Papa Charlie Done Sung This Song
"One of the first ‘country’ blues artists to record was Papa Charlie Jackson, who played both banjo and guitar... Jackson was joined within a couple of years by such artists as Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Big Bill Broonzy." --- Encyclopedia of Popular Music
"With Papa Charlie Jackson’s Papa’s Lawdy Lawdy Blues, recorded with banjo accompaniment in 1924, the recording industry began to make known the songs of the country tradition. --- Grove Music Online
"In 1924 a New Orleans-born six-string banjo player named Papa Charlie Jackson became the first male singer successfully to challenge the recording monopoly of the blues queens." --- Oxford Music Online
"Papa Charlie Done Sung This Song" is a tribute recording project, with new performances of songs by the early 20th century singer and banjo player Papa Charlie Jackson (c. 1885 – 1938). Virtually unknown except by the most hardcore fans of early blues and American folk music, Jackson was one of the very first recorded solo blues artists and the first to become famous.
Papa Charlie recorded almost one hundred sides for Paramount records starting in 1924. Within a couple of years of making his first recordings, he had become one of Paramount's biggest stars. But while blues singer-musicians such as Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Leadbelly, and Big Bill Broonzy (who took guitar lessons from Papa Charlie) have been widely celebrated for their contributions to American music, few lovers of blues or early jazz have even heard of Papa Charlie Jackson. This is a shame, because Papa Charlie recorded wonderful music with a unique sound. His songs and recordings capture the transition from vaudeville to what we now know as acoustic blues music.
I've been performing Papa Charlie songs for years, and they almost always get an enthusiastic response from fellow musicians and audience members alike. When I play one of his songs I am frequently asked where, "Where did that one come from?" And I reply, "Someone you've probably never heard of--Papa Charlie Jackson."
So what happened to Papa Charlie? For one thing, while most of the solo “blues” performers of the 20’s and 30’s accompanied themselves on guitar and a few on piano, Jackson played a six-string banjo. A common accompaniment instrument in the vaudeville shows where Jackson had worked, the banjo gives his music a texture quite different from the guitar-playing blues singers you've heard. And while many of his songs express the highly emotional sentiments that early collectors of “negro” music valued, much of his recorded repertoire retained the vaudeville humor that became a staple of "jug bands" and the so-called “hokum” bands of the era. (Many of his humorous rhymes hold up well: “Some folks say chitlins are good to eat, but I’ll never eat chitlins ‘long as hogs got feet.”)
One other reason, perhaps the most important, is that the equipment Paramount used to record Papa Charlie wasn't very good. As a result, the recordings are very noisy--especially by contemporary standards. In fact, this is one of the main reasons I decided to record new versions of his material: only the most diehard fans could listen to the thin, scratchy, hissy originals.
To share my love of Papa Charlie's music, I have gathered together some wonderful musicians to record a dozen or so of Jackson's songs--ones that he wrote along with a few, like "Alabama Bound" and "Going Where the Chilly Winds Don't Blow," for which he did the first recorded versions.
Adam Tanner from Asheville, NC will be singing some lead and backing voclas and playing fiddle and mandolin as well as his 1920's era Gibson guitar-banjo -- just like Papa Charlie's.
Jen Maurer from Akron, OH will also contribute lead and backing vocals along with upright bass and piano.
We'll be joined by a handful of other great players:
- Berkeley Grimball -- clarinet, bass clarinet
- Sam Rettman -- harmonica
- Rytas Vitgalys -- accordion
- Ed Witkin -- piano
- Dorsey Worthy -- trumpet
We'll be recording at the Rubber Room recording studio right here in Chapel Hill, NC. owner and engineer Jerry Brown specializes in recording acoustic American music at the Rubber Room, where he has recorded such artists as Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Doc Watson.
LISTEN: To give you sense of my take on Jackson's material, here are a couple of takes I recorded at home in preparation for going into the studio:
Up the Way Bound:
Last Time Foolin' around with You:
Once I got this project underway, I discovered some other admirers of Papa Charlie. It turns out that Gary Atkinson, owner and Managing Director of Document Records is one of them, and we now have an agreement to put our disc out on their label. Many of us who perform early 20th century American roots music learned a lot of our material from Document recordings. (If you don't know Document, read this!). It will be an honor to release this tribute CD with them.
As the project started taking shape, I decided that we could introduce music lovers to Papa Charlie even better by sharing his originals along side our versions. Once listeners get to know these great songs recorded in a first-class modern studio, I figured they'd be able to enjoy Jackson's originals in spite of the poor sound quality. But the folks at Document have also committed to remastering the originals of the songs we're covering! So, in collaboration with Document, we'll be making a 2-CD set: One disc with our versions and another with better-than-ever sounding recordings of Jackson's originals.
We found another Papa Charlie lover in music writer and editor Jas Obrecht. Jas, a former editor for Guitar Player magazine, has freelanced for Rolling Stone,and Living Blues, and is the author of Rollin’ & Tumblin’: The Postwar Blues Guitarists and liner notes for Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues and John Lee Hooker’s Anthology – 50 Years. Jas has agreed to let us include a wonderful biography he has written about Jackson with our discs. So the package will include his biography too.
Why we need you!
Things are falling into place -- even better than I had imagined -- but we must now raise the money to make all this happen. Our expenses are the typical ones: recording studio time, travel expenses for the musicians, mixing/mastering, artwork, and so on. We hope you’re as excited by this project as we are--and that you’ll choose to be part of it. Please consider joining us in celebrating the music of one of our forgotten musical treasures. And when you get your CDs -- have a party and play Papa Charlie for your friends. After all--this was always party music!
Risks and challenges
We've been working hard to get everything ready--optimistic that enough music lovers will support our project to make it happen. We've worked on arrangements, looked into rights to the songs, and so on. But, of course, things could slow us down. There could be a March snow storm in North Carolina (rare--but it's happened!). Mixing and producing the CDs could take longer than we've planned. But we're confident that if we get the funding we can get the CDs out by this summer.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (34 days)