Cover Images: Left: Flo Bert, Right:
Leadbelly (Huddie Leadbetter)
It's Papa's Elgin Movements From
His Shoulders Da-Own
obscure singer, Flo Bert, opens CD 2 with a style very much in the music
hall/vaudeville tradition and popular song; as with her other seven
released sides. Responding to latter day criticism from blues
collectors for this ‘betrayal’ David Evans stoutly defends her.
Bert was the first blues artist for the Paramount label and one of the
first black blues vocalists to record at all. Collectors familiar with
the later glories of black music on the
Paramount label [the great blues catalogue
in particular] are apt to find her
1920 tracks ‘corny’ and a far from auspicious start for that company’s
blues recording efforts.”
But as he explains, these collectors “should
realize however, that these were not
marketed as ‘race records’ [for black
consumers] but were released instead
in Paramount’s regular series. [Footnote
13: It was 1921 before OKeh Records instigated the first
“special series for black talent-the 8000 series-and coined the term
‘Race Records’ (‘for the Race’) to describe this branch of music”.] (42)
As such they were in direct
Flo Bert c. 1920
competition with releases of the same songs
in the same year on other major labels by white artists … A
simple side by side
comparison reveals the vast superiority of Flo Bert’s
renderings of these popular songs in a style that passed for
‘jazz’ at the time. Even at this early date, Paramount emerges as a
daring pioneer in the recording industry, going
head to head with the other companies and their white
interpreters of black music.”.
Mamie Smith and several other singers from this earliest period prior to
1923, ‘’blues’ is mixed up with jazz as this was the era which heralded
in the ‘flapper’, the ‘vamping queen’, and the dance called the Black
Bottom. Railing against the white establishment, who loathed ‘that
jungle music’ and often spoke out in public their burning desire to see
it vanish off the face of the earth; Flo Bert would sing:
Take away my
away my pie(s).
Take away my face; [i.e. facial beauty]
An’ even take away my eyes.
Oh! But Lordy! Lordy! Mister Man. Now don’t you take away
Another singer from this earliest period Julia Moody
who started recording in 1922, made 16 sides; two of which have not
turned up and one remains unissued. This was over a short period with
her last disc being cut in 1925. A more competent singer with a
slightly deeper voice than Flo Bert. As Rye comments “On these early
recordings she performs well enough in the standard vaudeville-blues
idiom of the variety artistes whose work made up the first blues boom.”
But one verse from her Good Man Sam
[Paramount 12155] in 1922 is of more than passing interest. Appealing
to her lover to leave his other woman “that yaller dame” and come
back to her.
Born in the
country, raised in the town;
It’s papa’s Elgin movements from his shoulders da-own.
Oh! Good man Sam, please don’t leave your mama alone.
Likening her man’s lovemaking to the well-oiled
precision movements of the up-market Elgin watches made in the city of
that name in Illinois.
[Footnote 14: Both singers
pronounce Elgin with a soft ‘g’. Some others did not.]
Introducing this symbolism on a
record for the very first time. It is quite likely that Ms. Moody
picked up the phrase from an unrecorded singer. In any event, Robert
Johnson and his Walkin’ Blues incorporated a variation on
his Delta blues.
movements from her head down to her toes;
Break in on a dollar most anywhere she goes.
Mmmm. Ooooh! From her head down to ‘er toes.
God! She break in on a dollar most anywhere she goes.
An Elgin 'Giant' pocket watch as
advertised in the Sears & Roebuck
mail order catalogue in 1897.
Part of the famous Elgin 'movements'
attributed by blues singers to sexy women and men.
Sears & Roebuck catalogue 1897.
interesting note is Ms. Moody’s reference “I’m just a rollin’ stone”
– among the earliest. (see Daisy Martin for the very first one - CD 3) In
1929 the title appears in the blues of the unique singer Robert Wilkins
(JSP 7725-D) and of course much later by Muddy Waters. “Using
a sparse, hypnotic guitar accompaniment, Wilkins … conveys a real sense of
standing expectantly on the station platform waiting for the train to
roll up in a cloud of hissing steam”.
which will take him away from the woman he loves.
One of the
most well-known songs in the early blues is ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business If
I Do’. Recorded by such luminaries as rural blues man Frank Stokes and
Bessie Smith, it is curiously more often associated with the 1947 side
by Kansas City blues shouter, Jimmy Witherspoon. However, it’s first
sung waxing was made in 1922 by Anna Meyers as ‘Tain’t
Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do. [Pathe Actuelle 020870] Meyers, who
may well be the fine singer Hazel Meyers who recorded quite prolifically
from 1923-1926, unusually adds an introduction before breaking into the
familiar melody. Around 6 years later ‘pastoral’ guitarist Mississippi
John Hurt cut Nobody’s Dirty Business [OKeh 8560] sans the
intro -along with most other early versions of this song. However, in
1919 black ‘super star’ Bert Williams did it’s Nobody’s Business
But My Own [Columbia A2750] as a monologue where he features a
resume of the theme. He then ‘speaks the tune’ but with entirely
different words. The song apparently goes back to the end of the 19th.
Century in the West Indies where it was featured as ‘Nobody’s Business
But Me Own’ as a traditional mento - related to the more famous
calypso. Williams was born in 1874 “in Antigua, British West
Coincidentally(?), “his family moved to
the United States when he was a child, [but] he maintained a
Caribbean accent until he died in New York, on 5 March 1922” ; (50)
the same year Anna Meyers made her version
of ‘Nobody’s Business’.
time again blues writers have revealed their prejudices when it comes to
many recordings of vaudeville blues - especially the earlier sides. These
writers seem to be either coming from a jazz or a ‘pure’ country blues
perspective. But appreciation of our music goes much deeper for the
blues historian looking at the socio-historical angle as well.
A case in
point is Martha Copeland a singer we know very little about but who made
a total of 34 sides between 1923 and 1928 - all of which were issued.
Many of these are finely sung blues by any standard while some are more
of a socio-historical importance. Indeed, this is true for the original
working-class black audience in the South in the 1920s and ‘30s; at whom
the blues record was marketed. This reason for purchase was of
paramount importance. This is why the legendary Robert Johnson ‘bombed’
(in US parlance) on all but one of his 29 sides - the exception being his
Terraplane Blues [ARC 7-03-56] . A not too dissimilar number to
Copeland’s output, but Johnson’s figure included three that never saw
the light of day until the initial Blues ‘boom’ in the 1960s. Sadly,
the comment by one writer that Martha Copeland’s “four sides for
Victor are rather dull vaudeville-style performances”
is not as rare as one might have hoped; in today’s
world of the Blues.
Martha Copeland appeared in The Guinness Who’s Who Of Blues,
their brief entry does not include any biographical details. They do
however, give a more ‘enlightened’ assessment of her singing qualities.
“Copeland was one of the legion of second-string female blues singers
of the ‘classic’ period … and demonstrated a good ‘moaning’ style on
occasion with considerable humour. Despite some promotion by Columbia
who billed her as ‘everybody’s mama’ [sic] she never achieved the
popularity of stable mates Bessie and Clara Smith”.
The writer is being a little disingenuous
here, as both the Smith girls were the most popular and best-selling
blues singers on Columbia. Therefore it follows that all the rest on
this major label also “never achieved [their] popularity”!
In 2006 Chris Smith introduced the entry for Martha Copeland in
an essential Blues Guide with these words: “Billed by Columbia
as ‘everybody’s mammy’, Copeland was popular in her day, but attempts to
research her life have drawn a blank”.
her recorded legacy all the more important as her only legacy;
both historically and musically. On her The Penetrating Blues
[OKeh 8091] she includes a verse, which later became part of several
versions of a blues by inimitable rural singer, Blind Willie McTell. (see
JSP 7711) With a sense of drama and a sometimes halting vocal,
Martha Copeland lays down some background to her blues; while Eddie
Heywood includes a rare snippet of early boogie piano at one point, in
I know a certain
Will make you feel blue, soon.
At every cabaret;
The toon you’ll hear the jazz band play.
has gone away;
I beg you to please stay.
Every time I hear this toon;
I wish for his return—oh, soon.
Oh!—Oh! Those Penetrating Blues;
–like-- a needle wor-kin’ through. [i.e. her heart]
want you all to know, just how I feel;
I feel like an engine with no drivin’ wheel.
Oh!—Oh-ohhhh! Those Penetratin’ Blues.
singer’s graphic imagery using the sewing needle could well point to an
alternative occupation to her musical career - that of a seamstress, one
of the most preferred jobs open to black women in the 1920s as well as
being by far the better paid. As in the previous decades by 1910, for
black women in Chicago “almost all of the Negro women classified
under the manufacturing trades were dressmakers, seamstresses, and
milliners working in their own homes”.
Even by 1920 when “ … over three thousand Negro
women - 15 per cent of the female labor force - were unskilled and
semiskilled factory operatives”.
there were still African American women working at 1,070 jobs in the
dressmaker and seamstress industry. This represented 12.6% of the total
female black workforce in the Windy City.
Although I don’t have figures available for
comparable percentages in the main Southern cities of Memphis, Atlanta.
Birmingham, etc. there would have been openings for a black seamstress
in the earlier 20th. Century. In any case thousands of women
traveled northward - in the great migration -between the World Wars, and
Chicago was the major stopping place. Perhaps Martha Copeland was one
three months prior to the Copeland recording, Fanny May Goosby was the
first artist to put on wax the basis of the McTell song. With a much
‘harder’ vocal approach she defined exactly which engine she was
talking about. Grievous Blues [OKeh 8079] was sung in a
lower register than she usually employed, in mid-June, 1923, and
accompanied by some nice chiming piano (possibly the singer’s) and a
joyful bit of double-time with the unidentified cornet player in the
you ever been
down, you know just how I feel. (x 2)
railroad engine, ain’t got no drivin’ wheel.
to remake this, (as a response?) sans the piano solo and double-time
passage about ten days after the Copeland version came out. Now, it
happened that Fanny May Goosby supplied the other side to the first
field recording in 1923 which featured Lucille Bogan’s Pawn Shop
Blues as already noted. This was down in Atlanta, Georgia, where
the great Blind Willie McTell had made a temporary base along with a lot
of other blues singers, prior to his debut for Victor Records in 1927.
He may have even heard her in person as she was described in a quote
used by David Evans from the ‘Chicago Defender’ “as ‘a clever little
composer and singer from Atlanta’ and noting that she was ‘very young’.
What she did for the next five years is unknown, but one assumes she
stayed close to Atlanta and worked the vaudeville theatres there”.
In any event, in 1931 McTell cut his truly classic
Broke Down Engine Blues [Columbia14632-D] which
greatly extended the symbolism of Goosby’s lone verse.
Feel like a
broke down engine, ain’t got no drivin’ wheel;
Feel like a broke down engine, mama, ain’t got no drivin’
You-all bin down an’ lonesome, you know how a poor man feel.
Feel like a broke down engine, ain’t got no drivers at all;
Feel like a broke down engine, ain’t got no drivers at all.
What make me love my woman, she can really do the Georgia
Crawl [a popular black dance in the 1920s]
Feel like a broke down engine, ain’t got no whistle or bell.
If you’se a red-hot mama, drive away daddy’s weepin’ spell.
Willie McTell was to record three more versions of Broke Down Engine
in a 1933 session. As too, would his fellow Georgia guitarist, the
younger Buddy Moss, in the same year. (a mini-article in the making?). A
far more grim a subject is involved with the next song up for
consideration, by Leona Williams - Bud Russell. But first a little more
preamble on the differing ‘shades’ of vaudeville blues and some
collectors’ attitudes to them.
Tracy observed that “the popular fallout from the success of Mamie
Smith’s recordings for OKeh caused New York companies to rush in search
of performers who would fill the demand for recordings in this new
vaudeville blues idiom. As is often characteristic of music in the pop
market, tunesmiths were at work sanding away the ‘rough edges’ of the
source material and adding a lustrous polish in order to make the
material more acceptable to a broader buying public, leaving it until
1923 and the recordings of Bessie Smith
and Ma Rainey to bring the original down home deep blues force and
directness stylistically and thematically to the vaudeville blues
This reflects back to David Evans’ comments about
the Flo Bert title that opens CD 2. In 1920, the aim of these recording
companies was the general market (both white and black). Although by
1923 the other leading labels had followed OKeh’s 8000 series Race
Records example. This year resulted in the much heavier blues of Smith
and Rainey, and co. to appear on wax.
agree with Steve regarding the rural or ‘down home deep blues’ and its
‘directness stylistically’, I do take issue with his phrase ‘and
thematically’. This is part of his introduction to the complete
recorded works of Leona Williams from 1922-1923. He refers to pioneer
singers such as Leona, Mamie Smith and Lucille Hegamin as representing
“the primary strain of recorded blues”.
true, but one of Leona Williams’ songs is the first on a record to use
the title ‘Uncle Bud Russell’ - the notorious ‘transfer man’ in Texas. In
1939, after Alan Lomax interviewed a very eloquent black ex-prisoner,
Doc Reese; who had just served a short sentence in the Central State
(Prison) Farm at Sugar Land-down in the Brazos Bottoms - Reese gives an
account of Bud Russell. “Now you must know that in red-heifer times
“Reese, as a result of
youthful escapades, had served a sentence in the Texas pen during
‘red-heifer times’, so-called because the lash that drove prisoners was
made of red-heifer hide with the hair still on it”.
(The Land Where The
p.287. See bibliography.] a man by the name
of Bud Russell operated the transfer wagon that collected the prisoners
from all over the state and brought them to the pen. They called him
Uncle Bud and they sung many songs about him.
He walks into
With his chains in his hand.
I heard him tell the captain,
I’m the transfer man.
[black] prisoners used to sing that
song to Uncle Bud’s face. They sang a different song behind his back.
Bud, Uncle Bud was a man like this,
Couldn’t get a woman, he’d use his fist.
Uncle Bud had corn that never been shucked,
Uncle Bud had gals that never been ---
after on, they call any man that operates the wagon “Uncle Bud’, no
matter what his name is. In place of Black Maria, we call Uncle Bud’s
old wagon Black Betty”.
Leona Williams may have been one of Tracy’s singers who’s ‘rough edges’
had been sanded down and given a ‘lustrous polish’ but her verses which
had no option other than to be those she could sing to Uncle Bud’s face
are the first we know of on a blues recording.
whiskey, he likes rye;
won’t drink corn ‘cos it’s full of lye.
comes east, the sun sets west;
I know who makes moonshine the best.
Uncle Bud. Etc.
I like coffee. I like tea;
I know one man who thinks the world of me.
Uncle Bud, etc.
Thematically Leona Williams could not have
got closer to the source material (being a ‘standard’ prison song in
the South). This of course is not a lone example. The very raison
d’etre of this JSP set is to explore and highlight the thematic and
lyrical links between vaudeville and rural blues, and I still have
enough vaudeville titles - including more from Williams - to fill a Volume
2 and probably a third set, too!
Incidentally, this Williams side is part of an early integrated
recording session as she is accompanied by the white Original Memphis
Five as “Her Dixie Band” which included Phil Napoleon on cornet (and
Jimmy Durante on piano on another session in the same year.). Despite
the CD notes dismissal, the band acquit themselves well. But as Steve
rightly says “… the folk rhyme-inspired ‘Uncle Bud’, [was]
also recorded in similar form by Tampa Red,”.
The latter was made in 1929 as Uncle Bud
(Dog-gone Him) [Vocalion 1268]. Although Tampa Red uses more
varied lyrics and is much more up front in addressing ‘Uncle Bud’, even
he does not include the Doc Reese verses. The whole theme revolves
around the white man taking/stealing his ‘jelly’ (lover). In the break
Georgia Tom takes the role of a white man over-hearing Tampa Red’s
Now, I took
Uncle Bud to be my right-hand friend;
my jelly then in my face he grin.
Uncle Bud. Doggone ‘im, Uncle Bud.
Now, I ain’t two
face-ed, don’t talk about my friends;
Gonna kill ‘im if I catch ‘im at my house again.
Uncle Bud. etc.
Tampa Red: Now
Georgia Tom: Well, what’s that you say about Uncle Bud
T.R: He’s too tight.
G.T: Yeah! Don’t you talk about Uncle Bud like that. I’ll
take a stick an’ break your back.
T.R: Uncle Bud won’t quit. He’s a bad feller.
Just keep it young lady, Tampa Red don’t want it;
Uncle Bud done had ‘is old paws all on it.
be fascinating to hear the three unissued (presumably now lost) takes by
the duo at their previous session on 11th. December, 1928.
It would seem significant that so many attempts were made on this song
which I’m inclined to think did include the Doc Reese lyrics – and more
event, in 1935 Rochelle French, for the Library of Congress, did an
Uncle Bud [366-A-LS] to his own guitar accompaniment and in much the
same format as Leona Williams and Tampa Red. Indeed, these were the
only three versions cut in the pre-war period. French sings the first
line quoted by Reese and then successfully masks the answering line - the
‘behind Uncle Bud’s back’ verse - while omitting Reese’s second verse
altogether. But French, who was recorded in Eatonville, Florida,
See more on Bud Russell the
‘long chain man’, his chains, and Nashville Stonewall Blues by
Robert Wilkins in Blues Fell This Morning by Paul Oliver
p..200 and in The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly: Charles Wolfe &
Kip Lornell. p.79.] still felt he had to
apologize at the end of his performance; as Rye surmises there were
“ladies present or because there are white folks present”.
Although actual titles including the name Bud Russell
are scarce (perhaps not surprisingly) there are references in several
blues including a unique spoken introduction to Penitentiary Moan
Blues [OKeh 8640] by Texas Alexander in 1927. With his measured
words and dark moaning laced with Lonnie Johnson’s bitter sweet guitar,
the full grimness of the subject matter comes home to the listener.
Mama, you told
me to stay at home an’ I wouldn’t. You told me to stay at
home an’ I said I couldn’t. But now, mama, Bud Russell ‘as
got me an’ I
cannot help myself. Lord, have mercy!
If I had-a listened, mama, when you was tellin’ me these me
these things. I wouldn’t have to worry with these old rusty
the dark and bloody roots of the fairly mild verses as sung by Leona
the links discussed so far between the influences of vaudeville and
rural blues must remain in the balance as to which came first. But in
the case of the Bud Russell songs/verses they can inevitably be traced
back to the world of black prisoners. This part of the blues roots
genre really only evolved after the Civil War ended in 1865. Simply
because, generally speaking, the vast majority of the black population
was in bondage -
they were life-long slaves. Even the tiny
percentage of freedmen and women could be (and sometimes were)
re-enslaved for the most spurious reasons. The concept of a state
penitentiary was not a pressing factor in the mind’s eye of the ruling
white classes at that time; apart from the local jails in the small
towns scattered across the South. In any case, the earliest vaudeville
blues singers would rarely if ever step into a barrelhouse much less pay
a visit to a prison farm such as the one in Sugar Land, Texas; the
subject of Texas Alexander’s blues. It is of interest to note that
besides the infamous Bud Russell there was an earlier precedent in the
Lone Star state, in the person of J.B. Cunningham who “was a transfer
agent for the Texas prison system for a short time around 1910” ;
adds: “It is slightly possible … [there was] an even older
referent: an A.J. Cunningham [who] was the first man to lease
convicts from the Texas prison system in the early 1870s”.
Indeed, (J.B.) Cunningham appears in the well
recorded prison song Go Down Old Hannah [matrix 199 A2] for the
L. of C. in 1933 when it was recorded by Ernest Williams, James ‘Iron
Head’ Baker, and a group of unidentified convicts; as well as on a
commercial record Don’t Ease Me In [Vocalion 1197] in 1928 by
Henry Thomas. His remake Don’t Leave Me Here [Vocalion 1443] in
1929 replaces ‘Cunningham’ with ‘sweet mama/papa’.
shadow of the prison’s black work gangs and their songs helped spawn
another vaudeville blues number. This was Kansas City Man Blues
[OKeh 4926] by Mamie Smith in 1923. Her voice has really
deepened since 1920 and on one of her finest vocals, the backing group
are the Harlem Trio which included stunning soprano sax from Sidney
Worried in mind,
worried in mind;
A certain one I left behind.
I’m goin’ back an’ it won’t be long.
I don’t know why I ever left my home.
I’m really tired, I’m really tired;
I’m really tired of roamin’ around.
Soon I will be Kansas City bound;
When I get back I’ll turn things upside down.
Kansas City, where I long to be. (x 2)
A Kansas City man is waiting for me.
Women all cryin’, I ain’t raised my hand. (x 2)
It’s all on account of me takin’ one woman’s man.
months there appeared the other four versions we have on a record,
albeit one remains unissued. (see Table 2)
c. 5/8/23. N.Y.C.
closely follows the slightly altered wording of the Josie Miles disc
except in the repeated line of the last verse, where Ms. Miles sings:
ain’t raised my hand;
Women cryin’ “Murder!”, I ain’t raised my hand.
An’it’s all on account of takin’ one woman’s man.
Mamie Smith, Edna Hicks also omits ‘murder’. However, following her
first attempt 3 days after the Josie Miles cut with Stanley Miller on
piano, which Columbia did not issue; Clara Smith recorded a second
version of Kansas City Man Blues which did include
‘murder’, in her low down moaning style where even by leaving out the
opening verse rivals the duration of the original version by Mamie
Smith! Both of the Smith recordings are around 25 seconds longer than
the others in Table 2. This is because as John Vanco said in his
comments on Clara’s early style generally and Fletcher Henderson ‘s
playing in particular: “the piano’s mellow rhythm and the sparse
arrangement allowed her to stretch her notes and really show off her
immense vocal capacity. Due in part to the big voice that was needed to
compensate for her weak accompaniment, Smith was billed as ‘The World’s
Champion Moaner’ and ‘Queen of the Moaners’.”
The comment on Henderson’s ‘weak accompaniment’ is a
little misplaced at least as far as Clara Smith’s recordings were
concerned. [Footnote 17: Although on Bessie Smith’s
earlier sides, Fletcher Henderson seems almost ‘cowed’ by the awesome
presence of the ‘Empress of the Blues’ in the studio and maybe
Vanco’s comment is more applicable. Another area of research]
His minimalist piano sounds are full of
foreboding and along with Ms. Smith’s low-down, stretched-out vocals
are a direct pointer to another side from Texas Alexander: Levee
Camp Moan Blues [OKeh 8498] in 1927.
the arduous tasks done by black prison gangs were often reflected in
the work of the skinner or one who drives mules with a whip; or mule
skinner. The best ones prided themselves on being able to ‘write’ their
initials on a mule’s behind if it was proving troublesome or balky. As
the legendary Leadbelly said on one of several recordings of
I’m All Out And Down [LC unissued] 8 years later for the Library
Honey, I’m down
in the bottom, skinnin’ for Johnny Ryan;
Puttin’ my initials, honey, on the mule’s behind.
With my line, babe. With my line, babe. With my line, babe.
With my line, babe.
one-mule farms in the hill country to Delta plantations with hundreds of
teams, the mule for over a century was the prime energy factor in
This was the general picture throughout the South
until the 1950s. This prodigious animal was used for every thing from
hauling produce, supplying the steamboats at the levees,
giving leisure rides to children and providing
black farmers with transport to towns, as late as the 1930s. As Bill
Ferris says: “In every period the role of the mule and the black man
are intimately linked. As slaves before the Civil War and as tenant
farmers, blacks worked the mules and were essential to the southern
economy. In 1925, for example, 84
percent of the mule farmers in the Mississippi Valley were black”.
only the black men but the women, too. However. it is very rare to have
a female singer - especially a vaudeville blues singer - include what
became quite a floating verse in rural blues. Edna Winston’s use of
this verse in her I Got A Mule To Ride [Victor 20407] may
be almost unique, at least on a record.
Did you ever,
ever feel like you lost the best friend you had?
Wake up in the mornin’ an’ you feel so bad.
Thinkin’ about your baby, an’ your heart’s all sad.
I heard the news, I’ve got the blues. An’ I can’t be
The house catches on fire, throw my trunk outside.
If the train leaves me, I’ve got a mule to ride.
Edna Winston c. 1926
Winston’s words cropped up (with some variation) in the blues of singers
across the South, including Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson, and
Kokomo Arnold; from Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia, respectively.
Kokomo Arnold made his The Mule
Laid Down And Died
[Decca 7198] in 1935, using the vaudeville blues singer’s closing lines
as central to his main theme.
Says, my gal she
caught the train, an’ left me a mule to ride;
Say, my gal she caught the train an’ she left me a mule to
Soon as the train left the station, that old mule he laid
down an’ died.
Say, I walked away an’ I hung my head an’ cried. (x 2)
Says, my good woman done quit me an’ my poor mule laid down
the end of her recording career, Clara Smith also cut a song about a
mule, in 1931. Although heavily-laden with double-entendre phrases,
this was missed by Vanco on her For Sale (Hannah Johnson’s Jack
Ass) [Columbia 14633]
in this county could ride it bare back.
work for nothin’ just as same as when hired.
Hannah Johnson’s big black ass is on the block for sale.
If you own ‘er and a
neighbor should pass;
cover her head, they’d recognize her ass.
sure, she introduces her subject who was “a red-hot stepper” as
yet another victim of the Great Depression. She doesn’t mind losing her
cows, pigs, or chickens but desperately wants to hang on to her ‘jack
ass’ - otherwise a male mule. It’s interesting that an urban singer such
as Clara Smith includes far more references to the importance of the
mule in a rural setting than a country blues artist such as Kokomo
Arnold. Possibly harking back to her beginnings in Spartanburg, South
Carolina, before embarking on her singing career as a young teenager.
‘Chippie’ Hill, like Clara Smith was from South Carolina and also
introduced a verse picked up by a Georgia rural singer. Born in
Charleston in 1905 - some 10 years younger - she recorded a Low Land
Blues [ OKeh 8273] in 1925. Although she doesn’t sing the title
the first verse establishes just where she is coming from - in the guise
of a low-down blues singer.
I ain’t gonna marry, ain’t
gonna settle down;
Ain’t gonna marry, ain’t gonna settle down.
I’m-a keep on drinkin’, keep on runnin’ round.
continues in the same vein:
don’t like me because I speak my mind;
The women don’t like me ‘cos I speak my mind.
But the men cryin’ “Mama” ‘cos I take my time.
second verse reappears in Charley Lincoln’s first side to be recorded
Jealous Hearted Blues [Columbia 14305].
I know the mens don’t like
me ‘cos I speaks my mind;
Oh, the women crazy about me
‘cos I takes my time.
This was a
direct cover of a Ma Rainey song she made in 1924 and was also called
Jealous Hearted Blues [Paramount 12252]. But she did not
include the above verse, so it may be safe to assume it came from Bertha
‘Chippie’ Hill. Or she picked it up from an unrecorded rural singer.
But in the
earliest period of recorded vaudeville blues, as we have seen, many
contained up-tempo jazzy accompaniments and some were quite ‘jolly’.
This was especially so on titles which eulogized a new dance. Several
singers advocated the Strut, Black Bottom, and the Wicked Fives.
Pre-empting dance crazes of latter day R ‘n B/Rock ‘n Roll in the 50s
and 60s by some 35 years - such as the Hucklebuck, Hully Gully, or the
Twist. In 1922, Lena
Wilson describes dance movements well-known to the black audience in her
The Wicked Fives Blues [Black Swan 1429] rocked along
with some low-down sounds from an unknown group called the Jazz Masters
which might include Fletcher Henderson.
Down in Louisiana round by
the docks one day;
There they play a blues they
call the Wicked Fives
she gives out some dance instructions:
Now, you gotta chance.
are playin’ the Wicked Fives.
Stafford relates how all “the belles an’ beaus stand on their toes”
to see Lizzie Brown strut her stuff on her fine version of
Strut Miss Lizzie [Columbia A3418] as
“they all yell”:
strut Miss Lizzie;
I wanna see
The way you
whole town [‘s]
move so pretty;
It’s a pity.
But the men,
Like the way
you shake your feet.
knock them dizzy;
Lizzie Brown. (83)
Lizzie Brown, and countless other young black women would parade and
strut their stuff at the balls and cabarets in the cities. Known by the
trendy name at the time as ‘vampires’, ‘vamping queens’ or ‘vamping
browns’, they were a constant temptation or hazard to the equally young
‘beaus’. But older men - and especially married men - were prone to fall
for the vamp’s charms, too. In 1924, Whistler And His Jug Band cut
The Vampire Woman as a semi-serious warning to married men but
remains an unissued Gennett item. But in 1927 and past the peak of
popularity for vaudeville blues, the group remade it as Vamps Of
“28”[OKeh 8469]. With deep grunting jug, and a whining fiddle,
they hand out some good advice.
see a vampire at night;
posing up on the street.
poor old green hard working married man;
a chance to meet.
she’ll wink an’ blink at ‘im;
An; give ‘im that vampin’
married man’ll go right back home an’ mistreat the lovin’ wife an’
If you dressed an’ treat
your wife like the vamp that walks the street;
a vampire woman at home.
a vampire, too.
Female Blues Singers Vol. 2 B
(1920-1928) [Document DOCD-5506] 1996.
Notes to The Great Race Race Records
Vol.3: OKeh [Catfish
KATCD 167] 2000.
Don’t Take Away
Flo Bert 1920.
Notes to Viola McCoy Vol.3 & Julia Moody
1922-1929 [Document. DOCD-5418]
Good Man Sam
Julia Moody 1922.
Lotz Rainer E.
Notes to Bert Williams The Remaining Titles
[Document. DOCD-5661] 1999.
Notes to Martha Copeland Vol.1 [Document. DOCD-5372]
Larkin C. (General
Martha Copeland 1923.
see Table 12, p.154.
Fanny May Goosby 1923.
Notes to Female Singers Vol.7: G/H 1922-1929
[Document. DOCD-5511] 1997.
Broke Down Engine
Blind Willie McTell 1931.
Notes to Leona Williams & Edna Winston
Uncle Bud (Bugle
Leona Williams 1922.
Uncle Bud (Dog-gone
Tampa Red 1929.
Notes to Field Recordings. Vol.7 Florida
[Document. DOCD-5587] 1997.
Texas Alexander 1928.
Notes to Big Brazos-Texas Prison
Recordings, 1933-1934 Deep River Of Song
series. [Rounder CD. 1161-1826-2. Cambridge, Massachusetts]
Kansas City Man
Mamie Smith 1923.
Kansas City Man
Josie Miles 1923.
Vanco John Henry
Notes to Clara Smith Vol.1 1923-1924
[Document. DOCD-5364] 1995.
I’m All Out And
Carr. Ibid. p.7 (Mules In The South)
I Got A Mule To
Edna Winston 1926.
The Mule Laid Down
Kokomo Arnold 1935.
For Sale (Hannah
Clara Smith 1931.
Low Land Blues
Charley Lincoln 1927.
The Wicked Fives
Lena Wilson 1922.
Strut Miss Lizzie
Mary Stafford 1921.
Vamps Of “28”
Whistler & His Jug
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