Texas is without doubt one of the quintessential musical melting pots of the US, and whilst Mississippi receives most of the credit for creating the blues, Texas is where many of the earliest blues pioneers lived and played. Although equally poignant and direct as the Delta style, the Texas blues was fundamentally less raw and rudimentary with guitarists typically incorporating more sophisticated and varied guitar accompaniments from verse to verse.
Dubbed the ‘Father of the Texas Blues’, Blind Lemon Jefferson is to the Texas blues what Charley Patton and Robert Johnson are to its Delta variant. Laying down a whopping one hundred or so sides in just three short years between 1926 and 1929 he established himself as one of the very first successful blues recording artists before his premature death at the age of just 36. Like many songsters of his time, Jefferson was renowned for his versatility and wide-ranging repertoire from rags and spirituals to blues and other popular songs of the day. His towering musical influence had a huge impact on all who crossed his path including Leadbelly, who pays his respects in the featured ‘My Friend Blind Lemon’ and Aaron Thibeaux Walker (T-Bone Walker), a family friend to whom Jefferson is thought to have passed on his guitar knowledge in exchange for Walker’s services as a guide. Another oft-romanticized story is that Jefferson once plied his busking trade on the opposite side of the street to another Texan guitar legend Blind Willie Johnson, a fire-and-brimstone Christian believer to the core who played sacred songs so mean that his legacy has gone down in blues history.
Dallas was an important hub for the Texas blues scene during the 1920s and amongst its most popular acts was the Dallas String Band. The band’s repertoire was drawn largely from minstrel, vaudeville, and ragtime traditions, and was primarily made up of vaudevillian songster Coley Jones on mandolin, bassist Marco Washington, and guitarist Sam Harris, with a few transient members joining in occasionally including even Blind Lemon Jefferson who was said to have sat in from time-to-time. Their wonderful rendition of ‘Dallas Rag’ has endured as one of the band’s most loved tunes and is popular to this day amongst guitar pickers. The band’s leader, Coley Jones, was a prominent figure in the Afro-American music scene of Dallas, whose solo release ‘The Elder's He's My Man’, is one of several great church parodies in the pre-blues canon.
Remarkably Henry Thomas’ projected birthdate of 1874 predates that of Blind Lemon Jefferson by two decades and gives us an idea of what rural black music sounded like before the turn of the twentieth century. He was 53 years old during his first recording session in 1927 by which point much of his music was already a representation of a bygone era. His songs have duly been re-interpreted and much covered by artists including Bob Dylan, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and the Grateful Dead who covered the classic opener ‘Don’t Ease Me In’ for their debut single in 1966.
The powerful vocals of both Texas Alexander and Bessie Tucker provide another important insight into the pre-blues tradition as they belt out their lyrics in the style of the old southern field hands in their respective ‘Bell Cow Blues’ and ‘Got Cut All To Pieces’, thus helping to preserve the musical traditions of work songs and field hollers. Equally distinctive was the slide guitar artistry of blues pioneers who performed in and around the Texas region such as Black Ace, Oscar Woods and Ramblin’ Thomas whose playing represents another key aspect of the Texas blues.
Invariably, many of these featured musicians were connected in some way, and the blues diva Victoria Spivey was another who had performed with Blind Lemon Jefferson. Undoubtedly one of the most influential blues women of her era, she wrote songs, sang them with heartfelt passion and accompanied herself on piano, an instrument whose importance and contribution shouldn’t be overlooked in blues history from the region. In fact, no other southern state produced as many local pianists as Texas, including Texas Bill Day and the more well-known Whistlin’ Alex Moore whose ‘West Texas Woman’ concludes this collection of tracks rooted in the traditions of "The Lone Star State”.