Columbia 14194-D – “Peg Leg” Howell – 1926

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.

Musicraft 31 – Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly – 1939

In 1942, Woody Guthrie purchased a copy of Negro Sinful Songs, the Musicraft record album by his friend and colleague Lead Belly, as a gift for his wife.  A true poet, he inscribed at follows:

The gift I’d buy, had to be better than perfume and stronger than metal.  It had to be the simplicity of a whole people and the dignity of a race, the honesty of a saloon and the frenzy of a church.  So when I heard Lead Belly’s voice on these records, I thought here is the surprise I’ve been looking for.  Surprise!

Now, as Guthrie honored his wife with the album, we pay tribute to the man himself: Huddie Ledbetter—the legendary Lead Belly.  I’d pursued this set for quite a long while.  It didn’t come cheap, but I have to say, hokey as it might sound, I really am profoundly moved by these records.  I hope that you will be, too.

Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly.  Later pressings switched to a (less evocative) design featuring a portrait of Lead Belly, rather than this one of black sharecroppers.

The exact date and year of Huddie William Ledbetter’s birth are uncertain—the date is most often given as January 20, believed to have been in 1888 or ’89 (the latter is officially offered by the Lead Belly Foundation), January 29, 1885 has also been suggested—but it is known that he was born on the Jeter Plantation in northwestern Louisiana, close to Mooringsport, the son of sharecroppers Wesley and Sallie Ledbetter.  When Huddie was five years old, the Ledbetters bought a piece of land in East Texas and moved across the state border, starting a farm of their own.  His first instrument was the accordion (or “windjammer” as he called it), and his uncle Terrell introduced him to the guitar not long after.  By the turn of the century, Huddie was an accomplished musicianer.  When his father would travel into Shreveport to sell their crops, Huddie would “put on long pants” and go down on Fannin Street to play his music.  He set out on his own in his early twenties, making his living as an itinerant songster.  In the early part of the 1910s, Ledbetter was in Dallas, playing the blues with Blind Lemon Jefferson in Deep Ellum.  He reportedly became enamored with the twelve-string guitar after seeing a Mexican musician performing with one.

In 1918, Ledbetter killed a man in a fight over a woman in Dallas (he was later quoted as saying, “a man tried to cut my head off.”), and was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment in Huntsville, Texas.  With no possibility for parole, he wrote a song to Governor Pat Neff, appealing for a pardon—”[If I] had you, Governor Neff, like you got me, I’d wake up in the morning and I’d set your free.”  In his final days in office, Neff granted his pardon on January 15, 1925, Ledbetter having served six years, seven months and eight days of his sentence.  In 1930 however, Ledbetter was back behind bars after a fight with three white men in Mooringsport, Louisiana.  The sheriff saved him from a lynch mob, but he was sentenced to five-to-ten years at Angola Prison Farm   At some point during one of Ledbetter’s prison stays, he acquired the nickname “Lead Belly”.  Exactly how it came to be is uncertain, but the name stuck, and he used throughout all of his professional musical career.  Three years into his sentence at Angola—in July of 1933—the prison was visited by John Avery Lomax and his son Alan, who were traveling the South with a trunkload of recording equipment to capture the folk music of America for the Library of Congress.  There, they captured Lead Belly’s voice on record for the first time.  Lomax returned the following year, eager to record Lead Belly’s extensive repertoire of folk songs; Lead Belly was eager to find someone to deliver his petition for a pardon to Governor O.K. Allen.  Following his release, Lead Belly returned to John A. Lomax, asking that he allow him to assist in his travels, lest his release be rescinded.  Lomax obliged, and Lead Belly accompanied him in his travels from September until the end of 1934.

Lomax, with Lead Belly along, arrived back in New York City around the New Year of 1935, and Lead Belly achieved notoriety, appearing in a March of Time newsreel and radio program made in celebration Lomax’s greatest discovery.  Ledbetter married his sweetheart, Martha Promise, that January, and she became his manager.  Days later, he made his first commercial recordings for American Record Corporation; he was introduced to their A&R man Art Satherly by recording artist Tex Ritter.  From the twenty-third to the twenty-fifth of January, the fifth of February, and twenty-fifth of March of 1935, Lead Belly cut more than forty sides for the ARC, of which only three records (six sides, that is) were released.  Those issued were all blues sides, rather than his folk songs.  These “race records” didn’t prove too popular with black listeners, who by that time were more interested in modern artists like Big Bill Broonzy than Lead Belly’s country blues, and they sold rather poorly.  That March, Lead Belly accompanied Lomax on a lecture in colleges across New England.

A full color spread of Lead Belly, as published in Life magazine on April 19, 1937.

The day after his final ARC session, Lead Belly left for Louisiana—moving to Dallas soon after—and his partnership with Lomax ended rather acrimoniously, with a paycheck for three-hundred dollars—Lead Belly’s cut of the 1,500 dollars they earned during their time together, subtracting “expenses for purchasing a new Stella guitar, clothing, dentist’s fees, etc.”  When he arrived in Shreveport, Lead Belly hired a lawyer and filed suit against John A. Lomax for full payment of his earnings while working for Lomax.  The suit was settled that September for two-hundred-fifty dollars, with Lead Belly asking for a reconciliation between the two.  By the early part of 1936, the Ledbetters had returned to New York, living in an apartment on West 52nd Street.  That November, John and Alan Lomax published Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, and the following April, Lead Belly was publicized in a Life magazine spread.  By the latter half of the 1930s, there was a surge in popularity for folk music burgeoning in New York, championed largely by leftists and union agitators, and Lead Belly was soon to become endeared to their movement.  As early as 1937, he was already being touted as a “people’s artist.”  While those folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger dressed in workingman’s garb—flannel shirts and denim workwear—Lead Belly, no doubt fed up on those styles from his time working on the field and in prison, always wore fine clothes—double breasted suits and bow ties.

On March 5, 1939, Lead Belly was jailed for assault at Riker’s Island, and once bailed, Alan Lomax arranged for a recording session with the “high end” record label Musicraft on the first of April.  These were to be his first commercial recordings since his ARC sessions in 1935, the proceeds of which would help with Lead Belly’s legal expenses.  Ten sides were released by Musicraft in an album titled Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly.  As the folk music movement grew, so did Lead Belly’s popularity.  He began to perform on the radio, and achieve greater success.  In June of 1940, Alan Lomax convinced Victor to record Lead Belly, and he produced another album, this time paired with the Golden Gate Quartet to produce the three disc set The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs.  The next year, he attended the third inauguration of President Roosevelt, and began recording for Moe Asch’s Asch Records.  All the while, he continued to record prolifically for the Library of Congress.  In the middle of the 1940s, Lead Belly traveled to Los Angeles, California while Paramount Pictures optioned John A. Lomax’s autobiography Adventures of a Ballad Hunter as a picture, starring Bing Crosby as Lomax and Josh White as Ledbetter (oh how I wish that had come to fruition).  While there, Lead Belly had a short-lived radio program, and—again thanks to Tex Ritter—recorded twelve sides for Capitol Records.

Throughout the entire decade of the 1940s, Lead Belly’s popularity and success skyrocketed.  From humble beginnings, he was being touted as “quite probably the greatest living American folk singer.”  He toured, appearing in countless concerts, mostly in New York by the ’40s.  But by the end of the decade, Lead Belly started to wind down.  His success was soaring in 1949, and he embarked for a tour of Europe, but he soon fell ill, and was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in Paris.  On his return to the states, Lead Belly played his last concert on June 15, 1949 at the University of Texas in Austin, remembering the life of John A. Lomax, who had died from a stroke the previous year.  On December 6, 1949, Huddie Ledbetter succumbed to his illness and died at the Bellevue Hospital in New York City, leaving behind a legacy of well over five hundred recorded songs and a profound impact on all the world’s music for generations to come.

Continue reading

Paramount 12608 – Blind Lemon Jefferson – 1928

The incomparable Blind Lemon Jefferson truly was an artist without parallel.  Having cut his first disc in 1925 or ’26, he was one of the earliest male country blues musicians to record, and the success of his records paved the way for more blues artists to have their music immortalized in wax.  His peculiar yet virtuosic style of singing and guitar playing set him apart from all his contemporaries, and caused him to be seldom imitated (and interestingly, many of his early imitators were white; see Larry Hensley, Roy Shaffer).  Considering both the quality and originality of his work, as well as the volume of his output, it would seem fair to consider Blind Lemon Jefferson one of the greatest heroes of the Texas blues.

Blind Lemon Jefferson, as pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues, 1927.

Like so many early blues people, much of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s life is shrouded in mystery.  He is usually said to have been born in September 24, 1893, though he reportedly claimed a date of October 26, 1894.  July of 1897 has also been proffered by some sources, and his obituary suggested he was born about a decade earlier.  He learned to play guitar in his childhood or teens.  As an adult, he weighed about two-hundred-fifty pounds, and has been described as a snappy dresser, always wearing a John B. Stetson hat and a box-back suit from the Model Tailors in Dallas, and conversely as “fat, and a slovenly dresser.”  Lemon reported his profession to census takers in 1920 as a musician, his employer the “general public,” and outside of music he was said to have worked as a wrestler in Dallas.  He played and sang at functions around Freestone County and on street corners, honky tonks, and bordellos in Dallas, most notably on the east end of Elm Street called Deep Ellum, and even on the interurban railway that ran from from Waco north to Denison.  He was known to have worked with Lead Belly, and may have also associated with Washington Phillips and the Dallas String Band.  Like fellow Paramount artists Charley Patton and Blind Blake, only one published photograph of Lemon is known to exist (though at least one phony has been reputed as a second one, and there may well be another authentic but unpublished one in private hands).

As with his life, there is much legend surrounding the demise of Blind Lemon Jefferson.  It’s known that he died on a cold winter day in Chicago—around ten o’clock in the morning on December 19, 1929.  Some claim that he was poisoned by a jilted lover (much like the fate that befell Robert Johnson some nine years later).  Others have supposed that he was robbed of a royalty payment and murdered by a guide hired to help him find his way to the train station.  More reliable accounts suggest that he either died of a heart attack in his car and was abandoned by his driver, or became disoriented trying to find his way through a snowstorm and died from hypothermia.  His death certificate stated “probably acute myocarditis,” supporting the heart attack hypothesis.  In any event, Paramount Records paid for his body’s return to Texas by train, accompanied by Texas piano man Will Ezell, to be buried in the Wortham Negro Cemetery (now called the Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery).  His funeral was reportedly attended by two or three hundred people, both black and white.  Lemon’s passing inspired a small wave of tributes, and Paramount released a memorial record in his honor, featuring Walter and Byrd singing “Wasn’t it Sad About Lemon” and Rev. Emmett Dickinson’s sermon on the “Death of Blind Lemon”, comparing Jefferson to Jesus Christ.  Had Lemon survived into the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, his impact would likely have been enormous.  Today, Lemon’s grave marker (placed in 1997) bears the epitaph “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you; see that my grave is kept clean.”

The tombstone of Blind Lemon Jefferson in Wortham, Texas, as it appeared eighty-eight years and one day after his death.  Kept clean at the time, as it were.

Paramount 12608 was recorded around February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois by Blind Lemon Jefferson.  It also appeared on Broadway 5059, though I’m not certain whether or not anyone has ever seen one of those, I know I haven’t.  It was released that March or early April, and first advertised in the Chicago Defender on April 7, 1927.

Now, I ordinarily prefer not to make posts honoring artists on the anniversaries of their deaths, but rather to celebrate their lives; under the circumstances however, this record seems an appropriate case to make an exception, for it contains Lemon’s legendary “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”.  This song, together with “Match Box Blues” and “That Black Snake Moan” could be viewed as a sort of triumvirate of Lemon’s most famous and perhaps most influential songs.  A folk song sometimes known as “Two White Horses in a Line” or (in later years) “One Kind Favor”, Lemon first recorded the song in October of 1927, issued on Paramount 12585, backed with “He Arose from the Dead” under his sanctified pseudonym “Deacon L.J. Bates”.  That version was pulled soon after release and replaced with “Where Shall I Be”, while Lemon recorded a new version of “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” several months later, which saw release under his own name on the record you see and hear here.  Son House used the melody for his “Mississippi County Farm Blues”, which he recorded for Paramount in 1930, and many others have since performed and recorded Jefferson’s original.  In 1934, John A. Lomax recorded a bottleneck guitarist named Pete Harris singing the song in Richmond, Texas under the title “Blind Lemon’s Song”, demonstrating the impact of Jefferson’s recording, and in 1952, Harry Smith included the song in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music.

See That My Grave is Kept Clean, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

On the reverse, technically the “A” side, keeping with the rather morbid theme, Lemon sings “‘Lectric Chair Blues”, another excellent blues, even if it lacks the same grandeur as the previous one.  The original Chicago Defender advertisement said of the song: “Salty tears—wet tears—big, round tears—all kinds of tears and heart throbs, and you should put yourself in his place to feel just as blue.  ‘Lectric chair is the next place he’s gonna sit down in, and he ain’t tired either, so he don’t wanta sit down.”

‘Lectric Chair Blues, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Updated on May 23, 2018.

Bluebird B-5403 – Delmore Brothers/Allen Brothers – 1933/1930

The Delmore Brothers, Rabon and Alton, as pictured on a WLS Grand Ole Opry publication, circa 1935.

Now what we have here is a good old-fashioned split release; one artist on one side, a different one on the other.  Not just any old split release though, these two sides happen to contain a couple of the hottest hillbilly performances of the Depression years.  Two of my own personal favorites at least.

Bluebird B-5403 was recorded on December 6, 1933 in Chicago, Illinois, and November 22, 1930 in Memphis, Tennessee, respectively, and was released on April 4, 1934.  The two sides also appeared together on Montgomery Ward M-4750.  The Delmore Brothers are Alton on guitar and Rabon on tenor guitar, vocals by both; the Allen Brothers are Austin on tenor banjo and vocals and Lee on guitar and kazoo.

The Delmore Brothers were born into a family of poor farmers in Elkmont, Alabama—first Alton on Christmas Day in 1908, then Rabon on December 3, 1916.  Their mother Mollie wrote and sang church songs, and soon Alton joined, publishing his first song with his mother in 1925.  They started out their musical career singing at local fiddle contests, and cut their first record for Columbia on October 28, 1931 in Atlanta.  Two years later, they secured a contract with RCA Victor’s Bluebird records, and spot on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry.  They found their greatest success as Opry members, playing alongside Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and Uncle Dave Macon, and remained on the show until a dispute in 1939.  After parting ways, they continued to   The Delmores switched to the King label in 1944, shortly after the label’s inception, with whom they had some of their greatest record successes, including “Freight Train Boogie” in 1946 with harmonica player Wayne Raney, and “Blues Stay Away from Me” in 1949.  The Delmore Brothers’ career ended with Rabon’s early death from lung cancer on December 4, 1952.  Alton lived on for twelve more years, dying of a heart attack on June 8, 1964.

First up, from their first Bluebird session, Alton and Rabon Delmore sing and play up a real masterpiece on their spectacular and widely imitated hit composition “Brown’s Ferry Blues”, one of twelve sides recorded that day.  The Delmores followed up two years later with “Brown’s Ferry Blues-Part 2” and “Part 3” two years after that, and re-recorded the popular tune all the way in 1946 for King Records.

Brown’s Ferry Blues, recorded December 6, 1933 by the Delmore Brothers.

Not to be confused with the Australian duo of the late 1960s, the Allen Brothers—Austin, born February 7, 1901, and Lee, born June 1, 1906—originated from Sewanee, Tennessee, and got their start in music playing in medicine shows and coal mining towns.  Sometimes called the “Chattabooga Boys” for their frequent references to the Tennessee town, the duo made their first records for Columbia in April of 1927, and followed up with two further sessions for them until one of their records was mistakenly issued in their 14000-D “race” series rather than the 15000-D “Old Familiar Tunes” series, which seems to have offended the pair, because they threatened to bring a lawsuit against Columbia Records.  Instead, they switched to Victor for the vast bulk of their recorded output between 1928 and ’32.  They concluded their recording career with a series of sessions for Vocalion in October of 1934 (little did they know, apparently, that around that same time, Vocalion was under the same parent company as their forsaken Columbia).  After that, the vice grip of the Great Depression forced them to end their musical careers, and seek employment in the construction game.  Austin died on January 5, 1959, while Lee survived into the folk revival of the 1960s, when he was persuaded to perform once again, before his own death on February 24, 1981.

Here, the Chattanooga boys, Austin and Lee Allen sing their second take on this old folk ditty with “A New Salty Dog”.  This one was originally issued in Victor’s “Old Familiar Tunes” series, number 23514, in 1931.  Their old “Salty Dog” was recorded for Columbia in 1927; in my opinion, the “new” one’s better.

A New Salty Dog, recorded November 22, 1930 by the Allen Brothers.

Victor 20502 – Ernest Rogers/Vernon Dalhart – 1927/1925

Ernest Rogers, as pictured in a 1930 Victor catalog.

It’s no secret that I have sort of a thing for obscure—but excellent—musical artists of the 1920s and ’30s (also em dashes, if you haven’t noticed).  One of my most enduring favorites within that category is Mr. Ernest Rogers.  (Funny how so many of my favorite people are named “Rogers”, or some variation on that!)

William Ernest Rogers was born on October 27, 1897 in Atlanta, Georgia.  He was crippled by infantile paralysis at the age of two, but that evidently didn’t slow him down.  He attended Emory University—where he was the champion debater, a member of the glee club, mandolin club, and literary society, and founder of the campus newspaper, the Emory Wheel—and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1920.  After college, Rogers found work as an editor, reporter, arts critic, and features writer for the Atlanta Journal, with whom he remained until 1962.  He married Bertha Turnipseed and they had one child, Wallace.  On the side, Ernest sang and played the guitar, and reportedly served as a performer and announcer on the Atlanta radio station WSB.  His repertoire consisted primarily of vaudevillian material, including such songs as “Steamboat Bill”, “Waitin’ for the ‘Robert E. Lee'”, and “Willie the Weeper”, as well as a few compositions of his own, like “My Red-Haired Lady” and “Let Me Be Your Man in the Moon”.  He made his first record for the Columbia Phonograph Company in January of 1925, during their second field trip to Atlanta, cutting two sides, which were issued.  Two years later, the Victor Talking Machine company brought their recording equipment to Atlanta, and Rogers cut another two sides.  Victor must’ve liked him, because he had two more sessions with them in May of ’27 and February of ’28, producing a further eight sides.  Of the twelve sides he recorded, all but two were released.  Following the culmination of his recording career, Ernest Rogers continued to have success in the literary world, publishing relatively successful books: The Old Hokum Bucket in 1949, and Peachtree Parade in 1956, both compilations of his newspaper columns.  Ernest Rogers died on October 9, 1967 in Atlanta.

An entirely different and unrelated Ernest Rogers recorded “Baby, Low Down, Oh, Low Down Dirty Dog” for John A. Lomax in Angola Prison Farm in July of 1934.

Victor 20502 was recorded in two quite separate sessions: the first side was at the Elyea Talking Machine Co. in Atlanta, Georgia on February 17, 1927, while the second was recorded almost two years earlier in New York City on June 25, 1925.  It was released in May of 1927, and remained Victor’s catalog all the way into 1944.

First, Ernest Rogers sings a classic vaudeville song by the name of “Willie the Weeper”, or in this case “Willie the Chimney Sweeper”.  You may notice more than a passing similarity to Cab Calloway’s famous “Minnie the Moocher”, which drew heavily on the song.  Rogers recorded “Willie the Weeper” at his first session for Columbia, as well—I’ve never heard that version, but I’d assume it’s much the same as this one.

Willie, the Chimney Sweeper, recorded February 17, 1927 by Ernest Rogers.

On the reverse, our ol’ pal Vernon Dalhart sings a perfectly solid rendition of another old vaudeville standby, “Casey Jones”, with Carson Robison on guitar, and harmonica and Jew’s harp played by Dalhart himself.  Say what you will about Dalhart, but this record—both sides—truly is a great piece of Americana.

Casey Jones, recorded June 25, 1925 by Vernon Dalhart.