Sheet music cover for “The Road is Open Again”, featuring Dick Powell and FDR, 1933.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated President of the United States in 1933, the vice grip of the Great Depression that was strangling the nation was at its tightest, having peaked over the winter of ’32 to ’33, and the new president got right to work trying to alleviate that condition. On June 16, 1933, only three months after taking office, Roosevelt signed into law the National Industrial Recovery Act (or NIRA), rolling out his first wave of New Deal programs, including the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works and the National Recovery Administration. The latter of those two, christened the NRA (sweet thing, sweet thing), was unveiled with great fanfare under the zealous leadership of its director Hugh S. Johnson. In addition to an enormous parade dedicated to the Administration, Hollywood churned out a number of promotional films to support the NRA. One such film saw Jimmy Durante enthusiastically pleading that employers “give a man a job.” Another starred Dick Powell (in a role reminiscent of his part in Gold Diggers of 1933) as a frustrated songwriter tasked with composing a ditty dedicated to the NRA, but unable to produce any satisfactory results until he is visited in a dream by Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Wilson, who explain the patriotic tenets of the National Recovery Administration and provide Powell’s character the inspiration needed to come up with “The Road is Open Again”.
Bluebird B-5181 was recorded on September 15, 1933 in New York City by saxophone player Bill Scotti’s orchestra from the Hotel Montclair in Montclair, New Jersey, featuring vocals by pianist Larry Murphy, Tom Low, and Larry Lloyd.
On side “A”, Larry Murphy sings the solo refrain on an iconic Great Depression melody, Yip Harburg, Billy Rose, and Harold Arlen hit from the Paramount motion picture Take a Chance: “It’s Only a Paper Moon”.
It’s Only A Paper Moon, recorded September 15, 1933 by Bill Scotti and his Hotel Montclair Orch.
On “B”, the trio of Larry, Tom, and Larry sing the patriotic “theme song” of President Roosevelt’s NRA, “The Road is Open Again”, as featured by Dick Powell in the short film of the same name, recorded only two days after “NRA Day.”
The Road is Open Again, recorded September 15, 1933 by Bill Scotti and his Hotel Montclair Orch.
Riley Puckett in the late 1930s or early 1940s. His most frequently published portrait.
With euphonious singing voice, enticing guitar playing, and a wide and diverse repertoire ranging from old folk ballads to modern pop songs, Riley Puckett, dubbed the “Bald Mountain Caruso” or sometimes “King of the Hillbillies” (an honorific contested by Uncle Dave Macon), was one of the most popular and prolific rural musicians of the pre-World War II era, both solo and as a member of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers.
George Riley Puckett was born either in Alpharetta, Georgia or thrity-five miles away in Dallas on May 7, 1894. He was blinded in infancy by a treatment for an eye infection gone awry, though those who knew him suggested that he could still tell light from dark. Subsequently, he attended the Georgia School for the Blind in Macon, at which Blind Willie McTell would later enroll. Taking up the banjo at twelve and later switching to guitar, Puckett soon made a name for himself at fiddler’s conventions with his playing and singing, his beautiful voice and exceptional range earning him the nickname the “Bald Mountain Caruso”. He was also noted for his unique method of guitar playing, relying on dynamic runs. On September 28, 1922, Puckett made his radio debut with Clayton McMichen’s Home Town Band on Atlanta’s WSB. In February of 1924, Riley Puckett and fiddle player Gid Tanner cut test recordings for Columbia, and in March they pair traveled to New York to record for the first time in two sessions. His “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep” has often been cited as the first “country” record to feature yodeling, a full three years before Jimmie Rodgers made his first records. After those two sessions, boy did the floodgates open; from 1924 to 1931, Puckett recorded nearly two-hundred titles for Columbia, notwithstanding the eighty-five plus he made as a member of the Skillet Lickers, with hits like “My Carolina Home” cementing him as one of their best-selling artists in the Old Familiar Tunes series. After a break from recording during the Great Depression, Riley made his triumphant return in 1934 when he signed with Bluebird, ultimately producing nearly another hundred titles, including perhaps his best known song “Ragged but Right”. A 1937 side venture took him to Decca for a further twelve. Riley also sang on radio stations all around the South and Midwest; by the end of the 1930s, he was singing on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee. After ten sessions for Bluebird, he had his final record date on October 2, 1941 in Atlanta. Riley Puckett died from blood poisoning, the result of an infected boil, on July 13, 1946.
Bluebird B-8621 was recorded on October 1, 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia. Riley Puckett is accompanied by his own guitar and an unknown woman mandolin player. It was concurrently issued on Montgomery Ward M-8885.
First up, Riley sings one of my favorites, a song that got its start in Tin Pan Alley with Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins’ “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” in 1922, which through some twists and turns and lyrical adjustments, found its way—perhaps by way of the medicine show circuit—into Southern folk and blues repertoires as “Nobody’s Business” or some variation on that, seeing recordings by Earl Johnson’s Dixie Entertainers in 1927, Mississippi John Hurt in 1928, and many others. Riley himself recorded it three times, first on an unissued recording for Columbia in 1924, then twice more for Bluebird, in 1935 and—this one—in 1940.
Nobody’s Business, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.
On the flip, Puckett does his version of a popular big band hit of the day, Saxie Dowell’s “Playmates”—the melody of which was lifted from Charles L. Johnson’s 1904 intermezzo “Iola”—and gives a heck of a good delivery to boot. Perhaps I just have my mind in the gutter, but with all the “climb up my apple tree, look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door,” this sure sounds like a lot of double entendre to me!
Playmates, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.
Few old time “hillbilly” string bands of the 1920s and ’30s left behind such illustrious and distinguished legacies (and darned good music, too) as Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers. From their first recordings in 1926, Tanner’s Skillet Lickers established themselves as one of the most commercially successful “hillbilly” bands of the decade. But as the twenties ceased to roar giving way to depression, the record industry quickly faltered, and so did the recording oriented Skillet Lickers. The band had their last session for Columbia Records—with whom they had recorded exclusively since their first session—in October of 1931, and broke up thereafter. Fiddle player Clayton McMichen went on to form his Georgia Wildcats and found success on radio and records through the remainder of the decade. Come 1934 however, Gid put together a reunion of sorts. Together with his son Gordon Tanner, old pal Riley Puckett, and mandolin player Ted Hawkins, they traveled to San Antonio, Texas, where the RCA Victor Company was holding a series of recording sessions at the Texas Hotel. There, they recorded in two sessions on March 29th and 30th a series of twenty four sides, mostly energetic and jubilant dance tunes in stark contrast with the hard times the nation was then facing at the depth of the Great Depression, concluding with two of their classic “skit” records: “Prosperity and Politics” and “Practice Night With the Skillet Lickers”.
Bluebird B-5433 and B-5562 were both recorded on March 29, 1934 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas—the same time and place Riley Puckett recorded his famed solo performance of “Ragged but Right” and others. The former was released on April 18th of that year, and the latter on July 18th. B-5433 was also issued concurrently on Montgomery Ward M-4845, and B-5562 was reissued widely throughout the following decades on RCA Victor 20-2167 and 420-0569, making it all the way into the 45 RPM era on 447-0569. The Skillet Lickers are Gid Tanner and his son Gordon Tanner on fiddles, Ted Hawkins on mandolin, and Riley Puckett on guitar.
On B-5433, the Skillet Lickers play two old time fiddle standards, both tunes which they recorded previously in 1930 and ’29, respectively. First it’s “Georgia Waggoner”, the first side they recorded at the reunion session.
Georgia Waggoner, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.
Next, keeping in the same theme, they follow with one of my personal favorites, a high energy rendition of “Mississippi Sawyer”, punctuated by Hawkins’ mandolin. The band members can be heard talking over the music, lending to an informal atmosphere.
Mississippi Sawyer, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.
On B-5562, the Skillet Lickers first play that old 1921 L. Wolfe Gilbert standby, “Down Yonder” (which we last heard played by an unidentified pianist). This might just be my favorite Skillet Lickers side; I like their 1934 sound with the added mandolin, even though the old mainstays like Clayton McMichen and Fate Norris are absent.
Down Yonder, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.
Then, they play another utterly bright and feel-good tune, the traditional fiddle piece “Back Up and Push”. Though not credited as such in Russell’s Country Music Records, I’m quite certain Riley Puckett’s voice can be heard on this side, hollering some of the calls (“now ladies in the center and gents catch air, hold ‘er Newt, don’t let ‘er rare”).
Back Up and Push, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.
The Delmore Brothers, Rabon and Alton, as pictured on a WLS Grand Ole Opry publication, circa 1935.
Now what we have here is a good old-fashioned split release; one artist on one side, a different one on the other. Not just any old split release though, these two sides happen to contain a couple of the hottest hillbilly performances of the Depression years. Two of my own personal favorites at least.
Bluebird B-5403 was recorded on December 6, 1933 in Chicago, Illinois, and November 22, 1930 in Memphis, Tennessee, respectively, and was released on April 4, 1934. The two sides also appeared together on Montgomery Ward M-4750. The Delmore Brothers are Alton on guitar and Rabon on tenor guitar, vocals by both; the Allen Brothers are Austin on tenor banjo and vocals and Lee on guitar and kazoo.
The Delmore Brothers were born into a family of poor farmers in Elkmont, Alabama—first Alton on Christmas Day in 1908, then Rabon on December 3, 1916. Their mother Mollie wrote and sang church songs, and soon Alton joined, publishing his first song with his mother in 1925. They started out their musical career singing at local fiddle contests, and cut their first record for Columbia on October 28, 1931 in Atlanta. Two years later, they secured a contract with RCA Victor’s Bluebird records, and spot on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. They found their greatest success as Opry members, playing alongside Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and Uncle Dave Macon, and remained on the show until a dispute in 1939. After parting ways, they continued to The Delmores switched to the King label in 1944, shortly after the label’s inception, with whom they had some of their greatest record successes, including “Freight Train Boogie” in 1946 with harmonica player Wayne Raney, and “Blues Stay Away from Me” in 1949. The Delmore Brothers’ career ended with Rabon’s early death from lung cancer on December 4, 1952. Alton lived on for twelve more years, dying of a heart attack on June 8, 1964.
First up, from their first Bluebird session, Alton and Rabon Delmore sing and play up a real masterpiece on their spectacular and widely imitated hit composition “Brown’s Ferry Blues”, one of twelve sides recorded that day. The Delmores followed up two years later with “Brown’s Ferry Blues-Part 2” and “Part 3” two years after that, and re-recorded the popular tune all the way in 1946 for King Records.
Brown’s Ferry Blues, recorded December 6, 1933 by the Delmore Brothers.
Not to be confused with the Australian duo of the late 1960s, the Allen Brothers—Austin, born February 7, 1901, and Lee, born June 1, 1906—originated from Sewanee, Tennessee, and got their start in music playing in medicine shows and coal mining towns. Sometimes called the “Chattabooga Boys” for their frequent references to the Tennessee town, the duo made their first records for Columbia in April of 1927, and followed up with two further sessions for them until one of their records was mistakenly issued in their 14000-D “race” series rather than the 15000-D “Old Familiar Tunes” series, which seems to have offended the pair, because they threatened to bring a lawsuit against Columbia Records. Instead, they switched to Victor for the vast bulk of their recorded output between 1928 and ’32. They concluded their recording career with a series of sessions for Vocalion in October of 1934 (little did they know, apparently, that around that same time, Vocalion was under the same parent company as their forsaken Columbia). After that, the vice grip of the Great Depression forced them to end their musical careers, and seek employment in the construction game. Austin died on January 5, 1959, while Lee survived into the folk revival of the 1960s, when he was persuaded to perform once again, before his own death on February 24, 1981.
Here, the Chattanooga boys, Austin and Lee Allen sing their second take on this old folk ditty with “A New Salty Dog”. This one was originally issued in Victor’s “Old Familiar Tunes” series, number 23514, in 1931. Their old “Salty Dog” was recorded for Columbia in 1927; in my opinion, the “new” one’s better.
A New Salty Dog, recorded November 22, 1930 by the Allen Brothers.
I recently learned of the passing of western swing legend Milton Brown’s little brother Roy Lee Brown at the age of 96 on May 26, 2017. I had read of him and watched him discuss Milton on a television documentary. Not long ago, I was reading about him, and wondered what had become of him as of late. I was saddened to hear of his death. I had already written out this article beforehand to publish soon, so I’m posting it now, dedicated to his memory…
I love hot jazz and I love hillbilly music. If you put the two together, what do you get? Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies. If I had to pick one, I’d rank Brown’s Brownies as my favorite musical ensemble (I’d probably have to place my favorite singular musician as Jimmie Rodgers). Part of that could be that they came from Fort Worth, Texas, one of my favorite places on Earth, no doubt. But they could’ve come from Kalamazoo or Timbuktu, and I’d still love that certain sound they had, that no other western swing band could quite capture. I don’t recall ever hearing anything by the Brownies that I didn’t like, from their hot numbers to their waltzes, though I’d have to say my favorites are the pieces Brown adapted from blues songs. Much as I like the music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Milton Brown just had something special that they lacked.
Despite my love of the Brownies, I’ve never to this day posted a single one of their records on Old Time Blues. Well that’s got to change. Thus, here is one of the best Musical Brownies records that I have the pleasure of owning. Now don’t go thinking I’ve forgotten anything with the lack of biographical details and what-have-you in this post, there’ll be more on that later.
Bluebird B-5558 was recorded at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas on April 4, 1934 at the Musical Brownies’ first session (but not Milton Brown’s, he had first recorded two years prior with the Fort Worth Doughboys). It was released on July 18 of the same year. The Musical Brownies are Derwood Brown on guitar, Cecil Brower on fiddle, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, Wanna Coffman on string bass, Fred Calhoun on piano, and of course Milton Brown singing the vocals.
First—it’s actually the “B” side, but I don’t care—is the rollicking “Garbage Man Blues”, Brown’s scorching hot take on Luis Russell’s “Call of the Freaks” (though like a number of Musical Brownies Bluebirds, Dan Parker is credited as the songwriter). Brown may have picked it up from the Washboard Rhythm Kings, who prefaced their rendition with a similar spoken prelude. The frenzied, half scat chorus of “get out your cans, here comes the garbage man” is interspersed with enticing instrumental solos by Brower, Stockard, Brown, and Calhoun, in that order. Milton sings the first verse out of key, but soon recovers. Brown’s biographer Cary Ginell informs me that producer Eli Oberstein refused to allow a re-take, reasoning that listeners would be none the wiser. Frankly, I don’t think Brown’s error detracts much from the excellence of the performance (to be completely honest, I never noticed until it was pointed out to me). Roy Newman and his Boys, from Dallas, covered “Garbage Man Blues” in 1935, and in later years the song has been resurrected by Pokey LaFarge.
Since I chanced to get my hands on this record, I’ve been listening to it over and over again. Doesn’t get much better than this!
Garbage Man Blues, recorded April 4, 1934 by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.
On the other side is something quite different, Milton Brown’s own composition “My Precious Sonny Boy” played as a waltz, complete with Ted Lewis style spoken interlude. Quite a sincere and touching song, really. Nicely orchestrated too.
My Precious Sonny Boy, recorded April 4, 1934 by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.