Okeh 8106 – Sippie Wallace – 1923

While Blind Lemon Jefferson is often identified as the Father of the Texas Blues for his pioneering recordings made in 1926, it is every bit as important to acknowledge the lady blues singers that blazed the trail before him, such as the “Texas Nightingale”, Houston’s own Sippie Wallace.

Sippie was born Beulah Bell Thomas on the Bell Bayou near Pine Bluff, Arkansas,  on November 1, 1898, one of the thirteen children of the musical family of George and Fanny Thomas.  The family moved to Houston, Texas, before the turn of the century (her birthplace is often cited as Houston, but the U.S. Census of 1900 suggests Arkansas).  She acquired the nickname Sippie in school because her “teeth were so far apart [she] had to sip everything.”  Her father was a deacon in the Shiloh Baptist Church, where she sang and played the organ.  On summer evenings, she would sneak away with some of her siblings to the tent shows, where she first met the blues, and where she first began singing it when one of the stars asked her to join the chorus.  Soon, she was traveling with the shows across the state.  Her older brother George W. Thomas gained note as a ragtime musician and composer in New Orleans (and whose daughter Hociel also sang the blues), and she moved there with her younger brother Hersal—also a pianist—to live with him in 1915.  There, in 1917, she met and later married Matt Wallace.  Like her contemporaries “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, she toured on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit in the early 1920s, during which time she earned the sobriquet “The Texas Nightingale”.  She moved with her brothers to Chicago in 1923, and not long after made her recording debut for the Okeh record company.  That arrangement proved quite lucrative, and she recorded forty-four sides for the company between October of 1923 and May of 1927, some featuring star-studded accompaniments by the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Clarence Williams, and many others backed by brother Hersal.  Subsequently, she recorded four sides for Victor in 1929, backed by some members of the Dixieland Jug Blowers and her own piano, of which only two made the cut.  She moved to Detroit in 1929, and following the deaths of both her husband and brother George in 1936, she turned from the blues to religion, becoming organist and choir director at the Leland Baptist Church.  She made one record with Albert Ammons’ Rhythm Kings for Mercury in 1945, reviving her old “Bedroom Blues”, but kept her back mostly to the blues until 1966, when her friend and fellow Texas blues singer Victoria Spivey convinced her to make a comeback.  Her return was met with success, and she toured the United States and Europe and recorded several albums, particularly influencing young musician Bonnie Raitt.  She was one of the last surviving classic female blues singers of the 1920s when she was incapacitated by a stroke in March of 1986.  Sippie Wallace died eight months later on her eighty-eighth birthday.

Okeh 8106 was recorded in October of 1923 in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Sippie Wallace’s first record and accounts for the entirety of her first recording session.  Wallace is accompanied on piano by Eddie Heywood, Sr.

“Shorty George Blues” was composed by Sippie’s brother George and niece Hociel.  Fellow Texans Lead Belly and James “Iron Head” Baker later recorded largely unrelelated folk songs under the same title, but the echoes of Wallace’s song can be heard throughout the country blues; the opening verse alone recycled in numerous other blues songs, such as Bo Weavil Jackson’s “You Can’t Keep No Brown”.

Shorty George Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.

Another family affair, Wallace shares the composer’s credit with her brother George W. Thomas for her “Up the Country Blues”, drawing both lyrics and style from the country blues tradition not yet recorded at the time.

Up the Country Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.

Paramount 12354 – Blind Lemon Jefferson – 1926

A crop of the only known photograph of Lemon Jefferson, circa 1926, as was pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues.

The legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson was renowned for traveling far and wide all across the United States, ranging territories far exceeding that traversed by many of his contemporaries.  His journeys broadened his musical horizons considerably wider than most home-bound musicians and brought him into contact with numerous other blues people, whom he seldom failed to impress.  While many of his contemporaries were confined to their region or state, Lemon achieved national fame through his successful recording contract, and toured all around the country.  As such, he impressed his music on a broad variety of different audiences, and conversely incorporated a broad variety of different musical influences into his own style of playing.

While he may not have “walked from Dallas to Wichita Falls,” Lemon was an institution in his native Texas around his local haunts like Central Track (a.k.a. Deep Ellum) in Dallas, and was said to have taken the interurban train from Denison down to Waco, entertaining passengers along the way, sometimes joined by his friend Huddie Ledbetter.  Lemon was well known around such small towns as Mart, Texas—eighteen miles east of Waco—where he would sit on Main Street for hours on end playing his music for passers-by.  He was a staple at country barbecues and picnics, one of which brought him into contact with the eight-year-old Sam Hopkins, who helped guide him around, and it’s said that he became one of the only people Lemon would allow to play with him.  A similar privilege was afforded to young Dallas-native Aaron “Oak Cliff T-Bone” Walker—purportedly the stepson of Dallas String Band bassist Marco Washington, an associate of Jefferson’s—who was indelibly impressed with the elder bluesman’s style of playing.  Josh White, too, claimed to have spent some time as Jefferson’s lead boy for a brief period in his youth.  In Johnson City, Tennessee, Lemon’s playing attracted the interest of white musician Clarence Greene, who was inspired by Jefferson’s virtuoso blues guitar-picking, showing it particularly in his song “Johnson City Blues”.  Probably through his records, Lemon also impressed his style on white musicians Larry Hensley and Debs Mays, who recorded versions of his “Match Box Blues” and “Rabbit Foot Blues”, respectively, in the middle of the 1930s, following Jefferson’s own demise; both imitated Lemon’s style of playing closely.  Travels in Virginia brought Lemon in contact with ragtime guitarists Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay, who introduced young musician Lesley Riddle to him.  Riddle soon after befriended A.P. Carter, and impressed his blues knowledge on the Carter Family in the next decade.  In 1928, while passing through Minden, Louisiana, Jefferson picked up fellow musician Joe Holmes, traveling with him in Texas for a short period.  Holmes eventually traveled to Wisconsin to record for Paramount as King Solomon Hill, and posthumously eulogized his friendship with Jefferson in the song “My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon”.  He was also eulogized by his old friend Lead Belly in at least four different songs, including his 1935 ARC recording of “My Friend Blind Lemon”, and the eponymous “Blind Lemon”, memorably recounted in the 1976 movie about Ledbetter’s life: “Blind Lemon—oh baby—he’s a blind man!  He doin’ all he can—oh baby—’till he’s travelin’ through the land.”

Paramount 12354 was released with two different sets of masters; original pressings use 2472 and 2471, respectively, recorded at Paramount’s studio in March of 1926, this one uses the later takes—1054 and 1053, though the labels were not altered to reflect it—which were electrically recorded at Marsh Laboratories in Chicago, Illinois around May of the same year.  You may note that both labels erroneously give composer’s credit to “Lemons” Jefferson.

Firstly Lemon delivers one of his most successful numbers: “Long Lonesome Blues”, with that hot bit in the middle in which he busts out the lyrics: “hey, mama mama, papa papa ’deed double do love you doggone it, somebody’s talking to you mama papa ’deed double do love you” (or something to that effect) in double time.  Beginning with the lyrics, “I walked from Dallas, I walked to Wichita Falls” (which were later copped by Bob Wills), this song stood alongside “Match Box Blues”—with which it shares many melodic similarities—as one of Lemon’s best known numbers to his audiences back home in Texas.

Long Lonesome Blues, recorded c. May 1926 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

“The blues come to Texas, lopin’ like a mule,” Lemon opens his “Got the Blues”, which in later years lent the verse to title Mack McCormick and Paul Oliver’s magnum opus book on the Texas blues.  Echoes of the song can be heard in subsequent Texas blues songs from Texas Alexander’s “Texas Special” to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Mojo Hand”.

Got the Blues, recorded c. May 1926 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Victor 23696 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1932

A rare snapshot of Jimmie Rodgers in the early 1930s, atop a ’31 Chrysler and holding a puppy.

As Jimmie Rodgers’ successful recording career entered its fifth year, he was at the height of his fame, and times had never been better—or worse—for the Blue Yodeler.

In 1932, Jimmie Rodgers was living in Texas, “a state he dearly loved.”  He had moved into his custom built brick manor in Kerrville in 1929 to help ease his tuberculosis with the fresh hill country air, but left for a modest home at 142 Montclair Avenue in San Antonio only three years later, where he hosted a weekly radio program on KMAC.  Progressively declining health had forced him to curtail his touring schedule, but staying put just wasn’t in his nature, and he continued to motor around the region in his blue Cadillac.  At the same time, the record industry—which had made Rodgers a star five years earlier—was too in ill health; the Great Depression, combined with the emerging medium of radio, had record sales dropping fast.  By the time the industry hit bottom, Jimmie Rodgers was Victor’s best-selling record artist, hence the Depression-era adage that a typical Southerner’s shopping list was “pound of butter, a slab of bacon, a sack of flour, and the new Jimmie Rodgers record.”  In spite of the circumstances against his favor, Rodgers kept up his recording schedule during 1932, producing a total of twenty-one sides over course of the year.  In February, he was in Dallas to cut seven sides at the Jefferson Hotel, accompanied first by a hillbilly band including future western swinger Bill Boyd on such tracks as “Hobo’s Meditation”, and then by a Hawaiian quartet with his longtime collaborators Billy and Weldon Burkes.  On the thirty-first of July, he departed for Camden, New Jersey for a productive session with Clayton McMichen, Slim Bryant, and Oddie McWinders, that resulted in such memorable numbers as “Peach Pickin’ Time Down in Georgia” and “Whippin’ That Old T. B.”.  Afterward, he traveled on to New York for an audition with NBC, which resulted in a pilot on WEAF but did not materialize further, and another session that produced four sides, including “Miss the Mississippi and You”.  With talks of a tour of England with McMichen—as Carson Robison had done earlier the same year—Jimmie had big plans, and didn’t intend on stopping, but the dire state of the economy and direr yet state of his health put a damper on such lofty ambitions.

Victor 23696 was recorded on February 6 and 4, 1932, respectively, at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas, Texas.  It was issued on August 12 of that year, and sold only 7,746 copies—not bad for Depression-era sales, but still, not too many for their best-selling artist.

First, Jimmie sings another installment in his famous series, “Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ in My Back Yard)”, and a blues song it truly is.  Previously on Old Time Blues, we’ve heard Jimmie’s first, second, eighth, ninth, and last Blue Yodels.  Maybe we’ll eventually get them all on here.

Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ In My Back Yard), recorded February 6, 1932 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the flip, Jimmie croons a tune about the moon in June predicting the country music styles yet to come in the decade, such as might have appealed to a common Depression-era record buyer’s sensibilities—and it does appeal to my own Depression-era sensibilities—”Mississippi Moon”.  He is accompanied by a Hawaiian style string band made up of Billy Burkes on steel guitar, and Weldon Burkes and Fred Koone on guitars.

Mississippi Moon, recorded February 4, 1932 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Vocalion 05551 – Charlie Burse and his Memphis Mudcats – 1939

Standing alongside Will Shade and Gus Cannon as a jug band mainstay of the 1920s and ’30s, “Laughing” Charlie Burse’s exuberant vocals and bright tenor guitar work was the life of the party on numerous records by the Memphis Jug Band and his own group, the Memphis Mudcats, yet he seems not nearly as well-remembered or biograhpied as many of his peers.

Charlie Burse was born in Decatur, Alabama, on August 25, 1901, son of Robert and Emma Burse.  He learned to play the banjo and guitar in his youth, earning him the nickname “Uke Kid”, and he left his family home in Sheffield, Alabama, for Memphis in the 1920s.  His musicianship on the four-string tenor guitar garnered the notice of Will Shade, who invited Burse to join his Memphis Jug Band in 1928 in replacement of guitarist Will Weldon.  He made his debut recordings with the Memphis Jug Band on September 13, 1928, playing guitar and backing up Shade’s vocals on “A Black Woman is Like a Black Snake” and “On the Road Again”.  Burse stayed with the band—playing tenor guitar or mandolin—for the remainder of their recording career, rising to become a top-billed vocalist by their last session in 1934 and subsequent breakup.  He continued to play around Memphis with Shade, and several years later organized his own band—the Memphis Mudcats—updating the out-of-style jug band instrumentation to include reeds and dispense with the jug in favor of string bass.  With the Mudcats, Burse recorded again, cutting twenty sides for Vocalion on a Memphis field trip in July of 1939.  All the while, he maintained a day job as a laborer in a number of trades including painting and carpentering.  He did not find his way behind a recording mike again until 1950, when he waxed “Shorty the Barber” for Sam Phillips in a style not too dissimilar from his earlier records, gaining the distinction of becoming one of the earliest to record at what would soon become Sun Studio.  The folk revival in the 1950s brought new fame to Burse and Shade, who recorded for Sam Charters and Alan Lomax, and he appeared on television with Shade in 1958, performing the old Memphis Jug Band version of “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues”.  He continued his musical partnership with Will Shade until his death from heart disease on December 20, 1965.

Vocalion 05551 was recorded in two separate sessions in 1939, the first on July 8, and the second on July 15, both in Memphis, Tennessee.  The Memphis Mudcats consist of Charlie Burse on tenor guitar and vocals and otherwise unknown musicians playing alto saxophone, piano, bass, and percussion. One of the members may be Robert Carter, who provided vocals on another of the group’s songs, and it would stand to reason that the percussionist could possibly be Charlie’s brother Robert Burse.

The Mudcats first play a slow, but far from down-in-the-dumps number: “Dawn of Day Blues”.

Dawn of Day Blues, recorded July 8, 1939 by Charlie Burse and his Memphis Mudcats.

They up the tempo on the flip for the mildly hokumesque number “You Better Watch Out”, rather reminiscent of “Bottle it Up and Go”, which Burse recorded twice with the Memphis Jug Band in 1932 and ’34.

You Better Watch Out, recorded July 15, 1939 by Charlie Burse and his Memphis Mudcats.

Brunswick 7184 – Gene Campbell – 1930

The enigmatic Gene Campbell was among the most exemplary of the Texas blues musicians to record in the beginning of the Great Depression, yet nothing much is known of the elusive guitarist and singer; he had a more prolific recording career than most of his contemporaries, and in fact bears the distinction of being the only guitar-playing country blues singer recorded by Brunswick in Texas (all others were backed by jazz bands), yet all but very few substantial details surrounding his life and times have been lost to time.

An account related in the early 1960s to the esteemed researcher Mack McCormick by fellow Texas blues musician James “Smokestack” Tisdom—a protégé of Campbell’s—suggests that the singer’s proper name was Willie Gene Campbell and that he hailed from San Antonio and was born around 1902.  Lyrics such as “born in Texas, raised in Texas too” in his “Western Plain Blues” and mention of “Waco, Dallas, Fort Worth, or San Antonio” in his “Don’t Leave Me Here Blues”, further pointed to Campbell’s roots in the Lone Star State.  Queries of public records have as yet yielded no conclusive information regarding Campbell.  He seems to have spent at least a portion of his life drifting across the region of his origin, and it is possible that he at one time belonged, in some respect, to the loose group of songsters and blues moaners known to hang around the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas that included the likes of Ramblin’ Thomas, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Huddie Ledbetter.  It was in Dallas that Gene Campbell made his first two recordings in November of 1929, beginning his rather brief recording career with commanding performances of “Mama, You Don’t Mean Me No Good No How” and “Bended Knee Blues” (Brunswick 7139).  In his work, he demonstrated a strong and smooth singing voice somewhat reminiscent of his contemporary “Texas” Alexander and an idiosyncratic but deft guitar style echoing that of the influential Lonnie Johnson, that may have employed a flatpick.  Many of his songs dealt with the familiar subject matter of woman troubles, and most shared a similar melody and structure, spiced up with a variety of embellishments.  His first record must have impressed the Brunswick people, because the following year, he traveled to their headquarters in Chicago to cut a further ten sides.  Among those ten recorded at his second session was the two-part “Freight Train Yodeling Blues” (Brunswick 7161), which echoed both the themes and melodies popularized by “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, and illustrated Campbell’s variegated repertoire.  When Brunswick returned to Dallas that November, Campbell recorded another four songs.  He returned to Chicago one final time for two days in January of 1931 to make his last eight, resulting in a grand total of twenty-four sides as his recorded legacy, and making him the most prolific of the handful of country blues players to be recorded by Brunswick, and the second most prolific artist in their 7000-series of “race” records, behind only calypsonian Lionel Belasco.  James Tisdom reported that Campbell was still living in the early 1960s and working as a rice farmer in Bay City, but was no longer active as a musician.    Unfortunately, McCormick was not able to locate Campbell if he was indeed still living at that time, and his fate remains undetermined.

Brunswick 7184 was recorded around May of 1930 in Chicago, Illinois, at Campbell’s second session.  Gene Campbell sings the blues, accompanying himself on the guitar.

Though you may not be able to read the label, Campbell first sings “Lazy Woman Blues”, imploring his girl that she “must get a job, or [she] must leave.”  The lyrics of this song were closely mirrored seven years later in a song called “Trifling Woman” by Fort Worth blues musician Black Ace (B.K. Turner), further suggesting Campbell’s Texas roots, as well as his influence on fellow artists in the region.

Lazy Woman Blues, recorded c. May 1930 by Gene Campbell.

On the reverse, he moans another verse of romantic discontent on the rather morose sounding “Wish I Could Die”.

Wish I Could Die, recorded c. May 1930 by Gene Campbell.