When thinking of Black musicians from early in the twentieth century, it's hard not to think of them as being either players of Robert Johnson type Blues, singers of spirituals, or maybe playing some early form of Jazz like ragtime. To think of them as singing something like country music or Stephen Foster standards would come as a surprise to most people.
Well the good folk over at Delmark Records have a surprise for you in the shape of Cowboy Roy Brown. Roy played anything that struck his fancy when he had his guitar in his hands, and also knew the importance of playing songs that were familiar to people.
Cowboy Roy was a street musician who made his living by plying his trade across the mid-west. He was born in 1875, and like so many black musicians of his time first learned music through the church. His was a slightly more direct experience, as his daddy was a preacher. Young Roy and his sister initially learned how to play guitar to accompany their father as he sawed on the violin. Roy also picked up the five-string banjo a few years later, but his first loyalty remained with the guitar.
In 1904 he hit the road and headed to St. Louis to see the World's Fair. From there it was ten years in Kansas City, another ten in Madison, then some years of drifting around from Deadwood to South Dakota, and Wisconsin to Milwaukee, and finally ending up back in St. Louis again as a one man band street performer. On his travels through the cowboy states he continually added to the number of songs he could play.
His band consisted of himself on vocals, a guitar named "Baby" and his Kazoo "Leon". In the 1950s (Do the math. If he was born in 1875 the youngest he could have been when this was recorded was seventy-five.), someone sat him down in front of recording equipment in their home and he recorded the tracks that appear on the disc Street Singer. Every so often Roy will thank the people whose house he is in which is the only clue as to the whereabouts of this recording. The only thing the liner notes say about the recording at all is that it took place some time in the fifties.
He starts off the disc with the first song he ever learned; one his dad taught him when he was eight years old, "Green Corn". Roy claimed that "Green Corn" was an old song. "From before you were born," he said, "from before your father was born". Old was something that Roy understood, not just because he was pushing eighty, but his father had lived until he was 104 and Roy claimed his guitar was over a hundred.
The music on Street Singer is one of the more eclectic collections of tracks I've ever seen put together by a performer. From old gospel tunes like "Down By The Riverside", and "When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder", to vaudeville numbers like "Roll Out The Barrel", "She's Too Fat", and the "Beer Barrel Polka" and standards like "You Are My Sunshine" Roy had all the angles covered in an effort to please as many people as possible.
While that approach may seem a little odd to us, you have to remember he was a street performer. He needed to know a wide variety of songs and music so he could convince people to toss some money into his guitar case. Of course the other thing a street musician needs is a shtick, and Roy's was the naming of his guitar and kazoo and his ability to deliver in between song patter that sounded completely off the cuff.
While Cowboy Roy doesn't have the most melodic of voices or interesting guitar playing style, even on CD one can tell what a gifted performer he was. His use of expression, intonation, and all other means at his disposal for "selling" the song are so good, at times you feel as though he's telling you a story you've never heard before, rather than singing a song that you've heard countless times.
If you are looking for a recording of some of your favourite old standards, like "He's In The Jailhouse Now" or "St. Louis Blues", and want to hear them delivered in a way you've not heard before, pick up a copy of Cowboy Roy Brown's Street Singer. You won't have any regrets.