Victor 20122 – Carl T. Sprague – 1926

Texas boy Carl T. Sprague was among the first cowboy singers to make records, with his first session taking place in 1925.  He also holds the uncommon distinction of being perhaps my favorite cowboy singer.

Sprague as pictured in Victor’s 1930 catalog of Old Familiar Tunes.

Carl Tyler Sprague was born in Brazoria County, Texas, near the town of Manvel, on May 10, 1895.  His family was involved in the thriving cattle business, through which the young Sprague learned the traditional songs of the cowboy.  He attended Texas A&M to study agriculture, but was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.  After the war’s end, he returned to Texas A&M, and graduated with a degree in animal husbandry.  After graduating, he was employed as an athletic instructor at the university, a position which he held from 1922 until 1937, and acquired the nickname “Doc”.  Following the success of Vernon Dalhart’s “mountaineer’s songs”, Sprague wrote to the Victor Talking Machine Company expressing interest having them record some of his cowboy songs.  They apparently obliged, and Sprague traveled to Camden, New Jersey to make two test recordings.  Victor must’ve liked them, because two months later, he returned to record a series of ten sides in sessions on the third, fourth, and fifth of August, 1925, half of which were issued.  His first record, “When the Work’s All Done This Fall”, became quite a hit, and proved that people were interested in hearing the song of the cowboy.  That was followed by a further three sessions over the following three years in Camden, Savannah, Georgia, and Dallas, producing eighteen more sides, all of which were released.  In spite of his records’ success, singing was but a hobby for Sprague, and he did not pursue a music career outside of record-making.  He left his post at Texas A&M in 1937 and opened a store in Bryan, and when the Second World War rolled in, he served once again, as a recruiter.  The folk revival of the 1960s brought Sprague back into music, and he played and lectured around the country, and recorded two LPs in 1972 and ’74.  Carl T. Sprague died on February 21, 1979 in Bryan, Texas, where he had called home since 1920.

Victor 20122 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on June 22, 1926, at Sprague’s second series of sessions.  The record was released in December of the same year, and remained in the catalog all the way until 1944, perhaps indicating it was Sprague’s greatest success.  Sprague is accompanied by two fiddles played by H.J. McKenzie and C.R. Dockum.

Stark, bleak, and sorrowful, “O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy)” is a mesmerizing, repetitive, and minimalistic piece, with Sprague’s vocal backed by the beat of his guitar and the forlorn fiddle’s croon, which I feel really encapsulates an archetype of cowboy music.  The song has been featured in recent years on Dust-to-Digital’s evocative multimedia collection I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs (1880-1955).

O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy), recorded June 22, 1926 by Carl T. Sprague.

On “B”, Sprague sings “The Cowboy’s Dream”, a less depressing and rather enchanting melody.  It also provides a demonstration of Sprague’s distinctive and simple-yet-pleasing style of playing guitar, which from both aural and photographic evidence, seems to have been done on a metal-bodied resonator, or at least it was by the end of his recording career in 1929.

The Cowboy’s Dream, recorded June 26, 1926 by Carl T. Sprague.

Bluebird B-5433 & B-5562 – Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers – 1934

Few old time “hillbilly” string bands of the 1920s and ’30s left behind such illustrious and distinguished legacies (and darned good music, too) as Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.  From their first recordings in 1926, Tanner’s Skillet Lickers established themselves as one of the most commercially successful “hillbilly” bands of the decade.  But as the twenties ceased to roar giving way to depression, the record industry quickly faltered, and so did the recording oriented Skillet Lickers.  The band had their last session for Columbia Records—with whom they had recorded exclusively since their first session—in October of 1931, and broke up thereafter.  Fiddle player Clayton McMichen went on to form his Georgia Wildcats and found success on radio and records through the remainder of the decade.  Come 1934 however, Gid put together a reunion of sorts.  Together with his son Gordon Tanner, old pal Riley Puckett, and mandolin player Ted Hawkins, they traveled to San Antonio, Texas, where the RCA Victor Company was holding a series of recording sessions at the Texas Hotel.  There, they recorded in two sessions on March 29th and 30th a series of twenty four sides, mostly energetic and jubilant dance tunes in stark contrast with the hard times the nation was then facing at the depth of the Great Depression, concluding with two of their classic “skit” records: “Prosperity and Politics” and “Practice Night With the Skillet Lickers”.

Bluebird B-5433 and B-5562 were both recorded on March 29, 1934 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas—the same time and place Riley Puckett recorded his famed solo performance of “Ragged but Right” and others.  The former was released on April 18th of that year, and the latter on July 18th.  B-5433 was also issued concurrently on Montgomery Ward M-4845, and B-5562 was reissued widely throughout the following decades on RCA Victor 20-2167 and 420-0569, making it all the way into the 45 RPM era on 447-0569.  The Skillet Lickers are Gid Tanner and his son Gordon Tanner on fiddles, Ted Hawkins on mandolin, and Riley Puckett on guitar.

On B-5433, the Skillet Lickers play two old time fiddle standards, both tunes which they recorded previously in 1930 and ’29, respectively.  First it’s “Georgia Waggoner”, the first side they recorded at the reunion session.

Georgia Waggoner, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Next, keeping in the same theme, they follow with one of my personal favorites, a high energy rendition of “Mississippi Sawyer”, punctuated by Hawkins’ mandolin.  The band members can be heard talking over the music, lending to an informal atmosphere.

Mississippi Sawyer, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

On B-5562, the Skillet Lickers first play that old 1921 L. Wolfe Gilbert standby, “Down Yonder” (which we last heard played by an unidentified pianist).  This might just be my favorite Skillet Lickers side; I like their 1934 sound with the added mandolin, even though the old mainstays like Clayton McMichen and Fate Norris are absent.

Down Yonder, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Then, they play another utterly bright and feel-good tune, the traditional fiddle piece “Back Up and Push”.  Though not credited as such in Russell’s Country Music Records, I’m quite certain Riley Puckett’s voice can be heard on this side, hollering some of the calls (“now ladies in the center and gents catch air, hold ‘er Newt, don’t let ‘er rare”).

Back Up and Push, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Updated on April 28, 2018.

Vocalion 04727 – W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys – 1938

On this day, we celebrate the life and accomplishments of one hayseed flour salesman from Ohio whose name went down in the history books: Mr. “Pappy” O’Daniel.

“Pappy”, as pictured on the cover of “Beautiful Texas”.

Wilbert Lee O’Daniel was born in Malta, Ohio on March 11, 1890.  When he was a baby, the family relocated to Kansas following the death of the O’Daniel patriarch.  Lee entered the flour industry at the age of eighteen, and soon went on the move, eventually settling in Fort Worth, where he began working for the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company of Saginaw, Texas as sales manager.  In 1928, O’Daniel became the company’s director of advertising in the newly emerging medium of radio broadcasting.  About three years later, he hired the Wills Fiddle Band, at the time consisting of fiddler Bob Wills, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, and singer Milton Brown, to perform on the air as the Light Crust Doughboys.  Not a fan of their hillbilly music however, O’Daniel canceled their show a couple weeks later.  Fans of the show were not pleased, and soon the Light Crust Doughboys were back on the air.  By 1933, the original Doughboys had parted ways, and a new lineup of musicians had taken over the moniker, going on to achieve great radio acclaim.  In 1935, O’Daniel was fired from his position with the Burrus Mill, and he went on to found his own flour company, the W. Lee O’Daniel Flour Company, manufacturer of Hillbilly Flour.  To promote the new product, “Pappy” O’Daniel formed a new radio band: the Hillbilly Boys, which included his two sons Mike and Pat.  Broadcasting from WBAP in Fort Worth and “border blaster” XEPN in Piedras Negras, Mexico, the Hillbilly Boys also found considerable fame with their madcap radio theme “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy”.

Come 1938, W. Lee O’Daniel registered to run for Governor of Texas—his platform, the ten commandments, and his campaign slogan, the golden rule.  He took his Hillbilly Boys on the campaign trail and drew huge crowds.  Winning the election, he promised no sales tax or poll tax, an end to capital punishment, and an old-age pension.  He delivered on none.  Nonetheless, he proved popular enough and was reelected in 1940.  Shortly into his second term as Governor, O’Daniel set his sights on a more prestigious and powerful position, the United States Senate.  When Senator Morris Sheppard died in 1941, O’Daniel appointed the eighty-six year old son of Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson Houston, to fill his empty seat in the interim.  When Houston himself died several months later, O’Daniel defeated Lyndon B. Johnson in a special election and took the seat for himself.  When the next election came around, he asserted that his opponents, former governors Dan Moody and James V. Allred, were part of a communist conspiracy against him, alienating himself from some of his supporters, but nonetheless claiming the election.  In 1944, he campaigned for the Texas Regulars, opposing Roosevelt’s fourth term.  Serving ineffectively for eight years, O’Daniel declined to run for reelection in 1948—citing the hopelessness of saving America from the commies (though in reality he had simply embarrassed too many of his constituents)—and was replaced by “Landslide Lyndon”.  Thereafter, he retired to a ranch outside Fort Worth, making several ill-fated political comebacks in the 1950s and claiming that the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools in Brown v. Board of Education was a communist plot.  W. Lee O’Daniel died on May 12, 1969 in Dallas, at the age of 79.

Vocalion 04727 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on December 3, 1938.  The Hillbilly Boys are Mike O’Daniel on fiddle, Bundy Bratcher on the accordion, Kermit Whalen on the steel guitar, Pat O’Daniel on tenor banjo, Leon Huff and Curly Perrin on guitars, and Wallace Griffin on string bass.  Huff sings the vocals on both sides.

First: the Hillbilly Boys’ theme song, “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy”, really the 1933 song “I Like Mountain Music” with new words added by W. Lee O’Daniel to reflect his floury interests.

Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy (I Like Mountain Music), recorded December 3, 1938 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys.

On the other side, the Hillbilly boys do a swell job swinging the 1927 tune “One Sweet Letter From You”.  I bought the record for “Please Pass the Biscuits Pappy”, but I do believe I like this one better.

One Sweet Letter from You, recorded December 3, 1938 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys.

Gold Star 1314/1313-A – Harry Choates and his Fiddle – 1946

In Old Time Blues’ ever-continuing tradition of honoring Texas musicians, the time has come to play our respects to “l’Parrain de la Musique Cajun”—Harry Choates—whose 1946 hit of “Jole Blon” put Cajun music on the charts.

Harry Henry Choates was born on December 26, 1922 somewhere in the southern part of Louisiana, i.e. Cajun country.  Different sources suggest Rayne, New Iberia, and Cow Island.  He moved with his family to Port Arthur, Texas as a child, and spent most of his childhood glued to the jukebox.  Choates took up the fiddle by the age of twelve and began busking around town, also learning to play guitar, steel guitar, and accordion.  Playing alongside such notables as Leo Soileau and Happy Fats’ Rayne-Bo Ramblers while only still a youth, Choates was soon to find great success of his own.  In the mid-1940s, he organized a band of his own—the Melody Boys—and began recording professionally for the Houston-based Bill Quinn’s Gold Star Records (“King of the Hillbillies”), then later for Charles D. and Macy Henry’s Macy’s Recordings (“Queen of Hits”), as well as a few other labels.  They also played around south Texas.  Choates’ Gold Star recording of “Jole Blon” (read all about that below) became a smash hit, and won him his greatest fame.  Unfortunately, that fame was to be short-lived for Choates; he was an alcoholic, and frequently showed up at gigs drunk.  His habitual unreliability got him blacklisted by the local musicians’ union, after which his band broke up.  After moving to Austin in the early 1950s, Choates was jailed for failing to make child support payments to his estranged wife Helen.  While imprisoned and experiencing withdrawals from liquor, he knocked himself unconscious on the cell bars.  After a few days spent comatose, Harry Choates died on July 17, 1951, the official cause listed as “fatty metamorphosis of the liver.”

Gold Star 1314 and 1313-A were recorded at the Quinn Recording Co. at 3104 Telephone Road, Houston, TX, on or around March 31, 1946 for “1314” and around June of 1946 for “1313”  (in spite of the numbering, “1314” was apparently recorded earlier). It was soon after issued on Modern Records number 20-511 out of Los Angeles, and DeLuxe 6000.  Some copies of the Gold Star issue misspelled Choates as “Shoates” while the Modern misspelled it “Coates”.  Per Praguefrank’s online discography, Harry Choates’ Melody Boys (though not credited as such on the label) consist of Choates on fiddle and vocals, Esmond Pursley and B.D.Williams on guitar, Charles Stagle on banjo, James Foster on string bass, and William Slay on piano for the the “1314” side.  On the “1313” side, Abe Manuel plays rhythm guitar while Williams takes the bass, and Joe Manuel plays banjo.

“Jolie Blonde”—French for “Pretty Blonde”—was for many years a popular tune in Cajun country, first recorded in 1929 by the Breaux Frères.  In 1946, Harry Choates took his Melody Boys to Bill Quinn’s recording studio in Houston, making the song their first recording, which Quinn misspelled as “Jole Blon”.  The record was released in the summer of ’46 and became an unexpected runaway hit, rising to number four in the Billboard charts, becoming the only Cajun record to reach that position.  Gold Star couldn’t keep up with the demand, and had to lease masters to other record companies.  Numerous follow-ups and sequels were spawned by the success, by Choates—including an English version, “Jole Brun (Pretty Brunette)”, “Mari Jole Blon (Jole Blon’s Husband)”, and “Jole Blon’s Farewell”—and by others, such as Moon Mullican’s “New Pretty Blonde (New Jole Blon)” and “Jole Blon’s Sister”, Bob Wills’ “Jolie Blond Likes the Boogie” (itself sort of a sequel to his “Ida Red Likes the Boogie” of the previous year), Wayne Raney’s “Jole Blon’s Ghost”, and others.  Unfortunately, Choates, a chronic alcoholic, sold his rights to royalties for a hundred dollars and a bottle of whiskey.

Jole Blon, recorded March 31, 1946 by Harry Choates and his Fiddle.

On the other side, “Basile Waltz”, also sung in Cajun, is a lowdown minor key tune that takes you right down into the bayou.

Basile Waltz, recorded June 1946 by Harry Choates and his Fiddle.

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.  In 1952, Harry Smith included the song in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music.  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.

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.