The Singing Brakeman

It is tempting to believe that the blues, having been conceived in cotton fields by slaves singing to relieve the stress of working, was only performed by blacks and that the music belongs entirely to their race. And most American readers would guffaw at the thought of a white country singer influencing the blues, jazz and rap. Even more preposterous would be the idea of a yodeler also being a blues performer. “If American music is unique, it is largely due to its bedrock foundation in blues and gospel music, two forms of music that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century,” writes Professor Charles F. McGovern of William and Mary College. He goes on to name all the genres blues and gospel influenced. What he did not write was that country music, which came before both, had its own deep and lasting influence on the blues, jazz and rap.

A singer who was neither black nor was confined to the blues was the late, great Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), who was called America’s Blue Yodeler, the Singing Brakeman, and the Father of Country Music. Arguably the most significant force in American music history, Rodgers has heavily influenced country, blues, folk, jazz, Hawaiian, rock, pop, Americana, western swing, jazz, and bluegrass music. Born in Meridian, Mississippi, Rodgers’ affinity for entertaining came at an early age, and the lure of the road was irresistible to him. “By age 13, he had twice organized and begun traveling shows, only to be brought home by his father. His father found Rodgers his first job working on the railroad as a water boy. Here he was further taught to pick and strum by rail workers and hobos. As a water boy, he would have been exposed to the work chants of the African American railroad workers known as gandy dancers. A few years later, he became a brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, a position formerly secured by his oldest brother, Walter, who had been promoted to conductor on the line running between Meridian and New Orleans,” states Wikipedia.

On the Bluegrass Today blog, Daniel Mullins observed that “Jimmie’s Texas Blues” is a quintessential example of some of Rodgers’ best aspects. “This song hasn’t been as popular through the years as some of his others, but it still has all the earmarks of a Rodgers song. Even though you probably haven’t heard it before, you can still tell it is a Jimmie Rodgers song, the sign of a real artist. Jerry Lee Lewis once said that there were only four stylists in all of popular music: Hank Williams, Al Jolson, himself, and Jimmie Rodgers,” wrote Mullins.

“Jimmie’s Texas Blues” is a great example of why he is also known as a “bluesman.” The lyrics of this song say it all, particularly as Jimmie uses a yodel as both a transition and an exclamation point.

The way I been treated, some time I wish I was dead;
The way I been treated, some time I wish I was dead;
(Lord know…)
‘Cause I ain’t got no place
To lay my weary head.

[Yodel]

When I want you, woman, I always find you gone;
Ev’rytime I want you, always find you gone;
(You’re always gone…)
Listen here, good mama,
I’m gonna put your air brakes on.

[Yodel]

Some like Chicago, some love Memphis, Tennessee;
Some like Chicago, some love Memphis, Tennessee.
(Ask sweet mama…)
Give me sweet Dallas, Texas,
Where the women think the world of me.
[SPOKEN] Hey, hey, hey…

[Yodel]

You may have your troubles, I’m having my troubles, too;
You may have your troubles, I’m having my troubles, too;
Yes, I know how it feels
When you’re feeling so doggone blue.
(Have mercy, Lord…)

[Yodel]

I’m not singin’ the blues, I’m tellin’ you the hard luck I’ve had;
I’m not singin’ blues, I’m tellin’ you the hard luck I’ve had.
(Baby, I’ve had it, too…)
The blues ain’t nothin’ but a good man feeling bad.

Rodgers was immortalized by being the first singer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and was posthumously entered into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013. The 2009 book Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century tracks Rodgers’ influence through a broad range of musical genres, internationally. Recording artists of all musical stripes have played versions of Rodgers’ hit songs and the blues is no exception. Rodgers was one of the biggest stars of American music between 1927 and 1933, arguably doing more to popularize blues than any other performer of his time.

Jimmie Rodgers influenced many later blues artists such as Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy and Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf. “My man that I dug, that I really dug, that I got my yodel from, was Jimmie Rodgers. See, he yodeled, and I turned it into something more of a howl,” proclaimed the legendary Howlin’ Wolf.

By 1932, the sickly Singing Brakeman was clearly running out of track. “His next-to-last recordings were made in August 1932 in Camden [New Jersey], and tuberculosis clearly was getting the better of him. He had given up touring by that time, but did have a weekly radio show in San Antonio, Texas, where he had relocated when ‘T for Texas’ (a.k.a. ‘Blue Yodel Number 1’) became a hit. Earnings from his recordings enabled Rodgers to build a great house for his family in Kerrville, Texas, a location chosen partly for health reasons,” states his biography on jimmierodgers.com.

The end of the track came the following year (1933). You can almost hear that famous yodel when you enter the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Meridian, which contains his famous guitar and many other paraphernalia about the singer who changed American music forever.

cane quill blues

Many blues aficionados believe, rightly so, that Texas blues came out of the cotton fields. However, they also tend to think that cotton was the only antebellum cash crop that was grown in the state. Not true. Sugar cane preceded cotton, and was grown in the fertile river bottoms of Texas, especially in the plantations near the Gulf of Mexico. Sugar cane not only produced sugar but many other derivatives, such as molasses. Stalks were used for various purposes as well.

Where do these historical facts connect with the development of the Texas blues? The link is through the quills, a sort of pan pipe made from cane stalks. “The quills are first mentioned in early American plantation slave histories, some dating back to the late 1700s. At that time, the instrument appears to consist of two or more cane pipes, played for recreation and dancing, accompanied by shouts, whoops and songs. They are mentioned fairly often in oral histories but little structural and musical information has survived. Considering how popular they appear to have been, it is surprising that they are almost unheard of today. Quills were also used by free blacks in New Orleans in the 1800s. Two bluesmen recorded songs with the quills in 1920, and a rural folk tradition has survived to this day in the American south,” states the website sohl.com.

Texas-born Henry “Ragtime” Thomas was one of those black bluesmen mentioned and the other was Big Boy Cleveland. “Thomas was born into a family of freed slaves in Big Sandy, Texas in 1874 [d. 1930]. He began traveling the Texas railroad lines as a hobo after leaving home in his teens, eventually earning his way as an itinerant songster,  entertaining local populaces as well as railway employees. Besides the guitar, Thomas accompanied himself on quills, a folk instrument fabricated from cane reeds whose sound is similar to the zampona played by musicians in Peru and Bolivia,” reports Wikipedia.

Other writers, such as Tom Leonardi, argue that quills were also made from a type of bamboo that was native to the South. “The cane is specifically Arundinaria Gigantea, a.k.a. Southern Cane, Switch Cane or Canebrake Bamboo. It’s the only native bamboo found in North America and is common throughout the South where a thick, dense forest of cane is called a ‘Canebrake’ (there are also numerous towns and townships named “Canebrake” throughout the South, and even one in Kern County, California – probably settled by southerners),” claims Leonardi on the KZFR 90.1 FM website.

Since very few, if any, samples remain, one can only guess which type of quill Thomas was using when he recorded a total of 24 record sides for Vocalion Records between 1927 and 1929. Henry’s legacy has been sustained by his songs, which were revived by musicians beginning in the folk music revival of the early 1960s. His recorded songs such as “Bull-doze Blues” a.k.a. “Going Up the Country,” “Old Country Stomp,” and “Fishing Blues,” have since influenced major musicians such as Bob Dylan, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Grateful Dead, Ry Cooder and Canned Heat. Dylan listed the black Texas bluesman as his co-writer on his 1963 Freewheelin’ album while the folk-rock group Lovin’ Spoonful’s first hit album (1965) Do You Believe in Magic? included their version of Thomas’s “Fishing Blues.” Three years later, Taj Mahal came out with another version of “Fishing Blues” and in 2002 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band followed suit. The Spoonful’s version of “Fishing Blues” became the soundtrack for Woody Allen’s 1966 film What’s Up Tiger Lily?

Like black songster Mance Lipscomb of Navasota, Texas, Thomas was discovered late in his life and enjoyed only a short time in the blues music spotlight. His influence, however, was strong on white musicians discovering the joys of performing blues roots music, especially during the boom years of the 1960s. What would the blues sound like today had these important discoveries not have occurred?

Blackface minstrels

Before radio and television there were minstrel shows and vaudeville, original entertainment venues that existed in North America (U.S. and Canada) from the early 1800s until about 1910 and 1930, respectively. Such theatrical performances often featured blackface minstrels, especially as comedic breaks between acts. These performers,  usually white, darkened their faces with burned cork, grease paint or shoe polish, adding a distinctive white circle around their mouths. The complicated image evoked by these minstrels has been praised as “progressive” by some and vilified as “racist” by others. Some African Americans even used the guise while performing at minstrel shows, perplexing white observers. Why would these people want to demean themselves and their own culture, they would ask.

“After the Civil War, African Americans themselves began to put on blackface, using the same exaggerated features and performing the same demeaning dialect and acts before white audiences. Why? Because such acts paved the way to stardom,” writes Marc Aronson, a professor at the Rutgers School of Communications, in an article in the Washington Post entitled “The Complicated Mix of Racism and Envy behind Blackface.”

This was also true for Caucasians such as Al Jolson, a New York-based singer who became famous in the 1920s and 1930s for performing in blackface. Jolson was best known for being the star of the 1927 groundbreaking movie “The Jazz Singer,” which was the world’s first talking motion picture. Jolson stunned moviegoers, used to reading the placards of silent movie screens, when he broke into a booming voice. After conquering Broadway and Hollywood, Jolson became known as “the greatest entertainer in the world.” After one stage performance, for example, Jolson got a mind-blowing 37 curtain calls. His blackface “happy slave” character called “Gus,” for better or worse, lives on the collective minds of many Americans.

How does all this relate to the early blues? “Even in the 1920s, as Ma Rainey [often called the mother of the blues] and Bessie Smith toured with tent shows in the South, playing to white and African American audiences, they included African American performers in blackface doing chicken-stealing skits similar to those used by the white minstrels of the 19th century,” writes Aronson. Rainey once said of her travels. “We’d go to places where they’d never seen a colored person before. I remember once in Illinois, when we rolled into this little town, they thought we were no-tailed bears!”

There was also a distinct crossover between blackface minstrels who later became blues singers. “Many famous [blues] singers and [stage] actors gained their start in black minstrelsy, including W.C. Handy, Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Butterbeans and Susie. The Rabbit’s Foot Company was a variety troupe, founded in 1900 by an African American, Pat Chappelle, which drew on and developed the minstrel tradition while updating it and helping to develop and spread black musical styles,” states Wikipedia.

On the other hand, many black entertainers and intellectuals were disgusted by the whole concept of blackface. “[Duke] Ellington, like [Frederick] Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, wanted to scrub off the burned cork and show African Americans as individuals, not clownish distortions. This critique of minstrelsy continues to shape the conversation today. But it is also important to understand what the strange yearning seen in minstrelsy reveals — both yesterday and today. Minstrelsy allowed black and white society to touch while maintaining distance,” explains Aronson.

Perhaps on an idealistic level, Aronson is right, but the negative aspects of blackface are all too apparent in today’s news. Megyn Kelly, who had her own television talk show, was suddenly without that job recently after publicly defending blackface. “I don’t know how that [blackface] got racist on Halloween. I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being, like, normal people these days,” Kelly said. Kelly is not the only celebrity to be singled out either. Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring got similar treatment, as did Florida’s now-former Secretary of State Michael Ertel.

“There’s a common misconception that the deepest and most prevalent forms of American racism are exclusive to the South, but blackface minstrelsy – when white men dress as black people while reinforcing negative stereotypes of African Americans for entertainment – actually started in the North. In fact, it was most popular in the Northern and Midwestern cities among whites who didn’t have frequent interactions with blacks. These performances portrayed black people as lazy, untrustworthy, unintelligent, cowardly, and hypersexual,” writes Jameelah Nasheed in teenvogue.com. “What Kelly and Northam – like many other white Americans – fail to acknowledge is the origin of blackface is inherently racist.”

By going blackface, then, was the white Al Jolson a hero for trying to help more black people get into entertainment or was he a racist trying to demean their culture? Or is it even fair to judge a 1920s blackface minstrel by today’s standards? Instead of just using minstrelsy as a term of derision, perhaps we need to treat it as a chance to examine those tangled and entangled relationships that are so disturbing, and so defining, of all of us as Americans.

international blues

During the 1960s and 1970s, blues-infused rock groups from England created what is called the “British Invasion,”  and thus changed American music forever. These bands, like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals, brought new energy to an outdated, but still powerful, blues style. Now, however, the blues as we once knew it is losing popularity in the United States as younger generations turn more to rap and other musical styles. Perhaps the only new trend that can save the blues is internationalization. Although they don’t always know the history of the songs they are singing, blues artists from all over the world are continuously tapping into the blues style. Blues pubs are popping up from Tokyo to Berlin, from Toronto to Sao Paulo, and beyond.

Germany and Japan are meccas for American blues, for many of the same reasons. Both were occupied by US forces for years after the end of WWII, and young Germans and Japanese in the immediate postwar period were also starved for new forms of music. They were influenced by their American occupiers, as well. And it’s not only Germany, but many European nations seem enthralled with American blues, the music and its violent history. Many of these countries still feature international blues festivals. The same sort of trend can be observed in Asia, Australia and even in Central America. For instance, the Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival is currently going on in Panama.

International interest in the blues is historical. In fact, Germany’s connection with the American blues stretches far back into history. “Not long after the American Civil War ended, a number of Black musicians, fleeing the racist climate in the States, where the Ku Klux Klan had just formed, came to ply their trade in Europe. Here, they were exoticized but not terrorized,” says Amien Essif in a 2015 article in Scalawag magazine called “Berlin, the Blues Ambassador, and the Imagined South.”

Essif is not the only German writer to take note of the influx of black American bluesmen in the post-Civil War period. “Given the extent of violence and discrimination experienced by African Americans, it is not surprising that an astounding and ever-increasing number pursued their livelihood overseas,” writes historian Rainer E. Lotz, pointing out that in 1896 the German music publication Der Artist counted more than one hundred Black performers touring the country that year.

“Whatever it is about blues that appeals to Europeans, it’s something deep and persistent. The fact is, the music is now part of the European mainstream. Historian Neil A. Wynn in his introduction to the book Cross the Water Blues: African-American Music in Europe claims that Europe buys 70 percent of blues records produced worldwide, and a big chunk of that figure accounts for blues music produced by European artists,” claims Essif.

It may or may not be ironic, but a lot of European modern-day blues enthusiasts know the history of the blues, but tend to see the music in another light. Europe, being that it is multi-cultural and that Europeans tend to learn several languages in school, appreciate the blues in a more positive and open-minded way than many Americans. In fact, Europe sort of looks at the blues through the idyllic eyes of detachment.

All this blues activity in Europe, Japan, Australia and many other countries is encouraging, but is it really enough to save traditional American blues? Since we are more concerned here with the Texas blues, we must ask if Texas bluesmen like Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, “Texas” Alexander, Blind Lemon Jefferson and many others will be remembered as such. How about the late Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan? Will they be remembered as blues performers or simply as rock ‘n’ rollers who were only influenced by the blues? Also, will they even be remembered as Texans?

Dallas Blues

The blues started in the cotton fields of Mississippi and Texas during slavery as blacks used “hollers” and answers to make their jobs of picking cotton less boring and tedious. Black prison convicts later employed blues-type songs while working on railroads as the music cadence and timing combined for more efficiently hitting railroad spikes with sledge hammers. It also tended to ease the very hard work. The soundtrack of the opening scenes of the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? offers a good example of such music. The 2000 crime comedy was written, produced and directed by Texas-born brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who were familiar with the music.

How and where the blues actually started is a matter that is still being debated. The website www.midnightflyerblues.com offers one explanation. “In 1902, singer Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey was touring Missouri with a minstrel tent show when a girl came into her tent and started singing about the man who left her. The song was so strange and poignant; it attracted a lot of attention. When Ma asked her what it was, she said, ‘the blues.’ Then there’s W.C. Handy’s story. In 1903, he was a traveling musician waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi, when he heard a young man, dressed in rags and playing a beat up guitar with a knife blade, singing ‘Goin’ where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog’.” (The Southern and the Yellow Dog were railroad lines.)

A further point of disagreement between music researchers and others concerns who came out with the first blues recording. A common misconception in recorded blues history is that Mamie Smith’s 1920 “Crazy Blues” was the first. Actually, it wasn’t the first, second or even the third such recording. The first blues song published ­­was “I Got the Blues” in 1908, followed by “Dallas Blues” in 1912. Let’s focus on “Dallas Blues” since it concerns Texas, although the song was not actually written or performed by a Texan.

“Dallas Blues” is an important milestone for the development of the blues genre as it has been called the first true blues tune ever published. Written by Hart A. Wand, the song was originally an instrumental often performed in ragtime or Dixieland style. In 1918, Lloyd Garrett added lyrics to express the singer’s longing for the good times experienced in the city of Dallas, Texas. Some of its lyrics are as follows:

“There’s a place I know, folks won’t pass me by

Dallas, Texas, that’s the town, I cry, oh hear me cry

And I’m going back, going back to stay there ‘til I die, until I die”

Garrett (1886-1966), who was born in Iowa, had a career in vaudeville as a tenor and as a composer of musical comedy.

According to Wikipedia: “No date is found for the actual composition of ‘Dallas Blues’ but Samuel Charters, who interviewed Wand for his book The Country Blues (1959), states that Wand took the tune to a piano-playing friend, Annabelle Robbins, who arranged the music for him. Charters added that the title came from one of Wand’s father’s workmen who remarked that the tune gave him the blues to go back to Dallas. Since Wand’s father died in 1909, the actual composition must have predated that. In any case, within weeks of its publication it was heard the length of the Mississippi River, and its influence on all the blues music that followed is well documented.”

The Dillo Decade

Austin has been the epicenter of Texas music for decades. Some have come to know such music through the nationally televised “Austin City Limits,” a television program, launched by Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) member television station KLRU, and broadcast on many PBS stations around the United States. The show was created in 1974 by Bill Arhos, who died in 2015 at the age of 80, but his program can still be viewed on PBS stations around the nation.

However, Austin had built a reputation as a center for Texas music long before ACL came along. Small musical venues dotted Austin’s sixth street, but establishments such as the Vulcan Gas Company and the Continental Club offered larger stages and bigger nightly incomes. But the Vulcan Gas Company closed in 1970, leaving a vacuum for a large musical venue in Austin. Then something special happened that same year: Armadillo World Headquarters opened in south Austin, an event that rocked the city’s musical world. Something of a musical miracle occurred as hippies and rednecks flocked to the same venue. When a beer garden was added later, the Dillo was definitely the place to go.

Launched in August 1970 in a converted National Guard building by Eddie Wilson and friends, the Dillo quickly became one the hottest joints around. “With an eventual capacity of 1,500, the hall featured a varied fare of blues, rock, jazz, folk and country music in an informal, open atmosphere. By being able to host such top touring acts as Frank Zappa, the Pointer Sisters, Bruce Springsteen, and members of the Grateful Dead, the Armadillo brought to Austin a variety of musical groups that smaller clubs or other local entities might never have booked. Since outstanding local or regional artists often opened these shows, the Armadillo also gave vital exposure to such future stars as Joe Ely, Marcia Ball, and Stevie Ray Vaughan,” explained Eddie in an interview.

Images of Texas blues stars as well as rock and country western singers adorned the walls of the cavernous establishment. “The Armadillo’s eclectic concert calendar brought together different, sometimes disparate, sectors of the community,” states the Texas State Historical Association. In a story from its September 9, 1974 edition, Time magazine wrote that the Armadillo was to the Austin music scene what the Fillmore had been to the emergence of rock music in the 1960s. 

Other performers who played at the storied concert hall included Willie Nelson, Ry Cooder, Captain Beefheart, Taj Mahal, Dr. John the Night Tripper, Frank Zappa, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the New Riders of the Purple. Those halcyon days are long gone, however, as finances would prohibit a reopening of such a huge venue in Austin where downtown rents are skyrocketing. “I don’t think it would happen today, simply because of the rent. Cheap rent is what got the scene in Austin started,” wrote Wilson in the 2017 book The Armadillo World Headquarters: A Memoir he co-authored with Jesse Sublett.

The concert hall and beer garden at the old National Guard armory at the corner of South First Street and Barton Springs Road was also known for being tolerant toward marijuana and psychedelic drug use, which would not be tolerated these days. “I’m sorry there’s nothing in the book that’s television appropriate,” joked former owner Wilson during a recent interview on KXAN News.

Aging baby-boomers, particularly old hippies and nostalgic alumni from the University of Texas remember the legendary Dillo well. One ex-UT student, Bill Luttrell, said he bought the very last ticket to the final performance at the Dillo on December 31, 1980, which featured Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and the country music group Asleep at the Wheel. Bill still has that ticket (pictured here), autographed by Cody on the back. He said he got the autograph by tracking the singer to his hotel, then boldly asked Cody to autograph the last ticket. Bill said Cody “happily complied.”

Threadgill’s

Who would have ever thought that a nationally and internationally known white singer of the blues would have gotten her start in a gas station/beer joint that became a restaurant/bar?

“Threadgill’s was a converted gas station on the northernmost edge of Austin…the bar’s owner, Kenneth Threadgill, had been a bootlegger during Prohibition and is said to have acquired the first beer license in Travis County after its repeal. He was also a Jimmie Rodgers enthusiast whose jukebox was stocked with old 78s – every last one a Jimmie Rodgers record,” states the official Janis Joplin website. “Threadgill had purchased the gas station in the mid-thirties, and by the mid-forties he was selling soda pop and beer out of some old coolers while his friends played guitar and fiddle and sang hillbilly blues. By the mid-fifties a group of local amateur musicians were showing up every week to play, and Threadgill would pay them with two rounds of free beer. There was no stage at Threadgill’s. Instead, the performers played right in the middle of the customers.”

Nearby University of Texas at Austin was a hotbed of liberal thought and anti-war sentiment during the ’60s and ‘70s opposition movement to the Vietnam War. Singers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Judy Collins were adding their voices to the rising multitude of opponents to “LBJ’s War.” Many of the clientele coming to Threadgill’s were “folkies” (lovers of folk music) opposed to the war. It was an atmosphere heavily laden with anti-government and revolutionary feeling. The answers really were blowing in the wind during that period of sweeping social change in Texas and in the rest of the nation.

Every Wednesday was open mic night and would-be singers would bring their egos and ambitions to Threadgill’s to try and impress the audiences, composed mostly of UT students and others seeking new sounds. It was in the early 1960s that one such student and artist named Jack Jackson heard a new performer at the mic, who impressed him deeply. However, Jackson thought she was one of the weirdest students he had ever seen. “She was sad, dirty, and unwashed, with a bad complexion and matted hair. She looked as if she’d been wearing the same clothes for weeks, even sleeping in them. And she had these coonskin caps, ratty old things – God knows where she got them.” The gravelly voiced young lady said her name was Janis Joplin.

Once Janis became a regular at the Wednesday night open mics at Threadgill’s, the place started to pack in new music lovers who had heard about a “star” singing there with a band called the Waller Creek Boys. Janis met many new friends at the Threadgill’s nexus, including Mance Lipscomb, from Navasota. Mance later opened for Joplin at several performances in California, when Janis was the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company. But Janis had no bigger fan than the owner of the pub: Kenneth Threadgill, who was also a musician. Heavily influenced by the yodeling of country singer Jimmie Rodgers and the singing actor Al Jolson, Threadgill was such a good country singer that Texas Congressman J.J. Pickle dubbed him “the Father of Austin Country Music.” Threadgill even sang with Willie Nelson in the movie Honeysuckle Rose.

When Janis first sang at his pub, Kenneth was blown away. The two singers became instant best friends, a relationship that continued until Janis overdosed on heroin and died in a California hotel in 1970. Following her coming-out performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Janis Joplin had become a blues-inspired rock legend known internationally. She was called “the first real female rock superstar,” who went on to record four albums, the last of which (Pearl) was released posthumously in 1970.

Janis Joplin may have started small, but she rapidly grew into a musical legend. Her influence can still be felt in the blues, blues-rock and rock & roll. Take British singer Courtney Hadwin, who has appeared on the last two seasons of America’s Got Talent (AGT). The shy teenager literally turns into a version of Janis Joplin when she takes the stage. The attached video shows her rendition of Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” Close your eyes and you might even think you are listening to Janis sing.

Threadgill & Joplin

kazoos

Blues players have long used kazoos, a pocket-sized resonating instrument that produces a buzzing sound, somewhat similar to that of cicadas. A kazoo player hums into a kazoo rather than blows, unlike reed instrument musicians. Kazoos could possibly be categorized as reed instruments, however, though they normally employ wax paper instead of reeds. Earlier models featured a strip of wax or tissue paper wrapped around a pocket comb. Although the history of kazoo-like instruments dates back hundreds of years to West Africa, legend has it that the first American-made kazoo was made by Alabama Vest, a man from Macon, Georgia, in the 1840s.

Some of the biggest users of kazoos are probably those musicians who played (or still play) cigar-box guitars in order to produce a more traditional blues sound. While playing they can simply open the cigar box and pull out a kazoo hidden inside, to fetch an accompanying sound without even having to bend over. If that is not the epitome of sound performance practicality, I don’t know what is.

Officially, it was an American named Warren Herbert Frost who got the first patent in 1883 for an invention he named a “kazoo.” Similar to the diddley bow, the kazoo quickly gained a reputation for being a musical toy for children. It was specifically called a “toy trumpet” at that time. Toy or not, wooden and other types of kazoos had been in use by black (and other) musicians much earlier, even before the outbreak of the American Civil War.   

The first manufactured kazoo appeared in the United States just after the turn of the century. It was made of metal and was patented by George D. Smith of Buffalo, New York on May 27, 1902. Mass production started in Eden, New York by the Original American Kazoo Company in 1916. By 1994, the company produced 1.5 million kazoos per year and was the only manufacturer of metal kazoos in North America.  

Jug bands and musical amateurs often use kazoo sounds to provide a comedic touch, but kazoos also play more important roles. For instance, in the Original Dixieland Jass [Jazz] Band’s Original 1921 recording of “Crazy Blues,” what the casual listener might mistake for a trombone solo is actually a kazoo solo by drummer Tony Sbarbaro. Red McKenzie played kazoo in a Mound City Blue Blowers 1929 film short. The Mound City Blue Blowers had a number of hit kazoo records in the early 1920s featuring Dick Slevin on metal kazoo and Red McKenzie on a comb-and-tissue-paper variation (although McKenzie also played metal kazoos). 

Kazoos were not limited to blues, jazz or comedy either. They are featured in many rock & roll favorites as well. For instance, they can be heard in songs by Del Shannon, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, the Lovin’ Spoonful and Queen. Even Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller, a famous one-man band from the bay area, had a kazoo-employing hit song called “San Francisco Blues.” Covers mimicking Fuller’s style were later produced by blues-rock legends like Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan.    

The record for most kazoos ever played simultaneously was set at a San Francisco Giants baseball game on August 9, 2010, when 9,000 kazoos formed the background sound for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Kazoos even have their national day in January. So, I hope you pulled out your kazoos on January 19th of this year and celebrated! Missed it? There’s always next year. Don’t forget to hang up a portrait of Jesse Fuller before you break open the champagne.

The Real Green Book

Fame and notoriety are circling the Golden Globe-winning film “The Green Book” as it prepares for more attention at the upcoming Oscars. It’s the story of a real-life bromance between a white bouncer and a black musician driving through the racism of the Deep South in the 1960s. The white driver was Tony Lip, the real father of writer Nick Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen). The black pianist, Don Shirley, is portrayed by Mahershala Ali, a Muslim. Shirley’s current family claims the movie is wildly inaccurate. Controversy still swirls around the movie as inappropriate words have also been uttered in interviews by both cast and directors.   

The latest controversy comes after the re-emergence of the tweet the younger Vallelonga sent following a rally in November 2015, where Donald Trump (then a presidential candidate) said: “I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building [in the 9/11 attacks of 2001] was coming down.” Vallelonga wrote in response: “100% correct. Muslims in Jersey City were cheering when the towers went down. I saw it, as you did, possibly on local CBS news,” reported BBC News online.

It is true that white-on-black racism raged in Southern states prior to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Black musicians (especially blues players) could find very few venues in which to perform, except on the Chitlin’ Circuit (a string of black-owned juke joints). Even if famous black musicians were allowed to perform at a white venue, they were usually not accepted as overnight guests at hotels or inns in that city or town. This gave rise to the need for black performers (and other black travelers) to have a road map of places where they would be welcomed to stay the night. 

“The Negro Motorist Green Book, commonly known as The Green Book, was an annual travel guide catering to Black travelers in the 20th Century. Considering the deep racial divides caused by Jim Crow laws, the Green Book provided black families with a resource to navigate potential dangers in America at the time,” states the website www.blackamericaweb.com. “Postman and activist Victor Hugo Green began compiling data in his native New York regarding establishments that were friendly to Black patrons. In 1936, the first issue was published and its popularity skyrocketed in just four years’ time. After a brief hiatus during World War II, the book returned in 1946 with Green later changing the name of the book to The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide.”

The book was offered via a partnership with the Esso Standard Oil Company and other sponsors. The book’s tag line was “Now We Can Travel without Embarrassment.” It effectively listed homes that individuals and families could rent out, typically owned by other black families. Hotels, salons, garages, grocery stores, and restaurants were also listed, including those owned by white people who didn’t turn away black patrons. Just about every black musician (or black traveler) carried a copy in his back pocket or her purse.

Nothing lasts forever, not even Jim Crow laws. So as the civil rights movement began to take hold in the late 1950’s and onto the mid-60’s, the necessity of the guide began to lower naturally and the Green Book published its last issue in 1966.

Note: Also see Chapter 8 of Blood on the Cotton, entitled “The Chitlin’ Circuit.”

Diddley Bows

Musicologists consider the diddley bow to be the grandfather of the blues guitar, but what is it?

Apparently a cousin of the West African musical bow, the diddley bow (a home-made, one-string instrument) played a fundamental role in the development of the blues. Southern slaves and their descendants living in crude shacks managed to stretch a wire between a couple of nails on the wall and then played the instrument using a bottle neck slide that changed the sound pitch enough to produce the wailing, soulful sound that characterizes so many blues songs. Other variations included a “portable” diddley bow made from a plank, a wire, two nails and an old tin can for a bridge. A diddley bow is basically a slide guitar stripped down to its most elemental level.

However, at the beginning diddley bows were mostly viewed as primitive toys for children, who were the only ones playing them. As the blues started to come together from slave field cries and other sources such as prison gang work songs, some Southern black musicians began to take the instrument more seriously. They might not have had enough money to buy a bonafide guitar, but they could make their own diddley bow. Good diddley bow players were naturally seen as prospects for graduating to the more difficult guitar and other stringed instruments.

The diddley bow started to resemble a guitar more and more as black musicians used old cigar boxes attached to a variety of necks, such as ax handles. Later still, electric wires were attached to the cigar box model to produce a crude electric guitar. When connected to an amplifier and speakers the instrument produced a much higher sound volume. The wired model could thus be played more effectively  in front of large, noisy crowds. Necessity is often the mother of invention, but poverty plays a leading role as well. Poor black musicians singing the blues started using diddly bows as accompanying instruments. The sound of a slide on the high E string of a guitar is hauntingly similar to the sound a diddley bow produces.

“One notable performer of the instrument was the Mississippi blues musician Lonnie Pitchford, who used to demonstrate the instrument by stretching a wire between two nails hammered into the wood of a vertical beam making up part of the front porch of his home. Pitchford’s headstone, placed on his grave in 2000 by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, is actually designed with a playable diddley bow on the side as requested by Pitchford’s family,” states Slideguitarist.com.

The same article says: “Recent performers who use similar instruments include New York City-based jazz pianist Cooper-Moore, American bluesman Seasick Steve, Samm Bennett, Danny Kroha, One String Willie, and blind musician Velcro Lewis. Jack White makes one at the beginning of the movie ‘It Might Get Loud,’ then after playing it quips: Who says you need to buy a guitar?”

Because the diddley bow is so easy to make, it was often the first musical instrument performed on by the legends of blues and rock music such as B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, “holy blues” player Blind Willie Johnson, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Elmore James, and Bo Diddley (who probably took his stage name from the diddley bow, though he suggested other sources). When Sears, Roebuck & Co. began selling mail-order real guitars for very reasonable prices in the mid-1890s, blues music began to enjoy a tremendous new wave of popularity as black performers could finally get their hands on the real deal. Fashioning a diddley bow from shovels, gasoline cans, washboards and other seemingly non-musical objects has become a hobby. Websites such as cigarboxguitars.com will gladly provide construction details.

In the old South’s Jim Crow days, blacks had to fight against stubborn racial prejudice.

At country stores, blacks often had to wait until whites had finished shopping before they were allowed to buy anything. The Sears catalog liberated blacks from such discrimination by allowing them to anonymously order via the mail, even though many could barely read or write. And the Sears Catalog was important to the development of the Blues, as well.  The company has even been credited with contributing to the development of a unique genre of black southern music – the Delta blues.

“There was no Delta blues before there were cheap, readily available steel-string guitars,” musician and writer Chris Kjorness wrote in Reason, a libertarian magazine, in 2012. “And those guitars, which transformed American culture, were brought to the boondocks by Sears, Roebuck & Co.” By 1908, anyone could buy a steel-string guitar from the catalog for $1.89, the equivalent of roughly $50.00 today. It was the cheapest harmony-generating instrument available on the mass market, Kjorness noted.

“What most people don’t know is just how radical the catalogue was in the era of Jim Crow,” Louis Hyman, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, wrote in a Twitter thread that was shared over 7,000 times…in the wake of the [recent] news of Sears’ demise. By allowing African Americans in southern states to avoid price-gouging and condescending treatment at their local stores, he wrote, the catalog “undermined white supremacy in the rural South.”

Note: For an incredible display of the instrument’s versatility, access a song performed by Seasick Steve on a washboard diddley bow. Go to Youtube: Seasick Steve – Roy’s Gang en Session Très Très Privée RTL2.