Although primarily known for its 1930s jazz scene, Kansas City was also home to a number of interesting prewar blues artists whose performing styles were completely unique to their region. Unfortunately, most of these musicians are largely forgotten today, even among many of the blues cognoscenti. Some of this may have to do with the fact that record companies who catered to the race market mostly ignored this Midwestern metropolis in the 1920s, leaving its musicians sadly under-recorded. Even companies such as Paramount, Brunswick, and Gennett who did see commercial potential in releasing blues sides from Kansas City required the musicians to travel to their studios in Chicago or Richmond, Indiana. The only recording sessions that apparently did occur in KC were conducted by the local Meritt label, whose discography is scant even by race records standards.
So what does this music sound like? As this very good collection demonstrates, the sound of prewar Kansas City blues is a varied one, with the assorted artists featured here displaying similarities to or the influences of better-known classic female blues singers, hot jazz, prewar country blues, medicine show performers, and even hillbilly music, which considering the municipality's position at the crossroads of North and South and East and West should not be that surprising. Half of the tracks feature the vocal talents of Lottie Kimbrough (aka Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough or Lena Kimbrough), who, judging by the illustration on the booklet cover, possessed an appropriate nickname in "The Kansas City Butter-Ball." Compared by some to Ma Rainey, I actually find Kimbrough's recordings to be more interesting, even though I'm usually not a big fan of accompanied prewar female blues singers. That said, she does possess a truly remarkable, booming voice which is nicely complemented by the guitar and banjo of The Pruitt Twins on "Regular Man Blues," "Honey Blues," and "Red River Blues," tuning problems on the last number notwithstanding. "Sugar Daddy" and "Low Down Painful" are two stately parlor blues pieces with early jazz pianist Jimmy Blythe skillfully tickling the ivories, while my favorite of the sides from 1924, "Mama Can't Lose" also features a banjoist who might be Papa Charlie Jackson. "City of the Dead" and "Cabbage Head Blues" are the most jazz-like recordings on this disc what with the accompaniment of Paul Banks' Kansas City Trio, both released on promoter Winston Holmes' aforementioned Meritt label. The latter title is especially interesting as it pairs Lottie with her brother Sylvester on vocals and has its origins in the old English folk song "Old Cuckold" (aka "Our Goodman"). (On a related note, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 would also base his "Wake Up Baby" recorded 32 years later in 1958 on the same ballad.) "Lost Lover Blues" and "Wayward Girl Blues" finds her teamed up with Holmes (who sings, yodels, and alternately imitates bird calls or train whistles) as well as Miles Pruitt on guitar. "Rolling Log Blues" and "Goin' Away Blues" feature Pruitt's uniquely tuned guitar more to the fore, although not as effectively as the remakes he and Kimbrough would record in 1929 (cf.). The unknown piano player and cornetist on "Blue World Blues" give it a jazz flavor akin to "City of the Dead" and "Cabbage Head."
The next half-dozen titles, recorded by Holmes and the virtually unknown guitarist Charlie Turner, are Kansas City Blues' finest moments. The two-part "The Death of Holmes' Mule" is a fascinating glimpse into the lost world of medicine shows and the often bizarre and humorous performances that were staged there. Obviously influenced by gospel music and preacher sermons, this recording tells the story of a bootlegger (Holmes) who buries his "mule" (that's "white mule" as in moonshine as opposed to jackass) with the musical assistance of Turner's impeccable "praying" 12-string slide guitar. "Burying a mule without prayer? You can't do that!" exclaims Turner. Despite their elaborate preparations to ensure an undisturbed rest underground, the duo returns to the "gravesite" only to find that someone else has dug it up. "Glory to my mule," sings Holmes. Amen. "Rounders Lament" is doleful song wherein Holmes expresses regret for his lecherous ways in the eloquent spoken-word introduction and subsequent lyrics. The addition of Miles Pruitt's guitar on "The Kansas City Call" (which also features more of Holmes' amazing whistling) and the bowdlerized hokum tune "Skinner" creates some interesting harmonics in conjunction with the instrument of Turner, who blows a pretty mean harmonica as well. The delightful instrumental "Kansas City Dog Walk" is a guitar tour de force for Turner (as Holmes shouts out encouragement) that at times sounds like something Lead Belly might have done. There's nothing wrong with Paul Banks' piano on "Garbage Can Blues" and "Bird Liver Blues," but I don't care much for Sylvester Kimbrough's singing. He would have been better off sticking to vocal accompaniment on his sister's records.
Blues historian Paul Oliver's always excellent notes are well worth reading in the accompanying booklet for additional information. And for more details about Winston Holmes, be sure to consult the article "Winston Holmes: Kansas City Promoter" in 78 Quarterly No. 2 posted here.
1. Regular Man Blues - Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
2. Honey Blues - Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
3. Red River Blues - Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
4. Sugar Daddy Blues - Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
5. Low Down Painful Blues - Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
6. Mama Can't Lose - Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
7. City of the Dead - Lena & Sylvester Kimbrough
8. Cabbage Head Blues - Lena & Sylvester Kimbrough
9. Lost Lover Blues - Lottie Kimbrough & Winston Holmes
10. Wayward Girl Blues - Lottie Kimbrough & Winston Holmes
11. Rolling Log Blues - Lottie Kimbrough & Winston Holmes
12. Goin' Away Blues - Lottie Kimbrough & Winston Holmes
13. Blue World Blues - Lottie Kimbrough & Winston Holmes
14. The Death of Holmes' Mule Part 1 - Winston Holmes & Charlie Turner
15. The Death of Holmes' Mule Part 2 - Winston Holmes & Charlie Turner
16. Rounders Lament - Winston Holmes & Charlie Turner
17. The Kansas City Call - Winston Holmes & Charlie Turner
18. Skinner - Winston Holmes & Charlie Turner
19. Kansas City Dog Walk - Winston Holmes & Charlie Turner
20. Going Away Blues - Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
21. Rollin' Log Blues - Lottie Beaman-Kimbrough
22. Garbage Can Blues - Sylvester Kimbrough
23. Bird Liver Blues - Sylvester Kimbrough