Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Gabriel Brown and His Guitar

Gabriel Brown is one of those great unknowns of the blues whose story seems way too odd to be ignored, but he garnered only a scant paragrph in Edward M. Komara's otherwise excellent Encyclopedia of the Blues:
A strangely anonymous artist with no real discernible roots and a sophisticated background that that belies his concentration on slick country blues. Brown won first prize in the St. Louis National Folk festival of 1934 and was recorded for the Library of Congress. He became an actor, working with Orson Wells, among others and was taken up by record company owner Joe Davis. who recorded him extensively from 1943 to 1953 before he reportedly died in a boating accident.

How a character like this could be forgotten in a world where an unknown actress named Peg Entwhistle entered the world of legend simply by jumping off a sign seems impossible to me.

He achieved the notice of such famed field recorders as Alan Lomax and Zora Neal Hurston1, no tin ears themselves. His professional association with the formidable character of Joe Davis2 alone should have made him more visible to the legions of blues collectors out there, but sadly, he still languishes in the shadows as an unknown sideman. Collections of his music, a scant two records on the UK labels Flyright and JSP, do little to give him the respect he deserves. His loping guitar work brings to mind the work of Pink Anderson, and Lightning Hopkins, and his original songs have lyrics that compete with the best of the Delta Musicians.

So what I have here is a 78 record I picked up in a thrift store and have played for nearly every interested student of American Music I could, hoping to spark some resurgence of interest in Mr. Brown. But now thanks to the magic of the internet, I've made a digital copy of this recording, and am uploading it here and at YouTube, so you can hear this largely unknown artist without having to trek out to my house.

1: Some of her recordings are available here, and it should be noted he worked with her and Orson Welles in the controversial Federal Theater Project * in Harlem.
(object OP10, on this page is a photo of him in costume, sadly not online, though.)

2: Example story of his exploits here

If you want to purchase his two available cd's they are in stock at CD Universe here and here. An Alan Lomax recording of him is on this collection from Rounder Records.