It has come time once again to pay tribute to a legend lost, to the greatest of them all, America’s Blue Yodeler, and the Father of Country Music: Jimmie Rodgers. At the time of this posting, it has been eighty-five years to the day that Jimmie walked through those pearly gates, a victim of the white plague at only thirty-five years old.
In the wake of Jimmie Rodgers’ tragic demise, numerous songwriters published melodies eulogizing him. Among the most successful of these were Bob Miller’s “The Life of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Death of Jimmie Rodgers”, recorded by Gene Autry and Bradley Kincaid, the latter of whom also sang “Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers’ Lament”, composed by Rich Kuster. But those were far from the only ones. Songwriters Dwight Butcher and Lou Herscher, who had collaborated with Rodgers in composing “Old Love Letters”, which Jimmie cut at his last session, penned the popular “When Jimmie Rodgers Said Goodbye”, recorded by a fair number of artists, including Autry and radio yodeler Kenneth Houchins, and by Grand Ole Opry performers Asher Sizemore and his son Little Jimmie under the title “Little Jimmie’s Goodbye to Jimmie Rodgers”. Three years after Rodgers’ passing, Ernest Tubb made his recording debut backing Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers (the former Carrie Williamson) on a weepy performance of “We Miss Him When the Evening Shadows Fall”, then he sang “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” himself. Even decades later, Rodgers was still being honored in song by devotees such as Tubb and Hank Snow, two of the countless many whose lives his music had touched.
Vocalion 02605 was recorded on October 11th and 10th, 1933, respectively, in Chicago, Illinois. The Light Crust Doughboys are Herman Arnspiger and Leon Huff on guitars, Sleepy Johnson on banjo, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, and Ramon DeArman on string bass. Leon Huff provides lead vocals. W. Lee O’Daniel was there, too, but he didn’t do anything on this record.
Opening out with a guitar run reminiscent of Rodgers’ signature style, Leon Huff sings and yodels W. Lee O’Daniel’s own tribute to the Blue Yodeler, “Memories of Jimmy [sic] Rodgers” (though either he or the record company misspelled Rodgers’ name).
Memories of Jimmy [sic] Rodgers, recorded October 11, 1933 by the Light Crust Doughboys.
Lightening up considerably from the more solemn tone of the previous song, the Doughboys sing a humorous number on the flip, “I Want Somebody to Cry Over Me”, punctuated by Sleepy Johnson’s tenor banjo.
I Want Somebody to Cry Over Me, recorded October 10, 1933 by the Light Crust Doughboys.
Today’s platter dates to the postwar 1940s, a little past Old Time Blues’ typical era but nonetheless deserving of attention. It is of the Western swing variety, played by a fairly obscure group on a small West Coast label. I’ve had this disc since I first started out collecting records; it belonged to a bunch that originally belonged to my great grandmother and her father.
Leodie Jackson was born May 20, 1926 in Blocker, Oklahoma, one of three children of Bennie and Zella Jackson. He learned to play steel guitar, and with his brother Leon started his first band in Oklahoma, playing local dances. Like so many of his fellow Okies in the Dust Bowl era, he had relocated to California by the middle of the 1940s, where he found success as a steel guitarist. Jackson formed his own band, the Swingsters, sometime in the mid-1940s and recorded for the Courtney label in Los Angeles. He was featured in advertising for Bigsby Electric Guitars in 1949. He seems to have returned to Oklahoma by the 1960s, and he married Catherine Housley there in 1968. Jackson died September 20, 1995 in McAlester, Oklahoma.
Courtney 137 was recorded at 1424 East 78th Street in Los Angeles, California in mid-1946—possibly around June or July. The exact recording date is unknown, at least to me. It was listed in the August 1946 issue of Billboard in the Advance Record Data column, listed as “generally approximately two weeks in advance of actual release date.” The band includes Terry Fell on guitar, Leodie Jackson on steel guitar, Kenny Williams on vocal, and an unknown bassist, fiddler, pianist, and drummer. Interestingly, two different versions of Courtney 137 were issued, with different takes, and labels. “That Naggin’ Wife of Mine” was also issued on Courtney 230 (incorrectly numbered as 130) with the artist listed as Lucky White and his Dude Ranch Boys.
First, the Swingsters swing “That Naggin’ Wife of Mine”. The copyright for this tune was registered by Leodie Jackson on August 8, 1946, perhaps giving some indication of when it was recorded. The song gained a certain degree of popularity, and another version was recorded by Fairley Holden for King Records in 1949 (with Holden claiming authorship of the tune), and a number of further times by others.
That Naggin’ Wife of Mine, recorded 1946 by Leodie Jackson and his Swingsters.
On the reverse, the Swingsters play another of Jackson’s compositions: “Double Crossing Mama”.
Double Crossing Mama, recorded 1946 by Leodie Jackson and his Swingsters.
Long before the days of so-called “country and western” music, real working cattlemen sang and played their songs out on the range. Regrettably, being so far away from centers of civilization, only relatively little of that authentic cowboy music was fortunate enough to be recorded for posterity before commercial hillbilly music took off. However, a handful of real cowboy singers and musicians did make it into the studio, including the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, founded by former Rough Rider Billy McGinty, which, unlike many contemporaries, would later go on to achieve nationwide acclaim.
The Oklahoma Cowboy Band, directed by Otto Gray, broadcasting from the General Electric station WGY, Schenectady, N.Y. around 1930. Left-to-right: Otto Gray, Rex, Florence “Mommie” Gray, Owen “Zeb” Gray, “Chief” Sanders, Lee “Zeke” Allen, and Wade “Hy” Allen. Pictured in Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, 1930.
Band founder and financier William M. “Billy” McGinty of the Indian Territory was a true cowboy of legendary stature. Born in Missouri on New Year’s Day of 1871, he started out punching cattle at the age of fourteen, on a ranch in Kansas. During those years, he got to know old west legends by the likes of outlaw Bill Doolin and built up a reputation for being able bust any bronc, no matter how tough it were. Following the loss of the Battleship Maine, he went south to join up with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, going on to become a hero at the Battle of San Juan Hill—Roosevelt said of him, “we had no better or braver man in the fights”. When the war was through, he came back home to become a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Sometime in the early 1920s, McGinty founded the Oklahoma Cowboy Band of local musicians around Ripley, Oklahoma. The band made their first radio appearance in 1925 on Bristow, Oklahoma’s KFRU, and their first record for Okeh the following year. McGinty later retired as the band’s manager to focus on his ranch in Ingalls and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, leaving Otto Gray, who raised midget cattle in Stillwater and had previously served as the band’s director, to assume his position and lead the band to great national success. McGinty published an autobiography titled The Old West, as Written in the Words of Billy McGinty in 1937. In his later years, he served stints as president of the Roosevelt Rough Riders Association and the Cherokee Strip Cowpunchers Association. Billy McGinty died on May 21, 1961 at the age of ninety, and was buried in the Ingalls Cemetery.
Okeh 45057 was recorded in St. Louis, Missouri in May of 1926 by Dave Cutrell and McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band (Otto Gray, director). Both the DAHR and Rust and Laird’s Discography of OKeh Records, 1918-1934 place the recordings in Atlanta, Georgia in March of that year, but earlier pressings on the state “Recorded in St. Louis” on the label, and Victoria Spivey made her first recordings on the adjoining matrices in St. Louis on May 11, 1926, likely placing these around that date. The May date is further corroborated by Tony Russell’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942. Although the label credits McGinty’s band as accompanying Cutrell’s vocal on the first side, he is backed only by a single guitar, likely his own. The personnel of McGinty’s Cowboy Band for this session is unknown, but it may include Cutrell. McGinty’s band cut two additional unissued sides that day, the titles and contents of which are lost to time.
Dave Cutrell’s recording of “Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special” holds the distinction of being the first recorded version of the traditional prison song “The Midnight Special”. It was subsequently recorded by Wilmer Watts and his Lonely Eagles for Paramount around April of 1927 as “Walk Right in Belmont”, blues man Sam Collins for Gennett that September, and again by Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band in March of 1929. In the next decade, the song came to be associated with Lead Belly, who made his first of at least five recordings of the song at his second Library of Congress session with John Avery Lomax while still incarcerated at Angola Prison Farm on July 1, 1934. Since then, it has been recorded countless times in a variety of styles and genres.
By many accounts, the song spins a story of a prisoner at Texas’ Sugar Land penitentiary longing to receive a pardon from the governor. The titular Midnight Special was a train that came in the middle of the night to take pardoned ex-convicts away, so as to avoid the threat of extrajudicial action by people in town, and legend had it that if the Midnight Special shone its light on you, you were soon to be pardoned. Cutrell adds two humorous verses of his own mentioning band leaders Billy McGinty and Otto Gray: “Mr. McGinty’s a good man, but he’s run away now with a cowboy band.” and “Now Otto Gray, he’s a Stillwater man, but he’s manager now of a cowboy band.”
Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special, recorded c. May 1926 by Dave Cutrell.
On the “B” side, with fiddle, guitar, banjo, and ‘cello, McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band plays a rousing instrumental of “Cow Boy’s Dream” that puts you right there by the campfire. In my opinion, this side is one of only a few records that capture the mystique of the wide open space of the Old West. It also appears that whoever was typesetting the labels for Okeh that day wasn’t too fond of compound words.
Cow Boy’s Dream, recorded c. May 1926 by Mc Ginty’s Oklahoma Cow Boy Band (Otto Gray, Director).
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, made its way 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.