Master of the National Steel Guitar

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Bukka White had his first name misspelled by the record label, Vocalion. This might give us a little insight about the social nature of his professional relationship with them. We can only speculate why he kept that spelling of his name for the rest of his music career. But Bukka White was no fool and as his career progressed, anyone that came around with recording and performance promises had to earn his trust.

Born on a farm near Houston, Mississippi, Booker T. Washington White introduced his younger cousin B.B. King to his first guitar, a Red Stella. He and B.B. King would later share the same stage and reminisce about that experience. Bukka White was introduced as “Master of the National Steel Guitar”. The song he was known mostly for was Aberdeen Blues, and when he played it audiences would go wild as he hit the neck and strings of his guitar with emotional force.

In the 1930’s Bukka was a professional prize fighter in Chicago and a baseball pitcher for the Birmingham Black Cats. At that time during a stay in Memphis he had the opportunity to record 14 songs. The sessions produced two 78s, released to the public with no commercial success. Around that time, he was sent to Parchman Farm for shooting an assailant in the thigh. Before going off to jail he recorded Shake ‘Em on Down which sold 16,000 copies. Unfortunately, Bukka couldn’t feel that song’s full impact while serving behind bars. While there, he recorded  two songs with Alan Lomax in 1939 for the Library of Congress. They were Sic ‘Em Dogs On and Po’ Boy.

When Bukka White was released from prison in 1940 he recorded follow-up sessions to Shake ‘Em On Down that resulted in a compilation of powerful tunes reflecting on his prison life, Jim Crow justice, isolation, and the freedom of hobo life on the rails.

In the 1960’s, Bukka White reemerged with the folk revival scene and gained much notoriety. He had a reputation with promoters to be professional, punctual and to the point. He was always the first one on the bus even for a 5 a.m. wake up call, one promoter would later say. Bukka’s presence on stage was the real deal and everybody who came to see him play felt his magnanimous presence. He continued to play live and record until his death in Memphis on Feb 27, 1977.

Aberdeen Blues – Bukka White

An “Otherworldly Voice” some said…

Skip James   78276593_15ef8227c8_oJune 21, 1902 – October 3, 1969

Nehemiah Curtis James, wasn’t one to chase record deals ’cause they went looking for him. Early on he didn’t see himself as a career blues player. Skip enjoyed playing for his friend as a leisure activity and he supported himself and eventually three separate wives working as sharecropper, lumberman even a minister. But he also had a life in the underbelly of lawlessness. Part of his life he was a successful bootlegger under the protection of a wealthy white plantation owner. He lived hard like a lot of other blues men of his day. He packed a pistol and boasted to biographer Stephen Calt that he once killed a romantic rival.

His music talents were always there however. Proficient in both guitar and piano Skip was eventually convinced to recorded with H.C. Spier in 1931. He was given a train ticket to Wisconsin and recorded disputably two dozen songs for Paramount Records. It was a big deal for Skip because prior to that in 1927 he had refused a record deal with Okeh Records. Some speculated that he didn’t want the publicity because of his criminal lifestyle.

Shortly after his recording sessions with Paramount, he met his father for the first time who was a Baptist Minister. The talented Skip James became convinced that blues music was, “the devil’s music”, and he renounced the blues for good enrolling at a divinity school in Dallas, TX. He participated somewhat reluctantly in the folk revival scene in the 1960’s. The religious issue was a big scapegoat for being emotional detached from his performances. He once said in a biography that he played with his “thinkin’ facilities” and not his heart. The last few years of his life he played to coffeehouse audiences in the Northeast. Unfortunately, the management of these places hired him reluctantly because they loathed what they called his “depressing music”.

But in 1964 Skip James played at The Newport Folk Festival with rave reviews, some saying that his performance was “the most dramatic” of all.

click here for more about the life of Skip James.

Mississippi Fred McDowell

One of the masters of Mississippi Delta Blues. January 12, 1904 – July 3, 1972