With a repertoire ranging from ragtime to pop songs, the eight songs recorded by the Dallas String Band are incomparable to most anything else on shellac records, and indeed are very difficult to categorize—they’re sometimes characterized as “pre-blues”, but none could technically be classified as blues songs, they bear some resemblance to white Texas string band music, and they’re all listed in Rust’s Jazz Records discography—but they are surely among the most fascinating music ever preserved. It probably wouldn’t be too far fetched to presume that their music bears substantial similarity to rural Afro-American music of the nineteenth century.
A fixture of the Dallas blues scene during the 1920s, playing music that could perhaps best be described as a ragtime-rooted precursor to blues music, the Dallas String Band was primarily made up of vaudevillian songster Coley Jones on mandolin, bassist Marco Washington, and guitarist Sam Harris, with a few transient members joining in occasionally. They were said to have sometimes employed a clarinet or saxophone, occasionally featured trumpeter Polite “Frenchy” Christian, and Blind Lemon Jefferson was also said to have sat in from time-to-time, though none of them ever appeared on any of the group’s records. The band’s repertoire was drawn largely from minstrel, vaudeville, and ragtime traditions, including such songs as “So Tired” and “Chasin’ Rainbows”, as well as popular songs like “Shine” and “Sugar Blues”. Every December from 1927 until 1929, Dallas String Band recorded for Columbia Records when they made field trips to Dallas, ultimately resulting in a total of eight recorded sides—not including side-operations by its members—all of which were released. The group gained posthumous attention when their “So Tired” appeared in Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 motion picture Ghost World.
The band’s leader, Coley Jones, was a prominent figure in the Afro-American music scene of Dallas, Texas in the 1920s, though little is known of his life. He was born most likely in the 1880s, and may have been in Dallas by the turn of the century. As an itinerant musician, playing in medicine show type venues, his repertoire consisted largely of folk songs and old minstrel tunes like “Drunkard’s Special” and “Traveling Man”. In addition to the Dallas String Band, Jones was a member of a jazz band by the name of the Satisfied Five, which also included noted drummer Herbert Cowans, with whom he broadcasted on WFAA and played at the famed Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells. Following his brief recording career—which resulted in a twenty-one sides in total, solo, in duet with Bobbie Cadillac, and with the Dallas String Band—Jones’ whereabouts are largely unknown, and he is presumed to have died in the 1930s. Marco Washington was born on June 30, 1886 in Marshall, Texas. He worked as a porter in a dry goods store in Grand Prairie and served in World War I prior to becoming a full-time musician. He played bass in Henry Williams’ String Band from Marshall before moving to Dallas. Purportedly, he taught his stepson, Dallas native Aaron Walker—also known as “Oak Cliff T-Bone”, later shortened to simply “T-Bone Walker”—how to play guitar and several other instruments. He died in Dallas from complications of hypertension on December 30, 1952. Sam Harris was born in Palmer, Texas, on April 19, 1889. In addition to his musical activities, he worked as a laborer in Waxahachie. His later whereabouts and activities are undetermined.
Columbia 14410-D was recorded on December 9, 1928 in Dallas, Texas. The Dallas String Band is made up of Coley Jones on mandolin and lead vocals, probably Sam Harris on guitar, and Marco Washington on string bass. Rust lists an unknown second mandolin, which Mack McCormick speculated as being Jones’ little brother “Kid Coley”, but I’m not so sure that more than one is present.
On the first side, they play the sublime “Chasin’ Rainbows”. I wouldn’t be exaggerating one bit to place this song easily in my top ten favorite recordings. The song is perhaps better known by the cover version by R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders to audiences outside of, well, R. Crumb (and the few of us out there like him).
Chasin’ Rainbows, recorded December 9, 1928 by the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones.
On the reverse, “I Used to Call Her Baby” is another pleasing raggy number, played this time with a little more pep.
I Used to Call Her Baby, recorded December 9, 1928 by the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones.
The following record is something a bit different from the run-of-the-mill—by any measure. But if it’s that so-called “old, weird America” you’re looking for, as Greil Marcus put it, then you’ll hardly find much weirder and older than this.
The musical selections on these two sides are performed by the Vaughan Happy Two, a duo related to the Vaughan Quartet, a popular and prolific sacred singing group, though its members did not sing with the quartet. The Vaughan Quartet, Happy Two, and several other associated groups were sponsored by the James D. Vaughan Music Company of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, a successful publisher of sacred music, the namesake founder of which also established the Vaughan School of Music in 1911 and radio station WOAN in 1922. Vaughan’s Quartet first recorded in 1921 and did so extensively thereafter. Many of their recordings were issued on Vaughan’s own private record label, as well as Victor and Paramount. The Vaughan Happy Two—Arthur B. Sebren and Cullie G. Wilson—was formed in 1925, and made their first records in 1928, which they followed up with five more sessions between then and 1930, making for a total of four sessions for the Vaughan label and two for Victor, twenty-two sides in all. Their recorded repertoire included both sacred and secular songs, and their traveling stage act reportedly extended to monologues and musical saw. The recordings they left behind, at least the ones on this disc, are rather reminiscent of the parlor music from so long ago, an old fashioned style that unsurprisingly proved popular with many rural listeners in the 1920s, longing for simpler times as the modern world rapidly advanced around them.
Victor V-40001 was recorded on October 20, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia. It is the second release in Victor’s “Native American Melodies” series, as they dubbed their V-40000 rural series prior to May of 1930. It was probably released early in 1929, and was cut from the catalog in 1930. The Vaughan Happy Two are tenor C.G. Wilson and baritone A.B. Sebren, accompanied on piano by M.B. Stroud.
They first sing “A Married Man in Trouble”, a song composed by prolific gospel songwriter James Rowe and Vaughan Quartet member Adger M. Pace. Though called the “Happy Two”, this song is quite the opposite (“how sad, how sad”), though indeed it is delivered in good humor.
A Married Man in Trouble, recorded October 20, 1928 by Vaughan Happy Two.
On the “B” side, Sebren and Wilson sing “Chicken”, which, while credited to J. Porter Thomason and Charles W. Vaughan, is an adaptation of the old minstrel song “Chicken Don’t Roost Too High for Me”, performed by artists as diverse as Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner and the Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and Dan Sane, as “Chicken You Can Roost Behind the Moon”).
Chicken, recorded October 20, 1928 by Vaughan Happy Two.
In 1942, Woody Guthrie purchased a copy of Negro Sinful Songs, the Musicraft record album by his friend and colleague Lead Belly, as a gift for his wife. A true poet, he inscribed at follows:
“The gift I’d buy, had to be better than perfume and stronger than metal. It had to be the simplicity of a whole people and the dignity of a race, the honesty of a saloon and the frenzy of a church. So when I heard Lead Belly’s voice on these records, I thought here is the surprise I’ve been looking for. Surprise!“
Now, as Guthrie honored his wife with the album, we pay tribute to the man himself: Huddie Ledbetter—the legendary Lead Belly. I’d pursued this set for quite a long while. It didn’t come cheap, but I have to say, hokey as it might sound, I really am profoundly moved by these records. I hope that you will be, too.
Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly. Later pressings switched to a (less evocative) design featuring a portrait of Lead Belly, rather than this one of black sharecroppers.
The exact date and year of Huddie William Ledbetter’s birth are uncertain—the date is most often given as January 20, believed to have been in 1888 or ’89 (the latter is officially offered by the Lead Belly Foundation), January 29, 1885 has also been suggested—but it is known that he was born on the Jeter Plantation in northwestern Louisiana, close to Mooringsport, the son of sharecroppers Wesley and Sallie Ledbetter. When Huddie was five years old, the Ledbetters bought a piece of land in East Texas and moved across the state border, starting a farm of their own. His first instrument was the accordion (or “windjammer” as he called it), and his uncle Terrell introduced him to the guitar not long after. By the turn of the century, Huddie was an accomplished musicianer. When his father would travel into Shreveport to sell their crops, Huddie would “put on long pants” and go down on Fannin Street to play his music. He set out on his own in his early twenties, making his living as an itinerant songster. In the early part of the 1910s, Ledbetter was in Dallas, playing the blues with Blind Lemon Jefferson in Deep Ellum. He reportedly became enamored with the twelve-string guitar after seeing a Mexican musician performing with one.
In 1918, Ledbetter killed a man in a fight over a woman in Dallas (he was later quoted as saying, “a man tried to cut my head off.”), and was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment in Huntsville, Texas. With no possibility for parole, he wrote a song to Governor Pat Neff, appealing for a pardon—”[If I] had you, Governor Neff, like you got me, I’d wake up in the morning and I’d set your free.” In his final days in office, Neff granted his pardon on January 15, 1925, Ledbetter having served six years, seven months and eight days of his sentence. In 1930 however, Ledbetter was back behind bars after a fight with three white men in Mooringsport, Louisiana. The sheriff saved him from a lynch mob, but he was sentenced to five-to-ten years at Angola Prison Farm At some point during one of Ledbetter’s prison stays, he acquired the nickname “Lead Belly”. Exactly how it came to be is uncertain, but the name stuck, and he used throughout all of his professional musical career. Three years into his sentence at Angola—in July of 1933—the prison was visited by John Avery Lomax and his son Alan, who were traveling the South with a trunkload of recording equipment to capture the folk music of America for the Library of Congress. There, they captured Lead Belly’s voice on record for the first time. Lomax returned the following year, eager to record Lead Belly’s extensive repertoire of folk songs; Lead Belly was eager to find someone to deliver his petition for a pardon to Governor O.K. Allen. Following his release, Lead Belly returned to John A. Lomax, asking that he allow him to assist in his travels, lest his release be rescinded. Lomax obliged, and Lead Belly accompanied him in his travels from September until the end of 1934.
Lomax, with Lead Belly along, arrived back in New York City around the New Year of 1935, and Lead Belly achieved notoriety, appearing in a March of Time newsreel and radio program made in celebration Lomax’s greatest discovery. Ledbetter married his sweetheart, Martha Promise, that January, and she became his manager. Days later, he made his first commercial recordings for American Record Corporation; he was introduced to their A&R man Art Satherly by recording artist Tex Ritter. From the twenty-third to the twenty-fifth of January, the fifth of February, and twenty-fifth of March of 1935, Lead Belly cut more than forty sides for the ARC, of which only three records (six sides, that is) were released. Those issued were all blues sides, rather than his folk songs. These “race records” didn’t prove too popular with black listeners, who by that time were more interested in modern artists like Big Bill Broonzy than Lead Belly’s country blues, and they sold rather poorly. That March, Lead Belly accompanied Lomax on a lecture in colleges across New England.
A full color spread of Lead Belly, as published in Life magazine on April 19, 1937.
The day after his final ARC session, Lead Belly left for Louisiana—moving to Dallas soon after—and his partnership with Lomax ended rather acrimoniously, with a paycheck for three-hundred dollars—Lead Belly’s cut of the 1,500 dollars they earned during their time together, subtracting “expenses for purchasing a new Stella guitar, clothing, dentist’s fees, etc.” When he arrived in Shreveport, Lead Belly hired a lawyer and filed suit against John A. Lomax for full payment of his earnings while working for Lomax. The suit was settled that September for two-hundred-fifty dollars, with Lead Belly asking for a reconciliation between the two. By the early part of 1936, the Ledbetters had returned to New York, living in an apartment on West 52nd Street. That November, John and Alan Lomax published Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, and the following April, Lead Belly was publicized in a Life magazine spread. By the latter half of the 1930s, there was a surge in popularity for folk music burgeoning in New York, championed largely by leftists and union agitators, and Lead Belly was soon to become endeared to their movement. As early as 1937, he was already being touted as a “people’s artist.” While those folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger dressed in workingman’s garb—flannel shirts and denim workwear—Lead Belly, no doubt fed up on those styles from his time working on the field and in prison, always wore fine clothes—double breasted suits and bow ties.
On March 5, 1939, Lead Belly was jailed for assault at Riker’s Island, and once bailed, Alan Lomax arranged for a recording session with the “high end” record label Musicraft on the first of April. These were to be his first commercial recordings since his ARC sessions in 1935, the proceeds of which would help with Lead Belly’s legal expenses. Ten sides were released by Musicraft in an album titled Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly. As the folk music movement grew, so did Lead Belly’s popularity. He began to perform on the radio, and achieve greater success. In June of 1940, Alan Lomax convinced Victor to record Lead Belly, and he produced another album, this time paired with the Golden Gate Quartet to produce the three disc set The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs. The next year, he attended the third inauguration of President Roosevelt, and began recording for Moe Asch’s Asch Records. All the while, he continued to record prolifically for the Library of Congress. In the middle of the 1940s, Lead Belly traveled to Los Angeles, California while Paramount Pictures optioned John A. Lomax’s autobiography Adventures of a Ballad Hunter as a picture, starring Bing Crosby as Lomax and Josh White as Ledbetter (oh how I wish that had come to fruition). While there, Lead Belly had a short-lived radio program, and—again thanks to Tex Ritter—recorded twelve sides for Capitol Records.
Throughout the entire decade of the 1940s, Lead Belly’s popularity and success skyrocketed. From humble beginnings, he was being touted as “quite probably the greatest living American folk singer.” He toured, appearing in countless concerts, mostly in New York by the ’40s. But by the end of the decade, Lead Belly started to wind down. His success was soaring in 1949, and he embarked for a tour of Europe, but he soon fell ill, and was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in Paris. On his return to the states, Lead Belly played his last concert on June 15, 1949 at the University of Texas in Austin, remembering the life of John A. Lomax, who had died from a stroke the previous year. On December 6, 1949, Huddie Ledbetter succumbed to his illness and died at the Bellevue Hospital in New York City, leaving behind a legacy of well over five hundred recorded songs and a profound impact on all the world’s music for generations to come.
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 eighty-one. 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.
On June 14, we commemorate anniversary of the birth of Burl Ives, star of stage, screen, radio, and records.
“The Wayfaring Stranger” by Burl Ives. Cover photograph bu Gjon Mili.
Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives (what a name) was born on June 14, 1909 near Hunt City in rural Illinois, one of seven children of Scots-Irish farmers Levi and Cordelia Ives. As a child, while singing in his mother’s garden, he was discovered by his uncle, who invited him to sing at his old soldiers reunion. Ives made his first recording in 1929, a test for the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, makers of Gennett Records, though no record was issued, and the masters were destroyed. After dropping out of college, Ives hoboed across the states as an itinerant folk songster during the Great Depression. He began appearing on Terra Haute, Indiana’s WBOW around 1931, and in 1940, began hosting a radio show of his own, called The Wayfaring Stranger. In 1938, he made his Broadway debut in Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse. After working with the left leaning Almanac Singers in the early 1940s, Ives was drafted into the United States Army in 1942, receiving a medical discharge the following year. Ives began his long career in motion pictures, appearing in the 1946 Western Smoky as a singing cowboy. In the early 1950s, Ives was blacklisted as a suspected communist, and testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Throughout the 1950s onward, he continued to have a prolific career in music and pictures. In 1964, he made his most enduring appearance in the Rankin/Bass television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, narrating the program as Sam the Snowman. Burl Ives died of cancer on April 14, 1995, at the age of eighty-five.
Asch album A 345 was recorded in 1944 and edited by Alan Lomax. Try as I might, I can’t seem to locate a source giving the exact date. Going by the matrix numbers, I’d venture it was recorded sometime early in that year, January or February, possibly even late in 1943. It was re-issued on the Stinson label in 1947.