Texas boy Carl T. Sprague was among the first cowboy singers to make records, with his first session taking place in 1925. He also holds the uncommon distinction of being perhaps my favorite cowboy singer.
Sprague as pictured in Victor’s 1930 catalog of Old Familiar Tunes.
Carl Tyler Sprague was born in Brazoria County, Texas, near the town of Manvel, on May 10, 1895. His family was involved in the thriving cattle business, through which the young Sprague learned the traditional songs of the cowboy. He attended Texas A&M to study agriculture, but was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. After the war’s end, he returned to Texas A&M, and graduated with a degree in animal husbandry. After graduating, he was employed as an athletic instructor at the university, a position which he held from 1922 until 1937, and acquired the nickname “Doc”. Following the success of Vernon Dalhart’s “mountaineer’s songs”, Sprague wrote to the Victor Talking Machine Company expressing interest having them record some of his cowboy songs. They apparently obliged, and Sprague traveled to Camden, New Jersey to make two test recordings. Victor must’ve liked them, because two months later, he returned to record a series of ten sides in sessions on the third, fourth, and fifth of August, 1925, half of which were issued. His first record, “When the Work’s All Done This Fall”, became quite a hit, and proved that people were interested in hearing the song of the cowboy. That was followed by a further three sessions over the following three years in Camden, Savannah, Georgia, and Dallas, producing eighteen more sides, all of which were released. In spite of his records’ success, singing was but a hobby for Sprague, and he did not pursue a music career outside of record-making. He left his post at Texas A&M in 1937 and opened a store in Bryan, and when the Second World War rolled in, he served once again, as a recruiter. The folk revival of the 1960s brought Sprague back into music, and he played and lectured around the country, and recorded two LPs in 1972 and ’74. Carl T. Sprague died on February 21, 1979 in Bryan, Texas, where he had called home since 1920.
Victor 20122 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on June 22, 1926, at Sprague’s second series of sessions. The record was released in December of the same year, and remained in the catalog all the way until 1944, perhaps indicating it was Sprague’s greatest success. Sprague is accompanied by two fiddles played by H.J. McKenzie and C.R. Dockum.
Stark, bleak, and sorrowful, “O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy)” is a mesmerizing, repetitive, and minimalistic piece, with Sprague’s vocal backed by the beat of his guitar and the forlorn fiddle’s croon, which I feel really encapsulates an archetype of cowboy music. The song has been featured in recent years on Dust-to-Digital’s evocative multimedia collection I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs (1880-1955).
O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy), recorded June 22, 1926 by Carl T. Sprague.
On “B”, Sprague sings “The Cowboy’s Dream”, a less depressing and rather enchanting melody. It also provides a demonstration of Sprague’s distinctive and simple-yet-pleasing style of playing guitar, which from both aural and photographic evidence, seems to have been done on a metal-bodied resonator, or at least it was by the end of his recording career in 1929.
The Cowboy’s Dream, recorded June 26, 1926 by Carl T. Sprague.
Riley Puckett in the late 1930s or early 1940s. His most frequently published portrait.
With euphonious singing voice, enticing guitar playing, and a wide and diverse repertoire ranging from old folk ballads to modern pop songs, Riley Puckett, dubbed the “Bald Mountain Caruso” or sometimes “King of the Hillbillies” (an honorific contested by Uncle Dave Macon), was one of the most popular and prolific rural musicians of the pre-World War II era, both solo and as a member of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers.
George Riley Puckett was born either in Alpharetta, Georgia or thrity-five miles away in Dallas on May 7, 1894. He was blinded in infancy by a treatment for an eye infection gone awry, though those who knew him suggested that he could still tell light from dark. Subsequently, he attended the Georgia School for the Blind in Macon, at which Blind Willie McTell would later enroll. Taking up the banjo at twelve and later switching to guitar, Puckett soon made a name for himself at fiddler’s conventions with his playing and singing, his beautiful voice and exceptional range earning him the nickname the “Bald Mountain Caruso”. He was also noted for his unique method of guitar playing, relying on dynamic runs. On September 28, 1922, Puckett made his radio debut with Clayton McMichen’s Home Town Band on Atlanta’s WSB. In February of 1924, Riley Puckett and fiddle player Gid Tanner cut test recordings for Columbia, and in March they pair traveled to New York to record for the first time in two sessions. His “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep” has often been cited as the first “country” record to feature yodeling, a full three years before Jimmie Rodgers made his first records. After those two sessions, boy did the floodgates open; from 1924 to 1931, Puckett recorded nearly two-hundred titles for Columbia, notwithstanding the eighty-five plus he made as a member of the Skillet Lickers, with hits like “My Carolina Home” cementing him as one of their best-selling artists in the Old Familiar Tunes series. After a break from recording during the Great Depression, Riley made his triumphant return in 1934 when he signed with Bluebird, ultimately producing nearly another hundred titles, including perhaps his best known song “Ragged but Right”. A 1937 side venture took him to Decca for a further twelve. Riley also sang on radio stations all around the South and Midwest; by the end of the 1930s, he was singing on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee. After ten sessions for Bluebird, he had his final record date on October 2, 1941 in Atlanta. Riley Puckett died from blood poisoning, the result of an infected boil, on July 13, 1946.
Bluebird B-8621 was recorded on October 1, 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia. Riley Puckett is accompanied by his own guitar and an unknown woman mandolin player. It was concurrently issued on Montgomery Ward M-8885.
First up, Riley sings one of my favorites, a song that got its start in Tin Pan Alley with Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins’ “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” in 1922, which through some twists and turns and lyrical adjustments, found its way—perhaps by way of the medicine show circuit—into Southern folk and blues repertoires as “Nobody’s Business” or some variation on that, seeing recordings by Earl Johnson’s Dixie Entertainers in 1927, Mississippi John Hurt in 1928, and many others. Riley himself recorded it three times, first on an unissued recording for Columbia in 1924, then twice more for Bluebird, in 1935 and—this one—in 1940.
Nobody’s Business, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.
On the flip, Puckett does his version of a popular big band hit of the day, Saxie Dowell’s “Playmates”—the melody of which was lifted from Charles L. Johnson’s 1904 intermezzo “Iola”—and gives a heck of a good delivery to boot. Perhaps I just have my mind in the gutter, but with all the “climb up my apple tree, look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door,” this sure sounds like a lot of double entendre to me!
Playmates, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.
The last time we heard from the “Pride of West Virginia”—our old pal Frank Hutchison—he gave us two fine songs, joined on one by Sherman Lawson on fiddle. Now let’s hear from Frank again with two of his most famous performances, played on slide guitar.
Willis Franklin Hutchison was born most probably on March 20, 1897 in Beckley, Raleigh County, West Virginia, but soon relocated to Logan County. He later dedicated his “Logan County Blues”—a re-working of the tune called “Spanish Fandango”—to that location, in which he spent most of his life. He learned the blues from local black musicians, and was an excellent guitarist, playing in regular style and flat on his lap using a pocketknife as a slide, and also possessed formidable skill on harmonica. Like fellow folk musician “Dock” Boggs, Hutchison made his living as a coal miner, and only musicianed on the side. He was said to have been a large (but slim) fellow with red hair and an extroverted personality, and reportedly walked with a limp, likely a result of an injury in the mines. In September of 1926, Hutchison became one of the pre-Bristol sessions “hillbilly” musicians on records when he traveled to New York City for a session with the Okeh record company, producing in that session but a single disc. That was not to be all for Frank Hutchison however, he returned to the city to record again in January of the next year, producing his notable rendition of “Stackalee” included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and eight other titles. Thereafter, he continued to record for Okeh, in New York and “on location”, until 1929, ultimately leaving a legacy of more than forty recorded sides in all. After the conclusion of his recording career, Hutchison moved from Logan County to Ohio, but soon settled in the small town of Lake, West Virginia, where he worked as postmaster and operated a store. A fire claimed Hutchison’s property in 1942, after which he moved to Dayton, Ohio, reputedly entertaining on riverboats. Frank Hutchison died from liver disease on November 9, 1945. He was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2018, seventy-three years after his passing.
Okeh 45114 was recorded on April 29, 1927 in St. Louis, Missouri by Frank Hutchison. It’s worthy of note that both sides are remakes of his first two sides, which were recorded acoustically on September 28, 1926 and released on Okeh 45064. In my opinion as well as that, I’m sure, of many others, these sides are considerably better and more polished performances than that original record, in addition to being unquestionably superior quality recordings, technically speaking.
First, Hutchison plays what may well be his most famous song, which earned him the scholarly recognition of being one of the earliest white musicians to play the country blues: “Worried Blues”.
Worried Blues, recorded April 29, 1927 by Frank Hutchison.
On the other side, Frank plays another one of his finest, the classic “The Train That Carried the Girl From Town”. “Breakfast on the table, coffee’s gettin’ cold, some old rounder stole my jelly roll.”
The Train That Carried the Girl From Town, recorded April 29, 1927 by Frank Hutchison.
One of the great heroes of the country blues (one of R. Crumb’s Heroes of the Blues, at least) is Peg Leg Howell, a musician holding the great distinction of being among the earliest male country blues artists to make records.
Joshua Barnes Howell was born on a farm in Eatonton, Georgia on March 5, 1888, placing him in an older generation of blues songsters to record, alongside the likes of Lead Belly, Jim Jackson, and Henry Thomas. He learned to play guitar when he was twenty-one, but continued to work on the farm until his disgruntled brother-in-law blew off his right leg with a shotgun (hence the nickname “Peg Leg”). Thereafter, Howell found work in a fertilizer plant, and later began running bootleg liquor, which landed him in jail in 1925. After he got out, an A&R man for Columbia Records heard him playing on Decatur Street in Atlanta, and he was invited to cut a record while they were in town. He recorded a total of four sides on November 8, 1926, amounting to two records. Howell returned to the Columbia microphone for a further seven sessions between April of 1927 and April of 1929 when the company made field trips to Atlanta, making for another eleven solo sides, eight with his “Gang” consisting of Howell with fiddler Eddie Anthony and guitarist Henry Williams, four with mandolin player Jim Hill, two with Anthony alone, and another two with another fiddler who may have been Ollie Griffin. He probably also appeared on two additional sides accompanying Waymon “Sloppy” Henry on Okeh in August of ’28, and may have been the unidentified “Tampa Joe” to Eddie Anthony’s “Macon Ed” on another eight sides; if so, it would stretch Howell’s recording career another year into December of 1930. Following his last record date, Howell continued to play around Atlanta, and went back to bootlegging. Howell laid his guitar down in 1934 following the death of his friend and frequent musical collaborator Eddie Anthony, and he returned to bootlegging liquor. In 1952, his other leg was lost to “sugar diabetes.” Howell was rediscovered eleven years later by a trio of young blues aficionados and researchers—George Mitchell, Roger Brown, and Jack Boozer—who convinced him to make a few more recordings. After a little practice to get himself back in playing condition, Howell recorded ten final sides for a Testament LP in 1964, including several “re-does” of his old 1920s recordings. Peg Leg Howell died in Atlanta on August 11, 1966, at the age of seventy-eight.
Columbia 14194-D was recorded on November 8, 1926 in Atlanta, Georgia by “Peg Leg” Howell, accompanying himself on the guitar. These are Peg Leg Howell’s first two recorded sides, and his second issued record.
First up, Peg Leg sings and plays in Spanish (open G) tuning on the classic “Coal Man Blues”, his first recorded side, and one of his best in my book. This was one of the ten sides Howell re-recorded in his old age.
Coal Man Blues, recorded November 8, 1926 by “Peg Leg” Howell.
Next, Howell’s “Tishamingo Blues” bears an early utterance of those immortal words “I’m goin’ to Tishomingo to have my hambone boiled; these Atlanta women done let my hambone spoil,” that have come to pervade the blues vernacular from Cab Calloway to Milton Brown, albeit with “Tishomingo” changed to “Chicago” and “Cowtown”, respectively. Note that while this song is almost entirely different from Spencer Williams’ 1917 “Tishomingo Blues”, it does recycle Williams’ “I’m going to Tishomingo; because I’m sad today” lyric.
Tishamingo Blues, recorded November 8, 1926 by “Peg Leg” Howell.
Few songs in the vast and diverse country blues tradition have had such an enduring impact, and few melodies known such ubiquity, as the Mississippi Sheiks’ legendary 1930 recording of “Sitting On Top of the World”. Yet in spite of its great import, the song’s origins are quite obscure. Thus, I endeavor herein to unravel the tangled roots of one of America’s greatest blues songs. I do ask that if you readers have any greater insight into the song’s history than I have to offer, please let me in on it by commenting on this post.
The Mississippi Sheiks—Bo Carter, Lonnie Chatmon, and Walter Vinson—pictured in the 1937 Bluebird catalog.
The Mississippi Sheiks were a versatile country string band with a repertoire consisting of everything from deep plantation blues melodies to the latest Tin Pan Alley pop hits. Though its personnel varied from session to session, core members were Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle and Walter Vinson on guitar. Sometimes, they were joined by other Chatmon brothers Sam and Armenter—better known as Bo Carter—or mandolin player Papa Charlie McCoy, brother of Kansas Joe McCoy. The Chatmon family of Bolton, Mississippi had a venerable musical history in the region. Patriarch Henderson Chatmon, born into slavery around 1850, was a fiddle player, and he passed his legacy of music on to his sons Lonnie, Bo, Sam, Harry, and reputedly Charley Patton by a different mother. Lonnie Chatmon was born either in June of 1888 or on November 8, 1890. He provided the heart of the Sheiks as their main fiddle player, remaining ever-present through all the Sheiks sessions and varying membership. Guitar picker Walter Vinson, sometimes called Vincent or Vincson, and credited pseudonymously as Walter Jacobs, was born on February 2, 1901, also in Bolton. Prior to becoming a Mississippi Sheik, he played alongside such noted talents as Charlie Spand, Rube Lacey, and the aforementioned Papa Charlie McCoy. He made his first records with Bo Carter for Brunswick in 1928, also Carter’s first.
Following in the footsteps of similar Bo Carter and Walter Vinson groups of 1928 and ’29, the Mississippi Sheiks had their first recording session in Shreveport, Louisiana in February of 1930 for Okeh, and continued to record exclusively for them through 1931, with several of their records released in the 45000 “hillbilly” series rather than the 8000 “race” series, and their two final discs appearing on the parent label Columbia. While at Okeh, the Sheiks accompanied “Texas” Alexander in a single San Antonio session. Meanwhile, offshoot groups such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Mississippi Blacksnakes, both featuring Charlie McCoy, cut several records for Okeh and Brunswick. Thereafter, they traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to make a series of records for the faltering Paramount label in July of ’32 before returning to Okeh in ’33 for a single session while the record industry was in dire straits. The following year, they signed with RCA Victor’s new up-and-comer Bluebird, with whom they remained until their final session in 1935. Lonnie cut several more records for Bluebird late in 1936 with brother Sam Chatmon, who had participated in a handful of earlier Sheiks sessions, before calling it quits.
After the days of the Mississippi Sheiks had drawn to a close in the middle of the 1930s, the Chatmons, excepting Bo, quit music and returned to a life as farmers. Lonnie Chatmon died around 1942 of ’43. Walter Vinson and Bo Carter continued to enjoy solo recording careers into the 1940s. Bo Carter made some (as yet unreleased) final recordings for Paul Oliver in 1960 with Will Shade and Dewey Corley of the Memphis Jug Band, and died four years later at the age of seventy-one. Walter Vinson too returned to music in 1960, making a rather more successful comeback than Carter, before retiring for the last time in 1972, owing to atherosclerosis, three years before his death. Sam Chatmon spent many years working on plantations in Mississippi before the folk revival of the 1960s brought him back to the spotlight with great success, dying at the age of 86 in 1983.
Okeh 8784 was recorded at the Mississippi Sheiks’ first session on February 17, 1930 in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Sheiks are Walter Vinson (a.k.a. Walter Jacobs) on guitar and vocal, Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle, and on the second side, Bo Carter on second guitar. It is the Sheiks’ second issued record.
Without a doubt the Sheiks’ greatest success—then as now—is “Sitting on Top of the World”. The Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon accredited composition has subsequently been covered by dozens, if not hundreds of artists, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. After proving to be one of the biggest “race” hits of 1930, the Sheiks followed up with “Sitting on Top of the World No. 2” (Okeh 8854) in 1931 and “The New Sittin’ on Top of the World” (Paramount 13134) in ’32. Bearing no resemblance to the 1926 popular song “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” besides its title, the unmistakable melody of “Sitting on Top of the World”, or a very similar one, was used by quite a number of recordings prior to the Sheiks’ 1930 waxing.
Where exactly and from whom the melody originated is considerably more difficult to pin down than simply citing some of the many songs to use it. Walter Vinson claimed to have written the song after playing for a white dance. Ida Cox recorded “How Long, Daddy, How Long” in 1925 with a like melody, accompanied by Papa Charlie Jackson, the composer credited as “W.H. Jackson”. Leroy Carr made that song famous three years later with his influential “How Long – How Long Blues”, and reused the melody in his “You Got to Reap What You Sow” only two months later. Some have suggested that the Sheiks were introduced to the melody by way of Tampa Red and a song he recorded several times called “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way”, however I am dubious of that prospect; the earliest recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” was cut on January 17, 1931 by one “Sam Hill” from Louisville—apparently a pseudonym for Walter Vinson—for Brunswick records, at the same session as the Sheiks’ offshoot the Mississippi Blacksnakes. Tampa Red made his first recording of the song the following month, with the composer credited as “Sam Hill”. The Sheiks themselves recorded the song later in that year. However, prior to every recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way”, the Atlanta-based fiddler Eddie Anthony recorded the very similar “Everything’s Coming My Way” in December of 1930, with the same melody, borrowing some lyrics from “Sitting on Top of the World”. To complicate matters further, the 1941 Sam Price and his Texas Bluesiscians recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” perplexingly credits Bert Johnson and Spencer Williams as composers.
Contemporaneous to the Sheik’s “Stitting On Top of the World”, a version was cut by Charley Patton, an associate of the Sheiks, only a few months after theirs under the title “Some Summer Day”. Big Bill Broonzy used the popular melody in his two-parter “Worrying You Off My Mind” in 1932, and Robert Johnson too echoed it in his 1936 “Come On in My Kitchen”. Milton Brown introduced the tune into the western swing repertoire with his 1934 recording titled “Just Sitting on Top of the World”, which was in turn covered by Bob Wills and others.
Sitting on Top of the World, recorded February 17, 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.
Though a little worse for wear, owing to a touch of groove stripping, the Sheiks give us some more of their good stuff, with Bo Carter sitting in, on the less well-remembered, but nonetheless excellent “Lonely One In this Town”.
Lonely One In this Town, recorded February 17, 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.