During the Roaring Twenties, Atlanta, Georgia, was home to a thriving community of bluesmen whose styles were as just distinctive as those of their counterparts in Texas and Mississippi, Memphis and Chicago. Peg Leg Howell and His Gang specialized in countrified juke music set to guitar and violin. Barbecue Bob, who became Columbia Records’ best-selling bluesman, framed his songs with zesty bass runs and rhythmic slide played on a 12-string guitar. His older brother Laughing Charley Lincoln was a less flashy 12-stringer whose dark personality belied the “laughing” shtick on his 78s. Their childhood friend Curley Weaver expertly played 6-string slide guitar as well as the old-time frailing and more recent fingerpicked, ragtime-based “Piedmont” styles. Their associate Buddy Moss, a talented harmonica player and guitarist who came to commercial prominence in the early-to-mid 1930s, drew from their sound, as well as what he’d learned from records by Blind Blake and others. Blind Willie McTell, truly in a class of his own, blended religious material, ragtime, and country blues, emerging as one of the greatest bluesmen of any era.
At the time these men came to prominence, a great flourishing of black music was taking place in Atlanta. Crowds flocked to the glorious Big Bethel A.M.E. Church, built in 1922 on the corner of Butler and Auburn, to hear famous spiritual choirs and the melodious preaching of Rev. J.M. Gates, by far Atlanta’s most recorded figure. The famous Bailey’s 81 Theater on Decatur Street offered the best in black vaudeville, booking comics and straight men, chorus girls, animal acts, small bands, and popular recording artists such as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Mamie Smith, and singing guitarists Sylvester Weaver and Lonnie Johnson. As a teenaged usher, Tom Dorsey sold soda pop there while pioneering blues artists such as Ma and Pa Rainey performed onstage. After a distinguished career writing blues songs and making hit records with Tampa Red, “Georgia Tom” Dorsey would become Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, the beloved Father of Gospel Music and star of the 1982 film Say Amen, Somebody.
For African Americans, the liveliest part of Atlanta was Decatur Street south of Five Points, where dance clubs, restaurants, pawnshops, pool halls, and theaters flourished alongside other entertainments. As Rev. Dorsey explained to Jim O’Neal and Amy van Singel in their 1975 Living Blues interview, “They had a lot of bootleggers there. The town went dry and those country men would come in town and bring the bootleg liquor, and people had these parties together. Especially up and down Decatur Street, which was kind of a sporting district anyway. The men would come in from the fields and from the country on Saturday night; they’d have a big time on Decatur Street with the girls.” Decatur Street was familiar turf to all of Atlanta’s prewar blues performers.
Atlanta’s First Bluesmen: The Unrecorded Barrelhouse Piano Players
Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, born in 1899, moved from Villa Rica, Georgia, to Atlanta in 1910. He remembered that the city’s first bluesman were barrelhouse piano players. “Back in the early days, in Atlanta, they went dry way before I could remember. And Saturday night they’d get a keg of beer, a barrel. They’d get the barrel, and everybody’d meet around there and have a big time. ’Round these kegs – keg’s a big barrel – and they’d sell this beer, you know, and they’d get to callin’ ’em barrelhouse, the stomps or something. Anyhow, barrelhouse became very popular back about 1912, or ’13 or ’14 or ’15. That blues-type, or lowdown-type music, they put any kind of words to it they wanted. But they didn’t publish it, you know. In these places, they’d shine out with anything, say ‘Yeah!,’ you know, so I think that’s why they called it barrelhouse. You’d go down to where they’d opened a keg, and you could hear anything, did anything. You get arrested, pulled by the law, if you wasn’t very careful.”
Asked to name the original piano players around Decatur Street, Dorsey responded, “That’s hard to remember, but there’s one fellow, Edgar Webb – course, he died young. And Ed Butler. Long Boy, he used to teach me, and he was pretty good. He died early too. And Lark Lee – I don’t know what become of him. He was a great piano player, in his style, in his way, and he was an Atlanta boy. He played for many of the affairs around Atlanta. You’d have to be an old-timer to remember him. And there’s another guy, too, down there, James Henningway, another boy used to be pretty good. And Nome Burkes, he was pretty well up there, but he was making some money.” None of these piano players were known to have recorded. “Wasn’t nobody making records back then,” Dorsey explained. “Who was making records in 1912?”
In 1915 or ’16, Dorsey moved to Chicago. He told Living Blues that when he returned to Atlanta two years later, “I couldn’t find any of those guys. And those places had all changed. Fact, I used to go back every couple of years. Guys all migrated north, where the pickings were greater, where they could get more money. Yeah, they went to Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit, they went to those places. There was a great influx of people, black folks from the South coming north to get good jobs. And the activity was up here [in the North] by about 1918. It was going on up here. There wasn’t much stuff going on down there.” Asked if there were blues guitarists and fiddlers in Atlanta during this era, Dorsey said, “Well, fiddle and guitar was about all they had, yeah, and the guitar wasn’t as popular as it is now. They didn’t use them then. Only used ’em in the country – the fellows where there wasn’t no pianos, they’d pick ’em. And they could play them, too. But you didn’t see them too often in town. There they used piano.”
By the early 1920s, though, blues guitarists were beginning to play around Decatur Street. Most of Atlanta’s early blues guitarists came from rural areas in Newton and Walton counties, where poverty was commonplace and life was fraught with danger for young black men. Jim Crow laws ruled the land, and the Ku Klux Klan cast a long shadow. The sharecropping system could be easily rigged to keep workers in perpetual servitude, even before the devastating boll weevil infestation of the early 1920s. Sprawling and lit up, Atlanta offered hope of a better life to country folk. By the mid 1920s, nearly 75,000 blacks had congregated in the shabby slums on the city’s west and south sides. Among them were the men who’d dominate the Atlanta blues scene. Peg Leg Howell, Barbecue Bob, Laughing Charley Lincoln, and Curley Weaver all came from Newton County. Buddy Moss had lived in Augusta, while Blind Willie McTell was from down around Thomson and Statesboro.
Blues Recording Begin
An early 1920s craze for 78 rpm records by women blues singers such as Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith sparked interest in recording rural-sounding blues. In 1923 the OKeh company began making field trips to Atlanta to record local talent for their hillbilly and gospel markets. An engineer would typically set up a temporary studio in a hotel room or empty office, and a label executive would supervise the sessions. Since a single “side” of a 78 record could only hold about three minutes of sound, color-coded lights or a tug on a blind musician’s sleeve told performers when to start and stop.
During a March 1924 visit to Atlanta, OKeh made the historic first-ever field recording of a male blues singer/guitarist, Ed Andrews, who was seen busking on the street. A rough-hewn vocalist with a wide-shaking vibrato, Andrews accompanied himself with utilitarian pick-and-strum guitar. His first song, “Barrel House Blues,” strung together back-country verses, such as:
“My mama told me when I was a chile,
My mama told me when I was a chile,
Running around and women gets you after while”
The 78’s flip side, “Time Ain’t Gonna Make Me Stay,” was very similar. When the record came out that June, OKeh ran a newspaper ad stating, “Right where blues songs were born is where Ed. Andrews was singing ’em and playing ’em when the special OKeh Recording Expedition discovered him.” The advertisement also referred to him as “boy.” Andrews never recorded again. Technique-wise, it was an inauspicious start to what rapidly blossom into a lively guitar scene.
The next bluesman to record in Atlanta, Waymon Henry, was billed as “Sloppy Henry” on his OKeh 78s. At his first session, in August 1924, he sang “Tom Cat Blues” and “Cannon Ball Blues” to Eddie Heywood, Sr.’s piano accompaniment. In March 1926, OKeh ushered him back before the recording horn for three more 78s with Heywood. Before his recording career ended in 1929, Sloppy Henry would also record with Atlanta’s first prominent male blues recording artist, Peg Leg Howell.
The Atlanta Bluesmen continues: Peg leg Howell and His Gang
Thanks to Jim O’Neal, Amy van Singel, and Living Blues magazine for permission to use the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey quotes, and to George Mitchell, Bruce Bastin, David Evans, and Sam Charters for their pioneering work researching Georgia blues. And a special round of applause for another pioneering researcher, Peter B. Lowry, for his help with artwork, fact-checking, and especially for his copyediting skills.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.