•January 13, 2008 • Leave a Comment
Not much is known about John Scruggs except that he was recorded playing this tune (accompanied by his family) in November 1928 for Fox Movietone news from Richmond Virginia where he lived.
Scruggs was born a slave and was a sharecropper at the time that this film was recorded. His music is an example of an afro-american banjo playing tradition than predates that of white settlers in the Appalachians.
•January 10, 2008 • Leave a Comment
Moran Lee “Dock” Boggs was born in Norton Virginia in 1898.
A coalminer by trade but he learnt to play the banjo as a child, so when representatives of the Brunswick recording label visited Norton in 1927 Dock did a test and they took him to New York to record 12 sides. Dock’s recordings had some local success but the onset of the depression combined with his wife’s ill health forced him to quit his ambitions as a musician and return to the mines.
Boggs would hock his banjo and not pick up another for 30 years. Dock had a unique way of playing the banjo which involves using 3 fingers to pick the strings in an upward direction similar to the method employed to fingerpick a guitar (especially blues musicians).
In fact the method used by Dock is so different to the Earl Scruggs bluegrass clawhammer technique that Dock’s method is referred to as “the other way” by banjo players.
The other notable thing about Dock’s music is that it is rooted in black blues (whom Dock no doubt observed around his local area) and is definitely not bluegrass.
In the mid 50’s Dock was forced out of mining by mechanisation but in 1963 Mike Seeger tracked Dock down in Norton and convinced him to pick up a banjo once more. Dock recorded 3 albums which although do not have the vibrancy of his 20’s recordings, give an unique insight to his music and the musician (he also recorded interviews with Seeger).
Here is a clip from Docks’ prime (and probably his most famous recording, country blues.
•January 9, 2008 • Leave a Comment
Earl Hooker was a guitarist’s guitarist, one of the finest slide blues guitarist of his generation. Born in Clarksdale Mississippi (he is a cousin of John Lee Hooker) but his musical career didn’t really start until his family moved to Chicago, where Earl would cut his musical teeth playing on street corners (occasionally with Bo Diddley). Earl would strike up a friendship with legendary blues slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk, who would develop Earl’s own technique (not dissimilar to Nighthawk’s own). In 1949 Earl moved to Memphis to join Ike Turner’s band and they began touring the south, he also appeared on Memphis Radio (KFFA) with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) before returning to Chicago in the 1950’s where he formed his own band.
He made recordings for small labels such as Sun, King and Rockin, he even appeared on English TV show “ready, steady, go” during a European tour. Hooker spent ,most of the 60’s playing Chicago clubs (mostly alongside harp player Junior Wells).
Earl also toured with the American Folk Blues Package where this clip comes from.
Hooker suffered from Tuberculosis for most of his life and this probably prevented him from becoming a bigger star, he finally succumbed to the disease in 1970 at the age of 41.
•January 7, 2008 • Leave a Comment
Josh White was in many senses a trailblazer; popular country bluesman in the early 1930’s, responsible for introducing a mass white audience to folk-blues in the 1940’s (first black singer-guitarist to star in Hollywood films and broadway). On one hand he was famous for his civil rights songs which made him a favourite of the Roosevelts (for whom he played “uncle sam says” 3 times in 1940) and on the other for his sexy stage persona (a first for a black male artist).
The 1950s brought trouble for White when he was embroiled in the right wing McCarthytes anti-communist investigations. (they had assumed that he was a communist from his human rights stance in song and speeches at rallies).White was not a Communist, and was not active in any political party. However, when he was told that people’s human rights were being threatened and asked to participate in a benefit or a rally, he was always willing to lend his voice to the cause. He was informed that he was on a list of 151 artists suspected of being communist sympathisers whilst on tour in Europe (they even threatened to deport him back to Europe on his arrival back in the US despite being a US citizen). White told the FBI that he would go to Washington to appear before the HUAC Committee and set the record straight. Eleanor Roosevelt warned him that the HUAC would try to turn his testimony against him, White also visited his close friend Paul Robeson who also advised White against visiting the HUAC, but White felt that he wanted to clear his name and could ill afford the sanctions that the HUAC could impose on his right to make a living from music.
At his subsequent hearing White denounced communism (although gave no names of any communists) and spoke out about comments allegedly made by Paul Robeson, this lead to a backlash from his fans who assumed that he had named Robeson and others as communists. This lead to him being blacklisted by the right (who didn’t believe his testimony) and the left (who thought he had betrayed them).White relocated to London for much of 1950 to 1955, where he hosted his own BBC radio show “my guitar is as old as father time” and resumed his recording career. Back in the US White remained blacklisted until 1963 when John F Kennedy invited him onto the national CBS Television’s civil rights’s “special dinner with the President”. White was to make several TV appearances until his death from heart disease in 1969. (he had suffered from heart disease for most of the 1960’s).
Here is a rare colour clip from Josh Whites’ roots, performing John Henry in 1941.
•January 5, 2008 • Leave a Comment
Today’s installment is actually a familiar tune to most (thanks to Canned Heat’s cover of it as “Going up the country”) but the remarkable thing about it apart from the fact that is a great song is the man behind it.
Henry Thomas was born in Big Sandy Texas sometime around 1874 to a family of former slaves and sharecroppers (cotton), ran away from home when he was 13 (he didn’t like farming) and spent the rest of his life as a travelling minstrel. He played his guitar, sang and played quills (home made pan pipes attached round the neck) which is the instrument that can be heard playing the famous melody on this track. These instruments were popular at the end of the 19th century and can be directly traced back to west Africa.
The remarkable thing is that at the time that this track was recorded in the late 1920’s, Henry was already in his 50’s and the track (his own composition) would have been typical of Afro-American music in the late 1800s early 20th century. It is an example of music that existed at least 20 years before any “blues” tracks were pressed onto shellac.
Perhaps it is testament to Canned Heat’s copy of the song that the tune is so recognisable, it seems a bit weird that a track recorded in the 1920’s should evoke images of Woodstock era hippies though.
Henry disappeared after making his last recordings in Chicago in the late 1920’s (probably resumed his travelling) although some report seeing him play on Texas street corners as late as the 1950s
•January 4, 2008 • Leave a Comment
I have been listening to a compilation of black rock’n’roll numbers this week and one of the tracks got me puzzling about who the artists were (especially the crazy steel guitar part).
Anyway, turns out that Bo Dudley was the stage name of Oscar Coleman and the guitarist (who I thought sounded a bit like Earl Hooker) was actually Freddie Roulette. Big Moose Walker plays piano and Mac Thompson is on bass.
The other surpising thing about this track is that it was recorded in 1968 (sounded like a late 50’s track to me).
Freddie is still going strong (in the Oakland area) by all accounts, as this appearance on the Bruce Latimer show confirms, performing Sleepwalk.
I guess Oscar Coleman is doing ok too as he is booked to play the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans on the 29th and 30th of April this year.
•January 3, 2008 • Leave a Comment
I kind of rediscovered this track whilst sifting through some mp3s on my PC. Ivory Joe Hunter (his real name) came from a musical family in Kirbyville Texas and became a talented pianist in his early teens. He recorded for Alan Lomax in 1933 before getting involved in Texas radio in the 1940s. He became a member of Johnny Moore’s Blazers and started a prolific songwriting career when his “blues at sunrise” (issued on his own Ivory Records) became a local hit. He also started Pacific Records before becoming one of the early 1950’s most prolific R&B stars (mostly for MGM Records) and it is for these recordings that he is best known. He moved to Atlantic Records in 1954 having already notched up at least 100 recorded sides. Hunter had a very smooth almost crooning vocal style, which had country overtones at times and he seemed to be popular with country and western fans. Ivory Joe was invited to Graceland by Elvis in 1957 where the pair spent the day singing “I almost lost my mind”, Elvis would record Hunters “My Wish Came True” and “Ain’t That Loving You, Baby” later in his career.
Hunter’s popularity as an artist faded at the end of the 1950’s but he continued writing songs, he wrote in the region of 7000 songs in the course of his career.
In the late 60’s Ivory Joe made a come back as a country artist (appearing on the Grand Ole Opry) and releasing a couple of albums. Which brings me nicely back to the track that I have become obsessed with of late, the self penned “Cold Grey Light of Dawn” a real forgotten classic. It has been covered by Nick Lowe but his version pales in comparison to this.
Ivory Joe died from lung cancer in 1974.