Tuesday, January 14, 2020
Hokum blues was a humorous type blues song that uses extended analogies or euphemistic terms to make sexual innuendos. It goes back to early blues recordings and is used from time to time in modern American blues and blues rock. An example of hokum lyrics is this sample from "Meat Balls", by Lil Johnson, recorded about 1937:
Got out late last night, in the rain and sleet
Tryin' to find a butcher that grind my meat
Yes I'm lookin' for a butcher
He must be long and tall If he want to grind my meat
'Cause I'm wild about my meat balls.
One popular hokum blues artist was Washboard Sam who recorded hundreds of records in the late '30s and '40s, usually with his brother singer/guitarist Big Bill Broonzy.
There were a lot of washboard players at the time, but Washboard Sam was the most popular because of his skills on the washboard talent, his a songwriting skills as well as his voice. Besides Broonzy, he also accompanied bluesmen like Bukka White, Memphis Slim, Willie Lacey, and Jazz Gillum.
Born Robert Clifford Brown on July 15, 1910, Washboard Sam was the illegitimate son of Frank Broonzy, who also fathered Big Bill Broonzy. Sam was raised in Arkansas and worked on a farm and moved to Memphis in the early '20s to play the blues.
While in Memphis, he met Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon and the trio played street corners, collecting tips from passers-by. In 1932, Sam moved to Chicago where he played for tips, but soon he began performing regularly with Big Bill Broonzy.
Within a few years, Sam was supporting Broonzy on Bluebird recordings, and he began supporting a number of different musicians on their recording sessions, including pianist Memphis Slim, bassist Ransom Knowlin, and a handful of saxophone players, who all recorded for Bluebird.
In 1935, Washboard Sam began recording for both Bluebird and Vocalion Records, often supported by his brother. Throughout the '30s and '40s, Sam was one of the most popular Chicago bluesmen, selling numerous records and playing to packed audiences.
After World War II, his audience began to shrink, largely because he had difficulty adapting to the new electric blues. In 1953, he recorded a session for Chess Records and then retired.
In the early '60s, two of his old recording artist friends tried to persuade him to return to the stage to capitalize on the blues revival. Initially, he refused, but in 1963, he began performing concerts in clubs and coffee houses in Chicago. He also played a few dates in Europe in early 1964 and that year made his final recordings for the small Chicago-based Spivey label.
The year 1965 saw his health quickly declined and he stopped recording and playing shows. On November 6, 1966, he died at the age of 56 of heart disease and, sadly, was buried in an unmarked grave at the Washington Memory Gardens Cemetery, in Homewood, Illinois.
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Washboard Sam among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.
On September 18, 2009, at the Howmet Playhouse Theater in Whitehall, Michigan, executive producer Steve Salter, of the Killer Blues organization, a concert was held to raise money for a headstone for Washboard Sam's grave. A headstone was placed in October 2009.
Note: Washboard Sam recorded two versions on Momma Don't Allow: Lyrics 1 and Lyrics 2.