texas, around the year 1920, the eight-year-old Hopkins encountered Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was providing music for the function.  Jefferson instilled the blues in Hopkins, and the young boy was inspired to build a cigar box guitar for himself and start down the path of a musician.  He began his musical career with Jefferson—who purportedly scolded the young musician for joining in his music-making, but allowed him the rare privilege of playing alongside him once he became aware of Hopkins’ age—and his cousin “Texas” Alexander.

By the middle of the 1920s, Hopkins was living as an itinerant musician, a streak which was cut short by a stretch spent in the Houston County Prison Farm, on charges unknown.  After his release, Hopkins returned to his hometown and found work as a farmhand, giving up music for a short time.  By the end of the Second World War,  Hopkins had picked up his guitar once again and went back to Houston to sing on street corners.  There, in 1946, he was discovered by Lola Anne Cullum, a talent scout for the Los Angeles, California-based Aladdin Records.  Hopkins traveled to California, and made his first records accompanying Texas piano man Wilson “Thunder” Smith, which gained him his nickname “Lightnin'”.  Recording a total of forty-three sides for Aladdin between 1946 and ’48, Hopkins went on to make discs for numerous other labels over the course of his long career.  He settled in Houston by the beginning of the 1950s, and began recording for Bill Quinn’s Gold Star label, producing some hit records such as “‘T’ Model Blues” and “Tim Moore’s Farm”.

Already popular with southern black audiences, Lightnin’ became endeared to the folk and blues revivalists thanks to the promotion of Texas musicologist Mack McCormick in 1959, and he appeared at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1960.  In 1962 he made the album Mojo Hand, introducing the titular song, which was to become a standard of his repertoire.  In 1967, he was the star of Les Blank’s documentary The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins.  He toured around the world, and made appearances on Austin City Limits in the 1970s, establishing himself as one of the leading country blues figures of his day.  After performing professionally to great acclaim in five consecutive decades, Lightnin’ Hopkins died of esophageal cancer on January 30, 1982.

Gold Star 662 was recorded around July of 1949 at 3104 Telephone Road in Houston, Texas.  Lightnin’ Hopkins sings and accompanies himself on guitar; on side “A”, he is backed on slide guitar by Harding “Hop” Wilson.

Firstly, Hopkins sings “Jail House Blues”, a quintessential country blues song drawing inspiration from the “floating verses” endemic of the blues, and with the slide guitar accompaniment adding a bit of extra zest to Lightnin’s own playing.

Jail House Blues, recorded c. July 1949 by Lightnin’ Hopkins.

One of Lightnin’s bigger hits of his early career, he sings and plays solo on “‘T’ Model Blues” (“Lord, my starter won’t start this mornin'”)—a masterful blues that sends a shiver right down my spine.

‘T’ Model Blues, recorded c. July 1949 by Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Decca 5958 – Ernest Tubb – 1941/1940

Ernest Tubb with Jimmie Rodgers’s Martin guitar. Circa early-to-mid-1940s.

On the ninth of February, we celebrate the birth of one of the brightest shining stars in all of country music: the Texas Troubadour, my cousin, Ernest Tubb.

Ernest Dale Tubb was born on February 9, 1914, in the now-ghost town of Crisp, Texas, the son of cotton sharecroppers Calvin Tubb and Ellen Baker, whose mother died while she was still an infant, and her father, purportedly a full-or-half-blooded Cherokee, left to start anew.  As a youth, he worked as a soda jerk, but like so many of his generation, hearing Jimmie Rodgers inspired the young Tubb to pick up a guitar and start singing and yodeling.  In the middle of the 1930s, Tubb began singing on San Antonio’s KONO, an unpaid job which required him to seek employment digging ditches for the WPA.  He soon established contact with Jimmie Rodgers’s widow Carrie (née Williamson), who befriended the young singer and indefinitely loaned him her late husband’s custom Martin 000-45 guitar.  She also brought the young Tubb to the attention of the RCA Victor Corporation, for whom Jimmie had recorded.  When the record company made one of its field trips to San Antonio in October of 1936, Ernest Tubb made his first recordings, singing solo accompanied by his own guitar on six sides, and accompanying Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers in another one, a tribute to her departed husband.  Of Tubb’s solo recordings, only one record was released initially, another tribute to the Singing Brakeman, featuring “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers” on the Bluebird label, the others were held back for several years.  He was behind the recording microphone for a second time when RCA Victor was back in San Antonio the following March, and he recorded two more solo sides, this time backed on second guitar by his friend Buff Buffington, and another one backing Mrs. Rodgers, all of which were released this time.  All Tubb’s Bluebird records sold quite poorly, and it would be several years before he returned to the studio.  In 1939, a tonsillectomy instigated a shift from singing to focus greater on writing songs.

Come 1940, Ernest Tubb got a better gig singing on the radio, sponsored by the Gold Chain flour company, but at seventy-five dollars a week, it still wasn’t enough to make ends meet.  The same year, he also began a new recording contract with Decca, and he made his first records for them at the Rice Hotel in Houston on April 4, 1940, beginning with “Blue Eyed Elaine”, dedicated to his wife.  His records continued to attract limited public attention, and Tubb was contemplating throwing in the towel, but things turned around after a 1941 session in Dallas, when his original composition “Walking the Floor Over You” became an unexpected hit.  Its success was such that it precipitated a move to Hollywood, where Tubb made a few film appearances, and earned him membership in the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1943, an engagement which lasted four decades.  Soon, he became known as the “Texas Troubadour”, a name which was later applied to his band as well.  He made some patriotic songs of note during the War, such as “Soldier’s Last Letter”, and by the last year of the 1940s, Tubb had charted seven hit records, including an early recording of “Blue Christmas”.  Tubb’s music helped to popularize honky-tonk style country music, and earned him a devoted base of fans.  His success continued in the decades to come, with hits like 1965’s “Waltz Across Texas”, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the same year.  Following a life well spent, Ernest Tubb died on August 14, 1984 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Decca 5958 was recorded in Dallas, Texas, on April 25, 1941 and in Los Angeles on October 30, 1940, respectively.  On the “A” side, Tubb is accompanied by his own guitar, WBAP staff musician Fay “Smitty” Smith on steel guitar, and an unknown string bass.  On “B”, he is accompanied only by his and Dick Ketner’s guitars.

First, Tubb sings the first of recorded versions of his famous hit song, “Walking the Floor Over You”.  Real, good, country music.

Walking the Floor Over You, recorded April 25, 1941 by Ernest Tubb.

On the flip-side, Tubb sings a song written by Jimmie Rodgers’ widow, Carrie Williamson Rodgers: “I’m Missing You”.

I’m Missing You, recorded October 30, 1940 by Ernest Tubb.

Decca 5828 – Bob Dunn’s Vagabonds – 1940

Bob Dunn, behind Lonnie Glosson, from a group photo published by XEPN, Piedras Negras, Mexico, c.1938.

Continuing in Old Time Blues’ tradition of honoring the heroes of western swing music, this post is dedicated to a figure of immense significance to the genre, the father of electric steel guitar, Bob Dunn.

Robert Lee Dunn was born in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, on February 5, 1908.  The son of a fiddler, Bob followed in his father’s musical footsteps, taking up slide guitar and playing Hawaiian music, as was enjoying a surge of popularity at the time, drawing influence from leading players such as Sol Ho’opi’i.  Inspired by the music of those like Jack Teagarden, Dunn soon shifted toward jazz, and added an electric pickup to his guitar, playing in an idiosyncratic brassy style peculiar to him.  In the late 1920s, he played in groups such as the Panhandle Cowboys and Indians, before winding up in Fort Worth in 1934.  There, he joined Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies, with whom he pioneered the use of steel guitar in western swing music.  He made his recording debut in the Brownies first Decca session on January 27, 1935, purportedly earning him the distinction of being the first musician to record with an electrified steel guitar.  Dunn remained with the Brownies until Brown’s untimely death in 1936, after which he went on to play with Roy Newman’s Boys and Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers before forming a band of his own—the Vagabonds—with whom he made several records for Decca from 1938 to 1940.  After the Vagabonds broke up, Dunn played in a variety of different western swing bands, including Bill Boyd’s Cowboy Ramblers, Dickie McBride’s Village Boys, Bill Mounce’s Sons of the South, and the Sons of Dixie.  He retired from his performing career in 1950 and opened a music store in Houston.  Bob Dunn died on May 27, 1971.

Decca 5828 was recorded on April 11, 1940 in Houston, Texas at Dunn’s Vagabonds’ last session.  The Vagabonds are Bob Dunn on steel guitar, possibly Rudy Rivera on clarinet, Sam Jones on electric tenor guitar, an unknown second guitar, Mancel Tierney on piano, and Hezzie Bryant on string bass.

On the first side, Dunn shows off his unique style of playing on his hot instrumental composition “Juke Box Rag”.

Juke Box Rag, recorded April 11, 1940 by Bob Dunn’s Vagabonds.

Next, Dunn himself sings a crooning vocal on another of his own compositions, “I’ll Forget Dear (That I Ever Loved You)”.

I’ll Forget Dear (That I Ever Loved You), recorded April 11, 1940 by Bob Dunn’s Vagabonds.

Okeh 05668 – Ted Daffan’s Texans – 1940

In Old Time Blues’ continuing cavalcade of Texas’ native music, western swing, we turn our spotlight to the accomplished steel guitarist and composer of such standard songs as “Born to Lose”: Ted Daffan.

Ted Daffan and his Texans, pictured in the Hillbilly Hit Parade of 1941.  From left-to-right standing: Buddy Buller, Chuck Keeshan, probably Elmer Christian; seated: Ralph Smith, Ted Daffan, and probably Harry Sorensen.

Theron Eugene Daffan was born in the Beauregard Parish of Louisiana on September 21, 1912, but he got across the border to Texas as fast as he could.  He graduated from high school in Houston and later found work there in a musical instrument shop.  Inspired by Milton Brown’s music, Daffan became a pioneering user of the electrified steel guitar, following in the footsteps of the Musical Brownies’ Bob Dunn.  During the days of the Great Depression, he played steel guitar in Hawaiian radio bands before moving on to Texas swing bands like Shelly Lee Alley’s Alley Cats and the Bar-X Cowboys.  In 1939, Daffan composed “Truck Driver’s Blues”, one of the earliest examples of what was to become a common theme in country music—supposedly Daffan would see truck drivers come into restaurants while he was dining and go straight for the jukebox, and he wanted a part of that racket—which became a hit for Cliff Bruner’s Boys and the Light Crust Doughboys.  As a result of that success, Daffan was signed by CBS in 1940 to record with his own band, the Texans, for their Okeh label.  With his Texans, Daffan had hits with “Worried Mind”, “I’m a Fool to Care”, and “Born to Lose”, all compositions of his own, and all of which became standards in their own right.  Like Bob Wills, Daffan relocated to California in the 1940s and led a band there, but only stayed for a couple of years before returning to Texas.  After World War II, he began shifting his career focus away from playing and recording music and more toward songwriting and publishing, and he founded and owned both record and music publishing companies.  Ted Daffan died in Houston on October 6, 1996.

Okeh 05668 was recorded on April 25, 1940 at the Burrus Mill Studio in Saginaw, Texas.  It is Ted Daffan and his Texans’ first record.  Daffan’s Texans are made up of Ted Daffan on lap steel guitar, Sidney “Buddy” Buller on electric tenor guitar, Chuck Keeshan on second guitar, Harry Sorensen on accordion, Ralph Smith on piano, and Elmer Christian on string bass.

The first side the Texans recorded, Chuck Keeshan sings the Tommy Duncan-style vocal on Daffan’s own composition, the classic “Worried Mind”.

Worried Mind, recorded April 25, 1940 by Ted Daffan’s Texans.

On the flip-side, Daffan showcases his steel-guitar playing abilities on the instrumental “Blue Steel Blues”.

Blue Steel Blues, recorded April 25, 1940 by Ted Daffan’s Texans.