Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Show 66 - Biographical Mysteries


The New York Times ran a fascinating story about Elvie Thomas where the author uncovered a lot of new biographical details and interviewed folks that knew her decades after she’d made blues records in 1930 or 1931. Elvie Thomas was found to be a Texan who’d left the blues for the church and who lived until the 1970s. Her life been considered a mystery though her recordings with Geeshie Wiley have been greatly loved. In a way it’s extraordinary that we know anything about folks that happened to make a handful of records 80 years ago. But the blues inspires such devotion that there’s been huge efforts from researchers to learn everything we can about these musicians. So in this show I’m going to present a few of the biographical mysteries of the blues. We’ll start with that classic from Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, Last Kind Words Blues:
The last kind words I heard my daddy say
Lord, the last kind words I heard my daddy say

If I die, if I die in the German war
I want you to send my body, send it to my mother-in-law

If I get killed, if I get killed, please don't bury my soul
I cry just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole

When you see me coming look across the rich man's field
If I don't bring you flour, I'll bring you bolted meal

I went to the depot, I looked up at the sun
Cried, some train don't come, Lord, be some walking done

My mama told me, just before she died
Lord, say to your daughter, don't you be so wild

The Mississippi river, you know it's deep and wide
I can stand right here, see my baby from the other side

What you do to me baby it never gets outta me
I may not see you after I cross the deep blue sea

Kid Bailey remains a mystery. Some assume that the name is a pure pseudonym. One theory if that Bailey is the same person as Willie Brown, the associate of Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson. Only a few of his records survive, recorded in 1929 at a famous session at Memphis’ Peabody Hotel. Mississippi Bottom Blues may tell something of his story.

Way down in Mississippi where I was bred and born
I believe that will forever be my native home

My poor mother’s old and her hair is turning gray
And my poor mother’s old now and her hair is turning gray
I know it would break her heart if she found out I was barrelhousing this way

I’m going where the water drinks like wine
I’m going where the water drinks like wine
Where I can be drunk and staggering all the time

And it ain’t but the one thing now, Lord, it worries my mind
And it ain’t but the one thing now, Lord, it worries my mind
That’s a house full of women, Lord, Lord, ain’t none of them mine

My baby passed me and she never said a word
And my baby passed me and she never said a word
Nothing I had did, but it was something she had heard

Was Willie Brown also known as Kid Bailey. Experts disagree. My thought… probably not. Future Blues is Brown's most famous song:
Can't tell my future and I can't tell my past
Lord, it seems like every minute sure gonna be my last

The minutes seem like hours and hours seem like days
The minutes seem like hours and hours seem like days
And it seems like my woman oughta stop her lowdown ways

The woman I love now she's five feet from the ground
I said, the woman I love now, Lord, is five feet from the ground
And she's tailor made and ain't no hand me down

Lord, and I got a woman now, Lordy, she's lightning when she
Lightnin when she…
I say, I got a woman
Lord, and she's lightnin when she smiles
Five feet and four inches and she's damn good looking size

Well, I know you see that picture, now, Lord, up on your mother's, up on your mother's, mama's shelf
I know you see that picture now, up on your mother's shelf
Well, you know about that, I'm getting tired of sleeping by myself

And it's T for Texas, now, it's T for Tennessee
And it's T for Texas, now, it's T for Tennessee
Lord, bless that woman, that put that thing on me

The intensity of the singing and playing on his song Gone Dead Train, made King Solomon Hill one of the biggest mysteries in the blues for decades. It’s now agreed that his real name was Joe Holmes and the name King Solomon Hill was taken from the community where he lived and probably assigned by someone at Paramount solely for the 8 sides he made there. Holmes was from McComb, Mississippi and is known to have spent some time traveling with Blind Lemon Jefferson. Decades of research from Gayle Dean Wardlow gave us his story.

And I'm going way down Winden
Lord, I'm gonna try to leave here today
Tell 'em I believe I'll find my way and that train is just that way

Gotta get on that train, I said I'd even broke my jaw
Boys, if you out and running around in this world this train will wreck your mind, your life too

Lord, I once was a hobo, I crossed many a point
But I decided I'd go down the fog traveling light
And take it as it comes

I reckon you know the fireman and the engineer would too

There are so many people have gone down today
And this fast train north and southern traveling light and clear

I wanna ride your train
I said, "Look here, engineer, can I ride your train?"
He said, "Look here, you oughta know this train ain't mine and you're asking me in vain"

Said, "You go to the Western Union, you might get a chance"
I didn't know the Western Union run no train

Said, "You go to the Western Union, you might get a chance"
You might get wire to some of your people and your fare will be sent right here
Hadn't thought that's the way it was

I wanna go home, and that train is done gone dead
I wanna go, that train is done gone dead
I done lost my wife and my three little children, and my mother's sick in bed

Please, help me win my fare
Cause I'm a traveling man, boys I can't stay here

Virginia harmonica player Blues Birdhead hasn't inspired the same kind of devotion and curiosity but his mystery is intriguing. We know his names was James Simons and he played around Norfolk, but that's it. He was clearly an extraordinary talent coaxing all kinds of notes out of that little diatonic harp. Mean Low Blues, his jazz trumpet influenced instrumental recorded with an unidentified pianist shows his skills. J.T. Funny Paper Smith made some fantastic records, but we know virtually nothing about him. It's still debated if his nickname was "Funny Paper" or "Funny Papa." "Funny Paper" is what appears on the records and I've never seen any evidence to show that's incorrect. He was also known as the Howlin' Wolf. One report is that he was a Texan who was once arrested for murder. If that's true, County Jail Blues, seems pretty autobiographical:

Come on all you people hear me tell my tale
Come on all you people hear me tell my sad tale
I’m through with all of my worries, and I don’t even want no bail
I killed my woman, I’m in a hurry, I’m going to the county jail

Judge, here I am this morning and here’s my .45
Judge, here I am this morning and here’s my .45
Here I am, Judge, this morning, and here is my .45
I shot my woman on the other corner and I don’t know whether she’s dead or live

Now don’t ask me no questions, Judge about how our troubles begin
Don’t ask me no questions, Judge, about how our troubles begin
Judge don’t ask me no questions about how our trouble begin
Just have it printed in your paper, little trouble between women and men

Mmmmm, Oh Lord, I heard that judge say 99
Mmmmm I heard that old judge say 99
Mmmmm, Oh Lord, I heard that old judge say 99
And it’s one thing I wish I had this morning and that’s that .45 of mine

Well I’m gonna lay down in jail like I used to lay down out on Calumet
(Well) I’m gonna lay down in jail like I used to lay down on Calumet
I’m gonna lay down like I used to lay down way out on Calumet
Maybe good luck to you cause I haven't forgot you yet

Songs:
Geeshie Wiley - Last Kind Words Blues
Kid Bailey - Mississippi Bottom Blues
Willie Brown - Future Blues
King Solomon Hill - Gone Dead Train
Blues Birdhead - Mean Low Blues
J.T. Funny Paper Smith - County Jail Blues