Okeh 05476 – Blind Boy Fuller – 1940

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.

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

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

Little Woman You’re So Sweet, recorded on March 6, 1940 by Blind Boy Fuller.

Oriole 8159 – Joshua White – 1932

In blues and folk music, one figure that stands out among the rest is Josh White, who rose from poverty to become one of the most popular Piedmont blues players of the 1930s, and eventually a major force in the folk music scene of the 1940s.

Joshua Daniel White was born on February 11, 1914 in Greenville, South Carolina, one of four children in a religious family.  When Joshua was a child, his father was beaten severely and later admitted to an asylum after evicting a white bill collector from his home.  Not long after, the young Joshua began acting as a “lead man” for blind musicianer “Big Man” John Henry Arnold, and later for other blind musicians, including Blind Blake, Blind Joe Taggart, and Blind Lemon Jefferson.  While on the road with those accomplished bluesmen, the young White picked up their guitar stylings, and soon became an accomplished player of the instrument.  His talent was recognized in 1928 by Paramount Records’ J. Mayo “Ink” Williams, who hired him to record as a session player, backing up Taggart and white country musicians the Carver Boys.  In the early 1930s, White was tracked down by the American Record Corporation to make records for their budget labels.  His mother allowed him to record for them on the condition that he did not play the “devil’s music”—blues.  White had his first session for the ARC on April 6, 1932, recording both blues and sacred music under his own name and the pseudonym “Pinewood Tom”.  Though only a teenager, White became one of the most popular Piedmont blues musicians of the day, along with Buddy Moss and Blind Boy Fuller.  Early in 1936 however, he was forced to temporarily retire from music after an injury in a bar fight, caused him to lose the use of his left hand.  After a stint as a dock worker and elevator boy, White regained full use of the hand during a card game, and returned to music.  By the 1940s, White’s style had shifted toward folk music, ascending to a status contemporaneous of Lead Belly, and he recorded with the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie with the Almanac Singers, and the Golden Gate Quartet.  He also became an accompanist to torch singer Libby Holman in an unusual pairing.  During those years, White became the closest black friend of the Roosevelts, beginning with their meeting in 1940.  His left-leaning politics gained him trouble with McCarthyism in the late 1940s, harming his career.  Later in life, White was plagued by a worsening painful fingernail condition.  He died of heart failure in 1969.

Oriole 8159 was recorded on April 12, 1932 in New York City by Joshua White, one of his earliest sessions for the ARC.  On both sides, White is accompanied by an unknown piano player.  It was also issued on Perfect 0213 and Banner 32527.

First up, White sings “Lazy Black Snake Blues”, with the eighteen year old singer moaning that “he’s so doggone old.”

Lazy Black Snake Blues

Lazy Black Snake Blues, recorded April 12, 1932 by Joshua White.

On the other side, White sings of woes with his woman on “Downhearted Man Blues”.  A common theme in the blues.

Downhearted Man Blues

Downhearted Man Blues, recorded April 12, 1932 by Johsua White.

Columbia 14222-D – Barbecue Bob – 1927

Up there with Blind Lemon Jefferson in the pantheon of 1920s blues music stands Robert Hicks, better known as Barbecue Bob, an Atlanta native that found fame in the late 1920s as one of the top “race” stars for Columbia records.  Over the course of his short recording career, Hicks waxed sixty-eight sides.

Born September 11, 1902 in Walnut Grove, Georgia, Robert Hicks and his brother Charlie, along with Curley Weaver, learned to play guitar from Weaver’s mother.  While working as a pitmaster at an Atlanta barbecue joint, Hicks was discovered by Columbia records talent scout Dan Hornsby (who also worked as a musician and is known for his association with Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers.)  Taking his recording name from his work, he made his first recording in March 1927, titled “Barbecue Blues”, which may have been named by the Columbia staff to fit his gimmick, as the lyrics make no reference to barbecue in any way.  Hicks went on to record many more sides between then and December 1930, both solo and as part of Georgia Cotton Pickers.  Robert Hicks died from tuberculosis and pneumonia on October 21, 1931.

Columbia 14222-D was recorded June 15, 1927 in New York City by Barbecue Bob, accompanied by his own twelve-string guitar.  The DAHR says that both takes 1 and 2 of both sides were issued, these are both first takes.  These are the first two sides from Barbecue Bob’s second recording session, and his second issues record.  This was probably one of the most successful country blues records of the 1920s.

It is said that the record of “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” was played at Hicks’ funeral in 1931.  The song makes reference to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States.  Beginning in April 1927, the floods caused widespread devastation in the Mississippi Delta, submerging more than 23,000 square miles and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.  The disaster and its widespread effects were chronicled in a number of songs of the era, including this one.  Hicks’ witty songwriting stands out in the line, “Mississippi shakin’, Lou’siana sinkin’, whole town’s a-ringin’, Robert Hicks is singing.”

Mississippi Heavy Water Blues, recorded June 15, 1927 by Barbecue Bob.

Mississippi Heavy Water Blues, recorded June 15, 1927 by Barbecue Bob.

Following a similar structure as the previous song, on “Mamma You Don’t Suit Me!”, Hicks sings of his gal, who drives a Willys-Knight and “doesn’t suit him like his other mama did.”

Mama You Don't Suit Me, recorded June 15, 1927 by Barbecue Bob.

Mama You Don’t Suit Me, recorded June 15, 1927 by Barbecue Bob.

Updated with improved audio on October 14, 2017.