One of the great heroes of the country blues (one of R. Crumb’s Heroes of the Blues, at least) is Peg Leg Howell, a musician holding the great distinction of being among the earliest male country blues artists to make records.
Joshua Barnes Howell was born on a farm in Eatonton, Georgia on March 5, 1888, placing him in an older generation of blues songsters to record, alongside the likes of Lead Belly, Jim Jackson, and Henry Thomas. He learned to play guitar when he was twenty-one, but continued to work on the farm until his disgruntled brother-in-law blew off his right leg with a shotgun (hence the nickname “Peg Leg”). Thereafter, Howell found work in a fertilizer plant, and later began running bootleg liquor, which landed him in jail in 1925. After he got out, an A&R man for Columbia Records heard him playing on Decatur Street in Atlanta, and he was invited to cut a record while they were in town. He recorded a total of four sides on November 8, 1926, amounting to two records. Howell returned to the Columbia microphone for a further seven sessions between April of 1927 and April of 1929 when the company made field trips to Atlanta, making for another eleven solo sides, eight with his “Gang” consisting of Howell with fiddler Eddie Anthony and guitarist Henry Williams, four with mandolin player Jim Hill, two with Anthony alone, and another two with another fiddler who may have been Ollie Griffin. He probably also appeared on two additional sides accompanying Waymon “Sloppy” Henry on Okeh in August of ’28, and may have been the unidentified “Tampa Joe” to Eddie Anthony’s “Macon Ed” on another eight sides; if so, it would stretch Howell’s recording career another year into December of 1930. Following his last record date, Howell continued to play around Atlanta, and went back to bootlegging. Howell laid his guitar down in 1934 following the death of his friend and frequent musical collaborator Eddie Anthony, and he returned to bootlegging liquor. In 1952, his other leg was lost to “sugar diabetes.” Howell was rediscovered eleven years later by a trio of young blues aficionados and researchers—George Mitchell, Roger Brown, and Jack Boozer—who convinced him to make a few more recordings. After a little practice to get himself back in playing condition, Howell recorded ten final sides for a Testament LP in 1964, including several “re-does” of his old 1920s recordings. Peg Leg Howell died in Atlanta on August 11, 1966, at the age of seventy-eight.
Columbia 14194-D was recorded on November 8, 1926 in Atlanta, Georgia by “Peg Leg” Howell, accompanying himself on the guitar. These are Peg Leg Howell’s first two recorded sides, and his second issued record.
First up, Peg Leg sings and plays in Spanish (open G) tuning on the classic “Coal Man Blues”, his first recorded side, and one of his best in my book. This was one of the ten sides Howell re-recorded in his old age.
Coal Man Blues, recorded November 8, 1926 by “Peg Leg” Howell.
Next, Howell’s “Tishamingo Blues” bears an early utterance of those immortal words “I’m goin’ to Tishomingo to have my hambone boiled; these Atlanta women done let my hambone spoil,” that have come to pervade the blues vernacular from Cab Calloway to Milton Brown, albeit with “Tishomingo” changed to “Chicago” and “Cowtown”, respectively. Note that while this song is almost entirely different from Spencer Williams’ 1917 “Tishomingo Blues”, it does recycle Williams’ “I’m going to Tishomingo; because I’m sad today” lyric.
Tishamingo Blues, recorded November 8, 1926 by “Peg Leg” Howell.
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—Bo Carter, Lonnie Chatmon, and Walter Vinson—pictured in the 1937 Bluebird catalog.
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.
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).
The incomparable Blind Lemon Jefferson truly was an artist without parallel. Having cut his first disc in 1925 or ’26, he was one of the earliest male country blues musicians to record, and the success of his records paved the way for more blues artists to have their music immortalized in wax. His peculiar yet virtuosic style of singing and guitar playing set him apart from all his contemporaries, and caused him to be seldom imitated (and interestingly, many of his early imitators were white; see Larry Hensley, Roy Shaffer). Considering both the quality and originality of his work, as well as the volume of his output, it would seem fair to consider Blind Lemon Jefferson one of the greatest heroes of the Texas blues.
Blind Lemon Jefferson, as pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues, 1927.
Like so many early blues people, much of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s life is shrouded in mystery. He is usually said to have been born in September 24, 1893, though he claimed a date of October 26, 1894, himself. July of 1897 has also been proffered by some sources, and his obituary suggested he was born about a decade earlier. He learned to play guitar in his childhood or teens. As an adult, he weighed about two-hundred-fifty pounds, and has been described as a snappy dresser, always wearing a John B. Stetson hat and a box-back suit from the Model Tailors in Dallas, and conversely as “fat, and a slovenly dresser.” Lemon reported his profession to census takers in 1920 as a musician, his employer the “general public,” and outside of music he was said to have worked as a wrestler in Dallas. He played and sang at functions around Freestone County and on street corners, honky tonks, and bordellos in Dallas, most notably on the east end of Elm Street called Deep Ellum, and even on the interurban railway that ran from from Waco north to Denison. He was known to have worked with Lead Belly, and may have also associated with Washington Phillips and the Dallas String Band. Like fellow Paramount artists Charley Patton and Blind Blake, only one published photograph of Lemon is known to exist (though at least one phony has been reputed as a second one, and there may well be another authentic but unpublished one in private hands).
As with his life, there is much legend surrounding the demise of Blind Lemon Jefferson. It’s known that he died on a cold winter day in Chicago—around ten o’clock in the morning on December 19, 1929. Some claim that he was poisoned by a jilted lover (much like the fate that befell Robert Johnson some nine years later). Others have supposed that he was robbed of a royalty payment and murdered by a guide hired to help him find his way to the train station. More reliable accounts suggest that he either died of a heart attack in his car and was abandoned by his driver, or became disoriented trying to find his way through a snowstorm and died from hypothermia. His death certificate stated “probably acute myocarditis,” supporting the heart attack hypothesis. In any event, Paramount Records paid for his body’s return to Texas by train, accompanied by Texas piano man Will Ezell, to be buried in the Wortham Negro Cemetery (now called the Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery). His funeral was reportedly attended by two or three hundred people, both black and white. Lemon’s passing inspired a small wave of tributes, and Paramount released a memorial record in his honor, featuring Walter and Byrd singing “Wasn’t it Sad About Lemon” and Rev. Emmett Dickinson’s sermon on the “Death of Blind Lemon”, comparing Jefferson to Jesus Christ. Had Lemon survived into the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, his impact would likely have been enormous. Today, Lemon’s grave marker (placed in 1997) bears the epitaph “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you; see that my grave is kept clean.”
The tombstone of Blind Lemon Jefferson in Wortham, Texas, as it appeared eighty-eight years and one day after his death. Kept clean at the time, as it were.
Paramount 12608 was recorded around February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois by Blind Lemon Jefferson. It also appeared on Broadway 5059, though I’m not certain whether or not anyone has ever seen one of those, I know I haven’t. It was released that March or early April, and first advertised in the Chicago Defender on April 7, 1928.
Now, I ordinarily prefer not to make posts honoring artists on the anniversaries of their deaths, but rather to celebrate their lives; under the circumstances however, this record seems an appropriate case to make an exception, for it contains Lemon’s legendary “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”. This song, together with “Match Box Blues” and “That Black Snake Moan” could be viewed as a sort of triumvirate of Lemon’s most famous and perhaps most influential songs. A folk song sometimes known as “Two White Horses in a Line” or (in later years) “One Kind Favor”, Lemon first recorded the song in October of 1927, issued on Paramount 12585, backed with “He Arose from the Dead” under his sanctified pseudonym “Deacon L.J. Bates”. That version was pulled soon after release and replaced with “Where Shall I Be”, while Lemon recorded a new version of “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” several months later, which saw release under his own name on the record you see and hear here. Son House used the melody for his “Mississippi County Farm Blues”, which he recorded for Paramount in 1930, and many others have since performed and recorded Jefferson’s original. In 1934, John A. Lomax recorded a bottleneck guitarist named Pete Harris singing the song in Richmond, Texas under the title “Blind Lemon’s Song”, demonstrating the impact of Jefferson’s recording, and in 1952, Harry Smith included the song in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music.
See That My Grave is Kept Clean, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
On the reverse, technically the “A” side, keeping with the rather morbid theme, Lemon sings “‘Lectric Chair Blues”, another excellent blues, even if it lacks the same grandeur as the previous one. The original Chicago Defender advertisement said of the song: “Salty tears—wet tears—big, round tears—all kinds of tears and heart throbs, and you should put yourself in his place to feel just as blue. ‘Lectric chair is the next place he’s gonna sit down in, and he ain’t tired either, so he don’t wanta sit down.”
‘Lectric Chair Blues, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
One of the most dominant figures in jazz music in the 1920s—alongside the likes of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson—was Clarence Williams, who had his finger in just about every pie there was in the world of music for more than a decade in the 1920s and ’30s.
Clarence Williams was born on October 8, 1893 (though some sources suggest 1898, it has been suggested that that was fabricated for “vanity” purposes), in Plaquemine, Louisiana, of Creole and Choctaw descent. He began singing and playing piano at a young age, and ran off to join Billy Kersand’s minstrels at the age of twelve. He later settled in New Orleans, where he played professionally, and began composing songs, starting a music publishing company with fellow jazz musician Armand J. Piron. A few of his many noted compositions include “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home”, the “Royal Garden Blues”, and “Shout, Sister, Shout”. Williams and Piron later started a touring vaudeville act, which brought him in to contact with W.C. Handy, who invited to duo to join him in an Atlanta concert. In 1921, Williams moved to Chicago and opened a music store, and the following year married blues singer Eva Taylor, with whom he frequently collaborated. Williams first recorded a pair of vocal sides for Okeh in September of 1921, which were unissued, but he soon followed with more successful session the next month, producing four recordings, all of which were released. From then on, he recorded extensively, often as an accompanist for blues singers, such as Bessie Smith or his wife Eva Taylor, or as leader of studio groups such as his “Blue Five”, “Washboard Band”, “Jug Band”, or “Jazz Kings”. The bulk of his recordings were made for Okeh, Columbia, and Vocalion, but he also appeared on Bluebird, Brunswick, and numerous other labels. During the 1920s, Williams was supervisor of “race” records for Okeh. With his hand in virtually every facet of the music industry, Williams became one of the most commercially successful and influential people in jazz. He continued to record fairly prolifically throughout the 1930s, up until his retirement in 1943, at which point he sold his back-catalog to Decca Records. Clarence Williams died in Queens, New York on November 6, 1965. He was survived by his wife, Eva Taylor, who passed in 1977.
Brunswick 7000 was recorded on March 8, 1927 in New York City. It was the first record released in Brunswick’s 7000-series of “race” records, before their signature “lightning bolt” styled label was introduced. Williams’ Washboard Band was made up of Ed Allen on cornet, Carmelo Jari (or Jejo) on clarinet, Clarence Williams on piano, and Floyd Casey on washboard. Clarence Lee sings the vocals. Different takes of both sides were released on Vocalion 1088.
First up is the train-themed “P.D.Q. Blues”, played slow.
P.D.Q. Blues, recorded March 8, 1927 by Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band.
Next, they play a stomp, the “Cushion Foot Stomp”, to be precise.
Cushion Foot Stomp, recorded March 8, 1927 by Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band.