What do Jesus, an airplane and Mother McCollum have in common?

By Mike Greenblatt

She was billed as “Sanctified Singer with Guitar.” And, man, she’s one hard-rockin’ mother. Well, Mother McCollum, that is. McCollum’s soulful vocals and  nimble guitar picking (with a uncredited band whose members names are forever lost to the shifting sands of time) are the highlights this rare and rockin’ little record paying homage to the Lord.

“Jesus is my air-o-plane, He holds this world in his hands/
 He rides all along, He don’t never fail/
 Some of these mornings, four o’clock/
 This ole world’s gonna reel and rock/
 You can run to the east, run to the west/
 Some of these mornings, He’s coming again/
 Coming through in an air-o-plane …”

It was June of 1930 when Mother McCollum stepped into the recording studio of Vocalion Records in Chicago and laid down this stompin’ masterpiece of sanctified soul. But while Vocalion 1616 may be classified as gospel, the line separating it from the blues is very, very thin.

Mother McCollum photo courtesy of Blues ImagesThis record—beautifully restored by Richard Nevins—is as lowdown as the most lowdown blues, despite its heavenly subject matter. Point is, it’s a blistering track that puts McCollum’s guitar and vocals in the spotlight.

Unfortunately, the record does little to shed any light on the background of this mysterious Mississippi blueswoman.

Nothing is known about her. Nothing! It’s as if she materialized, fully-formed, in the recording studio that day, belted out the kind of blues that makes a listener’s  jaw drop in appreciation, and then stole away into the night — no forwarding address, never to be heard from again.

There are only six known sides recorded by Mother McCollum. They are all exceedingly rare, highly sought and pretty much impossible to find. And if you do find one of Mother’s records, you should expect to spend thousands of dollars, according to John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records. And, in rare turn of events, Tefteller doesn’t own any of McCollum’s records.

“I don’t even own any of the six,” he continues. “I would love to buy one! I borrowed “Jesus Is My Air-O-Plane” from [Blues Images sound man] Richard Nevins, who has the Vocalion file copies.”

Oddly, there are no known sales of the record. Tefteller adds. “The three or four copies that may still exist were all found years ago and are owned by people who have had them for years and years,” he says.

But an even bigger mystery is the riddle of McCollum’s identity, which many music buffs and historians (Tefteller included) have long pondered. He thinks she could have ties to other blues performers.

“She just may be the mother of [blues singer] Robert Nighthawk [1909-1967],” Tefteller says. They’re both from Mississippi, he says. Nighthawk’s real name is Robert Lee McCollum, Tefteller says, and he is known to be the father of Sam Carr, aka Samuel Lee McCollum. So that would make Mother McCollum the grandmother of musician Sam Carr [1926-2009].

While Tefteller is quick to point out that no official lineage has been traced, the prospect that more could be discovered about Mother McCollum is exciting nonetheless.

“Somebody would have to go into ancestry.com to hunt this down. It wouldn’t be easy, but it could be done.” Tefteller said. “A reader of one of our calendars over at Blues Images alerted me to the fact that the picture we used of Mother McCollum looked facially like Robert Nighthawk. ‘I bet that’s his mother,’ the reader wrote. Could be. Maybe one of your Goldmine readers could do the detective work and figure it out once and for all. The handful of people on the planet who know who Mother McCollum was or is — that information might be worth something to them. The rest of the people on the planet could care less, since no one’s ever heard of her.” GM

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