Yet another casualty to the march of time, Dallas singer Ben Norsingle cut two records for the Brunswick company in 1928, yet today he resides among the countless practitioners of the early blues now shrouded in obscurity. What can be gleaned of his life, however, makes for a most interesting story.
Benjamin Norsingle was born in the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, around either 1901 or 1906, the son of Andy and Betty Norsingle. The details surrounding his early life are lost to time, but by his young adulthood, he was singing in Fort Worth with John Henry Bragg and others. There, he was discovered by Dallas blues impresario Hattie Burleson, who signed him up with Ella B. Moore’s “Hot Ella Company” vaudeville troupe, performing at the Park Theater. Burleson also arranged for Norsingle’s sole record date, with Brunswick during their first field trip to Dallas in 1928, resulting in four sides backed by a small jazz band typical for the time and place. When the Hot Ella Company folded and Ella Moore made for Kansas City in 1930, Norsingle went to Cincinnati to perform with Melvin Shannon. By the next year he was in Chicago, where he and a young man named John Reed were accused (whether rightfully or wrongfully I do not know) of slaying a butcher named John Martin during a holdup of his shop on August 3, 1931. Norsingle fled back to Dallas in the aftermath, but was apprehended after a few weeks and confessed to the crime. Brought back to Chicago, he and his accomplice were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Despite a temporary stay of execution from Governor Louis L. Emmerson in December of 1931 for the duo to appeal their case to the Supreme Court, Ben Norsingle was strapped into the electric chair in the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, and executed at 12:10 A.M. on January 15, 1932, immediately following Reed. In his final moments amongst the living, Norsingle’s accomplice John Reed made a final statement attributing his downfall to “bad company,” and adding that the world would be better if “boys would be obedient to their parents.”
Brunswick 7043 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on October 28, 1928 by Ben Norsingle. He is accompanied by a small band made up mostly of members of Troy Floyd’s Plaza Hotel Orchestra from San Antonio, with Don Albert on trumpet, Allen Vann on piano, John Henry Bragg (or Caffrey Darensbourg) on guitar, and Charlie Dixon on tuba.
Norsingle first sings the low-down “Motherless Blues”, a song which might have been something of a downer if not for his matter-of-fact delivery. While Norsingle possessed decent vocal faculties, and his accompaniment was top-notch, critics have criticized his nearly utter lack of emotion in the songs he sang.
Motherless Blues, recorded October 28, 1928 by Ben Norsingle.
Rather foreshadowing his untimely demise, Norsingle spins a yarn of ill-favor by fate on “Black Cat Blues”. You may note that both songs bear composer’s credit to Hattie Burleson, who was responsible for both “discovering” Norsingle and bringing him to the attention of the Brunswick company.
Black Cat Blues, recorded October 28, 1928 by Ben Norsingle.
When the Great Depression rolled in, along with it came the blues. People had been singing the blues since times untold, yes, but the hard times surely gave them something to sing ’em about. Unfortunately for us today, the Depression also nearly killed the recording industry, so recordings of blues from the early 1930s are rather scarce, deep country blues even more so. These two 1933 sides by Alabama or Mississippi musician Sonny Scott are among the few, and offer an opportunity to hear the real blues of the Great Depression afflicted South.
Not much is known about the life and times of blues guitarist and singer Sonny Scott. In the early 1930s, he reportedly resided in Quitman, Mississippi, and he presumably had some ties to neighboring Alabama, as he was an associate of pianist Walter Roland. Scott’s friend and student Gress Barnett from Quitman related to researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow that Sonny’s surname was Scarborough, and that he was also known as “Babe”. “Scott”, presumably, was a corruption of “Scarborough”, if not his given name. In the Summer of 1933, Scott traveled with Roland to New York City, where they were recorded by the American Record Corporation. It has been suggested that Scott and Roland had both arrived in Birmingham only recently when they ventured to New York. From the seventeenth to the twentieth of July, 1933, Scott cut a total of seventeen released sides, eleven solo and six in duet with Walter Roland. He also participated in the Jolly Two and Jolly Jivers recordings with Roland and Lucille Bogan, resulting in a further eight sides. The musical content of these recordings ranged from the deep blues of “Hard Luck Man” to upbeat hokum numbers like “Hungry Man’s Scuffle”. In those recordings, Scott revealed himself to be a competent guitarist. While Roland continued to record for some time thereafter, frequently accompanying Bogan, Scott went home, never to record again, fading into total obscurity. Barnett reported that Sonny Scott had died in Shubuta, Mississippi—where his sister was said to have lived—a short time before World War II.
The two sides of Vocalion 02614 were recorded in New York City on July 20 and 18, 1933, respectively. It is the last issued of Scott’s recordings. Sonny Scott accompanies himself on guitar. In their “Rarest 78s” column, the contributors to 78 Quarterly estimated fewer than ten copies of it to exist, with this particular copy listed as having belonged to the late Mr. Steve LaVere.
First, Scott starts in with a snappy little bit, but segues into singing a song of Great Depression misery, “Red Cross Blues No. 2”. Scott and Roland must have been particularly proud of this number, for they each recorded separate versions of “Red Cross Blues” and “Red Cross Blues No. 2”, and in later years the song was covered by Lead Belly, who presented it as a draft-dodging song from the First World War. Scott’s and Roland’s versions of this song reference a particular Red Cross Store on Third Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama.
Red Cross Blues No. 2, recorded July 20, 1933 by Sonny Scott.
He sings an archetypal country blues song on the back, though among the more philosophical ones—”Fire-Wood Man”—with some rather profound lyrics: “Lord, a man come in this world, and he have but a few minutes to stay; lawd his head is full of nonsense, and his feet’s all full of pain.”
Fire-Wood Man, recorded July 18, 1933 by Sonny Scott.
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.
Ernest Rogers in the 1940s, pictured on the dust jacket of his The Old Hokum Bucket, 1949.
We have heard once before from that Atlanta newspaper man and down-home song spinner—and one of my personal heroes—Ernest Rogers, when he graced us with his memorable rendition of the old vaudeville song “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper”. Now, he’s with us once again, this time with perhaps even better material (though that old dope head Willie is hard to beat). As I have already biographed Mr. Rogers somewhat thoroughly in the aforementioned article, I urge you to look there for the basic facts.
During his own life, Ernest Rogers was best known as a newsman, rather akin to the South’s answer to Walter Winchell as host and lead reporter of the Atlanta Journal‘s daily “Radio Headlines” program on Atlanta’s pioneering radio station WSB (“Welcome South, brother”). Today however, it is his musical proclivities—namely the five records he made for Victor in 1927 and ’28—that have won him his most enduring fame, yet his activities in the field were far from limited to making records. Rogers copyrighted his first song while still a student at Emory University in 1919. When radio was in its infancy, Rogers joined the staff of Atlanta’s WSB, his crooning and guitar-picking making a hit with listeners at a time when, in Rogers’ own words, “anybody who could sing, whistle, recite, play any kind of instrument, or merely breathe heavily was pushed in front of the WSB microphone.” In 1922, at the same time he was busy making his name on the radio, his composition “Tune in With My Heart”—celebrating the newly emerging medium—was recorded by popular baritone Ernest Hare. Rogers made his own recording debut three years later, waxing a memorable—and probably the first—rendition of the vaudeville folk song “Willie the Weeper” coupled with his own composition “My Red-Haired Lady”. Later in 1925, Francis Craig’s Atlanta-based territory band recorded Rogers’ waltz song “Forgiveness”, featuring the singing of a young James Melton in his first recording, helping to bring the tenor singer to prominence. The year of 1927 began Rogers’ association with Victor Records, which proved to be both his most fruitful record engagement and his last. In his first Victor session on the seventeenth of that February, he began with a duet with WSB announcer and director Lambdin Kay titled “Mr. Rogers and Mr. Kay”—probably in the style of the popular comic song “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”—which was never released. He followed with a remake of “Willie the Weeper”, retitled “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper” but nearly identical to his earlier recording. The following May, he traveled to Camden, New Jersey, to make six more sides, starting out with a similar re-do of “My Red-Haired Lady”. “The Flight of Lucky Lindbergh” celebrated the intrepid aviator’s historic journey only two days after he had landed safely in Paris. On “Let Me Be Your Man in the Moon”, Rogers yodeled nearly three whole months before Jimmie Rodgers made his first record. Finally, on February twenty-third of the following year, he completed his recorded legacy in a session that mirrored his first Victor session, making two sides of which only one was issued. Out of a total of twelve recorded sides to his name (including the two unissued), nine were original compositions. Though his recording career had thus ended, Ernest Rogers’ musical interests were far from their conclusion. He continued to publish songs in the decades that followed. Popular hillbilly artist Lew Childre recorded “My Red-Haired Lady” several times during his career [though having not heard the song, I cannot verify that it is indeed the same one]. In his later years, Rogers’ career as a newspaperman had taken precedence over his music-making, but he nevertheless never ceased from entertaining with his homespun ditties when the opportunity presented.
Victor 21361 was recorded in two separate sessions; the first side was recorded on February 23, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia, the second was recorded on May 23, 1927, in Camden, New Jersey. It was released in July of the same year, and remained in Victor’s catalog until 1931.
Providing stiff competition to his “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper” for the title of Ernest Rogers’ best remembered song—surely thanks in no small part to its reissue on Tompkins Square’s Turn Me Loose—is his “The Mythological Blues”. Rogers first composed the humorous song during his time at Emory University in 1919—the same year in which he founded the Emory Wheel—but it went unrecorded until his final session nearly ten years afterward. With its lyrics contrasting ancient Greek and Roman mythology with the modern times of the Jazz Age (“of all the sights saw Jupiter spot ’em, seein’ sweet Venus, doin’ Black Bottom; oh take me back ten-thousand years when they played the Mythological Blues”) it makes for a marvelous swan song.
The Mythological Blues, recorded February 23, 1928 by Ernest Rogers.
On the flip, Rogers sings “I’ve Got the Misery”, but it sure sounds to me like there’s every known indication that he’s got the blues. This side shines with some of Rogers’ poetry at its most eloquent: “Well, the fire in the stable destroyed the town; but it’s the fire in your eyes that truly burns me down.”
I’ve Got the Misery, recorded May 23, 1927 by Ernest Rogers.
Out of the marshlands of northwestern Louisiana, where the Sabine River demarcates the edge of Texas, came Willard Thomas, a rambling character whose mournful singing and sliding steel guitar would epitomize the sound of a world where the blues was all around.
Willard Thomas was born in Logansport, Louisiana, right on the Texas border, around 1902, one of at least eight children of farmers Joel and Laura Thomas. His father played fiddle and Willard and his two brothers, Joel Jr. and Jesse, took up the guitar. Thomas purchased a guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalog, which came with a metal slide for playing Hawaiian steel guitar. Making good use of the hardware, he taught himself to play slide guitar in a rather idiosyncratic style, though also proving to be a fairly versatile player. Like many bluesmen in the region, Thomas took up in Deep Ellum in Dallas, alongside the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Coley Jones, and Huddie Ledbetter. He made his way around San Antonio and Oklahoma, where he no doubt encountered other musicians, such as “Texas” Alexander., and reportedly even associated with King Solomon Hill in Shreveport, with whom he shared some elements of musical style. At some point along the way, he picked up the nickname “Ramblin'” Thomas, attributable either to his style of living or his style of playing, if not both. Perhaps at the behest of Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had a session around the same time, Dallas music seller R.T. Ashford arranged for Thomas venture to Chicago, Illinois, in February of 1928 for a session with Paramount Records, netting a total of eight titles of which all were released. He returned to Chicago that November for another seven titles, including a memorable rendition of the blues staple “Poor Boy Blues” (a.k.a. “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home”), and possibly accompanied fellow Texas blues singer Moanin’ Bernice Edwards on another two. Finally, he made four recordings for Victor in their field trip to Dallas in February of 1932, one of which—”Ground Hog Blues”—bears considerable resemblance to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ in My Back Yard)”, recorded three days earlier at the same sessions; Jesse Thomas would later claim that Rodgers’ Blue Yodel was inspired by his brother’s song. Willard Thomas reportedly died of tuberculosis around 1944 or ’45 in Memphis, Tennessee. Outside of his recording career, most details surrounding Thomas’ life remain shrouded in obscurity. Brother Jesse “Babyface” Thomas also performed fairly prolifically over a lengthy career, recording first in Dallas in 1929, then reemerging after World War II as the “Blues Troubadour” on a number of different labels.
Paramount 12637 was recorded in February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, featuring Willard Thomas singing and accompanying himself on slide guitar. Be advised before listening that this rare record is in pretty sorry shape. I’ve tried to get it as listenable as I can with the resources available to me, but it’s about the worst sounding record I’ll ever post on Old Time Blues (I have some dignity, you see). If your ears can’t stomach the noise, I wouldn’t blame you—you can go on over to YouTube and look it up in better quality (I recommend this transfer).
First, Thomas plays and sings his mournful slide guitar opus, “So Lonesome”, the first title recorded at his first session and one of his best remembered songs.
So Lonesome, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.
On the flip, Thomas sings another outstanding blues of a rather deep shade: “Lock and Key Blues”, his third recorded side.
Lock and Key Blues, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.