Posts Tagged ‘Gus Cannon’

Furry Lewis (March 6, 1893 – September 14, 1981) was born Walter E. Lewis to Greenwood, Mississippi sharecroppers, Victoria and Walter, Sr. His father left before he was born, and his mother moved him and his two sisters to Memphis near the turn of the century. She did wash, cooking and cleaning to provide for them. Young Walter attended school through the fifth grade, where he picked up the nickname “Furry”, before taking work as a delivery boy to help provide for the family.

youtube: Judge Harsh Blues

Furry made himself a cigar box guitar with screen door wires for strings and began playing on Beale Street corners for spare change. He recounted that W.C. Handy noticed the youngster and bought him his first real guitar. A neighborhood man, named Blind Joe, taught him to play “Casey Jones” and “John Henry”— old songs about legendary figures from American tall tales— songs that would become Furry’s staples.

By his teens, Furry Lewis was not only performing on street corners, but also in saloons and for house parties. He left Memphis to join the Dr. Willie Lewis Medicine Show as a comedian hawking oils and medicines. During these travels he was exposed to the guitar playing of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Memphis Minnie, and fellow Mississippi blues guitarist and compatriot, Jim Jackson.

In 1916, Furry Lewis lost a leg in an accident while hopping a freight train in Illinois. He spent a month in a railroad hospital in Carbondale, and was later fitted with an artificial limb. He returned to performing on Memphis street corners, Beale Street saloons, and in jug bands— along with Gus Cannon, Frank Stokes and Jim Jackson. He also took work hauling freight from riverboats, yard work and deliveries. In 1923, he became a street sweeper for the Memphis Sanitation Department. Furry held this job, sweeping up around Beale Street, until his retirement in 1966.

In 1927 and ’29 he cut some recordings for the Vocalion label at the Memphis Auditorium, along with a number of his contemporaries. The 23 sides for this label were the most prolific for a single Memphis performer at the time. They documented Furry’s slide guitar technique and humorous songs. The tune “I Will Turn Your Money Green” contained the classic line, “Been down so long, it looks like up to me”.

youtube: Furry’s Blues

Furry continued to play around Beale Street through the Depression and succeeding decades in his flashy style, often playing guitar behind his head. Samuel Charters, noted blues researcher and author of The Country Blues, rediscovered Furry Lewis in 1959. This began a period of popularity spawning performances at folk and blues festivals and recordings for the Prestige and Folkways labels during the 1960s, and opening shows for rock bands, like the Rolling Stones, through the 1970s. He was featured in Stanley Booth‘s book, Rhythm Oil, and the Burt Reynold’s movie, W.W. And The Dixie Kings. This led to many talk show appearances where he would retell funny and poignant stories about his life— and, of course, play “Furry’s Blues”. The State of Tennessee made him an Honorary Colonel in 1973, the first of such among African-Americans.

By the end of the ’70s, he was losing his eyesight to cataracts. Furry Lewis contracted pneumonia and died in 1981 at the age of 88. He was among the most beloved of all Memphis musicians. His grave has two headstones, one larger— purchased by his fans. It reads, “Bluesman”.

youtube: Sid Selvidge on Furry

youtube: When I Lay My Burden Down

image credits: Dan Dalton; Jim Marshall; Alain Frappier

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Contained within the triangle between Memphis, Dyersburg and Jackson, TN, is the rural area where John Adam Estes (January 25, 1904  – June 5, 1977) was born to a sharecropping family. (Sharecropping was a prevalent system of subsistence-level tenant farming for poor people in the South after the Civil War.) At age six, he lost sight in one eye to a rock thrown by a playmate. His guitar-playing father moved the family from Ripley to Brownsville in 1915. It was there that young Sleepy John Estes made crude guitars out of cigar boxes and began performing for local and family functions. Brownsville also yielded musical compatriots— mandolinist James “Yank” Rachell, “Hambone” Willie Newbern and harmonica-playing Hammie Nixon— with whom Estes would perform for more than fifty years.

youtube: Drop Down Mama

Estes worked in cotton fields, as a leader for a railroad maintenance crew, and played blues music at house parties, picnics and on the streets. Garnering his nickname from a tendency to doze off, he would occasionally hop a freight train and live the hobo life with his musical friends. A Beale Street jug band was formed in the 1920s with James Rachell and Jab Jones called the Three J’s Jug Band, and Sleepy John became a contemporary of Furry Lewis, Son House and Gus Cannon. It was in Memphis that he was first recorded by the Victor Record Company. He subsequently recorded for Decca, Bluebird, Champion, and Sun Records.

When work in Memphis dried up in the 1930s, Estes and Hammie Nixon traveled north to Paducah, KY and eventually to Chicago— playing lumber camps, on the streets and at parties. In Chicago, they associated with Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie. Decca brought Estes to New York in the late ’30s where he was paired with the younger guitarist, Robert Nighthawk. He also recorded some jug band sides in the old Memphis style as The Delta Boys and traveled with Dr. Grimm’s Traveling Menagerie medicine show.

Sleepy John Estes returned to sharecropping in Brownsville in the 1940s and gradually became totally blind by the ’50s. He was rediscovered in the 1960s by the blues revivalists, although some doubted his identity due to Big Bill Broonzy mistakenly informing his biographer that Estes had died. He returned to performing with Hammie Nixon and toured Europe in 1964 with the American Folk Blues Festival, finding greater appreciation there than in his homeland.

Estes had a mournful, plaintive quality to his singing that was complimented by Nixon’s harmonica. The subject matter of his songs was always rooted in his personal experience or people he knew: a mechanic, a local lawyer, rural farming, urban factory workers or hopping a freight. His music often contained informed and personal social commentary and criticism of the plight of African-Americans during the Depression. Sleepy John Estes died of a stroke in Brownsville, TN on June 5, 1977. His gravestone reads: “Ain’t goin’ to worry Poor John’s mind anymore”.

youtube: ‪Special Agent Blues‬

image credits: Tom Copi; U.S. National Park Service; American Folk Blues Festival 1964

Who can explain why certain musical trends catch fire? In the 1920s and ’30s, jug bands became popular, growing out of an older string band tradition. Jug band music is loose and irrepressible, good-time party music— made from any odd assortment of instruments: fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, washboard, wash tub bass, harmonica, kazoo and, of course, a whiskey jug. In Memphis, two figures were central in the jug band craze: Gus Cannon and his Jug Stompers, and Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band. These groups were popular among white, as well as black audiences, often performing at parties, on the corners of famous Beale Street, the Peabody Hotel, and on the back of trucks as advertisements for nearly anything.

Gus Cannon (September 12, 1883 – October 15, 1979) was born on a plantation in northern Mississippi, the youngest of 10 brothers. He handmade his first banjo from a pan and a raccoon hide, and began entertaining in his teens for levee building camps and sawmills. He settled for a time in Clarksdale, MS where he learned to play some fiddle and guitar from members of W. C. Handy’s orchestra.

After moving to Memphis, Cannon recorded under the name “Banjo Joe” for Paramount Records, but having witnessed the popularity of Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band, he formed Cannon’s Jug Stompers. The Jug Stompers recorded for the Victor label and produced a total of 26 sides.

youtube: Cannon’s Jug Stompers

Will Shade (February 5, 1898 – September 18, 1966), also known as Son Brimmer, was a native Memphian and was among the first to bring the jug band craze to town. He formed the Memphis Jug Band as a loose-knit, rotating group of musicians with endearing names like Tee Wee Blackman, Hambone Lewis, and Jab Jones, often sending out several incarnations of the same group. These bands played a mixture of low-down blues, gospel, ragtime, pop ballads, novelty numbers and anything that would make their audiences dance. Shade’s group was the more recorded, with over 60 sides for Victor between 1927 and 1930.

youtube: Memphis Jug Band

Jug band popularity declined in the 1930s, but these musicians continued making their kind of music and were rediscovered by revivalists in their later decades. Cannon’s song, “Walk Right In”, was made into a pop hit in the 1960s by The Rooftop Singers, and he performed on the revival circuit with Furry Lewis and Bukka White. Because of the popularity of “Walk Right In”, Stax Records released an album of the same name in 1963 with Will Shade joining his old rival, Gus Cannon.

youtube: Walk Right In

Gus Cannon died in October 15, 1979 at the age of 96. Will Shade died of pneumonia on September 18, 1966, and in 2008 a group of Memphis musicians held a fundraiser to purchase a headstone for his grave. The influence of The Memphis Jug Band and Cannon’s Jug Stompers was to be later felt in the iconic Memphis group, Mud Boy and the Neutrons.

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image credits: R. Crumb; Herald Mosley; U.S. National Park Service; Jim Shearin; George Mitchell