eddie who?

Eddie Durham

Blues histories like to loudly proclaim that Muddy Waters started guitar electrification in Chicago in the 1940s. What they normally don’t explain is that such electrification started decades before Muddy Waters ever fatefully boarded that train headed for the Windy City. Early blues players coming from impoverished Southern states could not afford guitars (they mostly used fiddles or harmonicas), but all that changed in 1888 when Sears & Roebuck started catalog sales of the instruments for an affordable price. The Sears catalog, and its cheap guitars, gave Mississippi Delta and Texas bluesmen the tools they needed to revolutionize American music. Still, these acoustic instruments had a problem: they were often drowned out by background music or the ambient sounds of  the bars and jukes where the blues were being played. Thus the need for an enhanced audio system became implicit.

The first electric pickup and electric amplifier for guitars was produced in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until around 1936 when a jazz guitarist named Charlie Christian (1916-1942) began using an acoustic guitar with a pickup attached to the body, with the intention of playing guitar solos in his band. This is said to be the birth of the electric guitar. Sales of the famous Rickenbacker “frying pan” guitar had started in 1932.

However, a major difficulty for the first electric guitars with pickups attached to their bodies was an acoustic phenomenon called “feedback,” where sound amplified by an amplifier caused the instrument to resonate, creating a cacophony of sound. “A clever way of solving of this annoying issue was to remove the hollow cavity from the guitar body, making it difficult for sound to resonate. This led to the creation of the solid-body guitar, in which the body is carved from a single piece of wood,” explains an article in Yamaha.com called “The Birth of the Electric Guitar.”

Move over Muddy, the first musician to publicly record a blues song, called “Hittin’ the Bottle,” (for Decca Records) with an electric guitar came in September 1935 from a Texan named Eddie Durham (1906-87), a virtuoso trombonist and guitarist. “Of African American, Irish, Mohawk and Cherokee Indian descent, Eddie Durham was part of a musical family from San Marcos, a city so deep in the heart of Texas, he spoke mainly Spanish as a youngster. For many years, Durham knew little English. His father was a fiddler who made his violin louder by putting dried rattlesnake rattles inside it; so the urge to amplify was in young Eddie’s genes,” states Paul Merry in How Blues Evolved Volume Two.

Eddie started his career in a travelling Indian Wild West circus which supported touring acts like Mamie Smith, famous for cutting the blues breakthrough record “Crazy Blues” in 1920. Backing Smith (no relation to Bessie), Eddie and two other multi-instrumentalists played 12 instruments between them in the blues diva’s house band. “Eddie Durham’s experiments with amplification started in 1929 when he started recording with Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, probably the most influential jump blues band touring the mid-west at the time. The all-black band featured the hard-stomp beat that Kansas City was famous for, which helped develop the riffing style synonymous with later big bands.”

Sadly, Durham’s many contributions to American music have been unreported and/or overlooked by both the media and blues scholars, even though he was a great musician and musical arranger during the Great Depression. Jazz historian Phil Schaap, who knew Durham for decades, called Eddie “the most neglected musical genius of the 20th Century.” How could writers or scholars not notice or simply overlook Durham’s many achievements? Eddie was “the quantum musician most responsible for rearranging the rhythmic nucleus of jazz. He was Moten’s [original promoter of swing] trombonist-guitarist-arranger, who embossed his charts with the fluid, prairie-open, 4/4 stamp of the Southwest,” wrote Jim Gerard in an article entitled “Genius in the Shadows” in allaboutjazz.com. “He had a vision that Chicago jazz in the 1920s was relatable to that from Texas, yet different, and that was the beginning of his desire to orchestrate.”

Throughout his long career, Eddie demonstrated a musical curiosity and a blues-type inventiveness. For instance, he once experimented with a home-made vibrato arm, later called a whammy bar on more modern guitars. He told the following story to Guitar Player in an August 1979 interview: “I took a clothes hanger, bent it making a hook for my little finger. I hooked the other end on my movable bridge. I could hit a chord, and shake the hanger, and I’d get a nice effect. I don’t believe I ever used that on a recording, however.”

Perhaps Eddie’s quiet, unassuming attitude was his undoing. If he’d been more aggressive and loudmouthed he would’ve probably attracted more media and scholastic attention. But that was not his personality; Eddie never believed that you have to break a window to get attention. But remember: between 1937-38 he wrote most of the songs Count Basie later played, he arranged “In the Mood” for Glenn Miller and he formed and led several all-female orchestras, among many other musical achievements. Eddie was also a major purveyor of the boogie-woogie style associated with Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis.

Not bad for a quiet lad from deep in the heart of Texas.

Eddie Durham on guitar in “Hittin’ the Bottle”

birds of a feather

Sippie Wallace

In the 1968 buddy comedy film “The Odd Couple,” Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau played characters whose temperaments were diametrically opposed in every way possible, but were still close friends. Both were divorced middle-aged men sharing a New York City apartment, one a neurotic neat-freak “Felix Ungar” and the other a fun-loving slob “Oscar Madison.” They got along well as roommates despite arguing incessantly. The same sort of thing happens with blues musicians. Take the 1920s relationship between early blues legends Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, for example. Although “The Mother of the Blues” Rainey mentored “Empress of the Blues” Smith, the former’s earthy style clashed with the latter’s subtler, more agile approach. Both peaked during the anything-goes Roaring Twenties, but they found common ground in bed as being lesbians was not necessarily frowned upon in those days.

Flash forward a half century to the late 1960s, when a young and upcoming white blues singer named Bonnie Raitt met the 1920s black blues legend Sippie Wallace, from Texas. The two singers could not have been more different in terms of politics and religion: Bonnie was (and still is) non-religious and liberal while Sippie was very conservative and religious (Southern Baptist) to the core. Bonnie adored the work of the former blues star of the twenties, so the two singers quickly bonded into a lifelong (nonsexual) friendship, despite their many differences. Music formed a strong common ground and the unlikely pair soon wrote songs for each other and sang duos together; the aging Sippie became Bonnie’s mentor. Sippie had recorded her anthem “Women Be Wise” in 1966, but she and Bonnie sang the song as a duo many times during the 1970s and 1980s. Some of its lyrics are as follows:

“Women be wise, keep your mouth shut, don’t advertise your man
Don’t sit around gossiping, explaining what your good man really can do
Some women nowadays, Lord they ain’t no good
They will laugh in your face, Then try to steal your man from you
Women be wise, keep your mouth shut, don’t advertise your man.”

The two opposites attracted throughout the 1970s and up until Sippie’s passing in the mid-80s. “We are two souls who have known each other before,” Bonnie told interviewers in April 1982 when she was 32 years old (story later posted on Bonnie’s Pride and Joy website). “It’s a connection that transcends age and space. She’s more my own grandma than my natural grandmother.” Sippie reciprocates, “I love Bonnie.” The California blues singer also liked to joke that the only time she ever went to church was when she visited Sippie.

What kind of person was Sippie? Beulah Belle Thomas (1898-1986) was an American singer-songwriter born in Arkansas, but raised in Houston, Texas. Her stage name from her early career in tent shows was “Sippie” Wallace, so nicknamed because her teeth were mostly missing as a young girl so she had to be fed everything through a straw until she was three years old. Later, however, her singing was so good that she gained the billing of “The Texas Nightingale.” Between 1923 and 1927, while living in Chicago, she recorded over 40 songs for Okeh Records, many written by her or her brothers, George and Hersal Thomas. Her many accompanists included Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds and King Oliver. Her first hits were the 1924 “Shorty George Blues” and “Up the Country Blues.” In the 1930s, Sippie left show business to become a church organist, singer, and choir director in Detroit and performed secular music only sporadically until the 1960s, when she resumed her performing career. Wallace was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1982 and was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. Among the top female blues vocalists of her era, Wallace ranked up there with such blues legends as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith. 

How about Bonnie then? The California-born, 71 year old Bonnie Lynn Raitt is an American blues singer, guitarist, songwriter, and activist. During the 1970s, Raitt released a series of roots-influenced albums that incorporated elements of blues, rock, folk and country. Dig in Deep, released in 2016, is the 20th album in the storied career of this blues singer turned rock star. Raitt played over 170 shows in North America, Singapore, Australia/New Zealand, the UK and Europe on her 2012-13 “Slipstream” tour, made several national appearances (Ellen, Leno, Letterman, GMA, Fallon, Kimmel and more), performed at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors and received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance from the American Music Association, states her website. Raitt has received 10 Grammy Awards and is listed as number 50 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.”

If you have read this far, you’re probably wondering what is the point here. Well, if a fictional pair like Felix and Oscar can learn to live together despite their many differences and a real-life friendship can blossom between black and white performers like Sippie Wallace and Bonnie Raitt, why can’t Americans get along better during these trying days? Where, exactly, is the common ground? Tribal politics, cultural warfare, nationwide protests and a raging pandemic are dividing our nation like never before. Isn’t it time to put away our differences, bury the hatchets, and get back to being normal Americans again? Maybe we just need to dig in deeper to find that common ground. America came together culturally when we were attacked by Japan in December 1941. We need to be able to come together again, without another Pearl Harbor this time. Instead of Make America Great Again how about Make America America Again?

Sippie and Bonnie together sing “Women Be Wise”


hobo jungle blues

The early part of the Great Depression, especially before Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, was an especially rough row to hoe, economically. Pre-New Deal America was struggling and food was scarce, jobs even scarcer. Between 1929 and 1933, the American GDP had fallen a whopping 33%. There were at least two million homeless people and the stock market hit a low in 1932, closing at 41.22, down 89.2% from its all-time high in 1929. In rural Texas, armadillos were called “Hoover hogs” as their meat often replaced pork.

Few could afford automobiles, so hopping a freight train became a popular substitute form of traveling, particularly for African Americans. “Why walk when you can hop a train?” was a common refrain in those less than blissful days. Hobo numbers ballooned (estimates ranged from two to four million) in the 1930s, along with homeless shanty towns near railroad tracks called “hobo jungles.”

These eyesores were not always operating in plain sight, however. “Hidden deep in wayside brush but well known to the experienced hoboes, these jungles were primitive shack towns made from scrap metal, wood, cardboard, and packing cases. The inhabitants of these jungles, some of whom having made the disease-ridden tips their permanent homes, would scrape together a meagre life. These encampments were also known as ‘Hoovervilles,’ after President Hoover, who was blamed for not injecting money into the poorer areas,” wrote Alan White in an essay on hoboes in earlyblues.com.

It is not surprising, then, that many blues songs were written and performed in such “jungles” because train-hopping was the major form of transportation for poor black blues players moving from one town to another. Hobo songs by Sleepy Joe Estes and John Lee Hooker became some of the best hits of those days. Take “Hobo Blues” by the latter singer, for instance:

“When I first started hoboin’, hoboin’, boy
I took a freight train to be my friend, oh Lord

You know I hobo’d, hobo’d, hobo’d, hobo’d
Hobo’d a long, long way from home, oh Lord

You know my mother she followed me that morning, me that morning, that morning
She followed me down to the yard, oh Lord

She said my son he’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone
Yes, he’s gone in the world somewhere, oh Lord

You know I left my dear old mother, dear old mother, dear old mother
She was on her knees a’ crying, oh Lord

Since there was little hope of finding work in their rural areas at the time, many black (and white) workers had no choice except flee, and that meant hopping a freight train headed for the big city, usually in the north. “For them, the train was a symbol of power, of freedom and escape. This image carried on, in the hard times of the 1920s and 1930s, when the southern Blacks struggled to make a living and saw the northern cities as their saviors, where work was plentiful and a better life was to be had. As the blues developed, the railroad featured prominently in the songs, with a large number reflecting the life of the hobo; the symbolic had become reality, with northbound trains carrying innumerable black males (and a few women) leaving the south,” continued White.

Sadly, many of these nomadic travelers found city life less accommodating than they had imagined, so they were doomed to a life of riding the rails and camping out in hobo jungles where crime, starvation and death ran rampant. Many hoboes imagined death itself to be a train, thus the emergence of one of America’s great folk song classics. Wikipedia states that one version of the “Wabash Cannonball” was really a “death coach” that appeared at the passing of a hobo to carry his soul to its reward. The song was then created with the lyrics and music telling the story of the train. When the hobos learned of this train, they called her the “Wabash Cannonball” and said that every train station in America had heard her whistle.

Death trains notwithstanding, my own experience with hoboes happened in 1951 when I was five years old. We lived near a railroad track in the small town of Wellborn, Texas and freight trains would pass by on a daily basis. My mother would warn me about the danger of encountering hoboes so I was naturally scared of them. One day I saw man in tattered clothes approaching our house. I ran inside and told my mother. She responded by quickly preparing a sandwich and a glass of milk, placing them outside on the front porch and then locking us both inside. I heard the man leaving after having his lunch. “Thank you very much ma’m,” I heard him say.

I quickly realized he was not dangerous, just hungry.

John Lee Hooker sings “Hobo Blues”

“When a woman gets the blues, she goes to her room and hides, (x2)
When a man gets the blues, he catches a freight train and rides.”

                                         Freight Train Blues, Trixie Smith

u.s. blues in europe

Something magical happened to the music scene in Europe in the early 1960s, when German music producers Lippman and Rau contacted Willie Dixon, a mainstay of the Chicago blues scene, about setting up a blues festival in Europe that would bring the great American bluesmen to the Continent. Many such players had never been outside the United States, so they leaped at the opportunity. The American Folk Blues Festival, which started in Great Britain, turned out to be a rousing success and gave American Southern blues a lot of publicity there and on the Continent proper. The festival continued annually from 1962 to 1972, took an eight-year hiatus, returning in 1980. It finally ended in 1985, but had prompted the establishment of other blues festivals like it in many European countries that have continued until the present day. Few people realize that 70% of all traditional blues recordings are still sold in Europe.

Why was this particular festival so important? Because the British public was given direct access to the sound and feeling of the blues culture of the southern United States, which prompted fledgling British rock bands of that time to adopt or incorporate the blues into their musical styles. “The concerts featured some of the leading blues artists of the 1960s, such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson, some playing in unique combinations such as T-bone Walker playing guitar for pianist Memphis Slim, Otis Rush with Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson with Muddy Waters,” explains Wikipedia. “The audience at Manchester in 1962, the first venue for the festival in Britain, included Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones [all from The Rolling Stones formed in the same year] and Jimmy Page [lead guitarist and founder of Led Zeppelin in 1968]. Subsequent attendees at the first London festivals are believed to have also included such influential musicians as Eric Burdon, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. Collectively these were the primary movers in the blues explosion that would lead to the British Invasion.”

It may have been like selling old wine in new bottles, but it worked musically. The British invaders, led by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, practically took over the American music charts during the 1960s, stealing the limelight from American pop performers like Chubby Checker, Chuck Berry, Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino and the Everly Brothers. Only a few American performers, like Elvis Presley and the black R&B singers of Motown, managed to buck the trend. Elvis had managed to merge black music sounds into his new Rockabilly style and the American teenage rock and roll lovers were developing an unquenchable thirst for black music, especially the blues.     

“The musical style of British Invasion artists, such as the Beatles, had been influenced by earlier US rock ‘n’ roll, a genre which had lost some popularity and appeal by the time of the Invasion. However, a subsequent handful of white British performers, particularly the Rolling Stones and The Animals, would appeal to a more ‘outsider’ demographic, essentially reviving and popularizing, for young people at least, a musical genre rooted in the blues, rhythm, and black culture, which had been largely ignored or rejected when performed by black US artists in the 1950s,” claims Wikipedia.

Not all American singers were ignoring the black blues performers of old, however. As American rocker Pat Nugent (famous for “Cat Scratch Fever”) once put it: “Way before the British Invasion, I was tuned into the black guys that created the British Invasion. Without Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and the Motown hits, there would be no Beatles.”

Fast forward to 2011, when something truly wondrous happened to the blues in Europe. “In 2011, various blues organizations from around the continent founded the European Blues Union and simultaneously created the annual European Blues Challenge. Regional or national blues associations, like the Baltic Blues Society and France Blues, hold annual competitions modeled on the International Blues Challenge held in Memphis, Tennessee, and send their local winners to the European event. Sixteen countries competed in the first challenge, a live-music competition held in Berlin. The fifth competition was held in March 2015 in Brussels and featured representatives from at least 20 countries,” explained European writer Amien Essif.

Indeed, Germany seems to be the main engine for blues activity and recording sales in Europe. It is home to Bear Family Records and its huge collection of blues recordings and other paraphernalia concerning the American blues and other musical genres. Formed in 1975, it is the gold standard for the reissuing of classic blues recordings and is a large contributor to the sale of blues recordings worldwide. The label issues lavishly designed box sets of blues and other American roots music, with book-length liner notes.

Some American blues critics might question whether European listeners can really understand the feelings inherent in traditional American blues songs. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Scalawag magazine quotes black American blues promoter in Germany Ed Davis: “Here’s a German guy singing about ‘down home’ in America, but in reality ‘down home’ for him would be in Bavaria or someplace, you know? But that shows the influence the music has on people. Because you can go anywhere you want in Europe—anywhere—and you’re going to find a hundred blues bands.”

Sonny Boy Williamson performs “Keep It to Yourself”

boogie-woogie bounce

The railroad-inspired fast Texas sounds of the “piney woods” logging camps did not stay put for long. As cash-strapped blues musicians hopped trains headed for yet another logging camp, the music began to migrate to the east (Louisiana) and north to such blues music locations along train lines as St. Louis and Chicago. Laws in Texas at that time made it imperative for freight and other trains to stop at busy intersections of train tracks and major roads, so hoboes and poor musicians could easily “catch” a train ride any time they wanted. All they had to do was watch out for the railroad police who were always on the lookout for illegal passengers.

As the music moved out of Texas, it began to be melded with other forms, especially the musical genres that relied heavily on horns and drums to produce danceable sounds. The big band jazz sound of small orchestras led by Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller was becoming popular by the mid-1930s. Fast-stepping, athletic dances such as Western swing and the Lindy Hop were all the rage, as was the popular and feisty “jump blues” [hard R&D] of Louis Jordan. Chicago had become the mecca for such popular genres and dance moves as it had already become a favorite destination for blacks fleeing persecution under the strict Jim Crow laws and black codes of the segregated South. At that time (1930s), the streets of Chicago featured an open freedom for blacks found nowhere in the deep South.

So, what do you get when you cross Western swing with blues piano? The answer is boogie-woogie, which is both a musical genre and a dance style. Others would argue that boogie-woogie is a lively form of rock and roll that is based on the blues. It is probably impossible to prove that either argument is right or wrong. But both sides would agree that when boogie-woogie music starts to play, it is hard not to get up and dance to that beat which features a rolling bass sound and lively backbeat. Boogie-woogie piano players use their left hand to produce the rolling bass sound on their keyboards while their right hand provides the fast-moving rhythms of the boogie-woogie beat. Some blues players like Blind Lemon Jefferson even managed to duplicate the rolling bass sound with their guitars. 

The expression “boogie” probably derives from the West African words booga (drum beat) or bogi (dance). One of the first boogie-woogie songs ever produced was one initially recorded on December 29, 1928 in Chicago by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith (1904-29) on Vocalion Records. It was called, not surprisingly, “Pinetop’s Boogie-Woogie.” Released in March 1929 as a piano rag, the song cemented boogie-woogie as the name of its entire genre, explains Wikipedia. Many blues researchers consider this song to be the first rock and roll recording, although rock pioneers like Little Richard would no doubt disagree.

The song’s lyrics are exclusively instructions to dancers in the audience, as was traditional at the time. Musically, it is strikingly similar to the previous year’s hit, “Honky Tonk Train Blues” by Meade Lux Lewis (1905-64), which also went on to become a blues standard, re-recorded by many later artists. A coincidence? Maybe not, as Lewis and Smith then lived in the same boarding house. Lyrics to Pinetop’s song go like this:

“Now listen here all of you, this is my Pinetop Trouble,
I want everybody to dance ’em just like I tell you,
And when I say ‘Hold yourself’ everybody get ready to stop,
And when I’ve said ‘Stop,’ don’t move a peg,
And when I say ‘Get It’, everybody do a boogie-woogie,

Now that’s what I’m talkin ‘bout.”

Pinetop Smith could have had a long and productive career had he not met a tragic end at the young age of 25; he was shot to death in a Chicago dance hall. Within a few years, some of his cuts were re-released on the Brunswick label and in 1938 Tommy Dorsey came out with a big band, piano version of Pinetop’s biggest hit. That version has influenced pianists ever since. The great jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton said he heard the boogie piano style in Texas early in the 20th century, as did Lead Belly and Bunk Johnson. Others claim that the style dates back to the 1870s, when black musicians jammed together in order to collect enough money to pay their monthly rents.

As the 1930s passed into history, the dark clouds of international war were forming. Before one could sing a few bars of “Over There,” a US government propaganda song designed to inspire courage for WWI military personnel, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, plunging America into WWII in the Pacific. Ironically, the war produced what is called the “Boogie-Woogie Bounce,” a strong comeback of the music that derived from Texas. Although not in the same class as “Over There,” WWII’s theme song became “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy,” which inspired a generation of jitterbuggers.

This very danceable song, which definitely lifted the morale of the troops, is an upbeat ditty about a fictional famous trumpeter from Chicago who gets drafted into the army and becomes his company’s (B) bugler. “It turns out, however, that he can’t play a lick without a band behind him. So a sympathetic captain transfers in some hip players, and from then on, Company B swings into its daily routines,” writes Carl Zebrowski in an article called “The Boogie Woogie Bounce” in the America in WWII blog. The lyrics go like this:

“He was a famous trumpet man from out Chicago way,
He had a boogie style that no one else could play,
He was the top man at his craft,
But then his number came up, and he was gone with the draft,
He’s in the army now, a-blowin’ reveille,
He’s the boogie-woogie bugle boy of Company B.”

“They made him blow a bugle for his Uncle Sam,
It really brought him down because he couldn’t jam,
The captain seemed to understand,
Because the next day the cap’ went out and drafted a band,
And now the company jumps when he plays reveille,
He’s the boogie-woogie bugle boy of Company B.”

The Andrews Sisters sing their megahit WWII classic “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy”

railroads and fast texas

The Republic of Texas joined the Union in 1845 as a slave state, and a flood of migrants quickly started coming in from other states such as Tennessee and Alabama, many bringing their slaves with them. The northeastern part of the state, known as the “piney woods,” was particularly attractive for such newcomers because of its logging industry, which was providing building materials for a rapidly expanding population. When steam locomotives were introduced in the 1850s, job opportunities abounded for the new railroad industry in Texas. Where the railroads went (toward the growing towns of Houston, Galveston, Austin and Dallas), civilization followed. So did the chugging and whistling sounds of the newfangled steam locomotives that were mimicked by black (and some white) singers and piano players. Pianos had been brought into the area by steamships plying the great Mississippi and Red Rivers.

Texas was home to an environment that fostered the creation of “fast Western” music, which later became known as boogie-woogie. The lumber, cattle, turpentine, and oil industries were all served by an expanding railway system from the northern corner of East Texas to the Gulf Coast and from the Louisiana border to Dallas and West Texas. Alan Lomax, who recorded early blues songs for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and ‘40s wrote: “Anonymous black musicians, longing to grab a train and ride away from their troubles, incorporated the rhythms of the steam locomotive and the moan of their whistles into the new dance music they were playing in jukes and dance halls. Boogie-woogie forever changed piano playing, as ham-handed [unskilled] black piano players transformed the instrument into a polyrhythmic railroad train.”

One of the best known of these “train songs” was Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s 1934 version of “The Midnight Special,” recorded at Angola Prison in Louisiana. The hero aspect of this blues song was not so much about the escaping prisoners from a Sugarland (near Houston) prison, but more about the train itself. The “ever-loving light” of the train was a potent symbol of salvation and absolution from sins for these escapees.

“Well, you wake up in the mornin’, you hear the work bell ring,
And they march you to the table, you see the same old thing,
Ain’t no food upon the table, and no pork up in the pan,
But you better not complain, boy, you get in trouble with the man.”

“Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine an ever lovin’ light on me.”

Master of the 12-string guitar Lead Belly (1888-1949) sang and recorded several other blues songs concerning trains, including “Rock Island Line (1937) and “Leavin’ on the Morning Train Blues” (1938), both about trains entering and leaving New Orleans. In the former song, Lead Belly imagined a scenario in which a depot agent is about to make an oncoming freight train go “in the hole,” i.e., wait on a side track until a higher-priority train passes. The train engineer signals that he has livestock aboard by using his whistle, suggesting one of the many creative ways train sounds were used in those days. Lead Belly’s version of “Rock Island Line” was echoed by British singer Lonnie Donegan in 1954, which started the “skiffle” craze there and thus helped lead to the development of English rock and roll in the 1960s.

Many blues experts have concluded that the railroad-inspired “fast Western” (also called fast Texas) was the first term by which boogie-woogie was known. During the early days of blues development all Negro piano players in Houston, Dallas and Galveston played that way. This style was differentiated from the “slow blues” of New Orleans and St. Louis. At these gatherings, the ragtime and blues boys could easily tell from what section of the country a man came, even going so far as to name the town, by his interpretation of a piece, explains the website Nonjohn.com.

In the 1986 television broadcast of Britain’s The South Bank Show about boogie-woogie, music historian Paul Oliver noted: “Now the conductors were used to the logging camp pianists clamoring aboard, telling them a few stories, jumping off the train, getting into another logging camp, and playing again for eight hours, barrel house [music style of rowdy pubs with beer barrels on the dance floor]. In this way the music got around—all through Texas—and eventually, of course, out of Texas. Now when this new form of piano music came from Texas, it moved out towards Louisiana. It was brought by people like George W. Thomas, an early pianist who was already living in New Orleans by about 1910 and writing ‘New Orleans Hop Scop Blues,’ which really has some of the characteristics of the music that we came to know as Boogie.” The song was also recorded in 1930 by “the empress of the blues” Bessie Smith. Her version goes like this:

“Old New Orleans is a great big old southern town, where hospitality you will surely find,
The population there is very, very fair, with ev’rything they do,
White folks do it too, they have a dance surely it’s something rare there,
Glide, slide, prance, dance, hop, stop,
Take it easy honey!

“I can never git tired of dancin’ those Hop Scop Blues,
Once more you glide, slide, prance, dance,
The Hop Scop Blues will make you do a lovely shake,
They’ll make you feel so grand when you join hand in hand,
I’ll never git tired of dancin’ those Hop Scop Blues,
Once more you glide, slide, prance, I said dance, oh, hop, now stop,
Take it easy…”

Lonnie Donegan sings “Rock Island Line”

the devil’s son-in-law

Following the stock market crash of 1929, the market for blues recordings suffered its own great depression. Many black blues performers, who had been riding high during the Roaring Twenties, had no choice other than packing their bags and returning to the rural south, from which they had come. Recording companies turned away from traditional blues in favor of brighter, faster and more upbeat new sounds coming out of east Texas logging camps and steam locomotive operations called Fast Western (later known as big band swing) and Boogie Woogie, which became the dominant sound (and dances) of the World War II years. Blues made a comeback in the 1950s and ‘60s with the British Invasion which featured bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Beatles, which were groomed on traditional American blues music. Traditional blues also fit hand-in-glove with the American and international political protest movements against the war in Vietnam during the same period. 

There were some blues recording artists during the 1930s, however, who managed to create reputations for themselves and thus survive during very tough times. A saying during those days summed up the prevailing reality: “A loaf of bread was only a nickel, but who in the hell had a nickel?” One such player was William Bunch, better known by his nom de plume Peetie (or Peetey) Wheatstraw (1902-41). “He recorded in every year of the 1930s save 1933, ultimately producing 175 sides in all with only one rejection, an enormous total for a blues artist in the pre-war period. This figure does not include recordings made by Wheatstraw sitting in on records made by his frequent partner, Kokomo Arnold, or ones made with Amos Easton, a.k.a. Bumble Bee Slim,” writes Uncle Dave Lewis in allmusic.com. Only a few pictures of Peetie remain, most showing him holding a guitar, but he specialized in playing the piano.

The History of the Blues described Wheatstraw as a potato-headed pianist and singer, who delivered his lyrics in a “slightly tipsy fashion” and very often punctuated his verses with an annoying cry of “ooh well, well.” One disgusted female listener once responded: “Why doesn’t he just yodel and get it over with?”

Like the more famous Robert Johnson of the Mississippi Delta, the St. Louis based Wheatstraw claimed to have gone to the crossroads and met the devil to make a deal, although his story had a different twist than the Johnson tale. In his version, Peetie’s deal was to marry Beelzebub’s extremely ugly daughter in exchange for an enhanced musical ability. That’s why the singer’s recordings were issued under two different demonic names: “The Devil’s Son-in-Law” or “The High Sheriff from Hell.” Humility was not Peetie’s trademark.

The blues singer Henry Townsend recalled Wheatstraw’s real personality: “He was that kind of person. You know, a jive-type person.” The blues critic Tony Russell updated the description in Wikipedia: “Wheatstraw constructed a macho persona that made him the spiritual ancestor of rap artists.” Peetie’s lyrics were a major influence on Robert Johnson, forming the basis for Johnson’s 1937 “Terraplane Blues.”

One of Peetie’s greatest hits was “The Devil’s Son-in-Law.” Some of its macho lyrics are as follows:

“When I was born I was a man
I whooped the doctor’s ass for slappin’ me with his hand
Didn’t give a damn about nothin’ do you understand me cuzzin’
Cause I gotta plan to show you somethin’
The world’s in my hands You think it wasn’t I am what I am
Tell’em somethin’ Devils son-in-law yeah.”

“I got dough I got the Flow
And every dime piece is working in my show
Show after show I’m making dough
My competition hatin’ sayin’ I gotta go
They get together I didn’t know
They set me up and filled me full of holes
Oh No I’m on the floor Devils son-in-law yeah.”

An American blaxploitation comedy horror film was made in 1977 about the Wheatstraw legend     called The Devil’s Son-in-Law. The plot differs slightly from the musical legend, for comedic effect. After being murdered by his rivals, Petey Wheatstraw (played by comedian Rudy Ray Moore) is resurrected, in exchange for marrying the devil’s daughter, the world’s ugliest woman. Beginning life as the afterbirth to a watermelon, the young Wheatstraw becomes a martial artist, but is unable to best the evil comedy team of Leroy and Skillet, who also indulge in wholesale murder. Satan restores the comedians’ victims to life, and charges Petey with the task of marrying his clock-stoppingly ugly daughter to give him a grandchild. When Petey attempts to default on the deal, he is pursued by the devil’s henchmen, explains IMDb.com.

Peetie’s actual demise was less dramatic, but equally tragic. In December, 1941 (on the 21st, his birthday), Wheatstraw and a couple of friends decided to take a drive to find some liquor. Only a short distance from his house, the car struck a parked train, killing Peetie’s two friends instantly. The Devil’s Son-in-Law passed away from his injuries in the hospital a few hours later. He was only 39 years old.

“Wheatstraw was overwhelmingly popular throughout the 1930s, and he is credited in some quarters with being the artist who carried the blues from its lowly status as rural ‘devil’s music’ into the cities where, in time, it would grow, thrive and change to suit the needs of a new, urban audience,” concludes Uncle Dave Lewis.

With so many early blues performers claiming they went to the crossroads and made pacts with the devil, there is no wonder that the blues got labeled as “the devil’s music.”

Peetie Wheatstraw sings “The Devil’s Son-in-Law”

stagger lee

It is not unusual for blues songs dating back to the 1920s or before to be re-recorded in different genres. Along the way, much of the blues feeling and intent of the original song is lost or misinterpreted. One of the greatest examples of this process is “Stagger Lee,” a blues song first published in 1911, and then recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. In 1925, “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey recorded the second version of the song as “Stack O’Lee Blues.” The song had actually been doing the rounds of the South, travelling up and down the Mississippi River, since the turn of the century, claims the website udiscovermusic.com.

The historical Stagger Lee was Lee Shelton, a black pimp living in St. Louis, Missouri in the late 19th century. He was nicknamed Stag Lee or Stack Lee, with a variety of explanations being given: 1) he was given the nickname because he “went stag,” meaning he was without friends; 2) he took the nickname from a well-known riverboat captain called Stack Lee; or, 3) according to John and Alan Lomax, he took the name from a riverboat owned by the Lee family of Memphis called the Stack Lee, which was known for its on-board prostitution. 

“Shelton was well known locally as one of the Macks, a group of pimps who demanded attention through their flashy clothing and appearance. In addition to these activities, he was the captain of a black Four Hundred Club, a social club with a dubious reputation,” says Wikipedia.

“Stagger Lee” is all about an incident that happened on Christmas night in 1895 while Shelton and his acquaintance William “Billy” Lyons were drinking in the Bill Curtis Saloon. Lyons was also a member of St. Louis’ underworld, and may have been a political and business rival to Shelton. After a lot of drinking and gambling, Lyons grabbed Shelton’s Stetson hat, a definite fighting matter. Subsequently, Shelton shot Lyons in the stomach, recovered his hat, and left. Lyons died shortly afterward and Shelton was convicted of the murder in 1897. Shelton was paroled in 1909, but soon got into trouble again and was returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery; he died in there in 1912.

A string of different “Stagger Lee” versions have been recorded by Furry Lewis (1927), Long Clive Reed (1927), Frank Hutchison (1927), Woody Guthrie (1956), Lonnie Donegan (1956), Taj Mahal (1969) and Bob Dylan (1993). Cab Calloway and His Orchestra recorded a song entitled ‘Stack O Lee Blues’, but his version had nothing lyrically to do with the original, claims Richard Havers in udiscovermusic.com. Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording is considered the definitive version by blues scholars. Some of his lyrics go like this:

“Police officer, how can it be?
You can ‘rest everybody but cruel Stack O’ Lee
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
Billy de Lyon told Stack O’ Lee, ‘Please don’t take my life,
I got two little babies, and a darlin’ lovin’ wife’

That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
‘What I care about you little babies, your darlin’ lovin’ wife?
You done stole my Stetson
Hat, I’m bound to take your life.”

Some sources say that recordings of this song number in the hundreds and that the Stagger Lee tale has been told and retold in venues other than just music. According to staggerlee.com, over 400 different artists have recorded this song since the first recording in 1923. Margaret Walker and James Baldwin wrote poems from the song. It’s been refashioned as a musical, two novels, a short story, an award-winning graphic novel, Ph.D. dissertations, and a pornographic feature film. “Stagger Lee” has lived as Ragtime, a Broadway showtune, Blues, Jazz, Honky Tonk, Country, ‘50s Rock and Roll, Ska, Folk, Surf, ‘70s punk, Heavy Metal, ‘90s punk, Rap. Even Hawaiian. The song’s character lives large in Gangsta Rap. Listen to it and we hear the evolution of modern music.

Probably the most familiar version of “Stagger Lee” (at least to baby boomers) was recorded in 1958 by R&B vocalist Lloyd Price. His version of the song reached number one on the Billboard list and stayed there for four weeks in 1959. Some of his lyrics are as follows:

“Stagger Lee went to the barroom
And he stood across the barroom door
He said, nobody move and he pulled his
Forty-four, Ooh

Stagger Lee, (oh Stagger Lee) cried Billy (oh Stagger Lee)
Oh, please (oh Stagger Lee) don’t take my life (oh Stagger Lee)
I’ve got three little (oh Stagger Lee) children and a very (oh Stagger Lee)
Sickly wife (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)

Stagger Lee (oh Stagger Lee) shot Billy (oh Stagger Lee)
Oh, he shot (oh Stagger Lee) that poor boy so bad (oh Stagger Lee)
‘Till the bullet (oh Stagger Lee) came through Billy (oh Stagger Lee)and it broke the bar (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)
Tender’s glass (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)”

Lloyd Price sings “Stagger Lee”

mules in the blues

Mules have a long history of being mentioned in literature and music, going all the way back to the Bible and before. The animal is a cross between a female horse and a male donkey and is characterized as being very stubborn, but also intelligent. It is beast of burden known to be rebellious as well. In slavery days (and beyond) in the Old South mules were used to pull the plows that prepared the land for crops, usually cotton, and to haul heavy loads. They were also a primary means of transportation for African Americans then, either pulling wagons or acting as a poor man’s horse. A special bond developed between slaves and mules, a relationship which entered the black jive lexicon in many ways. It was common sense among these mule operators to never approach the animal from the rear. The “dangerous hind legs” of a mule became a powerful symbol in black slang and in blues music.

“Indeed, the blues singer adopted a phrase referring to ‘the dangerous hind legs of a mule’ when referring to another man making love to his wife or girlfriend. ‘Another mule kicking in your stall’ appeared most famously in a 1951 post-war recording Long Distance Call [Chess 1452] by Muddy Waters, but was already standard fare in many pre-war recordings,” wrote Max Haymes in an essay called “Mule, Get Up in the Alley” in the earlyblues.com blog. “While in 1930, a driving Birmingham jug band cut Kickin’ Mule Blues [OKeh 8866] with an unidentified raucous singer whose essentially single-liners give a definite pre-blues feeling to this performance.”

One of the most famous songs about mules ever written or performed was “Mule Skinner Blues,” originally recorded in 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers, who had grown up in a black neighborhood in Texas and started his career singing blues songs. Rodgers’ song was influenced by the 1928 recording of Tom Dickson’s “Labor Blues” in which the exchange is clearly between a white boss and an African-American worker (Dickson was black) who is quitting the job, not applying for it:

“It’s ‘good mornin’ Captain’, ‘e said ‘good mornin’ Shine’,

Said ‘good mornin’ Captain’, said ‘good mornin’ Shine’.

‘T’ain’t nuthin’ the matter, Captain, but I just ain’t gwine.

‘I don’t mind workin’, Captain, from sun to sun,

I don’t mind workin’, Captain, from sun to sun.

But I want my money, Captain, when pay-day come.”

The AAB blues lyric structure is apparent in the song while slang words “captain” (white boss man) and shine (African American person) were employed to lend a local flavor. Rodgers’ later version was renamed “Blue Yodel #8” and then became “Mule Skinner Blues” in the many re-recordings of the earthy ballad, which had nothing to do with skinning mules. Mule skinners in those days were simply people who knew how to handle the stubborn animals.

Black workers had a reputation of knowing how to communicate with mules, mainly since they were the persons handling them the most. “The mule acted in the role of a release valve for pent-up emotions concerning the way blacks were treated by the white man and his Jim Crow laws. Paul Oliver, whilst considering the lyrics of Go ‘Long Mule [Paramount 12247] by Ukele Bob Williams, rightly pointed out: ‘Travelers in the South and ex-slaves alike recollected that a black worker could sing comments about his master or boss to his mule, which he could not say to his boss’s face’,” wrote Haymes, quoting Oliver.

The braying of mules was the stuff of legend as the sound was so shrill and loud it could be heard for miles. Only screech owls were louder, some say. Superstitious bluesmen, many of whom followed the tenets of the black religion hoodoo (not to be confused with voodoo), weaved mule and donkey sounds into their music. “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey described a mule’s pitch in 1926: “If I could holler just like a mountain jack, I’d go up on the mountain, call my good man back.”

“Jack” was another word for an ass (donkey), so it follows that a slang name for a stupid and obnoxious loudmouth is “jackass.” On the other hand, mules were often praised in blues music. In a song called “The Death of Holmes’ Mule” Charley Turner and Winston Holmes describe a hoodoo ritual employed for the burial of the revered animal.

The great blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson, from Texas, put it interestingly: “The blues come to Texas, lopin’ like a mule.”

Jimmie Rodgers sings “Mule Skinner Blues”

the blues in space

This week featured an extraordinary event – American astronauts returning to space for the first time in nine years. Even more stunning is the fact that there were carried there by a privately owned space craft from the SpaceX company instead of a NASA owned and operated one, surely opening the door to an international space travel industry. Tickets to the moon for anyone who can afford them (and they are not cheap; at a mere $35 million) are already being sold. So what’s next? Tickets to Mars? The, ahem, the sky’s the limit? Just ask Elon Musk, the SpaceX owner.

“By successfully launching its new Crew Dragon spacecraft with astronauts on board for the first time, SpaceX became the first private company to launch astronauts for NASA. The crewed test flight, called Demo-2, is also the first crewed launch from the United States since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. SpaceX and Boeing were both selected for NASA’s commercial crew program to wean the agency off its dependence on Russia’s Soyuz to fly  astronauts after the shuttle program was retired,” explains an article in Space.com

A gentle reader might ask OK, but what does all this good news have to do with the blues? That’s where the late American astronomer Carl Sagan and his team of scientists came in back in the late 1970s with the launch of NASA’s Voyager series of space probes. In 1977, upon the launching of Voyager I and Voyager II, a committee working under Carl Sagan produced the so-called “Golden Records,” actual phonographic LPs made of copper containing “a collection of sounds and images,” writes Joss Fong at Vox, “that will probably outlast all human artifacts on Earth.”

Carried into deep space, these recordings were presumably made for the entertainment of any aliens that might come across them. The idea was to send a representative sample of the earth’s cultures in terms of what earthlings enjoy, including music. The Open Culture blog explains: Among the audio selections are greetings from then-UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, whale songs, Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 2 in F, Senegalese percussion, Aborigine songs, Peruvian panpipes and drums, Navajo chant, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” (playing in the Vox video), more Bach, Beethoven, and “Johnny B. Goode.” The Beatles wanted to have “Here Comes the Sun” included, but their recording company forbade it. On what grounds we have to wonder? Was it possible the company was afraid of being sued for copyright infringement by aliens?

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945) was born in the small town of Pendleton, Texas. He was not born blind but got that way when he was a young boy. His mother, in a spat with her husband, threw a pan full of lye in her son’s face. In rural Texas, a blind black boy in those days had only a couple of choices and both concerned picking: cotton or a guitar. Willie recorded thirty spiritual songs between 1927 and 1930; many of which featured a female background singer. For a brief period, Willie’s recordings outsold the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith.

Although Willie never recorded traditional blues songs, it was his slide guitar playing that placed him squarely in the blues category. Anyway, Blind Willie Johnson’s greatest song was selected to inter-galactically represent the blues for several reasons: he had experienced the “crucifixion” of poverty, he had an “other worldly” voice, and his guitar playing was next to heavenly. Sadly, Blind Willie died of malaria and syphilis, complicated by pneumonia, after his shack burned down in August 1945. He and his wife had slept on a soggy mattress in the ashes because they had no other place to go.

Isn’t it interesting that the music of a deaf German musical conductor named Beethoven was also included in the Golden Records in Voyager II that will fly through our solar system for the next 60,000 years? It’s also ironic that the blues greats from the Mississippi Delta were skipped over for a poor Texas bluesman. 

An article in Texas Monthly by Michael Hall entitled “The Soul of a Man” sums up nicely: “The slide guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, who used ‘Dark Was the Night’ as the motif for his melancholy soundtrack to Paris, Texas, once called the song ‘the most transcendent piece in all American music.’ In about 60,000 years, one of the Voyagers just might enter another solar system. Maybe it will be intercepted. Maybe the interceptors will figure out how to play that record. Maybe they’ll hear ‘Dark Was the Night.’ Maybe they’ll wonder, what kind of creature made that music?”

That may indeed be a question for the ages, or as Cooder himself puts it: “I think Blind Willie Johnson is one of these interplanetary world musicians.”

Blind Willie Johnson performs “Dark Was the Night”

Essays on early blues music development