Forgotten Gems & Dusty Classics: Vashti Bunyan, Bob Wills, Bud Freeman, Big Mama Thornton, Robert Pete Williams
I think of Bob Wills as Americana at its finest. The style of Western swing that Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys played combined early country music, blues songs, American Dixieland, and even some of the French gypsy swing of Django Reinhardt into something very distinct. Born in 1905 to a poor rural white family, Wills spent most of his childhood living amongst African-Americans, to whom he attributed his lifelong interest in blues music. Wills ended up in Fort Worth in the ‘20s and eventually fronted the Light Crust Doughboys, a band sponsored by the Burrus Mill Flour Company. Fronting his own band, Wills and his men starting taking old standards and rearranging to make them into dance songs. Almost by accident, Wills hired a trumpeter and saxophonist, and Wills’ band then found its sound. He was extraordinarily popular into the 1950s, and while his fame diminished somewhat, he remained very influential in the development of country music.1
The Bob Wills Band was in effect two bands, one which played swing band music and one which played fiddle tunes. Bob Will’s cover of “Basin Street” is one of my favorite songs, and it illustrates why the Bob Wills band was so brilliant, taking a Dixieland jazz song and making it their own. “Blue Yodel No. 1” is another fantastic Bob Wills song, but instead of covering a jazz song, Wills covers Jimmie Rodgers’ most famous song and makes it his own. “Ida Red” is an older fiddle tune Wills recorded in 1938 and that was later adapted into one of Chuck Berry’s first hits, “Maybellene.”
Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys – “Basin Street Blues”
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Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys – “Blue Yodel No. 1”
Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys – “Ida Red”
Big Mama Thornton
The superficial summary of Big Mama Thornton’s life is that she popularized “Hound Dog,” and when Elvis Presley covered the song, he was catapulted into stardom. The problem with this version is that it basically reduces her to a footnote, when Thornton is at least as interesting as Elvis. Born Willie Mae Thornton in 1926, she jumped into the burgeoning Rhythm and Blues scene in 1948. Thornton’s singing was aggressive for a female blues singer, replete with growls and snarls, which helped her to stand out in a field dominated by men. The fact that Thornton dressed in men’s clothing helped to fuel rumors around her sexuality. Her recordings faded in popularity among African-American audiences but grew among white audiences, and she continued to perform until she died from complications of alcoholism in 1984. Like many blues singers of her generation, Thornton received only minimal royalties for her songs.2
“Hound Dog” is Thornton’s signature song, and I would be remiss if I didn’t include it here. Don’t get me wrong; Elvis Presley’s version is good, but Thornton’s will blast the windows out of your house if you’re careless. “Rock Me Baby” is a song from the later period of her career, and it may sound similar to a later adaptation of an old song by Old Crow Medicine Show. “Ball and Chain” is another classic that was eventually covered by Janis Joplin in 1968.
Big Mama Thornton – “Hound Dog”
Big Mama Thornton – “Ball N Chain”
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Big Mama Thornton – “Hound Dog”
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Vashti Bunyan is sometimes described as the Linda Perhacs of Great Britain. Both women recorded a single psychedelic folk album that sold poorly and then disappeared into obscurity for over thirty years.
Born in England, Bunyan recorded a few singles in 1965 and then Just Another Diamond Day in 1970. The album was written while Bunyan traveled around Scotland, searching for an artist’s commune; some have speculated that this inspired the album’s pastoral imagery. Unfortunately, while the album was well-received, it sold poorly, and she stopped making music. While Bunyan was unaware of her burgeoning fame, her album became a sought-after collector’s item. After she became aware of the surge of popular interest, she recorded an album in 2005, Lookaftering, and a final album in 2014, Heartleap.3
As Just Another Diamond Day was such an important and influential album that I’ll just be listing some songs from it. What I like about Bunyan’s sound, apart from her incredible vocals, is the psychedelia. Her songs feel like Donovan songs, but with a touch more strangeness. The title song “Just Another Diamond Day” has to be included here, and not just because it’s the title track. There are a handful of songs I like to wake up and listen to, and it’s one of them. “Rose Hip November” is another solid song — one that always puts me in a wandering kind of mood. I also like “Timothy Grub,” as it has a rougher feel from the rest of the album.
Vashti Bunyan – “Just Another Diamond Day”
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Vashti Bunyan – “Rose Hip November”
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Vashti Bunyan – “Timothy Grub”
Robert Pete Williams
John Fahey referred to Robert Pete Williams as “the strangest person I have ever met,” which is all the more powerful if we keep in mind Fahey’s numerous eccentricities.4 Born to sharecroppers in Louisiana in 1914, Williams got his start playing in shows in the Baton Rouge area. In 1956, he shot and killed a man in a bar, for which he received a life sentence in Angola State Prison. But while in prison, he was discovered by a musicologist named Harry Oster who successfully lobbied for Williams’ pardon in 1959. Williams began recording at the moment the blues revival was in earnest, and he made a name for himself playing in coffeehouses as well as gigs in Europe. His recording and performing schedule declined as he grew older, and he died in 1980.
Williams’ sound is very unusual, partly because he constantly improvised while playing, and partly because his tunings were unorthodox. Consequently, he doesn’t sound like very many other blues musicians. “My Daddy Was a Hoodoo Man” is a great example of a Williams song that doesn’t really sound like any other song; its opening notes sound like they’re almost out of tune. “Cows Like Music” is a weird sort of song, recoded live and with a lot of banter between the audience and Williams. You get a good sense of what Williams was like as a performer. Lastly, “Matchbox Blues” showcases Williams’ fingerpicking and musicianship on a blues standard.5
Robert Pete Williams – “My Daddy Was A Hoodoo Man”
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Robert Pete Williams – “Cows Like Music”
Robert Pete Williams – “Matchbox Blues”
Bud Freeman is one of the earliest tenor saxophone players in jazz, and he’s largely unknown to casual listeners today. Born in 1906, Freeman got his start in what was later known as the Austin High School Gang, a group of white high school students who became leading proponents of the Chicago Style. The Chicago Style replaced tubas with string basses and banjos with guitars, still part of contemporary instrumentation.
Freeman moved to New York in 1927 and played in a variety of swing orchestras, including Benny Goodman’s and Tommy Dorsey’s. He occasionally fronted groups of his own after the war while playing with his old friends, still in the interwar style he helped to popularize. He died in 1991 at the age of eighty-five.6
Freeman’s style combined some elements of Dixieland jazz as well as swing. Freeman’s solos were known for their length, which gave him his nickname of “the eel,” yet he also had a very consistently mellow style playing in the middle register of the tenor sax. His speed had some of the frantic feel of city life, but Freeman sounded as though he was the master of that pace. “Easy to Get” is one of my favorite Freeman songs and is a good vehicle for him to showcase his solo work. Freeman’s solo on “The Eel” earned him the same nickname and features solid work from Eddie Condon’s group. “It Had to Be You” is from a postwar recording session and shows Freeman’s work later in life.
Bud Freeman – “The Eel”
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Bud Freeman – “Easy To Get”
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Bud Freeman – “It Had To Be You”
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