By Mike Greenblatt
Papa Charlie Jackson sure knew how to put on a good show. Whether he was part of a traveling medicine show (where singers and dancers would perform in rural towns so the master of ceremonies could sell homemade cold remedies, which were usually just alcohol), a minstrel show (where even blacks would don black-face paint to exaggerate their ethnicity) or busking outside Chicago’s famous Maxwell Street Market (still there, but in a different location), Jackson’s antics, humor and unusual choice of instrument combined to stop passersby in their tracks.
Jackson frequently played a hybrid banjo-guitar — a six-stringed instrument with the body of a banjo but the tuning of a guitar — as well as guitar and ukulele. And his stock in trade were the kind of good-timey rags and hollers that were rife with risqué references.
Although Jackson is widely believed to be the first bluesman to ever record his music — his sessions date back to 1924 — he remains quite mysterious for someone so influential in the history of the blues. Historians believe Jackson was born in 1887 New Orleans and postulate that he died May 7, 1938, in Chicago. “Let’s Get Along,” recorded in 1926 Chicago for Paramount, finds Jackson laying down the law to his woman, who has been flirting with another man.
“I’m tired of all this storm and strife
I ain’t gonna put up with it all my life
Now don’t be haughty don’t be no fool
Act like a woman and not like a mule
Now the jail’s all full and the graveyards, too,
Of aggravating women just like you …”
It’s a jaunty blues tune with a ragtime feel and incredible sound quality for being recorded in the acoustic age. Jackson accompanies himself on banjo and his voice is filled with soulful expression, not anger. But the song is not his most famous recording. That honor goes to “Salty Dog Blues,” a turn-of-the-century folk song residing in the public domain, recorded by musicians of all genres including country, bluegrass, blues, folk and jazz.
In 1925, Jackson hit his stride as he started a series of duets with popular female singers including Ida Cox, Ma Rainey and Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel of “Gone With The Wind” fame.
In 1929, Jackson recorded with Blind Blake. At that time, bawdy sex lyrics — although oftentimes disguised — were the rage. These upbeat, danceable tunes were known as “hokum,” which got people laughing, dancing and blushing simultaneously. But as the 1930s started, Jackson disappeared from the recording studio for five years. What it was, we’ll never know. During this time of studio silence, he continued to perform on street corners for pocket change.
“He did all kinds of different songs,” said John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records. “When you’re singing on the street, straight blues isn’t going to bring in much money, so he concentrated on bouncy novelty songs with clever lyrics … like ‘Dentist Chair Blues’ with Hattie McDaniel, where the woman is sitting in the dentist chair. He’s the dentist, and it’s filled with double-entendre, like when he tells her to ‘Open wide, here comes the drill,’ and other like-minded niceties.”
In 1934, Jackson teamed up with his friend Big Bill Broonzy to record on the Okeh label, but the sides were never released. Broonzy, who outlived Papa by 20 years, was said to take on much of Jackson’s musical style after his friend died.
“Papa’s records don’t sell for a whole lot,” Tefteller said. “They will go anywhere from $50 for a fairly well used one to almost $1,000 if it’s in pristine shape. ‘Let’s Get Along’ is not so rare, but it might be hard to find a clean one in mint condition.” GM