Posts Tagged ‘Origins’

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.

MUSIC

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.

Charlie Patton (though many spell his name as Charley, he himself spelled it Charlie) has come to reflect the strange icon the early Delta bluesman became.   Patton’s life and work were a wealth of contradictions and stereotypes that most bluesmen would come to characterize.
He has become known by many as the “Father of Delta Blues.”

A quick timeline of his life:

1887 – Patton born on farm outside of edwards, miss.
1897 – Probably moved to Dockery sometime before 1900
1908 – Minnie Toy marries Patton (his 2nd wife)
1917 – Patton was still at Dockery
1921 – met Minnie Franklin in Merigold, just after he left Dockery
1924 – Patton moves to Merigold (Six Mile Lake)
1929 – Patton records at his first sessions
1929 – Patton left Merigold
1929 – most likely moved to clarksdale somewhere in this timeframe he lived in Lula w/ Bertha Lee
1933 – Patton arrived in Holly Ridge w/ Bertha Lee – he was in his 40s supposedly
1934 – Patton went to NY to record and took Bertha Lee with him
1934 – April – Patton dies

Charlie was born to sharecroppers Bill and Annie Patton in Hinds County between Edwards and Bolton, Mississippi sometime between 1884 and 1889.   His gravestone states April 1891, and the Mississippi Blues Trail marker by his grave also states 1891.  His ex-wife Minnie Franklin and others that knew him, however, said that he was born in 1887.  The Pattons moved to Dockery Plantation around 1897.  This was where a young Charlie most likely began to learn guitar.  Most accounts have Charlie coming under the tutelage of Henry Sloan, an early blues musician.   Little is known of Sloan, but he may have been one of the very first bluesmen.

Two of Patton’s later accompanists, Tommy Johnson and Son House, both stated Charlie “dogged every step” of Sloan’s. This was to great chagrin of Patton’s father, and by 1906 (at around age 15, if you go by the 1891 birth date) Charlie was on his own.  By 19 years of age  he had already written “Pony Blues” (again, depending on when you think he was born – he composed it in 1910) a now classic blues song, since covered by many (Rory Block, Canned Heat, Son House, Dave Honeyboy Edwards, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and many others).  “Pony Blues” was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2006. The board selects songs in an annual basis that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”   By this time he had also composed “Down The Dirt Road Blues,” and a slow drag called “Banty Rooster Blues.”

From this time on, Charlie constantly moved and played, never staying in the same town for more than two years.   Patton somehow gleaned a decidedly different yet traditional sound during the initial years of his wandering, incorporating a very percussive element by smacking his guitar at times.  Patton never worked in the fields, and survived by living off of his female admirers and his performances.   He lived all of his life, with the exception of one recording trips to Indiana in 1929 and New York in 1934, in the Delta between Tunica and Yazoo City.   Patton’s primary performing area was a triangle between Clarksdale, Indianola, and Cleveland.  Patton was an amiable man to most, playing with just about any musician available, which could account for his characterization as leader of the “Drew” group of four bluesmen.   These men played almost any function in the area and eventually became local stars to the African-American workers.   Patton’s songs greatly influenced the “Drew” group of Tommy Johnson, Son House, Willie Brown, and Kid Bailey.

Charley learned from Henry Sloan, and directly taught Son House, Willie Brown, and Tommy Johnson, and directly influenced Robert Johnson, Bukka White, and Howlin’ Wolf.

Sometime after the turn of the decade (1910) Patton began playing with Willie Brown, a guitarist who would later become a regular on his recordings. Patton’s music began to exert considerable influence; guitarist Tommy Johnson had moved to the Dockery vicinity circa 1913 and was soon playing Delta blues including Patton’s “Pony Blues.”   Around 1914, Patton began playing his guitar with members of the Chatmon family (who were related to him – Sam Chatmon was his half-brother), working picnics and frolics. Bo, Sam, and Lonnie Chatmon and guitarist Walter Vinson later would gain fame as the Mississippi Sheiks. Bo Chatmon also recorded many titles as soloist Bo Carter. Patton continued playing and rambling around the Delta, going north to Memphis and as far west as Arkansas and Louisiana. By 1926, a young Robert Johnson had begun following Patton, Brown, and Son House to gigs trying to learn from the veteran guitarists.  He tried to play with them and failed miserably.  To Son House and Charley Patton (at the time) Robert Johnson was really nothing other than a pesky, nuisance kid following them around.

Rather than bumming his way from town to town, Patton would be called up to play at plantation dances, juke joints, and the like. He’d pack them in like sardines everywhere he went, and the emotional sway he held over his audiences caused him to be tossed off of more than one plantation by the ownership, simply because workers would leave crops unattended to listen to him play any time he picked up a guitar.

Johnson and Brown most likely met Patton near Rolling Fork, Mississippi around 1915. They would then follow him off and on for the next two years as students.  Tommy Johnson and Willie Brown were Patton’s primary accompanists, backing him on rhythm guitar.   Son House and Kid Bailey were students of Brown and Johnson’s who would eventually go on to teach Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and to a small extent, Robert Johnson.

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 music was much harder and propulsive than others, and he set the standard for which the other musicians composed songs.  Charlie Patton, and subsequently country artists like Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams, held no constriction to a genre mentally.  This was typical of many of the blues artists from the pre-war era.  In order to survive they had to play blues, as well as dancable music, and traditional and “folk” songs that the people that they were playing for knew.  Lead Belly was well known to have a HUGE repertoire.  Patton’s “Going To Move To Alabama” is a prime example of this integration.   The song is the basic blues form, but the fiddle accompaniment adds the distinct sound of a white country song.   Hank Williams’s “Move It on Over” is an almost blatant copy of Patton’s song.

Patton used altered speech, slide nuance, and picked bass runs to increase the effect of his songs.   Whereas other early blues musicians emphasized beat over lyrics, Patton emphasized both.   He had an eye for great story compositions, such as “Tom Rushen Blues”, a laughable song about the sheriff of Merigold, Mississippi circa 1927.  Patton included regional landmarks in his tunes – places that a local record-buying audience would be familiar with, including a Moorehead, Mississippi railroad crossing, “Where The Southern Crosses The Dog,” in “Green River Blues” and Parchman Farm in “A Spoonful Blues.”

The tone of Patton’s music greatly changed after 1930, when his throat was cut in a knife fight.  Sleepy John Estes claimed he was the loudest blues singer he ever heard and it was rumored that his voice was loud enough to carry outdoors at a dance up to 500 yards away without amplification.  Patton is generally regarded as one of the original architects of putting blues into a strong, syncopated rhythm, and his strident tone was achieved by tuning his guitar up a step and a half above standard pitch instead of using a capo.

Son House, who recorded in a 1930 session that also featured Patton and Brown, recalled that Charley “clowned” for an audience by playing the guitar behind his back or between his knees.  Sam Chatmon called him a “Clowning man with a guitar.”  He essentially invented showboating and was very much the predecessor of T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix.

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. Patton’s polyrhythmic picking, accompanied by tapping the body of the guitar, created an intricate dance melody that its author could play for thirty minutes or more.

His later works proved to be more religious, like he somehow knew his death was soon to come.  Patton’s last recording session was in New York City in February 1934, two months before his death.

One account of his death states that Patton died on April 28, 1934 in the small town of Holly Ridge, Mississippi.  Another states that he died in Indianola.

However, I believe that both Gayle Dean Wardlow and Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards states that he died in Holly Ridge.  In his book, “Chasin’ That Devil Music” Gayle Dean Wardlow states that he meets a woman in Holly Ridge, Evaline Gaynes, who tells him that Patton died “in Tom Robinson’s house, over there” (over there meaning within eye sight of the Holly Ridge general store where she was interviewed about Patton).  However, she also said that Patton died a natural death (he didn’t), and that his wife Bertha Lee was 17 when she came from Lula (more like 30) and married Charley and they moved to Holly Ridge in 1933.

Portions of this were lifted from Groovey Records at:  http://www.oldschoolguitar.com/board/showthread.php?t=107

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Blind Lemon Jefferson was born in Wortham, Texas, about 60 miles south of Dallas, in 1897 but it is possible that the year could be a decade or so earlier. Nothing is known about his youth, how he became blind.

Jefferson began playing the guitar in his early teens, and soon after he began performing at picnics and parties.  He also became a street musician, playing in East Texas towns in front of barbershops and on corners.  According to his cousin, Alec Jefferson, quoted in the notes for Blind Lemon Jefferson, Classic Sides:

They was rough. Men was hustling women and selling bootleg and Lemon was singing for them all night… he’d start singing about eight and go on until four in the morning… mostly it would be just him sitting there and playing and singing all night.

By the early 1910s, Jefferson began traveling frequently to Dallas, where he met and played with fellow blues musician Leadbelly.  In Dallas, Jefferson was one of the earliest and most prominent figures in the blues movement developing in Dallas’ Deep Ellum area. Jefferson likely moved to Deep Ellum in a more permanent fashion by 1917, where he met Aaron Thibeaux Walker, also known as T-Bone Walker.   Jefferson taught Walker the basics of blues guitar, in exchange for Walker’s occasional services as a guide.   Also, by the early 1920s, Jefferson was earning enough money for his musical performances to support a wife, and possibly a child.  However, firm evidence for both his marriage and any offspring is unavailable.

Unlike many artists who were “discovered” and recorded in their normal venues, in December 1925 or January 1926, he was taken to Chicago, Illinois, to record his first tracks. Uncharacteristically, Jefferson’s first two recordings from this session were gospel songs (“I Want to be like Jesus in my Heart” and “All I Want is that Pure Religion”), released under the name Deacon L. J. Bates.

This led to a second recording session in March 1926. His first releases under his own name, “Booster Blues” and “Dry Southern Blues,” were hits; this led to the release of the other two songs from that session, “Got the Blues” and “Long Lonesome Blues,” which became a runaway success, with sales in six figures.

In 1926 ‘Got The Blues’ and ‘Long Lonesome Blues’ were the first best selling blues records by a black male singer. Soon he had a new car, a bank account and a billing as one of the stars of the Paramount label, the leading producer of “race” records, for whom he made almost a hundred sides in less than four years.

He recorded about 100 tracks between 1926 and 1929; 43 records were issued, all but one for Paramount Records. Unfortunately, Paramount Records’ studio techniques and quality were infamously bad, and the resulting recordings sound no better than if they had been recorded in a hotel room. In fact, in May 1926, Paramount had Jefferson re-record his hits “Got the Blues” and “Long Lonesome Blues” in the superior facilities at Marsh Laboratories, and subsequent releases used that version. Both versions appear on compilation albums and may be compared.

Jefferson’s earnings reputedly enabled him to buy a car and employ chauffeurs. He was given a Ford car worth over $700 by Mayo Williams, Paramount’s connection with the black community. This was a frequently seen compensation for recording rights in that market. Jefferson is known to have done an unusual amount of traveling for the time in the American South, which is reflected in the difficulty of pigeonholing his music into one regional category.

Jefferson was reputedly unhappy with his royalties. In 1927, when Williams moved to OKeh Records, he took Jefferson with him, and OKeh quickly recorded and released Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues” backed with “Black Snake Moan,” which was to be his only OKeh recording. Jefferson’s two songs released on Okeh have considerably better sound quality than on his Paramount records at the time. When he had returned to Paramount a few months later, “Matchbox Blues” had already become such a hit that Paramount re-recorded and released two new versions, under producer Arthur Laibly.

In 1927, Jefferson recorded another of his now classic songs, the haunting “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” once again using the pseudonym Deacon L. J. Bate along with two other uncharacteristically spiritual songs, “He Arose from the Dead” and “Where Shall I Be.” Of the three, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” became such a big hit that it was re-recorded and re-released in 1928.

As his fame grew, so did the tales regarding his life. T-Bone Walker states that as a boy, he was employed by Jefferson to lead him around the streets of Dallas. Rube Lacy states that Jefferson always refused to play on a Sunday. Victoria Spivey elliptically credits Jefferson as someone who could sure feel his way around.

His death is as much of a mysterious as most of his life: he is supposed to have died in Chicago in the winter of 1929, frozen on the streets in a blizzard, but his producer Mayo Williams’ account, that he collapsed in his car and was abandoned by his chauffeur, seems more plausable.  Paramount Records paid for the return of his body to Texas by train, accompanied by pianist Will Ezell. Jefferson was buried at Wortham Negro Cemetery (now Wortham Black Cemetery). Far from his grave being kept clean, it was unmarked until 1967, when a Texas Historical Marker was erected in the general area of his plot, the precise location being unknown. By 1996, the cemetery and marker were in poor condition, but a new granite headstone was erected in 1997. In 2007 the cemetery’s name was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery and keeping his wishes his gravesite is being kept clean by a cemetery committee in Wortham Texas.Paramount Records paid for the return of his body to Texas by train, accompanied by pianist Will Ezell. Jefferson was buried at Wortham Negro Cemetery (now Wortham Black Cemetery). Far from his grave being kept clean, it was unmarked until 1967, when a Texas Historical Marker was erected in the general area of his plot, the precise location being unknown. By 1996, the cemetery and marker were in poor condition, but a new granite headstone was erected in 1997. In 2007 the cemetery’s name was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery and keeping his wishes his gravesite is being kept clean by a cemetery committee in Wortham Texas.

Blind Lemon Jefferson sticks to no musical conventions, varying his riffs and rhythm and singing complex and expressive lyrics in a manner exceptional at the time for a country blues singer. According to North Carolina musician Walter Davis, Jefferson played on the streets in Johnson City, Tennessee during the early 1920s at which time Davis and fellow entertainer Clarence Greene learned the art of blues guitar.  His musical style was individualistic, and Jefferson’s singing and self-accompaniment were distinctive as a result of his high-pitched voice and originality on the guitar.

Being the first recorded black blues guitar player, and having sold as many copies of his songs as he did, he was greatly influential in the world of blues.  He also was well traveled, and so was well known throughout the South even before he recorded.

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The Mississippi Sheiks consisted mainly of the Chatmon family, who came from Bolton, Mississippi and were well known throughout the Mississippi Delta; the father of the family had been a “musicianer” during times of black slavery, and his children carried on the musical spirit. Their most famous (although by no means permanent) member was Armenter Chatmon – better known as Bo Carter – who managed a successful solo career as well as playing with the Sheiks, which may have contributed to their success. The band named themselves after Rudolph Valentino’s film The Sheik (1921).

When the band first recorded in 1930, the line-up consisted of Carter with Lonnie and Sam Chatmon, and Walter Vinson. Charlie McCoy (not to be confused with Charlie McCoy, a later American musician) played later, when Bo Carter and Sam Chatmon ceased playing full time. It was Lonnie Chatmon and Vinson who formed the real centre of the group.

Charley Patton was related to the Chatmon’s.  He was Sam Chatmon’s half-brother.  The musicians were the sons of Ezell Chatmon, uncle of Charlie Patton and leader of an area string band that was popular around the turn of the century.

While playing for a white square dance in Itta Bena, Mississippi, they were discovered by local record dealer Ralph Lembo. Lembo arranged for their first OKeh recording session. In February 1930, the field recording unit of OKeh set up in Shreveport, Louisiana. Polk Brockman was the producer/manager, and was the overseer of the first session. Their biggest hits were “Sitting On Top of the World” and the legendary, “Stop and Listen Blues ..2″, the title take from the railroad crossing warning: “Stop-Look-Listen,” both written by Vinson and Carter. The majority of the Sheiks’ recordings were made by Vinson (somtimes referred to as a cousin) on vocals and guitar, and Lonnie, apparently the only family member, along with Bo, who was capable of reading music. Lonnie Chatmon died in the early 1940′s. Walter Vinson was discovered during the first blues revival during the 1960′s, made several recordings then died in 1975. Bo Carter too was found in the 1960′s, he was extremely poor and blind.

Their first and biggest success was “Sitting On Top Of The World” (1930), later to be recorded by Howlin’ Wolf, Nat King Cole, Bill Monroe, Bob Wills (numerous times), Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Cream, the Grateful Dead and Jack White, and re-done by Robert Johnson, and called Come On in My Kitchen.

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MA RAINEY – Billed as the Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia.  She married Will Rainey in 1904 having met him while he was passing through Columbus as a comedy singer in a minstrel show. By then she had appeared in local talent shows and she was reportedly singing blues by 1902. The couple toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels billed as “Ma” and “Pa” Rainey, “Assassinators of the Blues”. Ma is noted as the first singer to use blues in minstrels acts. Her earthy, powerful voice enabled her to capture the essential quality of rural black southern life.

Although Ma had a sizeable following throughout the South, she was largely unknown outside of the region until she was recorded by Paramount Records in 1923, when she had already been performing for twenty-five years. Her recording career established audiences for her in the industrial cities of the north, which she toured in addition to her southern circuit. By this time she was also billed as Madame Rainey.

Ma was highly respected by musicians and greatly loved by her audiences. As part of her generous nature she was the foster mother to seven children. Ma often aided newcomers to her shows. Rainey coached the young Bessie Smith when she joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show around 1914.  Ma Rainey was a good businesswoman and flashy dresser, who had a penchant for glittery jewlery.

Rainey made 92 recordings for Paramount in her career. She was accompanied by greats like Louie Armstrong, Lovie Austen, Buster Bailey, Georgia Tom Dorsey, Tommy Ladnier, and Don Redmon. Among her songs are Shave ‘Em Dry blues, Walking Blues, and See See Rider Blues.

Ma Rainey retired from music in 1935 and returned to live in Columbus, Georgia where she owned and operated theaters and was active in church activities. Madame Rainey died of a heart attack December 22, 1939 in Columbus, Georgia.

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William Christopher Handy (November 16, 1873 – March 28, 1958) was a blues composer and musician, often known as the “Father of the Blues”.

Handy remains among the most influential of American songwriters. Though he was one of many musicians who played the distinctively American form of music known as the blues, he is credited with giving it its contemporary form. While Handy was not the first to publish music in the blues form, he took the blues from a not very well-known regional music style to one of the dominant forces in American music.

Handy joined a local band as a teenager, but he kept this fact a secret from his parents. He purchased a cornet from a fellow band member and spent every free minute practicing it. An exceptional student in school, he placed near the top of his class.

While in Florence he belonged to a “shovel brigade” at the McNabb furnace, and described the music made by the workers as they beat shovels, altering the tone while thrusting and withdrawing the metal part against the iron buggies to pass the time while waiting for the overfilled furnace to digest its ore, “With a dozen men participating, the effect was sometimes remarkable…It was better to us than the music of a martial drum corps, and our rhythms were far more complicated.”

He would note that “Southern Negroes sang about everything…They accompany themselves on anything from which they can extract a musical sound or rhythmical effect…”.
He would later reflect that, “In this way, and from these materials, they set the mood for what we now call blues”.

In September of 1892, Handy traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to take a teaching exam, which he passed easily. He obtained a teaching job in Birmingham but soon learned that the teaching profession paid poorly.
He quit the position and found work at a pipe works plant in nearby Bessemer.

During his off-time, he organized a small string orchestra and taught musicians how to read notes.
He formed a quartet called the “Lauzetta Quartet.” When the group read about the upcoming World’s Fair in Chicago, they decided to attend.  The trip to Chicago was long and arduous. To pay their way, group members performed at odd jobs along the way.

They finally arrived in Chicago only to learn that the World’s Fair had been postponed for a year. The group then headed to St. Louis but working conditions there proved to be very bad. The Lauzetta Quartet disbanded and Handy subsequently left St. Louis for Evansville, Indiana.

In Evansville, Handy’s luck changed dramatically. He joined a successful band which performed throughout the neighboring cities and states. While performing at a barbecue in Henderson, Kentucky, he met Elizabeth Price, and they married shortly afterwards (on July 19, 1896).

Shortly after his marriage to Elizabeth Price in 1896, he was invited to join a minstrel group called “Mahara’s Minstrels.” In their three year tour, they traveled to Chicago, throughout Texas and Oklahoma, through Tennessee, Georgia and Florida on to Cuba.

Handy was paid a salary of $6 per week. Upon their return from their Cuban engagements, they traveled north through Alabama, and stopped to perform in Huntsville, Alabama. Growing weary from life on the road, it was there he and his wife decided to stay with relatives in his nearby hometown of Florence.

His musical endeavors were varied, and he sang first tenor in a minstrel show, moved from Alabama and worked as a band director, choral director, coronetist and trumpeter.  At age 23, he was band master of Mahara’s Colored Minstrels.  The instruments most often used in many of those songs were the guitar, banjo and to a much lesser extent, the piano.

His remarkable memory served him well, and he was able to recall and transcribe the music he heard in his travels.

On June 29, 1900 in Florence, Elizabeth gave birth to the first (a daughter, Lucille) of their six children. Around that time, William Hooper Councill, President of Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes ( which is today named Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University) in Normal, Alabama (a small community just outside Huntsville) approached Handy about teaching music.

At the time, AAMC and Tuskegee Institute were the only colleges for Negroes in Alabama. Handy accepted Councill’s offer and became a faculty member that September.

He taught music there from 1900 to 1902.

An important factor in his musical development and in music history, was his enthusiasm for the distinctive style of uniquely American music which was often considered inferior to European classical music.
He was soon disheartened to discover that American music was often cast aside by the college and instead emphasized foreign music considered to be “classical”.

Handy felt he was underpaid and felt he could make more money touring with a minstrel group and after a dispute with AAMC President Councill, he resigned his teaching position to rejoin the Mahara Minstrels to tour the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

In 1903 he was offered the opportunity to direct a black band named the Knights of Pythias, located in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Handy accepted and remained there six years.

In 1903 while waiting for a train in Tutwiler, in the Mississippi Delta, Handy had the following experience.

A lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept… As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars….The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

The oft cited story of W.C.Handy at the train station was the first time he had heard the blues. Then he thought it was interesting and different, but no big deal. The REAL catalyst that made him pay attention to it as a musical form (previously he was performing a lot of classical music, broadway tunes, some ragtime, etc.) was an incident at a dance that same year.  A few weeks or months later, partway through the evening while playing a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi Handy was given a note that asked for “our native music”.

After playing an old time Southern melody, Handy was asked if he would object if a local colored band played a few numbers. Three young men with a battered guitar, mandolin, and a worn out bass took the stage.

“They struck up one of those over and over strains that seem to have no beginning and certainly no ending at all. The strumming attained a disturbing monotony, but on and on it went, a kind of stuff associated with cane rows and levee camps. Thump-thump-thump went their feet on the floor. It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps “haunting” is the better word.”

The band was a guitar, mandolin (celtic influence), and bass (classical and/or jazz influence). The music was not well-formed. It had no real beginning, and no end. It just was. A riff or rhythm repeated over and over. Handy didn’t think it was good or bad, but “haunting” and wondered if anyone really liked this music. Then the rest of the audience started dropping dollar and coins for the band. The 3 guys made more money playing that one rhythm over and over than Handy and his 9 bandmates made together for the whole night! From then on, Handy played local music wherever he went. He became known not so much as a writer of the blues or performer, but as a popularizer through his shows and publishing. He was to the blues what Elvis was to RocknRoll. He didn’t invent it, but he really brought out from the small time and to the masses.

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Henry Sloan (b. January 1870 – 1948) was an African American musician, one of the earliest figures in the history of Delta Blues.

In a sense Henry Sloan may be regarded as one of the founding fathers of the blues yet he was never recorded, and thus his music will now never be heard. Some blues researchers believe that Henry Sloan may have been playing a form of primitive blues by the beginning of the 20th century.

A part time musician, Sloan was probably at least twenty years older than Patton, and he took him under his wing, teaching him the rudiments of the blues guitar. They even played together for a while until Charley Patton went on the road in search of a wider audience. Some reports indicate that Sloan also left the plantation, possibly moving to Chicago after WWI, although this cannot be confirmed.  Further reports state that he moved to Baton Rouge, La. and not Chicago, and a 1920 census from Arkansas shows a Henry Sloan born in 1870 was living in West Memphis, Arkansas w/ a wife from Mississippi and 2 children born around 1910.  In 1930 he was still living in the West Memphis area, and apparently died in March 13th, 1948 in West Memphis, Tenn.

There are no recordings of him.

He moved to the Dockery Plantation near Indianola about the same time as the Pattons, between 1901 and 1904. Patton received some direct instruction from Sloan, and played with him for several years.

There is a theory that the guitar player that W.C. Handy saw on the train platform in Tutweiler, Miss. was in fact Henry Sloan.  However, I haven’t seen any evidence that supports this theory.  It is pure conjecture.

Two of Patton’s later accompanists, Tommy Johnson and Son House, both stated that Patton “dogged every step” of Sloan’s

The blog “Ghost of Henry Sloan” has a great deal of information and they have done some great research to support all of this, and have more information, and scanned census records to suport the theories on the site as well:

http://ghostofhenrysloan.blogspot.com/2009/02/unraveling-mystery-of-henry-sloan.html

Born in 1874 in Upshur County, Texas, 1 or 9 children.  His parents were slaves.  He spent much of his life hoboing around and along the Texas and Pacific Railroad (“Ragtime Texas” was his hobo name).  He recorded from 1927-1929.  Most of the blues musicians who recorded in the 1920s were in their twenties, but Ragtime Texas was already 53 when he started recording.

Who is Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas? Possibly the “missing link” between the other minstrel songs and the more recognizable blues songs!   Back when folks like Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, etc. were recording, they were in their 20′s. When Robert Johnson was recording, Ragtime Texas was supposedly already gone (though there are reports of him being sighted in the 1950s).  When the first blues guitar was recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927, Ragtime Texas was already 53. This means that Ragtime texas probably had most of his repertoire down before the turn of the century, probably by a good decade or so. His style of blues is less heartfelt pain, and more storytelling, and thus serves as a bridge between the “songsters” from the early to late 1800 and the early bluesmen. He was also a Hobo (Ragtime Texas was his “Hobo name”) and the hobos were known for their own style of folk music, which was probably extremely similar to what he was playing. The repertoire included work songs, slave songs, and folk songs, which eventually melded.

His legacy has been sustained by four songs. “Fishin’ Blues” was covered by Taj Mahal and The Lovin’ Spoonful; “Bull Doze Blues” was recorded by Canned Heat (retitled “Goin’ Up The Country”); “Don’t Ease Me In” was covered by the Grateful Dead on their album Go to Heaven; and “Honey Won’t You Allow Me One More Chance” was covered by Bob Dylan (as “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance”) on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

There whereabouts of Thomas after 1929 have not been chronicled, although he was reportedly seen in Texas in the 1950s.  The date and circumstances of his death are uncertain. His complete Vocalion recordings were compiled on a 1990 Yazoo Records CD titled Texas Worried Blues.

Further (short) reading:

http://www.cascadeblues.org/History/HenryThomas.htm

More videos and songs

In Nashville, after Reconstruction, Spirituals were becoming popularized by a group of Fisk University students called the Fisk Jubillee Singers.  George White (who was white) was their choral director and took them on their first tour in Oct. 1871 singing formal western choral music.  The program and the school were in trouble.  George White wanted to raise money to help save the school, so he took the singers north on tour.  However, no one wanted to see a group of singers singing Western Choral Music, and they raised no money.

On breaks the singers would sing songs that they learned from their parents.  These were songs that were sung in slave quarters, etc.  In late 1871 at a conference while they were waiting backstage, White told them to start singing the Spiritual “Steal Away” which was a slave song used to gather slaves together out of the fields.  Upon hearing this music coming from backstage, the meeting at the conference stopped to listen to the singers.  The singers, after the wonderful response they got, toured all through the US singing the Spirituals rather than formal choral music.  They made money and were able to save the school.

By the end of 1872 President Ulysses S Grant invited them to perform at the White House.  The Fisk Jubillee singers sang “Spirituals” which were new then, and were a mix of European church music and African song styles.

The Spirituals that they sang were very structured & sounded like European classical choral music, but with rhythm.  The technique and instrumentation were performed in major, minor, and slight variant mixtures of scales. The accompaniment, when used, would use I, IV, V, chord structure to give more foundation to the already structured singing. This is very much like the chord patterns of twelve and eight bar blues.

This was the first widespread popularity of American Roots Music.

more songs and videos

The early 1900s’

From around 1900 to 1906-ish there were logging camps and barrel houses in the “Piney Woods” that ran from Texas to Mississippi.  It was there that Lead Belly first heard boogie.  The same goes for blues pianist Eurrel “Little Brother” Montgomery.  Richard Jones heard it in 1906 from “Starvin Chain.”  Big Joe Williams (born 1903 in Crawford, Miss., aka “Poor Joe”) also played that circuit, from around 1913 @ 10 years old, until his death in 1982.

In 1890 about 80% of the black population lived in the South.  In 1920 only 65%, and only 20% by 1950.

In 1903 W.C. Handy, an already traveled band leader, was offered the opportunity to direct a black band named the Knights of Pythias, located in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Handy accepted and remained there six years.

In 1903 while waiting for a train in Tutwiler, in the Mississippi Delta, Handy had the following experience:

A lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept… As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars….The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

About a month or so later, this happened to W.C.Handy:

Partway through the evening, while playing a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi Handy was given a note that asked for “our native music”.

After playing an old time Southern melody, Handy was asked if he would object if a local colored band played a few numbers. Three young men with a battered guitar, mandolin, and a worn out bass took the stage.

They struck up one of those over and over strains that seem to have no beginning and certainly no ending at all. The strumming attained a disturbing monotony, but on and on it went, a kind of stuff associated with cane rows and levee camps. Thump-thump-thump went their feet on the floor. It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps “haunting” is the better word.”

Handy also noted square dancing by Negroes in Mississippi with

one of their own calling the figures”, and crooning all of his calls in the key of G.

He would later recall this experience when deciding on the key for St Louis Blues.

It was the memory of that old gent who called figures for the Kentucky breakdown-the one who everlastingly pitched his tones in the key of G and moaned the calls like a presiding elder preaching at a revival meeting. Ah, there was my key-I’d do the song in G.

In describing “blind singers and footloose bards” around Clarksdale, Handy wrote:

surrounded by crowds of country folks, they would pour their hearts out in song”… They earned their living by selling their own songs – “ballets,” as they called them-and I’m ready to say in their behalf that seldom did their creations lack imagination.

In Atlanta, around the turn of the century, fiddlers used to gather together to see who could play the best version of “Turkey in the Straw” (which was originally “Jump Jim Crow” – a minstrel song)

In New Orleans Jazz was starting – coming from Cakewalks, Stride Piano, Ragtime, & (military) Fife & Drum bands. Pioneers were Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, The Original Jass Band, Jelly Roll Morton, etc.

John Lomax wrote “Cowboy Songs & Other Frontier Ballads” which included songs such as “Home on the Range” which was published in 1910. When Lomax was a small boy in Texas, around the 1870s he heard songs from the cowboys that worked where he lived. About 1876, young Lomax met Nat Blythe, a former slave who had just been hired as a farm hand by James Lomax. The friendship between John Lomax and Blythe became crucial to Lomax’s early development and upbringing. In 1895 he arrived at the university with a roll of cowboy songs he had written down in childhood.  He showed them to an English professor, Morgan Callaway, only to have them discounted as “cheap and unworthy.” Of course we now know the resulting book “Cowboy Songs & Other Frontier Ballads” to be a landmark in music publishing, and the writing down and publishing, for the first time, American roots music.

Tenant housing on Dockery Plantation between Ruleville and Cleveland, Mississippi boasted this ethnic mixture during the beginning of the twentieth century. The guitar perfectly suited the rural musician in an accompaniment capacity. Its small size and weight allowed mobility, while at the same time having a large and varied tonal range for different performance styles. The flexible rhythmic qualities of the guitar allowed the musician to add emotion and dramatics to each different song when warranted. The 6 and 12 string arrangement of the instrument allowed for variable tunings.

Charlie Patton, and subsequently country artists like Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams, held no constriction to a genre mentally, just in playing capability. Patton’s “Going To Move To Alabama”, is a prime example of this integration. The song is the basic blues form, but the fiddle accompaniment adds the distinct sound of a white country song. Hank Williams’s “Move It on Over” is an almost blatant copy of Patton’s song.

  • In Atlanta, around the turn of the century, fiddlers used to gather together to see who could play the best version of “Turkey in the Straw” (which was originally “Jump Jim Crow” – a minstrel song)