Such a tradition that has been forgotten with different genres. Thank U for what YOU are doing to preserve that, Paul.
Western New York Blues Society (@WNYBluesSociety), March 19, 2014.
Most people tend to
associate Louisville, Kentucky, with bluegrass music, rather than the blues,
but blues has far deeper roots in bluegrass country than you might think. Just
as Kentucky’s mountain music would influence bluegrass in the 1920s, it
influenced blues’ direct forbearer, ragtime, even earlier, in the 1890s.
|English adventurers land in Jamestown in 1607|
years before the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts, when the Virginia Company
of London established England’s first American colony in Jamestown, Virginia,
in 1607. Over the years, settlers from Jamestown spread throughout the
Virginias, the Carolinas, and inland into Tennessee and Kentucky,
taking their English, Irish and Scottish music, songs and dances with them.
Those who could afford to have slaves, took their slaves with them. And the slaves
took along the only African instrument they had ever been allowed to play in America:
The birth of mountain music
Mix it all up and by
the nineteenth century, you had mountain music. This was long before the term
‘hillbilly’ came into vogue, incidentally. It was this American mountain music,
presumably emanating from where the Appalachian Mountains touch the Kentucky
borderlands, that directly influenced the first ever ragtime song: ragtime, as
mentioned, being blues’ most distinguishable forefather.
1870s and 1880s, different types of music were categorized by American
|Louisville’s Ben Harney: first ragtime composer|
musicians by their rhythmic tempo. Different tempos were described, for
example, as ‘jig time’, ‘march time’ and ‘waltz time’. Playing a melody in
short syncopated rhythms over a steady beat was called ‘ragged time’.
from Louisville, Kentucky, took a melody he had composed in ragged time along
to a local publisher. The vaudevillian, Ben Harney, a pianist and
singer-songwriter, was just 22
when he went to see the Louisville publisher, Bruner Greenup, about publishing this new ‘raggy time’
song, as Harney called it then. Harney could play and sing the song, but he
couldn’t for the life of him write it down.
The birth of ragtime
Generally accepted as
the world’s first published ragtime, Ben Harney’s, ‘You’ve Been a Good old Wagon (Daddy) But You Done Broke Down,’ was
a metaphor about an older man past his use-by date. The song was immortalised
as a blues song by Bessie Smith many years later. Harney said he developed his
songs in broken rhythm or raggy time, once describing his singing as ‘vocal
ragging’ or ‘scatting’. This is 1893, remember, 33 years before Louis
Armstrong’s ‘Heebie jeebies’, often cited as the first song to include scatting,
was recorded in 1926.
|A Kentucky mountain man: 1877|
raggy time, the red-headed Harney said, came in 1887 when he came across a
mountain man playing syncopated music, on a long-necked fiddle with banjo
tunings, in the Appalachian Mountains. Harney would then have been just 16.
It’s never been established whether the mountain man was black or white.
the complexity of getting the song down on paper. “It was no trouble for
Harney to play this piece according to ragtime principles, but the great
difficulty which beset us when we started out to publish the song was to get
the rag in print. Harney had no more idea than a monkey how to write rag time
though he could play and sing it better, perhaps, than anyone has ever yet
succeeded in doing. We called in numerous composers, more or less famous, and
put them to work on the song, but after much vexatious labour they reported,
one after the other, that the job was too much
for them. Finally, we took the song to Mr. John Biller,
then musical director
for Maucauley’s Theatre (Louisville’s leading theatre of the 1890s). Harney
played and sang it, and Biller worked on
the notes. I guess we went over the thing 500 times. At last by great patience
and perseverance, Biller succeeded in
getting on paper the very first ‘rag’ that the world ever saw. This was in 1893.”
enormous difficulty writing a proper score for You’ve Been a Good old Wagon (Daddy)
But You Done Broke Down, because music in ragged time had never been captured
|The first rag was published in Louisville|
before. The same type of breakthrough, as I’ve posted perhaps too often
before, would take place in 1912, when blues was written down and published for
the first time.
in 1895, You’ve Been a Good old Wagon (Daddy) But You Done Broke Down hit
America with as much impact as the Beatles created in 1964. You’ve Been a Good
old Wagon wrote the American academic, William H. Tallmadge, in 1995, “is of such historical importance
that it should be reprinted and made available to
scholars and performers interested in early ragtime music literature. The
‘(stick) dance’ that concludes the selection can be played as a ragtime piano solo even in
its simplified version and it is quite remarkable
for its innovations.”
according to eye-witness accounts, was a tap dance with one or both feet
coordinated with a cane, as he sat and played the piano. Wrote Professor
Tallmadge, “He undoubtedly amazed his audience with this kind of tour-de-force
as a dancer, singer and pianist. Old-time banjo players have been known to
sing, play, and tap dance simultaneously. I suspect that Harney got
the idea for his stick dance from a black banjoist or a white
|Harney in blackface with his famous cane|
whom he saw in Middlesboro (Kentucky) or Louisville. It is possible that
Harney’s stop-time stick dance served as the prototype for the foot-stamping, stop-time
section in Scott Joplin’s ‘Ragtime Dance’ in 1906.”
piano ragtime to appear in print, and it contains the first published example of stop-time,
a rhythmic and harmonic feature often employed by composers and performers of
and jazz in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
century.” In creating Good Old Wagon, wrote
Professor Tallmadge, “Harney took an African-American folk blues that was common in the
Appalachian Mountains and created a ragtime version of it.”
Old Negro folk song: Sweet Thing
Legendary American blues folklorists, John and Alan Lomax, wrote in 1947
that a forerunner to Good Old Wagon was the old Negro folk song, ‘Sweet Thing’, a song
that had been adapted by white banjo and guitar pickers in the Appalachians in
a variety of ways.
smash hit across the United States, and on the strength of it, Harney moved
from Kentucky to New York in 1896. In New York, Ben Harney would inspire a
generation of ragtime composers, becoming famous in America as The Father of
weekly entertainment newspaper, described Harney’s performance at
Keith’s Union Square Theatre, New York, on 17 February 1896. Ben Harney, it
said, “jumped into immediate favour through the medium of his genuinely clever
plantation Negro imitations and excellent piano playing.” As
a white performer, Harney was unusual in having an all-black band and, said the
New York Times, “had a fine negro shouting voice”.
the 1890s said, “Harney had the huskiest voice most people had ever heard in
|Some say this was the first ever blues song|
human being and this quality made his voice just right for ragtime singing.” The 1896 reprint cover of You’ve
Been a Good Old Wagon described Harney as the “Original Introducer to the Stage
of the Now Popular ‘Rag Time’ in Ethiopian Song”. This was almost certainly the
first time the term ragtime appeared in print.
The birth of blues?
That same year, Ben Harney
published an even bigger seller than Good Old Wagon. Called ‘Mr. Johnson, Turn
me Loose’, the song was described on its sheet music as, “A coon novelty”. Some
experts say Mr. Johnson, Turn me Loose features the first published hints of the
blues that would come some 18 years later. (See Great Blues Cities No. 2: New
York, in this blog’s archive of 6 February 2014.)
another musical genre that contributed directly to the development of blues
also had its origins in Louisville. This was the jug band. Following the end of
the U.S. Civil War in 1865, with money universally tight, freed slaves, and
former soldiers of all races, fashioned musical instruments from any old junk
they could find: tin cans, wooden boxes, string, wire, broom handles and cigar
boxes. Such homemade instruments joined fiddles, banjos and guitars in creating
a new form of American folk music. During the 1860s and 1870s, this music
became generally known, amongst other names, as jig music.
By 1900, other
|Louisville jug band, Earl McDonald’s Dixieland Jug Blowers|
instruments like the washboard, tea-chest single-string bass, and big water jugs
sounding like tubas when blown into, joined this improvised coterie.
The birth of jug bands
now any number of names for these jig style bands: spasm bands, washboard bands,
gut bucket bands, novelty bands or, in Louisville, jugs band.
mixture of Appalachian mountain music, African-American folk and ragtime. One
of them, Earl McDonald’s Original Louisville Jug Band, became the first
jug band to be recorded, in 1924, when they backed local blues diva Sara
Martin’s ‘Blue Devil Blues.’
Dunn, 1884 – 1955), one of the first, most popular and most recorded of the
early female singers who put classic blues on the map in the 1920s, just
happened to be a Louisville girl, too. Billed as ‘The Famous Moanin’ Mama’ and
‘The Colored Sophie Tucker’, Sara Martin also recorded under the names Margaret
Johnson and Sally Roberts.
38, Martin, made the first known recordings of country blues on ‘Longing for
|Sara Martin, right, with her mother in 1920|
Daddy Blues’. Recorded in New York for Okeh, the record was a milestone in
blues recording for many other important reasons.
The birth of blues guitar records
This was the first time any singer of any race
had been backed solely by a guitarist. Significantly, it was also the first-ever
recording of an acoustic guitarist playing blues. Sarah’s accompanist was a
26-year old Louisville guitarist called Sylvester Weaver, whom she had
talent-spotted playing in a local jug band back home. Two weeks later, Weaver
laid down some solo acoustic guitar tracks he called, ‘Guitar Blues’ and
‘Guitar Rag’. These tracks, recorded in November 1923, have the distinction of being
the first unaccompanied recording by a black artist, the first blues guitar
recordings, and the first recorded bottleneck guitar-playing in history. As an
OKeh press advertisement put it back in1923:
making recordings with a guitar accompaniment, and the first records of this
kind put out have made remarkable impressions in all parts of the country.
Sylvester Weaver plays his guitar in a highly original manner, which consists
chiefly of sliding a knife up and down the strings while he picks with the
other hand. His guitar solos, No. 8109, are (also) having wide sales.”
Weaver’s Guitar Blues from 1923:
recording, Guitar Rag, played on a banjo guitar (a six-string banjo with a
guitar neck and tuning, that quickly became the first blues guitar classic. Blues and ragtime in those days, were almost one of the same thing.
the link to Guitar Rag:
In 1936, Sylvester Weaver’s Guitar Rag was
covered by the white western swing pioneers, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Wills and the Playboys renamed the track, ‘Steel Guitar Rag’, crediting Leon
McAuliffe on steel guitar as its composer. The Playboys’ cover version was
so successful it put the steel guitar genre on the country music map. As the
former editor of America’s Guitar Player magazine, Jas Obrecht, writes in his
online music archive:
|Sara Martin with Sylvester Weaver|
original 78 release, OKeh 8109, credited both Martin and Weaver as composers.
Guitar Blues, a slow, simple instrumental, interspersed slide melodies with
sparse, sliding chords. Weaver’s rollicking Guitar Rag proved to be a far more
significant recording. Playing with gusto in Vastopol* tuning, Weaver conjured
traces of ragtime and Hawaiian music in his memorable melodies. The song had
wings. Weaver re-cut Guitar Rag in 1927 with stronger bass lines and a new
middle section. It’s likely that Weaver, too, used the Hawaiian lap-style
guitar technique for playing slide.”
Ukraine) With Love post in my 14 March 2013 archive.
that around 1924, “Weaver recorded four more guitar instrumentals – ‘Weaver’s
Blues,’ ‘Smoketown Strut,’ ‘Mixing Them Up in C,’ and ‘I’m Busy and You Can’t
Come In.’ Played without a slide on a slightly out-of-tune guitar, these rudimentary,
ragtime-influenced tunes provide early examples of string-bending.”
guitar work with Sara Martin meant other blues divas now also wanted guitar
accompaniment. These included the 34-year-old mistress of saucy blues innuendo,
Virginia Liston, another black vaudevillian whose raunchy songs often had
titles like, ‘You’ve Got the Right Key, but the Wrong Keyhole’. So, in January
1924, Listen had a guitar backing to her New York recording of ‘Jail House
Blues’. For many years the guitarist was thought to be unknown, until recent
expert analysis judged it to be Sylvester Weaver.
personal here, the thing that impresses me most about Louisville’s Sylvester
Weaver is that he directly influenced the man whom I consider to be the most
influential blues guitarist of all time, Lonnie Johnson. (See my 17 June 2013
historian, Paul Oliver, Lonnie Johnson, first saw Sylvester Weaver backing Sara
Martin on acoustic guitar.
guitar playing,” wrote Oliver. “In fact, he very seldom spoke about anyone
Soon afterwards, Johnson won the blues contest in
St. Louis that led to his first recording contract.
Weaver had reached the end of his all-too-short four year studio career. The
impressive and innovative body of work this mainly unsung blues pioneer produced
in America included laying down the first blues guitar solos, note bending,
finger picking and singing. Right up until 1927, Weaver continued to tour and
record with his mentor, Sarah Martin. Indeed, he later formed an all-African-American
trio called, ‘Martin Weaver Withers’, with Sarah Martin and her husband, Hayes
B. Withers, on second guitar.
career, Sylvester Weaver also teamed up with another black Louisville
guitarist, Walter Beasley, and worked part-time in Louisville as a talent scout
for OKeh Records. In 1927, Weaver and Beasley cut a series of blues tracks,
both together and with a precocious 14-year old black girl from Louisville called
Helen Humes, who Weaver had discovered singing locally. Helen Humes later
replaced Billie Holiday as Count Basie’s vocalist.
and ‘Race Horse Blues’, with Helen Hughes and Walter Beasley on 27 November
1927, it appears Sylvester Weaver suddenly retired, headed home to Louisville
and for the rest of his life worked contentedly as a chauffeur and butler.
Weaver became largely forgotten until 1992 when his complete works were
released on Document Records, a specialist blues label, now based in Scotland.