Essays – I Ain’t A Gamblin’ Woman

I Ain’t A Gamblin’ Woman, I Got Such-a Rowdy Ways: 1923-1937
(raunchy black women’s blues: 1920s and ‘30s)

by Max Haymes

This is the full essay published in short form as the liner notes for ‘I Ain’t A Gamblin’ Woman I Got Such-A Rowdy Ways’ on JSP Records 4 CD boxed set. We hope you all enjoy it.



On reflection I think I should amend my sub-heading for this 4-CD set to “raunchy and dangerous black women’s blues”.  Many of the selections are fraught with danger – of the terminal kind – whereas ‘raunchy’ usually conveys highly sexual/sensual material of which examples are here a-plenty.

I initially got my inspiration for this collection from a programme on BBC World Service between 0300-0400 on 19th February 2007. I came in mid-way through and discovered the title/theme was ‘Women Who Are Black Like Me’.  A survey of darker-skinned women from India, Asia and also of African Americans.

Apparently, according to several of the ladies interviewed on this programme, the caste system of the black US community which was so prevalent in the first half of the 20th. century is still just as firmly in place today. See examples like ‘Chocolate To The Bone’, ‘Some Scream High Yellow’ and ‘Black Woman’s Blues’ by Barbecue Bob, Bo Weavil Jackson and Clara Smith (see CD 1) respectively, in this early period.  The darker-skinned African Americans are generally excluded from jobs that their lighter coloured contemporaries consistently fill – here in 2017!

I have selected  black women, lesser known to today’s audience, from the early blues featuring mainly a CD by each of them.  Clara Smith, Lucille Bogan, and Lil Johnson.   Moanin’ Bernice Edwards, who only has 14 vocal sides available, is supplemented by four Texas Blues sisters included to complete CD 4; Hociel Thomas, Sippie Wallace (part of Edwards’ ‘family’), Bessie Tucker and Victoria Spivey.  This CD set covers rural, urban and vaudeville blues styles.  CD 1/A is by ‘the Queen of the Moaners’, Clara Smith from South Carolina.


Clara Smith featured on The Music Trail in Spartanburg city centre. September,2015.
Pic. by Caitlin Rimmer

Raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina, from the age of 8, it has never been established if Clara Smith was actually born within the city limits.  But at any rate the slightly earlier birth date of 1892, from the generally accepted 1894-1896 up until now, has been established (see my forthcoming book-WIP) so the ‘Music Trail’ signpost in Spartanburg city needs to be corrected, if not already done so.

One of the top 4 vaudeville blues singers along with Ma Rainey (JSP 7793) who was Clara’s main influence, Bessie Smith and Ida Cox.  The ‘Queen of the Moaners’ as she was commonly known (and ‘Jolly Clara’!) is as good as any of them.  Only performing live gigs for black audiences, Clara Smith was up there with Ma Rainey in the popularity stakes from the 19-teens onwards.  She hit the travelling circuit in 1911 and known to be singing the blues on shows from 1912.  As well as the tent shows connected with the railroad circus, by 1915 she starred in countless theatres  from New York to New Orleans as well as the mid-west, West Coast, and other northern cities such as Chicago; Cleveland, Ohio; Pittsburgh;  as well as Harlem in New York City: all by way of the railroads. Indeed, they appear in many of her blues including ‘L. & N. Blues’ on which she declares she is ‘a ramblin’ woman with a ramblin’ mind.’ – the first to put these words on a record. In Clara’s day (she died in 1935) Harlem housed the largest black population in the world outside the African continent.  It was in the Big Apple that she cut all 124 of her issued recordings from June 1923 to 25th. March 1932.

Her soubriquets ‘Queen of the Moaners’ and the ‘World’s Champion Moaner’ were well-deserved and it was on 10th. September in 1923 when the singer introduced ‘the moan’ to a Blues record.  Although the Fisk University Jubilee Singers had featured it to harrowing effect on their ‘Po’ Mo’ner Got A Home At Last’ – a traditional gospel song-as early as 10th. February, 1911.  This being the same year Clara hit the road on travelling shows.  It’s possible she had already developed her moaning style at this time.  The ‘moan’ itself goes back to before the Civil War, into the 18th. century and beyond.  Eye-witness reports from the 1780’s by a slave-ship surgeon and a doctor illustrate the horrendous conditions that were extant below decks where  slaves were packed together like the proverbial sardines  on the Middle Passage across the Atlantic to American shores.  Describing their songs as “melancholy lamentations of their exile from their native country [and] a howling melancholy kind of noise, something expressive of extreme anguish” .(1) A moan by any other name which portrays some of the grim and darkest roots of the Blues.

Clara moans in a way that was never surpassed on a record; the term ‘moan’ here is identified with ‘hum’ in US black-speak. Although interestingly, it appeared in poems and songs in 16th. century England, often deemed ‘a lament’ as well as ‘a mone’. In the early part of that century, Thomas Wyatt penned a poem or ‘ballade/folk poetry’ as the author supposes, called ‘My lute and I’ which paints a portrait of unrequited love and the hero has to ‘Restrain my lust’ and ends with a verse of despair:

Thus in mischief
I suffre grief,
For of relief
Sins I have none,
My lute and I,
Shall us apply
To sigh and mone. (2)

The lyrics certainly seem to foreshadow a blues in the making!  The ‘black moan’ is delivered in a usually slow tempo and in a dragging style, especially by Clara Smith. The two final verses of Awful Moanin’ Blues [Col A4000] run:

I got no friends, I can’t trust men;
Everything’s in soak* an’ always broke.
There’s no place where I can get a loan;
Even no place I can call my home.
That is why you always hear me moan.
(*=her only change of clothes are soaking in the wash tub.)


How my heart aches. Soon it will break;’
I’m almost through.
What will I do, Lord;
Just to cure these ‘Awful Moanin’ Blues’. (3)

This, one of the most powerful of her recordings, encapsulates the socio-economic situation experienced by a large majority of African Americans during the opening decades of the 20th. century, on a 78 shellac disc and also portrays the essence of the Blues to the listener in 3 minutes and four seconds!  Clara’s moaning vocal, steeped as it is in a high degree of sensuality.  There were five other versions of this song recorded, (see Table 1) four by her female contemporaries which do not really come close to matching the awesome artistry of Clara Smith who quite possibly got her name ‘Queen of the Moaners’ from performing this song live, prior to her recording debut in June 1923.  The fifth was by rural blues guitarist Bo Weavil Jackson, allegedly from the ‘Carolinas’, adapting Clara’s moaning style, in 1926.

Her first issued title, Every Woman’s Blues [Col A3943] had lyrical influence to some rural blues singers from Georgia, yet to be recorded; Charlie Lincoln, and Kokomo Arnold.  And indirectly Willie Baker (another Georgian) as well as Memphis resident Frank Stokes. (JSP7725)  Clara moans:

Don’t never let no one man worry your mind. (x 2)
Just keep you four an’ five, messed up all the time.

Well, there ain’t no love, there ain’t no getting’ along. (x 2)
My brown treats me so mean, sometimes I don’t know right from wrong. (4)

12-string man Charlie Lincoln included the 2nd. verse above on his ‘My Wife Drove Me From My Door’ in 1927, also on Columbia. The first verse seems to be the precursor of blues on which the singer boasts of more than one sexual partner.  This amoral (or immoral, depending on your outlook) approach to relationships was to appear in the early rural blues by the mid-1920s.  Songs came out on disc such as ‘It’s A Good Thing’ by the Beale Street Sheiks, (JSP7725) taken at a fast lick, and Willie Baker cut a really slowed down version inspired no doubt by the earlier performance of Ms. Smith.  This title is followed by the phrase ‘to have more than one’ (woman/man).  A spin off on this theme appears on various blues of having a lover for every day in the week.   Each one supplying all the ‘essentials’ of life; money, cool can beer, sex, clothes, etc.  As well as the lone version by Texan Sippie Wallace on her ‘A Man For Every Day in The Week’ in 1926, (see CD 4)  the weekly requirements crop up in blues by Jim Jackson on his ‘My Monday Woman Blues’ and many others. The beautiful bottleneck ‘Three Women Blues’ by Blind Willie McTell (JSP7711) is rather less demanding but still on the same subject.!

Meanwhile, Charlie Lincoln’s younger brother Barbecue Bob cut his more obvious ‘Ease It To Me Blues’ in 1928.  Having first heard Clara Smith’s Ease It [Col 14202-D] which she put out in November 1926.  A smouldering vocal as only she could deliver, this was an obviously risqué song cloaked in the subject – omitted by Bob-of needing money from her man.  This unfortunate individual was one of the black working men who had a regular day job; referred to derisively by early blues singers as ‘a monkey man’ (there were also monkey women).  Clara describes his meagre wages as his “ones an’ twos” that is, counted  in 1 or 2 dollar bills rather than tens and twenties.

Red hot mama had a monkey man;
She called him ‘Sugar Plum’.
He didn’t know how come.
He was just as dumb.

Every pay day this dumb baby would collect his ones an’ twos;
His red hot mama would find her dummy an’ sing these weary blues.
Ref:        Ease it here, babe. Don’t hold it so long.
Give all, babe, or don’t give me none. (5)

Then comes the sting in the tail as she tells how she uses the monkey man’s weekly wage to give to her outside lover or ‘back door man’. However, the singer’s erotic vocal approach leaves no doubt as to what she is actually singing about!

Now, it’s ashes to ashes an’ sand to sand;
Every married woman’s got a back door man. (6)

Clara is feeling distinctly mean towards her husband and this often colours her finest  blues. In fact jazz man Doc Cheatham, who sometimes supported her on a gig said c. 1921, of her shows in Bessie Smith’s home state of Tennessee “Clara outdrew Bessie in Nashville all the time…Because she was mean, and she sang mean. She would give everybody hell, give the men hell, give the women hell in her blues singing. She was a mean woman but she was a great singer.” (7)  By contrast, the late Mississippi Bluesman James ‘Sonny Ford’ Thomas “expressed the view that Bessie Smith…was not a blues singer at all.” (8) Presumably thinking she was more a jazz-blues singer like Smith’s disciple Billie Holiday.

Another excellent example appeared in May 1926.  Featuring a fine slow-drag accompaniment with a grim, undercurrent.  This is a blues with a stark warning to all pimps who exploited young girls and women; often referred to as ‘sweet men’ or ‘jelly beans’.  The 3 pre-war songs recording this title are all different to each other.  The other 2 being by Ma Rainey (1924) and Merline Johnson (1938).  The listener just knows that Clara means business!  Her anger shows through in her hard-hitting vocal for the ‘honest gal’ working excessively long  hours and horrendously low wages.

Oh! These so-called sweet an’ pretty men. Please take ‘em away. ( x 2)
All they want to do, lead some poor gal astray.
Some are like jelly beans. So cute an’ so sweet. ( x 2)
I carry carbolic acid for every one of them I meet. (9)

And in the words of the usual mythical 3rd. person, Miss Sally Long’, during her ejection of yet another mistreating man, Clara literally puts the boot in:

Folks livin’ down in Mexico, will wonder what is wrong;
They will think the world is comin’ to an end.
It’ll only be the end of one of my triflin’ men.
Ref:       I’m gonna tear your playhouse down;
Tear it down to the ground.

Knockin’ out windows;
Tear it down to the ground.
Kickin’ down doors;
Tear it down to the ground.
( crashing sound effects)
Spoken: Your playhouse has done gone. (10)

But a man who treats her right and takes care of all her needs is one she often celebrated in her blues.  Including a black labourer loading/unloading steamboats, known as stevedores, deckhands and usually roustabouts.

By the beginning of the 1920s, the steamboat was losing its dominance in US inland transportation to the burgeoning railroad industry. The awesome ‘palaces’ the packet boats carrying passengers and freight were virtually a thing of the past but their place had been taken on the river by the lowly towboat.  A lot of people still travelled by river, especially in Mississippi.  Only a few early blues or gospel recordings included this impressive American icon in their lyrics. Clara Smith was one singer who did and so was Lucille Bogan (see CD 2). In her Steamboat Man Blues [Col 14344-D] in   1928, Clara bragged about her ‘steamboat John’ who wears ‘overalls an’ old blue jeans’. As well as a champion ‘rouster’ he is also ‘a champion lover’.  Compared to middle class black males such as lawyers and doctors, her man has ‘forgotten more than they-all ever known’.   The moaning trumpet and trombone played by Freddie Jenkins and John Anderson respectively, invoke the steamboat’s whistle in a dragging, haunting style to match the Queen of the Moaners vocal which owes something to the field holler.  As the boat runs from ‘Cairo down to New Orleans ‘  this would probable be on the well-known Lee Line which included  one of their boats named STACKER LEE, based in Memphis and going as far north as Cairo, Illinois, situated in the ‘Y’ of the confluence of the great streams: the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers.

An only child, Clara Smith was  fiercely independent and this is readily apparent in her blues.  In 1926, on another sizzling moaned  song – Whip It To A Jelly [Col 14150-D] – she sings: ‘I wear my skirts up to my knees an’ whip that jelly with who I please’ as she goes into her famous long-drawn moan.  While on Shipwrecked Blues {Col 4077-D]  in 1925, the singer illustrates her talents as a superb drama actress as she acts out the traditional role of a captain going down with his sinking ship.  If no help is in sight on the vast expanse of open sea then she will leave the world “brave an’ bold [and] goin’ down singin’ The Shipwrecked Blues” (11) with a young Louis Armstrong going with her all the way playing some of the most stunning cornet on a record.

Clara supported the N.A.A.C.P. from the beginning of the 1930s – a very rare example of political interest by a blues singer at the time.  And as by 1915 she had become a headliner on travelling shows and those in bigger cities, including running her own Clara Smith Revue, she acquired a lot of money which she invested in real estate, with 2 substantial properties in Macon, Georgia, where she was extremely popular, and probably at least 2 more in New York City.  As well as her powerful voice, it was her lighter and more humorous side that made these shows so successful and included ‘womanly advice’ talks to all the black women in the audience, spiced with original jokes and sayings.

On her Jelly, Look What You Done Done [Col 14319-D] Clara’s declamatory vocal in heart-felt criticism of sexual and incestual lust, inspires an unidentified alto player, to reach up to the singer’s high, musical plane; making this the definitive version.

She was bi-sexual (quite normal in early women singers) and included a brief if traumatic affair with a young teenaged Josephine Baker, a few years before the dancer left for France to become an international star.

I dunno where Clara got her blues, but when she moaned ‘em – they stayed good an’ moaned!

Notes – CD 1

1.    Hogg P.   p.24. (‘Slavery The African American Experience’)

2.   Awful Moanin’ Blues

3.   Davies R.T.     p.p. 294-295. (“Medieval  English Lyrics”)

4.   Every Woman’s Blues

5.   Ease It

6.   Ibid.   [14341-3]

7.   Baker J-C and C.Chase. p.43. ((‘Josephine The Hungry Heart’)

8.  Eagle B. & E.S. LeBlanc p.43. (Josephine The Hungry Heart)

9.  Jelly Bean Blues

10. I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down.

11.  Shipwrecked Blues



Lucille Bogan (nee Anderson) was born  in Alabama in 1897) “and the family were living in Birmingham in 1900,but her parents and all her elder siblings were natives of Mississippi”(1)  near Amory, Mississippi but her family soon moved to a suburb-probably Fairfield-of Birmingham, Alabama. (2)  Like Clara Smith (CD 1) she made her 1st. recordings in June 1923, as a vaudeville blues singer. Unlike Clara, she did not have to go north to New York City to do this.  OKeh Records travelled south to Atlanta in Georgia for her very first session.  She cut ‘The Pawn Shop Blues’ which was backed by the initial title by another female singer, Fanny Goosby.  These are seen in the history of recorded blues as the first ‘field recordings’ or sessions cut in the South.

Interestingly, OKeh was part and parcel of the major company – Columbia – and of course had initially recorded Clara Smith on 31st. May 1923 but not issued these sides. They finally surfaced in “mid or late June” ( 3) while Lucille Bogan/Fanny Goosby’s waxing is quoted as appearing in “early June.” (4)  There is a distinct possibility that both Ms. Bogan and Ms. Smith were at the same session in June 1923! (one for Bob Eagle’s attention/comments).

In any event Lucille’s next session later the same month featured 4 issued sides and still in the vaudeville blues vein.  The only change being the piano accompaniment, switching from Eddie Heywood to Henry Callens.  Unfortunately, the inferior recording quality (all-acoustic with horns) gave Lucille’s vocals a slightly shrill and ‘far-away’ sound which did not do her justice.  However, by 1927 and the introduction of electrical recordings the singer’s voice naturally deepened to the rich timbre we know for all of her remaining sides up to 1935 and included on this CD.

In c. March 1927 Lucille switched to Paramount remaining with the label until the end of that year.  At her 2nd. session c. June, she cut six sides, three of which included a fine Kind Stella Blues [Para 12504]  which includes the title of this CD set.  Backed by some stabbing barrelhouse piano by Will Ezell, she sings a song which Charlie Lincoln (again!) was to adapt for his ‘Gamblin’ Charley’ in the following year of 1928.

Kind Stella was a good girl, known to be a good man’s friend. (x 2)
She take money from her husband give it to her gamblin’ man. (5)

Whereas Clara Smith, though a fiercely independent woman and a ‘mean’ blues singer, generally aspired to a life of stability and respectability – Lucille Bogan was often living outside the law; a denizen of the southern urban jungle.  Her blues were much more rougher as she often sang of being a prostitute as well as a bootlegger of illicit liquor.  Her ‘Struttin’ My Stuff ‘[Br 7193] from 1930 is probably an autobiographical brag about her prowess with sex and making booze!

Every time the police see me comin’ they want to arrest po’ me;
Say, I’m drunk an’ disorderly n’ rowdy as I can be.
Ref:        ‘Cos I’m struttin’my stuff;
I’m struttin’ my stuff.
I’m struttin’ my stuff, struttin’ it in the rough.

Now, some pays a dollar, some pays a dime;
Just to see me strut this stuff of mine.
Ref:        I’m struttin’, etc

I’m a big fat woman with the meat shakin’ on my bone;
Every time I shimmy a skinny woman lose her home.
Ref:        ‘Cos I’m struttin’, etc. (6)

Prostitution is the theme of several other sides here, such as ‘New Way Blues’ [Br 7051] and ‘Payroll Blues’ [Br 7051] in 1928 both backed by Tampa Red and Cow Cow Davenport; Ms. Bogan’s famous ‘prostitutes’ moan’ ‘They Ain’t Walking No More’ [ Br 7163] from 1930; most infamous of all of course being her raunchy version of ‘Shave ‘Em Dry’ [ARC unissued] on 19th. July 1933; and in 1935 ‘Barbecue Bess’ [Ba 33475] and ‘Stew Meat Blues’ [Ba 33448].

The latter title has an interesting ‘micro-view’ as its background involving a steamboat.  Back in the later 1900s, white, New Orleans trumpet player, Wingy Manone, (b.1904) recalled that as a boy “I saw a lot of funny things up on the levee.  Whenever a packet boat was going up the river all the colored stevedores had to tell their sweet mamas good-by. [sic]…at the door of every shack a boy would be saying that farewell to his gal.  Some of the boys would be trying to get some last-minute lovin’ for free. But those gals were too smart for ‘em. They knew these boys would probably go on up the river and forget all about them. So you’d hear a boy sweet-talkin’ his head off. But, man, he’s laying the wrong kind of jive on that gal. She don’t go for it, atall. [sic]  You hear her tell him, ‘Get gone up that river, tote [carry] that sack, the lovin’’ll be here when the boat gets back’.” (7)

The above ‘sweet mamas’ were generally prostitutes and raucous singer Lucille Bogan was almost certainly one, too, as well as a bootlegger with gangster connections in the black Birmingham underworld.  On ‘Stew Meat Blues’ accompanied by delicious, rollicking piano by Walter Roland, she describes the scenario recalled by Wingy Manone.

My man say I had something look like new;
He wanted me to credit him with some of my stew.
Said, he’s goin’ up the river to sell his sack;
He could pay me for my stuff when the boat get back.
Now, you can go on up the river, man, an’ sell your sack;
You can pay me for my stew when the boat get back.
I got good stew an’ it’s got to be sold;
The price ain’t high, I wanna get you told.
Go on up the river, etc. (8)

Having once been stung by a customer (or ‘trick’) for her services up front, she firmly states ‘it’s cash today an’ credit tomorrow’.  The boy(s) was probably a small-time farmer who would take any opportunity to work on a steamboat in a much more lucrative job as a stevedore or roustabout, a ‘semi-skilled’ steamboat labourer.  He would take along a lone bale or sack of cotton to sell at which ever landing the boat stopped at.  While Wingy Manone’s ‘colored boys’ would have worked on the Mississippi River, Lucille Bogan’s tricks would find the Tombigbee or Warrior Rivers in Alabama more accessible and the same scenario would be re-enacted there.

Lucille Bogan reveals her most rowdy ways, with some wicked piano from Charles Avery, on 2 of her blues about illicit, hard liquor, as a bootlegger who makes it and drinks it-to excess!  Her ‘Sloppy Drunk Blues’ [Br 7210] was to become something of a blues standard as successful singers such as Leroy Carr, Bumble Bee Slim, Walter Davis (as ‘Sloppy Drunk Again’), Sonny Boy Williamson and Chicago’s post-war singer/guitarist Jimmy Rodgers, all made recorded versions.

I’d rather be sloppy drunk than anything I know. (x 2)
An’ another half-a-pint will see me go.

I’d rather be sloppy drunk sittin’ in the can. [jail] (x 2)
Than to be at home rollin’ with my man.

Mmmmmm-mmmm. Bring me another two-bit pint. (x 2)
‘Cos I got my habits on, I’m gonna wreck this joint. (9)

At the same session, in 1930, she extended her anti-establishment stance in ‘Whisky Selling Woman’ [Br 7145] to include a whole town with whisky stills on every street and no police are allowed ‘for fifteen miles around’.

If I had a thousand dollars, judge, I’d taken my way;
If I had a thousand dollars, judge, I’d taken my way. Heyy-hey!
And I would make this whole town sloppy drunk one day. (10)

Lucille’s sheer exuberance for living the ‘fast life’ also appears on 2 sides made in 1933.  On her ‘Baking Powder Blues’ [Ba 33509] she shouts encouragement to Walter Roland interspersed with the odd verse here and there. ‘Play them things’, that is play the blues.  And Walter responds with raw, boogie-style piano. She offers him a good sum of money to come and play at her place where she is holding a big crap game.

Spoken: Uuhh! Beat ‘em, boy.  Beat ‘em. Beat ‘em down to the bricks.

Vocal:   Ah! Good mornin’ by the risin’ sun.;
Didn’t have no whiskey, I got to find me some.

Spoken:  Boy! Play them things
Aah! Play ‘em a year an’ a day, papa.
Wanna hear the ‘Baking Powder Blues’.
Owww! Oww!
Boy, shoot them dice, shoot ‘em.
Got  to gamble to win me some dough.

Spoken:  Here, boy. Here’s five dollars.

Here’s another five.
Where you from. What’s your name.
You the man all the womens like.
I’m from the Black Belt. If you do alright we might carry you back there, too.

Spoken: Play them blues. Don’t play ‘em so slow. ‘Cos I’m gonna give you money an’ I’m gon’ give it
to you sure. (11)

And on ‘Hungry Man’s Scuffle’ [Vo 25015] she pursues some jiving dialogue with Sonny Scott (a guitarist who played with Roland) sans instrument who on Lucille’s  request for the ‘buck an’ wing’ (an old black dance from minstrelsy days in the earlier 19th. century) does a dance in the studio!  Recorded as ‘The Jolly Jivers’.

L.B.(spoken): What you do that for. Womens or for money.

S.S.(spoken):  I don’t do it just because I can. I do this to keep from starvin’. (12)

However, Lucille Bogan covered other themes as well.  She included a reference to hoodoo (13) on her ‘Jim Tampa Blues’ [Para 12504] where she can see Jim ‘five miles down the road’, with ironic comments from Papa Charlie Jackson (JSP77184) who played some forceful banjo in the break.  She also envisaged a time without men, claiming the wash woman would still have money coming in.  Indeed, she describes  a fairly dismissive attitude towards men generally.

All the women singin’ blues, till the mens they feel so bad. (x 2)
The blues is something I ain’t ever had.

Comin’ a time, women ain’t gonna need no men. (x 2)
Just like the wash tub, money will come rollin’ in.

Men is like street cars, runnin’ every day. (x 2)
Miss one now, get another ‘un right away. (14)

The singer also invokes a Clara Smith line from ‘Every Woman Blues’ (CD 1) “Just get you four or five good men, woman, an’ do the best you can.” (15)

And on at least 2 of her blues she finds a lasting love. ‘Mean Twister’ [Ba33059]  tells tragically of one of the many tornados on the Eastern Seaboard as she sings of losing her lover, fruitlessly searching the scattered ashes all around and not finding his body. Shaking her fist  as she berates God for taking him away.  Equally moving is ‘I Hate That Train Called The M. & O.’ [A.R.C.6-02-64].  Where she accuses the Mobile & Ohio RR. of taking the man she really loves away.  I include part-text of my ‘Railroadin’ Some’  with Walter Roland’s poignant lead guitar complementing Lucille’s majestic vocal.


More smokin’ sensual/sexual symbolism occurs on Lucille’s cover of a Charlie McFadden title ‘Groceries On The Shelf’ [Ba32904] on which she features a Piggly Wiggly store – the first supermarket in the South, opening at Memphis in 1915.  And her ‘disguised’ smouldering vocals about another new dance, in 1930, the Georgia Grind; in much the same way as Clara Smith introduced her ‘Whip It To A Jelly’ (CD 1) some 4 years earlier.

And in her penultimate session on 7th. March 1935, she cut one of only 2 pre-war blues about lesbianism.  The first one was ‘Prove It On Me Blues’ by Ma Rainey in 1928.  Often referred to as ‘bull-dikers’ (B.D.) Lucille paints a not-too sympathetic tolerance for the ‘male’ of a lesbian couple on ‘B.D.Woman’s Blues’ [ARC 5-12-58] while retaining a begrudging admiration for their independence, backed by some good-rockin’ piano from Walter Roland.

B.D. women you sure can’t understand. (x 2)
They got a head like a switch engine an’ they walk just like a natural man.

B.D. women. B.D. women, you know they sure is rough. (x 2)
They are drinkin’ up plenty of whiskey an’ they sure will strut their stuff. (17)

A switch engine or goat (a shunting engine that operates in a freight yard. Pic. taken, in 1935 in Louisville Kentucky. The same year Lucille cut B.D. Woman’s Blues.
pic. p.54. ‘Louisville & Nashville –Steam Locomotives.’ Richard EPrince. [Indiana University Press. Bloomington & Indianapolis] rev. ed. 1968. Rep. 2000.

A male vaudeville singer, Hound Head Henry,had used the switch engine as a sexual symbol on his ‘Freight Train Special’ in 1928.  Like his pianist, Cow Cow Davenport, he may have also been from Alabama, and Lucille may well have seen them performing the song live.

Notes – CD 2

  1. Tuuk A. van der   p.35. (The New Paramount Book Of The Blues)
  2. Haymes M. see p.p.115-116.
  3. Godrich R.M.W. J.Godrich. H.Rye.  p.813.
  4. Ibid. p.87.
  5. Kind Stella Blues
  6. Sruttin’ My Stuff
  7. Manone W. & P. Vandervoort II p.26.
  8. Stew Meat Blues
  9. Sloppy Drunk Blues
  10. Whisky Selling Woman
  11. Baking Powder Blues
  12. Hungry Man’s Scuffle
  13. Haymes M.  (and see Clara Smith & hoodoo links: p.p.140-144. ‘Yes! I Sold My Soul To The Devil, Too!’ From ‘Frog Blues & Jazz Annual No.4.’ Paul Swinton (Ed.) [Frog Records Limited. Fleet, Hants] 2015.
  14. Women Won’t Need No Men
  15. Ibid.
  16. Haymes. Ibid. p.116.
  17. B.D. Woman’s Blues



Considering she was more prolific on record than Lucille Bogan and probably sold more actual discs, Lil Johnson remains an almost total biographical blank. There does not even seem to be a publicity pic. or any reference to any live shows, in the likes of a black newspaper such as ‘The Chicago Defender’: “there does not seem to be a single advertisement… for an appearance by Lil Johnson at any time during her recording career”. (1)  Rye does not refer to any other popular black papers such as ‘The New York Age’ (NYA). Or ‘The Baltimore African American’ (BAA).  So possibly some results might be in their pages.

This singer cut 67 sides that have survived into the 21st. century-plus a lone post-war one.  Some of these were not issued during her recording career.  As Rye put it: “Lil Johnson was a big-voiced, exuberant singer of blues, hokum and vaudeville songs; who in an eight-year career recorded more than sixty songs, and that is very nearly all that is known about her.”  (2)  She seems to have suddenly appeared in Chicago in the late 1920s!

Lil Johnson started recording in 1929, some 6 years after both Clara Smith and Lucille Bogan, but out-lasted them on wax by a good decade and a half.   She seemed more explorative vocally at this stage (but always innovative with lyrics) using a falsetto solo on two of her initial cuts in the studio.  ‘Minor Blues’ [Vo un-issued] and ‘Never Let Your Left Hand Know What Your Right Hand Do’ [Vo 1299]  A similar solo was used by rural singers mainly from Georgia such as Barbecue Bob and Curly Weaver.

‘Minor Blues’ is instructive as to why a blues singer would use a minor key as well as featuring a rare, early appearance by pianist Montana Taylor.

I sing these blues in a minor key;
Everybody just tryin’ to back-bite me.
I love my man better than I do myself;
Now, he‘s lovin’ somebody else.
That’s why I sing these, these ‘Minor Blues’.

I sing these blues in a low-down key;
To let you know how he mis-treated  me.(3)

Lil Johnson recorded 9 sides (of which 5 were un-issued at the time) in 1929 and then had to wait some 5 ½ years before she returned to the studio.  She went on to have a commercially successful run for a further 2 ½ years cutting some 50 issued titles and 13 of her un-issued material eventually appeared on the Document label. (CD’s).  But as Howard Rye puzzles, why was this the case. The only explanation I can offer is that Lil Johnson lived outside the law a lot of the time.  On Vocalion 1299, she sings ‘Me an’ my girl friend went out for a little run’ which is most likely for a delivery of illicit booze, but she told Lil’s man about it. Her next verse ‘make me a pint of whiskey an’ a bottle of beer’ would seem to support  the reason for their ‘run’.  Even though Prohibition had been repealed in 1933, many blacks continued to deal in moonshine as one of the main sources of income.

It was the latter that Lil provided, along with Southern food like fried chicken and red beans and rice, to the customers at her house rent party, charging a small entrance fee and also adding to the blues entertainment.  The rollicking tempo supplied by Tampa Red’s bottleneck guitar and  the re-appearance of excellent pianist Charles Avery.  Between the three of them they give what must have been a pretty accurate idea of the atmosphere generated at such a house rent party.

[vo.]       My house rent’s due, my gas bill run up to ten; [dollars] (x 2)
I wouldn’t have no lights but the light man couldn’t get in.

[spoken] I got everything from soda water to wine.
This is Miss Lil Johnson, Lord. Someone buy the piano man a drink.
Don’t forget the landlady. (4)

Maybe Ms. Johnson, I suggest, could have run foul of the law in a more serious way, after 1929 which landed her a longer sentence of five years or so; possibly on a homicide rap.

With regard to her southern roots, Alabama is a possibility.  At least 3 references appear in her recordings.  On ‘Anybody Want To Buy My Cabbage’ [Ch 50002] she mentions Birmingham which does not appear in the other versions by Maggie Jones (1924), Mildred Austin (1928) or indeed the L. of  C. group of young women prisoners in Parchman  Farm (1939).  The bouncy piano is probably by Dot Rice.  On her ‘New Shave ‘Em Dry’ [Vo 03428] Lil directs prospective customers to 18th. Street in Birmingham which was particularly notorious in the South for its brothels, shady jook joints and violent gambling dens.  Up there along with Beale Street and Decatur Street in Memphis and Atlanta, respectively.  While her praise song to Joe Louis – ‘the Brown Bomber’- mentions the state of Alabama itself on ‘Winner Joe (The Knock-Out King)’ in 1936.

I also detect more than a nod to Lucille Bogan who was of course from Alabama.  Lil Johnson’s ‘Shake Man Blues’ [Ch 50052] in 1935, sits easily in both singer’s approach and style.

I’ve got a man, he is actually my size. (x 2)
H trembles in the middle an’ shakes on every side.  (5)

The same comments apply to Lil’s fine version of the traditional New Orleans-based ‘Bucket’s Got A Hole In It’ [Vo 03666] with heavy back-beat from an unidentified drummer and rocking clarinet and piano.  Washboard Sam, a major early Chicago blues man was to cover this just over  a year later.  Ms. Johnson includes a reference to Lucille Bogan’s ‘They Ain’t Walking No More’ (CD 2) while warning other prostitutes about the patrolling Vice Squad, as she re-locates this song to Chicago.

When you walkin’ down 31st. Street you had better look around;
‘Cos the Vice Squad is on their beat an’ you’ll be jailhouse-bound.

I been standin’ on the corner, but everything is so slow;
I could not make no money, tricks ain’t walkin’ no more. (6)

Indeed, Lil Johnson seem to have take it on herself to continue Lucille Bogan’s hard-hitting approach with sexual/sensual material.

The New Orleans connection continues as she delivers a take of the song that seems to have evolved from Bucket’s in the shape of ‘Keep On Knocking’ [BB B6112]which 20 years later became a rock ‘n roll hit for Little Richard.  Singing to the poor cheated woman outside her flat, she says “I got your daddy.” (7) With a sparkling, driving piano by Black Bob, possible Big Bill guitar,  and unknown slapping double bass, Lil adds some different verses and wry comments:

Peep over the transom but you can’t come in. (x 3)
I guess you better let me be.

Shake my door knob but you can’t come in.  (x 3)
I guess you better let me be.

Spoken: Knock, knock, knock. You can’t come in here….I know you wanna come in. I’m so sure you
can’t come in, but I ain’t even bothered. (8)

One of the finest versions of this song along with bottleneck guitarist Kokomo Arnold’s ‘Busy Bootin’ some 3 months earlier.  Flipside of this no. has same rockin’ tempo on the potentially sad ‘I Lost My Baby’ [BB B6112].  But Lil doesn’t sound too phased as she sings with more than a hint of defiance and invites “I say some sweet man  come up an’ see me some time.” (9) borrowing a leaf out of Mae West’s songbook.  This actress crops up again on ‘That Bonus Done Gone Thru’ [ARC  Un-issued], a gentle dig at the US government dragging their feet  when paying out W.W.I payments to  veterans, in 1936!  And the gals are there to help ‘em spend it!

Come on girls. Yeah!
Ain’t you goin’ downtown. Yeah!
What you gonna buy. A new evening gown.
Ohhh! Ohhh! Ohh! Ohh! Listen to my talk;
Ohh! Ohh! Ohh! Ohh! Just watch this Mae West walk.
‘Cos that bonus done gone thru’. (10)

Just like Clara Smith, Lil Johnson could be mean to both women and men in her blues.  Taken from a song she had cut earlier ‘Rock That Thing’ in 1929, she is merciless to the impotent man on her classic ‘Press My Button’ [Vo 03199] from 1936.

Now, tell me daddy what it’s all about;
Tryin’ to fit your spark plug an’ it’s all worn out.

Ref:        I can’t use that thing;
That ding-a-ling.
I been pressin’ your button an’ your bell won’t wring.

Hear my baby all out of breath;
Been workin’ all night an’ ain’t done nothin’ yet.

Ref:        What’s wrong with that thing; etc.  (11)

On her brash ‘If You Can Dish It (I Can Take It)’ [ARC 6-03-56] Lil says to her lover “you’se just a cream puff” (12) which soon became a song in its own right, as she sings  “you can shake your body but you just can’t move your tail. You just a cream puff an’ ain’t no good at all” (13) with some fine trumpet by Lee Collins.  ‘I’ll Take You To The Cleaners’ [Vo un-issued] threatens serious violence:

I’ll take you to the cleaners. You know I’ll slit your knee;
Oh! You try to be cute but that don’t work with me. (14)

While, as did Lucille Bogan, Ms. Johnson resorts to hoodoo when talking to her friend who was trying to take her man. “I’ll sprinkle goofer dust all around your door.” (15)

Otherwise it’s unashamed and joyous sexuality by Lil Johnson, on her great ‘My Stove’s In Good Condition’ [Vo 03251], and in other sides she loves her meat balls, is wild about hot nuts, and really digs ‘Sam the Hot Dog Man’.  She’s ‘the hottest gal in town’ but even for Lil Johnson, sometimes it’s too much sex! As she sings of losing ‘her’ virginity.  “If you want to twirl some more you’ll have to twirl it yourself”. (16)  She includes a version of ‘Take Your Finger Off It’ (with an aggressive drum solo) popularised earlier by the Memphis Jug Band and Big Bill Broonzy.

Her ‘My Baby Squeeze Me’ [Vo un-issued] gets as near single entendre as you like and even Vocalion must have been getting nervous about a lot of Lil Johnson’s material; in any event both takes of this song remained un-issued until the later 20th. century.

Just sit me up an’ sit me on your knee;
‘Cos I feel so ‘mmmm’ when you squeeze me.

He’s so slippery. He’s so slimery [sic] an’ just like grease. (17)

Lil also includes verses from the infamous ‘Boy In The Boat’ often attributed to lesbians. (See p.p. 203-204 for more on this song in Screening The Blues Paul Oliver. Cassell. London] 1968. And check later reprint, on the internet)   and “come an’ get it while it’s hot…I’ve got lots of customers comin’ from miles around” (18) she sings on ‘Come And Get It’ [Vo 3530] from the same session.

Other aspects of the Blues are reflected in this singer’s  ‘Snake In The Grass’ (not included here) which could be partly autobiographical.  With references to her sister, her mother who is dead, and her father is ‘drinkin’ in his gin’.  And her ‘So Long I’m Gone’ is possibly a cover of a Clara Smith title from 9 years earlier ‘So Long’ which remains an un-issued Columbia recording.

Her Down At The Old Village Store [Vo 03941] is a gentle dig at the black religious community, addressing her “Bretherin’ an’ Sisterin’…turn the lights down low…an’ leave our sins on the floor…I can see my sins, I can see them win.”. (19)  Accompanied by a rock steady, up-tempo rhythm and neat guitar picking by Big Bill, as well as some sarcastic shouts of ‘hallelujah’ from an unidentified male in the studio, which maybe Bill himself.  Washboard Sam was to do his rockin’ version a few months later in 1938.

Lil Johnson is to be regarded as a major player in the 1930s blues scene and up there with Georgia White and Peetie Wheatstraw.  Where did you come from, Lil, and where did you go!

Notes – CD 3

1.  Rye Howard  Notes to Lil Johnson Vol.1 [Document DOCD-5307.] 2007. 1st issued 1994.

2.  Ibid.

3.  Minor Blues

4.   House Rent Scuffle

5.   Shake Man Blues

6.   Bucket’s Got A Hole In It

7.   Keep On Knocking

8.   Ibid.

9.   I Lost My Baby

10. That Bonus Done Gone Thru’

11. Press My Button(Ring My Bell)

12. If You Can Dish It(I Can Take It)

13.  You’re Just A Cream Puff (You Can’t Take It)

14.  I’ll Take You To The Cleaners

15.  Goofer Dust Swing

16.  You Stole My Cherry

17.  My Baby (Squeeze Me Again) – Tk.1

18.  Come And Get It

19.  Down At The Old Village Store



Until 2013, there were only a few details concerning Bernice Edwards, an excellent Blues singer and pianist.  In that year an excellent essay by Alex van der Tuuk appeared in print.  The first pic. of this singer (reproduced here with permission) is also featured. (1)  This remained the definitive article until 2017 when Alex published his essential book  ‘The New Paramount Book Of The Blues’.  This has an updated account under her entry. (p.p.105-109)  While there is some repetition, I have drawn on the latter for these notes.

Ms. Edwards is quite likely the youngest singer on this JSP set; allowing we have no birth date for Lil Johnson. (CD 3)  Following an interview with the late Mack McCormick, Texas blues collector/historian, on 2nd. July 1912, the author reveals she was born in c. 1908 in Waller County, in East Texas.  Although in 2013 her birthplace was given as “probably Katy, Fort Bend County, 1907-Hermann Hospital, Houston, February 26, 1969.” (date she died) (2)  However, it is reported that Bernice “On March 14, 1968, [and] Fred Chatman…remarried in Fort Bend County.” (3)

Earlier reports had already established the ‘adoption’ by the important piano blues/singers named Thomas.  As Alex notes: “By 1911 the [Edwards]  family had moved to their own home at 3110 Gillespie Street, where they remained until 1918.” (4)  Only a short distance away “lived George and Fannie Thomas and their large family.”. (5)  This was in Houston, Texas.  They included Sippie Wallace and Hersal Thomas (younger sister and brother) as well as George’s daughter Hociel Thomas.  All of whom, apart from George, feature on this CD.

The earliest reference to Moanin’ Bernice Edwards seems to be just that, her name back in 1969 when Paul Oliver included it in his ‘The Story of The Blues’. (google for prob. reprint)  Some 8 years later, he had some of the first details of the artist when he noted that after the Thomas family moved north to Chicago, “Bernice Edwards alone maintained the Thomas tradition. [in Texas]  She wasn’t a blood relative but she was, in Sippie’s words, ‘one of the family’…she had grown up with the youngest Thomas children including Hociel, and it was from them that she learned to sing and play the blues”. (6)  Along with more details of her recordings and accompanists, this was reproduced in ‘Blues Off The Record’  in 1984. (see bib.)  Oliver noted the influences of her vocals by “that of Texas Alexander in her penchant for slow tempo and heavy moaning.” (7)  And ten years later, David Evans pointed out that her ‘Moaning Blues’ [Para 12620] “may have been influenced by the vaudeville style of Clara Smith.” (8)  Indeed, most of Bernice’s vocal output could be thus described.

Mmmmm-mmmm. Mmm-mmm.
Spoken: I’m a-gonn moan this mornin’.
‘Cos I got it bold.
Vocal:   I moaned to you like a sinner.
An’ it don’t seem to do no good. (x 2)
You are cruel-hearted , papa.
Your heart must be made of wood.

I moan in the mornin’. I moan
late at  night. ( x 2)
It’s all because you know you
ain’t treatin’ me right.(9)

She then goes into a long moaned verse-Clara would have been proud of!

Moanin’ Bernice Edwards c,1928-aged between 19 and 20 years old. Pic from Paul Swinton.

George W. Thomas Jr. “a composer and music publisher” (10) was the earliest to record, albeit under the name ‘Clay Custer’, in February 1923 with an instrumental ‘The Rocks’.  “It has been widely accepted that this is a pseudonym for the composer of ‘The Rocks’, George Thomas, but there seems to be no conclusive evidence for this”. (11)

Be that as it may, Thomas includes the initial example of boogie piano on a record, if only a brief excerpt.  He had already performed the ‘first’ boogie bass runs during a show in 1911, according to an awestruck, teenaged Clarence Williams well-known future black promoter/pianist/composer, who accompanied several of the major vaudeville blues singers as well as running his own jazz outfit-the Clarence Williams Blue Five.  “Clarence reported in later years that he heard George Thomas’s boogie bass in Houston as early as 1911.” (12)

Although the ‘heavy moaning’ style attributed to Bernice Edwards and readily apparent on her ‘Moaning Blues’, became the ‘norm’ for this singer; her voice was a bit higher on her first 2 sides.  This had deepened by her next cut ‘Mean Man Blues’ [Para 12633]

Now, it’s funny to you, to see me shedding tears. (x 2)
But it’s all coming back to you if it be a 1,000 years. (13)

She seems to be plagued with these  mean men but on the flipside, her ‘Long Tall Mama’ [Para 12633] gets one of them told, hammering him with the equality ticket!

You don’t want no one woman. You don’t do nothin’ but run around.
All you crave is a gang of women just like a Georgia hound.

I’m gonna get just like you, papa. I’m gon’ get me five or six men;
I’m gonna get just like you, papa. Gonna get me five or six men.
An’ if that won’t do, I’m goin’ to get me eight or ten.

‘Cos I’m a long tall mama. Do just what I wanna do;
I’m a long tall mama. I can do just what I wanna do.
I have thinks to be a mistreater, baby, just like you. (14)

Bernice playing some of her hardest hitting piano, possibly fired by some personal anger, especially in her mean right hand.  Ironically, the ‘eight or ten’ option would be reflected in her life style.  Like Lucille Bogan and probably Lil Johnson, she was a prostitute, singing her blues ‘between tricks’ in the brothel.  When the Paramount sales and recording manager, Arthur Laibly, found her “she was working in a brothel ‘turning tricks’, which she claimed Elzadie Robinson [another fine recorded blues singer] had also done.  As well as entertaining clients, she sang and played the piano,.” (15)  After her initial sessions, Laibly “apparently sent her copies of her issued records, which gave her an advantage over the other girls. When she sang and played the piano, men would flock around her, and after she had finished a song, she would say, ‘I have a record’  By selling them, she made fifty percent more money than the other girls.” (16).

A song she would probably have included was one of the barrelhouse ‘test pieces’ (that also fitted into the brothel atmosphere) which included ‘The 44’s’, ‘The Fives’,  and ‘Here I Come With My Dirty Duckins On’ (rarely recorded in early blues).  The latter, Bernice cut as ‘Hard Hustling Blues’ [Para 12766].  Duckins being a common style of overalls at the time.  The scenario is that a new piano player turns up at a barrelhouse to challenge the resident musician – i.e. a cutting contest.  As these titles were very familiar to the black audience the winner was judged on the reception they received.  The loser was often unceremoniously thrown out on to the dusty or muddy street.  Some would wade back in wielding a gun or knife to wreak their revenge!

Like the other singers included here, Bernice would boast of her superior sexuality over other women and brashly offer any disappointed clients an item of popular jewellery in the blues world.

Some women are greenhorns, they don’t know how to shake that thing;
Some women are greenhorns, don’t know how to shake that thing.
But men, if I don’t make you like it, I’ll make you a present of a diamond ring.
‘Cos I’m a high-powered mama an’ I really takes my time. (x 2)
I want you greenhorns to come see me an’ learn this ‘Steady Grind’. (17)

The last line may have been a nod to Lucille Bogan and her ‘My Georgia Grind’ (CD 2).  And as with all these singers a strong sense of independence lies at the heart of this blues.

‘Born To Die Blues’ [Para 12741] includes lines previously featured by Clara Smith and had become a floating verse with other women singers.  ‘Women all cryin’ murder. I ain’t raised my hand.’.  Also adapted by male singers such as Texas Alexander.  But she draws a red line, with more than a tadge of irony, as to how far she will go to please a man!

You must want your mama to lay down an’ die for you;
Mmmmmm. Want your mama to lay down an’ die for you.
Layin’ down is alright, daddy, but dyin’ will never do. (18)

Bernice also sings about hoodoo, including the well-known line ‘I believe my man’s got a black cat bone’, on ‘Two-Way Mind Blues’ [Para 12713] and has a guitar added who B. & G.R. noted is possibly Ramblin’ Thomas.  But to these ears is more likely to be his younger brother Jesse, who went on to record in the post-war era.

On two of her only sides to survive from 1935, which were recorded in her home state, she included the popular animal symbolism as in ‘Bantam Rooster Blues’ [Vo 03036] which is not the Charley Patton number.  The erotic ‘Butcher Shop Blues’ is on the flip.  This blues contains some details of the slaughter house scenario which have an authentic ring.  It’s possible she had one of her husbands working on the ‘killing floor’ at some stage.

He knows a Bow[ie] from a Barlow, or a Holstein from a Jersey cow. (x 2)
He knows they minute they were killed, on the d ay up to the hour. ( 19)

The first half of the opening line refers to large knives used in the slaughter house.  But then it’s back to sex!

He cuts my steak in the night time. He grinds my sausage in the day.
An’ the machine he uses will really take your breath away. (20)

Ramblin’ Thomas is also suggested to be on ‘Jack Of All Trades’ [Para 12713] and this song may have been inspired using the same theme of having several lovers at the same time as sung by Clara Smith on ‘Every Woman’s Blues’ (CD 1) in 1923.  Pinetop Burks, another fine Texas pianist, covered the Edwards’ song in 1937 as ‘Jack Of All Trades Blues’.  Whereas Sippie Wallace was to cut the only record  in the pre-war era as ‘A Man For Every Day In The Week’ [OK 8301] in 1926.  And on her remake of ‘I’m A Mighty Tight Woman’ [Vi 35802] in 1929 she too, brags of her sexual prowess and fits in the phrase “I’m a jack of all trades”(21)  This features Sippie’s rich vocals and her own very fine piano and beautifully augmented by a trio f some of the best jazz artists of the day in top form., including Johnny Dodds.  She claims “I’m a broad that never feels blue” (22)  Her closing lines are probably unique on a blues record.

If you a married man you ain’t got no business here;
‘Cos when you out with me I might make your wife shed tears.
‘Cos I’m a mighty tight woman an’ there is nothin’ that I fear. (23)

In some of her earlier records, Sippie Wallace was backed by ‘child prodigy’ Hersal Thomas, her ‘kid’ brother.  He also was on their niece’s recordings, Hociel Thomas, from whom Bernice Edwards “learned to play piano”. (24)  Particularly fine on her 1925 offering ‘Fish Tail Dance’ [OK 8222].  Hersal also cut some exquisite piano solos, especially the beautiful ‘Suit Case Blues’ also in 1925.  Sadly, he died of acute food poisoning  in 1926- at age 20 (b.1906) he was some 2 years older than Bernice.  The 1910 Census lists him as “April 20, age 4 (Hearcile [sic] Thomas).”.  (25)

The 2 remaining artists here are represented by Victoria Spivey with her superb ‘Blood Hound Blues’ [Vi 38570] from 1929 in which she confesses to murder and backed by a tremendous band headed by Luis Russell which featured Henry Allen on trumpet and Pops Foster slapping his double bass.  The other singer is the most archaic-sounding here – Bessie Tucker who completes this set with a suitably paced, ‘hollow’ piano by K.D. Johnson (‘Mr. 49)’ and stretched out vocals in which she might have been partly influenced by Clara Smith.

Although based in Dallas, I have tentatively traced her home to Greenville, Texas, some 30-odd miles east of Dallas. (26)  Like Lucille Bogan and Clara Smith, railroads often figured in her blues.  As she moans to the Fort Worth Denver & Colorado RR which runs past her back door; accusing the railroad (as blues singers often do) of taking her man away.

I’ve got the’Fort Worth an’ Denver Blues’, don’t know which way to go;
Mmmm-mmm. Don’t know which way to go.
I hear that Fort Worth an’ Denver, it call in my back door. (27)

Black citizens were often compelled by the ruling whites to live near the railroad tracks in the earliest part of the 20th. century.

Like Lucille Bogan and Lil Johnson, Bessie was a prostitute and describes her trip as a hobo on a train referred to as ‘The Dummy’ to ply her trade amongst black workers when they got paid, deep in the Texas piney woods at a logging camp. (28)  How one of the railroad police hits her with a hefty piece of wood “‘cross the head with a two-by-four.” (29) before throwing her off the slow-moving box car.

A little later, Bessie sings of being committed to a prison gang in the brutal convict lease system. (30)  Working under the watchful eye of an armed white guard – ‘the Captain’ – her anger at the death of her fellow prisoner called ‘Sal’ reaches boiling point:

Captain got a big horse-pistol. Ah-haaaah, and he think he’s bad;
Captain got a big horse-pistol. Hah-haaaah, and he think he’s bad.
I’m gonna take it this mornin’ if he make me mad. (31)

Although light-skinned to the point of looking nearly white, Bessie’s blues are as raunchy as the other darker singers on this essential JSP set.

Notes – CD 4

1.  Tuuk van der A. see p.p.90-91. (Blues & Jazz Annual No.3)   2013.

2.  Eagle B. & E.S. LeBlancp.393. (Blues A Regional Experience)

3.  TuukIbid. p.109. The New Paramount Book Of The Blues)

4.  Ibid. p.106.

5.  Ibid.

6.  Oliver Paul. Notes to The Piano Blues Volume Four The Thomas Family 1925-1929  L.P. [Magpie PY 4404] 1977.

7.  ———-“——  p.141. (Blues Off The Record)

8.   Evans David. Notes to Texas Piano Blues Volume 1 1923-1935  CD. [DOCD-5224] 1994.

9.  Moanin’ Blues

10. Tuuk Ibid. p.106. (The New Paramount Book Of The Blues)

11. Dixon R.M.W. & J.Godrich & H.Rye. p.191.

12. Collinson John. p.35. from The Frog Blues & Jazz Annual No.1. Paul Swinton (Ed.) [Frog Records Limited. Fleet, Hants.] 2010.

13. Mean Man Blues

14. Long Tall Mama

15. Tuuk Ibid. p.p.106-107.

16. Ibid. p.107.

17. Born To Die Blues

18. Ibid.

19. Butcher Shop Blues

20. Ibid.

21.  I’m A Mighty Tight Woman – Sippie Wallace.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Tuuk Ibid. p.106.

25. Eagle & LeBlanc Ibid.p.493.

26. Haymes  see my article on Bessie Tucker on

27. Fort Worth And Denver Blues Bessie Tucker.

28. Haymes  ‘Railroadin’ Some’. Ibid. (see Ch.2, esp. p.p. 60-61)

29. The Dummy  Bessie Tucker.

30. Haymes Ibid. (see Ch.6, esp. p.p.189-190)

31. Key To The Bushes  Bessie Tucker.



1.   Baker Jean-Claude & Chris Chase   ‘JOSEPHINE THE HUNGRY HEART [The British Library. London] 1979.

2.   Davies R.T.  ‘MEDIEVAL ENGLISH LYRICS’. [Faber. Faber. London] 1987. Rep. 1st pub. 1963.

3.   Dixon Robert M.W. J.Godrich. Howard Rye.   ‘BLUES & GOSPEL RECORDS 1890-1943’  4th. ed. [Clarendon Press. Oxford.] 1997.

4.   Eagle Bob & Eric S. Le Blanc ‘BLUES A REGIONAL EXPERIENCE’ [Praeger. Santa Barbara, California. Denver,  Colorado. Oxford] 2013.

5.   Haymes Max   ‘RAILROADIN’ SOME’ [Music Mentor Books. York] 2006.

6.   Hogg Peter  ‘SLAVERY THE AFRO-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’ [The British Library. London] 1979.

7.   Manone Wingy & Paul Vandervoort  II ‘TRUMPET ON THE WING’ [Doubleday] 1948.

8.   Oliver Paul ‘BLUES OFF THE RECORD’ [The Baton Press. Tunbridge Wells, Kent] 1984.

9.  Tuuk Alex van der  ‘THE NEW PARAMOUNT BOOK OF THE BLUES’ [Agram Blues  Books. Overveen, The Netherlands] 2017.


Label Abbreviations

ARC = American Record Company

Ba = Banner

BB = Bluebird

Br = Brunswick

Col = Columbia

Para = Paramount

Vo = Vocalion


Discographical details from ‘BLUES & GOSPEL RECORDS 1890-1943. Ibid.

Corrections/additions by Max Haymes.

All transcriptions by Max Haymes.

Re-formatted for the website by Alan White.

15th. July 2017.