Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fine Recording From Sunnyland Slim

Sunnyland Slim- Blues Masters, Vol. 8

"Exhibiting truly amazing longevity that was commensurate with his powerful, imposing physical build, Sunnyland Slim's status as a beloved Chicago piano patriarch endured long after most of his peers had perished. For more than 50 years, the towering Sunnyland had rumbled the ivories around the Windy City, playing with virtually every local luminary imaginable and backing the great majority in the studio at one time or another.

He was born Albert Luandrew in Mississippi and received his early training on a pump organ. After entertaining at juke joints and movie houses in the Delta, Luandrew made Memphis his homebase during the late '20s, playing along Beale Street and hanging out with the likes of Little Brother Montgomery and Ma Rainey.

He adopted his colorful stage name from the title of one of his best-known songs, the mournful "Sunnyland Train." (The downbeat piece immortalized the speed and deadly power of a St. Louis-to-Memphis locomotive that mowed down numerous people unfortunate enough to cross its tracks at the wrong instant.)

Slim moved to Chicago in 1939 and set up shop as an in-demand piano man, playing for a spell with John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson before waxing eight sides for RCA Victor in 1947 under the somewhat misleading handle of "Doctor Clayton's Buddy." If it hadn't been for the helpful Sunnyland, Muddy Waters may not have found his way onto Chess; it was at the pianist's 1947 session for Aristocrat that the Chess brothers made Waters's acquaintance.

Aristocrat (which issued his harrowing "Johnson Machine Gun") was but one of a myriad of labels that Sunnyland recorded for between 1948 and 1956: Hytone, Opera, Chance, Tempo-Tone, Mercury, Apollo, JOB, Regal, Vee-Jay (unissued), Blue Lake, Club 51, and Cobra all cut dates on Slim, whose vocals thundered with the same resonant authority as his 88s. In addition, his distinctive playing enlivened hundreds of sessions by other artists during the same timeframe.

In 1960, Sunnyland Slim traveled to Englewood Cliffs, NJ, to cut his debut LP for Prestige's Bluesville subsidiary with King Curtis supplying diamond-hard tenor sax breaks on many cuts. The album, Slim's Shout, ranks as one of his finest, with definitive renditions of the pianist's "The Devil Is a Busy Man," "Shake It," "Brownskin Woman," and "It's You Baby."

Like a deep-rooted tree, Sunnyland Slim persevered despite the passing decades. For a time, he helmed his own label, Airway Records. As late as 1985, he made a fine set for the Red Beans logo, Chicago Jump, backed by the same crack combo that shared the stage with him every Sunday evening at a popular North side club called B.L.U.E.S. for some 12 years.

There were times when the pianist fell seriously ill, but he always defied the odds and returned to action, warbling his trademark Woody Woodpecker chortle and kicking off one more exultant slow blues as he had done for the previous half century. Finally, after a calamitous fall on the ice coming home from a gig led to numerous complications, Sunnyland Slim finally died of kidney failure in 1995. He's sorely missed."

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

John Jacob Niles, Folk Singer

John Jacob Niles- An Evening With John Jacob Niles

"Music played an important part in the early life of John Jacob Niles, and he would spend his life collecting, composing, and performing folk songs. By the age of 15 he had begun collecting songs in the Appalachian Mountains, a habit he would continue while serving as a ferry pilot in the U.S. Air Corps during World War I. Niles remained in France after the war, studying music at the Universite de Lyon and the Schola Cantorum in Paris. He would continue his studies for two more years at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music upon returning to the United States. In 1921, he came to New York where he met the singer Marion Kerby. Kerby shared his love of folk music, so the two decided to work as a team, traveling throughout Europe and the United States.

Niles collected folk songs in the Southwest while working as a guide and chauffeur for photographer Doris Ulmann. During the '20s and '30s, he began publishing collections of folk songs, including Singing Soldiers (1927), Songs My Mother Never Taught Me (1929), and Songs of the Hill-folk (1934). In the '30s he began to perform solo, traveling widely and singing at high schools, churches, and colleges. He dressed in bright-colored shirts, wore corduroys, and sang in a striking, high falsetto. Barry Alfonso, recalling the first time he heard Niles on record, wrote, "Out of my stereo came his startling, other-worldly voice, the sound of someone enraptured -- or maybe possessed. He seemed to embody his dire ballad, rather than to merely perform it."

Niles wrote a number of classic folk songs that are often mistaken for traditional material, including, "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," "Go 'Way From My Window," and "I Wonder as I Wander." He recorded numerous albums, including Early American Ballads (1939) and American Folk Lore (1941). He also composed more formal music, writing the oratorio "Lamentation," which would receive its first performance at the Indiana State Teachers College in 1951. Between 1967 and 1970 he would compose a work based on the poetry of Thomas Merton titled "The Niles-Merton Songs." The Songs of John Jacob Niles was published in 1975 and Niles would continue to perform publicly until two years before his death in 1980. Part Renaissance man, part traveling minstrel, Niles left an invaluable body of recordings, folk song collections, and compositions behind. His work has greatly aided the preservation and continued vitality of American folk culture."

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Who Is Gene Campbell?

Gene Campbell- Complete Recorded Works (1929-1931)

Album Review:
"Virtually nothing is known about vocalist-guitarist Gene Campbell other than the fact he recorded 24 solo selections. 22 are on this CD with the other two being lost. Campbell is heard on five dates recorded in Dallas and Chicago recorded within a 14-month period. A fine if not overly memorable singer, Campbell is expressive on such numbers (probably mostly his own originals) as "Mama, You Don't Mean Me No Good No How," "Somebody's Been Playing Papa," "Levee Camp Man Blues," the two-part "Freight Train Yodeling Blues," "Married Life Blues" and "Crooked Woman Blues." Although not quite essential, this is certainly the definitive Gene Campbell CD! But what happened to him after the final Jan. 23, 1931 record date is not known."

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Friday, October 23, 2009

T-Bone Walker Box Set

T-Bone Walker- The Original Source

Album Review:
"This is, especially for the money, an excellent overview of the career of Aaron Thibeaux Walker (aka T-Bone Walker). Beginning at the beginning in 1929, this set travels all the way through the '40s (where he developed his style as the electric blues genre), through 1951 on labels from Columbia to Capitol to Black and White and others in between. This set's 90 cuts paint the most intricate portrait of his signature sound as it developed to become one of the models for the blues of B.B. and Freddie King, and virtually every electric guitarist after him. The sound is great and the price is irresistible."

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Complete Darby & Tarlton

Darby & Tarlton- Complete Recordings

Album Review:
"Let's start by saying that there aren't any other collections of Darby and Tarlton's work currently available, so if you want any of it, you've got to take it all. Having said that, one should add that there isn't a bad song among the 70 surviving tracks (among 84 recorded) included on these three CDs, and anyone who enjoys white country-blues should seriously consider saving up for it. The duo's first recording features the kind of spirited vocal and guitar interplay that would characterize their subsequent work together. The appeal of the double-barrel hit "Columbus Stockade Blues"/"Birmingham Jail" is obvious -- drawing on several strands of Kentucky-based folk material that will be familiar even to casual listeners, but the harmonizing and the distinctive sound of Jimmie Tarlton's steel guitar give it several fresh twists. By the end of the disc, the duo and their recording managers had enough expertise at capturing their sound in the studio that their harmonies and paired guitars were outstanding on record, and they were transcending the work that made them famous. Disc Two shows off generally better sound and better blues. The duo returned to more pop and country-oriented material in the sessions that followed these, as though searching for the formula that would bring them new success. The sound quality of all three discs is generally very good, although a few tracks, where surviving source material is limited, retain considerable surface noise. Disc Three's real highlights are the straight blues, though pop music also makes its influence felt. By the dawn of the 1930s, the duo -- who never really liked each other personally -- began working independently of each other, and this part of their careers make up a section of the third disc. This is followed by a series of Jimmie Tarlton solo numbers that are almost all stunners -- listening to these songs, it becomes clear that the playing of either of these men was good enough that their vocal harmonies were almost distractions. Tom Darby and Jesse Pitts' jaunty recordings under the name of the Georgia Wildcats, are among the best numbers here. The booklet is, as usual, very thorough, although as there is astonishingly little known about Darby and Tarlton, much of the booklet is given over to Tarlton's career revival in the 1960s and to a song-by-song analysis."

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Curtis Jones' Lonesome Bedroom

Curtis Jones- Complete Works, Vol. 1 (1937-1938)

Album Review:
"Texas-born Curtis Jones came up in agrarian poverty, and most of his music conveyed residual undercurrents of that reality in its pacing, texture, and subject matter. Like many singing blues pianists of the 1930s and early '40s, he tended to use the same melodies over and over again, leaving behind a trail of recordings that when compiled sound either like multiple forays over well-trampled ground or sequential episodes in a blues oratorio that seems like it could continue indefinitely. When during the 1990s Document set out to compile all of his known recordings, the producers included alternate takes without making any effort whatsoever to doctor up the sound quality through the use of noise reduction technology. All of this could make the first volume of Curtis Jones' Complete Works a challenging assignment for those who expect melodic variety, upbeat entertainment, and crystal-clear sound in their blues. Yet that's not what this kind of a listening experience is about. Like his competitor Walter Davis, Jones found a direct way of expressing himself and seldom varied the formula. He told his stories with earthy honesty, half singing and half speaking the words while kneading the piano in a very personal manner that is quite different from more exacting conventional techniques employed by flashier performers. Jones sings of love and life, death and solitude. His companions during this segment of his story were guitarists Big Bill Broonzy and Willie Bee, early jazz trumpet legend Punch Miller, the mighty Washboard Sam, and drummer Fred Williams."

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Voice Of Scott Dunbar

Scott Dunbar- From Lake Mary

Album Review:
"Recorded on the obscure Japanese label Ahura Mazda in 1970, From Lake Mary is the only known document of Scott Dunbar's music. Taped in what is clearly the room of a house, the album retains a back-porch feel. Musically, Dunbar seems a holdover from an earlier era, employing techniques popular among Mississippi blues singers in the 1920s and 1930s. He moans and slurs lines, stretches phrases, and sings in multiple voices (voice projection being an often employed gimmick of prewar players like Charley Patton and Son House). His falsetto is reminiscent of Skip James. An impeccable rhythmic sense is evident on traditional tunes like "Little Liza Jane" and "Vicksburg Blues," Dunbar stomping his foot in perfect time, picking and strumming his strings with snappy energy. Most interesting are "Blue Yodel," made famous by Jimmie Rodgers, and the traditional folk waltz "Goodnight Irene," which closes the album."

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Robert Pete Williams, Solitary Man

Robert Pete Williams- The Sonet Blues Story

Album Review:
"Among the last of the great old country blues players discovered in the '60s, Robert Pete Williams was easily the most unique. His ragged griot approach to the blues paid little attention to standard rhymes or blues forms, allowing him to spin personalized stories of tremendous emotional power, even when he was working off of traditional pieces, and his songs take on the feel of a nakedly open journal. The recordings collected here were originally released as part of Samuel Charters' Legacy of the Blues series in 1973, and they carry an incredible intimacy, like all of Williams' work. They also feature some beautiful and ghostly acoustic slide guitar playing, a skill Williams picked up from his friend and fellow blues festival performer Mississippi Fred McDowell. Two songs in particular from this set encapsulate Williams' unique approach to country blues, the riveting and autobiographical "Angola Penitentiary Blues" and the beautifully poetic "You're My All Day Steady and My Midnight Dream," which, even though it makes use of stock blues lines, manages to be a deeply personal song that is every bit as haunting as it is lovely. Williams' songs are so eccentrically his that it is difficult to imagine anyone else doing them, and there is no more singular performer in the history of the country blues. Harry Oster's 1961 field recordings of Williams, Angola Prisoner's Blues, if you can find it, would be a logical place to start exploring Williams' body of work, but everything he recorded has the same insular intimacy, and this set is as good as any other in demonstrating this one of a kind bluesman's fascinating appeal."

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

The King Of Old-Timey

Jimmie Tarlton- Steel Guitar Rag

Album Review:
"Although they were recorded in the early to mid-'60s in association with Pete Welding, the 19 tracks here sound like music from another era. Tarlton sings in a pleasing baritone with an uninflected style, without artifice -- he sounds like the real version of what Bob Dylan has tried for in his country covers -- and his fingers slide, strum, and glide over the fretboard, sounding like at least two guitars at once and a multitude of voices. The repertory is almost entirely traditional and arranged by Tarlton, who sounds like he's coming from a place at least 100 years before Jimmie Rodgers. Some of the tracks reveal the presence of an audience, others are the product of a studio, but the sound is generally first-rate, regardless."

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Leroy Carr's Buddy

Bill Gaither- Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1

"Blues guitarist Bill Gaither cut well over a hundred sides for Decca and OKeh between 1931 and 1941. Gaither was close to the blues pianist Leroy Carr, and following Carr's death in 1935, he recorded as Leroy's Buddy for a time. A fine guitarist who possessed a warm, expressive voice, Gaither was also at times a gifted and inventive lyricist. He was often partnered with pianist George "Honey" Hill, and the duo patterned themselves after Carr and his guitarist, Scrapper Blackwell. Among Gaither's many sides are three tributes to Carr ("Life of Leroy Carr," "Leroy Carr's Blues," and the magnificent "After the Sun's Gone Down"). Born on April 21, 1910, in Belmont, KY (some sources have the birth year as 1905), Gaither is buried in New Crown Cemetery, Indianapolis, although the exact date of his death is not known."

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Jim Brewer's Tough Luck

Jim Brewer- Tough Luck Blues

Album Review:
"One of the last acoustic blues guitarists in Chicago, Jim Brewer was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi on October 3, 1920. The oldest of seven children (five boys and two girls), Brewer lost his sight at an early age. Brewer chose the guitar early as a means of survival. His father wanted him to play blues as the most likely means of earning a living, while his mother demanded he play only religious music. During the past 40 years, as a street singer in Chicago, he shifted constantly between the demon and the saint, playing gospel when weary of the blues’ wild street craziness; playing blues in club and festival performances. While playing on the streets and in the stores of Brookhaven in the 1930s, he learned most of the religious songs that he continues to perform today. Brewer’s father, however, told him that people would pay more to hear the blues than to hear church music. As he grew older, Brewer started performing at play parties, playing blues he had learned from store records. Following the death of Jim’s mother, the family moved to Chicago; Jim followed a year later and began playing on 43rd and 47th streets near his family’s home. By the late 1940s he was playing on Maxwell Street. Originally an open-air market for Russian and Polish immigrants who came to Chicago at the turn of the century, by the 1930s, Maxwell Street had become a showcase for blues and gospel singers on Chicago’s South Side. Except for a short period when he left the city, Brewer has been a regular on Maxwell Street for nearly forty years. In the early 1950s Jim Brewer decided to travel, and he lived in St. Louis for three years, where he played on streetcars, in taverns, and on the streets. During that time he also joined a washboard band for a while. By the mid-1950s he had returned to Chicago and was introduced by a mutual friend to Fannie, who became his wife. Brewer’s new mother-in-law bought him a good electric guitar and amplifier, the first decent equipment he ever owned. Returning to Maxwell Street, Brewer decided to devote himself exclusively to singing religious songs. He wanted to separate himself from the lifestyle of trouble that surrounded blues musicians there, and he realized that many people had a low opinion of the blues. But in 1962, two white college students found him on Maxwell Street and asked him if he could sing the blues. He answered that he could and two weeks later he found himself scheduled to give a concert at Northwestern University. Before the concert, Brewer was taken to Chicago’s No Exit Café, and the manager, Joe Moore, asked him to audition. That successful debut resulted in a regular job at the No Exit coffeehouse that has continued for two decades. In recent years Brewer has played at major festivals and clubs throughout the Midwest, the East, Canada and Europe. Jim Brewer’s major influences include Big Bill Broonzy and Tommy Johnson. Other influences include Big Joe Williams, Big Maceo, Teddy Darby, Lonnie Johnson, and Tampa Red; musicians Brewer heard on records and radio in Chicago.
Jim Brewer is a powerful singer and guitarist; his style clearly conveying his roots in the Mississippi Delta blues. Today he plays an acoustic Martin six-string guitar. His music and performance style have, no doubt, gained an amount of polish over the years, and he seems comfortable playing to audiences who frequent the club and festival circuit. In addition to performing songs he learned from others over the years, Jim is also an accomplished songwriter and has been known to make up songs on the spot concerning his mood, the events of the day, or his immediate surroundings."

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Legend Of John Fahey

John Fahey- The Legend Of Blind Joe Death

Album Review:
"The saga of Blind Joe Death is an extremely confusing one, for those listeners who haven't been following Fahey's career from the beginning. In short: Fahey originally recorded Blind Joe Death in 1959, in an extremely rare, self-released edition of less than 100 copies. Though few heard it, his debut album was a groundbreaker on the acoustic folk scene in its unusually experimental approach to blues and folk styles, though its innovations sound relatively tame when compared to the best of Fahey's subsequent work. Fahey reissued the album in 1964 on Takoma, re-recording some of the cuts, and dropping one selection ("West Coast Blues"). In 1967, when the album was issued for the stereo market, Fahey re-recorded the entire album from scratch, resulting in performances of the exact same new material, but with improved fidelity and technique. This reissue does us all a mammoth favor by combining the 1964 and 1967 editions of the album (which, to make matters more confusing, bore the exact same catalog number, Takoma 1002) onto one 75-minute disc. A previously unreleased 1964 version of "West Coast Blues," a song which had been on the 1959 edition of Blind Joe Death but was left off subsequent configurations, is added as a bonus cut. Completists should note that this is not the final word in the Blind Joe Death saga. Several of the versions originally presented on the 1959 album that were re-recorded for both the 1964 and 1967 remakes are still absent, for space reasons and because the compilers themselves feel that the later renditions are notably superior. Still, it's a near-definitive package of the important Blind Joe Death material, with extensive historical liner notes explaining the circumstances that gave rise to its various incarnations."

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

How We Love Joseph Spence!

Joseph Spence- Happy All The Time

"Born on the island of Andrus in the Bahamas, Spence created an idiosyncratic (and inimitable) guitar style rife with percussive and improvisatory vamps around staid hymns and such "square" standards as "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer." He was a folk guitarist's Thelonious Monk, and his growling vocal counterpoint and surprising inventions are one of folk music's great delights."

Album Review:
"Waxed for Elektra in 1964, this has better sound than the Folkways recordings and offers some of Spence's most percussive playing."

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I'm A-Goin' Fishin'

Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas- Texas Worried Blues: Complete Recorded Works 1927-1929

Album Review:
"These recordings, dating between 1927 and 1929, are a unique body of work: work songs, minstrel numbers, rags, and what we now define as the blues, all offered in an unpretentious form that would have been every bit as compelling had Henry Thomas cut them this way 40 years later. Songs such as "Arkansas," "Fox and the Hounds" (featuring the reed pipes that Thomas also excelled at playing), and "Little Red Caboose" represent a brand of upbeat dance music associated with late-19th century entertainment, a tradition already largely lost or becoming lost when Thomas cut these numbers. Yet Thomas, who was already in his 50s when he recorded these tracks, sings and plays them with a beguiling ease and honesty, not to mention a dexterity on the guitar that makes him sound every bit as vital and urgent as Big Bill Broonzy or any of the other up-and-coming blues legends just starting out at the time these sides were laid down. The blues numbers, including "Shanty Blues," "Woodhouse Blues," "Honey, Won't You Allow Me One More Chance?," and "Bull Doze Blues" are compelling in their own right -- they display musical and lyrical virtuosity and, in the latter two cases, offer a chance to hear the sources for classic works by Bob Dylan and Canned Heat, respectively. Luckily for historians, Henry Thomas recorded for Vocalion and not for one of the truly lost labels like Paramount, and all 23 surviving sides of his work sound very good on this CD."

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Heart-Sankin' Blues: A Story Of Unknown Legends

Firstly, I'd like to thank all of you for continuing to support this Blues blog. If there is any artist you'd like to hear, just mention him or her in "The Cooling Board" feature. Secondly, I'd like to let you know that I read all of your comments. If I do not respond to you in a timely manner, I am sorry. I currently teach English at a university in South Korea, so my days are quite busy.

Finally, the following is the first of three chapters of a book I am currently writing on the Country Blues. Your feedback would be much appreciated. I have copyrighted the material, though I doubt that any of you would do anything immoral with my story. I'd love to hear what you think of the piece of writing.

Hard Luck Child

Heart-Sankin’ Blues: A Story Of Unknown Legends
By Daniel Pepper

William “Crybaby” Wells

In the early summer of 1967, I was done with college and wondering about what mundane and wonderful surprises awaited me. I decided to take a tip from my long-time friend, Andrew Birdy, and leave suburban Pennsylvania and travel down south to interview and maybe get on tape; even if only for a brief moment, three of the least known and recognized but best artists that a certain genre of American music had to offer. That genre of music was the Country Blues. The men I was searching for were none other than William “Crybaby” Wells, Charleston “Low Swing” Smythe, and “Mississippi” Joe Wilkes.
My obsession with the Country Blues began back at my parents’ apartment in 1959 when I was at the ripe age of fifteen. I listened to the music and bought the records of the day, of course; don’t get me wrong. I had numerous singles from Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, the Dell-Vikings, Chuck Berry and a white hillbilly named Elvis Presley. I much preferred Elvis’ Sun Records stuff to his recordings that were coming out around ’59.
Now, I grew up in Greenwich Village and would often travel not too far to get my records. There was a store there, it’s probably gone by now, called The Record Spot. It was owned by a big, fat, Italian man named Salvatore. When I say fat, I’d like to clarify something; I mean “F-A-T”. Ol’ Salvatore had to have weighed at least three-hundred pounds. He reminded me of one of Bruno Sammartino’s regular opponents who could be seen on wrestling matches on television at that time. It was not unusual to walk into the store and find Salvatore eating a meatball hero from his favorite Italian restaurant two blocks away, Luigi’s Eatery.
However, there was something special about this brute of a man. It wasn’t his ability to eat more than a yeti. It was his obsession with black music. That’s right, this colossal individual built and shaped my unfortunate, current mental state by exposing me to all of this “jungle music”, or “It’s horseshit, Peter!”, as my typical Jewish father would say as he ate his tuna fish sandwich everyday when returning from work. I always loved and respected my father, though there was a real distance between us. And so on Saturdays and Sundays it had become a tradition to wait for my mother and father to leave the apartment and visit the Goldstein family, the only blonde Jewish couple I’d ever seen or met. For the first four years they lived down the hall from us, my father would always swear that they were Danish or “definitely Norwegian”. Anyway, they didn’t look like other older Jews in my neighborhood.
Oh, by the way, what became such a tradition was waiting for them to leave the house so that I could listen to my “race music.” The first record I bought was a crisp, brand-new, Mickey and Sylvia- “Love Is Strange”. I got it in 1958, but I’m pretty sure it was released a year or two earlier. So, how’d I get into the Country Blues? Like I said, it’s all Salvatore’s fault!
One day, I took a walk to The Record Spot and I just happened to wander into the “Rhythm And Blues” section as it was written in crappy-looking orange letters. I distinctly remember Salvatore putting his arm around my shoulders and giving me a pseudo-warning: “Stay outta there!” However, at the same time, he was in reality totally urging me on to buy a Muddy Waters record! You know how kids are- when they are told something is forbidden, they become so curious until they explode just like Sal’s stomach after a three-course Italian dinner with his Aunt Maria and sister Christina. I made up those late two characters, by the way.
The record was “Can’t Be Satisfied” from 1948, and as I may have mentioned, this was in 1959 when I was fifteen years old. It was Muddy’s first commercial single that I know of and was a huge success. I’d never heard urban/electric/“Chicago Blues” and certainly never the Country Blues which dominated black record sales in Mississippi and Alabama and those other foreign lands during the 1920s and early 1930s, so, to me, there wasn’t yet a distinction between the Delta Blues of Son House and the Texas gems of Blind Lemon Jefferson or J.T. “Funny Papa” Smith and the urban music that screamed “bright lights, big city”, like that of Little Walter or Jimmy Reed.
However, this would all change what I remember now as being about three weeks after Muddy had first enlightened me. The next record I bought was Eddie “Guitar Slim”’s “The Things That I Used To Do.” I loved both of my “jungle music” records, of course, but I saw a much greater purity, intensity and unrestrained Negro spirit in the Muddy record. The second record had Ray Charles on piano, a bass player, a drummer, and, of course, “Guitar Slim.” The first had Muddy and a beaten-up, old guitar, with minimal accompaniment from other musicians. The second had the promise of making it big if one were a Negro and pulling all-nighters at upscale clubs, as well as meeting beautiful women and sampling some fine wine. The first promised only Muddy sitting on a back porch in Rolling Fork, Mississippi on old Stovall’s plantation and maybe having a chicken wing or two. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I liked the second one a lot, but was completely enthralled and possessed by the first one.
The three Bluesmen I sought out never made much money and chances are that you’ve never heard of them. One of them, “Mississippi” Joe Wilkes, is of the same caliber as Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton and Skip James. The other two aren’t as wonderfully gifted but still cut the occasional masterpiece of a record back in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. So, how on earth did I ever find out about these guys?
I was at a Howlin’ Wolf show in 1965. Muddy Waters was rumored to be showing up to out-do the Wolf. The name of that game in Blues circles was “cuttin’ heads”. Anyway, Muddy didn’t show up, but obviously just seeing Howlin’ Wolf do one or two of his hits was worth more than the price of admission alone. He performed songs like “Back Door Man”, “Smokestack Lightning” and “Little Red Rooster”, all with the intensity and fervor of a mad, ravenous predator stalking his prey, to put it lightly. It was an amazing show. I went with my high school and later college buddy, Andrew Birdy. He told me he had a big surprise for me that he’d tell me about after the show. After the electrifying concert had drained me, Andrew said that a friend of his who had helped discover Son House informed him that three Bluesmen whose records I’d always sought after were still alive but were unsure about joining the whole Blues and Folk revival of the ‘60s, and then he gave me tips on where exactly they were residing! This was a big shock to me, because I thought that all three of them were dead and that there was no earthly way that anyone, let alone my best friend, could ever pull enough strings to find out where these awesome musicians lived! After all, they were truly obscure figures, even in Country Blues terms. With all the strings Birdy was pulling, Andrew must have been the puppet master himself!
I left my apartment in Allentown that I’d lived in since my third year of college on July 18, 1967. My destination was Moose Hill, Alabama, the home of “Crybaby” Wells. On his records, the “Crybaby” was never in quotations. Listeners were either supposed to believe that his first name was really Crybaby or that the record company that produced his records, Vocalion, was illiterate. For the remainder of this tale, I shall occasionally use quotations around “Crybaby” when I feel it aesthetically pleasing.
Wells was born on May 4, 1897 and recorded sporadically from 1928 to 1933. His greatest songs, though none of them managing to sell impressively, were “My Black Belle”, “Moose Hill Mistreatment Blues”, and “Some Lucky Day”, with its boyish, almost corny charm. The last was a pseudo-teenage love story about he and a girl named Ida May. “My Black Belle”, on the other hand, was an up-tempo song that was incredibly dirty with its double-entendre lyrics and perverted, chauvinistic humor. It sounded musically a bit like Blind Willie McTell’s “Kind Mama.”
I still vividly remember passing a small, battered brown sign, which you could tell used to be a pristine white; the sign reading, “Welcom [sic] to Long Horse- Moose Just Down the Road”. I had assumed that “Moose” meant Moose Hill, and I was right. I continued driving for about five minutes and then came to a sign that said “Greenwood,” so I turned around and slowly began driving back to Moose Hill. Greenwood in Mississippi, and not Alabama, is where Robert Johnson supposedly died, by the way. I drove slowly to ensure that I didn’t leave Moose Hill again; the town was about the size of a shoebox. I parked at a gas station and went in to get a Coca-Cola. It must have been close to a hundred degrees that day. The man working at the gas station was shirtless, something you’d never see in suburban Allentown or New York City or Philadelphia. He noticed I wasn’t from “’round here” and he asked me what I was doing in lovely Moose Hill. I told him I was looking for a Blues singer named “Crybaby” Wells. He laughed and said, “Now what you want to see old Crybaby for?” I was extremely surprised that he even knew of Wells, considering how the gas station employee looked to be about only thirty years old. To make a long story short, he gave me directions on a napkin to Crybaby’s house and I got there less than three minutes after leaving the gas station. Remember that you can drive through the entire town in five minutes!
An aging, brown-skinned man with a very timid look on his face was sitting on his front porch with a woman folding towels beside him. I asked if “Crybaby” Wells was there, even though I had a strong suspicion that the man at whom I was looking was indeed Wells. She said, “You lookin’ at him right now, sir”. I introduced myself, saying that I was from up north and was a lifelong fan of the Country Blues, and that I loved the records that Crybaby cut thirty-five to forty years before. He said, “Why, thank you. Are here for the money?” I was a bit confused by his response as I watched the woman whisper something to him in his right ear and then watched his eyes widen and perhaps a small, wrinkled smile grace his boyish face. Though I couldn’t quite make out exactly what the lady had said to Mr. Wells, I heard the words, “…wants you to play for him.” Crybaby then said, “I’m so sorry, son. Thought you was here fo’ ma money. You wanna hear me play? ‘Cos I can still play, you know”. I was elated and responded, “I’d love to hear you play, and if it’s not too much trouble, Mr. Wells, I’d like to ask you some questions about your life. I’m very interested in-.” At that moment, he cut me off as he left his chair and his smile grew; “You can ask me anything you want, son. Linda, go get ma gitfiddle!”
Just then, Wells began laughing and smiling like a schoolboy. His smile no longer looked aged and bogged down by years of living in poverty. “That’s my daughter, Linda. She helps an old man out. Good girl, she is.” Then he chuckled twice and took the guitar Linda handed him. It was a beaten-up old Stella. He was the only one of the three Bluesmen I sought out that almost never played with a slide. He pressed his bare fingers on the archaic guitar and without showing any sign of rust began to play and sing for me, “Some Lucky Day,” which my favorite book, The Art of Blues Song, had told me he recorded in April 1928. The following are the complete lyrics he sang to me that July afternoon, and it was very close lyrically and musically to the original masterpiece indeed:

“Some lucky day, I’d kiss Ida May
Some lucky day, your gal’ll beg me to stay
She might be yours now, won’t be yours long
Look in your bedroom, find your good girl gone

I loved Ida May since I’s a boy of nine
Miss Ida May’s frame, it look so fine
She got a face like a red cherry
Wiggle like a blueberry, she someday be mine

(Spoken: This my favorite line, y’understand)
Apples in the cupboard, peaches on the shelf
You know I’m getting’ tired, sleepin’ by maself
Ida May, Ida May, you on ma mind
If you cry ‘bout a nickel, you’ll die ‘bout a dime

Some lucky day, I’s kiss Ida May
The wind gonna change, gonna blow my blues away
The sun gonna shine in my back door
And whiskey won’t worry my mind no more”

By the end of the song, Wells had left his rocking chair and we were both smiling like two Alabama boys at a squaredance some one hundreds years before. After the song, Crybaby Wells chuckled for what seemed like an eternity. He tried to say something a few times but all that came out was, “Oh my, oh my, good songs make you, make you, woo-hoo, good rhymin’”. I was then brought a bottle of coke that looked older in some mystical way than the one from the gas station. It was definitely one-hundred degrees by then and the rest of my day was spent interviewing Crybaby Wells.
Crybaby sat back down in his rocking chair and plucked a few lonesome and random notes on his guitar before putting it down behind him on a wooden table with thee legs and an aspirin bottle on top. I said, “Wow! That was a great performance.” He responded, Thank y’ sir.” “Please call me Peter,” I responded. “Can you tell me a bit about your life, starting with as far back as you can remember? It’s for a book I’m writing about the Country Blues.” By the look in his eyes, I could tell that Wells wasn’t sure what the newly-coined term, “Country Blues,” meant. To him, it was just the “straight, natch’l Blues,” as Fred McDowell often said.
Wells responded, “Long as ma name ain’t used in no corrupted manner, yessir, let me see.” He paused for a moment and put his head down. The following was a hue amount of information to take in at once, so I took out my portable tape recorder, which was a considerably large piece of equipment I’d put down on Linda’s unfortunate, newly-folded towels.
“I’s born in May of eighteen-and-ninety-seven. May the 4th. My father came and went as he pleased. Stayed for a few months. Would leave, you know, as he pleases, ‘swell. Took to lovin’ my mother. She saw I didn’t do no wrong. An’…”, Crybaby began to laugh, “them chil’ren, you know how chil’ren be, took to callin’ names and such, laughin’ at ma attachin’ to ma mammie, like is some kinda great calamity, y’know. But I took it not so fine back in them days. Would cry a lot.” Crybaby laughed and giggled and his voice popped once or twice while saying the following, “Mammie, Mammie. Chil’ren callin’ me names an’ such. All cryin’, y’know. And this was back in before, oh, nineteen ought five. Times was diff’rent then, you see. No such automobile and fridge-o-daire, haha, you know fo’ the food you have in yo’ home…to keep warm…cold.”
I asked, “So, the neighborhood kids mistreated you a lot?” He responded, “Why, yessir. I’d cry abouts every night. Very solemn days they was. But ma sister, Cora Ann, she born in eighteen-and-eighty-eight, she’d take care o’ me lak my mammie would. So I had two mammies, by the grace of God and Lord Jesus. And I thank them very much to this day. Course, only ma sister left here. Good Lord see to it that my mother passed on but jus’ as well fo’ she’s in glory now. Sister be a blessing, y’know!” Crybaby laughed and I could see a hint of blue in his eyes as the sun hit his face. I shook my head “yes” and asked, “Do you have any other sisters or brothers and what schooling do you have?”
“Had a baby sister, Carol, born in nineteen-and-seven. Two brothers, both done got killed in The Great War. Spent much time with ma fam’ly, all womens, y’see. An’ chil’ren took to callin’ me sissy boy. You see, ma brothers were womanizin’ in they young days and wouldn’ let me do as they did, fo’ mamma would chastise ‘em if they’d a-try. So, I’s usually with womens in ma fam’ly. Had only one boy frien’, y’ understand. Clarence. But he died some time ago due to circus…dances with lady folk and…her…the woman’s man. A pity but he’s in glory jus’ like my mammie, I know. An’ you know how I know this fo’ a fact? I can fac-tize this fo’ ol’ Clarence never missed a day of church, hee-hee, never missed a Sunday.”
I responded with, “I see. I’m sorry to hear about the children calling you names, and about your brothers and Clarence. How did you get into the Blues and recording for Vocalion from 1928 to 1933?”
“Well, when I was old enough to walk prop’ly, I’d go to Sat’day night festivals, y’kno. I even seen many a medicine show. It’s quite rarest to see them nowadays. My older sister, Cora Ann, taken me over in a town called Hilton. I seen Charley Patton once. He was the biggest. Damn! Hee-hee. Cora Ann, y’know what she told me? She says when Charl’ Patton was comin’ a-town, back in them days, town peopl’d make a big purty sign with a purty picture and writin’ his name real big. Made me wanna start to playin’ to. So I commenced to pickin’ the guitar.”
“So, Charley Patton was the reason you started playing?” He answered, “Well, I believe is quite fair to say so. But Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake was helluva guitar pickers, too! But we got word years later he died. Patton. Nineteen-and-thirty-fo’, that he died.”
“How did you start recording for Vocalion?”
“Started in nineteen-and-twenty-eight when a man, fine man, named Mr. Weinright came to Moose Hill and Long Horse from up north, one them big cities, y’kno; he come lookin’ for musicianers to put on the records. Them days records was a-might big. Was me and a boy, ol’ skinny-legged chile named Chester Thurman, couldn’t play a lick but stole ma first gal from me, Julia. Y’ see, this is life. Quite a serious an’ funny thang at the same time. Boy stole ma first gal from me also done tried to beat me outta a recordin’ deal. Oh, the luck of it all!” Crybaby stood up as he laughed, and then his shoulders gradually sank as he calmly sat back down in his rocking chair.
“So, you won the recording deal! Congratulations.” I smiled and Crybaby bowed his head, as I tried to gingerly ask, “Were you in love with Julia?”
“Well, I reckon I was. First gal I loved. Loved her in the summer of nineteen and…’twas ‘round the time of The Great War. A year later Chester’ed taken her from ma arms.”
Crybaby then looked down at the ancient plywood porch and grinned. He drank his Coca-Cola as the sun began to affect all three of us. Linda appeared throughout the conversation with smiles and a few, “Lord, it’s burnin’ like the Devil!” I was vey humbled by Crybaby’s story. I’d expected a rough, dangerous, ex-levee camp moaner and instead got a very genuine and innocent character who loved his mother, older sister, younger sister, and his daughter.”
“Well, it is quite ironic that Chester showed up in both of those situations. But that’s a beautiful story. What are some of the songs you remember recording, and do you remember any recording dates by any chance? I know it was a long time ago.”
“I ‘member, ‘Moose Hill Mistreatment Blues’, ‘Rainin’ On A Monday”’. ‘It’s rainin’ on a Monday, lak it never rained befo’. It’s rainin’ on a Monday, lak it never rained befo’. First Baptist Church been flooded, and they locked up the gen’ral sto.’ ‘Some Lucky Day’, which played fo’ you. ‘My Black Belle’, Mr. Weinright said that sold some when I saw him fo’ ma second session. I wax’ eighteen songs? I still ‘member to play and sang most of ‘em, y’understand. Four sessions I had. First in April of twenty-eight.”
“Do you remember which tunes came from which sessions?”
“Yessir. ‘My Black Belle’, ‘Some Lucky Day’, ‘Dead Cow Blues’, ‘Tastes Like Butter’. Was ma first session in April of twenty-eight. I was back in June of nineteen-and-twenty-nine. That’s one year later. ‘Rainin’ On A Monday’, ‘Blues Like Never Before’, ‘Georgia Brown From Outta Town’, ‘Moose Hill Mistreatment Blues’, ‘Grandpa’s Blues’, ‘Walkin’ Cane Blues’, ‘You Must Have Lost Your Head’, and ‘West Virginia Woman Blues’. My third session in January nineteen-and-thirty, I suppose, maybe March. Could never ‘member which one them months. I wax’ ‘Your Troubles Ain’t Like Mine’, ‘When I Lay My Burden Down’, and ‘Up In Them Blue Skies’. Both religious songs, y’understand. And ‘Bye And Bye’. ‘Bye And Bye’ was a lot lak Charley Patton’s ‘Poor Me’ record. Not the same, though.”
Crybaby struck me as having an impeccable memory, as I was able to check the dates he gave me with the recording information I had available from The Art Of Blues Song. By the way, I felt that the Patton song and “Bye And Bye”, a great song in its own right, bore no resemblance to each other whatsoever, but didn’t tell Crybaby this. “And your last session?”, I asked as I wanted to make sure that his memory was as impressive as it seemed.
“Last session in October of nineteen-and-thirty-three. Depression hit hard, y’ understand. Hit colored folk ‘specially hard. ‘Who’s In The Kitchen Blues’, ‘Alabama Runaround’ and the last song I make a record was…was the old ‘Roll And Tumble Blues’”.
“Wow! It’s amazing that you still remember all that. That’s great”. Crybaby bowed and soothed his head with his cold Coca-Cola bottle. “Back to your schooling. How far did you go?”, I inquired.
“Went to Lawrence Lane El’mentary. Then ma daddy came to stay with us fo’ the last time. Said the boys needed to do more work out in the fields. He left a year later. Jus’ as well. That was ma schoolin’. But, y’ know, I am, really am so sorry to ma heart I didn’t continue. Be lak a Martin Luther King figure or somethin’ of the sort, y’ understand. He’s a good man.”
“May I ask what you first name is, Mr. Wells?” The boyish Bluesman proudly and abruptly said, “William. Let me see if I can ‘member somethin’ fo’ you.” He then sang the complete lyrics to “Rainin’ On A Monday”, which made me then rank the tune as an official “masterpiece”. The original recording of it was of such poor quality that it was difficult to decipher the lyrics. However, this reading of the tune allowed the song to breathe a much-needed, new life, and to take its place as a brilliant piece of Blues wisdom.

“It’s rainin’ on a Monday, lake it never rained befo’
It’s rainin’ on a Monday, baby, lak it never rain’ befo’
First Baptist Church been flooded, and they locked the gen’ral sto’

Mary’s in the piney woods, and Mary’s sister’s in my heart
Mary’s in the piney woods, and Mary’s sister’s in my heart
You know I’m so sorry, babe, but the best of friends got to part

It rained all of Monday and Tuesday mornin’, too
It rained all of Monday and Tuesday morn’, too
It came from Long Horse to Moose Hill, boy, hard and heavy dues

Mr. Totts closed the gen’ral sto’, latched them windows down, too
Mr. Totts, he closed the gen’ral sto’, latched them windows down, too
He put everything but honey on the door, rain water came right thru

People drowning on Elder Avenue, my baby’s on Park
People drowning on Elder Avenue, my Julia’s on Park
Said I know my mamma can’t be ‘way too far

People drownin’ on Simpson, Cora Ann on Clarke
Peoples is drownin’ on Simpson, Cora Ann on Clarke
We’s all just poor folk, searchin’ fo’ family in the dark

Now, what’s happened to the court house, honey, been washed away
Said, ooh, court house have done been washed away
Said the whole country ain’t nothin’ but mud and clay

Friend, if I had wings, Lord, like Noah’s dove
Friends, if I had wings, Lord, like Noah’s dove
I would save my town, Julia, the girl I love

Women hug their men, and goose pimple babies begin to cry
Women hug they lovers, and goose pimple babies begin to cry
Look like everything ‘round these parts has sure upped and died

Long Horse under water, hard rain have hit Moose Hill
Long Horse under water, hard rain have hit Moose Hill
(Spoken: People think it be the last day here)
Drinkin’ outta Brother Thomas whiskey still

You should have been ‘round in nineteen-and-fifteen
You should been in Moose Hill in nineteen-and-fifteen
For such a lonesome sight, lucky chile, you ain’t never seen

Long Horse is gone, ain’t no more Moose Hill town
Long Horse is gone, ain’t no more Moose Hill town
If there be a God, why have he left us to drown?”

“Wow! That’s great. Those are some wonderful lyrics, Mr. Wells. Your performance was very intense. Do you remember lyrics to any of your other songs?
“Sho. Believe I ‘member near all of ‘em. Was diff’rent times then. Man would take his guitar and jus’ play. Not for no big money or nothin’, neither.”

“What’s it tastes like butter?
What’s it that’s so sweet?
I get the same ol’ feelin’
Every time we meet

Meet me in Tallahassee
Jus’ meet me naytime fo’ Fall
An’ baby if it be cold ouside
Don’ forget to wear yo’ overalls

What’s it tastes like butter?
What’s it that’s so sweet?
I get the same ol’ feelin’
Every time we meet

I hear laughin’ from on down the hall
Uncle Ned, drunk again, I can hear him call
He sold his watch, he sold his gold chains
Sold everything but his doggone name

Me an’ my baby was walkin’ down the street
Greetin’ everybody that we meet
Said hello to the preacher and he did mutter
Mr. Wells, “Don’t it taste like butter?”

What’s it taste like butter?
What’s it that’s so sweet?
I get the same ol’ feelin’
Ev’ry time we meet”

“I’m very happy that you just sang that song for me because I don’t have that record. That’s my first time hearing that.” Crybaby Wells answered, “Well, I’m glad you lak it. That’s a real old song from back ‘round slav’ry times. Right after slav’ry times. Mus’ excuase maself. Guine to the washroom. Linda, keep this nice man occupy.” I then got a chance to ask Linda what she thought of her father’s music and musical career. She answered, “Well, I must say that he has a way with them words. An’ he’s an expert guitar picker. And he was always there fo’ me when I was a chile. Quit his travelin’ days…ways fo’ I was born so no regrets or problems hea, Mr. Peter.” When Mr. Wells returned, I was privileged enough to listen to him perform for a fourth time. This time the song was the haunting, “Dead Cow Blues”.
“Well, Mistah Peter, I wrote this ‘bout how the cows on Maxwell Plantation , ‘bout three-and-one-half miles down this road, y’ make a right out of this way, y’ understand, that’s ol’ Maxwell’s. Well, there was cows dyin’ over there and nobody knew why. But in nineteen-and-twenty-one wasn’t nobody gettin’ no milk from Maxwell.”
“Did the community here in Moose Hill depend on Maxwell Plantation for milk?”, I asked.
“Well, y’ might say that. Yes, ‘deed, we do depends on ‘em for milk. In them ol’ days, of course. Then they set up a gen’ral sto’ where you could buy yo’ milk ‘bout the same time, y’ understand. But I remember…for a long time wasn’t nothin’ to drink at the ol’ dinner, dinner table but water from the well. So, here I’mma play fo’ you the ‘Dead Cow Blues’”.

“Ol’ Mr. Maxwell, he ain’t passin’ time so well
Mr. Maxwell, I said, he ain’t passin’ time so well
Well, milk is turnin’ blue, he ain’t got no goods to sell

They tell you don’t look nor peep into them dead cows’ eyes
They tell you don’t look, no, nor peep into them dead cows’ eyes
Keep you worried in the daytime, have you shakin’ in the night

Want milk gotta go to the gen’ral sto’, want lovin’ go some place else
Want milk gotta go to the gen’ral sto’, want lovin’ go some place else
You want drinkin’ water, po’ boy, take yo’ oaken bucket to the well

You know ol’ women say Mr. Maxwell is doin’ somethin’ wrong
If he’s doin’ right all them cows wouldn’t be gone
He be foolin’ an’ cheatin’ with another man’s wife
So he got hoodooed an’ now his business ain’t right
I can’t look at no woman with her dress worn real high
The dead cows have made me lose ma appetite
Woo-hoo, yes, dead cows have made me lose ma appetite

What evil under Heaven, could Mr. Maxwell have done?
What evil under Heaven, could Maxwell have done?
He pullin’ the drawers on another man’s wife, that lucky son of a gun

Can’t get no fresh milk, boys, it’s just water from the well
So hot in the summer, baby, it’s a burnin’ Hell
I can’t look at no woman with her dress worn real low
Them dead cows they keep me on the go
Woo-hoo, yes, all dead cows keep me on the go
(Spoken: I got to move, now!)”

“Wow. Did people used to say not to look the dead cows in the eyes, as a sort of a superstition?” Crybaby responded, “Yes, zactly wat the ol’ womens say. If you believe them ol’ ladies, hehe, y’ understand. I paid it a lotta mind back in them days. Sounds funny nowaday. But peoples would say, ‘Plantation’s haunted, Crybaby!’ Used to believe it, too.”
I decided to change the topic by inquiring about Crybaby’s work experience. “What jobs did you hold?”
“Well, I began workin’ at the gen’ral sto’ in nineteen-and-twenty-three, two years after them Maxwell cow problem. Fo’ that it was pickin’ that cotton jus’ lak the rest of ‘em. Never was too good at that, y’ understand. And after or ‘round thirty-five I worked at the market. They set up a market with them thangs that’d keep your food cold. Fridge-o-daire. Much like a gen’ral sto’ but bigger, y’ know. You all have them markets nowaday.”
Then, Crybaby began to say aloud the lyrics to “Grandpa’s Blues”, not in an effort to impress me with his gift for creating lyrical imagery, but perhaps simply to relive his glory years as a recording and travelling musician. On the other hand, maybe he felt he had become the grandpa in “Grandpa Blues”.

“Say, what makes an old man so mean and sad?
What makes an old man so doggone mean and sad?
He wants to love his woman but he knows that’s just too damn bad

What make grandpa love ol’ grandma so?
What make grandpa love ol’ grandma so?
Grandma don’t want nothing but chocolate to the bone

I laid down last night, think’ ‘bout ol’ grandpa, sho’
I laid down last night, thinkin’ ‘bout ol’ grandpa, sho’
It’s a pity when you old and chil’ren don’t love you no mo’

If I could holler, Lord, like a mountain jack
If I could holler, Lord, like a mountain jack
Baby, if my grandma could still wiggle, jus’ like a twelve pound potato sack

Well, grandpa’s getting’ old, and his hair is turnin’ gray
The old man’s gettin’ tragic, and his hair is turnin’ gray
And you know grandma, too, be well past her day”

“Was a song I write ‘bout one ol’ couple down the street some-a-ways. Wouldn’t never speak no bad of ma own grandpa and gramma, of course. ‘Course, you see, they was slaves. Had hard lifes. Not like what you call now a hard worker. They’s workin’ in the fields from sun-up to sundown, y’ understand. Us colored folk, we all use to be slavin’ in the fields. That’s why I lak this Doctor King fellah so damn much.”
“It’s nice to hear that you feel that way. So when did you stop working at the local general store?”
“Stopped workin’ there in 1933 when I’s 36 years old. Always lakked it there. People treat you real nice. M’boss was Mistah Ernest Dodds, nice fellah, always paid me on time. No complaints there, y’ understand. Left on good terms, what them young people sayin’, call it ‘buddies’”.
The next song Crybaby Wells played for me was undoubtedly the most chilling live performance of any piece of music that I’d ever seen. It was the song, “Bye And Bye”, which reminded Wells of Charley Patton’s tune, “Poor Me”. The hair on the back of my neck and arms stood up as William Wells took his metallic slide out of his pants pocket.

“Wintertime’s comin’, where you goin’ to hide?
Wintertime’s comin’, where you goin’ to hide?
I’ll meet you, baby, in the sweet bye and bye

You drink corn whiskey, blinded my eyes with lye
You drink corn whiskey, blinded my eyes with lye
All right, baby, meet you in the sweet bye and bye

Wintertime’s here, hair freezin’ on yo’ head
Wintertime’s here, with the hair freezin’ on yo’ head
Lay down with me, baby, straight ‘cross my feather bed

Wintertime’s harsh, don’t it make yo’ heart break?
Winertime’s harsh, don’t Crybaby make yo’ heart break?
Breakin’ my heart, baby, good God, for goodness sake

When I get married, won’t marry any doney or crow
When I get married, won’t marry any doney or crow
Gonna get me a hip-shakin’ mama, keep me warm from the snow

Wintertime’s comin’, honey, where you goin’ to hide?
Wintertime’s comin’, honey, where you goin’ to hide?
I’ll meet you, baby, in the sweet bye and bye

Don’t take no woman, who be full of hate and scorn
Don’t take no country woman, who be full of hate and scorn
Make you wish to God you ain’t never been born

Wintertime’s comin’, where you goin’ to hide?
Wintertime’s comin’, where you goin’ to hide?
I’ll meet you, baby, in the sweet bye and bye”

Crybaby’s breathtaking bastardization of a Christian song was completely realized! I exclaimed, “Wow! That was your best performance yet! I have chills. That was excellent, Crybaby.”
“Why, thank y’ sir. You know, m’ uncle Leroy taught me that song. Is an old song he done made. I reckon ‘bout nineteen-and-ten. Always make them people jaw drop open, hee-hee. The Blues do that to you. Makes you wish y’ ain’t never been born and make you want to live some mo’”.
That night, I was invited to a small show that Crybaby was to play at Ma Rainey’s Grill, named after the famous female Classic Blues singer, Ma Rainey. Perhaps Crybaby was slowly attempting to come out of retirement and join the Country Blues revival, but I felt that he’d never be able to get into full swing if he relegated himself to playing in the south in front of microscopically small crowds. When I suggested Newport, Cambridge and NYU to him, he said that he’d think about it; “I’ll keep that on ma mind, Mistah Peter”.
We got into Crybaby’s 1949 Chevy and proceeded to leave Moose Hill for nearby Lamont, Alabama. “All kindsa musicianers back in them days’d come to Lamont. Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson, even Lemon Jefferson a few times. Lonnie Johnson was the best guitar picker I ever seen, though not in ma style. I couldn’t never play lak that man. But that was more den thirty years ago, y’ understand.” I was told that Lamont was about an hour away by car by Linda before we left. The circumstances that seemed to randomly arise that day lead me to be able to conceive of Blues music on a higher level, I thought. However, looking back on things, I realize how foolish and naïve I was. At that time, you see, all Country Blues fans were obsessed with Robert Johnson and got into the habit of deifying him. Even though I was an intelligent young man who was experienced in the field of liberal arts and knew how to distinguish scholarly biography from hyperbolic nonsense, I too fell for the Johnson myth, one-hundred percent.
The car broke down about 25 minutes into our trip. Linda was driving.
“Well, I don’t know now what to do. Maybe, y’ know one of them motels ‘round here, Linda? Them people might be awful upset I ain’t there, but it looks like the rain is comin’ down awful hard. I ain’t a young buck no mo’. Hee-hee.”
Linda responded, “No, papa, ain’t never been to Lamont. I went with you to Elmville once for a show; that’s all.” Just then, Crybaby’s face lit up and he began to tell me all about the mysterious Epscott Inn. “Epscott’s just down the raod some. You’ll take quite a likin’ to it, y’ know. Where Robert Johnson stayed whenever he’d play in Long Horse, Moose Hill, Elmville, Huntsville.”
At that point, I was in Heaven! Just hearing the name of the man I believed to be the greatest of all Country Blues singers come from the mouth of the talented Wells left me elated. “Did you know Robert Johnson?” My face glowed like a traffic light that was stuck on yellow.
“Well, I remember him tryin’ to pick up on Son House’s way of playing, you see. Never was that good at it. Then, of course, he became an expert guitar picker. Never knew the man, though. But they say the whole town of Lamont be haunted by his ghost. Hee-hee”.
In retrospect, I realize that this kind, gentle, old man was trying to satisfy the curiosities and interests of a young, urban, upper-middle-class Jewish male who loved Country Blues, as opposed to directly lying to me in front of my face.
After a walk that was probably only ten minutes long we got to the inn. I was sweating and covered with rain water. My shoes were all muddy. The rest of the gang was in the same condition. Crybaby opened the front door of the inn and I immediately noticed a very plump and short black-skinned woman slapping around an electric fan that appeared to not be cooperating with her; “Damned confounded thang!” I tried not to laugh. “Ma name’s Minnie. How can I help y’ all?”
Linda informed this woman who didn’t resemble the fantastic Blues guitar star and singer, Memphis Minnie, in any way, shape or form: “Ma daddy’s car broke down, so three of us’d like one night hea.” The place looked deserted, so I didn’t worry too much about whites in the area noticing me socializing with blacks. Besides, the weather outside was so atrocious that I figured such racist nonsense wouldn’t be any logical person’s number one priority. Then again, racists aren’t logical, are they?
I asked Crybaby what we were going to do about the car; if we should call to get it towed or something. He just laughed and told me, “Y’ know, ain’t nobody here’s gonna know their number or nothing, y’ understand. Besides, that car’s been troublin’ me ever since I bought it. I’ll just let it alone.” I had no idea how we were going to get back to Crybaby’s place in Moose Hill.
After a nice little dinner featuring chicken and French fries at a hamburger place next door to the inn (and after getting soaked once again on our 35 second trip there), I went to my room and Crybaby and Linda went to theirs. Crybaby was really tired. I made a mental note that the man went to be at only 8:15. I washed my face in the bathroom, which was surprisingly clean, considering the fact that we were in a shoebox town in Alabama. I thought about my long day and a wide smile instantly graced my face. I then, in my young foolishness, looked up at the ceiling and noticed a huge and ragged “RJ” carved, and my mind idiotically began to wonder if Robert Johnson had stayed in the same hotel room some thirty years before. I could hear one of the inn’s employees outside, taking out the garbage while singing Josh White’s “Jelly, Jelly.” The pretty voice was then abruptly silenced and I heard a bunch of garbage cans rattle and fall onto the ground. It must have been the rain and wind that caused the noise, I thought.
Moses Hilton, employee of the Epscott Inn for forty-four years had a stroke and died that night. I found out this information on “the singing garbage man” in the morning. His last words were about good looking women driving him to his grave, lyrics not in White’s version of the tune.
About ten minutes after the garbage cans rattled, I could hear Minnie calling from outside my bedroom window, “Moses, Moses? Where you at?” As I got up to open the window, the cries and “Oh, my Lord!”s began. I soon saw that it would be impossible to get any sleep that night. More importantly, I realized the fragility of human life.
Crybaby knocked on my door two minutes later, according to the Mickey Mouse clock next to my bed. I turned on the light and he looked at me with the most empty look I’d ever seen on any human being’s face. He sat on my bed and spoke the following words with his eyes wide and teary and unable to make contact with mine, “You know, someday you got to die. It’s a sad thang, really. I know ‘Ol’ Mose’ since, ah, befo’…when I was just gettin’ grown. Why people go, y’ don’t know. Jus’ got to trust that they in glory. Fo’ I don’t believe in six days of creation and one day of sleepin’ so man can go into them bowels o’ Hell. Never made much sense to me. He in glory now, ‘Ol’ Mose’”. By the time Crybaby had finished talking, I, too, was a bit teary-eyed. Linda had come into the room to say, “I’m so sorry, daddy. He in Heaven though now. You come back to the room and leave the nice man to rest.” I told Linda that it was all right and Crybaby didn’t have to leave.
Moses Hilton had no family and had worked for most of his life at the inn, and so the next morning we buried him behind the torn-down and ancient wooden fence in back of the inn. Crybaby gave what could be called a eulogy along with the Reverend Ar Mabel, who I found out after the funeral used to be a Bluesman himself and actually cut some Gospel-Blues records under that name.
“I known ‘Ol’ Mose’ since befo’ I don’t know when. Went to Lawrence Lane El’mentary Schoo’ wit’ him. Never thought I’d see the day when one of us rascals’d die. I’m cryin’ jus’ lak a baby an’ such right now ‘cos I love this man like a brother. Why, I remember him sayin’ to me, ‘Play that again, man!’ Now, I ain’t speakin’ of ma music, now. Jus’ of this fine man’s kindness. Y’ know, I stopped talkin’ to ahh Moses Hilton ‘bout ten years ago. I don’ know why. Some things jus’ happen lak that. Y’ kno, life is jus’ funny that way. I reckon it was over some squabble that never should have been. Somethin’ over money. Well, let me tell you’ bout money. ‘tain’t nothin’ when comparin’ to a fine friend like Moses Hilton. A fine brother! ‘Cos a man named Moses Hilton was always here fo’ me. I knowed Moses wife Corinne. She died when she was givin’ birth. An’ Moses wasn’t the same after that. That was back in, some time in the nineteen-twenties. But he never made no complaints ‘bout that, no sir! Not ‘Ol’ Mose’! Moses Hilton always had a smile on his face. And I’m so sorry, babe, I’m so sorry to ma heart that I ain’t said nothin’ to the man in ten ahhh ten years. Why I walked into this hea Epscott Inn lak I ain’t never seen the man in ma life. Didn’t say one word to him. Why, me a big shot! Who in the Devil do I think I am? I love you, Moses Hilton, and I hope to ma heart you an’ the Good Lord can fo’give me fo’ ma sin. ‘Ol’ Mose’ is in glory now. He has laid his burden down. Thank y’all fo ‘listenin to maself. Thank you, Lord Jesus. Amen.”
By the end of the speech, William “Crybaby” Wells”, who had such a way; such a divine way with words, had cast a spell on Linda, Minnie and myself. Even the Reverend Art Mabel, who must have presided over hundreds of funerals, and who revealed that he knew Moses Hilton for a good twenty years, was in tears. We laid Moses into the ground and buried him promptly. We then headed back to Crybaby’s house. Life was beginning to seem more and more like some fantasy that I had concocted. But I was sincerely grateful for my crazy dream.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Bukka's Sky Songs

Bukka White- The Complete Bukka White

Album Review:
"Here it is all in one place, all 14 of Bukka White's legendary Vocalion recordings. Kicking off with his lone 1937 single of "Pinebluff, Arkansas" and "Shake "Em on Down," the set continues with the marathon 12-song session from 1940 which produced such classics as "Sleepy Man Blues," "Parchman Farm Blues," "Fixin' to Die Blues," and "Bukka's Jitterbug Swing." This is personal blues, hitting on a number of subjects usually too stark for blues lyrics, but all on open-wound display here. Powerful stuff, indeed."

Papa Weaver

Curley Weaver- Complete Recorded Works: 1933-1935

Album Review:
"Georgia slide guitar wizard Curley Weaver (1906-1962) is best remembered for his lengthy association with Blind Willie McTell, one of several guitarists who are heard on a 23-track compilation of Weaver records dating from 1933-1935. This disc appeared on Document in 1992, was reissued in 2000, and again in 2005. An expressive vocalist who sang at times like Blind Boy Fuller or Blind Blake, Weaver occasionally shifted into a plaintive falsetto while dexterously manipulating his slide over the fretted neck of the guitar. His friendship with fellow Georgians Blind Buddy Keith, Nemehiah Smith, Barbecue Bob, Charlie Lincoln, and Eddie Mapp are legendary. This is only a taste of his recorded legacy; Weaver cut his first sides in 1928 and made his final recordings in 1950 with his old friend Willie McTell. Vocalist Ruth Willis, who was closely affiliated with Weaver and his circle of musical friends, is heard in a duet with him on "Some Cold Rainy Day." As is often the case with Document collections released during the '90s, there are occasional instances of poor sound quality, and tracks 15 and 16 in particular suffer from periodic distortion. Tracks 6-13 are played by the Georgia Browns, a lively little band involving guitarist Fred McMullen and Weaver's harmonica-toting pal Buddy Moss. "Tampa Strut" and "Decatur Street 81" are two of this group's choicest sides, while "Who Stole de Lock?" has a decidedly more rural feel to it than the 1932 recording by Jack Bland's Rhythmakers. Both renditions benefit from a comparison with two earlier recordings of the tune by Bryant's Jubilee Quartet, a fine gospel and secular vocal harmony group whose complete works have also been reissued by Document. Some of Weaver's recordings were included on JSP's excellent four-CD set Atlanta Blues."

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Ice Man

Albert Collins- Complete Imperial Recordings

Album Review:
"Texan Albert Collins was in the very first rank of post-war blues guitarists. This two-CD set is a reissue of all 36 sides he cut for Imperial from 1968 to 1970, representing this artist's second major recording stint. Instrumentals comprise roughly three-fourths of the material. They frame his distinctive guitar work with a tight ensemble of organ, bass, and drums, adding at times a piano and/or second guitar, punctuated by a horn section. About ten of these tunes are as great as anything Collins ever did. They are riddled with the biting, incisive, dramatic, and economical playing that made him a legend. There are also some outstanding vocals. Although this set is not without its clinkers, it is a solid package and a must for any Collins fan."

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