Vocalion 1094 – Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas” – 1927

An  advertisement for “Cottonfield Blues”, as reprinted in The Devil’s Music, 1976.

One of the great figures of country blues, one of those who have attained a near legendary status, is Henry Thomas, also known by the nickname “Ragtime Texas”.  One of the oldest rural black musicians to record (though not the oldest—Daddy Stovepipe was born seven years earlier), Thomas predated contemporary songsters like Jim Jackson, Lead Belly, and Charley Patton as well as many fellow Texas musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and “Texas” Alexander.

Henry Thomas was born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas, one of nine children in a family of sharecroppers; his parents were former slaves.  In his youth, he determined that he was not to live his life as a farmer, and turned to the life of a songster.  He left his home around the time he was sixteen, and lived the life of a hobo and itinerant musicianer.  Thomas learned to play the “quills” (an instrument much like panpipes), and later the guitar to accompany his singing.  Like any songster worth his salt, Thomas learned to play a variety of styles from minstrel songs, to folk ballads and blues, to rags and dance tunes.  His music earned him the hobo nickname “Ragtime Texas”.  On the Texas & Pacific and M-K-T lines, Thomas hoboed all around Texas and the South (much of which he outlined in his “Railroadin’ Some”), bringing his music with him and expanding his repertoire all the way.  He sang of his home state of Texas, of his life as a hobo, and plenty more.  His travels likely brought him to the World’s Fairs of Chicago and St. Louis in 1893 and 1904, respectively.  In 1927, Thomas traveled to Chicago to cut a record for Vocalion, recording four sides, of which three were released.  Over the following years, he returned to Chicago for five further sessions, netting a total of twenty-three titles from 1927 to 1929.  Little to none of what happened after his final recordings is known.  Many sources claim that he died in 1930, but others claimed to have seen him in Houston in 1949, and around Tyler, Texas in the 1950s.  Long after the end of his life, Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” served as the primary inspiration for the band Canned Heat’s 1968 famous hippie anthem “Going Up the Country”.

Vocalion 1094 was recorded on June 30, 1927 (other sources suggest a date of April 19 or July 5 of the same year) in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Henry Thomas’ first issued record, and, aside from an unissued cut of “The Fox and the Hounds”, his first recorded sides.

First, Thomas sings and whistles his fantastic rendition of the perennial folk ballad “John Henry”, putting his own unique spin on the tale of the legendary steel driving man.

John Henry

John Henry, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.

Turn the record over and Ragtime Texas next delivers a driving performance on “Cottonfield Blues”, bearing some musical resemblance to the “Hesitation Blues”.  Unusual as Thomas music is—what with the quills and the droning guitar—I can’t get enough of it.  It’s truly entrancing, wondrous music!

Cottonfield Blues

Cottonfield Blues, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.

Vocalion 03046 – Memphis Minnie, Black Bob, Bill Settles – 1935

The time has come to pay tribute to the consummate blues woman Memphis Minnie, on the 120th anniversary of her birth.

Memphis Minnie came into the world as Lizzie Douglas, one of thirteen children born to Abe and Gerturde Douglas in Algiers, New Orleans, on June 3, 1897.  She didn’t care for the name Lizzie, and took to using the name “Kid” Douglas, a nickname given by her parents, when performing.  Before she was a teenager, she learned to play banjo and guitar, and ran away to Beale Street at thirteen.  Taking to a life of music, she played street corners and toured the South with the Ringling Brothers Circus.  In 1929, she was given the moniker of “Memphis Minnie” by a Columbia record man while making her first records with her second husband Joe McCoy, who was dubbed “Kansas Joe”.  The next year saw the release of one of her most famous songs, “Bumble Bee”, of which she recorded a number of different versions.  Minnie and Kansas Joe went on to make a series of records together for Vocalion and Decca before their divorce in 1935.  Relocating to Chicago, Minnie became a staple of the nightclubs, joined Lester Melrose’s stable of blues artists, and beat Big Bill Broonzy in a cutting contest.  In the late 1930s, Minnie married Ernest Lawlars, better known as Little Son Joe, another blues artist, and they performed together as she had with her previous husband.  In 1941, she recorded some of her biggest hits, “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and “Looking the World Over”.  Minnie continued to perform and record into the 1950s, but ill health forced her to retire thereafter.  Memphis Minnie died of a stroke, the last of several, on August 6, 1973.

Vocalion 03046 was recorded on August 22, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois.  As the label would suggest, the instrumentation features Memphis Minnie on guitar, Black Bob Hudson on piano, and Bill Settles on string bass.

The identity of pianist “Black Bob” is surrounded by a great deal of uncertainty and confusion.  He is known to have been a prolific sideman for Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Memphis Minnie, and others, and he recorded extensively for Bluebird and the American Record Corporation between 1932 and 1942, yet his real name and identity are not verified.  A number of names have been put forth, including Bob Hudson, boogie-woogie man Bob Call, Chicago pianist Bob Robinson, and others.  The most likely candidate seems to be Hudson, who recorded with the Memphis Nighthawks on the same day as Black Bob’s session with Big Bill’s Jug Busters, and made one unissued side under his own name two days later, which is reported to match stylistically with Black Bob’s playing.  Most sources, when a last name is given at all, identify Black Bob as Hudson.

First up, Minnie, Bob, and Bill beat out the swing number “Joe Louis Strut”, one of a number of tunes dedicated to the world heavyweight champion of the same name.

Joe Louis Strut, recorded August 22, 1935 by Memphis Minnie, Black Bob, Bill Settles.

One of those “number of tunes” is on the flip, on which Minnie sings solo on her tribute/plea for love to Louis, the classic “He’s in the Ring (Doing that Same Old Thing)”.

He’s in the Ring (Doing that Same Old Thing), recorded August 22, 1935 by Memphis Minnie

Vocalion 8470 – Cuarteto Monterrey – 1932

With it being Cinco de Mayo, it seems like an appropriate time to post the one of the only authentic Mexican records in the Old Time Blues collection.  I can’t provide much information about this disc, as it falls outside of my milieu, and I don’t really know what resources to consult, but I’ll tell you what I am able to dig up.

Vocalion 8470, in their “ethnic” series, was recorded on December 5, 1932 in San Antonio, Texas, probably in the Gunter Hotel, by the Cuarteto Monterrey (or in English, shockingly enough, the “Monterrey Quartet”).  The full personnel is unknown to me, but instrumentation consists of mandolin and two guitars, though that would seem to make it a trío rather than a cuarteto.  Vocals are by Daniel Flores and Andrés Herrera, who likely also play the two guitars.

Flores and Herrera recorded two sides previously, “Los Desocupados” and “Los Toros Puntales”, for Victor Records in 1931, also in San Antonio.

Their first tune, “La Bola”, was featured in 1996 on the Smithsonion Folkways album “Orquestas de Cuerdas (The String Bands) – The End of a Tradition (1926-1938)”.

La Bola, grabado diciembre 5, 1932 por el Cuarteto Monterrey.

On the reverse, the quartet plays “Mancornadora de Mi Corazón”.

Mancornadora de Mi Corazon, grabado diciembre 5, 1932 por el Cuarteto Monterrey.

Vocalion 1188 – Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra – 1928

Here are a pair of top jazz sides by Jimmie Noone’s band, taking their name from the Apex Club, a speakeasy in Chicago, where the band played.  Noone’s band was a small group, only a quintet, but they were an exemplary one, and played in a sophisticated style.

Jimmie Noone, a Creole, was born in Cut Off, Louisiana, April 23, 1895 (I share a birthday with him, as a matter of fact), and made his way to New Orleans in 1910, where he played with some of the top jazz men, Keppard, Celestin, Ory, et al.  Later in the decade, like his contemporary, Joe Oliver, he migrated to Chicago, and played with the King after arriving there.  In 1926, he began leading a small band at Chicago’s Apex Club, on the second floor of 330 East 35th Street, and began recording with that band for Vocalion in 1928.  A young Benny Goodman was profoundly influenced by his work on the clarinet.  That arrangement lasted until the club was raided by federal agents in 1930.  Noone continued to perform and record with various star-studded bands of New Orleans jazz men, and became a driving force in the dixieland jazz revival in the early 1940s.  Noone continued performing right up until his death of a heart attack in 1944, at which time he was playing in a band on Orson Welles’ radio program.  In Noone’s honor, Kid Ory composed “Blues for Jimmie” as a tribute to the man, who was remembered as a cordial man and a professional performer.

Vocalion 1188 was recorded in Chicago, June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (misspelled “Noones'” on the label).  The small but outstanding band features the talent of Jimmie Noone on clarinet, Joe Poston on alto sax, Earl Hines on piano, Bud Scott on banjo, and Johnny Wells on drums.

The first tune is an instrumental, “Forevermore”, showcasing Noone’s distinctive style of clarinet and Hines’ always excellent piano work.

Forevermore

Forevermore, recorded June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play “Ready for the River”, with a vocal duet by Jimmie Noone and Joe Poston.  Not the cheeriest song ever written, but Noone and his band make a lady out of it.

Ready for the River

Ready for the River, recorded June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.

Vocalion 1144 – Jim Jackson – 1927

On of the great blues songsters of yesteryear was Jim Jackson.  With a strong voice and a wide repertoire ranging from blues to popular songs to hokum, he one of the most prominent blues figures of his day.

Jim Jackson was born on a farm in Hernando, Mississippi, twenty miles south of Memphis, most likely in June of 1876, though 1884 and 1890 have also been ventured as possible years.  Sometime around 1905, Jackson began playing, singing, and dancing in medicine shows around the South.  He was later a member of the famed Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and ran the Red Rose Minstrels himself.  By the 1910s, Jackson worked primarily on Memphis, Tenessee, like contemporary Frank Stokes.  His success on Beale Street was enough that he was reportedly residing in the luxurious Peabody Hotel by 1919.  In 1927, store owner and talent broker H.C. Speir secured a contract for Jackson with Vocalion records.  He made his recording debut on October 10, 1927, recording the first two parts of his “Kansas City Blues” series, which were issued as his first record.  In addition to recording for Vocalion, Jackson also worked as a talent scout for the company, notably “discovering” boogie woogie piano man Speckled Red (Rufus Perryman).  As one of Vocalions most popular race artists, the company released a “descriptive novelty” record titled “Jim Jackson’s Jamboree” featuring Tampa Red and Georgia Tom and Speckled Red, and “hosted” by Jackson. Jackson continued to record for Vocalion until 1930, and held several sessions for Victor in 1928.  He supposedly played a bit part in King Vidor’s 1929 film Hallelujah, though it’s unknown what role he played, and indeed if he appeared in the film at all.  Jackson’s last session was held in February of 1930, after which he returned to his home in Mississippi, where he continued to perform.  Jim Jackson died on December 18, 1933.

Vocalion 1144 was recorded in Chicago on October 10, 1927.  Jackson’s “Kansas City Blues” songs were among the most successful and influential blues records of their time, inspiring numerous covers by contemporaries like William Harris and Charley Patton, and latter day artists like Janis Joplin.  Some have cited it as one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records, though the musical style bears little resemblance.

First, Jackson sings the first of his four part series, “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City BluesPart 1″.

Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues - Part 1

Jim Jackson’s Kansas City BluesPart 1, recorded October 10, 1927 by Jim Jackson.

He concludes the disc with “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City BluesPart 2″.  This is the second take of this side (“34” in the runoff), which may be more scarce than the more commonly heard first take.

Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues - Part 2

Jim Jackson’s Kansas City BluesPart 2, recorded October 10, 1927 by Jim Jackson.