November 22, 2016

Boll Weevil, Boll Weevil

The Boll Weevil in life and song.

All was not totally sunny in the Cotton Kingdom in those days, as the century drew to a close. The dark cloud on the horizon was a little bug called the Mexican boll weevil.

Shortly after the turn of the century, the boll weevil arrived to wreak havoc on the cotton crops. In 1904 the Texas legislature offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who could solve the boll weevil problem which was costing cotton farmers $50 million in that year alone. Mexican boll weevils, by far the most destructive insects to attack cotton plants in the United States, were first found north of the Rio Grande around Brownsville, Texas, in 1892. Seemingly unstoppable, they kept inching northwards. They made it as far as Caddo Lake in 1904 and kept spreading north and east. They reached the Atlantic coast (Georgia, the Carolinas) by the 1920s.

Many variations of boll weevil ballads spread throughout the cotton kingdom, but most of them featured the farmer being tormented by a cartoonish weevil. In legend and song, the farmer was entirely at the mercy of this pest; his frustration comes out in the song of the charming little bug who's "just looking for a home:"     

Some Typical lyrics:

The boll weevil is a little bug, come from Mexico, they say,
He come to try this Texas soil, thought he'd better stay.

Farmer took the boll weevil, he put him in the ice

Weevil said to the farmer "It's mighty cool and nice."

Farmer took the boll weevil, buried him in hot sand -

Weevil said to the farmer, "I'll stand it like a man."

Weevil said to the farmer, "You'd better leave me alone, 

I ate up all your cotton, now I'm starting on your corn."

Shreveport in Leadbelly's Youth

Fannin Street & the Bottoms

Shreveport was the big town, "the city," and young Huddie Ledbetter, the country boy, found it totally fascinating. He had seen the State Fair parade down Texas Street; the country wagons gathered to sell their produce on Commerce Street; the white folk in their finery, entering the hotels on Market and Spring; and he'd heard of the night life on Fannin Street.

The 900 block of Fannin Street was the leading edge of Shreveport's legal red light district which had been set up by the city fathers in 1903. Things had been getting out of control, it seems, so the area known as St. Paul's Bottoms was set aside to contain prostitution, gambling and other forms of vice. The idea of having a red light district was not original to Shreveport; it was already being tried out in Memphis, Little Rock and New Orleans. 

During the early 1900's, the Storyville section of New Orleans was a booming, legal, red light district and the legendary birthplace of jazz. Its "sporting" houses served as a magnet for gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, as well as musicians and all manner of performing artists. Likewise, though on a smaller scale, the legal red light district of Shreveport became a magnet for similar folk in the Ark-La-Tex. The district was called a "bottoms" because it was a low-lying area near the Red River; during the sultry summer months there were fewer breezes and more mosquitoes than on higher ground. 

The Bottoms, therefore, was home to a poorer class of people, generally blacks. When it was designated as the red light district, property values soared, existing large houses were rented to madams, and new houses were built. The 900 block of Fannin Street was the priciest part of the new Bottoms, mostly because it was the closest to central Shreveport; it was home to the three biggest sporting houses, those run by Annie McCune, Bea Haywood and Nell Jester. These were houses of white prostitutes for the use of white men. Further into the Bottoms, there were houses of black prostitutes for white men, and black prostitutes for black men; generally the houses got cheaper and seedier all the way back to the railroad tracks. The large "white" houses on Fannin Street did not hire musicians, black or white; they had coin-operated player pianos which entertained clients in the downstairs waiting rooms. 
There were two large Saloons which catered to blacks right on the corner of Fannin and Beauregard which was virtually the gateway to the district. A third large saloon, the White Pigeon, looked over the railroad tracks at the north end of Beauregard. The Pigeon was owned by a white man; it catered to both black and white customers, each race having a separate entrance. The Fannin Street saloons were owned by and operated for blacks, one by George Neil, the other by Caesar DeBose.

Neil was a light-skinned negro who could have passed for white. However, that was not a safe thing to do in that obsessively color-conscious society. George W. Moxley, a light-skinned negro minstrel performer wrote to W.C. Handy about this very subject:
“I worked with several ofay [white] outfits in my time without any trouble. W.A. Mahara was the only minstrel company I traveled with, but I put on an Elks' Minstrel once in Shreveport; they would have hung me in Shreveport had they known that I was colored, and the same is true in plenty of other places.” (From Handy's auto-bio.)

Saloon proprietor George Neil had enough to contend with without trying to pass for white. The walls of his long, one-story frame building which housed a dance hall, stage, bar and restaurant, as well as a couple of gambling rooms, were reputed to be peppered with bullet holes. The Times of Shreveport  reported that police had been openly assaulted by the clientele at Neil's, and "more than one Negro has been taken out, penetrated by a policeman's bullet."

It was a colorful enough place for the police chief to take a group of visting newspapermen for a night on the town. The chief sent word to Neil that he was bringing some out-of-town dignitaries, and Neil arranged a special show of hot ragtime music and specialty dancers. Pairs of dancers emerged in turn from the cakewalking crowd to put on a special "stunt" for the visitors. There were breakdowns, double shuffles, buck-and-wings and many more that the chief couldn't identify. 
When two slender well-dressed couples started the show, the other dancers stopped and crowded around to watch, cheering, clapping and urging them on like testifiers at a backwoods prayer meeting. The first couples were young and supple, and "moved with the grace of leopards." As they finished, the music changed and a completely different pair moved into the limelight. 

The man was undersized and coal-black. He was shovel-footed, buck-kneed and agile as a cat. The woman was chocolate-colored, broad, rather squat, bulged high in front and low behind, sort of shed-room-rumped effect, and badly pigeon toed. They faced each other and danced, turning 'round slowly, his huge foot slapping the floor with loud thwacks and her feet keeping time with a sort of forward and drag back movement. (from "Shreveport Madam.") 
The newspapermen were clearly impressed with the action in Neil's Saloon. There were can-can dancers whose act rivalled the well-known Moulin Rouge in Paris, though the Shreveport version was "perhaps more revealing;" and a hootchie-cootchie girl who performed a Little Egypt belly dance with sensuous abandon. The police chief noted in his memoirs that "her pelvis must have been hung on ball bearings." 

Across the street from Neil's, next door to a Chinese restaurant, was the two-story frame building which housed Caesar DeBose's ground floor saloon. A stairway lead up from the rear of the saloon to a dark, unpainted hallway; off the hallway were doors leading to individual rooms. One upstairs room was set aside for high stakes gamblers, and the rest were for prostitutes. One day in 1908, a federal agent tracked down a notorious counterfeiter all the way from Florida to the gambling room at DeBose's saloon. In the middle of a game, the agent crept along the hallway, stealthily approached the door, drew his pistol and blasted the lock to smithereens.
In the pandemonium that followed, the counterfeiter leapt out of the window onto the roof of the Chinese restaurant and from there to the wooden awning on DeBose's building. He appeared to be heading for the telephone pole to slide down when the awning collapsed under his weight, settling slowly to the sidewalk like an elevator, permitting the fleeing man to escape down the street. 
Caesar DeBose was standing in front of his place, proudly surveying the busy street scene, when the awning came down and, with a tumult of crashing and creaking, knocked the cigar right out of his mouth. As the fugitive tore down Beauregard Street into the dark heart of the Bottoms, the terrified DeBose took off running in the other direction. The saloons run by Neil and DeBose are the places that Huddie Ledbetter may have known in his youth, where he met a coal black piano man named Chee Dee and learned to "boogie the blues." 

November 20, 2016

Oscar Woods

Oscar Woods seemed to have spent most of his working life in Shreveport, Louisiana, a small southern city on the banks of the Red River. Shreveport was a cotton port for much of the 19th Century, while cotton was King, and the nearby Parishes, Caddo, Bossier, DeSoto, etc. were major producers. After oil was discovered in the area – the World's first over-the-water oil well was erected on a lake just north of Shreveport in 1910 – the major industry shifted in that direction.
All I've ever learned about Oscar Woods came in bits and pieces, like, he was born in Natchitoches, La. in 1906. (See below for different facts.) Perhaps, but in the town or the parish? and when did he leave for Shreveport, the big city seventy miles north? He was recorded several times between 1933 and 1940, but he's hard to track down after that. Found him in a couple of city directories circa 1950, but have no knowledge of him through the musicians I've spoken to.
He was recorded by John Lomax in 1940 for the Library of Congress, and this is when he gave up a bit of biographical info. But Lomax didn't seem all that interested in him and you can tell by the singing tone of Woods that he's not going to be a font of information unless there's a sign of interest from the interviewer. Information I gleaned from Ausie Grigg, a white cotton farmer from Bienville Parish who recorded with the Grigg family band, was that Oscar participated in a bit of recording history back in the early 1930's. He was recorded in a multi-racial session in Dallas, accompanying the Louisiana singer/politician Jimmie Davis on several sides. In my opinion, the Oscar Woods material was better than the JD stuff, but that's just me. Also playing guitar on the sessions, Oscar's sometime partner, Eddie Schaffer.

Artist Biography by 

Oscar "Buddy" Woods was a Louisiana street musician known as "The Lone Wolf" and a pioneer in the style of lap steel, bottleneck blues slide guitar; some experts believe he may have been the primary force behind the creation of this whole genre. Woods was born in the area around Natchitoches, LA, and his unknown birth date is variously listed as having been anywhere from 1892 to 1900. About 1925 he is known to have re-settled in Shreveport, LA, working as a musician and "street-rustler." (In England he would be known as a "Busker.") It is said (Who said?) that Woods developed his bottleneck slide approach to playing blues guitar after seeing a touring Hawaiian troupe of musical entertainers in the early '20s. 
Not long after arriving in Shreveport, Woods began a long association with guitarist Ed Schaffer, and together they performed as the Shreveport Home Wreckers, often appearing at The Blue Goose Grocery and Market, a notorious (?) Shreveport establishment said to be an after-hours speakeasy. Woods and Schaffer made their first two recordings as the Shreveport Home Wreckers for Victor in Memphis on May 31, 1930. For someone whose handle was "The Lone Wolf," Woods was extraordinarily lucky in terms of the number of recording dates he was able to secure in connection with other artists. From this first session up until his last, a field recording for the Library of Congress made on October 8, 1940, Woods was involved in the making of no less than 35 sides. 
On May 27 and 28, 1931, Ed Schaffer was in Charlotte, NC, recording six sides headed by white country artist (and future Governor of Louisiana) Jimmie Davis along with New Orleans-based jazz guitarist Ed "Snoozer" Quinn. Nearly a year later in Dallas, TX (on February 8, 1932) Davis made four sides with the Shreveport Home Wreckers (and Ausie Grigg on bass) as accompanists, and then the Home Wreckers made another pair of sides on their own, issued this time on Victor as by "Eddie and Oscar." These sides are of key sociological importance as they are the first known Southern-made records of country blues made by a "mixed race" group. Needless to say, Victor did not go out of their way to publicize this aspect upon the initial release of these sides, which occurred during the worst year in the history of the record market. However, some old timers (who?) recalled that the association between Jimmie Davis and the Shreveport Home Wreckers didn't just end at the recording studio door -- amazingly, they also toured together. 
Oscar "Buddy" Woods did not record again until he made a trip to New Orleans to make some solo records for Decca on March 21, 1936. One of these recordings was of Woods' signature tune, "Lone Wolf Blues," and another his first recording of "Don't Sell It, Don't Give It Away." These did so well in the race record market that Jimmie Davis took a renewed interest in the Shreveport Home Wreckers. By the time Woods returned to record in a session set up by Davis in San Antonio on October 30-31, 1937, the lowly two-man Home Wreckers had expanded into a six- or seven-piece string band called the Wampus Cats. The Wampus Cats also included a female vocalist by the name of Kitty Gray, guitarist Joe Harris, and mandolinist Kid West. The Wampus Cats made an additional session in Dallas on December 4, 1938, on which Kitty Gray does not appear, but unknown trumpet and saxophone players are therein added to the mix. 
After Oscar "Buddy" Woods cut his last five selections for the Library of Congress in 1940, he disappeared from public notice until his death in 1956. On the same date as WoodsWampus Cats alumni Joe Harris and Kid West also recorded 11 pieces for the Library of Congress as a duo. As in the case of Woods, they were never heard from again. Ed Schaffer is even more obscure than his compatriots, and may have died even before the San Antonio sessions with the Wampus Cats, as he is not known to have been present on that occasion. According to entries in Shreveport city directories, Woods stayed in the Shreveport area in his final years, playing dances and working as a street musician. 
The impact of Oscar "Buddy" Woods on the development of bottleneck slide playing was crucial; one musician he took under his wing around 1930 was Texas native Babe Kyro Lemon Turner, who later assumed the name Black Ace. During his lifetime, Woods was best-known for "Lone Wolf Blues," but today the most often anthologized cut in which he was involved is the Wampus Cats' version of "Don't Sell It,-Don't Give It Away." Also, bluesman Robert Johnson paid the Shreveport Home Wreckers an offhand tribute by lifting one verse practically verbatim out of their 1932 "Flying Crow Blues" and using it as the concluding verse in his own "Love in Vain."

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