Georgie Price

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BOOK: BILL RUSSELL AND THE NEW ORLEANS REVIVAL. By Ray Smith & Mike Pointon. With a foreword by George Avakian. ISBN978-1-78179-169-1 Published by Equinox Publishing,  2018. 354pp hardbound, illust. £50.

Straight off – let me say that I think this book is wonderful, simply wonderful and hard though I’ve looked, I can find no fault - other than the absence of a dust jacket – to either balance or temper my gushing approval.

  I never met Bill Russell, but I know many who did and like many readers of VJM I have heard so many stories about this great man, that having such a complete volume, the vast majority of which containing the words as spoken by Russell himself, is a real treasure.

  Authors Ray Smith and Mike Pointon (actually they are not really ‘authors’ as such in this case – they supply the written links between Russell’s own spoken words) interviewed Bill Russell over a seven day period in April 1990. Their interviews were ostensibly made with the hope and possibility of procuring a series of radio programs from their taped results. With the exception of one single broadcast (a Pointon headed documentary that concentrated on Bill Russell’s association with trumpeter Bunk Johnson) nothing has materialised... until now. Both Smith & Pointon are well known and much respected UK musicians and true ‘experts’ in the field and obviously knew how to prime Russell in such a way as to allow the full transcripts of their interviews to be transcribed with minimal editing and to read as uninterrupted narrative from a prodigious man, in full flow and with a million memories to share.

  From one of the book’s introductions, Pointon nicely describes how, during that memorable week/interview period, he had been so enthralled listening to so many authentic stories from the lips of a man who had personally known so many figures from jazz history.

  Many who have engaged Russell in conversation tell how he would constantly digress to another incident or meeting he had encountered - but if anything, these kind of deviations in the narrative made for an added fascination for the listener and this comes across as equally absorbing in this present text.  

  Bill Russell’s knowledge of New Orleans music was unequalled – his seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm for the genre – was infectious to those him knew him well or briefly interacted with him. From his first written contributions, most notably to the prestigious first publication of ‘Jazzmen’, to the hundreds of interviews with a veritable who’s who of Jazz history that he made. To the opening of his first record shop to the formation of his American Music record label and an endless life full of his projects, campaigns, archives,recordings, interviews and collections – they are all here. As is his ‘musicians life’ as a drum/ percussion composer, that he gave up...”because no one would play the stuff… (and)... after hearing Baby Dodds, this wonderful drummer , the greatest from New Orleans, I figured I couldn’t write anything that would sound half so good.”

  He was interested in every aspect of every musical instrument he encountered and how the players produced that ‘certain something’ i.e. the longer his great friend Bunk Johnson played his trumpet the harder his lips become, and the richer the tone he could provide – is just one of a myriad of observational titbits.  In his final days (Russell died in his beloved New Orleans in August 1992) he played himself featuring another of his own chosen instruments, the violin, while recording and touring Europe with Lars Edegran & the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra.

  If anybody had been there and done it -in a jazz life -  Bill Russell was the man! His reminiscences of his life in music - from hearing master clarinettist Johnny Dodds perform, to his first meeting with another of his heroes - the mighty Jelly Roll Morton, in the spring of 1938, constantly engage. He seems to have known just about everyone – so when he makes the occasional statement like “I didn’t know Tommy Ladnier (“they pronounced it Lad-ner”) very well”  it almost comes as a shock... and if it had come from a less modest man than Russell - it could read like a comparative boast!

  His huge archive (originally housed in his own French Quarter apartment attached to his record shop on Chartres Street) was used as the basis of the Tulane Jazz Archive that he founded and he became the first of many notable curators following his inevitable move from his home ‘up-north’ ‘down south’ to NOLA in 1956.

  While always willing to share, loan his research or sell his recordings - it was only on the basis that everything was fair and correct (either going to the ‘right person’ or sometimes generously calculated to the last cent!) he didn’t suffer fools gladly, or “bad time keepers” or “bullshitters, timewasters, and the like”.

  Russell’s natural extension of his interest in New Orleans jazz was with Gospel music . He became great friends with Mahalia Jackson (although was presumably bewildered by her love and admiration for Liberace! ) and he was happy that most black Church’s “jump” every Sunday night and he would put things into rightful perspective while seemingly mocking fellow record collectors, discographers etc when he wrote… “if there’s a Sanctified Church in your town it might pay you to look it up if you enjoy hearing good music more than looking at a record label.”

 I remember reading the same 1940s Record Changer article by Russell (reprinted here with just about every other article written by, or about him) that in part showed his admirable and aesthetic priorities while he discussed his favourite Pittsburgh preacher and singer… “Elder Beck may not be the world’s greatest musician, but he’s smart enough to know the tremendous power of music and how to use it to make a happier world. Music, one of the most powerful forces in the world, hasn’t the destructive ability of the atom but it has greater power to benefit man, and we have not begun to realise its potentialities.”

  Perhaps Russell’s greatest fame lies in The Jazz Revival of the Mid 1940s. He is generally regarded as spearheading this ill-defined movement (at a time of continuing racial unrest and distrust) – while  re-discovering past greats and promoting all current players, particularly those active in the Crescent City and on his own American Music record label.

  I remember first hearing Russell’s recording of Wooden Joe Nicholas’ Shake It & Break It with Albert Burbank et al. for the first time and being totally knocked out with this primitive, exhilarating, hot ‘new’ jazz – not the exceptional Sam Morgan Band or even Piron’s bands, but a new and different energy still playing in the old classic way. With all this said and done, there are many American Music and other Russell productions from the ‘Jazz Revival’ that I do not share his enthusiasm for… and while many readers of this magazine will treat this statement akin to an intention to burn down an orphanage – I include most George Lewis and even some Punch Miller recordings among that number!  But Russell would surely have forgiven me for such an outrageous statement… and lapse in education? Because all music and it’s appreciation really is a most subjective entity. And the affectionate and fervent way he speaks of his times, his music as well of those of his music friends – makes me want to go back and see what I missed out on.  Like many of us - he was a ferocious record collector and researcher himself – but was often happy to de-bunk soulless academia and the pretentious ‘musicologist’ in many of us… “as long as it’s hot and swings then it’s jazz.” Period.

  We are told that he didn’t embellish his stories and wasn’t prone to exaggeration – he was a modest man, but with so many wonderful anecdotes and memories of meetings and conversations with other legendary figures, it would be hard to imagine that a more authoritive and absorbing read exists. Every one of the jam-packed 335 pages has at least one great conversation or incident remembered, one fact or new detail documented.  Finally, if any ‘icing-on-the cake’ were needed (and it patently isn’t) I rough-count over 200 stunning B&W photographs and other illustrations reproduced throughout – many of which are published for the first time.

  Too often, major superlatives are applied to relatively minor achievements in the documentation of all strains of American Roots Music – but with a book such as this, a reviewer’s hackneyed final words of ‘essential’ ‘recommended’ or even ‘highly recommended’ seem somehow totally inadequate.  So I’ll boldly go further and conclude that absolutely anyone with the faintest interest in Jazz, New Orleans born or otherwise, or any keeper of the printed word interested in the brilliant and fascinating spoken words and wisdom of an equally brilliant and fascinating man should get a copy of this book – it will probably be the best of it’s kind you’ll ever own. OTT? I don’t think so.                                                                                                                                                                                                        



CD: BOBBY LEECAN - GUITAR MAESTRO. “Suitcase Breakdown”. Frog DCF86.

As a Philadelphia native who spent many a youthful excursion scouting for 78s on South Street in stores that guitarist Leecan and  harmonica player Robert Cooksey busked in front of years before, I am glad to see this set come to fruition.

  Leecan was an accomplished guitarist who had an excellent jazz sense; adding interesting runs instead of simply keeping time. Of course, he is best known for his work with Cooksey and together they entertained the patrons of Philly theaters during intermissions.

  There were a number of theaters hosting big Afro-American revues in the city then: The Standard Theatre at 11th and South Street had been the centre for black entertainment from the 1890s and, during its heyday in the 1920s, it hosted Bessie Smith, Ethel Water, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and countless others whose names appear on those great old record labels. Four blocks west was the Royal Theatre. A bit smaller (and still standing) it also featured these top names, and around the corner on Broad Street was the Lincoln Theatre which hosted the Lafayette Players as well as musical acts.

  Leecan had regular spots at these theaters, as well as gigs in Harlem (a 90-minute train ride from the B&O station a short walk away) and Atlantic City (70 minutes by train).

While most of the established Afro-American community in Philadelphia didn’t take to the down home stuff (trumpeter Charlie Gaines, a Philly native had never heard of Ma Rainey, for example and many others I was acquainted with had little patience for “non-professional” music) there was a constant influx of newcomers from the South for Leecan and Cooksey to entertain. Thus the South Street Trio and Leecan’s Need-More Band.

  The duo recorded Black Cat Bone Blues and Dirty Guitar Blues for Victor in 1926 and its success helped convince the company to join the other record companies in producing “race records.” The following sessions added Leecan’s brother Alfred Martin on guitar as the South Street Trio on Suitcase Breakdown, Cold Morning Shout, Shortnin’ Bread, Ain’t She Sweet. Then, adding Eddie Edinborough on washboard and an unknown cellist (who pretty much stayed in the wrong key) they recorded a riotous session as Leecan’s Need More Band— Apaloosa Blues, Midnight Susie and Washboard Cutout. Apaloosa was issued in the UK in 1927 and I forever wonder what the unsuspecting British record buyer thought of the pandemonium within the grooves of that disc.

  While recording for Victor, Leecan also represented Pathé /Perfect’s first attempt to tap into the emerging market for country blues after the success of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson.  Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out is an interesting version of a song that had bubbled around since 1906 when Bert Williams recorded All in Out and Down. The song became an iconic part of the American canon after Bessie Smith’s 1929 issue but Leecan’s version features very different lyrics.  In any case, the rarity of the disc today attests to its lack of success.

  Up in Harlem, Leecan (with and without Cooksey) recorded with Thomas Morris, a prominent trumpet player in the 1920s and made several sessions with the Waller-Morris Hot Babies on Victor. Red Hot Dan is the one side represented on this CD and Leecan’s guitar runs truly enhance this side, adding texture to the unusual voicings. With Cooksey, he teamed with Morris on the Dixie Jazzers Washboard Band for another wild session on Kansas City Shuffle and another version of Black Cat Bones.  Leecan was also called to accompany a number of female blues singers, two of which are presented here: Alberta Hunter in 1928 and Elizabeth Smith in 1926.

  His penultimate session took place in 1931 with Eddie Edinborough’s New Orleans Wildcats. While the recording name overstates the musical value of these sides, Leecan is still in good form, teaming with the vaudeville pianist Wesley Wilson.

  By then the Great Depression had put an end to the good- time skiffle sounds Leecan represented. Although he was undoubtedly much more versatile, Leecan faded from the music scene and died in Philadelphia in 1946.

  We must thank the excellent notes by Guido van Rijn for his excellent research on Leecan, Cooksey and Edinborough. It must be noted that, in the introduction, there is a discussion of Leecan’s similarity to “Charlie” Christian on some of the Victor recordings with Thomas Morris. The writer meant to say “Buddy” Christian [!].

  Transfers and production is to Frog’s usual high standards so it’s recommended.



BOOK: EXPRERIENCING BESSIE SMITH: A Listeners Companion. By John Clark. Published by Rowman & Littlefield. 186pp Hardbound. ISBN 978-1-4422-4340-8.

So much has been written about Bessie Smith that comparison with other dedicated works about her is inevitable. Everything that has been published on Bessie inevitably draws from Chris Albertson’s monumental first full length biography ‘Bessie’ (first published in 1971 and updated in 2003) and this latest book ‘Experiencing Bessie Smith’ is no exception.

  According to publisher Rowman & Littlefield and author John Clark’s back cover sales blurb, this book “illustrates and teaches us how to listen to Bessie Smith’s recordings”  Well, in all modesty, I think I know already... but for those of you who don’t – the question is - could this latest publication be beneficial to that most rewarding of experiences?  Unfortunately, I don’t think it does fulfil that specification – even though it is a great improvement on many of the tediously slanted Gay, Feminist, Black icon etc. biogs that seem to appear with monotonous regularity (I must say that I do not include Angela Y. Davis’ ‘Blues Legacies and Black Feminism’ which is nowhere near the ‘heavy’ read that a borderline misogynist might suppose from its title; hers is an insightful and meticulously researched study of Rainey, Smith & Billie Holiday that features full lyric transcriptions of all Smith’s recordings and is the best ‘new look’ on our lady for many a year).

  ‘Experiencing Bessie Smith’s blurb further tells us that “she toured long before setting her music to vinyl [sic]” So we also know that that there was life outside of the studio (presumably before the use of shellac) and the author nicely plots out the life and times of our heroine and although entirely drawing on secondary sources for his information, he has thankfully avoided the ‘Wikipedia school of accuracy’ and pools his information from the most reliable sources of Blues and Jazz documentation including some of Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff’s outstanding recent research (something that even Chris Albertson failed to do in his latest edition of ‘Bessie’). He successfully de-bunks many of the old perpetuating ‘chesnuts’ associated with Bessie’s biography including the circumstances following her fatal car accident in 1936 and with each section enlarged with biographic and historical ‘sketches’ presents the most up-to-date survey the singer and her satellites…as yet.

  However, I found myself arguing with the page, with what I can only assume were ill informed, throwaway lines about Bessie’s rivals… When Ma Rainey started her recording career in 1923 she was apparently… “acknowledged as past her prime” and later poor old Ma gets it again, this time in the company of Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter - “during the 1920s these four women made an aggregate total of more than five hundred recordings, which are, with very few exceptions, almost entirely forgotten today.”  Really? I do wonder on whose research these kind of statements were based?  But overall the main section of this book is a neatly put together, most readable and up-to-date, history of Smith.

  There are two other distinct sections to this book that create the problems for me as a reader and huge fan of ‘The Empress of the Blues’ (only another marketing slogan I know – but she deserved it!).  Author John Clark leads a trad Jazz band in Boston, MA, which goes someway to explain his seemingly greater preference to musical analysis of the accompanists (great, good or indifferent) than he does for the principal artist and subject of his book’s title – although In fairness, I suppose there are only so many ways that any author can go to describe the voice, phrasing, pitch control, interpretive power etc. etc. of someone even as unique and exceptional as Smith.

  My ‘section two’ is a kind of update or progression of Edward Brooks ‘The Bessie Smith Companion’ (first published in 1982) but unlike Brooks’ complete and chronological, song-by-song approach, Clark ‘cherry-picks’ his favourites titles. So, just as an example, one of my own personal favourites, St Louis Gal, with its outstanding melody, emotional lifts and unique coordination of Bessie’s vibrato and the tremolos of two (!) pianists... is summarily dismissed in passing as “less interesting”. I don’t expect anyone to like the same songs as I do, but as a self-confessed ‘musicologist’, Clark could surely have provided more coverage, depth and expertise to this, and many more of Bessie’s relatively large and fascinating recorded output.

  He rightly draws attention to other songs, where true composer credits are dubious, e.g. the ‘down home’ lyrics of a number like Workhouse Blues would seem more likely to have come from Bessie herself than from the white Columbia A&R man Ed Kirkeby who, we’ll assume, claimed composer credits/rights as a session handler’s perk. 

  There are very few lyrics quoted – which again is a great shame as many of these ‘firsts’ - being tin pan alley or original blues compositions – are deserving of new or ‘revised’ analysis.

  There is a great little chapter on the song and film ‘St Louis Blues’, where, some researchers may be surprised to read that Thomas Morris doesn’t get a mention but the author “visually and aurally” identifies Joe Smith and Sidney De Paris as the horn players as definitely appearing in Bessie’s two reeler.

  I can only assume that the final section of this book, under the  heading of ‘influences and legacy’ where separate biographical sections on Connie Boswell, Janis Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald, Big Joe Williams and Bob Wills were added as ‘padding’. That these artists were included simply because they ‘admired’ Bessie Smith or covered one of her songs  – seems rather a random selection. There are few discerning blues or jazz musicians in history that didn’t admire or, however indirectly, were influenced by her! Smith together with Ma Rainey and maybe to a lesser extent,  Bessie’s non- relative, Clara Smith  and Rosa Henderson were THE pioneers during the early 1920s, who through their record releases popularised a form of blues phrasing and delivery that I am sure influenced ALL blues singers, both male and female of that time and that we still hear today.

 It is finally worth noting that some truly excellent Bessie Smith session analysis is being undertaken by Wayne B. Shirley for The Ranson Hogan jazz Archive’s half-yearly newsletter/magazine ‘The Jazz Archivist’. But waiting six months at a time for a new chapter of any story is frustrating to say the least.  In the meanwhile, I would recommend - with the above reservations - this latest ‘listeners companion’ to the Bessie Smith library - according to John Clark. ​                                                                                                                                                                                         



CD: FLETCHER HENDERSON & HIS ORCHESTRA - “DO THAT THING.” Vocalian and Pathé recordings 1924 - 25. 25 tracks.  Frog DGF87 

Fletcher Henderson was one of the small number of black band leaders who made it big in the 1920s and managed to maintain that position into the Swing era of the following decade, not least because of his status as chief arranger for the Benny Goodman orchestra at precisely the time Goodman was being hailed as the ‘King of Swing’… and it’s for his ground-breaking charts with this outfit that many jazz lovers know his name and his work. I suspect that a good few of them have probably never heard any of his 1920s recordings and wouldn’t give the earlier ones, at least, much time if they did. But the seeds of Henderson’s orchestrating genius were already germinating in the period covered by this CD and many of the tracks here are as interesting for their arrangements as for the hot solo work provided by the stars playing them. 

  The Henderson orchestra was first and foremost a dance band, playing at this time at the Club Alabam, which is credited on some of the Vocalion issues. There has in the past been much speculation about how different the band might have sounded away from the recording studio, with the musicians not confined to the 3-minute format recording demanded. But in an interview given, I think, by Don Redman somewhat later, he made the point that dance bands were expected to stick rigidly to the 3-minute formula, otherwise the club hostesses – who charged ’10 cents a dance’ – wouldn’t make enough of an evening. So what we hear on this CD will be very much what the patrons of the Club Alabam would have heard 94 years ago! Except, of course, they would have heard the band in glorious full frequency sound, whereas we have to make do with the best the acoustic recording studios could manage. In the case of Vocalion (from whose catalogue the majority of these recordings come) the sound quality was amongst the better examples of the period; Pathé, on the other hand, tended to produce a sharp, often grating sound, with an undertone of bass rumble caused by the absurdly outdated method they used to record - the actual recording was made onto a huge wax cylinder and then it was pantographically copied onto a wax master disc, with huge amounts of mechanical noise imparted into the final record by the copying process. The important issue, however, is that Fletcher Henderson wrote his arrangements precisely to fit the restricted length allowed for each tune in the club venues. As the 1920s progressed, he developed this talent and turned out some of the best big-band arrangements of the day. Meanwhile, his pupil from this period, Don Redman, did much the same for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, in some ways beating Henderson at his own game. 

  This CD, then, features tracks that show Henderson in transition from being very much a dance-band leader to becoming a leading light in the jazz world; although most of the tracks here are largely hot, this wasn’t true of many other titles Henderson recorded for other labels. It opens with Chicago  Blues from the Vocalion session of March 25, 1924; like so many such numbers of the time, this is not a blues at all – other titles here include Tea Pot Dome Blues, Mobile Blues and Forsaken Blues. The term ‘blues’ was deemed by music publishers to be a big selling point for a popular tune – which is why the Melrose Brothers retitled Morton’s The Wolverines as Wolverine Blues; Morton took the point, as the sales ratcheted up and so didn’t demur, because up to the mid-20s, the success of a pop tune depended on sheet-music rather than record sales. That said, Henderson obviously was good for the recording industry, as many of his discs clearly sold in big numbers, not least, perhaps, because his arrangements made them far more interesting to listen and dance to than the output of some of his contemporaries, who depended on the publishers’ stock arrangements, which could often be pretty mundane. Not so with Henderson, as can be heard here: Feelin’ the Way I Do from this first session is a very good example of how he alternated arranged passages, often with extended ‘call and response’ phrasing, with hot solos.

  Tea Pot Dome Blues refers to a political scandal that led to the resignation of the then Secretary of the Navy, and is one of the most interesting titles on the CD from the point of the view of the arrangement, which features a trombone solo backed by the reeds, with a series of finely punctuated breaks, then bursting into a rasping muted trumpet solo. Henderson himself solos on Mobile Blues for a half-chorus, demonstrating just how complex his style was compared to most dance band pianists of the period. I Don’t Know and I Don’t Care has some of the most relaxed swing the band produced at this time, which avoids the 1920s tendency to plod on slower numbers; its session mate, Strutters’ Drag, is taken at a slightly faster tempo but is equally swingy and includes some excellent double-time passages, a stylistic device that was quite rare at the time and something of a Hendersonian innovation.

  The title track, Do That Thing, was a Sidney Bechet composition and is one of the few titles Henderson recorded to have a vocal, provided here by Rosa Henderson – no relation but a blues singer and vaudeville artist, whom her namesake often accompanied on recordings, as did Edgar Dowell, who composed the next track, Those Broken Busted, Can’t Be Trusted Blues, which is in this case also a true blues with a fine chorus by trumpeter Howard Scott.

  The Gouge of Armour Avenue is noteworthy for another fine and blues-tinged solo from a new member of the band, Charlie Green on trombone. The same session produced one of the hottest renditions of the big hit Hard Hearted Hannah, which includes a blistering trumpet solo and a complex solo from Coleman Hawkins on tenor. A New Kind of Man was the first Henderson track I ever heard – as a teenager, when it was re-issued on a Jazz Collector EP. It opens with a series of goofus breaks, by Don Redman, who later plays a solo, deemed to be on the same instrument, though in his review of the EP I mentioned, Brian Rust explained it to be a cuesnophone (pronounced ‘queenophone’). He later lists just a goofus in his Jazz Records personnel – but it’s clearly not a goofus and sounds much more like Adrian Rollini’s hot fountain pen!

  The first Pathé session on the CD is also the first to feature Louis Armstrong, as well as the first, on which Don Redman is given arranger credits. Henderson was as much a businessman as a musician – as witness the fact that he managed to record for every major and middle-ranking company at this period, with the sole exception of OKeh (though he didn’t record for Victor under his own name till 1927) – and his decision to sign Armstrong was a risky one. But the attraction of having a major jazz star in his ranks obviously overcame any doubts; and it was one more step along the path to abandoning the ‘straight’ dance band with solos format. The lower quality recorded sound of the Pathé studios and their insistence on fewer hot moments is, then, more than made up for by the added punch provided by Armstrong’s presence in the front line and his fiery muted solos – which provide almost the only satisfying passages on Tell Me, Dreamy Eyes and My Rose Marie.  Incidentally, as the liner notes discuss, Armstrong was still playing cornet at this time. Mention is made of a photo that proves this (though it’s not included in the CD booklet), but his solos are clearly played on a cornet, even if he may have used a trumpet in the ensembles – the tone of the instrument is unmistakable. The next Vocalion session produced the justly famous and much re-issued title Copenhagen: Armstrong bursts out from the preceding clarinet trio and infuses the brass passages with tremendous fire and ‘push’. This is a signature recording.

  Henderson recorded Shanghai Shuffle on the Pathé session above, but the Vocalion version is so much better, a different arrangement with fine solos from Armstrong and Charlie Green. He recorded two more ‘blues’ for Pathé in early 1925: Poplar Street Blues is in fact one of the fastest numbers on the CD, featuring a fine trombone solo and another fiery contribution from Armstrong and a similar shorter solo from Hawkins…this is probably the best Pathé side. 12th Street Blues is also up-tempo, though not as inspired a performance as Poplar Street, in spite of two excellent Armstrong solos. His cornet dominates the ensembles and brass passages on Memphis Bound, and the final track, When You Do What You Do, includes probably his best solo with Henderson, backed by off-beat cymbal rhythm from Kaiser Marshall, which allows Armstrong to play back and forth across the beat.

  The re-mastering of these tracks by Nick Dellow is, as always, excellent and the deficiencies of the Pathé system have been neatly removed. An excellent re-issue.

Max Easterman


4 CD SET: A Rhythm And Blues Chronology Volume Six: 1938-39. RANDBO 47. Rhythm and Blues Records.

The term “Rhythm and Blues” was first used in the trade magazine Billboard in 1943 and from 1949, replaced “Race Music” for its chart listings of African-American music.  It was, like “Race Music”,  a portmanteau term embracing both blues and gospel music of various kinds and varieties of  jazz and pop music. This set’s 108 titles does not offer us a “snapshot” of the most popular African–American records of 1938- 1939: if it did the Robert Johnson titles Preachin’ Blues and Stop Breakin’ Down Blues would not be included here! (they are very scarce records). Instead, it showcases the variety of genres and styles that the major companies, RCA Victor (sometimes on their Bluebird label), Columbia (with their “race” label Vocalion), Brunswick and Decca released. The compilers distinguish “Down-Home Blues” from “Urban City Blues” and “Boogie-woogie” and then identify “Swing, Jive and Kansas City Jazz” as well as “Gospel and Vocal groups” as defining types of Rhythm & Blues.  The set also includes a splendid group of Western Swing records which illustrate, among other things, the effect that certain African-American musical forms had upon a type of white, rural music in the 1930s. 

  A fusion of Old Time string band music with elements of blues and the driving rhythms of big band Swing and small group jive, Western Swing emerged in Texas and Oklahoma perhaps in the early 1930s. “The King of Western Swing” was Bob Wills whose 1938 recording of Keep Knocking is an excellent cover of Lil Johnson’s 1935 rendition rather than, as the notes propose, a version of James “Boodle It” Wiggins’ scare Paramount recording of 1928. More immediately, Cliff Bruner’s Kangaroo Blues was written by the urbane Ollie Shepard (an obscure but prolific African-American pianist, singer and songwriter) and highlighted by Bob Dunn’s lap steel guitar playing which also distinguishes Mean Mistreater by Bob Dunn’s Vagabonds. Ultimately, this guitar style had its origins in the music of the Hawaiian musicians who were so hugely popular on the vaudeville stages of early 20th century America, but the African-American adoption of the technique (slide or bottleneck guitar) was I think, more directly significant.  The wonderful Red Hot Blues by Casey Bill Weldon, “The Hawaiian Guitar Wizard”, neatly makes the point: its swinging dance rhythms and smooth, ringing guitar notes lead to Western Swing as does the brilliant Kokomo Arnold’s Goin’ Down in Galilee. Just how fluid some musical categories were is suggested by the splendid Floyd’s Guitar Blues where Floyd Smith’s electric lap steel guitar playing (derived from Western Swing?) is thrillingly meshed with the driving Kansas City jazz of Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy.

“Swing” is well represented on this compilation in both its Big band and small group settings. Count Basie’s self-explanatory Swinging the Blues and his big band version of the old blues, Mama Don’t Allow with vocal by Jimmy Rushing, sit comfortably with Louis Jordan’s small group recording, Somebody Hoodooed the Hoodoo Man, (later picked up by Junior Wells).  Jimmy Lunceford’s fine Well Alright Then and Ain’t What You Do, Slim and Slam’s Beatin’ The Boards and the Harlem Ham Fats’ Candy Man with an expressive vocal by Rosetta Howard, make the point that “Swing” was essentially a dance mode. It defines both the relaxed syncopation of Washboard Sam (Serve It Right),and the hard driving Plucking The Blues by Cab Calloway; and is heard in Cootie Wiliams and His Rug Cutters’ Ain’t That Gravy Good as well as wonderful sides like Baby, Look At You  by Pete Johnson & The Boogie Boys.

  As practised by the big three – Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons – Boogie Woogie was very much part of the wide popularity of the Big Band Swing craze of the late 1930s and 40s, and attracted a large, and white, audience far beyond the African-American communities at whom “Race” and then, “Rhythm and Blues” records were primarily directed. Thus, some of the outstanding tracks here – Pete Johnson’s Holler Stomp and Albert Ammons’ quite brilliant Bass Goin’ Crazy and Suit Case Blues were released by Blue Note: they were among the very first records that German émigré , Alfred Lions cut for his fledgling label after he saw the Boogie Woogie Trio at the 1938 Spirituals To Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall.  I also suspect that Leadbelly’s thundering and thrilling Gallis Pole recorded for Musicraft, was not primarily aimed at a Black audience! Others, like The Boogie Man by Jimmie Gordon’s Vip Vop Band were. Recorded for Decca’s “Sepia” catalogue, it features the spirited boogie piano of Sam Price and a stirring alto sax solo by Buster Bennett (they sound like a miniature swing orchestra!), whilst Vocalion issued the ever versatile Big Bill Broonzy’s Sad Pencil Blues which showcased the stomping piano playing of the underrated Joshua Altheimer, a spritely clarinet solo by Bill Owsley, and the electric guitar of George Barnes.

  The urban and the urbane came in a variety of forms. It ranged from Louis Jordan’s celebration of the latest dance craze Doug The Jitterbug, complete with “hipster” lyrics, to the reflective piano blues of Roosevelt Sykes’ 44 Blues, was his fourth version of this great piano theme which he’d first recorded in 1929, and the lovely Night Time Is the Right also became a blues standard. Again, Bill Gaither’s outstanding Mean Old World to Live In with Honey Hill on piano (evoking Leroy Carr), could be found in the Decca catalogue alongside Count Basie’s very “cool” instrumental blues Red Wagon. And Lee Brown’s Lemon Roller which marries traditional erotic imagery with his sophisticated piano playing, neatly contrasts with the hipster argot of Lionel Hampton’s The Jumpin’ Jive.

  In contrast to the “sounds of the city “, the major record companies also issued a significant number of “country “ or “Down-Home” blues records which where, I think aimed  both at the migrant populations from the South who’d move north and at those who remained “down home”.  Thus, Bluebird issued the rough-voiced Delta guitarist Tommy McClennan’s big hit Bottle It Up and Go whilst Vocalion recorded typical rags by North Carolina’s Blind Boy Fuller – You Got Something There and the mildly salacious I Want Some of Your Pie. The obscure Elijah Jones plays an exhilarating Stuff Stomp which showcases the mandolin talents of Yank Rachell who was a long time musical partner of Sleepy John Estes. Estes is represented here by two of his fine Decca recordings – the up tempo Liquor Store and the great New Some Day Baby. Both Jones and Estes, were associates of Sonny Boy Williamson who’s featured here with  his compelling, first record, Good Morning, Little School Girl” – it became a blues standard – on which his singing and playing are brilliantly augmented by the guitars of Big Joe Williams and Robert Lee McCoy. The musical careers of Williamson and McCoy (i.e. Robert Nighthawk) exemplify the transformation in the late 1930s of an essentially rural ensemble sound into what has often been called, rather disparagingly, the “Bluebird beat”, and beyond that to the post-war Chicago blues. Another major Chicago musician who bridged the years to Post war blues was the great Tampa Red well represented here by the excellent Hellish Old Feeling.  

  One of the pleasures of this release is that it showcases a range of women singers and their styles. The sophistication of Billie Holiday, whose voice caresses the lyrics of Fine and Mellow (my favourite) and Long Gone Blues, to the mellow voiced Helen Humes, who replaced Holiday as vocalist with Count Basie’s band (and appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1938) is contrasted with the rougher, often exuberant performances of Lil’ Johnson (Bucket’s Got A Hole In It) and “The Yas Yas Girl”, Merline Johnson, whose I’d Rather Be Drunk evokes the sounds of Chicago’s Southside taverns. Trixie Smith who first recorded My Daddy Rocks Me (Paramount 12164) in 1922, reprised it for Decca in 1938 with an outstanding accompaniment by Sammy Price on piano and the brilliant Sidney Bechet on clarinet and thus revived the “classic or vaudeville” idiom: perhaps in response to the interest in African-American musical traditions and history occasioned by Hammond’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concerts (and, I would argue, Bessie Smith’s death in 1937). I enjoyed all of these records, but not more so than the two titles by the great but neglected Georgia White. She’s been a favourite of mine since I first heard her brilliant Blues Ain’t Nothing But, and although the two titles here are not her best, Worried Head Blues and the slow Beggin’ My Daddy where I suggest, the unknown guitarist is Lonnie Johnson, showcase both her considerable vocal and piano playing talents.

  John Hammond’s two “Spirituals to Swing” concerts in 1938 and 1939 played a very important role in introducing a variety of African – American musical genres to mainstream, white audiences and helped shape the later careers of artists as diverse as Albert Ammons and Sonny Terry, Big Bill Broonzy (who replaced Hammond’s first choice to represent “primitive” blues – the recently deceased Robert Johnson!), and the Golden Gate Quartet who have three marvellous sides here. They were one of the most influential groups in the history of gospel music and their version of Traveling Shoes from their second session for Bluebird shows why. Rhythmic complexity, the interplay of four beautiful voices (Bill Johnson, Henry Owens, William Langford, Orlandus Wilson) and their precise timing and articulation make this a wonderful record. Throughout their recording career, “the Gates” also performed secular material like their charming version of Stormy Weather. Another important jubilee group recorded by Bluebird were the Heavenly Gospel Singers; their Do Lord, Send Me! features the amazing bass voice of Jimmy Bryant.  Decca’s answer to “the Gates” was the very fine Selah Jubilee Singers: their Traveling Shoes is an individual interpretation rather than a copy of the Gates’ performance of the song.

  This then is an eclectic mix of records – some great, some rather ordinary - which taken together gives us a picture of popular African-American styles and their transformative spread into the main stream of American popular music in the late 1930s. The sound quality is generally very good but a few tracks are poorly reproduced and the review copy did have some pressing glitches.  Nonetheless, this is a very enjoyable and, I found, illuminating compilation. Recommended.



VINYL RECORD: CHARLES ASBURY. 4 Banjo Songs 1891-1897. Archeophone Records.

Thanks to modern digital technology, recordings from the dawn of phonograph history can be rescued from their wax entombment and offered to today’s historians. The challenges of salvaging these recordings is huge: they often ran at unsteady speeds causing all kinds of wow and flutter, the wax cylinders deteriorated very quickly from wear and mold rendering most unplayable, or, at best, difficult listening.  Only a handful are known to have survived.

  Also, it is a general assumption that very little of interest was recorded before the 1920s – and that certainly was the case in the USA after Victor and Columbia monopolized recording activities in the first years of the new century.  But before then, there were a number of small companies making cylinder recordings, and their output is not well known because the vast majority of their issues have been lost and the information in surviving catalogs was often quite vague, giving only song titles or generic descriptions (“banjo solo”, “tenor” etc). As it turns out, these companies did record artists who would be of interest to blues and country collectors (or American vernacular music as the scholars put it) in addition to the usual marches, vaudeville tunes, novelties and sentimental songs. One of those artists was Charles Asbury, whose recording of Haul the Woodpile Down resurfaced only seven years ago.

  Archeophone has produced several collections already featuring such material (most notably “Lost Sounds”) and continues doing so with the pioneer banjoist and singer Charles Asbury. Asbury was born in Florida, in 1856 or 7 and raised in Augusta Georgia. He was probably of mixed race ancestry, being listed alternatively as black or white in various census reports. He recorded with the Afro-American Unique Quartet in 1890-3 (also reissued by Archeophone) and, as a stage performer, began recording for the New Jersey Phonograph Company in the early 1890s. The 1894 New Jersey Phonograph Company catalog lists 13 songs by Asbury with the note “Mr. Asbury’s work is full of ginger, his songs being rendered in the good old plantation negro style. As a colored minstrel he is favorably known. His execution on the banjo is characteristic.”

  Two of the four titles in this collection are listed in this catalog: New Coon in Town, an uptempo banjo romp and Haul the Woodpile Down, which was a favorite of 1920s country groups, including Uncle Dave Macon (more about him below). He made a number of other cylinders for Columbia and various Edison affiliates including Keep in the Middle Ob De Road and Never Done Anything Since.

  Listeners familiar with early country music will hear a marked similarity to Uncle Dave Macon (born 1870) who offered one of the very few windows to 19th Century music on record. Macon made hundreds of recordings, but did not begin recording  until 1924.

  Now a note on the Archeophone issue: its format is nearly as obsolete at the cylinder: It’s a 45 rpm EP (although, thankfully, it has an LP/78-sized spindle hole). The EP, which offers 2 songs on each side, is probably the only workable format (other than download) for an artist for whom only four songs have survived.  The sound restoration is nothing short of a miracle. Each track is clear, properly speeded with no noticeable wow or flutter. One reason is the use of the recently developed CPS1 Cylinder Playback System that is custom made for modern playback of these ancient recordings. And digitalization of the sound files enables restoration programs to reduce the wow and flutter. The results are truly amazing.

  We also must pay thanks to researchers Richard Martin and Ted Olsen for their exhaustive biography of Asbury in the 16-page booklet that comes with the disc.

  It must be noted that many historical projects are undertaken after their originators receive government, university or foundation grants. Restoration of sound recordings is one of the few ventures where collectors volunteer their time, money and talent to do these on their own. Charles Ashbury will never make it to anyone’s hit parade but we are all richer for that fact that at least a few of his recordings have been found and preserved. For that reason alone, the set is worth buying, but do so because it’s also a good listen.