Victor 21549 & V-40017 – “Buddy” Baker – 1928

There are fair number of artists who might have achieved the success of Jimmie Rodgers, but, for whatever reason, did not.  Some, like Atlanta’s Ernest Rogers, were not musicians by profession, and only recorded a few songs on the side.  Others perhaps lacked something that Rodgers had, be it talent, charisma, ambition, or maybe simply luck.  Regardless of the circumstances, in the wake of the Singing Brakeman’s monumental success were a drove of excellent-yet-underappreciated artists who left behind recorded legacies ranging from one song to dozens.  One such artist is “Buddy” Baker, a vaudevillian performer who made only two records for Victor in 1928, about whom there have previously existed nary any publicized biographical details, and about the same number of decent sounding recordings of his work.

Baker pictured in the 1930 Victor “Old Familiar Tunes” catalog.

Research reveals that “Buddy” was in fact Ernest H. Baker, and was born on May 17, 1902, in Escambia County, Alabama, the son of John and Rebecca Baker.  In his teenage years he worked in a mill, but he pursued a career in music when he came of age.  He traveled to Chicago in June of 1928 to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and cut six sides on the twenty-first and two more the following day.  Of those eight, only four were released: “Penitentiary Blues” and “Box Car Blues” on Victor 21549, and “Matrimonial Intentions” and “Alimony Blues” on Victor V-40017.  Of the four unissued sides were “I Want My Mammy”, “Nobody Knows What’s On My Mind Blues”, and “Razor Jim”.  Baker returned to the Victor studio one year later in Camden, New Jersey to wax four more, including “It’s Tough on Everybody” and “The Rambling Cowboy”, but this time, none were released.  His four surviving recordings depict an artist with a clever sense of diction and a penchant for simplistic scat singing, and a unique approach to a guitar method typical of his time.  At the time of his recording career, he was living with his family in Mobile, Alabama, and began performing on radio station WODX around the time of its inauguration in 1930.  Later, he seems to have taken up in Ohio, where he found work as a welder for Babcock and Wilcox.  Probably in 1932, he married a woman named Jessie.  Baker died from peritonitis, resulting from a perforated ulcer, in Barberton, Ohio, on May 24, 1937, and his body was shipped back home to Alabama to be buried in his family’s plot in Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery.  Like Jimmie Rodgers, Buddy Baker was gone from the world at only thirty-five.

Victor 21549 and V-40017 were recorded on June 21, 1928 at 952 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.  On both, Ernest “Buddy” Baker sings and accompanies himself on guitar.  21549 purportedly sold a total of about 9,400 copies, while sales figures for V-40017 are not available.

Baker’s “Penitentiary Blues” is one of many renditions of the old folk ballad “Little Sadie”—also known as “Bad Lee Brown”—which was later adapted into the western swing repertoire as “Cocaine Blues” (not to be confused with the unrelated Luke Jordan and Dick Justice song of the 1920s).  Preceding Clarence Ashley’s “Little Sadie” (which used a different melody) by more than a year, this version is likely the earliest recording of the classic folk song, though the song itself existed for at least several decades prior to first being recorded.  Other early (pre-“Cocaine”) recordings of the song include “Seven Foot Dilly” John Dilleshaw’s unissued “Bad Lee Brown” for Okeh in 1929 and Riley Puckett’s “Chain Gang Blues” for Bluebird in 1934.  Woody Guthrie must have had a copy of Baker’s record, because he recorded a nearly identical version under the title “Bad Lee Brown” in 1944.  As “Cocaine Blues”, it was introduced in 1947 by T.J. “Red” Arnall as a member of W.A. Nichol’s Western Aces on the S & G label.  It inspired contemporary covers by Roy Hogsed on both Coast and Capitol and Billy Hughes on King, and was famously revived by Johnny Cash in his 1968 Folsom Prison concert.

Penitentiary Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by “Buddy” Baker.

On the reverse, Baker sings a real blues number, “Box Car Blues”, with some clever songwriting and a little Emmett Miller style yodeling added in for flavor.

Box Car Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by “Buddy” Baker.

On the first side of his second (and final) record, Baker sings “Matrimonial Intentions”, showcasing more of his guitar playing.  This song was covered by Jack White in the 2017 American Epic Sessions, which saw modern artists recording covers of 1920s and ’30s songs on 78 RPM with acoustic instrumentation.  White put together a fine performance of it, and he’ll always have my respect for digging up such an obscure old title.

Matrimonial Intentions, recorded June 21, 1928 by Buddy Baker.

Finally, Baker concludes his brief career on records with “Alimony Blues”, bemoaning divorce with some fairly inventive guitar work.

Alimony Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by Buddy Baker.

Okeh 4890 – Fiddlin’ John Carson – 1923

If there is a figure more deserving of the title of “Father of Country Music” than Jimmie Rodgers, one such contender is Fiddlin’ John Carson, who, while not the first to make records of what could be called “country music,” was undoubtedly one of the first to find great success doing it.

John William Carson was born in the north of Georgia—county of Cobb or Fannin—on the twenty-third of March, though there is dispute as to which year, probably 1874, though some sources suggest 1868 (earlier census documents, as well as his death certificate, agree with the later date, while later ones support the earlier year).  Before turning to life as a musician, Carson found work on the farm and railroad, as a jockey, making moonshine, and in an cotton mill.  In 1913, Carson participated in the first Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention, coming in fourth in the fiddling contest.  He went on to take home first prize from the Convention a total of seven times between 1914 and 1922, earning him the nickname “Fiddlin’ John”.  In the cradle days of radio broadcasting, Carson made his debut on the Atlanta Journal station WSB on September 9, 1922 to great public acclaim.  Soon after, he was noticed by Atlanta furniture dealer and Okeh record distributor Polk C. Brockman, who spotted Carson in a newsreel of a fidders’ convention, and persuaded Okeh record man Ralph S. Peer to record the fiddler.  On the fourteenth of June, 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson made his first record at 24 Nassau Street (now 152 Nassau Street NW) in Atlanta, cutting only two sides.  Peer reportedly thought the two tunes were “plu-perfect awful,” but released the record nonetheless, and was surprised when sales took off like a skyrocket.  Whatever Peer’s personal taste, he was too smart to pass up a sure thing, and it was clear that the people wanted what Carson had to offer.  Before Carson’s recording career began, fiddler’s Don Richardson and A.C. “Eck” Robertson had made records of “country” music, in 1914 and 1922 respectively, but both did so only sporadically and without enormous success.  Carson, on the other hand, began recording prolifically in the wake of his debut session.  Five months after cutting his first two sides, Fiddlin’ John traveled to New York City for another session, this time laying down a total of twelve sides, a number of which, like “You Will Never Miss Your Mother Till She’s Gone” and “Be Kind To a Man When He’s Down”, achieved considerable success.

Though far from the most skilled fiddler or talented singer, Carson appealed to record-buyers of the 1920s with his folksy manner and archaic sound that evoked memories of simpler times, which many longed for in the days of fast living, T-Model Fords, and New South industrialization.  Carson was also politically active within his state of Georgia, and used his music as a tool to further those ends, such as to promote the populist Democrat Tom Watson, or to condemn the accused Leo Frank for the 1913 murder of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan.  He continued to record for Okeh until 1931, producing a total of 155 sides, of which all but seventeen were released.  Many of those featured his daughter Rosa Lee Carson, better known as Moonshine Kate, and band the Virginia Reelers.  Three years after concluding his engagement with Okeh, Carson went to Camden, New Jersey, to begin a new series of recordings for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, an arrangement which only lasted but two consecutive sessions in February of 1934.  In those two marathon sessions, Carson, with Moonshine Kate, guitarist Bill Willard, and banjoist Marion “Peanut” Brown, recorded twenty-four sides, all of which but four were released, many of which were re-dos of his popular Okeh recordings.  Thereafter, he retired from professional musicianship.  In his later years he worked as an elevator operator in the state capitol of Georgia.  Fiddlin’ John Carson died in Atlanta on December 11, 1949.

Okeh 4890 was recorded around June 14, 1923, in Atlanta, Georgia.  These are takes “B” and “A”, respectively, both the earlier of two released takes of each side (only the latter of which are listed as issued in the DAHR).

Firstly we hear Carson’s history-making performance of the once-popular 1871 minstrel song by Will S. Hays: “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”.

The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, recorded c. June 14, 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson.

Nextly, Fiddlin’ John delivers an equally rustic performance of “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow”.

The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow, recorded c. June 14, 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson.

Vocalion 5250 – Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band – 1928

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.

Decca 5958 – Ernest Tubb – 1941/1940

Ernest Tubb with Jimmie Rodgers’s Martin guitar. Circa late 1930s/early 1940s.

On the ninth of February, we celebrate the birth of one of the brightest shining stars in all of country music: the Texas Troubadour, my cousin, Ernest Tubb.

Ernest Dale Tubb was born on February 9, 1914, in the now-ghost town of Crisp, Texas, the son of cotton sharecroppers Calvin Tubb and Ellen Baker, whose mother died while she was still an infant, and her father, purportedly a full-or-half-blooded Cherokee, left to start anew.  As a youth, he worked as a soda jerk, but like so many of his generation, hearing Jimmie Rodgers inspired the young Tubb to pick up a guitar and start singing and yodeling.  In the middle of the 1930s, Tubb began singing on San Antonio’s KONO, an unpaid job which required him to seek employment digging ditches for the WPA.  He soon established contact with Jimmie Rodgers’s widow Carrie (née Williamson), who befriended the young singer and indefinitely loaned him her late husband’s custom Martin 000-45 guitar.  She also brought the young Tubb to the attention of the RCA Victor Corporation, for whom Jimmie had recorded.  When the record company made one of its field trips to San Antonio in October of 1936, Ernest Tubb made his first recordings, singing solo accompanied by his own guitar on six sides, and accompanying Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers in another one, a tribute to her departed husband.  Of Tubb’s solo recordings, only one record was released initially, another tribute to the Singing Brakeman, featuring “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers” on the Bluebird label, the others were held back for several years.  He was behind the recording microphone for a second time when RCA Victor was back in San Antonio the following March, and he recorded two more solo sides, this time backed on second guitar by his friend Buff Buffington, and another one backing Mrs. Rodgers, all of which were released this time.  All Tubb’s Bluebird records sold quite poorly, and it would be several years before he returned to the studio.  In 1939, a tonsillectomy instigated a shift from singing to focus greater on writing songs.

Come 1940, Ernest Tubb got a better gig singing on the radio, sponsored by the Gold Chain flour company, but at seventy-five dollars a week, it still wasn’t enough to make ends meet.  The same year, he also began a new recording contract with Decca, and he made his first records for them at the Rice Hotel in Houston on April 4, 1940, beginning with “Blue Eyed Elaine”, dedicated to his wife.  His records continued to attract limited public attention, and Tubb was contemplating throwing in the towel, but things turned around after a 1941 session in Dallas, when his original composition “Walking the Floor Over You” became an unexpected hit.  Its success was such that it precipitated a move to Hollywood, where Tubb made a few film appearances, and earned him membership in the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1943, an engagement which lasted four decades.  Soon, he became known as the “Texas Troubadour”, a name which was later applied to his band as well.  He made some patriotic songs of note during the War, such as “Soldier’s Last Letter”, and by the last year of the 1940s, Tubb had charted seven hit records, including an early recording of “Blue Christmas”.  Tubb’s music helped to popularize honky-tonk style country music, and earned him a devoted base of fans.  His success continued in the decades to come, with hits like 1965’s “Waltz Across Texas”, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the same year.  Following a life well spent, Ernest Tubb died on August 14, 1984 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Decca 5958 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on April 25, 1941 and in Los Angeles on October 30, 1940, respectively.  On the “A” side, Tubb is accompanied by his own guitar, WBAP staff musician Fay “Smitty” Smith on steel guitar, and an unknown string bass.  On “B”, he is accompanied only by his and Dick Ketner’s guitars.

First, Tubb sings the first of recorded versions of his famous hit song, “Walking the Floor Over You”.  Real, good, country music.

Walking the Floor Over You, recorded April 25, 1941 by Ernest Tubb.

On the flip-side, Tubb sings a song written by Jimmie Rodgers’ widow, Carrie Williamson Rodgers: “I’m Missing You”.

I’m Missing You, recorded October 30, 1940 by Ernest Tubb.

Conqueror 8274 – Callahan Brothers – 1934

Following in the same vein as popular sibling acts such as the Delmore Brothers, the, Callahan Brothers—consisting of the duo of Homer and Walter (who later adopted the sobriquets Bill and Joe for the sake of brevity)—made a name for themselves in the budding country music industry of the Great Depression-era.

Hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, in the county of Madison, Walter Callahan, born January 27, 1910, and his brother Homer, born March 27, 1912, grew up surrounded by the rich musical culture of the mountain folks.  As they were in adolescence, the soon-to-be-famous Jimmie Rodgers was getting his start singing on the radio in nearby Asheville, and in the year of the Singing Brakeman’s demise, 1933, the Callahans got their own big break in the very same town.  While singing and yodeling at an Asheville music festival, the brothers were discovered by a talent scout for the American Record Corporation, who invited them to New York for a session.  They obliged, and had their first record date on January 2, 1934, a session which produced a hit with “She’s My Curly Headed Baby”.  With a two-guitar accompaniment and a repertoire consisting of old sentimental songs such as “Maple On the Hill” to hokums like “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing” to straight blues like “St. Louis Blues”, they were able to produce a string of decently selling records during the times of economic depression.  In addition to their work as a duet, the brothers also each recorded solo.  Around the time of their recording debut, the duo also began appearing on Asheville’s WWNC, soon moving to WHAS in Louisville, and then to WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia.  Walter retired back home for a brief period in the late 1930s, leaving brother Homer to continue solo for a time.

Reunited at the end of the 1930s, Walter and Homer changed their names to Joe and Bill, respectively, and went to Texas to begin performing on KRLD in Dallas.  There, they became early members of the station’s Big D Jamboree when it debuted in the late 1940s.  They also recorded transcriptions to be played on the Mexican border blaster stations, bringing their music to an even wider audience.  In 1945, they made an appearance with Jimmy Wakely in the Western movie Springtime in Texas.  They continued singing on the radio and on records into the 1950s.  Also in the 1950s, Homer/Bill worked as manager to Lefty Frizzell.  Walter/Joe retired back home once again by the end of that decade, this time for keeps, and became a grocer.  He died in North Carolina on September 10, 1971.  Homer stayed in Texas and in music for the rest of his long life, which came to an end on September 12, 2002.

Conqueror 8274 was recorded In New York City on January 3 and 2, 1934, respectively, the Callahans’ first sessions.  Homer and Walter Callahan sing and yodel, accompanied by their own two guitars.

From the second day of the Callahan Brothers’ first sessions, the duo sings and yodels the lonesome song “I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name”.

I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name, recorded January 3, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.

On the reverse, the brothers sing a hot hillbilly take on W.C. Handy’s famous “St. Louis Blues”, cut on their first record date.

St. Louis Blues, recorded January 2, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.