BluEsoterica is the title of for a column I have written for Living Blues magazine every now and then since 1994. The reprints on this web site may include bits and pieces that didn't fit onto the BluEsoterica pages in LB, along with revised and updated information. Readers' questions, comments, theories, and contributions are welcome.
BluEsoterica (Living Blues #114, March/April 1994)
Sometimes it strikes me that Living Blues is so serious about its mission, and its readers so worked up defending or attacking editorial policies, reviewers' opinions, or each other, that we overlook the minutely detailed, legendarily obscure, or insanely esoteric questions about the music we love.
You know, the stuff that most British blues magazines, European discographers, and Japanese collectors seem to dote on. Who played guitar on the 1924 Edna Johnson session for Gennett? Did Patton spell his name Charlie or Charley? Did he really wear his bowtie at an angle to cover the scar on his neck? And where was who when that Clarksdale mill burned down (in Patton's Moon Going Down)? Which mill was it (I've already asked the Clarksdale Fire Department!)? Why do blues artists give so many different birthdates for themselves in different interviews? Who was Monroe Moe Jackson? Was he related to Monroe Guy Jackson? Why did they take him out of the revised edition of Blues Records 1943-1970? Into how many thousand fragments did that tape of the unissued Little Walter alternate take explode when Mike Rowe and I were trying to operate the tape machine in the old Chess Records vault? Whatever happened to those pieces of tape? And shouldn't the term be "alternative take," not "alternate take"? What planet was Homesick James born on? Who stole the Robert Johnson plaque from the monument at Mt. Zion? Why doesn't Highway 61 run from Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico like the song says it does? How many Guitar Slims are there? How many Luther Johnsons? Willie Browns? Who had bigger feet, Howlin' Wolf or Sonny Boy? Whatever happened to Willie Steel? Casey Bill Weldon? Louise Johnson? Leecan & Cooksey? Shy Guy Douglas? Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon? How do I "dust my broom"? What was the first 10-inch blues LP? What was the last? Who misidentified those photos of Bob Koester's in LB 112?
It is into such matters that this column will foolishly delve. Guest columnists with mysteries to investigate, minutiae to propose, or absurdities to ponder are invited to contribute.
"MANUWAT BLUES" & "JUNIAN, A JAP'S GIRL CHRISTMAS FOR HIS SANTA CLAUS" [sic]
The largest and most intriguing extant body of still-unissued prewar blues recordings must be those in the Library of Congress' Archive of Folk Culture (formerly known as the Archive of Folk Song). I'd always wondered about some of the curious titles listed in the prewar discography, Blues & Gospel Records 1902-1943, by Dixon & Godrich, and finally had a chance to hear some of them on a recent visit to the library in Washington, D.C. Two days of listening convinced me it would take months to hear it all, but I also came away convinced that many of the titles and artists' names have been listed erroneously for years, ever since (or even before) the early editions of Dixon & Godrich in the 1960s. I looked forward to discovering what or who a "Manuwat" was, for instance, based on the entry of Manuwat Blues by singer-harmonica player Turner Junior Johnson, recorded in Clarksdale in 1942, only to find that a previous researcher (whose handwriting I recognized as that of Trix Records' Pete Lowry) had corrected the catalogue card to read Minglewood Blues. Johnson's song is based on the 1928 Cannon's Jug Stompers record; in neither version is the word "Minglewood" sung, but Johnson does introduce the song by that name.
All right, then, next question: what or where was Minglewood? In Bengt Olsson’s 1970 book Memphis Blues, West Tennessee resident David Rice remembered: “Minglewood is a sawmill place in Ashport, west of Ripley. It was torn down 15 or 20 years ago.” John “Memphis Piano Red” Williams added, “Minglewood is a box factory.” The name, however, seems to have been mangled, according to Paul Garon: A photo from the University of Louisville Photographic Archives published in Garon’s Blues and the Poetic Spirit (1975) bears the caption: “Workers at the Mengel Box Company, Louisville, Kentucky, 1920. The Mengel Box Co. also owned the town of Mengelwood, Tennessee, on the outskirts of Memphis. The town in mentioned in many blues by Memphis singers.”
In the case of Manuwat Blues, and several others, whoever first entered the title for the Library of Congress apparently couldn't decipher the words; another 1942 Clarksdale vocal/harmonica side by Jesse James Jefferson (Preacher Thomas), listed as She's A Big Sturdy Woman, turned out to be She's A Biscuit Turnin' Woman. But it also seems that, in transmitting the information to Dixon & Godrich, errors were made either in copying the names and titles (presumably by hand, since the entire folk song catalogue is indexed only on typed cards, not on computer), or in deciphering the handwriting when the information was retyped by the discographers. The Mississippi artist listed in D&G as Will Storks is in fact Will Starks (or, in Alan Lomax's book The Land Where the Blues Began, Will Stark); a Clarksdale listing credited to "Marilyn Davis & Ollie Upchurch" is by a male vocalist, Maryland Davis Upchurch, accompanied by his son Ollie Upchurch.
The most puzzling title of all is listed in D&G as Junian, A Jap's Girl Christmas For His Santa Claus (sic), by Willie Blackwell, recorded by Alan Lomax in Arkansas in 1942. The song has been released on a Library of Congress album (Folk Music in America, Volume 10: Songs of War & History, LBC 10) as Junior, A Jap Girl's Christmas For Her Santa Claus. On Travelin' Man CD 07, Mississippi Blues: Library of Congress Recordings 1940-1942, it's called Junior's A Jap's Girl Christmas For His Santa Claus (sic). (The sics appear in the printed titles in Dixon & Godrich and on the CD.) In his book, Lomax refers to the song as A Jap Girl For Next Christmas From Santy Claus, and names the artist only as "Willie B." The L of C album notes even state: "Blackwell's song has one of the most bizarre titles in the Archive of Folk Song -- a title confirmed, incidentally, by his own announcement on the original disc." The opening verse, as transcribed in the booklet to LBC 10, is: "Goodbye I got to leave you, I got to fight for America, you and my boy/Goodbye babe, I hate to leave you, I got to fight for you, America and my boy/Well well, you can look for a Jap girl's Christmas, oooh lord baby, for Junior's Santa Claus." By these interpretations, I suppose Blackwell, who was preparing to serve his country in World War II, must have intended to capture a geisha girl and bring her home to Junior; or maybe the Japanese girl's Christmas was to be celebrated with Junior or Santa in some other way. Bizarre indeed.
However, upon relistening to the track, I've decided that we've been missing the all-too-gruesome point of Mr. Blackwell's tale of sending baby Junior a Japanese Christmas present. I'm sure the last line is: "Well, well, you can look for a Jap's SKULL Christmas, oooh Lord, baby, for Junior's Santa Claus." (The title, then, with missing words filled in, would be something like [I'm Going To Send] Junior A Jap's Skull [For] Christmas For His [Present from] Santa Claus.) (The term "Santa Claus" has been used elsewhere in blues and gospel to mean the Christmas gift, not jolly St. Nick himself -- a relevant line here would be Rev. A.W. Nix's "Death might be your Santa Claus" fromDeath Might Be Your Christmas Gift, recorded in 1927.) The bone-chilling connection is made clear by Blackwell's third verse: "Yes, when Junior starts to teethin', baby, please write to me/When Junior starts to teething, oh baby, please write to me/Well, well, I'm gonna send him a Jap's tooth so that he can cut his [with ease?]." On that deathly holiday note, we'll end this query with another one: Whatever happened to Willie Blackwell? He showed up in Memphis in the early '70s and may have gone back to Flint, Michigan, where he'd lived earlier. Did he ever acquire such grisly war souvenirs as he promised in his song? Anyone with knowledge of Willie Blackwell, please let us know.
We’ve since learned the answers to a few questions posed above. (Some of the questions which were written for the column in 1994 were cut from the published version in LB, such as “What ever happened to . . .?” The late Shy Guy Douglas, one of those mystery artists, has since been documented on some Nashville blues/R&B reissues), and information on Douglas, Frankie Jaxon, and others is now available in the Bob Eagle-Eric LeBlanc book Blues: A Regional Exploration. Monroe Moe Jackson, Highway 61, and the subject of blues artists’ birthdates were discussed in subsequent BluEsoterica columns. A revised edition of the prewar discography, Blues and Gospel Records 1890-1943 by Robert M.W. Dixon, John Godrich, & Howard Rye, was published in 1997, making note of some of the Library of Congress errors listed above but still listing the Blackwell song as Junian, A Jap’s Girl Christmas For His Santa Claus [sic].
The Library of Congress, meanwhile, has made some progress in cataloguing its collections of field recordings, and has even posted an excellent site online at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/lohtml/lohome.html, entitled “Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip.” Which will lead us to another listening misadventure . . . another time.
POSTSCRIPT #2 (January 2016): Watch for more information on Willie Blackwell from recent research and a few vintage sources. Blackwell appeared at the 1971 River City Blues Festival in Memphis, produced by Steve LaVere. I took photos of him at that festival (see Living Blues #7). Blackwell was primarily a guitarist but in these photos he was playing piano. Also in the photo on this page are Dewey Corley, collector/producer George Paulus, and Furry Lewis. LaVere and Paulus recorded Blackwell around that time or a few months later but never released any of the material. I later acquired the session tape.
Blackwell told Steve LaVere that he was born in 1905. It appears that he may be the same Willie Blackwell, a resident of Marion, Arkansas (just across the river from Memphis), who was born in 1905 and died in 2001. Or, if he was actually younger than he claimed, he may be the William Blackwell born in Tennessee in 1917 who died in Flint in 1978. I'll end this the same way I did the original LB column: Anyone with knowledge of Willie Blackwell, please let us know.