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”.

Vocalion 1144 – Jim Jackson – 1927

On of the great blues songsters of yesteryear was Jim Jackson.  With a strong voice and a wide repertoire ranging from blues to popular songs to hokum, he one of the most prominent blues figures of his day.

Jim Jackson was born on a farm in Hernando, Mississippi, twenty miles south of Memphis, most likely in June of 1876, though 1884 and 1890 have also been ventured as possible years.  Sometime around 1905, Jackson began playing, singing, and dancing in medicine shows around the South.  He was later a member of the famed Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and ran the Red Rose Minstrels himself.  By the 1910s, Jackson worked primarily on Memphis, Tenessee, like contemporary Frank Stokes.  His success on Beale Street was enough that he was reportedly residing in the luxurious Peabody Hotel by 1919.  In 1927, store owner and talent broker H.C. Speir secured a contract for Jackson with Vocalion records.  He made his recording debut on October 10, 1927, recording the first two parts of his “Kansas City Blues” series, which were issued as his first record.  In addition to recording for Vocalion, Jackson also worked as a talent scout for the company, notably “discovering” boogie woogie piano man Speckled Red (Rufus Perryman).  As one of Vocalions most popular race artists, the company released a “descriptive novelty” record titled “Jim Jackson’s Jamboree” featuring Tampa Red and Georgia Tom and Speckled Red, and “hosted” by Jackson. Jackson continued to record for Vocalion until 1930, and held several sessions for Victor in 1928.  He supposedly played a bit part in King Vidor’s 1929 film Hallelujah, though it’s unknown what role he played, and indeed if he appeared in the film at all.  Jackson’s last session was held in February of 1930, after which he returned to his home in Mississippi, where he continued to perform.  Jim Jackson died on December 18, 1933.

Vocalion 1144 was recorded in Chicago on October 10, 1927.  Jackson’s “Kansas City Blues” songs were among the most successful and influential blues records of their time, inspiring numerous covers by contemporaries like William Harris and Charley Patton, and latter day artists like Janis Joplin.  Some have cited it as one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records, though the musical style bears little resemblance.

First, Jackson sings the first of his four part series, “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City BluesPart 1″.

Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues - Part 1

Jim Jackson’s Kansas City BluesPart 1, recorded October 10, 1927 by Jim Jackson.

He concludes the disc with “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City BluesPart 2″.  This is the second take of this side (“34” in the runoff), which may be more scarce than the more commonly heard first take.

Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues - Part 2

Jim Jackson’s Kansas City BluesPart 2, recorded October 10, 1927 by Jim Jackson.

Okeh 8511 – “Texas” Alexander – 1927

Going back now to the music of America’s roots, I offer a classic albeit worn blues record by great bluesman “Texas” Alexander.

Alger “Texas” Alexander was born in Jewett, Texas on September 12, 1900.  Playing at functions in the Brazos River bottomlands of his home state, he sometimes worked with contemporary and fellow Texas blues musician Blind Lemon Jefferson.  Alexander traveled to New York City to make his first recordings for Okeh Records in 1927, and made many further recordings back home in Texas.  Unable to play any musical instrument, he was backed on his recordings by various sidemen and groups, including the Mississippi Sheiks for one session. Although Alexander has long been cited as serving five years in the penitentiary in Paris, Texas for the 1939 murder of his wife, modern research yields no evidence of that being true, as no records exist of Alexander serving, and in fact, no prison ever existed in Paris, Texas.  More likely, Alexander served on a county work farm for publicly singing songs with lewd lyrics.  Texas Alexander continued to record in the 1940s, and made his last recordings with Benton’s Busy Bees in 1953 before dying of syphilis the next year.

Okeh 8511 was recorded on August 11 and 12, 1927 and is “Texas” Alexander’s second issued record from his first recording session, and probably his best selling Okeh.  Alexander is accompanied by the always excellent Lonnie Johnson on guitar.  This record, as many, if not most of this type of record are, has seen better days and plays rough.  Nevertheless, the music is still audible, albeit over heavy noise.

On the first side, Alexander moans his way through the classic “Long Lonesome Day Blues”.

Long Lonesome Day Blues, recorded August 11, 1927 by "Texas" Alexander.

Long Lonesome Day Blues, recorded August 11, 1927 by “Texas” Alexander.

“Corn-Bread Blues”, a little worse for wear, features that classic line, “they cook cornbread for their husband, and biscuits (or is it ‘brisket’) for their man.”

Corn Bread Blues, recorded August 12, 1927 by "Texas" Alexander.

Corn Bread Blues, recorded August 12, 1927 by “Texas” Alexander.

Updated with improved audio on July 1, 2017.

Paramount 12872 – Blind Lemon Jefferson – 1929

A crop of the only known photograph of Lemon Jefferson, as was pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues.

On this day, we celebrate the probable birthday of the great blues man Blind Lemon Jefferson, so for this momentous occasion, I present to you a great treasure of the Old Time Blues collection, which happened to have been recorded on Lemon’s thirty-sixth birthday.

Blind Lemon Jefferson was born September 24, 1893 (though, as is so often the case with early blues people, this date is disputed) in Coutchman, Texas, near Tehuacana Creek, about five miles west of Streetman, in Freestone County.  Lemon took up the guitar in his teens and played at picnics and rent parties, or “booger roogers” as he called them, in East Texas.  In the 1910s, he worked frequently in Deep Ellum in Dallas and played with fellow musicians including Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and Alger “Texas” Alexander.  In late 1925 or early 1926, a time when most of recorded blues consisted of women singing with a jazz band backing in a vaudevillian style, Blind Lemon traveled to Chicago to record with Paramount records.  Between 1926 and 1929, Jefferson recorded around a hundred songs for Paramount, and made one additional record with Okeh.  Blind Lemon Jefferson died under mysterious circumstances in Chicago at 10:00 AM on December 19, 1929, Paramount paid for his body to be shipped back to Texas, where he was buried in the Wortham Negro Cemetery.

Paramount 12872, featuring “Bed Springs Blues” and “Yo Yo Blues”, was recorded September 24, 1929 in Chicago, Illinois, Lemon’s birthday.  This proved to be Blind Lemon Jefferson’s final recording session.  The condition’s pretty rough on this one, but I think the music still comes through.  Now, two years after my original posting, a new Grado cartridge has facilitated a much finer quality of transfers than my originals.  Though still plagued by some groove stripping and plenty of pops and clicks, they are now much crisper and clearer, and those pesky skips have been all-but-eliminated.

First, Lemon’s “Bed Springs Blues” provides an excellent demonstration of Lemon’s unique style of playing guitar.

Bed Springs Blues, recorded September -, 1929 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Bed Springs Blues, recorded September 24, 1929 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

On the flip, Lemon performs his own “Yo Yo Blues”.  A number of songs carrying the same title were recorded around the same period—most notably by Barbecue Bob—opening with “got up this morning, my yo-yo mama was gone,” but Lemon’s is a different song, instead starting with “I would go yo-yoin’, but I broke my yo-yo string.”

Yo Yo Blues, recorded September -,1929 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Yo Yo Blues, recorded September 24, 1929 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Updated with improved audio on July 28, 2017.