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.

Melotone M 12117 – Dessa Foster and Howling Smith – 1931

Some twenty years before Chester Burnett became famous as “Howlin’ Wolf”, another blues musician claimed that title for his own, a Texas guitarist and singer also known as “Funny Paper” Smith, called such after his eponymous “Howling Wolf Blues”, which he recorded in four parts in 1930 and ’31.  Regrettably, like so many of his contemporaries, very little is known of the life and times of the original “Howling Wolf”.

Most sources suggest that the blues singer and guitarist known as “Funny Paper Smith” was John T. Smith, as is indicated on the labels of the records he made for the Vocalion company in 1930 and ’31.  He is usually said to have been born in East Texas the 1880s or ’90s, and to have died sometime in the 1940s.  Indeed, there are some documents to corroborate that a black musician by the name of John Smith existed in Texas during those years, though aside from sharing the most common name around, there is little to connect him to “Funny Paper”.  It is also frequently suggested that his “Funny Paper” sobriquet was a mistake on the part of the record company, and that his nickname was properly “Funny Papa”.  A good deal of that information seems to derive from the notes of the 1972 Yazoo compilation of some of his material—The Original Howling Wolf—which itself appears to have mostly been derived from an interview with fellow Texas bluesman Thomas Shaw (the same album also erroneously displays an early photograph of the Black Ace purported as Smith, thus staining its claim to accuracy).

Recently released research by the esteemed Mack McCormick—continued by Bob Eagle—has related a compelling argument for a different scenario; they suggest that “John Smith” was merely an assumed name used by the artist to evade trouble back home.  In a 1962 interview, McCormick played one of the Smith’s records for Mrs. Alberta Cook White of Smithville, Texas, who identified the singer as her older brother, Otis Cook, whom she claimed was born there in Bastrop County on April 1, 1910.  She related that he learned to play guitar as a youth and began rambling around the state of Texas, leaving behind life as a farmer in favor of becoming an itinerant songster, playing at local functions and sometimes leaving home for weeks at a time to visit Waco and Dallas, possibly encountering Blind Lemon Jefferson along the way.  He was reportedly known to most of his contemporaries as the “Howling Wolf”, not as “Funny Papa” or “Funny Paper”, and he was described as being a tall, dark-skinned man of about one-hundred-sixty-five pounds (to complicate matters, it was suggested that the “Howling Wolf” name may have been used by more than one musician in Texas around the same time).  Census documents suggest he was incarcerated at Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, Texas, on a charge of attempted arson in the spring of 1930, after which he promptly made for Chicago.  There, “Smith” began his career as a recording artist for Vocalion Records, the details surrounding which are considerably more certain than those surrounding his identity.

Dubbed “‘Funny Paper’ Smith (The Howling Wolf)”, he entered the studio for the first time on September 18, 1930, to make two unreleased test recordings for the Vocalion company, “Hobo Blues” and “Old Rounder’s Blues” for the Vocalion company—the latter perhaps a rendition of Lemon Jefferson’s song of the same name.  He made his debut in earnest the following day, cutting the first two installments of his eponymous, four-part, “Howling Wolf Blues” and two more sides the day after, all of which were issued this time around.  He returned to the studio thrice more before the end of the year to make another five sides.  The following year, he had a further five sessions resulting in fifteen more sides.  Afterwards, “Funny Paper” evidently went back home to Texas.  He resurfaced four years later in Fort Worth to record for Vocalion once again.  From the twentieth through the twenty-third of April, 1935, he cut a total of thirty-two sides—including parts five and six of “Howling Wolf Blues”—on some of which he was joined by Moanin’ Bernice Edwards and Black Boy Shine on pianos and vocals and “Little Brother” Willie Lane on guitar.  Of all those, only his three sides with Bernice Edwards were released, of which only one—a hot “skiffle” record—bore credit to “Howling Smith”; all others were “found to be faulty,” and never released in any form.  In all, his recording activities netted a grand total of fifty-six sides, though only twelve records were issued to his name.  In the late 1930s, “Smith” teamed up for a time with “Texas” Alexander before parting ways near the Oklahoma border, at which point Alexander joined with Lowell Fulson.  Sometime later, Otis Cook is believed to have settled down with a family back home in Bastrop, where he later died on August 29, 1979.  A testament to his reputation in his home state, the “Howling Wolf Blues” later became something of a standard among Texas blues players, with renditions made by his protégé Willie Lane, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Tom Shaw.

Melotone M 12117 was recorded on January 19, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois.  It was also issued on Polk P9013 and later on Vocalion 02699 in 1934.  Dessa Foster and J.T. “Funny Paper” Smith duet and banter on a novelty blues in the manner of those made by Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson for Okeh, while Smith accompanies on guitar.  It has been proposed that “Dessa Foster” is a pseudonym for Mississippi Delta blues singer Mattie Delaney (frankly I’m rather dubious, but some compelling evidence has been presented, and there is a compelling aural similarity).

On the first part of the comic duet “Tell it to the Judge—No. 1”, Howling Smith plays the part of a police officer, barging into Miss Foster’s house with the question: “where that booze at?”

Tell it to the Judge—No. 1, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.

Opening with a fine bit of guitar reminiscent of his work on “Honey Blues”, recorded the following month, Smith assumes the role of the titular judge on “Tell it to the Judge—No. 2”, and he’s not giving any more breaks to “Betty”.

Tell it to the Judge—No. 2, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.

Montgomery Ward M-8493 – Roy Shaffer – 1939

Though once a widely known and popular personality on radio stations around St. Louis, with a brief recording career that produced only eight discs, cowboy singer Roy Shaffer since drifted into near total obscurity; in fact, the article hereafter appears to be the only substantial biography of him ever published.

Roy Shaffer and Gang appearing on KWK, St. Louis.  Roy pictured third from left.  Circa 1940s.

Roy was born Jesse Lee Shaffer on December 6, 1906, one of several children of Luther and Anna Shaffer of Mathiston, Mississippi.  After growing up on the farm, he left home to pursue the life of a singing cowboy.  According to one account, he got his start in the famous 101 Ranch Wild West Show, and made his debut appearance on the radio in 1926.  By the middle of the 1930s, he was living in New Orleans and appearing on WWL, billed as the “Lone Star Cowboy” (making him one of quite a few, including native Texan Leon Chappelear, to adopt that sobriquet), an engagement which purportedly brought him as many as 7,462 fan letters in one day.  He also reportedly claimed, at various times, the pseudonyms of the “Rambling Yodeler” ,”Tennessee Kid”, “Mississippi Tadpole”, “Louisiana Bullfrog”, and “Reckless Red”.  During that stint, M.M. Cole of Chicago published a book of his songs, and he made his first phonograph records, cutting four sides for Decca in their field trip to New Orleans in 1936.  Also around that time, he married Cajun girl Edith Falcon, who would later join in in the act, billed as “Eddie Shaffer”.  He returned to the studio once more in 1939 to record a further twelve songs, this time for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, in Chicago.  These included a rendition of the classic cowboy song “Bury Me Out on the Prairie”, the popular “Great Speckled Bird”, and covers Chris Bouchillon’s “Talking Blues” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Match Box Blues”.  Those two sessions accounted for the entirety of Shaffer’s known commercial recording work, but his greatest success was evidently found on the radio; in 1939, Rural Radio magazine reported that Shaffer had appeared on fifty-nine radio stations, “both the smallest and the largest,” though he was reported as “off-the-air” and living in Istrouma, Louisiana, in 1938.  By 1940, he was in St. Louis, where he remained for the majority of his career, and employed by the Carson-Union-May-Stern furniture store to appear on their radio programs on several different local stations.  He made appearances on WEW from 1939 into ’41 with his “Hillbillies”, after which he began appearing on KWK with his “Gang”, a gig he still held in the middle-to-late part of the decade; he was also on KSD in 1942 with his “Missouri Ramblers”.  By the early 1950s, he was on KWRE in Warrenton, Missouri.  He also made off-air appearances, attending and participating in rodeos and giving live programs for his fans, often at events put on by Carson’s Furniture Store.  In the 1950s, he owned and operated a “hillbilly park” in Mexico, Missouri.  He was still active on the radio in St. Louis as late as 1956.  Roy Shaffer died in March of 1974 in Greenville, Mississippi, at the age of sixty-eight.  Several of Shaffer’s recordings were later reissued on BMG’s East Virginia Blues: The Secret History of Rock and Roll and JSP Records’ Classic Field Recordings: Landmark Country Sessions from a Lost Era, but those have done little to rise the artist up and out from the depths of obscurity.

Montgomery Ward M-8493 was recorded on June 26, 1939, at RCA Victor’s Studio C in Chicago, Illinois by Roy Shaffer, singing with guitar.  It was also released on Bluebird B-8234.

In his casual delivery of Chris Bouchillon’s seminal “Talking Blues”, Shaffer oozes southern charm like hot butter through sourdough toast.  “If you want to go to heaven, let me tell you how to do it; just grease yourself in a little mutton suet…”

Talking Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.

Flip the record over and he gets low-down on his arrangement of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s classic Texas folk blues standard “The Match Box Blues”—one of my personal favorites.

The Match Box Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.

Okeh 8106 – Sippie Wallace – 1923

While Blind Lemon Jefferson is often identified as the Father of the Texas Blues for his pioneering recordings made in 1926, it is every bit as important to acknowledge the lady blues singers that blazed the trail before him, such as the “Texas Nightingale”, Houston’s own Sippie Wallace.

Sippie was born Beulah Bell Thomas on the Bell Bayou near Pine Bluff, Arkansas,  on November 1, 1898, one of the thirteen children of the musical family of George and Fanny Thomas.  The family moved to Houston, Texas, before the turn of the century (her birthplace is often cited as Houston, but the U.S. Census of 1900 suggests Arkansas).  She acquired the nickname Sippie in school because her “teeth were so far apart [she] had to sip everything.”  Her father was a deacon in the Shiloh Baptist Church, where she sang and played the organ.  On summer evenings, she would sneak away with some of her siblings to the tent shows, where she first met the blues, and where she first began singing it when one of the stars asked her to join the chorus.  Soon, she was traveling with the shows across the state.  Her older brother George W. Thomas gained note as a ragtime musician and composer in New Orleans (and whose daughter Hociel also sang the blues), and she moved there with her younger brother Hersal—also a pianist—to live with him in 1915.  There, in 1917, she met and later married Matt Wallace.  Like her contemporaries “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, she toured on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit in the early 1920s, during which time she earned the sobriquet “The Texas Nightingale”.  She moved with her brothers to Chicago in 1923, and not long after made her recording debut for the Okeh record company.  That arrangement proved quite lucrative, and she recorded forty-four sides for the company between October of 1923 and May of 1927, some featuring star-studded accompaniments by the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Clarence Williams, and many others backed by brother Hersal.  Subsequently, she recorded four sides for Victor in 1929, backed by some members of the Dixieland Jug Blowers and her own piano, of which only two made the cut.  She moved to Detroit in 1929, and following the deaths of both her husband and brother George in 1936, she turned from the blues to religion, becoming organist and choir director at the Leland Baptist Church.  She made one record with Albert Ammons’ Rhythm Kings for Mercury in 1945, reviving her old “Bedroom Blues”, but kept her back mostly to the blues until 1966, when her friend and fellow Texas blues singer Victoria Spivey convinced her to make a comeback.  Her return was met with success, and she toured the United States and Europe and recorded several albums, particularly influencing young musician Bonnie Raitt.  She was one of the last surviving classic female blues singers of the 1920s when she was incapacitated by a stroke in March of 1986.  Sippie Wallace died eight months later on her eighty-eighth birthday.

Okeh 8106 was recorded in October of 1923 in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Sippie Wallace’s first record and accounts for the entirety of her first recording session.  Wallace is accompanied on piano by Eddie Heywood, Sr.

“Shorty George Blues” was composed by Sippie’s brother George and niece Hociel.  Fellow Texans Lead Belly and James “Iron Head” Baker later recorded largely unrelelated folk songs under the same title, but the echoes of Wallace’s song can be heard throughout the country blues; the opening verse alone recycled in numerous other blues songs, such as Bo Weavil Jackson’s “You Can’t Keep No Brown”.

Shorty George Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.

Another family affair, Wallace shares the composer’s credit with her brother George W. Thomas for her “Up the Country Blues”, drawing both lyrics and style from the country blues tradition not yet recorded at the time.

Up the Country Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.

Updated with improved audio on June 21, 2024.

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.  It was released the following January, and sold a total of 23,808 copies, making it one of the top sellers in Victor’s “Native American Melodies” (V-40000) series.

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.

Updated with improved audio on March 21, 2021.