Louis Armstrong around the age of nineteen, circa 1920. Pictured in Jazzmen, 1939.
As the anniversary of the day the great Louis Armstrong was born rolls around once again, it’s come time to commemorate the occasion with another page from musical history. Previously, we’ve examined his theme song, his original Hot Five’s last recordings, and his 1933 European tour. Now let us turn our attention to an earlier point in old Satchel Mouth’s illustrious career, toward one of the most memorable records from his first endeavor as the leader of a band.
After Louis Armstrong parted ways with his mentor King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1924, he was invited to New York City for a seat in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, the top black dance band in operation, making his first records with them on October 7, 1924. He remained with Henderson for only a year, but in that time helped produce some of the band’s greatest musical successes. Thereafter, he returned to Chicago and started up a band of his own: the Hot Five, featuring the extraordinary talents of Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr, and his wife Lil, sometimes joined by guests like Lonnie Johnson. He secured a contract with Okeh Records, for whom he had recorded as a member of Oliver’s Jazz Band, and the Hot Five made their first three recordings on November 12, 1925. In addition to his bandleading, Armstrong also worked as something of a staff trumpeter at Okeh, often backing blues singers like Bertha “Chippie” Hill. Though his contract forbade him from making records under his own name on other labels, he occasionally made clandestine ventures to other companies; the Hot Five cut one record for Vocalion as “Lill’s Hot Shots”, and Armstrong sat in for a session with Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra. Nonetheless, his contract proved to be quite fruitful, for Armstrong remained on Okeh’s roster—sometimes expanding the Hot Five to the Hot Seven, and later fronting full-fledged orchestras—until the middle of 1932, at which point he left the faltering label in favor of recording for Victor, which had managed to stay afloat as the Great Depression took its heavy toll on the record companies.
Okeh 8300 was recorded on February 26, 1926 in Chicago, Illinois, at the Armstrong’s Hot Five’s third session. The Hot Five is its original lineup of Louis Armstrong on cornet, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Armstrong on piano, and Johnny St. Cyr on six-string banjo.
First up is “Heebie Jeebies”, most certainly the definitive version of this tune, which we last heard played by Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orchestra. Armstrong’s recording of this popular jazz tune is frequently cited as one of the most influential early examples of scat singing. According to Richard M. Jones, Armstrong’s famous scat chorus began because his lyric sheet fell off his music stand and he couldn’t remember the words. That story is likely pure fiction, though Armstrong did blurt out “I done forgot the words” in his scat chorus on his 1930 recording of “(I’m a) Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas”.
Heebie Jeebies, recorded February 26, 1926 by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.
Next up is the the first ever recording of Kid Ory’s hot jazz standard, “Muskrat Ramble” (sometimes titled “Muskat Ramble”, and occasionally “Muskrat Scramble”, which I imagine as quite a terrible egg dish).
Muskrat Ramble, recorded February 26, 1926 by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.
The incomparable Blind Lemon Jefferson truly was an artist without parallel. Having cut his first disc in 1925 or ’26, he was one of the earliest male country blues musicians to record, and the success of his records paved the way for more blues artists to have their music immortalized in wax. His peculiar yet virtuosic style of singing and guitar playing set him apart from all his contemporaries, and caused him to be seldom imitated (and interestingly, many of his early imitators were white; see Larry Hensley, “Slim Jim” Debs Mays, Roy Shaffer). Considering both the quality and originality of his work, as well as the volume of his output, it would seem fair to consider Blind Lemon Jefferson one of the greatest heroes of the Texas blues.
Blind Lemon Jefferson, as pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues, 1927.
Like so many early blues people, much of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s life is shrouded in mystery. He is usually said to have been born in September 24, 1893, though he claimed a date of October 26, 1894, himself. July of 1897 has also been proffered by some sources, and his obituary suggested he was born about a decade earlier. He learned to play guitar in his childhood or teens. As an adult, he weighed about two-hundred-fifty pounds, and has been described as a snappy dresser, always wearing a John B. Stetson hat and a box-back suit from the Model Tailors in Dallas, and conversely as “fat, and a slovenly dresser.” Lemon reported his profession to census takers in 1920 as a musician, his employer the “general public,” and outside of music he was said to have worked as a wrestler in Dallas. He played and sang at functions around Freestone County and on street corners, honky tonks, and bordellos in Dallas, most notably on the east end of Elm Street called Deep Ellum, and even on the interurban railway that ran from from Waco north to Denison. He was known to have worked with Lead Belly, and may have also associated with Washington Phillips and the Dallas String Band. Like fellow Paramount artists Charley Patton and Blind Blake, only one published photograph of Lemon is known to exist (though at least one phony has been reputed as a second one, and there may well be another authentic but unpublished one in private hands).
As with his life, there is much legend surrounding the demise of Blind Lemon Jefferson. It’s known that he died on a cold winter day in Chicago—around ten o’clock in the morning on December 19, 1929. Some claim that he was poisoned by a jilted lover (much like the fate that befell Robert Johnson some nine years later). Others have supposed that he was robbed of a royalty payment and murdered by a guide hired to help him find his way to the train station. More reliable accounts suggest that he either died of a heart attack in his car and was abandoned by his driver, or became disoriented trying to find his way through a snowstorm and died from hypothermia. His death certificate stated “probably acute myocarditis,” supporting the heart attack hypothesis. In any event, Paramount Records paid for his body’s return to Texas by train, accompanied by Texas piano man Will Ezell, to be buried in the Wortham Negro Cemetery (now called the Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery). His funeral was reportedly attended by two or three hundred people, both black and white. Lemon’s passing inspired a small wave of tributes, and Paramount released a memorial record in his honor, featuring Walter and Byrd singing “Wasn’t it Sad About Lemon” and Rev. Emmett Dickinson’s sermon on the “Death of Blind Lemon”, comparing Jefferson to Jesus Christ. Had Lemon survived into the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, his impact would likely have been enormous. Today, Lemon’s grave marker (placed in 1997) bears the epitaph “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you; see that my grave is kept clean.”
The tombstone of Blind Lemon Jefferson in Wortham, Texas, as it appeared eighty-eight years and one day after his death. Kept clean at the time, as it were.
Paramount 12608 was recorded around February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois by Blind Lemon Jefferson. It also appeared on Broadway 5059, though I’m not certain whether or not anyone has ever seen one of those, I know I haven’t. It was released that March or early April, and first advertised in the Chicago Defender on April 7, 1928.
Now, I ordinarily prefer not to make posts honoring artists on the anniversaries of their deaths, but rather to celebrate their lives; under the circumstances however, this record seems an appropriate case to make an exception, for it contains Lemon’s legendary “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”. This song, together with “Match Box Blues” and “That Black Snake Moan” could be viewed as a sort of triumvirate of Lemon’s most famous and perhaps most influential songs. A folk song sometimes known as “Two White Horses in a Line” or (in later years) “One Kind Favor”, Lemon first recorded the song in October of 1927, issued on Paramount 12585, backed with “He Arose from the Dead” under his sanctified pseudonym “Deacon L.J. Bates”. That version was pulled soon after release and replaced with “Where Shall I Be”, while Lemon recorded a new version of “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” several months later, which saw release under his own name on the record you see and hear here. Son House used the melody for his “Mississippi County Farm Blues”, which he recorded for Paramount in 1930, and many others have since performed and recorded Jefferson’s original. In 1934, John A. Lomax recorded a bottleneck guitarist named Pete Harris singing the song in Richmond, Texas under the title “Blind Lemon’s Song”, demonstrating the impact of Jefferson’s recording, and in 1952, Harry Smith included the song in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music.
See That My Grave is Kept Clean, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
On the reverse, technically the “A” side, keeping with the rather morbid theme, Lemon sings “‘Lectric Chair Blues”, another excellent blues, even if it lacks the same grandeur as the previous one. The original Chicago Defender advertisement said of the song: “Salty tears—wet tears—big, round tears—all kinds of tears and heart throbs, and you should put yourself in his place to feel just as blue. ‘Lectric chair is the next place he’s gonna sit down in, and he ain’t tired either, so he don’t wanta sit down.”
‘Lectric Chair Blues, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
There were some artists of yesteryear who created a truly unique sound, and made music that was without parallel (for better or for worse). Names like Washington Phillips—who played what he called a “manzarene”, possibly two modified zithers played simultaneously, to accompany his sanctified singing—come to mind. In this case (partly because I don’t have any of Mr. Phillips’ records), we’ll look at the Golden Melody Boys, a truly obscure duo whose sound was aptly characterized by Tony Russell as “a bubbling sixteen-string polyphony.” While I count eighteen (the American tiple has ten strings), they certainly made music like no other that I am aware of.
The Golden Melody Boys—Dempsy “Demps” Jones and Philip Featherstonhaugh (or “Featherstonehaugh”, or “Featherstone”)—were a musical duo hailing from Ceder Rapids, Iowa. Demps was born on November 9, 1890 in Fountain Run, Kentucky; Phil on November 4, 1892 in Illinois. Phil could play a mean mandolin, and Demps was skilled on guitar, banjo, and the rather out-of-the-ordinary tiple. Aside from their musical proclivities, Dempsy was the Linn County Recorder, and worked variously on the side as a baseball player, a newspaperman, in construction, and for Quaker Oats. Phil, apparently, was more or less of a bootlegger. They were playing together as early as 1925, and played on Earl May’s KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, as well as a number of other stations. They made their recording debut in October of 1927 for the New York Recording Laboratories (makers of Paramount, Broadway) in Chicago, and cut a total of eighteen sides for them over the following year, all of which but one were released. Dempsy followed up with six solo re-recordings of earlier titles for the Starr Piano Company (for their Champion and Superior labels) on November 19, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana. Jones stayed in Iowa, starting a family band in the 1930s which apparently continued all the way into the days of television, while Featherstonhaugh moved west. Jones died on April 10, 1963 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Featherstonhaugh on March 1, 1969 in Beaumont, California. As of late, their “Gonna Have ‘Lasses in de Mornin'” made its way into PBS’s grand project American Epic.
Broadway 8089 was recorded circa October of 1927 in Chicago, Illinois. The Golden Melody Boys (here under the rather thin pseudonym “Georgia Melody Boys”) consist of Demps on tiple and Phil on mandolin. Demps provides the vocals. It was their first released record, and was also issued on Paramount 3068. Jones recorded both these songs again in their 1931 Gennett session.
“My grandfather’s hat was too big for his head, it was caused by drinking Milwaukee beer,” is the first line in “The Old Tobacco Mill” (a parody of the old “My Grandfather’s Clock”), and is just the sort of whimsical, often nonsensical lyrics that characterize the bulk of the Golden Melody Boys’ recorded output.
The Old Tobacco Mill, recorded October, 1927 by the Georgia Melody Boys.
On “The Cross Eyed Butcher”, we’re treated to two stories for the price of one, first that ot the titular butcher, then of a fellow’s dental follies, with a nice little instrumental break in-between. Demps’s vocals rather remind me of Frank Crumit, who—incidentally—was also a tiple player.
The Cross Eyed Butcher, recorded October, 1927 by the Georgia Melody Boys.
Milton Brown was one of the founders of that marvelous fusion of hot jazz and hillbilly string band music that we now call western swing, yet a tragically early demise led his name into near-obscurity today. Not only did Brown’s music lay the foundations of western swing music, it also served to inspire such subsequent luminaries as Django Reinhardt.
William Milton Brown was born in Stephenville, Texas on September 7, 1903 to Barty and Martha Brown, a family of poor sharecroppers. Ma and Pa Brown determined that Milton and his sister Era would get an education to live a better life, and so they did. Singing old standards and church songs, Milton’s musical talent showed itself at an early age. Tragedy struck in 1918 when his sister died, and the Browns relocated to Fort Worth. Milton finished high school late, as helping to support his family made his attendance sporadic, and after graduating, he pursued a career in music. In 1927, he sang in a local group called the Rock Island Rockets, and his younger brother Derwood soon joined him on guitar. Nonetheless, Brown made his living as a cigar salesman until the Great Depression left him unemployed.
Brown’s big break came in 1930, when he crossed paths with the Wills Fiddle Band at a dance in Fort Worth and joined in a chorus of the “St. Louis Blues”. Leader Bob Wills was impressed and asked him—and his brother Derwood—to join the band. After a stretch on Fort Worth’s WBAP as the “Aladdin Laddies,” the Wills Fiddle Band was contracted by W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel of the Burrus Mill and Elavator Company of Saginaw, Texas, producer of Light Crust Flour, thus becoming the first generation of the prolific Light Crust Doughboys. In 1932, the Doughboys cut two sides for the Victor Company in Dallas, as the “Fort Worth Doughboys”, producing one of the finest—and earliest—western swing records made. Not too long after, Milton had a spat with Pappy, and left to form his own band: the Musical Brownies.
For the Brownies, Brown hired jazz musician Bob Dunn, the first player to electrify his steel guitar, and fiddlers Cecil Brower and Cliff Bruner. Their regular spot was the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion in Fort Worth, buy they also toured Waco, Corsicana, Weatherford, and Mineral Wells. They’d a play a hot tune, then follow with a waltz to let the dancers cool off. After two 1934 sessions for Bluebird, the Brownies secured a spot on Decca Records’ roster, which produced a string of successful records. Tragically— perhaps as much for the world to be deprived of his talent as for his own misfortune—the end came too soon for Milton Brown when he fell asleep behind the wheel while driving a young lady home one night, and wrapped his car around a telephone pole on the Jacksboro Highway. Although he was expected to make a full recovery from the accident, Brown died of pneumonia on April 18, 1936, at the young age of thirty-two.
Decca 5070 was recorded on January 27, 1935 at the Furniture Mart Building at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, the Brownies’ first Decca session. Brown’s Musical Brownies consist of Cecil Brower on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, Bob Dunn on his famous electrified steel guitar, Wanna Coffman on string bass, and Fred Calhoun on piano. Milton, of course, sings the lead vocals, with Derwood and Dunn backing.
First up is Milt’s recording of the tune that launched his career, W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”. A signature piece, at the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion the Brownies were known to stretch this one out to a full fifteen minutes. Even limited to a three-and-a-half minute phonograph record, Brown makes a tour-de-force performance out of it. Make note of Bob Dunn’s idiosyncratic steel guitar solo.
St. Louis Blues, recorded January 27, 1935 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.
Next, the Brownies swing Eddie Green’s blues standard “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.
A Good Man is Hard to Find, recorded January 27, 1935 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.
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 is said to have been born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas (which in spite of its name is neither big nor particularly sandy), 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, 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, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.