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I'm Gonna Hang This Mandolin Under My Shoulder
(The Mandolin and The Blues)
by Max Haymes

This article was sparked off by a statement in "Discovering Bluegrass Music" (Rock 'n Reel No. II) which ran "On mandolin Bill Monroe himself added the blues to the sweeter style for which the instrument had till then been used". (1). This would have been in the 1940s. But the mandolin has a long-standing tradition in the world of the pre-war blues. (1902-1943).

The earliest reference I have come across so far, to the mandolin in connection with the blues (albeit an indirect one), is an observation by an ex-slave from the West African coast of Gambia who, whilst visiting the British Museum in 1837 pointed out "... the comical hat, the Fulah cloak and mandolin brought home from Africa by Clapperton, another British traveller". (2). Famous blues writer, Sam Charters noted that the Mandingo, Wollof and Fula were "the tribes that had been part of the wave of slaves taken to the United States".(3). The Fula were referred to as Fuli in the eighteenth century, Fulah in the nineteenth and only using the present spelling in the twentieth. 

In the U.S. at the turn of the present century, rural instrumentalists, both black and white, were influenced by city fashions, according to Norm Cohen: "Infiltrating the hills from the city were other strange instruments--" (4). Among the 'strange instruments were the guitar, harmonica--‑ and the mandolin. However, Seroff reports "Black mandolin societies and string orchestras were remarkably common in the North and South during the 1890's, there are numerous references to string band activity in the black community Press of that decade."(5). 

Although the blues on record started in 1920, it was not until 1924 when Willie Black was included on mandolin as part of Whistler And His Jug Band, from Louisville, Kentucky, in an ensemble role for a series of sides in September of that year. The only two tracks available for many years (but see end of article record list) were non-blues items, the highlight being a 'nose-whistle' on "Jerry O'Mine". However, Black was to show off his prowess on recordings the jug band made some 7 years later (sans nose-whistle) such as "Folding Bed" and "Hold That Tiger".

Whistler And His Jug Band from Louisville, Kentucky

But in May, 1926, an unknown mandolinist recorded for the Okeh label as the melodic part of the accompaniment, fronting a piano rhythm and an almost inaudible fiddle. The title was "Today Blues" by Cora Perkins, and constituted one half of her output. Unusual insofar as this appeared to be the only such example of the instrument in the hands of a St. Louis-based musician, it was thought at one time to be the work of the great Lonnie Johnson who was himself from St. Louis and a fine multi-instrumentalist. 

Almost a year later, Bobbie Leecan who was reputedly from the East Coast, recorded an instrumental "Apaloosa Blues" with his 'Need-More Band'. Alfred Martin's mandolin here taking a supportive role. This side was notable for its unique (in the blues) solo by an unknown 'cello player! Also, in 1927, Al Miller cut two tunes with a guitar and mandolin line-up where the latter was much more prominently featured. "I Found A Four-Leaf Clover/"Some­day Sweetheart" on the Black Patti label were both non-blues items but are more than compensated by the standard of playing -- especially the frenetic solo on "Clover". In 1929 with one ? Rodgers in the mandolin chair on the oddly-titled "Mister Mary Blues", Miller actually sings 'Mister Maree'**, some fine blues-playing is featured. 

[** Footnote: A contemporary of archetypal Delta bluesman, Charley Patton, by the name of Dick Bankston (b.I899; Crystal Springs, MS.) "learned guitar from Brown, Patton and Ben Maree, another blues singer living in Drew. Maree was born around 1881, but nothing further is known about his life". (6). Brown refers to Willie Brown who recorded in 1930 and played with Patton. Could this be the "Mister Maree" of Al Miller's blues?]

Back with the year 1927, in December, Texan Coley Jones played mandolin on the coupling "Dallas Rag"/"Sweet Mama Blues" As part of the Dallas String Band, which included another (unidentified) mandolinist. The band went on to record another half-dozen sides (unheard by me) of which 50% were blues, judging by the titles. The sound of the twin-mandolins on "Rag" has an in­credible urgency and drive while "Sweet Mama" is low-down and rich in blues feeling--both complemented perfectly by a 'brass bass' (probably a tuba) most probably played by Marco Washington. 

Nearly 8 months earlier, famous Memphis bluesman, Furry Lewis, put  out his first disc entitled "Everybody's Blues" with Charles Johnson's mandolin carrying the 'low-down' melody in front of Landers Waller's rather mechanical guitar rhythm. Staying in Tennessee, in October of the same year, the Memphis Jug Band, sans jug on this occasion, did a fine blues which included a vocal exchange between the leader, Son Brimmer (otherwise Will Shade) and his wife Jennie Clayton. All the while Vol Stevens weaves his mandolin skillfully and sympathetically between them and the rest of the band, which boasted on this recording, of one of the most restrained and delicate kazoo solos I've ever heard. "Beat it, Mr. Beater" Ms. Clayton urges Stevens, rather irreverently! 

At the beginning of February, 1928, the Memphis Jugs were back in the studio for Victor Records and cut a beautifully wistful "Evergreen Money Blues". Shade's sensitive vocal and guitar set the poignant atmosphere which Stevens extends as the blues pour out of his instrument. The jug, almost sensed rather than heard, practically merging into one sound with Shade's guitar. In Memphis, ten days later, guitarist Nap Hayes made "Prater Blues" with Matthew Prater on mandolin, being the third instrumental up for consideration. Hayes supplies a rock-steady rhythm while Prater picks expertly and plays the blues with a feeling--like it oughta! 

If many of the sides Al Miller recorded, using mandolin support, were of the hokum blues variety, with the advent on disc of Charlie McCoy, the listener is treated to as bluest' mandolin-playing as he/she is likely to hear. In the same month as the Prater/Hayes session, McCoy backed the great Tommy Johnson from Crystal Springs in central Mississippi, on some of the finest examples of rural/country blues including the breath-taking "Cool Drink Of Water Blues" which evokes the archaic field holler. It was on "Water" that the verse 'I asked for water, she gave me gasoline' was first recorded. McCoy actually used his guitar on this session but he plays some inspired and very sensitive 'mandolin-runs' inter-weaving with Johnson's guitar perfectly. On a technical note: "McCoy's guitar is played in the E position of standard tuning, capoed at the third fret. He often plays bass lines similar to the ones he used on "Bye Bye Blues", sometimes strumming them like a mandolin, then alternating them with mandolin-like treble passages."(7). Elsewhere, Evans notes that "He is using a flat pick..."(8). 

Some six months later, McCoy played yer actual mandolin behind Tommy Johnson's contemporary and closest friend Ishmon Bracey on his "Brown Mamma Blues". McCoy's busy treble-runs acting as a bitter-sweet contrast to Bracey's heavy, slightly nasal vocal and his tough, plangent guitar. Like Johnson and McCoy, Ishmon Bracey was based in Jackson, MS., then as important a centre for the blues as Memphis, Atlanta or St. Louis. 

A couple of years later, McCoy had a vocal outing himself where he transferred the famous piano‑boogie theme "Cow Cow Blues" to his own mandolin accompaniment and called it "That Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away". Against the rhythm of Bo Carter's (nee Chatmon) guitar, McCoy plays some scintillating runs on this his 'mandolin-boogie' number. Unusually for a mandolin player he seemed enamored of the boogie idiom and recorded an instrumental version of "Cow Cow" called "Jackson Stomp" the same year, with a member of the popular string band the Mississippi Sheiks; one Walter Vincson/Vinson/Vincent taking the guitar chair. McCoy even recorded a side titled simply "Boogie Woogie" (unheard by me). 

Another vocal outing, accompanied by his 'Mississippi Hot Footers, also in 1930, was "You Gonna Need Me". Played in a stop-time, the mandolin runs blended perfectly with the fiddle and guitar, played by Bo Carter and Walter Vincson respectively. 

Some of the bluesiest mandolin since the Bracey recording is to be found on a session as "Papa Charlie's Boys", made in 1930 for Victor's cheap-price Bluebird label. These included "Gypsy Woman Blues"/"You Can't Play Me Cheap". The excellent piano by probably Black Bob, and the throbbing string bass lending an urbanised feel to McCoy's wicked solo on "Cheap". Like Ishmon Bracey, Charlie McCoy was based in Jackson along with Tommy Johnson and many other blues singers. The latter included mandolin players both recorded and unrecorded. Indeed the 'city' was one of the two main sources of blues-mandolin in-the southern states prior to W.W.II. 

There were others of course, such as "Sam Hill From Louisville'" (193I), the unknown players with Walter Taylor's groups(1930-31), Eddie Dimmitt(1932) who played with the various string bands headed by Tommie Bradley and James Cole, Lonnie Clark(1929) possibly from Tennessee, the excellent mandolinist featured on records by the Birmingham Jug Band and "The Two Poor Boys"(1930-31), to name a few more. There was also the only black player from Georgia to make it on a pre-war blues record, one Jim Hill. Part of 'Peg Leg Howell and his Gang', and oddly-tuned in unison with Howell's rhythmic guitar, Hill now and again 'breaks out' into more typical mandolin runs expertly played against Howell's gruff and raucous vocal on their "Away From Home" in 1929. 

However, it is from the other main source of pre-war blues mandolin, Memphis, that the best known of all black musicians on this instrument sprang; James 'Yank' Rachel. Not only was Rachel (or Rachell to be more accurate) the best-known but also probably the finest of mandolin-players in the blues. Recording over a period of some four decades, he was also the most prolific. In September, 1929, the Tennessee-born Sleepy John Estes, Rachell and piano man Jab Jones, got to­gether in the recording studio for some truly wonderful examples of the blues. 

James 'Yank' Rachell

The line-up of mandolin and piano seemed to be monopolised by the blues of the pre-war genre. This combination, which at first might seem an unlikely one, never worked so well as when featured on these early blues sides by Estes and Rachell. The former's guitar supplying a rhythm behind the 'busy' melodic runs created by Jones' piano and Rachell's mandolin. The instrumental whole weaving around Estes' beautifully 'primitive' vocal which Big Bill Broonzy dubbed "cry­ing the blues'. The first issued recording by Estes, on Victor, appears to have a different pianist who might be Johnny Hardge, according to Godrich & Dixon. Titled "The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair" this is a fine up-tempo number which uses the tune of "Roll And Tumble Blues" recorded some six months earlier by guitarist Hambone Willie Newbern; and recorded many times since, including cuts by the great Mississippian blues singer, Robert Johnson. Indeed,, Willie Newbern "helped teach Rachel to play mandolin in 1929".(9). 

By the time "Milk Cow Blues"/"Street Car Blues" was recorded (1930), Jab Jones was firmly ensconced in the piano stool. The same driving tempo carries "Milk Cow" along with the three musicians playing in complete empathy with one an­other. This is not the same song that white rock 'n roll singer Eddie Cochran committed to wax in the 1950s; that was an entirely different "Milk Cow Blues" by Kokomo Arnold, from Georgia, in 1934. As with "The Girl I Love", Jones is content to aid Estes in rhythmic support and let Rachell take the instrumental lead, which he does admirably, closing the side with what must be the mandolin-player's first extended solo on record; and superbly played to boot. On "Street Car" the tempo slows down and Rachell's mandolin is played with sensitivity behind Estes' emotion-charged vocal. 

The singing role is switched for "Expressman Blues" and Rachell takes over. His playing here, especially on his solo, is of almost indescribable beauty, imbued with a touch of sadness. "Play that thing" he says to himself - he sure does, and how! Jab Jones' piano now taking a melodic turn in the right hand and now just the rhythm in the left, almost like an exotic bird glimpsed in the trees of a tropical forest. The same awe-inspiring empathy is present on "Little Sarah"` which Rachell had recorded two days after "The Girl I Love". He sings these lines as the second to last verse, in contradiction to the lyric: 

"I'm gon' sing this song, baby, I ain't gonna sing no more. (x2)
I'm gonna hang this mandolin under my shoulder, right down
Front Street I go." (10). 

Rachell actually sings 'faro' rather than 'Sarah'. This term being a probable corruption of the archaic 'Fair roebuck' described as "A Woman in the Bloom of her Beauty",(11), from the early I8th. century. 

About 8½ years later, Rachell was teamed up with the most influential harp (harmonica) player in the pre-war period - Sonny Boy Williamson (No. 1). The mandolin-player sang on "Lake Michigan Blues" with Sonny Boy blowing some fine, insistent harp around Rachell's clear-cut, incisive playing while Elijah Jones per­formed rhythm duties on guitar. The tune was another adaptation of the "Roll And Tumble" theme taken at medium tempo. On "Down South" it was Sonny Boy who took the vocal on this low-down dirty blues. Rachell's mandolin merging perfectly into the atmosphere of this number and producing an almost sleazy sound! Some six months later Williamson cut his version of an old Sleepy John Estes number, "Whatcha Doin'?", which he called "You Give An Account". Rachell's instrument here has a decidedly more 'modern' sound as he plays some fine, swinging stuff always finely attuned to Sonny Boy's harp and backed up by possibly, one 'Jackson Joe Williams this time. 

It is 'Jackson Joe' who now has the singing spot. The same trio belt out an updated version of Estes' "Milk Cow Blues". Rachell playing some of the finest mandolin of his recording career including a superb solo. These later tracks have an urban edge to them while still retaining that country blues 'feel'. 

All of the items so far discussed have been made for commercial recording companies and reflect the gradually changing styles and evolution of the blues. But the next two were recorded for posterity by John Lomax for the Library of Congress in Washington. Kid West on mandolin and Joe Harris on guitar were street singers in south-west Louisiana in the earlier decades of the century and their beautifully relaxed "Kid West Blues" (1940) reflects the earlier styles. West's mandolin having an almost haunting quality about it. The following year a group of Delta musicians recorded "Fo' Clock Blues" for Lomax. Fiddlin' Joe Martin sang lead vocal to his fine mandolin accompaniment while the great Willie Brown is relegated to rhythm guitar and possibly second vocal; though the latter sounds more like Son House. "Fo' Clock Blues" virtually marks the end of pre-war recorded mandolin blues. 

However, since post-war rediscoveries of older bluesmen in the 1960s, several practitioners of the instrument have been unearthed. One of these, Howard Armstrong, had recorded in the 1930s along with Carl Martin and Ted Bogan. All three played more than one instrument and Armstrong, as "Louie Bluie" featured mandolin (which Martin also played) on the instrumental "State Street Rag". The trio were recorded in 1972 for Rounder and three years later on the Flying Fish label. 

Armstrong recalled "My dad played an old striped "potato-bug" Italian-style mandolin".(12). But then his father took up religion and "... his church members decided that the mandolin was the devil's instrument, and it wasn't becoming for a minister to play string music, so he threw his old mandolin in my lap. So that's how I started off playing music with that old mandolin'"(13). Most of the first string bands that Armstrong came into contact with, around 1925, were composed of "... mandolins and fiddles and guitars and banjos. And once in a while they would ease a little ukulele in there and a bass fiddle."(14) - By the late 1920s, Armstrong had an "'... old flat-backed Keystone mandolin - it was a nice clear-toned mandolin." (15). 

Armstrong came from Tennessee. In the neighboring state of Mississippi, another excellent blues-mandolin player by the name of Herb Quinn was 'discovered', in 1965 by David Evans. Evans informs us that Quinn "... born in 1896, dominated the music of Tylertown for many years ... He is proficient on guitar, mandolin, violin, string bass, and piano."(16). In the latter part of the 1930s Quinn accompanied the great Tommy Johnson and seems to have lost none of his talents when he recorded for Rounder in the late 1960s. 

Herb Quinn (b. 1896) played with Tommy Johnson in the 1930s in Tylertown, southern Mississippi

Herb Quinn also taught other musicians and this included Dink Brister who was born in 1914. Brister maintains the mandolin's role in the string band tradition he had grown up with, around Tylertown and surrounding areas of southern Mississippi. In 1973 the ubiquitous Yank Rachell was recorded for the now defunct Blue Goose label in New York, and the London-based 77 Records had also put out an album of his entitled "Mandolin Blues". Of the two, the Blue Goose is probably the easier to find, either in a blues specialist shop or possibly from Red Lick, the mail-order blues-boys in North Wales [now based in South Wales]. Rachell plays the mandolin as well as ever and is backed by white blues collector, Mike Stewart (aka "Back­ward Sam") on guitar who blends in perfectly with Rachell. 

The mandolin made an almost unique appearance in the electric Chicago blues scene in the 1960s. This was in the shape of Johnny Young "Hailing from Vicksburg, Miss. he learnt mandolin and guitar while still a youth".(17), he is referred to as one of the few postwar mandolinists" (18). Young had started to record as early as 1947 in Chicago. Some seventeen years later in the same city, he used the mandolin sparingly on his "Little Girl". In 1969 however, he played some excellent runs uncannily integrated with Otis Spann's fine piano and ably supported by white harmonica player, Paul Oscher. 

Babe Stovall and Dink Brister

Referring to the blues in its formative years, Oliver relates "Blues singers working solo with a guitar or with a piano are in the majority; combinations of two guitars, guitar and mandolin, or guitar and piano are fairly  common;" (19). He could have added the combination of piano and mandolin also. These early mandolinists would have included the unidentified players who figured in the accompaniment of pre-war gospel recordings by preachers such as Rev. F.W. McGee, Rev. D.C. Rice, etc. in the 1920s, Willie Hatcher in in the 1930s, and James Kelly who was recorded for the Library of Congress in the 1940s. 

Today, as far as I know, the mandolin in the blues has all but disappeared; although Yank Rachell is apparently still around, he would appear to be a lone figure in this once strong blues tradition. Maybe in rural parts of the South, especially Mississippi, Texas and Tennessee, there are still some black practitioners of the mandolin remaining to be discovered. However, the future of the latter instrument in the blues is safely in the hands of several white acoustic blues performers here in Britain. One of the finest being a duo from Bradford in Yorkshire called the Jaybirds, who not only feature twin guitar blues of a very high order, but also some of the greatest blues-mandolin since Rachell and Charlie McCoy. Indeed, they include a version of McCoy's "That Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away" in their repertoire which is, in my humble opinion, the equal of the original. They are that good. Interested readers can hear for themselves as "Train" is featured on a recording the Jaybirds made in 1989. The high standard of musicianship and depth of commitment/feeling this duo aspire to on every performance, ensures the continuance into the foreseeable future, of a place for the mandolin in the blues.

Ó Max Haymes

Some of the Records referred to in the Text:

Whistler & His Jug Band "Jerry O' Mine ll-I924
  "Folding Bed"-1931
  "Hold That Tiger"-1931
Cora Perkins "Today Blues"-1926
Bobbie Leecan "Apaloosa Blues"-1927
Al Miller "I Found A Four-Leaf Clover"-1927   
   "Mister Mary Blues"-1929
  "Someday Sweetheart"-1927
Dallas String Band "Dallas Rag"-1927
  "Sweet Mama Blues"-1927
Furry Lewis "Everybody's Blues"-1927
Memphis Jug Band "I Packed My Suitcase, Started For The Train"-1927
  Evergreen Money Blues"-1928
Nap Hayes

"Prater Blues"-1928

Tommy Johnson "Cool Drink Of Water Blues"-1928
  "Bye-Bye Blues"-1928
Ishmon Bracey "Brown Mamma Blues"-1928
Charlie McCoy "That Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away"-1930
The Mississippi Hot Footers  "You Gonna Need Me"-1930
Papa Charlie's Boys "Gypsy Woman Blues"-1936
  "You Can't Play Me Cheap"-1936
Peg Leg Howell And His Gang "Away From Home"-1929
Sleepy John Estes "The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair"-1929
  "Street Car Blues"-1930
Yank Rachell "Expressman Blues"-1930
  "Lake Michigan Blues"-1938
  "Little Sarah"-1929
Sonny Boy Williamson No.1 "Down South"-1938
  "You Give An Account"-1938
Kid West "Kid West Blues"-1940
Fiddlin' Joe Martin "Foll Clock Blues"-1941
The Jaybirds "That Lonesome Train (Took My Babe Away)"-1989


1. Townend R.  

Hogg P.p.8.

3. Charters S.p.6.  
4. Cohen Nop.26,  

Seroff D.p.33.


Evans D.p.25.



8. Ibid.p.49.  

Slaven N.

10. Rachell Y.  
11. Partridge E.p.303.  
12. Armstrong H.p.42.  




15. Ibid. Part 2.p.47.  

Evans D. Notes.


Leadbitter M.

18. 0liver P. Blackwell Guide. p.212.  

.----"--- Savannah Syncopators. p.p.37-38.



1. Townend Rick. "Rock 'N' Reel" No. II. 1991  
2. Hogg Peter. "Slavery The Afro-American Experience". The British Library. 1979.  
3. Charters Samuel. "The Roots of the Blues". Quartet Books. 1982. First pub,1981.  
4. Cohen Norm. "Long Steel Rail". University of Illinois Press. 1981.  

Seroff Doug. "Polk Miller and The Old South Quartette". In "78 Quarterly" No-3. 1988.

6. Evans David. "Tommy Johnson". Studio Vista. 1971.  
7. ----"---- Notes to "South Mississippi Blues". L.P. Rounder 2009. c.1973.  
8. Slaven Neil. Notes to "Travellin' This Lonesome Road". L.P. R.C.A. International INT 1175. 1970.  

Rachell Y. "Little Sarah". Yank Rachel vo. mand.; Jab Jones pno.; Sleepy John Estes gtr. 26/9/29. Memphis, TN.

10. Partridge Eric. "Dictionary Of Historical Slang". Penguin. 1986. First pub.1937.  
11. Armstrong Howard. "Louie Bluie-The Life And Music Of William Howard Armstrong". In "78 Quarterly".No.5. 1990.  
12. ----"---- Part 2. In "78 Quarterly" No. 6 1991.  

Leadbitter Mike. Notes to "Blues Southside Chicago". L.P. Flyright 521. (1966). Reproduced 1976.


Oliver Paul. "The Blackwell Guide To Recorded Blues". Blackwell. 1991. First pub. 1989.

15. ----"---- "Savannah Syncopators". Studio Vista. London. 1970  

Recommended Records:


."Charlie McCoy & Walter Vincson" (1928-36) Various Artists. Earl Archives BD-612. Includes "Brown Mamma Blues", "Gypsy Woman Blues", "You Can't Play Me Cheap."


."Sleepy John Estes (1929-1941) With Yank Rachell & Son Bonds." Document DLP564. Includes "The Girl I Love", "Little Sarah", Milk Cow Blues", "Street Car Blues", "Expressman Blues", "Whatcha Doin'?".


."The Jug And Washboard Bands Vol.1" (1924-31). Various Artists. Blues Documents B-D-2020. Includes "Jerry O'Mine", "Foldin' Bed", "Hold That Tiger".


."Alabama Jug & String Bands" (1928-32). Birmingham Jug Band/Ben Curry. Blues Documents BD-2028.

5. "Coley Jones" (1927-29). Matchbox MSE-208. Includes "Dallas Rag", "Sweet Mama Blues".  
6. "Tommie Bradley & James Cole" (1930-32). Matchbox MSE-211.  

"The Two Poor Boys" (1927-31). Earl Archives BD-616.


."Memphis Jug Band (1927-34). Matchbox MSE-1008. Includes "Evergreen Money Blues", "I Packed My Suitcase, Started Mo The Train".


Additions/Corrections & Transcriptions by Max Haymes.
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