Whoopin’ and hollerin’ fiddler from Bandera, Elmo Newcomer—the “Pipe Creek Kid”—was one of the more colorful figures in Texas folk music (and that’s saying something).
Jessie Elmo Newcomer was born in San Antonio, Texas, on April 25, 1896, son of rancher Andrew Jackson “Jack” Newcomer and his wife Lura Bell (née Stokes). Elmo followed in his father’s footsteps and became a stockman on the family farm Pipe Creek, Texas, about eight miles from Bandera. He served as a cook in the the Third Trench Mortar Battalion during the First World War, and was honorably discharged on March 30, 1919. Shortly after his return home, he married Miss Birdee Augusta Ellis, on April 16 of the same year, with whom he would have five children over the subsequent decades. His uniquely uninhibited style of fiddle playing was recorded in May of 1939 by folklorists John Avery and Ruby Terrill Lomax for the Library of Congress in thirteen performances at his home in Pipe Creek. Around twenty years later, Newcomer made two records for the San Antonio-based CroMart label, recreating tunes which he had previously recorded for Lomax. Though well known locally for his music making proclivities, he spent most of his life on the farm, and did not seek fame or fortune as a professional musician. Tragedy befell the Newcomers with the deaths of sons Clyde from tetanus in 1940 and William in a 1951 car accident, and Elmo and Birdee divorced at some point during the 1940s or 1950s; she later remarried, while he did not. Elmo Newcomer died from arteriosclerosis at the V.A. Hospital in Kerrville, Texas, on December 8, 1970, and was buried in the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio. His descendants have carried on his musical legacy around Pipe Creek.
The recording date of CroMart 101 is not established by any available sources, but I have it on good authority that it dates to around 1947, give or take, and was probably recorded in San Antonio, Texas. Newcomer is accompanied by guitar, likely played by one of his sons. Both performances are virtually identical to his Library of Congress recordings of 1939, albeit in much higher fidelity. The Cro-Mart Recording Company was founded by H.M. Crowe and Buster Martin of San Antonio.
Newcomer first fiddled a wild and crazy rendition of the old-time staple “Cotton Eyed Joe”, an especially popular number with Texas musicians.
Cotton Eyed Joe, recorded c.1947 by Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid).
He next does the “Old Grey Mare”, with his wild hollers complimented by some choice diction: “Old grey mare come a-footin’ down from Delaware, lookin’ for her underwear; she couldn’t find ’em anywhere.”
Old Grey Mare, recorded c.1947 by Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid).
Roy Rogers and Trigger, pictured on a circa 1940s arcade card.
Most of the attention dedicated to cowboys here on Old Time Blues is directed toward the early, more authentic folk singers rather than the singing cowboys of movie fame. Indeed, I tend to prefer the gritty old cowpunchers with clothes all plastered o’er with dough over the idealized movie star cowboys, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also appreciate a splendid piece of old Hollywood charm—and this disc by the “King of the Cowboys” himself, Roy Rogers, epitomizes that description (although frankly, I tend to favor Gene Autry).
The man who would become Roy Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911, to a family of modest means in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Slyes moved to a farm in nearby Duck Run when Len was seven-years-old, while his father also worked in a shoe factory in Portsmouth, twelve miles away. On the farm, he learned horseback riding, and played mandolin for local square dances. On the eve of the Great Depression, the Slyes packed their bags and left for sunny California. After working a variety of jobs there, Slye began to seek work singing, yodeling, and playing music professionally. He sang on the radio with several groups like the Rocky Mountaineers and O-Bar-O Cowboys, with whom he toured the southwestern states. After the dissolution of the O-Bar-O Cowboys, Slye joined with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer—both of whom he had worked with previously—to form the vocal and instrumental Pioneer Trio, which, with the addition of Hugh Farr, evolved into the Sons of the Pioneers by the time of their recording debut in 1934. The Sons quickly established themselves on the musical scene with the success of Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, which became an enduring standard of the cowboy genre. As a California-based cowboy group, the Sons of the Pioneers soon began making regular appearances in western pictures, beginning with Slightly Static in 1935, and before long, Slye was making regular appearances on screen. His big break came in 1938, when cowboy star Gene Autry held out for a bigger paycheck for his starring role in Under Western Stars; instead, Republic Pictures replaced him with the guitarist from the Sons of the Pioneers, changing his name from Len Slye to the more Hollywood-suitable Roy Rogers. Eventually, Rogers came to rival, or perhaps even surpass, Autry in popularity, gaining the honorific “King of the Cowboys”. The 1942 picture Man From Cheyenne introduced Rogers’ trusty palomino steed Trigger, who remained with Rogers until his death in 1965. On New Years’ Eve of 1947, a year following the death of his wife Arline, Roger married Frances Octavia Smith, better known as Dale Evans, who became the “Queen of the Cowboys” to his “King”; the two remained married until his death. Much like Autry, Rogers enjoyed success across a variety of media, including radio and comic books, in addition to his movies and records. As television came to supplant radio as America’s chief form of entertainment in the home, Rogers and Evans starred in a program from 1951 until ’57, and again in 1962. Rogers made his last film appearance in 1975’s Mackintosh and T.J., and his final television appearances in the following decade. After enjoying fame in seven decades of the twentieth century, Roy Rogers died from congestive heart failure on July 6, 1998.
Vocalion 04050 was recorded on March 30, 1938 in Los Angeles, California. Roy Rogers’s singing is accompanied by an unidentified cowboy orchestra—made up of fiddle, steel guitar, organ, accordion, guitar, and string bass—and vocal group.
All the Hollywood theatrics were brought in for the melodramatic “Dust Over the West”—composed by none other than Johnny Marvin—which was nominated for the 1938 Academy Award for Best Original Song, though it lost to Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memory” from The Big Broadcast of 1938. Nevertheless, the song made enough of a hit that Brunswick also dedicated a special picture label to Horace Heidt and his Brigadiers’ dance band version. Gene Autry cut a much less theatrical version of the song in 1937—the year before it was published in connection with Under Western Stars—with his own name added beside Marvin’s to the songwriter’s credit.
Dust Over the West, recorded March 30, 1938 by Roy Rogers.
A much more lighthearted number than the previous—though by no means no less theatrical—Rogers follows with “When a Cowboy Sings a Song”, which could practically be an anthem for Roy Rogers career, though it made far less of a success than “Dust”.
When a Cowboy Sings a Song, recorded March 30, 1938 by Roy Rogers.
The Girls of the Golden West, Dolly and Millie Good, pictured on an advertisement for XER, Villa Acuña, Mexico, circa 1932-’33. Possibly previously unpublished online.
Probably the obscurest of any of Victor’s Depression-era offshoot labels, Sunrise was produced by the RCA Victor Company in conjunction with Bluebird and Electradisk for a period of nine months, from August of 1933 up to May of ’34. Timely Tunes—Victor’s previous foray into the world of budget records—supposedly lasted only three, but they seem to turn up a whole lot more often! No one seems to really know for certain exactly why they were made at all. Electradisks were produced for Woolworth’s stores, so perhaps they were made for sale at some store that folded because of the Depression. Another leading hypothesis suggests that they were made for sale at gigs by the artists appearing on the label, a known practice in the 78 era. What is known about them is that they are exceedingly difficult to find. There are a total of 386 issues assigned to the label according to the DAHR, including popular, jazz, blues, and hillbilly music, but not all of them have been confirmed to have any existing copies—eight of them are explicitly noted as “not issued.”
That’s not to say, however, that the appeal of the label outweighs the musical content of the record. The Girls of the Golden West were top names in radio game of the Great Depression-era, when America got bit by the Western bug. Sisters Mildred and Dorothy Goad, born April 11, 1913 and December 11, 1915, respectively, were born in southern Illinois and reared in East St. Louis (though they later claimed to hail from the west Texas town of Muleshoe). They took up singing while children, and when they turned professional they changed their names to Millie and Dolly Good, and a family friend proffered that they call themselves the “Girls of the Golden West”, probably after the 1905 play of the same name or any of the three motion picture adaptations of it. While still teenagers, the Girls of the Golden West began singing on local St. Louis radio stations KIL and KMOX, before taking their act to goat gland doctor John R. Brinkley’s “border blaster” station XER in Villa Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, which was powerful enough to broadcast their music across most of the United States. The Girls’ big break came in 1933, when they got a ritzier gig on the Prairie Farmer Station, Sears-Roebuck’s WLS, in Chicago to perform on the National Barn Dance, a predecessor to the WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. Along with that came their first recording session for RCA Victor, in which the duo cut nine sides to be released on the company’s new Bluebird label. They continued to record for RCA Victor through the end of 1935, after which they had a session with the American Record Corporation in 1938. Their success on the Barn Dance brought them as guests onto Rudy Vallée’s NBC radio program, and they stayed on WLS’s roster until 1937, after which they moved to Cincinatti’s WLW to appear on the new Boone County Jamboree, where they remained until after World War II, by which time the show had become the Midwestern Hayride. The Girls of the Golden West continued singing professionally until their retirement in 1949, after which they focused on homemaking for their families. They recorded a final time, late in life, for the Fort Worth, Texas-based Bluebonnet Recording Studios. Millie Good died on November 12, 1967; Dolly survived her by fifteen years, passing on August 4, 1982
Sunrise S-3269 was recorded in Suite 1143 of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, Illinois on July 28, 1933 by the Girls of the Golden West: Dolly—who plays the guitar—and Millie Good; their first session for RCA Victor. As suggested by the label, it also appears on Bluebird B-5189, as well as Electradisk 2082, and Montgomery Ward M-4412.
On the first side—with Dolly strumming that guitar like an automobile engine—the Girls sing “Listen to the Story of Sleepy Hollow Bill”, a fun little prohibition-era outlaw ditty written by the “Melody Man” Joe Davis and published under the pseudonym “Harry Lowe”.
Listen to the Story of Sleepy Hollow Bill, recorded July 28, 1933 by the Girls of the Golden West.
On the flip, the Girls sing a classic song of the Golden West right out of John A. Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, Harry Stephens’ “Hi O, Hi O (The Night Herding Song)”, in an arrangement by one V. Adams, as Lomax’s published song included no written melody.
Hi O, Hi O (The Night Herding Song), recorded July 28, 1933 by the Girls of the Golden West.
One of the truly great folksingers to record in the 1920s—years before the folk revivals of the early 1940s or 1960s—was Bradley Kincaid. Popular on radio and records, and with a successful series of songbooks, he helped to disseminate the numerous American folk songs he had collected and bring them to the listening public in a way that academics like John A. Lomax and Carl Sandburg could not approach, and he always he did so in a most respectful and dignified manner. We have briefly discussed Kincaid once before on Old Time Blues, but that was in the early days, before the now high standard of quality had been established, and the accompanying text was rather lacking, so now let us direct our attention once again to the “Kentucky Mountain Boy”.
Bradley Kincaid, as pictured in Favorite Mountain Ballads and Old Time Songs, 1928.
William Bradley Kincaid was born on July 13, 1895, in the village of Point Leavell in Garrard County, Kentucky, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountain range. One of the ten children of poor farmer William P. Kincaid, he received little formal education in his early years, but began his musical pursuits at a very young age, when his father—an amateur musician himself—traded one of their hound dogs for a guitar to give to young Bradley (or so the story goes). When old enough to work, he got a job at a lunch counter in nearby Stanford, Kentucky, but soon left the position to fight for Uncle Sam in the German War. On his return home, he took a job at a Cincinnati tailoring firm. He also continued his education at Berea College, having attended their Foundation School for two years prior to his service to complete the sixth through eighth grades. While there, he began to collect songs and became more seriously interested in folk music; he also met music teacher Irma Forman, whom he would later marry. From Berea, Kincaid moved onward and upward to the YMCA College in Chicago in 1924, where he earned a four year degree in 1928. As a singer in the YMCA College Quartet, he made his radio debut on Sear-Roebuck’s radio station WLS in Chicago in 1926. Soon afterward, he began appearing on the station regularly as a cast member of the National Barn Dance program on the recommendation of the Quartet’s manager. Soon, the fan mail began to pour in—Kincaid reportedly received 100,000 letters in every year of his time on the Barn Dance.
As a professional singer, Kincaid repudiated the “hillbilly” stereotype (or “Hilly Billy,” as he put it) that was so prevalent since country music styles first found commercial success, instead presenting himself as an educated and sophisticated folksinger—pioneering (alongside Buell Kazee and Bascom Lamar Lunsford) a similar mold to that in which folk musicians like Pete Seeger would model themselves in subsequent decades. A year into his tenure on the National Barn Dance, Kincaid made his recording debut for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett records and their numerous client labels. The year after that, he published his first songbook, titled Favorite Mountain Ballads and Old Time Songs, the success of which made it the first in a series of thirteen, and which purportedly made him the first of many country singing stars to do so. Additionally, “Bradley Kincaid Houn’ Dog” guitars, manufactured by Harmony, were sold by Sears-Roebuck, the proprietors of the station that hosted the National Barn Dance. Kincaid departed WLS and the Barn Dance in 1929 and made for WLW in Cincinnati and a Brunswick Records deal. Subsequently, he performed on WGY, Schenectady, and WHAM, Rochester, in New York, and began recording for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label in 1933, and for Decca in ’34. For the latter, he made a series of Irish records rather outside of his typical repertoire. After leaving completing his Decca recordings in 1935, Kincaid did not record again for quite some time. While appearing on WBZ in Boston alongside banjo player Marshall Jones, he nicknamed the young musician “Grandpa” for his cantankerous demeanor. In 1944, Kincaid joined the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, holding that position for five years. After World War Two, he recorded again for Majestic Records in 1947 and ’47, and briefly for Captiol around 1950. Thereafter, he bought and owned WWSO in Springfield, Ohio, from 1949 until 1953, at which point he retired from performing professionally and opened a music store. He recorded occasionally during his retirement, in 1963 and ’73, and sang for small audiences, but mostly enjoyed a quiet life. In 1988, at the age of ninety-three, Bradley Kincaid was seriously injured in a car accident, from which he never fully recovered. He died the following year, on September 23, 1989, in Springfield, Ohio, the town he had called home for some forty years.
Supertone 9208 was recorded around February 28, 1928, and December 19, 1927, respectively, in Chicago, Illinois. Bradley Kincaid sings and accompanies himself on his “Houn’ Dog Guitar”. It was also issued on Silvertone 5187 and 8218. Split up, side “A” also appeared on Superior 2588, while side “B” appeared on Gennett 6363 and Champion 15502, and on Melotone 45008 in Canada.
Firstly, Kincaid sings a charming rendition of one of my favorite cowboy songs: “Bury Me On the Prairie”. Kincaid’s pleasant tenor voice and straightforward delivery afforded him widespread appeal with early radio audiences.
Bury Me On the Prairie, recorded c. February 28, 1928 by Bradley Kincaid.
Nextly is the old folk song “Sweet Kitty Wells”, notably the namesake of the popular country singer of the 1950s onward, recorded at Kincaid’s very first recording session.
Sweet Kitty Wells, recorded c. December 19, 1927 by Bradley Kincaid.
Nearly a decade before the days of Bob Wills and Milton Brown created the mold for the western swing band, the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, under leader Otto Gray, paved the way for their style of showmanship with their barnstorming nation-wide touring, widespread radio exposure, exuberant stage presence, and extraordinarily large ten-gallon hats.
Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys on a promotional postcard. Circa 1930.
Officially, the venerable Oklahoma Cowboy Band was founded in 1924 by real cowboy Billy McGinty, born January 1, 1871, who served in Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. However, it seems that inklings of the organization existed as early as 1921. Under McGinty, the band made one record, including the first recording of “Midnight Special”, for Okeh in 1926. Soon after, McGinty retired from music to focus on his ranch and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, Oklahoma, and the band’s manager and announcer Otto Gray assumed leadership. Gray was a Stillwater man, born March 2, 1884. On the side he raised midget cattle on his Oklahoma ranch.
Members came in and out throughout their run, but in their heyday, the band had a fairly steady lineup consisting of three Gray family members: Otto; his wife, the former Florence Opal Powell, known as “Mommie” (February 27, 1888 to November 14, 1950), who sang occasionally; his son Owen (February 3, 1908 to August 12, 1947), who sang and played guitar; the Allen brothers: fiddler Lee “Zeke” and left-handed banjo picker Wade “Hy” Allen (not the same Allen Brothers as the “Chattanooga Boys”); “Chief” Sanders; and Rex, the “wonderful police dog,” the “bark of the air,” who barked in rhythm on their radio shows. Most of the band members were competent on more than one instrument, and one of their novelties was to “finger one instrument and play another.”
Under Gray’s leadership, the Oklahoma Cowboys toured the vaudeville circuit, and reportedly appeared on over 130 radio station across the States. On the record, they recorded fifteen sides for Gennett in 1928, of which seven were issued, with an additional two in 1930, followed by eighteen sides for Brunswick/Vocalion from 1928 to 1931, all of which were issued. In spite of their relatively prolific recording career, their records are quite scarce today. They shot a one-reeler, titled Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, for Veribest Pictures in 1929 or ’30. In November, 1930, they published and official songbook, titled Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, which sold for fifty cents a copy and included some hits from their repertoire, such as “Midnight Special” and “Adam and Eve”. On June 6, 1931, they became the first Western band to be featured on the cover of Billboard magazine. The Oklahoma Cowboys continued to perform into the late 1930s; Otto Gray retired from music in 1936.
Vocalion 5250 was recorded on September 17, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois. The personnel at this session is unconfirmed, but likely includes “Chief” Sanders on fiddle, Wade “Hy” Allen on left handed tenor banjo, Owen “Zeb” Gray on guitar, and another unknown guitarist—quite possibly Lee “Zeke” Allen, seeing as he’s only official band member not accounted for in that listing aside from “Mommie”, but I’m not sure if she played an instrument, and he did play second guitar in their 1929 short film. Owen Gray performs the vocals on both sides.
First, Zeb tells the story of mankind from Adam to Ford on the humorous “Adam and Eve”.
Adam and Eve, recorded September 17, 1928 by Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band.
Next, on a popular hillbilly song and staple of the Oklahoma Cowboys’ repertoire, Zeb tells us all that we shouldn’t—or couldn’t—be doing: (don’t try it, ’cause) “It Can’t Be Done”.
It Can’t Be Done, recorded September 17, 1928 by Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band.