Milestone Recordings in American Music


Scatting (1931-1932)

With the Great Depression in full swing, the early 1930s was not a good time in general, but it turned out to be a great time for scatting – the practice of singing nonsense syllables (“skit-scat-scoo”) to the melody – as the following four selections demonstrate.

The Mills Brothers
Tiger Rag(Brunswick 6197, 1931)

The Mills Brothers – Donald, Harry, Herbert and John – were a singing group known for the novelty of creating realistic imitations of instruments with their voices. Try to remember as you listen to “Tiger Rag” that other than a single guitar, there are no instruments on this record. The trumpet you think you hear is Harry vocalizing through cupped hands. The tuba is John. And as if that weren’t impressive enough on its own, the brothers throw in some great harmonizing and rapid scat singing. Yes, it’s a novelty, but it is also great fun and genuinely good music. This record deservedly made the brothers stars.

~ You may also like the similar, over-the-top energy of the first-ever recorded version of this song: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, “Tiger Rag” (Vocalion 1206, 1917)

1932 Headlines … Great Depression continues; U.S. banking system collapses … Infant son of Charles Lindbergh is kidnapped, killed … Mahatma Gandhi: 21-day hunger strike protests British oppression in India

Bing Crosby with the Mills Brothers
Dinah(Brunswick 6240, 1932)

Harry “Bing” Crosby began his recording career in the late 1920s singing with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and with a small vocal group called the Rhythm Boys, but as the 1930s began, Crosby became a star in his own right and went on to become the biggest selling artist of the pre-rock and roll era. His 1942 classic “White Christmas” (Decca 18429) is the best-selling song of all time, with over 100 million in sales, and remains a popular holiday classic to this day. Crosby’s smooth, baritone voice and intuitive, easy-going sense of timing proved irresistible and virtually defined the “crooner” style of singing that would dominate the era. These early singles capture Crosby at the start of his rise to fame and wonderfully display his talent.

“Dinah” begins with Crosby’s rich voice slowly flowing like honey over a relaxed jazz accompaniment, as he delivers the top-notch lyrics: “Every night, why do I shake with fright? / Because my Dinah might change her mind about me.” After the first verse, The Mille Brothers take over, and from that point on the instrumentation is a mix of real instruments and their unique vocalizations. The Mills Brothers repeat the first verse at a much faster tempo, then briefly begin scatting. It is at this point that Crosby rejoins them, and shows that he can play at that speed as well. He quickly takes over the scatting and does an amazing job, casting out the nonsensical syllables with a verbal dexterity that his previous laid-back delivery could not begin to hint at. The energy and sense of fun never let up as Crosby and the Mills Brothers continue to play off each other for the rest of the song.

~ You may also like: Bing Crosby with the Mills Brothers, “Shine” (Brunswick 6276, 1932)

Bing Crosby
Sweet Georgia Brown (Brunswick 6320, 1932)

“Sweet Georgia Brown” is one of the most popular songs in history and has been recorded by many artists, including the chart-topping original version by Ben Bernie and His Orchestra in 1925 (Vocalion 15002), and Ethel Waters’ famous interpretation (Columbia 379-D) that same year. Bing Crosby had a solid #2 hit with it in 1932, but it was not his biggest hit that year (that would be the melodramatic, depression-era ballad “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”), so it often gets overlooked in his cannon. However, Crosby’s collaboration with Isham Jones and His Orchestra is to my ears the best of the early pop versions of the song, and the perfect encapsulation of the song’s freewheeling energy. Crosby gives an incredible vocal performance that is simultaneously smooth and daring. Known for his pure, rich baritone voice, he nevertheless refuses to play it safe here, instead taking chances with his tone, timing and phrasing to really make the song swing. Listen to his voice on the section where he scats after the bridge, and you’ll notice that his voice cracks just a little as he sings a barrage of notes that are all over the chart. But this only serves to heighten the excitement and make the verse even more compelling. Jones’ orchestra, known as one of the top big bands of the day, is in top form here, executing flawlessly with a warm, enthusiastic sound that perfectly complements Crosby.

~ You may also like one of Crosby’s earliest hits: Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra featuring the Rhythm Boys, “I’m Coming Virginia” (Victor 20751, 1927)

The Boswell Sisters
Everybody Loves My Baby(Brunswick 6271, 1932)

Raised in New Orleans, Connie (later “Connee”) Boswell had tremendous jazz sensibilities and a knack for rearranging popular songs. By tinkering with the melodies, harmonies and rhythms, she was able to create works both familiar and unexpected. Together with her sisters Martha and Helvetica (“Vet”), she made a number of ingenious, groundbreaking recordings that redefined what vocal groups were capable of. The sisters quickly became known for their versatility, tight harmonies and amazing vocal gymnastics.

“Everybody Loves My Baby” is a great example of their talents. The song begins in a minor key with the sisters singing some new lyrics that don’t appear in the original version of the song. Next, the familiar song begins with Connie’s lovely voice singing the first verse in a relaxed, swinging style that eases smoothly into some sweet scatting. As soon as she finishes, the music speeds up suddenly and all three sisters begin singing the lyrics incredibly fast – and with a bunch of extra nonsense sounds squeezed into the words! Next follows a section of uvular nonsense sounds (“nguh-wuh-nguh”), and then some more fast singing. The record slows down briefly for the jazzy instrumental bridge, then it speeds up as the sisters return to sing the verse again, employing a wide variety of sounds and singing styles as they race for the finish line. It is a dizzying but thrilling experience.

~ You may also like: The Boswell Sisters, “The Object of My Affection” (Brunswick 7348, 1935)


String Band Sophistication (1931)

Part of the charm of early string band recordings is their amateur nature. Many of the acts were not full-time musicians and paused their normal lives as farmers, miners and housewives just long enough to earn a few dollars recording a few songs they knew. Music was a pastime for them, not a lifestyle – but that is not meant as a criticism, for many were quite good and the passion and individuality they displayed more than compensated for the occasional missed or off-key note. Somewhere along the line, though, rural audiences developed a taste for more polished music, like that performed by Jimmie Rodgers and his imitators, and that old-time style of string band music started to lose popularity. It would not fade away completely, but it would definitely evolve to meet the public’s changing taste. The next two recordings happened at that juncture, signaling a last gasp for the traditional while offering a glimpse at what lie ahead.

Crockett’s Kentucky Mountaineers
Little Rabbit / Rabbit Where's Your Mammy? (Crown 3172, 1931)

Although their origin was similar to other Kentucky family string bands, John “Dad” Crockett and his children were able to find success as professional musicians after moving to California. Their experience working in both radio and vaudeville helped them refine their sound and expand their repertoire beyond traditional Kentucky mountain music. Nowhere is that more apparent than their classic record “Little Rabbit,” recorded in New York City for Crown Records. This tune may be straight from the mountains, but the execution shows a level of sophistication not often heard in such music. The playing is flawless, with the kind of tight interaction between fiddle and banjo that comes from being intuitively in sync. Although it is not bluegrass, it certainly provides some foreshadowing and shows that fast-paced Kentucky string band music was ready to evolve to that next stage. The inclusion of Jew’s harp in some sections of the song is a fun and entertaining touch and a welcome addition to the usual string band instruments.

~ You may also like the Kentucky fiddling of Andy Palmer: Jimmie Johnson’s String Band, “Shipping Port” (Champion 16559, 1932)

East Texas Serenaders
Mineola Rag (Brunswick 562, 1931)

On its surface, “Mineola Rag” is an uptempo ragtime played expertly by a four-piece string band, but a closer listen reveals a surprising amount more depth. In music-rich Texas, the quartet was surrounded by a variety of styles, and they clearly adopted some of those influences. Left-handed fiddler D.H. Williams plays with speed and precision, but with a mellow, bluesy tone rather than a sharp attack. Henry Bogan played staccato notes on a three-string cello, in a style that at times perfectly imitated the jug in a jug band. And the rhythm section of Cloet Hammond on guitar and John Munnerlyn on banjo moved together like clockwork, reminiscent of swinging jazz. In fact, that prominent rhythm section and the overall interplay of these instruments would be influential in the development of a new style that would soon dominate country music in the southwest: western swing.

~ You may also like: East Texas Serenaders, “East Texas Drag” (Decca 5347, 1937)


Hi-De-Ho (1931)

Whether the jive of Cab Calloway, the tight swing of Duke Ellington, or the re-interpreted pop songs of Louis Armstrong, big band music in 1931 was all about entertainment. Fortunately for us, these bandleaders were not just entertainers but exceptional artists, creating timeless works that we can still enjoy today.

Cab Calloway and His Orchestra
Minnie the Moocher (Brunswick 6074, 1931)

When Duke Ellington’s orchestra ended its tenure as the house band of New York’s famed Cotton Club, they were replaced by a group led by Cabell Calloway III, who would soon become one of the most popular and commercially successful bandleaders of his day. Calloway’s orchestra was talented (though perhaps not at the level of Ellington’s), but what really made them so successful was the innovative singing and oversized personality of their leader. Calloway pioneered what was known as “jive” music: bluesy lyrics filled with slang words and scat singing (“hi-de-hi-de-ho”) set to swinging big band jazz.

“Minnie the Moocher” is Calloway’s undeniable masterpiece and the song that rocketed him to stardom. To mainstream audiences, the song told a slightly shady sounding story filled with a lot of silly nonsense. In reality, a lot of that nonsense was slang terminology that concealed references to illicit drug use: for example, “kicking the gong around” was a slang term for smoking opium. Either way it is viewed, the song is incredibly entertaining. Against some solid, “jungle” style instrumentation, Calloway’s voice rises and falls expressively as he tells Minnie’s tale, and he gets help from the band on some incredible call-and-response scat singing.

~ You may also like: Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, “Reefer Man” (Brunswick 6340, 1932)

Cab Calloway and His Orchestra
St. James Infirmary(Brunswick 6105, 1931)

There are many excellent versions of “St. James Infirmary,” including a famous 1928 recording by Louis Armstrong, but this Cab Calloway record may be the best of all. The song relates the story of a man whose love has just died and is “stretched out on a long, white table” at St. James Infirmary. Given the morbid nature of the song, Calloway’s version is surprisingly upbeat. It starts with an exotic sounding trumpet introduction, which is followed some wonderfully expressive baritone sax playing. Then Calloway begins singing, and his timing and timbre are amazing; at times he sings very fast in a high register and his voice sounds remarkably like a muted trumpet. The song then ends on a high note with some more excellent, exotic trumpet playing.

~ You may also like: Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, “(Hep-Hep!) The Jumpin’ Jive” (Vocalion v5005, 1939)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Star Dust” (take 1) (Okeh 41530, 1931)

(Note: multiple takes of this song were recorded on November 4, 1931 and at least two were released as Okeh 41530. The fourth take is very good, but the essential version is the less common, slightly longer first take, Okeh master W.405061-1. On it, Armstrong repeats “Oh, memory” three times at the end of the vocal.)

In the 1930s, Louis Armstrong ceased making the kind of ground-breaking, small-band records that had redefined jazz during the previous decade. Instead, he focused on making jazzy, big band versions of popular songs, such as Hoagy Carmichael’s immortal “Star Dust.” Although this decision made him a huge star, it continues to disappoint some jazz fans who consider the move a sell out. However, while his 1930s output is nowhere near as innovative as his ‘20s “Hot Five” records, looked at from another angle, it could be argued that Armstrong made the most compelling mainstream pop of the decade.

On “Star Dust,” his trumpet playing is strong as ever, with a tone that has matured like a fine wine into something utterly intoxicating. The band playing behind him may be unremarkable, but that trumpet is still unmatched. And Armstrong’s voice has similarly matured, the gruff edges blending smoothly into the sweet melody. Just listen to the sentimental way he repeats “Oh, memory / Oh, memory / Oh, memory” at the end. Simply amazing.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, “Lazy River” (Okeh 41541, 1932)

Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra
Casa Loma Stomp(Okeh 41492, 1931)

The Casa Loma Orchestra, a collective led by saxophonist Glen Gray, was one of the top big bands of its day and a major trendsetter in swing music. Although they are not as well remembered as some of the other top bands of the early swing period, records like “Casa Loma Stomp” prove that them deserving of respect. The complex arrangement by Gene Gifford is played with incredible poise and proficiency. That they make it sound so light and effortless only makes it that much more impressive. The entire record is fantastic, but pay special attention to two particularly good passages: the first solo (a fast-paced revelry by trombonist Pee Wee Hunt) and the quiet but kinetic call-and-response by the entire band before they launch into the big finish.

~ You may also like: Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, “San Sue Strut” (Okeh 41403, 1930)

The Jungle Band
Rockin’ in Rhythm(Brunswick 6038, 1931)

This “Jungle Band” recording of Duke Ellington’s classic composition “Rockin’ in Rhythm” was one of two Ellington versions released in 1931, and to my ears is the definitive take on the song. (It should be noted that Okeh 8869, credited to the Harlem Footwarmers, is nearly as good, though.) The track begins with some discordant piano by Ellington, and a humorous wah-wah by the trombone. Next, the reeds state the wonderful, bright melody and Cootie Williams takes a playful, swinging solo on trumpet. The mood becomes a little edgier as Johnny Hodges soars in on alto sax . Then we get some more piano from Ellington, another trombone flourish, and some muted, jungle-style trumpet from Williams before the reeds regain control, restate the main melody and bring the record to a close. The recording is filled with high-spirited, feel-good energy throughout.

~ You may also like an incredible later recording of this song: Duke Ellington, “Medley: Kinda Dukish / Rockin’ in Rhythm” (Piano in the Background, Columbia CL 1546, 1960)


High Water (1930-1931)

In many ways, the first two years of the decade were a high-water mark for country blues artists, as the following riveting performances show. As the Great Depression caused sales to drop, though, opportunities would soon dry up even for established artists like Charley Patton and Blind Willie Johnson. Other promising talents, like Son House and Skip James, would find their careers over before they had even begun.

Geeshie Wiley
Last Kind Words Blues(Paramount 12951, 1930)

Geeshie Wiley doesn’t fit any of the molds for 1920s and 1930s blues singers, but her unique style is so captivating perhaps more should have been cast like her. “Last Kind Words Blues” is her masterpiece, a slow, haunting blues that chronicles the final exchange between the narrator and her lover, who is headed to war. The ominous tone captures the narrator’s worry at the impending threat of loss: “If I get killed, if I get killed, please don't bury my soul / I cry just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole.”

Wiley’s delivery is reserved but far from mellow, as an almost manic anxiety lurks just below the surface. The guitarist, probably her frequent collaborator Elvie Thomas, is masterful on guitar, strumming a steady rhythm and adding some edgy, minor-key picking here and there to heighten the tension. Despite recording one of the most exciting blues records of her era, Wiley made very few additional records, and almost nothing is known of her.

~ You may also like: Geeshie Wiley, “Skinny Leg Blues” (Paramount 12951, 1930)

Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie
Bumble Bee (Columbia 14542-D, 1930)

“Kansas” Joe McCoy may have equal billing here, but there is no doubt that his wife Lizzie Douglas, a.k.a. “Memphis Minnie,” was the star of the pair. After the couple split in 1935, Minnie continued to enjoy a respectable career for another two decades and is today considered one of the greatest female blues artists in history.

“Bumble Bee” was one of Minnie’s first hits and signified a shift toward the traditional “country blues” style for female artists. While her commanding voice is as powerful as earlier, vaudeville-inspired female blues singers, she plays a mean guitar and proves adept at singing relaxed, “Memphis style” blues. The gentle, twin guitar accompaniment ultimately proves more satisfying than any jazz instrumentation would have, putting her voice clearly in the foreground and allowing her a greater range of expression. Her playful change of tempo on the final verse sounds perfectly natural and ends the song on a high note.

~ You may also like: Frank Stokes, “How Long” (Victor V-38512 , 1929)

Blind Willie Johnson
God Moves on the Water (Columbia 14520-D, 1930)

“God Moves on the Water” is one of the most amazing slide guitar performance ever captured on record. It is a recounting of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, told with religious overtones: “God moves, God moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray.” Johnson’s guitar wails and sings with as much emotion as the man’s voice, creating a haunting performance. The brief bridge in the middle is particularly entrancing with its stark, deeply expressive slide playing. The bridge ends with a wonderful transition as Johnson gives a little moan and starts fingerpicking again.

~ You may also like: Blind Willie Johnson, “God Don’t Never Change” (Columbia 14490-D, 1930)

Blind Willie Johnson
John the Revelator(Columbia 14530-D, 1930)

“John the Revelator” is a powerful gospel blues that references the author of the Biblical Book of Revelation. Johnson, one of the most striking vocalists and musicians in blues history, gives an inspired performance. His rough voice repeatedly growls questions (“Who’s that writing?”), and a woman’s voice (most likely his wife Willie B. Harris) answers “John the Revelator” in a much softer voice that provides a clear contrast. Johnson’s passion comes through loud and clear, and despite the rawness of his voice, his singing is quite strong and the song quite exciting.

After the April 1930 session that produced “John the Revelator,” Johnson would never record again.

~ You may also like: Blind Willie Johnson, “Praise God I’m Satisfied” (Columbia 14545-D, 1930)

Charley Patton
High Water Everywhere (Parts 1 & 2) (Paramount 12909, 1930)

This song is one of Charley Patton’s best vocal performances. Covering two sides, it is an account of the utter devastation caused by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. Patton gives an eye-witness account of what he saw traveling throughout the region: “Oh, Lordy, women and grown men drown / Oh, women and children sinkin' down / I couldn't see nobody's home and wasn't no one to be found.” Patton’s delivers these lyrics with utter conviction, reaching deep into his soul to convey powerful emotion with every line. In Part 1, his gravelly voice strains with a sense of urgency and desperation. In Part 2, he sounds more reserved and saddened. Both are equally heartbreaking.

~ You may also like: Charley Patton, “A Spoonful Blues” (Paramount 12869, 1929)

Son House
Preachin’ the Blues (Parts 1 & 2)(Paramount 13013, 1930)

Eddie “Son” House is one of the giants of the Delta blues. He had a unique style characterized by repeated signatures on guitar, over which he layered intense, shouted vocals. He recorded only a few sides in the 1930s and a couple more in the ‘40s, but they were enough to cement his legacy. Eventually, he was rediscovered during the folk revival and made some recordings late in his life that nearly matched the intensity of these early sides.

“Preachin’ the Blues (Parts 1 & 2)” is his masterpiece. It is an autobiographical account of House’s life, from his original intention to be a Baptist preacher (“Oh, I'm gonna get me a religion / I'm gonna join the Baptist Church / I'm gonna be a Baptist preacher, and I sure won't have to work”) to his eventual downfall to temptation (“Oh, I'd-a had religion, Lord, this very day / But the womens and whiskey, well, they would not set me free”). The record was cut for Paramount, with its notoriously poor sound quality, but despite the scratches and hissing, House’s voice comes through loud and strong. He sounds like a man possessed as he drives through this two-sided recording. House may not have made it as a Baptist preacher, but on this record, he clearly has the passion and commanding presence of one, singing: “I swear to God / I got to preach these gospel blues!”

~ You may also like: Son House, “My Black Mama (Parts 1 & 2)” (Paramount 13042, 1931)

1931 Headlines … Great Depression continues … “The Star-Spangled Banner” is adopted as the U.S. national anthem … Gambling legalized in Nevada … Empire State Building completed in New York City

Willie Brown
Future Blues (Paramount 13090, 1931)

Willie Brown is both one of the most influential Delta blues musicians and one of the most elusive. Very little is known for sure about the man, except that he was a renowned sideman, accompanying such greats as Charley Patton and Son House. Many music scholars believe that he was an uncredited guitarist on the records of many other artists as well. He was also a noteworthy vocalist, but only three of his known solo records have survived: two from a 1930 session and one more from 1941.

“Future Blues” is taken from that first session and was issued by Paramount in 1931. Brown’s guitar playing is solid; he plots a fairly straightforward course, but executes it with precision. He regularly snaps the strings to add some emphasis. His distinctive voice is rough and yet wonderfully expressive. The highlight of the song is the fourth verse, where instead of repeating the first line twice, Brown slowly unfolds the line, revealing more and more of it until he finally says the whole thing: “I got a woman, Lord, and she's lightning when she smiles.” Brown’s voice soars, growls and grins during the delivery of this verse, and it is a joy to listen to.

~ You may also like: Son House, “Clarksdale Moan” (Paramount 13096, 1931)

Skip James
Devil Got My Woman (Paramount 13088, 1931)

Skip James
I’m So Glad (Paramount 13098, 1931)

Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James had a unique sound among Delta blues musicians, and his legacy has proven highly influential. He recorded 26 songs for Paramount in 1931, but only 18 have survived. Despite their utter brilliance, sales of James’ records were poor due to the Great Depression, and he would not record again until the very end of his life when he was “rediscovered” during the folk revival. Nevertheless, his sound proved influential to later blues musicians like Robert Johnson, and his stature has grown over time.

“Devil Got My Woman” is one of James’ best recordings, and was the inspiration for Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound On My Trail.” James plays the song very slowly in an ominous, open D-minor tuning, and his eerie, high pitched voice cuts to the listener’s soul with every line. The opening lines set the tone: “I’d rather be the devil to be that woman’s man / nothing but the devil change my baby’s mind.” James continues the song in that mournful, wailing tone until revealing the source of his despair at the end: “Woman I love, took her from my best friend / but he got lucky, stole her back again.”

~ You may also like: Skip James, “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” (Paramount 13065, 1931)

“I’m So Glad” is another classic from James. Like “Devil Got My Woman,” James’ distinct, high pitched voice features prominently and gives the song an otherworldly feel. However, this song is much faster, and contains some inspired fingerpicking. James easily proves himself the equal of the best Piedmont blues fingerpickers, but his technique is uniquely his own. His unusual tone and forceful delivery set him apart from his contemporaries, and mark him as a kindred spirit with later guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page.

~ You may also like: Skip James, “Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader” (Paramount 13108, 1931)

Willie Walker
South Carolina Rag(Columbia 14578-D, 1931)

Willie Walker was a talented guitarist who unfortunately only cut only single in his lifetime. “South Carolina Rag” is one side of that solitary record, an easy-going, ragtime-inspired ditty that leaves you wanting more. Walker has a fine voice with a lot of range, and he takes advantage of it in the way he slides from low to falsetto. But it is his guitar work that deserves most of the praise, as he shows a fluid fingerpicking style that shows him to be among the best of the Piedmont blues guitarists. Walker manages to show off on guitar without doing anything to diminish the song’s relaxed feel. It’s an enjoyable and entertaining listen that shows true talent, and like so many others of his generation, it is a shame he didn’t leave behind any more of a legacy.

~ You may also like: Blind Blake, “Police Dog Blues” (Paramount 12888, 1929)

Blind Sammie (Blind Willie McTell)
Broke Down Engine Blues(Columbia 14632-D, 1931)

Willie McTell recorded under a variety of names for a variety of record labels. For this original recording of “Broke Down Engine Blues” on Columbia, he was billed as “Blind Sammie.” He would later record the song as Blind Willie McTell in 1933 (Vocalion 02577) and as Barrelhouse Sammy in 1949 (Atlantic 891). Whatever the name on the record, there is no mistaking his distinct voice and unique 12-string guitar style.

The song tells a typical blues story: a man is down on his luck and feels “like a broke down engine” that “ain’t got no drive at all.” The narrator tells of gambling away all of his money and losing his woman as well: “I went down to my praying ground and fell on bended knees / I ain’t crying for no religion, Lordy, give me back my good gal please.” McTell’s guitar playing is magnificent, but much more reserved here than on his 1928 masterpiece “Statesboro Blues.” What makes this song truly compelling is his quivering, nasal voice. He gives it a great workout on this record, and the result is addictive, especially between verses when he sings “Lordy Lord, Lordy Lordy Lord.”

~ You may also like: Blind Willie McTell, “Dark Night Blues” (Victor 38032, 1928)


Kind of Country, Kind of Blues (1930)

While racial discrimination dictated that country was for white audiences and blues for black ones, the musicians themselves largely ignored these differences, freely borrowing from each other. The following selections show some excellent “blues” played by country artists, and a gentle folk song sung by someone whose record label tried unsuccessfully to promote him as a “blues” artist.

Charlie Poole and His North Carolina Ramblers
If the River Was Whiskey(Columbia 15545-D, 1930)

This record is taken from Charlie Poole’s next-to-last recording session, and shows Poole and his band in fine form. The song is an inspired re-working of two blues songs: Sleepy John Estes’ “Diving Duck Blues” (Victor V-38549, 1929) and “Hesitation Blues,” a traditional tune with lyrics by Billy Smythe, Scott Middleton and Art Gillham (first published in 1915). The instrumentation may be that of white, “hillbilly” string bands, but Poole has a real feel for the blues, and his raw vocals do a good job of expressing the yearning emotion of the lyrics: “If the river was whiskey and I was a duck / I’d dive to the bottom and I’d never come up / Oh, tell me how long have I got to wait? / Oh, can I get you now? Must I hesitate?” Odell Smith’s smooth, restrained playing on the fiddle also helps underscore that bluesy feeling. This is a simple, but powerful song, and if it does not fully fit the blues mold, it completely shatters the mold in terms of what other white string bands were playing at the time.

Unfortunately, that river of whiskey would be Poole’s downfall. After a lifetime of hard drinking, he would drink himself to heart failure a little more than a year after recording this song. He was 39.

~ You may also like: Art Gillham, “Hesitation Blues” (Columbia 343D, 1925)

The Carter Family
Worried Man Blues (Victor V-40317, 1930)

Despite having “blues” in the title, this song is not a blues, but another of the Carter Family’s amazing Appalachian folk ballads. This one tells the story of a man who has been captured and imprisoned, and has lost his love in the process. In this recording, Maybelle Carter’s harmony vocals are nearly as prominent as Sara’s lead. The two altos deliver the vocals in a very simple, straight-ahead fashion with very little embellishment, but despite this understated approach, the combined voices create a sound that is riveting. (A.P. Carter also sings on the track, and his voice is more lively, but it is barely audible behind the women.) Maybelle sounds as if she is singing “wearied” instead of “worried,” which adds an extra layer of possible meaning to the song – one that works well with the world-weary delivery of the lyrics.

~ You may also like: The Carter Family, “My Clinch Mountain Home” (Victor V-40058, 1929)

Mississippi John Hurt
Avalon Blues(Okeh 8759, 1930)

In 1928, John Hurt traveled to New York to record a few sides for Okeh, and this record captures that experience. Like all his recordings, Hurt’s style is very understated and gentle. In a sweet, quiet voice he sings simple lyrics about life in his hometown of Avalon, Mississippi, and feeling homesick for it while visiting New York: “New York’s a good town, but it’s not for mine / Going back to Avalon, near where I have a pretty mama all the time.” Hurt accompanies himself on guitar with a deceptively subtle but intricate fingerpicking style that is incredibly beautiful.

Like all of Hurt’s 1928 recordings, “Avalon Blues” had trouble finding an audience amidst the other, less subtle blues records of the day. It sold poorly when it was released in 1930, and tragically, no record company would come calling again for 35 years. However, appreciation for his music grew considerably during the folk revival of the 1950s and ‘60s, and in 1963, music scholar Tom Hoskins managed to use the lyrics of “Avalon Blues” like a treasure map to locate Hurt. Now in his 70s, this time Hurt was greeted as a living legend, and he spent the last few years of his life recording and performing for the kind of eager, appreciative audiences that had escaped him the first time around.

~ You may also like: Mississippi John Hurt, “Got the Blues, Can't Be Satisfied” (Okeh 8724, 1929)


On Top of the World (1930)

The next four recordings feature superb blues played on a variety of instruments, including banjo, mandolin, violin and harmonica. These tracks are engaging, entertaining and wholly original. Sadly, this kind of variety would soon be a thing of the past, as the Great Depression limited recording opportunities for all but the most successful blues artists.

Cannon’s Jug Stompers
Walk Right In (Victor V-38611, 1930)

Gus Cannon was a seminal figure in the Memphis jug band scene, and “Walk Right In” is his most famous composition. It has been covered by many artists since, but the original is hard to beat. Cannon plays banjo and sings the vocals, with some excellent support by Noah Lewis on harmonica and Hosea Woods on kazoo and backing vocals. Lewis’ harmonica is very subdued and is not the first thing many listeners will notice, but it is the key to the entire record. The harmonica is present at just about every point in the song, and Lewis shows a tremendous range throughout. The singing is well done also, and Woods’ lengthy kazoo solo during the bridge shows what that instrument is capable of in the hands of a master.

~ You may also like: Jack Kelly’s South Memphis Jug Band, “Highway No. 61 Blues” (Perfect 254, 1933)

Sleepy John Estes
Milk Cow Blues (Victor V-38614, 1930)

Fellow bluesman Big Bill Broonzy described John Estes’ music as “crying the blues,” because of his emotionally expressive vocal style. That voice is in fine form as he sings some classic lyrics on “Milk Cow Blues,” one of his earliest hits: “Went upstairs to pack my leavin’ trunk / I never saw no whiskey, but the blues done made me sloppy drunk.” Estes plays just a very basic rhythm part on guitar, but is accompanied by piano and an out-of-tune mandolin played by James “Yank” Rachel. That mandolin keeps the whole record slightly off-kilter, but Rachel’s picking is outstanding and shadows Estes’ vocals extremely well.

~ You may also like: Jack Kelly’s South Memphis Jug Band, “Red Ripe Tomatoes” (Perfect 254, 1933)

Mississippi Sheiks
Sitting on Top of the World (Okeh 8784, 1930)

The Mississippi Sheiks were an African American string band from the Jackson, Mississippi area consisting of Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle and Walter Vincson on guitar and vocals. “Sitting on Top of the World” was their biggest hit, and has become a blues standard. While the instrumentation is the same as that used by white, “hillbilly” string bands, the pace is much slower and it has a distinct blues feel to it. Vincson’s strong voice bears as much resemblance to Jimmie Rodgers (sans yodeling) as it does to his fellow Mississippi bluesmen, which further underlines this band’s unique blend of country and blues. The lyrics paint a bleak picture of lost love, but sound an optimistic note in defiance of the song’s overall melancholy feel: “But now she’s gone / I don’t worry / I’m sitting on top of the world.” It is a simple but very well constructed record. Vincson picks out a slow beat on his guitar with small flourishes at the end of each verse, while Chatmon expertly carries the melody on fiddle, stretching out sad, vibrato-filled notes.

~ You may also like: Mississippi Sheiks, “Stop and Listen Blues” (Okeh 8807, 1930)

Blues Birdhead
Mean Low Blues (Okeh 8824, 1930)

James Simons, a.k.a. “Blues Birdhead,” cut only one record and is not well remembered today, but he was very influential in the development of the harmonica as a blues instrument. He was the first to “over blow” the instrument on record, a technique which greatly increased its range. Simons puts that full range to good use on this record, urging every conceivable sound out of his harmonica in a truly remarkable performance. With piano accompaniment, he displays a jazz musician’s instinct for improvisation, sustaining a soft, vibrato-filled note one moment, then launching into an impressive cascade of notes the next. He makes the harp sing, then growl, then wail, and at one point he and the piano both launch briefly into a breakneck boogie woogie rhythm. The best part may be near the end, when it appears that the record is fading out on a final sustained note, but Simons playfully comes back with just a little bit more.

~ You may also like some more early harmonica blues: Jaybird Coleman and the Birmingham Jug Band, “Man Trouble Blues” (Columbia 14534-D, 1930)

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