Rock: The Early Years
Music 9, UCI Amy Bauer, Spring 2018
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Before the Flood: Precursors of Rock and Roll
The 1950s: Rock’n’Roll Begins, Doo-Wop, & the Rock business
The 1950s: Rockabilly (Elvis and after)
The 1960s: Soul, Girl Groups, Motown, R&B
The 1960s: Psychedelia & Anti-Psychedelia, Birth of Metal
1970 & Beyond: Singer-songwriters, Prog & Glam Rock
The 1960s: Surf & the British Invasion
The 1960s: Folk, Folk-Rock, The LA Scene
Before the Flood: Percursors of Rock’n’Roll
1. Robert Christgau, “B.E.: A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock and Roll,” Details, 1992, pp. 1–4
2. Kyle Crichton, “Thar’s Gold in Them Hillbillies,” Collier’s, Vol. 101, No. 18 (April 30,
1938), pp. 5–8
3. Sylvie Simmons, “THE CARTER FAMILY: INTO THE VALLEY,’ MOJO, November
2002, pp. 9–12
4. Fred Dellar, “HANK WILLIAMS,” MOJO, December 1998, pp. 13–20
5. Cliff White , “… Howlin’ for the Wolf,” New Musical Express, 24 January 1976, pp. 21–22
6. Peter Guralnick, “Blues in History: A Quick Sketch,” in Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in
Blues and Rock ‘N’ Roll (NY: Hachette, 2012; originally 1976), pp. 23–26
7. Cliff White, “Louis Jordan,” The History of Rock, 1982, pp. 27–30
8. Dave Headlam, “Appropriations of blues and gospel in popular music,” in The Cambridge
Companion to Blues and Gospel Music, ed. by Allan Moore ( Cambridge University Press,
2002), pp. 31–33
Robert Christgau, “B.E.: A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock and Roll,” Details, 1992 1227: MOON-JUNE-SPOON MEETS DEATH-METAL Simply by inventing (or—here we go—cribbing from the Moors) not love but l'amour, love as a concept, the troubadours of Provence laid one of the foundations of rock and roll, which whatever its socially significant pretensions has always had a thing for male-and-female. They were neither effete aesthetes—this was a rough world were all men were warriors and rape was one of the commonplaces that the myth of courtly love glossed over—nor the lute-strumming adventurers you dimly imagine. The itinerant singer-songwriters of the Middle Ages were called jongleurs—all-round entertainers whose etymology honors another of their skills, juggling. Jongleurs played marketplaces, fairs, the hostelries that catered to pilgrims and such, and, when they could get in, castles. Troubadours lived in castles—court poets in an era when "lyric" poetry was still sung to musical accompaniment, they were the highbrows of the secular world, upwardly mobile if not nobility themselves. Considered blasphemous by the religiopolitical powers that were, troubadourism was pretty much wiped out in the Albigensian crusade of the 13th century. So as our symbolic rock and roller we'll select Guilhem Figueira, an embattled hero of the movement's decline who "was not the man to frequent barons and respectable folk, but he was much at home with ribalds, whores, and tavern-haunters"—or so says his vida, an unauthorized bio that was as accurate as a press release. Is "In the fires of hell, Rome, you've chosen to dwell" close enough to Metallica for you? 1623: THE DISCOVERY OF NATURAL RHYTHM "There is without doubt, no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke than these people; which the principall persons do hold as an ornament of their state, so as when wee come to see them, their musicke will seldome be wanting," claimed Captain Richard Jobson, describing a visit he made to Gambia starting in 1620, the year after a Dutch man-of-war sold North America's first black slaves to British colonists in Jamestown. Africa's music had varied and evolved in uncounted strains and permutations for thousands of years, but this first published account in English is a benchmark, for what is rock and roll but African music as understood and controlled by white people? The intensity of African vocal technique, loud and harsh and keening by European standards, was frequently noted in the numerous reports to come, as was, needless to say, the "multitude of drums in various sizes." Less remarked were the underlying melodic similarities between African song and Scotch-Irish folk music, which would help Brits get into this exotic stuff. Soon Africans who could play an instrument fetched premium prices on the open market. By 1676, the governor of Cape Town owned his own slave orchestra. 1815: SEX AND BEER AND ONE-TWO-THREE The Viennese were dancing fools—during the city's three-day pre-Lenten Fasching celebration of 1832, when its population was 400,000, 772 balls attracted 200,000 citizens. After all, this was their heritage. Vienna had produced what remains to this day the greatest revolution in the history of social dancing—the waltz. Just like most of the court dances invented since the 15th century, the waltz was bred from peasant stock. But unlike any court dance, it required couples to embrace each other, and once they went that far, a lot of them went further. Already invading France and England by 1790, danced in seized monasteries by sans-culotte revolutionaries, the waltz was a scandal well before the European powers divvied up Napoleon's empire at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, where the Prince de Ligne went down in history by quipping: "Le Congrès ne marche pas—il danse." But after the Congress it became a full-fledged vogue. Once the assembled dignitaries had brought their good times home, both social dancing and popular music were permanently linked to a frankly carnal vision of courtship. 1843: STRAIGHT OUT DE LAND OB COTTON Musical miscegenation is an old story in America, where shocked reports of white teenagers dancing to black fiddlers go back to the 1690's. But though black musicians were common enough in a certain class of bar, even the
freemen among them remained strictly local celebrities. Traveling white performers, on the other hand, found that to "imitate" blacks on stage guaranteed yucks. By 1832, when Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice went nationwide with "Jim Crow," a song-and-dance routine he claimed to have stolen from a crippled black stablehand, burnt cork was a staple of American showbiz. But it was not until 1843 that four musicians dubbing themselves the Virginia Minstrels formalized blackface into a full evening's diversion—minstrelsy. Playing banjo, tambourine, "bones" (castanets), and fiddle—the specialty of leader and chief composer Dan Emmett, whose "Dixie" was later appropriated as the unofficial Confederate national anthem—the Virginia Minstrels and their hordes of imitators probably sounded something like the earliest recorded "hillbilly" music of the 1920's, only longer on sentimental ballads and parlor polish. Rendered more genteel by the addition of small pit bands and more businesslike by a burgeoning songwriting industry, the minstrel show was America's dominant popular entertainment for most of the 19th century. Though eventually a few actual African-Americans got into the act, it remains a pungent reminder that black people and what white people make of them are two very different things. 1849: FROM JIM CROW TO TIN PAN ALLEY Stephen Collins Foster became the toast of his middle-class Pittsburgh neighborhood by performing "Jim Crow" and "Zip Coon" in amateur theatricals in 1835, when he was nine. The extent of his exposure to African-American culture is debatable, but minstrelsy he knew. A typical quasibohemian dreamer, he wasn't rebellious enough to turn minstrel himself. But as his tunes began to bring in some money, he saw a way out of his bookkeeping job. In 1849 he persuaded Firth, Pond & Co., a major New York music firm whose interests went far beyond minstrelsy, to pay him royalties at a time when songs were invariably sold outright for sums that didn't support the performers, conductors, music teachers, and dilettantes who wrote them. Thus he became America's first fulltime professional songwriter, and also the first master of its polyglot musical heritage—Irish ballads and Italian opera as well as African tinge. Foster was never altogether comfortable with his so-called "Ethiopian songs" ("Swanee River," "Camptown Races," "My Old Kentucky Home"), and after he moved to New York in 1853 he concentrated on parlor ballads—since they were more artistic, he figured they'd have a longer shelf life. But only "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" and "Old Dog Tray" were major successes, and before long the spendthrift songsmith was reduced to writing songs for hire like a common hack. As a nonperforming composer, Foster presaged the Tin Pan Alley rock and roll overthrew. He also presaged almost everything else in American pop. He died a Bowery alcoholic at 37. 1890: DAWN OF THE INDIES The phonograph that Thomas Edison invented in 1877 was conceived as a dictaphone and didn't work very well. Only after others developed the floating stylus and covered the cylinder Edison recorded on with wax instead of tinfoil did he merchandise his machine, with his chief target the U.S. Congress, where he believed it would soon render secretaries obsolete. Fortunately, the fate of the phonograph was in the hands of Edison's thirty regional franchisees, all of whom would have lost their shirts pursuing what Edison pumped as "the legitimate side of their business." And somewhere out there somebody came up with a money-making bastard—a coin-in-the-slot protojukebox into which rubes, children, and men about town would insert a nickel to hear tunes by Foster and John Philip Sousa. So before there was really a record business, freelance entrepreneurs with their ears in the air had given the record business a shot in the arm, which is also the story of rock and roll. And let us not forget another independent, rival inventor-entrepreneur Emile Berliner, who in 1887 patented a gramophone that recorded on discs instead of cylinders, an idea whose time soon came. Berliner always knew he was in the home entertainment business, and record collectors owe him their gratitude. Just exactly how would you store 500 long-playing cylinders in a studio apartment? 1913: SEX AND CHAMPAGNE AND FOUR-FOUR ANIMALS Vernon Castle was an English comedian with an engineering degree, Irene Foote the daughter of a physician and the granddaughter of P.T. Barnum's press agent. They married in 1911 and in 1912 lucked into a job dancing at a
fashionable Paris cabaret. By this time, the turkey trot, the grizzly bear, the bunny hug, and other barroom-cum- barnyard terpsichore had made inroads in high society, and though the Castles' versions of these "nigger dances," to borrow a phrase Irene was tossing about several years later, were "considerably toned down," they created a sensation. Soon they were back in New York making up steps, first and most prominently the Castle walk, in collaboration with black composer Ford Dabney and black composer-conductor James Reese Europe. It was the waltz all over again—Western civilization going dance-mad from the top. Though slightly less stringent standards of decorum soon replaced the discarded six-inch distance between partners, a barrier had been breached. Song publishers were convinced that hits had to have a good beat, and though many a tearjerker broke the rule, the parlor ballad was finally on its way out. 1925: THIS IS LOU-ISS, DOLLY Well before abolition, the French-Spanish port city of New Orleans spawned a unique music colored by the African dances of Congo Square, and eventually the city's nonstop party generated the greatest musician of the 20th century. But like Muddy Waters and his Delta progeny two decades later, he didn't make his mark until after he took the train up to Chicago. Louis Armstrong invented the improvised solo. His gravelly, sardonic vocal excursions cut singing loose from cornball beauty and bullshit text; his high-handed fun with pop trash prefigured postmodernist recontextualization. And though he's more closely associated with the subcategories "jazz" and "pop," rock would be unimaginable without solos or gravel or high-handed popwise fun. The year I've chosen is when he started recording as a leader, but you might want to check out the Lonnie Johnson guitar solo on 1927's "I'm Not Rough"— sounds for all the world like r&b fixing to cross over. You could also give a listen to "Saints." Or "Hello Dolly." 1938: LES PAUL TAKES LUNCH As long ago as 2000 B.C., when Babylonian lute players were depicted as shepherds rather than priests, the guitar was conceived as a people's instrument. Its 17th-century vogue was associated with dance music, its 19th-century vogue with romantic melody. In America, where guitars were often homemade—a cigar box, a board, and some baling wire would do—the first electric model was developed in the '20s by country guitarist Lloyd Loar, who couldn't sell it. By 1931 Rickenbacker was manufacturing an electrified Hawaiian version, followed quickly by a so- called "Spanish" guitar, which introduced the electromagnetic pickup. T-Bone Walker is generally credited with introducing such a guitar to blues. The first known recording is "Good Morning Blues," cut in 1938 by Count Basie sideman Eddie Durham, and it was Durham fan Charlie Christian who turned the electric guitar into a phenomenon after he joined Benny Goodman in 1939. But all of these retained the lute's acoustic resonator—its hollow body. Lifelong tinkerer Les Paul had another idea. Sometime around 1938 he fitted a railroad tie with steel strings and a pickup: "You could go out to eat and come back and the note would still be sounding. It didn't sound like a banjo or a mandolin, but like a guitar, an electric guitar. That was the sound I was after." It took another decade for Leo Fender to start manufacturing such an item, and soon the solid-body electric came to dominate pop, bestowing on a single barely trained player the aural power of a symphony orchestra. Les Paul went on to invent multitrack recording. 1940: ENTER THE BARBARIANS ASCAP—the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers—was Tin Pan Alley's guild, collecting license fees from all manner of musical venues and promoters. It constructed favorable deals for the most powerful Broadway and Hollywood firms, treating more folkish genres with something closely akin to contempt. And though initially it resisted radio, by 1939 it earned two-thirds of its income there and was sure it could up its rates. After all, where else were broadcasters going to get the music they'd created an addiction to? But radio elected to stand and fight, chartering BMI—Broadcast Music, Inc.—to license all the songwriters ASCAP shortchanged. At first BMI concentrated on rearranging uncopyrighted songs, Stephen Foster's among them, but by the end of 1940 it had corraled the catalogues of disgruntled Tin Pan Alley oldtimer Edward B. Marks and ace talent scout Ralph Peer. Peer was credited with coining the terms "race" and "hillbilly" music for what we now call blues and country, and
was the first to record both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. His Peer International not only controlled many country and blues copyrights, but had invested heavily in Latin American music, as had Marks. So when on January 1, 1941 the broadcasters let their ASCAP contract expire, radio was positioned to boost a bunch of hicks, greasers, and Negroes, many of whom couldn't even read music—and who were about to destroy the pop power brokers' monopoly forever. 1941: AFTERNOON OF THE INDIES Like Edison's phonograph, radio was first conceived as a business tool—a talking telegraph. But even in the early ham days, when would-be broadcasters would first distribute crystal sets to their neighbors, some had more poetic ideas—a San Jose buff was airing live and recorded music as early as 1909. By 1926, when there were already Tin Pan Alley songsmiths who limited their melodies to the five notes early receivers could handle, David Sarnoff, who'd first proposed a "radio music box" in 1916, had assembled the NBC network. Much of the networks' allure, however, lay in the access they afforded to swank (and costly) metropolitan entertainment as it happened—stars live in your living room, big bands playing big hotels. Only in 1941, when the federal government—which back in 1922 had allotted the choicest frequencies to operators who promised not to broadcast records—moved to break the power of the networks, was the stage set for the small local stations whose need for cheap programming would soon transform disc jockeys into tastemaking local celebrities. And in those days, local celebrities played local music— including all the insurgent folk-pop BMI had had the luck or vision to exploit. 1947: FIX IT IN THE MIX Bing Crosby was no Armstrong or Sinatra, but again and again he had the right idea at the right time. Linking up John McCormack and Al Jolson with the informal phrasing of the jazz artists he idolized was the least of it—his real genius was a lazy man's instinct for the gadget. Singers "crooned" throughout the '20s, and megaphone-toting Rudy Vallee was the first pop heartthrob. But it was Crosby who mastered vocal amplification by developing a style appropriate to the microphones that defined radio and recording studios—who learned to create an illusion of conversational intimacy by pretending that the mike just happened to be there when he lifted his baritone in song. Soon the floodgates were opened to a host of singers who hadn't gone through the painful rituals whereby a few lucky, hard-working individuals train their freakishly exceptional "beautiful" voices to carry in a concert hall. And eventually the Groaner hit upon an even more democratic technological angle. Frustrated by the sound quality of his half-improvised radio shows, which had to be patched together from 78-rpm master discs so they could be scheduled through four time zones, he became the first entertainer—unless Adolf Hitler counts—to exploit the fidelity and editability of the magnetic tape an enterprising Army officer had purloined from the Nazis. Musical "authenticity" would never be the same. Crosby also had a radical attitude toward the invention that made rock and roll a billion-dollar business: he used to cut an LP in nine hours. He scored well over 300 hits even though he didn't give a paid concert between 1933 and 1976. But the rock and roll that couldn't have happened without him did him in—after 1955, his pop play was limited primarily to "White Christmas."
Kyle Crichton, “Thar's Gold in Them Hillbillies,” Collier's, Vol. 101, No. 18 (April 30, 1938), pp. 24-5. The young man with the Adam's apple seemed out of place in a New York elevator. Very definitely he was not a New Yorker and in addition he was not welcome in the crowded car because he carried under his arm a case that looked like a rough box for a horse. "Will y'all pahdon me?" he said plaintively. "Ah'm havin* some trouble with this here git-tar." He carried the trouble with him when he got off at the eleventh floor and was presently in a room before a microphone having an audition for phonograph records. He said, with some hesitation, that he would do imitations of Jimmie Rodgers and started in a thin wailing voice to do Blue Yodel, No. 1, which has for its theme: "T for Texas, T for Tennessee and T for Thelma." It seemed that Thelma had made a bum out of somebody and was to receive a bullet from a .44 through her middle"just for to see her jump and fall." This was the rare thing of a New York audition for hillbilly songs and race records. The general practice is to take a recording outfit into the territory where such songs grow and out of this endeavor have come such classics as The Wreck of Old 97, Floyd Collins in the Cave, Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, The Old Hen Cackles, and The Rooster's Goin' ta Crow, Crazy Blues, Jimmie Rodgers and his Blue Yodels (Nos. 1 to 12), That Thing Called Love, Just Because, Deep Elam Blues, The Prisoner's Song, Comin* Round the Mountain, Hand Me Down My Walkin' Cane, Casey Jones, Twenty-one Years, and hundreds of others. South of a point that might roughly be regarded as St. Albans, West Virginia, the grapevine system of news distribution still beats anything known to modern science. A hint from New York that David Kapp of Decca or Eli Oberstein of Victor is headed South will find the tidings flying over mountains and the result will be that when the city slickers arrive they will be unable to get into their hotels for the presence of mouth-organ virtuosos, yodelers, blues singers and specialty bands equipped with instruments made of tissue paper on combs, washboards, assorted saws and rutabaga gourds. If there needs to be another picture at this point, the camera can leap agilely to such distant parts of South Africa and Australia where the native bushmen are busily humming a little number written by Jimmy Davis of Shreveport, Louisiana, and entitled Nobody's Darling But Mine. In short, no matter what the citizens of the United States think about their native songs, the world ranks the hillbilly ballads among the folk-tune wonders of the universe. It started back in 1921 when Ralph S. Peer was with Okeh records. Sophie Tucker had agreed to do You Can't Keep a Good Man Down but it was found at the last moment that another contract prevented her from working for Okeh. In this crisis Perry Bradford, who was a colored song plugger for W. C. Handy (St. Louis Blues, Memphis Blues, etc.), informed Mr. Peer that he could furnish a girl who was as good as Sophie. She turned out to be Mamie Smith, a colored girl who was working as cleaning woman in a theater. She made the Good Man song, and for the other side of the record did That Thing Called Love. Mamie had a loud raucous voice and there was great difficulty with recordings in that day of poor equipment, but the Okeh people knew they had something when the record sold 75,000 copies the first month. Mamie was forthwith yanked back into the studio and this time she brought with her a horrendous five-piece band known as Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds. They made Crazy Blues and It's Right Here for You. "The most awful record ever made," reports Mr. Peer, "and it sold over a million copies." A Market Nobody Thought Of Bert Williams, the colored comedian, had been making records for Columbia for many years but the companies never imagined that the Negroes themselves might be a market for Negro records. In fact,, the companies carefully
hid the fact that colored singers were being used. About this time, dealers in New York began to report a curious trend in the business. It seemed that Negro Pullman porters on trains going South invariably left New York with as many as twenty-five records under their arms. Since the records cost one dollar each, the business was big stuff and Mr. Peer went South to investigate. He found (a) that the Negroes were buying records of their own people in great quantities and (b) that the Negroes of Richmond, Virginia, invariably referred to themselves as The Race. "We had records by all foreign groups," says Mr. Peer. "German records, Swedish records, Polish records, but we were afraid to advertise Negro records. So I listed them in the catalogue as 'race' records and they are still known as that." About this time the vogue of Mamie Smith at Okeh was swamped by the arrival of the great Bessie Smith on Columbia records. Bessie Smith had now become almost a legendary figure and her records have lately been reissued in a new form and are considered classics in blues singing by experts. Her most famous was Gold Coast Blues, which originally sold into the millions. It may be remarked that at the present day a sale of 100,000 records is held to be sensational in any field. With Bessie Smith being so successful, Okeh was under the necessity of digging up a new sensation, and Mr. Peer took a portable recording outfit to Atlanta and began looking around. For some reason Atlanta is the worst town in the South for Negro talent (then and now), and Mr. Peer was soon stumped. At the suggestion of a local dealer, who guaranteed to sell enough records to cover the cost, he did a few recordings by Fiddler John Carson, a white mountaineer who arrived for the recordings in overalls. Old John had been a ballyhoo man with a circus, had a repertory of hillbilly songs that never ended, and he could sing a bit with his fiddling. He made Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, and The Old Hen Cackles and The Rooster's Goin' ta Crow. "It was so bad that we didn't even put a serial number on the records, thinking that when the local dealer got his supply, that would be the end of it," says Mr. Peer. "We sent him 1,000 records, which he received on a Thursday. That night he called New York on the phone and ordered 5,000 more sent by express and 10,000 by freight. When the national sale got to 500,000, we were so ashamed we had Fiddler John come up to New York and do a re- recording of the numbers." The matter of the name arose again in this connection. It was obviously impossible to list them under the designation of each section (mountaineer, "Georgia Cracker," etc.) and Mr. Peer, who had come from Kansas City and was well acquainted with the Ozarks, named them hillbilly records. The result is that the word has come to have a general application, and mountaineers of all sections are now known as hillbillies. The greatest success of all time was made by The Prisoner's Song, which was introduced almost as an after thought by Vernon Dalhart, who had done The Wreck of Old 97 and was desperate for something for the other side of the record. It eventually sold 2,500,000 records for the Victor company. It cost the company seven cents to make the record (all expenses included) and the wholesale price they received was thirty-seven cents a record. The Singing Brakeman The greatest of all romances in the hillbilly business centers about Jimmie Rodgers, the little railroad brakeman who fought desperately against poverty and the ravages of tuberculosis until Mr. Peer discovered him in Bristol, Tennessee, and started him on a career that was fabulous even in the phonograph industry. It is estimated that the Blue Yodel records sold over 5,000,000 copies. Jimmie Rodgers is now dead and his records do not have the fame with collectors that has come to those of Bessie Smith, but he has left a mark on all hillbilly music. When David Kapp goes out to Dallas now for Decca to record hillbilly and race records, he will do as many as 325 selections in fifteen days. The big stars now are Jimmie Davis, clerk of the Criminal Court in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Gene Autry, the singing cowboy of the movies. Another favorite group is the Carter Family of Maces Springs,
Virginia, who sing and play and make marvelous didos with such instruments as the guitar and autoharp, which is really a zither with keys. The best colored singer since Bessie Smith is said to be Georgia White, and it is in this field that some of the most remarkable records are made. There are colored numbers so strictly African and special that nobody but a Negro could understand them or appreciate them. When Sleepy John Estes does his own Negro compositions, the words are like something out of a voodoo chant and the manner of delivery is such that they make no sense whatever to the untrained mind. The recordings by Petie Wheatstraw come in the same class, and when Kokomo Arnold does the "se-bastapool" on his guitar, effects are made that seem unearthly. Unless the artist is also the writer of his own material and hence shares in the royalty for composers, the rewards of recording are not great, being on an average of $25 a "side." The payment is outright and there is no bookkeeping. Among the novelty records are those made by the Calypso people in the West Indies, the Cajuns of Louisiana, and Corny Allen Greer and his band. The loyalty of the hillbilly audience to its heros can be seen in the titles of the songs. When Jimmie Davis wrote Nobody's Darling But Mine, he immediately made a sequel entitled An Answer to Nobody's Darling. That was followed by A Woman's Answer to Nobody's Darling. Bob and Joe Shelton, who also come from Shreveport, wrote Just Because in collaboration with Leon Chappalear. When it became a success, they followed immediately with An Answer to Just Because and followed that with Just Because III. It is quite possible that the thing could go on forever. Students are convinced that Bessie Smith and particularly the players who accompanied Bessie Smith on her records had a great part in stimulating the disease known as swing music, which has now gripped the nation. Bessie had such men doing her accompaniments as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Joe Smith, Fred Longshaw, Charlie Green and the late James P. Johnson, one of the most spectacular of the hot pianists. Musicians are the keenest people in the world at admiring new talent and just as Benny Goodman will sit goggle-eyed and listening to the "hotteties" of Count Basie, the colored demon of Kansas City, so did the orchestra leaders of ten years ago go insane over the berserk playing of Bessie Smith's boys. From the interest came the change in orchestra music that is now so pronounced in the work of Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glen Gray, Jimmy Dorsey and others. The traditional folk songs of the Southern mountaineers and the spirituals have not been included in this discussion because they occupy a special position in the art of song. In the strictest sense the mountaineer ballads are old English folk songs, some of them even traceable to old Gregorian chants; and as such they are not strictly American products. New York was recently visited by the Rev. John William Dawson, pastor of the Dry Fork Primitive Baptist Church of Morehead, Kentucky, who sang Lord, Spare Me for Another Year and The Wayfaring Stranger. The words seemed to have grown out of local legends of the mountains but the tunes stemmed back to the earliest days of American history when the first settlers crossed from the old country. Most strictly in the American tradition are the songs of Aunt Molly Jackson of Harlan County, Kentucky, who has told the story of the labor struggles of that section. Her songs are richly evocative and thrilling, carrying the troubadour quality of old. Fans Are Delighted But it's when Sleepy John Estes on his guitar and Hammie Nix on his mouth organ get wound up that the newfound fans start yammering with delight. There are isolated groups in all sections of the world prepared to fight to the death to prove that Maxine Sullivan, from the Onyx, is a greater artist than Lily Pons. Miss Sullivan became the storm center of radio controversy as the first person to swing Loch Lomond and other ballads. There are strange individuals who wouldn't give a Georgia White and Rhubarb Red (guitar) record for anything made by Caruso. The cult of the hillbillies may be a passing fancy but it is significant that Ambrose, the swankiest orchestra con
ductor in London, has made an arrangement of Nobody's Darling But Mine. When the St. Louis Blues is made into a Metropolitan Opera, the truth will finally be evident. In the meanwhile, the world will need to be content with the nasal-voice boys and girls of the hinterlands who have most curious things to say about love and My Gal Sal. There seems to be an awful lot of double-crossing done by the ladies in the "mountings," and they invariably pay for it. This makes art.
Sylvie Simmons, “THE CARTER FAMILY: INTO THE VALLEY,’ MOJO, November 2002 FIRST KILL YOUR HOG. SKIN IT, singe off the hairs and leave the hide to soften. Tug it over a round frame, whittle out a neck, "and there's your banjo", says Roni Stoneman. "The five-string banjo is the only American instrument. The black people brought the four-string banjo, but the five- stringer and the clawhammer style came from the mountains." Roni, elderly Southern belle and professional banjo player, is one of the 15 of Ernest 'Pops' Stoneman's 23 children who made it to adulthood. "A lot of people made their own instruments. There wasn't much money around, but there was plenty of music in these here mountains, way before 1927. You just played for each other, for the frolics when the chores were done on Saturday night." The Appalachians, they say, are the world's oldest mountains, and Clinch Mountain the oldest peak. On one side of the river running along the bottom lies Poor Valley – its land, presumably, less fertile than Rich Valley on the other side. Right now, in the sweltering, humid Virginia summer, it's lush and verdant, its hills perfectly green and rolling like a Teletubbies set, with the odd wooden shack decomposing here and there. The tiny, rickety log cabin in Poor Valley where A.P. Carter and his seven siblings were born and raised is still standing – just. Soon it will be moved and restored alongside the Carter museum a mile up the road they've renamed the A.P. Carter Highway. It was a dirt road back in 1927 when A.P. packed his wife Sara – together with his brother's 18-year-old, eight-months- pregnant wife Maybelle, Sara's baby, an eight-year-old daughter to babysit, Sara's autoharp and Maybelle's Stella guitar – into a borrowed car and made the day-long, 26-mile drive to Bristol for what Maybelle's future son-in-law Johnny Cash would describe as "the single most important event in the history of country music". In the summer of '27, Ralph Peer, a 35-year-old record executive and 'race' music specialist from New York spent 12 days in a disused hat warehouse on State Street in Bristol, which straddles the Tennessee/Virginia border. There he recorded 76 sides by 19 different acts, including minister Ernest Phipps & His Holiness Quartet and Blind Alfred Reed, and bands with names like the West Virginia Coon Hunters and the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers. Plus Ernest Stoneman, who had recorded 'The Sinking Of The Titanic' for Peer three years earlier, and "which was selling like hot-cakes", says Roni's big sister Patsy. It was Stoneman's idea to come to the mountains on a talent search, since the mountains sure weren't going to come to New York. But it was two acts recorded during the second week that made the Bristol Sessions legendary. A yodelling, tuberculoid railwayman from Meridian, Mississippi named Jimmie Rodgers, and a trio from the mountains, The Carter Family. There had been country records by many other names – "mountain music", "old-time music", "rural monologue with violin specialty"; Peer was the first to use the "hillbilly" tag – before Bristol's 'big band'. In 1923 Peer had recorded what's accepted as the first country record, Fiddlin' John Carson's 'Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane'. He thought it "pluperfect awful", hating the shoddy sound of the primitive acoustic recording. And there had been others since – Stoneman; Dock Boggs; Uncle Dave Macon; Vernon Dalhart's million-selling 'Wreck Of The Old '97'. But by advertising for musicians locally and taking the "recording laboratory" to them – something made possible by the very recent invention of electric recording – Peer had not only given the country music business a kick-start, he'd also snared 'The Father Of Country Music' (Rodgers) and 'Country's First Family' (Carters) – the country equivalent of Father, Mother, Son and Holy Ghost. All country music since can be traced back to the Carters' sober, stoic songs about church, family and hardship or Rodgers' insouciant numbers about rambling, law-breaking and women; the Carters' vision of the simple, rural home or Rodgers' America of wide-open spaces and glittering rails; Rodgers' yodel and his appropriation/adaptation of the blues and the Carters' harmonies and appropriation/adaptation of traditional ballads and hymns (and black spirituals and blues; it would take a team of musicologists working around the clock to untangle the complex black-and-white, church-and-secular roots. Both took these borrowed and invented musical elements and shaped them into a sound distinctly their own, creating songs ('Will The Circle Be Unbroken', 'Wildwood Flower', 'Lovesick Blues') that became country standards.
Bob Dylan is a huge Rodgers fan, but the day he met Johnny Cash the first thing he asked was, "Have you met A.P. Carter?" Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter was born in 1891 on the Methodist side of the mountain. The Methodists didn't hold too much with singing, "except in the church", says his daughter Janette, and certainly not with "frolicking" (still don't; an old banjo player performing at the Carter Fold's 75th anniversary show ordered dancers to sit down during a lively spiritual). "They called the fiddle the 'devil's box'," says Roni Stoneman. A.P. could play fiddle but refused to do it on record. He was taciturn, imaginative, taken to wandering, and his hands and voice shook since childhood with the palsy – his mother blamed a lightning storm when she was pregnant. It was a fine voice, though; he sang bass in the church and at his uncle's singing school. Always restless (his jobs included carpenter, farmer, foundryman, sawmill operator and storekeeper) he'd come back home from working the railroad to be a fruit-tree salesman. Heading over Clinch Mountain, on foot, with his catalogue, to Copper Creek – a day's walk – he heard a 16-year-old girl singing in a bold, distinctive voice a ballad called 'Engine 143', about a local engine driver who burned to death. He fell in love. Sara Dougherty's nickname was Jake; she carried herself with the self-possession of a man. Musician/musicologist Mike Seeger, who met her, talks of her "regal" bearing. "She was a proud lady," says her son Joe, now in his seventies, "and carried herself like one, but she could shoot a gun and smoked these old Wings cigarettes." Sara's mother died when Sara was three, and she was sent to an aunt and uncle in Rich Valley, on the Baptist side of the mountain – the dancing side. "She danced real good," says Joe's elder sister Janette Carter. Sara also played banjo, autoharp and guitar, and liked the way A.P sang. Nevertheless, she made him make the day-long walk over the mountain – two ridges, a river, six creeks – for a year before agreeing to marry him in 1915. They moved to a two- room cabin with an earth floor, and worked together cutting timber for the paper mills, sometimes performing together at 'conventions', where people from the county got together and sang, usually spirituals. Sara's voice was said to have moved people so much they'd press money into her hands. Sara's young cousin Maybelle would come by and play – she too played autoharp and banjo, until at 13 her brothers bought her a guitar from a mail-order catalogue. She developed the rhythmic style they call the "Carter scratch", picking out the melody on the bass string with the thumb and brushing the chords on the high strings. In 1926, aged 16, she eloped to Bristol with A.P.'s younger brother. Eck had well-paid work as a mail clerk on the railroad, and was the first person in the valley to own a car. When A.P pleaded to borrow it – and Eck's wife – to try out as recording artists, he was less than enthusiastic. Joe: "Daddy had to agree to hoe the weeds out of Eck's corn patch for him for two days afore he'd agree," A.P. had seen an ad in the Bristol newspaper: "The Victor Co. will have a recording machine in Bristol for 10 days beginning Monday to record records." Peer was paying $50 a side for whatever he recorded. Sara – who'd had experience with talent-scouts; A.P brought one home from one of his frequent trips and he'd turned them down because only 'race' records had female lead singers – pooh-poohed the idea: "Ain't nobody gonna pay us that much money to hear us sing." Then a few days later a story appeared with the even more tempting information that Stoneman's records had earned him a then-enormous $3,500 the previous year. The journey through the foothills, over rocky roads and fording the River, was an ordeal in the stifling heat. The thin tyres frequently burst; the puncture-patches melted. They stayed at A.P.'s sister's, whose husband also planned to audition, and the next day, in their Sunday best, joined the crowd outside the warehouse. Peer's first impressions of the Carters weren't good. "The women are country women from way back there – calico clothes on. The children look like hillbillies." And baby Joe was screaming to be fed. But when he heard them perform, he invited them straight back to record – upstairs, where the walls were buffered with quilts, a microphone hung from the ceiling, and a scaffold with a complex system of pulleys and weights powered the turntable, rural electricity being highly unreliable. The Carters went home $300 richer. By October, 11 of the Bristol groups had records out on the 'New Orthoponic Victor Southern Series', but not the Carters. Peer too had reservations about female leads, and was somewhat perturbed by A.P.'s way of leaving a song
mid-way and wandering about. "He just sang every now and then," Janette wrote in her book Living With Memories. "He would walk to and fro, even on stage. He drove my mother and Maybelle up a wall!" A.P didn't even show up for the second session. "Someone said to him, 'You don't do much, do you?'" says Seeger, "and he said, 'No, I just bass in sometimes.' But he didn't just come in whimsically. I've listened to those recordings closely, taught their harmonies in folk music camps, and if you try singing bass in places where he didn't it doesn't work. What A.P. did on those songs was quite ingenious, very different from the harmony singing of the time, Sara too. They crossed parts, something you think of as very modern, and did unisons, which people in those days didn't like to do at all. And Maybelle's musicianship was amazing." 'The Poor Orphan Child' finally appeared in November, selling 100,000. Peer, who offered to manage them, invited them to New Jersey to record more. He said to bring as many new songs as they could find, and they came with a variety – "English" (traditional) songs, hymns, scaffold songs, murder ballads, work songs, parlour songs, vaudeville numbers from the "ballets" (song sheets) sold at the travelling tent shows, and all sorts of amalgams. They'd ask neighbours and friends, and piece songs together like Chinese whispers. "A.P.," says The Handsome Family's Rennie Sparks, "is probably single-handedly responsible for saving many ancient folk songs that otherwise might have drifted off into the ether. At the same time they had that understanding that simple melodies and simple stories of everyday life can hold within them moments of pure transcendent magic. You could write a book about 'Wildwood Flower' and talk about the strains of medieval poetry, the beautiful guitar work, the soft and simple harmonies. But mostly, I think about how the simple act of twining flowers into your hair can heal a broken heart." With his third of the royalty cheques, A.P. bought a red Chevrolet. He used it to ferry his sow across his land to the stud pig and to tow home the sawmills he became addicted to buying. He also used it for the band's 'tours' – usually regional churches and schools; 25 cent tickets and a sign declaring "The Program Is Morally Good". During 1928-9 their record sales were second only to Jimmie Rodgers, but their approach remained far more homespun. (The contrasts were highlighted on the odd 'skit' record the Carters and Rodgers made together in 1931.) Sara bought a motorbike with her share, Maybelle a top-of-the-range Gibson arch-top L5 guitar, which she played the rest of her life, but it didn't even occur to them to give up work. As the growing record industry demanded more product, A.P. took off in his Chevy to look for songs. Often he took along Lesley Riddle, a one-legged black blues musician he'd seen playing in nearby Kingsport and invited home; A.P. wasn't much for social norms. "My mother bought him his first leg," recalls Joe. "He could play really good." A.P. had problems remembering melodies, so Riddle would memorise them and teach them to Maybelle and Sara when they got back (he tried teaching A.P. guitar, but failed). Problems only arose at night-time – the strangers who put A.P. up drew the line at accommodating a black man. It was his father's frequent absences, Joe surmises, that caused his mother to go. "He just left her for quite a long time and didn't think of his obligations." One time he left his young cousin, Coy Bayes, to help with the chores. Coy and Sara fell in love. Coy's parents, stepping in, moved the family to California, claiming the climate was better for Coy's siblings – they suffered from TB, the disease that killed Rodgers in 1933. When Coy left the Valley, Sara did too, moving back to her aunt and uncle's at Copper Creek. A few weeks later, Peer summoned them to record for new label The American Record Company. Sara refused, but with the Depression biting and money hard to come by, she relented. Her departure hadn't helped A.P.'s fierce, Old Testament moodiness, and the 1934 sessions included songs pointedly about an errant wife. After their divorce in '36 they carried on recording, now for upstart new label Decca. These sessions were some of their best, but sales were poor. There was little spare cash around for records. Even Pops Stoneman was back working in a factory. Then the group were offered a residency at one of the big new radio stations on the Mexican border that circumvented US laws about the wattage power of regional stations. These
'super transmitters' broadcast nationwide. And just as local bar-owners had worked out that music helped them sell drinks, the businessmen who owned the stations knew bands could help them sell their products on a grander scale. Consolidated Royal Chemical Corporation of Chicago gave them a massive $4,000 apiece to move to Texas and play two shows a day at XERA for six months. Listeners could send in CRCCC bottle-tops for a free Bible signed by the Carters. "Imagine how powerful it must have been to hear The Carter Family on the radio and think, This is my music, this is speaking to me, then go out and buy the record and hear it again, at a time when records were so new," says Gillian Welch. XERA increased the group's national acclaim. Listeners included Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams (who would later fall for Maybelle's youngest daughter, Anita – as would Elvis), Johnny Cash (who would marry Maybelle's daughter June) and Coy Bayes. He heard the love song 'Sara' dedicated to him, drove to Texas and married her. Janette says the wedding broke her father's heart. The radio station thought so too; they said his forlorn voice was upsetting the listeners and sent him home. Sara and Maybelle finished the shows alone. They returned for another season – this time with Maybelle's young daughters playing – but when XERA closed down in the early '40s, so pretty much did The Carter Family. After a final session (for Victor again) in 1943, Sara went back to the California trailer park where she lived with Coy, and A.P. went home to the mountains. While 'Mother Maybelle' continued to perform with the 'Carter Sisters' – Eck, who had retired, became their manager, hiring Chet Atkins on second guitar – A.P. went back to carpentry. He built homes for his children and a general store for himself that, typically, he only opened when he felt like it. It's now the Carter Museum, part of the Carter Fold, the weekly, old-time music acoustic venue that Janette set up to fulfil her father's dying wish to "keep the music alive". A.P. died in 1960, a few weeks before a large royalty cheque arrived for The Kingston Trio's hit recording of his 'Worried Man Blues'. © Sylvie Simmons, 2002
Fred Dellar, “HANK WILLIAMS,” MOJO, December 1998 He couldn't read. He couldn't write. He couldn't stop screwing up. Yet Hank Williams is a giant of popular music without whom rock'n'roll might never have happened. "I thought about Hank when I walked out on that Opry stage for the first time. all I could think of was, This is the same stage that Hank Williams was on and now I'm here." – Elvis Presley IN JAILHOUSE ROCK, VINCE EVERETT, PLAYED BY Elvis Presley, has a photograph on his cell wall. Unsurprisingly, it's of Hank Williams. Both singers were influenced by black music early in life, both won talent shows and learnt their stagecraft on touring country shows. Each took a minority music and reshaped it for worldwide consumption. And, to many, Hank Williams' contribution was the greater of the two. For Hank had no precedent. From Mount Olive, West Alabama, Hank's father Lon Williams was a First World War veteran who'd suffered brain damage in battle. Hank, born Hiram Williams on September 17, 1923, was a frail but spirited kid, raised by his mother, Lilly Stone, who played organ at the local baptist church. Hank stood at her side during services and sang hymns. His love of gospel music never left him, but Hank was musically illiterate. "I have never read a note or written one," he told The Montgomery Advertiser. "I can't, I don't know one note from another." Nor was he a whiz at reading or writing English. Even so, when it came to songwriting, the man known as Bones was a genius, fashioning tunes that stick in the mind, simple lyrics that grab the imagination, recalling lost love, back-porch dalliances and Sunday morning feelings, or merely providing anthems for hobo heroes and honky-tonk hotsteppers. Hank's greatest musical mentor was Rufus Payne – better know as Tee-Tot – a hunchback black street musician whom he met as a boy in Georgiana, Alabama. "All the musical training I ever had was from him," acknowledged Hank. "I learned to play the git-tar from an old coloured man. He played in a coloured street band. I was shinin' shoes, sellin' newspapers and following this ole nigrah around to get him to teach me to play the guitar. I'd give him 15 cents or whatever I could get hold of for the lesson." Such lessons went well. When he was 12 years old, Hank made his debut on a Montgomery amateur night show performing an original composition, 'WPA Blues'. And pocketed the star prize of 15 dollars. Black influence on country music was hardly anything new even then. Jimmie Rodgers, the genre's first superstar, learnt much of his craft at an early age while carrying water to black workmen on the Mississippi section of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. His wife Carrie Rodgers claimed: "During the noon dinner-rests they taught him to plunk melody from banjo and guitar. They taught him songs: moaning chants and crooning lullabies." Such influences would bloom in Rodgers' series of legendary blue yodels, one of which found him employing Louis Armstrong in back-up capacity. By the age of 11 Hank had developed a taste for booze, readily available when he was sent to live with his cousins, the McNeils, in a Monroe County logging town where hillbilly music, beer and boot-leg hooch enlivened Saturday night parties. At 14, Hank Williams, an avid Grand Ole Opry listener, linked up with harmonica player Hezzy Adair, working as Hank & Hezzy. Other musicians were added and dropped. "Then he formed his own group and called them The Drifting Cowboys," explained Hank's first wife Audrey. "He had an early morning radio show on WSFA in Montgomery and could advertise on the show where he and The Drifting Cowboys would be performing. Most of the time, it would be schoolhouses or small honky-tonks." By the late '30s Hank was often legless. At one Drifting Cowboys gig in Alabama, he blew the show by losing his pick and playing guitar with his knuckles, prefacing each song with would-be humorous remarks that incensed the crowd outfront, entertainment that was counter-pointed when Hezzy Adair threw up on-stage. Fights became more frequent, Hank's son Hank Williams Jr recalling: "Those clubs along the Alabama-Tennessee border were mean. Once Daddy had to club a guy with the stainless steel fret- bar from a steel guitar, which Daddy had observed worked very well as an argument settler. And it would have
worked well if the other fellow had followed the rules instead of raising up and taking a huge bite out of Hank Williams' eyebrow, hair and all." * "You got to have smelt a lot of manure before you can sing like a hillbilly." – Hank Williams DON HELMS OF THE DRIFTING COWBOYS TELLS HOW, in 1941, Hank, then knocking on 18, took the band into a pawn-brokers and bought each member a blackjack, saying, "You'll need these." He'd apparently – and expensively – smashed a number of guitars over irate customers' heads. The steel fret-bar – or "bullet" – was more economical, his main source of defence on the ‘blood bucket’ circuit, though he had a secret weapon in Lilly, who usually collected the door-money and handled gate-crashers in a manner satisfactory to Hank: "There ain't nobody I'd rather have alongside me in a fight than my mama with a broken bottle in her hand." If, at this point, anyone had nominated Hank Williams as country music's way ahead, they'd have been laughed out of the great Southwest. His vocal style, eventually so distinctive, had hardly developed. He'd published nothing, being merely the beer-swilling leader of a doomed band. Temporary disillusionment allied to the advent of World War II heralded a change of occupation. Suffering from a back-injury incurred during a brief, ill-advised attempt at a rodeo career, Hank was not eligible for army service. Instead he headed into war work, spending a year and a half, on and off, labouring and welding with the Alabama Drydock And Shipbuilding Company in Mobile. His period on defence work gave Hank an opportunity to write. Though he had little education, somehow his simple words formed a kind of unbeatable folk poetry. Willie Nelson once opined: "Countless poets, authors and composers have reported with a feeling of awe that when their best work came it seemed as if some force beyond their control was controlling what they wrote. I don't know if Shakespeare said as much, but I'm sure he felt it. Closer to home, one of my favourite writers, Hank Williams, used to say, ‘I pick up the pen and God moves it.’" Armed with a batch of songs and a will to succeed, Hank returned to Montgomery in mid-1944 and re-formed The Drifting Cowboys. That same year, after checking with a doctor that he hadn't picked up a venereal disease somewhere along the way, he married Audrey Mae Sheppard. Audrey was even more ambitious than Hank. She urged him to head for Nashville and the Opry, where, like a zillion other hillbilly wannabes, he was initially turned away, presumably because he lacked a style of his own. Claimed Hank: "I was a pretty good imitator of Roy Acuff but then I found out they already had a Roy Acuff, so I started singin' like myself." A return trip in September 1946 produced the apocryphal tale of the first meeting between the singer and Roy Acuff's partner and co-publisher, Fred Rose. Badgered by Audrey, Rose reluctantly agreed to hear Hank perform some of his material. Suitably impressed, he offered to buy the songs for 10 dollars apiece. A publishing contract was offered but no recording deal. Still, Hank was happy. Roy Acuff was his favourite performer, and to be signed to a company associated with him was one hell of an achievement. Such admiration was hardly reciprocated. At one meeting, Acuff informed a half-stoned Williams, "You got a million-dollar voice and a 10-cent brain." Even so, things were moving. Molly O'Day, rated by some as the greatest female country singer ever, recorded a couple of Hank's songs. And Sterling Records of New York set up his debut recording session, albeit one that produced four maudlin songs, pure hicktown gospel that sold surprisingly well. A second session for Sterling emerged as a minor revelation, one track, 'Honky-Tonkin', proving to be ahead of its time – it was rockin', electric and a blueprint to be followed later by various sons of Sun. * "I go back, back further all the time. Back into Hank Williams, back into Jimmie Rodgers. Because the human thing
in those records is just beautiful and awesome." – Bruce Springsteen THE ADVENT OF WORLD WAR II AND THE intermingling of people from different backgrounds in the armed forces took country music to the big city. Though Jimmie Rodgers had notched up a number of best-selling records during the late '20s and early '30s, and Roy Acuff had established himself as a star in the immediate pre-war years – it's alleged that Japanese troops yelled, "To hell with Roosevelt, to hell with Babe Ruth, to hell with Roy Acuff", as they banzai-charged – the trade magazines had virtually ignored this people's music. Billboardeventually established a ‘Western And Race’ column in January 1942, hastily changing the appellation to ‘American Folk Records’ a month later. A couple of years on, the first hillbilly record chart was installed. A Mademoiselle magazine article penned in the '40s averred: "The decentralisation of backwoods ballads was helped along by the war. Industrial workers from the South carried their ditties cross-country into the aircraft plants and shipyards of the Pacific Coast. Servicemen from the hillbilly districts toted guitars and laments of – and for – home from camp to camp. When they weren't sounding off on their own, they had the radio in the USO turned up volume-high for Elton Britt's 'There's A Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere', the unofficial hillbilly theme of the armed forces." The mid-'40s also saw Nashville growing as a music centre in the wake of Decca's decision to record Red Foley there, following which a modern recording facility, Castle Studio, was installed in the Tulane Hotel. The establishment of the Acuff-Rose publishing empire in 1942 completed the foundation on which Music Row would be built, All that was needed now was a beacon of exciting new talent to attract fresh energy and ideas. 'Move It On Over' lit that beacon. Encouraged by the admittedly moderate sales of his Sterling releases, Hank had signed for MGM, a young but wealthy label originally launched by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1946 as an outlet for film soundtrack material. Hank's first MGM single, 'Move It On Over', was, in its way, as important as Elvis Presley's 'Heartbreak Hotel' eight years later. Based around a tune that seemed to have been part of R&B since blues-birth, it was basically black in concept, only Hank's driving yet down-homey vocal betraying its country origin. A downright commercial slice of cross-culture that bridged not only musical areas but also generation gaps, 'Move It On Over' was made for the jukebox age. In September 1947 the song headed into the Top 5 of Most Played Jukebox Hillbilly Records chart, which led to Hank being signed as a regular on Shreveport's prestigious Louisiana Hayride radio show, beamed to a large audience every Saturday night. At the same Castle Studio session that produced 'Move It On Over', Hank also recorded 'I Saw The Light'. A gospel hand-clapper that would never be a hit of any kind until the '70s, when Roy Acuff would record it with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, it nevertheless would prove to be one of the most performed songs in country music history, the show-closer to top all show-closers, though, like 'Move It On Over', closer inspection would prove that it had enjoyed a previous incarnation, being near-identical to gospel writer Albert E. Brumley's 'He Set Me Free', first published in 1939. * HANK NOTCHED A COUPLE OF HITS IN 1948, a remake of 'Honky Tonkin' clambering into the Hillbilly Top 20, while 'I'm A Long Gone Daddy', a blues-brother to 'Move It On Over', went Top 10. But there were problems. The passing of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 made it impossible for the Musician's Union to collect royalties from record sales in a manner previously agreed by the Union and the record companies. This brought about a recording ban that lasted most of 1948 and Hank was unable to record any new material until December that year, cutting just four sides in Cincinnatti, one of which was 'Lovesick Blues'. 'Lovesick Blues' wasn't a Williams original or even a true blues. It was basically a vaudeville ditty, though it was blues singer Ann Chandler who began featuring it in 1922, the same year that the song was recorded by Elsie Clark. But it was first popularised in the late '20s by Emmett Miller, a white man who sang in blackface. Miller was the whole enchilada. He sang and yodelled pop, jazz, blues and country, and his way of doing things eventually
influenced musicians ranging from Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills through to Merle Haggard, who recorded a whole album of Miller's songs. Hank Williams Jr reckons: "Without doubt my father learned 'Lovesick Blues' from Emmett Miller. It was either by record or he heard him perform it in person at a minstrel show." However, it's more likely that Hank had heard country singer Rex Griffin's 1939 version of the song, his arrangement approximating that of the Griffin record. Whatever the song's ancestry, it made a star out of Hank Williams. The record not only topped the country listings but stayed in pole position for 16 weeks. As it clung to the charts, it was joined by such Williams releases as 'Never Again', 'Mansion On The Hill' and 'Wedding Bells'. Though the Grand Ole Opry radio show management, aware of the singer's booze problem and resulting unreliability, had been fighting shy of employing Hank, they were forced by public demand to give him a guest spot. Such was his reception that, within a short space of time, he became an Opry fixture. Such a prestigious residency called for a new band, one formed from the best young musicians around. Lead guitarist Bob McNett had come to Nashville with Hank, who then re-called steelie Don Helms, who'd been playing at a skating rink, adding 21 -year-old bass-man Hillous Butrum and fiddler Jerry Rivers, a Nashville veteran at 19. The first time they played the Opry, Hank again stopped the show with 'Lovesick Blues'. Awed both by the occasion and the reception, Rivers remembers "the roaring applause continued for at least five minutes after we returned to the dressing room". Hank notched eight major hits during 1949 including a version of 'My Bucket's Got A Hole In It', a song which Tee- Tot had reputedly taught him back in his Georgiana days, and 'Lost Highway'. The following year saw him logging a similar number of successes, including two Number 1s: 'Long Gone Lonesome Blues', on which Bruce Springsteen would base 'The River', and 'Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?', which related to Hank's ongoing problems with the ambitious Audrey. His wife wished to further her own career, and insisted on singing on-stage with her husband and cutting duets at recording sessions – ill-advised projects considering that Audrey could hardly hold a tune. Pregnancy frustrated her further – her cowboy outfits didn't fit and, towards the end, she felt unable to keep tabs on the ever-errant Hank. The arrival of Hank Jr in May 1949 didn't change her cool disposition. "Daddy was haunted by his genius," recalls the son Hank called Bocephus, "and when the blues came around at midnight, he had no-one to grab ahold of. His life was marked by strong women, first Lilly, his mother, then Audrey, his wife, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that they pushed. Lord, how they pushed!" Hank's stepdaughter Lycrecia Williams claims that Hank had been on his best behaviour while in Shreveport, only tumbling off the wagon on two or three occasions. But success brought more problems than failure. Following an argument that ended with a then-pregnant Audrey puncturing the tyres on his car and Hank responding by smashing furniture and anything else he could lay his hands on around the house, he took to his bed having tranquillised himself with sleeping pills. From then on, his drinking sessions would only be matched by his pill- popping. * "Cold Cold Heart was the first country song ever to be performed with strings and the first to become an international hit. Within two weeks it sold two million records. Hank Williams loved the royalties but had a very humorous way of thanking me for its success. He called me up and said, ‘What's the idea of ruining my song?’" – Tony Bennett COUNTRY HAD PROVIDED INTERnational hits for pop stars long before Bennett reluctantly covered 'Cold Cold Heart'. Bing Crosby had massive success with The Sons Of The Pioneers' 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds' in 1940, Bob Wills' 'New San Antonio Rose' in 1941 and Jimmie Davis's 'You Are My Sunshine' that same year. There were plenty of others. But perhaps the record that broke the dam and caused the pop brigade to come scurrying towards Nashville was Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart's 'Tennessee Waltz'. Penned in 1948, it was recorded by Patti Page in 1950 and became one of the biggest hits of all time, topping the US pop charts for 13 straight weeks and selling an unprecedented six million copies. A&R man Mitch Miller, who'd quit Mercury just before Patti Page's record was released, moved to Columbia and began checking out other country song possibilities. Hank's 'Cold Cold Heart', a
C&W chart topper, was suggested by Jerry Wexler, then a Billboard columnist. Penned in the wake of one of the many arguments between Hank and Audrey – one story has it that a hospitalised Audrey, suffering from a post- abortion infection, refused to kiss Hank on one of his visits to her bedside – 'Cold Cold Heart' was another of Hank's appropriations, the melody basically stemming from T. Texas Tyler's 'You'll Still Be In My Heart' from 1945. But Hank's heart-worn delivery turned it into a country monster. When he performed it on the Opry in late January, 1951, he tore the place apart. Mitch Miller, looking for a song to follow up 'Because Of You', Tony Bennett's initial chart-topper, grabbed 'Cold Cold Heart' with alacrity, had Percy Faith write a lush string arrangement, talked the unwilling singer into recording the song – Bennett thought it far too hokey – then sat back and waited for the sales figures to accrue. And they did, Bennett's record topping the US charts for six weeks. According to Williams' one-time fiddle-player Jerry Rivers, Hank just couldn't hear Bennett's cover often enough and played it over and over every time he found it on a jukebox. Having had one success with a Hank Williams song, Miller looked for more. Sometime later he had Rosemary Clooney cut 'Half As Much', which Hank had previously covered, achieving another pop Number 1, while Frankie Laine was assigned 'Hey Good Lookin' and 'Your Cheatin' Heart', and eventually, after Hank's death, he was teamed with Jo Stafford for a duet on 'Tonight We're Settin' The Woods On Fire'. All of the cover versions were major hits and the money poured into the Williams household. During 1951, Audrey was said to have spent some $50,000. Among the items acquired in the spree was a $4,000 Cadillac convertible. * "To me, there's only four original stylists: Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis." – Jerry Lee Lewis PUBLISHER AND BOOKING AGENT JIM DENNY WAS THE man responsible for bringing Hank Williams to the Opry. In August 1952 he was also the man who fired him – Hank's bouts of boozing and pill-popping had made him miss too many radio shots and concerts. Their first meeting was hardly a bonding experience, Hank having to be sobered-up beforehand. On another occasion Denny had his wayward charge flown back to Madison Hospital (where he'd been several times previously) for rest and recuperation following a particularly bad spell at the Baltimore Hippodrome. "Every time Hank went on-stage he was drunk," recalled Whitey Ford, known as the Duke Of Pacudah, "and every time he opened with the same lines: ‘Here I am in Baltimore. I ain't never been in Baltimore. If I come back, it'll be twice I've been here.’ I told Hank not to open with that but each time he would. We did four shows a day for a week. He was so drunk on-stage that he'd sway back on his heels and then forward on his toes. The pit band moved out of the way while he was on." Denny was so horrified that he assigned two Pinkerton security operatives to watch Hank: one to stand outside Hank's dressing room and halt any suppliers of drinks and drugs getting in, the other to stay inside the room, just in case Hank smuggled in the offending items himself. But the inside man failed miserably. Hank got him drunk. 1951 proved a good news-bad news year for Hank. He accrued another eight major hits of his own and turned on many pop performers in the process. He toured with Little Jimmy Dickens; he opened The Hank And Audrey Corral, Nashville's first Western clothes store; and, back in Montgomery, July 15 was proclaimed Hank Williams Homecoming Day, culminating in over 9,000 fans turning up for a show at the city's new Cow Coliseum, hosted by Hank and Audrey and featuring Chet Atkins, Hank Snow and The Carter Family. Then there was the downside. Promoting a patent cure-all medicine, the Hadacol Caravan was a tour by rail, the artistes travelling in 19 luxury Pullman cars; admission free with two Hadacol packet tops per adult and one per child, it cost a million to mount over its 40-day run. And, no matter where the Caravan played. Hank still had to return to Nashville for his Saturday night Opry gigs. His health, never good, began to slide. The booze and pills didn't help. Nor did Audrey. Don Helms, who claims he took Hank to the Madison Sanatorium many times
throughout the years, says: "We'd come off a 1,000 mile trip and couldn't take him home because Audrey would raise hell when he'd been drinking." At the Sanatorium, Hank would sober up quickly, spend a day or two reading his ever-present supply of comics, smoke, chew candy bars and then begin fretting 'til they let him take to the road again. A hunting accident had exacerbated his back pain and major surgery was scheduled. According to Hank, the surgeons discovered that the problems were worse than first thought – he had two ruptured discs. A less than successful operation was performed leaving Hank in no shape to resume touring. As always, Hank ignored all advice and discharged himself from hospital, first returning to Audrey for a family Christmas during which he threw a chair at her. Visitors reported that one of the doors to the Williams home was riddled with bullet holes after one of their battles. Worse still, over the New Year he had to remain home while Audrey fronted The Drifting Cowboys, his only contribution to the dates being a pre-recorded message explaining his inability to appear. In January 1952, claiming that she was in fear of her life, Audrey requested that Hank move out of the family abode, then filed for divorce, stating "cohabitation was unsafe and improper", which came through on May 29. Hank was in bad shape. Minnie Pearl had worked with him in late April and recalled, "When he saw me, he said, ‘Oh, Minnie!’, and started to cry. It was a dreadful occasion for me because I loved Hank." In August he was arrested in Alexander City for being drunk and disorderly and the same month was sacked from the Opryand forced to return in disgrace to the Louisiana Hayride. Yet the hits kept coming, as 'Honky Tonk Blues', 'Half As Much', 'Jambalaya', 'Settin' The Woods On Fire' and 'You Win Again' echoed from every well-placed Wurlitzer. Though he constantly suffered from bouts of the DTs, Hank continued to tour, albeit spasmodically. He missed Audrey, but he would show her he didn't need her. He did so by marrying 19-year-old divorcee Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar three times, once conventionally and then twice more next day, on-stage at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium before paying audiences at the matinee and evening shows. The gig netted $30,000 dollars. Photographs taken at the wedding on October 18, 1952 depict a healthy looking Hank, who'd actually gained weight. There was little indication that he had but three months left to live. * "More than anything, I wanted to be Hank Williams. I even stayed drunk for three years once trying to be like him. But it didn 't work." – T-Bone Burnette A PLANNED HONEYMOON IN CUBA WAS POSTPONED because Hank was too drunk. Within a few days he was readmitted to the sanatorium. A filed report noted: "This 30-year-old [sic] man has been admitted for Rx of acute alcoholic intoxication. States he has been on the road for seven weeks playing various stage commitments and has been drinking steadily for the entire period. Complains of chest pains, especially over upper chest regions. States that deep breathing greatly exaggerates pain. Has had almost constant cold and cough for past several weeks. Has taken many kinds of antibiotics in huge quantities." There were other problems. After the split with Audrey, Hank had moved in with singer Ray Price. Lonesome as hell, he took up with Bobbie Jett, a Nashville secretary. Within weeks she was pregnant. The baby was due around the beginning of January 1953. Though Hank wouldn't admit that he was the father, just two days before he married Billie Jean he signed an agreement that Bobbie would receive various monies. The document began, "In view of the fact that the paternity of said child is in doubt... the said Bobbie W. Jett does hereby release the said Hank Williams from any and all further claims arising out her condition or the birth of the said child." Billie Jean was unhappy with the whole affair, unhappy, too, that Hank refused to shape up. "I ain't got nothin' but just my guitar and a wife," he confided to a friend. "And I wish to hell I didn't have nothin' but a guitar."
Now and then, he'd turn up to play shows, mainly at honky-tonk joints, which he hated. And when he did appear he was unpredictable. After one stumbling, drunken performance he had to escape his hotel via the tradesmen's entrance and head at full speed for the county line. In Lafayette, he merely stalked on to the stage, yelled, "You paid to see ol' Hank, didn't ya?", then snapped, "Well, you've seen him..." And then he promptly disappeared into the wings. Fellow performers began describing Hank's appearance as being like the living dead. At one point, he was found in the back of a car, hardly breathing. He was taking morphine, chloral hydrate, dextro-amphetamine sulphate – anything that dulled the pain in his back and the devil that lived in his head. Obtaining drugs was no problem; Doc Marshall gave him blank prescriptions and pointed him in the direction of the nearest pharmacy – a course of treatment one might expect from a man who, before buying his phony doctor's diploma, had done time in San Quentin for armed robbery. * THE OFFICIAL LINE IS THAT HANK'S HEART FINALLY gave out in the back of a Cadillac while en route to play a New Year's night gig in Canton, Ohio. He was alive when he and his 17-year-old driver, Charles Carr, left Knoxville, Tennessee and dead by the time the car reached Oak Hill, West Virginia. For years nobody questioned this particular version of Hank's hardly unexpected demise. However, a report by highway patrolman Swann Kitts surfaced some years later and cast doubts on the official line. Printed in the Knoxville Journal, it alleged that Williams and Carr had caught a plane out of Knoxville on December 31, 1952 but had been forced to return to the airport due to bad weather. Hank, completely drunk, reportedly managed a few words as he was carried to a room in the town's Andrew Johnson Hotel. A Dr Cardwell claims that he was called to the hotel, where he found Hank drunk but still capable of holding some form of conversation. He gave the singer two injections of morphine and B-12. A couple of hours later, Carr and some hotel porters clothed the inert Williams and carried him to his car. The original intention, it seems, was that Hank would spend the night at the Andrew Johnson. An hour later, at 11.45 pm, Carr was given a ticket for speeding by patrolman Kitts, who says: "Carr said he was driving Hank Williams. I noticed Williams and asked if he could be dead, as he was pale and blue-looking. But he said Williams had drunk six bottles of beer and a doctor had given him two injections to help him sleep. He asked me not to wake him up." Later, investigating Hank's death, Kitts came to the conclusion that the singer must have died at the hotel and, for reasons unknown, his death was covered up until some hours later. Driver Carr denies many points in this story. According to his version, they did stay at the hotel after the plane failed to make the trip to Canton. He also agreed that a doctor attended Williams but did not inject the singer with morphine but merely gave him some vitamins, after which, receiving telephoned orders from somebody unknown, it was decided to push on by car. It was the version of events that Nashville favoured at the time. Less messy, less likely to cause a decline in Hank's record sales. After all, in the record business, there's life after death. Hank may have only been 29, but there were those around who reckoned he might make it to 50 in terms of sales years. The Beckley, West Virginia pathologist who examined Hank's body came up with a dream autopsy report. Hank had died of haemorrhages in his heart and neck. There were traces of alcohol in the bloodstream but no evidence of narcotics. The death certificate recorded the cause of death as "acute right vetricular dilation". Drugs? What drugs? * "I said to Honk Williams: How lonely does it get? Hank Williams hasn't answered yet. " – Leonard Cohen ('The Tower Of Song')
AFTER THE POST-MORTEM, HANK'S BODY WAS shipped back to Montgomery for a funeral due to take place on Sunday, January 4, 1953. The municipal auditorium was packed. Outside, another 20,000 mourned. Inside, Ernest Tubb, June Carter, Ray Price, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Little Jimmy Dickens and other stars paid due homage. Jim Denny took a look around and mused to a friend that if Hank could raise the lid of his coffin, he'd take a look around and yell, "I told you dumb sons of bitches I could draw more dead than you could alive!" And, as usual, Hank had got his timing right, his funeral proving almost a promo gig for his most recent hit – 'I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive'. It would prove to be his eighth Number 1. As Audrey and Billie Jean each attempted to grab their piece of the action, MGM turned over its entire pressing plant to producing Hank Williams records. 'Kaw-Liga' and 'Your Cheatin' Heart' both headed the chart although they were separate sides of the same record. Before they dropped from the listings, 'Take These Chains From My Heart' was on hand to ensure Hank's domination of country music's pole position. In his lifetime, Hank had only issued two albums. His meagre supply of releases was about to create a whole industry, one which would find him singing along to string arrangements, others in which later voices, his son's and his grandson's, would be dubbed alongside his to a Southern rock backing. There'd be a film, with music by Hank Jr and George Hamilton providing an amazingly inaccurate screen portrait of a Hank who performed songs he never actually got around to singing on- stage. And there'd also be a regular supply of tribute albums by George Jones, Ronnie Hawkins, Ray Price and countless others. An early death ensured Hank Williams legendary status – and legends don't die, they merely guarantee profits for decades to come. Maybe, if Hank had managed to straighten out his ways, he might have continued as a hit machine. Some country stars of the '40s, like Eddy Arnold and, to a lesser extent Webb Pierce, continued their hit- making ways right through the '60s, though most of their contemporaries faded under the onslaught of rock. But, as a legend he's more valuable: Nashville's answer to Norma Jean and James Dean, a soundtrack for rebels past and those yet to come. When the city launched its Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961, three people were honoured by plaques in that first year – Fred Rose, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, the last's inscribed, "Hank Williams September 1923-January 1 1953. Performing artist, songwriter... Hank Williams will live on in the memories of millions of Americans. The simple, beautiful melodies and straightforward plaintive stories in his lyrics, of life as he knew it, will never die. His songs appealed not only to the country music field but brought him great acclaim in the pop music world as well." From a grave somewhere in Montgomery, came a laugh that swooped into a yodel. © Fred Dellar, 1998
Cliff White , “… Howlin’ for the Wolf,” New Musical Express, 24 January 1976. "I was just a country boy, glad to get some sounds on wax" IT WASN'T unexpected; not like the sudden shock when a man is wiped out is his prime by ice on the wings, vomit in the throat, or a wayward bullet; but there was still a sense of irretrievable loss that came with the news of Howlin’ Wolf’s death. He'd been ill for a long time now. Overweight and subject to heart attacks, he'd been in and out of hospital since the late sixties and more or less inactive for the last couple of years. Now the news reports tell us it was cancer that finally tipped the scales. It still didn't make it any easier to accept. More than any other surviving blues singer The Wolf epitomised the uncertain role of his music in today's world. Too forceful a personality and too vital a talent to be written off as an historical curio; far too inflexible to adapt to a changing society; just like the blues, he was in a limbo where all you can do is do what you must. He didn't start recording until that period in life when many men are past their best, and he reached his own peak long after it was relevant, bringing with him sounds and emotions from an age that most of his contemporaries had left behind. Out of time and rejected by the people of whom he was fiercely proud; startlingly unique yet more a son of heritage than those who sought to find their "roots", the best of his records and live performances were – in fact are – souvenirs that time will elevate to their rightful place in black music's history. * A GREAT BEAR of a man, 6 ft. 3 in. and nearly 300 lbs before his illness, he sang like he breakfasted on broken glass washed down with gasoline, yet for all that it was a subtle voice. Not just a raucous shout but an instrument of sorrow, humour, tragedy, joyful boasting... the whole gamut of emotions were at Wolf's command, and it's not generally recognised that he took great pains to tell it like he wanted. On stage he could be just as industrious, for he liked to give a show, acting out the message of his songs. He'd roll those great hips and stomp up and down, far more involved in his performance than the average bluesmen who seemed resigned to playing a part for posterity. On good nights he was positively athletic, as witnessed by American writer Peter Guralnick: "He leapt in the air, he rolled on the floor, he cradled the microphone between his legs, he pounded at the posts with a frightening ferocity, and at the end of the evening he lay on his back roaring into the mike and struggling to get to his feet again and again. Each time he would raise himself to a sitting position and then fall back and the whole stage would shudder, until at last he leapt up, towered over us in the front row and announced 'The Wolf Don't Jive'." All in all he was a giant among mediocrity and we shan't experience his like again. * BORN Chester Arthur Burnett in West Point near Aberdeen, Mississippi on June 10th, 1910, he was raised on a plantation, and, apart from his stint in the army, stayed working the farms in Mississippi and Arkansas until his father's death in the late forties. During this time he entertained at the juke joints, on the plantations, and occasionally on city streets "working all night for a fish sandwich, and glad to get it too." Playing the guitar and harmonica he'd been given in his teens (neither of which he ever really mastered) he picked up the songs of men like Charlie Patton (‘Saddle My Pony’, ‘Spoonful’, ‘Red Rooster’) and Tommy Johnson (‘I Asked For Water’), two pre-war blues giants who employed many of the mannerisms adopted by Wolf. He also hung around with Sonny Boy Williamson for a while. In 1948 he settled in West Memphis, put together a band that included Willie Johnson (guitar) and Willie Steel (drums), and got himself a 30 minute singing-cum-advertising spot on radio station KWEM. As with Sonny Boy, B.B. King and Rufus Thomas, the broadcasts boosted his reputation and he was quickly snapped up by roving talent
scout Ike Turner (now of "... and Tina" fame) who took him to Sam Phillips' studios in Memphis proper (now of "Elvis was here" fame). This was just before Phillips launched his legendary Sun label, when he was still leasing recordings to companies like Chess in Chicago, who got the first Wolf track ‘Saddle My Pony’. At the same time Turner was busily sending masters to R.P.M. in Los Angeles, so they too issued a bunch of early Wolf sides circa 1950. The man himself was not consulted. "I didn't know what was happening. I was just a country boy, glad to get some sounds on wax." * CHESS finally settled the matter by signing him direct, and after one more session in Memphis in 1951, he moved to Chicago where he was based for the rest of his life and where he recorded all his greatest sides. The Memphis sessions were already extraordinary, particularly the eerie ‘Moanin' At Midnight’ and a re-worked traditional blues ‘How Many More Years’, but it was in Chicago that he really came into his own. With a new band, including Hubert Sumlin (guitar) and Hosea Lee Kennard, then later Henry Gray (piano), he began creating some of the most striking music to ever emerge from that city, mainly recorded in two distinct periods, 1954-56 and 1960-62. The earlier sessions produced most of the tracks that were later used on his first L.P., notably ‘Evil’, ‘44’, ‘I Asked For Water’; and ‘I Have A Little Girl’ which was included on the More Real Folk Blues album. But it was ‘Smokestack Lightning’ that became the legend. A truly magnificent example of the man's forceful imagery, it gave him one of his only three hits in March 1956, and unbelievably nudged our own charts nearly a decade later, during the so-called R&B boom. Throughout the second half of the fifties he continued to record quite prolifically, but only ‘Mr. Airplane Man’, ‘The Natches Burning’, and ‘Tell Me’ equalled the power of the early tracks, preceding what were to become the most dynamic two years of his career. The six consecutive releases at the beginning of the sixties are still among the finest Chicago R&B on record. Too late to be successful at home, they were however a vital education for European fans and budding stars who even now are re-working the sounds of ‘Spoonful’, ‘Wang Dang Doodle’/’Back Door Man’, ‘Down In The Bottom’, ‘The Red Rooster’, ‘You'll Be Mine’/’Goin' Down Slow’, and ‘Just Like I Treat You’/’I Ain't Superstitious’. Nearly all these tracks made up his second L.P., which needs to be reissued immediately. In an attempt to bring him up to date, Chess started recording him with younger bluesman like guitarist Buddy Guy (which was O.K.), and tried to find more commercial material augmented by heavier production using sax (which wasn't). A victim of confused ideas, his recordings slowly deteriorated despite occasional flashes of brilliance like ‘Trail Dragger’ and ‘Killing Floor’. Rock bottom was reached in 1969 when the company did the real dirt on him in the grotesque form of a "psychedelic" album which Wolf dismissed as "birdshit". Presumably realising the error of their ways, in the last few years they recorded him more sympathetically, and having just about survived the mandatory superstar London sessions, he was heard to good advantage on albums like Live And Cookin' and The Back Door Man. By far the best picture of Wolf was given by Peter Guralnick in his book Portraits In Blues and Rock 'n' Roll (Dutton, 1971) from which I've extracted the quotes used here. As far as I know, all of Wolf's records are currently deleted, but with All Platinum recently acquiring the Chess catalogue we can only hope that they'll soon put out a worthwhile memorial set, PLEASE NOT in electronically reprocessed stereo. It's only fitting that someone should treat him right now he's gone: He certainly didn't get much respect when he needed it. As he once confided to Guralnick, "I wished it could have been better. Somehow or other though, it just wasn't for me to have the breaks other people have." © Cliff White, 1976
Peter Guralnick, “Blues in History: A Quick Sketch,” in Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock ‘N’ Roll (NY: Hachette, 2012; originally 1976) Blues takes in a lot of territory. If you confess to a liking for it, you open yourself to any number of responses. Oh, Louis Armstrong, someone will say. Bessie Smith. B.B. King. Ten Years After. Any one of them will be correct, because within a fairly narrow framework there exists a real multiplicity of styles. But if it’s country blues that you’re talking about, despite all the exposure and attention which have been lavished on the blues in recent years, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to make yourself clear. Because, somehow or other, this music, which is the background for all the flourishes and refinements and the underpinning for nearly all of today’s popular music, has been obscured in each new phase of its development. Country blues, which was at first considered too disreputable to record, remains to this day too funky in a pejorative sense to merit serious attention. Classic blues, it’s true, was recorded first. The first blues to have been put on record seems to have been Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (1920) and W.C. Handy, Clarence Williams, Perry Bradford all copyrighted and formally “composed” blues for the great women singers (Bessie Smith, Bessie Smith’s mentor Ma Rainey, Clara Smith, Victoria Spivey). These blues were common property long before they were set down on paper, however, and if the recording of the classic blues singers stimulated a new period of growth for the country blues, W.C. Handy himself admitted, “Each one of my blues is based on some old Negro song of the South, some old song that is part of the memories of my childhood and my race. I can tell you the exact song I used as the basis for any one of my blues.” Instrumental jazz started out as the articulation of that same feeling, an ingenious approximation of the human voice. Certainly it went on to become something quite sophisticated of its own, but listen to Charles Mingus, or Coltrane, or Miles Davis and you’ll hear wordless blues that go back to field hollers and slavery times. Ornette Coleman, the most committed of modernists, worked in countless rhythm and blues bands around Fort Worth; just a few years ago Charles Lloyd was boasting of his association with Howlin’ Wolf twenty years before in West Memphis. Almost no black musician of any prominence will deny his roots or his blues heritage. There are many popular misconceptions about the blues. For one thing it’s thought to be an intensely personal music. Now, obviously, in certain instances it is. Robert Johnson sings as feelingly and with as direct an emotional thrust as can be imagined. Skip James was a unique and idiosyncratic stylist. Robert Pete Williams today invents blues which are free to the point of occasional anarchy. These are exceptions, however, to the general rule. For blues, like business, baseball, and other American inventions, is a highly conservative institution. Its structure is rigid, its lyrics derivative, and there is little place in its canon for oddness or eccentricity. “Don’t pester me with your jazz or your how high the moon spodee-do. I don’t play nothin’ but blues,” says Howlin’ Wolf. And for most musicians that just about covers it. Blues is a twelve-bar structure, three-line verse, the words rhyme and most frequently derive from a common pool of lyrics or “floating verses.” To Furry Lewis the most important thing is to rhyme the verses up. “It got to be rhymed up if you call yourself being with the blues. If it ain’t rhymed up it don’t sound good to me or nobody else.” Each singer has his own individual way of expressing himself, but there is a common thread of ideas as well as lyrics which enables almost any blues player to sit in with any other, and some of the most notable collaborations on record have been the result of chance studio meetings which would not have been possible in any other music. We thought of blues, when we first took it up, as protest music. This, too, seems a vast misconception, even though much of the literature on the subject continues to see it as a reflection of sociological conditions and a commentary on the black man’s lot. Most blues unfortunately don’t even deal with the subject, and, unless passing references and veiled allusions can be said to constitute a body of protest music, blues is for the most part singularly free of even the most casual reference to these conditions. Lightnin’ Hopkins, it’s true, could deal with such considerations quite explicitly in “Tim Moore’s Farm.” Whether this derived from personal experience or, as is more likely (from the evidence of Johnny Shines’s brilliant “Mr. Tim
Green’s Farm” and numerous Texas versions), from a commonly shared folk tradition, there is no question that it was deeply felt and sharply observed:
Now Mr. Tim Moore’s a man He don’t never stand and grin He just say, keep out of the graveyard I’ll save you from the pen.
Skip James, too, dealt with uncharacteristic bluntness with the Depression in “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”:
Now the people all drifting From door to door Can’t find no heaven, I don’t care where they go.
There are other songs that might be cited, but they are, really, isolated instances and blues for the most part confines itself to a very restricted range of subjects: women and whiskey but rarely social conditions; sexual but never political innuendo. Blues as poetry. That was another well-intentioned romance on our part. There are blues singers, it is true, who might be considered poets. Robert Johnson, for instance, chooses his images with sufficient care to bear repetition on the printed page. Johnny Shines, too, employs often startling imagery, and the explicit autobiography of Sleepy John Estes (or on a more instinctive level Robert Pete Williams) is at its best a vivid, strikingly “poetic” document. Most blues, however, consist of no more than a series of unrelated verses strung together at random, and for most blues singers the words are of only secondary importance. Skip James, for example, as intimate and personal a singer as he is, fails to put a distinctive stamp on most of the blues lyrics that he sings. Singers like Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James and even Muddy Waters seem to care scarcely at all for the words that they are singing. What meaning there is they convey not through words but through feeling and intonation. Elmore James sounds constantly on the edge of hysteria. Wolf suggests menace with his magnificently expressive voice. It’s not that what they sing is trivial exactly. It’s just that it does not entirely reflect what they are singing about. What almost every blues does possess is a shared feeling for love and loss. Wit and irony, paradox, a metaphorical reclamation of reality—these are the property of nearly every blues singer. In this sense the blues might be considered poetry, but it is the tradition, not the individual blues singer, which is the poet. Lines like “Did you ever dream lucky, wake up cold in hand?” “They arrest me for forgery but I can’t sign my name,” “You can read my letter but you sure can’t read my mind/Well, you thought I was loving but I was leaving you all the time,” and phrases like “laughing just to keep from crying,” “easy rider” and “old-time used-to-be” show up in song after song, and the grimly ironic personification of the blues (“Good morning, blues, blues how do you do?”) tells a story as true as any individual invention. What is blues then? Well, it’s a lot easier to keep on saying what blues is not. It isn’t necessarily sad music. It doesn’t tell a story. It neither makes nor alludes to minor chords. It is for the most part self-accompanied. It follows certain basic progressions (I-IV-V-IV-I or tonic, subdominant, dominant chord patterns). It is not a music of particular technical accomplishment. In the end you come back to the familiar conundrum; if you have to ask, well then you’re just not going to understand. Because blues after all is little more than a feeling. And what could be more durable or more fleeting and ephemeral than just that? …. II Muddy is one of the few blues singers who has made it. He plays jazz clubs and the college circuit and has established a white audience which, if it is not as large as B.B. King’s, is certainly just as loyal. When blues was the popular music of blacks he was a popular artist, and he has been driving a Cadillac for years. Around Chicago his
name is legend (like B.B., Elmore James, Wolf, and even Junior Wells he has his own imitator, Muddy Jr., currently working the clubs), his influence has been almost universally acknowledged, and in the last ten years he has gained something of the international status of a Louis Armstrong in jazz or a Ray Charles or James Brown in contemporary rhythm and blues. And yet his life is not so different from the average and less successful bluesman’s. He doesn’t have a jet or a retinue of personal retainers. He owns his own home, but it remains in the heart of Chicago’s South Side in a section that’s been steadily deteriorating for the last ten years. Inside the walls are all panelled and there are plastic slipcovers on sofa and chairs, but there’s no way of shutting out the street outside and a recurrent topic of conversation is the decline of the neighbourhood and the decline of the South Side in general. His neighbours all refer to him with respect; to the livery driver across the street “I guess he’s the king of the blues.” But it’s said with a deprecatory chuckle and until very recently his dominion, for a monarch, was exceedingly small. For years he played the dingy neighbourhood joints and bars and even at the height of his popularity he was working seven nights a week in clubs like Smitty’s, Pepper’s, and Gary’s F&J Lounge, with occasional forays into the South. It wasn’t until his first trip to England in 1958 that he became aware of a larger audience, and he still expresses honest amazement at the extent of his success. “I went up to Montreal,” he told a Chicago newspaper reporter. “There were men and women of all ages [in the audience]. Some of them was older than me. I look at them and I say, What the hell is this thing? What is going on?” He is subject in many ways, too, to the limitations of the world in which he grew up. Lacking any real education, he has developed a kind of wariness both in his personal manner and in his professional dealings. Without ever showing any open hostility he retains an inscrutable look and a cautiousness of expression which protects him from committing himself too quickly. He never says more than he means, and even in conversation with friends he seems to maintain a guarded watchfulness and will take the listener’s part more often than not. He is the same up on the bandstand. He hasn’t got any act, he avoids elaborate announcements, and he will rarely resort to theatrical gesture or false histrionics. He presents a song straightforwardly, gets what he wants from the band by a word or a glance from his hooded eyes, and both in public and in private always carries himself with an enormous dignity. He is, it is obvious, an extremely proud man, and sometimes it is not difficult to imagine that the titles which have been bestowed upon him for his singing were not in fact his by earlier possession. For Muddy Waters carries himself with all the dignity of a king. V What is it that can have contributed to his extraordinary success up to that point? Johnny Shines, Elmore James, Homesick James, Robert Jr. Lockwood, all were playing and singing in a style that was similar to Muddy’s. The blues of Robert Johnson had in fact turned out to be as influential and as popular as any previously existing style. But Muddy Waters alone turned that style into a vehicle for personal popularity, and fifteen years later it is Muddy Waters alone who retains any wide personal following. “It was sex,” says twenty-seven-year-old Marshall Chess, whose father, Leonard, discovered Muddy. “If you had ever seen Muddy then, the effect he had on women. Because blues, you know, has always been a women’s market. On Saturday night they’d be lined up ten deep.” “He had that drive,” says Marshall’s uncle Phil, who started the Aristocrat label with his brother. “A guy like Johnny Shines? He was a run-of-the-mill singer. But Muddy had that drive.” “I like to think I could really master a stage,” says Muddy. “I think I was a pretty good stage personality, and I knew how to present myself right. No, I never developed an act of any kind. I just had a natural feel for it.” Undoubtedly all of the above statements are true. More than any other blues singer I’ve ever met Muddy is single- minded in his purpose and can channel all his impressive energy towards a single highly specific end. He is, in
addition, of course, an exceptionally creative musician, whose compositions and recordings over the years have been as remarkable for their consistency as for their brilliance. But more than anything else what seems to me the key to Muddy Waters’s success has been his ability to organize and maintain a succession of bands which have almost perfectly reflected the very personal kind of music which he plays. Virtually alone Muddy Waters developed the ensemble style of play which has come to characterize the omnipresent school of Chicago blues. When he started out he was, of course, accompanied by only one or two other instruments, and he continues to express a preference for this kind of music. “I think I done it right, man. I was playing blues like I knowed them, and all that bass player have to do was follow.” He prefers, too, the “true sound” of the acoustic guitar and would, he says, if he had the choice, return to playing as a solo performer. But it was necessary in order to be heard in the noisy clubs and taverns of Chicago to take up an amplified instrument. And it was necessary, to achieve any kind of success in the big-band-oriented rhythm and blues market, to put together some kind of group. This was not as easy as it might at first appear. Because for one thing the blues is not exactly a formal music with regular time signatures and predictable chord changes. For another, working with a group posed some very real conflicts in presentation and style. “See, my blues is not as easy to play as some people think they are. ’Cause here, this is it, I may have thirteen beats in some song, and the average man, he not used to that kind of thing. He got to follow me, not himself, because I make the blues different. Do that change thing when I change, just the way I feel, that’s the way it went. I mean, you take that song, ‘Just to Be With You.’ Now that’s a good blues tune, and I made it just the way I felt, sometimes I play thirteen, sometimes I play fourteen beats. And I got just about as good time in the blues as anyone.” …. Discography:
Mississippi Moaners, Lonesome Road Blues, Tex-Arkana-Louisiana Country, and Frank Stokes’ Dream (Yazoo 1009, 1038,
1004, 1008) The Blues: A Smithsonian Collection of Classic Blues Singers (Smithsonian 101)
Blues Masters series (Rhino 71121–71135) Muddy Waters:
The Complete Plantation Recordings (Chess 9344).
Muddy Waters: His Best 1947–1955 and 1956–1964 (Chess 9370, 9380).
The Aristocrat of the Blues (Chess 9387).