Archive for September, 2021

“Downtown Blues” by The Beale Street Sheiks

I learned about the city of Memphis, Tennessee, at a very young age. Chuck Berry’s classic “Memphis, Tennessee” (1959) was one of the many songs I loved as a boy. Starting in the1960s, the R&B music coming out of Stax Records in Memphis was a major influence in my development as a musician. Elvis Presley, a country boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, made Memphis his home and also the home of his mansion, Graceland. The name Memphis is primarily of Greek origin that means “established and beautiful.” Memphis was a hub for travelling minstrel and medicine shows after the Civil War and became the melting pot of early blues, country music, folk songs, jigs and vaudeville, from which much of modern American popular music emerged.

By 1926-1927, the record companies, having found rich harvests of old-time music in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, began to look further afield in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. Hungry for more, both the Victor and Okeh record companies dispatched recording crews to the city where it made the most sense to assemble musicians from those territories: Memphis.

Many of these musicians worked in complete obscurity. Communications between any area and the rest of the country were rare, if not nonexistent. Had the record companies not discovered these musicians, the vibrant musical landscape of America that emerged in the “roaring twenties” might not have materialized at all.

Out of Memphis’ community of artists came the jug bands, which were, to me, one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century. People in jug bands were dirt poor but talented, imaginative and driven. Because they played on the cheapest guitars, harmonicas, banjos and fiddles they could find, many of their other instruments were household items or other “instruments” they put together themselves. Above all else, it was the odd sounds of these instruments that set the jug bands apart. With an empty jug, they blew across the opening to produce deep, almost atonal resonances. They attached 2 or 3 strings to a broomstick connected to an empty cigar box which acted as a resonator and played away on their makeshift “guitar” that way. Broomsticks were also fixed to a wash tub equipped with a string that could be plucked like an upright bass. While they were in the laundry room, they grabbed a washboard and played crazy rhythms on it using a bottle opener. They created strange melodies by blowing through silk paper draped over the teeth of a comb. The music they made was captivating, joyful and uptempo. Nothing was beyond them.

Many of the greatest pioneers of the early commercial recordings of “roots” music have been overlooked, cheated, or allowed to slip into obscurity over the decades. Such is the case with Frank Stokes, the powerfully voiced bluesman who is now considered the father of the Memphis blues guitar style and whose important legacy is only now being fully appreciated. Frank Stokes (1878-1955) was born in Shelby County, Tennessee. Accounts as to his exact date of birth vary. Orphaned as a child, Stokes was raised by his stepfather in Tutwiler, Mississippi. He learned to play the guitar as a youth and later moved to Hernando, Mississippi, home to a community of musicians like Jim Jackson (1890-1937), who ran the Red Rose Minstrels, a traveling medicine show; Dan Sane (1896-1956), who would form half of The Beale Street Sheiks with Stokes; Gus Cannon (1883-1979) who formed Cannon’s Jug Stompers with Elijah Avery (no data available) and Noah Lewis (1890-1961); Will Shade (1898-1966) who led the Memphis Jug Band; and Robert Wilkins (1896-1987), a renowned gospel singer. To learn more about Robert Wilkins and to hear me play his song “That’s No Way To Get Along,” click here.

By the turn of the century, Frank Stokes was working as a blacksmith, traveling the 25 miles to Memphis on weekends to sing and play the guitar with Dan Sane, with whom he formed a long-term musical partnership. Together, they busked on the streets and in Church’s Park (now W. C. Handy Park) on Beale Street in Memphis. Their eclectic repertoire included parlor songs, rags, minstrel tunes, country blues standards, and popular songs of the era. Unlike the stereotype of the world-weary and downtrodden bluesman who sings melancholy songs of heartbreak and loss, Frank Stokes created music that was lively and fun, often even funny. It was party music that transcended the barriers of race and class and demanded that you get up and dance.

In 1917, Stokes joined the Doc Watts Medicine Show as a blackface comedian, singer and dancer. The Medicine Show allowed Stokes to collaborate with many white musicians, including roots music legend Jimmy Rodgers. Rodgers went on to perform some of Stokes’ songs while Stokes’ own “The Yodeling Fiddle Blues” is believed to be a tribute to Rodgers.

Tiring of a life on the road, Stokes moved to Oakville, Tennessee around 1920 and returned to his life as a blacksmith and musician. He teamed back up with Dan Sane and the two became a popular fixture at local fish fries, bars, picnics, and house parties. In the mid-1920s, the duo joined Jack Kelly’s Jug Busters, which allowed them to play at white country clubs, parties, and dances. Soon after, Stokes and Sane returned to Beale Street where they began performing as the Beale Street Sheiks. By then, the Rudolph Valentino silent movie “The Sheik” and the hit song “The Sheik of Araby” had filtered into everyday American parlance and the word “sheik” became synonymous to “ladies man.” I suspect that the pronunciation of sheik (i.e. shake) also had something to do with it – the “Beale Street Shakes” is a mighty powerful name for a band.

In August of 1927, Stokes and Sane brought their raucous party music off of the streets and into the studio, recording the first Beale Street Sheiks album for Paramount Records. One reviewer wrote “The fluid guitar interplay between Stokes and Sane, combined with a propulsive beat, witty lyrics, and Stokes’ superb voice, make their recordings irresistible.”

In February of 1928, the Sheiks recorded several tracks for Victor Records at the Memphis Auditorium, a session that also included blues great Furry Lewis. Later recordings for Victor and Paramount were sometimes issued under Frank Stokes’ name, although Dan Sane played on them and the lineup was the same as The Beale Street Sheiks. This was a common ploy of the record companies at that time, creating a number of “different” artists simply by changing names. I’m not bound by these promotional tactics and I identify all of Sane and Stokes’ songs under the name of The Beale Street Sheiks. “Downtown Blues” is a classic example of the irresistible dance music Frank Stokes composed. Moreover, in 1928, no one sang like he did but, in the post-war era, more and more R&B and Rock singers clearly sounded like Stokes, demonstrating his great influence on our contemporary music.

Frank Stokes’ body of work makes him one of the most recorded Memphis artists of the era. His last recordings, made in 1929, featured fiddler Will Batts (1904-1954) and are among the most wildly original pieces ever recorded. Unfortunately, Stokes’ creative peak occurred during a period when the record-buying public’s interest in blues-based music had begun to wane.

Although his recording career had ended, Stokes remained a very popular live performer. He continued to wow audiences with his expert guitar playing and powerful voice throughout the 1930s and 40s, where he performed as a member of medicine shows, the Ringling Brothers Circus, and other travelling acts. In the 1940s, Stokes moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, another center of traditional blues, and would occasionally play shows with fellow blues great Bukka White (1906-1977). In 1955, Frank Stokes died of a stroke in Memphis, the city whose musical legacy he had helped to define.

While Frank Stokes has largely fallen into obscurity in the years following his death, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, a group devoted to restoring and dedicating new headstones for blues musicians of the early 20th century, constructed a headstone in his honour at New Park Cemetery, in Memphis.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin, foot

Downtown Blues

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