FOREWORDHere we return to Texas for the first of two albums devoted to the many excellent pianists recorded there during the 1930’s. This album features two from the major seaports – Rob Cooper of Houston, and Andy Boy of Galveston The second album, TEXAS SANTA FE. covering the rest of the Santa Fe group will be issued later as volume 11. The pianists on these two albums not only produced some very distinctive music but also some of the best piano blues of the Thirties. Their playing is highly recognisable, being at the same time both hard-driving and relaxed. With the two major recording centres of New York and Chicago a thousand miles to the North, it was extremely fortunate that so many pianists of this important closeknit Texas group were recorded – all three record companies of the time being involved. We can be thankful that such a wide range of performer and such richness of performance were preserved for us to enjoy today.
Texas piano was introduced in this series with THE THOMAS FAMILY (Magpie PY4404) whose recordings were made half a century ago. It is this distance in time that seems to place the Thomas circle quite apart from the pianists and singers of Houston and Galveston seaports whose work is represented on this album. Their records were made a decade later, between 1934 and 1937, and in our perspective of blues history they seem to belong to quite a different age.
In a sense they do, for the blues and black society had both changed. Nevertheless. Andy Boy (Boy was his surname) and Rob Cooper were a few years older than Hersal Thomas, having been born around 1906. That Hersal, the child prodigy, was a highly influential pianist among his peers there is no doubt; even though he left Houston in his very early ‘teens he had established a reputation there which remains still in the folk memory Careful listening to the playing of Andy Boy reveals hints of the connection between them; in spite of the themes that he sang and played with their somewhat more modern sound, Galveston born Andy Boy was a pianist whose formative years were spent in the company of Hersal and his fellow pianists. Several of the latter, among them Scanlin Smith and Peg Leg Will, never recorded, and consequently we inevitably gain a somewhat incomplete view of the talent of the pianists of this time. Those we admire as principle exponents were not the only celebrated musicians in their day; Edgar Perry for instance, was acclaimed as the outstanding pianist of the group who worked the seaports but he too, was never to record.
We can only reconstruct the picture from shadowy recollections of pianists dead long ago and the demonstrations of the very few survivors, Edwin ‘Buster’ Pickens or Robert Shaw, who ran around with them and their fellow group who worked the Santa Fe railroad townships. Rob Cooper is almost the sole representative on record of the barrelhouse style of the pianists with their roots in the ragtime-derived, pre-blues music of the early part of the century. His West Dallas Drag with its stomping beat was a piece from a genre that included the First Cousin To the Dozens, the Ma Grinder, and the Cows, which he recorded as Cows, See That Train Comin’. It was shared by many others; close affinities can be heard in the relatively recent recordings of Robert Shaw. Ragtime and barrelhouse elements are likewise to be heard in Andy Boy’s accompaniments, which, though heavily flavoured with blues, have flourishes that led one writer long ago to speculate on his being Fats Waller under a pseudonymn.
If the evidence of their history and elements in their music point to overlap with the Thomas Family and their generation, the fact remains that there are distinct and audible differences in approach and content which single out the Texas seaport artists. The Depression had a lot to do with this, and it is not easy to understand their work or their importance without some reference to the social changes that took place in Houston and Galveston at that time. For the Depression hit both great ports as it hit every other city in the early ’thirties. Inevitably, blacks were hardest affected, being on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. 1934 saw a period of serious unrest, with strikes in Houston’s textile industry, in the oil fields, and in the meat packing industry. The effect was the paralysis of the industries on which the seaports depended and which, somehow had more or less survived the worst of the deep Depression years. These effects were countered by a massive Public Works Adminstretion programme for country road development, the building of a new parcel post station in Houston, and more than a million dollars of Federal Funds for improvements to the Ship Canal. Violence among the longshoremen caused several killings, but P.W.A. was providing employment for over six hundred men of whom a high proportion were black.
Within a year or two, clearing house and port accounts showed extraordinary increases at a time of acute financial shortages elsewhere; the peculiarities of Houston’s economic recovery, matched on the Gulf at Galveston, led to a revival of employment and of spirits. The rising prosperity filtered down to the working classes and the spirit of optimism was evident in the boisterous, rolling blues piano of Cooper and Boy, and the urbane singing of Joe Pullum. Pullum’s success was indicated by his record sales and by the frequency of his appearances on radio station KTLC with his pianist, Preston Chase, known as Peachy. “Pullum and Peachy” became household names, and it must have seemed strange to some that Andy Boy and Rob Cooper, accompanied him on record. Part of Pullum’s appeal lay in his unique, boyish, falsetto voice. It sounded new and yet it had the melancholy of the blues within it. But he was also popular for the wit of his references, now almost lost to us. One example, Careful Drivin’ Mama, must suffice to illustrate it: in the mid-1930’s transport was a major issue in Houston – non-stop flights to Atlanta commenced in 1930 and five years later the quantity of air traffic was causing concern. On the highways the density of automobiles was greater than anywhere else in the south. When Pullum sang “I’m gonna buy me an aeroplane, make me a non-stop flight...” and “she’s a careful drivin’ mama, parks in the same place all the time...” he was employing metaphors that were apt and smart because they were wholly contemporary. Parking in the same place was such an issue that the following year parking meters were introduced in Houston, which was soon making the unlikely claim of “Parking Meter Capital of the World”.
Joe Pullum was conscious of modern taste; references to being “out of style” occur in his blues while “the blues with a feeling, you know what I mean, the blues with class” was peculiarly of the period. In contrast, Walter Washington, a bar-fly on the waterfront who had worked as a cowpuncher, was a tough, rough-voiced singer. His West Dallas Woman, like Cooper’s Drag, referred to the main stem of Houston’s Fourth Ward, but the tune he used was an old one, the probable source of Hart Wand’s 1912 composition The Dallas Blues. If Pullum represented a new sophistication, Washington was a reminder of the Texas blues’ earthier past; Andy Boy was poised between them. House Raid was a typically knockabout piece which described a police break-in at Charlie Shiro’s Galveston club – though Boy changed the venue when he sang somewhere else. It has links with Little Hat Jones’ Hurry Blues and probably comes from a traditional source, adapted as were his blues, with his unique use of idiom and imagery. There is sadness in Andy Boy’s voice and in his words: “I’ve been a burnt child, you know a burnt child is afraid of fire”; “I got the evil blues, prejudicy on my mind”; “you can take my money, I know that’s the thing you lack, but please don’t mistreat me just because I’m black”. Perhaps he knew it was all drawing to a close when he cut his eight solo titles, and four with Washington, on February 24th, 1937. “I’m going down to the Gulf, watch the waves come in ...” he sang on Church Street, dreaming of “that good old seaport town, where we all had fun and stomped The Grinder down.”With the entry of the United States in World War II everything changed. The group dispersed: Andy Boy made his way to Kansas City where he was last heard of in the 1950’s, while Joe Pullum migrated to California. Rob Cooper disappeared after woman trouble, and Cowboy Washington was forgotten. Down on Houston’s McKinney Street or Church Street in Galveston they don’t stomp The Cows or The Ma Grinder any more.
THE PIANO BLUES
Volume 1 Paramount 1929-1930
Volume 2 Brunswick 1928-1930
Volume 3 Vocation 1928-1930
Volume 4 The Thomas Family 1925-1929
Volume 5 Postscript 1927-1933
Volume 6 Walter Roland 1933-1935
Volume 7 Leroy Carr 1930-1935
Volume 9 Lofton/Noble 1935-1936
Volume 10 Territory Blues 1934-1941
All original 78’s from the Francis Smith collectionMastering Ron Geesin