Posts Tagged ‘history’

Born in 1897 just outside of New Orleans, Minnie was singing on the streets by her early teens.  She may have played electric guitar as early as 1942.  She straddled the between country and city blues.  She died virtually forgotten in a Memphis nursing home in 1977.  Her show consisted of a mix of popular songs, Gershwin, etc. in addition to blues.  Blues players had to be well rounded enough to take requests.


She is, in many ways, the link between pre-War acoustic and post-War electric Chicago blues. She is probably best known today for “When the Levee Breaks” which she wrote with her second husband Kansas Joe.

She was one tough lady – could drink many men under the table and would spit tobacco all while wearing an elegant ball gown. This is probably what it took if you were going to play with the likes of Willie Brown who Minnie worked with down in Mississippi for about a year.

She was an incredible singer and one heck of a guitar player. Willie Moore reportedly called her a “Guitar King.” Minnie played in standard and Open D and Open G tunings. In the early 1930s she got into a cutting contest with Big Bill Broonzy and Minnie walked off with the prize – a bottle of whiskey.

She and Son House were two of the first to “discover” National Resonator guitars.  H.C. Spier used to tell a story of Minnie and Kansas Joe blowing into Jackson, Mississippi after a Chicago recording session. They showed up in a brand new convertible car with the first National Tricone anybody in those parts had ever seen.

By the early 1940s Minnie was working out of Chicago and took to playing a National wood body electric, working with either a drummer or bass and a drums – providing a roadmap for the Chicago blues players that would follow. Because she went electric, Minnie escaped the fate that befell most pre-War players of having to work as a janitor or freezing to death on a street corner. Minnie continued to play in front of audiences until disabled by a stroke.

The year was 1927 and Calvin Coolidge was president. In that year, the Mississippi river valley, and especially the state of Louisiana, suffered the greatest flood in its history.  Memphis Minnie McCoy (born Lizzie Douglas) would have lived through the devastation. Born June 3rd, 1897, in Algiers, Louisiana, at the age of 13 she had run away from home. In Memphis, Tennessee she played guitar in nightclubs. Her 1929 song, “When The Levee Breaks” (co-authored with husband Joe), was later recorded by Led Zeppelin and released in 1971.

In May of 1927, at Melville, Louisiana, the levee broke. Men, women, and children scrambled to unbroken sections of the levee.

All last night I sat on the levee and moaned.

The nation had been preoccupied with relative frivolity and had not especially noticed what was happening in the Mississippi Valley. Charles Lindberg’s trans-atlantic flight, for instance, consumed attention. Complained Herbert Hoover, “I sometimes wonder if the people of our country realize just what this calamity is. Do they know that before the flood recedes more than half a million Americans, men, women and children, will have seen their homes swallowed up in the deluge…”

When the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay.

Economic pain was tremendous. Crops were destroyed and businesses were ruined. This was in 1927, two years before the stock market crash supposedly caused the Great Depression.

Don’t it make you feel bad
When you’re tryin’ to find your way home,
You don’t know which way to go?
If you’re goin’ down South
There ain’t no work to do,
If you’re goin’ North,
There’s Chicago.

Memphis Minnie did move to Chicago, in the 1930s. It was “the city that works,” “the city of the big shoulders.” There, she recorded nearly 200 records. In 1957, she returned to Memphis. Memphis Minnie McCoy passed away on August 6th, 1973.

The 1927 flood covered 15,000 square miles, an area larger than Belgium. It was “a national calamity. Nothing else since the Civil War [was] in its class… Millions of words have been written about the [1927] flood.”

James James “Curley” Weaver
1906 – 1962
Curley was born in Newton County and came to Atlanta in 1925 by railroad to join his boyhood friends Charlie and Robert Hicks. He first recorded in 1928, and performed and recorded extensively with Buddy Moss and Blind Willie McTell. Like Moss and McTell, Weaver was also a member of both the Georgia Cotton Pickers and the Georgia Browns. His daughter, Cora Mae Bryant, who performed his music in many blues scenes in Georgia until she passed away on Oct. 30th, 2008, also frequently accompanied him.

Charlie Hicks (aka ‘Laughing’ Charlie Lincoln) (1900-1963)

Charlie Lincoln was born Charlie Hicks in Walnut Grove, GA, in 1900. When he was young, his parents moved the family to Newton County. He and younger brother Robert (who later became known as BBQ Bob Hicks) first showed an interest in music. Their family wasn’t too musical, so they were soon taking guitar lessons from a woman named Savannah “Dip” Weaver. They instantly became friends with her young son James, better known as Curley, and often practiced together.  After a while, these three were often seen playing at local frolics and fish fries with a young harmonica wizard named Eddie Mapp, who had moved to the area about 1922. Charlie moved to Atlanta in 1923, the first of his circle of Newton County friends to do so. He married, settled down, and got steady work, first in a foundary, then a bakery, and finally at a paint factory. He only played music on the side, and one wonders if his wife had anything to do with that. Unlike his easy-going younger brother, Charlie Hicks did not make friends easily; he kept to himself, got moody at times, and was not like the laguhing character on some of his recordings. When he did play around Atlanta, he often worked with Robert, Curley, and Eddie (or some combination thereof) and rarely played with other musicians.

After his younger brother’s first hit, Charlie was brought into the studios with him to record for Columbia in 1927. He recorded with his brother as part of The Georgia Cotton Pickers and as a duet in addition to making his own records. Columbia released his records under the names “Charlie (or Charley) Lincoln” and “Laughing Charley”. No one could say why “Lincoln” was used, though it was the maiden name of Eddie Mapp’s mother. He recorded steadily over the next three years, though only three of his own records were released.

His brother’s death from pneumonia in 1931 hit him hard, coming two years after his mother’s and one year after his sister-in-law’s. His sister recalled that “he was just a different Charlie altogether”, and his life fell apart. His marriage broke up (his wife later dying of pneumonia as well), and after his father’s death in 1935, he became an alcoholic. By 1955 he had already attacked two or three persons with a knife. Then on Christmas Day, his trouble deepened. He was in a rough section of town and, according to him, tried to stop a man from beating his common-law wife. When the man threw a bottle, Charlie shot him. Eyewitnesses said that Charie shot the man for no apparent reason. He was found guilty and given twenty years. In prison, he continued to play his twelve-string, though he’d only play religious songs. Big Joe Williams recalled meeting a twelve-string player at the prison, but didn’t realize that he was “Charlie Lincoln”. Hicks’ parole was was turned down after seven years; soon after that, he died of a brain hemorrhage.

Eugene Moss ,”Buddy,” “Gene”
Jan 26, 1914, in Jewell, Georgia, October 19, 1984, in Atlanta, Georgia
played Harmonica, Guitar (and vocals)

Buddy Moss, born Eugene Moss, was born in 1914 in Jewell, Georgia. He was one of twelve children from a sharecropping family in Warren county. When he was four years old his family moved to Augusta, Georgia, where he taught himself how to play the harmonica in order to entertain people at parties. He spent the next ten years in Augusta until he picked up and moved to Atlanta where he met up with the likes of Barbecue Bob and Curley Weaver. They were impressed with Moss’s aptitude on the harmonica at such a young age, and Moss accompanied them with the Georgia Cotton Pickers in a recording session at the Campbell Hotel in Atlanta in December 1930. This was Moss’s first recording experience ever. Moss stayed busy for the next three years teaching himself how to play the guitar and in January 1933, Moss put out his own record through the American Recording Company in New York City.

Paul Oliver said, “His first titles revealed him as a competent guitarist with a swinging style that made effective use of bass string rhythms and of raising a note by ‘hammering on.’”  This first recording session consisted of eleven tunes, and by mid-September 1933 he was recording another twelve songs. This time, however, Curley Weaver and Blind Willie McTell were accompanying him. The summer of 1934 saw Moss outselling everyone in the industry and continued to do that when he teamed up with Josh White in 1935. Moss was arrested that year however for either murdering his wife or fighting to the death with one of his rivals, depending on which source you read. He was released from the Georgia prison system six years later due to good behavior and a good word from James Baxter Long, Blind Boy Fuller’s “manager.” This may have been due to the fact that Blind Boy Fuller was dying and Long needed another star.

Moss moved to Elon College, west of Burlington, North Carolina, where he worked and lived in Long’s home, working in the fields during the weekdays and in Long’s store on the weekends. When World War II commenced and the government banned the use of shellac used in 78 rpm discs, the industry collapsed. This created a huge decline in recorded blues during this period. Moss worked odd jobs through the rest of his life such as elevator conductor, truck driver, and tobacco farmer. In 1964, however, Moss visited Josh White at one of his concerts at Emory College (Emory University, or Oxford College of Emory University?). Moss was recognized by the academics there and asked to play in festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival in 1966 and the Atlanta Blues and Grass Roots Festival in 1976. Moss had had a hard life and did not wish to continue touring. Eugene Moss died October 19, 1984, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Blind Boy Fuller (born Fulton Allen) (July 10, 1907February 13, 1941) was an American blues guitarist and vocalist. He was one of the most popular of the recorded Piedmont blues artists with rural Black Americans.  He born in Wadesboro, North Carolina


He worked as a labourer, but began to lose his eyesight in his mid-teens. According to researcher Bruce Bastin:


“While he was living in Rockingham he began to have trouble with his eyes. He went to see a doctor in Charlotte who allegedly told him that he had ulcers behind his eyes, the original damage having been caused by some form of snow-blindness”.


However, there is an alternative story that he was blinded by an ex-girlfriend who threw chemicals in his face.


By 1928 he was completely blind, and turned to whatever employment he could find as a singer and entertainer, often playing in the streets. By studying the records of country blues players like Blind Blake and the “live” playing of Rev. Gary Davis, he became a formidable guitarist, and played on street corners and at house parties in Winston-Salem, Danville, and then Durham, North Carolina. In Durham, playing around the tobacco warehouses, he developed a local following which included guitarists Floyd Council and Richard Trice, as well as harmonica player Saunders Terrell, better known as Sonny Terry (eventually from the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee) and washboard player/guitarist George Washington.


In 1935, Burlington record store manager and talent scout James Baxter Long discovered him and secured him a recording session with the American Recording Company (ARC). Allen, Davis and Washington recorded several tracks in New York City, including the traditional “Rag, Mama, Rag”. To promote the material, Long decided to rename Allen as “Blind Boy Fuller”, and also named Washington “Bull City Red”.


Over the next five years Fuller made over 120 sides, and his recordings appeared on several labels. His style of singing was rough and direct, and his lyrics explicit and uninhibited as he drew from every aspect of his experience as an underprivileged, blind Black person on the streets — pawnshops, jailhouses, sickness, death — with an honesty that lacked sentimentality. Although he was not sophisticated, his artistry as a folk singer lay in the honesty and integrity of his self-expression.


A decade younger than Blind Blake, he was not as accomplished on the guitar, but was a much more expressive singer.  His music sounded older and less urban, more directly linked to the country traditions.


In April 1936, Fuller recorded ten solo performances, and also recorded with guitarist Floyd Council. The following year, having auditioning for J. Mayo Williams, he recorded for the Decca label, but then reverted to ARC. Later in 1937, he made his first recordings with Sonny Terry. In 1938 Fuller, who was described as having a fiery temper, was imprisoned for shooting a pistol at his wife, wounding her in the leg, causing him to miss out on John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” concert in NYC that year (which I believe is the same one that Robert Johnsons was scheduled to appear at before he died). While Fuller was eventually released, it was Sonny Terry who went in his stead, the beginning of a long “folk music” career. Fuller’s last two recording sessions took place in New York City during 1940.

Fuller underwent a suprapubic cystostomy in July 1940 (probably an outcome of excessive drinking) but continued to require medical treatment. He died at his home in Durham, North Carolina on February 13, 1941 at 5:00 PM of pyemia due to an infected bladder, GI tract and perineum, plus kidney failure.

He was so popular when he died that his protégé Brownie McGhee recorded “The Death of Blind Boy Fuller” for the Okeh label, and then reluctantly began a short lived career as Blind Boy Fuller No. 2 so that Columbia Records could cash in on his popularity.

Blind Boy Fuller’s final resting place is Grove Hill Cemetery, located on private property in Durham, North Carolina. State records indicate that this was once an official cemetery, and Fuller’s interment is recorded. The only remaining headstone is that of Mary Caston Langey.

Fuller’s repertoire included a number of popular double entendre “hokum” songs such as “I Want Some Of Your Pie”, “Truckin’ My Blues Away” (the origin of the phrase “keep on truckin’”), and “Get Your Yas Yas Out” (adapted as “Get Your Ya-Yas Out” for a later Rolling Stones album title), together with the autobiographical “Big House Bound” dedicated to his time spent in jail. Though much of his material was culled from traditional folk and blues numbers, he possessed a formidable finger-picking guitar style. He played a steel National resonator guitar. He was criticised by some as a derivative musician, but his ability to fuse together elements of other traditional and contemporary songs and reformulate them into his own performances, attracted a broad audience.


He was an expressive vocalist and a masterful guitar player, best remembered for his uptempo ragtime hits including “Step It Up and Go.” At the same time he was capable of deeper material, and his versions of “Lost Lover Blues”, “Rattlesnakin’ Daddy” and “Mamie” are as deep as most Delta blues. Because of his popularity, he may have been overexposed on records, yet most of his songs remained close to tradition and much of his repertoire and style is kept alive by other Piedmont artists to this day.



Born: August 6, 1900, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Died: December 30, 1952, Tunica, Mississippi

Little is known for certain of the man whom Robert Johnson called “my friend-boy, Willie Brown” (in his prophetic “Cross Road Blues”) and whom Johnson indicated should be notified in event of his death.

Willie Brown was an outstanding guitarist as well as vocalist who had an enormous influence on the origination and development of Delta blues.  Thats right, he was not Robert Johnson’s harmonica playing partner as suggested in the movie “Crossroads”!  Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Brown did, play with such notables as Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson, but he played guitar not harmonica.  He was not known to be a self-promoting frontman, preferring to “second” (accompany) other musicians.  Brown can be heard with Charley Patton on the Paramount label sessions of 1930, playing “M & O Blues,” and “Future Blues.”   Apart from playing with Son House and Charlie Patton it has also been said that he played with artists such as Luke Thomson and Thomas “Clubfoot” Coles.  At least four other songs he recorded for Paramount have never been found.  “Rowdy Blues”, a 1929 song credited to Kid Bailey, is disputed to have Brown on backup, or Brown himself using the name of Kid Bailey.

David Evans has reconstructed the early biography of a Willie Brown living in Drew, Mississippi, until 1929. He was married by 1911 to a proficient guitarist named Josie Mills. He is recalled as singing and playing guitar with Charley Patton and others in the neighbourhood of Drew.  Informants with conflicting memories led Gayle Dean Wardlow and Steve Calt to conclude that this was a different Willie Brown.   Evans, however, rejects this, believing that the singing and guitar style of the 1931 recordings is clearly in the tradition of other performers from Drew such as Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Kid Bailey, Howling Wolf and artists recorded non-commercially.

Alan Lomax added further confusion in 1993, suggesting that the William Brown he recorded in Arkansas in 1942 was the same man as the Paramount artist.  The recording was for a joint project between Fisk University and the Library of Congress documenting the music of Coahoma County, Mississippi in 1941 and 1942.  Writing over fifty years later, Lomax forgot that he had actually recorded Willie the previous summer with Son House, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin and Leroy Williams.   Brown played second guitar on three performances by the whole band, and recorded one solo, “Make Me A Pallet On The Floor”.

The later biography is clear. Willie Brown, the Paramount artist, lived in Robinsonville, Mississippi from 1929 and moved to Lake Cormorant, Mississippi by 1935.   He performed occasionally with Charley Patton, and continually with Son House until his death. After this, House ceased performing until his “rediscovery” in 1964.  Sadly, Brown died before the blues revival of the 1960s, when many of his contemporaries were rediscovered by blues scholars.

Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. (March 21, 1902 (Lyon, Miss)– October 19, 1988 (Detroit, Mich.)) was an American blues singer and guitarist.

House pioneered an innovative style featuring strong, repetitive rhythms, often played with the aid of slide guitar, and his singing often incorporated elements of southern gospel and spiritual music.

He was an important influence on Muddy Waters and also on Robert Johnson, who would later take this style of music to new levels.
A seminal Delta blues figure, House remains influential today, with his music being covered by many.

The middle of seventeen brothers, House was born in Riverton, two miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi.  Around age seven or eight, he was brought by his mother to Tallulah, Louisiana after his parents separated.  The young Son House was determined to become a Baptist preacher, and at age 15 began his preaching career.  Despite the church’s firm stand against blues music and the sinful world which revolved around it, House became attracted to it.  He taught himself guitar in his mid 20s, after moving back to the Clarksdale area, inspired by the work of Willie Wilson.

He began playing alongside Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, and Leroy Williams, around Robinsonville, Mississippi and north to Memphis, Tennessee until 1942.

He played mostly at weekend parties held at sharecroppers houses.  He would sometimes preach at various churches, and then go out that night and play blues.  Back then the two were virtually mutually exclusive.

After killing a man, allegedly in self-defense, he spent time at Parchman Farm in 1928 and 1929.  The official story on the killing is that sometime around 1927 or 1928, he was playing in a juke joint when a man went on a shooting spree.  Son was wounded in the leg, and shot the man dead. He received a 15-year sentence at Parchman Farm prison.

Beacuse of his association with the already recorded Charley Patton, Son House was recorded for Paramount Records in 1930 and for Alan Lomax from the Library of Congress in 1941 and 1942.

In 1934 he married his wife, Evie, to whom he stayed married for his entire life.

In 1941 he was a tractor driver on the R.E.Neunlist plantation when he recorded for Lomax.  On Sept. 3, 1941, Lomax and John Work III recorded Son House, Willie Brown, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, and Leroy Williams at the Clack Store (which was also a train station, and is now an empty, flat plot of land) in Robinsonville, Miss.  He recorded again in 1942, and then in 1943 he moved out of the delta to Rochester, New York, and into obscurity…  for the time being.

He faded from public view until the country blues revival in the 1960s when, after a long search of the Mississippi Delta region by Nick Perls, Dick Waterman and Phil Spiro, he was “re-discovered” in June 1964 in Rochester, New York where he had lived since 1943.  House had been retired from the music business for many years, working for the New York Central Railroad, and was completely unaware of the international revival of enthusiasm for his early recordings.

He subsequently toured extensively in the US and Europe and recorded for CBS records.   Like Mississippi John Hurt he was welcomed into the music scene of the 1960s and played at Newport Folk Festival in 1964, the New York Folk Festival in July 1965, and the October 1967 European tour of the American Folk Festival along with Skip James and Bukka White. In the summer of 1970, House toured Europe once again, including an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival; a recording of his London concerts was released by Liberty Records.

Ill health plagued his later years and in 1974 he retired once again, and later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he remained until his death from cancer of the larynx.  He was buried at the Mt. Hazel Cemetery. Members of the Detroit Blues Society raised money through benefit concerts to put a fitting monument on his grave. He had been married five times.

House’s innovative style featured strong, repetitive rhythms, often played with the aid of a bottleneck, coupled with singing that owed more than a nod to the hollers of the chain gangs.

The music of Son House, in contrast to that of, say, Blind Lemon Jefferson, was emphatically a dance music, meant to be heard in the noisy atmosphere of a barrelhouse or other dance hall.

It was House who, speaking to awe-struck young blues fans in the 1960s, spread the legend that Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical powers.  He was also the one who, later on, changed the supposed location of the crossroads by giving some writers the “true” location of the “real” corssroads (which was also completely bunk).

It is difficult to describe the transformation that took place as this smiling, friendly man hunched over his guitar and launched himself, bodily it seemed, into his music.  The blues possessed him like a ‘lowdown shaking chill’ and the spellbound audience saw the very incarnation of the blues as, head thrown back, he hollered and groaned the disturbing lyrics and flailed the guitar, snapping the strings back against the fingerboard to accentuate the agonized rhythm. Son’s music is the centre of the blues experience and when he performs it is a corporeal thing, audience and singer become as one.


James “Son” House (1902-1988) may have been the most powerful of the Delta Bluesmen.

While not as flashy a guitarist as some of his peers such as Bukka White, or as well known proteges (Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters both were schooled by Son), Son’s playing had a fierce edge to it. His voice and lyrics are powerful.

Son first recorded three tunes for Paramount in Grafton Wisconsin in 1930; My Black Mama (1 & 2), Preachin’ The Blues (1 & 2), Dry Spell Blues (1 & 2) as well as an unreleased version of Walking Blues.  His good friend Willie Brown traveled to Grafton with him and recorded Future Blues at this same session.

The Paramount records didn’t do well (as a result they are some of the rarest Blues 78s).  Son didn’t record again until August of 1941, when Alan Lomax made some field recordings of Son and Willie with a small string band.

They recorded again for Lomax in July of ’42. Ensemble pieces like Levee Camp Blues and Government Fleet Blues offer a glimpse of Son and Willie together.  Solo performances like Shetland Pony Blues (hear the train in the background?) and The Jinx Blues (1&2) from these sessions are among Son’s best.   Son did not make another commercial record until the “blues revival” of the 1960s. His influence, however, would be felt through the recordings of Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Robert Nighthawk, and other successful blues artists.  Modern Son House disciple John Mooney has combined Son’s Delta style with power trio Rock and New Orleans R&B to carry Son’s tradition into the 21st Century…

There’s a lot to learn here, musically and otherwise. Four O’Clock Blues is reminscent of Tommy Johnson’s Cool Drink of Water , the first words of Camp Hollers hint at where Howlin’ Wolf might have got Killing Floor from.

Son played various National single cones ( Duolians and Style “O”s), playing slide with a piece of copper tube(?) on his third finger in “Spanish”(Open G – DGDGBD) tuning.  By using his third finger ,Son was able to damp behind the slide and use his pinky for fretting.
The copper tube adds a gritty sound, which works great with a Duolian, Steel bodied “O” (or a new Delphi).

Son’s lyrics reflect the stark life he lead. This is the Delta Blues.

Patton made his first recording in June 1929, cutting fourteen songs for the Paramount label, all issued on 78s. Such was the success of his initial session that he was invited four months later to Paramount‘s new studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, where he recorded twenty-eight additional tunes.

Howlin’ Wolf, who moved to Dockery in 1926, recalled seeing Patton on the town square in Drew, not far from Dockery Plantation. Patton’s hypnotic three-note songs also deeply influenced Clarksdale‘s John Lee Hooker, who recorded his own version of Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues.” Bukka White also cited a desire “to come to be a famous man, like Charley Patton,” and demonstrated a similar knack for playing dance songs for extended periods. Patton’s last recording session was in New York City in February 1934, two months before his death.

Patton befriended House, who began working as a musician around the Kirby Plantation. In 1930, Patton brought him, guitarist Willie Brown, and pianist Louise Johnson to Grafton, Wisconsin, for a recording session with Paramount Records. House’s influence on the Delta School of musicians can be judged from a handful of recordings made in Grafton. His song “Preachin’ The Blues Part I & II” was a six-minute biography of his life and served as inspiration for Robert Johnson’s “Preaching Blues” and “Walking Blues.” House’s powerful vocals and slashing slide guitar style established him as a giant of the Delta School but did not lead to commercial success. House continued playing with Willie Brown during the 1930s and developed a relationship with a young Robert Johnson after moving to Robinsonville, Mississippi. After Johnson had learned to play guitar, he began to gig with House and Brown, learning the older musicians’ licks.

Tommy Johnson, the Crossroads, and Robert Johnson.

You all know the Crossroads story. Robert Johnson goes to the crossroads and sells his soul to the devil to become the greatest guitar player in the world. Thanks to a lot of misinformation this myth abounds. Only the original myth wasn’t about Robert Johnson at all! It was about Tommy Johnson (a fact that the movie O Brother Where Art Thou amazingly got correct!).

A quick note before I go on: How to sell your soul at the Crossroads:
Go to the crossroads (and it really is ANY crossroads, not a specific one) and stand in the middle of the intersection at midnight and play your best guitar. Someone (the devil) will come up to you from behind as you play. He will tap you on the shoulder. Without looking you hand your guitar to him over your back. He plays a few notes on the guitar and then hands it back to you. Congrats, you have sold your soul to the devil. Oh, and you still aren’t great. You have to continue to practice, but you will excel at an unbelievable rate, blah blah blah.

Anyway, around 1911 or so at about 15 years old Tommy Johnson wasn’t a great guitar player at all. He left his home in Mississippi and traveled. In his travels he met Charlie Patton and Willie Brown, who tutored him on the guitar. When he finally went back to Miss. he was not only significantly better on the guitar thanks to the tutiledge of Charlie Patton, but he also no longer sang religious songs, but sang the Blues (aka The Devil’s Music). He also drank a lot too. All of this together made for a very different person than the boy who left Miss., and led to the rumors of him selling his soul to the devil for his new skills on the guitar, and the reason for him now playing “The Devils Music”. So that’s the Crossroads story.  The story of selling your soul to the devil for riches, etc. is an old Hoodoo tale and can be traced back all the way to Africa.

Robert Johnson: Born in Miss. and moved to Memphis when he was 3. He stayed there till he was about 18 or so, and met Charlie Patton and Willie Brown when they travelled there, as well as Blind Lemon Jefferson when he traveled to Memphis, and met him again in Texas when he (Johnson) traveled there too. They taught him music.  In 1930, Robert’s wife and baby died during childbirth.  It was a few months later when Son House and Willie Brown came to Robinsonville, where Johnson was living.  Robert followed Son House and Willie Brown around wanting to play with them, but he was really bad, and so they wouldn’t let him play with them.  They did give him lessons here and there every now and then.  In 1931 he moves back to Hazlehurst, MIss., reportedly to try to find his father.  In Hazlehurst he meets a guitar player named Ike Zimmerman (or Zinnerman, either spelling seems to be OK).  For about a year Ike gives Robert Lessons, and he practices night and day, all the time.  At night he hangs out in a local cemetary and plays in the graveyard so that he doesn’t disturb anyone else with his playing in the middle of the night.  He then returns to the Clarksdale and Robinsonville areas in 1993 a MUCH better musician.  This was surprising to everyone, to say the least, often mystifying.  How could a kid who was so aweful dissapear for a year and then come back and play BETTER than his former teachers?

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In the late 1920’s Georgia Tommy Dorsey started recording in Chicago & in 1928 got a hit with “Tight Like That” (recorded w/ Tampa Red), which was later covered by Louis Armstrong as “Tight Like This.”  “Tight Like That” was one of the first “City Blues” by virtue of it’s beat.  Released in 1928, much of the song sounds country; the rhymes are already “old,” and the guitar has a hint of ragtime banjo. It’s neither urban or rural, but both.

The same holds true for Scrapper Blackwell & Leroy Carr’s “How Long, How Long Blues.”  Carr was an urbanite and grew up in Nashville and moved to Indianapolis by the time he recorded & sang in a manner that was “nostalgic-for-the-country.”  It was because of this pair’s success that record companies started sending their people out to record musicians in the cities.

The 2 duets, Dorsey & Tampa Red, and Blackwell & Carr, moved the blues into more of a band sound rather than a solo performance.  For many performers recording was a lucrative sideline.  For these 2 duets, the record buyers were the main audience, not a live audience, party, bar, or street corner.

He founded a group called the Hokum Boys & created “Hokum music.”  He made a lot of money but lost it all when his bank crashed in the Depression.  The music was called “Hokum” because they didn’t want to call themselves blues or pop singers, and no one knew what “hokum” really meant.

Lines between urban and rural blues began to blur around or after 1928 with the proliferation of Victrolas & jukeboxes.  Already in Robert Johnson’s recordings you can hear bits of Peetie Wheatstraw and Lonnie Johnson (though Robert Johnson probably saw them live as well).  It really started only 2 years or so after Blind Lemon Jefferson, and less than 10 after “Crazy Blues.”  An exception this was Sleepy John Estes who seemed to come from an earlier time and clung to his country roots….

Tom Dorsey then merged the blues with a message of salvation and the traditional gospel hymn.  It became black gospel music.  He also founded the National Gospel Choir.  Then he started to travel and spread this music.  He is noted for being the writer of “Peace in the Valley” and “Precious Lord Take My Hand”

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Ralph Pier, because of the popularity of jazz, wanted to record “The music it was based on: The Blues”.  Of course, it wasn’t based on the blues, but they share many of the same origins, and developed in parallel.  The female blues singers like Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith used jazz backup bands and sang a sophisticated, jazzed up, mellow version of the blues.

Mamie Smith is recognized as the first African-American to record a vocal blues, the Crazy Blues for the OKeh label on August 10, 1920. Sophie Tucker was supposed to record, but couldn’t make it to the session so Mamie took over.  Sophie, a white woman, was supposed to record a blues.

Mamie’s band at this session, the Jazz Hounds, included Johnny Dunn on cornet, Dope Andrews on trombone, Leroy Parker on violin, and Willie “The Lion” Smith on piano.

The success of this release set off a recording boom previously unheard of, with record companies scrambling to record woman blues singers.
Mamie recorded for the Okeh label 1920-1923, for Ajax in 1924, the Victor label in 1926, and Okeh in 1929 and 1931, each time in New York City.    Mamie Smith’s recording of Crazy Blues becomes the first “race” record to sell over 250,000 copies.

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