The 27 club

Last week, I looked at the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson and his so-called “deal with the devil.” But selling his soul to the fallen angel from hell for greater prowess on the blues guitar is not the only myth attached to Robert Johnson. He also died at the young age of 27, which is now an age associated with a group of unfortunates called “The 27 Club,” also known as the “Forever 27 Club.” One survey in the British newspaper The Independent shows that 1.3% of all musicians died at that age between 1950 and 2010, but 2.3% of the same sample died at the age of 56. A total of 137 musicians died at 27 during this period states this survey. It’s not just the total number of musician deaths at this age, argue some critics, but the deaths of a number of important musicians. Life magazine seemed to agree by putting the unfortunate six listed here on the cover of their 2016 special edition entitled Gone Too Soon.

“So why isn’t there a 56 Club or a 28 Club? Is it because Brian Jones (drowning), Jimi Hendrix (aspirated vomitus from barbiturate overdose), Janis Joplin (heroin overdose), Jim Morrison (drug-induced heart attack), Kurt Cobain (suicide by gunshot) and Amy Winehouse (alcohol poisoning) all died aged 27? All were tortured souls who reached pop stardom and died tragically at their zenith. Perhaps we need to consider a change of name for this group – from the 27 Club to ‘The Tragic Six’ or ‘The Tragic Seven’ if we include Robert Johnson?” asks an article in above-mentioned newspaper.

  1. Brian Jones was the founding member and lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, who drowned in 1969, although it was rumored that he was murdered. “Brian Jones was one of the first people in Britain to play slide guitar and his love of the blues was at the heart of what he and the rest of The Rolling Stones were all about when they started out,” states udiscovermusic.com. Although he stayed with the band for only a few years, his importance to the Stones cannot be overstated.
  2. Arguably the greatest guitarist ever, James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix was born in Seattle in 1942. Hendrix pioneered several electric blues guitar styles, sometimes playing with his teeth or other parts of his body. Starting out on the Chitlin’ Circuit, Hendrix became rock’s highest paid performer by 1969. Beside his mega-hit “Purple Haze,” he is perhaps best known for his performance of the national anthem at Woodstock in 1969. Hendrix died of a barbiturate overdose in 1970.
  3. Janis Joplin was born in 1943 in Port Arthur Texas. “Joplin brought her powerful, bluesy voice from Texas to San Francisco’s psychedelic scene, where she went from drifter to superstar. She has been called ‘the greatest white urban blues and soul singer of her generation’,” claims www.rockhall.com. There was no doubt that Janis was singing the blues as soon as she had sung the first note. She died of a heroin overdose in a Hollywood hotel room in 1970.
  4. Jim Morrison, an American singer-songwriter who founded The Doors, was best known for performing “Light My Fire” on the Ed Sullivan show in 1967 and for gaining notoriety for “This is the End,” an anti-war song about Vietnam. He was found dead in a Paris hotel bathtub in 1971, allegedly from a heroin overdose, although there was no autopsy performed to prove it.
  5. Kurt Cobain was born in Aberdeen, Washington and formed his band Nirvana during the Grunge music popularity of the 1990s. “In Charles Cross’ excellent biography Heavier Than Heaven, you can see a much fuller picture of Kurt Cobain than we were given in 1994 — a tornado of physical pain, mental pain and addiction,” says www.stereogum.com. He died in Seattle of a self-inflicted shotgun blast in 1994, but his wife, Courtney Love, believed he was murdered.
  6. British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse battled alcohol and other addictions for years. “Her final album, Back on Black (2006) was an international hit, and ‘Rehab’ (2008) was number nine on the United States pop charts. Amy Winehouse became the first British female to win five Grammy Awards on the same night, February 10th, 2008, including Best New Artist and Record of the Year for ‘Rehab’,” states Wikipedia. She died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning.

So what do these artists have in common other than passing away at the age of 27? The first four started off with a direct connection to the blues and the same four died within a year of each other. Is this just a coincidence or is there something deeper underneath? One can see the direct influence of Robert Johnson on Janis Joplin, but did that have anything to do with Brian Jones? One can also state that death at age 27 and pacts with the devil are myths, but can we be absolutely certain?

Conversely, there are some authors who criticize the whole concept of the 27 club. “There’s no mystery: if you start abusing drugs and alcohol in your teens, your body may well give out in your late 20s. The rock ‘n’ roll mythology that encourages our young artists to do that is pernicious enough without reinforcing it further, even if you think you’re doing so in the pursuit of some kind of analysis,” writes Tom Hawking in www.flavorwire.com.

Fair enough, but like the crossroads myth (where Johnson allegedly met the devil at a Mississippi crossroads and sold his soul for mastery of the guitar), the 27 Club theory lives on in modern mythology. Perhaps this is because we lament the loss of great artists at such a young age or maybe it’s pure schadenfreude, a German word that means feeling pleasure from watching someone else fail. But we have to ask ourselves: would we feel the same about Janis Joplin today if she was a has-been singer from the ‘60s or would Robert Johnson still be considered such a great guitarist without the crossroads myth? Vexing questions, for sure.

juke joints

While segregation reigned supreme in the South, black musicians found few establishments where they could play. However, these musicians could play on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” (named after a dish made of fried hog entrails) a string of run-down, black-owned establishments called “juke joints.” These small joints usually had a juke box for music when live musicians weren’t playing. The early circuit featured mostly local blues singers, but shortly after the end of WWII, a new and different kind of sound started to emanate from these small shacks; a music later dubbed “rock ‘n’ roll.”

Wikipedia explains: “Classic juke joints found, for example, at rural crossroads, catered to the rural work force that began to emerge after the emancipation. Plantation workers and sharecroppers needed a place to relax and socialize following a hard week, particularly since they were barred from most white establishments by Jim Crow laws. Set up on the outskirts of town, juke joints offered food, drink, dancing and gambling for weary workers. Owners made extra money selling groceries or moonshine to patrons, or providing cheap room and board.”

Another interpretation of “juke” is that it comes from the word joog, which means “wicked and disorderly” in Gullah, a Creole language in coastal South Carolina, Georgia and north Florida. And that might be an understatement, considering the amount of violence that occurs in such establishments, usually over women or gambling money. As the owner of the Big Wheel juke near Navasota Texas puts it: “Come here at about 8pm, that’s about when the music, dancin’ and cuttin’ starts.”

Juke joints were also known as “roadhouses,” a term which dates back to antebellum taverns called “groggeries,” which dispensed questionable liquor in one room and had a gambling room attached. These establishments were mainly for white farmers on the search for “bust-head” (moonshine) whiskey and a good game of craps or a hand of poker. In the postbellum South, these roadhouses gave way to juke joints that featured music, of the blues variety. Interestingly, one of Texas’ biggest, and some say best, spare rib restaurant chains is still called the “Texas Roadhouse.”

Honky-tonks, another variety of jukes, sprang up around oil towns in Texas and Oklahoma, especially after the debut of the gasoline engine automobile. When Texas-born musician Al Dexter recorded his “Honky Tonk Blues” in 1935, the popularity of the term exploded and small juke-like establishments started being called “honky-tonks,” although the true meaning of the term is obscure. Modern blues enthusiasts will probably be more familiar with the Rolling Stones’ version called “Honky Tonk Women.”

Chitlin’ Circuit entertainers moved from one juke joint to the next as long-term performance contracts did not exist at the time. In fact, there were very few, if any contracts for performers in those early days. Mance Lipscomb once explained that he often performed at local gatherings such as picnics for “50 cents and a fish sandwich.” Well-known performers got a flat fee or a percentage of the gate, in larger venues. “Even Gladys Knight performed in a house band on the circuit early in her career, playing at what she called ‘roadside joints and honky tonks’ across the South. No menus. No kitchens. Just a grizzly old guy selling catfish nuggets, corn fritters or pig ear sandwiches in a corner,” says Reverb magazine.

One of the best visual presentations of how juke joints operated was in the 2007 film “Honeydripper,” starring Danny Glover. The versatile actor portrayed the owner of a juke joint by the same name in Alabama in the early 1950s. Interestingly, the establishment was located near a U.S. military base, so Honeydripper was trying to attract black soldiers with live blues music. However, customers then seemed more interested in a wilder new form of loud, electrified music, later known as “rock,” as it was easier to dance to than the slower, acoustical blues. The terminology must have also had a sexual appeal to these black soldiers and other African Americans as “rock” can be slang for “to make love,” or the more guttural equivalent. Thus songs like B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby, All Night Long” take on an entirely different meaning to black listeners.

Some performers learned how to sing the blues by going to juke joints and singing along with the jukebox, a feature of all such establishments. One was Weldon “Juke Boy” Bonner who was born in Bellville Texas in 1932, but lived most of his life in Houston. He became a superstar on the Texas circuit, but was not well known nationally.

“Bonner learned to sing in a Gospel group, as well as standing by the juke-box, and when he got a guitar as a kid, he was determined to become a Bluesman…This multi-instrumentalist sometimes performed as a one-man-band, and he never had a hit record, but he wrote some excellent, perceptive songs about his hard life, his opinions on ‘race-relations’ and the economics of poverty,” says www.allaboutbluesmusic.com. “The American Blues Festival took Juke Boy on several tours of Europe, in the late 60s and 70s and he recorded several sessions in London. Sadly, none of his records sold well so he took manual jobs to keep body and soul together. Juke Boy continued to play local gigs around Houston and recorded for a few small labels, until he died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1978.”

Juke Boy Bonner may not have chosen a typical route to blues fame, but his experience does illustrate a fundamental truth: juke boxes and juke joints played a more vital role in the development of blues music than many commentators, or even musicians, tend to believe.

Juke Boy Bonner: “Rock Me Baby”

Me, Mack and the Blues

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By Jay Brakefield

Robert Johnson

Many white researchers of the blues genuinely loved the artists and their music and helped them to record and perform at home and abroad, thus earning badly needed cash and acclaim from fans. But there was a darker strain to these relationships. For instance, one musicologist and blues researcher named Mack McCormick initially lionized Lightnin’ Hopkins as the prophet and jester of Houston’s Third Ward. However, Mack (who suffered from bipolar disorder, also known as manic depressive illness) later came to despise the singer.

Many agree that Hopkins was a scoundrel, recording for anyone who’d pay him $100 per song and contracts be damned. But McCormick’s attitude was no doubt also shaped by his failure to manage the man. Mack signed an exclusive contract to represent Hopkins in 1959, the same year the bluesman was recorded by Sam Charters, author of the seminal book The Country Blues. Charters, who apparently was the first to record Hopkins in his second career, characterized McCormick as a “leech” on Lightnin’ in a letter to Moe Asch, founder of Folkways Records.

McCormick also produced records, including some of Mance Lipscomb’s. At one session, Mack demanded so many takes of one song that the Navasota-based songster declared, “I’m never going to play that goddamn song again!”

Like many others, McCormick became obsessed with Robert Johnson, the Mississippi musician who, as legend has it, sold  his soul to the devil at a lonely Delta crossroads and died barking like a dog after being poisoned by a jealous husband. While traveling on projects for institutions such as the Smithsonian, McCormick made phone call after phone call to Johnson in local phone books until he finally found Johnson’s half-sister. He conducted exhaustive research for a book tentatively titled Biography of a Phantom. It was never published, though Peter Guralnick published much of McCormick’s material, first in Living Blues magazine and later in a slim book called Searching for Robert Johnson.

McCormick’s relationships tended to be fraught. He would become angry at someone and stop speaking to that person, then months or years later resume the conversation as if nothing had happened. I interviewed him in 1986 when the movie Crossroads, based on the Johnson legend, was released.  He told me that he was almost certain that the Dallas recordings had taken place at 508 Park, and I wrote a story for the Dallas Morning News that was, as far as I know, the first publication of this information. (Years later, another researcher found documentation establishing what Mack had told me was true.)

For several years, McCormick cut me off, though I never knew what I had done or said to offend him. Then toward the end of his life, he invited me to his home in Houston and we discussed issuing the Johnson book and other long-buried material that existed only as typescript on cheap paper he called “railroad bond.” We were on the verge of signing an agreement when a cloud passed across his face and he again quit taking my calls. At his memorial service in 2015, lots of people shared such memories.

Mack yearned to be a “serious” writer and put the blues projects aside while laboring on plays. One, which may have been unfinished at the time of his death, consisted of an imagined dialogue between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

Meanwhile, another researcher, the late Steve LaVere, followed in Mack’s footsteps and got Johnson’s half-sister  to assign him the rights to his recordings, photos and other material. They were to split any royalties. McCormick told Columbia Records that his agreement with the family predated LaVere’s, and this delayed for years the release of a box set of Johnson’s recordings that ultimately sold at least 500,000 copies and earned LaVere a Grammy. He was quick to threaten legal action over any unauthorized use of the Johnson material, which may have helped earn him his nickname, The Weasel.

My own experience with LaVere was odd, to say the least. When researching my Dallas News article, I interviewed him by phone. He was civil enough. Soon thereafter, I was in Mississippi for a festival and saw him shooting photos. I introduced myself as the guy who had recently interviewed him. Without a word, he registered alarm and literally ran away. Ultimately, after a protracted legal battle, Johnson’s estate, worth over $1 million, was awarded to his son Claud Johnson.

Eric Clapton, who did much to popularize Johnson’s music, holds an annual Crossroads Guitar Festival. An early one, in 2004, was held in Dallas, and Clapton and guitarist Doyle Bramhall recorded in the room where Johnson made his records in 1937.

Today, I live in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where one can hear live blues every night, played by both black and white performers. Many in the audience are white or Asian, drawn to the place by the music. Many come from other countries to hear the music, and some move to the city or buy homes in which to stay when visiting.

Crossed guitars mark an intersection called The Crossroads, where one can buy liquor or furniture or wash clothes at stores and a laundromat that bear that name. The menu at Abe’s Bar-B-Q jokes that Johnson might have stopped in for a sandwich before selling his soul. Downtown, near the Ground Zero Blues Club, whose owners include actor Morgan Freeman, a large painting of Robert Johnson adorns a wall. A few blocks away, another wall bears the image of Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti Western days.

I enjoy the place and the music. As Robbie Robertson, the Canadian guitarist with The Band, noted, when you listen to people talk here, you understand where the music came from.

Mack McCormick passed away in 2015; he was 85.

Steve LaVere also died in 2015; he was 72.

american roots music

Selena

What does “American roots music” really mean? PBS explains: “At the beginning of the 20th Century, the term ‘folk music’ was used by scholars to describe music made by whites of European ancestry, often in the relatively isolated rural South. As the century progressed, the definition of folk music expanded to include the song styles – particularly the blues – of Southern blacks as well. In general, folk music was viewed as a window into the cultural life of these groups. Folk songs communicated the hopes, sorrows and convictions of ordinary people’s everyday lives. Increasingly, music made by other groups of Americans such as Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Cajuns came under the umbrella of folk music.” This can be confusing as folk music and roots music labels are often used interchangeably.

Let’s take a closer look at the Mexican-American group in Texas. Before Texas became a republic in 1836, Anglo residents of what was to become the U.S. state of Texas in 1845 were called “Texians.” Spanish-speaking colonials were called Tejanos, or Tejano Texians. It would be more accurately classify them as “Spaniard Texans,” “Spaniard Texians” or “Spaniard Americans.” These non-Anglo residents played their own form of music that did not resemble that enjoyed by white settlers. We will focus on two predominant styles, Tejano and conjunto, both of which are genuine roots music.

Tejano music is related to and sounds more like the folk music of Louisiana known as “Cajun” music. It also resembles the music of northern Mexico, rather than the folk music of central and southern Mexico, such as Mariachi and other Latino music. With the abundant use of the accordion, genuine Tejano music is part of the foundation of Country Western music. 

Closely related to Tejano is conjunto, “a roots music, similar to blues or country, that began on the farms and ranches of southern Texas at the end of the 19th century. As they worked the land together, Mexican, Czech and German immigrants shared their musical traditions, blending accordions and polkas with classic Mexican folk music. This fusion yielded an irresistible, danceable beat with infectious melodies set to lyrics expressing themes of love and loss,” explains an article in the British publication The Guardian (formerly known as The Manchester Guardian).

Both styles represent the Tex-Mex rhythms of the southern United States, bearing messages of blue-collar love, frustration and anxiety seeping through the peppy accordion and horn ensembles, much like the guitar-laden songs of blues bands. The Guardian article also pointed out that Texas and New Mexico’s roots music was having a revival [in the 1990s] with an explosion of young groups playing festivals, and bringing a new focus to the work of Flaco Jiménez and Selena Quintanilla-Perez.

Unfortunately Selena, a Tejano idol, was shot in the back and killed in 1995 by Yolanda Salivar, the manager of Selena’s boutiques, who had been embezzling from the young singer. The breakout movie performance for a young singer named Jennifer Lopez (of Puerto Rican heritage) was portraying Selena in the 1997 biopic about the Tejano sensation.

The still-living Jiménez is a force to be reckoned with in Latino music. “What B.B. King is to the blues, or George Jones is to traditional country, Grammy-winning accordionist Flaco Jiménez is to the world of Tex-Mex conjunto,” says music critic Ramino Burr in The Billboard Guide to Tejano and Mexican Music. Jiménez doubles as the accordion player for a Tex-Mex band called the Texas Tornados, which has played at the inauguration ceremony for Bill Clinton and at venues around the world.

“But these are just two [Selena and Jiménez] among hundreds of performers who have created a rich, soulful musical identity for millions of Americans over more than a century,” explains The Guardian. What the British publication did not say was that both styles, like the blues, are slipping in popularity these days. Whether they can make a comeback is still an open question.

What is not in question is Selena’s enduring popularity. On April 17, 1995 then Texas Governor George W. Bush declared April 16 (her birthday) as Selena Day. The day may now become official in 2019. “Tejano star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez may be getting an official day of recognition, thanks to a bill filed in the state House on February 26. Authored by Dallas Democrat Ana-Maria Ramos, House Bill 2492 would designate Selena’s birthday on April 16 “Selena Quintanilla-Pérez Day,” states the Texas Monthly magazine.

blues capital of texas

Navasota is known as the “Blues Capital” of Texas, mainly to honor a legendary black songster named Mance Lipscomb, who literally put the small town on the blues map. The central Texas town had been on historical maps for a different reason: it had been cleaned up by a legendary sheriff and former Texas Ranger named Frank “Pancho” Hamer (1884-1955). He is remembered now largely for leading the posse that tracked and killed outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow near Gibsland, Louisiana, in May 1934. Interviewed in Houston by western cowboy writer Zane Grey, Hamer became the model for the tough Texas Ranger hero of Grey’s 1915 novel called Lone Star Ranger. The story was made into a radio program and later into a television program, both named “The Lone Ranger.”

Hollywood has, once again, discovered the Hamer story, this time starring Kevin Costner in the 2019 movie called “The Highwaymen.” Praised by white viewers for “finally telling the truth” about the often violent lawman, Latinos beg to differ. Monica Munoz Martinez, in Made by History, states, “Frank Hamer started his career in the early 20th century when the Texas Rangers helped enforce new Jim Crow and Juan Crow segregation laws targeting black and Mexican Texans and intimidating labor organizers and anti-lynching activists. These state police officers blurred the lines between enforcing state laws, practicing vigilantism and inciting racial terror.”

According to The Washington Post, the Texas Rangers were “originally formed to protect white Americans from Mexicans and indigenous nations, advocated chattel slavery and were patently racist—a detail underplayed in ‘The Highwaymen’ that has since sparked disagreement.” The debate over whether Hamer was a good man doing bad things or a bad man doing good things rages on.

The town fathers hired the 6’3”, 193-pound Frank Hamer in 1908 to tame the wild and woolly place that was Navasota. The legendary lawman recruited a black youth right out of the cotton fields, the 12-year-old Mance Lipscomb, to drive him around in a wagon. Lipscomb called Hamer “Mr. Hayman,” saying he was a “bad man – not evil, but tough as a boot.” This, then, was the violent, racist atmosphere in which Lipscomb became a man at an early age.

What the budding young bluesman learned from Frank Hamer no doubt colors the story lines in Lipscomb’s songs. One song in particular – “Tom Moore’s Farm” – seems to sum up Mance’s feeling about social injustice. It’s about the notorious owner of a huge farm near Navasota who was known to mistreat his black workers. For his own safety, Mance always denied having anything to do with writing the song. Numerous musicians, including Lightnin’ Hopkins, have produced their own versions of this classic blues protest song.

Mance took to music as a child, and liked to recount his acquisition of his first guitar, about the time Hamer came to town. Around Navasota at that time, banjos and fiddles were the primary instruments, but Mance’s brothers had guitars, and he wanted one. When a gambler came walking through the field one day and offered to sell an old beat-up instrument for $1.50, Mance’s mother, Jane, agreed as long as she could pay the man when she got the money. Mance said he sat under a tree and “whammed away,” without any idea what he was doing, and at night could hardly sleep for dreaming of guitars.

Mance learned songs from itinerant musicians and, on a cotton-picking trip to North Texas around 1917, saw the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson singing along Central Track in Dallas. He admired Jefferson’s playing and singing but decided that, rather than imitating anyone, he would “estimate my own style.” Many other musicians admired Jefferson’s music and Jefferson Airplane even named their band after him.  

The Blues Capital of Texas contains statues of both men. Hamer, who was not a native of Navasota, is not buried there but Lipscomb, who called the town home, is. For years, a blues fest was held there to honor Mance’s memory, but it closed down in 2017 for lack of funds and not enough volunteers to keep it running. What a shame.

arhoolie records

Chris talking to Mance

Something magical happened to the blues during the 1960s; it was rediscovered in a big way by white American Baby Boomers hungry for a new sound. “The blues revival, which spanned the decade of the 1960s, attempted to resurrect indigenous African American music styles within a modern context,” states the Sam Houston State University website. In other words, old black men playing acoustic guitars and singing the early blues suddenly became all the rage. Many were searched for, and found, sometimes in the most remote locations.

In Texas, this movement launched the careers of such aging black songsters as Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Black Ace and Lil’ Son Jackson, to name a few. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic in England, new bands like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Animals and others started fusing roots blues into the new rock ‘n’ roll and bringing their style to the U.S. market, producing the so-called “British Invasion.” The new sound from England was blowing American singers off the musical charts, while it was taking the whole musical world by storm. As Mississippi bluesman Muddy Waters aptly put it: “The blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.”

Being popular is one thing; preservation is quite another. It took a young white immigrant from Europe to put the two together by forming an independent recording label to preserve the early, mostly obscure, blues songs from the elderly, but still-living masters. These early blues songs had not gone completely unnoticed, however. Texas-born John Lomax and his son Alan had been making field recordings of blues and other roots music for the Library of Congress for decades, but an immigrant taking a leading role in this type of recording, and paying for it himself, should definitely be noted.  

Chris Strachwitz was that man.  He had immigrated with his family from Germany to the United States in 1947 and they eventually settled in the bay area of northern California. Chris founded his own label there called Arhoolie Records in 1960 specifically for the preservation of early blues, conjunto [south Texas Tejano music employing button accordions] and other ethnic music, such as Louisiana zydeco. Arhoolie comes from the field holler “hoolie,” used by black workers in cottonfields and other work places.

Chris knew he had to go looking for surviving blues masters, so he took his first field trip to Texas in 1960 to find a singer and guitarist he had heard tales about – Lightnin’ Hopkins, a resident of Houston. Ironically, Hopkins was on tour in California at the time, so the two were not able to connect then, but later hooked up in a small beer joint in Houston where Strachwitz recorded Lightnin’ while he strummed his guitar and made up songs on the spot. Listening to Hopkins play and sing “was like the opening of the Pearly Gates,” the stunned music recorder said.

“I never had my own studio,” Chris explained. “I just took my recorder to places where music was being played and turned it on.” Reflecting deeper, “My main aim was to document the best authentic downhome blues singers and try to sell the albums to a new, mainly young white ‘folk music’ audience,” he told the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA).

Traveling some 80 miles north of Houston, Chris discovered an aging black sharecropper living near the huge Tom Moore farm, who had unusual singing and playing skills – Navasota-based songster Mance Lipscomb. Chris was very impressed with the singer’s wide range of songs: “Most of his repertoire seemed to be on like a computer disc in his head.” Not surprisingly, Arhoolie’s first LP recording was called Texas Sharecropper and Songster, a collection of Mance’s songs. 

Chris Strachwitz’s many achievements are chronicled in the 2013 documentary This Ain’t No Mouse Music! Interestingly, the film never explains what “mouse music” is, or maybe we can only assume what it is not. Webster’s definition for the slang term “Mickey Mouse” is “childish, oversimplified, unrelated to reality.” Some musicologists have been more specific, calling Chris’ recordings “down home” music.

“The documentary illustrates the dramatic impact Strachwitz’s efforts have had on the music world — and on ‘world music.’ Notably, it shows how the Arhoolie recordings greatly helped popularize Cajun, Tex-Mex, bluegrass and other regional music styles while bringing some much-needed attention to some significant musicians,” writes Jim Harrington for the Mercury News.

Some 70% of all recorded blues music is now sold in Europe, especially in Germany. The Bear Family of Germany still holds the lion’s share of these sales. The company describes itself as “a collector’s record label” due to its primary business, which is reissuing rare recordings in CD format in small amounts. 

In May 2016, the Smithsonian Institution announced it had acquired Arhoolie Records from founder Chris Strachwitz and his business partner Tom Diamant for the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Blue men of the desert

Most Americans and African Americans, if asked, will try to explain that the blues derived from cotton fields along the Mississippi River in Mississippi and along the Brazos River in Texas. Outside the United States, particularly in Africa, an entirely different answer would be forthcoming. A prevailing belief in Western Africa is that the blues existed, and was sung, long before it surfaced in the cottonfields of the American South in the 19th century. They say the blues was born along a river alright, but it was the Niger River, where Berber white Africa to the north meets black Africa to the south, at the city of Timbuktu. It’s also where berber music mixed with African music to produce the original blues, they say. The story has it that when African slaves were transported to the new world, they called their music “the blues.”

“Ask an African, and he’ll look at you as if you’re stupid. The blues came from Timbuktu, where the sands of the Sahara met the banks of the mighty Niger River, and reached a compromise. Here, Arab and Tuareg caravans came from the desert bearing slabs of precious salt and bartered with African traders offering pots of gold (and often slaves) in return. The culture that came out of this meeting place produced a rhythmic and mournful music that you can still hear in the songs of the Tuareg, Fulani, and Songhay communities here,” writes Christian Science Monitor correspondent Scott Baldauf.

Many musicologists argue that these desert blues bear an uncanny resemblance to the American blues. “Until recently, most people seemed to take it for granted that the essence of the blues came solely from tribal Africa. A growing body of evidence, however, suggests the true origins of blues music might be from the parts of Africa touched by Islam. You only have to hear for yourself the traditional music of the Tuareg people of North Africa to appreciate its uncanny correlation with some of the earliest recorded rural blues,” explains Paul Merry in How Blues Evolved Volume One.

Early bluesmen and women would have probably been astounded to hear that they might have been singing songs inspired by the original slave traders of Africa and by Islam, of all possible inspirations. When you think of it, why would the original African slaves brought to North America not be familiar with such music, especially if they had been captured in the vicinity of Timbuktu?

“Coincidentally, these Berber nomads are also famously known as the Blue Men of the Desert, due to their indigo blue robes and wrap-around headwear. Traditionally living between the Arabs of northern Africa and the Negroid peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, Tuareg warriors had traditionally hunted down and traded in black slaves since Roman times. For six hundred years, until the end of the nineteenth century, the Tuareg were the undisputed masters of North Africa’s slave trade,” continues Merry.

In the 1500s, the Tuareg warriors started providing captured Africans to the Portuguese, who needed laborers for their new sugar plantations in Brazil, thus beginning the Atlantic slave trade business. Over 100 years later (in 1619), the British brought the first African slaves to Jamestown Virginia to work in the tobacco plantations there. Some of these slaves brought their musical instruments with them while others fashioned their own using local materials. Ethnomusicology professor, Gerhard Kubik says American plantation owners allowed slaves from Africa’s Muslim regions to play stringed instruments on their properties while banning drums and instruments from the Congo and other non-Muslim areas. Drums were dangerous, suggests Kubik, because they could be used to spread subversive messages across long distances.

In his book The Portrait of the Blues author Paul Tryuko writes: “I am on the porch of Jack Owens of Minolta Mississippi listening to the now frail singer…singing his early haunting lines. Most of the elements of Owens’ playing are familiar, but in this context, his phrasing and tonality seem unAmerican, eerily reminiscent of Rohaida Mohamad, a Moroccan flute player I’d heard in a bawdy café in Tangiers.”

The debate over when and where the blues originated will no doubt continue, but some American musicians have played concerts with the Blue Men of the Desert. Tinariwen is a Grammy Award-winning group of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara which has played at various locations around the world, including a concert with American guitarist Carlos Santana. Older American musicians, such as Robert Plant and Bob Dylan, are fans. “While the Tinariwen style is possibly a distant relative of blues music, via Western African music, members of Tinariwen claim they never heard actual American blues music until they began to travel internationally in 2001,” states Wikipedia.

Tinariwen uses modern musical instruments, such as electric guitars, but their music is still hundreds of years old. It’s enough to add a new wrinkle to a very old debate.

gandy dancers

Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), the great American singer, was just a lad working as a water boy on the railroad when he first heard a version of the blues from African American section gangs laying and straightening rails along the railroad track. They were called “gandy dancers,” partly because of their dance-like moves while working and singing. Their work songs were not strictly blues songs, but they were very close in nature. At any rate, the musical performances of these workers deeply impressed the young Rodgers, encouraging him to become a blues singer himself in later years. Rodgers was also surprised to discover later in his life that gandy dancers north of the Mason-Dixon line were comprised of immigrant Italians and poor Irish.

Wild West writer John Koster goes into greater detail about the odd name assigned to such railway section gangs: “The term gandy dancers may have come from the odd gait of the tracklayers, who walked in straight lines like a gaggle of ganders (male geese) as they carried the rails to their last resting place on the ties. They choreographed their movements to ensure maximum leverage and minimum muscle stress, moving in unison to calls like ‘up’ and ‘down’ like dancers in a square dance.”

Some researchers claim the odd name comes from a tool company. They have identified a “Gandy Shovel Company,” “Gandy Manufacturing Company” or “Gandy Tool Company.” These firms were reputed to have existed in Chicago as the source of the tools from which gandy dancers took their name, but others have cast doubt on the existence of such a company. The Chicago Historical Society has been asked for information on the company so many times that they have said, “It’s like a legend,” but they have never been able to find a Gandy company in their old records. Perhaps it is more comfortable to believe a legend than to continue a search for the truth.

Most blues historians would agree that the black railway workers sang while working to ease the stress and boredom of the repetitive work, but there were other factors involved. “The songs of gandy dancers were in the tradition of work songs used in the fields of the South during slavery. And like these field songs, the railroad songs are a close cousin to the blues. That’s what the song was for, to make a man feel good. At times the songs also served another purpose, as a private language to convey messages that the white overseers would not understand,” writes Kim Russell in Pinterest

An example of such “secret” communication was a work song that satirized the white overseer:

Boys, the peckerwood a peckin’ on the,

On the schoolhouse door, sugar,

Well, the peckerwood a peckin’ on the,

On the schoolhouse door, well a,

Well, he pecks so hard, Lordy baby,

Until his pecker got sore, well a,

Until his pecker got sore, Lordy baby. 

One railway worker, interviewed in the documentary film “Gandy Dancers” by Folkstreams, explained the pivotal position of the “caller” in these groups: “The caller was important because if you don’t synchronize your effort by pulling up or putting down, no man can get the rail. When you are laying or straightening the rail the caller’s commands are fundamental to a coordinated work flow.” The lyrics of blues songs played a coordinating role in the work. “It was two large steps forward and one small step back,” he said, adding that dance steps in between made the work even smoother.

Some writers point out that, yes, the railroad work of laying and straightening rails was grueling, but these African American workers (during the Great Depression) were glad to have a paying job. “Although the work was hard and dangerous, African Americans, especially the men, were glad to get steady steam rail and electric interurban railway work. It allowed them to avoid the widespread convict leasing programs in the South, where [mostly black] men were forced to build railroads and county roads for no pay while serving out long, bogus jail sentences. It also allowed them to avoid the notoriously inequitable agricultural sharecropping system. Working for railroad systems was steady work and lessened the chances for men to be caught ‘loitering’ in a town square, waiting for a job in a ‘sundown town’ – places where African Americans were not welcome after dark, of which there were many in Texas,” explains Robert Haynes in an article called “Gandy Dancers Aplenty” in Plano Magazine.

A recent article in American-rails.com states that the gandy dancers of olden days still exist, but they are currently using better equipment. “Today, gandy dancers are still employed although they rarely carry manual tools like tie-tongs, tamping bars, claw bars, picks, shovels, lining bar, rail tongs, or other related devices. Instead, they utilize expensive, heavy, computerized equipment to greatly speed up the process in maintaining our country’s thousands of miles of rail lines.”

That’s progress no doubt, but it’s sad for all blues lovers that those old work songs can no longer be heard along the nation’s railroad lines.

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?

Essays on early blues music development