March 27, 2012

The first blues recording?

"The first" is an incident of interest to any historian. The most oft quoted incident of the first blues recording is Mamie Smith’s recording of “Crazy Blues” in 1920. I remember after pursuing my curiosity to seek out what was considered to be the first recorded blues record, feeling somewhat disappointed after my first listen to "Crazy Blues":

"Crazy Blues" - Mamie Smith, 1920.

Mamie Smith
"Crazy Blues" was recorded on August 10, 1920, in New York City. Smith recorded two songs written by the African American songwriter, Perry Bradford, "Crazy Blues" and "It's Right Here For You (If You Don't Get It, 'Tain't No Fault of Mine)", on Okeh Records. Within a month of the release of “Crazy Blues” it had sold 75,000 copies, and by some reports went on to sell a million copies within the year. Large numbers of records were purchased by African Americans, resulting in a sharp increase in the popularity of race records.

"Crazy Blues" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994, and, in 2005 was selected for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

For all its accolades "Crazy Blues" is in many ways though, quite "uncharacteristically" a blues song; and it seems more accurately descriptive to call it a jazz-blues song as it features multiple brass instruments, a piano and a female singer. Released under the bands name Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds, Smith was mostly a vaudeville and jazz performer rather than a blues singer and, unlike Bessie Smith who quickly followed her success, she rarely used blues forms or blues inflections. The Jazz Hounds consisted largely of brass and percussive instrumentation - reflecting the “hot jazz” sounds of New York, rather than the slower rhythmic Delta guitar blues of a the South like Charlie Patton, Skip James, or Robert Johnson. The track is likely a "first" in jazz history as well. The great Coleman Hawkins, then only a 16 year old tenor sax player was in the band and it is most likely his first recording. Hawkins was partnered with the stride style jazz pianist, Willie “The Lion” Smith, widely considered as one of the great pianists of this early jazz style. Smith (real name, William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith) was born in New York to a Jewish father and a “Spanish, Negro, Mohawk Indian blood" mother. Hardly the sort of racial lineage I'd been expecting from the first recorded "blues" artists!

Ok, so my quest is actually then a search to find a more "authentic" (there I said it) recorded performance. Smith's performance sounds a bit too staged, a product of a record label searching the edges of a potential market. After years of listening to Muddy Waters, Smith's first is always quite a let down; It's jazz hands replacing sharecropping hands. I'm looking for the first male, most likely southern, individual blues performer to be recorded; something with a bit more grit. So I went searching:
Blind Lemon Jefferson - 1925 "I Want to be Like Jesus in My Heart"
Charlie Patton - 1929 "Mississippi Boweavil Blues"
Son House - May 28, 1930, in Grafton, Wisconsin, for Paramount Records."Dry Spell Blues Part 1 and 2"
Then I came across Sylvester Weaver's "Guitar Blues" recorded in November 1923, for Okeh Records in New York. I can only find one copy of this song on-line, the first is a really, really noisy 78 record; the below version is the same copy as the first but cleaned up with some processing:

Sylvester Weaver - Guitar Blues (1923)

An Okeh advertisement described Weaver's playing like this,
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. (1)
That the first recorded male blues guitarist should use a knife as a slide resonates nicely with W.C. Handy's often repeated story of his first hearing the blues in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1903. Handy tells the tale,
"a lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a  manner  popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who use steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly."(2)
"Guitar Blues" is a delicately picked slide guitar instrumental, most likely played with the side of a knife. The other track Weaver recorded on that day was a lovely ragtime number called, "Guitar Rag", an up tempo bass line coveted by a folk-like run:

Sylvester Weaver - Guitar Rag


Most of Weavers career was spent accompanying female singers - a formula that Weaver and Smith had earlier on proved commercially successful, or with guitarist Walter Beasley. In some ways his Weavers' life is without some of the rougher edges found in the lives of some of the more famous bluesmen but he is a fine musician who cut some wonderful tracks for Okeh. Jas Obrecht gives a more detailed biography of Weaver in his essay "Sylvester Weaver: The First Blues Guitarist on Record" (1)


  1. Sylvester Weaver: The First Blues Guitarist on Record.
  2. "Father of the Blues" by W. C. Handy
    Published by DaCapo Press (Harper Collins Publishers) New York, NY


Here's an even earlier claim claim to the first blues record. By a white band!!!

Victor Military Band - The Memphis Blues (July 15, 1914)

A white female performer !?

Marie Cahill - The Dallas Blues (1917)

March 14, 2012

B-Squared Blues Playlist - 13 March 2012

The only known photograph of Luke Jordan (circa 1940's

Here's about what we played on the night:

Booker T & the MGs - Boot leg
Bob Dylan - Obviously Five Believers
Muddy Waters - Mean Ol Frisco Blues
Scrapper Blackwell - Kokomo Blues
Muddy Waters & Rolling Stones - Champaign & Reefer
Canned Heat - Reefer Blues
Luke Jordan - Cocaine Blues
The Memphis Jug Band - Cocaine Habit Blues
Charlie Patton - A Spoonful Blues
The Black Keys - Loneley Boy
The Beatles - For You Blue
Heart Attack Alley - Too Hot Blues
Cursed Arrows - Death Rattle Blues
Doug Jerebine - Blues News
DZ Deathrays - The Mess Up
Doug Jerebine - Other side of time
Amos Milburn - Chicken Shack Boogie
Junior Kimbrough - All Night Long
Junior Kimbrough - I Feel Allright
Magic Sam - I wanna boogie
Juke Joint Pimps - Juke Joint in the Sky
Blind James Campbell - I'm so blue when it rains
The Kinks - Powerman

I pulled a few blues songs about cocaine from the Mojo Bag (see post below this); and Ben pulled out some New Zealand tracks (Heart Attack Alley, Doug Jerebine).

You can listen to the show again for a week, here:

March 11, 2012

Cocaine blues

In the 1920s a drug economy had emerged in the United States that profited mostly from cocaine and heroin distribution. In 1922 the 67th United States Congress passed the Jones-Miller Act, which provided fines of up to $5,000 and prison sentences for up to 10 years for any individual found guilty of the unlawful importation of narcotics. Like all drug laws the legislation had little influence upon the drug marketplace except to increase the price of heroin and cocaine. (1)  In Memphis, Tennessee, cocaine was sold in neighborhood drugstores on Beale Street, costing five or ten cents for a small boxful and stevedores along the Mississippi River used the drug as a stimulant. Blues historian William Barlow suggests that white employers actually encouraged its use by black laborers. (2)

'Cocaine Blues' is a beautifully performed and recorded Piedmont blues style tune by Luke Jordan from 1927. Recorded by the Victor label in Charlotte, North Carolina. 'Cocaine Blues' is one of only 12 known recordings by Jordan. The other track recorded during that session, possibly the moral reprise of the A-side drug tale, was 'Church Bell Blues'. (3)

'Cocaine Blues' LUKE JORDAN, August 1927. Victor

It is hard to say whether Jordan was responsible for the songs' lyrics although I can find no other references to the song prior to his recording. It is the lyrics that make this first cocaine song my favourite:
Now, go on gal, don–cha take me for no fool,
 I’m not gonna quit you, pretty mama, while the weather’s cool,
 Around your back door, says honey, I’m goin’ to creep,
 As long as you make those, two–and–a–half a week.

Now, I’ve got a girl she works in the white folks’ yard,
 She brings me meal, I can swear she brings some lard,
 She brings me meat, she brings me lard,
 She brings me everything, I swear, that she can steal.

Now, Barnum ’n Bailey Circus, it came to town,
 They had a e’phant lookin’ good and brown,
 They didn’t know it’s against the law,
 For the monkey to stop at a five drug store,
 Just around the corner just a minute too late,
 Another one standin’ at the big back gate,
 I’m simply wild about my good cocaine.

 I called my Cora, Hey, Hey, —+—
 She come on sniffin’ with her nose all sore,
 The doctor swore, “I’m gonna sell no more.“
 Saying, run doctor, ring the bell,
 The women in the alley,
 I’m simply wild about my good cocaine.

 Now, there’s furniture men come to my house,
 It was – last Sunday morn,
 He asked me was my wife at home,
 An’ I told them – long gone,
 He backed his wagon up to my door,
 Took everything I had,
 He carried it back to the furniture store,
 An’ I swear that I did feel sad.
What in the world has anyone got,
 Dealin’ with the furniture man?
 If you’ve got no dough, it’s certain for sure,
 He certainly wouldn’t back your plan,
 He will take everything from an earthly plant,
 From a skillet to a frying pan,
 If it ever was a devil born without any horns,
 It must have been a furniture man.

I called my Cora, Hey, Hey, —+—
 She come on sniffin’ with her nose all sore,
 The doctor swore, “I’m gonna sell no more.”
 Sayin’ coke for horses, not women nor men,
 The doctor says it’ll kill you but he didn’t say when,
 I’m simply wild about my good cocaine.

Now the babies in the cradle in New Orleans,
 They kept on whiffin’ till they got so mean,
 They kept on whiffin’, had the sickness and sores,
 The doctor swore, “I’m gonna sell no more.”
 Sayin’, run doctor, ring the bell,
 The women in the alley,
 I’m simply wild about my good cocaine.(4)

Jordans happy go lucky delivery belies the rather dark picture he paints of the results of cocaine addiction, culminating in the final two verses describing the singers addicted girlfriend's sore nose and the doctors admission that coke will eventually kill her. The "coke for horses" line has passed into numerous variants of this song (Reverend Gary Davis, Bob Dylan) but I can't find any definitive statement about using cocaine in horses either as a veterinary practice or as a stimulant to make race horses run faster. The last verse offers a harrowing description of babies born with cocaine addictions in New Orleans!

'Cocaine' by Dick Justice is pretty much a verse-for-verse cover of the Jordan track. Justice was a white performer from West Virginia who recorded ten songs for Brunswick Records in Chicago in 1929. Justice had been a coal miner in West Virginia and it is likely he picked up the song from Jordan himself who played around Lynchburg, Virginia. Interestingly, Justice didn't change the only racial reference in the song "Now, I’ve got a girl she works in the white folks’ yard" but did swap out "Barnum ’n Bailey" for "Vaudeville". Watch the video below for a bit more background on Dick Justice.

'Cocaine' Dick Justice, 1928

'Cocaine Habit Blues' was recorded by the Memphis Jug Band in 1929. The Memphis Jug Band was one of the most recorded  bands of this period with over 100 sides between 1927 and 1934, and were one of the most popular of the jug bands to spring up in Memphis in the 1920s. Their track suggests cocaine use was going "out of style" (whatever that means) being replaced by a heroin chic? ...

"Since cocaine went out of style,
You can catch them shooting needles all the while
Hey, hey, honey take a whiff on me"

'Cocaine Habit Blues' THE MEMPHIS JUG BAND, 1929. Victor

Charley Patton's take on cocaine use and abuse is portrayed in the wonderful, 'A Spoonful Blues' recorded in 1929. The song actually doesn't use the word cocaine, instead referring to the small spoons used to snort cocaine with but which could also refer to the preparation of heroin or cocaine by melting it into water in a spoon above a flame for injection. Patton is also playing with a double entrendre here - the spoonful of lovin'. This openness of interpretation is skilfully enhanced by Patton's musical representation of the words 'spoonful' with a perfectly bended note:
(spoken: I'm about to go to jail about this spoonful)
In all a-spoon, about that spoonful
The women going crazy, every day in their life about a ... (guitar notes)

It's all I want, in this creation is a... (guitar notes)
I go home (spoken: wanna fight!) about a... (guitar notes)
Doctor's dying (way in Hot Springs)
About a... (guitar notes)
These women going crazy every day in their life about a... (guitar notes)

Would you kill a man dead? (spoken: yes, I will!) just about a... (guitar notes)
Oh babe, I'm a fool about my... (guitar notes)

'A Spoonful Blues' Charley Patton, June 14, 1929.

Huddie Lebbetter, better known as Leadbelly, was recorded twice (1933, 1934) by John and Alan Lomax while serving time in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisiana. In both sessions he performed 'Take A Whiff on Me'. Leadbelly's cocaine song can be lyrically traced back to Jordan's song with inclusion of the line:
Cocaine's for horses and not for men
Doctors sat t'will kill you but they don't say when.
Ho, ho, honey take a whiff on me.
'Take A Whiff On Me' Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), 1934. Lomax.


  1. Cannabis use in the United States: Implications for policy. In: Peter Cohen & Arjan Sas (Eds) (1996).
  2. Barlow, William. "Looking Up At Down": The Emergence of Blues Culture. Temple University Press (1989), p. 207
  3. Luke Jordan discography, Stefan Wirz.
  4. Cocaine Blues transcribed by Mike Ballantyne. 

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