The illustrious “Daddy Stove Pipe” (not to be confused with “Stove Pipe No. 1” or “Sweet Papa Stovepipe”) holds a number of important distinctions; he was one of the earliest male country blues performers to record, he may have been the oldest, and while definitely not the most prolific, he was surely among the longest-lived.
The man ‘neath the stove pipe, Johnny Watson, was reputedly born on April 12, 1867, in Mobile, Alabama. He’s said to have begun his musical life in Mexico around the turn of the twentieth century, playing twelve-string guitar in a mariachi band. Later, he trouped with the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, which produced a fair number of prominent black entertainers of the era, including “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Butterbeans and Susie. By the 1920s, he had taken up performing on Chicago’s Maxwell Street as a one-man band, playing guitar and harmonica and singing. In the spring of 1924, Stove Pipe traveled to Richmond, Indiana, to cut a record at the Starr Piano Company’s “shack by the track” studio. There, he laid down three sides, “Sundown Blues”, “Stove Pipe Blues”, and “Tidewater Blues”, of which only the first two were released. It is evident that he hit the road after his first session, because by the time he recorded again, in 1927, he was in Birmingham, Alabama, where he waxed three more sides (of which, again, only two were issued) for Starr when they brought down their mobile recording unit. This time around, he was billed as “Sunny Jim” and was joined by an unidentified whistler known only as “Whistlin’ Pete”. In the 1930s, Stove Pipe settled down in Greenville, Mississippi with his wife Sarah, who joined him on the remainder of his pre-World War II recordings as Mississippi Sarah, singing and blowing the jug. They made their first records as a duo for Vocalion in Chicago in October of 1931, waxing eight sides, all of which were released this time. They returned to Chicago four years later for another session—which turned out to be their last—this time for Bluebird, yielding four sides, two more records. Sarah met an untimely demise in 1937, and Daddy Stove Pipe took to traveling again, playing with Cajuns in Louisiana and Texas and returning to Mexico. Eventually, he returned to Chicago’s Maxwell Street, and he became known as a fixture there. He was recorded once last time in 1960 by Björn Englund and Donald R. Hill, playing and singing songs such as “The Tennessee Waltz”, producing four tracks which were released on the Heritage label LP Blues From Maxwell Street (later reissued on a number of other labels). Watson contracted pneumonia following a gallbladder operation, and he died in Chicago on November 1, 1963.
Silvertone 4042 was recorded in Richmond, Indiana, on May 10, 1924, and originally released on Gennett 5459. It was also issued on Claxtonola 40335. Unfortunately, it is recorded rather faintly, which causes the harmonica and guitar to be somewhat drowned out by the surface noise on this worn copy, especially near the beginning of each side, though Watson’s vocals are still relatively prominent. I will defend its merits in saying that I have never yet encountered a particularly clean-playing example of these sides.
On the “A” side, Watson plays and sings the delightful “Sundown Blues”. Examination of the contemporaneous photograph depicting Daddy Stove Pipe seated next to an acoustical recording horn reveals him holding an unusual nine-string guitar, with the first, second, and third strings doubled as would be on a twelve-string guitar (as opposed to Big Joe Williams’ unique configuration), which may be the instrument played herein.
On the reverse, Stove Pipe sings his eponymous “Stove Pipe Blues”, another arrangement of “floating” verses. “Got the Stove Pipe Blues [and] I can’t be satisfied.”
Updated with improved audio on February 21, 2023.