Broadway 8089 – Georgia Melody Boys – 1927

There were some artists of yesteryear who created a truly unique sound, and made music that was without parallel (for better or for worse).  Names like Washington Phillips—who seemingly played two modified zithers simultaneously to accompany his sanctified singing—come to mind.  In this case (partly because I don’t have any of Mr. Phillips’ records), we’ll look at the Golden Melody Boys, a truly obscure duo whose sound was aptly characterized by Tony Russell as “a bubbling sixteen-string polyphony.”  While I count eighteen (the American tiple has ten strings), they certainly made music like no other that I am aware of.

The Golden Melody Boys—Dempsy “Demps” Jones and Philip Featherstonhaugh (or “Featherstonehaugh”, or “Featherstone”)—were a musical duo hailing from Ceder Rapids, Iowa.  Demps was born on November 9, 1890 in Fountain Run, Kentucky; Phil on November 4, 1892 in Illinois.  Phil could play a mean mandolin, and Demps was skilled on guitar, banjo, and the rather out-of-the-ordinary tiple.  Aside from their musical proclivities, Dempsy was the Linn County Recorder, and worked variously on the side as a baseball player, a newspaperman, in construction, and for Quaker Oats.  Phil, apparently, was more or less of a bootlegger.  They were playing together as early as 1925, and played on Earl May’s KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, as well as a number of other stations.  They made their recording debut in October of 1927 for the New York Recording Laboratories (makers of Paramount, Broadway) in Chicago, and cut a total of eighteen sides for them over the following year, all of which but one were released.  Dempsy followed up with six solo re-recordings of earlier titles for the Starr Piano Company (for their Champion and Superior labels) on November 19, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana.  Jones stayed in Iowa, starting a family band in the 1930s which apparently continued all the way into the days of television, while Featherstonhaugh moved west.  Jones died on April 10, 1963 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Featherstonhaugh on March 1, 1969 in Beaumont, California.  As of late, their “Gonna Have ‘Lasses in de Mornin'” made its way into PBS’s grand project American Epic.

Broadway 8089 was recorded circa October of 1927 in Chicago, Illinois.  The Golden Melody Boys (here under the rather thin pseudonym “Georgia Melody Boys”) consist of Demps on tiple and Phil on mandolin.  Demps provides the vocals.  It was their first released record, and was also issued on Paramount 3068.  Jones recorded both these songs again in their 1931 Gennett session.

“My grandfather’s hat was too big for his head, it was caused by drinking Milwaukee beer,” is the first line in “The Old Tobacco Mill” (a parody of the old “My Grandfather’s Clock”), and is just the sort of whimsical, often nonsensical lyrics that characterize the bulk of the Golden Melody Boys’ recorded output.

The Old Tobacco Mill, recorded October, 1927 by the Georgia Melody Boys.

On “The Cross Eyed Butcher”, we’re treated to two stories for the price of one, first that ot the titular butcher, then of a fellow’s dental follies, with a nice little instrumental break in-between.  Demps’s vocals rather remind me of Frank Crumit, who—incidentally—was also a tiple player.

The Cross Eyed Butcher, recorded October, 1927 by the Georgia Melody Boys.

Vocalion 14848 – Uncle Dave Macon – 1924

Uncle Dave Macon in a characteristic pose, as pictured in Songs and Stories of Uncle Dave Macon, 1938.

With a stage persona that brought rural electrification to Tennessee early, the legendary “Dixie Dewdrop,” “King of the Hillbillies,” Uncle Dave Macon, has been called the “grandfather of country music” (Jimmie Rodgers, of course, being the “father”), and that’s no stretch; his energetic renditions of old time minstrel ditties and jubilant sacred songs made him an enduring and beloved favorite of Southern listeners from the dawn of radio entertainment until the early 1950s.

David Harrison Macon was born on October 7, 1870, five miles south of McMinnville, Tennessee in small settlement of Smartt Station, son of Martha and Confederate veteran John Macon.  In 1884, the Macons purchased a hotel and moved to Nashville.  While there, the young Dave learned banjo from circus performer Joel Davidson.  After his father was murdered in ’86, Macon and his mother sold the hotel and took up in Readyville.  His mother ran a stagecoach inn there, and Dave used his musical proclivities to entertain guests.  Soon after, Macon started a mule train, which lasted until the automobile killed off business in 1920.  The next year, Macon was hired for his first professional musical engagement.  In 1923, Macon was “discovered” by Marcus Loew of the famous theater chain of the same name, and brought into the world of processional vaudeville.  Joining with fiddler Sid Harkreader, Macon’s act became a hit, and the Sterchi Brothers Furniture Company arranged a recording session for them with Vocalion in July of 1924.  Late in 1925, the fledgling radio station WSM in Nashville started their Barn Dance program to compete the successful show of the same name on Chicago’s WLS, and Macon became one of the first stars of what would later become known as the Grand Ole Opry.  In 1927, he formed the Fruit Jar Drinkers with the McGee Brothers and Mazy Todd.  After recording for Vocalion from 1924 to 1929, Macon recorded only sporadically in the 1930s, with sessions for Okeh in 1930, the Starr Piano Company’s Champion in 1934 (try to find those records!), and Victor’s Bluebird in 1935 and 1938.  Despite slacking off in recording, Uncle Dave continued to perform live for many years.  In 1940, he appeared in the Republic Pictures film Grand Ole Opry, accompanied by his son Dorris.  Uncle Dave Macon played his last performance on March 1, 1952, and died three weeks later, on the twenty-second, at the age of 81.  His life is celebrated annually with “Uncle Dave Macon Days” in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Vocalion 14848 was recorded on July 8 and 9, 1924 in New York City, “Sung and Played by Uncle Dave Macon (Banjo)”.  It was shortly afterward issued on Vocalion 5041, in their “Hillbilly” series.  It is comprised of his first and sixth recorded sides, and was his second issued record.

The first side he ever recorded, “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” is one of Uncle Dave’s most iconic pieces, and perhaps his best remembered in this day and age.  Fourteen years later, the song was published in his official songbook, Songs and Stories of Uncle Dave Macon.

Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy, recorded July 8, 1924 by Uncle Dave Macon.

On the reverse, Uncle Dave plays and sings “Papa’s Billie Goat”, a cover of fellow country music pioneer Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recording of the previous year.

Papa’s Billie Goat, recorded July 9, 1924 by Uncle Dave Macon.

Electradisk 1919 – Bill Palmer’s Trio – 1932

One of the major hillbilly music powerhouses of the 1930s was Bob Miller—much like his contemporary Carson Robison, he was equal parts a songwriter, publisher, and musician, as well as an A&R man on the side.  Though well known throughout the Depression years for his hit songs and “hillbilly heartthrobs,” including such mainstays as “Twenty-One Years” and “Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)”, and numerous topical songs such as “Eleven Cent Cotton (and Forty Cent Meat)”, Miller has faded into practical obscurity today.

Bob Miller was born on September 20, 1895 in Memphis, Tennessee.  He was brought up a musician, and was playing piano professionally by the age of ten.  He later graduated to playing on Mississippi steamboats, before heading to New York to work for Irving Berlin as an arranger and copyist.  In 1931, he published “Twenty-One Years”, which would become one of the biggest hillbilly song hits of the decade.  The following year, his “Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)” was met with the same success.  Both songs inspired Miller to write numerous “answer” songs, such as “The Answer to 21 Years” and “Seven Years With the Wrong Man”.  In addition to songwriting, Miller recorded many of his own compositions with small “citybilly” groups for various record companies, including Victor, Champion (i.e. Gennett), and Grey Gull’s many labels.  In 1933, with already a large number of credits to his name, Miller founded his own music publishing company, Bob Miller Inc.  With more than a thousand copyrights to his name, to attempt to list the song hits written by Miller would make for nothing but a mess of text consisting of title after title.  His patriotic “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” (published under the pseudonym “Shelby Darnell”) became a wartime hit when it was recorded by Elton Britt in 1942.  Bob Miller died on August 26, 1955 in New York City.

Electradisk 1919 was recorded November 3, 1932 in RCA’s Studio 1 in New York City by Bob Miller’s Trio as “Bill Palmer’s Trio” and was issued in April of 1933.  It was later issued on Bluebird B-5034, Sunrise S-3132, and—with the sides split up—on Montgomery Ward M-4232 and M-4401.  The ensemble consists of Bob Miller on piano and singing, Barney Burnett on banjo and second vocal, and A. Sirillo on guitar.

Seldom do you see these Electradisks—one of RCA Victor’s early budget labels, sold at Woolworth’s—at all, and it’s even less often that you see material other than the typical dance band pop.

One of the hillbilly hits of the 1930s was Miller’s “Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)”, and was covered by artists ranging from Cliff Carlisle to Jack Payne’s Dance Orchestra.  It was “answered” by such songs as “Seven Years with the Wrong Man” and “Seven Beers with the Wrong Woman”.

Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)

Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman), recorded November 3, 1932 by Bill Palmer’s Trio.

On the reverse, Miller’s trio does another of his compositions of some note, “What Does the Deep Sea Say?”

What Does the Deep Sea Say?

What Does the Deep Sea Say?, recorded November 3, 1932 by Bill Palmer’s Trio.

Decca 5070 – Milton Brown and his Brownies – 1935

Milton Brown was one of the founders of that marvelous fusion of hot jazz and hillbilly string band music that we now call Western Swing, yet a tragically early demise led his name into near-obscurity today.  Not only did Brown’s music lay the foundations of Western swing music, it also served to inspire such subsequent luminaries as Django Reinhardt.

William Milton Brown was born in Stephenville, Texas on September 7, 1903 to Barty and Martha Brown, a family of poor sharecroppers.  Ma and Pa Brown determined that Milton and his sister Era would get an education to live a better life, and so they did.  Singing old standards and church songs, Milton’s musical talent showed itself at an early age.  Tragedy struck in 1918 when his sister died, and the Browns relocated to Fort Worth.  Milton finished high school late, as helping to support his family made his attendance sporadic, and after graduating, he pursued a career in music.  In 1927, he sang in a local group called the Rock Island Rockets, and his younger brother Derwood soon joined him on guitar.  Nonetheless, Brown made his living as a cigar salesman until the Great Depression left him unemployed.

Brown’s big break came in 1930, when he crossed paths with the Wills Fiddle Band at a dance in Fort Worth and joined in a chorus of the “St. Louis Blues”.  Leader Bob Wills was impressed and asked him—and his brother Derwood—to join the band.  After a stretch on Fort Worth’s WBAP as the “Aladdin Laddies,” the Wills Fiddle Band was contracted by W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel of the Burrus Mill and Elavator Company of Saginaw, Texas, producer of Light Crust Flour, thus becoming the first generation of the prolific Light Crust Doughboys.  In 1932, the Doughboys cut two sides for the Victor Company in Dallas, as the “Fort Worth Doughboys”, producing one of the finest—and earliest—Western Swing records made.  Not too long after, Milton had a spat with Pappy, and left to form his own band: the Musical Brownies.

For the Brownies, Brown hired jazz musician Bob Dunn, the first player to electrify his steel guitar, and fiddlers Cecil Brower and Cliff Bruner.  Their regular spot was the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion in Fort Worth, buy they also toured Waco, Corsicana, Weatherford, and Mineral Wells.  They’d a play a hot tune, then follow with a waltz to let the dancers cool off.  After two 1934 sessions for Bluebird, the Brownies secured a spot on Decca Records’ roster, which produced a string of successful records.  Tragically— perhaps as much for the world to be deprived of his talent as for his own misfortune—the end came too soon for Milton Brown when he fell asleep behind the wheel while driving a young lady home one night, and wrapped his car around a telephone pole on the Jacksboro Highway.  Although he was expected to make a full recovery from the accident, Brown died of pneumonia on April 18, 1936, at the young age of thirty-two.

Decca 5070 was recorded on January 27, 1935 at the Furniture Mart Building at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, the Brownies’ first Decca session.  Brown’s Musical Brownies consist of Cecil Brower on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, Bob Dunn on his famous electrified steel guitar, Wanna Coffman on string bass, and Fred Calhoun on piano.  Milton, of course, sings the lead vocals, with Derwood and Dunn backing.

First up is Milt’s recording of the tune that launched his career, W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”.  A signature piece, at the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion the Brownies were known to stretch this one out to a full fifteen minutes.  Even limited to a three-and-a-half minute phonograph record, Brown makes a tour-de-force performance out of it.  Make note of Bob Dunn’s idiosyncratic steel guitar solo.

St. Louis Blues

St. Louis Blues, recorded January 27, 1935 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

Next, the Brownies swing Eddie Green’s blues standard “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.

A Good Man is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard to Find, recorded January 27, 1935 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

Champion S-16443 – Luke Baldwin – 1931

One of the outstanding folk song spinners of the 1930s was the “Dixie Songbird”, Bill Cox.  In spite of his innocuous nickname, Cox’s repertoire consisted largely of topical songs about hot-button issues of the day, including “The Trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann” (about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping), “The Fate of Will Rogers and Wiley Post”, and “N. R. A. Blues”.

William Jennings Cox was born in Eagle, West Virginia (some sources claim Kanawha County, Kentucky) on August 4, 1897.   In his youth, he took up the harmonica, and guitar, both of which he came to play with proficiency.  In 1927, Cox reportedly made his professional debut on WOBU radio in West Virginia, performing as the “Dixie Songbird,” a moniker which he retained throughout his musical career.  Two years later, in 1929, Cox ventured to Richmond, Indiana to cut his first records for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett Records (and their subsidiary labels such as Champion, Supertone, and so forth).  Like many of his contemporaries, his earliest recordings were covers of songs by Jimmie Rodgers, but he soon branched out into making renditions of old folk songs and his own original compositions.  Cox continued to record for Gennett until around 1931, and after an apparent hiatus, resumed his recording career in 1933 for the American Record Corporation, with whom he remained until he retired from recording.  On many of these records, he was accompanied by fellow West Virginian Cliff Hobbs.  Under the ARC, Cox’s records were issued on Conqueror, Perfect, Melotone, Oriole, Banner, Vocalion, and later Okeh.  After retiring from recording in 1940, Cox fell on hard times, and was discovered destitute and living in a converted chicken coop in 1966.  The following year, he recorded an album that would be his swan song.  Bill Cox died on December 10, 1968.

Champion S-16443 was recorded on August 17, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana by Bill Cox, released under the pseudonym Luke Baldwin.  He is accompanied by his own guitar.  It sold a total of only 301 copies!  It was also issued on Superior 2833 (which appears to have sold only 55 copies, if my interpretation of George Kay’s Superior Catalog is correct, and if it is indeed accurate), and later reissued with the sides split up, with “In 1992” on Decca 5497 and Champion 45093, and with “I Found You Among the Roses on Champion 45106 and Montgomery Ward 4942.

Cox plays harmonica on own composition “I Found You Among the Roses”, set to the tune of Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern’s “My Mother Was a Lady”, or at least Jimmie Rodgers’ recording of it, which is likely where Cox found his inspiration.  Please note that this is an entirely different song than the 1916 George B. Pitman song of the same name as recorded by the Carter Family.

I Found You Among the Roses

I Found You Among the Roses, recorded August 17, 1931 by Luke Baldwin.

On the “B” side, Cox predicts the future on “In 1992”, a novelty song penned by musical duo Arthur Fields and Fred Hall.

In 1992

In 1992, recorded August 17, 1931 by Luke Baldwin.