By Mike Greenblatt
‘Snatch It Back Blues’ starts with a little parlor room chat, like an old friend saying hello. Upon breaking into song, Walter “Buddy Boy” Hawkins gets super soulful while pickin’ some solid acoustic guitar. When he asks his “mama” where she stayed last night, his emphasis on the word “mama” rings with regret and pain, an emotional high point of the vocal.
Nobody knows much about this mysterious singer for whom the blues were deep and stark.They say he came out of either Alabama or Mississippi. Historical listings spell his nickname as “Buddy Boy,” but at least one record advertisement spells it “Buddie Boy.” Even AllMusic.com cannot produce dates for his birth and death, and “Blues Who’s Who” doesn’t even have an entry for him. It is speculated Hawkins rode the rails like the itinerant hobos of his 1920s era. It is also speculated he may have been a medicine show ventriloquist. Whatever and whoever he was, his intricate guitar playing and his emotional vocal moan are a visceral gut punch that still stands supreme today, nearly 90 years later. His talents seem overwhelming, cutting through the primitive recording techniques of the day like a knife through hot butter.
The very first type of recording process — for the phonograph or gramophone — was developed by Thomas Edison in 1877. A large horn was set up in a studio, the artist would sing into the horn, and the sound would be cut to a wax master and pressed on cheap shellac. That initial sound system came complete with a “hollow” sound that was only made obsolete with the invention of the electrical microphone. Big Joe Turner once sang, “like a Mississippi bullfrog sittin’ on a hollow log.” Well, if you stuck your head inside that hollow log, that’s what some of these early blues sounded like. You can hear the vocals and guitar, but what sounds like an ever-present surface noise almost obliterates the action. That was the system in place when Hawkins recorded Paramount 12475.
“They called that pre-microphone recording technique ‘acoustic’ at the time,” explains John Tefteller of Tefteller’s Rarest Records. “That hollow sound you have to contend with when listening is like the difference today of just putting a cheap tape recorder in front of the TV instead of having an input jack. The result doesn’t have a lot of presence or dynamic range. Back then, if they did it with just the right-sized horn, and just the right room acoustics, it didn’t sound too bad but ...
“All of the singers who recorded this way realized or were told that in order to get their message across with the proper inflections, tones in their voices and emphasis on the words, they had to be very careful and very good, because if they were at all sloppy, it just wouldn’t come across,” he continues. “What you’re hearing on ‘Snatch It Back Blues’ is Hawkins trying to overcompensate to get his point across, resulting in a truly great effort! Microphones had been invented and were in use already by bigger labels like Columbia, but not Paramount yet.”
The few records Hawkins made usually do not bring in anywhere near the $3,000 Tefteller paid for this one, “except when they turn up in Mint condition,” he explains. “With those early prewar records, ‘Mint’ is key. It’s almost impossible to get them in ‘store-stock’ Mint shape, having never been played, or only played once or twice. So when they do turn up like that, they tend to go for a real premium like $3,000. Normal price for a Hawkins record in used condition is somewhere between $500 and $1,500, depending upon how used it is.”
Getting through that hollow sound of pre-microphone recording techniques to ferret out the nuggets of blues brilliance is like mining for gold. On “Snatch It Back Blues,” Hawkins sings it for all he’s worth, as if his very life depends upon it. And boy, can he play some guitar! So don’t let that hollow log scare you. Crawl up into this acoustic relic, and you’ll be amply rewarded. GM