Sorry, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, your takes on piano blues aren’t the real thing. As so often happens in jazz and blues, and especially in this branch of the music, the Piano Blues set in the Scorsese blues series was distorted by confusing only what was easily visible and audible of an earlier tradition of not playing the piano the way piano teachers liked people to do. Eastwood’s version was mostly rumour, not historical research: the musical equivalent of hearing a report third-hand and short on depth.
This recording certainly is the real thing. Buck McFarland wasn’t a guy who learned to play piano and then tried to pick up the blues. He was there, the piano was there, and he tried to play blues on it. Piano teachers could be appalled. He wasn’t transferring guitar music to the piano. Some enthusiasts, supposing that guitar-like instruments existed before pianos did, assumed that African-American musicians had first to work things out on guitars. But pianos existed already, antedating the blues. Folk piano might seem a contradiction in terms, but folk guitar is often the real artificiality. A lot of blues and related musicians, recorded in the field for documentary rather than marketing purposes, used no instruments.
McFarland and his buddies in the environs of St. Louis put together their blues, barrelhouse or bar-room or domestic piano music by trying to see what they could get out of the keyboard. His friend Wesley Wallace disappeared sometime after recording a few items around 1930. McFarland recorded a couple of items in 1930 and less than a dozen in all of the following half-dozen years, a few of them with the band in which he normally worked. The fiddler was, it seems, James Stewart; the clarinetist isn’t named in the CD notes; the guitarist was William Bunch, who worked as Peetie Wheatstraw and had a posthumous walk-on part in Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece Invisible Man. In the brief interview included on this CD McFarland isn’t exactly enthusiastic about Wheatstraw’s piano-playing. Well, he seemed to have two numbers: the omm-pah of “Shack Bully Stomp” and the two “Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp” recordings (numbered one and two) or a slow and powerful blues, commonly with a dragging, digging-in bass.
Wheatstraw always began with the same figure, at times varying details of it. The whole of his output is a continuity, with subtle variations. It was his singing and his persona that sold his records, dozens of them. McFarland’s seven surviving pre-war recordings are all highlights of a CD by various pairs of hands on the European label Document.
Around 1960, when Bob Koester had founded his Delmark label, Paul Oliver, Samuel Charters and others were reissuing 78 rpm recordings from the 1920s and 1930s and making field trips to record musicians who had been local legends maybe 30 years earlier. Around then, McFarland (aged 58) came from Detroit to visit his mother in Alton, Illinois, and there Charters recorded him. McFarland died soon after, only 59, for all the silly remarks about aged veteran in the CD’s overall sensible notes. Charters’ recording of Buck appeared on the Folkways label, and people including Paul Oliver regretted the poor recording quality, without noting that McFarland had been playing a piano which, if it had been a horse, would have been shot. Now and then a hammer lands noisily on what was once behind the string the hammer used to strike. The general out-of-tuneness produces a curious reverberation.
That was on May 12, 1961 (I read on the label of the LP). In August of the same year, as many people with a specialised interest in this music wouldn’t know until this CD came out weeks ago, McFarland was recorded again, by Robert C. Oswald of Creve Coeur, MO, on a decent enough piano and with OK equipment. He put in much the same—the highly individual piano style, the profound singing of a few blues lyrics—and he sounded at least as good as he’d done 30 years earlier, as a local, not exactly full-time pro musician who delivered a few high quality blues and probably other things for dancing to. He’d been a drummer with Charles Creath’s jazz band, but having picked up blues piano he became, well, unique.
While in most respects very like his other recordings, those on this presumably final session are notable for strong echoes of the legendary Jimmy Yancey, master pianist of a minimal blues repertoire. Bob Koester, whose Delmark label now adds this to a fascinating catalogue of St. Louis recordings from long ago, opined around 1960 that Yancey’s style owed a lot to the St. Louis/ Alton, Illinois school of Wesley Wallace, McFarland and the most Yancey-like Doug Suggs, who like the Chicagoan Yancey was a groundsman at the White Sox baseball park in Chicago.
Here I’d say McFarland had been listening to Yancey recordings, not long before, for unlike elsewhere he produces Yancey motifs and figures and sometimes a distinctive Yanceyan timing and phrasing. It’s still Buck’s own “Four o’Clock Blues”, though the item was also a Yancey repertoire item: the man played only in his own style, but presumably picked up the Yancey characteristics the way pianists like himself had once picked up things from others of their kind: when there were others of their kind, and they heard each other live.
“Charlie Blues” (for police Lieutenant Charles O’Brien, the jazz and blues fan detective who found some generally forgotten or unknown bluesmen all those years ago) hasn’t quite the abandon of Buck’s old friend Wesley Wallace, but relies likewise on a skeletal bass figure to stomp over. “Railroad Blues” is poignant, while the traditional “Dupree Blues”, which many played (and a parent of “Frankie and Johnnie”), is a brisk mid-tempo piano solo, with another skeleton left hand.
He sings “I[‘ve] Got to Go” with the startling phrase, “Nero, make me a soldier of the Cross.” Did anybody ask him about that strange phrase he sang on record in the early 1930s, and on both 1961 sessions? The tune “Barrelhouse Buck” is a stomp with the harmonic variation he delivered at the end of each 12-bar sequence on most things he recorded. He drops it at the end of “Mercy, Mercy”, which has a booming bass. Gentle rather than booming is “Don’t Stop Now”, with its real quote from Yancey, a famous trill, and an effort to deliver the orthodox blues changes without his own little variation. There’s also an echo of another unforgettable player from the same region, James “Bat” Robinson, who recorded one title in 1930 and reprised it at unforgettable length with another deeply moving number, included with Suggs on an LP with the 1950s period title “Primitive Piano”, now reissued elsewhere with a Suggs track which increases his known discography to three items.
McFarland’s swansong ends with “Goodbye Blues”, a further reprise on Yancey, and the window closes on the little sampling there is of these folk musicians, who didn’t play many things but were deep and unrepeatable. True originals: their best music extraordinary, heartfelt and direct.
There was also Jabo Williams, who seems to have connections with Alton but also with Birmingham, Alabama, where he was photographed with Robert McCoy, a more versatile giant of blues piano (as Williams may have been, to judge from what he crams into the last three minutes of the less than 18 minutes of his total recorded output). It took one devoted young Alabamian to put McCoy on record; I know less about the man who recorded McFarland for this, but thank him yet again.
It’s impossible to say how many more complete originals like Buck could have been heard in 1930, from Detroit to Galveston. I’m grateful for what did get recorded, and so long after this music’s heyday a completely unknown recording like this is startling —and within its limits brilliant!