Down in the Basement

Joe Bussard's Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s 1926-1937

Old Hat CD-1004 - Includes 76 page booklet

"This is the music of poor whites and blacks wild-ass jazz and string-band hillbilly, surreal yodels and kingsnake moans, lightning-bolt blues and whorehouse romps and orgasmic gospel.  It's all anti-pop, anti-sentimental, the raw sounds of the city gutter and the roadside ditch."  Eddie Dean 1. I elicited that first quote straight from the Old Hat web site, but it originated with an article called Desperate Man Blues: Record collector Joe Bussard parties like it's 1929. by Eddie Dean, published in the Washington Free Weekly of 1999.1

"Osgood, I gotta level with ya.  I'm a man!"  Jack Lemmon; from Some Like It Hot.

Well nobody's perfect.  Looking at the title, for a minute there, I thought someone had sent me some bootleg Bob Dylan to review.  No such luck unfortunately, for Bob, as his more ingratiating supporters like to call him, is not exactly infra dig in the tight little world of traditional music.  Nevertheless, thoughts of Bob's basement would not be out of context in this context.  Neither would conjugations of the jazz age and prohibition America.  That is because Dylan's early artistic propensities were heavily indebted to the 1920s record collection of a certain Harry Smith, and to that legendary production of Smith's; The Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music.

As with the Folkways, this compilation is drawn from the golden age of commercial recordings of vernacular USA, and culled from the collection of a single enthusiast.  It does, though, make no claims about confining itself to folk music.  In fact, anyone familiar with Old Hat's two previous releases, Folks He Sure Do Pull Some Bow, and Violin Play The Blues For Me2. Old Hat CDs 1002 and 1003.2, will have a good idea of what to expect.  Cover pictureProducer, Marshall Wyatt's enthusiasm for the violin is distinctly muted on this occasion.  But the material is as excellent as it is eclectic.  There is the usual problem over duplication of existing reissues, but they seem less noticeable here.  Overall, I was glad to find that standout tracks from familiar anthologies could be enjoyed as expertly remastered stand alones.

Indeed, before I go any further, I want to say that this CD is probably the most impressive sounding 78 reissue I have ever come across.  There are inevitable problems with distortion and surface noise, but the sound generally is bright and clean, with extraneous clatter pushed well to the background.  The entire project is a tribute to the technical abilities of Robert Vosgien of Capitol Mastering, and to the pristine quality of the 78s from which the CD was cut.

It is also a tribute to the indefatigable drive of the individual, who provided those 78s, and whose life's work has resulted in the unearthing of so much first class material.  That individual in fact is one Joe Bussard, a vintage record collector, whose library is of major importance to enthusiasts of vernacular American music.  He has been the uncelebrated source of many previous LP and CD reissues, so it's nice to see him getting some of the limelight for once.

What's Mr.  Bussard got stashed in his basement?  Well, his collection runs to a colossal 25,000 discs, so these 24 tracks are nothing more than a snifter; they are too small a sample to give a clear idea of everything that's down there.  For that matter, the programme is too heavily skewed for it to be a representative cross section of wrong side of the tracks America.  Just under half the disc is taken up with White country music, and a further third covers its Negro equivalent.  There are four jazz records and, surprisingly, only one Cajun.  There is nothing at all from any of the European immigrant communities.  However, think of this as a compilation of Joe Bussard favourites - the ones he would play for you if you ever stopped by his basement - and you won't go far wrong.

At this juncture most reviewers would highlight a few standout tracks, contrast them with a few below par, write a conclusion and head for the nearest speakeasy.  Just for once, the speakeasy will have to wait, for the whole disc is just too good to leave.  For instance, it starts off with a blinding performance of The Lost Child, by the Stripling Brothers; a duo from 1920s' Alabama.  We don't hear too much country music from that particular state.  If the Striplings are an indication of what we've been missing, then we've been missing an awful lot.

Other tracks in the country genre include several religious items from The Corley Family, Uncle Dave Macon and John Dilleshaw; there are highly commendable performances from the Weems String Band and the Dixons; and there is a breathtaking mandolin/guitar duet from the Grinell Giggers.  I was though particularly interested to hear Ain't That Trouble In Mind, featuring Fields Ward and the Grayson County Railsplitters.  That is not just because the music is first class, and fully justifies Ward's assertion that it was among the best he ever made.  It also affords a unique opportunity to evaluate Old Hat's remastering.

The story goes like this.  The Railsplitters made a visit to the Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana, in 1928, where they cut 15 sides.  Gennett never issued the tracks, due to a copyright dispute between Ward and Ernest Stoneman, who was then a member of the group.  The masters were destroyed, but fortunately, Ward retained a set of test pressings until the 1960s, when a reissue label called Historical cut an LP from them.3. Historical HLP 8001; Fields Ward and His Buck Mountain Band.3  I have the Historical LP and I've never been sure whether its atrocious sound quality was due to poor LP pressing (all my Historicals are afflicted by dreadful sound), or to deterioration of the Gennett pressings, or to Gennett's amateurish recording technique.  All three factors doubtless played a part but, on this showing, it looks as though the LP is chiefly to blame.  Listening to the Old Hat after the Historical is like turning a light on in a darkened room.  I look forward to the day when the entire session is available in sound as sparkling as this.

Pop Stoneman turns up on another track in this collection, performing I Got a Bulldog, in the company of the Sweet Brothers.  This is also on the Historical LP, and again, Old Hat's sound knocks the vinyl into a cocked hat.  Wyatt claims the piece is based on the worksong, Take This Hammer, but I would urge a note of caution.  First of all, worksong texts are frequently too unstable for us to assign their ancestry or their descent, and I fear this may be the case here.  Also, I Got a Bulldog is textually and melodically closer to Black Woman; which Alan Lomax collected during his historic visit to Parchman Farm, Mississippi in 1947.  Finally, I doubt whether anyone could say which came first, the work song chicken, or the country music egg.  I can only observe that the Parchman version has a tremendous range for a worksong.  Perhaps both pieces originated as a minstrel song which went off in two different directions.

I am normally a detester of Hollywood singing cowboys, but there's a Gene Autry track on this disc which is well worth taking note of.  It belongs to a pre-Hollywood incarnation of Autry, when he was turning in extremely creditable Jimmie Rodgers' imitations.  Here he does a very nice version of Alabama Bound and, if copyists put you off, he is backed with sterling banjo from Roy Smeck.

But I gotta level with ya.  I can never listen to Running Wild without thinking of that marvellous film of the jazz era, Some Like it Hot; and in particular, of Marilyn Monroe's performance of that song, where she is backed by Sweet Sue and her all girl orchestra.  Who could ever forget Sweet Sue's imperious injunction to all those Florida sugar daddies.  "Every one of my girls is a virtuoso, and I aim to keep it that way".

We get Running Wild on this disc, but we don't get sugar daddies, and we don't get Marilyn Monroe.  We don't even get any words, and I doubt that anyone would describe James Cole's Washboard Four as a virtuoso outfit.  What we do get is a delightfully amiable instrumental on fiddle, guitar, mandolin and washboard.  I've long been a fan of the various incarnations of the Tommy Bradley/James Cole partnership, about which nothing still seems to be known.  Their presence here might encourage fans to look out their entire recorded repertoire, and you can find it on Document DOCD-5189.

For a minute, there, I thought the next track was a Bradely/Cole number also; Mama Keep Your Yes Ma'am Clean.  In fact it turns out to be Charley Jordan's Keep It Clean, but the opening lick is sufficiently reminiscent of the Bradley/Cole tune, to make me wonder whether there is any connection between the two.  Even more intriguing, Jordan's song is melodically and structurally similar to that huge family of blues, commonly referred to as The Dozens.  Verses of The Dozens are often scatological and obscene, although readers will be relieved to hear that Charley likes to keep it clean.  I'm left wondering though, does the Bradley/Cole song represent a pre-blues form of The Dozens?  Do the origins of that piece lie on the vaudeville stage or maybe the plantation?

There are more precursors of the blues, including a famous recording of Original Stack O'Lee Blues by 'Long Cleve' Reed and Papa Harvey Hull.  Stack O'Lee is one of the most widespread of all American ballads, and its extensive circulation may be the reason why Messrs Reed and Hull inserted the word 'Original' in the title.  The words are fairly intact.  But as with many a jazz or bluegrass interpretation of a ballad, they tend to get lost in the overall performance.  No matter.  It's a fine performance.

You ought to hear the rest of the Reed/Hull output, and again Document have the solution; DOCD-5045, to be precise.  Joe Bussard has the only copy of the Reed/Hull Stack, which has ever been turned up, and it therefore has to be the one which was used for the Document compilation.  Thus, I would have had another opportunity to appraise Old Hat's remastering; except that I don't own a copy of the Document.  My Reed/Hull collection goes back to Matchbox LP MSE 201; Country Blues - The First Generation.  I can only say that the Old Hat sound is far superior to the LP, and I can only make a prescient guess that it will be far superior to the Document also.

Before leaving the Black contributors, I must introduce you to Gitfiddle Jim, from Georgia.  Who on earth was Gitfiddle Jim?  Well, his real name was James Arnold, and he moved to Chicago subsequent to making this record.  There he established himself as a master slide guitar player under the name Kokomo Arnold.  He would have been even better known in that genre, except that he enjoyed a lucrative sideline as a bootlegger.  Consequently, he avoided the limelight, fearing the authorities would stop by and sample some of the stuff he'd got stashed in his basement.

Here, he delivers a frenetic version of the old stage hit, Paddling Madeleine Home, complete with some of the fastest and most compelling guitar work I have ever heard.  Arnold is sometimes credited as being one of the influences on Robert Johnson, but you would never think it from this performance.  In fact, his work here reminds me of several Eastern States guitarists, from Etta Baker to Frank Hutchison.  Yet he is as stunning as he is original.

There are two other fine east coast guitarists in the personas of Blind Blake and Blind Gary Davis.  Both deliver superlative performances, the Blake being supplemented by the piano of Charlie Spand, but the Davis vocal intrigues me.  It has long been a piece of received wisdom that Blind Gary ruined his voice by singing above the roar of traffic on urban street corners.  Consequently, it is said that the Gary Davis we all grew to love on microgroove, had but a shadow of his former voice; emotionally charged and grippingly passionate, but shot to pieces and hoarse as hell.  Well, on this 1935 recording of You Got To Go Down, his voice is no less emotionally charged, but it is also no less shot.

I am not a huge fan of Cajun music, so I was not unduly worried by the fact that the idiom is represented by just one item.  However, Easy Rider Blues, by Leo Soileau and Moise Robin, is a classic.  It begins with a most un-Cajunlike accordion and fiddle, and it takes several seconds before the ear realises that these two gentlemen are playing a blues.  The words are in English, and the vocal is the epitome of eery.  I have seen the term high lonesome sound applied to a multiplicity of styles; from Robert Johnson and Skip James, to Roscoe Holcomb and Bill Monroe.  I have even seen it stretched far enough to embrace artists as diverse as Hank Williams and Tommy Peoples.  You wouldn't need to stretch it any distance at all to encompass the tormented vocals of Leo Soileau.

In fact I hadn't entirely left the black musicians.  There are still those four jazz records and they are the ones upon which readers of this magazine are most likely to look askance.  This is not the place to discuss the parameters of traditional music although, as is the case with Bob Dylan, many aficionados would consider jazz to be on a different track to their music entirely.  I do not share their inhibitions, and we are dealing with the roaring '20s, when all is said and done.  So perhaps anything which roars is fair game.

These tracks have got plenty to roar about.  Of the four, I liked Bessie Brown's Song From A Georgia Cottonfield the least.  The words are a worthy condemnation of racial inequity, but their message would have carried more weight if the vocalist hadn't tried to aim for such a catchy delivery.  Even so, the accompaniment is superb, and if you've got this thing about saxophone players, you'll get goose bumps when you hear a young Coleman Hawkins on tenor.4. Incidentally, Bessie Brown was confirmation that cross dressing jazz musicians were not entirely a fancy of the Some Like It Hot film set. She used to double as a male impersonator. In that role, she paralleled Frankie 'Half Pint' Jaxon, who appears on this record in the company of Bill Johnson's Louisiana Jug Band. Jaxon must have been one of the wackiest characters ever to tread the boards. Besides being a dancer, actor, comedian, imitation female vocalist and risqué blues singer (he is said to have turned Leroy Carr's How Long Blues into a song about the exaggerated size of a certain member of the male anatomy), he was also a female impersonator.4

There is more interesting stuff from Bessie's near namesake, Bill Brown and his Brownies, and I'm surely not the only western swing fan who will do a double take on that one.  Indeed, memories of Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies are also evoked by Luis Russell's all star 1929 recording of (New) Call Of The Freaks.  The Brownies, the Milton variety, that is, covered the same piece some 5 years later in San Antonio as Garbage Man Blues.5. I wonder though, whether the Brownies recording really is a cover of (New) Call Of The Freaks, as it appears here. The Harlem Hamfats, a Chicago based recording group, cut their own version some two years after the Brownies, as The Garbage Man (The Harlem Hamfats. Volume 1; 18 April to 13 November 1936. Document DOCD 5271). Both title and performance seem more indebted to the Brownies than to Russell, although I'd have thought it unlikely that Hamfats and Brownies ever crossed paths. On the other hand, the tune was composed by Paul Barbarin, Russell's percussionist. So it's safe to regard it as a Russell band original, and to say that all subsequent versions must ultimately stem from theirs. However, I'm wondering whether that bracketed New in the title indicates that the Russell band made an earlier recording of the piece. Alternatively, could it be that someone else came up with a cover version which in turn inspired the two later ones?5

Another line of mis-anticipation arose over Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra.  I was expecting their Hot Town to be a version of the Bessie Smith hit, There'll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight.  Instead it turns out to be yet another train monologue, to stack alongside similar gems from Blind Willie McTell, Dan Sullivan's Shamrock Band and, wait for it, Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies.  This one is probably closest to Dan Sullivan's From Galway To Dublin.  At any rate, the jokes are just as bad.  The music fairly rattles along, however.

By now you could be forgiven for thinking that this must be the best record of 78 reissues I've come across in years.  Well, it is!  in fact it is so good that the only downsides I could detect are external to the CD.

First of all, the music may have been built to last, but the booklet certainly wasn't.  It started to fall to pieces almost as soon as I used it.

Also, in previous Old Hat releases, Marshall Wyatt has proved himself a master of the art of essay writing.  He has the knack of weaving a string of ostensibly unconnected facts into a narrative, which is at once entertaining, edifying and empirically attestable.  Would that one or two self proclaimed 'experts' I can bring to mind were capable of producing work of similar quality.  Here, though, the booklet's main article is centred around a discussion of Joe Bussard's record collecting, and at times it gets to sound a bit fanzine.  On the other hand, there are some excellent discographical notes, and a lot of interesting reminiscences from Joe.  Together with Wyatt's article, these do much to convey the manic enthusiasm of the man. 

For that matter, some readers may consider this exegesis to be a shade fanzine, too.  Well, it's a rare record which coaxes a rave review from a curmudgeonly codger like me, and this is one release you really will not want to miss.  But maybe that's the effect which the Bussard basement has on people.  Just what has he got stashed down there?6. Before anyone calls the untouchables, I'd better mention that Joe Bussard keeps a sobering inventory of the contents of his basement at http//
Moreover, his site announces that he'll copy any amount of material onto cassette for as little as 50c per item. A deal like that sounds good enough to make a preacher lay his bible down.6