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Diggin’ The Blues: Bo Carter

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I've always had a keen interest in history, but not in a "what battle was fought here" sort of way. For me, the best sort of history doesn't involve a bunch of dates and wars and the like. Rather, it involves people. From the known to the unknown, I like discovering folks who have flown under the radar for the vast majority of us.

The history of the blues can often be traced through a series of famous names, and yet there are many others who made incredible contributions and helped pave the way for today's performers. And I can't think of any other genre where you can so clearly trace the lineage of a song. I mean, with the blues, you can start pulling a thread with Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton and follow it all the way back to Robert Johnson or earlier.  (*)You get 100 different versions of one song and you can see how it evolved into what you hear today.

Diggin' the Blues, while not intended to be exhaustively researched and detailed scholarly articles, is meant to cast a light on blues artists (past and present) not widely known or lauded by the average fan. And then there's this: every "obscure" artist I uncover is like a new treasure for me. It's Christmas morning over and over and over again. They're also a mystery. All we have now are bits and pieces of their lives. They're legends, folk lore. They're part of who we are and I want to get to know them through what they left behind for us to discover.

My hunt (locally) for tunes by Bo Carter has been stalled for a while now. I could take the easy way out and order from Amazon, but that almost seems like cheating, thank you very much. It's driving me crazy.

What's the big deal? Who the hell is Bo Carter?

Bo Carter was born Armenter Chatmon way back in the early 1890s. He and his brothers (and sisters) grew up listening to their parents singing and playing music while living on the Gaddis & McLaurin plantation in Mississippi. The first known Carter recording is from 1928, with him backing another artist named Alec Johnson. However, he soon found his calling as a blues singer. He did fairly well as a solo act (he recorded over 100 sides — think sides of a record — in the 1930s, more than any other artist except Memphis Minnie), but he did even better with his brothers as the Chatmon Family String Band and then as the Mississippi Sheiks.

Because Bo wasn't as heavy a drinker as the other band members (and most of the artists of the time), he became the manager — having a clear head at the end of the night came in handy when settling up with the owner or manager of the juke or barrel house/bar/whatever you'd like to call it. Money was always tight back then and it wasn't unusual for an owner to get the performers too drunk to remember their pay.

Bo Carter by R. CrumbAt some point in the 30s, Bo went blind or partially blind. He settled himself into farming for a while, occasionally performing with his brothers, but more often than not hitting the streets on his own.

By the 50s, Carter was still trying to make music, auditioning for record companies. One company, Trumpet Records, was led by a short-sighted businessman who turned Carter down and destroyed the audition tapes. Somewhere along the way, someone had collected enough of Bo's recordings and began releasing his work, albeit after his death in 1964. Sadly, he died destitute.

Although Bo Carter covered a wide range of music, he was famous for sexually taboo blues material. Innuendo, double entendre, frank subject matter… that became his legacy. Even with the racier fare, you can hear the musicianship and Carter's various musical influences. One of his best known songs — "Corrine Corrina" — wasn't among the risque and became a hit for Big Joe Turner, Bill Haley (yes, of the Comets), Muddy Waters, Taj Mahal, and even Bob Dylan, among others*.

If you're looking for a sample of the naughtier side of Carter, check out Don't Mash My Digger So Deep (lyrics after the jump), from 1936's (?) Banana In Your Fruit Basket.

The songlist from Banana:

  1. Pig Meat Is What I Crave
  2. What Kind Of Scent Is This?
  3. Mashing That Thing
  4. Blue Runner Blues
  5. Howling Tom Cat Blues
  6. Don't Mash My Digger So Deep
  7. Pin In Your Cushion
  8. Ramrod Daddy
  9. All Around Man
  10. Pussy Cat Blues
  11. My Pencil Won't Write No More
  12. Ants In My Pants
  13. Banana In Your Fruit Basket
  14. Cigarette Blues

Bo Carter didn't invent "dirty blues", but he sure as hell had a good time with them. His humor, the rawness, the playfulness inherent in these tunes is a sly nod to fun of sex and intimacies of all sorts often missing in music today. It's the difference between a 360° 'erotic' portrait and a close up of only one part of the female anatomy. One's business only and the other is about pleasure and enjoying sex.

One of my goals for 2007 (aside from learning to play Canasta — which I've already done) is to flesh out my early blues library. Bo Carter is one of many special artists I aim to find on this journey.

(MP3 available for a limited time only.)

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About Joan Hunt

  • This is a great idea for a series, Joan. Look forward to seeing more.

    Aside from his hilariously risque lyrics (“Won’t You Please Warm My Weiner” is one of my favorites), Bo was also a pretty darned good guitar picker. It truly is a shame he wasn’t better recognized during his lifetime.

    Have you heard of Lucille Bogan? She didn’t even bother with double-entendres :&)

  • HW Saxton

    Nice article Joan. Mention should be made that Mr Carter and The Miss. Sheiks also spent time in support roles seperately and as a band playing
    with the late great Jimmie Rodgers grandaddy of C& W music and white country bluesman supreme. They would play pop tunes,waltzes novelties and ballads at society functions for the rich white folks.

  • Lucille Bogan is on my list, Pico. Have you ever heard Louise Johnson’s “On The Wall”? Nothing subtle about that one either.

    HW, thanks for the added info! Love learning even more

  • I haven’t heard that one yet Joan, but naturally my curiosity is piqued, now, lol.

    As I’ve went back and explored pre-war blues myself I was surprised to find that the amount of sex and drug references found there rivals what we see in music today. It just goes to show that we really hadn’t changed much as a society in our addictions!