Another one of those hidden figures of the blues who made a few records at one session and promptly disappeared into obscurity, few details are concretely known about the life of Texas-Louisiana musician “Stick-Horse” Hammond, who made a small handful of records in 1950 demonstrating a gritty and rather archaic style of rural blues. As such, the facts presented within this article should to taken as tentative, at best.
One of at least five children of B.B. and Laura (spelling uncertain) Hammond, “Stick-Horse” was born Nathaniel Hammond in Palestine, Texas, on April 16, 1896, (according to public records), though a date in the preceding month has also been proffered, as well. According to a draft card presumably attributable to the same Hammond, he was of medium height with a heavy build as an adult. Per the same source, he worked on the Union Pacific Railroad around the time of the First World War, and was at the time living in Denver, Colorado. Perhaps resulting from that profession, he purportedly lost a leg (much like his white contemporary “Peg” Moreland), and ostensibly adopted the nickname ‘Stick-Horse” from the peg-leg he relied upon thereafter. Later in life, he reportedly turned to life as a traveling musician, playing around his home state before settling in Taylortown, Louisiana, in the vicinity of Shreveport, where he began farming on the share. Around 1950, Hammond was “discovered” by country singing star Zeke Clements—who was then appearing on the KWKH Louisiana Hayride—and brought to town to cut a record for former disc jockey Ray Bartlett. Clements later recalled that “they drove around for two or three days getting him drunk enough to record.” In all, Hammond produced six sides for Bartlett’s “Job” label, four of which were picked up by larger record companies (Royalty Records of Paris, Texas, and Gotham Records of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, respectively). Sometime later, the plantation on which Hammond farmed was visited by record executives Stan Lewis and Leonard Chess in hopes of signing the bluesman to the fledgling Chess Records. Unfortunately for the songster, the big boss ran off the city slickers with a shotgun, swiftly snuffing out any hopes for the continuation of Hammond’s brief career as a record artist. Remaining in Taylortown for the rest of his life, “Stick-Horse” Hammond died in Shreveport on May 27, 1964.
Royalty RR-906 was recorded at the J&M Record Shop presumably at 728 Texas Street in Shreveport, Louisiana, sometime in the year of 1950. It was originally released on Job 105. “Stick-Horse” Hammond sings the blues and accompanies himself on electric guitar.
On the “A” side, “Stick-Horse” sings a low-down country blues rendition of fellow Texan Curtis Jones’s “Highway 51”.
Highway 51, recorded 1950 by “Stick-Horse” Hammond.
Against odds stacked against him, the guitar evangelist and musical visionary Blind Willie Johnson rightly secured his place as a gospel music pioneer and veritable legend in the annals of American music. While he found neither great fame nor fortune during his life, his rousing religious songs and inspired slide guitar have received much admiration from music lovers, and the convoluted details surrounding his life have inspired much interest from researchers (and as such, some of the facts presented herein are of rather tenuous accuracy) in the decades since.
Willie Johnson was born to “Dock” (variously reported in source documents as Willie, Sr., or George) and Mary Johnson in Pendleton, Texas (though other sources have suggested Independence, some one-hundred miles southeast), in January of 1897; his draft card gave a date of the twenty-fifth, while his death certificate proffered the twenty-second. He spent most of his life from childhood to adulthood in Marlin, Texas. His mother died when he was four years old, and his father later remarried. It is widely believed that Johnson became blind around the age of seven, though the cause of his blindness is not definitively known; the most popular story—based upon an account by his alleged widow Angeline—asserts that he was blinded by lye water thrown by his stepmother during a marital dispute with his father (and accounts differ as to whether the lye was meant for Willie or his father). A perhaps more plausible theory suggests that he became blind from viewing a solar eclipse which would have been visible from Texas on August 30, 1905, through a piece of broken glass. No matter the unfortunate circumstance, Johnson found religion and thus aspired preach the gospel. Inspired by fiddling evangelist Blind Madkin Butler, he learned to play guitar in a distinctive style using a steel ring for a slide to accompany his coarse, false bass singing (though he naturally possessed a pleasant singing voice). He traveled from town-to-town, playing and singing his religious songs on street corners around the Brazos Valley, sometimes sharing the space with Blind Lemon Jefferson and his blues songs. Around the middle of the 1920s, Johnson met Willie B. Harris, who would soon become his (possibly second) wife and singing partner, and with whom he would have one daughter in 1931. He made his first recordings on December 3, 1927—one day after fellow Texas gospel blues man Washington Phillips made his own debut—for Columbia, who had set up a temporary recording laboratory in Dallas, Texas, possibly at the Jefferson Hotel. His religious songs proved quite successful, some records rivaling the popular Bessie Smith’s blues songs in sales figures. Ultimately, Johnson had three more sessions in Dallas, New Orleans, and Atlanta, producing a total of thirty issued sides for the Columbia Phonograph Company—plus an additional two unreleased masters credited in the company ledgers to “Blind Texas Marlin”, which are speculated to have been pseudonymous recordings of secular material, or which may have simply been a clerical error—before the crush of the Great Depression curtailed their field recording activity and thus ended his recording career. Sometime in the 1930s, Johnson left his family in Marlin for the Gulf Coast, where he eventually settled in Beaumount, evidently with a woman named Angeline (with whom he may have had relations concurrent to his marriage to Harris), purportedly the sister of blues guitarist L.C. Robinson. He continued to sing on street corners in the vicinity, and may have appeared on the radio on KTEM in Temple in the early 1940s, according to an anecdote related by Houston folklorist Mack McCormick, and operated a “house of prayer” in Beaumont. A decade after his recording career had concluded, John A. Lomax expressed interest in Johnson’s music in an interview with another Blind Willie in 1940, but McTell perplexingly informed the ballad hunter that the gospel singer was dead, according to a letter he had received from Johnson’s wife. His house in Beaumont reportedly burned in the middle 1940s, and Blind Willie Johnson died on September 18, 1945, from a cause reported as malarial fever.
As with so many of history’s truest luminaries, Blind Willie Johnson’s greatest fame was achieved posthumously. Only seven years after his demise, Harry Smith included his 1930 recording of “John the Revelator” in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music, presenting Johnson’s music to a new generation of folkies. In 1977, Johnson’s instrumental “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was selected among the twenty-seven musical recordings included on the Voyager Golden Record, sending the blind pilgrim’s celestial music to an appropriate venue amongst the stars.
Columbia 14624-D was recorded in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 10 and 11, 1929, respectively. It was not released until October of 1931, making it Johnson’s last issued record. Reportedly, only 900 copies were pressed, and it is the only of Johnson’s records to be listed in the “Rarest 78s” column of 78 Quarterly, with an estimate of fifteen or fewer copies known to exist (though whether or not it actually is his rarest record is debatable)—this copy, incidentally, appears to match the description of the one which formerly belonged to Mr. Roger Misiewicz. Blind Willie Johnson sings both sides in his growling false bass voice and eschews his slide in favor of chording the frets with his bare fingers, he is joined by Willie B. Harris on the second side.
On the first side, recorded the former date, Willie sings “Sweeter as the Years Roll By”—an apt title for his final record—a folk interpretation of Lelia Naylor Morris’s 1912 hymn “Sweeter as the Years Go By” (which in fact are the lyrics Johnson sings in the evidently mis-titled song).
Sweeter as the Years Roll By, recorded December 10, 1929 by Blind Willie Johnson.
On the traditional spiritual “Take Your Stand”, Johnson’s vocals are complimented by the soprano of his wife Willie B. Harris. The song was also recorded by Elders McIntorsh and Edwards in 1928, and by Charley Patton (under the pseudonym “Elder J.J. Hadley”) as the first part of his “Prayer of Death” in June of 1929.
Take Your Stand, recorded December 11, 1929 by Blind Willie Johnson.
While now regarded alongside the nigh-legendary Blind Willie Johnson as a pioneer of the gospel music genre, snuff-dipping jack-leg preacher from Texas Washington Phillips was once largely forgotten and shrouded by mystery and misconceptions. Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of folklorists and researchers like Michael Corcoran, Phillips may finally begin to receive the appreciation he has so long deserved.
George Washington Phillips was born on January 11, 1880, near Cotton Gin, Texas, a few miles west of Teague in Freestone County—the very same region that produced pioneering blues luminary Blind Lemon Jefferson—one of at least ten children born to Timothy and Nancy Phillips. As an adult, he worked for a time as a hotel waiter in Mexia, but soon continued in the family trade of farming, working a strip of land very near the place of his birth in rural Simsboro. On the side, he found his calling as an itinerant preacher and sanctified singer in local churches and any opportune venues. In stark contrast to the fire-and-brimstone preaching of contemporaries like Blind Willie Johnson and his fellow guitar evangelists, Phillips’s music was delivered with a gentle touch and kind nature. More remarkably, Phillips eschewed the guitar in favor of accompanying his singing on an ethereal sounding instrument of rather enigmatic origin, previously thought to have been a toy-piano like zither known as a Dolceola (which may be heard on some of Lead Belly’s 1944 Capitol recordings, played by Paul Howard), but now widely believed to have been an instrument of his own invention which he dubbed a “manzarene”, comprised of two modified tabletop zithers (a celestaphone and a phonoharp) played in tandem, with which he was photographed in 1927. Possibly owing to an association with Lemon Jefferson, when the Columbia Phonograph Company made their first field trip to Dallas, Phillips made the journey eighty miles northward to record his sacred music. On Friday, December 2, 1927, directly following a session by the Cartwright Brothers’ cowboy singing duo, Washington Phillips became the first African-American musician, and only the second overall, to be recorded at the field trip. He waxed a total of six sides that day and the following Monday, and subsequently returned the following two Decembers to record a further twelve (two of which are presumed lost). Though the sudden onset of Depression curtailed Columbia’s field trips south, Phillips was still in Dallas in 1930, lodging at Wade Wilson’s shotgun house near Oak Cliff, though he eventually returned to the country life in Freestone County. Locally, “Wash” Phillips was as well known for his mule cart from which he peddled farm-fresh produce as he was for his music, and many of his hometown acquaintances were unaware that he had made records. Census records indicate that he was married at least twice, first to Anna, and then to Susie. At the age of seventy-four, Washington Phillips died following a fall on the stairs outside the Teague welfare office on September 20, 1954.
Columbia 14333-D was recorded in Dallas, Texas, on December 5, 1927, possibly at the Jefferson Hotel. On it, Washington Phillips sings and accompanied himself on “manzarene”. 78 Quarterly estimated “possibly as many as 30 to 40 copies” were extant.
Perhaps Washington Phillips’s best known recording and composition, in “Denomination Blues” he chides various religious sects for their perceived hypocrisy. Split into two parts, he sings and plays “Part 1” on the first side.
Denomination Blues – Part 1, recorded December 5, 1927, by Washington Phillips.
He concluded the number with “Part 2” on the reverse, turning his attention to the different varieties of “so-called Christians.” Of Phillips’s limited discography, the song proved particularly influential, being later adapted into the gospel song “That’s All” (for which Phillips received no credit, possibly because the song was believed to be of traditional origin), recorded by artists as diverse as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Merle Travis alike, which rather altered the song’s message by deviating from Phillips’s anti-sectarian “you better have Jesus, and that’s all” theme.
Denomination Blues – Part 2, recorded December 5, 1927, by Washington Phillips.
Some twenty years before Chester Burnett became famous as “Howlin’ Wolf”, another blues musician claimed that title for his own, a Texas guitarist and singer also known as “Funny Paper” Smith, called such after his eponymous “Howling Wolf Blues”, which he recorded in four parts in 1930 and ’31. Regrettably, like so many of his contemporaries, very little is known of the life and times of the original “Howling Wolf”.
Most sources suggest that the blues singer and guitarist known as “Funny Paper Smith” was John T. Smith, as is indicated on the labels of the records he made for the Vocalion company in 1930 and ’31. He is usually said to have been born in East Texas the 1880s or ’90s, and to have died sometime in the 1940s. Indeed, there are some documents to corroborate that a black musician by the name of John Smith existed in Texas during those years, though aside from sharing the most common name around, there is little to connect him to “Funny Paper”. It is also frequently suggested that his “Funny Paper” sobriquet was a mistake on the part of the record company, and that his nickname was properly “Funny Papa”. A good deal of that information seems to derive from the notes of the 1972 Yazoo compilation of some of his material—The Original Howling Wolf—which itself appears to have mostly been derived from an interview with fellow Texas bluesman Thomas Shaw (the same album also erroneously displays an early photograph of the Black Ace purported as Smith, thus staining its claim to accuracy).
Recently released research by the esteemed Mack McCormick—continued by Bob Eagle—has related a compelling argument for a different scenario; they suggest that “John Smith” was merely an assumed name used by the artist to evade trouble back home. In a 1962 interview, McCormick played one of the Smith’s records for Mrs. Alberta Cook White of Smithville, Texas, who identified the singer as her older brother, Otis Cook, whom she claimed was born there in Bastrop County on April 1, 1910. She related that he learned to play guitar as a youth and began rambling around the state of Texas, leaving behind life as a farmer in favor of becoming an itinerant songster, playing at local functions and sometimes leaving home for weeks at a time to visit Waco and Dallas, possibly encountering Blind Lemon Jefferson along the way. He was reportedly known to most of his contemporaries as the “Howling Wolf”, not as “Funny Papa” or “Funny Paper”, and he was described as being a tall, dark-skinned man of about one-hundred-sixty-five pounds (to complicate matters, it was suggested that the “Howling Wolf” name may have been used by more than one musician in Texas around the same time). Census documents suggest he was incarcerated at Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, Texas, on a charge of attempted arson in the spring of 1930, after which he promptly made for Chicago. There, “Smith” began his career as a recording artist for Vocalion Records, the details surrounding which are considerably more certain than those surrounding his identity.
Dubbed “‘Funny Paper’ Smith (The Howling Wolf)”, he entered the studio for the first time on September 18, 1930, to make two unreleased test recordings for the Vocalion company, “Hobo Blues” and “Old Rounder’s Blues” for the Vocalion company—the latter perhaps a rendition of Lemon Jefferson’s song of the same name. He made his debut in earnest the following day, cutting the first two installments of his eponymous, four-part, “Howling Wolf Blues” and two more sides the day after, all of which were issued this time around. He returned to the studio thrice more before the end of the year to make another five sides. The following year, he had a further five sessions resulting in fifteen more sides. Afterwards, “Funny Paper” evidently went back home to Texas. He resurfaced four years later in Fort Worth to record for Vocalion once again. From the twentieth through the twenty-third of April, 1935, he cut a total of thirty-two sides—including parts five and six of “Howling Wolf Blues”—on some of which he was joined by Moanin’ Bernice Edwards and Black Boy Shine on pianos and vocals and “Little Brother” Willie Lane on guitar. Of all those, only his three sides with Bernice Edwards were released, of which only one—a hot “skiffle” record—bore credit to “Howling Smith”; all others were “found to be faulty,” and never released in any form. In all, his recording activities netted a grand total of fifty-six sides, though only twelve records were issued to his name. In the late 1930s, “Smith” teamed up for a time with “Texas” Alexander before parting ways near the Oklahoma border, at which point Alexander joined with Lowell Fulson. Sometime later, Otis Cook is believed to have settled down with a family back home in Bastrop, where he later died on August 29, 1979. A testament to his reputation in his home state, the “Howling Wolf Blues” later became something of a standard among Texas blues players, with renditions made by his protégé Willie Lane, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Tom Shaw.
Melotone M 12117 was recorded on January 19, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois. It was also issued on Polk P9013 and later on Vocalion 02699 in 1934. Dessa Foster and J.T. “Funny Paper” Smith duet and banter on a novelty blues in the manner of those made by Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson for Okeh, while Smith accompanies on guitar. It has been proposed that “Dessa Foster” is a pseudonym for Mississippi Delta blues singer Mattie Delaney (frankly I’m rather dubious, but some compelling evidence has been presented, and there is a compelling aural similarity).
On the first part of the comic duet “Tell it to the Judge—No. 1”, Howling Smith plays the part of a police officer, barging into Miss Foster’s house with the question: “where that booze at?”
Tell it to the Judge—No. 1, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.
Opening with a fine bit of guitar reminiscent of his work on “Honey Blues”, recorded the following month, Smith assumes the role of the titular judge on “Tell it to the Judge—No. 2”, and he’s not giving any more breaks to “Betty”.
Tell it to the Judge—No. 2, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.
Out of the marshlands of northwestern Louisiana, where the Sabine River demarcates the edge of Texas, came Willard Thomas, a rambling character whose mournful singing and sliding steel guitar would epitomize the sound of a world where the blues was all around.
Willard Thomas was born in Logansport, Louisiana, right on the Texas border, around 1902, one of at least eight children of farmers Joel and Laura Thomas. His father played fiddle and Willard and his two brothers, Joel Jr. and Jesse, took up the guitar. Thomas purchased a guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalog, which came with a metal slide for playing Hawaiian steel guitar. Making good use of the hardware, he taught himself to play slide guitar in a rather idiosyncratic style, though also proving to be a fairly versatile player. Like many bluesmen in the region, Thomas took up in Deep Ellum in Dallas, alongside the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Coley Jones, and Huddie Ledbetter. He made his way around San Antonio and Oklahoma, where he no doubt encountered other musicians, such as “Texas” Alexander., and reportedly even associated with King Solomon Hill in Shreveport, with whom he shared some elements of musical style. At some point along the way, he picked up the nickname “Ramblin'” Thomas, attributable either to his style of living or his style of playing, if not both. Perhaps at the behest of Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had a session around the same time, Dallas music seller R.T. Ashford arranged for Thomas venture to Chicago, Illinois, in February of 1928 for a session with Paramount Records, netting a total of eight titles of which all were released. He returned to Chicago that November for another seven titles, including a memorable rendition of the blues staple “Poor Boy Blues” (a.k.a. “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home”), and possibly accompanied fellow Texas blues singer Moanin’ Bernice Edwards on another two. Finally, he made four recordings for Victor in their field trip to Dallas in February of 1932, one of which—”Ground Hog Blues”—bears considerable resemblance to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ in My Back Yard)”, recorded three days earlier at the same sessions; Jesse Thomas would later claim that Rodgers’ Blue Yodel was inspired by his brother’s song. Willard Thomas reportedly died of tuberculosis around 1944 or ’45 in Memphis, Tennessee. Outside of his recording career, most details surrounding Thomas’ life remain shrouded in obscurity. Brother Jesse “Babyface” Thomas also performed fairly prolifically over a lengthy career, recording first in Dallas in 1929, then reemerging after World War II as the “Blues Troubadour” on a number of different labels.
Paramount 12637 was recorded in February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, featuring Willard Thomas singing and accompanying himself on slide guitar. Be advised before listening that this rare record is in pretty sorry shape. I’ve tried to get it as listenable as I can with the resources available to me, but it’s about the worst sounding record I’ll ever post on Old Time Blues (I have some dignity, you see). If your ears can’t stomach the noise, I wouldn’t blame you—you can go on over to YouTube and look it up in better quality (I recommend this transfer).
First, Thomas plays and sings his mournful slide guitar opus, “So Lonesome”, the first title recorded at his first session and one of his best remembered songs.
So Lonesome, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.
On the flip, Thomas sings another outstanding blues of a rather deep shade: “Lock and Key Blues”, his third recorded side.
Lock and Key Blues, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.