Chapter Seven: Blues Masters

Chapter 7



VII
Blues Masters



 
Blind Lemon Jefferson. Almost every early Texas blues musician, and many not from Texas, got their introduction to blues through the recordings of this man. Blind Lemon was making blues in the early twenties before anyone knew what it was. A strange and tormented man, music was the tangible mark of his life, and the rest is conjecture. Thanks to Sam Charters, we know he was born blind in 1897, a few miles outside of Wortham, Texas, at the very farthest reaches of the Navasota River Valley. He was considered especially gifted as a child, able to negotiate around the family farm and play with his siblings and neighbor children without much hindrance from his handicap. When only a teen-ager, he was as big as his parents, and had begun to play the guitar and sing. A popular entertainer in the Mexia area, by the time he was twenty he left his family to try to make a living as a busker in Dallas.

Weighing almost three hundred pounds, he made more money as a sideshow wrestler. Gigs would often last eight hours. But he picked up songs and licks from other singers, and employed an amalgam of them in his records. Lemon also picked up all the bad habits of the places he played, finding a measure of comfort in alcohol and prostitutes. Finally he bought a car, hired a driver, got married, and even had children. And he grew even bigger.

He established himself as a sort of southern idol, playing tirelessly all over Texas and the Midwest. He followed his popularity and showed up in towns far from the Brazos Valley, even as far as Memphis. He would set up on the railroad tracks during the cotton harvest and play music for the cotton pickers who travelled throughout the Brazos Valley, following the harvest as it matured from the coastal farms to the northern extreme of the Navasota River Valley, just south of Dallas. Many blues musicians saw and were inspired by him, from Richmond to Hearne, Marlin and on to Waco and Corsicana and Waxahachie.


Blind Lemon Jefferson was a household name in black homes throughout the south. Mance Lipscomb first saw him in Ft. Worth, where he heard him playing a mesmerizing sound, and saw Jefferson indignantly dump out his cup if someone put a penny in it. He could tell the size of the coin by the sound it made in the cup.

By 1924 Lemon was negotiating with record companies. Paramount brought him to Chicago to make his first recordings. After he cut "Long Lonesome Blues" his popularity soared beyond all expectations. Sadly the blind musician accepted payment in booze, prostitutes and a little "cash for carryin'." He had devolved into a disgusting letch who had few friends. One night he wandered out of a party into a driving Chicago blizzard, and never made it home. He was found the next morning, frozen in his tracks, clutching his guitar.

His recording career lasted only four years, but he managed to record almost eighty songs. Many were merely reconstituted versions of earlier recordings, and too many were just nasty jingles for cheap laughs. But Blind Lemon Jefferson had set off a huge ripple in the music world, which made him the vanguard of Texas blues, and one of the main fathers of American blues.





Alger "Texas" Alexander




Dear blog reader: This is a long one. But it may be the most complete and coherent article ever written about this old neighbor of ours. Texas Alexander lived, loved and sang passionately, as if he was in a struggle for life or death. In some cases, he was. Believe it or not, there will be blues enthusiasts all over the world that will welcome this long overdue attention, paid to our own...

Texas Alexander was born in Jewett, Texas but was raised by his grandmother Sally Beavers in Richards, along with his brother Edell and their cousin Willie Mae Proctor. He spent much of his latter life in Grimes County, calling Richards home until his death. Born Alger Alexander on September 12, 1900, by 1923 he began to sing at local gatherings and was discovered by pianist Sammy Price. Soon Alger became one of the first bluesmen to make it as a vocalist, cutting records as early as 1927 for Okeh Records in New York.

Okeh had high expectations for Alger, and hired the legendary Lonnie Johnson to back him up on guitar. Later he was teamed up with Eddie Lang. He belted out his lyrics in the style of the old southern field hands, and helped to preserve the slave traditions of work songs and field hollers. He was also recorded in San Antonio and Dallas studios, backed instrumentally by Dennis “Little Hat” Jones, Carl Davis, and later the Mississippi Sheiks and other “who’s who” Blues musicians at the time. A peer of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s, he performed with him often in the legendary Dallas “Deep Ellum” district.

Yet in between, he worked as a railroad section hand, and was considered a powerfully muscled he-man by anyone who met him. Local people around Leon and Grimes Counties remembered him as a short, very dark little man, with a very tender voice and an open smile. He was married but his first wife died. Living and working on the railroad track in Richards, Alexander could hop a train and make a gig in Dallas in just half a day. This was the accepted mode of travel for early bluesmen.

Texas travelled all over Texas on the blues circuit until appearing one day in the autumn of 1927, at a picnic in Normangee. His cousin Sam “Lightnin’ Hopkins, then just a teen-ager, remembered that he stood up in the bed of a pick-up truck during a sandlot baseball game between the boys of Normangee and Leona. As he began to bellow and sing from the bowels of the earth, everyone’s attention was drawn to the parking lot. Soon the ball and the bat were dropped, and the crowd gathered around the local vocal sensation. Hopkins remembered his stunning wheels for a Black man in those days, “the longest, old ugly car,” a new Cadillac, that they rode around to gigs in, as soon as Texas discovered the youngster could pick the guitar. Lightnin’ Hopkins had sat on the knee of Blind Lemon Jefferson during church socials as a little boy, but got his first pay for playing the guitar as a teen-ager while backing up Texas Alexander in little Texas towns like Crockett, Grapeland, Buffalo, and Centerville.

This scenario was repeated many times during Alexander’s career. Thomas Shaw, Ruby Doke, Dan Lewis, his cousin’s Joel Hopkins and Frankie Lee Sims, and Alger’s brother Edell all did a stint as Texas Alexander’s guitar man. By 1934, they thought they were ready for the big time, and Texas, 23 year old Lightnin’ and another cousin, a 17 year old harmonica player named Billy Bizor set out for Houston to light up the blues scene. But they broke up when Texas was recruited to record again, this time in Ft. Worth with the Sax Black Tams. The dynamic string duo of Willie Reed and Carl Davis also recorded with him, helping to create perhaps his best releases ever. Popular and energetic, he got many offers and opportunities. Texas even provided vocals for the elite King Oliver and his band in New Orleans.

Now in his prime, in 1935 Texas Alexander teamed up with another Texas prison blues legend, J. T. “Funny Papa” Smith, known then as “Howlin’Wolf,” the original one, and they toured together for several years. Smith had done time in Huntsville, for murder, and this may have been the most explosive and dangerous couple of entertainers to ever take the stage at once. The music had to be primo in such circumstances. Mysteriously, Smith fell off the blues radar after that, and was never seen again.

In 1939, Alger Alexander recruited a young sideshow guitarist while singing his way across Oklahoma. Only twenty years old, Lowell Fulson said good-bye to his family and struck out for the adventure of a lifetime, that ended up being the beginning of his own blues odyssey. Fifty years later he told a British blues magazine his story, which had long since been lost to the winds of west Texas. Lowell candidly spoke of his mentor, of the path they shared for a very formative year of his life, and the nature of his partnership with one of the fathers of Texas blues.

Fulson may have left us with the most informative first hand memories of the most elusive legend of Grimes County; Little, seemingly insignificant facts and observations that finally help make Texas Alexander more than a blur in our past. Even though they are the faint recollections of a big-eyed kid as he accompanied a blues superstar, they may teach us valuable insights to the enigmatic bluesman who left us little else to go on.

Alexander had been married, to a second wife and living in Leon County, in Normangee, Texas. Word on the street in Ada, Oklahoma was that the intimidatingly husky Texas blues star was a wanted man. But he was deliberate and polite, and was a man with a mission. Fulson had just picked up the guitar, in fact his uncle’s, and had earned a chair at the local sideshow in Ada, when Texas Alexander swaggered in one day and offered him a substantial raise to follow him to west Texas. The young guitarist must have had a promising sound, but the veteran vocalist was never picky about his musicians, having been known to carry a guitar wherever he went in hopes of finding a decent musician who could accompany him at the next gig. “You can make at least ten dollars a night going with me,” he bragged in a commandingly deep voice.

Fulson was smitten and soon they were in west Texas, cruising in Alexanders’s big new car, on tour with a lady blues singer known only as “Bessie.” She was passed off facetiously as “Bessie Smith,” but Fulson’s faint description of her seems to fit the ghost of another Texas blues phantom, Bessie Tucker, who was as free a spirit as ever haunted the dives and juke joints of Texas. The young musician never asked questions, and did not even suspect any kind of relationship other than music business, and soon the mysterious woman named Bessie was gone, and the two were soaring the landscape in search of an audience and another day’s meal. According to Fulson, they never had trouble finding either.

Fulson remembered Alexander as a solitary man, brooding and almost non-communicative, except when it was time to sing. Then the stocky singer came to life, and he became a different person, glib and confident, and took command of the room. He was fair with the young musician, but never indulgent, and doled out cash as it was necessary. He seemed to think he was protecting Fulson from wasting his share. But there was little for an Oklahoma Negro to do in the Texas desert anyway, and plenty of pitfalls in an unpredictable landscape of hardship and racism. “He was like a father, a bodyguard,” explained Fulson. Alexander always warned him to mind his own business and stay in his room. Hopping from one strange place to another, Alexander seemed to be preoccupied and detached, and Fulson began to long for home cooking. Finally he was picked up by police for loitering, and put in jail, and Texas came after him like the wrath of god… “You’ve got my boy in there… MY BOY. I’ve come to get him out!” The Police were glad to oblige.

But too soon the ride of a lifetime was over, and authorities took Texas Alexander to jail. In 1939 Alger was convicted for murdering his wife and sent to prison. Little could young Lowell have known that Alexander was on one last tour while he evaded arrest. The history is very fuzzy here, but Fulson explained that Texas had found his wife with another lover and killed them both with a hatchet. He never saw Alexander again, but Lowell Fulson became a Texas blues guitar legend in his own right.

Texas Alexander went to prison and served around three years for murder at the Ramsey Unit. Like Huddie Leadbetter, aka Leadbelly, Texas used his music talent to gain favor with the Warden and ultimately obtained a parole by the Governor. Getting out for good behavior had drawbacks, especially if you had a hard time behaving. By 1942 Texas was back in prison, probably for violating the terms of his parole. Here again, the records are a bit fuzzy, but Lightnin’ Hopkins explained that Texas had released a vulgar song which no doubt enraged even his defenders, as well as the Parole Board, and he was put back in jail for a song called the “Boar Hog Blues.” The song was full of erotic and suggestive phrases, and was banned from radio play. But Texas continued to perform the song, especially when pressured for it. In a strange tangle of small town intrigue, some old hometown antagonists from Jewett were in Dallas and successfully conspired to get Texas arrested, perhaps for public lewdness. They heckled him until he performed the Boar Hog Blues, which must have been a restrction and condition of his parole. He is believed to have served another year, and perhaps more in prison, as his cousin Lightnin’ Hopkins explained, for “singin’ them bad songs,” and then beaten severely and released. When he arrived at Hopkin’s home, “… he couldn’t get in without crawlin’ in.”

Most of the next nine years were spent on the streets in Houston sealing his fame, performing with cousin “Lightnin” Hopkins, by then claiming the undisputed title of “King of Texas Blues.” They were known to spontaneously begin performances on street corners or while riding in buses, singing for tips just like the good old days. Houston legends say sometimes they would board a bus and start playing, and the passengers would quit getting off of the bus, and the bus would just cruise around bluzified and full, like a jam session on wheels… except to stop for beverages.

In 1950 Texas made one last record in Houston, under the Freedom label, accompanied by Buster Pickens of Hempstead on the piano, and Benton’s Busy Bees. Texas began to tour some with Melvin ‘Lil Son” Jackson.

Albert Collins, another distant cousin, met him at a family reunion picnic in Leon County, but age and hard living had taken its toll. Collins would later blow the lid off of electric blues guitar, and become the last of this remarkable family blues dynasty to make music history.

But the good old days had gotten up and went, and Alger found himself suffering from a terminal case of Syphilis. He went home to Grimes County to wait out his painful demise at the home of his grandmother. Locals said that near the end of his life, he could barely get a few steps from the front door.

Texas Alexander died in obscurity in Richards in 1954. The newspaper never even mentioned his passing. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Longstreet Cemetery just across the county line. Today, there is no trace of this man, his life or his music, other than some obscure Internet websites. There is only one known photograph of him in existence, and it is a very poor one. Because of his tragic mistakes and crimes, his groundbreaking career in American blues was almost buried with him. Few people in Richards, Texas have ever heard his name, and even fewer around the area where he lived and sang. Yet in spite of his flaws and local obscurity, several albums of his music have been released in Europe. Blues collectors in England and Holland are familiar with Texas blues, and one of the first Texas bluesmen, and recognize his name thousands of miles from where he learned and plied his trade.

The old 78 RPM records that he released in the 20’s and 30’s bring impressive prices on Internet auctions, and his works have been rereleased as CD’s. Regardless of his tragic life, his songs have afforded him lasting fame and thus immortality. Somewhere in the world, right now, someone is listening to him sing the blues. Perhaps across the ocean, and decades later, in a foriegn land, the memory of Alger Alexander has found a measure of grace.

Huddie Ledbetter AKA Lead Belly

                   
Leadbelly, born Huddie Ledbetter in 1888 at Mooringsport, Louisiana, was a Dallas busker and bronc buster who became a Texas music legend while still in the Texas Prison system. 

Discovered by folklorist John Lomax of the University of Texas, “Lead Belly” might have adopted this nickname because of the lead he left in his rival’s bellies.  He was sent to prison four times, twice for murder or the attempt.  But in prison he became a model inmate and a veritable mentor for aspiring musicians.  His amazing repertoire of American folk songs, work songs, blues songs and even cowboy songs made him a national treasure. After appealing to Texas Governor Pat Neff, he was pardoned to pursue his singing career.

Master of guitar and accordion, Leadbelly left prison in 1934 and with Lomax’s help sang his way into the hearts of people around the world.  His famous song “Goodnight Irene” became a big hit for the Weavers right after he died in 1949.  His songs have since been recorded by many Blues and Rock & Roll greats, such as The Animals, Credence Clearwater Revival, Nirvana, Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin, and many more. 




Blind Willie Johnson

Born in 1897 in Pendleton, Texas, near Waco,( according to the latest research) Blind Willie Johnson sang his Blues-styled gospel songs on the streets of Navasota and other Brazos Valley towns for nickels and dimes. Fans put coins into his tin cup which was tied to his guitar neck.

This was known as busking. Willie occasionally played and competed at the major intersections of Texas across from Blind Lemon Jefferson. They were known to duel during harvet time at Hearne, a major cotton processing center. To play opposite Blind Lemon took a lot of pluck, especially for a blind kid.

Jefferson was quite territorial, but Johnson had faced more evil enemies, including his stepmother who had thrown lye in his eyes as a child. But he entertained with abandon, and had learned to make eerie sounds on his guitar using various objects such as a brass ring, bottle or pocketknife, which added a deep and weird spiritual effect to his songs, and still gives the shivers to enthusiasts today.

Mance Lipscomb remembered his visits here, when he would ask Mance to tune his guitar for him. The aspiring local blues man remembered two blind blues musicians bravely strolling around Navasota arm in arm, and playing in front of Tex’s Radio repair shop at 10thand Washington, gratefully taking tips in a tin cup from passers-by.  It has been said that Willie traveled with Blind Willie McTell, and that may be who the other blind musician was. Married and based in Marlin, Johnson recorded numerous times for Columbia beginning in 1927, first in Dallas, then New Orleans and Atlanta, and often with the sweet back up vocals of his wife Willie (Harris) Johnson, who finally settled down in Marlin to raise their only child. They soon separated.

Johnson remarried, the next time to Angeline Robinson, sister of blues master L. C. “Good Rockin” Robinson, of Somerville. He is said to have toured with Willie McTell, another blind bluesman, who also went on to become one of the most famous blues men in America. Mance told how Willie and another blind musician (whose name he could not recall), walked around town arm in arm, fearlessly crossing the muddy streets of Navasota as they slowly threaded their way amongst the horses and buggies.

Blind Willie Johnson was one of the early developers of the slide guitar sound. Today his music enjoys cult status, and has inspired generations of guitarists, like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, who have recorded his songs. One of Mance’s best songs was a Blind Willie classic, also covered by Clapton, called “Motherless children have a hard time.” This song actually told of Willie’s unfortunate loss of his mother when just a toddler.

Johnson never enjoyed a financial reward from his music, which was so unusual that most American audiences ignored it. He had a novel affectation of changing voices in the middle of a song, escalating from a rugged tenor to an unsettling false bass that made a good impersonation of a demoniac. Legend has it that he so frightened authorities and the audience with his wild performance of “If I had my way, I’d tear this building down” that he was hauled to jail in New Orleans for inciting a riot.

His last years were spent preaching, but Blind Willie died in poverty and squalor in Beaumont, Texas in 1945. 

Only recently, and thanks in part to the diligent research of Jack Ortmann, have the folks in Beaumont put up a historical marker celebrating this world-famous, yet largely uncelebrated musician. Ironically, today collectors will pay over $200.00 for one of his original 78 rpm records. Yet most music lovers in Texas have never heard of him.

Even more amazing, Willie was given a special status among his peers when his song "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground," was included on a CD of "essential music," made of gold and placed in the Voyager spacecraft to take our World's greatest music into the farthest reaches of man.

In fact it is merely his most spiritual soulful moans and utterances, accompanied with his iconoclastic guitar magic, with few if any intelligible words, making art that still leaves his fans spellbound.




It's as if the Earth was not ready for his Gospel-blues genius and its repentant inhabitants sent it on to a place in the great beyond where he might receive a more worthy reception. I am not one of those who thinks there is even one more earth.. the odds are against it. But out there somewhere, everywhere, in Eternity is the Creator, who I am sure has made a place for him.   
 
 
A music CD of gold, including Dark was the night, cold was the ground.
 
 
 
 
Sam “Lightnin’ Hopkins was the undisputed King of Texas Blues.  If the reader is only marginally familiar with blues music, they still no doubt have heard of him. He was a greatly prolific Trans-Brazos Blues master and his bountiful recordings made him world famous. Traveling all over America and Europe, he took his country/urban sound farther than any of his contemporaries. He was honored at a George Bush Library exhibit as one of “100 Tall Texans.”

After growing up under the shadow of his cousin Texas Alexander, he began touring with a pianist named Wilson “Thunder” Smith, and soon he was dubbed “Lightnin.” Although “Thunder and Lightnin” did not storm Texas long, this nickname stuck for the rest of his career. 

         Lightnin’ Hopkins is said to have recorded around 85 albums for numerous labels, including Aladdin, Gold Star, Prestige-Bluesville, Folkways, Verve and Arhoolie.

 
Born in Leon County into a musical family near Centerville, Texas in 1912, Lightnin’ Hopkins started his legend as a youngster around 1920 in nearby Buffalo, when he tried to upstage Blind Lemon Jefferson while at a church social.  Blind Lemon teased and humored him, and baptized him into Blues performing for the rest of his life.  Who could have imagined that the cute little rascal would one day headline with big acts like the Grateful Dead, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. His song “Shotgun Blues” rose to number 5 on the Billboard charts in 1950.

Chris Strachwitz must be given a great deal of credit for promoting Hopkins, who he found playing in Houston. In 1959 Strachwitz started his Arhoolie label to market Lightnin’ Hopkins’ music, and that led to a whole bunch of other discoveries in Texas.  Mack McCormick began to manage his public performances, and Lightnin’ struck the blues circuit. This led to Carnegie Hall, European tours and a command performance for the Queen of England.

McCormick was amazed at Lightin’s musical spontaneity and cavalier attitude, often talking incessantly and almost making the audience beg for his next number. But Hopkins had learned instinctively from his upbringing under Blues Valley masters that bantering with your audience was an essential part of the gig. In the traditions of Blind Lemon, Blind Willie and Texas Alexander, songsters were more than entertainers, they were anointed messengers of a deep current of feelings and issues that could not be expressed. They were supposed to get carried away, swept up by the currents of the blues culture. They were a combination of the ancient tribal chieftains, the Pied Piper and Dr. Phil and Jesse Jackson, and sometimes the energy from the audience was more important than the next number. Besides, his guitar might be out of tune and he needed to stall until break time.  

Later Arhoolie released a Texas blues classic, which featured the Hopkins brothers, John Henry, Joel and Sam. After a lifetime in and out of Texas prisons, the older John Henry was finally on the outside and agreed to make a home recording in Waxahachie with is brothers, who each had a distinct style.  Not eclipsed by cousin Texas Alexander, the Hopkins boys left a legacy of Texas blues in their own right.

Lightnin’ Hopkins beat the odds after a lifetime of hard living and playing, lived to be an old man and died of natural causes in 1982.

 
 
 Milt Larkin
Born in navasota, Milt "Tippy" Larkin was a popular Houston band leader and musician.
 
 
This rare album is a unique artifact of a Texas blues giant, who never succumbed to the music industry system.
 
 
Like Mance Lipscomb, Milt Larkin was the son of a Brazos bottom fiddler. By the age of ten he knew that he wanted to be a musician. Born in Navasota in 1910, Milton Larkin was relocated to Houston as a youth and ultimately became a local big band legend. A trumpet prodigy, he built his own band in 1936 and toured Texas and the Midwest for six years. Larkin found wide acceptance, and a voracious appetite for his big band blues sound, and enjoyed extended stays playing at presitgious venues such as the College Inn in Kansas City, Rhumboogie in Chicago, and the Celebrity Club in Harlem.

Unwilling to accept the inferior wages recording studios customarily offered black musicians, he rarely agreed to record. (The album pictured below is one of his few recordings, done at the end of his career) But His band was considered the cat's meow, featuring a who's who of talent, including Hempstead's Tom Archia, Arnett Cobb or Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson on sax. Other blues legends played with Milt and his "all star band" over the years, including Houston's Johnny Copeland, Illinois Jacquet, Wild Bill Davis, Gil Askey, Alvin Burroughs, and Cedric "Yardbird" Maywood.

Larkin enlisted during WWII, playing in military bands, and afterwards continued his reign. He ultimately settled in New York, where he and his combo were often asked to perform concerts for the City, and he became a music icon of sorts.

But Larkin remained fiercely independent. Performing under the name Milt Larkin and His All Stars, he formed his own record label called Copasetic, and started his own talent management company.

Much later in life he returned to Houston. In the end, it was that "Down home Saturday night" feeling that drew him back to Texas. While in his youth he refused to be insulted with wages beneath his talent, he spent his twilight years playing for free for schoolchildren and in old folks homes around Houston. He passed away in 1996.
 


On the road with Milt Larkin and his band in 1943.
 
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Tom Shaw
 
Another late developer was Thomas Edger Shaw, who like Mance Lipscomb got a late opportunity to shine after a lifetime of developing his gift. And like Mance, he had plenty of inspiration to draw upon, learning to play from the granddaddy of them all, Blind Lemon Jefferson. Born in Brenham in 1908, Thomas forged his own style after studying first hand with Blind Lemon, Blind Willie Johnson and J. T. Funny Papa Smith. He also briefly accompanied Texas Alexander. He may be the only bluesman to have known and played with all of these essential Texas bluesmen. He finally got to record his first album at age 62 in 1970 for Advent Records.



Thomas Shaw of Brenham.

Like Mance and his old Washington County neighbor Blind Arvella Gray, he could not resist recording his own version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Motherless Children” and like them made it his own and thrilled crowds with his ability to do both Blind Lemon and Blind Willie favorites. Thomas travelled many miles all over the country to find his audience, and like another Washington County neighbor, L. C. Robinson, ended up in California in 1934. Transplanted Texans on the West Coast loved that he could lay down Jack O’ Diamonds, Two White Horses in Line, and See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, received right from Blind Lemon’s corner to their ears.

Tom’s musical journey was begun while playing with his father, an accomplished and popular performer in Washington County, Texas, who exposed him to the harmonica, guitar and accordion. After his father passed away in 1917, He played in a band with his brothers and his Uncle Fred Rogers, who kind of treated him as the young and dumb kid in the family, and he developed quite a chip on his shoulder because of it. In this band he was competing with cousins Willie and Bertie Shaw, both great blues guitarists, his brother Leon on the piano, and his other brother Louis on the harmonica. There never really was a hole made for him.

While working in the cotton patch in Moody, Texas, he finally met Blind Lemon Jefferson one weekend in 1927 while playing in Waco and the energy and enthusiasm he gleaned from him made him put down the old harmonica and pick up the guitar. Jefferson himself would show him how. Shaw bought a little Stella for 8 bucks from Aegis Patterson, another blues buddy, and his life was never the same.

For the first time he thought he could do this!

Well, sort of. Tom tried with all his heart, but Jefferson was to pass away soon after, so what he lacked in musical skill he made up in love of people and that old gracious Brenham- bred demeanor. In other words, he was a great bull- shitter. And in the entertainment business, sometimes that goes along way.

One night in 1929 in west Texas he was thrown into an impromptu show down with Ramblin’ Thomas and gained a great deal of confidence when he felt like he really smoked him, as the audience seemed to go nuts over the Blind Lemon songs he knew. Later he would get to meet J. T. “Funny Papa” Smith while picking cotton in Oklahoma, and soon he could play his songs as well as the master, or so he remembered. His gig with Smith ended abruptly when “Funny Papa” was hauled to jail on murder charges in 1931. He played to entertain Texas Alexander as well. Alexander, never a guitarist himself, proclaimed him the winner in a show down with several blues guitarists. After Alexander was thrown in prison for murder as well, he must have looked for a crime to commit so he could continue his education under them.

He also hung out with Mance Lipscomb, T-Bone Walker and Smokey Hogg. His acquaintances read like the Who’s Who of Texas Blues. In 1941 he did a radio gig in California and played live blues to California blues lovers. And then a long period of playing just because he loved to play, as he aged and his skills lost their edge. Still, his time came when a blues revival came in the 70’s and Thomas was there to sing the old songs, just like he remembered them, to a new generation of enthusiastic listeners. He found new purpose in doing something he loved, something his whole family teased him unmercifully about, but they were mostly dead now, and it was up to Tom Shaw to carry on the family music legend. And so he did. And he was always glad to tell you all about it.

Shaw recorded for Advent, Blue Goose and Blues Beacon and his work appeared on some compilation albums as well.  Thomas Shaw died in San Diego as a beloved California bluesman in 1977.

 
 

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