Like old Seth Richard, “Mooch” Richardson is one of the countless blues musicians whose life and times are shrouded in obscurity. He showed up for two sessions while the Okeh company was in Memphis, producing a series of outstanding country blues recordings, then disappeared back into obscurity once they were complete.
Perhaps the only really concrete fact known about “Mooch” is that he was really James Richardson. It has been supposed based upon his “Helena Blues”, that he hailed from Helena, Arkansas. Historian Paul Oliver, in his Barrelhouse Blues: Location Recording and the Early Traditions of the Blues, suggested that Richardson was a pianist, based apparently upon his two-part recording of “‘Mooch’ Richardson’s Low Down Barrel House Blues”, and implying that Richardson played piano on those recordings (though he in fact did not). In February of 1928, Richardson appeared at two consecutive sessions in Memphis for Okeh, resulting in a total of nine recordings, six of which were released. He was backed by Lonnie Johnson either on the latter session or both, accounts differ. Whether or not Richardson was a resident of Memphis is another unknown. Those two record dates serve as the only hard evidence of “Mooch” Richardson, whatever became of him afterward is anyone’s guess (unless they’ve got access to better information than me).
Okeh 8554 was recorded on February 13, 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee. There is question as to whether the guitar accompaniment is played by Richardson himself or by Lonnie Johnson; some sources state that Richardson accompanied himself on his first record date (which produced these two), and Johnson on his second, while others indicate that all of his recordings feature Johnson. To my ear, while the guitar playing sounds a bit more “standard country blues” than Johnson’s usual style of playing—which tended to be heavy on bent notes and elaborate melodic single-string runs—it at the same time could indeed quite plausibly be him; certainly Johnson was a skilled enough musician to play in such a style. The DAHR lists Lonnie Johnson on the first side and Richardson on the second, but both sound to be the same player, and if anything the “B” side sounds more like Johnson than the first. The more I listen to it, the more I think it is Johnson. It’s beautiful playing one way or the other. Contributors to the 78 Quarterly suggested “twenty-five or more” extant copies, with this copy being one of the ones reported (at which time it was in the collection of George Paulus).
First up is the excellent “T and T Blues”, a mostly, if not entirely floating verse song drawing its name from the line “well it’s ‘T’ for Texas, lawd, I got a ‘T’ for Tennessee,” also heard in “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues”, and famously in Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel”, as well as others, including Willie Brown’s “Future Blues”.
T and T Blues, recorded February 13, 1928 by “Mooch” Richardson.
Another floating verse song, Richardson next sings “‘Mooch’ Richardson’s Low Down Barrel House Blues Part 1”. You gotta buy another record if you want to hear part two.
“Mooch” Richardson’s Low Down Barrel House Blues Part 1, recorded February 13, 1928 by “Mooch” Richardson.
The last thing we heard from the East St. Louis blues king Peetie Wheatstraw was a couple of swing-blues sides from the tail end of his career. Now, let us direct our attentions eight years earlier toward the beginning of his recorded legacy.
A cropped version of the only known photograph of Wheatstraw, pictured in Decca catalog.
Though the only known photograph of William Bunch—better known as Peetie Wheatstraw—depicts him holding a National metal-bodied resonator guitar, the artist played piano on the overwhelming majority of his recordings, while guitar was provided by the likes of Charley Jordan, Kokomo Arnold, or Lonnie Johnson. Other times he played nothing at all, only singing and leaving his accompaniment solely to other musicians. But that depiction of Peetie was not entirely inaccurate; it is said that he started out his musical career on the guitar and learned to handle the instrument with proficiency, before switching to piano later on. By the time he made his first records in 1930, he was primarily playing piano, developing a signature formula which he continued to use for the majority of his more than one-hundred-fifty sides. In 1932 however, Wheatstraw had a pair of stand-out sessions which departed from his standard formula. On a recording trip to New York City in March of 1932, Wheatstraw first played piano for Charley Jordan on a series of sides, then Peetie picked up the guitar himself, and, on March fifteenth and seventeenth, he laid down four blues songs unlike any other that he recorded: “Police Station Blues”—later echoed by Robert Johnson in his “Terraplane Blues”—and “All Alone Blues” on the former day, and “Can’t See Blues” and “Sleepless Nights’ Blues” on the latter. Afterward, he returned home to East St. Louis, and didn’t cut another record for two years, by which time he had settled into his formula, and never touched a guitar again, at least on records.
Vocalion 1727 was recorded on March 15, 1932 in New York City. Peetie Wheatstraw sings and plays guitar on both sides. Both sides were also reissued around 1938 to ’39, each on separate records, with the first side appearing on Vocalion 04592 and the second on Vocalion 04912.
First, despite whatever technical limitations Peetie may have had, he dishes out a wonderful performance on “Sleepless Nights’ Blues”, a great classic of equal or perhaps greater merit than his more popular “Police Station”, earning its way into the Yazoo compilation St. Louis Blues 1929-1935, The Depression.
Sleepless Nights’ Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).
Reusing many of the licks heard on the previous side (though actually vice-versa, since this one was recorded earlier), Wheatstraw next sings “Can’t See Blues”. Like his piano playing, Wheatstraw had a very idiosyncratic style of playing guitar (which is to say, he typically followed a very similar pattern in all of the songs he played).
Can’t See Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).
With a repertoire ranging from ragtime to pop songs, the eight songs recorded by the Dallas String Band are incomparable to most anything else on shellac records, and indeed are very difficult to categorize—they’re sometimes characterized as “pre-blues”, but none could technically be classified as blues songs, they bear some resemblance to white Texas string band music, and they’re all listed in Rust’s Jazz Records discography—but they are surely among the most fascinating music ever preserved. It probably wouldn’t be too far fetched to presume that their music bears substantial similarity to rural Afro-American music of the nineteenth century.
A fixture of the Dallas blues scene during the 1920s, playing music that could perhaps best be described as a ragtime-rooted precursor to blues music, the Dallas String Band was primarily made up of vaudevillian songster Coley Jones on mandolin, bassist Marco Washington, and guitarist Sam Harris, with a few transient members joining in occasionally. They were said to have sometimes employed a clarinet or saxophone, occasionally featured trumpeter Polite “Frenchy” Christian, and Blind Lemon Jefferson was also said to have sat in from time-to-time, though none of them ever appeared on any of the group’s records. The band’s repertoire was drawn largely from minstrel, vaudeville, and ragtime traditions, including such songs as “So Tired” and “Chasin’ Rainbows”, as well as popular songs like “Shine” and “Sugar Blues”. Every December from 1927 until 1929, Dallas String Band recorded for Columbia Records when they made field trips to Dallas, ultimately resulting in a total of eight recorded sides—not including side-operations by its members—all of which were released. The group gained posthumous attention when their “So Tired” appeared in Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 motion picture Ghost World.
The band’s leader, Coley Jones, was a prominent figure in the Afro-American music scene of Dallas, Texas in the 1920s, though little is known of his life. He was born most likely in the 1880s, and may have been in Dallas by the turn of the century. As an itinerant musician, playing in medicine show type venues, his repertoire consisted largely of folk songs and old minstrel tunes like “Drunkard’s Special” and “Traveling Man”. In addition to the Dallas String Band, Jones was a member of a jazz band by the name of the Satisfied Five, which also included noted drummer Herbert Cowans, with whom he broadcasted on WFAA and played at the famed Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells. Following his brief recording career—which resulted in a twenty-one sides in total, solo, in duet with Bobbie Cadillac, and with the Dallas String Band—Jones’ whereabouts are largely unknown, and he is presumed to have died in the 1930s. Marco Washington was born on June 30, 1886 in Marshall, Texas. He worked as a porter in a dry goods store in Grand Prairie and served in World War I prior to becoming a full-time musician. He played bass in Henry Williams’ String Band from Marshall before moving to Dallas. Purportedly, he taught his stepson, Dallas native Aaron Walker—also known as “Oak Cliff T-Bone”, later shortened to simply “T-Bone Walker”—how to play guitar and several other instruments. He died in Dallas from complications of hypertension on December 30, 1952. Sam Harris was born in Palmer, Texas, on April 19, 1889. In addition to his musical activities, he worked as a laborer in Waxahachie. His later whereabouts and activities are undetermined.
Columbia 14410-D was recorded on December 9, 1928 in Dallas, Texas. The Dallas String Band is made up of Coley Jones on mandolin and lead vocals, probably Sam Harris on guitar, and Marco Washington on string bass. Rust lists an unknown second mandolin, which Mack McCormick speculated as being Jones’ little brother “Kid Coley”, but I’m not so sure that more than one is present.
On the first side, they play the sublime “Chasin’ Rainbows”. I wouldn’t be exaggerating one bit to place this song easily in my top ten favorite recordings. The song is perhaps better known by the cover version by R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders to audiences outside of, well, R. Crumb (and the few of us out there like him).
Chasin’ Rainbows, recorded December 9, 1928 by the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones.
On the reverse, “I Used to Call Her Baby” is another pleasing raggy number, played this time with a little more pep.
I Used to Call Her Baby, recorded December 9, 1928 by the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones.
Blind Blake was one of the most prolific male blues artists of the 1920s, and one of the most skilled guitarists of all time, yet today details about his life and times are even scarcer than his records. He turned up in Chicago, recorded one-hundred-and-twenty-some-odd sides, both solo and as an accompanist, then disappeared from sight of the prying eyes of history. Even among his contemporaries, Blind Blake seemed to be something of an enigma, though they universally hailed his musical abilities. With all the mystery surrounding Blake, all that is certainly clear is that his virtuosity was second-to-none.
Blind Blake, as pictured in The Paramount Book of Blues, 1927. A cropped version of the only known photograph of him.
Arthur Blake, misidentified by some sources—including Blind Willie McTell—as Arthur Phelps, was born, reportedly, in 1896. Paramount’s 1927 Book of Blues stated that he hailed from “Jacksonville, in sunny Florida,” but his death certificate placed his birth in Newport News, Virginia. Either way, it is probable that Florida served as his home for a large portion of his life. Whether or not he was born blind is also the subject of speculation; the aforementioned Book of Blues suggested as much, but some have proposed that he was born sighted, but or developed his condition later in life (perhaps as a result of some bad bootleg). Purportedly on the recommendation of a Florida record dealer, Blake traveled to Chicago and made his recording debut for Paramount Records in July of 1926, accompanying singer Leola B. Wilson, and cut his first solo record a month later: “Early Morning Blues” and “West Coast Blues” appearing on Paramount 12387. He was noted for his ability to play a guitar like a piano, capable of producing intricate fingerpicked ragtime melodies with a Charleston rhythm—exemplified in such pieces as his tour de force “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown” (Paramount 12892)—and indeed he was also a skilled pianist, though he only demonstrated that ability on one recording: “Let Your Love Come Down”, accompanying Bertha Henderson. Alongside Blind Lemon Jefferson and Papa Charlie Jackson, Blake became one of the most successful male blues artists on Paramount’s roster, and he collaborated periodically with other artists such as Gus Cannon on titles like “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home” and “My Money Never Runs Out” (Paramount 12588 and 12604), Charlie Spand on the stomping boogie-woogie “Hastings St.” (Paramount 12863), Charlie Jackson on “Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It” (Paramount 12911), and jazz clarinetist Johnny Dodds on several sides including “C.C. Pill Blues” (Paramount 12634). Blake concluded his recording career with “Champagne Charlie is My Name” and “Depression’s Gone from Me Blues”, the latter set to the popular melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”, recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin around June of 1932 and released on Paramount 13137. To add further mystery, there is question as to whether the performer of “Champagne Charlie is My Name” actually is Blake at all, or some unknown artist masquerading under his name (personally, I’m under the impression that it probably is Blake, though it is below his usual quality; maybe he was hitting the bottle that day). Not long after that last session, Paramount Records folded, and Blake never recorded again. He remained in Wisconsin in the 1930s, living in Brewer’s Hill in Milwaukee with his wife Beatrice, though he was unable to find work during the hard times of the Great Depression. Blake fell ill with pneumonia in 1933 and died from complications of tuberculosis on December 1, 1934.
Blind Blake’s virtuoso ragtime guitar playing served as a major influence on subsequent generations of blues guitarists, particularly on the style of blues playing that has since come to be associated with the Piedmont, and he exerted a direct influence on more than a few prominent musicians hailing from that region, including Blind Boy Fuller, Josh White, and Buddy Moss, as well as—directly and indirectly—on countless other musicians from around the United States, and even abroad, in the decades since. Renowned guitarist Rev. Blind Gary Davis drew considerable inspiration from Blake, and once mused that he “ain’t never heard anybody on a record yet beat Blind Blake on guitar. [He liked] Blake because he plays right sporty.” In later years, Gus Cannon later recalled that Blake “could see more with his blind eyes than [Cannon] with [his] two good ones.” Georgia Tom Dorsey remembered Blake as “a good worker and a nice fellow to get along with.” Race records executive J. Mayo Williams stated that Blake “liked to get drunk and fight.”
Paramount 12565 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, in November and October of 1927, respectively. It also appeared on Broadway 5053 under the pseudonym “Blind George Martin”. On side “A”, Blake is accompanied on banjo by Gus Cannon, who was recording for Paramount at the time as “Banjo Joe”, and in fact it is Cannon’s first recording. Alas, the record is afflicted by a condition endemic to these Paramounts; though not in particularly poor condition and the music is mostly clear and undistorted, poor pressing quality and decades of less-than-optimal storage have resulted in a high level of surface noise behind the music. To make things worse, both sides were recorded at a rather low volume. As such, both sides are most assuredly audible (and even enjoyable to my desensitized ears), but I apologize for not being able to offer better quality sound.
First, Blake sings the medicine show favorite “He’s in the Jail House Now”, later popularized by Jimmie Rodgers’ two landmark recordings, though I would consider Blake’s version here to be the definitive. Other notable versions of the vaudeville staple were recorded by Whistler’s Jug Band in 1924, Earl McDonald’s Louisville Jug Band in 1927, Jim Jackson in 1928, Boyd Senter’s Senterpedes in 1929, the Memphis Jug Band and Bill Bruner, the latter of which drew both on Rodgers and Blake’s versions, in 1930, Eliot Everett’s Orchestra in 1932, and Billy Mitchell in 1936, not counting outright copies of Rodgers’ rendition by the likes of Gene Autry and Frankie Marvin, and the song remains popular on the roots music scene today, with performances by such artists as Dom Flemons and Pokey LaFarge.
He’s in the Jail House Now, recorded c. November 1927 by Blind Blake.
On the reverse, another of Blake’s best, he shows off his guitar-playing prowess on “Southern Rag”, punctuated by spoken interjections in Geechee dialect. “Now we goin’ on an old Southern r… rag!”
Southern Rag, recorded c. October 1927 by Blind Blake.
Papa Charlie Jackson, as he appeared in the Paramount Book of Blues, circa 1927.
The time has come to pay tribute to one of the greatest and most prolific “songster” musicians to record, as well as one of my own personal favorites: the incomparable Papa Charlie Jackson.
“Papa” Charlie Jackson was born in New Orleans, purportedly on November 10, 1887 and by the name William Henry Jackson. The Paramount Book of Blues described his character as “witty—cheerful—kind hearted,” and armed with a commanding voice and banjo-playing skills to match, he started out playing in tent shows and vaudeville, eventually winding up in Chicago. Rather than the more common guitar or five-string banjo, Jackson opted for the somewhat unconventional six-string banjo-guitar, though he occasionally switched to a standard acoustic guitar. In Chicago, Jackson performed at various local establishments and busked on Maxwell Street. Signed to Paramount Records in the summer of 1924, Jackson became the first male blues artist on the label’s roster—as well as one of the earliest male blues artists to record for anybody—and quickly one of its most successful regardless of sex. In addition to his solo records, Jackson recorded in duet with Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Blind Blake, and Hattie McDaniel on separate occasions, and provided banjo and vocals for jazz bands such as Freddie Keppard’s Jazz Cardinals and Tiny Parham’s “Forty” Five. A few of his songs, notably “Shake that Thing” and “Salty Dog”, achieved huge success. From 1924 until 1930, Jackson recorded around seventy hokum, blues, and folk songs for Paramount, not counting those where he was an accompanist or instrumentalist. Well into the Great Depression and after four years of recording silence, Jackson concluded his recording career with two sessions for Okeh in 1934 yielding two records, followed by one unconfirmed 1935 session for Bluebird backing Big Bill Broonzy. Falling thereafter into a period of total obscurity, Charlie Jackson died in Chicago on May 7, 1938.
Paramount 12296 was recorded around August of 1925 in Chicago, Illinois by Charlie Jackson, singing with accompaniment by his own banjo-guitar.
First up, Papa Charlie sings a little hokum on the classic “Mama Don’t Allow It (And She Ain’t Gonna Have it Here)”, a variant of the timeless “Mama Don’t Allow”, usually attributed to Cow Cow Davenport. Here the composer is credited as William Henry Jackson.
Mama Don’t Allow It (And She Ain’t Gonna Have it Here), recorded c. August 1925 by Charlie Jackson.
Next, Jackson sings his own “Take Me Back Blues”, one of his many compositions. Evidently a popular number, he later followed this tune up with “Take Me Back Blues No. 2” in 1929, issued on Paramount 12797, that time on an ordinary acoustic guitar and with considerably less energy.
Take Me Back Blues, recorded c. August 1925 by Charlie Jackson.