Out of all the countless blues musicians whose lives are shrouded in obscurity, it would be rather difficult to pick one about whom less is known than Seth Richard. Indeed, historians like Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc have been able to piece together a small few biographical details, which is more than can be said about some of his contemporaries, but even that remains rather tentative.
Seth Richard was born around 1905, purportedly in North Carolina, whereabouts of Halifax County, though Bedford County, Virginia origins have also been proposed. Likely, he spent his early years in the vicinity of southern Virginia and northern Carolina. Given that all of his recordings were made in the New York and New Jersey and two of his titles reference streets in Newark, New Jersey, it would seem probably that Richard lived a considerable part of his life in that area, but that is purely speculation. As a musician, he was counted alongside Barbecue Bob, Blind Willie McTell, and Lead Belly as one of the handful of blues artists to adopt the twelve-string guitar. He was in New York City in 1928, when he went to Columbia Records to make but a single record, which became a rather decent seller in the “race” catalog. Thereafter, he went silent until late in 1943, when he (probably) resurfaced to cut four sides including the wartime “Gas Ration Blues” under the pseudonym “Skoodle-Dum-Doo”, after one of the songs he recorded for Columbia fifteen years prior, for Irving Berman’s Regis and Manor record labels with a harmonica player known only as “Sheffield” (possibly John Sheffield). Whatever became of Seth Richard after his brief and well spread-apart recording career is unknown.
Columbia 14325-D was recorded on May 15, 1928 in New York City. Seth Richard sings, accompanying himself on twelve-string guitar and kazoo. The DAHR notes takes “2” and “3” as issued for both sides; these are both take “2”.
First, Richard sings the plaintive and eponymous “Lonely Seth Blues”.
Lonely Seth Blues, recorded May 15, 1928 by Seth Richard.
Next, Seth gets wild on his signature song, “Skoodeldum Doo”, a jazzed up adaptation of Papa Charlie Jackson’s “Skoodle-Um-Skoo”.
Skooodeldum Doo, recorded May 15, 1928 by Seth Richard.
Long before the days of so-called “country and western” music, real working cattlemen sang and played their songs out on the range. Regrettably, being so far away from centers of civilization, only relatively little of that authentic cowboy music was fortunate enough to be recorded for posterity before commercial hillbilly music took off. However, a handful of real cowboy singers and musicians did make it into the studio, including the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, founded by former Rough Rider Billy McGinty, which, unlike many contemporaries, would later go on to achieve nationwide acclaim.
The Oklahoma Cowboy Band, directed by Otto Gray, broadcasting from the General Electric station WGY, Schenectady, N.Y. around 1930. Left-to-right: Otto Gray, Rex, Florence “Mommie” Gray, Owen “Zeb” Gray, “Chief” Sanders, Lee “Zeke” Allen, and Wade “Hy” Allen. Pictured in Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, 1930.
Band founder and financier William M. “Billy” McGinty of the Indian Territory was a true cowboy of legendary stature. Born in Missouri on New Year’s Day of 1871, he started out punching cattle at the age of fourteen, on a ranch in Kansas. During those years, he got to know old west legends by the likes of outlaw Bill Doolin and built up a reputation for being able bust any bronc, no matter how tough it were. Following the loss of the Battleship Maine, he went south to join up with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, going on to become a hero at the Battle of San Juan Hill—Roosevelt said of him, “we had no better or braver man in the fights”. When the war was through, he came back home to become a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Sometime in the early 1920s, McGinty founded the Oklahoma Cowboy Band of local musicians around Ripley, Oklahoma. The band made their first radio appearance in 1925 on Bristow, Oklahoma’s KFRU, and their first record for Okeh the following year. McGinty later retired as the band’s manager to focus on his ranch in Ingalls and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, leaving Otto Gray, who raised midget cattle in Stillwater and had previously served as the band’s director, to assume his position and lead the band to great national success. McGinty published an autobiography titled The Old West, as Written in the Words of Billy McGinty in 1937. In his later years, he served stints as president of the Roosevelt Rough Riders Association and the Cherokee Strip Cowpunchers Association. Billy McGinty died on May 21, 1961 at the age of ninety, and was buried in the Ingalls Cemetery.
Okeh 45057 was recorded in St. Louis, Missouri in May of 1926 by Dave Cutrell and McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band (Otto Gray, director). Both the DAHR and Rust and Laird’s Discography of OKeh Records, 1918-1934 place the recordings in Atlanta, Georgia in March of that year, but earlier pressings on the state “Recorded in St. Louis” on the label, and Victoria Spivey made her first recordings on the adjoining matrices in St. Louis on May 11, 1926, likely placing these around that date. The May date is further corroborated by Tony Russell’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942. Although the label credits McGinty’s band as accompanying Cutrell’s vocal on the first side, he is backed only by a single guitar, likely his own. The personnel of McGinty’s Cowboy Band for this session is unknown, but it may include Cutrell. McGinty’s band cut two additional unissued sides that day, the titles and contents of which are lost to time.
Dave Cutrell’s recording of “Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special” holds the distinction of being the first recorded version of the traditional prison song “The Midnight Special”. It was subsequently recorded by Wilmer Watts and his Lonely Eagles for Paramount around April of 1927 as “Walk Right in Belmont”, blues man Sam Collins for Gennett that September, and again by Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band in March of 1929. In the next decade, the song came to be associated with Lead Belly, who made his first of at least five recordings of the song at his second Library of Congress session with John Avery Lomax while still incarcerated at Angola Prison Farm on July 1, 1934. Since then, it has been recorded countless times in a variety of styles and genres.
By many accounts, the song spins a story of a prisoner at Texas’ Sugar Land penitentiary longing to receive a pardon from the governor. The titular Midnight Special was a train that came in the middle of the night to take pardoned ex-convicts away, so as to avoid the threat of extrajudicial action by people in town, and legend had it that if the Midnight Special shone its light on you, you were soon to be pardoned. Cutrell adds two humorous verses of his own mentioning band leaders Billy McGinty and Otto Gray: “Mr. McGinty’s a good man, but he’s run away now with a cowboy band.” and “Now Otto Gray, he’s a Stillwater man, but he’s manager now of a cowboy band.”
Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special, recorded c. May 1926 by Dave Cutrell.
On the “B” side, with fiddle, guitar, banjo, and ‘cello, McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band plays a rousing instrumental of “Cow Boy’s Dream” that puts you right there by the campfire. In my opinion, this side is one of only a few records that capture the mystique of the wide open space of the Old West. It also appears that whoever was typesetting the labels for Okeh that day wasn’t too fond of compound words.
Cow Boy’s Dream, recorded c. May 1926 by Mc Ginty’s Oklahoma Cow Boy Band (Otto Gray, Director).
Riley Puckett in the late 1930s or early 1940s. His most frequently published portrait.
With euphonious singing voice, enticing guitar playing, and a wide and diverse repertoire ranging from old folk ballads to modern pop songs, Riley Puckett, dubbed the “Bald Mountain Caruso” or sometimes “King of the Hillbillies” (an honorific contested by Uncle Dave Macon), was one of the most popular and prolific rural musicians of the pre-World War II era, both solo and as a member of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers.
George Riley Puckett was born either in Alpharetta, Georgia or thrity-five miles away in Dallas on May 7, 1894. He was blinded in infancy by a treatment for an eye infection gone awry, though those who knew him suggested that he could still tell light from dark. Subsequently, he attended the Georgia School for the Blind in Macon, at which Blind Willie McTell would later enroll. Taking up the banjo at twelve and later switching to guitar, Puckett soon made a name for himself at fiddler’s conventions with his playing and singing, his beautiful voice and exceptional range earning him the nickname the “Bald Mountain Caruso”. He was also noted for his unique method of guitar playing, relying on dynamic runs. On September 28, 1922, Puckett made his radio debut with Clayton McMichen’s Home Town Band on Atlanta’s WSB. In February of 1924, Riley Puckett and fiddle player Gid Tanner cut test recordings for Columbia, and in March they pair traveled to New York to record for the first time in two sessions. His “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep” has often been cited as the first “country” record to feature yodeling, a full three years before Jimmie Rodgers made his first records. After those two sessions, boy did the floodgates open; from 1924 to 1931, Puckett recorded nearly two-hundred titles for Columbia, notwithstanding the eighty-five plus he made as a member of the Skillet Lickers, with hits like “My Carolina Home” cementing him as one of their best-selling artists in the Old Familiar Tunes series. After a break from recording during the Great Depression, Riley made his triumphant return in 1934 when he signed with Bluebird, ultimately producing nearly another hundred titles, including perhaps his best known song “Ragged but Right”. A 1937 side venture took him to Decca for a further twelve. Riley also sang on radio stations all around the South and Midwest; by the end of the 1930s, he was singing on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee. After ten sessions for Bluebird, he had his final record date on October 2, 1941 in Atlanta. Riley Puckett died from blood poisoning, the result of an infected boil, on July 13, 1946.
Bluebird B-8621 was recorded on October 1, 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia. Riley Puckett is accompanied by his own guitar and an unknown woman mandolin player. It was concurrently issued on Montgomery Ward M-8885.
First up, Riley sings one of my favorites, a song that got its start in Tin Pan Alley with Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins’ “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” in 1922, which through some twists and turns and lyrical adjustments, found its way—perhaps by way of the medicine show circuit—into Southern folk and blues repertoires as “Nobody’s Business” or some variation on that, seeing recordings by Earl Johnson’s Dixie Entertainers in 1927, Mississippi John Hurt in 1928, and many others. Riley himself recorded it three times, first on an unissued recording for Columbia in 1924, then twice more for Bluebird, in 1935 and—this one—in 1940.
Nobody’s Business, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.
On the flip, Puckett does his version of a popular big band hit of the day, Saxie Dowell’s “Playmates”—the melody of which was lifted from Charles L. Johnson’s 1904 intermezzo “Iola”—and gives a heck of a good delivery to boot. Perhaps I just have my mind in the gutter, but with all the “climb up my apple tree, look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door,” this sure sounds like a lot of double entendre to me!
Playmates, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.
The last time we heard from the “Pride of West Virginia”—our old pal Frank Hutchison—he gave us two fine songs, joined on one by Sherman Lawson on fiddle. Now let’s hear from Frank again with two of his most famous performances, played on slide guitar.
Willis Franklin Hutchison was born most probably on March 20, 1897 in Beckley, Raleigh County, West Virginia, but soon relocated to Logan County. He later dedicated his “Logan County Blues”—a re-working of the tune called “Spanish Fandango”—to that location, in which he spent most of his life. He learned the blues from local black musicians, and was an excellent guitarist, playing in regular style and flat on his lap using a pocketknife as a slide, and also possessed formidable skill on harmonica. Like fellow folk musician “Dock” Boggs, Hutchison made his living as a coal miner, and only musicianed on the side. He was said to have been a large (but slim) fellow with red hair and an extroverted personality, and reportedly walked with a limp, likely a result of an injury in the mines. In September of 1926, Hutchison became one of the pre-Bristol sessions “hillbilly” musicians on records when he traveled to New York City for a session with the Okeh record company, producing in that session but a single disc. That was not to be all for Frank Hutchison however, he returned to the city to record again in January of the next year, producing his notable rendition of “Stackalee” included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and eight other titles. Thereafter, he continued to record for Okeh, in New York and “on location”, until 1929, ultimately leaving a legacy of more than forty recorded sides in all. After the conclusion of his recording career, Hutchison moved from Logan County to Ohio, but soon settled in the small town of Lake, West Virginia, where he worked as postmaster and operated a store. A fire claimed Hutchison’s property in 1942, after which he moved to Dayton, Ohio, reputedly entertaining on riverboats. Frank Hutchison died from liver disease on November 9, 1945. He was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2018, seventy-three years after his passing.
Okeh 45114 was recorded on April 29, 1927 in St. Louis, Missouri by Frank Hutchison. It’s worthy of note that both sides are remakes of his first two sides, which were recorded acoustically on September 28, 1926 and released on Okeh 45064. In my opinion as well as that, I’m sure, of many others, these sides are considerably better and more polished performances than that original record, in addition to being unquestionably superior quality recordings, technically speaking.
First, Hutchison plays what may well be his most famous song, which earned him the scholarly recognition of being one of the earliest white musicians to play the country blues: “Worried Blues”.
Worried Blues, recorded April 29, 1927 by Frank Hutchison.
On the other side, Frank plays another one of his finest, the classic “The Train That Carried the Girl From Town”. “Breakfast on the table, coffee’s gettin’ cold, some old rounder stole my jelly roll.”
The Train That Carried the Girl From Town, recorded April 29, 1927 by Frank Hutchison.
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.