William Henry “Papa Charlie” Jackson

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No wonder they all fall for him! He’s just a red hot papa in a class by himself and it takes a cop or two to hold the mamas back when he struts down the avenue. Papa Charlie sure knows how to sing this kind of Blues.

Papa Charlie Jackson (November 10, 1887 – May 7, 1938) was an early American bluesman and songster who accompanied himself with a banjo guitar, a guitar, or a ukulele. His recording career began in 1924. Much of his life remains a mystery, but his draft card lists his birthplace as New Orleans, Louisiana, and his death certificate states that he died in Chicago, Illinois, on May 7, 1938.

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He played a 4 string banjo like jazz and minstrel musicians and a 5 string banjo like few other Bluesmen, but he preferred the 6 string banjo. Papa Charlie was the only musician to play a 6 string banjo, which was tuned and fretted like a guitar, although its sound was much lighter. He did not play in the bluegrass clawhammer or jazz flat picking styles. Instead, he used a combination of 2 fingered picking and single strumming with free and very quick rhythms played with his thumb.

According to the blues writer Bruce Eder, Jackson achieved “a musical peak of sorts in September of 1929 when he got to record with his longtime idol, Blind Arthur Blake, often known as the king of ragtime guitar during this period. ‘Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It’ parts one and two are among the most unusual sides of the late ’20s, containing elements of blues jam session, hokum recording, and ragtime.” A few more recordings for the Paramount label followed in 1929 and 1930. In 1934 Jackson recorded for Okeh Records, and the following year he recorded with Big Bill Broonzy. Altogether, Jackson recorded 66 sides during his career.

t5951056-b982504527_s400A fine collection of his music is Why Do You Moan When You Can Shake That Thing?  This 4CD box contains not only Papa Charlie Jackson but also music by Bo Weavil Jackson.

One of the interesting facts to emerge from putting Papa Charlie Jackson and Bo Weavil Jackson together in a CD set, is the obvious different approaches they applied to the recently-arrived phenomenon – the country or rural blues.  Both artists were growing up in the South when the Blues were relatively young.  Still, there would seem to be little commonality between William Henry and James Jackson – presumed to be their respective given names. Apart from sharing a (very common) surname and both coming from an earlier generation of singers, of the 19th. Century.  A further instance may be cited insofar they both accompanied themselves on stringed instruments.

jacksonbDifficult to know for sure but it is likely that the poor quality of Paramount’s original recording of sessions in the 1920s and early 1930s have, to date, limited the interest in, and capacity for, compilers to re-present these recordings favourably. Also, as a musician that learnt his craft in travelling shows and vaudeville revues before blues became a recognised musical form, his recordings incorporate a diverse array of styles that do not comfortably fit into any accepted orthodoxy of what is considered to be blues. His preferred use of a customised banjo as musical support only re-inforces the potential to consider his music as something other than blues.

Jackson’s style as a soloist was unique and sophisticated for the period. It ran the gamut from hot chordal solos and single-note plectrum runs a la Lonnie Johnson or Eddie Lang, to the finger picking styles of the rural blues guitarist. He often used fast chordal runs behind his vocals following the melody closely, which gave his songs more bounce and swing. Due to his early death Jackson seems to have fallen through the cracks and is all but forgotten today by critics and historians.

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