East Texas Black Harmonica Players and their Songs
Details: Audio CD, 2003, 47 Tracks, 75mins, Featuring John T. Samples, Sr., Virginia Peoples, Robert Berry, Jack Wilson and Cleveland Walters, Jr. Produced and Recorded by Alan Govenar
In the rural East Texas towns of Longview, Tyler, Raywood, Liberty, and Sulphur Springs, the harmonica has been played by African Americans in church and at house parties for more than a century. John T. Samples, Sr., Virginia Peoples, Robert Berry, Jack Wilson and Cleveland Walters, Jr., exemplify the roots of this tradition. They play here in a collection of rare recordings of hymns, spirituals, blues and traditional tunes.
Featuring Slow Train Coming to Arkansas, Beulah Land, West Texas Jump, Rocky Mountain Blues, At the Cross, Yield Not to Temptation, Daddy Double Do Love You, and 40 others.
From the liner notes, by Paul Oliver:
Fortunately, for those who are enthusiasts of African American music and who wish to learn more about its forms during the first half of the twentieth century, a great many songsters, blues singers, jug bands, gospel groups and preachers were recorded by the major record companies in the 1920s and 30s. Though many were brought to New York, Chicago and locations in Wisconsin and Indiana to record, with increasing frequency after 1924 a considerable number were recorded by field units operating in the South. As a result we are informed on the styles and kinds of music played in west Tennessee and Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia, and in the Carolinas. There were considerable distances between locations, of course, and states like Florida and Arkansas were not visited at all. But nevertheless, from these recordings we have learned much about regional traditions, the distribution of some aspects of the repertoires, the many functions of these musical forms, and the styles and techniques of guitar and piano playing.
Harmonica playing, too. Though it was less frequently recorded, the abilities on the harmonica of Noah Lewis, Jed Davenport, Will Shade and Buddy Doyle from Tennessee, of Jaybird Coleman, Bullet Williams and Ollis Martin from Alabama, or of Sonny Terry, Jordan Webb and Eddie Mapp from the Carolinas, among many others, are known to us. But curiously, remarkably few harmonica players from Texas were recorded. It wasn’t because Texas musicians played solely conventional instruments: jugs, washboards, kazoos, even the quills and whistling, were put on wax by Texans, but only one identifiable harmonica player, William McCoy, was recorded on location. He made half a dozen titles in Dallas in December 1927 and in the same month the following year. A very accomplished player, his recordings included Train imitations and the Fox Chase, child mimicry on Mama Blues, and an evocative Central Tracks Blues. It is possible that another harmonica soloist, Freeman Stowers, who recorded in Richmond, Indiana the following year, may also have been from Texas, as is suggested by his Texas Wild Cat Chase with its vivid imitations of the treed wild cat and the hunting dogs. His Railroad Blues and Sunrise on the Farm appear to confirm Freeman Stowers’s rural origins. A harmonica player was recorded in a Texas prison farm in 1934, who also performed a train imitation and fox chase mimicry, but he remains unidentified.
Under what circumstances the harmonica was played in Texas, whether there was a regional tradition, and if so, how it may have come about has remained a matter of pure speculation -until now. For more than a decade Alan Govenar has been locating in east Texas a number of harmonica players, many of them veterans and one or two even being contemporaries of those who recorded in the 1920s. From this collection, made available for the first time, it is possible to fill in some of the gaps. But before discussing the players and their work we should spare a few words on the harmonica. Though credit is sometimes given to the British engineer Sir Charles Wheatstone for the invention in 1829 of the ‘aeolina’, which had a number of reeds mounted within a box so that they vibrated when blown, it was Friedrich Hotz who, a score of years later, devised the instrument we know. As early as 1857 M.Hohner of Trossingen in Germany developed the instrument commercially in collaboration with Hotz, and was soon exporting it. The instrument was reputedly even played in North America during the last years of the Civil War, but it was the massive migration of Germans to the United States in the late nieteenth century that made the ‘harmonica’ widely known and available. Many Germans settled in Texas, and doubtless this contributed to the popularity of the instrument which, somewhat incongruously, was frequently known as the “French harp”.
Unlike other instruments, the harmonica could be easily pocketed, was cheap, and could be played anywhere. Even the fiddle and guitar players were encumbered to some extent by their instruments when they were on the move, while pianists had to seek a venue with a keyboard instrument before they could play. But any field hand could have a ‘mouth-harp’ as it was termed, to play when a break in work allowed. He could play in his cabin, for his own amusement, for friends at spontaneous dances, and sometimes for the white folks. It was ideal for the youngster who grew up on a farm - as was the case with most of the performers on this collection. John T. Samples, for instance, who was born near Kilgore on January 10th, 1898. “I grew up on a farm. My daddy raised cows, horses, hogs, chickens, cotton and corn”, he recalled. His family roots went far back in time: “Both of my grandmothers were born in slavery time. My mother’s mother was a slave .... My daddy’s mother told me about slavery, how they used to sell them for about fifteen hundred dollar on up and how they had to pick cotton and chop cotton from sun up to sun down.”
John Samples was still a child when he was first attracted to music “I’ve been playing the guitar ever since I was five years old. My daddy bought me a a guitar when he saw I was going to play. A cousin of mine, Nora Day, taught me some notes on the guitar but mostly I taught myself. And not only that: “I play guitar, piano, and French harp. My daddy was the best French harp player in the country round here. I never heard anybody play just like my daddy. He used to take a wide-mouth beer glass and play his harp inside of the glass to give it a different tune. And I learned it from him.” Essentially a songster, John Samples played all kinds of music that he heard. “I played a little blues when I was growing up. I just picked it up, played wherever I could, and finally learned to play pretty good.” He worked on his father’s farm until he was 21, when he married and moved to Sweetwater, Texas, where he secured a job delivering medicine for a local drugstore. In 1927 he formed a small string band in Sweetwater, with a bass violin, a ukelele player and himself on guitar: they called themselves “Poison, Antidote and Prevention”. “We had a bad band, I’m telling you. We played for house parties, for the colored cafes in town, and for dances on the ranch for white people.” Subsequently, with the oil boom in Kilgore, he moved back there and farmed the family land, marrying for a second time. He was widely reputed for his guitar playing even though he was handicapped later by arthritis in his fingers. John Samples died in January 1998, three days after his hundredth birthday.
Also from a rural background was Jack Wilson, who was born in Dallas in April 1916 but was raised in “a little place out from Piftsburg (Texas), seven miles, Leeburg.” His father owned 218 acres of land where “we planted peas and corn, cotton, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, cabbage, collard preens, tomatoes, onions -’ everything that could be planted on a farm, we planted that. Times were tough back then, yeah. My daddy raised - we made 200 bales of cotton a year. We’d pick two bales of cotton, go to the gin at 4 o’clock, 10 of us, five girls and five boys, we went to work, we picked cotton .... they’d sing in the fields”. It was there that he learned to play harmonica; “I started to playing on my daddy’s knee, when I was a kid .... My daddy played harmonica and Jew’s harp. My brother picked Jew’s harp, and my uncle played the fiddle, and my sister played, and all the rest of my sisters and brothers sang. We had our own group, the Wilson family.” After visiting Longview he returned briefly to the family farm before going back to Longview in 1941 and getting himself a job “at a used-car lot. Chevrolet place, Goodman Chevrolet.”
Parental influence was clearly important in shaping the interests of these musicians, though they gathered their songs from others that they heard locally. Cleveland Walters was likewise “raised in a farm, all around (us) little songs like that.” His parents had come from Louisiana to Texas: “my father came from Crowley, Louisiana, and my mother was from around Abbeville, Louisiana.” His father however, played violin. “Well, the reason why I got hung up on harmonicas is because during Christmastime, things was rough. You’d either get a little cap pistol or a little ten-cents harmonica, so I would always take the harmonica.” Cleveland grew up in a musical environment. “Our home was big - we had a large house, and mostly to give dances, country dances, and he’d play for them and dance. That’s where I learned to dance.” In the late 1930s he was “raised up on ranches and farming and listening to old Tex Ritter movies, way back in there, and Gene Autiy and them movies. We ain’t had nothing else in those days.”
As “musicianers” of the songster generation they acquired tunes from a variety of sources. Items from a fiddler’s repertory seem to have been adopted by most of them, and there is some evidence that the fiddle was in part replaced by the harmonica. Such fiddle show-pieces as “mocking the trains” or imitating the thrills of the chase, were adopted by the harmonica players who, in the process of mimicry, developed a greater command of their instruments and exploited their potential. There are examples of train imitations in this collection, like Cleveland Walters’ “Crawfish Boogie” or “Slow Train Coming to Arkansas”, just as there are versions of cowboy songs, such as “Riding Old Paint” and militant popular songs like “John Brown’s Body” and “We Shall Overcome Some Day.” There is even an instrumental of the old English music-hall song “Pop Goes the Weasel”, though how it got into circulation in East Texas remains a mystery.
Members of the Walters family did not play blues. “Not mostly, used to call it ‘la-la’, and then Clifton Chenier learned it. He went into zydeco, but it used to be just la-la dances, and mostly, just little French songs and stuff like that.” Blues it appears, was not a major influence on these country harp players, and parental influence or their involvement in family string bands was much more significant. Most of them played one or two blues standards, like John T. Samples’ version of “Nobody’s Bizness” with his own guitar accompaniment, and John Wilson’s “Sittin’ on Top of the World”. It is noticeable that they did not employ the “crossed harp” blues technique in which, for instance, the key of E is played on a A harmonica. Here, the veteran instrumentalists played “straight”, using for example, a G harmonica on which to play in the key of G. As Jack Wilson explained, “you play better in G and perform better, yeah. Well, I can play A, but G’s better for me.” Robert Berry on the other hand, preferred to play in B on a B harmonica, though he did own an E instrument on which he played “The More We Work Together, How Happy We’ll Be.” Careful listening to the instrumental techniques used on the harmonica indicate that some are played in a manner suited to an accompaniment to a solo vocal, or to a vocal group, and even, in one or two cases where the notes played are separated and distinct, perhaps to accompany speech.
This brings us to what is the most unexpected aspect of this regional tradition. Among his many songs John T. Samples included a number of religious ones. “I had heard my grandmother sing. Oh, she’d sing different songs, old songs back there. ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, songs like that. ‘Glory Hallelujah.” he remembered. “I play church songs; ‘Down at the Cross’, ‘Jesus Keep Me Rear the Cross’, ‘Jesus Is On The Main Line’, ‘Tell Him What You Want’, ‘Someone Cares.’ I’m a member of the Mount Pleasant C.V.E. Church and I sing there”. And in all probability he played harmonica there, too, as did many of his fellow players. To many who are accustomed to the piano as accompaniment in church songs, the use of the harmonica may seem unconventional, even inappropriate. In black communities the harmonica has been known for at least a century as the ‘mouth-harp” and, it seems possible that as the stringed harp may not have been known to a great many congregations, the injunction “Little David, play on your harp”, may have made the instrument welcome in church services and functions. Certainly, the church played an important part in the lives of many of these Texas musicians. Robert Berry, who was born in Dallas in 1934 and raised in Tyler, served in the U.S.Navy. He joined in 1952 and served for four years including the Korean war, during which he was stationed on board ship. “At that time, most of them boys got killed, you know, and all like that during that time. It’s kinda touching”, he recalled. He returned to Texas where his father had farmed, and grew “cotton, corn and cane and switches to whip me with.” His turbulent background led to a major change in his life, when he felt himself called upon to preach. “Well, how I become a preacher, that was the Lord’s doing. He got tired of me getting my head whupped, and whupping heads, so he decided that he’d do something better with me. That happened in ‘60; well the last part of ‘59. It really matured in ‘60.” Nearly twenty years later, in 1979, he decided to build his own church, literally constructing it with his own hands. “Me and my son Robert Junior. I had to take the advantage, that’s the onliest boy I had.”
As devoted to the church was Virginia Peeples, who played piano and harmonica. She sang with a warm and undemonstrative voice such a classic as ‘I’ve Got a Home in Heaven’ to her own gospel piano accompaniment, and the fine spiritual ‘Beulah Land’, which she followed with an instrumental version on the harmonica. Born Virgie Patterson in a small town called Gilmer in 1921, she was the eldest of seven children. Her grandfather was a Choctaw Indian from an Oklahoma reservation, who taught her father how to play the harmonica, and he in turn passed it on to Virginia. She moved from home to do domestic work and near Grand Prairie she met a piano paying soldier, Luther Peoples, whom she married. Moving to Dallas they had five children all of whom learning to play an instrument. Singing together they sang in many churches as ‘The Peoples Singers’. Their mother had first joined the Greater El Bethel Baptist Church in Dallas: “Then I got saved and started to go to the Lighthouse Church of God in Christ. I’ve been there ever since” she declared. Virginia played both harmonica and piano and composed gospel songs. Completing her duties as a “church mother” she became celebrated for singing and playing at public functions. “Can you believe I’m 81 years old with no walking cane, can see good, and get along where ever I’m trying to go? Ain’t nothin’ but God..” she declared, still playing in 2002.
In some cases, the church provided virtually the only context in which the harmonica was played by these instrumentalists. Jack Wilson, for instance. He was about eighteen years old in the early 1930s when the Wilson Family group was active, playing and singing mainly for the churches and only rarely for dances. He continued to play in later life, but solely for the churches. As he explained, “I’ve been to every Baptist church in Longview, and been in some of the white churches, been to Bethel. Been to Mount Gilead - played at Mount Gilead yesterday evening. Been to Post Oak, played at St. Mark, played at Red Oak. I’ve played at every one in Longview. Every week, I get an invitation to come play somewhere. And I play at Big Sandy Methodist Church up there in Big Sandy, Texas. I play up there sometimes and I play at the Creatins church down there.” Jack Wilson was wholly committed to playing in the churches. “I like what I’m doing. I love it. I love from right here, in my heart. And I put all I got in it, when I go to play my harmonica and sing, I put all I got in it, and I play sometimes, I get happy.” He explained that he would “go as a guest and I perform. I played at three churches yesterday and played at four with mine last night, played my church last night” (St. Mark Methodist Church, Longview). “I played ‘Oh, I Want to See Him, Look Upon His face. And I played ‘Have a Little Talk with Jesus’. I played two at every church I went to yesterday, played a couple of numbers. They just listen. They just listen to me.” Still active at 79 he attributed his vigor to “the good Lord. He keeps me going, he gives me energy. I get up, I feel good, I sing a lot. And I like what I’m doing. I’m proud of myself.” Like Jack, the other instrumentalists in this collection had every reason to be proud of themselves and of their playing. Their performances give us an indication of how early black harmonica playing developed, offers us a unique insight on its role in African American churches.
Track Listing and Samples
01 Slow Train Coming to Arkansas (1)
02 I’m Always Happy with Jesus,
03 Yippy Ti Yi ,
04 Swing Low Sweet Chariot,
05 When the Saints Go Marching In (listen to MP3 sample)
06 I’ve Got a Home in Heaven
07 Banjo on My Knee
08 Beulah Land,
09 Nobody’s Business
10 Crawfish Train (listen to MP3 sample)
11 O How I Love Jesus,
12 West Texas Jump
13 She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,
14 God Be with You Till We Meet Again
15 Closer Walk with Thee (listen to MP3 sample)
16 Pop Goes the Weasel
17 If it Had Not Been for the Lord
18 Glory Glory (listen to MP3 sample)
19 Hen Cackle
20 Slow Train Coming to Arkansas (2)
21 Beulah Land
22 Casey Jones
23 I Got a Road
24 We Shall Overcome
26 Rocky Mountain Blues
27 I’m Sorry
28 Listen to the Mockingbird
29 God Has Smiled on Me
30 The Hound Dog
31 At the Cross
32 Yield Not to Temptation
33 Train Song
34 Zydeco Rag
35 Decided to Follow Jesus
36 I’m Sitting on Top of the World
37 Tempting Trails
38 Daddy Double Do Love You
39 Train Song
40 Just Got Me a Cabin
41 Live it Up
42 This Way and That Way
43 Beulah Land
44 Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
45 Amazing Grace
46 Beautiful Lady in Blue
47 Cain't You Hear the Bells a Ringing (listen to MP3 sample)
Listen to samples of this CD in high-quality, 192k, MP3 format: When the Saints Go Marching In by Robert Berry Closer Walk with Thee and Glory Glory by Jack Wilson Crawfish Train by Cleveland Walters, Jr., and Cain't You Hear the Bells a Ringing by Virginia Peoples