Milestone Recordings in American Music

3/17/09

Piano Blues (1929)

The piano had been used in the blues from the very beginning, as witnessed by Clarence Williams’ brilliant accompaniment on Bessie Smith’s first hits. But as the next two recordings illustrate, it really came into its own as a lead blues instrument in the late 1920s.

Speckled Red
The Dirty Dozen(Brunswick 7116, 1929)

Rufus Perryman, a.k.a. “Speckled Red,” is best remembered for this song, which is named after “the dozens,” a popular African American tradition in which two contestants compete to see who can come up with the wittiest insults. (Elements of “the dozens” would later be incorporated into hip-hop.) Red lays down some witty insults of his own over the course of the song, including the obligatory references to “yo’ mama” (not to mention “yo’ poppa”). Red’s singing voice isn’t particularly notable, but with some wonderful nonsense during the verses and a memorable boogie woogie beat during the chorus, this song is tremendous fun.

~ You may also like some great, instrumental piano blues: Little Brother Montgomery, “Farish Street Jive” (Bluebird 6894, 1937)

Roosevelt Sykes
44 Blues(Okeh 8702, 1929)

Roosevelt Sykes’ “44 Blues” is a great example of the piano being used to convey a more reserved, very traditional blues feeling. Sykes does some impressive eight-to-the-bar playing in places, but he keeps the instrument’s impact understated and slows it way down during the verses to provide just the right mood for the plaintive vocals. The lyrics of this song are brief but nevertheless tell an incredibly engaging story: the number originally refers to the narrator’s .44 pistol, which the song implies that he uses when he finds his woman with another man. But he finds no peace, as the number 44 continues to haunt him: “Lord, I got a little cabin / Lord, it’s number 44 / Lord, I wake up every morning / The wolves be scratching on my door.”

~ You may also like Sykes performing in a more uptempo style: Roosevelt Sykes, “Dirty Mother for You” (Decca 7160, 1936)

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