Montgomery Ward M-4462 – Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee – 1930

Powder River Jack H. Lee, pictured in his book The Stampede.

Over the past decade-and-a-half-or-so, the Senate of the United States has made a tradition of decreeing the fourth Saturday of every July to be the National Day of the American Cowboy.  Across the western states, the holiday is celebrated with festivals and other such customary jubilations; on Old Time Blues, we shall celebrate the occasion in the only way we know how—with appreciation of an old record.

Born Jackson Martin on the first of October, 1874, Jack H. Lee was counted among the eldest of the more authentic tradition of cowboy singers to cut records in the days before Hollywood Autrys and Rogerses took center stage (though the extent of that authenticity has been called into question).  Purportedly after joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show around 1893, Jack met his future wife Kitty Miller, a native Illinoisan six years his senior, and the two began a long career singing genuine cowboy songs on vaudeville and in rodeos.  Claiming to hail from Montana, they dubbed themselves Powder River Jack and Pretty Kitty Lee and were performing together at least as early as 1898.  Ultimately, the duo became one of the most popular early cowboy acts, though their recorded legacy leaves little evidence of that success.  The Lees were recorded for the first time in November of 1930, with a session for the RCA Victor Company in Hollywood.  The date produced four titles, all of which were released to limited success as the nation plunged into the Great Depression.  They returned to the studio six years later, waxing two sides for Decca in Chicago, which have never been released.  An additional three recordings were made of Jack performing at the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., in May of 1938.  Powder River Jack also published several books of cowboy lore and song folios during the 1930s which demonstrated his penchant for misappropriating authorship of traditional cowboy poetry (even going so far as to claim “Red River Valley” as his own).  Jack Lee died in a car accident on February 24, 1946, in Chandler, Arizona; he was survived for nine years by Kitty, and both are interred side-by-side in the City Cemetery in Mesa, Arizona.  Because of Jack’s tendency to plagiarize, the duo’s merit as cowboy performers has been challenged.  While indeed neither Jack nor Kitty were likely ever working cowhands and much of their backstory was probably fabricated, they did perform and preserve genuine western folk music—even if they wrongfully attributed its origins—and, with that caveat, are no less deserving of recognition than their contemporary early cowboy recording artists.

Montgomery Ward M-4462 was recorded on November 3, 1930, in Hollywood, California.  It was originally released on Victor 23527, of which a total of 2,158 copies were reported sold.  Jack and Kitty both strum their guitars, while the former blows the harmonica on a rack between stanzas.  Jack sings solo vocals on both sides.

“Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail [sic]”, illustrated by Powder River Jack.

Certainly one of the most enticing cowboy songs put to shellac in the 1920s and 1930s and today a standard of the traditional cowboy repertoire, “Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail”, was truthfully written by Gail Gardner in 1917, though Lee claimed the credit on the record and otherwise (much to the former’s chagrin).  Legend has it that Gardner and his chums in Prescott, Arizona, once tarred and feathered Powder River Jack for stealing his song.

Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail, recorded November 3, 1930 by Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee.

“Powder River, Let ‘er Buck”, ostensibly actually written by Jack himself, lent its name to one of his publications in the same year he cut the record.

Powder River, Let ‘er Buck, recorded November 3, 1930 by Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee.

Victor 19699 – Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler” – 1925

Though he left behind only a single record of his music—which, in my learned opinion, is among perhaps the top ten best old-time fiddle records ever made—”The Texas Fiddler” from Fort Worth, Moses J. Bonner, earned recognition in his home state and abroad as one of the finest men to ever pull a bow south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Moses Junior Bonner was born in Franklin County, Alabama, on March 1, 1847.  The family moved west to the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, when he was about seven years of age.  It was there that Bonner, as a child, learned to play fiddle from an older black musician in the area.  Following the death of his father, M.M. Bonner, the family pressed farther west on past Fort Worth, where they settled in Parker County.  At the outbreak of the war between the states, Bonner served in the Twelfth Texas Cavalry, Company E, as a courier under Colonel William Henry Parsons.  After the war, he eventually settled in Fort Worth.  A prominent member of the United Confederate Veterans, Bonner participated in a fiddle contest sponsored by the organization in 1901, losing to fellow veteran Henry C. Gilliland, but becoming a founding member of the Old Fiddlers Association of Texas.  He continued to be active at both veterans’ and fiddlers’ functions in the decades to come, both lobbying for congress to pass pensions for Confederate veterans and winning nine of twelve subsequent fiddle contests in which he participated.  He was also well known at said get-togethers for his lively jig dancing.  In 1911, he tied with Gilliland and Jesse Roberts at the world’s championship contest.  On January 4 1923, Bonner participated in the first known radio “barn dance” program on WBAP in Fort Worth, accompanied by a local string band called the Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra.  Two years later, when the Victor Talking Machine Company brought their equipment down to Houston for their first field recording session in Texas, Bonner waxed two sides—one record—of fiery fiddle medleys, for which he promoted as “The Texas Fiddler”.  Bonner was the only “old-time” musician to participate in the field trip, which otherwise recorded only the dance orchestras of Lloyd Finlay and “Fatty” Martin.  Despite further sessions in Texas over the years that followed, Bonner never recorded again.  He did, however, remain an active participant in Confederate reunions all around the nation, ultimately achieving the honorary rank of Major General.  At the age of ninety-two, Moses J. Bonner died from pneumonia on September 2, 1939.

Victor 19699 was recorded on March 17, 1925, at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas.  Bonner’s fiddling is accompanied on harp-guitar by Fred Wagoner of WBAP’s Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra.  The record was released later in the year, and sold only until sometime in 1926, perhaps only seeing regional sales.

Firstly, Bonner fiddles a medley of “Yearling’s in the Canebrake” and “The Gal on the Log”.  Seventy-eight-years-old at the time of recording, Bonner was by no means lacking in energy on these performances.

1. Yearling’s in the Canebrake 2. The Gal On the Log, recorded March 17, 1925 by Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler”.

On the flip, he plays an interpolation of “Dusty Miller” and “‘Ma’ Ferguson”—the latter honoring the first female governor of Texas Miriam A. Ferguson, who had assumed office only the preceding January.  The “wide-open” character heard in this performance and the other are perfectly exemplary, in my opinion, of early Texas fiddling, sounding far more at home on the range or prairie than than the mountain hollers of the eastern hills.

1. Dusty Miller 2. “Ma” Ferguson, recorded March 17, 1925 by Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler”.

Victor 21361 – Ernest Rogers – 1928/1927

Ernest Rogers in the 1940s, pictured on the dust jacket of his The Old Hokum Bucket, 1949.

We have heard once before from that Atlanta newspaper man and down-home song spinner—and one of my personal heroes—Ernest Rogers, when he graced us with his memorable rendition of the old vaudeville song “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper”.  Now, he’s with us once again, this time with perhaps even better material (though that old dope head Willie is hard to beat).  As I have already biographed Mr. Rogers somewhat thoroughly in the aforementioned article, I urge you to look there for the basic facts.

During his own life, Ernest Rogers was best known as a newsman, rather akin to the South’s answer to Walter Winchell as host and lead reporter of the Atlanta Journal‘s daily “Radio Headlines” program on Atlanta’s pioneering radio station WSB (“Welcome South, brother”).  Today however, it is his musical proclivities—namely the five records he made for Victor in 1927 and ’28—that have won him his most enduring fame, yet his activities in the field were far from limited to making records.  Rogers copyrighted his first song while still a student at Emory University in 1919.  When radio was in its infancy, Rogers joined the staff of Atlanta’s WSB, his crooning and guitar-picking making a hit with listeners at a time when, in Rogers’ own words, “anybody who could sing, whistle, recite, play any kind of instrument, or merely breathe heavily was pushed in front of the WSB microphone.”  In 1922, at the same time he was busy making his name on the radio, his composition “Tune in With My Heart”—celebrating the newly emerging medium—was recorded by popular baritone Ernest Hare.  Rogers made his own recording debut three years later, waxing a memorable—and probably the first—rendition of the vaudeville folk song “Willie the Weeper” coupled with his own composition “My Red-Haired Lady”.  Later in 1925, Francis Craig’s Atlanta-based territory band recorded Rogers’ waltz song “Forgiveness”, featuring the singing of a young James Melton in his first recording, helping to bring the tenor singer to prominence.  The year of 1927 began Rogers’ association with Victor Records, which proved to be both his most fruitful record engagement and his last.  In his first Victor session on the seventeenth of that February, he began with a duet with WSB announcer and director Lambdin Kay titled “Mr. Rogers and Mr. Kay”—probably in the style of the popular comic song “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”—which was never released.  He followed with a remake of “Willie the Weeper”, retitled “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper” but nearly identical to his earlier recording.  The following May, he traveled to Camden, New Jersey, to make six more sides, starting out with a similar re-do of “My Red-Haired Lady”.  “The Flight of Lucky Lindbergh” celebrated the intrepid aviator’s historic journey only two days after he had landed safely in Paris.  On “Let Me Be Your Man in the Moon”, Rogers yodeled nearly three whole months before Jimmie Rodgers made his first record.  Finally, on February twenty-third of the following year, he completed his recorded legacy in a session that mirrored his first Victor session, making two sides of which only one was issued.  Out of a total of twelve recorded sides to his name (including the two unissued), nine were original compositions.  Though his recording career had thus ended, Ernest Rogers’ musical interests were far from their conclusion.  He continued to publish songs in the decades that followed.  Popular hillbilly artist Lew Childre recorded “My Red-Haired Lady” several times during his career [though having not heard the song, I cannot verify that it is indeed the same one].  In his later years, Rogers’ career as a newspaperman had taken precedence over his music-making, but he nevertheless never ceased from entertaining with his homespun ditties when the opportunity presented.

Victor 21361 was recorded in two separate sessions; the first side was recorded on February 23, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia, the second was recorded on May 23, 1927, in Camden, New Jersey.  It was released in July of the same year, and remained in Victor’s catalog until 1931.

Providing stiff competition to his “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper” for the title of Ernest Rogers’ best remembered song—surely thanks in no small part to its reissue on Tompkins Square’s Turn Me Loose—is his “The Mythological Blues”.  Rogers first composed the humorous song during his time at Emory University in 1919—the same year in which he founded the Emory Wheel—but it went unrecorded until his final session nearly ten years afterward.  With its lyrics contrasting ancient Greek and Roman mythology with the modern times of the Jazz Age (“of all the sights saw Jupiter spot ’em, seein’ sweet Venus, doin’ Black Bottom; oh take me back ten-thousand years when they played the Mythological Blues”) it makes for a marvelous swan song.

The Mythological Blues, recorded February 23, 1928 by Ernest Rogers.

On the flip, Rogers sings “I’ve Got the Misery”, but it sure sounds to me like there’s every known indication that he’s got the blues.  This side shines with some of Rogers’ poetry at its most eloquent: “Well, the fire in the stable destroyed the town; but it’s the fire in your eyes that truly burns me down.”

I’ve Got the Misery, recorded May 23, 1927 by Ernest Rogers.

Victor V-40008 – “Peg” Moreland – 1928

Known to radio listeners across the Southwest from the 1920s to the 1940s as the “King of the Ditty Singers”, Dallas’ own “Peg” Moreland was surely among the most prolific pre-war folksingers from the State of Texas, yet most unfortunately he has since fallen behind that so-common veil of obscurity.

"Peg" Moreland, from 1930 Victor supplemental.

“Peg” Moreland, from 1930 Victor supplemental.

“Peg” was born Arnot Jackson Moreland (though he switched his first and middle names later in life) on October 29, 1892, on a farm in Rienzi, Texas, a no-longer-extant community in Hill County, one of at least eight children of Samuel Jackson and Mollie (née Arnot) Moreland.  From a young age, Moreland memorized folk songs he picked up from his southwestern environment.  Not long after 1900, the family moved west to Canyon, Texas, where Pa Moreland operated a grocery store until his untimely death in 1908.  There, the young Moreland played piano, clarinet and saxophone in the Canyon Municipal Band.  Jackson served in the National Guard for three years prior to the First World War, attaining the rank of corporal, and was later justice of the peace in Randall County for three years beginning in 1921.  At some point between 1917 and 1925, Moreland lost his right leg in a railroad accident, presumably during his work as a brakeman on the Santa Fe, the replacement for which gained him the nickname “Peg”.  He moved to Dallas with his family in 1924.  With guitar in hand and a head full of folk ditties, Moreland began singing on Dallas’ venerable radio station WFAA in 1925.  Moreland sang in a light and pleasant tenor croon—akin to other popular radio folksingers like Bradley Kincaid—and played guitar in a snappy, syncopated, ragtime-esque flatpicked style.  His repertoire—said to consist of over two-thousand “ditties”—was not too dissimilar from that of Georgia’s Riley Puckett, with material ranging from cowboy ballads, to old minstrel and parlor songs.

For a short time, Moreland went west to work as a railroad mail clerk on the Arizona run before returning to WFAA in 1927.  In July of 1928, Moreland traveled to Chicago, Illinois, to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company; in his first session, he cut five sides, followed by three more two days later.  While he was there, he spent a brief time performing on the WLS National Barn Dance as “Tex” Moreland before returning home to Texas.  The next year, Victor came to him, conducting a field trip to Dallas, during which he recorded another three sides.  He later attended Victor field trips to Memphis and Atlanta, in 1929 and ’30, respectively, resulting in a further eight sides.  All of the sides he recorded, nineteen in total, were released, some on split releases shared with the likes of Harry “Mac” McClintock and Blind Jack Mathis.  After 1930, Peg Moreland made no further commercial recordings, but his radio career was far from over, and he also performed frequently in local vaudeville and functions.  He remained a fixture on WFAA, its associate station KGKO, and other stations around Texas and Oklahoma, at least as late as the Second World War.  Moreland never married and lived with his mother and brothers until her death in 1943.  Late in his life, Moreland lived in hotels around the city of Dallas, including the New Oxford and Lawrence.  “Peg” Moreland died on January 11, 1973 in Dallas, Texas, of a coronary.  His death certificate still listed his occupation as “entertainer” and WFAA as his employer.

Victor V-40008 was recorded on July 5 and 3, 1928, respectively, at 952 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois—Moreland’s first session.  “Peg” Moreland sings and accompanies himself on the guitar.

Peg first sings one of my favorite home-spun ditties: “Stay in the Wagon Yard”.  The song tells the humorous tale of a farmer who comes to town to bring his crop to market.  He leaves the wagon yard to “see the ‘lectric lights and watch the cars come in,” only to be taken on a drunken spree by some city dudes.  He warns his fellow farmers to “buy a half-pint and stay in the wagon yard.”  Probably best known by Grandpa Jones’s rendition, Moreland’s recording was the first of several contemporaneous versions, including ones by Georgia fiddlers Lowe Stokes and Earl Johnson, as well as Alabama folkster Lew Childre.  The Fresno State Traditional Ballad Index lists Arthur Tanner—who sang on the Stokes recording—as the probable writer, though this seems unlikely, seeing as Moreland, from Texas, made his recording of the song more than a year prior.  It seems more likely that Stokes and the gang, who followed Moreland’s verse almost to the letter with the exception of omitting the last stanza, heard it from Moreland’s record, though where Moreland learned the song I couldn’t say; he was not a songwriter himself and denied ever producing any original songs, instead drawing fully on traditional material.  In addition to Moreland’s Texan heritage, the line “I’m a deacon in a hard-shell church down near Possum Trot” could suggest a Texas origin, assuming it refers to the predominately black farming community near the Louisiana border, though there are places by that name in several other states.  It is worth noting that Earl Johnson’s 1930 recording adds several verses not heard in Moreland’s or Stokes’s records.  Quite a few recordings have been made since, and the song’s popularity with old-time string bands endures to this day.

Stay in the Wagon Yard, recorded July 5, 1928 by “Peg” Moreland.

Moreland’s rendition of the popular folk song “The Old Step Stone”—commonly known by the title “Goodbye to My Stepstone” or some variation on that—was his first recorded side.  The song in its original form is believed to date back to 1880, when it was published as “Old Doorstep” by one J.O. Webster.

The Old Step Stone, recorded July 3, 1928 by “Peg” Moreland.

Montgomery Ward M-4244 – Gene Autry – 1931

Gene Autry, pictured in his Sensational Collection of Famous Original Cowboy Songs and Mountain Ballads, 1932.

It would not be exaggeration in the slightest to call Gene Autry a true American hero.  From humble roots, he got his start in the show business covering Jimmie Rodgers’ hits for other record labels, but soon proved his own merit as a prolific songwriter and talented musician.  Before long, he broke into Hollywood in a series B-Westerns and rose not only to become one of America’s earliest “superstars”, but the idolization of millions of adoring fans.  His shrewd business sense made him a multi-millionaire by the time of his retirement at the age of only fifty-seven, and surely one of the only twentieth century entertainers to have a town named after him.

Gene was born Orvon Grover Eugene Autry in Tioga, Texas, on September 29, 1907, son of Delbert and Elnora Autry.  The family moved a few miles north to the towns of Achille and Ravia, Oklahoma, when Gene was a child, and when not preoccupied with song he spent time in his youth helping out on his father’s farm.  In 1941, the nearby town of Berwyn was renamed “Gene Autry” in his honor.  Autry took up the guitar at the age of twelve on a model from the Sears-Roebuck catalog.  After high school, he got a job working as a telegrapher for the Frisco Line.  He often played his guitar and sang to pass the time during slow hours on the job, a habit which gained him the attention of a notable passer-through: Will Rogers.  Rogers liked Autry’s music, and recommended that he go to New York to make records.  Autry did just that in the fall of 1928, but he was turned down by Victor A&R man Nat Shilkret on the grounds that the company had only just signed two similar artists (one of whom may have been Jimmie Rodgers, who had only begun his recording career the previous summer).  Shilkret suggested that Autry seek work on the radio instead, and that he did.  Upon his return home to Oklahoma, Autry began singing on KVOO in Tulsa as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy”.  He made his triumphant return to New York the very next fall, and this time he found success.  With Frankie and Johnny Marvin accompanying, he cut two sides for Victor in duet with frequent collaborator Jimmy Long.  Thereafter, he began recording prolifically for a variety of record labels, beginning with a session for Gennett, the masters of which were sold to Grey Gull and Cova’s QRS label.  He then signed on with Columbia for a short time, mostly appearing on their budget labels singing dimestore imitations of Jimmie Rodgers’ songs.  In 1930, he joined the cast of the National Barn Dance on Sears-Roebuck’s radio station WLS in Chicago.  The same year, he began his long association with the American Record Corporation, appearing on their many dimestore labels and still covering Rodgers, but increasingly producing his own original material.  It was that arrangement that brought him his first big hit in 1931: “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”.  Meanwhile, he continued to record occasionally for Victor and Gennett until going exclusive with the ARC in 1933.  The following year, while singing on the radio with Smiley Burnette, he was “discovered” by Hollywood big-shot Nat Levine and selected to appear in an uncredited role in the Ken Maynard western picture In Old Santa Fe.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Montgomery Ward M-4244 was recorded in two sessions in New York City, the first on February 12, 1931, and the second on March 31 of the same year.  Side “A” was originally issued on Victor 23548 (which sold 1,901 copies) and “B” on Victor 23589 (which sold only 1,537).  Autry accompanies himself on guitar on both sides, and his joined on steel guitar by his friend Frankie Marvin on the first.

The rollicking and raunchy “Do Right Daddy Blues” is a distant cry from Autry’s typically mild and genial cowboy songs of later years, instead more resembling one of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” songs with their characteristic braggadocio and hint of machismo.  Two takes of this number exist, though this one—take “1”—was the only issued originally; the second take was released as part of Bluebird/BMG’s 2004 compilation East Virginia Blues, in their When the Sun Goes Down series examining the “secret history” of rock ‘n’ roll.  Autry also recorded a version of the song for the American Record Corporation’s dimestore labels (Perfect, Banner, Romeo, etc.) two months later, and he followed up with a different version for Victor’s short lived Timely Tunes offshoot and sequel titled “Don’t Do Me That Way” (and subtitled “Do Right Daddy Blues No. 2”) at the same session in which he recorded the “B” side of the record presented herein.  The song was later picked up by western swinger Leon Chappelear, who recorded it first as “New Do Right Daddy” in 1937, and again as “I’m a Do Right Daddy” in 1951.

Do Right Daddy Blues, recorded February 18, 1931 by Gene Autry.

On “High Steppin’ Mama”, Autry shows us just how much inspiration he drew from Jimmie Rodgers in his early career, presenting a song that sounds like it could have come straight from the Blue Yodeler himself—equally in content as in style.

High Steppin’ Mama, recorded March 31, 1931 by Gene Autry.