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Before I'd stand to see my baby go down I'd take off all my clothes and walk the streets in my mornin' gown - Ramblin' Willard Thomas, Hard Dallas Blues

Author Topic: J T Smith - Blues Master of 30s?  (Read 3660 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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J T Smith - Blues Master of 30s?
« on: March 16, 2006, 10:57:59 AM »
The current discussions concerning J. T. Funny "Paper/Papa" Smith here and on the Lyrics Forum has prompted me to unearth the first 'in-depth' look at Smith and his body of work. This was written by Tony Russell using his Smith 78 collection as the basis and published in From Jazz & Blues magazine (April 1971.) It should perhaps be noted that what follows was written 18 months before the release of the Yazoo LP (and its copious historical and musicological notesd) and at a time when there were only three titles commonly available on three different compilations from 1968 - Howlin' Wolf Pts 1&2, Fools Blues and Before Long.

Blues Masters Of The 30s - J T Smith
Tony Russell

'Aaargh!', the recent exhibition of comics at the ICA, may have influenced my choice of this month's Blues Master, for J. T. Smith, though well known as 'The Howling Wolf', was also billed on all his records as 'Funny Paper' Smith; and what can this mean but that he was an avid reader of comics? It was only a stroke of bad luck, one feels, that prevented him recording a Krazy Kat blues. But perhaps accuracy's chilly breath will blow away this fanciful theory; for the recently discovered Texan bluesman Thomas Shaw has claimed that Vocalion got it wrong: he was 'Funny Papa' Smith. Oh, well.

As for his other nickname, it was probably suggested by the success of his debut record, the two-part Howling wolf blues (Vocalion 1558) that appeared in late 1930. This sold extremely well, perhaps partly because Smith established his identity very firmly in the opening stanza:

I'm that wolf that everybody's been tryin to find out where in the world I prowl; (x2)

Don't nobody ever get to (see) me, but
they all hear me when I howl,

Like Peetie Wheatstraw, Smith fashioned an assertive and sexually threatening image, but he was less aggressive than 'The Devil's Son-in-Law', and, as subsequent records proved, somewhat more imaginative. Seven Sisters Blues, (Vocalion 1641), another two-part song, is a detailed story of his encounter with that celebrated family of fortune-tellers in New Orleans. 'They tell me they've been hung,' he sings, 'been bled and been crucified'; and 'you can't name them Sisters apart, because they all look just the same'. His consultation has a pleasant result:

The Seven Sisters sent me away happy,
round the corner I met a nice little girl; (x2)

She looked at me and smiled, and said,
'Go tell them that you saw the world'.

And the soothsayers' last message is that The Howling Wolf 'won't have no more trouble' but will 'live twenty days in the week'.

Smith's concern with the Seven Sisters may have been stimulated by his dissatisfaction with conventional religion. Immediately before recording Seven Sisters blues he cut Fools Blues (Vocalion 1674; Yazoo L-1010), in which he declared 'it must be the devil I'm servin', I know it can't be Jesus Christ, 'cause I asked him to save me and it look like he's tryin' to take my life'. 'Some people tell me God takes care of old folks and fools,' he had begun; but by the end of the song he was sure that he did not believe it.

It should be clear already that Smith's blues are rather unusual; the textual lines are long, his thoughts are vividly expressed, and his themes are not run-of-the-mill ones. An artist of whom he always reminds me is Leroy Carr; it may be significant that they were both recording frequently for the same company in 1930-31. Smith has a habit of dropping his voice an octave, or most of an octave, at the end of a stanza?a very distinctive trick, which gives the melody a wistful air?and the same device is to be found in a few of Carr's blues such as Hurry Down Sunshine. The gentle, easy-going swing of the Carr-Blackwell recordings is not unlike that of Smith's, which were customarily voice-and-guitar pieces; The Howling Wolf played with a fluidity and grace that reminds one less of Willie Reed, say, or Carl Davis, than of Big Bill Broonzy. He was, in fact, a most accomplished guitarist, who could pull off double-tempo phrases (as in Seven Sisters Blues?part 2) with the panache of Blind Blake. His strong sense of rhythm would not, one might think, have made him the best accompanist in the world for Texas Alexander, but the two worked together for a time in the late '30s.

Joe Pullum, of whom I talked in the January Jazz Monthly, was obscure enough, but even less is known of the life of J. T. Smith. According to Thomas Shaw he committed murder in Oklahoma in 1931; he was indeed absent from the studios for four years between 1931 and 1935, and one of the first songs he recorded in '35 was Life In Prison Blues. He also made parts 5 and 6 of the Howling Wolf saga, but they were not issued?fortunately, in a way, because he had prefaced the 1931 recording of Howling Wolf blues?part 4 (Vocalion 1614) with 'well, it looks like the last of old Howlin' Wolf'. On one of the '35 items he was accompanied by a guitarist named 'Little Brother'; several claimants to this title were found by Paul Oliver in 1960. It does seem likely that Smith's friend was Willie (Little Brother) Lane, who recorded a Howling Wolf Blues (Talent 806) in Dallas in 1949; the piece ?which ends with vulpine howls?is largely taken from Smith's Howling Wolf Blues?part 3, certainly the best remembered of the four issued sections. Lightnin' Hopkins 1948 Howling Wolf Blues (Imperial unissued; Liberty(E) LBL83213) goes back to the same recording; so does part of West Texas Slim's Little Mae Belle (Flame 1007), which also draws on part 2 of the series. (In other words, Smith's most popular theme was disseminated and disintegrated in precisely the same way as Joe Pullum's Black Gal. Probably one could trace a similar process in the history of the Penitentiary blues song. Is it at all significant that each of these micro traditions developed almost exclusively in Texas?)

A few semi-biographical notes can be added. Smith recorded a pair of two part duets, one with Dessa Foster and the other with Magnolia Harris (who is said to have been Victoria Spivey); they seem to be offspring of the very popular Kansas Joe-Memphis Minnie recordings like Can I Do It For You? J. D. Short, according to Bob Koester, 'knew some of the Smith songs letter-perfect', and may have known the man too. (He actually said he was Smith, but that just couldn't be true.) Frankie Lee Sims could probably tell us a lot, as could Ernest Lewis (West Texas Slim) if he were traced. The Thomas Shaw interview, when it comes into being, will surely have much to say. For the present we have only the records.

These, I suspect, were fairly popular, and so they deserved to be. Smith had a rare ability to create vocal melodies and accompaniment-patterns of subtle novelty, and his compositions repeatedly suggest that he had an unusual personality. (And that he may have been untypically well educated.) Even the metaphors and jokes of Hoppin' Toad Frog (Vocalion 1655) are wittier than one would expect. It is quite possible that he had some effect upon Mance Lipscomb ? some of the blues on Mance's latest LP hint at it ? and his approach to the guitar often seems to anticipate Lightnin's. He is the kind of musician without whom even if he had had no influence upon others whatsoever?the blues of the '30s would have been considerably poorer.

[Edit note - forgot to add this link http://www.wirz.de/music/smifpfrm.htm]
« Last Edit: March 16, 2006, 11:05:07 AM by Bunker Hill »

Offline Johnm

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Re: J T Smith - Blues Master of 30s?
« Reply #1 on: March 16, 2006, 11:42:26 AM »
Hi Bunker Hill,
Thanks for posting the piece.  It's really good, as you would expect from Tony Russell.  One quibble, the lyric he quotes from "Seven Sisters" should read
   The Seven Sisters sent me away happy, 'round the corner I met another little girl (2)
   She looked at me and smiled and said, "Go, devil, and destroy the World"
This is the very verse I had in mind when I was mentioning how eerie J.T. Smith's lyrics to "Seven Sisters" are, over on Alex's J.T. Smith lyrics thread.  J.T. builds on the effect by following the verse with the spoken aside, "I'm going to destroy it, too!"
All best,
Johnm

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: J T Smith - Blues Master of 30s?
« Reply #2 on: March 16, 2006, 11:53:06 AM »
Thanks for posting the piece.  It's really good, as you would expect from Tony Russell.  One quibble, the lyric he quotes from "Seven Sisters" should read
   The Seven Sisters sent me away happy, 'round the corner I met another little girl (2)
   She looked at me and smiled and said, "Go, devil, and destroy the World"
He, he. A few issues later a correspondent, who shall remain anonymous, picked him up on that very point.

Whilst I'm here, the Paper/Papa business. Not so long ago (maybe 5 years) I read David Evans saying that there was a popular 30s carton called Funny Papers which he felt was the likely source of the nom-de-disque. Anybody have opinions about this? I'm driving myself to distraction trying to locate where DE put forward this theory.

Offline Slack

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Re: J T Smith - Blues Master of 30s?
« Reply #3 on: March 17, 2006, 08:17:58 AM »
Quote
Whilst I'm here, the Paper/Papa business. Not so long ago (maybe 5 years) I read David Evans saying that there was a popular 30s carton called Funny Papers which he felt was the likely source of the nom-de-disque. Anybody have opinions about this? I'm driving myself to distraction trying to locate where DE put forward this theory.

Looks like there is:

Amazon book link

But It would seem to me that "funny paper" would more likely be referring to the comics page in the Sunday newspaper. It is or was a common term in Texas at least --- this is what we called the comics in my childhood home.

Offline doctorpep

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Re: J T Smith - Blues Master of 30s?
« Reply #4 on: May 20, 2008, 03:04:34 PM »
I'd like to purchase the man's complete recordings, because I think he's absolutely amazing. Is there a single disc with all of his stuff on it?
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."

http://www.hardluckchild.blogspot.com/

Offline uncle bud

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Re: J T Smith - Blues Master of 30s?
« Reply #5 on: May 21, 2008, 07:29:02 AM »
From Document, BDCD-6016, JT 'Funny Paper' Smith 1930-31. Well worth it.

Offline Stuart

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Re: J T Smith - Blues Master of 30s?
« Reply #6 on: May 21, 2008, 08:36:31 AM »
From Document BDCD-6016, JT 'Funny Paper' Smith 1930-31. Well worth it.

While doing a search, the following came up:

http://www.amazon.com/Deep-Ellum-Central-Track-Converged/dp/1574410512

Looks interesting, so I thought that I'd post the link. (My apologies if this is "old news.")

Offline doctorpep

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Re: J T Smith - Blues Master of 30s?
« Reply #7 on: October 30, 2008, 01:22:13 PM »
I received the Document disc in the mail last weekend, and think that it's one of the best products Document has put out. Smith was unbelievable in terms of his lyrical abilities. His voice isn't joyous, nor does it pretend to be associated with Satan. He sings to us in a way that invites us into his world and his personality. Simply based on the two-part "Seven Sisters Blues" and "Fool's Blues", I suspect that if he were allowed a decent education, he could have been one of the great American poets of the first half of the twentieth century. To whoever started this thread: yes, Mr. Smith was a Blues master of the 1930s. By the way, the fidelity on all the recordings is great, despite what Allmusic.com says.
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."

http://www.hardluckchild.blogspot.com/

VSOP

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Re: J T Smith - Blues Master of 30s?
« Reply #8 on: November 26, 2008, 05:11:03 PM »
According to Mack McCormick, J.T. Smith was a pseudonym for Otis Cook, who lived in Houston around the time of his Vocalion recordings and was still in the area in the '60s.

Offline doctorpep

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Re: J T Smith - Blues Master of 30s?
« Reply #9 on: November 28, 2008, 06:02:00 PM »
If he were still alive in the 1960s, he would have had to have been at least eighty years old; very interesting!
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."

http://www.hardluckchild.blogspot.com/

VSOP

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Re: J T Smith - Blues Master of 30s?
« Reply #10 on: November 29, 2008, 10:05:18 PM »
Mack McCormick claims to have interviewed Otis Cook (Funny Papa Smith) in the '60s in the Houston area. It's yet another interview that disappeared into the 'black hole' (the Texas Blues book).

According to McCormick the photo that is supposed to be Smith/Cook is NOT him. And the 'traditional' dates for his birth (1890s etc) are also wrong.

 


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