Bluebird B-5181 – Bill Scotti and his Hotel Montclair Orchestra – 1933

Sheet music cover for “The Road is Open Again”, featuring Dick Powell and FDR, 1933.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated President of the United States in 1933, the vice grip of the Great Depression that was strangling the nation was at its tightest, having peaked over the winter of ’32 to ’33, and the new president got right to work trying to alleviate that condition.  On June 16, 1933, only three months after taking office, Roosevelt signed into law the National Industrial Recovery Act (or NIRA), rolling out his first wave of New Deal programs, including the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works and the National Recovery Administration.  The latter of those two, christened the NRA (sweet thing, sweet thing), was unveiled with great fanfare under the zealous leadership of its director Hugh S. Johnson.  In addition to an enormous parade dedicated to the Administration, Hollywood churned out a number of promotional films to support the NRA.  One such film saw Jimmy Durante enthusiastically pleading that employers “give a man a job.”  Another starred Dick Powell (in a role reminiscent of his part in Gold Diggers of 1933) as a frustrated songwriter tasked with composing a ditty dedicated to the NRA, but unable to produce any satisfactory results until he is visited in a dream by Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Wilson, who explain the patriotic tenets of the National Recovery Administration and provide Powell’s character the inspiration needed to come up with “The Road is Open Again”.

Bluebird B-5181 was recorded on September 15, 1933 in New York City by saxophone player Bill Scotti’s orchestra from the Hotel Montclair in Montclair, New Jersey, featuring vocals by pianist Larry Murphy, Tom Low, and Larry Lloyd.

On side “A”, Larry Murphy sings the solo refrain on an iconic Great Depression melody, Yip Harburg, Billy Rose, and Harold Arlen hit from the Paramount motion picture Take a Chance: “It’s Only a Paper Moon”.

It’s Only A Paper Moon, recorded September 15, 1933 by Bill Scotti and his Hotel Montclair Orch.

On “B”, the trio of Larry, Tom, and Larry sing the patriotic “theme song” of President Roosevelt’s NRA, “The Road is Open Again”, as featured by Dick Powell in the short film of the same name, recorded only two days after “NRA Day.”

The Road is Open Again, recorded September 15, 1933 by Bill Scotti and his Hotel Montclair Orch.

Columbia 14325-D – Seth Richard – 1928

Out of all the countless blues musicians whose lives are shrouded in obscurity, it would be rather difficult to pick one about whom less is known than Seth Richard.  Indeed, historians like Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc have been able to piece together a small few biographical details, which is more than can be said about some of his contemporaries, but even that remains rather tentative.

Seth Richard was born around 1905, purportedly in North Carolina, whereabouts of Halifax County, though Bedford County, Virginia origins have also been proposed.  Likely, he spent his early years in the vicinity of southern Virginia and northern Carolina.  Given that all of his recordings were made in the New York and New Jersey and two of his titles reference streets in Newark, New Jersey, it would seem probably that Richard lived a considerable part of his life in that area, but that is purely speculation.  As a musician, he was counted alongside Barbecue Bob, Blind Willie McTell, and Lead Belly as one of the handful of blues artists to adopt the twelve-string guitar.  He was in New York City in 1928, when he went to Columbia Records to make but a single record, which became a rather decent seller in the “race” catalog.  Thereafter, he went silent until late in 1943, when he (probably) resurfaced to cut four sides including the wartime “Gas Ration Blues” under the pseudonym “Skoodle-Dum-Doo”, after one of the songs he recorded for Columbia fifteen years prior, for Irving Berman’s Regis and Manor record labels with a harmonica player known only as “Sheffield” (possibly John Sheffield).  Whatever became of Seth Richard after his brief and well spread-apart recording career is unknown.

Columbia 14325-D was recorded on May 15, 1928 in New York City.  Seth Richard sings, accompanying himself on twelve-string guitar and kazoo.  The DAHR notes takes “2” and “3” as issued for both sides; these are both take “2”.

First, Richard sings the plaintive and eponymous “Lonely Seth Blues”.

Lonely Seth Blues, recorded May 15, 1928 by Seth Richard.

Next, Seth gets wild on his signature song, “Skoodeldum Doo”, a jazzed up adaptation of Papa Charlie Jackson’s “Skoodle-Um-Skoo”.

Skooodeldum Doo, recorded May 15, 1928 by Seth Richard.

Brunswick 118 – “Dock” Boggs – 1927

Recognized as one of the great luminaries of old time folk music—thanks in no small part to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music—is “Dock” Boggs, whose blend of hillbilly style and Afro-American blues and penchant for “lonesome songs” distinguished him as a unique figure in American music, and lent a window into the melancholic soul of a rural artist.

Moran Lee Boggs was born in West Norton, Virginia on February 7, 1898, named after the town doctor who (presumably) delivered him.  His father gave him the nickname “Dock” while he was a toddler, and the name stuck, Boggs preferring it over his given name.  His music-loving father taught him how to sing, and he soon took up the banjo, which he learned to pick in a clawhammer style he called “knockdown.”  The young Boggs also learned folk songs such as “John Henry” from a local black songster called “Go Lightning” who played by the railroad tracks.  Other influences included his brother Roscoe, an itinerant musician by the name of Homer Crawford, and his brother-in-law, the Holiness preacher Lee Hansucker, as well as many phonograph records.  Like Frank Hutchison and so many of his contemporaries, Boggs was a coal miner by trade, and musician by passion.

In 1927, with a borrowed banjo, Boggs auditioned for the Brunswick-Balke-Collender company at the Hotel Norton.  Out of however many auditioned, only Boggs and John Dykes’ Magic City Trio made the cut, and thereafter he traveled to the Brunswick studios in New York City and cut eight sides, which were all issued.  After returning to Norton in 1928, Boggs organized a band, calling themselves “Dock Boggs and his Cumberland Mountain Entertainers” and playing at local functions.  In spite of his musical success, he was met with opposition from his wife, who wished for her husband to walk the straight and narrow path away from bootlegging, gambling, and the Devil’s music.  Two years after his first recordings, Boggs was contracted by music store owner W.A. Myers to record for his remarkably short-lived record label The Lonesome Ace—”Without a Yodel.”  For Myers, Dock ventured to Chicago to cut four titles, accompanied by Emry Arthur on guitar, for Paramount Records, who was doing the recording and pressing work for The Lonesome Ace. Those four, including the haunting “Old Rub Alcohol Blues”, were to be the final recordings of his original musical career.

When the Great Depression came on, records sales dropped to near zero, putting the hurt on Boggs’ music career.  He had an ill-fated attempt at a radio show in 1930, and in June of 1931, Boggs was offered the opportunity to record for Victor in Louisville, but was unable to raise funds for the journey.  He spent the rest of that decade in the coal mines, eventually giving up on his life as in music.  After living in obscurity for several decades, Dock Boggs was rediscovered in 1963 by Mike Seeger.  Seeger brought Boggs back into music as part of the burgeoning folk revival of the day.  He made appearances at such to-dos the American Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina and the Newport Folk Festival, and also recorded fairly extensively for Folkways Records.  Dock Boggs’ health was in decline by the 1970s, and he died on his seventy-third birthday on February 7, 1971.

Brunswick 118 was recorded on March 10, 1927 in New York City by “Dock” Boggs, accompanied on guitar by G.H. “Hub” Mahaffey, a player in John Dykes’ Magic City Trio.  It is Boggs’ first issued record, though his third and fourth recorded sides.  Though the condition of this copy is rather lacking, I’ve tried to get the most out of it, as always.  These things do tend to be quite scarce nowadays.

First up is “Down South Blues”.  Boggs once professed, “lonesome songs always appealed to me.”

Down South Blues, recorded March 10, 1927 by “Dock” Boggs.

On the designated “B” side, Boggs sings what is perhaps his most famous song, “Sugar Baby”, made legendary by its inclusion in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  “What more can a poor boy do?”

Sugar Baby, recorded March 10, 1927 by “Dock” Boggs.

Musicraft 31 – Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly – 1939

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.

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Decca 7815 – Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law) – 1940

Though he wasn’t the most talented instrumentalist, nor the most able vocalist, the popular blues musician Peetie Wheatstraw—the Devil’s Son-in-Law, the High Sheriff from Hell—achieved great success in his time, and made a considerable impact on fellow musicians for years to come.

Contrary to the events presented in the 1977 film Petey Wheatstraw, Peetie Wheatstraw was not born as a walking, talking child.  Rather, he was born as William Bunch on December 21, 1902, likely in Ripley, Tennessee or Cotton Plant, Arkansas.  He learned to play the piano and guitar and in 1929 took up residence in East St. Louis, assuming the moniker “Peetie Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law”.  Some have suggested the “Peetie Wheatstraw” name traces its roots back to early Afro-American folklore, yet others suggest that Bunch himself was the originator.  Brought to the studio by bluesman and talent scout Charley Jordan, Wheatstraw made his first record for Vocalion in 1930—”Tennessee Peaches Blues”, assisted by an unidentified fellow by the name of “Neckbones” (possibly J.D. “Jelly Jaw” Short)—and he continued to record for them until 1936, with a handful of recordings made for Victor in 1931 on the side.  While still featured on Vocalion, Wheatstraw began recording for Decca in 1934, soon switching to that label exclusively.  Peetie Wheatstraw died in a car accident on his thirty-ninth birthday—he was sitting in the back seat of a Buick driven by a friend, when it struck a standing freight train, killing all passengers—less than one full month after recorded the prophetic seeming “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living”.

With an idiosyncratic and formulaic style of singing and playing piano, Peetie Wheatstraw maintained a position as one of the top-selling and most prolific blues artists throughout the decade of the 1930s, alongside Blind Boy Fuller, Big Bill, and Bumble Bee Slim.  Influences of Wheatstraw’s signature piano style, mumbled vocals, and “hoo-well-well” holler could be heard in the music of many less successful blues artists across the land, such as Alabama’s Peanut, the Kidnapper (whose stage name is one of the few to rival “Peetie Wheatstraw”).  A testament to his success, fellow blues musician Robert Nighthawk was billed by Decca for a time as “Peetie’s Boy”.  Even noted Texas bluesman Andrew “Smokey” Hogg started out veritably copying Wheatstraw’s vocals and guitar playing, and was known as “Little Peetie Wheatstraw”.

Decca 7815 was recorded on April 4, 1940 and August 28, 1940 in New York City.  Peetie Wheatstraw is accompanied by Jonah Jones on trumpet, possibly Lil Armstrong on piano, and Sid Catlett on drums.

First up, Peetie Wheatstraw sings one of his more famous recordings, the swing infused “Gangster’s Blues”.  The noted accompanists account for the reason why these two songs don’t sound just like most every other song Wheatstraw recorded.

Gangster’s Blues, recorded April 4, 1940 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Next, Wheatstraw sings “Look Out for Yourself”, one of countless blues songs echoing the melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”.

Look Out for Yourself, recorded August 28, 1940 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).