RLP-1039
VARIOUS ARTISTS: BACKWOODS BLUES

Eight selections in the early folk-blues tradition

Jazz Archives #1000(10”) 

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BOBBY GRANT (#1 and 2):    recorded in Chicago; late 1927

BUDDY BOY HAWKINS (# and 4):   Chicago; early 1927

KING SOOMON HILL (#5 and 6)    probably Grafton, Wisconsin; 1931

BIG BILL JOHNSON (#7 and 8):    Richmond, Ind.; Feb. 1932

Guitar accompaniments by the singers.


SIDE 1

BOBBY GRANT

1. Nappy Head Blues (2:44)

2. Lonesome Atlanta Blues (3:01)

BUDDY BOY HAWKINS

3. Jailhouse Fire Blues (2:31)

4. Shaggy Dog Blues (2:35)

SIDE 2

KING SOLOMON HILL

5. The Gone Dead Train (3:18)

6. Tell Me Baby (3:26)

BIG BILL BROONZY

7. Mr. Conductor Man (3:02)

8. Big Bill Blues (2:59)


   Consider the blues, and your first thought is most likely to be of the women who have sung so magnificently in this tradition, of the great Negro entertainers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. But of course their music – best described as the “classic blues” – did not merely spring to existence full-blown and complete. Behind it lies a rich heritage of earlier material.

   This heritage is well represented by the obscure guitar-playing singers to be heard on this LP. You will not find the biographies of these blues shouters set down anyplace; all that can be known of them are names on a handful of record labels and a style that belongs to the past. But, as the selections in this album indicate, the names deserve to be noted and their blues deserve a good deal of attention – not only for their value as historical source material, but even more for their merits as compelling, rhythmic music of tremendous emotional impact.

   It must be pointed out that these are not chronologically “early” records. They were originally recorded in the late e1920s and early ‘30s, by which time the singers of the classic blues had long been firmly established. But the blues style to be heard here does not belong in any real sense to a time as recent as the ‘20s. Actually it belongs to a much earlier tradition; it is the sound of the rural South in the very first years of this century, or perhaps even decades before that.

   There is very little precise documentation of the origins of the blues. But it does seem clear that it evolved gradually and in separate areas of the South, and that behind it, contributing largely to its form and content, are work songs and street cries, and even more remotely the ritual tribal music of the West African jungles. The early, so-called “primitive” blues is often divided into such classifications as “country” and “urban,” a distinction that relates more to style than to actual geography. In the backwoods areas, in the smaller towns, and even in the Negro districts of larger Southern cities, self-accompanied singers would work out their “country” blues, creating and embellishing simple melodies based on the natural scale of the guitar and lyrics largely based on their own sorrow, bitterness or sense of irony. As has so often been the case with folk singers make a living, and thereby became “professionals,” they did not alter or soften their music. They continued to play and sing in the only way that was natural, perhaps the only way possible for them. It was what their listeners expected, for that audience was made up of people much like the performers. Their blues spoke of a hard way of life, and it was one that belonged equally to both – which is probably as good a working definition as any of what true “folk music” is.

   The first six numbers here fully illustrate this country blues style: the use of vocal vibrato and falsetto (Buddy Boy Hawkins, in Shaggy Dog, comes strangely close to the yodel of a hillbilly singer); the moans and spoken asides in the breaks between stanzas; the instinctive technique of employing the voice to fill in those areas that in more “modern” blues are covered by a variety of accompanying instruments. The very noticeable un-clarity of the voices seems due as much to a primary emphasis on rhythmic patterns as to a probable indifference to (or unawareness of) the techniques of “proper” vocal delivery. They are also often indifferent to the limits of the customary 12-bar form: there is much slurring and sliding around the pattern; and at least two of the numbers, Nappy Head Blues and Lonesome Atlanta Blues, would seem to have a 16-bar structure.

   (It should be pointed out, as a facet of the general discographical uncertainly that surrounds music of this type, that despite the use of the name “Bobby Grant” on the original label of the two last-named numbers, it is unlikely that both are the work of the same man. There is a much deeper, more nasal voice on Nappy Head – it is strikingly reminiscent of Leadbelly – and an eight-numeral gap between the master numbers of the two recordings adds to the belief that, through some long-ago error, one obscure singer has been made even more obscure by losing credit for one side he made.)

   The fact that these men were recorded up North should not mislead anyone: they were by no means Chicagoans, but were specifically brought to that city from time to time, from Texas and the deep South, to make a few records for such labels as Paramount. These apparently were to be sold largely by mail order, to the people of their home states. A few, notably Blind Lemon Jefferson, achieved fame, remained in Chicago and wandering folk-singers, with the Windy City only one more stop in their travels.

   Much of the foregiong comment does not apply to Big Bill Johnson, whose recordings can be said to represent a substantial transitional step. He is the urban blues singer: the conscious entertainer, more clear-voiced and (comparatively) sophisticated, following the 12-bar pattern more faithfully, his guitar-playing more smoothly rhythmic and easy. This doesn’t mean that Johnson is in any way a watered-down blues singer, of course. His powerfully rocking style clearly announces its relation to the primitive blues tradition.


   A note on the original recordings. The “Bobby Grant” selections were first issued on Paramount 12595, bearing the respective master numbers 20204-3 and 20212-2; the Hawkins sides were on Para 12489 (master numbers 657 and 658). King Solomon’s Para 13129 (L 1254-2 and L 1258-2 – belonging to yet another of Paramount’s confusingly many series of master numbers) was among the very last records issued before this company went out of business. It was probably recorded in the Wisconsin town that was the site of the chair factory operated by Paramount’s white owners, rather than in the Chicago studios where most earlier dates had been held. The Johnson sides were made by Gennett  and released on one of their subsidiary labels: Mr. Conductor Man was on Champion 16426 (master number N 18392) and Big Bill Blues on Ch (N 18385A).

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   Some of this material reissued by special arrangement with Paramount Records and John Steiner. The slight surface noise audible on this LP is due to the limitations of early recording processes; it has not been entirely removed in order to preserve highest fidelity possible and to give more faithful reproduction of original tone qualities.


   The foremost blues singers of the 1920s can be heard on several of Riverside’s “Jazz Archives” LPs, including:

Louis Armstrong Plays the Blues (RLP 1001) (Ma Rainey, Trixie Smith, Grant and Wilson)

Ma Rainey, Vols. 1 and 2 (RLPs 1003, 1016)

King Oliver Plays the Blues (RLP 1007) (Ida Cox, Sara Martin)

The Folk-Blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson (RLP 1014)

Ida Cox (RLP 1019)

The Great Blues Singers (RLP 1032) (Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Chippie Hill)


Produced by Bill Grauer

Notes by Orrin Keepnews

Cover art by Robert J. Lee; typographical design by Gene Gogerty