Buying Rare Race Records in the South

By Gayle Dean Wardlow


INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS BY TIM GRACYK: I am proud to add to my homepage this article originally written for VICTROLA AND 78 JOURNAL by my friend Gayle Dean Wardlow of Mississippi. It is copyrighted and may not be duplicated without permission. Wardlow is an acknowledged pioneer among blues collectors. He was the first researcher and writer to cover important details on the lives of Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Ishmon Bracey, King Solomon Hill, and others. He owns one of the most complete collections of Paramount race sides and has made that collection available to companies that reissue Delta blues recordings.


Book of Blue

I did not begin as a collector of race records. In 1954 I was collecting Roy Acuff records. After going to jukebox companies to find Acuff records, I started buying Bob Wills 78s of the 1930s along with other western swing artists that I liked. I still remember finding a Mr. Freddie Okeh performing "Milk Cow Blues" (Okeh 8422) in the collection of an in-law. It was one of those rare race records bought by whites.

Will Roy Hearne, a jazz dealer from Los Angeles, told me I could "get a whole box full" of Acuff discs if I could offer some rare jazz items. One afternoon in March of 1961, I had an idea. Did any of the "colored" people near me have old records still? I say "colored" here since that is language typical at the time.

I walked three blocks down the hill to the "colored" section of town and picked out a row of houses. I went to the first one, knocked on the door, and said, "Anyone home? Can you hear me?" The door was opened by an elderly woman.

I said, "I buy old records--you know, them old blues records. Do you have any?"

She replied, "Lord, no, child! We threw 'em away years ago. But we used to have one of those old windup machines."

I kept knocking. After about ten houses on two streets, I spotted an old, decrepit shack with flower pots on the porch. I knocked and said, "Anyone home?" An old woman, about 80, came to the door, we talked, and she went back inside while I waited anxiously on the porch. I never asked to come into houses. I assumed that old people felt safer if strangers stayed on the porch, especially whites. I only entered if invited. I recall that sometimes people would invite me in by saying, "You can come look at 'em. I can't bend down that low to get 'em out of the Victrola."

This woman brought two discs out to the porch. "I found a couple," she said, modestly. "They ain't no good to me."

I looked and was surprised. One of the two records was a red label 16,000 Champion, the only time I found a Champion in Mississippi. This was #16058 by Alberta Jones, issued as Bessie Sanders and the Memphis Red Peppers. It was in E- condition. The other was a Bertha "Chippie" Hill Okeh disc, "Mess, Katie, Mess" (8437), with Louis Armstrong on cornet and Richard Jones on piano.

I concluded that here was a new and potentially easy way to find records. I enjoyed that day what turned out to be a case of beginner's luck. I soon learned that one could canvass all day and find nothing.

All that spring I knocked on doors, spending from one to three hours looking. I refined my sales approach to these words: "I buy old Victrola records--you know, them old blues records by Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon, Leroy Carr. All them old blues singers." I had learned that old people used the term "Victrola records" though sometimes they called them "Grafonola records." They remembered Bessie and Blind Lemon better than other artists.

I usually paid a quarter for each record--sometimes less, sometimes 50 cents. Normally I mentioned my price range as I made my initial inquiry. If I saw something especially desirable, I offered a dollar to be sure to get it. Selling records at the door to a white man must have struck some as unusual. Occasionally they asked if I was planning to reissue them--"You gonna make them over again?" My standard reply: "I play guitar and piano. I want to learn these old blues myself. It's illegal to put them out again."

Condition varied, with a disappointing number in G to V condition. I came across many Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leroy Carr discs that had been played until the surface was gray. Paramounts were often cracked all the way to the label. Columbias and Okehs struck me as more durable than other discs.

I learned from experience that women had the records. Men moved around more, and they did not take records when they moved.

I had the best luck with older women who had flower pots on the porch, so I learned to look for flower pots. The pots indicated that someone had lived at one location for a long time. Records were often in these homes.

Within a year I had found some choice items, including a Hattie Burleson disc from 1928 (Brunswick 7042), Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Going Down" (Vocalion 03445), and Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues" (Vocalion 04108). I bought this last one within a mile of my own home. But the prize was Mattie Delaney doing "Tallahatchie River Blues" (Vocalion 1480), a song that refers to a river flood in the Delta. My copy of this 1930 disc was the only one known to surface. I learned this from New York collectors eager for me to trade it away.

Bessie Smith

I also discovered that women who were active church-goers only had sacred music, never blues or jazz records. I did buy gospel records that featured singing. I recall a prize item in the home of a religious woman. I had to go back twice to get this disc. It was the fabulous Rev. D.C. Rice doing "I'm Pressing On" (Vocalion 1289). Five years later I located Rice himself in Montgomery, Alabama, interviewed him, and published his story in Storyville.

Usually when I found religious records, they featured Rev. F.W. McGee or Rev. J.M. Gates. Gates was the top seller of religious records. I always left these behind.

On occasion I found discs of non-blues artists, such as Bert Williams, which were never as worn as later blues records. The white singer whose discs could be found most often in these homes was Jimmie Rodgers. His blue yodels were especially popular. I never found, say, a Caruso disc unless people hauled out 78s given to them by white employers.

Only twice did people admit that they had old records and then refuse to let me see them. Naturally, this aroused my curiosity, so I never forgot those houses. I stopped three different times at one house in the Delta. The other house was in Natchez on the Mississippi River. I wonder what ever happened to those records?

When I did find houses with blues records--about one house in every ten--I generally found Bessie or Clara Smith, and a Blind Lemon or Leroy Carr.

Certain records showed up often, including Leroy Carr's "How Long, How Long," Blind Lemon's "Black Snake Moan," Blind Lemon's "Electric Chair Blues/So That My Grave Is Kept Clean," Jim Jackson doing his "Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues." Bessie Smith's "Down Hearted Blues" was a huge seller.

I deduced that the old people then in their 60s or 70s had bought records mainly in the 1920s. I learned that their phonographs had been bought around 1923 or slightly later, perhaps up to 1927. The blues and jazz records would start from around 1921 and end by 1926 or 1927. People in a slightly younger age group had bought their machines and records from about 1926 to 1930.

Other records were from the late 1930s, starting from about 1937 and ending around 1942. Not surprisingly, records from the depths of the Depression, from around 1931 to 1934, did not pop up.

By 1962 I was working in Jackson for the Orkin Pest Company, and I knocked on doors at dinner time as my interest in country blues grew.

Blind Lemon's discs were common around Jackson. He cornered the market in that area, as far as the Paramount label goes! However, I learned that small towns were the best places for finding records, not bigger places like Jackson. In every small town at least one old person still had a Victrola. An exciting find was a Black Patti 8025, "The Jail House Blues" by Sam Collins. "I brought it back from Chicago," the old man said as I gave him a dollar for the prize.

One day I stopped in the little town of Edwards close to Charley Patton's birthplace and I found two Patton discs (12792 and 12909), which was exciting. At first Charley was hard for me to listen to because of the roughness of his style--both playing and singing--but New York collectors had asked if I had Pattons to sell, so I knew to look for these.

I canvassed for more than ten years and occasionally into the mid-1980s. But most of the records were gone by that time, ending up in junk stores, flea markets, or trash bins. By the mid-1980s the few records that turned up were not worth the effort in finding them.

I noticed interesting patterns. One day in 1967 I met in Alabama an old lady who had two Sam Collins Gennetts and ten Herwins, the best of which was 92001 by Alberta Jones with the Ellington Twins (Duke Ellington played piano on this 1926 disc). Later I learned that the Starr Piano Company had stores in Birmingham and Montgomery. Salesmen were sent to drug and furniture stores to convince store owners to carry Gennett discs. Herwins could be ordered from St. Louis. I found roughly a dozen different race Gennetts in west Alabama over a three year period.

One collector from Georgia who had begun canvassing in the late 1950s found both Blackbirds of Paradise discs, Gennett 6210 and 6211, in one home in Montgomery in 1967. The music had been recorded in Birmingham in 1927, but Montgomery was the band's hometown, so it made sense that the rare discs were in that city.

My best find was not from canvassing but from visiting a junk store in 1970. The man running the store acquired the records by going door to door. In that find were nine discs put out by Broadway, a label related to Paramount. All were broken except for a George "Bullet" Williams (5085). I found a Ma Rainey jug band record on Paramount 12804, a Paramount disc with Freezone on one side and Raymond Barrow on the other (12803), Vocalions by Garfield Akers (including "Dough Roller Blues," Vocalion 1481) and another copy of Mattie Delaney's Vocalion 1480.

Sometimes when I went knocking on doors, I tried to get information about the artists themselves. Asking about blues singers from Mississippi enabled me to locate Ishmon Bracey himself, who was then a preacher. This was in 1963. I located Johnnie Temple in 1965.

The 1930-32 Paramounts were never sold in Mississippi like they were in other states. The Mississippi distributor, the St. Louis Music Company, had closed its Memphis distribution center in May 1930. I acquired most of my Paramounts from the 1930-32 period by swapping. I once calculated that I had traded records with 49 different collectors since the early 1960s.

The most exciting find of all was a copy of Son House's "Dry Spell Blues," Paramount 12990--the only known surviving copy at that time. I found it in 1963 in Bayonne, Louisiana. At first I couldn't get the disc's owners to sell it to me. After a few months, I carried $25 for the record from New York collector Bernard Klatzko. Years later I got it back from him in a trade. It is my only Son House record. I am also happy to own eighteen records by Patton, six by Skip James (not one was found in Mississippi), a Willie Brown Paramount, and two Paramounts from 1930 of Louise Johnson. I have listened to my records carefully, and I have been happy to share what I have learned over the years with others interested in country blues.

I bought my Willie Brown disc, Paramount 13090, in the Louisiana Delta on a Saturday afternoon. I suspect a previous owner had dropped it at some point since it had been broken in half and taped back together with adhesive tape. Jim Cooprider repaired it for me. It was the first Willie Brown Paramount disc found. It had been kept in an old cheesebox under a bed. The woman who sold it to me owned other records that she had--for some reason--put on a chicken coop with a tin roof, and these were badly warped. Her copy of Paramount 13006 featuring Eurreal "Little Brother" Montgomery was too badly warped to be worth anything.

Through the years I taught other collectors to canvass, most notably Nick Perls, who came south in 1964 with Steve Calt. We went to Arkansas to canvass and used my car, which had Mississippi license plates. Using Perls' car, with its New York plates, would have brought trouble that summer in Mississippi due to civil rights workers being in the state to register voters. It was a tense summer, with three civil rights workers murdered 40 miles from my hometown. But we had no trouble in Arkansas knocking on doors.

Records were bought in patterns. I found one home near Jackson where a lady had nine Supertones in the rare 2200 series. These were taken from Vocalion masters, and the big sellers among these reissues were discs of Jim Jackson, Tampa Red teamed with Georgia Tom, and Leroy Carr. When the lady told me she had some Tommy Johnsons, I was thrilled at the chance of buying some incredibly rare blues 78s, but the records turned out to be Leroy Carr discs. She had confused the names since Carr was issued under the name Blues Johnson on Supertone. These Supertones reportedly came out in the fall of 1931.

Only one time did I encounter a threat of violence. In 1967 in Pensacola, Florida, a man who had been drinking threatened me with a butcher knife when I asked to see his mother's records. I left quietly and quickly. I did not buy any records there!

In one Mississippi town a local cop stopped me as I was buying records from an elderly woman. He asked what I was doing. These were tense days during the struggle for civil rights. When the woman told the officer that I was "just buying old records," he seemed satisfied that I wasn't trying to cheat her and he left.

The early 1960s were Golden Days for canvassing. Two men in Georgia--Jeff Tarrer of Macon and Max Tarpley of Augusta--started their "door knocking" about the same time or perhaps just before I did. The idea of knocking on doors for blues 78s has been satirized by cartoonist Robert Crumb.

Even today, when I pass a row of old houses, I wonder whether there could be old records still in the homes. By this time, the precious few that remain have been handed down to grandchildren. I am sorry to say it is dangerous to be in some black neighborhoods now. That was not a concern a few decades ago.

Virginia Quartet