When Michael Taft of the American Folklife Center received a call asking if the Center would be interested in an old Lead Belly disc, it seemed impossible that there could be one that wasn’t already in their collection; but when Taft asked what was printed on the label and heard “Presto” he was intrigued. Presto was not a record company—it was a brand of recording blank that the Library of Congress had used for field recordings in the 1930s and 1940s.
The disc included a song never heard elsewhere, and it provided the key for identifying the recording session. Titled Todd blues, the song was an improvisation that referred to “Mister Todd” and “Mister Sonkin”—Charles Todd (left) and Robert Sonkin (below left), who collaborated on several field recording trips for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s.
This blues took the form of a humorous lament on the departure of one of the partners: “Mister Todd went away, Lord, just after Christmas Day/He’s going to California…Mister Sonkin sitting here with his head hung down.” These lines clearly place the recording on 20 January 1942, when the pair recorded Lead Belly in New York City, shortly before Todd left for a new job in California.
This according to “A new old recording by Huddie Ledbetter” by Michael Taft (Folklife Center news XXIX/3 [summer 2007] pp. 13–15).
Today is Lead Belly’s 130th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger recalls meeting and performing with the great singer-songwriter.
The Atlanta bluesman William Samuel McTier, who performed and recorded as Blind Willie McTell, is known today for his iconic songs and Piedmont fingerpicking 12-string guitar playing.
When he died in 1959 he passed like a vague shadow, missed only by a few friends, family members, and some scattered blues fans, his music consigned to one of the dustier back shelves of Southern Americana. But that same year the renowned folklorist Samuel Charters published his Country blues, with passages that raised McTell to the status of blues master. In the years since he has risen from his obscurity in stunning profile, as enduring as the vibrant music he left behind.
This according to “Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta’s 12-string minstrel for all seasons” by David Fulmer (Blues access 11 [fall 1992] pp. 30–35).
Today is Blind Willie McTell’s 120th birthday! Below, his much-covered Statesboro blues.
In November 1957 Mose Allison recorded what would became his most celebrated and requested piece: Parchman Farm, a wickedly clever blues written from the viewpoint of an inmate at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary. But by the mid-1960s Allison had ceased performing the song, reportedly disturbed by audience reactions to it.
The adverse reactions were prompted by the song’s surprise ending, where the seemingly sympathetic prisoner-singer suddenly declares “I’m a-gonna be here for the rest of my life, and all I did was shoot my wife.”
Such responses to a song whose title evokes the Jim Crow South, and whose author is a white performer whom many listeners have assumed to be black, are worthy of closer scrutiny. In addition to its surface appeal, Parchman Farm possesses subtextual layers replete with complex, troubling questions about race, gender, and power, particularly as these manifest in popular discourses about blues.
Allison returned to the topic in 1964 with New Parchman, which offers an implicit critique of the ideology informing the 1957 work.
This according to “One Parchman Farm or another: Mose Allison, irony, and racial formation” by John Kimsey (Journal of popular music studies XVII/2  pp. 105–32).
Today would have been Mose Allison’s 90th birthday! Above, recording in the mid-1960s; below, the original Parchman Farm and its sequel.
Although the story of blues was never his direct subject, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha chronicles obliquely address the processes through which mainstream America embraced, dismissed, romanticized, adapted, and came to respect blues and other forms of traditional and popular music.
From the scenes of white people dancing to an African American band in Soldiers’ pay through the country blues guitarist emerging out of the flood in Old man to the symbolic engagement with a broad multicultural tradition of popular song in The mansion, Faulkner’s writings reflect shifting social attitudes toward southern roots music.
This according to Yoknapatawpha blues: Faulkner’s fiction and southern roots music by Tim A. Ryan (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2015).
Today is Faulkner’s 120th birthday! Above, the author with Billie Holiday in 1956; below, Charley Patton’s High water everywhere, a recording linked to Old man.
In an interview, John Lee Hooker described the genesis of his 1961 hit Boom boom:
“I used to play at this place called the Apex Bar in Detroit. There was a young lady there named Luilla, she was a bartender there. I would come in there at night and I’d never be on time. Every night the band would beat me there; sometimes they’d be on the bandstand playing by the time I got there. Whenever I’d come in she’d point at me and say ‘Boom boom, you’re late again.’ It dawned on me that that was a good name for a song. Then one night she said, “Boom boom, I’m gonna shoot you down.’ She gave me a song but she didn’t know it.”
“I took that thing and I hummed it all the way home from the bar. At night I went to bed and I was still thinking of it. I got up the next day and put one and one together, two and two together, trying to piece it out—taking things out, putting things in. I finally got it down right, got it together, got it down in my head. Then I went and sang it, and everybody went, Wow!”
“About two months later I recorded it, and the record shot straight to the top. That barmaid felt pretty good. She went around telling everybody ‘I got John Lee to write that song.’ I gave her some bread for it, too, so she was pretty happy.”
Quoted in Working musicians: Defining moments from the road, the studio, and the stage by Bruce Pollock (New York: HarperEntertainment, 2002, pp. 290–91).
According to most sources, today is Hooker’s 100th birthday! Above, recording in 1960, a year before Boom boom; below, a classic performance.
Leonard Chess is widely known as the co-founder of Chess Records and as a producer who was tremendously influential in the development of popular music; fewer people know that for one recording session he took over the drum set.
When Muddy Waters and his sidemen were recording for him on 11 July 1951, Waters later recalled, “my drummer couldn’t get the beat on She moves me. The verse was too long.”
“You know, it says…‘She shook her finger in a blind man’s face, he say Once I was blind but now I see/She moves me, man…’ My drummer wanted to play a turnaround there; I had to go another six or eight bars to get it turned around…he couldn’t hold it there to save his damn life.”
With characteristic brusqueness, Chess dismissed the drummer and sat down at the set himself, providing a foursquare thump on the bass drum, two beats to the bar without any frills. In effect, he solved the problem of timing the turnaround by ignoring it.
This according to The story of Chess Records by John Colis (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 1999, pp. 56–57).
Today would have been Leonard Chess’s 100th birthday! Above, Chess around 1970; below, the recording in question.
Although he was nicknamed “Mississippi”, Fred McDowell was born in Tennessee, and lived in Memphis for more than thirty years. He worked at various factories and farms, and played guitar at weekend dances.
McDowell’s “You gotta move” was covered by The Rolling Stones on their 1971 album Sticky fingers and appeared in their film Gimme shelter (1970) as well as on their Love you live album (1977). The jazz singer Cassandra Wilson also covered “You gotta move” in 2002. McDowell himself recorded three versions of the song: acoustic (1965), electric (1971), and with the Hunter’s Chapel Singers of Como, Mississippi (1966).
This according to “McDowell, Fred” by Yves Laberge (Encyclopedia of the blues II  pp. 670); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is McDowell’s 111th birthday! Below, his seminal 1965 recording.
BONUS: The Stones, around the time of Sticky fingers.
Around 1910 Sam Chatmon formed a family string band with seven of his siblings that would later develop into the Mississippi Sheiks.
In 1936 Sam and his brother Lonnie made twelve recordings as the Chatman [sic] Brothers; Sam did not record again for twenty-four years. During that time he worked as a farmer, a night watchman, and a plantation supervisor.
In 1960 Chris Strachwitz rediscovered Chatmon and recorded him; four of the songs recorded were included on the Arhoolie LP I have to paint my face. In 1966 he was rediscovered again by the blues enthusiast Ken Swerilas, who persuaded him to move to San Diego, where he began playing in clubs and became a local favorite. Soon he was performing around the country at folk festivals and clubs, gaining notoriety as one of the few surviving first-generation Mississippi bluesmen. He made his last professional appearance at the 1982 Mississippi Delta Blues Festival.
This according to “Chatmon, Sam” by Andrew Leach (Encyclopedia of the blues II  p. 195); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Chatmon’s 120th birthday! A discography is here. Below, ca. 1978.
George “Buddy” Guy started working as a sideman for Chess Records in 1959 and quickly became a much sought-after guitarist, working with the likes of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf. During the 1970s he toured and recorded with Junior Wells, and although the duo was revered in blues circles—they even opened for The Rolling Stones on several occasions—their records were often badly distributed and sold poorly.
But during the 1980s Guy’s reputation grew steadily, and in 1985 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. By the 1990s he had become an electric guitar icon, having been cited as a major influence by legendary rock guitarists including Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Clapton.
This according to “Guy, George ‘Buddy’” by Yves Laberge (Encyclopedia of the blues II  pp. 395–396); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Guy’s 80th birthday! Above, with Clapton in 2011; below, live in 2010.
BONUS: Stone crazy from 1961, ranked 78th in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitar songs of all time.
One day Manny Greenhill, Reverend Gary Davis’s sometime manager, received a desperate call from Wurlitzer, one of Boston’s most staid and respected music stores.
A quavering voice explained that an elderly man, a minister of some sort, had seized the most expensive guitar in the store and refused to part with it.
The man had tried out several models, had chosen the top-of-the-line Gibson, and had been there for some time, talking to it, and playing and singing spirituals in a loud voice. No one dared to take it away from him. “He says he has no money, but he gave your name, Mr. Greenhill, as his manager. He is upsetting the other customers. What shall we do?”
Greenhill bought Davis the guitar, and the debt became a longstanding joke: Davis was always going to pay him back for Miss Gibson “on the next check.”
This according to “Remembering Reverend Gary Davis” by Eric von Schmidt and John Kruth (Sing out! LI/4 [winter 2008] pp. 66–75).
Today is Davis’s 120th birthday! Above and below, Davis and Miss Gibson in action.