Soul Station Feature 1:

Harlem Hamfats

Old and New from Chicago's Bronzeville

Over the years my perspectives on music history and popular culture, as you well know, have changed. My article on Drinking Muddy Water has become, in my mind, an exploration and the many books on the 1920's I’ve been reading (and some readings that encompass the 1930's) have served as a catalyst for an extended, somewhat different view of the 1930's and the relationships of that music and popular culture to that of the 1920's and the 1940's and 1950's.

The more I think about it, it really is the case that the blues freaks have it backwards. The music of 'country blues' that was mostly NOT recorded until the mid 1930's, was certainly anachronistic. If Handy and others are to be believed, the solo guitarist-singer was already popular by the beginning of the 20th century. Why have the contexts and possibilities of this escaped the speculative notice of historians and critics? So by the time Robert Johnson was making records, his performance was not only a little anachronistic, it was REALLY OLD! That ancient aspect is much, much more than the time difference from Papa Spruill (1926) to the mid 1930's!

While some ancient strands continued, especially the lone piano player, what does emerge from blues and southern folk ways, especially transplanted into something like an urban environment, is some version of a band, and here is where the gut hybridity 'occurs'. When Tampa Red and other blues musicians form associations like the Chicago Five, especially employing trumpet/coronet and clarinet/sax, this is at once both 'old' (New Orleans, early jazz) and new (a version of a small group swing-jazz band), grounding performance in blues, the pre-Chicago and early Chicago representations of 'jazz', and a recognition that the market, the consumer and the venue wanted music people could dance to and that could be loud enough to be heard in a dance floor, dance hall, club environment. It is well worth noting that for 60 years this music has been shunned and despised by pre-war blues fanatics. But it really was a major part of urban blues and African American life, and it really is an amalgam, a hybrid, and in many ways, while there are several versions of it, one major part is encapsulated here:

and like the person who posted the notes, it IS important that the members of the Hamfats represent New Orleans, the delta AND Chicago. And as for the recording, it brings a raw, urban, African American sensibility and experience to a dark, intriguing melody that has 'pop' as well as bluesy DNA/RNA; the rhythm guitar imparts a swaying swing while the horn invokes NOLA. Something like this is a locus for the past, the present and the future. Listen to it again.

What future?

Well, this kind of recording and performance clearly influenced the more deeply southern and rural performers in Chicago, like Bill Broonzy and Lil Green, as she, or they, transformed it into something else again with Why Don’t You Do Right , which was itself transformed by Peggy Lee and her record company into yet 'another thing' which brought this dark, 'new' hybrid even closer to white America and its culture and society.

It is this kind of development that was instigating social transformation and is clearly transformational as commerce and in the market place, and here is a nice moment to point to all those records on rural Mississippi juke boxes that were ever so popular, but which pre-war blues purists railed against, ignored and classed as puke, like early Basie, Lil' Green, etc... though it was not exactly innovative, and though it does not directly give rise to jump blues, jump jazz and hence to some major elements of r&b and rock’n’roll. It does give rise to what was a very popular middle ground, precisely because of its hybridity; and it attracted a wide audience, including a white audience.

This kind of music has a vivacious and meaningful, parallel life to the KC jazz and jump and to the development of piano blues and boogie (or the three Bs of piano: blues, barrelhouse and boogie-woogie) of the 1930's for it was popular in the record machine, at the club or juke joint, and popular in performance, and through recordings listened to at home and at house parties and rent parties; it became increasingly popular with an emerging white audience that was also occupied with black and white swing and the recordings of some blues-jazz singers, like Bessie Smith, Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing. In some ways, though this is not what most scholars and collectors have considered ground breaking music, it represents a kind of modernism and is an important instantiation of a very important, though perhaps brief, kind of modernism in the musical culture of the mid 1930s: it crossed boundaries of ethnicity and region, appealing to folks from the south, the Midwest, the northeast, and who were white and black. It represents a kind of seeming simplicity that has developed from and formed around older roots but that is just current enough and daring enough that it does not seem. It is just familiar enough for a range of listener older than 15 to 25, as well as listeners precisely IN that age range. Some of the Hamfats music is also not PG, so it has that in its favor as well.

By the end of the 1930's, a new version of this music, combo-type, instrumentation and hybridity emerges, usually focused on groups that feature someone playing an electric guitar. Major blues performers like Roosevelt Sykes are including electric guitar in the band, even before the 1942 record ban. Bill Broonzy and Lonnie Johnson experiment with plugging in, and soon the biggest black music hit maker of the 1940's, Louis Jordan, has begun to employ an electric guitarist. This portents further, significant change. And while music like the records of the Harlem Hamfats, State Street Swingers and Tampa Red and his Chicago Five disappears by 1942 (or earlier), there are still things 'like' it (Louis Jordan’s recording of I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town), and another commercial locus that is primarily urban, African American and related to the earliest roots of African American musical expression, but clearly changed by commerce, business and interaction with some aspects of white, mainstream American society. For some of this music, the epicenter becomes the electric guitar.

Though certainly not all of it is this hybrid of early jazz, early blues and dance floor-meets-drop-down-mama reality, as there was also a different strain entering the mainstream, combining old, new and something distinctly southern, though not always in a completely contemporary fashion. A good example of this can be found in the early recordings of Ollie Shepard, who popularized (and apparently wrote) the classic It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame before Big Joe Turner sang and recorded it, and who had his own jive style that is somewhat distinct from the more familiar works of Fats Waller, early Nat Cole and Slim Gaillard.

I would also like to suggest that by the mid 1930's there are actually white strains of this phenomena, which I would tentatively represent by the popularity of a track with a long and diverse history, The Music Goes Round And Round, the original of which is an amusing, but somewhat pale recording by Reilly-Farley & their Onyx Club Boys.

It was significantly upgraded by the pianist on that very recording, Frank Froeba and by trumpeter Jack Purvis (he is doing the talking, which just happens to mention 'the reefer smoker’s ball'!) after a fashion the Hamfats and their audience would recognize.

Though quite brisk in tempo, I think this kind of record represents movement in something approaching and combining pop and white jazz, toward something like the Hamfats, but in a clearly different cultural and social setting: an urban experience and an acquaintance with African American life and foibles that is both positive and syncretic, and not terrible serious.

It also SWINGS, and though up-beat, it is not mechanical like many white small groups of the period, nor is it solely indebted to older, passe styles of playing early jazz; the solos waft and sparkle like cheap curtains before an electric fan, and partake of the breeze as well. In commercial terms, this is, I think, a kind of parallel to the emerging commercial center for popular music of the mid and later 1930s, a step toward even more lasting development in black AND white music, and a change in sensibility on the part of at least some members of white musical circles and white, mainstream society.


Eventually, within the greater commercial mainstream, (in this instance, 1942), there is RIFFETTE, which seems like a modestly 'hip' big band record, by a popular, white pianist, Freddy Slack, until that blast of hot, juicy electric guitar by T-Bone Walker, a virtual unknown at the time of this recording, outside of some blues fans in Texas. The course of jazz and blues, and to some extent swing and pop, would change dramatically very soon. The electric guitar, hard charging swing, musical jive and the shadow of the Harlem Hamfats would all be involved.


Posted on January 27, 2015 .