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You'd better take this away from me before I hurt myself - Mose Scarlett, handing off soloing duties to Ken Whitely in concert

Author Topic: Joe Pullum  (Read 3676 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Joe Pullum
« on: January 21, 2007, 10:50:57 AM »
Noting that Slack has added the first of Joe Pullum's Document CDs to the Juke I thought a bit of background wouldn't go amiss as provided by Tony Russell (Jazz Monthly, January 1971) in his attempt to get Pullum out of the "boring/bit of a joke" category in which blues critics and collector's had placed him. It didn't do much good, 15 years were to pass before an entire LP was released.

Talking Blues 2

THE FIRST thing you will hear on Mance Lipscomb's new LP (reviewed on another page) is this:

Black gal, black gal,
what makes your doggone head
so hard? (x2)
I would come to see you, black
woman, but your good man
keep me barred.

Mance is looking back a long way?how far one can't be sure, but probably to the mid?'30s, when the first recording of this distinctive blues sold widely in black communities: Black gal what makes your head so hard? (Bluebird B-5459), by Joe Pullum. Lipscomb's recreation is the latest in a long line; the song has been recorded by Lightnin' Hopkins (in 1961), by pianist Robert Shaw (1963) and by the zydeco accordion-player Clifton Chenier (1966); also, on several occasions, by Victoria Spivey. It is among the best remembered blues of its period; but who remembers Joe Pullum? Hardly anyone, it seems. Yet for a while Black gal was hot property; after Pullum recorded it in April 1934 it was covered by Vocalion by Leroy Carr, for Decca by Mary Johnson and Jimmie Gordon (under the pseudonym of Joe Bullum!), and for the dime-store labels by Josh White?all within ten months. Why was it so successful? First, it introduced a new singing style; Pullum's voice was pitched very high and clear, yet it always sounded relaxed, and his timing was impeccable. The effect?plaintive, appealing, penetrating?was like that of a muted trumpet solo, piercing its way through the blues, occasionally soaring in sudden leaps. More dramatic than Carr or Tampa Red or Walter Davis, Pullum cannot have failed to make an impression; certainly his manner was copied by well established blues-singers, Bumble Bee Slim for one.

IT WAS NOT only his style that gave Pullum success; it was also the nature of Black gal as a blues. Its opening stanza (substantially the same as Mance Lipscomb's above) described a situation?the subject of the song had lost his woman to another man?and the succeeding five stanzas all amplified or developed it. Such textural coherence had not been common in blues before this?at any rate, not in the popular country blues of the late '20s and early '30s, the singers of which had aimed for a different, more fragmented effect. Pullum's compositional approach associates him less with these men than with artists like Lonnie Johnson, who were broadening the vocabulary, grammar and syntax of the blues. Black gal is supposed to have been a traditional Texas theme, but Victoria Spivey calls Pullum's "the original one", and indeed has stated that she 'was there in his house in the bloody 5th Ward in Houston, Texas when Joe was making up the words'. That was 'about 1925', yet neither Victoria nor Bernice Edwards, both members of  'a clique that played West Texas from Galveston to Houston' with Pullum and others, chose to record the song at their sessions in the '20s.

SUCH WAS THE impact of the first Black gal that PuIlum brought out three more variations; they seem to have been his most popular numbers. Miss Spivey says of Robert Shaw's version that he 'must have really improvised the lyrics as it is very different from the original one', but in fact Shaw's seven stanza performance is almost all Pullum; four verses come from the first Black gal; two are the introductory stanza of the second, repeated; and one is from Black gal No.3:

I'm goin' to the asylum, I'm goin'
to the asylum, to see if I have
losed my mind, (x2)
Because I keeps on thinkin' and
worryin' 'bout that black gal
all the time.

Such vivid phraseology is typical of Pullum's work. In Mississippi flood blues (late on the market, surely, in 1935?) he sings

I'm coming to you, baby,
if through twenty feet of water I'll wade (x2)
For I can't stand to see my baby fill a watery grave

And Joe Louis is the man?quoted in full in Paul Oliver's Screening the blues (151-2)?is a charming composition. So too is the Fosteresque Dixie my home? like Joe Louis, and I can't control myself, and others, a departure from conventional blues structures. Pullum was usually very happy with this material, though perhaps the emotional quality of his voice was not always matched by the content of the lyrics.

DIXIE MY HOME is also attractive in its accompaniment: a romping, effervescent performance by pianist Andy Boy (the second best keyboard man on the circuit, according to Victoria Spivey). The piano-playing behind Pullum is always satisfying stuff, whether the work of Andy Boy (who was on the third and longest session) or that of Robert Cooper (on the other three). Cooper's delectable slow Blues with class and his strong support on Cows, see that train comin'?melodically the same as Robert Shaw's Here I come with my dirty, dirty duckins on?mark him as one of the finest southern pianists of the '30s. It is true of him and Andy Boy as of most Texan players, that, having learned their trade on the cut-throat barrelhouse circuit, they brought gaiety, zest and originality to every performance.

IT APPEARS that Houston was Pullum's base. It is a tough city today, as Juke Boy Bonner informs us on his latest album, and was at least as bad in the '30s, as Big Boy Knox testified:

There's towns in Texas
any poor man can live,
But if you hang around Houston,
partner, I swear you'll sure get killed.

Violence permeated the Black gal song. The first version ended

I'm goin' to hunt her,
mmm, with my smokin' forty-four,
And when I find that black gal,
Lord, her nap-knotty head
won't be hard no more

And in the second part Pullum answered the title question with

You've got a head just like
some two-by-four in some
lumber yard,

alluding both to Texas's chief industry and to one of the most common instruments of impromptu violence. This dark streak is lightened by occasional flashes of wit and allusive humour. Perhaps commenting on the terms he was offered by Victor, Pullum sings, in Some day:

My pockets are empty
and I haven't got a dime,
But I haven't signed a contract,
woman, to stay broke all the

Was he badly managed? Four sessions in less than two years produced seventeen releases (some of them with different artists on their reverse sides), yet few sold very well; possibly because he refused to confine himself to the Black gal tune, or indeed to blues as such. His last Bluebird session was strong in blues, accompanied, for a change, by trumpet (Chester Boone) guitar (Melvin Martin) and piano (Cooper). Only Hattie Green stands out, a brisk eight-bar blues about a brothel-owner, who, in Victoria Spivey's words, 'had a "Meeting house" where all races could get together'?not that Pullum's version brings all that out.

PROBABLY Joe Pullum moved westwards to the coast during the '40s, like many Texas musicians. He cut his last record there, a rather tired two part My woman, for Swing Time in 1948, and he is said to have died in L.A. about six years ago. A tribute of a kind appeared in 1950: Mac Willis's debut recording on Elko, Pretty woman. It used the old Black gal tune and some of its lines, delivered in the same eerie, high-flying voice.

IGNORED BY most reissue-compilers, neglected or treated as a joke by collectors, Joe Pullum is among the most obscure of the '30s' blues masters. Yet he brought to the music a voice of unusual sensitivity, and, whether or not he composed it, popularised a blues which singers are evidently reluctant to forget.

« Last Edit: January 21, 2007, 10:52:35 AM by Bunker Hill »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Joe Pullum
« Reply #1 on: January 29, 2007, 12:05:19 PM »
Just got around to reading this. Thanks for posting, BH. While Tony Russell refers to the fine piano playing, I think the description of Robert Cooper and Andy Boy

"having learned their trade on the cut-throat barrelhouse circuit, they brought gaiety, zest and originality to every performance"

doesn't quite capture the piano accompaniments, or maybe inadvertently casts them in a barrelhouse style. Not denying where they learned their trade (I know nothing about them!), but the two players are really sophisticated, very light and precise touch, sophisticated harmonies and runs that remind me very much of jazz piano styles of the time, with forays into earlier ragtime style as well. Really, really nice playing.
« Last Edit: January 29, 2007, 12:07:29 PM by uncle bud »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Joe Pullum
« Reply #2 on: January 29, 2007, 12:25:40 PM »
Victoria Spivey waxed eloquently about Andy Boy's (real name) pianistic skills in one of her 1960s "Blues Is My Business" columns for Record Research. I'll see if I can unearth it.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Joe Pullum
« Reply #3 on: January 30, 2007, 11:44:15 AM »
Memory ain't what it was and not too much about Andy Boy. Anyway here it is a review of a Robert Shaw LP from Record Research 81, January 1967, page 7


(A) Whores Is Funky (The Fives), The Cows, Here I Come With My Dirty Duckins On, The Clinton, Black Gal. (B) ? Hattie Green, The Ma Grinder, People People Blues, Put Me In The Alley, Piggly Wiggly Blues.
Almanac LP 10 - Recorded 3/8, 6/10, 8/9-1963 Austin, Texas

This LP, a fine job, has great significance for me! Why?! ! Because I was there just like Mr. Shaw. At first it made me very sad and blue as it brought back my carefree days in Texas in the early 20's when we were all playing the whiskey joints, gay houses and picnics. We all loved each other then. Had no animosity in our hearts. These were the days of lazy, offbeat blues piano and singing. I was a member of a clique that played West Texas from Galveston to Houston to Richmond to Sugarland. There were Anthony (sic) Boy, Joe Pullum, Houston, Bernice Edwards, Pearl Dickson and myself. Houston was the greatest with Anthony Boy, a close second. I myself learned a lot from Robert and Johnny Calvin, and Henry 'Lazy Daddy' Fillmore - and of course from the ones mentioned above. I was also called "Little Mama" and "Vickie". Speaking about tough, great pianists I must not forget my baby sister who recorded for Victor under the name of Sweet Peas Addie Spivey. She ate me up with piano and had fingers that expanded like Earl Hines. She was also a terror in Texas in the 20's.

Now for a few memories about some tracks on this LP which is a credit to the Texas Blues. On BLACK GAL, my buddy, Robert 'Fud' Shaw, must have really improvised the lyrics as it is very different from the original one by Joe Pullum. I first heard Joe sing this about 1925. In fact 1 was there in his house in the bloody 5th Ward in Houston, Texas when Joe was making up the words. It was at the time when I had a 6 month job with Miss Weaver in this same bloody 5th. Listen to Joe Pullum's Bluebird recording and you will hear it right.

THE MA GRINDER - These were fighting words that often led to bloodshed and death. We all used to play it in our own way. Some would sing it. The first one I ever heard sing it was "Houston" who tore up Galveston and Houston. We all picked up different licks from him. Last time I heard of him was when he left Galveston and went to Kansas City in 1925 or 1926.

HATTIE GREEN - she was in the First Ward (Houston) and had a 'meeting' house where all races could get together. Hattie was tall and thin, light skin, and had a big head of hair. Her brother was Tash Marshall, a big rock. My oldest brother, Willie, who was also a fair blues pianist used to take his idle time there, and sometime would play the Galveston Blues, now called, the BOOGIE WOOGIE. Every chance I got I would sneak in and take over the pianochair when brother Willie was not around. I was very young then.

The other tracks define the Texas blues style in so many ways that it would require 10 more pages to cover. So I?ll stop here. I'm saving it for my book.

Robert "Fud" Shaw is a true representative of the wonderful Texas blues tradition and it was a splendid idea to record him. History has been rewarded.

"Fud"! I would love to hear from you.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Joe Pullum
« Reply #4 on: June 29, 2009, 12:09:34 PM »
I thought I'd give this topic a jolt out of its two year hibernation with the news of a Stefan Wirz discography

Offline dj

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Re: Joe Pullum
« Reply #5 on: June 29, 2009, 03:04:10 PM »
Thanks for the jolt, Bunker Hill, and for the discography, Stefan.  I don't have the second of Document's Pullum CDs, but the discography reminded me that I have 3 of his 1951 Swing Time cuts on the Lloyd Glenn "Chica Boo" CD.  I pulled them out, gave them a listen, and have to report that to me, "My Woman" doesn't sound tired at all.  And "You're All Right With Me" has Pullum pulling off a bit of falsetto Nat King Cole, complete with a solo by an anonymous guitarist doing a simplified Oscar Moore.  Really rather nice stuff.  
« Last Edit: June 30, 2009, 11:01:52 AM by dj »

Offline Great Bear

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Re: Joe Pullum
« Reply #6 on: June 30, 2009, 10:48:48 AM »
A few notable omissions from Stefan's discography:

Joe Louis: An American Hero (Rounder) - Joe Louis Is the Man

From BMG/Bluebird's The Secret History of Rock N Roll:

When The Sun Goes Down Vol.3 - Black Gal What Makes Your Head So Hard
Poor Man's Heaven - C.W.A Blues

Offline Stefan Wirz

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Re: Joe Pullum
« Reply #7 on: July 02, 2009, 10:32:58 AM »
thanks a lot, Great Bear, I just added those albums ...

Offline hortig78rpm

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Re: Joe Pullum
« Reply #8 on: July 23, 2009, 04:16:20 AM »
hello friends

just a few notes on "texas barrelhouse piano" which I loved for nearly half a decade.
mrs.spivey, who was a great singer and producer of young talents is otherwise
a storyteller like many in the long history of blues. I think she never really had been a member of the circuit, I `ll describe later, called "the santa fee". her description of, how
pullum made up black girl is the same robert shaw did in an interjew with blues unlimited.
when I visited him, he also told this story and how "hattie green" was made up.
the "  sante fee group" mainly consists of known pianists like conish "pinetop"burks ( born around 19oo, died 1947); leon calhous(son becky), born 191o, died 1942, harold holiday(black boy shine, died 18.3.1952), robert cooper, bernice edwards andy boy and lesser known pianist like leroy ervin, lester johnson or peg leg will. the only number for which they can be identified to this group is the "ma grinder ", a number that everybody of the above mentioned pianists recorded: mountain jack blues by burks, mistreated washboard blues by becky  , brown house blues by shine, west dallas drag by cooper,  andy boy: house raid blues and shine and edwards did a duett: hot matress stomp before 194o. in later years robert shaw and edwin buster pickens recorded their own versions, both titeld " ma grinder".
pullum`s suxcess did`nt last long, for the style singer/piano was outdated and his last prewar-recordings with a small teritory band seem not to fit with his singing ( except hattie green)
andy boy must have been the top-kicker of the group,although shaw puts black boy shine
in front of andy boy. boy could reed music and is known to have been an acomplished
band pianist. some of his solo-work made a named jazz-critic write, that andy boy must have been fats waller, recording under a pseudonym. his accompanings to joe pullum rank among the finest in blues history , technical and emotional in the highest level.

the group existed until the early 4o`s when the juke box pushed the piano out of the juke joints and when health of most of the members started to fail, due to the rough life
of a barrelhousepianist.
the birth/death dates come from the " ancestry"programm, but due to a "not european friendly" online programm to obtain death certificates from the texas health center, I have`nt been able to confirm them, but they come near to the memories of pickens and shaw. I have hours of interjews with robert shaw, which should be published in "blues & rhythm" during the next year. I will always enjoy to get other informations on the "santa fee" .


Offline doctorpep

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Re: Joe Pullum
« Reply #9 on: August 16, 2010, 02:57:30 PM »
Thank you so much for all the information, Mike. To my ears, Cecil Gant seems to have borrowed the intro that Andy Boy uses on many of his slower pieces and opened "I Wonder" with it. Do you hear what I hear, or am I nuts?
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."


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