Cowboy Roy Brown: Street Singer

Cowboy Roy Brown
Street Singer

Cowboy Roy hasn’t been around for a while. That could only have been expected. He was apparently 85 on the very day he was recorded, circa 1960 — by a gentleman whose name I don’t remember encountering before, and hope to hear more from.

Born in Arkansas and some way through a very long career as a wandering minstrel, Roy had turned up in St. Louis with guitar and kazoo, singing on the street rather more efficiently than another ancient recalled by a young Mark McCormick in his notes to Ragtime Texas, the Yazoo label two-LP set which first made available the complete recordings of Henry Thomas. McCormick nostalgically conjectured his no longer quite compos mentis man on the Texas Street with no teeth — and guitar and harmonica in a state like his gums — might have been Thomas.

Regardless of which part of the USA Cowboy Roy came from (Arkansas, actually, the name of a song Thomas recorded as part of a short medley), he couldn’t really have been expected to be a bluesman. The Atlanta street-singer Blind Willie McTell, a stupendously gifted bluesman, in the course of demonstrating his wider repertoire for the Library of Congress around 1940, uttered a phrase which has puzzled researchers, “before the Blues became original.” It shouldn’t have puzzled them, since Blind Willie proceeded to gloss the phrase with reference to Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” and other recordings which created a market for “Blues” on record: whether actual blues like Blind Willie’s later-recorded masterpieces “Statesboro Blues” or “Mama, ‘tain’t Long fo’ Day”, or 1920s vaudeville and pop songs with “Blues” in the title.

It would seem that one song-form among others suddenly stirred enthusiasm, and at the same time artistic creativity, resulting in a considerable enthusiasm and a focus on lyric-writing and instrumental invention, probably kindled by commercial success, but actually an artistic inspiration. In some areas there might have been more blues than others, but following Mamie’s record, the expressive potential already recognised by W.C. Handy, and other composers working with traditional material, the form got taken up impressively.

I’m not sure why Roy’s programme begins with “Green Corn”, a Leadbelly number, but delivered in Roy’s fond, gentle tones rather than Leadbelly’s clarion (and on his first records Leadbelly seemed to think he was hollering on an open street). Leadbelly proceeded to record a lot, a vast repertoire including blues and cowboy songs. This may be all the recorded Cowboy Roy there will ever be.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” makes light of things, brisk. Roy, it seemed, had been around too long to spend much time with the music of strong and tragic emotions. There was more to life. He was as quiet as Mississippi John Hurt (amazingly his junior by some years!), if more comical and whimsical.

There can be little doubt that Brown could play guitar more than well enough, but for a lot of the time he relaxes with modal strumming, not unlike Henry Thomas’s, switching into occasional, and notably accurate (no bum notes) single string work. With this, he alternated spontaneous bursts of melody produced by rapping the guitar’s soundbox. It’s still musical, and was probably part of the act. Indeed, some old men who’d heard Charley Patton in the flesh did say that only when they heard his records did they realise how well he could play guitar, he grandstanded so much in person. Brown might be the gentlest grandstander on disc.

Vocally, Brown tended to sing right across bar-lines, delivering long, rhythmically free but not undisciplined stretches of melody with a nice forward pulse matching his guitar’s. He stays happily in relation to his self-accompaniment, never tied to it and never out of touch. He clearly enjoyed delivering an initially falsetto vocalese “Over the Waves” to his strummed accompaniment. Probably liked the tune. I relish the modest incongruity. Then there’s “Isle of Capri”, which he probably took to when Louis Prima had a hit record with the song. Fun, with a tincture of satire.

“When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” is nice and straightforward, standard gospel repertoire; but if “St. Louis Blues” was still under copyright a full royalty might not be payable. The vocal line’s a compromise between W.C. Handy’s tune and the need to avoid harmonic clashes with the modal strumming. At 85, the precise chords might not have come to mind, so with no need of George Russell’s innovations of the previous maybe fifteen years, Cowboy Roy found his own free way of having a comprehensive adaptable accompaniment. Handy for tunes he didn’t know well, or even requests, it could save him from straining himself and possibly disappointing listeners.

”Corrine, Corrina” has some lovely flashes of delicate and subtle blues guitar work, Brown rather mussing with the lyric than delivering a standard performance. Before the three minutes is over, he has already gone into “Careless Love”, even including the traditional “dig my grave with a silver spade” verse. Perhaps his wonted audiences had small attention spans?

“Goodnight, Irene” was another Leadbelly number, one which Lonnie Donegan and other 1950s exponents of British skiffle delivered. They were less likely to perform Gene Autrey cowboy numbers — such as those that gave Brown his name, after he’d spent a period needing to please fans of such music, and the pop songs he generally refreshes with his treatments. The Autrey segues into “Have I Stayed Away Too Long”, and after the endearing sentimentality, he resumes Donegan repertoire by imploring Bill Bailey to return to his domicile. The ripe raspberry kazoo’s all Brown’s own.

“Birmingham Jail” in waltz time pretty well stays out west. Then, after a ragtimey intro, “She’s Too Fat” segues comically into choruses of “Roll Out the Barrel.” The tune’s German title “Rosa-munde” misses the joke, as well as its underlining with an inserted chorus of “Beer Barrel Polka”.

“Trouble in Mind” is followed by “You Are My Sunshine”, and “Come Sit by My Side”, before a concluding three-minute, three-song medley does just what Thelonious Monk did when he played kindred neo-sentimental ditties: express affection.

There are yet more items on this CD liable to be an antidote to a number of current troubles. Shame he won’t be ’round again. He’d only be 132.

RATING 9 / 10