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.
Out of the marshlands of northwestern Louisiana, where the Sabine River demarcates the edge of Texas, came Willard Thomas, a rambling character whose mournful singing and sliding steel guitar would epitomize the sound of a world where the blues was all around.
Willard Thomas was born in Logansport, Louisiana, right on the Texas border, around 1902, one of at least eight children of farmers Joel and Laura Thomas. His father played fiddle and Willard and his two brothers, Joel Jr. and Jesse, took up the guitar. Thomas purchased a guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalog, which came with a metal slide for playing Hawaiian steel guitar. Making good use of the hardware, he taught himself to play slide guitar in a rather idiosyncratic style, though also proving to be a fairly versatile player. Like many bluesmen in the region, Thomas took up in Deep Ellum in Dallas, alongside the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Coley Jones, and Huddie Ledbetter. He made his way around San Antonio and Oklahoma, where he no doubt encountered other musicians, such as “Texas” Alexander., and reportedly even associated with King Solomon Hill in Shreveport, with whom he shared some elements of musical style. At some point along the way, he picked up the nickname “Ramblin'” Thomas, attributable either to his style of living or his style of playing, if not both. Perhaps at the behest of Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had a session around the same time, Dallas music seller R.T. Ashford arranged for Thomas venture to Chicago, Illinois, in February of 1928 for a session with Paramount Records, netting a total of eight titles of which all were released. He returned to Chicago that November for another seven titles, including a memorable rendition of the blues staple “Poor Boy Blues” (a.k.a. “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home”), and possibly accompanied fellow Texas blues singer Moanin’ Bernice Edwards on another two. Finally, he made four recordings for Victor in their field trip to Dallas in February of 1932, one of which—”Ground Hog Blues”—bears considerable resemblance to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ in My Back Yard)”, recorded three days earlier at the same sessions; Jesse Thomas would later claim that Rodgers’ Blue Yodel was inspired by his brother’s song. Willard Thomas reportedly died of tuberculosis around 1944 or ’45 in Memphis, Tennessee. Outside of his recording career, most details surrounding Thomas’ life remain shrouded in obscurity. Brother Jesse “Babyface” Thomas also performed fairly prolifically over a lengthy career, recording first in Dallas in 1929, then reemerging after World War II as the “Blues Troubadour” on a number of different labels.
Paramount 12637 was recorded in February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, featuring Willard Thomas singing and accompanying himself on slide guitar. Be advised before listening that this rare record is in pretty sorry shape. I’ve tried to get it as listenable as I can with the resources available to me, but it’s about the worst sounding record I’ll ever post on Old Time Blues (I have some dignity, you see). If your ears can’t stomach the noise, I wouldn’t blame you—you can go on over to YouTube and look it up in better quality (I recommend this transfer).
First, Thomas plays and sings his mournful slide guitar opus, “So Lonesome”, the first title recorded at his first session and one of his best remembered songs.
So Lonesome, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.
On the flip, Thomas sings another outstanding blues of a rather deep shade: “Lock and Key Blues”, his third recorded side.
Lock and Key Blues, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.
A crop of the only known photograph of Lemon Jefferson, circa 1926, as was pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues.
The legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson was renowned for traveling far and wide all across the United States, ranging territories far exceeding that traversed by many of his contemporaries. His journeys broadened his musical horizons considerably wider than most home-bound musicians and brought him into contact with numerous other blues people, whom he seldom failed to impress. While many of his contemporaries were confined to their region or state, Lemon achieved national fame through his successful recording contract, and toured all around the country. As such, he impressed his music on a broad variety of different audiences, and conversely incorporated a broad variety of different musical influences into his own style of playing.
While he may not have “walked from Dallas to Wichita Falls,” Lemon was an institution in his native Texas around his local haunts like Central Track (a.k.a. Deep Ellum) in Dallas, and was said to have taken the interurban train from Denison down to Waco, entertaining passengers along the way, sometimes joined by his friend Huddie Ledbetter. Lemon was well known around such small towns as Mart, Texas—eighteen miles east of Waco—where he would sit on Main Street for hours on end playing his music for passers-by. He was a staple at country barbecues and picnics, one of which brought him into contact with the eight-year-old Sam Hopkins, who helped guide him around, and it’s said that he became one of the only people Lemon would allow to play with him. A similar privilege was afforded to young Dallas-native Aaron “Oak Cliff T-Bone” Walker—purportedly the stepson of Dallas String Band bassist Marco Washington, an associate of Jefferson’s—who was indelibly impressed with the elder bluesman’s style of playing. Josh White, too, claimed to have spent some time as Jefferson’s lead boy for a brief period in his youth. In Johnson City, Tennessee, Lemon’s playing attracted the interest of white musician Clarence Greene, who was inspired by Jefferson’s virtuoso blues guitar-picking, showing it particularly in his song “Johnson City Blues”. Probably through his records, Lemon also impressed his style on white musicians Larry Hensley and Debs Mays, who recorded versions of his “Match Box Blues” and “Rabbit Foot Blues”, respectively, in the middle of the 1930s, following Jefferson’s own demise; both imitated Lemon’s style of playing closely. Travels in Virginia brought Lemon in contact with ragtime guitarists Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay, who introduced young musician Lesley Riddle to him. Riddle soon after befriended A.P. Carter, and impressed his blues knowledge on the Carter Family in the next decade. In 1928, while passing through Minden, Louisiana, Jefferson picked up fellow musician Joe Holmes, traveling with him in Texas for a short period. Holmes eventually traveled to Wisconsin to record for Paramount as King Solomon Hill, and posthumously eulogized his friendship with Jefferson in the song “My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon”. He was also eulogized by his old friend Lead Belly in at least four different songs, including his 1935 ARC recording of “My Friend Blind Lemon”, and the eponymous “Blind Lemon”, memorably recounted in the 1976 movie about Ledbetter’s life: “Blind Lemon—oh baby—he’s a blind man! He doin’ all he can—oh baby—’till he’s travelin’ through the land.”
Paramount 12354 was released with two different sets of masters; original pressings use 2472 and 2471, respectively, recorded at Paramount’s studio in March of 1926, this one uses the later takes—1054 and 1053, though the labels were not altered to reflect it—which were electrically recorded at Marsh Laboratories in Chicago, Illinois around May of the same year. You may note that both labels erroneously give composer’s credit to “Lemons” Jefferson.
Firstly Lemon delivers one of his most successful numbers: “Long Lonesome Blues”, with that hot bit in the middle in which he busts out the lyrics: “hey, mama mama, papa papa ’deed double do love you doggone it, somebody’s talking to you mama papa ’deed double do love you” (or something to that effect) in double time. Beginning with the lyrics, “I walked from Dallas, I walked to Wichita Falls” (which were later copped by Bob Wills), this song stood alongside “Match Box Blues”—with which it shares many melodic similarities—as one of Lemon’s best known numbers to his audiences back home in Texas.
Long Lonesome Blues, recorded c. May 1926 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
“The blues come to Texas, lopin’ like a mule,” Lemon opens his “Got the Blues”, which in later years lent the verse to title Mack McCormick and Paul Oliver’s magnum opus book on the Texas blues. Echoes of the song can be heard in subsequent Texas blues songs from Texas Alexander’s “Texas Special” to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Mojo Hand”.
Got the Blues, recorded c. May 1926 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Elzadie Robinson, pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues, circa 1927.
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.
Sawmill Blues, recorded c. October 1926 by Elzadie Robinson.
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.
Barrel House Man, recorded c. October 1926 by Elzadie Robinson.
Blind Blake was one of the most prolific male blues artists of the 1920s, and one of the most skilled guitarists of all time, yet today details about his life and times are even scarcer than his records. He turned up in Chicago, recorded one-hundred-and-twenty-some-odd sides, both solo and as an accompanist, then disappeared from sight of the prying eyes of history. Even among his contemporaries, Blind Blake seemed to be something of an enigma, though they universally hailed his musical abilities. With all the mystery surrounding Blake, all that is certainly clear is that his virtuosity was second-to-none.
Blind Blake, as pictured in The Paramount Book of Blues, 1927. A cropped version of the only known photograph of him.
Arthur Blake, misidentified by some sources—including Blind Willie McTell—as Arthur Phelps, was born, reportedly, in 1896. Paramount’s 1927 Book of Blues stated that he hailed from “Jacksonville, in sunny Florida,” but his death certificate placed his birth in Newport News, Virginia. Either way, it is probable that Florida served as his home for a large portion of his life. Whether or not he was born blind is also the subject of speculation; the aforementioned Book of Blues suggested as much, but some have proposed that he was born sighted, but or developed his condition later in life (perhaps as a result of some bad bootleg). Purportedly on the recommendation of a Florida record dealer, Blake traveled to Chicago and made his recording debut for Paramount Records in July of 1926, accompanying singer Leola B. Wilson, and cut his first solo record a month later: “Early Morning Blues” and “West Coast Blues” appearing on Paramount 12387. He was noted for his ability to play a guitar like a piano, capable of producing intricate fingerpicked ragtime melodies with a Charleston rhythm—exemplified in such pieces as his tour de force “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown” (Paramount 12892)—and indeed he was also a skilled pianist, though he only demonstrated that ability on one recording: “Let Your Love Come Down”, accompanying Bertha Henderson. Alongside Blind Lemon Jefferson and Papa Charlie Jackson, Blake became one of the most successful male blues artists on Paramount’s roster, and he collaborated periodically with other artists such as Gus Cannon on titles like “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home” and “My Money Never Runs Out” (Paramount 12588 and 12604), Charlie Spand on the stomping boogie-woogie “Hastings St.” (Paramount 12863), Charlie Jackson on “Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It” (Paramount 12911), and jazz clarinetist Johnny Dodds on several sides including “C.C. Pill Blues” (Paramount 12634). Blake concluded his recording career with “Champagne Charlie is My Name” and “Depression’s Gone from Me Blues”, the latter set to the popular melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”, recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin around June of 1932 and released on Paramount 13137. To add further mystery, there is question as to whether the performer of “Champagne Charlie is My Name” actually is Blake at all, or some unknown artist masquerading under his name (personally, I’m under the impression that it probably is Blake, though it is below his usual quality; maybe he was hitting the bottle that day). Not long after that last session, Paramount Records folded, and Blake never recorded again. He remained in Wisconsin in the 1930s, living in Brewer’s Hill in Milwaukee with his wife Beatrice, though he was unable to find work during the hard times of the Great Depression. Blake fell ill with pneumonia in 1933 and died from complications of tuberculosis on December 1, 1934.
Blind Blake’s virtuoso ragtime guitar playing served as a major influence on subsequent generations of blues guitarists, particularly on the style of blues playing that has since come to be associated with the Piedmont, and he exerted a direct influence on more than a few prominent musicians hailing from that region, including Blind Boy Fuller, Josh White, and Buddy Moss, as well as—directly and indirectly—on countless other musicians from around the United States, and even abroad, in the decades since. Renowned guitarist Rev. Blind Gary Davis drew considerable inspiration from Blake, and once mused that he “ain’t never heard anybody on a record yet beat Blind Blake on guitar. [He liked] Blake because he plays right sporty.” In later years, Gus Cannon later recalled that Blake “could see more with his blind eyes than [Cannon] with [his] two good ones.” Georgia Tom Dorsey remembered Blake as “a good worker and a nice fellow to get along with.” Race records executive J. Mayo Williams stated that Blake “liked to get drunk and fight.”
Paramount 12565 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, in November and October of 1927, respectively. It also appeared on Broadway 5053 under the pseudonym “Blind George Martin”. On side “A”, Blake is accompanied on banjo by Gus Cannon, who was recording for Paramount at the time as “Banjo Joe”, and in fact it is Cannon’s first recording. Alas, the record is afflicted by a condition endemic to these Paramounts; though not in particularly poor condition and the music is mostly clear and undistorted, poor pressing quality and decades of less-than-optimal storage have resulted in a high level of surface noise behind the music. To make things worse, both sides were recorded at a rather low volume. As such, both sides are most assuredly audible (and even enjoyable to my desensitized ears), but I apologize for not being able to offer better quality sound.
First, Blake sings the medicine show favorite “He’s in the Jail House Now”, later popularized by Jimmie Rodgers’ two landmark recordings, though I would consider Blake’s version here to be the definitive. Other notable versions of the vaudeville staple were recorded by Whistler’s Jug Band in 1924, Earl McDonald’s Louisville Jug Band in 1927, Jim Jackson in 1928, Boyd Senter’s Senterpedes in 1929, the Memphis Jug Band and Bill Bruner, the latter of which drew both on Rodgers and Blake’s versions, in 1930, Eliot Everett’s Orchestra in 1932, and Billy Mitchell in 1936, not counting outright copies of Rodgers’ rendition by the likes of Gene Autry and Frankie Marvin, and the song remains popular on the roots music scene today, with performances by such artists as Dom Flemons and Pokey LaFarge.
He’s in the Jail House Now, recorded c. November 1927 by Blind Blake.
On the reverse, another of Blake’s best, he shows off his guitar-playing prowess on “Southern Rag”, punctuated by spoken interjections in Geechee dialect. “Now we goin’ on an old Southern r… rag!”
Southern Rag, recorded c. October 1927 by Blind Blake.