Barrelhouse Blues

Location Recording and the Early Traditions of the Blues


By Paul Oliver

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In the 1920s, Southern record companies ventured to cities like Dallas, Atlanta, and New Orleans, where they set up primitive recording equipment in makeshift studios. They brought in street singers, medicine show performers, pianists from the juke joints and barrelhouses. The music that circulated through Southern work camps, prison farms, and vaudeville shows would be lost to us if it hadn’t’t been captured on location by these performers and recorders.

Eminent blues historian Paul Oliver uncovers these folk traditions and the circumstances under which they were recorded, rescuing the forefathers of the blues who were lost before they even had a chance to be heard. A careful excavation of the earliest recordings of the blues by one of its foremost experts, Barrelhouse Blues expands our definition of that most American style of music.


Without Johnny Parth’s inspiration, commitment, and dedication, several of my books on the blues and related fields would not have been possible, including this one, which draws on field recordings that he reissued on Document CDs. In recognition of my indebtedness to his work and profound appreciation of all the help he has given me over several decades, I have great pleasure in dedicating this book to Johnny Parth.

Major Field Locations Used by Commercial Recording Companies

“We must never forget the folk originals without which no such music would have been.” So observed Alain Locke, writing in the mid-1930s of developments in jazz music, a major aspect of twentieth-century culture. The leading advocate of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain LeRoy Locke was interested in African American folk traditions, particularly spirituals and the subsequent emergence of blues music. In the Anthology of American Negro Literature, edited by V. F. Calverton in 1929, Locke had discussed the significance of African American cultural expression in American culture as a whole: “Some of the most characteristic American things are Negro or Negroid, derivatives of the folk life of this darker tenth of the population,” he observed, adding that it would become progressively the more so. “Unfortunately, but temporarily, what is best known are the vulgarizations,” he regretted, of which jazz and its by-products were “in the ascendancy. We must not, cannot, disclaim the origin and quality of ‘Jazz,’” he argued, since it was not a pure folk form, but “a hybrid product of the reaction of the Negro folk song and dance upon popular and general elements of contemporary American life,” being “one-third folk idiom, one-third ordinary middle class American idea and sentiment, and one-third spirit of the ‘machine-age.’”
For Professor Locke, “the serious art which can best represent to the world the Negro of the present generation is contemporary Negro poetry.” While tracing its origins, including the writings of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Vachel Lindsay, he quoted Charles S. Johnson, one of the principal figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson considered that “the poetry of Langston Hughes is without doubt the finest expression of this new Negro poetry.” Alain Locke shared this view, writing that “this work of Hughes in the folk forms has started up an entire school of younger poetry, principally in the blues form and in the folk-ballad vein.” In reviewing the influence of folk forms on current poetry he cited Sterling Brown, “with Hughes, a genius of folk values, the most authentic evocation of the homely folk soul.”
A few years later, in 1936, Alain Locke’s study, The Negro and His Music, was published by the Associates in Negro Folk Education as the Bronze Booklet Number 2. During the interim he had further examined the history and evolution of jazz, from its origins to the development of Classic Jazz and its influence on modern American music. Yet, while warning that “we must never forget the folk originals,” he observed that the term “blues” had become “a generic name for all sorts of elaborate hybrid Negroid music. But that is only since 1910. Before that it was the work-songs, the love ballads, the “over-and-overs,” the slow drags, pats and stomps that were the substance of genuine secular music.” These traditions he referred to collectively as “Folk Seculars: Blues and Work Songs.” He commended the collecting of Dorothy Scarborough who, in her work On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs, had “found many examples of folk material both in the copied Anglo-Saxon four-line ballad form and in the more characteristic Negro three-line ‘blues’ form.” He also acknowledged the work of Guy B. Johnson and Howard Odum, who, a decade earlier, had published The Negro and His Songs and Negro Workaday Songs. As an appendix to the chapter Locke listed a number of recorded items, applying the “constructive suggestions from his colleague, Professor Sterling Brown.”
It seems that Alain Locke was not familiar with recorded blues when he was writing The Negro and His Music. This is surprising, since newly released records were extensively advertised in the daily newspapers addressed to the Black audience. The Chicago Defender carried large numbers of advertisements for 78 rpm records, especially those issued by the Paramount Company. As he was based in New York, Locke may not have read the Defender, but he would have had access to a number of regional Black newspapers, including the New York Amsterdam News and the New York Age. No doubt he could have seen the record advertisements in the Baltimore Afro-American and the Pittsburgh Courier. These and other newspapers carried many advertisements for specific records or, under the names of the companies, small groups of related issues, frequently with graphic illustrations of the performers and the subjects of their blues. Okeh, Columbia, Victor, Brunswick, and Vocalion all had “race record” catalogs and advertised regularly, often featuring releases by singers cited here.
Locke’s collaborator, Sterling Brown, had a serious interest in blues. He contributed a feature on “The Blues as Folk Poetry” in Folk-Say, published in Oklahoma, and also wrote many poems in the blues idiom. Brown undoubtedly influenced Locke, as the latter acknowledged, but Locke also greatly respected the poet Langston Hughes, who wrote “The Weary Blues” and other blues-influenced poems. Locke was appreciative and curious to know more about the blues. Sterling Brown’s list of some forty titles (of which several were paired on the 78 rpm records noted) included blues songs by Bessie Smith, Clara Smith, Ma Rainey, Henry Thomas, Jim Jackson, and Tampa Red in the Vocal category, while Lonnie Johnson, Johnny Dunn, Peg Leg Howell, Jimmy Johnson, and Duke Ellington appeared under Instrumental. The Hall Johnson Choir was the sole provider of Choral Versions, the recordings by Paul Robeson, Rosamund Johnson, Frank Crummit (sic), Edna Winston, and Ethel Waters being listed as Seculars. Readers today would note anomalies in the list, such as the fact that Frank Crumit was White, and question whether the items were appropriately representative of the categories to which they were assigned. By this time in 1936, folk and blues records of considerable diversity had been issued for over fifteen years, with many selling in multiple thousands, so in certain respects the selection and its classification was unsatisfactory.
While some of the seculars (or proto-blues, as I have termed them since the 1980s) were still to be heard in rural areas when Locke was writing in the early 1930s, they were dying out and being replaced by newer idioms. Our knowledge today of the forms that they took and the regions where they may have developed, or which they represented, has largely been conditioned by recordings. Whether they were distributed and passed down as ten-inch 78 rpm “wax” records, seven-inch 45s and long-playing 33 rpm vinyl ten-inch, and later twelve-inch, LPs, or as tapes, cassettes, CDs, and more recently in electronic, digitized forms, we still depend on recordings of African American singers and instrumentalists made in the first half of the twentieth century, for what we know and appreciate of the sounds of the past traditions and their exponents.
As the specialist discographies—detailed listings of records by personnel, dates, and places of recording and issue labels—confirm, the majority of the blues recordings were made in the studios of companies based in Chicago and New York, and not in the home states of the performers. No commercially issued items were recorded in barrelhouses and juke joints (rural saloons), in clubs, or even on the professional stage. The studios were doubtless expedient for the recording companies, but we may never know the extent to which they conditioned the performances of blues singers and players sitting before unfamiliar microphones. Consequently, it may be difficult to ascertain to what degree the recordings are truly representative of the folk originals.
To answer this and other questions concerning the proto-blues, we must consider the numerous recordings that were not made in the northern studios, but were recorded in some of the southern zones that Locke identified in The Negro and His Music. These zones reflected to some extent the geographic divisions of the national census, which were established in 1870, although his were more numerous. The South Atlantic census division was divided in his classification as Zone I, Virginia and the upper South, and Zone III, the Seaboard Lower South. What Locke termed Zone II, “the Creole South,” presumably referred to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, while Zone IV, “the Mississippi Strain,” included the northern delta. Zone V, “the Southwest,” defined what he termed “the Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri Strain.” His Zone VI, the “Mountain Music,” included Kentucky and the Virginia highlands, and was characterized by “parallel Negro versions of hill ballads.” Although his list of southern zones was comprehensive, only two of the recordings cited in Sterling Brown’s list, those by Peg Leg Howell and Lonnie Johnson, were made in any of them.
Even if they were broad generalizations that could be redefined and augmented, the zones suggest that recordings made in them would likely convey a more accurate impression of the proto-blues forms, their exponents, and their regional origins or distribution than would those made in the sophisticated northern studio environments. Of course, recordings made on location were subject to many factors, some of which might have been restraining and others stimulating, depending on the motivations of those who recorded them and the facilities available. These were determined by the record companies that were prepared to take equipment to the field.
Although the Paramount Record Company executives were responsive to the blues, they were not initially prepared to record outside of Chicago and occasionally New York City. Later they conducted studio sessions in Richmond, Indiana, and Grafton, Wisconsin, but these were not field recordings. More venturesome companies had made some initial recordings on location in the South as early as mid-1923. As I will explain later, several locations were sought and used, and the field recordings were not limited to blues and related musical forms, such as dances and ballads. Nor were they solely of Black artists; a large number of old-time White musicians and singers, who were still numerous in the Appalachian regions, were also recorded. Many more were of jazz bands and groups, while others were of spiritual and gospel singers, as well as of preachers. Singers and musicians were recommended locally by those familiar with their music, many of them playing and singing examples of early African American songs, their folk originals recorded in the decade prior to the publication of Alain Locke’s The Negro and His Music. There was no intent to record specific idioms, unlike researchers for the Library of Congress or those who sought to rediscover veteran artists and their inheritors. Singers were recorded subject to the perceptions and recommendations of scouts, and some of the performers may have been supervised, even vetted, by those commissioned to record them.
In my book Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records (1984), I discussed secular dance routines, ragtime era songs, road show songs, and others of the medicine shows, including the ballads; all of these were part of the repertoires of itinerant singer-musicians. However, half of the book was devoted to religious song in the Baptist and Sanctified churches and the sermons of the preachers, as represented in the many hundreds of recordings of the sacred traditions, still greatly neglected. Recordings by the secular singers, or “songsters,” and religious singers, or “saints,” were discussed irrespective of whether or not they were made by the major record companies in their northern studios or on location in the South.
When I was invited by the DuBois Institute of African and African-American Studies to give the Alain LeRoy Locke lecture series at Harvard University in February 2007, I chose to discuss the traditional song forms embraced in Alain Locke’s chapter “Seculars: Folk Blues and Work Songs” in The Negro and His Music. In the first lecture I discussed “Commercial Location Recordings, 1924-36” that were made in the field. These indicated both the degree to which they were representative of the known or presumed early genres, and the identities of some of the singers and musicians whose music helped define the regional characteristics of African American secular traditions. Some examples indicated aspects of proto-blues that had largely been obscured or overlooked.
Advancing years have substantially reduced the number of surviving authentic blues and folk performers and distanced us still further from certain aspects of the “folk seculars” or “proto-blues.” These I discussed in the second lecture with regard to the circumstances under which recordings were made for the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Music, 1934-1942. Artists who were discovered or rediscovered and recorded by collectors and aficionados of African American music in the 1950s and 1960s were the theme of a third lecture. In so presenting these talks, illustrated with recordings and photographs, I hoped that some of the issues raised by Alain Locke were enlarged upon, at least in some measure.
The discussion in this volume focuses on the field recording of African American singers and musicians, with occasional references to certain White performers recorded on location. As significant as they are, the spirituals and gospel songs performed by preachers, quartets, and choirs, as well as jazz and small group folk music, in addition to the seculars made on southern locations by different record companies, of hundreds of Black singers and musicians, cannot be considered here. Nor is it possible to examine the many unissued recordings, except in some instances where they have been subsequently recovered and released, or where their titles are revealing.
Alain LeRoy Locke, professor of philosophy at Howard University, was the first Black Rhodes Scholar. He had degrees from Howard University and Oxford University, and he had also studied in Berlin. He was well equipped to undertake research and he had frequently and influentially addressed the Negro Society for Historical Research, of which he was a corresponding member. But, in the questionable words of the biographer of his friend, the great collector of works of African American history Arthur Schomburg, he was “steeped in the formal intellectual tradition and coming from a cultivated, middle-class background. Locke, like Du Bois, could not relate easily to the black masses.”
While he did not always personally pursue the research that he considered necessary, Locke clearly believed that the issues that he identified in The Negro and His Music were still to be the subject of “close comparative study.”
In the conclusion to his chapter 4, “Secular Folk Songs: The Blues and Work Songs,” Alain Locke posed a number of discussion questions, asking, “Why were the secular songs neglected? How have they been recovered? Do we have them in their earliest form? Are ‘Blues’ or folk ballads older? What are the distinctive verse and musical forms of each? What are the ‘zones of Negro folk music’ and their characteristics? Is the musical structure of the blues original? And racial? How racially distinctive are the moods? Even where the themes are common to Anglo-Saxon folk ballads, are there differences? What is the ‘John Henry’ saga? What is the ‘home of the blues’? Who is called the ‘Father of the Blues’? Are the later ‘artificial blues’ different? Whose work are they?”
Some of these questions Professor Locke discussed broadly in the same text and outlined brief replies. The majority of the questions, however, still stand and need to be addressed. In the following chapters I include extracts from recorded lyrics, but due to the length and content of certain items, the songs are not always quoted in full and repeated lines are so indicated. Basic recording details are given, including reissues, and a discography is appended. Those that are discussed here have been selected for their relevance to an examination of the idioms and individual approaches to the secular song and music types, or proto-blues, that gave form, content, meaning, expression, and identity to the blues. I refer to the titles of many other relevant items, but space does not permit me to quote them here. All those cited contribute, in some measure, responses to Alain LeRoy Locke’s questions.

Chapter One
In his book The Negro and His Music, chapter 4, Alain Locke observed that it had “become fashionable to collect Negro folk ditties and work songs; and even the ‘blues’ have taken on musical respectability. We now see in them unique expressions of Negro emotion, folk-wit and musical inventiveness.” Locke considered the secular themes in the songs to be “far more fragmentary than the spirituals, but being a combination of folk poetry and folk music, the words are welded closer to the music than in the case of the spirituals.” Such seculars “were more of a direct improvisation than the spirituals, which in thought were too influenced by the evangelical hymns after which they were originally modelled.” So Locke was curious about why the seculars had been neglected by the early nineteenth-century collectors of slave and African songs.
In those early days, many song collectors frequently emphasized the sacred nature of the spirituals in order to place the singers in a good light. The earliest major collection, Slave Songs of the United States, was gathered and compiled by Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim, and published in New York in 1867. It consisted of 178 songs, predominantly religious in content, that were collected in Port Royal, South Carolina, near the Sea Islands. The introductory text did mention “shouts” and loading songs sung by Black stevedores, as well as a “gentleman from Delaware” who had observed that “some of the best of our Negro songs I have ever heard were those that used to be sung by the Black stevedores.” One such apparent work song was “Heave Away,” whose words were minimal:
Heave Away, Heave Away,
I’d rather court a yellow gal
Than work for Henry Clay.
Although the collection consisted mainly of spirituals, it included a number of work songs, field calls, and freedom songs. Francis Allen himself noted that “I never fairly heard a secular song among the Port Royal freedmen and never saw a musical instrument among them. The last violin, owned by a ‘worldly man’ disappeared” but “in other parts of the South ‘fiddle-sings’, ‘devil songs’, ‘corn-songs’, ‘jig-tunes’ and whatnot are commonly sung.”
Among the few seculars included in Slave Songs were “Shock Along John” and “Round the Corn Sally,” whose lyrics went as follows:
Five cain’t hold me and ten cain’t hold me
Round the corn Sally, ho ho ho
Round the corn Sally
Here’s your iggle-quarter and here’s your count-aquils . . .
Another was a fragment of “Charleston Gals”:
As I went walkin’ down the street,
Up steps Charleston gals to take a walk with me,
I kep’ a-walking and they kep’ a-talking,
I danced with a gal with a hole in her stocking.
Aside from these examples, little mention was made of songs that were not religious in content or character.
A similar lack was evident in other early collections, such as E. McIlhenny’s Befo’ de War Spirituals, which cited 122 songs obtained from former slaves on his family’s plantation on Avery Island, Louisiana: “By the time I was ten years of age, I think I knew every religious song of our community, and often joined lustily in their singing during the Sunday gatherings,” McIlhenny recalled. The song collections of R. Emmet Kennedy, the son of another plantation owner, were broader in scope, however. His Mellows: A Chronicle of Unknown Singers (1925) included five straight and “harmonized folk songs,” half a dozen “Street Cries of New Orleans,” and five work songs among others that were primarily secular in content. (The term “mellows” was used by Louisiana Blacks and was derived from “melodies.”) Kennedy also produced a second collection, More Mellows (1931), in which he added a few more seculars, one being “Sugar Babe.”
No doubt many slaves were aware that the White people who were interested in their songs placed special emphasis on the spirituals. When the African American writer James Weldon Johnson published The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), followed by a second volume in 1926, neither included seculars. It may appear to some that these collections concentrated on religious rather than secular songs as a gesture toward the slaves’ faith. But it is more likely that most of the songs sung by slaves were religious, for biblical themes frequently promised freedom and expressed feelings that likely carried a metaphoric meaning for slaves, such as “Steal Away” or “Crossing the River of Jordan.”
Few (if any) nineteenth-century song collectors concentrated solely on secular songs, but I’ve obtained some examples nonetheless. The White colonel of the first Black regiment in the Civil War, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, collected many songs from his servicemen. Most were thoroughly religious in tone but often served other functions too. “The Coming Day” was a boat song that “timed well with the tug of the air.” “‘The Driver,’” he observed, “is quite secular in its character, yet its author called it a ‘spiritual.’”
The best collections of seculars were made by relatives of plantation owners and others who had a long association with their informants. At the time when Locke was writing, Lydia Parrish was completing Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands in which she discussed boat songs, shanties, loading calls, and other songs that accompanied rice beating, lumber pulling, ballast rolling, and similar heavy labor. Collectors often interwove traditional spirituals with more recent gospel songs as well as secular songs. Only the earliest collectors would have been able to identify the earliest form of the songs.
Two hundred years of a song being passed down in one family, such as a tradition described by W. E. B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, may have no published parallels. Yet the “steps of development” of the African, Afro-American, and “foster-land” blend that he identified were probably widely applicable, if rarely noted. Along the same lines, Lydia Parrish summarized examples of African survivals, Afro-American shout songs, ring play, dance, and fiddle songs, over thirty religious songs, and nearly as many work songs. Parrish included both texts and music, together with related examples. In my book Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues (1970), based on music I heard in the West African savannah region, I showed how African elements in music and song were retained among the slaves’ descendants until the late twentieth century. The earliest forms of African American music may never be defined with absolute certainty. But musical elements related to the African inheritance, as well as to Anglo-Scots settlers, by way of proto-blues seculars, can still be traced in the blues. The European secular song traditions converged and were sustained in the widespread popularity of ballads. Although folk ballads are centuries older than the blues, their relationship should not be dismissed. There is no evidence that blues appeared in a distinct form until the late nineteenth century. While the sorrow songs that DuBois wrote about would appear to be precursors of the blues, he related them instead to the later development of the spirituals, as did Emmett Kennedy when he wrote about the mellows.
The era of the development of “gospel song” was important in African American religious life, as the spirituals and anthems had declined in popularity. It is however, a parallel story, one which also involves the recording of their singing and that of gospel choirs and quartets, and the preachers of the Baptist churches and the new sects, especially that of the Church of God in Christ.
The precise origin of blues may never be determined. Broadly, it may be considered to be the South, or for some authors such as Robert Palmer, the Deep South, if the early development of the music is implied in the phrase. Mississippi is most frequently identified as the source, specifically the region between the confluence of the Yazoo River and the Mississippi River, which embraces a large flat area of black soil. These flatlands of the so-called Mississippi Delta (as distinguished from the true delta at the mouth of the Mississippi River) lent themselves to cotton cultivation and supported numerous large plantations that employed many slave descendants. Certain townships such as Clarksdale and settlements such as Drew were home to many blues singers. However, comparable towns throughout the zones of Negro seculars Locke referred to have supported innumerable blues singers and musicians.


  • The Philadelphia Inquirer
    “Detailed and deeply felt, Barrelhouse Blues is quite the education.”
    “Oliver's research is deep and his opinions raise questions, but his is a fine book for any blues fan yearning to learn about its origins.”

On Sale
Aug 25, 2009
Page Count
240 pages
Basic Books

Paul Oliver

About the Author

Paul Oliver is an eminent writer on the history of the blues. From an early age he collected blues records and books on the blues, publishing his first article in Jazz Journal in 1951. Since that time he has published dozens of books on the history of the blues and blues music, including Conversations with the Blues, The Story of the Blues, and Blues Fell this Morning. He lives in Oxford, England.

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