Updated: August 2nd, 2019.
“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, Virginia, in 1607.
The story began some 13 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 and 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 banjo.
Kentucky. Did mountain music start here?
Mix it all up and by the nineteenth century, you had mountain music. This was long before the term ‘hillbilly’ for mountain music 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 being blues’ most distinguishable direct parent. Here’s why. In the 1870s and 1880s, different types of music were categorized by American 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’.
|Louisville’s Ben Harney:
The first ragtime composer.
In 1893, a young white vaudevillian 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 as a musical score.
Louisville. Ragtime started here.
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.
His inspiration for 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.
In an 1899 interview, Harney’s Louisville publisher Greenup explained
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 muchfor 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.”
Harney and Biller had 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 on paper before.
|The first rag – published in Louisville, Kentucky.
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. When finally published 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.” Ben Harney’s stick dance, 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 minstrel banjoist 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.”
|Harney in blackface with his famous cane.
Good Old Wagon said the professor, “Is the first known piece of 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 ragtime 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.
Good Old Wagon was a 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 Ragtime.
The New York Clipper, a 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”. One music publisher of the 1890s said, “Harney had the huskiest voice most people had ever heard in a 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.
|Some say this was the first ever blues song.
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.)
As well as ragtime, 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 homespun instruments like the washboard, tea-chest single-string bass, and big water jugs sounding like tubas when blown into, joined this improvised coterie.
|Louisville jug band, Earl McDonald’s Dixieland Jug Blowers.
The birth of jug bands.
There was now any number of names for these jig style bands: spasm bands, washboard bands, gut bucket bands, novelty bands or, in Louisville, jugs band. These Louisville jug bands played a 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.’ Sarah Martin (nee Sara 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.
In October 1923, aged 38, Martin, made the first known recordings of country blues on ‘Longing for Daddy Blues’. Recorded in New York for Okeh, the record was a milestone in blues recording for many other important reasons.
|Sara Martin, right, with her mother in 1920.
The first recorded blues guitar – a Louisville idea, a Louisville guitarist.
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:
“Sara Martin discovered the clever idea of 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.”
Here’s the link to Weaver’s Guitar Blues from 1923:
But it was Weaver’s other 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. Here’s the link to Guitar Rag:
The birth of steel guitar country
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.
“The 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.”
*See ‘From Russia (and Ukraine) With Love’ post in my 14 March 2013 archive.
Jas Obrecht also writes 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.”
Sylvester Weaver’s 1923 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.
Now, if I can get 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 archive.)
In 1925, wrote the celebrated English blues historian, Paul Oliver, Lonnie Johnson, first saw Sylvester Weaver backing Sara Martin on acoustic guitar.
“Johnson was very impressed by Weaver’s guitar playing,” wrote Oliver. “In fact, he very seldom spoke about anyone else’s work.”
Soon afterwards, Johnson won the blues contest in
St. Louis that led to his first recording contract.
Sadly, by 1927, Sylvester 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.
At the end of his 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.
Finally, after cutting, ‘Cross-Eyed Blues’ 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.