On this Mother’s Day, I take a moment away from Old Time Blues’ usual dedication to long gone musicianers to spend a moment of appreciation for all the beloved mothers of the world, not least my own.
A portrait of motherhood in the roaring twenties.
Though nowadays rather receded from their former stature within popular culture, there once existed nearly an entire genre of “mother songs” dedicated to maternal appreciation, songs like Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “You’ll Never Miss Your Mother ‘Till She’s Gone”, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mother, the Queen of My Heart”, and Rudyard Kipling’s “Mother o’ Mine” to name just two of many. Hundreds—if not thousands—of songs were published and recorded in the first decades of the twentieth century celebrating the love of a son (or daughter) for his mother. Indeed, many of them tended a little on the sappy side, but the sentiment behind them, generally, was honest and sincere, and represented a culture which rightfully valued a mother’s love. The record published herein contains two such songs, originally published in the early decades of the twentieth century, in honor of dear old mother, as sung in duet by the so-called Cullen Brothers (though in fact they were not really brothers and only one was a Cullen).
Supertone 9741 was recorded on May 23, 1930, presumably in Richmond, Indiana. The “Cullen Brothers” are in fact Billy Cullen and Barney Kleeber. The instrumentalists on piano, violin, and guitar are unidentified. The same pairing was also issued on Champion 16045, credited to its true artists, and the “A” side also appeared on Superior 2513, credited to “Ward and Scott”.
Firstly, Cullen and Kleeber sing Arthur Dewey Larkin’s composition “Mother Dear (Do You Hear Me Calling You)”, originally published in 1922.
Mother Dear (Do You Year Me Calling You), recorded May 23, 1930 by the Cullen Bros.
Next, from 1914, they sing H.C. Weasner’s “Just a Dream of Mother” on the “B’ side.
Just a Dream of Mother, recorded May 23, 1930 by the Cullen Bros.
With his “little old-time banjo” by his side, Chicago-based Chubby Parker was of the earliest folksingers to find fame on the radio, and could be viewed as the WLS National Barn Dance’s counterpart to the WSM Grand Ole Opry’sUncle Dave Macon.
Chubby Parker, as pictured in 100 WLS Barn Dance Favorites. A crop of the only well-publicized photograph of Parker.
“Chubby” was born Frederick R. Parker on October 23, 1876, in Lafayette, Indiana, the only (living) son of the deputy treasurer of Tippecanoe County. His father, North, had roots in Kentucky, and his mother, Emma, in Virginia. He attended Purdue University and earned his degree in electrical engineering in 1898. Sometime after the turn of the century, he left Indiana for city life in Chicago, and there he married Miss Frances S. Kischel in 1907 and had a daughter name Claudia four years later. At the time of the first World War, Parker claimed his occupation as patent attorney and “inventor”. In 1925, he became one of the earliest stars on the burgeoning scene of country and folk music when he joined the cast of the National Barn Dance on the Sear-Roebuck owned radio station WLS. With simple banjo accompaniment, sometimes with the addition of whistling or harmonica, Parker’s repertoire consisted almost entirely of traditional folk and old-time songs ranging from well known numbers like “Oh, Susanna” and “The Year of Jubilo” (a.k.a. “Kingdom Coming”) to remarkably obscure ones such as his version of the old minstrel song “Pompey Smash and Davy Crockett”; he displayed a particular predilection toward humorous nonsense songs like “Bib-A-Lollie-Boo”. While admittedly unbased conjecture, it stands to reason that Parker may have been employed by the station as for his engineering abilities prior to his becoming an on-air personality, as would have been somewhat common practice in those early days of radio broadcasting. Though not possessing the best voice and far from the most exemplary banjo player, Parker was met with widespread adulation and reportedly garnered 2,852 pieces of fan mail in one week in February of 1927. He began publishing sheet music of his some of his popular numbers, such as “Nickety Nackety Now Now Now” and “I’m a Stern Old Bachelor”. Sears also marketed Supertone “Ragtime King” five-string banjos emblazoned with Parker’s autograph, and some of his Silvertone records featured the same. Beginning in the very same month that all those letters came in, Chubby Parker recorded for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett Records and a plethora of other labels, ultimately producing a total of thirty-six sides for the company in a span of three years, of which twenty-eight were released, mostly on the Sears-Roebuck labels Silvertone and Supertone. He also recorded as banjoist with Tommy Dandurand’s Barn Dance Fiddle Band (try saying that three times fast). That stint was interrupted by one errant session for Columbia that produced only one record, which became his most famous after the inclusion of one side—”King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O”—in Harry Smith’s influential Anthology of American Folk Music. In 1931, he concluded his recording career with three consecutive sessions for the American Record Corporation, producing a further nineteen sides—mostly re-recordings of songs he had recorded once or twice before—all of which were released, again primarily marketed by Sears-Roebuck on their Conqueror label, though one also appeared on the other ARC dimestore labels. Thereafter, Parker apparently departed the Barn Dance, purportedly jealous of fellow folksinger Bradley Kincaid’s popularity. He made at least one brief return to the program in 1936, and was still promoted in station publications at the same time. By the end of the 1930s, Parker, then in his early sixties, had apparently retired from all work. Chubby Parker died in Chicago on August 28, 1940.
Silvertone 5013 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, on April 2, 1927, at the studios of the Starr Piano Co—Parker’s second recording session. He cut earlier versions of both sides at his first, but they were rejected. Chubby Parker sings, whistles, and banjos. It was also released on Silvertone 25013 and Supertone 9191, and with side “A” appearing on Gennett 6097 and Champion 15278 and “B” on Gennett 6120 and Champion 15298.
Parker’s rendition of “Oh, Susanna” is one of the most quaint, most rustic things I have ever heard in my entire life—and believe me when I tell you, I have heard a great many quaint and rustic things! Parker’s simple banjo and enormously understated performance is a far cry from the rollicking style in which Carson Robison recorded the Stephen Foster standard five years later. Do be advised however, Foster’s lyrics gravitate considerably in the direction opposite what may be considered politically correct. Tony Russell’s Country Music Records discography notes that this issue used the spelling “Oh, Suzanna”; though some copies do display that variation, this one, as you can plainly see, does not.
Oh, Susanna, recorded April 2, 1927 by Chubby Parker.
On the reverse, Chubby sings and whistles his version of the old chestnut “Little Brown Jug”; he tended to work through these numbers quite fast, and packed considerable number of verses into the three-minute limit. Parker, rather atypically, played his banjo in a manner quite reminiscent of the “boom-chang” style of plucking alternating bass strings and strumming in-between that was nigh ubiquitous among old-time guitarists of the 1920s and ’30s, as exemplified by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and many others, rather than common styles of banjo picking.
Little Brown Jug, recorded April 2, 1927 by Chubby Parker.
One of the truly great folksingers to record in the 1920s—years before the folk revivals of the early 1940s or 1960s—was Bradley Kincaid. Popular on radio and records, and with a successful series of songbooks, he helped to disseminate the numerous American folk songs he had collected and bring them to the listening public in a way that academics like John A. Lomax and Carl Sandburg could not approach, and he always he did so in a most respectful and dignified manner. We have briefly discussed Kincaid once before on Old Time Blues, but that was in the early days, before the now high standard of quality had been established, and the accompanying text was rather lacking, so now let us direct our attention once again to the “Kentucky Mountain Boy”.
Bradley Kincaid, as pictured in Favorite Mountain Ballads and Old Time Songs, 1928.
William Bradley Kincaid was born on July 13, 1895, in the village of Point Leavell in Garrard County, Kentucky, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountain range. One of the ten children of poor farmer William P. Kincaid, he received little formal education in his early years, but began his musical pursuits at a very young age, when his father—an amateur musician himself—traded one of their hound dogs for a guitar to give to young Bradley (or so the story goes). When old enough to work, he got a job at a lunch counter in nearby Stanford, Kentucky, but soon left the position to fight for Uncle Sam in the German War. On his return home, he took a job at a Cincinnati tailoring firm. He also continued his education at Berea College, having attended their Foundation School for two years prior to his service to complete the sixth through eighth grades. While there, he began to collect songs and became more seriously interested in folk music; he also met music teacher Irma Forman, whom he would later marry. From Berea, Kincaid moved onward and upward to the YMCA College in Chicago in 1924, where he earned a four year degree in 1928. As a singer in the YMCA College Quartet, he made his radio debut on Sear-Roebuck’s radio station WLS in Chicago in 1926. Soon afterward, he began appearing on the station regularly as a cast member of the National Barn Dance program on the recommendation of the Quartet’s manager. Soon, the fan mail began to pour in—Kincaid reportedly received 100,000 letters in every year of his time on the Barn Dance.
As a professional singer, Kincaid repudiated the “hillbilly” stereotype (or “Hilly Billy,” as he put it) that was so prevalent since country music styles first found commercial success, instead presenting himself as an educated and sophisticated folksinger—pioneering (alongside Buell Kazee and Bascom Lamar Lunsford) a similar mold to that in which folk musicians like Pete Seeger would model themselves in subsequent decades. A year into his tenure on the National Barn Dance, Kincaid made his recording debut for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett records and their numerous client labels. The year after that, he published his first songbook, titled Favorite Mountain Ballads and Old Time Songs, the success of which made it the first in a series of thirteen, and which purportedly made him the first of many country singing stars to do so. Additionally, “Bradley Kincaid Houn’ Dog” guitars, manufactured by Harmony, were sold by Sears-Roebuck, the proprietors of the station that hosted the National Barn Dance. Kincaid departed WLS and the Barn Dance in 1929 and made for WLW in Cincinnati and a Brunswick Records deal. Subsequently, he performed on WGY, Schenectady, and WHAM, Rochester, in New York, and began recording for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label in 1933, and for Decca in ’34. For the latter, he made a series of Irish records rather outside of his typical repertoire. After leaving completing his Decca recordings in 1935, Kincaid did not record again for quite some time. While appearing on WBZ in Boston alongside banjo player Marshall Jones, he nicknamed the young musician “Grandpa” for his cantankerous demeanor. In 1944, Kincaid joined the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, holding that position for five years. After World War Two, he recorded again for Majestic Records in 1947 and ’47, and briefly for Captiol around 1950. Thereafter, he bought and owned WWSO in Springfield, Ohio, from 1949 until 1953, at which point he retired from performing professionally and opened a music store. He recorded occasionally during his retirement, in 1963 and ’73, and sang for small audiences, but mostly enjoyed a quiet life. In 1988, at the age of ninety-three, Bradley Kincaid was seriously injured in a car accident, from which he never fully recovered. He died the following year, on September 23, 1989, in Springfield, Ohio, the town he had called home for some forty years.
Supertone 9208 was recorded around February 28, 1928, and December 19, 1927, respectively, in Chicago, Illinois. Bradley Kincaid sings and accompanies himself on his “Houn’ Dog Guitar”. It was also issued on Silvertone 5187 and 8218. Split up, side “A” also appeared on Superior 2588, while side “B” appeared on Gennett 6363 and Champion 15502, and on Melotone 45008 in Canada.
Firstly, Kincaid sings a charming rendition of one of my favorite cowboy songs: “Bury Me On the Prairie”. Kincaid’s pleasant tenor voice and straightforward delivery afforded him widespread appeal with early radio audiences.
Bury Me On the Prairie, recorded c. February 28, 1928 by Bradley Kincaid.
Nextly is the old folk song “Sweet Kitty Wells”, notably the namesake of the popular country singer of the 1950s onward, recorded at Kincaid’s very first recording session.
Sweet Kitty Wells, recorded c. December 19, 1927 by Bradley Kincaid.
The illustrious “Daddy Stove Pipe” (not to be confused with “Stove Pipe No. 1” or “Sweet Papa Stovepipe”) holds a number of important distinctions; he was one of the earliest male country blues performers to record, he may have been the oldest, and while definitely not the most prolific, he was surely among the longest-lived.
The man ‘neath the stove pipe, Johnny Watson, was reputedly born on April 12, 1867, in Mobile, Alabama. He’s said to have begun his musical life in Mexico around the turn of the twentieth century, playing twelve-string guitar in a mariachi band. Later, he trouped with the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, which produced a fair number of prominent black entertainers of the era, including “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Butterbeans and Susie. By the 1920s, he had taken up performing on Chicago’s Maxwell Street as a one-man band, playing guitar and harmonica and singing. In the spring of 1924, Stove Pipe traveled to Richmond, Indiana, to cut a record at the Starr Piano Company’s “shack by the track” studio. There, he laid down three sides, “Sundown Blues”, “Stove Pipe Blues”, and “Tidewater Blues”, of which only the first two were released. It is evident that he hit the road after his first session, because by the time he recorded again, in 1927, he was in Birmingham, Alabama, where he waxed three more sides (of which, again, only two were issued) for Starr when they brought down their mobile recording unit. This time around, he was billed as “Sunny Jim” and was joined by an unidentified whistler known only as “Whistlin’ Pete”. In the 1930s, Stove Pipe settled down in Greenville, Mississippi with his wife Sarah, who joined him on the remainder of his pre-World War II recordings as Mississippi Sarah, singing and blowing the jug. They made their first records as a duo for Vocalion in Chicago in October of 1931, waxing eight sides, all of which were released this time. They returned to Chicago four years later for another session—which turned out to be their last—this time for Bluebird, yielding four sides, two more records. Sarah met an untimely demise in 1937, and Daddy Stove Pipe took to traveling again, playing with Cajuns in Louisiana and Texas and returning to Mexico. Eventually, he returned to Chicago’s Maxwell Street, and he became known as a fixture there. He was recorded once last time in 1960 by Björn Englund and Donald R. Hill, playing and singing songs such as “The Tennessee Waltz”, producing four tracks which were released on the Heritage label LP Blues From Maxwell Street (later reissued on a number of other labels). Watson contracted pneumonia following a gallbladder operation, and he died in Chicago on November 1, 1963.
Silvertone 4042 was recorded in Richmond, Indiana, on May 10, 1924, and originally released on Gennett 5459. It was also issued on Claxtonola 40335. Unfortunately, it is recorded rather faintly, which causes the harmonica and guitar to be somewhat drowned out by the surface noise on this worn copy, especially near the beginning of each side, though Watson’s vocals are still relatively prominent. I will defend its merits in saying that I have never yet encountered a particularly clean-playing example of these sides.
On the “A” side, Watson plays and sings the delightful “Sundown Blues”. Examination of the contemporaneous photograph depicting Daddy Stove Pipe seated next to an acoustical recording horn reveals him holding an unusual nine-string guitar, with the first, second, and third strings doubled as would be on a twelve-string guitar (as opposed to Big Joe Williams’ unique configuration), which may be the instrument played herein.
Sundown Blues, recorded May 10, 1924 by Daddy Stove Pipe.
On the reverse, Stove Pipe sings his eponymous “Stove Pipe Blues”, another arrangement of “floating” verses. “Got the Stove Pipe Blues [and] I can’t be satisfied.”
Stove Pipe Blues, recorded May 10, 1924 by Daddy Stove Pipe.
This record is a surprisingly obscure one considering its excellence, even in light of its extraordinary scarcity. A Google search will yield precious few results, and the upload of the only side that’s on YouTube has accrued only around five-hundred views in more than half a decade. Its rarity earned it a spot on Document Records’ “Too Late, Too Late: Newly Discovered Titles and Alternate Takes” series rather than their Hokum Boys or Big Bill Broonzy series proper, and that may be the only commercial reissue it’s ever gotten (I’m not sure). To the few who know of it (mostly a small cadre of record collectors and blues researchers), it is held in high regard as perhaps Big Bill Broonzy’s best record. I had the fortune of being enlightened to its existence some years ago, and the even greater fortune of being able to acquire a copy. I hope to shed a much needed ray of sunshine onto this gem of prewar blues guitar, and help get it some of the recognition it deserves.
In 1930, Big Bill Broonzy was under the management of Chicago “race music” impresario Lester Melrose, and playing good-time music with Georgia Tom and Frank Brasswell (or Braswell, a.k.a. “The Western Kid”) as the “Hokum Boys” (a mantle originally used by Georgia Tom and Tampa Red). Broonzy hadn’t recorded since his earliest, somewhat poorly received “Big Bill and Thomps” Paramount sessions of 1927 and ’28. Among the tunes recorded by Broonzy and the Hokum Boys were (fittingly) hokum titles like “Somebody’s Been Using that Thing” and “Eagle Riding Papa” (both of which were later covered by Milton Brown), urban blues novelties like “Mama’s Leavin’ Town”, and fast guitar rags like “Saturday Night Rub” and “Pig Meat Strut”. On the rags, Frank Brasswell’s flatpicked rhythm combined with Bill’s adept fingerpicking to make musical magic. The trio, occasionally including Delta blues man Arthur Petties, first recorded in New York for the American Record Corporation in various configurations and under various names, including “Sammy Sampson” for Bill’s solo work. Next they traveled to Richmond, Indiana to cut several sides for the Starr Piano Company’s Champion label, all ones they had made previously for the ARC, this time with Bill’s solo work credited to “Big Bill Johnson”. Those Champions were the last sides to feature Brasswell, who proceeded to drop off the face of the earth. Bill on the other hand would go on to great acclaim.
Champion 16081 was recorded on May 2, 1930 in Richmond, Indiana. The Hokum Boys are Big Bill Broonzy (recording for the Starr Piano Co. as “Big Bill Johnson”) and Frank Brasswell on guitars. It sold a total of 959 copies, of which only a handful are known to exist today. As such, it is listed in the “Rarest 78s” section of 78 Quarterly (issue number six), and while the total number of existing copies was not estimated at the time, a current estimate places the number at “fewer than ten known copies.” More popular versions of both tunes were recorded for the American Record Corporation the previous month (and both, in my opinion, are not near as good as these). There is some debate as to the correct playback speed for these recordings, with suggestions from my esteemed colleagues Mr. Russ Shor of Vintage Jazz Mart and Mr. Pete Whelan of 78 Quarterly ranging from the standard 78.26 RPM to 83 RPM. Based on an E chord on a guitar in standard tuning, my best estimate would be that they should play at approximately 80 RPM, to which I’ve set the transfers posted herein.
First up, Bill and Frank get hot on Broonzy’s classic rag composition “Saturday Night Rub” with a performance described by blues guitar teacher Woody Mann as “one of the most hard-driving rag tunes ever recorded.” Midway through, Bill utters those immortal words, “I’m gonna play this guitar tonight from A to Z!”
Saturday Night Rub, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.
“Pig Meat Strut” on the “B” side is perhaps my favorite guitar instrumental (though there’s some stiff competition from Blind Blake, William Moore, Bayless Rose, Frank Hutchison, and others). Bill and Frank’s “Famous Hokum Boys” version of the rag for the ARC, recorded a little less than a month before this one, is often hailed as one of his best (I say phooey), but it sounds like a hot mess compared to this masterpiece! The riff used in “Pig Meat Strut” was seemingly ubiquitous in hokum of this era—such that I’d dub it the “hokum riff”—and appeared in a number of Broonzy and Brasswell’s other recordings of this era, later serving as the basis for Big Bill’s popular “Hey Hey” in 1951. Interestingly, a nearly identical melody was also used by Texas blues man Little Hat Jones in his “Kentucky Blues”, recorded only a month after this one, though any actual connection between the two is unknown to me.
Man, did they get in the groove and how!
Pig Meat Strut, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.