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There's nothing like unemployment to bring on the blues

If not for the repeal of Prohibition, America might never have discovered the soulful voice, risque lyrics and killer slide guitar of Kokomo Arnold.

By Mike Greenblatt

In Kokomo Arnold's "Sissy Man Blues," the musician asks the Lord for a woman because he “woke up this morning with my pork grinding business in my hand.” Then, in what must have been a major concession, he downgrades his request: “Lord, if you can’t send me no woman, send me some sissy man!”

The year was 1935, and “Sissy Man Blues” (Decca 7050) sold like hotcakes. But for reasons that probably had to do with its lyrical content, “Sissy Man Blues” is one of the more obscure Kokomo Arnold records.

Kokomo Arnold Sissy Man Blues ad

Copies of "Sissy Man Blues" (Decca 7050) can bring up to $500 in really nice condition, says John Tefteller of Tefteller's World's Rarest Records. Photo courtesy Blues Images.

“Most people don’t know it, but it’s a great record,” says John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records. “All his records have that real heavy-duty guitar sound, and they all have real interesting lyrics.”

The record itself “is not that rare. The problem you have is finding one in nice shape,” Tefteller adds. “I see it on eBay every now and again, used, for $50 to $100. A really nice one might be $500.”

Born James Arnold on Feb. 15, 1901, in Lovejoys Station, Ga., the musician was blessed with a soulful voice and played a mean slide guitar. He got his start in Buffalo, N.Y., in the early 1920s — although bootlegging took up far more of his time than the blues did. He later headed to Mississippi, then turned up in the Victor studio in 1930.

“His very first record for Victor was under the name of Gitfiddle Jim,” Tefteller says, adding that the Victor recording is one of big rarities in Arnold’s catalog. “Then he kinda disappeared for a year or two, until he signed with Decca.”

Arnold had moved to Chicago for the bootlegging career opportunities the Windy City held. By 1934, Prohibition was repealed, and Arnold needed a new job. He changed his professional name to Kokomo, which also was a popular coffee brand, and revamped guitarist Scrapper Blackwell’s 1928 tune “Kokomo” into “Old Original Kokomo Blues,” which was paired with “Milk Cow Blues” on Decca 7026 and became a monster hit.

Kokomo Arnold Milk Cow Blues Decca 7026

Interestingly enough, bluesman Robert Johnson drew on both sides of Decca 7026; “Old Original Kokomo Blues” morphed into “Sweet Home Chicago,” and “Milk Cow Blues” turned into “Milkcow’s Calf Blues.” But that’s another story.

Between 1934 and 1938, Arnold recorded 88 Decca sides and became one of the top blues stars of the day, along with the likes of Bumblebee Slim and Peetie Wheatstraw, whom he sometimes joined in the studio.
“He did all kinds of fun records, made a whole lot of ’em, and they seem to turn up frequently,” Tefteller said.

In 1938, Arnold quit music in favor of factory work. Rediscovered during the folk and blues boom of the 1960s, Arnold wanted no part of resurrecting his music career.
“He was working when [blues researchers] found him and said, ‘We want to re-record you. We want to put you back on record and back playing dates for tours.’ And he said something to the effect of, ‘Man, I did that 30 years ago! Didn’t really enjoy it then, and I’m certainly not going to do it now. Leave me alone.’”

Arnold’s singular brand of bottleneck slide guitar and adventurous lyrics died with him. On Nov. 8, 1968, he suffered a fatal heart attack in Chicago. He was 67.