A case of Cotton Field Blues

By Mike Greenblatt

Image courtesy Blues Images

Image courtesy Blues Images

When singer-songwriter Garfield Akers stepped into the lobby of the iconic Peabody Hotel on Second and Union in Memphis, Tennessee with his friend and guitarist Joe Callicott, he must have looked around at the flat-out opulence of the new structure. Gorgeous … just gorgeous. It was September 23, 1929. The hotel had been rebuilt and revamped from its original 1869 corner of Main and Monroe into one of the finest establishments in the South. It still stands today and is known for its honky-tonk piano player in the lobby. Back then, the ducks in the lobby fountain were still four years away.

Vocalion Records used to record its blues artists there. This two-sided masterpiece, “Cotton Field Blues Part #1 and Part #2,” with both guitarists playing in perfect sync with each other with Akers wailing on vocals, has since been notated as one of the greatest pre-war blues songs ever recorded!

“I said looka here mama, wonderin’ what are you tryin’ to do?

You’re gonna make me love you but you gonna break my heart in two!

I’d rather see you dead, mama, buried in some cypress grove/

Lord my baby quit me, she done set my trunk outdoors.”

     

     The song leads off the 2017 Blues Images calendar CD on an upbeat note and sets the scene for 23 historic blues classics culled from the dustbin of time into vital life, free of most of its crackles and hisses due to newfound sound technology. Rare blues archeologist John Tefteller loves to ferret out such nuggets of pure gold. He goes so far as to rescue original artwork from promotional pictures and advertisements of the era, oftentimes having to actually scour garbage bins in his effort to do so. The ad contained as the January graphic was purchased in Boston last year. The track puts together both sides of the original 78 r.p.m. record. Eighty-seven years later, the voice of Garfield Akers still sounds strong and soulful, due to the work of Tefteller and his crew of sound scientists.

     Garfield Akers (1901-1959) worked as a Mississippi sharecropper for most of his younger years in the small town of Hernando even after he discovered music and went on the road as part of a medicine show. He traveled on dusty roads selling cure-alls (mostly straight alcohol) while members of the troop danced, sang and joked their way across the south. Try as he might, Tefteller could not find any photographs of Akers. It’s amazing he even found this record! Although heralded as one of the all-time records of that era, Tefteller says, “there’s not too many of these original 78s left and should you find one in decent shape, it should cost you upwards of $10,000.”

     “Mississippi” Joe Callicott (1899-1969) made most of his important sides for Arhoolie Records but, as a sideman, played for cash on the records of a lot of fellow blues travelers. He also started in medicine shows (that’s where he met Akers). His “Love Me Baby Blues” was covered by Ry Cooder. Another one of his biggest fans, John Fogerty, helped pay for his gravestone (his original gravestone just said “Joe” and it has since been donated to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Some of his other hits include “Great Long Ways From Home,” “Hoist Your Window And Let Your Curtain Down” and “Fare Thee Well Blues.” Joe kept right on performing almost to the day he died. His last album, “Presenting The Country Blues,” was released by Blue Horizon in 1969. A posthumous project, “Deal Gone Down,” was released by Revival Records in 1970.

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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