Columbia Records came to Atlanta in November 1926 and recorded a variety of spiritual acts and blues guitarist Peg Leg Howell. Born in 1888 in Eatonton, Georgia, Joshua Barnes Howell was a generation older than most of the prewar Atlanta bluesmen. Like Lead Belly and old Henry Thomas in Texas, his repertoire extended to country reels, field hollers, ballads, and other pre-blues styles. He attended school through ninth grade and learned how to play guitar in 1909. In an interview with George Mitchell, the researcher who rediscovered him in 1963, Howell explained, “I learnt myself – didn’t take long to learn. I just stayed up one night and learnt myself. . . . I learned many of my songs around the country. I picked them up from anybody – no special person. Mostly they just sang, did not play anything.” Over time, Howell learned to play guitar in standard tuning, as well as in Spanish, open C, and Vastopol, which he used for slide. (For more on the Spanish and Vastopol tunings, see Blues Origins: Spanish Fandango and Sebastopol.)
Howell worked on a farm until 1916, when he lost his right leg to a shotgun blast from his angry brother-in-law. For a year he worked in a fertilizer plant. After that, he told George Mitchell, “I didn’t do much, just messed around town [Eatonton]. I came to Atlanta when I was 35 years old. I just got tired of living in a small town. I didn’t do much of anything when I came to Atlanta either.” He performed music in parks and on the streets, sometimes working alongside mandolinist Eugene Pedin, guitarist Henry Williams, and violinist Eddie Anthony, his closest friend. Howell’s sideline as a bootlegger cost him a jail stint in 1925.
Howell explained to George Mitchell how he came to record his first 78s. “The men from Columbia Records found me there in Atlanta. A Mr. Brown – he worked for Columbia – he asked me to make a record for them. I was out serenading, playing on Decatur Street, and he heard me playing and taken me up to his office and I played there.” Singing with a world-weary voice, Peg Leg Howell accompanied himself on 6-string guitar at his November 1926 session. His first releases, performed solo, revealed him to be a decent and occasionally adventurous guitarist with a knack for playing extended bass runs and solos reminiscent of Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, who’d launched his recording career about a year earlier.
Howell’s standard-tuned “New Prison Blues” began with the harrowing lyric, “Say, I cut your throat, mama, drink your blood like wine.” Asked the origin of the song, Howell responded, “I had been in prison for selling whisky and I heard the song there. I don’t know who made it up.” Its flip side, “Fo’ Day Blues,” likewise dealt with relationship troubles: “I’d rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log/than to be in Atlanta, treated like a dog.” Howell’s debut record sold relatively well: Columbia’s files indicated that after the initial pressing of 5250 copies, another 4000 were pressed. “I got paid $50 for my first record,” Howell told Mitchell, “and I got royalties too – they came twice a year. After that record came out, I used to sing different places around Atlanta, different places where I went. I mostly played along the streets.” For the songs on his follow-up 78, “Coal Man Blues” backed with “Tishamingo Blues,” he put his guitar in Spanish tuning.
Howell was back before the microphone five months later with Henry Williams and Eddie Anthony, recording blues and an old-time Southern string reel as Peg Leg Howell and His Gang. At this session, Howell played in Spanish while Williams used standard tuning. With its good-time feel and suggestive lyrics, “New Jelly Roll Blues” was pure party music, while its flip side, the danceable “Beaver Slide Rag,” showcased Eddie Anthony’s fantastic fiddle chops. This exuberant 78 was among Howell’s very best records. “The Jelly Roll Blues – I heard a fellow named Elijah Lawrence singing it,” Howell told Mitchell. “He didn’t make records; I heard him singing it in the country.” Columbia execs, who knew a good thing when they heard it, ran an ad that called “New Jelly Roll Blues” a “rare delicacy served piping hot. ‘Peg Leg’ Howell and His Gang, bigger and better than ever, will make your mouth water when you hear this record.” This would be Howell’s most popular record, selling 12,950 copies. Cut at the same session, “Papa Stobb Blues” b/w “Sadie Lee Blues,” was somewhat less spirited.
In November 1927, Peg Leg Howell and His Gang recorded three more 78s. At the November 1st session, when “Too Tight Blues,” “Moanin’ and Groanin’ Blues,” “Hobo Blues,” and “Peg Leg Stomp” were recorded, Howell once again played in Spanish to Williams’ standard tuning, an uncommon technique that helps account for their distinctive two-guitar sound. “Peg Leg Stomp” was a standout due to its wall-to-wall guitar and fiddle solos and recurring quote from a familiar military bugle call. Eight days later, Howell began his Vestopol-tuned “Skin Game Blues,” a song about work camps and card games, with a slide guitar figure but then played the rest of the song with bare fingers. He recorded its flip side, “Doin’ Wrong,” in standard tuning. According to Columbia’s records, after an initial pressing of 2310 copies of this 78, another 2000 were manufactured. The label promoted Peg Leg Howell by putting his photo on the cover of its 1927 catalog.
On April 19, 1928, Henry Williams and Eddie Anthony recorded a Columbia 78 on their own, the raucous “Georgia Crawl” backed with “Lonesome Blues.” The following day, Peg Leg Howell showcased his versatility on guitar on a pair of solo 78s. The first two songs he recorded that day, “Please Ma’am” and “Rock and Gravel Blues,” were performed in the tuning he typically used for slide, Vestapol. According to John Miller, an accomplished Seattle-based guitarist with many country blues and jazz albums to his credit, Howell then retuned his strings for “Low-Down Rounder Blues” and “Fairy Blues: “On those two tunes,” Miller explains, “Peg Leg used the open-C tuning, GCEGCE, which apparently came out of the parlor guitar tradition. To my knowledge, those are the only two tracks in which that tuning was used in the entire recorded corpus of the country blues, so Peg Leg was unique in his use of that tuning.”
In August, Howell and Anthony were probably the accompanists on Waymon “Sloppy” Henry’s “Canned Heat Blues,” a down-in-the-alley tale of woe, and three other songs. Two months later, the pals recorded a 78 credited to Peg Leg Howell and Eddie Anthony. “Banjo Blues” contained the oft-repeated line “The blues ain’t nothin’ but a good man feeling bad,” and “Turkey Buzzard Blues” was as countrified as it gets. This would be the last time Howell and Anthony would record together. At the same session, Howell recorded another two songs on his own, “Walking Blues” and “Turtle Dove Blues.” On “Turtle Dove Blues,” Howell played out of the F position in standard tuning, an unusual technique he used on just one other prewar recording, 1927’s “Sadie Lee Blues.”
During the spring of 1929 Eddie Anthony began recording for OKeh Records as part of a duo called Macon Ed and Tampa Joe. (The true identity of Tampa Joe has never been established.) The A-side of their debut 78, the good-time “Wringing That Thing,” with its repeated phrase “beedle um bum,” was inspired by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey, who, as the Hokum Boys, had recently scored a hit with “Beedle Um Bum.” On the flip side, “Worrying Blues,” Eddie delivered one of his finest performances as a singer and fiddler.
Macon Ed and Tampa Joe made three additional 78s for OKeh on December 9, 1930. The best of these, “Everything’s Coming My Way,” set new words to the Mississippi Sheiks’ mega-hit “Sitting on Top of the World.” To my ears, the fretted instrument on this track sounds like a mandolin with some of the octave strings removed. Whatever it is, the unison solo between the two instruments is sublime. “Tickle Britches” recycled the title line from Blind Blake’s 1927 recording of “That’ll Never Happen No More.” Other tracks from this session confirm that Anthony had continued to grow as a soloist. He ended his short-but-stellar official recording career with “Warm Wipe Stomp,” showcasing stratospheric climbs similar to what Papa John Creach would play generations later with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. But wait, there may be more: The matrix number for “Warm Wipe Stomp” was 404635-A. The next act to record, the gospel group Brothers Wright and Williams, began with matrix number 404636-B. In all, the group recorded six songs, all shelved by OKeh. However, one of these tracks, “I’ll Play My Harp in Beulah Land,” has turned up in recent years, and the fiddler is very likely Eddie Anthony.
Anthony’s old pal Peg Leg Howell made three final Columbia 78s in April 1929. Ollie Griffin was probably the violinist on “Broke and Hungry Blues” and “Rolling Mill Blues,” based on the mountain song “In the Pines.” “In many ways,” notes John Miller, “Ollie was the better fiddler, with surer intonation. He could get around with fluidity in the upper range where Eddie never ventured, though Eddie had a stronger raunch factor.” Three days later, Howell fronted four songs that came out credited to Peg Leg Howell and Jim Hill. “Monkey Man Blues” featured Peg Leg’s slide guitar in the intro, and Hill sang and played mandolin on “Chitlin’ Blues.” Howell wrapped up his prewar recording career with “Away From Home.” “After my last record,” he told George Mitchell, “I just stopped recording. Didn’t make no more. After I stopped recording, I just played around town.”
The following year Henry Williams perished in jail, and Peg Leg Howell was soon back serving time for bootlegging. After Eddie Anthony died in 1934, Howell told Mitchell, “I just didn’t feel like playing anymore. I went back to selling liquor. Then I ran a woodyard for about two years around 1940. I lost my other leg in 1952, through sugar diabetes.”
In 1963 three high school students – George Mitchell, Roger Brown, and Jack Boozer – went in search of the old Atlanta bluesmen. Their inspiration was Samuel Charters’ seminal book The Country Blues. Mitchell described, “When we stopped by Shorter’s Barber Shop, one of the oldest establishments on Decatur Street, we decided to ask about additional blues singers as well. After mentioning Peg leg Howell, ten men gathered around us offering to lead us to him. Finally after the confusion had subsided and we had gotten over our shock, we picked two of the men to take us to Howell. We rode about a mile past Capitol Square, turned into a dirt road and pulled up in front of Howell’s small and shabby house. Our guides were knocking loudly on the door when we heard the faint voice of a very old man telling us to come in. The house was dark and musty, but the moment I saw Howell sitting in his wheelchair in the back room, I recognized him from his pictures. He appeared to be very old, was unshaven, and had no legs. Just seconds after I introduced myself, he eagerly reached for the guitar I was holding. He took it in his large, worn hands and immediately began singing and playing. He sang in a deep, moaning, almost inaudible voice, but we could still make out the words:
‘Some folk say them worried blues ain’t bad,
Yes, some folks say the worried blues ain’t bad’
But they’s the worst old feeling that I ever had . . .’”
George Mitchell coaxed him into recording again. After a month of practicing on the guitar, Howell made the field recordings that were issued by Testament Records as The Legendary Peg Leg Howell. His voice weak and wavering, the 75-year-old covered a few of his original Columbia recordings, as well as some old tunes that he hadn’t recorded before, such as “Let Me Play with Your Yo Yo.” He performed most songs in standard tuning, and re-tuned his guitar to Spanish for “Jelly Roll Blues” and “Coal Man Blues” and Vestopol for the slide tunes “John Henry” and “Skin Game Blues.” These would be his last recordings. Peg Leg Howell passed away on August 11, 1966, and was buried in Atlanta’s Chestnut Hill Cemetery.
The Atlanta Bluesmen continues here: Barbecue Bob and Laughing Charley.
Thanks to George Mitchell for permission to use his quotes for this posting, to Pete Lowry for his most-excellent proofreading and suggestions, and to John Miller for his generous help in solving the mysteries of Peg Leg’s many guitar tunings. All of Peg Leg Howell’s prewar song lyrics have been transcribed on the useful and entertaining WeenieCampbell.com website, at http://weeniecampbell.com/wiki/index.php?title=Category:Lyrics. Also, for a for more on Howell’s recordings, check out Stefan Wirz’s illustrated discography at http://www.wirz.de/music/howelfrm.htm.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.