Field Recordings – Various Artists Vol 16 (1934-1940) “Boll Weevil Here”
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The “Ballad of the Boll Weevil” is at least a century old. Numerous variants on the basic theme were recorded right across the American South during the years 1900-1960, either for the Library of Congress or song collections. There were also related commercial blues recordings such as Charley Patton’s and Joe Calicott’s “Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues”, Kokomo Arnold’s “Bo Weavil Blues”, Ma Rainey’s “Bo Weavil Blues” and “Devil And My Brown Blues” by Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson). In 1961 the “Boll Weevil Song” made No. 2 in the American Hot 100, subsequently becoming an international smash hit, in a version by black ballad singer Brook Benton on Mercury. Although the composer credit on the 45 was to Benton and arranger Clyde Otis and on CD album issue to rock singer Eddie Cochran (who had recorded it a couple of years earlier) and Jerry Capehart, the song was in fact the most familiar version of the traditional Ballad of the Boll Weevil!
Charles Griffin’s Boll Weevil Rag is a particularly fine, extended blues performance with strong vocal and guitar accompaniment, only slightly marred by a couple of disc imperfections. Annie Brewer’s acapella performance of Roosevelt Blues seems to be sung from a songsheet, judging by her comment to Lomax that he’s put it down wrong! Better titled RFC Blues (like an unrelated Jack Kelly 1933 recording) it refers to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, an aspect of the ‘New Deal’. Like the duo of Butch Cage and Willie Thomas, the music of Wilson Jones (vocal and guitar) and Octave Amos (fiddle) could be described as “ragged, but right”. The songs are all of considerable interest. When I First Got Ready For The War refers to World War I. Bowdlerised versions of the bawdy song Stavin Chain are not that common on record. Wilson Jones used the title as a sobriquet so it was probably a regular item in his repertoire. The 2-part Batson is a murder ballad concerning the slaughter of a whole family. The black man executed for the crime protested his innocence to the last. Documentary evidence has now come to light that confirms the event as actual fact and that there was a lobby who strongly believed that the accused was not guilty. Ellis Evans (vocal/harmonica) sounds like the Louisiana equivalent of a Jaybird Coleman with his impressive performance of When I Leave You Baby. Accompanist Jimmy Lewis’s washboard playing is more to the fore on the instrumental Cajun Negro Fais Dos Dos Tune. If any field recording gives the lie to the opinion once espoused by certain American record collectors that all the best blues artists were recorded commercially it is the only known recording by Ernest Rogers, an inmate of the Angola prison farm, where the brilliant bluesman Robert Pete Williams was later incarcerated. Baby, Low Down, Oh Low Down Dirty Dog is such a stunning performance, – both guitar and vocal – that one can only wish that he had been recorded as extensively as a Son House or Muddy Waters. “Seven ‘boys’ with home-made instruments” effectively formed what in a northern city might have been known as a spasm band. “Don’t the moon look pretty, shinin’ through the trees” is an evocative line to be found in blues as diverse as Charley Patton’s “Poor Shinin “and” Me’ Moon” by Lightnin’ Hopkins. How Long, Baby Blues was presumably derived from the (reputedly) million-selling Leroy Carr hit. In an interview with John and Alan Lomax Willie George Albertine King claimed to be a 101 years old! Her Boll Weevil was learnt from a blind man in 1924 in Beaumont, Texas, with the chorus “tell me how long the bullin’ boll weevil been gone”, while in her Baddest Woman (to come to Tennessee) she sings about shaving a gorilla! Over in Arkansas, Irvin (“Gar Mouth”) Lowry and Alf (Dad) Valentine offered their unaccompanied Boll Weevil hollers that quickly switch to other topics. Finious (Flat Foot) Rockmore also recorded a Boll Weevil song (available on DOCD-5580). Included here is a monologue in which he talks about 1920s Texas recording artist Coley Jones (and others), as well as Rockmore’s rendition of the ballad Ella Speed, possibly most familiar from versions of it recorded by Leadbelly.