Out of Black and White

October 12, 2009

titanic5Frank Hutchinson (1897-1945) was an early folk recording artist.  He was almost certainly the first white artist to record what we now recognize as country blues, playing a mean bottleneck slide on traditional blues material.  He also played some tunes in a “whiter” folk-country style.  After giving up mining, for a period of about five years in the mid-to-late 1920s he made his living as a musician, but the Great Depression ended his recording career.  His later gigs ranged from small-town postmaster to riverboat entertainer.  Alcohol eventually caught up to him, and he died in Dayton Hospital in 1945, of either cancer or liver disease.

The varied nature of his work, I believe, bolsters the assertion that the racial categories in early recorded music are largely a creation of record companies seeking to classify music in order to sell it.  Listen to the difference between the two tunes below.

The Chevrolet Six – Frank Hutchinson (1929) Archive.org link here

This sure sounds to me like Woody Guthrie, with some fancy octave work emphasizing the “ha ha ha” lick.  The subject-matter (fast Chevys for moonshiners outrunning revenuers) and style are firmly in the white country tradition.

The Last Scene of the Titanic – Frank Hutchinson (1927) Archive.org link here

This is very bluesy – the main lick recalls Blind Willie McTell’s Travellin’ Blues.  While the disaster song ballad tradition was strong in both country (Wreck of the Old 97) and blues, the Titanic was  particularly dear to the black experience.  Jim Crow laws prevented black passengers from that fated ship, and there was a general feeling that divine retribution had been enacted as a result.  The great blog Old Weird America has a lovely overview of Titanic songs, black and white, as well more info on Frank Hutchison.


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