A Century in Jumps (Slight Return)
The Pebbles, Who's You Tellin'?
Sadie McKinney, Rock Away.
Bill Brown and His Brownies, Hot Lips.
Annette Hanshaw, Miss Annabelle Lee.
Willard Robison, Deep Elm.
Darby and Tarlton, Birmingham Jail.
Blind Willie McTell, Mama 'Taint Long For Day.
The Giddens Sisters, There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood.
Al Bernard with the Goofus Five, Hesitation Blues.
Gus Cannon, My Money Never Runs Out.
Hoagy Carmichael, Washboard Blues.
Luke Jordan, Pick Poor Robin Clean.
As I said in my last letter, I am beginning to raise a question whether or not, with the many substitutes for boredom which civilization is presenting, that is the radio, the moving pictures, the cheap automobile, and a diverting environment--man may not lose his vicious appetite for alcohol and use it as wisely as they do around the Mediterranean where they have become immunized to alcohol. If new conditions have change the relation of man to booze, then of course our legal attitude toward it must change also.
There is no such thing as an essential liberty. Liberty, as I see it, is the largest use of one's personal desires consistent with the common good...Once a man had a right to dispose of his daughter as chattel, a right which he doubtless cherished as sacredly as the bootlegger cherishes his right to sell his liquor, but another element entered in. New conditions make new morals. No liberty, as I see it, is stable. Morals after all are customs.
William Allen White, editor of the Emporia Gazette and advocate of Prohibition, letter to Gabriel Wells, author, 26 February 1927.
1927 is the miracle year of recorded American popular music, and choosing a dozen tracks to represent it is a fool’s errand--it's the year of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers sides, Duke Ellington’s early masterpieces, and Bessie Smith and Bix Beiderbecke at their peak; a year that also held the debuts of Blind Willie McTell, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, as well as hundreds of blues and country musicians, captured on disc for a few minutes by a passing talent scout. The fecundity is such that it seems all the world was suddenly young and singing, although the musicians recorded are often reviving ancient songs--Elizabethan ballads, minstrel tunes, faded Broadway showstoppers, sea shanties, hymns, country blues.
Some of it was just timing: by 1923, record companies finally had realized there were markets for black artists and rural white artists, and so at last began recording blues, country and jazz musicians in substantial numbers; by 1925, the electrical recording process had supplanted the acoustic, giving records far greater fidelity, and, even more importantly, it meant that recording equipment was now portable, allowing producers to range into the wilderness and come back with sound.
So the records of 1927 were the fruit of happy circumstance: it was as though from every hamlet, from every attic and parlor, nightclub and pool hall, people suddenly brought out treasures to be appraised and purchased in the sunlight. There may never be a time like it again, and all one can do is sift through the records from this, the springtide of American popular music, and just be whelmed.
Demuth, My Egypt.
The magnificent, mysterious Pebbles: who were they? There are only a handful of references to them: a pair of blues singers and ukulele players named Baxter White and Alphonsus Agee (or Alphonso Ogee). While they recorded their four sides in Chicago, they likely were from the South, or possibly St. Louis. The historian Allen Lowe ventured The Pebbles were a vaudeville act ("they were the pop/jazz people of their day...a well-rehearsed product of personal and community tastes.") "Who's You Tellin'?" on one listen seems to invoke the Delmore Brothers, on another, the Ink Spots.
Recorded 7 June 1927 and released as Victor 21429 c/w "I Mean, It's Just Too Bad"; on That Devilin' Tune.
And Sadie McKinney, a territory singer from Memphis, made a few riotous sides in the late '20s backed by cornetist Charley Williamson and pianist James Alston. On "Rock Away" she does just that.
Recorded in Memphis on 24 February 1927, released as Victor 20565, c/w "Brownskin Flapper." On Memphis Stomp.
Yet another lost ghost: Bill Brown was a trombonist and bandleader who recorded four sides for Brunswick in 1927 and 1929 (the '29 session was with a different band, leading one to imagine Brown had revamped his group in the hopes of getting a hit. No luck.) He and his band played in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia around this time, but the trail ends there--by the end of the '20s, Brown vanishes into the crowd, never to be heard from again.
"Hot Lips," written by Paul Whiteman sideman Henry Busse, was recorded by Brown and the Brownies in New York on St. Patrick's Day 1927; released as Brunswick 7003 c/w "Bill Brown Blues"; on Down in the Basement (where all information on Brown comes from).
De Lempicka, Portrait of Margery Perry
Annette Hanshaw is often lumped into the '20s vogue for "flapper" pop singers, but Hanshaw was far more than that--she was one of the best white female jazz singers of the era, a "Prohibition canary, full of jazz inflection and flapper indifference to the ways of day folks" (Lowe). Charming, wry and possessing an early hipster cool, Hanshaw, after a decade or so of fame, quit performing in 1935 and never looked back.
"Miss Annabelle Lee" was recorded in August 1927 and released as Pathé Actuelle 32283/11523. Only available on That Devilin' Tune Vol. 2.
Hanshaw's only filmed appearance, from 1933, in which she gets the introduction: "Watch your husbands, ladies."
Curtis St., Denver
Willard Robison, born in Shelbina, Mo., in 1894, was a bandleader and composer, known today for a handful of standards like “A Cottage For Sale," "Old Folks" and “Don't Smoke in Bed." Robison specialized in quiet etudes on small-town Southern life. His masterpiece “Deep Elm," while it's an ode to Dallas' red-light district, still manages to capture the density and lassitude of a summer afternoon below the Mason-Dixon line. Robison’s vocal is a world apart from the hectoring, hammy vocals of the first two decades of recorded pop music--there's at last a sense of space, of rhythm: of swing, in other words.
Robison started out leading a few territory jazz/pop bands in the early ‘20s and later in the decade he moved to New York, where he led groups like the Levee Loungers and the Deep River Boys. In the words of Alec Wilder, Robison lived "an almost euphoric life...but generally his songs were known only to a few singers and lovers of the off-beat and the non-urban song. He had a special flair for gentleness and childhood, the lost and the religious."
"Deep Elm," sometimes appended with "(You Tell 'Em I'm Blue)", was first recorded by Henry Busse and Busse's Buzzards in 1925; Robison's solo version, essentially a songwriter's demo after the fact, was recorded in October 1927. Not on CD at present.
Bonnard, Fleurs Rouges
Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton's version of "Birmingham Jail" was one of the first versions of the traditional ballad to be recorded. It's dominated by Tarlton's steel guitar and clear, yearning tenor, while Darby offers a crafty finger-picking style on guitar--all of it saturated in the blues, though it also sounds a bit Mexican. Tarlton, a sharecropper's son, started out playing the banjo and eventually switched to guitar, learning to play bottleneck from black fieldhands, and learning steel from a Hawaiian guitarist named Frank Ferera. As a steel bar, Tarlton used a wrist pin he took from an engine block. By the time he met Darby in the mid-'20s, Tarlton had bummed around the country for years, working in cotton fields and oil fields, and even spending time in Birmingham jail. Darby and Tarlton never liked each other--their partnership had been primarily a commercial one--and broke up in 1933.
"Birmingham Jail" was recorded in Atlanta on 10 November 1927, released as Columbia 15212 c/w "Columbus Stockade Blues"--the single sold some 200,000 copies, and Darby & Tarlton got about $75 for it; on a cheap boxed set everyone should own.
Herbert Hoover meets the WWII generation
Blind Willie McTell's "Mama T'ain't Long For Day" begins with a brief rumination on guitar, and then the skies open.
Recorded 18 October 1927 and released as Victor 21474 c/w "Writin' Paper Blues"; on The Classic Years.
"There is Fountain Filled With Blood" is a hymn written by the poet William Cowper soon after a suicide attempt in the 1770s. It traveled to America along with the Scots-Irish, evolved into a ballad sung in churches and front parlors, and was put on record in 1927 by the Giddens Sisters, of whom nothing else is known--where they were born, when they died, even their first names.
"Fountain" is relentless in its fervor--there is ecstasy here, of a grim sort.
Recorded 1 June 1927 and released decades later on the Library of Congress LP Folk Music in America, Vol.15, Religious Music.
Al Bernard came to New York City in a traveling minstrel show, just after the end of the First World War, and stayed there, spending the '20s in vaudeville, on the radio and making records (sometimes duets with Ernest Hare, in which Bernard sang like a woman). He was known as "The Boy From Dixie," and while considered an embarrassment for his often racist music by later generations, Bernard proved to be the link between the dying minstrel music and its successors like Western swing.
"Hesitation Blues," a traditional song tuned up by a variety of songwriters, including W.C. Handy, is performed here by Bernard and the Goofus Five, who were a studio group, and who were more than five--Chelsea Quealey (t), Al Philburn (tb), Bobby Davis (alto sax), Al Duffy (violin), Irving Brodsky (p), Tommy Felline (g), Herb Weill (d).
"Hesitation Blues" was recorded in New York on 14 November 1927 and released as OKeh 40962; on Country Swingtime. Some of Bernard's earlier tracks are compiled here.
Sheeler, Criss-Crossed Conveyors--Ford Plant
"My Money Never Runs Out" was originally called "My Money Never Gives Out," a minstrel song written by Irving Jones, a 19th Century African-American comedian and songwriter. Like Bert Williams' "Nobody," "My Money Never Runs Out" is a comic riff that conceals a sharp blade--it's a fantasy of high, free living performed by a singer who has had to scrape by since birth.
Gus Cannon, born in 1883 in Memphis, the son of slaves, made his first banjo from a bread pan and a severed guitar neck. As Nick Tosches wrote in Where Dead Voices Gather, Cannon's work, along with other early bluesmen like Papa Charlie Jackson, is where "the interminglings of latter-day minstrelsy, the Tin Pan Alley coon song, the black songster tradition and the early blues are most pronounced."
"My Money Never Runs Out" was recorded by Cannon under the name Banjo Joe sometime in November 1927 and released as Paramount 12604; on Walk Right In.
In listening to Hoagy Carmichael's "Washboard Blues," what is first apparent, besides the quality and relaxed tone of Carmichael's singing, is how much empathy there is--Carmichael sings in the voice of a black washerwoman, and there isn't a trace of condescension, of mockery, but rather the overall sense is of dignity, of an aspect of the human condition appraised and captured, for a moment. Take the way Carmichael murmurs "hurry...hurry day," in the voice of someone who knows well how long the workday can endure.
"Washboard Blues" is also a phenomenal piece of music--rather than a verse-chorus-verse structure, it's more one long, meandering melodic line (Alec Wilder), so that it parallels the river the singer spends her days beside. The composition is stacked with time shifts, sudden octave-wide leaps, and wild changes in instrumentation (in the midst of a lament, there's suddenly a hot jazz break, hushed by a cymbal), so that even though the song is only four and a quarter minutes long, it seems to travel the distance of a weary lifetime.
Recorded 18 November 1927 with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and released as Victor 35877; on Riverboat Shuffle.
Watching the Mississippi River flood Caernarvon Crevasse, south of New Orleans
In 1962, for an article for the Saturday Review, Ralph Ellison told how Charlie Parker had gotten the nickname "Bird," a line of thought that, expanding, ventured into various types of symbolic birds, myth and ritual, until Ellison had reached a memory of the Blue Devils Orchestra, the precursor of Count Basie's band, which Ellison had known as a kid. Ellison recalled the Blue Devils, in the '30s, playing a song called "They Picked Poor Robin," which he described as a jazz community joke, "played to satirize some betrayal of faith or loss of love observed from the bandstand." It was often played at funerals, serving as the signal for the mourners to shake off the blues and dance.
Poor robin was picked again and again, and his pluckers were ever unnamed and mysterious. Yet the tune was inevitably productive of laughter even when we ourselves were its object. For each of us recognized that his fate was somehow our own. Our defeats and failures, even our final defeat by death, were loaded upon his back and given ironic significance and thus made more bearable.
Luke Jordan, a black guitarist from the Virginia piedmont, recorded a version of that song in 1927, called "Pick Poor Robin Clean," whose depths cannot be sounded; its lyrics are simple, yet unknowable, and Jordan betrays none of its secrets, offering menace and levity in one breath, his guitar forever on the move. You could sing a child to sleep with "Poor Robin," yet it's also terrifying.
Now if you have that
Gonna have your ma,
Your sister two,
your auntie three.
If your great-grandmammy do shivaree I'm gonna have her four,
I'm satisfied keepin' up the family.
Recorded 16 August 1927 and released as Victor 20957 (it sold exactly 5,973 copies); on Before the Blues Vol. 3.