Keynote 106 – Talking Union – 1941

As the Great Depression gave way to the war economy at the beginning of the 1940s, many formerly unemployed workers were called back to the shops.  As such, many of them found it prudent to unionize and protect their rights.  In their support, a group of left-leaning folksingers offered to their cause what they knew best: music.  In the memory of the late labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, the Almanac Singers made Talking Union with a simple message: “Don’t mourn for me—organize.”

The album cover of Talking Union;  “Dedicated to the Memory of Joe Hill.”

The Almanac Singers organized in 1940 when Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Millard Lampell came together over a mutual love for folk music and leftist politics.  Sometimes Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Sis Cunningham, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Bess Lomax Hawes, and others would join in as well.  They drew the name from one of the two books in every rural household: the almanac and the Bible—the latter to latter to help them through the next world, the former to help through this one.  Aligned with the Popular Front, their intention was to fight fascism and racism, oppose the war, and elevate the working peoples by singing “the old tunes working people have been singing for a long time,” in the spirit of old Joe Hill.  “Sing `em easy, sing `em straight, no holds barred,” they professed.  In the spring of 1941, they group made their first records for New York record shop owner Eric Bernay, a six disc album titled Songs for John Doe, opposing American involvement in the war in Europe, pressed on their own vanity label by Keynote Recordings and distributed primarily through communist bookstores.  Despite low circulation and controversy surrounding the first album, they followed up a few months later with another, Talking Union, “dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill,” this time appearing on the Keynote label.  Reissued by Folkways Records in 1955, it proved to be their most popular work.  Subsequently, the Almanac Singers recorded two non-political albums of folk music: Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads, and Sod Buster Ballads.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Alamacs reversed their stance on the war and recorded Dear Mr. President, another Keynote album.  Outside of recording, the Almanac Singers performed for workers, pioneering the mold of the modern folk music group by wearing working clothes and encouraging audiences to join in their song.  As the war ramped up in 1942, the Almanacs were targeted by U.S. intelligence who deemed their message “seditious,” and were routinely smeared by the media until their final dissolution at the end of 1942 or beginning of ’43.  The breakup did little to stifle the careers of its former members; Seeger and Hays both enjoyed long careers as folksingers, while Lampell went on to Hollywood to become a successful screenwriter.

Keynote 106—Talking Union—is a three-disc album comprised of K 301 through K 303.  It was recorded circa May of 1941 in Central Park West, New York City, and released the following July.  The Almanac Singers are Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Carol White, Sam Gary, and Josh White; Seeger plays banjo and White plays guitar.  The album is dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill.

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Conqueror 8066 – Johnny Marvin – 1932

The days of the Great Depression, in spite of the stalled economy, proved to be anything but a time devoid of happening, for times of unrest and discontent always seem to push men to action.

One such action took place on the nation’s capital, during the summer of 1932; thousands of down-on-their-luck veterans of the Great War and their supporters marched on the capitol to demand the government pay their bonuses for their service in the war, which they were not scheduled to receive until 1945.  Dubbed the “Bonus Army”, the protestors built up a Hooverville along the banks of the Anacostia river.  The legislators debated how to respond to the veterans’ plea, but ultimately denied them their bonus.  The Bonus Army’s struggle reached its climax on July 28, 1932, when a riot broke out, resulting in two men being shot and killed by police.  In response, President Hoover called in the Army to “surround the affected area and clear it without delay,” so Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur commanded a contingent of five-hundred infantrymen and six tanks against the protestors, and, despite Hoover’s subsequent order to stop the assault, forced the veterans and their families out of the camp with tear gas, MacArthur claiming that the Bonus Army had been taken over by communists plotting to overthrow the federal government.  The Bonus Army reconvened on Washington following Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933, and the new administration provided more favorable results, compromising with the veterans by offering them jobs in the CCC, or a free ride back home.  Most of them took the job.

Needless to say, a sizable fraction of Americans were outraged by the attack on their own war veterans, and the media came out in support of the “forgotten man”, paying them tribute in films like Gold Diggers of 1933.  On this record, the “Ukulele Ace” Johnny Marvin sings in a “citybilly” style what is most certainly the first song dedicated to the Bonus Army, and probably among the earliest American protest songs on record.

Conqueror 8066 was recorded in New York City on July 28, 1932—the very same day the Bonus Army conflict reached its climax—by Johnny Marvin, who accompanies himself on guitar.  Roy Smeck plays steel guitar, switching to banjo on the “B” side.

Johnny Marvin sings out in support of the dejected veterans on “I’m The Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 1” on the first side of this record.

I’m the Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 1, recorded July 28, 1932 by Johnny Marvin.

Marvin concludes his protest song on the reverse with “I’m the Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 2”.

I’m the Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 2, recorded July 28, 1932 by Johnny Marvin.

Perfect 13090 – Bill Cox – 1933/1934

A Perfect sleeve emblazoned with the NRA Blue Eagle.

A Perfect sleeve displaying the NRA Blue Eagle (to the right, above Morton Downey.)

September 13, 1933 was “NRA Day”, celebrated in New York City with one of, if not the largest parade in the city’s history, complete with an appearance by the U.S. Navy’s airship U.S.S. Macon.

With today’s politics, hearing of the NRA brings to mind the National Rifle Association, but in days of yore, it held an entirely different meaning.  In the 1930s, the abbreviation referred to the National Recovery Administration.  That NRA was one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s earliest New Deal agencies, created in 1933 by the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA).  With its signature “Blue Eagle” as the logo, the NRA set forth a series of codes and regulations intended to help employ more people and get the economy back on its feet.  Though popular with many workers, the NRA was ruled unconstitutional by Supreme Court, thus bringing it to an end in May of 1935.  During its existence from 1933 to 1935, NRA Blue Eagles were displayed in store windows and emblazoned on all sorts of consumer products, ranging from garments to fruit crates to record sleeves.

Perfect 13090 was recorded in two separate sessions on August 30, 1933 and September 9, 1934 at the American Record Corporation studios in New York City.  The former session was Cox’s first with the ARC, having recorded previously with the Starr Piano Company (Gennett).  Interestingly for a black label Perfect, this is a laminated pressing.

On this disc, the Dixie Songbird, Bill Cox laments to his sweetheart his employer’s delay in joining the NRA in what may just be the greatest political topical song of the Great Depression-era: “N. R. A. Blues”.  “When they gonna join the NRA?  Sweet thing, sweet thing.  When they gonna join the NRA, I never have heard the big boss say.  Sweet thing, yes baby mine.”

N. R. A. Blues, recorded August 30, 1933 by Bill Cox,

N. R. A. Blues, recorded August 30, 1933 by Bill Cox.

Starting out with a little bit of the old “Jack o’ Diamonds”, on the flip, Cox sings a low down old time country blues tune, “Hard Luck Blues”, sounding a bit like Jimmie Rodgers in his vocals on this side.  A Great Depression-era country tune evocative of Dust Bowl times.

Hard Luck Blues, recorded September 4, 1933 by Bill Cox.

Hard Luck Blues, recorded September 4, 1934 by Bill Cox.

Updated with improved audio on June 23, 2017.

Columbia 14222-D – Barbecue Bob – 1927

Up there with Blind Lemon Jefferson in the pantheon of 1920s blues music stands Robert Hicks, better known as Barbecue Bob, an Atlanta native that found fame in the late 1920s as one of the top “race” stars for Columbia records.  Over the course of his short recording career, Hicks waxed sixty-eight sides.

Born September 11, 1902 in Walnut Grove, Georgia, Robert Hicks and his brother Charlie, along with Curley Weaver, learned to play guitar from Weaver’s mother.  While working as a pitmaster at an Atlanta barbecue joint, Hicks was discovered by Columbia records talent scout Dan Hornsby (who also worked as a musician and is known for his association with Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers.)  Taking his recording name from his work, he made his first recording in March 1927, titled “Barbecue Blues”, which may have been named by the Columbia staff to fit his gimmick, as the lyrics make no reference to barbecue in any way.  Hicks went on to record many more sides between then and December 1930, both solo and as part of Georgia Cotton Pickers.  Robert Hicks died from tuberculosis and pneumonia on October 21, 1931.

Columbia 14222-D was recorded June 15, 1927 in New York City by Barbecue Bob, accompanied by his own twelve-string guitar.  The DAHR says that both takes 1 and 2 of both sides were issued, these are both first takes.  These are the first two sides from Barbecue Bob’s second recording session, and his second issues record.  This was probably one of the most successful country blues records of the 1920s.

It is said that the record of “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” was played at Hicks’ funeral in 1931.  The song makes reference to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States.  Beginning in April 1927, the floods caused widespread devastation in the Mississippi Delta, submerging more than 23,000 square miles and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.  The disaster and its widespread effects were chronicled in a number of songs of the era, including this one.  Hicks’ witty songwriting stands out in the line, “Mississippi shakin’, Lou’siana sinkin’, whole town’s a-ringin’, Robert Hicks is singing.”

Mississippi Heavy Water Blues, recorded June 15, 1927 by Barbecue Bob.

Mississippi Heavy Water Blues, recorded June 15, 1927 by Barbecue Bob.

Following a similar structure as the previous song, on “Mamma You Don’t Suit Me!”, Hicks sings of his gal, who drives a Willys-Knight and “doesn’t suit him like his other mama did.”

Mama You Don't Suit Me, recorded June 15, 1927 by Barbecue Bob.

Mama You Don’t Suit Me, recorded June 15, 1927 by Barbecue Bob.

Updated with improved audio on October 14, 2017.

Herwin 75555 – Ernest Hare – 1927

Chas. A. Lindbergh, from Victor catalog.

Chas. A. Lindbergh.  From Victor catalog.

On May 21, 1927, Charles Augustus Lindbergh completed the first non-stop flight from Long Island’s Roosevelt Field to Paris’ Le Bourget Field.  Thus, he was catapulted to international fame, and to quote the Howard Johnson and Al Sherman song, “like an eagle, he flew into everyone’s heart.”

An air mail pilot, the twenty-five year old Lindbergh took an offer from the French-born New York hotelier Raymond Orteig to award $25,000 to the first pilot to successfully complete a non-stop flight across the Atlantic ocean.  Procuring a custom built Ryan airplane dubbed the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh, the dark horse of the contenders for the prize, left Roosevelt Field on Long Island on the morning of May 20, 1927, and arrived in Paris on the night of the next day, creating what was dubbed the largest traffic jam in Parisian history.  Becoming an overnight sensation, the hype surrounding Lindbergh was the largest media event of the inter-war years (we covered the third largest previously), Lindy was the 1927 “Man of the Year” for Time magazine, the topic of songs, and the likely namesake of that wildly popular dance craze, the Lindy Hop.

Herwin 75555 was recorded in May of 1927, mere days after Lindy’s flight, by Ernest Hare, and features two songs in celebration of Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight.  It is a Paramount pressing leased from Plaza masters, and was also issued on Banner 1994, Broadway 1078, Regal 8326, Oriole 921 and 922 (with the sides split up), and possibly others.  Hare was a very successful singer in the 1910s and 1920s, and is best known for his association with Billy Jones, who, as a pair, were known as the “Happiness Boys”, among many other names.  The Herwin label was a St. Louis, Missouri label produced from 1924 to 1930 by brothers Herbert and Edwin Schiele, mostly using masters leased from Gennett and Paramount.

On the first of the two Lindy songs sung by our Happiness Boy, Hare sings, “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.)”.

Lindbergh (The Eagle of the USA)

Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.), recorded May 1927 by Ernest Hare.

On the second, he sings L. Wolfe Gilbert and Abel Baer’s similar composition, “Lucky Lindy”.  It’s been said that just about every song made about Lindbergh’s flight is terribly cheesy, and that’s about true, but I believe this one, as performed by Hare, is my favorite of the bunch.

Lucky Lindy

Lucky Lindy, recorded May 1927 by Ernest Hare.

Updated with improved audio on June 29, 2017.