Document Records - Vintage Blues and Jazz

From The Attic

The following article first appeared in the May / June 1960 edition (Vol 1 No. 3) of the British music magazine Eureka.

COUNTRY BLUES IN LOS ANGELES
by Grayson Mills

JOHN HOGG, in who`s heart still dwells the country blues picks up extra money playing urban blues, but sings in the field cry manner for his own enjoyment.

Chris Strachwitz took this picture during a recording session held in John`s kitchen. The harmonica player is Harvey Blackstone, 32 year old devotee of Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf. In the background is John`s wife, Pearline.

There were a lot of things which bugged John Hogg during his final days in Texas — things which caused him to learn the blues of another place, Denver, Colorado, in 1942. The memory of them burned inextinguishably until 1948 when he could expunge his feelings in recorded, poetical revenge:

West Texas, West Texas,
Out on that Cadrock Plain, Yes, (repeat)
I fled West Texas, people,
Where I lost everythain`.

He had had his woman stolen by a mean, evil "Black Snake", (to whom he gives the works on the reverse side) lost all his money, and even "laid down that night" and tried his "best to die":

Goodbye, farewell West Texas,
I won`t be back there no more.(repeat)
Well, I`m so worried and blue,
"Cause I can`t find my long,
tall woman anymore.

John Hogg is Smokey`s cousin. His "West Texas Blues" and "Black Snake Blues" (Octive 706) stand in retrospect like erect ruins amidst the repetitive squalor and din of most Post-War Blues records. It was a record that could have been out in the 1920`s but instead it was a throwback, or rather, a holdover. His phrasing and adjunctives were played on an amplified guitar, but they were purely and simply West Texas stylisations.

In California, making a living from the country blues styles is at best an unconscionable prospectus. Hogg had to contemporise; after having taken lessons from Tiny Webb, he has spent the last eleven years going to weekend gigs with groups ranging from hillbilly to Jimmy Reed — style music, groups which are to be found here and there in nooks around Los Angeles.

The Octive sides caused Chris Strachwitz, the well known blues scholar and this writer to have the notion to seek him out for an interview, and if possible, to record him. We knew damned well that if he still played professionally he didn`t play BLind Lemon Jefferson style anymore. But we hoped he still had it in him. We found out Thursday evening, April 14, that he did, though he was understandably rusty.

He wasn`t difficult to find. Chris got his address from the owner of Flash, a down-home and rhythm and blues label and arranged to drive down and meet him at his West 66th Street home on Wednesday. His wife, a vivacious and beautiful woman, told us he was due home from work any minute, and invited us in. She had a way, as it turned out, of bringing the best out of John, egging him on as he was demonstrating his old way of playing, with words like, "That ain`t the way you used to play, John! Play it like Smokey, that`ll bring it back to you." He would respond with a brilliant run. It was a delightful spectacle.

She was quite exuberant when we explained our purpose in coming. Some fifteen minutes later John strode in, lunch pail in hand, dressed in the spotless sweatshirt he wears on his job with the Water Department, where he`s worked since 1953. Hogg is a tremendously large man, very good looking and talks with a sprite eagerness. He is
instantly likeable.

He had no knowledge of the current, almost rapacious, interest in the older blues styles. "That`s wonderful news," he grinned, "I didn`t want that great, old music to die". Hesitantly, he was broached on the subject of whether he could still sing and play like he used to. "Sure," he said. The prospect of recording filled him with intense excitement.

John was brought up and lived twenty eight of his forty eight years in Greenville, outside of two which he spent in Oklahoma (1931-1932) as a bronco—buster with a rodeo: "Those horses was tough to ride, but I laid with them long way. I was bucked off one time out of my two years of riding." He worked with his father, M.T. Hogg, on the latter’s farm, laboured on another and then took a job as a porter with Wooded Chevrolet in Greenville. In 1939 he moved to Dallas. There were nine children born to Mary and M.T. Hogg: Curtis, Henry,Lonnie, Grover, John, Janie, Nannie, Lola Mae and Alberta, all of whom live in Los Angeles except for Lonnie, who is in Houston.

John absorbed the intensity of the personal style that is associated with the sequestered, poorly endowed farming country of Texas: its music was also its way of life. While he retained much that he had heard from men like Texas Alexander ( Document MBCD-2001, MBCD-2002), Blind Lemon (Document DOCD-5017, DOCD-5018, DOCD-5019, DOCD-5020 and the others, he did not play professionally until he came to California, in 1942: "I never gave myself time, I guess. I bought my first guitar for fourteen dollars right here in L.A. It was a standard guitar and I gave it to Smokey later when I bought an electric one."

Asked if Smokey ever got on him for changing over to the contemporary blues styles, he said, "No, actually, I tried to get Smokey to teach me that style. Bat Smokey never would, so I had to go along and try to learn it the hard way. After I learned it pretty good, I guess, along came this guy Big Tiny Webb. They had different feelings, you know, and after I got started with him, what he was teachin’ me didn`t sound right cause I was used to my down-home style."

His idol has always been the legendary Black Ace (DOCD-5143), whom he used to watch at picnics, country dances and what—not with utter fascination: "Black Ace was the first guy. I used to run around with him. Funny thing, when I left Dallas for Denver in 1942, I caught up with Black Ace. He was going out to West Texas to play dances. I caught up with, him and we had a nice long talk." Hogg didn’t care for Denver. Later he sang an exposition of its incorrigibilities on an un-issued record, "Denver Blues", the dub of which he spun for us, and which there was no opportunity to transcribe — but it was a brilliant work.

"Lemon, Blind Blake (Document DOCD-5024, DOCD-5025, DOCD-5026, DOCD-5027) Texas Alexander, those were my favourite guys," he said, "and you should have heard Lemon`s nephew, Mouse Jefferson. He was tremendous. I think he was maybe even better than Lemon." Was he blind? "No, but he had kind of big, blood shottin` eyes...he was younger. He might still be there. I`m goin’ down there on vacation this summer, I`ll try to look him up. He was asked how those men made themselves heard, playing at outdoor affairs and dances without amplification. What he disclosed was completely new, so far as this writer knows: "If you ever could get a hold` of rattlesnake rattles, he would put them in the guitar...it really brings the sound out. When you hit down on it, it sounds about as loud again." Smokey, he told us, still uses this device.

John also heard the records. "Leroy Carr was a favourite," (Document DOCD-5134, DOCD-5135, DOCD-5136, DOCD-5137, DOCD-5138, DOCD-5139, BDCD-6045, CBL-200039 he reflected, "and Blind Blake - boy, he sure played a mess of guitar. But you know who really knocked me out? Peatie Wheatstraw." (Document DOCD-5241, DOCD-5242, DOCD-5243, DOCD-5244, DOCD-5245, DOCD-5246, DOCD-5247,) The St.Louis singer`s sensitive moments had a great influence on John`s approach, as we discovered at the recording session the following evening.
John`s theory is similitudinous with many fine, creative blues artists: "You’ve got to make up the words as you go along. It`s got to come from the heart." He is a ceaseless creator of poetry about his own experience, nothing ever coming out quite the same way in any version of a particular tune, either his own or someone else`s.

Around 1947 Mercury records was on a blues kick, trying to get in on a highly disorganised and thoroughly exploited mania. Lightnin` Hopkins (Document DOCD-5609) recorded for them. So did Smokey Hogg and the early 1950s sax sensation, Joe Houston. It wasn`t a particularly happy collection but there were some good moments - Houston`s "Hard Time Baby Blues" (Mercury 8248), to cite one. John accompanied Smokey and cut one himself for them - "Got A Mean Woman" and "Kind Hearted BLues" (Mercury 8230). It was typical of the Tiny Webb or Pee Wee Crayton material of the time, from which Hogg intelligently borrowed as part of his modernisation campaign.

He is proud of the fact that he penned a hit, Floyd Dixon’s "Broken Hearted", in 1949. It was about the best thing Floyd ever cut. There is no telling how many records on which one may find John as an accompanist but he recalls several. It was at a Mercury session that a man named Amos (Hogg couldn`t recall his last name) approached him about recording for his Ootive label, asking him to record some down home blues. To John this meant the Country Blues, West Texas style.
John complied. He recorded at least three eximious blues, "Black Snake", "West Texas Blues" and "Worryin’ Blues". His wife, about whom he sings a warm adulation, "Sweet Little Pearline Blues", made him stop singing "Black Snake Blues" a long time ago. "I didn`t want him," she laughed, "singing about that other woman." Octive was never able to pay John, anything. Indeed, there were only 100 copies pressed, a fact which exposed, together with the quality of the music, should make Hogg`s records sought after collector`s items.

There are undoubtedly other John Hoggs around, maybe even in Walla Walla or Dulith, living, sometimes singing, anonymously here and there in the atomistic atmosphere of urban Americana.

 

 

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