There’s a line often found in books and magazine articles that claim to tell the history of rock’n’roll that a greasy kid from Memphis named Elvis Presley, goofing around in Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in Memphis in the summer of 1954, belted out a version of Arthur “Big Boy Crudup’s That’s All Right Mama, and in doing so, brought together the music of white folks and black folks, and invented something called “rock’n’roll”. Like most of what is purported to be “the history of rock’n’roll”, this is so much hooey. Whites were singing black blues almost within minutes of black “inventing” the blues. If there is something we can call “the truth” (and there is not, but let’s pretend), nobody “invented” rock’n’roll, just as no one “invented” the blues or jazz or ragtime, or anything else for that matter. These strains of music, bastardized forms of all the other types of music to found in various regions of America came together in all types of combinations over the years: black men singing ancient Scottish ballads, white men singing cotton patch tunes, classically trained New Orleans Creoles playing the unwritten “rags” of unschooled, uptown blacks, women from the street singing the songs of women from the church, black men with fifes and drums playing the beats from Africa under melodies from Scotland in the hills of Mississippi, waltz’s from France sung by African-Americans with accordions whose had come here from Santa Domingo after the slave revolt of 1793, white men in black face, black men in black face, men dressed as women balancing chairs on their face; all of them singing about fucking. These musics all came together, constantly blending and separating, like cells in a petrie dish, and what would would last was the music that someone would pay a buck to hear, the music no one would pay for would fade into obscurity, sometimes to be revived when the dollar was waved from the faraway shores of Europe or Japan. If this sort of thing interests you may I suggest you go and and buy two book by Nick Tosches: Country: The Twisted Roots Of Rock’n’Roll (revised edition, DeCapo Press, 1996) and Where Dead Voices Gather (Little, Brown, 1991), then read them. Then listen to the records he wrote about in those books, much easier to find now than even when they were first released. Then report back here and continue where you left off.
By the late 1920’s there were dozens of white men singing and recording dirty, lowdown, blues.
Great records like Jimmy Tarlton’s Ooze Up To Me, Tom Darby and Jimmy Tarlton’s Slow Wicked Blues, Cliff Carlisle’s Ash Can Blues, Allen Brothers’ Drunk & Nutty Blues, and Jimmie Rodgers’ Let Me Be Your Sidetrack were issued in the years before the Great Depression when record sales were booming. Somebody was buying this shit. Of all the white blues singers who recorded back then, my favorite, and in my estimation, the most interesting, was Jimmie Davis. Later best remembered for “You Are My Sunshine”, one of the most valuable copyrights in the biz, and after that, a two time Governor of Louisiana.
This remarkable career began with Davis recording some truly sleazy and wonderful country blues tunes. Let’s take it from the top.
James Houston Davis was born in a log cabin in Beech Springs, Jackson Parish, Lousiana.
He claimed he couldn’t remember his birthday but sources usually list it as September 11, 1899. One of eleven children, like most people without any money, his family were poor. Of his father “the poorest man who ever lived…who is still cropping on shares”, claimed Davis in 1944. One of his highschool teachers was the sister of governor Huey “Kingfish” Long, and Jimmie went on to Louisiana College, taking a BA in 1924, where he also sang in the glee club, and busked on the streets with his guitar for pocket change. After college he worked as a teacher and coach (those who can, do, those who can’t, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym, goes the saying). He tooks post graduate classes at LSU (in psychology), and there too he sang in glee club and busked the streets of Baton Rouge. In 1927 he was teaching at Dodd College in Shreveport, he didn’t like teaching and that same year he was heard on the airwaves of Shreveport’s KWKH, the radio station owned by W.K Henderson known for his “profanity based rants against chain stores and the Federal Government”. Henderson started his own record label, the ultra obscure Doggone Records which in 1928 released two discs by Jimmie Davis who was accompanied only by James Enloe on piano– Ramona b/w You’d Rather Forget Than Forgive, and Think Of Me Thinking Of You b/w Way Out On The Mountain. That same year Davis auditioned for Columbia who passed on him (Davis claimed because his pianist, Allen Dees got too drunk to play). In September of 1929, Davis headed to Memphis were he successfully auditioned for Victor Records, this time backed by Prentis Dumas on steel guitar. RCA released two 78’s from that session: The Bar Room Message b/w The Baby’s Lullaby” and Out Of Town Blues b/w Hometown Blues. It would be safe to say Victor signed Davis because his style was very close to that of their best selling artist of the time–the Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, one of the most imitated singers that ever recorded.
Of course, Rodgers was the template for Jimmie Davis’ early recordings, but when it comes to the very best of these sides I actually prefer Davis. He was bluesier, dirtier, his voice had a sly hint to it, as if lemon juice was being squirted in his eye while singing. And he recorded with some of the finest blues guitarists, white and black, of the era. Also, his lyrics were incredible.
Jimmie Davis first truly great records was recorded in Memphis under the auspices of producer Ralph Peer (who would build a multi-million dollar publishing house on the tunes he recorded for Victor in these years) using black slide guitarist Oscar “Buddy” Woods, and steel player Ed “Dizzy Head” Schaffer on May 20, 1930. The first sides– Doggone That Train b/w My Louisiana Girl followed soon by She’s A Hum-Dum Dinger (From Dingersville) b/w Cowboy’s Home Sweet Home set a pattern with a sentimental ballad on one side of the disc and a dirty, blues song on the flip. She’s A Hum-Dum Dinger was so popular he would record a part two a year later. In it he introduces the character of Corrine Brown, a nymphomaniac, whom he would revisit in tunes over the next several years. “She dropped anchor/I set sail/lord deliver me from that female”, extols Davis with a delivery of such sly effortlessness, as to truly earn that overused adjective–sublime. Over the next several years (1929-1932) Davis would record such delightfully trashy blues and stomps such as Tom Cat & Pussy Blues, Barnyard Stomp, Rockin’ Blues (yes, in the year of our Lord 1932, Jimmie Davis was indeed rockin‘!), She Left Runnin’ Like A Sewing Machine, High Behind Blues, Red Nightgown Blues (perhaps Corrine’s finest three minutes), Sewing Machine Blues, Shirt Tail Blues and in an incredible parody of a sleazy, backwoods preacher– There Is Evil In Ye Children Gather ‘Round, and Down At The Old Country Church. Notice how close the 1930 recording The Davis Limited, a guitar/harmonica train boogie resembles Bo Diddley’s 1958 Checker recording Down Home Special. The guitarists varied on these discs, Eddie “Snoozer” Quinn is heard playing a steel bodied guitar with a slide on several of the above sides, as were Buddy Jones, Jack Davis, Jack Barnes, and the always fine musicianship of Unidentified.
These tunes are of course the tip of an, well, iceberg is a bad metaphor for music that generates so much heat, they are the tip of the box set! Of course such a beast exists, two in fact, although the first, which covers the years at Victor Records (some of these sides were issued and/or re-issued on Victor’s Bluebird subsidiary) 1929-36 is the one you want. Bear Family’s Nobody’s Darling But Mine (BCD 15943) is a five CD set that contains every track Davis record for Doggone, Victor and Decca between the years 1928-1946 , 125 tracks in all (I know it’s an odd #, there’s some alternate takes and un-issued tracks thrown in), and would be considered by myself as an essential purchase for the lover of life’s finer things. You can try to look for a free download if you’re broke or a cheapskate, the last one I seen was on a blog (El Diablo Tun Tun) that has since been pulled down by Google.
In 1943 Davis either wrote, or some say bought, the song You Are My Sunshine, which became one of the biggest hits in the history of country music. In 1942, running as a Democrat, he was elected to the office of Public Safety Commissioner in the state of Louisiana. In 1944 he was elected Governor, serving until 1948, he set a record for absenteeism, having a second career as a western movie star out in Hollywood to think about. He continued to make hit records, now recording for the Decca label. He left politics after his one term as governor only to be brought back over a decade later when he ran and won again, this time on a segregationist platform. Oscar “Buddy” Woods was no were to be seen as he campaigned from the back of a flat bed truck that carried Davis and his band. Of course his political opponents dug up his early, dirty, records and tried to use them against him, but this seemed to only make him more popular with the voters in Louisiana. After his second term as Governor, he returned to Hollywood. From this time (the mid-60’s) until his death in the year 2000 he would only record songs of a religious nature, including one called God Is My Sunshine. None of these songs mentioned Corrine nor did they feature any steel bodied slide guitar players. Still, Davis never tried to deny or disown the sleazy, rockin’ blues of his past, in fact he seemed rather proud of these discs, and rightly so. Jimmie Davis attempted a political comeback in 1971 but placed fourth out of four candidates in that years Democratic primary for the governorship of Louisiana. James Houston Davis died in the year 200o from natural causes at age 101.