Columbia 14624-D – Blind Willie Johnson – 1929

Against odds stacked against him, the guitar evangelist and musical visionary Blind Willie Johnson rightly secured his place as a gospel music pioneer and veritable legend in the annals of American music.  While he found neither great fame nor fortune during his life, his rousing religious songs and inspired slide guitar have received much admiration from music lovers, and the convoluted details surrounding his life have inspired much interest from researchers (and as such, some of the facts presented herein are of rather tenuous accuracy) in the decades since.

Willie Johnson was born to “Dock” (variously reported in source documents as Willie, Sr., or George) and Mary Johnson in Pendleton, Texas (though other sources have suggested Independence, some one-hundred miles southeast), in January of 1897; his draft card gave a date of the twenty-fifth, while his death certificate proffered the twenty-second.  He spent most of his life from childhood to adulthood in Marlin, Texas.  His mother died when he was four years old, and his father later remarried.  It is widely believed that Johnson became blind around the age of seven, though the cause of his blindness is not definitively known; the most popular story—based upon an account by his alleged widow Angeline—asserts that he was blinded by lye water thrown by his stepmother during a marital dispute with his father (and accounts differ as to whether the lye was meant for Willie or his father).  A perhaps more plausible theory suggests that he became blind from viewing a solar eclipse which would have been visible from Texas on August 30, 1905, through a piece of broken glass.  No matter the unfortunate circumstance, Johnson found religion and thus aspired preach the gospel.  Inspired by fiddling evangelist Blind Madkin Butler, he learned to play guitar in a distinctive style using a steel ring for a slide to accompany his coarse, false bass singing (though he naturally possessed a pleasant singing voice).  He traveled from town-to-town, playing and singing his religious songs on street corners around the Brazos Valley, sometimes sharing the space with Blind Lemon Jefferson and his blues songs.  Around the middle of the 1920s, Johnson met Willie B. Harris, who would soon become his (possibly second) wife and singing partner, and with whom he would have one daughter in 1931.  He made his first recordings on December 3, 1927—one day after fellow Texas gospel blues man Washington Phillips made his own debut—for Columbia, who had set up a temporary recording laboratory in Dallas, Texas, possibly at the Jefferson Hotel.  His religious songs proved quite successful, some records rivaling the popular Bessie Smith’s blues songs in sales figures.  Ultimately, Johnson had three more sessions in Dallas, New Orleans, and Atlanta, producing a total of thirty issued sides for the Columbia Phonograph Company—plus an additional two unreleased masters credited in the company ledgers to “Blind Texas Marlin”, which are speculated to have been pseudonymous recordings of secular material, or which may have simply been a clerical error—before the crush of the Great Depression curtailed their field recording activity and thus ended his recording career.  Sometime in the 1930s, Johnson left his family in Marlin for the Gulf Coast, where he eventually settled in Beaumount, evidently with a woman named Angeline (with whom he may have had relations concurrent to his marriage to Harris), purportedly the sister of blues guitarist L.C. Robinson.  He continued to sing on street corners in the vicinity, and may have appeared on the radio on KTEM in Temple in the early 1940s, according to an anecdote related by Houston folklorist Mack McCormick, and operated a “house of prayer” in Beaumont.  A decade after his recording career had concluded, John A. Lomax expressed interest in Johnson’s music in an interview with another Blind Willie in 1940, but McTell perplexingly informed the ballad hunter that the gospel singer was dead, according to a letter he had received from Johnson’s wife.  His house in Beaumont reportedly burned in the middle 1940s, and Blind Willie Johnson died on September 18, 1945, from a cause reported as malarial fever.

As with so many of history’s truest luminaries, Blind Willie Johnson’s greatest fame was achieved posthumously.  Only seven years after his demise, Harry Smith included his 1930 recording of “John the Revelator” in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music, presenting Johnson’s music to a new generation of folkies.  In 1977, Johnson’s instrumental “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was selected among the twenty-seven musical recordings included on the Voyager Golden Record, sending the blind pilgrim’s celestial music to an appropriate venue amongst the stars.

Columbia 14624-D was recorded in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 10 and 11, 1929, respectively.  It was not released until October of 1931, making it Johnson’s last issued record.  Reportedly, only 900 copies were pressed, and it is the only of Johnson’s records to be listed in the “Rarest 78s” column of 78 Quarterly, with an estimate of fifteen or fewer copies known to exist (though whether or not it actually is his rarest record is debatable)—this copy, incidentally, appears to match the description of the one which formerly belonged to Mr. Roger Misiewicz.  Blind Willie Johnson sings both sides in his growling false bass voice and eschews his slide in favor of chording the frets with his bare fingers, he is joined by Willie B. Harris on the second side.

On the first side, recorded the former date, Willie sings “Sweeter as the Years Roll By”—an apt title for his final record—a folk interpretation of Lelia Naylor Morris’s 1912 hymn “Sweeter as the Years Go By” (which in fact are the lyrics Johnson sings in the evidently mis-titled song).

Sweeter as the Years Roll By, recorded December 10, 1929 by Blind Willie Johnson.

On the traditional spiritual “Take Your Stand”, Johnson’s vocals are complimented by the soprano of his wife Willie B. Harris.  The song was also recorded by Elders McIntorsh and Edwards in 1928, and by Charley Patton (under the pseudonym “Elder J.J. Hadley”) as the first part of his “Prayer of Death” in June of 1929.

Take Your Stand, recorded December 11, 1929 by Blind Willie Johnson.

Columbia 14333-D – Washington Phillips – 1927

While now regarded alongside the nigh-legendary Blind Willie Johnson as a pioneer of the gospel music genre, snuff-dipping jack-leg preacher from Texas Washington Phillips was once largely forgotten and shrouded by mystery and misconceptions.  Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of folklorists and researchers like Michael Corcoran, Phillips may finally begin to receive the appreciation he has so long deserved.

George Washington Phillips was born on January 11, 1880, near Cotton Gin, Texas, a few miles west of Teague in Freestone County—the very same region that produced pioneering blues luminary Blind Lemon Jefferson—one of at least ten children born to Timothy and Nancy Phillips.  As an adult, he worked for a time as a hotel waiter in Mexia, but soon continued in the family trade of farming, working a strip of land very near the place of his birth in rural Simsboro.  On the side, he found his calling as an itinerant preacher and sanctified singer in local churches and any opportune venues.  In stark contrast to the fire-and-brimstone preaching of contemporaries like Blind Willie Johnson and his fellow guitar evangelists, Phillips’s music was delivered with a gentle touch and kind nature.  More remarkably, Phillips eschewed the guitar in favor of accompanying his singing on an ethereal sounding instrument of rather enigmatic origin, previously thought to have been a toy-piano like zither known as a Dolceola (which may be heard on some of Lead Belly’s 1944 Capitol recordings, played by Paul Howard), but now widely believed to have been an instrument of his own invention which he dubbed a “manzarene”, comprised of two modified tabletop zithers (a celestaphone and a phonoharp) played in tandem, with which he was photographed in 1927.  Possibly owing to an association with Lemon Jefferson, when the Columbia Phonograph Company made their first field trip to Dallas, Phillips made the journey eighty miles northward to record his sacred music.  On Friday, December 2, 1927, directly following a session by the Cartwright Brothers’ cowboy singing duo, Washington Phillips became the first African-American musician, and only the second overall, to be recorded at the field trip.  He waxed a total of six sides that day and the following Monday, and subsequently returned the following two Decembers to record a further twelve (two of which are presumed lost).  Though the sudden onset of Depression curtailed Columbia’s field trips south, Phillips was still in Dallas in 1930, lodging at Wade Wilson’s shotgun house near Oak Cliff, though he eventually returned to the country life in Freestone County.  Locally, “Wash” Phillips was as well known for his mule cart from which he peddled farm-fresh produce as he was for his music, and many of his hometown acquaintances were unaware that he had made records.  Census records indicate that he was married at least twice, first to Anna, and then to Susie.  At the age of seventy-four, Washington Phillips died following a fall on the stairs outside the Teague welfare office on September 20, 1954.

Columbia 14333-D was recorded in Dallas, Texas, on December 5, 1927, possibly at the Jefferson Hotel.  On it, Washington Phillips sings and accompanied himself on “manzarene”.  78 Quarterly estimated “possibly as many as 30 to 40 copies” were extant.

Perhaps Washington Phillips’s best known recording and composition, in “Denomination Blues” he chides various religious sects for their perceived hypocrisy.  Split into two parts, he sings and plays “Part 1” on the first side.

Denomination Blues – Part 1, recorded December 5, 1927, by Washington Phillips.

He concluded the number with “Part 2” on the reverse, turning his attention to the different varieties of “so-called Christians.”  Of Phillips’s limited discography, the song proved particularly influential, being later adapted into the gospel song “That’s All” (for which Phillips received no credit, possibly because the song was believed to be of traditional origin), recorded by artists as diverse as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Merle Travis alike, which rather altered the song’s message by deviating from Phillips’s anti-sectarian “you better have Jesus, and that’s all” theme.

Denomination Blues – Part 2, recorded December 5, 1927, by Washington Phillips.

Updated with improved audio on May 3, 2023, and again on June 20, 2024.

Columbia 14410-D – Dallas String Band with Coley Jones – 1928

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.

A fixture of the Dallas blues scene during the 1920s, playing music that could perhaps best be described as a ragtime-rooted precursor to blues music, the Dallas String Band was primarily made up of vaudevillian songster Coley Jones on mandolin, bassist Marco Washington, and guitarist Sam Harris, with a few transient members joining in occasionally.  They were said to have sometimes employed a clarinet or saxophone, occasionally featured trumpeter Polite “Frenchy” Christian, and Blind Lemon Jefferson was also said to have sat in from time-to-time, though none of them ever appeared on any of the group’s records.  The band’s 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”.  Every December from 1927 until 1929, Dallas String Band recorded for Columbia Records when they made field trips to Dallas, ultimately resulting in a total of eight recorded sides—not including side-operations by its members—all of which were released.  The group gained posthumous attention when their “So Tired” appeared in Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 motion picture Ghost World.

The band’s leader, Coley Jones, was a prominent figure in the Afro-American music scene of Dallas, Texas in the 1920s, though little is known of his life.  He was 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”.  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. Following his brief recording career—which resulted in a twenty-one sides in total, solo, in duet with Bobbie Cadillac, and with the Dallas String Band—Jones’ whereabouts are largely unknown, and he is presumed to have died in the 1930s.  Marco Washington was born on June 30, 1886 in Marshall, Texas.  He worked as a porter in a dry goods store in Grand Prairie and served in World War I prior to becoming a full-time musician.  He played bass in Henry Williams’ String Band from Marshall before moving to Dallas.  Purportedly, he taught his stepson, Dallas native Aaron Walker—also known as “Oak Cliff T-Bone”, later shortened to simply “T-Bone Walker”—how to play guitar and several other instruments.  He died in Dallas from complications of hypertension on December 30, 1952.  Sam Harris was born in Palmer, Texas, on April 19, 1889.  In addition to his musical activities, he worked as a laborer in Waxahachie.  His later whereabouts and activities are undetermined.

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, which Mack McCormick speculated as being Jones’ little brother “Kid Coley”, but I’m not so sure that more than one is present.

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

Chasin’ Rainbows, recorded December 9, 1928 by the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones.

On the reverse, the humorous “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

I Used to Call Her Baby, recorded December 9, 1928 by the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones.

Updated on May 6, 2019, and with improved audio on June 20, 2024.

Columbia 15038-D – Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers – 1925

Unquestionably one of the foremost names in “old-time” music during the 1920s, as well as one of the leading figures in the development of what would become “country music” is the original North Carolina Rambler: Charlie Poole.

Charlie Clay Poole hailed from Randolph County, North Carolina, in the town of Franklinville, where he was born on March 22, 1892, the son of an Irish immigrant.   As did his parents before him, Charlie went to work in a textile mill, but his real interest was in making music.  Unable to afford a proper instrument, he fashioned his first banjo out of a gourd.  As the result of a childhood incident in which he bet friends that he could catch a baseball without wearing a mitt, he learned to play the instrument in a unique three-fingered style of picking.  In addition to his musical proclivities, Poole also had a reputation as a rounder and hell raiser supreme.  After years toiling away his youth in the mill, Poole saved up enough money to purchase a Gibson banjo, then quit his job to pursue a career as a musician.  Joined by his brother-in-law Posey Rorer, who played fiddle, and a host of other local musicians, he entertained at local functions.  With the addition of guitarist Norman Woodlieff, the trio traveled to New York City in July of 1925 to make their first records for Columbia as the “North Carolina Ramblers”, producing four sides for which they received seventy-five dollars pay.  Their first record turned out to be a hit, and Poole, along with Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, helped to make Columbia into a powerhouse of old-time music in the genre’s earliest years on record, and he was one of the best-selling artists in their “Old Familiar Tunes” series.  Thereafter, the North Carolina Ramblers returned to New York once a year—twice in 1930—to make further records, with two excursions to Paramount and Brunswick on the side, ultimately resulting in a total of eighty sides cut, of which all but ten were released.  Membership within the band changed as years passed; Woodlieff was replaced with former railroad engineer Roy Harvey, and Lonnie Austin and Odell Smith came to take Rorer’s place, but Charlie Poole always remained constant as the North Carolina Ramblers’ nucleus and main attraction (though members of the group did make several records without him).  Aside from recording, the North Carolina Ramblers also toured Vaudeville and appeared on radio around the Appalachian region.  After his last recording session, Poole and band were invited to Hollywood to provide music for a Western movie in 1931.  Unfortunately, before leaving for the west, Poole suffered a heart attack and died at the age of thirty-nine on May 21, 1931.

Columbia 15038-D was recorded on July 27, 1925 in New York, New York.  Sales figures have been reported as an astounding 102,451 copies.  It is Charlie Poole’s first released record, consisting of his third and fourth recorded sides.  The North Carolina Ramblers are Posey Rorer on fiddle, Norman Woodlieff on guitar, and of course Poole on the banjo.

First, Poole sings what could probably be considered the definitive recording of the old folk song “Can I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight Mister”.

Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister, recorded July 27, 1925 by Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers.

On the reverse, they play the classic “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues”—my personal favorite of the North Carolina Ramblers’ recordings—referring to the card game called “Georgia skin”, a game of chance popular in the South in those days, both for playing and singing about.

Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues, recorded July 27, 1925 by Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers.

Columbia 14325-D – Seth Richard – 1928

Out of all the countless blues musicians whose lives are shrouded in obscurity, it would be rather difficult to pick one about whom less is known than Seth Richard.  Indeed, historians like Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc have been able to piece together a small few biographical details, which is more than can be said about some of his contemporaries, but even that remains rather tentative.

Seth Richard was born around 1905, purportedly in North Carolina, whereabouts of Halifax County, though Bedford County, Virginia origins have also been proposed.  Likely, he spent his early years in the vicinity of southern Virginia and northern Carolina.  Given that all of his recordings were made in the New York and New Jersey and two of his titles reference streets in Newark, New Jersey, it would seem probably that Richard lived a considerable part of his life in that area, but that is purely speculation.  As a musician, he was counted alongside Barbecue Bob, Blind Willie McTell, and Lead Belly as one of the handful of blues artists to adopt the twelve-string guitar.  He was in New York City in 1928, when he went to Columbia Records to make but a single record, which became a rather decent seller in the “race” catalog.  Thereafter, he went silent until late in 1943, when he (probably) resurfaced to cut four sides including the wartime “Gas Ration Blues” under the pseudonym “Skoodle-Dum-Doo”, after one of the songs he recorded for Columbia fifteen years prior, for Irving Berman’s Regis and Manor record labels with a harmonica player known only as “Sheffield” (possibly John Sheffield).  Whatever became of Seth Richard after his brief and well spread-apart recording career is unknown.

Columbia 14325-D was recorded on May 15, 1928 in New York City.  Seth Richard sings, accompanying himself on twelve-string guitar and kazoo.  The DAHR notes takes “2” and “3” as issued for both sides; these are both take “2”.

First, Richard sings the plaintive and eponymous “Lonely Seth Blues”.

Lonely Seth Blues, recorded May 15, 1928 by Seth Richard.

Next, Seth gets wild on his signature song, “Skoodeldum Doo”, a jazzed up adaptation of Papa Charlie Jackson’s “Skoodle-Um-Skoo”.

Skooodeldum Doo, recorded May 15, 1928 by Seth Richard.

Updated with improved audio on June 15, 2024.