Well, that's one thing. But it was not so much the sexual meanings. Blues was associated with gambling and drinking.
Remember, we had prohibition in the Twenties. If you played blues, you played where people drank and gambled and carried on and committed adultery-all the things that the black church and the white church stood against: gambling, fornication, adultery, violence, murder. A lot of people got killed or stabbed or cut up at a jook house. Or at a house party, somebody would get shot sometimes. See, there weren't any commercial places to go. If you lived in a small town in the Delta, you went to a house party. Some plantation owners might have a place they could open up as a jook on weekends, but most didn't and you played house parties. That's what Hayes McMullen played, that's what Bracey played, Tommy Johnson, Patton-they played dances mainly. Somebody like Patton would be hired for a dance on Saturday night, and he would attract a large audience.
Speir told me that on a good day in the springtime or summertime, he sold anywhere from 300 to 600 78s. He was open from eight o'clock in the morning till ten at night. You see, in those days, the poor blacks and poor whites all came to town on Saturdays. They came into town in old cars or even wagons in those days, in the Twenties and Thirties. But it wasn't in the Thirties that he sold as many records as the good days in the Twenties, when everything was booming. Speir said he stocked 3000 78s, and 90% were race records ordered for the blacks and sold to the blacks.
Speir paid 45 cents for the record and retailed it for 75 cents. He said the major companies told him it took about 28cents to make a record. So they made 17cents off the record and he made 30 cents. There was no return in those days; in other words, if you bought something and didn't sell it, you didn't get your money back. Columbia and Victor were shipped out of New Orleans. Paramount and Vocalion were shipped by the St. Louis Music Company. OKehs were shipped out of Memphis. They shipped records in every week by railway express. St. Louis Music Company wholesaled all the types of guitars, musical equipment, Victrolas. Now Speir carried Victors and Columbias. Victor called its machine the Victrola, and Columbia called its machine the Graphonola. He said you could get a machine for under $100, and some of the big Victor Orthophonics sold for $150-$200, but the blacks couldn't afford it. If you look at the picture [1929 photograph ofSpeir'S store], you see he's got a lot of suitcase models. You could buy a suitcase model for $9.95 up to $14.95. All these were pre-electric wind-up machines. Now Victor came out with an electric motor in 1927, but the majority of blacks didn't have electricity. The Victrolas were shipped in from New Orleans and New York City. Victor had an assembly plant in New : Orleans. As a matter of fact, Speir said he went down there when he got out of the Navy and worked about two years, and this is where he got the idea to go into the music business. And so he came back to Jackson eventually and borrowed a little money and got into the business.
Speir sold Stella guitars for $9.95. He sold Nationals. He said he hnd some of the big jumbo metal-bodied guitars that he sold for $32.50. I don't know how anybody had that much money to buy one. Johnny Temple told me that Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy said they went up to Chicago to record in about 1930, and they came back dnving a new Winston car with two brand-new Style 1 Tri-cone Nationals-the first metal-bodied guitars anybody had ever seen in Jackson. And those sold for $125 apiece.
Did Speir mention what kind of instruments any of these guys played?
Stellas. He said they played the old, cheap Stella guitars-across the board. Speir said Martins weren't very good guitars; he said they didn't work at all for blues. He sold violins and what looks like banjo ukes back there hanging up. You walk in on the left, and you got the Victrolas and the portable wind-up Victrolas on the right. That's a radio standing by him. And there were four listening booths, where people took the records in and listened to the 78s. I don't know if he sold sheet music; it looks like he may have some sheet music there. If you look up there, there are advertisements for Art Gilham and Paul Whiteman. He said Columbia and Victor sent out a lot of promotional material; he said somebody like Paramount didn't send much.
People like Muddy Waters and Howin' Wolf, who were not contemporaries of the bluesmen Speir recorded, were influenced mostly by the records.
Right. The first-line singers of the Twenties weren't influenced by records, they were influenced by people they heard playing. Robert Johnson heard a hell of a lot of good records somewhere. He copied Charlie Patton. He took some melodies from Skip James. "Hellhound On My Trail" is the same song as "Devil Got My Woman"; his "32-20 Blues" is the same melody as Skip James's "22-20 Blues." "Preaching Blues" was Son House's song. Son House recorded "Preaching Blues" in 1930. So Johnson was tremendously influenced by records.
So indirectly, what Speir did influenced postwar blues.
Sure. Speir recorded the prewar Mississippi guys, and then people like Muddy Waters and Elmore James took it up to Chicago and it became postwar blues. Robert Johnson is kind of the link between the old and new. That's why Johnson has such a reputation; that's why Johnson is the man. They took Johnson's music and went to Chicago with it, played it on electric guitar and created Chicago blues.
You see, in those days, every company had a hillbilly series, a pop series, and a race series, and they just tried to retail them in different markets. They found out about 1921 or '22 that they could sell white fiddle music down south. And it was about 1926 before anybody ever recorded guitar blues, really. In 1926, Paramount found Blind Lemon and Blind Blake, and both of them started selling really well. So all the other companies jumped on the bandwagon and tried to find guitar blues from real southern artists; they started coming down south to places like Atlanta, Memphis, Dallas, Jackson, and Louisville, Kentucky, to set up and record once or twice a year. And Speir would take people and go to these recording sessions. He told me he went to recording sessions in New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, Atlanta. Now remember, he was taking not just black, he was taking white people, too. He was taking white artists like preachers or fiddle string bands; he was taking them to places to record, also.
Normally, you think about him as the guy who was responsible for all the great black talent, but he found a lot of white talent, too. He loved white fiddle music. He found a Choctaw Indian fiddle band from Oklahoma that was at the Philadelphia Choctaw Festival in the summertime and got them on Victor. Big Chief Henry was his name. But he missed on Jimmie Rodgers. He told me that Jimmie Rodgers came in his store to audition. He said Rodgers sang a couple of songs and he said, "Jimmie, you're not ready to record right now." He said, "I didn't think much of his songs. I told him to go back to Meridian, and when he worked up four or six more good songs, bring them back and see me again and I'd listen." He said the next thing he knew, he looked up one day and Jimmie Rodgers was on RCA Victor.
How old was Jimmie Rodgers?
He was about thirty years old when he auditioned for Speir. You got to remember, Jimmie Rodgers's first record for Victor was "Sleep Baby Sleep," and it sold iust enough copies that Victor brought him back in the studio and he made "Blue Yodel." And "Blue Yodel" started selling like hotcakes, and he was set from then on as a big recording star.
So Jimmie Rodgers probably heard about Speir the same way as the other guys did. So would you say, on a small scale, Speir in ]ackson was kind of like Nashville today?
He was. He told me people would write the companies saying they wanted to get on record and they were a good talent, and the companies would write them back and say either write Mr. H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi, or go there. He said he actually had people from out of state come to his store to audition. And he would tell them, "Go home, work some more, and come back someday when you've got some more songs." He said the main reason most people didn't get recorded was because they didn't have enough songs, original material. The record companies didn't want material that had been done by somebody else, they wanted original material. That's why Charlie Patton and Skip James were so big, because they had a lot of material. Skip James recorded somewhere around sixteen to twenty sides for Paramount. Patton probably did twelve or fourteen sides the first session, about fifteen or sixteen the second session, and four the last session with Son House and Willie Brown.
But the Depression was starting by May of 1930. John Hurt's first record, "Frankie," sold so well that Tommy Rockwell, who was the director for OKeh Records, wired Hurt and sent him money to come to New York. So he went to the New York studios. Speir said if they thought the talent was good enough, really worthwhile, and would make them some money, they'd bring them up to New York to record in their best studios. So John Hurt was good enough in OKeh's eyes to go to New York to record.
Speir made a demo of Son House, Willie Brown, and Charlie Patton and sent it to W. R. Calaway. And Calaway came down to Speir's store in 1934 to get their addresses. He went into the Delta and found Patton in jail in Belzoni-finally tracked him down to Belzoni from Holly Ridge where he was living at that time, which is in Sunflower County. And he took him back to Meridian, and they rode the train from Meridian to New York City. And Patton recorded up there for a couple of days, Patton and his wife Bertha Lee. That's the only two Mississippi people I know of, John Hurt and Charlie Patton, that ever went to New York to record.
Getting back to Tommy Johnson, didn't you tell me he had a speech impediment?
Yeah. Speir said Johnson stuttered a lot, and he couldn't speak plain when you were talking to him. He'd have to start singing before he'd stop stuttering. And he said he kind of hissed when he talked, and that was a natural distraction. So he said he kind of felt sorry for Tommy because he was tongue-tied or something. He didn't hiss or stutter on records.
He was a chronic alcoholic.
He drank canned heat. The amazing thing is, Tommy Johnson lived from 1896 to 1956: he lived to be sixty years old, as much rot-gut whiskey and canned heat and antiseptics as he drank.
How do you consume canned heat?
You boil it down and melt it, and the alcohol comes out. Then you drink the alcohol.
Speir said that every blues singer is going to drink at least a little bit. He's not going to make music or have an emotional feeling until he gets a little alcohol in him. He said he'd buy antiseptic or he'd buy canned heat. He said most of them drank antiseptic-they could afford that when they couldn't afford alcohol.
Ishmon Bracey told me he and Tommy Johnson went to record for Paramount in Grafton, Wisconsin. And Johnson got in there and they had some bonded whiskey in a barrel. And he said Johnson got a hold of it and went wild, started drinking that stuff-it was Old Charter. He said he got so drunk, Mr. Laibly was going to run him off if he ruined one more take-said he was going to send him home. And because of that, Bracey said he backed Tommy Johnson up on one of the Paramount sides, he actually played guitar instead of Johnson, because Tommy couldn't make it through the record without making a bad note. He said Tommy had never seen bonded whiskey. This was 1920s, prohibition. Where would you see Old Charter in Mississippi if you were a poor black guy?
Speir said one time, Tommy got thrown in jail and called him, and he went and put up $150 bond. He remembered it was $150, because that was a lot of money in tight times, Depression days-must have been the early Thirties. And he said Tommy jumped bail and went to Crystal Springs. And Speir went looking for him, couldn't find him in Crystal Springs, went on down to Louisiana, and they told him he was living in a little town called Angie, Louisiana.
And he walked up on in a garden and he said, "Tommy, you got to go back with me," and he put handcuffs on him. He said Johnson begged him, "Don't make me go back, Mr. Speir." He said,'Well, I'll lose my $150." So he took him back to Jackson. He said later on, he saw him on a county road one time or a city work crew around town. He was drinking a lot, so he probably got arrested for public drunkenness. He really must have felt for Johnson. He said Johnson didn't have enough songs when he first met him. Bracey came in and auditioned, and Bracey told him about Tommy Johnson. So he went to hear Johnson up on the Pearl River, in a little camp where he was living. He went up there and listened to him, and he said he had two songs-that's all he had. And he said, "You got to have four songs, Tommy, to record." So he started working on more songs.
Who was Isaiah Nettles?
Isaiah Nettles made four sides in 1935 for ARC. In October of 1935, ARC came to Jackson and they did this session upstairs on Farish Street-lasted about ten days. Now earlier, in December of 1930, OKeh Records came to Jackson, to the King Edward Hotel, and they recorded for about ten days, too-recorded hillbilly, blues, and gospel. And Speir was responsible for all that talent.
What about Blind Joe Reynolds?
Blind Joe Reynolds, also known as Blind Willie Reynolds, was from Lake Providence, Louisiana, grew up in Tallulah. Speir found him at Lake Providence and sent him to Paramount. He recorded a song called "Outside Woman Blues." In about 1967, Cream recorded it. He only recorded four sides for Paramount, and only two sides, "Outside Woman" and "Nehi Mama," have ever been found.
Anyone else you can think of?
Speir told me there was an old woman in the Meridian train station he used to love to come by and hear. She was a train caller, and he said she'd sing out where the trains were going. He said she was fabulous. He said, "I tried to get her to go on records, but she wouldn't do it." He said, "I'd have put a harmonica or something like that behind her." He said he'd come here to Meridian just to hear her. He also recorded a guy in 1927 named Moses Mason from Lake Providence, Louisiana, who sold hot tamales and played a guitar and sang out, "Get your hot tamales...."
How would you appraise the Speir legacy?
Speir was the godfather of Delta blues. H.C. Speir was to Twenties and Thirties country blues what Sam Phillips was to Fifties rock & roll-a musical visionary. If it hadn't been for Speir, Mississippi's greatest natural resource might have gone untapped.
Photos and records appear courtesy of Gayle Dean Wardlow.