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Logically, when you talkin' about folk music and blues, you find out it's music of just plain people - Brownie McGhee

Author Topic: Bukka White  (Read 6203 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Bukka White
« on: March 11, 2006, 12:06:25 PM »
In July 1971 the news agency, Associated Press, got hold of the information that Bukka White had died. This was picked up by the Melody Maker, reported in their news column and staff writer Max jones promptly wrote a 1,000 word, appreciative obituary and managed to get it into the next week's issue. AP had got it W-R-O-N-G and the old adage "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" became a standing joke with blues fans in Britain. Whilst thumbing through my clippings from the Melody Maker I came across this and duly pass it on (Melody Maker 10 Jul 1971, p.41 less photo).
(BTW if you folk are getting bored with all my arcane posts, just yell and I'll desist)

Death of a Delta giant

MY awareness of Bukka White, whose death was reported in last week's MM, goes back quite a long way: to the early middle Forties when I first became seriously involved in what were then called "race" records.

Vocal blues of the kind made by men like Big Bill, Lead Belly, Peetie Wheatstraw and Bukka were seldom released in this country.

And during the war years it was hard though not impossible, to get hold of any. When I first broadcast on Lead Belly, around 1945, not one of his records had been issued here. And nothing was available by Broonzy, Wheatstraw, Blind Boy Fuller, Leroy Carr and any or a score of generously recorded male blues artists.

Into my life, and changing it, at this period came a slow stream of 78 rpm discs from the US race catalogues.

Carr and Blackwell, Big Bill, Half-Pint Jaxon, Sleepy John Estes, Josh White, Kokomo Arnold and Lead Belly and one day through the good graces of a fellow collector, named Claude Lipscombe, Bukka White.

Nothing, of course was ever released in this country on 78 of Bukka's, and the record I obtained was already becoming rare in the USA. I had borrowed. it for a programme I'd managed to flog the BBC. Titled "Town And Country Blues," it set out to make a contrast between the primitive rural music of such as Lewis Black and Bukka and the more formalised blues style then developing in Chicago and other cities.

Bukka's "Fixin' To Die Blues" was, I recall, the final track. And it carried the programme out in a magical and original fashion.

I have never forgotten the impression those obsessive lyrics made on me then rhythmically delivered by the singer against an almost inappropriately happy and thrusting guitar-washboard accompaniment. All- these years later, "Fixin' To Die" is still my favourite of Bukka's "sky songs," as he terms them.

The title was one of a dozen striking performances cut on March 7 and 8, 1940 by Bukka and Robert (Washboard Sam) Brown.

"District Attorney," "Parchman Farm Blues," "Where Can I Change My Clothes" are among the interesting items from these sessions, also a "Strange Place Blues" which again bears witness to the blusman's preoccupation with death as a song theme. "Jitterbug Swing" is a fine example of his powerful, stomping dance music.

Quite a few of Bukka's imaginative songs are concerned with personal experiences in court and prison with his reaction to the death of friends or family and his own envisaged end.

It is, you could say, a morbid fixation in a musical entertainer, but it has helped to place his better creations in the highest category of blues recordings.

Not unnaturally I suppose, artists being often unlike their art, Bukka in person appeared pretty far removed from the dreamer of doomy verses and the conjurer of eerie atmospheres.

I met him first at the London concert of the American Folk Blues Festival of 1967, and he seemed a tough but friendly enough man who, while probably intense about his music, had his feet firmly on the ground (not in the sky).

Seated backstage, with a cigar as I remember him and bottles of beer at hand, he was happy to talk about his old metal National his bottleneck technique with the big steel tube on the little finger, even his rudimentary piano playing.

But left to his own inclinations he was more likely to chat about mundane things like work and travel, getting some rest or a drink, or the possibility of making records and therefore more money. The poet and visionary was not close to the surface.

A hardness, even a little fierceness, could be sensed; and I'd have felt surprised if it had been otherwise. He lived a pretty rugged and deprived life, active too, around Mississippi ? travelling fast, playing odd jobs and, as he put it, "looking for pretty girls." Then he spent time in jail.

A cousin of B. B. King, Bukka was born Booker T. Washington White in Houston Mississippi, in either 1906 or '9 (he gave both dates). His grandfather farmed there. His father, a railroad worker From Texas, showed him some tricks on guitar; and the grandfather played violin.

An uncle, with whom he went to live, possessed a piano. Bukka ? it seems to have been a local pronunciation of his name, though White preferred to be called Booker ? tried out the keyboard but preferred the guitar. Within a few weeks of obtaining his first box he was "playing in public; the blues, just like today."

Whatever the truth of that remark, it is clear from his first records, made in 1930 and including a splendid train blues, "Panama Limited," that his vocal manner and pounding guitar work remained largely unchanged.

In 1937 White recorded a couple of sides for Vocalion, good too, and the company wished him to make more but before he could do so he was imprisoned for, in his words, "burning a guy up a little."

White has lodged in Mississippi's notorious Parchman pen, where he cut two titles for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress as Washington (Barrelhouse) White. A barrelhouse player he certainly was, and the incarceration in the state pen gave him, understandably, a lot of vivid images for his songs.

It is interesting to note that his 1940 recordings were what Sam Charters referred to as "the last of the classic Delta recordings to h released on a commercial market."

If White had made nothing else, he would be revered blues fanciers as a patriarch. figure on a par with Patton, Son House and Skip James. But in fact he was rediscovered by enthusiasts in '63 and launched on a new recording career.

His raw but pure Delta music was caught on two volumes of "Sky Songs" (Arhoolie), with his piano on two tracks, and "Mississippi Blues" (Takoma and Sonet). His earlier music beautifully preserved on "Bukka White" (CBS Realm) and this is the album to buy to gauge the extent of his originality and swinging power. But the later stuff, though heavier and often reminiscent of earlier records, is still very well worthwhile. It can be heard on two tracks d Blue Horizon's "1968 Memphis Country Blues Festival," and with group support on "Memphis Hot Shots" (Blue Horizon).

His death removed from the lists a true giant of Mississippi folksong. One of the last of the living legends of country blues.  MAX JONES

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #1 on: March 11, 2006, 12:39:54 PM »

(BTW if you folk are getting bored with all my arcane posts, just yell and I'll desist)

Not a chance. I think I can speak for pretty much everyone when I say these articles are enormously interesting and a boon for many of us who do not have access to them through public or personal collections. Keep 'em coming!


Offline slidnslim

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #2 on: March 11, 2006, 12:52:16 PM »
;) Thanks man that was great reading! I never get sick of
 reading stuff like that,espeacialy stuff about Booker!

 Kenny,

Offline Slack

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #3 on: March 11, 2006, 01:07:28 PM »
Quote
(BTW if you folk are getting bored with all my arcane posts, just yell and I'll desist)

We love this stuff Bunker!  Thanks so much for posting!

Offline dj

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #4 on: March 11, 2006, 01:09:46 PM »
Quote
...primitive rural music of such as Lewis Black and Bukka...

Wow, what are the chances of Lewis Black's name coming up twice in one week?

Nice post, Bunker Hill.  Keep 'em coming.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #5 on: March 11, 2006, 11:23:09 PM »
I never get sick of reading stuff like that,espeacialy stuff about Booker!
If that's the case. When Larry Cohn gathered together all those 1940 Vocalion sides and threw in the two 1937 pieces as a bonus on one LP (Columbia C-30036) in 1969, the international blues fraternity at the time were ecstatic. The album sleeve notes by Simon Napier, co-editor of Blues Unlimiterd, were quite informative too:

This album presents, for the first time, the entire Vocalion output of one of the finest blues artists of this century. They were made when Bukka White was at his peak. Today, any blues fan will tell you he knows Bukka White. Fifty thousand saw him touring Europe in 1967. The frantic resurgence of interest in 'blues' both as enjoyable music and as valid art-form has resulted, in recent years, in unprecedented research into the songs and the singers. Names like Bukka White, Son House, Skip James have become familiar, have become associated with the early days, the very fountainhead of this great music.

Early in the 1960s a band of oddball but dedicated blues connoisseurs went out looking for the faces behind the romantic names on their treasured vintage blues phono records, cut for the negro-only 'race' markets of the 1920s and 1930s. With surprising frequency they were successful in finding artists still alive, often still relatively proficient though many hadn't played professionally for many years. Thus it came about that Mississippi John Hurt, first recorded over thirty years earlier, began a second 'career' in music in his '70s, that Skip James, found lying seriously ill in hospital in 1964, recovered to immediately play the Newport Folk Festival, and that Sleepy John Estes, last heard of recording in Chicago in 1941, flew from his home in Brownsville to the Concert Halls of West Germany, Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. Bukka White followed in Estes footsteps a few years later, the same Bukka White whom, it was said, made the last great country blues session back in 19401

It will be seen that these 'rediscovered' artists had all established reputations with collectors via their old recordings. In the case of Bukka White it was with two momentous sessions for the old Vocalion label, the first in 1937 which produced the first two titles on this collection, and the second 1940 session, spread over two days, accounted for no less than twelve numbers, all of which can be heard here. Very few blues in this style were being made at this late date, for the louder small combo blues of Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam. Tampa Red and John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson had gained enormous popularity and most of the working blues artists were playing in a similar style. True, Blind Boy Fuller, Tommy McClennan and a few others were working in a solo vocal and guitar form, but it was soon to end and many of their recordings took on a party atmosphere. And much of it lacked the striking qualities of, say, the Robert Johnson sessions of 1936/7 or of these by Bukka White. These two great artists saw out an age of beautiful music, which at the time was completely unrecognised by either the general white public or their recording company.

Bukka White was born in a tiny hamlet, Houston, in Mississippi, on November 12, 1909. He was christened Booker T. Washington White, after the famous Negro educator, and in fact still prefers to be called Booker. One of eight children, he was soon away from home, roaming the Delta and getting up as far as Memphis, having picked up a rudimentary musical knowledge from his father, who played both guitar and fiddle. It was in Memphis that he met and played with Frank Stokes, another legendary figure in the early blues world; here too he taught himself harmonica and piano and later cut his first records. in 1930 for Victor. He was then 20 years of age, but still a fine, imaginative guitarist. Of the long session he made in conjunction with the mysterious guitarist Napoleon Hairiston. only four sides were released, two being gospel numbers, and no lasting fame ensued.

During the next seven years he tried his hand at many vocations, including street singing, baseball pitching and prize-fighting. He recalls visiting St. Louis, Mo., Cleveland, Ohio, and Chicago, during a restless, wandering period while he tried to find some tangible success. His boxing career ended abruptly when he took a severe beating, and the next we hear of him is in Chicago, where on September 2, 1937, he got the break which resulted in the release of his Shake 'em on down. Coupled with Pinebluff, Arkansas it came out on three labels (Vocalion, Conqueror and later, Columbia) and reputedly sold in excess of 16,000 copies. The song later became a standard among Chicago-based recording artists, as Truck 'em on down, Ride 'em on down and in various other forms besides its original one, which is today most commonly associated with Big Joe Williams. It is undoubtedly, however, Bukka White who first put the piece on record, and into the bargain recorded the most powerful variant. His powerhouse singing and playing, over an unobtrusive second guitarist (still unidentified) set the style for things to come....

Very soon after the success of this record, Bukka was sent to the notorious prison farm in Mississippi. the dreaded Parchman Farm. He apparently had a good time there and one report tells that when Vocalion attempted to secure his release, the request was turned down on the grounds that the warden liked his music too much. Bukka says he did little but play his music. though he is reticent as to the reason for his sentence, and vague as to the length of his internment. Whilst in Parchman. John A. Lomax. the famous folklorist, came to the prison and among others, recorded two pieces by Bukka. He didn't offer any payment so Bukka refused to record any other numbers. John father of Alan Lomax, was working for the Library of Congress, and was curator of the Music Division at this time. For other details of his stay in prison, we must turn to the recordings made after his release was secured. reputedly still on the insistence of Vocalion, sometime before March of 1940.

So, sometime between Lomax's visit of May 24. 1939, and the beginning of his second Vocalion session of March 7, 1940. Bukka was released. On that day and the next, he recorded twelve songs, in Chicago. with accompaniment by Washboard Sam. in direct contrast to the popular sound of the day. and with a rare passion in vocal presentation that has been matched by only a few of the great blues singers. This is a completely unique and astonishingly beautiful collection of blues. Turning back to his spell in prison, clues may be provided by the lyrics of Where can I change my clothes, an obvious reference to his prison garb, which he detested, Parchman Farm Blues which is obviously autobiographical in the light of our present knowledge, and the less specific but no less obvious District Attorney Blues. Close attention to the lyrics of these numbers is very rewarding.

Another 'theme' used by Bukka on this session, one which crops up on no less than four numbers, has long fascinated students and collectors. mainly because of its personal slant which is relatively unusual in such compositions. Blues is an oral tradition and completely original verse is less common than most people imagine, but Bukka White's blues about death are for the most part highly original. Fixin' to die was composed to the memory of a friend, Flem Smith. and besides the beautiful lyric has a brilliant guitar part: Strange Place Blues relates to the death of his mother, in 1933; High Fever Blues says Bukka today, was inspired by the death of a girlfriend named Mary Johnson, who died of yellow jaundice. Finally, Good Gin Blues was dedicated to the memory of a drinking companion named Tod Walker. who died of its effects, and is in altogether vaguer wording than the previously mentioned numbers.

There is a protest element in White's lyrics which was, and still is. unusual in Negro commercially recorded blues. One of Bukka's friends, J. B. Lenoir, who died recently and came from Montecello, is another whose themes went very deep, and incidentally got him in a lot of trouble. It will be seen that over half Bukka White's session of 1940 relates to factual experience and is in- no way disguised, or juxtaposed into more general Iyric. Considering that these recordings were on sale into the 1940s, they are without comparison in this period, and the guitar and washboard accompaniment are of the very highest order. Of the remainder, two are train blues of a most original order, with incredibly complex imitative guitar parts, Sleepy Man Blues is a doomy, self-analytical piece, and Bukka's Jitterbug Swing is a self-explaining good-time piece more in common with the music of the day. Finally, Aberdeen, Mississippi has romantic connections in more ways than one Bukka has something to say about the women there, and from our point of view this song provided the clue that led to the discovery of, Bukka's whereabouts in the fall of 1963. John Fahey and Ed Denson simply wrote to 'Bukka White. Old Blues Singer. c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Miss.' Ultimately. they received a reply and soon Bukka was on his way to the West Coast to appear at folk clubs in Los Angeles. Later he toured colleges and in 1968 played at the Olympic Games in Mexico, and of course made his tour of Europe.

Just listen, though. to the Bukka White of thirty years ago. to these recordings made for release on Vocalion and Okeh to an audience of urban and rural Negro communities. These are fourteen of the finest performances by a uniquely talented artist, made at his peak. At this time Bukka was managed by Lester Melrose and the entire 1940 session cost Vocalion a little over $250, at $17.50 per side, and $20 for Washboard Sam, who is not named as no doubt his recording company frowned upon his being used for sessions by the opposition. The travel expenses and so on amounted to $33 more, and even in those days this must have been a very cheap session. To the blues lover and historian of today it is a priceless one, and this album, I am convinced. will come to be regarded as among the most important reissues of this, and many another, year. Truly, it is the blues art form at its peak.
Simon A. Napier Editor, Blues Unlimited, April 1969
References: 'The Story of Bukka White' - Blues Unlimited 8, Simon A. Napier, 1963; 'Booker White'- Blues Unlimited 36-39. David H. Evans 1966.

Offline slidnslim

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #6 on: March 12, 2006, 06:18:22 AM »
Thanks Bunker theres some stuff in there I havent' read
 before!

 Kenny, O0

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #7 on: March 12, 2006, 09:11:07 AM »
Thanks Bunker theres some stuff in there I havent' read
 before!
Happy to oblige. I guess being a Bukka fan you long ago discovered this:
http://www.wirz.de/music/whitbfrm.htm

Offline Johnm

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #8 on: March 12, 2006, 09:36:21 AM »
Hi Bunker Hill,
Thanks very much for these posts.  It strikes me that if Booker T. Washington White's own preference for his name was Booker, rather than "Bukka", (and I have heard this before, from Bob West,) I'm ready to retire "Bukka", and call him Booker from here on out.  I reckon people will still know of whom we are speaking.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #9 on: March 12, 2006, 09:51:58 AM »
Thanks very much for these posts.  It strikes me that if Booker T. Washington White's own preference for his name was Booker, rather than "Bukka", (and I have heard this before, from Bob West,) I'm ready to retire "Bukka", and call him Booker from here on out.  I reckon people will still know of whom we are speaking.
Indeed, I agree. Even in 1967 at the Hammersmith Odeon he was telling those hanging about back stage that his name was said "like the word book". However I'm afraid I'm still stuck in the timewarp that spells it Bukka! :(

Offline slidnslim

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #10 on: March 18, 2006, 07:33:55 PM »
Bunker thanks for the link,I've forgot about that site!

 Kenny. O0

Offline Parlor Picker

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #11 on: March 29, 2006, 02:11:15 AM »
Looking at the link to Stefan Wirz's resource I was reminded of possibly the worst record sleeve in my collection/in the history of commercial releases: the Bukka White CBS Realm album:



(How do you insert pictures?  I found the "Insert image" button, but it doesn't seem to work)
« Last Edit: March 29, 2006, 02:15:22 AM by Parlor Picker »
"I ain't good looking, teeth don't shine like pearls,
So glad good looks don't take you through this world."
Barbecue Bob

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #12 on: March 29, 2006, 09:33:12 AM »
Parlor,

Try attaching the image using the "additional options" function at the bottom of the posting screen. Click on additional options, browse to the file, attach, post. I think the "insert image" function requires the image be on a server that you would hyperlink to.

UB

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #13 on: March 29, 2006, 10:55:17 AM »
Looking at the link to Stefan Wirz's resource I was reminded of possibly the worst record sleeve in my collection/in the history of commercial releases: the Bukka White CBS Realm album:
At the time I was sent a copy for review. I telephoned CBS's press officer (an amiable Irishman name Mick McDonagh) and asked if CBS's art department had lost their minds. He said he'd been informed that it was the work of one of London's up-and-coming photographers of abstract compositions. Abstract? Bizarre would be more appropriate. Mind you, the cover didn't put off the Melody Maker (2 Aug 1969) nominating it their Blues LP Of The Month ("I have no hesitation in selecting it as the blues album of the month and recommending it as essential listening for anybody interested in blues or Afro-American folksong in general").

Offline Slack

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #14 on: March 29, 2006, 01:00:29 PM »
Here you go...

[attachment deleted by admin]

Offline Johnm

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #15 on: March 29, 2006, 02:32:41 PM »
Wow, that really is godawful!  You didn't overstate how miserable that cover is by one iota, Parlor Picker.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #16 on: March 29, 2006, 10:39:04 PM »
Wow, that really is godawful!  You didn't overstate how miserable that cover is by one iota, Parlor Picker.
Sleeve designers really had it in for poor old BW. The Blue Horizon LP Memphis Hotshots released six months earlier depicts somebody in an outrageous space suit hands crossed in front of him resting on the headstock of a guitar. Cover design and photography by one Terance Ibbott, see frame 28 at
http://www.wirz.de/music/whitbfrm.htm

I'm posting url because the page deserve many visits. :)

Offline Parlor Picker

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Re: Bukka White
« Reply #17 on: March 30, 2006, 01:16:36 AM »
Thanks for the guidance on uploading pictures, Uncle Bud and Uncle Slack.  I'll try and remember next time I want to add one.

Bunker Hill is right about Stefan's website.  It is exemplary and all Weenies are recommended to visit it at regular intervals.
"I ain't good looking, teeth don't shine like pearls,
So glad good looks don't take you through this world."
Barbecue Bob

 


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