Here's one more early Yazoo release that for some reason never received a CD reissue, much to the detriment of those who got into prewar blues during the 1980s and 1990s. Featuring some wonderful cover artwork and an irresistible title, Buddy Boy Hawkins & His Buddies includes one side devoted to this underappreciated singer-guitarist's most compelling performances and another that showcases the works of six different blues musicians who were more or less his contemporaries. At the time of its release, biographical details about many such artists were extremely scarce. Consequently, Hawkins was often stylistically grouped with bluesmen from Texas and the Southwest as on this record and another Yazoo LP, Don't Leave Me Here: The Blues of Texas, Arkansas & Louisiana.
Information about Walter "Buddy Boy" Hawkins remains quite fragmentary, but there does seem to be a consensus that he was probably born in Blytheville, Arkansas sometime in the 1880s or 1890s. Although much of the state bears cultural and geographic similarities to northeastern Texas and northwestern Louisiana, his hometown's proximity to the Mississippi River meant that it was more in the Memphis-Mississippi Delta sphere of influence. As Paul Oliver theorizes in his excellent notes for Document's William Harris & Buddy Boy Hawkins - Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order CD, Hawkins may have operated primarily in the Jackson, Mississippi-Birmingham, Alabama corridor since these two cities are prominently mentioned in some of his songs. He was unique among recorded blues singers in terms of his playing. Jerome Epstein, author of this album's liner notes explains,
First, he uses a harmonic structure incomparably richer than the typical three of four chord blues piece. Second, his guitar accompaniments are contrapuntally conceived, usually in four voices. In moving from one chord to another he will move an inner voice, usually the alto played on the second string, along a natural melodic line producing along the way highly dissonant harmonies. Also, traditionally in the blues, and in folk guitar generally, the right hand strum determines the bass notes and hence whether a triad is inverted or not. No conceptual distinction is made between root position and inverted chords. Hawkins, however, realizes, like any "classical" musician, that inverted chords result from moving the bass line in a natural melodic way, that is by treating the bass as a counterpoint line on equal footing with the tune. These two factors indicate a strong influence of "classical" music, that is the composed music of white western Europe. Third, there is in some of the material on this record (primarily on "How Come Mama Blues" and "A Rag") an unmistakable influence of the classical flamenco techniques.Since I'm not a musician, there is really no way that I could have regurgitated the above any better. Thus the lengthy block quotation. While some blues enthusiasts such as Epstein clearly were fascinated by Hawkins' approach, others were obviously not - as indicated by descriptions such as "slow, whiny singing, monotonous one-chord strumming" in one of Tony Mostrom's hilarious fake Paramount advertisements featured at the bottom of this post. While I'll concede that making it through all 12 of Hawkins' performances on the aforementioned Complete Recorded Works might test one's patience, these seven sides effectively demonstrate the man's genius. The material from 1927 unfortunately sounds like it was recorded in a shoebox, but otherwise merits serious listening. "Number Three Blues," "Snatch It Back Blues," and "Raggin' the Blues" are all railroad-themed songs suggesting that Hawkins may have worked as a tracklayer or regularly utilized the Great Southern line running between Jackson and Birmingham, according to Oliver. My preference is for Hawkins' 1929 sides because of their superior sound quality and more ebullient nature. In addition to the impressive string-snapping techniques displayed on "Snatch It and Grab It," one can also make out various bits of commentary from at least one other person in the Richmond, Indiana studio of Gennett Records, which was rented by Paramount for this June 14 recording session. Research has shown that labelmate Charlie Patton also cut several sides on this date, suggesting that the second voice might be that of the founder of the Delta blues himself. "How Come Mama Blues" starts out slow, but by the time Hawkins reaches its conclusion, it ends at an incredibly feverish pace. "A Rag" is simply amazing and serves as the best illustration of the guitarist's flamenco-style playing, while "Voice Throwin' Blues" is his singular interpretation of the venerable "Hesitation Blues," complete with examples of ventriloquism that give this piece its name.
One can only speculate on where Hawkins came in contact with this material. The best guess is that he was in Europe with the armed forces in World War I, as we know Son House was. Europe had no discernible effect on House's music, but Hawkins may have been more receptive. If he was in the south of France he would most certainly have heard Flamenco guitar as well as standard European harmonies. It is also possible that he was exposed to and absorbed some classical influences in the United States, possibly in Memphis. He also could have heard flamenco here, possibly in New Orleans. The story of his life is undoubtedly fascinating.
Most of the musicians on side two have a definite Texas pedigree (thus disputing the contention that they were actual associates of Hawkins) even if other biographical details are relatively scarce. Will Day is a nonentity, although his superb "Central Avenue Blues" - a rare example of a guitar-clarinet duet and a variation on the "West Texas Blues" theme - shows that he was anything but a non-talent. The risque "Easy Rider Blues" comes from one of the last prewar recording sessions by singer Alger "Texas" Alexander, whose accompanists include guitarists Willie Reed and Carl Davis. Reed's appealingly ragged "Texas Blues" is another interpretation of the standard "West Texas Blues." San Antonio-native Dennis "Little Hat" Jones ranks as my favorite prewar blues guitarist from the Lone Star State because of his unique guitar style as displayed on "Hurry Blues" and "Rollin' from Side to Side." John T. Smith - better known as J.T. Smith, "Funny Paper" Smith (a nickname that may have resulted from a misunderstanding of the appellation "Funny Papa" by white record company executives), or "Howling Wolf" - paints a chilling portrait in "Fool's Blues," in which he sings, "It must be the devil I'm serving, I know it can't be Jesus Christ." So why haven't the idiots in Hollywood made a movie about this guy selling his soul at the crossroads? Oh yeah, maybe because he doesn't have Robert Johnson's public relations team working for him. The identities of Blind Percy and his Blind Band are complete mysteries, and their connections to Texas are doubtful at best. Some people believe that the group's leader was actually gospel singer Blind Joe Taggart recording under a nom de disc. What is certain is that "Coal River Blues" sounds a lot like "Pennsylvania Woman Blues" by Six Cylinder Smith, which may or may not have been another one of Taggart's pseudonyms. Regardless of who actually recorded it, this captivating ensemble performance seems to feature a guitar, violin, and perhaps a kazoo or other similar instrument, which gives it something of a hillbilly string band sound.
1. Snatch It and Grab It - Buddy Boy Hawkins
2. Number Three Blues - Buddy Boy Hawkins
3. How Come Mama Blues - Buddy Boy Hawkins
4. A Rag - Buddy Boy Hawkins
5. Snatch It Back Blues - Buddy Boy Hawkins
6. Raggin' the Blues - Buddy Boy Hawkins
7. Voice Throwin' Blues - Buddy Boy Hawkins
8. Central Avenue Blues - Will Day
9. Easy Rider Blues - Texas Alexander
10. Texas Blues - Willie Reed
11. Hurry Blues - Little Hat Jones
12. Rollin' from Side to Side - Little Hat Jones
13. Fool's Blues - "Funny Paper" Smith
14. Coal River Blues - Blind Percy and his Blind Band