The Rough Guide to the Best Country Blues You've Never Heard

‘Black Cowboys’ and ‘The Best Country Blues You’ve Never Heard’ Chart New Trails through Old-Time Music

Black old-time music’s past is a rabbit hole more than big enough for two vastly different excursions into its secret riches: Black Cowboys and The Best Country Blues You’ve Never Heard.

Dom Flemons presents Black Cowboys
Dom Flemons
Smithsonian Folkways
March 2018
The Rough Guide to the Best Country Blues You've Never Heard
Various Artists
World Music Network
March 2018

I spent a goodly portion of 2008 writing my way out of a rabbit hole.

We all know the feeling: a random Google search or YouTube video turns into a never-ending chase down some particularly arcane path, resulting in some momentary expertise about whatever was down that path, possible membership in an equally arcane Facebook community, and lost sleep.

My excursion was a bit more pronounced, having played itself out on these pages over the course of a year. It began as something of a trend piece on current black bands investigating long-past strains of black music. But the digging that piece prompted, and the releases of new scholarship seemingly timed to keep me ensconced in my excavations, took me back nearly a century before I could find a resting point. It wasn’t really a resting point as much as it was a surrender; if I’d really wanted to I could have kept drilling and weaving my way down any number of forgotten tributaries some more (and in some respects, I’ve done exactly that).

The key takeaway from my trip was that the long history of black pop music — the music itself, the entrepreneurship and industry it spawned, and the broader cultural questions raised with every discovery and backwards glance — is a grade-A Rabbit Hole, replete with trails and offshoots that touch upon mass media, the Great Migration and faith, to name just three of them. There is more to the story than appears on the surface, especially generations after the fact, and nothing to suggest you will ever exhaust the offerings.

This is especially true for the acoustic blues music black people recorded during the ’20s and ’30s. There was — and there is no other way to say this — a holy fricking ton of it, by artists who would be enshrined in the heavens and by artists who were forgotten shortly after leaving the studio. Much of this music was recorded before the Great Depression, and even more of it during those years, and little of it sold a quarter as much as the mainstream pop of the day. Not surprisingly, given the still-nascent state of the record industry back then (and the not-so-nascent state of racial attitudes), most of it was considered disposable and more or less treated as such. Without grabbing and preserving whatever physical slices of all this magic and invention still survived, who in the future would know what it sounded like?

The only people who seemed to value this incredible range of music — rough, profane, desperate, whimsical, schmaltzy, and everything else on the spectrum of human life — were the fanboys (mostly white, and mostly indeed male) sniffing around in the ’40s and ’50s, who couldn’t get their first whiff of it out of their systems. Hopelessly bitten by the bug, they scoured attics and thrift shops gobbling up these old blues records, which were already fragile to begin with because of the shellac they were pressed on. They started cataloging them, traded information with each other, and chased down their own rabbit holes in search of whatever missing link was blinking like neon from their collections.

Eventually, licensing and financial attribution be damned, they started creating compilations of the best of their finds, to share their genuine love of this music with the world without endangering the precious raw materials (Samuel Charters’ 1959 book and compilation album The Country Blues, released by Folkway Records, popularized the catch-all name for the whole category; future archivists would draw clearer distinctions between styles, eras and regions but the idea of all of it being “country blues” still stuck). Those initial collections spawned additional collections, and then pilgrimages down South to find whoever of those artists was still alive, sit at the fount of their wisdom, and book them on revival tours.

From there, the music found a new audience, and several times at that. The ’60s folk movement drew strength from it. Bob Dylan tapped into the canon on his own and with the Band, as did the Grateful Dead and other rockers. Latter-day revivalists learned from it to refashion blues music in a new age. Robert Johnson, a largely forgotten figure, was proclaimed King of the Delta Blues Singers by his former record label, and covered by Cream and the Rolling Stones.

Over time, the music, or at least damned near all of it still extant, was made available again. The maddening range of it — the eastern songsters, the Delta guitarists, the jug bands, the holy rollers, the traveling preachers, the bawdy raunch peddlers, the raconteurs and jokesters, the vaudeville divas, and everyone else — was back in circulation, and more broadly than ever before. New generations of collectors and scholars made greater care to delineate the differences between the styles, and built upon the previous research to flesh out a truer, more complete story of this music, which by then had become a large piece of the bedrock of America’s musical culture. When the music came to digital life on any number of CD compilations, one could explore the entire holy fricking ton of it without having to risk breaking a brittle artifact, and could read a few words about the artists to boot. Thanks to both the internet and those legendary obsessives, chasing and detailing black music’s past is a lot easier now.

World Music Network is among the most diligent chronicles and surveyors of this old, weird rabbit hole. Over the years, WMN has released a fair number of compilations from this massive canon as part of its Rough Guide series of collections from major artists (including Youssou N’Dour, Johnny Cash, and Edith Piaf) global regions (Scandinavia, China, and Brazil to name just three), and specific sub-cultures and moments in cultural time (e.g., Boogaloo, African Rare Groove, Arabic Revolution).

The target audience isn’t that devoted, specialized fanatic who wants, no, needs to know everything surrounding the difference between that July 1934 recording of a song by Little Luther X and the April 1935 version by Big Mary Y. The Rough Guide series trades comprehensiveness for accessibility, giving you enough to have a measure of cultural literacy without the bother of that whole rabbit hole thing. They’re billed as guides, after all, not encyclopedias (in this case, the true believers know where the real road map is: UK-based Document Records, which has taken its name to literal extremes).

Thus, after having issued collections of jug band blues, Piedmont/East Coast blues, ragtime blues, hillbilly (read: white people) blues, gospel blues, holy blues, songsters and two volumes of Unsung Heroes of Country Blues, plus anthologies of Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie Johnson, Charley Patton and Barbecue Bob, WMN went on another excavation trip back into the hole for The Rough Guide to the Best Country Blues You’ve Never Heard. Perhaps though, given their extensive catalogue, a better title would be The Best Country Blues We Hadn’t Yet Re-Packaged.

In any event, it’s hard to argue with the title: non-frequenters of this particular rabbit hole (certainly those unfamiliar with Document’s massive archive) probably have never heard these songs. And it’s not just that these artists aren’t as famous as Johnson or Memphis Minnie (they aren’t), or that they haven’t been included on someone else’s anthology at some point (many of them have). Rough Guides exist to save people with both broad musical curiosity and a life from tumbling down arcane rabbit holes. Those folks haven’t thought to go wandering off in search of 90-year-old acoustic blues music by third- or fourth-tier artists with small discographies but might like the results, so this collection is a super time-saver for them.

Indeed, these 25 tracks, recorded for various labels between 1927 and 1936, really are obscure. Charlie McCoy and Lottie Kimbrough are probably the most recognizable names to casual travelers down the hole, but some of the other names are, well, pretty classic: Jack O’Diamonds, “Funny Papa” Smith (although some listings have him as “Funny Paper”), Mississippi Matilda, the Two Poor Boys, Papa Egg Shell. Musically, this even-keeled set leans towards 12-bar Delta blues, with a few songsters and Texas blues players thrown in for variety’s sake. We get not one but two tributes to Jefferson, whose sudden passing in 1927 shocked the blues world. Winston Holmes adds some bird calls to his “Lost Lover Blues” duet with Kimbrough, while Ollis Martin warns about law enforcement behavior generations before N.W.A. (“Police and High Sheriff Come Ridin’ Down”). For those seeking to get their Saturday night on, there’s Walter Coleman’s “Mama Let Me Lay It on You” (“and if your bed break down/ see me pilin’ on the floor”), followed promptly by Pearl Dickson’s “Twelve Pound Daddy”(“and if my twelve pound daddy won’t come/ my eight pound daddy will do”).

It’s a pleasant collection, but these tunes aren’t linked by anything but their obscurity. If this is your first exposure to the rabbit hole, this will likely whet your appetite for the classic stuff, all of which is far less obscure (and you’ll want to keep a browser tab open, as there’s little background provided on any of these artists). If you’re familiar with the field, you’ve just added a few tunes to your collection, depending on which anthologies you may or may not already have, but you haven’t learned anything substantially new or life-changing.

It’s all cool music, but what’s the point here? If it’s to make an authoritative statement about the best music the Rough Guide team hasn’t already anthologized, I’ll defer to those who’ve spent way more time down the hole than I have. If it’s to celebrate this art and these artists, some more substantial liner notes would have been nice. If it’s to offer a slice of completist coolness to folks who aren’t really trying to be completists, mission accomplished. And if it’s to get others curious about going down this particular hole, that might happen too.

Whatever the motivation, a title like …The Best Country Blues You’ve Never Heard implies an end of sorts, as if to say the rest of whatever else is down that hole isn’t worth your time. (Although there’s nothing to suggest that someday there couldn’t be a Volume 2 – it seems there’s always forgotten music to stumble upon in amazement.) But rabbit holes aren’t that straightforward, as we all know. Keep digging around and you could end up in a truly magical place, one you’ve never heard for real, that opens up not onto a category, but a way of life. Exhibit A: the black American West.

* * *

You’d never know it from watching a John Ford western or any other Hollywood depiction, but black people were an integral part of how the West was won. In the years after the Civil War, blacks found freedom out west in numerous occupations, including as cowboys. They worked on ranches and cattle drives, relying on their fellow cowboys (white, Mexican and Native American alike) to get the perilous job done. The work subsided with the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad, but cowboy culture trickled down through the years. Their music and storytelling became a piece of American folklore, kept alive in recent years by institutions like the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Dom Flemons fell into that particular rabbit hole from a couple of different tracks. He was already clued in to the deep well of acoustic black roots music as a co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the acclaimed ensemble dedicated to reclaiming early blues and black folk music as a still-vital and engaging piece of American culture. He also has a personal connection: he grew up in the same Arizona town where legendary black cowboy Nat Love once lived. When he came upon Phillip Dunham and Everette L. Jones’ 1965 study The Negro Cowboys, Flemons was intrigued enough to start an extensive research project about black cowboy music and the culture surrounding it, criss-crossing the country in search of its lingering traces. He emerged from that rabbit hole with Black Cowboys (2018), a remarkably enlightening presentation of a slice of culture all but whitewashed from our common knowledge. As opposed to the Rough Guide collection, most of this really is stuff you’ve never hear, or even thought to seek.

The first thing to understand is this isn’t what we’d call country music, or anything we’ve come to associate with the music of the West (although there’s a good reason why they used to call the genre “country and western”). It begins with his plaintive “Black Woman”, an a cappella lament that’s actually a field holler collected by John Lomax in the ’30s. But it isn’t all that far a stretch to imagine a lonesome cowboy singing this out on the trail, far from family and loved ones.

Other selections highlight Flemons’ graceful touch on guitar, banjo and even rhythm bones (“John Henry y los vasqueros”, a nod to the Mexicans whose innovations were central to cowboy life and work) and fife and drum (his version of “Red River Valley”, with a nod to the Buffalo Soldiers of the mid-1800s). He taps into cowboy poetry, a folk art passed down mostly through oral culture across generations. The poem “Ol’ Proc” attests to the color-blind creed of the cowboy life, valuing skill over ethnicity when it came to herding cattle.

Another example of cowboy meritocracy happens on “Goodbye Old Paint”, a tribute to a horse recorded by a white singer in 1947 whose dad worked with black cowboys. That singer, Jess Morris, learned the song from a black cowboy, and later learned the fiddle from another one. Not to get all meta about it, but think of the multiple ironies here: a white guy learns a song from a black singer, learns about music from another one, then 70 years later, a black performer retrieves the entire chain from history’s dusty trail. Given America’s tangled racial history, and our near-total lack of understanding about it, the discovery of this kind of cross-cultural exchange might seem pretty mind-blowing. Except it isn’t really cross-cultural: it’s all part of one tradition that just so happens to be populated by people of various skin tones.

Flemons also retrieves music from better known performers: a couple of tunes each from Texas songster Henry Thomas and Leadbelly. In addition to selections from the cowboy canon, he features his own tributes to the best known black cowboys, Love (“Steel Pony Blues”), Bass Reeves (“He’s a Lone Ranger” — Reeves was said to have inspired the fictional Lone Ranger character) and Bill Pickett (“One Dollar Bill”), who starred in Richard E. Norman’s 1923 film, The Bull-Dogger, the earliest depiction of black cowboys in film. That these songs sound more contemporary than the others serves as a helpful point of familiarity for unwary listeners not used to old-time styles (in case any of them somehow happen upon it, as specialized and blissfully disconnected from current music as it is).

The connections to American musical and folk culture abound throughout Black Cowboys, but never more so than on Flemons’ rendition of “Home on the Range”. The story goes that John Lomax recorded the standard version of the song, the one we’ve known since forever, in 1908, as sung by a black bartender in San Antonio. I can virtually guarantee you that until now, no one outside the cowboy culture community had any inkling this most identifiably Western song — an anthem of traditional America you’ve probably never heard a person of color sing in earnest, and you’ve heard the song a million times — had a black lineage. When people say black history is really American history, this is the kind of stuff they’re talking about.

Flemons and his crackerjack bandmates (including Alvin Youngblood Hart, Dante Pope and Brian Farrow) immerse themselves in the music, even donning Western garb for the liner note booklet. But this is no dress-up party. They bring a sense of reverence to the material, and they render it with a sense of joy, making Black Cowboys a wondrous listening experience. Come for the history lesson, stay for Flemons’ deeply felt gratitude for the adventures of black cowboys, and the music they left us. File it right next to the 2013 book Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music (Duke University Press, 2013) and the 1998 CD boxed set From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (Warner Bros., 1988) as proof positive of how much black music runs like a river all through American culture beyond merely blues, gospel, jazz and pop.

Black Cowboys is a thematic album, as opposed to the Rough Guide semi-random compilation. Those, of course, are two entirely different beasts, and semi-random compilations certainly have their place in the world. But …The Best Country Blues You’ve Never Heard, while it’s entertaining enough for the field, doesn’t pack anywhere near the feeling of revelation and enchantment Flemons invests into Black Cowboys. Much of the Rough Guide collection can be found elsewhere, if only by accident on a journey through black pop’s forgotten trails. But Flemons, in presenting an under-heralded tradition freshly for today’s audiences (and tomorrow’s as well — Smithsonian Folkways does a much more thorough job of repackaging and re-contextualizing American music’s past than does World Music Network), did something a lot more profound on his impressively deep dive. He came back up with something we might not have found in a million dives, crystallizing his discoveries into a singular, unified package we all can both learn from and enjoy. It’s the kind of work that, more likely than not, will send someone somewhere down a rabbit hole that just opened up.