Columbia 14624-D – Blind Willie Johnson – 1929

Against odds stacked against him, the guitar evangelist and musical visionary Blind Willie Johnson rightly secured his place as a gospel music pioneer and veritable legend in the annals of American music.  While he found neither great fame nor fortune during his life, his rousing religious songs and inspired slide guitar have received much admiration from music lovers, and the convoluted details surrounding his life have inspired much interest from researchers (and as such, some of the facts presented herein are of rather tenuous accuracy) in the decades since.

Willie Johnson was born to “Dock” (variously reported in source documents as Willie, Sr., or George) and Mary Johnson in Pendleton, Texas (though other sources have suggested Independence, some one-hundred miles southeast), in January of 1897; his draft card gave a date of the twenty-fifth, while his death certificate proffered the twenty-second.  He spent most of his life from childhood to adulthood in Marlin, Texas.  His mother died when he was four years old, and his father later remarried.  It is widely believed that Johnson became blind around the age of seven, though the cause of his blindness is not definitively known; the most popular story—based upon an account by his alleged widow Angeline—asserts that he was blinded by lye water thrown by his stepmother during a marital dispute with his father (and accounts differ as to whether the lye was meant for Willie or his father).  A perhaps more plausible theory suggests that he became blind from viewing a solar eclipse which would have been visible from Texas on August 30, 1905, through a piece of broken glass.  No matter the unfortunate circumstance, Johnson found religion and thus aspired preach the gospel.  Inspired by fiddling evangelist Blind Madkin Butler, he learned to play guitar in a distinctive style using a steel ring for a slide to accompany his coarse, false bass singing (though he naturally possessed a pleasant singing voice).  He traveled from town-to-town, playing and singing his religious songs on street corners around the Brazos Valley, sometimes sharing the space with Blind Lemon Jefferson and his blues songs.  Around the middle of the 1920s, Johnson met Willie B. Harris, who would soon become his (possibly second) wife and singing partner, and with whom he would have one daughter in 1931.  He made his first recordings on December 3, 1927—one day after fellow Texas gospel blues man Washington Phillips made his own debut—for Columbia, who had set up a temporary recording laboratory in Dallas, Texas, possibly at the Jefferson Hotel.  His religious songs proved quite successful, some records rivaling the popular Bessie Smith’s blues songs in sales figures.  Ultimately, Johnson had three more sessions in Dallas, New Orleans, and Atlanta, producing a total of thirty issued sides for the Columbia Phonograph Company—plus an additional two unreleased masters credited in the company ledgers to “Blind Texas Marlin”, which are speculated to have been pseudonymous recordings of secular material, or which may have simply been a clerical error—before the crush of the Great Depression curtailed their field recording activity and thus ended his recording career.  Sometime in the 1930s, Johnson left his family in Marlin for the Gulf Coast, where he eventually settled in Beaumount, evidently with a woman named Angeline (with whom he may have had relations concurrent to his marriage to Harris), purportedly the sister of blues guitarist L.C. Robinson.  He continued to sing on street corners in the vicinity, and may have appeared on the radio on KTEM in Temple in the early 1940s, according to an anecdote related by Houston folklorist Mack McCormick, and operated a “house of prayer” in Beaumont.  A decade after his recording career had concluded, John A. Lomax expressed interest in Johnson’s music in an interview with another Blind Willie in 1940, but McTell perplexingly informed the ballad hunter that the gospel singer was dead, according to a letter he had received from Johnson’s wife.  His house in Beaumont reportedly burned in the middle 1940s, and Blind Willie Johnson died on September 18, 1945, from a cause reported as malarial fever.

As with so many of history’s truest luminaries, Blind Willie Johnson’s greatest fame was achieved posthumously.  Only seven years after his demise, Harry Smith included his 1930 recording of “John the Revelator” in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music, presenting Johnson’s music to a new generation of folkies.  In 1977, Johnson’s instrumental “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was selected among the twenty-seven musical recordings included on the Voyager Golden Record, sending the blind pilgrim’s celestial music to an appropriate venue amongst the stars.

Columbia 14624-D was recorded in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 10 and 11, 1929, respectively.  It was not released until October of 1931, making it Johnson’s last issued record.  Reportedly, only 900 copies were pressed, and it is the only of Johnson’s records to be listed in the “Rarest 78s” column of 78 Quarterly, with an estimate of fifteen or fewer copies known to exist (though whether or not it actually is his rarest record is debatable)—this copy, incidentally, appears to match the description of the one which formerly belonged to Mr. Roger Misiewicz.  Blind Willie Johnson sings both sides in his growling false bass voice and eschews his slide in favor of chording the frets with his bare fingers, he is joined by Willie B. Harris on the second side.

On the first side, recorded the former date, Willie sings “Sweeter as the Years Roll By”—an apt title for his final record—a folk interpretation of Lelia Naylor Morris’s 1912 hymn “Sweeter as the Years Go By” (which in fact are the lyrics Johnson sings in the evidently mis-titled song).

Sweeter as the Years Roll By, recorded December 10, 1929 by Blind Willie Johnson.

On the traditional spiritual “Take Your Stand”, Johnson’s vocals are complimented by the soprano of his wife Willie B. Harris.  The song was also recorded by Elders McIntorsh and Edwards in 1928, and by Charley Patton (under the pseudonym “Elder J.J. Hadley”) as the first part of his “Prayer of Death” in June of 1929.

Take Your Stand, recorded December 11, 1929 by Blind Willie Johnson.

Columbia 14333-D – Washington Phillips – 1927

While now regarded alongside the nigh-legendary Blind Willie Johnson as a pioneer of the gospel music genre, snuff-dipping jack-leg preacher from Texas Washington Phillips was once largely forgotten and shrouded by mystery and misconceptions.  Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of folklorists and researchers like Michael Corcoran, Phillips may finally begin to receive the appreciation he has so long deserved.

George Washington Phillips was born on January 11, 1880, near Cotton Gin, Texas, a few miles west of Teague in Freestone County—the very same region that produced pioneering blues luminary Blind Lemon Jefferson—one of at least ten children born to Timothy and Nancy Phillips.  As an adult, he worked for a time as a hotel waiter in Mexia, but soon continued in the family trade of farming, working a strip of land very near the place of his birth in rural Simsboro.  On the side, he found his calling as an itinerant preacher and sanctified singer in local churches and any opportune venues.  In stark contrast to the fire-and-brimstone preaching of contemporaries like Blind Willie Johnson and his fellow guitar evangelists, Phillips’s music was delivered with a gentle touch and kind nature.  More remarkably, Phillips eschewed the guitar in favor of accompanying his singing on an ethereal sounding instrument of rather enigmatic origin, previously thought to have been a toy-piano like zither known as a Dolceola (which may be heard on some of Lead Belly’s 1944 Capitol recordings, played by Paul Howard), but now widely believed to have been an instrument of his own invention which he dubbed a “manzarene”, comprised of two modified tabletop zithers (a celestaphone and a phonoharp) played in tandem, with which he was photographed in 1927.  Possibly owing to an association with Lemon Jefferson, when the Columbia Phonograph Company made their first field trip to Dallas, Phillips made the journey eighty miles northward to record his sacred music.  On Friday, December 2, 1927, directly following a session by the Cartwright Brothers’ cowboy singing duo, Washington Phillips became the first African-American musician, and only the second overall, to be recorded at the field trip.  He waxed a total of six sides that day and the following Monday, and subsequently returned the following two Decembers to record a further twelve (two of which are presumed lost).  Though the sudden onset of Depression curtailed Columbia’s field trips south, Phillips was still in Dallas in 1930, lodging at Wade Wilson’s shotgun house near Oak Cliff, though he eventually returned to the country life in Freestone County.  Locally, “Wash” Phillips was as well known for his mule cart from which he peddled farm-fresh produce as he was for his music, and many of his hometown acquaintances were unaware that he had made records.  Census records indicate that he was married at least twice, first to Anna, and then to Susie.  At the age of seventy-four, Washington Phillips died following a fall on the stairs outside the Teague welfare office on September 20, 1954.

Columbia 14333-D was recorded in Dallas, Texas, on December 5, 1927, possibly at the Jefferson Hotel.  On it, Washington Phillips sings and accompanied himself on “manzarene”.  78 Quarterly estimated “possibly as many as 30 to 40 copies” were extant.

Perhaps Washington Phillips’s best known recording and composition, in “Denomination Blues” he chides various religious sects for their perceived hypocrisy.  Split into two parts, he sings and plays “Part 1” on the first side.

Denomination Blues – Part 1, recorded December 5, 1927, by Washington Phillips.

He concluded the number with “Part 2” on the reverse, turning his attention to the different varieties of “so-called Christians.”  Of Phillips’s limited discography, the song proved particularly influential, being later adapted into the gospel song “That’s All” (for which Phillips received no credit, possibly because the song was believed to be of traditional origin), recorded by artists as diverse as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Merle Travis alike, which rather altered the song’s message by deviating from Phillips’s anti-sectarian “you better have Jesus, and that’s all” theme.

Denomination Blues – Part 2, recorded December 5, 1927, by Washington Phillips.

Paramount 12637 – Ramblin’ Thomas – 1928

Out of the marshlands of northwestern Louisiana, where the Sabine River demarcates the edge of Texas, came Willard Thomas, a rambling character whose mournful singing and sliding steel guitar would epitomize the sound of a world where the blues was all around.

Willard Thomas was born in Logansport, Louisiana, right on the Texas border, around 1902, one of at least eight children of farmers Joel and Laura Thomas.  His father played fiddle and Willard and his two brothers, Joel Jr. and Jesse, took up the guitar.  Thomas purchased a guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalog, which came with a metal slide for playing Hawaiian steel guitar.  Making good use of the hardware, he taught himself to play slide guitar in a rather idiosyncratic style, though also proving to be a fairly versatile player.  Like many bluesmen in the region, Thomas took up in Deep Ellum in Dallas, alongside the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Coley Jones, and Huddie Ledbetter.  He made his way around San Antonio and Oklahoma, where he no doubt encountered other musicians, such as “Texas” Alexander., and reportedly even associated with King Solomon Hill in Shreveport, with whom he shared some elements of musical style.  At some point along the way, he picked up the nickname “Ramblin'” Thomas, attributable either to his style of living or his style of playing, if not both.  Perhaps at the behest of Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had a session around the same time, Dallas music seller R.T. Ashford arranged for Thomas venture to Chicago, Illinois, in February of 1928 for a session with Paramount Records, netting a total of eight titles of which all were released.  He returned to Chicago that November for another seven titles, including a memorable rendition of the blues staple “Poor Boy Blues” (a.k.a. “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home”), and possibly accompanied fellow Texas blues singer Moanin’ Bernice Edwards on another two.  Finally, he made four recordings for Victor in their field trip to Dallas in February of 1932, one of which—”Ground Hog Blues”—bears considerable resemblance to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ in My Back Yard)”, recorded three days earlier at the same sessions; Jesse Thomas would later claim that Rodgers’ Blue Yodel was inspired by his brother’s song.  Willard Thomas reportedly died of tuberculosis around 1944 or ’45 in Memphis, Tennessee.  Outside of his recording career, most details surrounding Thomas’ life remain shrouded in obscurity.  Brother Jesse “Babyface” Thomas also performed fairly prolifically over a lengthy career, recording first in Dallas in 1929, then reemerging after World War II as the “Blues Troubadour” on a number of different labels.

Paramount 12637 was recorded in February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, featuring Willard Thomas singing and accompanying himself on slide guitar.  Be advised before listening that this rare record is in pretty sorry shape.  I’ve tried to get it as listenable as I can with the resources available to me, but it’s about the worst sounding record I’ll ever post on Old Time Blues (I have some dignity, you see).  If your ears can’t stomach the noise, I wouldn’t blame you—you can go on over to YouTube and look it up in better quality (I recommend this transfer).

First, Thomas plays and sings his mournful slide guitar opus, “So Lonesome”, the first title recorded at his first session and one of his best remembered songs.

So Lonesome, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.

On the flip, Thomas sings another outstanding blues of a rather deep shade: “Lock and Key Blues”, his third recorded side.

Lock and Key Blues, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.

Paramount 12354 – Blind Lemon Jefferson – 1926

A crop of the only known photograph of Lemon Jefferson, circa 1926, as was pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues.

The legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson was renowned for traveling far and wide all across the United States, ranging territories far exceeding that traversed by many of his contemporaries.  His journeys broadened his musical horizons considerably wider than most home-bound musicians and brought him into contact with numerous other blues people, whom he seldom failed to impress.  While many of his contemporaries were confined to their region or state, Lemon achieved national fame through his successful recording contract, and toured all around the country.  As such, he impressed his music on a broad variety of different audiences, and conversely incorporated a broad variety of different musical influences into his own style of playing.

While he may not have “walked from Dallas to Wichita Falls,” Lemon was an institution in his native Texas around his local haunts like Central Track (a.k.a. Deep Ellum) in Dallas, and was said to have taken the interurban train from Denison down to Waco, entertaining passengers along the way, sometimes joined by his friend Huddie Ledbetter.  Lemon was well known around such small towns as Mart, Texas—eighteen miles east of Waco—where he would sit on Main Street for hours on end playing his music for passers-by.  He was a staple at country barbecues and picnics, one of which brought him into contact with the eight-year-old Sam Hopkins, who helped guide him around, and it’s said that he became one of the only people Lemon would allow to play with him.  A similar privilege was afforded to young Dallas-native Aaron “Oak Cliff T-Bone” Walker—purportedly the stepson of Dallas String Band bassist Marco Washington, an associate of Jefferson’s—who was indelibly impressed with the elder bluesman’s style of playing.  Josh White, too, claimed to have spent some time as Jefferson’s lead boy for a brief period in his youth.  In Johnson City, Tennessee, Lemon’s playing attracted the interest of white musician Clarence Greene, who was inspired by Jefferson’s virtuoso blues guitar-picking, showing it particularly in his song “Johnson City Blues”.  Probably through his records, Lemon also impressed his style on white musicians Larry Hensley and Debs Mays, who recorded versions of his “Match Box Blues” and “Rabbit Foot Blues”, respectively, in the middle of the 1930s, following Jefferson’s own demise; both imitated Lemon’s style of playing closely.  Travels in Virginia brought Lemon in contact with ragtime guitarists Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay, who introduced young musician Lesley Riddle to him.  Riddle soon after befriended A.P. Carter, and impressed his blues knowledge on the Carter Family in the next decade.  In 1928, while passing through Minden, Louisiana, Jefferson picked up fellow musician Joe Holmes, traveling with him in Texas for a short period.  Holmes eventually traveled to Wisconsin to record for Paramount as King Solomon Hill, and posthumously eulogized his friendship with Jefferson in the song “My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon”.  He was also eulogized by his old friend Lead Belly in at least four different songs, including his 1935 ARC recording of “My Friend Blind Lemon”, and the eponymous “Blind Lemon”, memorably recounted in the 1976 movie about Ledbetter’s life: “Blind Lemon—oh baby—he’s a blind man!  He doin’ all he can—oh baby—’till he’s travelin’ through the land.”

Paramount 12354 was released with two different sets of masters; original pressings use 2472 and 2471, respectively, recorded at Paramount’s studio in March of 1926, this one uses the later takes—1054 and 1053, though the labels were not altered to reflect it—which were electrically recorded at Marsh Laboratories in Chicago, Illinois around May of the same year.  You may note that both labels erroneously give composer’s credit to “Lemons” Jefferson.

Firstly Lemon delivers one of his most successful numbers: “Long Lonesome Blues”, with that hot bit in the middle in which he busts out the lyrics: “hey, mama mama, papa papa ’deed double do love you doggone it, somebody’s talking to you mama papa ’deed double do love you” (or something to that effect) in double time.  Beginning with the lyrics, “I walked from Dallas, I walked to Wichita Falls” (which were later copped by Bob Wills), this song stood alongside “Match Box Blues”—with which it shares many melodic similarities—as one of Lemon’s best known numbers to his audiences back home in Texas.

Long Lonesome Blues, recorded c. May 1926 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

“The blues come to Texas, lopin’ like a mule,” Lemon opens his “Got the Blues”, which in later years lent the verse to title Mack McCormick and Paul Oliver’s magnum opus book on the Texas blues.  Echoes of the song can be heard in subsequent Texas blues songs from Texas Alexander’s “Texas Special” to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Mojo Hand”.

Got the Blues, recorded c. May 1926 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Brunswick 7184 – Gene Campbell – 1930

The enigmatic Gene Campbell was among the most exemplary of the Texas blues musicians to record in the beginning of the Great Depression, yet nothing much is known of the elusive guitarist and singer; he had a more prolific recording career than most of his contemporaries, and in fact bears the distinction of being the only guitar-playing country blues singer recorded by Brunswick in Texas (all others were backed by jazz bands), yet all but very few substantial details surrounding his life and times have been lost to time.

An account related in the early 1960s to the esteemed researcher Mack McCormick by fellow Texas blues musician James “Smokestack” Tisdom—a protégé of Campbell’s—suggests that the singer’s proper name was Willie Gene Campbell and that he hailed from San Antonio and was born around 1902.  Lyrics such as “born in Texas, raised in Texas too” in his “Western Plain Blues” and mention of “Waco, Dallas, Fort Worth, or San Antonio” in his “Don’t Leave Me Here Blues”, further pointed to Campbell’s roots in the Lone Star State.  Queries of public records have as yet yielded no conclusive information regarding Campbell.  He seems to have spent at least a portion of his life drifting across the region of his origin, and it is possible that he at one time belonged, in some respect, to the loose group of songsters and blues moaners known to hang around the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas that included the likes of Ramblin’ Thomas, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Huddie Ledbetter.  It was in Dallas that Gene Campbell made his first two recordings in November of 1929, beginning his rather brief recording career with commanding performances of “Mama, You Don’t Mean Me No Good No How” and “Bended Knee Blues” (Brunswick 7139).  In his work, he demonstrated a strong and smooth singing voice somewhat reminiscent of his contemporary “Texas” Alexander and an idiosyncratic but deft guitar style echoing that of the influential Lonnie Johnson, that may have employed a flatpick.  Many of his songs dealt with the familiar subject matter of woman troubles, and most shared a similar melody and structure, spiced up with a variety of embellishments.  His first record must have impressed the Brunswick people, because the following year, he traveled to their headquarters in Chicago to cut a further ten sides.  Among those ten recorded at his second session was the two-part “Freight Train Yodeling Blues” (Brunswick 7161), which echoed both the themes and melodies popularized by “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, and illustrated Campbell’s variegated repertoire.  When Brunswick returned to Dallas that November, Campbell recorded another four songs.  He returned to Chicago one final time for two days in January of 1931 to make his last eight, resulting in a grand total of twenty-four sides as his recorded legacy, and making him the most prolific of the handful of country blues players to be recorded by Brunswick, and the second most prolific artist in their 7000-series of “race” records, behind only calypsonian Lionel Belasco.  James Tisdom reported that Campbell was still living in the early 1960s and working as a rice farmer in Bay City, but was no longer active as a musician.    Unfortunately, McCormick was not able to locate Campbell if he was indeed still living at that time, and his fate remains undetermined.

Brunswick 7184 was recorded on April 17, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois, at Campbell’s second session.  On it, Gene Campbell sings the blues, accompanying himself on the guitar.

Though you may not be able to read the label, Campbell first sings “Lazy Woman Blues”, imploring his girl that she “must get a job, or [she] must leave.”  The lyrics of this song were closely mirrored seven years later in a song called “Trifling Woman” by Fort Worth blues musician Black Ace (B.K. Turner), further suggesting Campbell’s Texas roots, as well as his influence on fellow artists in the region.

Lazy Woman Blues, recorded April 17, 1930 by Gene Campbell.

On the reverse, he moans another verse of romantic discontent on the rather morose sounding “Wish I Could Die”.

Wish I Could Die, recorded April 17, 1930 by Gene Campbell.