Archive for the ‘1928’ Category

‘Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me . . .’

October 22, 2021

It was ninety-three years ago today in Atlanta, on October 22, 1928 – according to the notes to the CD The Essential Jimmie Rodgers – that the Singing Brakeman recorded a song that I’d guess is one of his best-known: “Waiting For A Train.” The recording was released the following February as Bluebird 5163.

I imagine that my first exposure to the tune came with Boz Scaggs’ version, found on his 1969 self-titled album recorded in Muscle Shoals, a track highlighted by Duane Allman’s sweet work on dobro. (Also on the album, of course, is the epic “Loan Me A Dime,” which features Allman’s ferocious slide work.) I got the album in the spring of 1989, but I imagine I’d heard Scagg’s version of the tune long before, though I have no idea when.

Scaggs’ version is just one of more than eighty covers of the tune listed at Second Hand Songs. Three versions are listed from 1929, by Riley Puckett, by Ed (Jake) West, and by Carson Robison and Frank Luther, who recorded as the Jimson Brothers.

The most recent version of “Waiting For A Train” listed at the site was by Billy Bragg and Joe Henry. They recorded the song in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, the same room where Robert Johnson recorded twenty-three tracks during three sessions in November 1936. Bragg and Henry released their version in 2016 on the album Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad.

There was a surprise, though, waiting for me at Second Hand Songs. Listed with the versions of “Waiting For A Train” were thirteen versions of the song “Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me,” with the words credited to Mississippi John Hurt. The website says that Hurt first recorded the song in 1966, a take that was included on the posthumous 1972 album Last Sessions.

I’ve noted here before that Second Hand Songs is a good place to start but not always complete. That’s the case here, as in the digital stacks here I find a version of “Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me” that Hurt recorded in 1963 for the Library of Congress. That version was first released in 1982 on an album titled Avalon Blues: The Library of Congress Recordings, Vol. 2 and has been released on several anthologies since (as has the 1966 version) as shown by the photo in the video below.

Whichever came first, it’s a surprise and a delight to hear the same melody as Rodgers’ “Waiting For A Train” used as the basis for an entirely different song (as was frequently the case in the folk and blues tradition).

Digging In The Long-Gone Past

February 26, 2021

One of the things I got for Christmas from the Texas Girl in December was a newly released collection of vintage music titled The Harry Smith B-Sides. Harry Smith, as most readers likely known, was the eccentric music collector who in the early 1950s. assembled from his collection of 78s an eighty-four-track mélange of music from the 1920s and 1930s.

That collection was released in 1952  on the Folkways label as The Anthology of American Folk Music, and it became a seminal artifact in the development of the folk scene of the 1950s and early 1960s.

There was an obscure logic to the way Smith arranged the collection, grouping the eighty-four songs in three categories, but listeners and musicians, or so said news pieces I saw last autumn, have often wondered what kind of collection would one find if one listened to the flip sides of the records Smith included in his anthology.

Well, that’s exactly what the folks at the Dust to Digital label did in the collection The Harry Smith B-Sides. And that’s some of the music I’ve been absorbing over the last two months. The whole thing is made more interesting because as the release date for the collection came near, Dust to Digital’s project found itself smack in the middle of last summer’s discussions of racial and social justice.

And not to be a tease, but I’m still working out the ideas for a longer piece on the new set and the issues it touched. That should show up here next week, I hope. In the meantime, here’s one of the funnier songs – but one that’s still imbued with some violent imagery – from Smith’s original 1952 anthology.

Here’s “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” by Chubby Parker & His Old-Time Banjo, a retelling of the old tune “Froggie Went A-Courtin’.” The track was recorded in New York City on August 13, 1928, and was released on the Columbia label.

One From 12-28

December 28, 2016

Well, as we edge closer and closer to the end of the year, we’re going to spend a few days listening to tunes recorded in late December over the years.

In New York City in December 1928, Mississippi John Hurt laid down a number of tracks for the Okeh label. (The question arises: How many tracks? Well, the 1996 CD in my stacks – subtitled The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings – has thirteen tracks. The YouTube page devoted to Hurt lists an album titled Spike Driver Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings released this year that includes nineteen tracks, which tells me that six tracks have come to light in recent years.) Okeh seems to have released six records from the sessions, but they didn’t do well on the market, and Hurt went back to farming in Mississippi. He was rediscovered in 1963 and went on to record several albums until his death in 1966.

Hurt’s often called a bluesman because he was rediscovered during the years when researchers, musicians, historians and just plain fans combed the southern states for artists who had recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. But Hurt’s music, with its light-fingered picking and lilting voice, has little of the blues in it, despite the titles of many of his tunes.

That’s the case with the track below, “Got the Blues (Can’t Be Satisfied),” recorded on December 28, 1928, eighty-eight years ago today. And I wish I had a tale to hang on the track – or any of Hurt’s work – but all I can say is that anytime I hear his nimble guitar work and his mellow voice, my day is just a little bit better.

Saturday Singles Nos. 130 & 131

June 20, 2012

Originally posted May 9, 2009

Today is one of the most-observed unofficial holidays of the year here in Minnesota: It’s the fishing opener!

Earlier this morning, as Friday changed into Saturday, the season opened across Minnesota’s 13,000 or so lakes. (Our license plates say “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but I don’t know if that’s Nordic modesty or if somebody miscounted the first time and the folks who came along after the second, more accurate count, said, “Close enough.”) That meant that Thursday and Friday, the highways leading from the Twin Cities to the northern part of the state showed a constant stream of traffic.

I’ve never done a fishing opener. Fishing has never been a pastime that’s attracted me much. But for about four years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I went fishing once a year with my pal Larry. He and I met in late 1978 at a gathering of journalists; he was the editor of a weekly newspaper published in Isle, Minnesota, on the southeast corner of Mille Lacs Lake, one of Minnesota’s larger lakes and one of its most prime fishing spots. We saw each other regularly at our monthly meetings in St. Cloud, and after one of them, he invited me up for a day of fishing. So, one summer Saturday in ’79, I packed my rudimentary fishing gear – one rod and reel and a woefully stocked tackle box – into the car and headed north to Wahkon, the small town just outside of Isle, where Larry lived with his wife and young daughters.

He and I spent the day in his boat on Mille Lacs, trying to catch either walleye or northern. We got some sunfish and crappies, two smaller fish that are good eating (but tedious because of all the small bones). Sometime late in the afternoon, I lost a lure when it got caught on something underwater and my line broke. Larry offered to let me use one of the many he had in his deluxe tackle box. I declined, and spent the little that remained of the afternoon sipping beer, smoking cigarettes and talking with Larry about life and lures.

That afternoon started a tradition: Once a summer for the next four years, I’d head north. In the next year, Larry got a job editing a newspaper in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, another hundred miles further north, and the day trips became a weekend trip to visit Larry and Joyce and the girls. We’d spend Friday evening playing board games or just catching up with each other, and Saturday found Larry and me out on a couple of different lakes, usually Lake Pokegema south of Grand Rapids in the morning and then, in the afternoon, Trout Lake, just south of the nearby small town of Coleraine. I’d fish until I lost a lure, which was my signal to sit back, pop a beer and enjoy the day out on the boat.

Larry was a far more committed angler than I was. During those years in Isle and Grand Rapids, he’d slip away from the office whenever he could find time, taking his boat out on Mille Lacs in the first years I knew him and then out on Pokegama or one of the many other lakes in the Grand Rapids area in those later years. An editor in both cities, he christened his fishing boat Assignment so that if someone called for him at his office, his secretary could honestly say, “I’m sorry, but Larry’s out on Assignment.”

During one of my visits, probably in 1982, I even caught a small northern. Somewhere in my boxes is a picture of me holding my catch. (I think it’s 1982 because I got the Yellowstone baseball cap I’m wearing in the picture during a trip west in 1981.) Larry did much better than I at fishing: pretty much every year, we headed back to his house with a good catch of walleyes, northern and smaller fish. I usually had a package of frozen fish to take home with me the next morning.

I last saw Larry in early 1987, when I took a couple days off from St. Cloud State and spent a long weekend in Grand Rapids. We didn’t go ice fishing. Instead, we went to a couple of hockey games and just sat around the house and caught up on things. That summer, I moved to Minot, and sometime that autumn, Larry left newspapering and moved west to Washington. Letters went back and forth for a few months, and then a letter sat unanswered on someone’s desk (probably mine) for too long, and we lost touch with each other. I heard, but I’ve never confirmed, that sometime in the 1990s, Larry had a heart attack and crossed over.

But wherever he is, I’d like to think that today, the fishing opener, he’s got a line in the water and a beer in one hand, out on Assignment.

Here are two versions of a perfectly appropriate song for Larry, today’s Saturday Singles.

“Fishing Blues” by Henry Thomas, Vocalion 1249 (Chicago, June 13, 1928)

“Fishin’ Blues” by Taj Mahal, from De Ole Folks At Home (Los Angeles, June 27, 1969)

Saturday Singles Nos. 93 & 94

August 19, 2011

Originally posted October 4, 2008

There are few opening riffs in rock history as identifiable – or as delightful – as the flute that opens Canned Heat’s 1968 recording, “Going Up The Country.”

Just hearing the first notes of the riff brings a smile to my face and images to my mind, generally images from the 1970 film Woodstock, which used Canned Heat’s recording to set the stage for the documentary about the massive festival in upstate New York. The song existed before the festival, though, having been released in December 1968 as Liberty 56077, when it went as high as No. 11 on the chart, the second of three Top 40 hits for Canned Heat.

The recording, with Al Wilson’s reed-thin vocals interwoven with the (evidently uncredited) flute solo, pretty well sums up the hippie ethos of getting back to the land with the aim of partying well: Witness the couplet, “I’m going where the water tastes like wine/We can jump in the water, stay drunk all the time.” With its lilting melody, it’s an infectious song, and it’s one that to me seems at odds with the bulk of Canned Heat’s blues and boogie catalog.

We can be sure of one thing: Al Wilson and his bandmate Bear Hite (who rivaled Wilson as a collector of old blues on 78 rpm records) had some music by Henry Thomas in their collections.

How do we know? Well, drop to the bottom of this post and click on the link for “Bull Doze Blues,” one of twenty-three songs recorded in Chicago between 1927 and 1929 by Henry Thomas. The flute used by Canned Heat on “Going Up The Country” was clearly inspired by Thomas’ playing of an instrument called the quills, created by lashing together different lengths of cane, thus looking much like a set of panpipes.

So who was Henry Thomas? Most sources agree he was born in Big Sandy, Texas, in 1874.

He was, says the Handbook of Texas Online:

“[O]ne of nine children of former slaves who sharecropped on a cotton plantation in the northeastern part of the state. Thomas learned to hate cotton farming at an early age and left home as soon as he could, around 1890, to pursue a career as an itinerant ‘songster.’ Derrick Stewart-Barker has commented that for his money Thomas was the best songster ‘that ever recorded.’ Thomas first taught himself to play the quills, a folk instrument made from cane reeds that sound similar to the quena used by musicians in Peru and Bolivia; later, he picked up the guitar. On the twenty-three recordings made by Thomas from 1927 to 1929, he sings a variety of songs and accompanies himself on guitar and at times on the quills. His accompaniment work on guitar has been ranked ‘with the finest dance blues ever recorded’ and, according to Stephen Calt, ‘its intricate simultaneous treble picking and drone bass would have posed a challenge to any blues guitarist of any era.’ The range of Thomas’s work makes him something of a transitional figure between the early minstrel songs, spirituals, square dance tunes, hillbilly reels, waltzes, and rags and the rise of blues and jazz. Basically his repertoire, which mostly consists of dance pieces, was out-of-date by the turn of the century when the blues began to grow in popularity. Thomas’s nickname, ‘Ragtime Texas,’ is thought to have come to him because he played in fast tempos, which were synonymous for some musicians with ragtime. Five of Thomas’s pieces have been characterized as ‘rag ditties,’ among them ‘Red River Blues,’ and such rag songs have been considered the immediate forerunners and early rivals of blues.”

Canned Heat’s Al Wilson was not the only 1960s musician pulling inspiration from Thomas’ work. The Lovin’ Spoonful and Taj Mahal both reworked Thomas’ “Fishing Blues” into recordings, and Bob Dylan gives Thomas writing credit on his Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album for the song “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance,” which derived from Thomas’ “Honey Won’t You Allow Me One More Chance.” I recall reading a statement from Dylan that he first heard his tune “from an old blues singer in Texas.”

Did Thomas always get credit for the songs he either wrote or inspired? Not really. Canned Heat’s tune is credited to Wilson alone on the recent CD The Very Best of Canned Heat. I don’t have a Lovin’ Spoonful LP with the group’s version of “Fishin’ Blues” on it, but all of their recordings of it listed at All-Music Guide are credited to “Traditional.” And on De Ole Folks At Home, Taj Mahal credits “Fishin’ Blues” to Henry Thomas and J. Williamson, whoever that might be. There are probably other versions of Henry Thomas’ songs out there, but those four recordings are the ones I’m familiar with.

It was not uncommon in the 1960s, when that era’s generation of musicians was sharing and discovering old tunes, to not know the provenance of a particular piece of music. Given what we’ve learned since then, many of that era’s performers have gladly credited long-ago musicians for their creations. The prime examples may be the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, musicians never shy about acknowledging their influences. Canned Heat’s Al Wilson is long gone – he died in 1970 – but I’d like to think he’d have credited Thomas for his portion of “Going Up The Country” if he’d known.

(An aside: On the CD, The Very Best of Canned Heat, the song in question is listed as “Goin’ Up The Country” instead of “Going Up The Country.” I check Canned Heat’s original LPs and I’ve gone with the spelling there: “Going Up The Country.”)

Credited or not, it’s clear that Henry Thomas had at least some influence on the music we listen to today. What’s fascinating is that, with a birth year of 1874, Thomas is evidently the earliest-born African-American whose music was ever recorded. And since he wrote and developed his music in the years before the blues developed fully – that happened, most think, around 1900, and Thomas’ music evidently was developed in the 1890s, though not recorded for another thirty years – Thomas’ music is an aural canvas of the music African-Americans were listening to one generation after emancipation.*

No one seems sure when Thomas died. There are reports of his being seen along the railroads and in the less-pleasant portions of big cities – especially in Texas – in the mid-1950s, when he would have been close to eighty years old. We’ll most likely never know when he crossed over. But we have his music, and it’s available in a number of anthologies. The one I have is Texas Worried Blues: Henry Thomas/Complete Recorded Works, 1927-1929, on the Yazoo label (a great label to explore for vintage blues).

So here are Henry Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” and Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country,” today’s Saturday Singles.

Henry Thomas – “Bull Doze Blues” (1928)

Canned Heat – “Going Up The Country” (1968)

*The statement that “Thomas is evidently the earliest-born African-American whose music was ever recorded” – which I read in a Web-based piece that I can no longer find – is in error. A little more than two months after this piece was originally posted, a helpful reader whose expertise is in Nineteenth Century recordings sent me a lengthy list of recorded African-American musicians whose birth dates predate that of Henry Thomas. That list is included in a later post available hereNote added August 19, 2011 and amended November 9, 2011.