Thursday, January 26, 2017
Blues in Cincinnati: Stovepipe No. 1
Steven C. Tracy’s excellent book, Going to Cincinnati: A History of the Blues in the Queen City, served as my introduction to Sam Jones, AKA Stovepipe No. 1. Stovepipe played everything from gospel and square dance tunes to hokum and jug band blues, both in the streets and in various establishments in Cincinnati, although more often in the city’s West End. He was on hand from at least the 1920s to as late as the 1960s, and his voice in 1924 sounded as if he already had been around a bit. He was called “Stovepipe” because he wore a stovepipe hat as part of his shtick, but primarily because he literally played a length of stovepipe; if a jug is the equivalent of a tenor sax, a stovepipe is a baritone sax. He also played guitar and harmonica, often as a one-man band.
Stovepipe’s first one-man band recordings were made in 1924 for Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana; unfortunately, none of them survives. As the story goes, when he hit Richmond, billing himself as “Daddy Stovepipe,” he found out that Gennett had just recorded another Daddy Stovepipe (go figure!). Thus, he started billing himself as Stovepipe No. 1―the original. A few months later, he also recorded for Columbia Records, again as a one-man band. The first day’s session is still missing in action, although the tracks he cut seem to have been blues and perhaps square dance calls. The next day’s recordings are still around, including a couple of gospel tunes (Lord, Don’t You Know I have No Friend Like You and I’ve Got Salvation in My Heart), some old-time songs like Turkey in the Straw, and an instrumental (Fisher’s Hornpipe).
In 1927, Stovepipe teamed up with guitarist David Crockett to record some novelty songs (A Chicken Can Waltz the Gravy Around) and some jokey blues tunes like Bed Slats. He wrapped up his recording career in 1930 as singer and stovepiper-in-chief with King David’s Jug Band (presumably the “king” was the aforesaid Mr. Crockett); they recorded some prime examples of jug band hokum, including Tear It Down, another version of Bed Slats. After that, Stovepipe went back to the streets of Cincinnati, following his calling into what one would assume was relative old age.
My take: Stovepipe No. I’s music is charming. Like Henry Thomas of Texas, his repertoire included a variety of forms that predated the blues; Fisher’s Hornpipe goes back to the 18th century. Steven Tracy surmises that the old-time and square dance material was for white audiences and the blues and gospel material for African Americans, but it may be that the latter (and maybe both groups) liked a variety of material presented by a top hat-wearing and hokum-loving street minstrel. Stovepipe was also the starting point for an impressive array of blues recordings produced by Cincinnati artists in the 1920s and 1930s, which I hope to talk about in future posts. I highly recommend Tracy’s Going to Cincinnati for more background; it seems to be out of print, but second-hand copies are out there at a reasonable price. Anyway, give old Stovepipe a try―after all, he was Number 1.
Here are Fisher’s Hornpipe, A Chicken Can Waltz the Gravy Around, and Sweet Potato Blues (I love the jug band’s mandolin player―I wonder who he was? I love this stuff!