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.
Few songs in the vast and diverse country blues tradition have had such an enduring impact, and few melodies known such ubiquity, as the Mississippi Sheiks’ legendary 1930 recording of “Sitting On Top of the World”. Yet in spite of its great import, the song’s origins are quite obscure. Thus, I endeavor herein to unravel the tangled roots of one of America’s greatest blues songs. I do ask that if you readers have any greater insight into the song’s history than I have to offer, please let me in on it by commenting on this post.
The Mississippi Sheiks were a versatile country string band with a repertoire consisting of everything from deep plantation blues melodies to the latest Tin Pan Alley pop hits. Though its personnel varied from session to session, core members were Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle and Walter Vinson on guitar. Sometimes, they were joined by other Chatmon brothers Sam and Armenter—better known as Bo Carter—or mandolin player Papa Charlie McCoy, brother of Kansas Joe McCoy. The Chatmon family of Bolton, Mississippi had a venerable musical history in the region. Patriarch Henderson Chatmon, born into slavery around 1850, was a fiddle player, and he passed his legacy of music on to his sons Lonnie, Bo, Sam, Harry, and reputedly Charley Patton by a different mother. Lonnie Chatmon was born either in June of 1888 or on November 8, 1890. He provided the heart of the Sheiks as their main fiddle player, remaining ever-present through all the Sheiks sessions and varying membership. Guitar picker Walter Vinson, sometimes called Vincent or Vincson, and credited pseudonymously as Walter Jacobs, was born on February 2, 1901, also in Bolton. Prior to becoming a Mississippi Sheik, he played alongside such noted talents as Charlie Spand, Rube Lacey, and the aforementioned Papa Charlie McCoy. He made his first records with Bo Carter for Brunswick in 1928, also Carter’s first.
Following in the footsteps of similar Bo Carter and Walter Vinson groups of 1928 and ’29, the Mississippi Sheiks had their first recording session in Shreveport, Louisiana in February of 1930 for Okeh, and continued to record exclusively for them through 1931, with several of their records released in the 45000 “hillbilly” series rather than the 8000 “race” series, and their two final discs appearing on the parent label Columbia. While at Okeh, the Sheiks accompanied “Texas” Alexander in a single San Antonio session. Meanwhile, offshoot groups such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Mississippi Blacksnakes, both featuring Charlie McCoy, cut several records for Okeh and Brunswick. Thereafter, they traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to make a series of records for the faltering Paramount label in July of ’32 before returning to Okeh in ’33 for a single session while the record industry was in dire straits. The following year, they signed with RCA Victor’s new up-and-comer Bluebird, with whom they remained until their final session in 1935. Lonnie cut several more records for Bluebird late in 1936 with brother Sam Chatmon, who had participated in a handful of earlier Sheiks sessions, before calling it quits.
After the days of the Mississippi Sheiks had drawn to a close in the middle of the 1930s, the Chatmons, excepting Bo, quit music and returned to a life as farmers. Lonnie Chatmon died around 1942 of ’43. Walter Vinson and Bo Carter continued to enjoy solo recording careers into the 1940s. Bo Carter made some (as yet unreleased) final recordings for Paul Oliver in 1960 with Will Shade and Dewey Corley of the Memphis Jug Band, and died four years later at the age of seventy-one. Walter Vinson too returned to music in 1960, making a rather more successful comeback than Carter, before retiring for the last time in 1972, owing to atherosclerosis, three years before his death. Sam Chatmon spent many years working on plantations in Mississippi before the folk revival of the 1960s brought him back to the spotlight with great success, dying at the age of 86 in 1983.
Okeh 8784 was recorded at the Mississippi Sheiks’ first session on February 17, 1930 in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Sheiks are Walter Vinson (a.k.a. Walter Jacobs) on guitar and vocal, Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle, and on the second side, Bo Carter on second guitar. It is the Sheiks’ second issued record.
Without a doubt the Sheiks’ greatest success—then as now—is “Sitting on Top of the World”. The Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon accredited composition has subsequently been covered by dozens, if not hundreds of artists, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. After proving to be one of the biggest “race” hits of 1930, the Sheiks followed up with “Sitting on Top of the World No. 2” (Okeh 8854) in 1931 and “The New Sittin’ on Top of the World” (Paramount 13134) in ’32. Bearing no resemblance to the 1926 popular song “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” besides its title, the unmistakable melody of “Sitting on Top of the World”, or a very similar one, was used by quite a number of recordings prior to the Sheiks’ 1930 waxing.
Where exactly and from whom the melody originated is considerably more difficult to pin down than simply citing some of the many songs to use it. Walter Vinson claimed to have written the song after playing for a white dance. Ida Cox recorded “How Long, Daddy, How Long” in 1925 with a like melody, accompanied by Papa Charlie Jackson, the composer credited as “W.H. Jackson”. Leroy Carr made that song famous three years later with his influential “How Long – How Long Blues”, and reused the melody in his “You Got to Reap What You Sow” only two months later. Some have suggested that the Sheiks were introduced to the melody by way of Tampa Red and a song he recorded several times called “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way”, however I am dubious of that prospect; the earliest recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” was cut on January 17, 1931 by one “Sam Hill” from Louisville—apparently a pseudonym for Walter Vinson—for Brunswick records, at the same session as the Sheiks’ offshoot the Mississippi Blacksnakes. Tampa Red made his first recording of the song the following month, with the composer credited as “Sam Hill”. The Sheiks themselves recorded the song later in that year. However, prior to every recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way”, the Atlanta-based fiddler Eddie Anthony recorded the very similar “Everything’s Coming My Way” in December of 1930, with the same melody, borrowing some lyrics from “Sitting on Top of the World”. To complicate matters further, the 1941 Sam Price and his Texas Bluesiscians recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” perplexingly credits Bert Johnson and Spencer Williams as composers.
Contemporaneous to the Sheik’s “Stitting On Top of the World”, a version was cut by Charley Patton, an associate of the Sheiks, only a few months after theirs under the title “Some Summer Day”. Big Bill Broonzy used the popular melody in his two-parter “Worrying You Off My Mind” in 1932, and Robert Johnson too echoed it in his 1936 “Come On in My Kitchen”. Milton Brown introduced the tune into the western swing repertoire with his 1934 recording titled “Just Sitting on Top of the World”, which was in turn covered by Bob Wills and others.
Sitting on Top of the World, recorded February 17, 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.
Though a little worse for wear, owing to a touch of groove stripping, the Sheiks give us some more of their good stuff, with Bo Carter sitting in, on the less well-remembered, but nonetheless excellent “Lonely One In this Town”.
Lonely One In this Town, recorded February 17, 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.
This occasion’s serenade is provided by the obscure but outstanding string duo of Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater, who play here a couple of snappy rag numbers on mandolin and guitar.
Napoleon “Nap” Hayes and Matthew Prater were a pair of black musicians hailing from Vicksburg, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Hayes was likely born in 1885 in West Corinth, Mississippi, and Prater in New Albany in either 1886 or on June 30, 1889. With Hayes on guitar and Prater on mandolin, the two played raggy music in a style not too disparate from that of the Dallas String Band. In February of 1928, they traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to record a total of eight sides for Okeh Records, out of which all but two were issued. Half of those eight featured vocals and violin by Lonnie Johnson (though some sources, including Discography of Okeh Records, cite a different Johnson—T.C. Johnson—who recorded at the same field trip as part of the minstrel-esque trio Johnson-Nelson-Porkchop). Out of those three discs, only one was released in the 8000 “race” series, while the other two were in the 45000 “hillbilly” series. Each record was credited differently, one under their own names as Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater, another as “The Blue Boys”, and one with Johnson as “The Johnson Boys”. Of note, those sides included a piece titled “Easy Winner”, which, despite taking the name of another of his rags, was in fact a take on Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”. That session accounted for the entirety of Hayes and Prater’s recorded legacy, and their later lives are as yet undocumented.
Okeh 45231 was recorded February 15, 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee by Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater. Hayes plays guitar, while Prater takes the raggy mandolin. I picked this record up in a junk shop, and it’s not in the most wonderful condition, but it plays quite well in spite of it. Not bad for a record that made the 78 Quarterly’s list of “The Rarest 78s”!
The duo first play a peppy rendition of Scott Joplin’s 1903 rag “Something Doing”, here styled as “Somethin’ Doin'”.
Somethin’ Doin’, recorded February 15, 1928 by Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater.
As an answer to the first tune, on the flip they play the folk rag “Nothin’ Doin'”, a little bluer—and a little cleaner playing—than the previous side. I’m hearing a bit of Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” interpolated in this tune (“oh-oh, honey what’s the matter now”).
Nothin’ Doin, recorded February 28, 1928 by Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater.
February 10th marks the anniversary of the birth of one of several men who may well have been the father of swing music—the incomparable Chick Webb.
Chick was born William Henry Webb in Baltimore, Maryland. The year of his birth has been disputed, with 1902, 1905, 1907, and 1909 all suggested, though ’05 is the most likely candidate. As a child, tuberculosis of the spine stunted his growth and led to his hunchbacked appearance. His doctor suggested the young Webb take up the drums to help alleviate his condition, so he worked as a newsboy to save up enough money for a kit. By the mid-1920s, he was leading a band in Harlem. After one unissued side for Vocalion in ’27, Webb cut his first record for Brunswick in 1928, issued under the pseudonym “The Jungle Band” (a name usually reserved for Duke Ellington’s recordings on that label). These two Brunswick sides, titled “Dog Bottom” and “Jungle Mama” were stomping hot jazz. In 1931, Webb’s orchestra became the house band of the famed Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, Following a ’31 date with Vocalion, Webb signed with Columbia, waxing thirteen sides in 1933 and ’34, four of which appeared on their subsidiary Okeh label. Two months after completing his final Okeh recordings in July of 1934, Webb signed with Decca, which would last him the remainder of his career. Not too long after beginning his contract with Decca, Webb brought on a new girl singer by the name of Ella Fitzgerald. In a number of “battles of the bands” at the Savoy, Webb and his orchestra bested the likes of Benny Goodman and Count Basie, though he once lost to Duke Ellington’s band. By the end of the 1930s, however, Webb’s condition was catching up to him. Following an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Chick Webb died on June 16, 1939 in his hometown of Baltimore.
Okeh 41571 was recorded on July 6, 1934 in New York City by Chick Webb and his Orchestra. Purportedly, matrices W 152770 and W 152772 were the last masters recorded by the Columbia Phonograph Company before its absorption into the American Record Corporation. Webb’s Orchestra is made up of Mario Bauza, Bobby Stark, and Taft Jordan on trumpets, Sandy Williams and Fernando Arbello on trombones, Pete Clark and Edgar Sampson an alto saxes, Elmer Williams and Wayman Carver on tenor saxes, Joe Steele on piano, John Trueheart on banjo and guitar, John Kirby on string bass, and of course Chick Webb on drums.
First up, baritone Charles Linton delivers a wonderful vocal on Webb’s all-around magnificent rendition of the 1932 “Fats” Waller, Don Redman, and Andy Razaf standard “If it Ain’t Love”.
If it Ain’t Love, recorded July 6, 1934 by Chick Webb and his Orchestra.
Next, trumpet man Taft Jordan performs a Satchmo style vocal on “True”.
True, recorded July 6, 1934 by Chick Webb and his Orchestra.
One of the most commercially successful blues artists of the 1930s, along with the likes of Big Bill, Josh White, and Peetie Wheatstraw, was Blind Boy Fuller, who cut 130 sides—both low down blues and peppy rags—between 1935 and 1940.
The artist who would become Blind Boy Fuller was born Fulton Allen on July 10, 1907 (or 1904, according to some sources) in Wadesboro, North Carolina, one of ten children born to May Jane Walker and Calvin Allen. He learned field hollers and old time songs from his elders, and took up the guitar. As a result of untreated neonatal conjunctivitis, Allen began to lose his sight in his teenage years, and was totally blind by the end of the 1920s. Unable to continue working manual labor, he turned to performance, playing street corners, rent parties, and the like, eventually settling in Durham, North Carolina. There, he developed a following amongst the local musicians, including Bull City Red, Sonny Terry, and Dipper Boy Council, with whom he would later record. In 1935, J.B. Long, manager of the United Dollar Store discovered Allen, and arranged for him to record for the American Record Corporation in New York City as “Blind Boy Fuller”, along with Bull City Red and Rev. Blind Gary Davis. Fuller made his debut in four sessions from July 23 to 26, 1935. He would return to New York seven times, and also travel to Columbia, South Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee, and Chicago, adding up to a total of twenty-three sessions (if my count is correct) between 1935 and 1940 for the ARC, plus two in 1937 for Decca. He was scheduled to appear in John Hammond’s From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938, but was unable to make it, as he was in jail for shooting at his wife (no small feat for a blind man). Sonny Terry substituted for him. Fuller’s health was in decline by the early 1940s, owing to a heavy alcohol intake causing him kidney troubles, and he had his last record date on June 19, 1940, in Chicago. Following a period of infirmity, Fuller died of pyemia on February 13, 1941.
Okeh 05476 was recorded on March 5 and 6, 1940 in New York City by Blind Boy Fuller. On the former, Fuller is accompanied on washboard by Bull City Red (real name George Washington, also known as “Oh Red”). It was originally issued on Vocalion with the same catalog number, and later appeared on Columbia 37230 and 30011 around 1946.
On the first side, Fuller does one of his best remembered rag tunes, the classic boogie number “Step it Up and Go”, with some lively picking on his National Duolian.
Step it Up and Go, recorded on March 5, 1940 by Blind Boy Fuller.
On the flip, he plays a little bluer on “Little Woman You’re So Sweet”, with a tune in the “Sitting On Top of the World” family. If you ask me, these lyrics are nothing to write home about, but the delivery is top-notch!
Little Woman You’re So Sweet, recorded on March 6, 1940 by Blind Boy Fuller.