Flour and Roots music

The Light Crust Doughboys in the mid-1930s

Not many blues writers and aficionados would make a connection between the blues and the sale of flour. But after the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, the blues recording business crashed along with it. Blues artists doing well selling records during the roaring twenties suddenly found they had to return to a life of hard work in the cotton fields or doing other manual labor jobs. Blues recording seemed to die an early death. However, one staple every Great Depression family needed was bread, especially the kind made from white flour. Mixing the previously popular blues music with flour advertising seemed like a no-brainer to some flour companies. Using the relatively new medium of radio was also a self-illuminating idea.

Actually, the blues never died but was fused with Western swing to produce a lively new form of music that was easy to dance to, especially for White audiences. Fort Worth-born fiddler Bob Wills was one of the first to mix the two genres after he migrated down from the Texas Panhandle in 1929. In Cowtown, he performed in blackface in minstrel shows and formed the Wills Fiddle Band, which included vocalist Milton Brown and guitarist Herman Arnspiger. The band played on the radio and was hired by W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a flour salesman who later went on to become Texas’ governor and a U.S. senator. O’Daniel was the only man to defeat Lyndon B. Johnson in a political race. The band, renamed the Light Crust Doughboys (named after light crust flour), became so popular that virtually every radio in Texas was tuned to its popular daily radio show whose tagline was “The Light Crust Doughboys are on the air!”

The National Fiddler Hall of Fame says: “Wills not only learned traditional music from his family, he learned some Negro songs directly from African Americans, and said that he did not play with many white children other than his siblings, until he was seven or eight years old. African Americans were his playmates, and his father enjoyed watching him jig dance with black children.”

Did Wills learn the blues from these playmates? “I don’t know whether they made them up as they moved down the cotton rows or not,” Wills once told Charles Townsend, author of San Antonio Rose: The Life and Times of Bob Wills, “but they sang blues you never heard before.”

As the marriage between flour advertising and radio progressed, it was perhaps inevitable that a flour company would sponsor a radio program full-time. Enter King Biscuit Time (KBT), named after King Biscuit flour. It is not only the first radio program dedicated to blues music (established in 1941), it is also the longest-running daily American radio broadcast in history. The program is broadcast each weekday from KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, and has won the George Foster Peabody Award for broadcasting excellence. Its website www.kingbiscuittime.com claims it is “bringing the blues into the 21st century.”

Programmers at KBT wanted to aim their show at a maximized black audience so the show’s 12:15 pm time slot was chosen to match the lunch break of workers in the Mississippi Delta. KBT has racked up more broadcasts than the Grand Ole Opry and American Bandstand combined; it celebrated its 17,000th broadcast on May 13, 2014. The 30-minute live show is still being broadcast from the Delta Community Center in downtown Helena.

While working on the Stovall Plantation, just outside Clarksdale Mississippi, a young musician named Muddy Waters heard some KBT broadcasts on his lunch hour and decided in 1943 to head north for the bright lights and blues music being played in Chicago. The rest was history in the making. Muddy’s electrified blues style not only changed the Chicago blues, it changed the whole world of blues music.

Wikipedia explains the wide-sweeping influence of this popular radio program: “King Biscuit Time was also a major breakthrough for African-American music in general. The popularity of the program and its reach into the untapped African-American demographic gained notice and spawned a host of imitators. By 1947 the first black disc jockey in the South, Early Wright, had been signed at WROX across the river. WDIA in Memphis soon became the first radio station in the South with an all-black staff (including deejay B.B. King) and a musical format based on the success of King Biscuit Time.”

Who would have thought that a radio program sponsored by a flour company would have such an influence on the blues? A virtual who’s who of the blues have made live appearances on the program and continue to do so. Blues lovers from around the world, especially those in Europe, tune in through the Internet. Maybe you should too.

Longtime KBT disc jockey “Sunshine” Sonny Payne

hendrix: blues or rock?

Classifying singers into neat little musical categories so that their recordings would fit into neat little lists and into the right boxes at record stores was always a challenging task, especially for musicians experimenting with new sounds. When you listen carefully to the songs of Jimi Hendrix (1942-70), for example, there is an unmistakable blues background in spite of his designation as a “rock” performer. In the Hendrix “experience” one can definitely hear the influence of great bluesmen such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King and especially Albert King. “Jimi took the blues from the mud of the Mississippi Delta into the stratosphere, all the way to Venus,” said Eric Burdon of the Animals.

According to UltimateGuitar.com, the young Hendrix was charged with riding in a stolen car in 1961 and was given a choice of either going to jail for two years or joining the army. Jimi ended up in the 101st Airborne Division, but was discharged a year later for bad behavior. After the army “experience,” Hendrix traveled the chitlin’ circuit, a series of venues sympathetic to black performers, in order to earn a living. He backed many important singers of the early 1960s, including Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke and the Isley Brothers. Jimi’s flamboyant style of playing his guitar with his teeth, behind his head or between his legs, however, did not sit well with other band members. An inevitable clash of egos occurred after Hendrix teamed up in 1964-65 with Little Richard’s band called the Upsetters. Jimi was never a good team player so ­­sparks flew and Richard finally fired Hendrix.

Undaunted, Jimi staged a comeback. He had a brief career as front man in Jimmy James and the Blue Flames playing the same chitlin’ circuit he played with the previous bands. In late 1966 he got his big break and was offered a trip to England after being discovered by Linda Keith who introduced him to Animals bassist Chas Chandler who became interested in being Jimi’s manager, explains the online publication Quora. In September 1966, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed there after jazz drummer Mitch Mitchell and guitarist-turned-bassist Noel Redding were recruited by Chandler, and recorded a cover of the Billy Roberts song “Hey Joe,” kicking Hendrix’s musical career into interstellar overdrive (Moshcam.com). It was ironic, then, that Hendrix’s star began to rise in Europe more than in the States, at first.

In the rock music field, it is often stated the music can be divided into “before Hendrix” and “after Hendrix” periods because Jimi was allegedly “the greatest guitarist of them all.” High praise indeed, but nobody before Hendrix had manipulated guitar sound so effectively. Will Brewster, writing in Mocham.com explains: “Jimi first experimented with effects pedals on the guitar solo for ‘Purple Haze’, where he used an octave doubling pedal designed by close friend Roger Meyer, who would build many effects for Hendrix over his career. After hearing it being used on recordings by Eric Clapton and Frank Zappa, Hendrix frequently utilized the wah-wah pedal in his music, pioneering the effect as a musical tool which few have been able to replicate.”

There is no doubt that Hendrix’s unique guitar talent represented a challenge to other musicians of the time. While performing “Killing Floor” with Cream in 1966, the then-unknown Hendrix’s playing caused guitar-great Eric Clapton to walk off stage in disbelief, or so the story goes.­ Many critics were also upset by Jimi’s use of the guitar to replicate the sound of guns and other armaments in protest of the ongoing war in Vietnam. They always point to Hendrix’s rendition of the national anthem at the three-day Woodstock Festival in August 1969, which they said was “unpatriotic” because the artist used those sounds therein. The 500,000 people attending that festival probably did not even notice. There is a saying: “If you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there.”

Hendrix, like many other American performers of his time, died due to a drug overdose. Jimi passed on September 18, 1970 in London due to inhaling his own vomit after overdosing on barbituates. Beatles guitarist and singer George Harrison later told television talk show host Dick Cavett that rock performers took drugs to compensate for the tremendous pressure of creating great music but also to get closer to that ultimate love that all of them were seeking. Jimi thus joined the “27 Club,” meaning the collection of performers who died at that age (see previous post). Just think what Hendrix could have achieved had he not passed at such a young age.

So, was Hendrix a blues or rock performer? The answer to that one is easy: he was both. Songs like “Red House” or “Hear My Train A’ Comin’ showed his ability and love of blues. Percussionist Juma Sultan said, “Jimi was mixing the old and the new. He was taking the original blues sound of the old masters to another plateau.” It is doubtful that any guitarist will ever join the great Jimi Hendrix on that plateau.

Jimi Hendrix plays “Hey Joe”

brazos valley blues

By Glenn D. Davis and Jay Brakefield

The Mississippi Valley often gets credit for being the sole area that birthed the blues, but this is just a much-repeated myth. A parallel movement was going on in Texas, which always gets far less mention in blues histories. The blues, in both places, came straight out of the cotton fields. Cotton farmers referred to their crops as “white gold,” as it was a cash crop like no other. It was no accident, then, that many of greatest blues practitioners came from these plantation-laden regions. Blues icons such as Muddy Waters and Mance Lipscomb may not have been geographical neighbors, but they did share a common background. Plantations in both regions were laws unto themselves, where lawmen seldom left footprints. Trouble usually happened outside those gates, when black sharecroppers tried to mingle with the white majority or when black-on-black violence broke out in “jukes” (shoddy dances halls or beer joints with jukeboxes or live music) or elsewhere. The law depended on plantation owners to keep the peace on their turf and these owners used tough labor bosses (often blacks themselves) to carry out the dirty work of peacemaking.

Up until the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s, black men, especially those without steady employment, were often jailed for minor or nonexistent crimes and leased out to plantation owners, who, ironically, had less interest in their welfare than that of a slave. Before the Civil War slaves had to be procured with money; prisoners could be replaced without further expense. The politically powerful plantation owner was a much-feared law unto himself. As Brazos River bottom farmer Tom Moore always told his black workers, “You stay out of the graveyard; I’ll keep you out of the pen.” Staying out the graveyard was a not-so-subtle warning not to get killed, especially in a Saturday night brawl in some juke.

No matter what label you hang on field hands, the work is hard and long. Strong, sturdy bodies and a resistance to disease are absolute prerequisites. When working on jobs that require a specific timing, like rail laying, African-American workers would chant or sing tunes handed down for generations. They sang in church and in the fields, where songs and hollers helped coordinate the work and pass the long, hard, monotonous hours of back-breaking labor. String bands performed for dances in people’s homes and in country juke joints. Music provided both an escape from, and a response to, in-the-field oppression and outright racism elsewhere. The blues was thus born in the cotton fields and juke joints of these river valleys, where blood often flowed as well as river water. Blood-soaked cotton may not be much of an exaggeration. 

Sometime between 1890 and 1900, this new musical form started to emerge, a movement which paralleled the white backlash to Reconstruction reforms, such as allowing blacks to vote. Fear spread among white communities that if enough blacks were registered to vote, the whites would find themselves in a political minority. Violence-prone groups like the KKK and White Man’s Union began to spring up like lilies after a spring shower, to make sure the black population did not make it to the ballot boxes. The Brazos Valley blues began to take on political overtones, especially after the post-Civil War battle between armed whites and blacks in Millican Texas, called the “Millican War” (June 1868) by The New York Times. Although the decade starting in 1890 is referred to as the “Gay ‘90s” it may have been a better time for Anglo-Saxons than for minorities since statistics show that lynchings of African-Americans peaked in that period in the Brazos Valley. In other words, the birth of the blues in the Brazos Valley coincided with the region’s most violent period. 

After the turn of the century, black music got a boost through vaudeville and ragtime songs. Blues began to gain followers since unlike the communal songs of the fields and churches, these were songs of personal expression. Singers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson performed on the street, usually accompanied only by their own guitars. Female singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith performed in front of orchestras in tent shows and in theaters. When the blues boom began with the 1920 recording of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” some of these musicians were recorded, but most received a flat fee and no royalties. A few, such as Jefferson, sold enough records to fare better. But after the Great Depression had devastated the recording industry, many such performers returned to a life of toil.

In the burst of creativity and prosperity that followed World War II, some musicians who hailed from the Brazos Valley and other parts of East and North Texas found commercial success, often after moving to a bigger Texas city, the West Coast or even abroad. Alvin Ailey, who grew up in Navasota, moved to New York City and formed one of the most popular modern dance companies ever – the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – which still tours nationally and internationally. Ailey drew on his experiences and on the blues and gospel music he had heard in the Brazos Valley to create such dance masterpieces as “Blues Suite” and “Revelations.” Ailey said the latter piece derived from “blood memories” of his early life in Navasota.

Ironically, as blues faded as black popular music, it was rediscovered in the 1960s by whites, both in Europe and America, thus experiencing a rebirth. British rock groups such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals credited American blues players as major influences. Local figures such as Lightnin’ Hopkins performed at international festivals. In his old age, Mance Lipscomb, a sharecropper who had spent years playing at Saturday night suppers for, as he put it, “50 cents and a fish sandwich,” made money from his music, traveled abroad for engagements and hung out with such luminaries as Bob Dylan. Today, a statue of Lipscomb stands proudly in downtown Navasota. Until recently there were two annual festivals held there in his honor. Both have been discontinued, for financial reasons. Perhaps it is a sign of the times.

Mance Lipscomb Plays “Tom Moore’s Farm”

blues treasure trove

For a blues researcher, particularly one who specializes in Texas Blues, a “lost” treasure trove of research materials suddenly coming to the surface is like stumbling into El Dorado. But that is exactly what happened in late February 2019 when Texas A&M University Press published The Blues Come to Texas by Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick, a work that was intended to be published decades ago. “Make no mistake — this is not some dusty tome, but rather a vibrant piece of research…it will be a source for blues researchers and aficionados to dip into with wonderment for years to come,” gasped a Texas Observer article. Some blues researchers say this book may indeed be the “holy grail” of Texas blues history.

“From October 1959 until the mid-1970s, Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick collaborated on what they hoped to be a definitive history and analysis of the blues in Texas,” states the book’s promo on Amazon.com. But somehow the book never surfaced, that is, until after both collaborators had passed. Let’s take a closer look at the extraordinary lives and careers of these two men, from different continents, but both possessing a common interest in the history of Texas Blues.

Paul Oliver (1927–2017) was professor at Oxford Brookes University in England and was a leading authority on American blues history as well as an expert on domestic architecture. Brett Bonner, the editor of the magazine Living Blues, said in an interview: “Paul was one of the founders of blues scholarship. He and Sam Charters set the template for everything that followed. They also set the stage for the blues revival of the 1960s. Without them, people like Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and Skip James would not have had second careers.” Oliver’s The Blues Fell This Morning (1960) was probably the seminal work on Texas Blues before the publication of the Blues Come to Texas (2019). “The former book and LP inspired a generation to discover this music, some to make it themselves, others to listen and develop their own ideas. Later books included Conversation With the Blues (1965), interviews from an American field trip in 1960; The Story of the Blues (1969), the first attempt at a comprehensive history; and Songsters and Saints (1984). They were accompanied by a constant flow of sleeve notes, articles, reviews, lectures and broadcasts,” states The Guardian obituary (8.31.17).

Robert “Mack” McCormick (1930–2015) was a folklorist and blues researcher widely acclaimed for his field interviews, extensive liner notes, and recordings with Texas blues musicians all over the state. “He found and interviewed relatives of Blind Lemon Jefferson, talked to acquaintances who knew Lead Belly before he came to New York in the 1930s and tracked down two of Robert Johnson’s half-sisters, who gave him previously unknown photographs of the most celebrated and mysterious Delta blues singer of all time,” claims The New York Times obituary (11.25.15). Maybe Mack’s greatest discovery was locating Mance Lipscomb, a blues singer from the 1920s, who was  working as a sharecropper in Navasota, Texas. McCormick then managed to talk Chris Strachwitz, who had just founded Arhoolie records, into recording him for the first time. “After seeking out Mr. [Lightnin’] Hopkins in Houston in 1959, he brought him to the recording studio to make Autobiography in Blues, an album that put him at the center of the folk music revival,” says the The New York Times article.

So when Paul and Mack teamed up to write the definitive history of Texas Blues, researchers and aficionados all over the world held their collective breaths waiting for its publication. But the always suspicious McCormick was difficult to work with, claim many who tried. For decades the book languished in obscurity. But thanks to the tremendous organizing and compiling efforts of blues writer Alan B. Govenar (Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound) and ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell, the long-awaited The Blues Come to Texas finally saw the light of day.

If you are a blues researcher or just a fan interested in the music you cannot afford to ignore this massive work.

country blues

Sometimes called folk blues or rural blues, country blues was definitely the forerunner of all types of modern music that we call “the Blues.” A short definition could be a black songster living in the Southern countryside in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, making blues music with an acoustic guitar and/or harmonica accompaniment. Some notable pioneers of country blues included Blind Lemon Jefferson (Texas), Charlie Patton (Mississippi) and Blind Willie McTell (Georgia). The counterpart of country blues is urban blues, played in cities where electrification was more prominent. Crowds are larger and noisier there so electric guitars came to mostly replace their acoustic predecessors.

A Wikipedia article explains: “Folklorist Alan Lomax was one of the first to use the term and applied it to a field recording he made of Muddy Waters at the Stovall Plantation, Mississippi, in 1941. In 1959, music historian Samuel Charters wrote The Country Blues, an influential scholarly work on the subject. He produced a music album, also titled The Country Blues, with early recordings by Jefferson, McTell, Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, and Robert Johnson.”

Charters was an American, but it took British writers like Paul Oliver (The Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues) to really explain in detail why American country blues had important messages that the world needed to hear. Oliver came to America to seek out the origins and meanings of the country blues music that has inspired so many British bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Oliver published his groundbreaking work in 1960, so he perfectly captured the spirit that produced the musical British Invasion of the later 1960s. The New York Times called Oliver’s book “Remarkable…a definitive study in breadth and depth of the themes, backgrounds, imagery and motivation of the blues.” 

Oliver points out that some of the most intriguing country blues songs were written and performed early in the emergence of this genre. Some examples include:

  • 1927 “Matchbox Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson, called the “King of the Country Blues”

How far to the river, mama, walk down by the sea
How far to the river, walk down by the sea
I got those tadpoles and minnows all in over me

Standing here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes
I’se sittin’ here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes
I ain’t got so many matches but I got so far to go

Lord, Lord, who may your manager be?
Hey, mama, who may your manager be?
Reason I ask so many questions, can’t you make friends match for me?

I got a girl cross town she crochet all the time
I got a girl cross town crochet all the time
Baby if you don’t quit crochet-in you gonna lose your mind

  • 1929 “Down the Dirt Road Blues” by Charley Patton

I’m goin’ away, to a world unknown
I’m goin’ away, to a world unknown
I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long

My rider got somethin’, she’s tryin’ a keep it hid
My rider got somethin’, she’s tryin’ a keep it hid
Lord, I got somethin’ to find that somethin’ with  

I feel like choppin’, chips flyin’ everywhere
I feel like choppin’, chips flyin’ everywhere
I been to the Nation, oh Lord, but I couldn’t stay there
Some people say them oversea blues ain’t bad

  • “Statesboro Blues” by Blind Willie McTell

Yes now, wake up mama, turn your lamp down low.
Wake up mama, turn your lamp down low.
Have you got the nerve to drive poor papa Taj from your door?

Woke up this mornin’ baby, I had them Statesboro blues.
Statesboro Georgia, that is.
Woke up this mornin’, had them Statesboro blues.
Looked over in the corner, well my baby had ‘em too.

Mama died and left me reckless, Papa died and left me wild,
I ain’t good lookin’ baby, but I’m someone’s sweet angel child.
Going to the country, baby do you want to go?
I know if you can’t make it, your sister Lucille say she wanta go.

One would expect simple lyrics from country folk, but complex feelings can also be expressed simply. The spirit of the country blues is not only explained by authors and professors either. Musical performers like Keith Richards, lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, sums it up neatly: “If you don’t know the blues…there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”

Blind Lemon Jefferson “Matchbox Blues”