The last thing we heard from the East St. Louis blues king Peetie Wheatstraw was a couple of swing-blues sides from the tail end of his career. Now, let us direct our attentions eight years earlier toward the beginning of his recorded legacy.
A cropped version of the only known photograph of Wheatstraw, pictured in Decca catalog.
Though the only known photograph of William Bunch—better known as Peetie Wheatstraw—depicts him holding a National metal-bodied resonator guitar, the artist played piano on the overwhelming majority of his recordings, while guitar was provided by the likes of Charley Jordan, Kokomo Arnold, or Lonnie Johnson. Other times he played nothing at all, only singing and leaving his accompaniment solely to other musicians. But that depiction of Peetie was not entirely inaccurate; it is said that he started out his musical career on the guitar and learned to handle the instrument with proficiency, before switching to piano later on. By the time he made his first records in 1930, he was primarily playing piano, developing a signature formula which he continued to use for the majority of his more than one-hundred-fifty sides. In 1932 however, Wheatstraw had a pair of stand-out sessions which departed from his standard formula. On a recording trip to New York City in March of 1932, Wheatstraw first played piano for Charley Jordan on a series of sides, then Peetie picked up the guitar himself, and, on March fifteenth and seventeenth, he laid down four blues songs unlike any other that he recorded: “Police Station Blues”—later echoed by Robert Johnson in his “Terraplane Blues”—and “All Alone Blues” on the former day, and “Can’t See Blues” and “Sleepless Nights’ Blues” on the latter. Afterward, he returned home to East St. Louis, and didn’t cut another record for two years, by which time he had settled into his formula, and never touched a guitar again, at least on records.
Vocalion 1727 was recorded on March 15, 1932 in New York City. Peetie Wheatstraw sings and plays guitar on both sides. Both sides were also reissued around 1938 to ’39, each on separate records, with the first side appearing on Vocalion 04592 and the second on Vocalion 04912.
First, despite whatever technical limitations Peetie may have had, he dishes out a wonderful performance on “Sleepless Nights’ Blues”, a great classic of equal or perhaps greater merit than his more popular “Police Station”, earning its way into the Yazoo compilation St. Louis Blues 1929-1935, The Depression.
Sleepless Nights’ Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).
Reusing many of the licks heard on the previous side (though actually vice-versa, since this one was recorded earlier), Wheatstraw next sings “Can’t See Blues”. Like his piano playing, Wheatstraw had a very idiosyncratic style of playing guitar (which is to say, he typically followed a very similar pattern in all of the songs he played).
Can’t See Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).
With a repertoire ranging from ragtime to pop songs, the eight songs recorded by the Dallas String Band are incomparable to most anything else on shellac records, and indeed are very difficult to categorize—they’re sometimes characterized as “pre-blues”, but none could technically be classified as blues songs, they bear some resemblance to white Texas string band music, and they’re all listed in Rust’s Jazz Records discography—but they are surely among the most fascinating music ever preserved. It probably wouldn’t be too far fetched to presume that their music bears substantial similarity to rural Afro-American music of the nineteenth century.
Though little is known of his life, Coley Jones was a prominent figure in the Afro-American music scene of Dallas, Texas in the 1920s. Born most likely in the 1880s, and may have been in Dallas by the turn of the century. As an itinerant musician, playing in medicine show type venues, his repertoire consisted largely of folk songs and old minstrel tunes like “Drunkard’s Special” and “Traveling Man”. Jones’ most notable contribution to music was as a member of the Dallas String Band, along with Marco Washington—stepfather of Dallas native Aaron Walker, also known as “Oak Cliff T-Bone”, and later as “T-Bone Walker”—and Sam Harris, playing music that could best be described as “pre-blues”. Their repertoire was drawn largely from minstrel, vaudeville, and ragtime traditions, including such songs as “So Tired” and “Chasin’ Rainbows”, as well as popular songs like “Shine” and “Sugar Blues”. In addition to the Dallas String Band, Jones was a member of a jazz band by the name of the Satisfied Five, which also included noted drummer Herbert Cowans, with whom he broadcasted on WFAA and played at the famed Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells. Every December from 1927 until 1929, Jones recorded for Columbia Records when they made field trips to Dallas. In addition to recording twenty-one sides of his own—solo, in duet with Bobbie Cadillac—and with the Dallas String Band, he accompanied local musicians Texas Bill Day and Billiken Johnson on a further six. He probably also recorded two unissued sides for Brunswick under the pseudonym “Coley Dotson” in 1929. Following his brief recording career, Jones’ whereabouts are largely unknown, and he is presumed to have died in the 1930s. Posthumously, Jones’ “Drunkard’s Special”, based on an old British folk song, was included on Harry Smith’s legendary Anthology of American Folk Music, and the Dallas String Band’s “So Tired” appeared in Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 motion picture Ghost World.
Columbia 14410-D was recorded on December 9, 1928 in Dallas, Texas. The Dallas String Band is made up of Coley Jones on mandolin and lead vocals, probably Sam Harris on guitar, and Marco Washington on string bass. Rust lists an unknown second mandolin, but I’m not so sure.
On the first side, they play the sublime “Chasin’ Rainbows”. I wouldn’t be exaggerating one bit to place this song easily in my top ten favorite recordings. The song is perhaps better known by the cover version by R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders to audiences outside of, well, R. Crumb (and the few of us out there like him).
Chasin’ Rainbows, recorded December 9, 1928 by the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones.
On the reverse, “I Used to Call Her Baby” is another pleasing raggy number, played this time with a little more pep.
I Used to Call Her Baby, recorded December 9, 1928 by the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones.
Blind Blake was one of the most prolific male blues artists of the 1920s, and one of the most skilled guitarists of all time, yet today details about his life and times are even scarcer than his records. He turned up in Chicago, recorded one-hundred-and-twenty-some-odd sides, both solo and as an accompanist, then disappeared from sight of the prying eyes of history. Even among his contemporaries, Blind Blake seemed to be something of an enigma, though they universally hailed his musical abilities. With all the mystery surrounding Blake, all that is certainly clear is that his virtuosity was second-to-none.
Blind Blake, as pictured in The Paramount Book of Blues, 1927. A cropped version of the only known photograph of him.
Arthur Blake, misidentified by some sources—including Blind Willie McTell—as Arthur Phelps, was born, reportedly, in 1896. Paramount’s 1927 Book of Blues stated that he hailed from “Jacksonville, in sunny Florida,” but his death certificate placed his birth in Newport News, Virginia. Either way, it is probable that Florida served as his home for a large portion of his life. Whether or not he was born blind is also the subject of speculation; the aforementioned Book of Blues suggested as much, but some have proposed that he was born sighted, but or developed his condition later in life (perhaps as a result of some bad bootleg). Purportedly on the recommendation of a Florida record dealer, Blake traveled to Chicago and made his recording debut for Paramount Records in July of 1926, accompanying singer Leola B. Wilson, and cut his first solo record a month later: “Early Morning Blues” and “West Coast Blues” appearing on Paramount 12387. He was noted for his ability to play a guitar like a piano, capable of producing intricate fingerpicked ragtime melodies with a Charleston rhythm—exemplified in such pieces as his tour de force “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown” (Paramount 12892)—and indeed he was also a skilled pianist, though he only demonstrated that ability on one recording: “Let Your Love Come Down”, accompanying Bertha Henderson. Alongside Blind Lemon Jefferson and Papa Charlie Jackson, Blake became one of the most successful male blues artists on Paramount’s roster, and he collaborated periodically with other artists such as Gus Cannon on titles like “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home” and “My Money Never Runs Out” (Paramount 12588 and 12604), Charlie Spand on the stomping boogie-woogie “Hastings St.” (Paramount 12863), Charlie Jackson on “Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It” (Paramount 12911), and jazz clarinetist Johnny Dodds on several sides including “C.C. Pill Blues” (Paramount 12634). Blake concluded his recording career with “Champagne Charlie is My Name” and “Depression’s Gone from Me Blues”, the latter set to the popular melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”, recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin around June of 1932 and released on Paramount 13137. To add further mystery, there is question as to whether the performer of “Champagne Charlie is My Name” actually is Blake at all, or some unknown artist masquerading under his name (personally, I’m under the impression that it probably is Blake, though it is below his usual quality; maybe he was hitting the bottle that day). Not long after that last session, Paramount Records folded, and Blake never recorded again. He remained in Wisconsin in the 1930s, living in Brewer’s Hill in Milwaukee with his wife Beatrice, though he was unable to find work during the hard times of the Great Depression. Blake fell ill with pneumonia in 1933 and died from complications of tuberculosis on December 1, 1934.
Blind Blake’s virtuoso ragtime guitar playing served as a major influence on subsequent generations of blues guitarists, particularly on the style of blues playing that has since come to be associated with the Piedmont, and he exerted a direct influence on more than a few prominent musicians hailing from that region, including Blind Boy Fuller, Josh White, and Buddy Moss, as well as—directly and indirectly—on countless other musicians from around the United States, and even abroad, in the decades since. Renowned guitarist Rev. Blind Gary Davis drew considerable inspiration from Blake, and once mused that he “ain’t never heard anybody on a record yet beat Blind Blake on guitar. [He liked] Blake because he plays right sporty.” In later years, Gus Cannon later recalled that Blake “could see more with his blind eyes than [Cannon] with [his] two good ones.” Georgia Tom Dorsey remembered Blake as “a good worker and a nice fellow to get along with.” Race records executive J. Mayo Williams stated that Blake “liked to get drunk and fight.”
Paramount 12565 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, in November and October of 1927, respectively. It also appeared on Broadway 5053 under the pseudonym “Blind George Martin”. On side “A”, Blake is accompanied on banjo by Gus Cannon, who was recording for Paramount at the time as “Banjo Joe”, and in fact it is Cannon’s first recording. Alas, the record is afflicted by a condition endemic to these Paramounts; though not in particularly poor condition and the music is mostly clear and undistorted, poor pressing quality and decades of less-than-optimal storage have resulted in a high level of surface noise behind the music. To make things worse, both sides were recorded at a rather low volume. As such, both sides are most assuredly audible (and even enjoyable to my desensitized ears), but I apologize for not being able to offer better quality sound.
First, Blake sings the medicine show favorite “He’s in the Jail House Now”, later popularized by Jimmie Rodgers’ two landmark recordings, though I would consider Blake’s version here to be the definitive. Other notable versions of the vaudeville staple were recorded by Whistler’s Jug Band in 1924, Earl McDonald’s Louisville Jug Band in 1927, Jim Jackson in 1928, Boyd Senter’s Senterpedes in 1929, the Memphis Jug Band and Bill Bruner, the latter of which drew both on Rodgers and Blake’s versions, in 1930, Eliot Everett’s Orchestra in 1932, and Billy Mitchell in 1936, not counting outright copies of Rodgers’ rendition by the likes of Gene Autry and Frankie Marvin, and the song remains popular on the roots music scene today, with performances by such artists as Dom Flemons and Pokey LaFarge.
He’s in the Jail House Now, recorded c. November 1927 by Blind Blake.
On the reverse, another of Blake’s best, he shows off his guitar-playing prowess on “Southern Rag”, punctuated by spoken interjections in Geechee dialect. “Now we goin’ on an old Southern r… rag!”
Southern Rag, recorded c. October 1927 by Blind Blake.
Papa Charlie Jackson, as he appeared in the Paramount Book of Blues, circa 1927.
The time has come to pay tribute to one of the greatest and most prolific “songster” musicians to record, as well as one of my own personal favorites: the incomparable Papa Charlie Jackson.
“Papa” Charlie Jackson was born in New Orleans, purportedly on November 10, 1887 and by the name William Henry Jackson. The Paramount Book of Blues described his character as “witty—cheerful—kind hearted,” and armed with a commanding voice and banjo-playing skills to match, he started out playing in tent shows and vaudeville, eventually winding up in Chicago. Rather than the more common guitar or five-string banjo, Jackson opted for the somewhat unconventional six-string banjo-guitar, though he occasionally switched to a standard acoustic guitar. In Chicago, Jackson performed at various local establishments and busked on Maxwell Street. Signed to Paramount Records in the summer of 1924, Jackson became the first male blues artist on the label’s roster—as well as one of the earliest male blues artists to record for anybody—and quickly one of its most successful regardless of sex. In addition to his solo records, Jackson recorded in duet with Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Blind Blake, and Hattie McDaniel on separate occasions, and provided banjo and vocals for jazz bands such as Freddie Keppard’s Jazz Cardinals and Tiny Parham’s “Forty” Five. A few of his songs, notably “Shake that Thing” and “Salty Dog”, achieved huge success. From 1924 until 1930, Jackson recorded around seventy hokum, blues, and folk songs for Paramount, not counting those where he was an accompanist or instrumentalist. Well into the Great Depression and after four years of recording silence, Jackson concluded his recording career with two sessions for Okeh in 1934 yielding two records, followed by one unconfirmed 1935 session for Bluebird backing Big Bill Broonzy. Falling thereafter into a period of total obscurity, Charlie Jackson died in Chicago on May 7, 1938.
Paramount 12296 was recorded around August of 1925 in Chicago, Illinois by Charlie Jackson, singing with accompaniment by his own banjo-guitar.
First up, Papa Charlie sings a little hokum on the classic “Mama Don’t Allow It (And She Ain’t Gonna Have it Here)”, a variant of the timeless “Mama Don’t Allow”, usually attributed to Cow Cow Davenport. Here the composer is credited as William Henry Jackson.
Mama Don’t Allow It (And She Ain’t Gonna Have it Here), recorded c. August 1925 by Charlie Jackson.
Next, Jackson sings his own “Take Me Back Blues”, one of his many compositions. Evidently a popular number, he later followed this tune up with “Take Me Back Blues No. 2” in 1929, issued on Paramount 12797, that time on an ordinary acoustic guitar and with considerably less energy.
Take Me Back Blues, recorded c. August 1925 by Charlie Jackson.
Decades before the latter day country music hero, the state of Texas produced another music maker called George Jones: an outstanding early blues guitarist and singer who went by the name “Little Hat”.
George Jones (misidentified by many outdated sources as “Dennis”) was born on his formerly enslaved grandfather’s farm in Bowie County, Texas—in the farthest northeastern corner of the state bordering Arkansas—on October 5, 1899, the only child of Felix Jones. He dropped out of school after the sixth grade to help his ailing father on the farm after a loss of the season’s crop of cotton. Jones claimed to have started out playing piano at church, but switched instruments after his mother “done gone and found an old guitar for [him] to pick.” Influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson, he learned to play in a peculiar fast, melodic, and uniquely rural style rather reminiscent of Mississippi John Hurt, albeit rougher, more driving and more formulaic, marked by occasional injections of a boogie-woogie beat. His habit of starting out a song at a breakneck tempo and slowing down before beginning to sing, intentional or not, added a certain sense of tension to his recordings. Probably around the age of seventeen, after his father and the farm recovered, Jones started making money with his music, but continued to make his living by means of various employment as a laborer throughout all of his life. While working a construction job in Garland, Texas, Jones was nicknamed “Little Hat” by his boss (who reportedly even made out Jones’ paychecks to that name) because of the cut-down brim on his work hat. When the Okeh record company made a field trip to San Antonio in 1929, Little Hat Jones cut his first recordings as an accompanist to fellow Texas blues man Alger “Texas” Alexander, who had been recording with Okeh since ’27. On the fifteenth of June of that year, Jones recorded eight sides backing Alexander and a further two solo. He was behind the microphone again six days later to cut four more solo sides, and again four more when Okeh returned to San Antonio the following year, netting a total of five records issued under his own name. Though he never again recorded commercially after 1930, Little Hat Jones continued to play at juke joints and booger roogers in and out of the state of Texas alongside the likes of J.T. “Funny Paper” Smith and, reputedly, Jimmie Rodgers and T. Texas Tyler. Jones claimed that Okeh invited him to record further in New York, but that evidently fell through. He settled down with his wife in Naples, Texas in 1937, where he remained for the rest of his life, eventually finding steady employment at the nearby Red River Army Depot. In 1964, Jones was interviewed by local newspaper man Morris G. Craig of the Naples Monitor and recorded—still in fine form though a little rusty on the guitar—playing several more songs, including a re-recording of his 1929 “New Two Sixteen Blues” and a rendition of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train”. Little Hat Jones died on March 7, 1981 in the Municipal Hospital in Linden, Texas, and is buried in the Morning Star Cemetery in Naples.
In spite of his relative obscurity, the music of Little Hat Jones was remarkably influential. Echoes of Jones’ “Two String Blues”—in particular the lyric “I’m goin’ to Lou’siana, get me a hoodoo hand… I’m gonna stop my woman and fix it so she can’t have another man”—were heard later in Lightnin’ Hopkins’ famous song “Mojo Hand”. Jones’ music gained later fame outside of record collecting and blues circles for the inclusion of his “Bye Bye Baby Blues” in Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 motion picture Ghost World.
Little Hat Jones recorded Okeh 8794 on June 21, 1929 in San Antonio, Texas, his second record date, a week after his first recordings accompanying Texas Alexander. It was released in 1930.
First up, Jones plays and sings the outstanding “Rolled From Side to Side Blues”, borrowing its name from a stanza within his debut recording “New Two Sixteen Blues”, which he reused in this song. It’s a wonder that guitar didn’t catch fire—just listen to those descending runs!
Rolled From Side to Side Blues, recorded June 21, 1929 by Little Hat Jones.
On the reverse, he combines the classic railroad song with the blues for lost love on his eponymous “Little Hat Blues”, most certainly my favorite of Jones’ recordings, and in my opinion one of the great masterworks of country blues (though that “Bye Bye Baby” is a dilly, no doubt).
Little Hat Blues, recorded June 21, 1929 by Little Hat Jones.