Champion 16081 – Hokum Boys – 1930

This record is a surprisingly obscure one considering its excellence, even in light of its extraordinary scarcity.  A Google search will yield precious few results, and the upload of the only side that’s on YouTube has accrued only around five-hundred views in more than half a decade.  Its rarity earned it a spot on Document Records’ “Too Late, Too Late: Newly Discovered Titles and Alternate Takes” series rather than their Hokum Boys or Big Bill Broonzy series proper, and that may be the only commercial reissue it’s ever gotten (I’m not sure).  To the few who know of it (mostly a small cadre of record collectors and blues researchers), it is held in high regard as perhaps Big Bill Broonzy’s best record.  I had the fortune of being enlightened to its existence some years ago, and the even greater fortune of being able to acquire a copy.  I hope to shed a much needed ray of sunshine onto this gem of prewar blues guitar, and help get it some of the recognition it deserves.

In 1930, Big Bill Broonzy was under the management of Chicago “race music” impresario Lester Melrose, and playing good-time music with Georgia Tom and Frank Brasswell (or Braswell, a.k.a. “The Western Kid”) as the “Hokum Boys” (a mantle originally used by Georgia Tom and Tampa Red).  Broonzy hadn’t recorded since his earliest, somewhat poorly received “Big Bill and Thomps” Paramount sessions of 1927 and ’28.  Among the tunes recorded by Broonzy and the Hokum Boys were (fittingly) hokum titles like “Somebody’s Been Using that Thing” and “Eagle Riding Papa” (both of which were later covered by Milton Brown), urban blues novelties like “Mama’s Leavin’ Town”, and fast guitar rags like “Saturday Night Rub” and “Pig Meat Strut”.  On the rags, Frank Brasswell’s flatpicked rhythm combined with Bill’s adept fingerpicking to make musical magic. The trio, occasionally including Delta blues man Arthur Petties, first recorded in New York for the American Record Corporation in various configurations and under various names, including “Sammy Sampson” for Bill’s solo work.  Next they traveled to Richmond, Indiana to cut several sides for the Starr Piano Company’s Champion label, all ones they had made previously for the ARC, this time with Bill’s solo work credited to “Big Bill Johnson”.  Those Champions were the last sides to feature Brasswell, who proceeded to drop off the face of the earth.  Bill on the other hand would go on to great acclaim.

Champion 16081 was recorded on May 2, 1930 in Richmond, Indiana.  The Hokum Boys are Big Bill Broonzy (recording for the Starr Piano Co. as “Big Bill Johnson”) and Frank Brasswell on guitars.  It sold a total of 959 copies, of which only a handful are known to exist today.  As such, it is listed in the “Rarest 78s” section of 78 Quarterly (No. 6), and while the total number of existing copies was not estimated at the time, a current estimate places the number at “fewer than ten known copies.”  More popular versions of both tunes were recorded for the American Record Corporation the previous month (and both, in my opinion, are not near as good as these).  Per advice from Mr. Russ Shor, I’ve adjusted the transfers to playback at around 83 RPM, and per advice from Mr. Pete Whelan, I’ve also left in the original 78.26 RPM ones.  Take your pick.

First up, Bill and Frank get hot on Broonzy’s classic rag composition “Saturday Night Rub” with a performance described by blues guitar teacher Woody Mann as “one of the most hard-driving rag tunes ever recorded.”  Midway through, Bill utters those immortal words, “I’m gonna play this guitar tonight from A to Z!”

Saturday Night Rub, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.

“Pig Meat Strut” on the “B” side is perhaps my favorite guitar instrumental (though there’s some stiff competition from Blind Blake, William Moore, Bayless Rose, Frank Hutchison, and others).  Bill and Frank’s “Famous Hokum Boys” version of the rag for the ARC, recorded a little less than a month before this one, is often hailed as one of his best (I say phooey), but it sounds like a hot mess compared to this masterpiece!  The riffs in “Pig Meat Strut” later became Big Bill’s popular “Hey Hey” in 1951.  Interestingly, a nearly identical melody was also used by Texas blues man Little Hat Jones in his “Kentucky Blues”, recorded only a month after this one, though any actual connection between the two is unknown to me.

Man, did they get in the groove and how!

Pig Meat Strut, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.

Okeh 05476 – Blind Boy Fuller – 1940

One of the most commercially successful blues artists of the 1930s, along with the likes of Big Bill, Josh White, and Peetie Wheatstraw, was Blind Boy Fuller, who cut 130 sides—both low down blues and peppy rags—between 1935 and 1940.

The artist who would become Blind Boy Fuller was born Fulton Allen on July 10, 1907 (or 1904, according to some sources) in Wadesboro, North Carolina, one of ten children born to May Jane Walker and Calvin Allen.  He learned field hollers and old time songs from his elders, and took up the guitar.  As a result of untreated neonatal conjunctivitis, Allen began to lose his sight in his teenage years, and was totally blind by the end of the 1920s.  Unable to continue working manual labor, he turned to performance, playing street corners, rent parties, and the like, eventually settling in Durham, North Carolina.  There, he developed a following amongst the local musicians, including Bull City Red, Sonny Terry, and Dipper Boy Council, with whom he would later record.  In 1935, J.B. Long, manager of the United Dollar Store discovered Allen, and arranged for him to record for the American Record Corporation in New York City as “Blind Boy Fuller”, along with Bull City Red and Rev. Blind Gary Davis.  Fuller made his debut in four sessions from July 23 to 26, 1935.  He would return to New York seven times, and also travel to Columbia, South Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee, and Chicago, adding up to a total of twenty-three sessions (if my count is correct) between 1935 and 1940 for the ARC, plus two in 1937 for Decca.  He was scheduled to appear in John Hammond’s From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938, but was unable to make it, as he was in jail for shooting at his wife (no small feat for a blind man).  Sonny Terry substituted for him.  Fuller’s health was in decline by the early 1940s, owing to a heavy alcohol intake causing him kidney troubles, and he had his last record date on June 19, 1940, in Chicago.  Following a period of infirmity, Fuller died of pyemia on February 13, 1941.

Okeh 05476 was recorded on March 5 and 6, 1940 in New York City by Blind Boy Fuller.  On the former, Fuller is accompanied on washboard by Bull City Red (real name George Washington, also known as “Oh Red”).  It was originally issued on Vocalion with the same catalog number.

On the first side, Fuller does one of his best remembered rag tunes, the classic boogie number “Step it Up and Go”, with some lively picking on his National Duolian.

Step It Up and Go

Step it Up and Go, recorded on March 5, 1940 by Blind Boy Fuller.

On the flip, he plays a little bluer on “Little Woman You’re So Sweet”, with a tune in the “Sitting On Top of the World” family.  If you ask me, these lyrics are nothing to write home about, but the delivery is top-notch!

Little Woman You're So Sweet

Little Woman You’re So Sweet, recorded on March 6, 1940 by Blind Boy Fuller.

Vocalion 1094 – Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas” – 1927

An  advertisement for “Cottonfield Blues”, as reprinted in The Devil’s Music, 1976.

One of the great figures of country blues, one of those who have attained a near legendary status, is Henry Thomas, also known by the nickname “Ragtime Texas”.  One of the oldest rural black musicians to record (though probably not the oldest—Daddy Stovepipe was purported to have been born seven years earlier), Thomas predated contemporary songsters like Jim Jackson, Lead Belly, and Charley Patton as well as many fellow Texas musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and “Texas” Alexander.

Henry Thomas was born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas, one of nine children in a family of sharecroppers; his parents were former slaves.  In his youth, he determined that he was not to live his life as a farmer, and turned to the life of a songster.  He left his home around the time he was sixteen, and lived the life of a hobo and itinerant musicianer.  Thomas learned to play the “quills” (an instrument much like panpipes), and later the guitar to accompany his singing.  Like any songster worth his salt, Thomas learned to play a variety of styles from minstrel songs, to folk ballads and blues, to rags and dance tunes.  His music earned him the hobo nickname “Ragtime Texas”.  On the Texas & Pacific and M-K-T lines, Thomas hoboed all around Texas and the South (much of which he outlined in his “Railroadin’ Some”), bringing his music with him and expanding his repertoire all the way.  He sang of his home state of Texas, of his life as a hobo, and plenty more.  His travels likely brought him to the World’s Fairs of Chicago and St. Louis in 1893 and 1904, respectively.  In 1927, Thomas traveled to Chicago to cut a record for Vocalion, recording four sides, of which three were released.  Over the following years, he returned to Chicago for five further sessions, netting a total of twenty-three titles from 1927 to 1929.  Little to none of what happened after his final recordings is known.  Many sources claim that he died in 1930, but others claimed to have seen him in Houston in 1949, and around Tyler, Texas in the 1950s.  Long after the end of his life, Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” served as the primary inspiration for the band Canned Heat’s 1968 famous hippie anthem “Going Up the Country”.

Vocalion 1094 was recorded on June 30, 1927 (other sources suggest a date of April 19 or July 5 of the same year) in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Henry Thomas’ first issued record, and, aside from an unissued cut of “The Fox and the Hounds”, his first recorded sides.

First, Thomas sings and whistles his fantastic rendition of the perennial folk ballad “John Henry”, putting his own unique spin on the tale of the legendary steel driving man.

John Henry

John Henry, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.

Turn the record over and Ragtime Texas next delivers a driving performance on “Cottonfield Blues”, bearing some musical resemblance to the “Hesitation Blues”.  Unusual as Thomas music is—what with the quills and the droning guitar—I can’t get enough of it.  It’s truly entrancing, wondrous music!

Cottonfield Blues

Cottonfield Blues, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.

Melotone 7-07-64 – Big Bill – 1937

It’s come time once again to pay tribute to blues legend Big Bill Broonzy, on the (unconfirmed) anniversary of his birth.  Last time, I posted one of his earlier records, coupling his memorable flatpicked “How You Want it Done?” with “M & O Blues”, featuring his own jug band.  This time around, I present two sides from around the time when he was shifting from his country blues roots to a more urbane style.  I biographed Big Bill in that previous post, so I feel that I needn’t go over that again here.

An ever-versatile musician, the 1930s marked a period of development and transition for Big Bill Broonzy’s music.  He started out the decade playing pure country blues from back where he came from, akin to Josh White, or Buddy Moss.  His recordings from that period, like “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “How You Want it Done?” generally feature his own guitar, sometimes backed with another guitar or a piano.  Later, around the time the swing era kicked off in the middle part of the decade, Chicago evidently had an effect on him, as he started to develop a more citified style to fit with the public’s changing tastes.  Accordingly, his recordings started to swing, often backed by an instrumental ensemble with horn and rhythm, comparable to urban blues contemporaries like Peetie Wheatstraw.  He worked extensively with fellow blues people such as pianist Black Bob, Hawaiian guitar man Casey Bill Weldon, harmonica player Bill “Jazz” Gillum, and his half brother Washboard Sam.  By the end of the decade, his work had become quite sophisticated, producing some of his most memorable work, including “Key to the Highway” and “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town”.  After the end of World War II, however, as interests in folk music began to bud, Bill returned to his rural roots.

Melotone 7-07-64 was recorded on January 31, 1937 in Chicago. Illinois.  Big Bill is accompanied by a rhythm band made up of “Mister Sheiks” Alfred Bell on trumpet, Black Bob Hudson on piano, Bill Settles on string bass, Fred Williams on drums, and Broonzy’s own guitar.

First up, Big Bill plays a classic mid-1930s blues side, “Mean Old World”, an entirely different piece than the T-Bone Walker hit of the 1940s, though Walker may have found some inspiration in this Broonzy tune.

Mean Old World, recorded January 31, 1937 by Big BIll.

Next, Bill does a peppy one with a hot dance accompaniment, “Barrel House When it Rains”, featuring the piano of the mysterious Black Bob, among others noted Chicago blues figures.

Barrel House When it Rains, recorded January 31, 1937 by Big BIll.

Vocalion 03046 – Memphis Minnie, Black Bob, Bill Settles – 1935

The time has come to pay tribute to the consummate blues woman Memphis Minnie, on the 120th anniversary of her birth.

Memphis Minnie came into the world as Lizzie Douglas, one of thirteen children born to Abe and Gerturde Douglas in Algiers, New Orleans, on June 3, 1897.  She didn’t care for the name Lizzie, and took to using the name “Kid” Douglas, a nickname given by her parents, when performing.  Before she was a teenager, she learned to play banjo and guitar, and ran away to Beale Street at thirteen.  Taking to a life of music, she played street corners and toured the South with the Ringling Brothers Circus.  In 1929, she was given the moniker of “Memphis Minnie” by a Columbia record man while making her first records with her second husband Joe McCoy, who was dubbed “Kansas Joe”.  The next year saw the release of one of her most famous songs, “Bumble Bee”, of which she recorded a number of different versions.  Minnie and Kansas Joe went on to make a series of records together for Vocalion and Decca before their divorce in 1935.  Relocating to Chicago, Minnie became a staple of the nightclubs, joined Lester Melrose’s stable of blues artists, and beat Big Bill Broonzy in a cutting contest.  In the late 1930s, Minnie married Ernest Lawlars, better known as Little Son Joe, another blues artist, and they performed together as she had with her previous husband.  In 1941, she recorded some of her biggest hits, “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and “Looking the World Over”.  Minnie continued to perform and record into the 1950s, but ill health forced her to retire thereafter.  Memphis Minnie died of a stroke, the last of several, on August 6, 1973.

Vocalion 03046 was recorded on August 22, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois.  As the label would suggest, the instrumentation features Memphis Minnie on guitar, Black Bob Hudson on piano, and Bill Settles on string bass.

The identity of pianist “Black Bob” is surrounded by a great deal of uncertainty and confusion.  He is known to have been a prolific sideman for Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Memphis Minnie, and others, and he recorded extensively for Bluebird and the American Record Corporation between 1932 and 1942, yet his real name and identity are not verified.  A number of names have been put forth, including Bob Hudson, boogie-woogie man Bob Call, Chicago pianist Bob Robinson, and others.  The most likely candidate seems to be Hudson, who recorded with the Memphis Nighthawks on the same day as Black Bob’s session with Big Bill’s Jug Busters, and made one unissued side under his own name two days later, which is reported to match stylistically with Black Bob’s playing.  Most sources, when a last name is given at all, identify Black Bob as Hudson.

First up, Minnie, Bob, and Bill beat out the swing number “Joe Louis Strut”, one of a number of tunes dedicated to the world heavyweight champion of the same name.

Joe Louis Strut, recorded August 22, 1935 by Memphis Minnie, Black Bob, Bill Settles.

One of those “number of tunes” is on the flip, on which Minnie sings solo on her tribute/plea for love to Louis, the classic “He’s in the Ring (Doing that Same Old Thing)”.  This is take “2” of the song, I prefer the first take myself, but to my knowledge, it wasn’t released commercially on 78.

He’s in the Ring (Doing that Same Old Thing), recorded August 22, 1935 by Memphis Minnie