Milestone Recordings in American Music


Blues Evolving (1937)

With the debuts of both Robert Johnson and the original Sonny Boy Williamson, 1937 turned out to be a watershed year for the blues and a turning point in more ways than one. Johnson represented a new breed of country bluesmen, influenced not just by their peers in the Mississippi Delta but by the more sophisticated styles coming out of big cities like St. Louis and Chicago. Meanwhile, in Chicago, Williamson was rewriting the rules with his harmonica and in St. Louis, Peetie Wheatstraw was banging on the piano and doing whatever he pleased. And all of them were making outstanding blues records that mixed an at times harsh surface with a smooth, underlying rhythmic steadiness.

Robert Johnson
Sweet Home Chicago (Vocalion 03601, 1937)

Considering the tremendous variety of tones and styles that Robert Johnson was known to perform live, it’s a pity that we get to hear such a limited part of his range on record. “Sweet Home Chicago” is a great example of that, the kind of record that you wish he had made a hundred of. It is certainly his most famous song, and for good reason. It follows the basic structure of the popular blues song “Kokomo Blues,” which had already been recorded by several different blues artists (most notably Kokomo Arnold in 1934). Johnson’s version upped the ante, though, becoming an instant classic that works on multiple levels. Its universal themes, simple structure and killer hook (“Baby, don’t you wanna go?”) make it the perfect blues cover song.

Indeed, “Sweet Home Chicago” is Johnson’s least complex recording, following a simple, repeated rhythmic pattern without the usual flair on guitar. Because of that it is one of the few records of his where you can actually tell that he is playing unaccompanied, making the record sound much more intimate and relaxed than any of his other work. Compared to the intensity of records like “Cross Road Blues,” it is refreshing to hear Johnson so loose. The performance sounds unrehearsed, as if Johnson was playing for no one but himself. The lyrics, sung with carefree abandon, only add to that sense. They come across simultaneously spontaneous and clever, like the best freestyle rap from half a century later: “Now six and two is eight / Eight and two is ten / Friend, boy, she trick you one time / She sure gonna do it again.” It has to be said, though, that the spontaneity of the lyrics does cause a little confusion, as it’s not sure what Johnson means when he seems to repeatedly place Chicago in California. Later cover versions would remove the references to California, but a little geographical ambiguity doesn’t diminish the genius of the original.

~ You may also like: Robert Johnson, “Rambling on My Mind” (Vocalion 03519, 1937)

Bukka White
Shake ‘Em On Down (Vocalion 03711, 1937)

Booker T. Washington White (Vocalion misspelled his name “Bukka” on this record, and it ended up sticking) is a seminal figure in the blues who was underappreciated in his time and to this day probably does not get as much credit as he deserves. White is often noted for giving his cousin, the legendary B.B. King, his first guitar and thereby jumpstarting the career of arguably the most famous modern bluesman. But he also created a body of work that stands toe-to-toe with any of his more famous Delta neighbors, while forging a unique style that sounded completely unlike anything else from the region.

White recorded a number of sides for Victor in Memphis in 1930, but his breakthrough came seven years later in Chicago when he recorded two songs with a second, unknown guitarist. “Shake ‘Em On Down” benefits greatly from the accompaniment. The steady, two-guitar rhythmic attack is so irresistible enough on its own, it seems almost unfair that White was allowed to add vocals to it – but we should all be glad he did! White’s crying, nasal voice is a treat and shows great range and power. Listen to the way he holds and develops notes, as if he were playing his vocal chords like he played his slide guitar. And all the while, the guitars strum relentlessly to the beat, almost forcing the listener to move in unison.

“Shake ‘Em On Down” would go on to become a blues standard, but the one-two punch of that rhythm and that voice is hard to beat. Put this on your alarm clock and you’ll never hit “snooze’ again.

~ You may also like: Bukka White, “Po’ Boy” (unreleased 1939 field recording by Alan Lomax; Herwin 92400, 1967)

Sonny Boy Williamson
Good Morning, School Girl (Bluebird B-7059, 1937)

Sonny Boy Williamson
Sugar Mama Blues (Bluebird B-7059, 1937)

It is because of John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson that today the harmonica is thought of first and foremost as a blues instrument. There were others who played harmonica blues, but before Williamson it seemed like a novelty. When Williamson played, though, the harmonica was the blues, and all of those guitar players seemed secondary.

“Good Morning, School Girl” was one of Williamson’s earliest records and stands as his all-time masterpiece. It starts with a bristling, overblown harmonica section that is simply brilliant. Williamson blows with incredible energy, yet keeps the pace restrained enough to let the bluesy emotion of the melody shine through. The passage quickly ends and Williamson begins to sing. He has a magnificent voice for the blues, every bit the equal of his playing, and it drips with character as he sings the pleading lyrics: “Good morning little school girl / Can I go home with you? / Now you can tell your mother and your father / That Sonny Boy’s a little school boy too.” I don’t know how to describe his singing any better than to say that he mumbles in all the right places, manipulating the tempo, volume and punctuation like a jazz musician. He switches seamlessly between vocals and harmonica throughout and his mastery of both is dazzling. A classic from beginning to end.

~ You may also like: Sonny Boy Williamson, “Sloppy Drunk Blues” (Bluebird B-8822, 1941)

“Sugar Mama Blues” is another great example of Williamson’s genius. The tempo is slow and the accompaniment spare, leaving Williamson room to spread out on both vocals and harmonica, and he doesn’t disappoint. He pulls out all the stops vocally, delivering a convincing, bottom-of-the-soul performance. There is raw, genuine strain and emotion from the opening syllables, and it continues throughout: “Sugar mama, sugar mama, sugar mama please come back to me / Bring me my granulated sugar, sugar mama, and try to ease my misery.” On harmonica, he keeps things simple but no less emotionally convincing, and that choice may do even more to prove the harp’s place in blues than any technically impressive display could. Williamson doesn’t use the harmonica as an instrument so much as he uses it as an extension of his voice and of his soul, and in doing so, he captures the unfiltered essence of the blues.

~ You may also like: Sonny Boy Williamson, “Early in the Morning” (Bluebird B-7302, 1937)

Peetie Wheatstraw
Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp(Decca 7292, 1937)

Peetie Wheatstraw was a one of the most recorded blues artists of the pre-war era, benefiting from a larger-than-life personality and a distinctive performing style. Wheatstraw was born William Bunch, but changed his name before moving to St. Louis in the late 1920s. He gave himself even more colorful nicknames, like the “High Sheriff from Hell” and the “Devil’s Son-in-Law,” and spun wild, boastful tales about his invented persona in the lyrics of many of his songs, including the boisterous “Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp.”

Wheatstraw is in top form on this record, showing why he was so entertaining to the St. Louis working-class with a performance that is rough around the edges yet highly entertaining. While banging out a sloppy, bouncing boogie rhythm on the piano, he slurs his way marble-mouthed through lyrics that brag about his abilities with women and music: “Women all ravin’ about Peetie Wheatstraw in this land / He got so many women they’re goin’ from hand to hand.” The best bit – and also the most ridiculous – may be at the end when he tells himself, “Now do your stuff, Peetie!” and closes out the song with a brief, madcap piano solo.

~ You may also like a slower, but no less boastful, number from Peetie Wheatstraw: “King of Spades” (Vocalion 3066, 1935)


At the Crossroads (1937)

Robert Johnson is the best-known of all the Delta blues musicians. In part, this is because of his extraordinary, charismatic talent, which has inspired legends and influenced generations of blues and rock artists since. Luck also plays a part, however: although Johnson recorded only 29 songs (13 of them twice) over two recording sessions in 1936 and 1937, he was fortunate enough to record them for Vocalion, one of the better quality record labels, and to this day his recordings bear little of the surface noise that plague the recordings of so many of his fellow Delta bluesmen.

Robert Johnson
Terraplane Blues (Vocalion 03416, 1937)

“Terraplane Blues” (named after the Terraplane automobile brand) was Johnson’s signature tune and first and best selling single, and it is a great showcase for his remarkable range on both vocals and slide guitar. Johnson had a chameleon-like ability to copy and absorb the unique deliveries of his contemporaries, in the process making them his own. On this record, he sifts effortlessly from style to style – he sings high, he sings low, he sings falsetto, he moans, he growls and he even delivers some spoken lines. His guitar does similar gymnastics, starting with a slow, wailing slide style, but transitioning to more upbeat, intricate playing as needed, or becoming a percussion instrument as Johnson just bangs out the rhythm on it. It is a remarkable performance, but only the tip of the iceberg of what Johnson would accomplish in his too-short career.

~ You may also like: Robert Johnson, “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” (Vocalion 04002, 1938)

Robert Johnson
32-20 Blues (Vocalion 03445, 1937)

Musically, “32-20 Blues” was one of the simplest, most straightforward songs Johnson ever recorded. It was also one of the best. Written and originally recorded as “22-20 Blues” by Skip James (Paramount 13066, 1931), the lyrics are absorbing. A  man calmly discusses the woman who he believes has done him wrong and the violence he plans to do in return (a 32-20 was a kind of gun): “Oh, baby, where you stay last night? / You got your hair all tangled and you ain’t talkin’ right.”

Johnson bangs out a slow, percussive beat on his guitar strings, adding some spare finger work here and there. And he sings with a slow, deliberate voice in a narrow register. Despite the lack of fireworks, or perhaps because of it, the song is amazingly deep. Stripped of all gimmicks, Johnson’s stunning talent remains undiminished. In fact, listening to him perform this way, with nothing but his raw charisma on display, adds extra weight to the cold, calculated lyrics, making this performance as electrifying as anything in his catalog.

~ You may also like: Robert Johnson, “Traveling Riverside Blues” (Vocalion, unreleased 1937 recording; King of the Delta Blues Singers, Columbia CL 1654, 1961)

Robert Johnson
I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom (Vocalion 03475, 1937)

Johnson was a tremendous innovator on the guitar, and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than on “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” When guitarist Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones first heard this record, he is reported to have asked, “Who is the other guy playing with him?” – unable to fathom that Johnson could simultaneously be playing the rhythm and lead parts so seamless on the same guitar. Listen closely and you will find yourself similarly astonished. Although the technique is frequently copied on electric guitar today, at the time it was revolutionary. Johnson keeps a steady, boogie beat on the low strings while he rapidly picks the high strings for variations on the main theme.

The vocals are also quite engaging, and Johnson exhibits jazz-singer like timing in delivering them: never quite on the beat, but always aware of it. This is one of the more lighthearted blues Johnson recorded, and it is fun to listen to. It tells the story of a man who catches his woman cheating on him and “dusts his broom” – slang for leaving her completely and forever. Afterwards, he looks for another woman, starting in nearby towns (West Helena, East Monroe) and, in a humorous turn, ending across the world in places like China and Ethiopia.

~ You may also like: Robert Johnson, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” (Vocalion 03445, 1937)

Robert Johnson
Cross Road Blues (Vocalion 03519, 1937)

One of the most oft-repeated parts of the mythology surrounding Robert Johnson is the story of him meeting the devil at the crossroads one night and selling his soul in exchange for his tremendous talent. While it is certainly possible to listen to “Cross Road Blues” in the context of that legend, it’s not necessarily the best interpretation. On the surface, the song can be read as no more than a tale of being stranded without transportation: “I tried to flag a ride / Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe / Everybody passed me by.” Metaphorically, the crossroads could stand for any number of trying turning points in the narrator’s life. Johnson opens the song with a strong spiritual plea: “I went to the cross road / Fell down on my knees / Asked the Lord, boy, for mercy / Save poor Bob if you please.” In other places, however, he sings of the loneliness of not having a woman.

Regardless of the interpretation, there is certainly a strong sense of despair throughout, and it is Johnson’s conveyance of that emotion that has made the recording so popular. From the moment his voice cracks hitting the high, opening note, you can feel the narrator’s torment. Both his voice and his guitar oscillate between deep, introspective tones and uncomfortably high ones. He plays the guitar’s high notes sharp and choppy, amplifying the sense of anguish.

~ You may also like: Robert Johnson, “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” (Vocalion 04630, 1939)

Robert Johnson
Come on in My Kitchen (Vocalion 03563, 1937)

One of Johnson’s most soulful recordings, he begins the song with a moan and his singing never strays far from moaning. Even when he injects a spoken interlude at one point, his voice is a low mumble. His remarkable slide playing is equally soulful, diving in an impressive arc from the high notes to the low. Best of all, though, may be his brilliant use of space, as he stops playing a few times, holds the silence a second longer than expected, and then snaps the guitar back into place.

~ You may also like: Robert Johnson, “Walking Blues” (Vocalion 03601, 1937)

Robert Johnson
Hell Hound on My Trail (Vocalion 03623, 1937)

This may be Johnson’s most vocally expressive performance, as he keeps his voice noticeably strained through much of it. His guitar work is mostly spare and plodding, with a few discordant high notes added here and there for emphasis, creating an ominous tone that perfectly reflects the imagery of the classic opening verse: “I’ve got to keep moving…with a hellhound on my trail.”

~ You may also like: Robert Johnson, “If I Had Possession over Judgment Day” (Vocalion, unreleased 1936 recording; King of the Delta Blues Singers, Columbia CL 1654, 1961)


Country Kings (1936-1937)

The years 1936 and 1937 were breakthrough years for three of country music’s biggest names: Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass; Bob Wills, the master of western swing; and Roy Acuff, the king of country.

The Monroe Brothers
What Would You Give In Exchange?(Bluebird B-6309, 1936)

Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, began his recording career as part of a close-harmony singing duo with his brother Charlie. “What Would You Give In Exchange?” was a huge hit for the brothers – so much so that they went on to record three sequels to it. Charlie plays gentle rhythm guitar and Bill adds quiet but superb flourishes on mandolin that only hint at the proficiency he would show later in his career. The mandolin had never before been considered a lead instrument, but then again it had never before been played so adeptly.

Meanwhile, their voices are perfectly matched in close harmony with each other, as only siblings can be. The result is so sweet that it almost belies the cautionary lyrics: “Risk not your soul / It is precious indeed.”

~ You may also like: The Monroe Brothers, “My Long Journey Home” (Bluebird B-6422, 1936)

The Blue Sky Boys
Sunny Side of Life (B-6457, 1936)

Earl and Bill Bolick were another close-harmony brother duo, and in fact one of the best. “Sunny Side of Life” was their first hit and an excellent example of their addictive singing style. Just as they stay close but not quite together on harmony, so too they parallel each other on the lyrics during the choruses with enchanting results. One brother draws out words like “happy” and “sunny” while the other says them each twice, adding a dynamic dimension to what had seemed a low-key song. Factor in the sheer magic of the way the brothers’ voices sound together and you have the makings of an amazing record.

~ You may also like: The Monroe Brothers, “My Savior’s Train” (Bluebird B-6729, 1936)

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Steel Guitar Rag (Vocalion 3394, 1936)

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Right or Wrong (Vocalion 3451, 1936)

The untimely death of Milton Brown cut short the career of one of the true masters of “western swing” music. Fortunately, the music carried on through many other artists, and it was Brown’s good friend and former band mate who led the way. Bob Wills was a fiddle player who had served with Brown in the Light Crust Doughboys in Fort Worth, Texas in the early 1930s, and it was there that the pair created the basic blueprint for what would become western swing. Wills’ ear for the music matched, and possibly even surpassed, his friend’s. While Wills employed other people to sing the lead vocals, each song was peppered with his trademark interjections, often in a high-pitched nasal tone: “Aww, swing it, Mr. Leon, swing it!”

“Steel Guitar Rag” is a great example of energetic, no-holds-barred western swing. It features Leon McAuliffe in an electrifying performance on electric steel guitar. The steel guitar’s trademark slide sound comes from sustaining notes, so one might think that using it as the lead instrument would make for a slow record. Instead, the rhythm section propels it forward with relentless energy, while McAuliffe adds color by making the steel sing. The other instruments are just as good: Al Stricklin bangs raucously on piano, and Robert “Zeb” McNally gives a rock-and-roll worthy performance on the sax. Little touches like cowbell and shouts from Wills add to the entertainment.

~ You may also like: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, “Osage Stomp” (Vocalion 3096, 1935)

“Right or Wrong” shows Wills and company in a slower, but no less compelling context. The vocals are sung by Tommy Duncan, who was the band’s primary vocalist during its heyday from 1933 to 1948. Duncan has the perfect voice for western swing: strong and twangy enough for country, but smooth and sophisticated enough for jazz. The lyrics are wonderfully heartbreaking, and Duncan imbues them with just the right amount of pathos. His band mates are wonderful too, from Wills’ longing fiddle solo at the beginning to the bittersweet melancholy of Everett Stover’s Mexican-style trumpet during the bridge. The sorrowful tension hits a boiling point at the end as Duncan raises his voice to a wail and repeats, “All along I thought I’d lose you!” He then adds a little well-placed yodel to brilliant effect as he brings the song to its conclusion.

~ You may also like: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, “Who Walks in When I Walk Out” (Vocalion 3206, 1936)

1937 Headlines … Great Depression continues … Franklin D. Roosevelt begins second term as U.S. President … German airship Hindenburg consumed by fire … Joe Louis becomes heavyweight boxing champ

Roy Acuff and His Crazy Tennesseans
Great Speckled Bird (Melotone 7-01-59, 1937)

Roy Acuff is one of country music’s giants and the first person ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In addition to being one of the Grand Ole Opry’s biggest stars for decades, he would become one of country music’s most influential people after co-founding Acuff-Rose Music, the first major Nashville-based music publishing company, in 1942.

“Great Speckled Bird” was one of his signature songs and his first big hit. Over Clell Sumne’s slow, haunting steel guitar, Acuff reverently sings this popular hymn written by Reverend Guy Smith. The lyrics describe the Bible as a speckled bird, based on Jeremiah 12:9 (“Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her…”). Acuff had a good strong voice that came across clearly on radio and record alike. While he could be quite animated, on this record he wisely showed great restraint, measuring his words carefully and allowing the story and Sumne’s ethereal slide work to carry the song.

~ You may also like Acuff singing to a different style of steel guitar: Roy Acuff and His Crazy Tennesseans, “Steel Guitar Blues” (Melotone 7-07-52, 1937)


Standing on the Blues (1936)

There weren't a lot of noteworthy blues records issued in 1936, but here are two exceptional, somewhat atypical records that did stand out: a saucy, jazzy number from Lady Day and some excellent Mississippi gospel blues.

Billie Holiday
Billie’s Blues(Vocalion 3288, 1936)

This record shows Holiday at her sultry best as she belts out the bluesy lyrics with a feather-light touch. The final verse is lifted almost word for word from the 1925 Ethel Waters song “Down Home Blues” (Columbia 14093-D), but Holiday makes it all her own: “Some men like me ‘cause I’m happy, some ‘cause I’m snappy / Some call me honey, others think I’ve got money / Some tell me, ‘Baby, you built for speed’ / Now if you put that all together, makes me everything a good man need.”

Equally good is the accompaniment, featuring a flirtatious solo from Artie Shaw on clarinet and a growling come-on from Bunny Berigan on trumpet.

~ You may also like: Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra featuring Billie Holiday, “This Year’s Kisses” (Brunswick 7824, 1937)

Blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother
Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus)(Melotone 6-11-74, 1936)

This is an outstanding gospel blues by brothers Roosevelt and Uaroy Graves. Roosevelt’s very competent slide guitar and lead vocals are brought to life with some dynamic tambourine and backup vocals by Uaroy. The brothers imbue real passion into their performance. Roosevelt sings in a clear, strong voice, while Uaroy’s grittier voice adds commentary (“Oh, Lordy now!”) in the background. It makes a powerful statement when they come together to sing the refrain, “Standing on Jesus!” at the end of each line.

~ You may also like the equally moving B-side to the original single: Blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother, “I’ll Be Rested (When the Roll Is Called)” (Melotone 6-11-74, 1936)


Casa Loma Orchestra (1931-1934)

To finish out the string of new songs inserted in old posts, here are two songs I have added by the very talented Casa Loma Orchestra. Thanks to heartofglass and fixbutte over at Rate Your Music for cluing me in to the original version of "Blue Moon."
Next up: I get back to where I left off in 1936 with "Billie's Blues" and more great songs!


More 19th and Early 20th Century Recordings (1892-1914)

When I started this project, I was very familiar with music from 1920 onward, but I had only a sketchy knowledge of the three decades before that. I have been working hard for some time now to fill in those gaps, and add songs where appropriate. Here are a few more early ones I've now added.
You'll find three new songs in a new section titled "Minstrelsy (1891-1899)":
In addition, I have added two new songs from the early 1900s:
Next up: more gems from the 1920s...

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