Under the aegis of the 92Y
Tonight, host Louis Rosen begins with a subject he refers to as on topic, but tangential – the recording business during the era we’re exploring. He uses the emergence of Jimmie Rodgers as an example. Thought of as the father of country music, Rodgers wrote/played a lot of blues showing that music of the south is a shared culture.
In the early twenties, Ralph Peer “arranged recordings” for Okeh Record artists like Mamie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and Victoria Spivey; later Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. He was what we now think of as an A & R (artist and repertory) man. At the time, many writers sold their copyrights outright for about $50. That meant any royalties would go to the buyer instead of the writer. Peer realized that record companies owned a lot of copyrights they thought had no intrinsic value and did nothing with them. (Even those musicians owed royalties would often be stiffed.)
“Federal statute in the 1920s,” Rosen tells us, “said a copyright owner should get two cents per song for every record sold. If you want to think it’s a lot more now, think again; it’s 9.01 cents.” Peer knew the arrangement was both a bad deal for the writer and a lost opportunity for the record company. A publisher would have hustled the song, record companies did not. When Okeh was acquired by Columbia Records, the well paid ($16,000 annually) executive didn’t like the new deal he was offered and walked out.
Peer went to RCA Victor (The Victor Talking Machine Company), the most prestigious label of the age, with a proposal. He was tapped into the Black and blues artists the company was just realizing offered an extended market, including white people. The young man suggested he’d be willing to work for nothing with the understanding he’d be producer and control all copyrights, i.e. receive royalties. The money, he intuited, was in new songs and new versions of old ones (If you wrote a new arrangement, sometimes changing lyrics or part of the tune, it meant a new copyright.)
The entrepreneur set up shop. Artists received $50. Per recording, per song- eight songs would mean $400. He also signed his talent to a management deal. Peer guaranteed them a 25 percent share. (Today, it’s 50 percent.) In other words, if contract payment was two cents, a writer would get half a cent for every song. “All of a sudden RCA flips out. Peer is earning $50,000 a month, completely changing the record business. He had to find artists who were songwriters.”
Ernest Stoneman, Peer’s first Hillbilly artist (a genre that became country/western, then country) suggested he come to the town of Bristol on the border of Tennessee and Virginia and set up a remote operation. Technology with microphones was cumbersome, but portable. A newspaper notice announced open auditions in a warehouse.
Over the course of six weeks, two who would become the core of country music stood out – The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Peer agreed to record “The Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers” with the agreement Rodgers would make solo records as well. The band broke up before he was forced to keep his word.
James Charles Rodgers (1897-1933), often called “The Singing Brakeman” or “The Blue Yodeler,” ran off to start traveling shows in his teens, but was collared and brought home. He was a water boy, brakeman, and switchman on The New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. Diagnosed with TB, he went back to entertainment. Those jobs exposed him to Black railway workers and hobos who taught him to strum and pick.
The musician was 30 when he met Peer, and, having been in a group, didn’t have enough original songs for the producer’s purpose. Rodgers promised to return in a week with 12. Between new songs and those he rearranged, he managed to do just that. “He didn’t have the loud, projecting voice that could be heard in a bar. Remember microphones are ushering in a new period of music. Initial recordings were not a great success, but a month later, he showed up In New York with two songs that would become huge hits, `T for Texas (Blue Yodel No. 1)’ and `Waiting For a Train.’ Within a year, he’s making $20,000.”
When we listen to blues songs of the era, we’re almost always hearing original compositions or those rearranged. A writer had to conform to the model. “Songsters” (those who could sing anything that would please a crowd) who couldn’t offer new copyrightable material were not recorded. “Rodgers made regional music that had its own accent as expressed by a white man from Mississippi rather than a black man from Mississippi.”
We first hear, then watch a 1927 “soundie” (precursor of music videos) of “T for Texas.” The ten or 15 minute films would play with newsreels before movie features. Its feel is hillbilly, a regular repetitive strum and expert yodel. Rogers, in a rocking chair on a porch, wears the overalls and cap of a railway man in the video. “I’m gonna shoot poor Thelma (Shoot poor Thelma)/Just to see her run and jump and fall…” goes the jealous lyric. “I think we can avoid the conversation as to whether his behavior towards Thelma was misogynistic,” the host comments. “Some rounder/gambler stole Thelma. It’s the same part of life Black artists are singing about.”
In 1929, Rodgers made a movie short called The Singing Brakeman which can be found on YouTube.
Rosen calls these songs part of the fundamental repertoire of country music, but connected to blues. “The only thing a Black singer wouldn’t do is break into a yodel.”
“Mule Skinner Blues” (1930) became a standard. Elvis Presley recorded the song in his Sun Studio sessions; Peter Seeger often performed it. “Good mornin’ Captain/Good mornin’ shine/Do you need another mule skinner/ Out on your new mud line?” 1929’s 12 bar “Frankie and Johnny” tells one of the most fundamental stories in American vernacular music and is performed in all sorts of versions. We’re so accustomed to later, more blues oriented interpretation, this one, replete with yodel, sounds like a curiosity. “I love the line, this story has no moral,” Rosen quips.
Next is 1931’s “My Good Gal’s Gone” accompanied by a jug band. The jug becomes the bass instrument (it sounds like a tuba) while a fiddle sashays and clarinet evokes New Orleans. Then “Let Me Be Your Side Track” whose guitar solo seems like the 1960s. “Let me be your side track ‘til your mainline comes/ Let me be your side track ‘til your mainline comes/Cause I can do more switchin’ than your mainline’s ever done.” Last is “Standing on the Corner” with Lil Armstrong on piano and Louis Armstrong on trumpet. “Rodgers influence passes down directly to Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan,” the host notes.
Charley Patton (1891-1934) is a seminal figure in what we call Mississippi Delta Blues which have a slightly different flavor than the Texas blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson. The two musicians nonetheless share what Rosen observes to be a melding of guitar and performer capturing narrative beyond voice.
Patton’s father left when he was a boy. Stepfather Bill Patton took the family to Will Dockery’s 10,000 acre cotton plantation and sawmill, home to some 2,000 African-American workers. A state unto itself, it contained a railroad depot, general store, post office, school, doctor, several churches and its own currency. Dockery workers tended to stay for life.
The sharecropping system was made up of tenant farmers. At the beginning of the season, you were fronted whatever money was needed. After harvest, would come “the settle,” which meant selling the crop and paying back the loan. The rest would be yours, but it was barely enough to get through and hame saddled with rolled over debt. Then the cycle started again. It was an economic arrangement that replaced slavery. Rosen notes Dockery seemed to breed blues singers – Henry Sloan, Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson and Roebuck “Pops” Staples to name a few.
Patton didn’t want to work, he wanted to play music. He left Dockery and was taken in by a smaller plantation, hired to entertain rather than do fieldwork. Moving on, he performed across the south, in Chicago and New York gaining popularity for showmanship that included playing guitar down on his lap, behind his head, or behind his back. How many musicians followed that lead?
The artist had a powerful, growly voice reputed loud enough to carry 500 yards without amplification. He howls. We hear the 12 bar “Down the Dirt Road.” “Listen to how percussive he is,” the host observes with admiration. “He’s both playing and hitting the guitar. Rhythm is everything. His is sophisticated, syncopated. This and rough vocals became the template for Mississippi Blues. From Patton, you draw a direct line to Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf.”
Patton’s response to the massive 1927 Mississippi flood was “High Water Everywhere.” Rosen then plays Bob Dylan’s “High Water for Charley Patton.” The reimagined version turns the title into a metaphor for more than just the flood. “Dylan was as much a blues singer as a folk singer,” we’re reminded. “Highway 61 runs right up to his childhood home in Hibbing, Minnesota.” (Highway 61 Revisited was Dylan’s 6th studio album.)
Patton’s interpretation of Rodgers’ “Frankie and Johnny” becomes “Frankie and Albert.” (Albert just doesn’t “sing.”) It’s a 16-bar blues with a bottle on the musician’s pinkie of his left hand. “The style originated with the player taking a knife or the top of a bottle — the bottleneck — placing that on the last finger of his left hand (if a right-handed guitarist) and playing the bottleneck on the strings on the neck, sometimes sliding it up to a string,” Rosen, himself a guitarist, explains. There’s a sermon in the middle of the song. It’s easy to visualize Patton at a pulpit. He’d’ve made a fine preacher.
So, tonight, The Mississippi Delta Blues.
All unattributed quotes are Louis Rosen
“The Blues is the purest home-grown music that America ever produced, a complex, profound expression of life’s essential desires and struggles. It came from places as varied as the Mississippi Delta, the Texas panhandle, New Orleans, Chicago, the Eastern Seaboard and New York City. It is the essential musical language of artists as diverse as Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmy Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Bob Dylan.
It also became an essential building block in the American concert music of Gershwin, Copeland, and African-American composers such as James P. Johnson and William Grant Still, as well as important composers today. This semester we’ll explore all of these exceptional artists, rural and urban, folk and classical, past and present, and much more. Awaken—or reawaken—to the power of The Blues, our uniquely American story. “ Louis Rosen
Photo of Mr. Rosen courtesy of Louis Rosen
Opening picture from Shutterstock