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Blues Mandolin Man

Blues Mandolin Man: The Life and Music of Yank Rachell

Richard Congress
Copyright Date: 2001
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  • Book Info
    Blues Mandolin Man
    Book Description:

    Yank Rachell and his mandolin playing style moved every musician lucky enough to hear him perform in the early sixties. When he died in April 1997, he left behind a stack of unanswered requests to tour Europe and to play blues festivals in the United States.

    InBlues Mandolin Man: The Life and Music of Yank Rachell, Richard Congress delivers the first biography of a family man whose playing inspired and energized the likes of David Honeyboy Edwards, Sleepy John Estes, and Henry Townsend. No other biography discusses the mandolin's influence and role in the blues.

    Guitar great Ry Cooder said, "Yank's style fascinated me because it had a lot of power and it's very raw-and what a great thing to do, just attack this little instrument like that."

    Charlie Musselwhite, the noted harp player, worked with Rachell and club hopped in Chicago with the elder bluesman. "He just had a great spirit about him," Musselwhite said of Rachell's playing and singing, "really just shouting it out. If the world was made up of people like Yank Rachell it would be a wonderful place to live."

    Blues Mandolin Manchronicles the life, times, and music of a man who was born into a family of sharecroppers in 1910 in rural western Tennessee. An active musician for 75 years, Rachell mastered several musical instruments and first recorded for Victor in Memphis in 1929. Through the blues, Rachell's world expanded to include Chicago, New York, recording studios and, after the sixties, radio, TV, and national and European tours.

    Yank's recollections reveal new information about personalities and events that will delight blues history buffs. Rich appendixes detail Yank's mandolin and guitar style and his place in the blues tradition.

    For this book Richard Congress, who reissued two of Rachell's old LPs in CD format, worked closely with him to record memories spanning decades of blues playing. Congress tells a compelling and engaging story about a colorful and thoughtful character who as a child picked cotton and plowed a field behind a mule, who grew to manhood coping with the southern Jim Crow system, and who participated in the creation and perpetuation of the blues.

    Richard Congress is the owner of Random Chance Records, a record company based in New York City.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-597-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    David Evans

    The decade of the 1990s saw a severe diminution of the ranks of blues singers and musicians who had been active in the years before World War II. In fact, only a handful are now left as we enter the twenty-first century. While many interviews of early blues artists have been published over the years, only a few of these figures were fortunate to be able to tell their own stories in a book-length format. This usually required that the person be someone of significance in blues history, someone of great achievement as a singer, instrumentalist, songwriter, or interpreter, usually...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-2)

    On April 9, 1997, eighty-seven-year-old blues mandolin man James “Yank” Rachell died at home in his sleep. Three hundred people filled the pews at the Nazarene Missionary Baptist Church for his funeral in Indianapolis on April 19. Regular church parishioners and Yank’s large family occupied about half of the church’s sanctuary. The other half was taken up by blues musicians and fans, young and old, black and white. From Chicago, John Brim, seventy-five, Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards, eighty-two, and Jimmy Walker, ninety-two, came to send off their old friend and fellow bluesman. Yank’s mandolin was on display next to his casket,...

  6. Blues Mandolin Man

    • Chapter 1
      (pp. 3-13)

      Well, in the house when I was growin’ up we had them old straw ticks, you know, made out of straw, bed tick. Straw in ’em. And then you have them shucks tore up and put in your bed. Well, you sleep on that. Didn’t have no mattress or nothin’ like that then. Way back, didn’t have no mattress. No.

      You work all day, go out in the fields and work from sun to sun. Come back, you take a bath in an old tin tub and wash. But you got to pack the water, carry it in a pail,...

    • Chapter 2
      (pp. 13-16)

      Had a pretty horse and buggy. Not no car. And I used to dress nice, you know. I’d take all them girls from them boys down there, and could play music too, you know. Them gals fell for me. My buggy be full of ’em. Dadgummit! I used to be a bad old man! My hair was black and curly and I was sharp as a tack. I went that a’way all the time.

      I hitch up my buggy. If you got a field a corn, I’m gonna stop and fill my buggy up with corn for my horse. Go...

    • Chapter 3
      (pp. 17-20)

      I was ’bout eight. I went down a dusty road one day. Man had a house settin’ on the side to the road. Well, he settin’ on his porch playin’ this mandolin. I went by and asked him what it was.

      “This a mandolin, son.”

      “I like that. Let me see it.”

      He said, “All right.”

      I give it a lick or two. I give it back to him, say, “I sure like it.”

      “Let me sell it to you.”

      “What you take for it?”

      “Five dollar.”

      Now five dollar, I didn’t have no five dollar. My daddy didn’t either....

    • Chapter 4
      (pp. 20-24)

      I lived in the country and my uncle Bud, Uncle Dan Taylor, lived in the city. He’d come out on the weekend and play for us. He used to play guitar some and we was small and young. We were glad to hear what he played. I don’t know if it was good or not. He played old blues, back home. We’d enjoy him playing and he’d teach us a little, and so we’d start to playing. And he’d go back, and we’d try to play after what he played.

      I knowed some girls who had a guitar, three sisters....

    • Chapter 5
      (pp. 24-25)

      I don’t know exactly how old I was when we met, I and Sleepy John. But I was a man. I was grown. Charles Bonds, he give a supper three night a week, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Man bought me a guitar to play for him. I didn’t have one then. I would go around and play for him every weekend.

      He had them midnight parties. He’d buy fish and put the table across the kitchen door. The women be in there cooking fish and chicken and all that. They all be in there dancin’ and have a good time,...

    • Chapter 6
      (pp. 25-29)

      I went to town when I got grown, when I got eighteen. I left Mama and them out there in the country, but I would send them stuff back and come see about them. I left there and decided to work on the railroad. I just got tired of farming.

      I went to work for the railroad. I put my age up. The man wouldn’t hire you to work on the railroad then, lessen you were twenty-one. Told you you had to go through a lot of tape. I told him I was twenty-one. But I look like a man....

    • Chapter 7
      (pp. 29-32)

      We was living in Memphis, I and Sleepy John. We had a jug band; call it the Three Js.: John, James, and Jab. Jab Jones a piano player, and he play jug with us out on the street. One day Jab come by and he said, “There’s a man here makin’ records from New York.” Say, “Why don’t you come up there and see can you make a record with him. He on Short Beale.”

      I said, “All right, tomorrow we’ll meet you up there.” I thought he was lyin’ to me, until me and John went on and sure...

    • Chapter 8
      (pp. 33-35)

      I played with a guy called Son Brimmer in Memphis, a jug band. John, John didn’t fool with ’em. Didn’t make no record with him. I just played with him some.

      The name was Will Shade, but we call him Son Brimmer. He play guitar so hard there a print of his guitar in his finger, he mash those strings so hard. He play some with Gus Cannon, blow a jug. Long time! But I remember some of it!

      I was in the Three Js jug band in Memphis when I made the record in 1929. Another guy played jug...

    • Chapter 9
      (pp. 35-41)

      I used to date Memphis Minnie’s sister. Sometime I play with her—not in no club, just go to her house sometime and play. She live in Memphis and we’d be by there and drop by her house. You know, go in and a jammin’ with ’em, or something like that. I didn’t do no recordin’ with her, or nothin’ like that. Last time I saw her, me and Hammie Nixon went to her home and played her a piece. That was years ago though. After then I heard next thing she pass away. So I never did see Memphis...

    • Chapter 10
      (pp. 41-43)

      Sonny Boy, he’d ride around Jackson on a bike. Me and Dan Smith were playin’ together then. Jackson not too far from Brownsville and we’d play there some. So Sonny Boy wanted to play with us, but we didn’t pay him no attention.

      In 1934 I recorded in New York with Dan Smith. Sonny Boy wanted to go, but he was just a boy ridin’ a bike in Jackson. I didn’t carry him ’cause I didn’t think he was good enough to go, which he was. I found out after I got back.

      Cab Calloway’s sister was in the hotel...

    • Chapter 11
      (pp. 44-45)

      At the time I played a lot with Sonny Boy, I used to work for a man on a dairy farm. He had a lot of cows. I milked cows twice a day, morning and night. And when he had a lot of hay to bale, hell, hay baling! Settin’ in the fields in September, hottest day in the world, he’d bring a load of hay there. Put it there for you to bale hay, bale that hay. I didn’t care. This was when I was grown, workin’ on the dairy farm.

      I made a record about it, “J. L....

    • Chapter 12
      (pp. 46-50)

      Nineteen thirty-eight I went to Chicago to record. Lester Melrose used to have Walter Davis come down to the country and pick us up, we music boys, and we’d go and record for him. Him, Sonny Boy, Big Joe Williams, and I would go record together. Walter was a piano player and he was a good musician. And then, after he quit that, he’d taken a hotel in St. Louis and run a hotel for the guy.

      One time I was in a car with Sonny Boy and Walter Davis. Big Joe Williams was drivin’, and Sonny Boy and Walter...

    • Chapter 13
      (pp. 50-56)

      One time I played and a woman tell me, “Oh, you sure favor my husband. I’m gonna talk with you.”

      I was settin’ down playin’, and I said, “All right.” Drinkin’ white whiskey. She’s a good lookin’ woman.

      She say, “That’s my car settin’ there.”

      I say, “It is?”

      “Ain’t it, girl?”

      She had a girlfriend with her. She say, “Yes it is.”

      She say, “I’m goin’ to take you home with me tonight.”

      “Oh yeah?”

      I play much harder. I’m a fool, young boy. Ain’t got no sense. You know women swell your head. Got through playin’. I said,...

    • Chapter 14
      (pp. 56-59)

      I’ll tell ya, back in them days, down South, the people wadn’t right. They didn’t treat you right. They do or done everything to you down there. Seven o’clock they blow you off the streets. They set up the stores and things. We had to go out in the country and pray until daylight. But, you know, a white lady come by wearin’ shorts, you better not look at her. “Nigger, what the hell you doin’ lookin’ at that white woman?” All that kind of stuff, you know. They do you all kinda way back then in Brownsville, the white...

    • Chapter 15
      (pp. 59-62)

      I went to St. Louis. My wife told me, “Yank, you better go,” ’cause in them times they gang you, you know. Burn your damn house up or anything; they didn’t care.

      Said, “You better go, ’cause they tryin’ to get you and they get all of us. We don’t want to stay around here and get killed.”

      I said, “Well, I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

      She said, “Yeah. You better go.”

      So, I went to St. Louis. Stayed there awhile.¹

      I had trouble with a white man, Tom King. A guy had a farm and he had a warder man,...

    • Chapter 16
      (pp. 62-66)

      I had a good old time in St. Louis. Oh, yeah. Played all the time over in East St. Louis; played several places. Sonny Boy was in Jackson and John in Brownsville. I left them and got my family in St. Louis. I worked for Wagner Company, an electric company at 4400 Plymouth. Yeah, a carload of coal come there. That was my job on a Sunday. I unload that coal, and my day work was done. It took a day’s work to unload it, too. Man, I been through it. Worked for a furniture company. I always worked. I...

    • Chapter 17
      (pp. 66-68)

      Sonny Boy tried to get me to go to Chicago two or three times. Sonny Boy had come from Chicago twice askin’ me to go up there with him. He first went to St. Louis, Sonny Boy did. He had an uncle live in St. Louis. Well, I went with him to St. Louis. We stayed up there and played round, and we come back to Jackson. Well, he go to Chicago. Come back. He say, “Yank.”

      I say, “What?”

      “Man, let us go to Chicago. We’ll make plenty money up there.”

      I said, “I can’t go, man. I got...

    • Chapter 18
      (pp. 68-71)

      Well, my wife had a sister, and the sister and her husband live in Indianapolis. So my wife’s mother and father passed.

      She said, “Why don’t we go to Indianapolis? Mama and Papa dead. Why we stayin’ here?”

      I said, “I don’t know, but how you know you would like it there?”

      She said, “I don’t know. You want to go see?”

      I go up on a bus, stay four days, come back, and say, “Yeah, I like it.” I said, “Well, what we goin’ do with our house?”

      “Rent it out?”

      I say, “We ain’t goin’ get paid for...

    • Chapter 19
      (pp. 71-74)

      And so, well, I didn’t know what to do after my wife passed away. I was at a loss, lonesome, sad. So John and them called me. Wrote me a letter, would I like to make some record, and I answer and say, “Yeah! I would.” So they come up here and got me, and I went to Chicago. We record for Bob Koester, and then, year or two later, he send us to Europe, about ten of us, Sippie Wallace, Little Brother Montgomery, Big Joe Turner, Freddy Below, and this other boy play guitar.

      I made a record for...

    • Chapter 20
      (pp. 75-78)

      I went over there with Junior Wells, Little Brother Montgomery, Sippie Wallace, and, I don’t know, a bunch of them. And we went over there. Then I come back; I went with Horst Lippman. And the next time I went, I went with Sunnyland Slim. I went ’bout four times.

      I went to London, England, Paris, France, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Geneva, Baden-Baden. Two set of German over there. Yeah. And I went to Copenhagen, Switzerland, Holland, Amsterdam, you name it, and a lot of places I can’t think of the name.

      Russia, that’s the worst place I ever been.¹ We went...

    • Chapter 21
      (pp. 78-82)

      I hear a lot of people. A lot of people, they try to play my stuff, but they don’t play it right. But I let ’em go ahead. They doin’ the best they can. They gettin’ by on it. I go to the Slippery Noodle down there. I go in there, man say, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, we got a legend in the house here, Yank Rachell.” And some of ’em try and play my piece, mess it up. I don’t say nothin’, lessen they ask me. Let ’em go ahead with it. I ain’t goin’ to try and tell...

    • Chapter 22
      (pp. 82-88)

      Last January they had a concert here in Indianapolis. All my music friends did it for me to raise some money to help me out and show ’preciation for how I trained ’em all. It was really nice, best I ever had, and I really enjoyed it. Help me some. I been in bad shape. I been way behind.

      But I had a nice time all right. There were over two hundred people there. Everybody was so nice. No one had a cross word. Just set down and enjoy the music. John Sebastian was down with his band. I played...

  7. Appendix 1 Comments on Yank Rachell’s Mandolin Style
    (pp. 89-92)
    Rich DelGrosso
  8. Appendix 2 Comments on Yank Rachell’s Guitar Style
    (pp. 93-96)
    David Evans
  9. Appendix 3 Interviews
    (pp. 97-124)
  10. Appendix 4 Musicians
    (pp. 125-138)
  11. Appendix 5 Brownsville Lynching
    (pp. 139-142)
  12. Discography
    (pp. 143-158)
  13. Selected Song Lyrics
    (pp. 159-176)

    The following are transcripts of a selection of Yank Rachell’s recorded songs from 1930 to 1986. The earliest available version of each song is used. During the course of a session there are many interjections from different musicians. Some spoken words and phrases have been included in the transcripts because I think they contribute to the feel of the tune. Sonny Boy Williamson was particulary adept at keeping up a commentary on what Yank Rachell was singing, often prompting a reply from Rachell....

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 177-178)
  15. Index
    (pp. 179-184)