Milestone Recordings in American Music

2/23/09

Texas Blues (1927)

Some of the earliest and best “country blues” records were from Texas, where the local blues style featured expressive vocals and simple, relaxed guitar accompaniment with jazz-like improvisations. “Blind” Lemon Jefferson was the first artist to record in this style (in 1926), and his early records proved very influential on future Texas bluesmen.

Blind Lemon Jefferson
Black Snake Moan(Okeh 8455, 1927)

Blind Lemon Jefferson
Match Box Blues (Paramount 12474, 1927)

Jefferson recorded “Black Snake Moan” twice: the first was originally titled “That Black Snake Moan” and was released as a B-side in early 1927 on the Paramount label (catalog number 12407); the second was released later that year on Okeh backed with Jefferson’s first recording of “Match Box Blues.” A Paramount version of “Match Box Blues” was then recorded and released as an A-side later in 1927. At the time, Paramount was a discount record label that catered to the “race” market, and was infamous for its low-fidelity recording techniques and records made of inferior-grade shellac that scratched easily. As a result, the Okeh versions of these songs have fared much better over time, while even the best copies of the Paramount versions are marred by a lot of hissing surface noise. The actual performances on these records are all strong, but the A-sides are considered definitive: “Black Snake Moan” on Okeh, “Match Box Blues” on Paramount.

In these recordings, Jefferson’s guitar playing follows no set melodic pattern, simply improvising behind and around the powerful, expressive vocals. The Okeh version of “Black Snake Moan” seems particularly formless at times, as the guitar accompaniment fades or stops completely during the vocals, only to reappear in the gaps in some improvised variation. Jefferson wails and moans the vocals, lending them a sense of urgency that matches well with the song’s not-so-subtle allusion: “Black snake crawlin’ in my room / And some pretty mama had better come here and get this black snake soon.”

~ You may also like: Blind Lemon Jefferson, “That Crawling Baby Blues” (Paramount 12880, 1929)

By contrast, the guitar is constantly in the foreground of the Paramount version of “Match Box Blues,” and seems almost to be competing for attention with the vocals, improvising wildly at times, while still managing to keep rhythm. In the end, it somehow works and makes for a very powerful and memorable record.

~ You may also like: Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Jack o’ Diamond Blues” (Paramount 12373, 1926)

Texas Alexander
Long Lonesome Day Blues (Okeh 8511, 1927)

Alger “Texas” Alexander did not play an instrument, relying on others to accompany him. But his wonderfully expressive voice was one of the best in the Texas blues scene, making excellent use of vibrato. “Long Lonesome Day Blues” suffers from poor recording quality, but the vocals are still impressive and convey an astonishing depth of emotion. The excellent guitar work here is provided by Lonnie Johnson, who would soon establish himself as a guitar legend with a number of boundary-breaking blues and jazz recordings. As with Blind Lemon Jefferson, both Alexander and Johnson take liberties with the rhythm and melody, creating a free-form improvisation that hints at jazz.

~ You may also like to hear Alexander with a small jazz group featuring Joe “King” Oliver on cornet, Clarence Williams on piano and Eddie Lang on guitar: Texas Alexander, “Tell Me Woman Blues” (Okeh 8673, 1928)

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