Okeh 8106 – Sippie Wallace – 1923

While Blind Lemon Jefferson is often identified as the Father of the Texas Blues for his pioneering recordings made in 1926, it is every bit as important to acknowledge the lady blues singers that blazed the trail before him, such as the “Texas Nightingale”, Houston’s own Sippie Wallace.

Sippie was born Beulah Bell Thomas on the Bell Bayou near Pine Bluff, Arkansas,  on November 1, 1898, one of the thirteen children of the musical family of George and Fanny Thomas.  The family moved to Houston, Texas, before the turn of the century (her birthplace is often cited as Houston, but the U.S. Census of 1900 suggests Arkansas).  She acquired the nickname Sippie in school because her “teeth were so far apart [she] had to sip everything.”  Her father was a deacon in the Shiloh Baptist Church, where she sang and played the organ.  On summer evenings, she would sneak away with some of her siblings to the tent shows, where she first met the blues, and where she first began singing it when one of the stars asked her to join the chorus.  Soon, she was traveling with the shows across the state.  Her older brother George W. Thomas gained note as a ragtime musician and composer in New Orleans (and whose daughter Hociel also sang the blues), and she moved there with her younger brother Hersal—also a pianist—to live with him in 1915.  There, in 1917, she met and later married Matt Wallace.  Like her contemporaries “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, she toured on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit in the early 1920s, during which time she earned the sobriquet “The Texas Nightingale”.  She moved with her brothers to Chicago in 1923, and not long after made her recording debut for the Okeh record company.  That arrangement proved quite lucrative, and she recorded forty-four sides for the company between October of 1923 and May of 1927, some featuring star-studded accompaniments by the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Clarence Williams, and many others backed by brother Hersal.  Subsequently, she recorded four sides for Victor in 1929, backed by some members of the Dixieland Jug Blowers and her own piano, of which only two made the cut.  She moved to Detroit in 1929, and following the deaths of both her husband and brother George in 1936, she turned from the blues to religion, becoming organist and choir director at the Leland Baptist Church.  She made one record with Albert Ammons’ Rhythm Kings for Mercury in 1945, reviving her old “Bedroom Blues”, but kept her back mostly to the blues until 1966, when her friend and fellow Texas blues singer Victoria Spivey convinced her to make a comeback.  Her return was met with success, and she toured the United States and Europe and recorded several albums, particularly influencing young musician Bonnie Raitt.  She was one of the last surviving classic female blues singers of the 1920s when she was incapacitated by a stroke in March of 1986.  Sippie Wallace died eight months later on her eighty-eighth birthday.

Okeh 8106 was recorded in October of 1923 in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Sippie Wallace’s first record and accounts for the entirety of her first recording session.  Wallace is accompanied on piano by Eddie Heywood, Sr.

“Shorty George Blues” was composed by Sippie’s brother George and niece Hociel.  Fellow Texans Lead Belly and James “Iron Head” Baker later recorded largely unrelelated folk songs under the same title, but the echoes of Wallace’s song can be heard throughout the country blues; the opening verse alone recycled in numerous other blues songs, such as Bo Weavil Jackson’s “You Can’t Keep No Brown”.

Shorty George Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.

Another family affair, Wallace shares the composer’s credit with her brother George W. Thomas for her “Up the Country Blues”, drawing both lyrics and style from the country blues tradition not yet recorded at the time.

Up the Country Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.

Paramount 12354 – Blind Lemon Jefferson – 1926

A crop of the only known photograph of Lemon Jefferson, circa 1926, as was pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues.

The legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson was renowned for traveling far and wide all across the United States, ranging territories far exceeding that traversed by many of his contemporaries.  His journeys broadened his musical horizons considerably wider than most home-bound musicians and brought him into contact with numerous other blues people, whom he seldom failed to impress.  While many of his contemporaries were confined to their region or state, Lemon achieved national fame through his successful recording contract, and toured all around the country.  As such, he impressed his music on a broad variety of different audiences, and conversely incorporated a broad variety of different musical influences into his own style of playing.

While he may not have “walked from Dallas to Wichita Falls,” Lemon was an institution in his native Texas around his local haunts like Central Track (a.k.a. Deep Ellum) in Dallas, and was said to have taken the interurban train from Denison down to Waco, entertaining passengers along the way, sometimes joined by his friend Huddie Ledbetter.  Lemon was well known around such small towns as Mart, Texas—eighteen miles east of Waco—where he would sit on Main Street for hours on end playing his music for passers-by.  He was a staple at country barbecues and picnics, one of which brought him into contact with the eight-year-old Sam Hopkins, who helped guide him around, and it’s said that he became one of the only people Lemon would allow to play with him.  A similar privilege was afforded to young Dallas-native Aaron “Oak Cliff T-Bone” Walker—purportedly the stepson of Dallas String Band bassist Marco Washington, an associate of Jefferson’s—who was indelibly impressed with the elder bluesman’s style of playing.  Josh White, too, claimed to have spent some time as Jefferson’s lead boy for a brief period in his youth.  In Johnson City, Tennessee, Lemon’s playing attracted the interest of white musician Clarence Greene, who was inspired by Jefferson’s virtuoso blues guitar-picking, showing it particularly in his song “Johnson City Blues”.  Probably through his records, Lemon also impressed his style on white musicians Larry Hensley and Debs Mays, who recorded versions of his “Match Box Blues” and “Rabbit Foot Blues”, respectively, in the middle of the 1930s, following Jefferson’s own demise; both imitated Lemon’s style of playing closely.  Travels in Virginia brought Lemon in contact with ragtime guitarists Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay, who introduced young musician Lesley Riddle to him.  Riddle soon after befriended A.P. Carter, and impressed his blues knowledge on the Carter Family in the next decade.  In 1928, while passing through Minden, Louisiana, Jefferson picked up fellow musician Joe Holmes, traveling with him in Texas for a short period.  Holmes eventually traveled to Wisconsin to record for Paramount as King Solomon Hill, and posthumously eulogized his friendship with Jefferson in the song “My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon”.  He was also eulogized by his old friend Lead Belly in at least four different songs, including his 1935 ARC recording of “My Friend Blind Lemon”, and the eponymous “Blind Lemon”, memorably recounted in the 1976 movie about Ledbetter’s life: “Blind Lemon—oh baby—he’s a blind man!  He doin’ all he can—oh baby—’till he’s travelin’ through the land.”

Paramount 12354 was released with two different sets of masters; original pressings use 2472 and 2471, respectively, recorded at Paramount’s studio in March of 1926, this one uses the later takes—1054 and 1053, though the labels were not altered to reflect it—which were electrically recorded at Marsh Laboratories in Chicago, Illinois around May of the same year.  You may note that both labels erroneously give composer’s credit to “Lemons” Jefferson.

Firstly Lemon delivers one of his most successful numbers: “Long Lonesome Blues”, with that hot bit in the middle in which he busts out the lyrics: “hey, mama mama, papa papa ’deed double do love you doggone it, somebody’s talking to you mama papa ’deed double do love you” (or something to that effect) in double time.  Beginning with the lyrics, “I walked from Dallas, I walked to Wichita Falls” (which were later copped by Bob Wills), this song stood alongside “Match Box Blues”—with which it shares many melodic similarities—as one of Lemon’s best known numbers to his audiences back home in Texas.

Long Lonesome Blues, recorded c. May 1926 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

“The blues come to Texas, lopin’ like a mule,” Lemon opens his “Got the Blues”, which in later years lent the verse to title Mack McCormick and Paul Oliver’s magnum opus book on the Texas blues.  Echoes of the song can be heard in subsequent Texas blues songs from Texas Alexander’s “Texas Special” to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Mojo Hand”.

Got the Blues, recorded c. May 1926 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Brunswick 7184 – Gene Campbell – 1930

The enigmatic Gene Campbell was among the most exemplary of the Texas blues musicians to record in the beginning of the Great Depression, yet nothing much is known of the elusive guitarist and singer; he had a more prolific recording career than most of his contemporaries, and in fact bears the distinction of being the only guitar-playing country blues singer recorded by Brunswick in Texas (all others were backed by jazz bands), yet all but very few substantial details surrounding his life and times have been lost to time.

An account related in the early 1960s to the esteemed researcher Mack McCormick by fellow Texas blues musician James “Smokestack” Tisdom—a protégé of Campbell’s—suggests that the singer’s proper name was Willie Gene Campbell and that he hailed from San Antonio and was born around 1902.  Lyrics such as “born in Texas, raised in Texas too” in his “Western Plain Blues” and mention of “Waco, Dallas, Fort Worth, or San Antonio” in his “Don’t Leave Me Here Blues”, further pointed to Campbell’s roots in the Lone Star State.  Queries of public records have as yet yielded no conclusive information regarding Campbell.  He seems to have spent at least a portion of his life drifting across the region of his origin, and it is possible that he at one time belonged, in some respect, to the loose group of songsters and blues moaners known to hang around the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas that included the likes of Ramblin’ Thomas, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Huddie Ledbetter.  It was in Dallas that Gene Campbell made his first two recordings in November of 1929, beginning his rather brief recording career with commanding performances of “Mama, You Don’t Mean Me No Good No How” and “Bended Knee Blues” (Brunswick 7139).  In his work, he demonstrated a strong and smooth singing voice somewhat reminiscent of his contemporary “Texas” Alexander and an idiosyncratic but deft guitar style echoing that of the influential Lonnie Johnson, that may have employed a flatpick.  Many of his songs dealt with the familiar subject matter of woman troubles, and most shared a similar melody and structure, spiced up with a variety of embellishments.  His first record must have impressed the Brunswick people, because the following year, he traveled to their headquarters in Chicago to cut a further ten sides.  Among those ten recorded at his second session was the two-part “Freight Train Yodeling Blues” (Brunswick 7161), which echoed both the themes and melodies popularized by “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, and illustrated Campbell’s variegated repertoire.  When Brunswick returned to Dallas that November, Campbell recorded another four songs.  He returned to Chicago one final time for two days in January of 1931 to make his last eight, resulting in a grand total of twenty-four sides as his recorded legacy, and making him the most prolific of the handful of country blues players to be recorded by Brunswick, and the second most prolific artist in their 7000-series of “race” records, behind only calypsonian Lionel Belasco.  James Tisdom reported that Campbell was still living in the early 1960s and working as a rice farmer in Bay City, but was no longer active as a musician.    Unfortunately, McCormick was not able to locate Campbell if he was indeed still living at that time, and his fate remains undetermined.

Brunswick 7184 was recorded around May of 1930 in Chicago, Illinois, at Campbell’s second session.  Gene Campbell sings the blues, accompanying himself on the guitar.

Though you may not be able to read the label, Campbell first sings “Lazy Woman Blues”, imploring his girl that she “must get a job, or [she] must leave.”  The lyrics of this song were closely mirrored seven years later in a song called “Trifling Woman” by Fort Worth blues musician Black Ace (B.K. Turner), further suggesting Campbell’s Texas roots, as well as his influence on fellow artists in the region.

Lazy Woman Blues, recorded c. May 1930 by Gene Campbell.

On the reverse, he moans another verse of romantic discontent on the rather morose sounding “Wish I Could Die”.

Wish I Could Die, recorded c. May 1930 by Gene Campbell.

Paramount 12417 – Elzadie Robinson – 1926

Elzadie Robinson, pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues, circa 1927.

When asked to imagine “country blues,” what image springs to mind?  Probably that of a lone man with an acoustic guitar busking on some southern street corner, or hiking down a lonesome dusty road.  But ubiquitous as that description may seem, a woman and a piano can make for just as much of “country” blues as a man and a guitar, as proven by Elzadie Robinson on the pair of haunting, down home blues songs herein.

Elzadie Robinson is believed to have been born on the twenty-fourth of April in either 1897 or 1900, and in Logansport, Louisiana, right on the border with Texas.  Little is known of her early life, or what brought her into the world of the blues.  Paramount promotional material reported that she began singing professionally around the age of twelve, and was popular in Houston and Galveston area cabarets.  She and her accompanist Will Ezell were discovered in 1926 by Art Laibly of Paramount Records and referred to Chicago record.  From then until 1929, she sang for the label, making a total of sixteen records.  Singing mostly songs of her own composition, Robinson was most often accompanied by pianists such as Will Ezell or Bob Call, sometimes joined by more musicians such as Blind Blake or Johnny Dodds.  She was distinguished alongside Ma Rainey and Ida Cox as one of Paramount’s most prominent blues ladies, and as such was honored with a segment dedicated to her in their circa 1927 publication The Paramount Book of Blues.  She married Perry Henderson of Flint, Michigan, in 1928, and retired from music the following year.  As with her upbringing, details surrounding her later life are obscure.  Many years later, Ezadie Henderson died on January 17, 1975.

William Ezell, Robinson’s most frequent accompanist, hailed from the eastern half of Texas; he was born in the town of Brenham on December 23, 1892.  He got his start as an itinerant pianist in turpentine camp barrelhouses and the like deep in the Piney Woods of east Texas, the birthplace of the musical style known as boogie woogie.  Traveling with Elzadie Robinson to Chicago in 1926, Ezell began recording extensively for Paramount Records in the five years that followed, both as an accompanist to singers like Robinson, Lucille Bogan, and others, and as a solo pianist and occasional vocalist, making several recordings with Blind Roosevelt Graves.  Recordings such as “Pitchin’ Boogie” and “Heifer Dust” helped to define the boogie woogie genre in its early years on records.  It has been reported that following the death of Blind Lemon Jefferson in the winter of 1929, Ezell accompanied the musician’s body as it was transported by train back from Chicago to Wortham, Texas.  He made his final recordings in 1931, as Paramount was faltering under the burden of the Great Depression, accompanying vaudevillian vocalist Slim Tarpley.  He is said to have returned south to Louisiana after the demise of Paramount Records, but soon came back to Chicago, and continued playing professionally until at least the 1940s, at which time he was reportedly employed by the WPA as a watchman.  Will Ezell died in Chiago on August 2, 1963.

Paramount 12417 was recorded around October of 1926 in Chicago, Illinois.  Of the two takes issued for both sides, these are “1” and “2”, respectively.  It is the first record of both Robinson and Ezell.

First, Robinson and Ezell make a blues straight out of the East Texas lumber camps: “Sawmill Blues”.  Robinson’s lazy vocals, seeming to hang behind Ezell’s piano playing, lend a candid, even dreamlike quality to the recording, as if we just stepped into a Piney Woods juke joint at the end of the night following a hard working day.

Sawmill Blues, recorded c. October 1926 by Elzadie Robinson.

On the reverse, Elzadie’s vocal drifts in and out on the classic “Barrel House Man”—the melody of which was later appropriated for Lucille Bogan’s “Sloppy Drunk Blues” (this one’s better though, I say)—to Ezell’s strong accompaniment, making ample use of the sustain pedal for that genuine barrelhouse sound.

Barrel House Man, recorded c. October 1926 by Elzadie Robinson.

Gold Star 662 – Lightnin’ Hopkins – 1949

Dating to four years after the close of the second World War, these two sides are a little past the typical era of material presented on Old Time Blues, but their excellence earns them a position among the ancients.  They are the work of the artist who succeeded Blind Lemon Jefferson as “King of the Texas Blues”—and perhaps the coolest man to ever walk the earth—the legendary Lightnin’ Hopkins.

The man who would become “Lightnin'” was born Sam John Hopkins on the fifteenth of March in either 1911 or 1912, in Centerville, Texas, located halfway between Dallas and Houston.  He moved with his mother to neighboring Leona after the death of his father in 1915.  While attending a church picnic in nearby Buffalo, Texas, around the year 1920, the eight-year-old Hopkins encountered Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was providing music for the function.  Jefferson instilled the blues in Hopkins, and the young boy was inspired to build a cigar box guitar for himself and start down the path of a musician.  He began his musical career with Jefferson—who purportedly scolded the young musician for joining in his music-making, but allowed him the rare privilege of playing alongside him once he became aware of Hopkins’ age—and his cousin “Texas” Alexander.

By the middle of the 1920s, Hopkins was living as an itinerant musician, a streak which was cut short by a stretch spent in the Houston County Prison Farm, on charges unknown.  After his release, Hopkins returned to his hometown and found work as a farmhand, giving up music for a short time.  By the end of the Second World War,  Hopkins had picked up his guitar once again and went back to Houston to sing on street corners.  There, in 1946, he was discovered by Lola Anne Cullum, a talent scout for the Los Angeles, California-based Aladdin Records.  Hopkins traveled to California, and made his first records accompanying Texas piano man Wilson “Thunder” Smith, which gained him his nickname “Lightnin'”.  Recording a total of forty-three sides for Aladdin between 1946 and ’48, Hopkins went on to make discs for numerous other labels over the course of his long career.  He settled in Houston by the beginning of the 1950s, and began recording for Bill Quinn’s Gold Star label, producing some hit records such as “‘T’ Model Blues” and “Tim Moore’s Farm”.

Already popular with southern black audiences, Lightnin’ became endeared to the folk and blues revivalists thanks to the promotion of Texas musicologist Mack McCormick in 1959, and he appeared at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1960.  In 1962 he made the album Mojo Hand, introducing the titular song, which was to become a standard of his repertoire.  In 1967, he was the star of Les Blank’s documentary The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins.  He toured around the world, and made appearances on Austin City Limits in the 1970s, establishing himself as one of the leading country blues figures of his day.  After performing professionally to great acclaim in five consecutive decades, Lightnin’ Hopkins died of esophageal cancer on January 30, 1982.

Gold Star 662 was recorded around July of 1949 at 3104 Telephone Road in Houston, Texas.  Lightnin’ Hopkins sings and accompanies himself on guitar; on side “A”, he is backed on slide guitar by Harding “Hop” Wilson.

Firstly, Hopkins sings “Jail House Blues”, a quintessential country blues song drawing inspiration from the “floating verses” endemic of the blues, and with the slide guitar accompaniment adding a bit of extra zest to Lightnin’s own playing.

Jail House Blues, recorded c. July 1949 by Lightnin’ Hopkins.

One of Lightnin’s bigger hits of his early career, he sings and plays solo on “‘T’ Model Blues” (“Lord, my starter won’t start this mornin'”)—a masterful blues that sends a shiver right down my spine.

‘T’ Model Blues, recorded c. July 1949 by Lightnin’ Hopkins.