Okeh 45057 – Dave Cutrell/Mc Ginty’s Oklahoma Cow Boy Band – 1926

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).

Victor 20122 – Carl T. Sprague – 1926

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.

Bluebird B-8621 – Riley Puckett – 1940

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.

Bluebird B-5433 & B-5562 – Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers – 1934

Few old time “hillbilly” string bands of the 1920s and ’30s left behind such illustrious and distinguished legacies (and darned good music, too) as Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.  From their first recordings in 1926, Tanner’s Skillet Lickers established themselves as one of the most commercially successful “hillbilly” bands of the decade.  But as the twenties ceased to roar giving way to depression, the record industry quickly faltered, and so did the recording oriented Skillet Lickers.  The band had their last session for Columbia Records—with whom they had recorded exclusively since their first session—in October of 1931, and broke up thereafter.  Fiddle player Clayton McMichen went on to form his Georgia Wildcats and found success on radio and records through the remainder of the decade.  Come 1934 however, Gid put together a reunion of sorts.  Together with his son Gordon Tanner, old pal Riley Puckett, and mandolin player Ted Hawkins, they traveled to San Antonio, Texas, where the RCA Victor Company was holding a series of recording sessions at the Texas Hotel.  There, they recorded in two sessions on March 29th and 30th a series of twenty four sides, mostly energetic and jubilant dance tunes in stark contrast with the hard times the nation was then facing at the depth of the Great Depression, concluding with two of their classic “skit” records: “Prosperity and Politics” and “Practice Night With the Skillet Lickers”.

Bluebird B-5433 and B-5562 were both recorded on March 29, 1934 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas—the same time and place Riley Puckett recorded his famed solo performance of “Ragged but Right” and others.  The former was released on April 18th of that year, and the latter on July 18th.  B-5433 was also issued concurrently on Montgomery Ward M-4845, and B-5562 was reissued widely throughout the following decades on RCA Victor 20-2167 and 420-0569, making it all the way into the 45 RPM era on 447-0569.  The Skillet Lickers are Gid Tanner and his son Gordon Tanner on fiddles, Ted Hawkins on mandolin, and Riley Puckett on guitar.

On B-5433, the Skillet Lickers play two old time fiddle standards, both tunes which they recorded previously in 1930 and ’29, respectively.  First it’s “Georgia Waggoner”, the first side they recorded at the reunion session.

Georgia Waggoner, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Next, keeping in the same theme, they follow with one of my personal favorites, a high energy rendition of “Mississippi Sawyer”, punctuated by Hawkins’ mandolin.  The band members can be heard talking over the music, lending to an informal atmosphere.

Mississippi Sawyer, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

On B-5562, the Skillet Lickers first play that old 1921 L. Wolfe Gilbert standby, “Down Yonder” (which we last heard played by an unidentified pianist).  This might just be my favorite Skillet Lickers side; I like their 1934 sound with the added mandolin, even though the old mainstays like Clayton McMichen and Fate Norris are absent.

Down Yonder, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Then, they play another utterly bright and feel-good tune, the traditional fiddle piece “Back Up and Push”.  Though not credited as such in Russell’s Country Music Records, I’m quite certain Riley Puckett’s voice can be heard on this side, hollering some of the calls (“now ladies in the center and gents catch air, hold ‘er Newt, don’t let ‘er rare”).

Back Up and Push, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Updated on April 28, 2018.

Okeh 45114 – Frank Hutchison – 1927

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.