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.

Montgomery Ward M-7085 – Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers/Bolick Bros. – 1936

In the city of New York, on the twenty-sixth of May, 1933, the famous Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, met his untimely end at the age of only thirty-five.  Suffering a fatal pulmonary hemorrhage in his room in the Taft Hotel, he had finally succumbed to the T.B. that had dogged him since 1924.  He had completed his final recording session only two days earlier.

Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers, pictured in the 1937 Bluebird catalog.

In the wake of Jimmie Rodgers’ demise, the spirit of great Blue Yodeler was eulogized in a considerable volume of tribute songs.  Among them, cowboy star and former Rodgers cover artist Gene Autry made a two part record honoring his late inspiration, future Texas governor and senator W. Lee O’Daniel penned another one that was recorded by his Light Crust Doughboys, but surely the most heartfelt of all the tributes was by Rodgers’ own widow, Mrs. Carrie Williamson Rodgers.

It was three years after her husband’s death when she first entered a recording studio, one operated by the same company for whom her husband had made so many records—RCA Victor—set up temporarily in a hotel in San Antonio, the city Rodgers had called home in the last years of his life.  She brought with her a burgeoning young radio singer, one of the legion of devotees of her late husband, whom she had befriended after he contacted her for an autographed picture of the famed singer; his name was Ernest Tubb.  He made six sides at those sessions, his first; she made only one.  Her lone recording was a touching original composition dedicated to Jimmie, with Tubb backing on Rodgers’ famous custom Martin 000-45 guitar, emblazoned with “Jimmie Rodgers” in pearl lettering inlaid across the fretboard, and “Blue Yodel” on the headstock.  The following year, Mrs. Rodgers returned to the microphone with Tubb—and his buddy Merwyn Buffington—accompanying to make one more side: “My Rainbow Trail Keeps Winding On”, only tangentially related to Jimmie.  She bookended her scant recording career many years later, all the way in 1956, when she met with the reunited original Carter Family at the site of the famous Bristol Sessions, where Jimmie and the Carters made their first records, to record “Mrs. Jimmy [sic] Rodgers Visits the Carter Family”, a sequel to 1931’s “Jimmie Rodgers Visits the Carter Family”.  Carrie remained in San Antonio for the rest of her years, and never remarried.  She died there from complications of colon cancer on November 28, 1961, at the age of fifty-nine.

Montgomery Ward M-7085, a split release, was recorded in two separate sessions: the first side on October 26, 1936, in San Antonio, Texas, and the second on the thirteenth of the same month and year in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Side “A” was also issued on Bluebird B-6698, backed with Jimmie Rodgers and Sara Carter duetting on “Why There’s a Tear in My Eye”, and a year or so later on another Montgomery Ward, M-7279, backed with Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers’ only other song.  Side “B” was also released on Bluebird B-6808 with another side by the same artists.

Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers, by her own admission, was no singer, but she succeeded nonetheless in delivering a heartrending performance on her tribute to her late husband: “We Miss Him When the Evening Shadows Fall”.  Whatever she may have lacked in ability, she made up for with sincerity.  Carrie is accompanied, as the label states, “on Jimmie Rodgers’ own guitar,” played by the Blue Yodeler’s posthumous protégé Ernest Tubb.

We Miss Him When the Evening Shadows Fall, recorded October 26, 1936 by Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers.

On the reverse, the Bolick Brothers—Earl, on guitar, and Bill, on mandolin—better known as the proto-bluegrass duo the Blue Sky Boys, deliver an inspirational message in the gospel song “I Believe It”.

I Believe It, recorded October 13, 1936 by the Bolick Bros.

Gennett 5225 – William Jennings Bryan/Westminster Quartette – 1923/1922

Merry Christmas from Old Time Blues!

With 2015 being the first Christmastime we’ve had on Old Time Blues, I think it would be appropriate to start a new tradition, one record to share every Christmas Eve (much in the same way that the fine folks over at Shorpy post that same office party photograph every year). This particular record, made specially by Starr Piano Company for the Christmas season, I think is the perfect one with which to start such a tradition.

Now, on December 25, 2016, 2017, 2018—a whole three years later—Old Time Blues continues in our yuletide tradition of celebrating a very William Jennings Bryan Christmas!

Christmas Greetings from the folks at Gennett Records, and at Old Time Blues!

Christmas Greetings from the folks at Gennett Records, and here at Old Time Blues!

The Lord's Prayer.

Bryan and the Lord’s Prayer, pasted inside the card paper record sleeve.

This record is only one in a series of ten “Christmas Greetings” records issued by the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, for Christmas of 1923; others included Bryan reciting the 23rd Psalm, a recitation of “Always Christmas” by Wilbur D. Nesbit, movie stars Bebe Daniels and Shirley Mason each extending their Christmas greetings, and the same from Mrs. Henry Gennett herself, among other, mostly spoken word, recordings by notable personalities of the day.  The “B” sides of each featured a Christmas song performed by various singers, bands, and vocal groups.

The “A” side of Gennett 5225 was recorded July 3, 1923, at the Gennett studio of the Starr Piano Company in Richmond, Indiana.  The “B” side was recorded in February of 1922, presumably in the same place.

On this very special Christmas Greetings disc, former Secretary of State, three time Democratic Presidential candidate, and esteemed orator William Jennings Bryan delivers a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.  It is one of a handful phonograph recordings made by the orator, others including eleven sides for Victor in 1908, and a couple of others for Gennett made at the same time.  I don’t know about you, but I cherish this rare opportunity to hear the voice of the “Great Commoner” on phonograph record.

The Lord's Prayer, recorded

The Lord’s Prayer, recorded July 3, 1923 by William Jennings Bryan.

On the back of this record, the Westminster Quartette sings a solemn a capella rendition of “Nearer, My God, To Thee”.

Nearer, My God, To Thee

Nearer, My God, To Thee, recorded February 1922 by the Westminster Quartette.

Updated with improved audio on July 6, 2019.