When asked to imagine “country blues,” what image springs to mind? Probably that of a lone man with an acoustic guitar busking on some southern street corner, or hiking down a lonesome dusty road. But ubiquitous as that description may seem, a woman and a piano can make for just as much of “country” blues as a man and a guitar, as proven by Elzadie Robinson on the pair of haunting, down home blues songs herein.
Elzadie Robinson is believed to have been born on the twenty-fourth of April in either 1897 or 1900, and in Logansport, Louisiana, right on the border with Texas. Little is known of her early life, or what brought her into the world of the blues. Paramount promotional material reported that she began singing professionally around the age of twelve, and was popular in Houston and Galveston area cabarets. She and her accompanist Will Ezell were discovered in 1926 by Art Laibly of Paramount Records and referred to Chicago record. From then until 1929, she sang for the label, making a total of sixteen records. Singing mostly songs of her own composition, Robinson was most often accompanied by pianists such as Will Ezell or Bob Call, sometimes joined by more musicians such as Blind Blake or Johnny Dodds. She was distinguished alongside Ma Rainey and Ida Cox as one of Paramount’s most prominent blues ladies, and as such was honored with a segment dedicated to her in their circa 1927 publication The Paramount Book of Blues. She married Perry Henderson of Flint, Michigan, in 1928, and retired from music the following year. As with her upbringing, details surrounding her later life are obscure. Many years later, Ezadie Henderson died on January 17, 1975.
William Ezell, Robinson’s most frequent accompanist, hailed from the eastern half of Texas; he was born in the town of Brenham on December 23, 1892. He got his start as an itinerant pianist in turpentine camp barrelhouses and the like deep in the Piney Woods of east Texas, the birthplace of the musical style known as boogie woogie. Traveling with Elzadie Robinson to Chicago in 1926, Ezell began recording extensively for Paramount Records in the five years that followed, both as an accompanist to singers like Robinson, Lucille Bogan, and others, and as a solo pianist and occasional vocalist, making several recordings with Blind Roosevelt Graves. Recordings such as “Pitchin’ Boogie” and “Heifer Dust” helped to define the boogie woogie genre in its early years on records. It has been reported that following the death of Blind Lemon Jefferson in the winter of 1929, Ezell accompanied the musician’s body as it was transported by train back from Chicago to Wortham, Texas. He made his final recordings in 1931, as Paramount was faltering under the burden of the Great Depression, accompanying vaudevillian vocalist Slim Tarpley. He is said to have returned south to Louisiana after the demise of Paramount Records, but soon came back to Chicago, and continued playing professionally until at least the 1940s, at which time he was reportedly employed by the WPA as a watchman. Will Ezell died in Chiago on August 2, 1963.
Paramount 12417 was recorded around October of 1926 in Chicago, Illinois. Of the two takes issued for both sides, these are “1” and “2”, respectively. It is the first record of both Robinson and Ezell.
First, Robinson and Ezell make a blues straight out of the East Texas lumber camps: “Sawmill Blues”. Robinson’s lazy vocals, seeming to hang behind Ezell’s piano playing, lend a candid, even dreamlike quality to the recording, as if we just stepped into a Piney Woods juke joint at the end of the night following a hard working day.
On the reverse, Elzadie’s vocal drifts in and out on the classic “Barrel House Man”—the melody of which was later appropriated for Lucille Bogan’s “Sloppy Drunk Blues” (this one’s better though, I say)—to Ezell’s strong accompaniment, making ample use of the sustain pedal for that genuine barrelhouse sound.