Okeh 8455 – Blind Lemon Jefferson – 1927

Blind Lemon Jefferson, circa 1926; as pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues.

In his all-too-brief four year recording career, Blind Lemon Jefferson produced nearly one-hundred songs that helped to define the country blues and open the door for future guitar-slinging blues singers to record their art.  All but one of those records appeared on the Paramount label—a few of which have been examined previously on Old Time Blues—this time around, we turn our attention to the odd one out.

As 1926 turned to ’27. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s recording career entered its second year.  The previous one had seen a bountiful debut, producing a total of twenty recorded songs to his credit (roughly one-fifth of his total recorded output), all for Paramount Records of Port Washington, Wisconsin.  The Texas bluesman was becoming a sensation, and other record companies soon took notice.  It wasn’t long before the Okeh record company—then a subsidiary of Columbia Records and top competitor to Paramount with their extensive catalog of popular “race” records featuring the music of black artists—was the first to act  Early in 1927, Jefferson was contacted by Atlanta-based Okeh representatives Polk C. Brockman (best remembered for orchestrating Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recording debut) and T.J. Rockwell.  They extended an invitation to Jefferson for a recording session in Atlanta, to which he obliged.  The singer arrived at his destination in mid-March, a little later than expected, for Jefferson had made an unplanned stop in Shreveport, Louisiana, as he had never “seen” the city before.  Thus, on March 14, 1927, Lemon Jefferson recorded seven songs for Okeh, and one more the next day.  The first two of those titles were released the following month, comprising Okeh 8455.  When the record began to gain steam on the market, Paramount evidently threatened legal action against Okeh for “poaching” one of their top stars, and as a result, the remaining six sides were never issued.  While the recordings are now presumed lost, what is known of those six songs reveals a rather different character than most of the material he recorded for Paramount.  Of those six titles, “Elder Green’s in Town” was a version of “Alabama Bound”, and “Laboring Man Away from Home” was a rendition of the English ballad “Our Goodman” (also recorded by others as “Cabbage Head Blues” and “Drunkard’s Special”).  “English Stop Time” was an instrumental piece similar to “Buck Dance” pieces recorded by many blues and ragtime guitarists.  “Woman’s Labor Man” (or “Laboring Man Blues”) and “‘Stillery Blues” were evidently original songs never otherwise recorded or published.  When Lemon returned to the Paramount recording laboratory in Chicago the next month, he remade “My Easy Rider” as “Easy Rider Blues”, coupled with a re-recording of “Match Box Blues”.  The company saw to it that Lemon didn’t get away again, and all of Jefferson’s further recordings were for Paramount.

Okeh 8455 was recorded on March 14, 1927, in Atlanta, Georgia.  It was first advertised for sale on April 23 of the same year.  Great efforts have been taken to coax out as much music as possible out out of this, quite frankly, wiped out record.

On the “A” side of Okeh 8455, Lemon sings a re-telling of his famous “Black Snake Moan”, one of his more popular Paramount recordings, which he had recorded about five months prior to his Okeh session.

Black Snake Moan, recorded March 14, 1927 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

The “B” side contains Jefferson’s first recording of another of his most memorable—and most widely covered—hit songs: “Match Box Blues”.  Jefferson subsequently re-recorded two more takes of the soon-to-be blues standard upon his return to Paramount, each one noticeably different than the others.

Match Box Blues, recorded March 14, 1927 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

☙ No. 1/2 – Euday Bowman – 1948

A foremost figure of Texas ragtime, Euday L. Bowman is best known as the composer of one of the most widely performed rags in history: “12th Street Rag”.  Yet despite his renown as a composer, Bowman life and times have proved remarkable elusive, and much of the information regarding his life is of questionable accuracy.  This article will attempt to regurgitate only the legitimate facts, but I cannot indubitably guarantee their veracity.

Euday Bowman, author of “Twelfth Street Rag,” at Fort Worth’s Frontier Fiesta, 06/23/1937 [negative badly deteriorating, cracked, and channeled]. Original image part of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries. Identifier: AR406-6 06/23/1937 1061. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Euday Louis Bowman was born on November 9, 1886 (according to early documents, though some sources suggest 1887 instead), near Fort Worth in Tarrant County, Texas, and was raised in the vicinity of Webb, which has since been engulfed by the city of Arlington.  His family was prominent in the area’s history, and the town of Webb was originally named Bowman Springs after some of his ancestors (a name which lives on in that of a street and a park in Arlington).  In his earliest years, he lived with his grandparents, with whom he may have begun his lifelong association with Kansas City by accompanying his grandfather on periodic visits to the Missouri town. Following his parents’ divorce in 1905, Euday moved from the family farm to the big city of Fort Worth, where he lived with his piano teacher sister, Mary, who taught him to play the instrument on which he later wrought acclaim.  Around the turn of the century, Bowman began to make a name for himself in the same fashion as many other great ragtime piano men—like Jelly Roll Morton—as an itinerant piano picker in many seedier joints such as those of Fort Worth’s infamous “Hell’s Half Acre”, as well as at private parties and most likely any other sort of venues he could.  Meanwhile, he supported himself financially with various labor jobs.

In 1914, Bowman self-published “12th Street Rag”—his first published piece of music—which he claimed to have composed all the way back in 1905, perhaps in a shoeshine parlor off of the Fort Worth street of the same name.  In the years immediately following, he subsequently put out “10th Street Rag”, “11th Street Rag”, “Fort Worth Blues”, “Kansas City Blues”, and many other compositions.  He set up the Bowman and Ward Music Publishing Company to handle these publications, though it seems to have been somewhat short-lived, as in 1916, he sold “12th Street Rag” for three-hundred dollars to J.W. Jenkins Sons Music Company of Kansas City, and the same firm would later handle many more of his compositions.  He traveled frequently to Kansas City to promote his music, and his name name would ultimately become as well associated with there as with Fort Worth (or perhaps, quite wrongly, even more so).  He married his first wife in 1920, though the union was not to last, and they were separated within a year.

In the 1920s, Bowman’s work shifted with the public’s changing tastes away from ragtime and toward blues, and though he composed a fair number, he formally published few pieces after 1921.  While never much of a recording artist, Bowman made test recordings of “12th Street Rag” for the Starr Piano Company in Richmond, Indiana, on February 2, 1924, and for the American Record Corporation in Dallas on December 8, 1938.  Neither of these were commercially issued, though Bowman privately pressed some copies of the former recording in the late 1940s.  A 1923 Gennett recording of “12th Street Rag” credited to Richard M. Jones is also believed by some to have actually been Bowman’s hands at the piano.  In 1937, he reattained the rights to his now-popular “12th Street Rag” with hopes of recouping the royalties he rightfully deserved, but the paydays were slow to come, and he nonetheless continued to struggle financially for some time.

Always a hit with jazz bands and ensembles and performers of most every other genre, “12th Street Rag” was brought to new heights of fame with trombonist and bandleader Pee Wee Hunt’s Capitol record of the piece, which became one of the largest selling records of 1948.  In the wake of that record’s success, Bowman produced a record of his own, featuring a new song on the front, and the famous rag on the back.  His first big royalty check from Hunt’s record early in 1949, and things started looking up for Euday, who celebrated with a new car and a new wife.  Sadly, these good times were short-lived; his marriage fell apart after only a month, and his health began to deteriorate.  Nevertheless, he continued to travel to promote his music and push for his deserved recompense.  While away up in New York on one such venture, Bowman contracted pneumonia, and died at the age of sixty-three on May 26, 1949 (exactly sixteen years to the day after the Big Apple claimed the life of Jimmie Rodgers, as it happened).

This custom vanity pressing, emblazoned with a printers’ flower and numbered individually on each side, was ostensibly produced sometime in 1948—the year before Bowman’s death.  The exact date and location of recording are unknown, and some sources suggest it may have been recorded as early as the 1920s.  Indeed, Bowman did release a 1920s acoustical recording of “12th Street Rag” (apparently the one he recorded for Gennett in 1924) on his personal “Bowman” label around the late 1940s.  This disc however, appears by every indication—for example, the presence of a lead-in groove—to be of post-war manufacture.  The matrix numbers, engraved by hand (in the master, not the individual pressing) in the runout area, are “A-1839” and “ELB #1” on “No. 1”, and  “A-1840” and “ELB #2” on “No. 2”, respectively.

On the side numbered “1”, Bowman plays and sings a raggy twelve bar blues song called “Baby Is You Mad at Me”, drawing heavily on traditional blues “floating lyrics”. Bowman filed the copyright for the song—subtitled “(Mazie Tell Me True)”—on August 8, 1945.  Listening to this song, it’s not too hard to imagine how inaccurate rumors were disseminated that Bowman was a light-skinned black.

Baby is You Mad at Me, recorded 1948 by Euday Bowman.

On “No. 2” Bowman plays his own arrangement—the original and definitive arrangement, that is—of his ubiquitous “12th Street Rag”.  Some say it was named in honor of Fort Worth’s 12th Street—which ran directly through the aforementioned “Hell’s Half Acre” red light district—others claim its namesake was the same in Kansas City; I favor the former case (though I may admittedly be biased).  Unlike the cornball renditions by the likes of Pee Wee Hunt and many others, in its composer’s hands, the piece shows its true colors as a gritty, hard-driving, yet elegant, Texas beer hall rag, not too unlike the barrelhouse music heard from Seger Ellis or Herve Duerson.  If you enlarge the image of the label and look very closely, you will see that it was faintly autographed by Bowman.

12th Street Rag, recorded 1948 by Euday Bowman.

Paramount 12389 – Bo Weavil Jackson – 1926

The life and times of the musician known as Bo Weavil Jackson are shrouded beneath a veil of mystery and obscurity; even his true identity remains an uncertainty.  In fact, it would be difficult to know less about a person.  He made six records, had a remarkably poorly lit photograph taken of him, and then disappeared into oblivion.  This intrigue, of course, only serves to enhance his appeal as a bluesman, much as it might confound historians.

The man called “Bo Weavil” is said to have truly been named James Jackson (or perhaps James Butler or Sam Butler) and is believed to have hailed from Alabama, probably born sometime in the 1890s.  Queries of public records reveal far too many possible results to be narrowed down by the few vague details known.  Indeed, he referred to Birmingham in his “Jefferson County Blues”.  He was playing for spare change on a Birmingham street corner when he was “discovered” by record salesman and talent scout Harry Charles in 1926, who referred him to Chicago to make some records for Paramount, by whom he was promoted as having “come down from the Carolinas.”  There, he waxed six sides, including a version of “When the Saints Come Marching Home” and perhaps the first recording of “Crow Jane”, which are counted among the earliest recordings of country blues by a male performer, in the wake of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s historic debut recordings with the same company only a few months prior.  The following month, Bo Weavil headed to New York to cut another six sides for Vocalion (two of which were unissued but exist in the form of test pressings), this time under the moniker “Sam Butler”.  His recordings reveal that he was a nimble slide guitarist with a unique approach to performance, and his repertoire consisted of a mixture of blues and sacred songs.  What became of Bo Weavil after his brief recording career drew to a close is entirely unknown; perhaps he went back home to Alabama, perhaps he started a new life in New York, perhaps he got run over by a freight train trying to hobo his way back south—we may never know.  Purportedly, another man adopted the moniker of “Bo Weavil Jackson” in the Mississippi Delta in the decade following “Sam Butler’s” recording career.

Paramount 12389 was recorded around August of 1926 in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Bo Weavil Jackson’s first released record, consisting of his third and first recorded sides, respectively, and quite certainly his best-selling.

Firstly, Bo Weavil Jackson demonstrates his eccentric and unpredictable slide guitar work on his tour de force “You Can’t Keep No Brown” (though the last line in the song coupled with the absence of the title verse suggests that perhaps it should have been titled “Long Distance Blues”).  He recorded an entirely different version of this song for Vocalion, but this one, if you could compare the two, is the superior version in my opinion.

You Can’t Keep No Brown, recorded c. August 1926 by Bo Weavil Jackson.

On the “B” side, Bo Weavil sings “Pistol Blues”, which is in actuality a rendition of the folk blues “Crow Jane”; while Julius Daniels’ 1927 recording of “Crow Jane Blues” is often credited as the first recording of the song, Bo Weavil’s predates it by more than a year.

Pistol Blues, recorded c. August 1926 by Bo Weavil Jackson.

Royalty RR-906 – “Stick-Horse” Hammond – 1950

Another one of those hidden figures of the blues who made a few records at one session and promptly disappeared into obscurity, few details are concretely known about the life of Texas-Louisiana musician “Stick-Horse” Hammond, who made a small handful of records in 1950 demonstrating a gritty and rather archaic style of rural blues.  As such, the facts presented within this article should to taken as tentative, at best.

One of at least five children of B.B. and Laura (spelling uncertain) Hammond, “Stick-Horse” was born Nathaniel Hammond in Palestine, Texas, on April 16, 1896, (according to public records), though a date in the preceding month has also been proffered, as well.  According to a draft card presumably attributable to the same Hammond, he was of medium height with a heavy build as an adult.  Per the same source, he worked on the Union Pacific Railroad around the time of the First World War, and was at the time living in Denver, Colorado.  Perhaps resulting from that profession, he purportedly lost a leg (much like his white contemporary “Peg” Moreland), and ostensibly adopted the nickname ‘Stick-Horse” from the peg-leg he relied upon thereafter.  Later in life, he reportedly turned to life as a traveling musician, playing around his home state before settling in Taylortown, Louisiana, in the vicinity of Shreveport, where he began farming on the share.  Around 1950, Hammond was “discovered” by country singing star Zeke Clements—who was then appearing on the KWKH Louisiana Hayride—and brought to town to cut a record for former disc jockey Ray Bartlett.  Clements later recalled that “they drove around for two or three days getting him drunk enough to record.”  In all, Hammond produced six sides for Bartlett’s “Job” label, four of which were picked up by larger record companies (Royalty Records of Paris, Texas, and Gotham Records of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, respectively).  Sometime later, the plantation on which Hammond farmed was visited by record executives Stan Lewis and Leonard Chess in hopes of signing the bluesman to the fledgling Chess Records.  Unfortunately for the songster, the big boss ran off the city slickers with a shotgun, swiftly snuffing out any hopes for the continuation of Hammond’s brief career as a record artist.  Remaining in Taylortown for the rest of his life, “Stick-Horse” Hammond died in Shreveport on May 27, 1964.

Royalty RR-906 was recorded at the J&M Record Shop presumably at 728 Texas Street in Shreveport, Louisiana, sometime in the year of 1950.  It was originally released on Job 105.  “Stick-Horse” Hammond sings the blues and accompanies himself on electric guitar.

On the “A” side, “Stick-Horse” sings a low-down country blues rendition of fellow Texan Curtis Jones’s “Highway 51”. Having been born in 1896, Hammond was among the same generation of blues musicians as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mance Lipscomb, though each artist’s recording career occupied a different era.

Highway 51, recorded 1950 by “Stick-Horse” Hammond.

On the reverse, Hammond sings “Too Late Baby”, taking after the Black Ace’s (and others’) “You Gonna Need My Help Someday”, and continuing in the popular mold of “How Long—How Long” and “Sitting On Top of the World” influenced melodies.

Too Late Baby, recorded 1950 by “Stick-Horse” Hammond.

Columbia 14624-D – Blind Willie Johnson – 1929

Against odds stacked against him, the guitar evangelist and musical visionary Blind Willie Johnson rightly secured his place as a gospel music pioneer and veritable legend in the annals of American music.  While he found neither great fame nor fortune during his life, his rousing religious songs and inspired slide guitar have received much admiration from music lovers, and the convoluted details surrounding his life have inspired much interest from researchers (and as such, some of the facts presented herein are of rather tenuous accuracy) in the decades since.

Willie Johnson was born to “Dock” (variously reported in source documents as Willie, Sr., or George) and Mary Johnson in Pendleton, Texas (though other sources have suggested Independence, some one-hundred miles southeast), in January of 1897; his draft card gave a date of the twenty-fifth, while his death certificate proffered the twenty-second.  He spent most of his life from childhood to adulthood in Marlin, Texas.  His mother died when he was four years old, and his father later remarried.  It is widely believed that Johnson became blind around the age of seven, though the cause of his blindness is not definitively known; the most popular story—based upon an account by his alleged widow Angeline—asserts that he was blinded by lye water thrown by his stepmother during a marital dispute with his father (and accounts differ as to whether the lye was meant for Willie or his father).  A perhaps more plausible theory suggests that he became blind from viewing a solar eclipse which would have been visible from Texas on August 30, 1905, through a piece of broken glass.  No matter the unfortunate circumstance, Johnson found religion and thus aspired preach the gospel.  Inspired by fiddling evangelist Blind Madkin Butler, he learned to play guitar in a distinctive style using a steel ring for a slide to accompany his coarse, false bass singing (though he naturally possessed a pleasant singing voice).  He traveled from town-to-town, playing and singing his religious songs on street corners around the Brazos Valley, sometimes sharing the space with Blind Lemon Jefferson and his blues songs.  Around the middle of the 1920s, Johnson met Willie B. Harris, who would soon become his (possibly second) wife and singing partner, and with whom he would have one daughter in 1931.  He made his first recordings on December 3, 1927—one day after fellow Texas gospel blues man Washington Phillips made his own debut—for Columbia, who had set up a temporary recording laboratory in Dallas, Texas, possibly at the Jefferson Hotel.  His religious songs proved quite successful, some records rivaling the popular Bessie Smith’s blues songs in sales figures.  Ultimately, Johnson had three more sessions in Dallas, New Orleans, and Atlanta, producing a total of thirty issued sides for the Columbia Phonograph Company—plus an additional two unreleased masters credited in the company ledgers to “Blind Texas Marlin”, which are speculated to have been pseudonymous recordings of secular material, or which may have simply been a clerical error—before the crush of the Great Depression curtailed their field recording activity and thus ended his recording career.  Sometime in the 1930s, Johnson left his family in Marlin for the Gulf Coast, where he eventually settled in Beaumount, evidently with a woman named Angeline (with whom he may have had relations concurrent to his marriage to Harris), purportedly the sister of blues guitarist L.C. Robinson.  He continued to sing on street corners in the vicinity, and may have appeared on the radio on KTEM in Temple in the early 1940s, according to an anecdote related by Houston folklorist Mack McCormick, and operated a “house of prayer” in Beaumont.  A decade after his recording career had concluded, John A. Lomax expressed interest in Johnson’s music in an interview with another Blind Willie in 1940, but McTell perplexingly informed the ballad hunter that the gospel singer was dead, according to a letter he had received from Johnson’s wife.  His house in Beaumont reportedly burned in the middle 1940s, and Blind Willie Johnson died on September 18, 1945, from a cause reported as malarial fever.

As with so many of history’s truest luminaries, Blind Willie Johnson’s greatest fame was achieved posthumously.  Only seven years after his demise, Harry Smith included his 1930 recording of “John the Revelator” in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music, presenting Johnson’s music to a new generation of folkies.  In 1977, Johnson’s instrumental “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was selected among the twenty-seven musical recordings included on the Voyager Golden Record, sending the blind pilgrim’s celestial music to an appropriate venue amongst the stars.

Columbia 14624-D was recorded in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 10 and 11, 1929, respectively.  It was not released until October of 1931, making it Johnson’s last issued record.  Reportedly, only 900 copies were pressed, and it is the only of Johnson’s records to be listed in the “Rarest 78s” column of 78 Quarterly, with an estimate of fifteen or fewer copies known to exist (though whether or not it actually is his rarest record is debatable)—this copy, incidentally, appears to match the description of the one which formerly belonged to Mr. Roger Misiewicz.  Blind Willie Johnson sings both sides in his growling false bass voice and eschews his slide in favor of chording the frets with his bare fingers, he is joined by Willie B. Harris on the second side.

On the first side, recorded the former date, Willie sings “Sweeter as the Years Roll By”—an apt title for his final record—a folk interpretation of Lelia Naylor Morris’s 1912 hymn “Sweeter as the Years Go By” (which in fact are the lyrics Johnson sings in the evidently mis-titled song).

Sweeter as the Years Roll By, recorded December 10, 1929 by Blind Willie Johnson.

On the traditional spiritual “Take Your Stand”, Johnson’s vocals are complimented by the soprano of his wife Willie B. Harris.  The song was also recorded by Elders McIntorsh and Edwards in 1928, and by Charley Patton (under the pseudonym “Elder J.J. Hadley”) as the first part of his “Prayer of Death” in June of 1929.

Take Your Stand, recorded December 11, 1929 by Blind Willie Johnson.