Champion S-16443 – Luke Baldwin – 1931

One of the outstanding folk song spinners of the 1930s was the “Dixie Songbird”, Bill Cox.  In spite of his innocuous nickname, Cox’s repertoire consisted largely of topical songs about hot-button issues of the day, including “The Trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann” (about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping), “The Fate of Will Rogers and Wiley Post”, and “N. R. A. Blues”.

William Jennings Cox was born in Eagle, West Virginia (some sources claim Kanawha County, Kentucky) on August 4, 1897.   In his youth, he took up the harmonica, and guitar, both of which he came to play with proficiency.  In 1927, Cox reportedly made his professional debut on WOBU radio in West Virginia, performing as the “Dixie Songbird,” a moniker which he retained throughout his musical career.  Two years later, in 1929, Cox ventured to Richmond, Indiana to cut his first records for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett Records (and their subsidiary labels such as Champion, Supertone, and so forth).  Like many of his contemporaries, his earliest recordings were covers of songs by Jimmie Rodgers, but he soon branched out into making renditions of old folk songs and his own original compositions.  Cox continued to record for Gennett until around 1931, and after an apparent hiatus, resumed his recording career in 1933 for the American Record Corporation, with whom he remained until he retired from recording.  On many of these records, he was accompanied by fellow West Virginian Cliff Hobbs.  Under the ARC, Cox’s records were issued on Conqueror, Perfect, Melotone, Oriole, Banner, Vocalion, and later Okeh.  After retiring from recording in 1940, Cox fell on hard times, and was discovered destitute and living in a converted chicken coop in 1966.  The following year, he recorded an album that would be his swan song.  Bill Cox died on December 10, 1968.

Champion S-16443 was recorded on August 17, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana by Bill Cox, released under the pseudonym Luke Baldwin.  He is accompanied by his own guitar.  It sold a total of only 301 copies!  It was also issued on Superior 2833 (which appears to have sold only 55 copies, if my interpretation of George Kay’s Superior Catalog is correct, and if it is indeed accurate), and later reissued with the sides split up, with “In 1992” on Decca 5497 and Champion 45093, and with “I Found You Among the Roses on Champion 45106 and Montgomery Ward 4942.

Cox plays harmonica on own composition “I Found You Among the Roses”, set to the tune of Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern’s “My Mother Was a Lady”, or at least Jimmie Rodgers’ recording of it, which is likely where Cox found his inspiration.  Please note that this is an entirely different song than the 1916 George B. Pitman song of the same name as recorded by the Carter Family.

I Found You Among the Roses

I Found You Among the Roses, recorded August 17, 1931 by Luke Baldwin.

On the “B” side, Cox predicts the future on “In 1992”, a novelty song penned by musical duo Arthur Fields and Fred Hall.

In 1992

In 1992, recorded August 17, 1931 by Luke Baldwin.

Okeh 05476 – Blind Boy Fuller – 1940

One of the most commercially successful blues artists of the 1930s, along with the likes of Big Bill, Josh White, and Peetie Wheatstraw, was Blind Boy Fuller, who cut 130 sides—both low down blues and peppy rags—between 1935 and 1940.

The artist who would become Blind Boy Fuller was born Fulton Allen on July 10, 1907 (or 1904, according to some sources) in Wadesboro, North Carolina, one of ten children born to May Jane Walker and Calvin Allen.  He learned field hollers and old time songs from his elders, and took up the guitar.  As a result of untreated neonatal conjunctivitis, Allen began to lose his sight in his teenage years, and was totally blind by the end of the 1920s.  Unable to continue working manual labor, he turned to performance, playing street corners, rent parties, and the like, eventually settling in Durham, North Carolina.  There, he developed a following amongst the local musicians, including Bull City Red, Sonny Terry, and Dipper Boy Council, with whom he would later record.  In 1935, J.B. Long, manager of the United Dollar Store discovered Allen, and arranged for him to record for the American Record Corporation in New York City as “Blind Boy Fuller”, along with Bull City Red and Rev. Blind Gary Davis.  Fuller made his debut in four sessions from July 23 to 26, 1935.  He would return to New York seven times, and also travel to Columbia, South Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee, and Chicago, adding up to a total of twenty-three sessions (if my count is correct) between 1935 and 1940 for the ARC, plus two in 1937 for Decca.  He was scheduled to appear in John Hammond’s From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938, but was unable to make it, as he was in jail for shooting at his wife (no small feat for a blind man).  Sonny Terry substituted for him.  Fuller’s health was in decline by the early 1940s, owing to a heavy alcohol intake causing him kidney troubles, and he had his last record date on June 19, 1940, in Chicago.  Following a period of infirmity, Fuller died of pyemia on February 13, 1941.

Okeh 05476 was recorded on March 5 and 6, 1940 in New York City by Blind Boy Fuller.  On the former, Fuller is accompanied on washboard by Bull City Red (real name George Washington, also known as “Oh Red”).  It was originally issued on Vocalion with the same catalog number.

On the first side, Fuller does one of his best remembered rag tunes, the classic boogie number “Step it Up and Go”, with some lively picking on his National Duolian.

Step It Up and Go

Step it Up and Go, recorded on March 5, 1940 by Blind Boy Fuller.

On the flip, he plays a little bluer on “Little Woman You’re So Sweet”, with a tune in the “Sitting On Top of the World” family.  If you ask me, these lyrics are nothing to write home about, but the delivery is top-notch!

Little Woman You're So Sweet

Little Woman You’re So Sweet, recorded on March 6, 1940 by Blind Boy Fuller.

Vocalion 1094 – Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas” – 1927

An  advertisement for “Cottonfield Blues”, as reprinted in The Devil’s Music, 1976.

One of the great figures of country blues, one of those who have attained a near legendary status, is Henry Thomas, also known by the nickname “Ragtime Texas”.  One of the oldest rural black musicians to record (though not the oldest—Daddy Stovepipe was born seven years earlier), Thomas predated contemporary songsters like Jim Jackson, Lead Belly, and Charley Patton as well as many fellow Texas musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and “Texas” Alexander.

Henry Thomas was born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas, one of nine children in a family of sharecroppers; his parents were former slaves.  In his youth, he determined that he was not to live his life as a farmer, and turned to the life of a songster.  He left his home around the time he was sixteen, and lived the life of a hobo and itinerant musicianer.  Thomas learned to play the “quills” (an instrument much like panpipes), and later the guitar to accompany his singing.  Like any songster worth his salt, Thomas learned to play a variety of styles from minstrel songs, to folk ballads and blues, to rags and dance tunes.  His music earned him the hobo nickname “Ragtime Texas”.  On the Texas & Pacific and M-K-T lines, Thomas hoboed all around Texas and the South (much of which he outlined in his “Railroadin’ Some”), bringing his music with him and expanding his repertoire all the way.  He sang of his home state of Texas, of his life as a hobo, and plenty more.  His travels likely brought him to the World’s Fairs of Chicago and St. Louis in 1893 and 1904, respectively.  In 1927, Thomas traveled to Chicago to cut a record for Vocalion, recording four sides, of which three were released.  Over the following years, he returned to Chicago for five further sessions, netting a total of twenty-three titles from 1927 to 1929.  Little to none of what happened after his final recordings is known.  Many sources claim that he died in 1930, but others claimed to have seen him in Houston in 1949, and around Tyler, Texas in the 1950s.  Long after the end of his life, Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” served as the primary inspiration for the band Canned Heat’s 1968 famous hippie anthem “Going Up the Country”.

Vocalion 1094 was recorded on June 30, 1927 (other sources suggest a date of April 19 or July 5 of the same year) in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Henry Thomas’ first issued record, and, aside from an unissued cut of “The Fox and the Hounds”, his first recorded sides.

First, Thomas sings and whistles his fantastic rendition of the perennial folk ballad “John Henry”, putting his own unique spin on the tale of the legendary steel driving man.

John Henry

John Henry, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.

Turn the record over and Ragtime Texas next delivers a driving performance on “Cottonfield Blues”, bearing some musical resemblance to the “Hesitation Blues”.  Unusual as Thomas music is—what with the quills and the droning guitar—I can’t get enough of it.  It’s truly entrancing, wondrous music!

Cottonfield Blues

Cottonfield Blues, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.

Victor 21291 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1928

“Thumbs Up—On the Spot.”  Jimmie Rodgers donning his brakeman attire for a famous studio pose.  Circa 1930.

This is the first Jimmie Rodgers record I ever owned, I picked it up at a little record store down in Austin that unfortunately no longer bothers stocking 78s.  I hadn’t been collecting for long at the time—mostly I just had a bunch of records inherited from my great-great-grandfather and some junk from used bookstores—and that was one of my first forays into record stores to look for 78s.  My musical knowledge wasn’t so vast then, but I’d heard Jimmie’s “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)” and I wanted to find a copy of that one.  When I picked up this one, I couldn’t really recall which number of Blue Yodel that one was, and I hoped this one might’ve been it.  I took it to the listening station in the store, and it wasn’t, but that was okay, it was only $3.99, and I wanted it anyway.  When I got home, I listened to it over and over and—though the sound was a little rough, especially on the cheap equipment I had at the time—I fell in love with both sides just the same as I had with “Mule Skinner Blues”, and so began my quest to find more.

Victor 21291 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on February 15 and 14, 1928, respectively.  It was issued that June and remained in the catalog until 1936.  Jimmie Rodgers is accompanied by his own guitar, and by Ellsworth T. Cozzens on steel guitar on the “A” side and on ukulele on “B”.

On the “A” side, Jimmie sings the second installment in his Blue Yodel series, “Blue Yodel No. II (My Lovin’ Gal, Lucille)”.  I’d argue it’s one of his best, but then, aren’t they all?

Blue Yodel No. II (My Lovin’ Gal, Lucille), recorded February 15, 1928 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the “B” side is another of Singing Brakeman’s classics, his eponymous “The Brakeman’s Blues (Yodeling the Blues Away)”.

The Brakeman’s Blues (Yodeling the Blues Away), recorded February 14, 1928 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Updated with improved audio on July 6, 2017.

Asch A 345 – The Wayfaring Stranger – 1944

On June 14, we commemorate anniversary of the birth of Burl Ives, star of stage, screen, radio, and records.

"The Wayfaring Stranger" by Burl Ives. Cover photograph bu Gjon Mili.

“The Wayfaring Stranger” by Burl Ives. Cover photograph bu Gjon Mili.

Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives (what a name) was born on June 14, 1909 near Hunt City in rural Illinois, one of seven children of Scots-Irish farmers Levi and Cordelia Ives.  As a child, while singing in his mother’s garden, he was discovered by his uncle, who invited him to sing at his old soldiers reunion.  Ives made his first recording in 1929, a test for the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, makers of Gennett Records, though no record was issued, and the masters were destroyed.  After dropping out of college, Ives hoboed across the states as an itinerant folk songster during the Great Depression.  He began appearing on Terra Haute, Indiana’s WBOW around 1931, and in 1940, began hosting a radio show of his own, called The Wayfaring Stranger.  In 1938, he made his Broadway debut in Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse.  After working with the left leaning Almanac Singers in the early 1940s, Ives was drafted into the United States Army in 1942, receiving a medical discharge the following year.  Ives began his long career in motion pictures, appearing in the 1946 Western Smoky as a singing cowboy.  In the early 1950s, Ives was blacklisted as a suspected communist, and testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Throughout the 1950s onward, he continued to have a prolific career in music and pictures.  In 1964, he made his most enduring appearance in the Rankin/Bass television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, narrating the program as Sam the Snowman.  Burl Ives died of cancer on April 14, 1995, at the age of eighty-five.

Asch album A 345 was recorded in 1944 and edited by Alan Lomax.  Try as I might, I can’t seem to locate a source giving the exact date.  Going by the matrix numbers, I’d venture it was recorded sometime early in that year, January or February, possibly even late in 1943.  It was re-issued on the Stinson label in 1947.

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