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Peetie Wheatstraw

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  • Born: Ripley, TN
  • Died: East St. Louis, IL
  • Years Active: 1930s, 1940s

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Biography All Music GuideWikipedia

All Music Guide:

Peetie Wheatstraw was the name adopted by singer William Bunch, taking it from Black American folklore. According to author Ralph Ellison, who made use of the Wheatstraw legend to model characters in his novels Invisible Man and Juneteenth, "Peetie Wheatstraw" was the evil half of a twin personality whose challenge was invoked at the start of a pool game. He was "the Devil's Son-In-Law" or "the High Sheriff of Hell," in search of his other half, the "Lord God Stingerroy" to shoot him a game. Nothing is known of the early life of William Bunch, other than that he was born in Ripley, Tennessee and raised in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. In 1929, he arrived in East St. Louis, already using the name Peetie Wheatstraw. Allegedly, as Wheatstraw, Bunch was also spreading the rumor that he had been to the "crossroads" and had sold his soul to the Prince of Darkness in exchange for success as a musician.

Without regard for the validity of Wheatstraw's claims, this self-promotion paid off in short order. Peetie Wheatstraw soon became a popular performer in East St. Louis and his fame quickly spread to Chicago. At a time when most record companies were cutting their entire blues rosters in order to survive the depression, Peetie Wheatstraw suddenly became a hot item. Wheatstraw began his recording career singing vocal duets with the unknown "Neckbones" (possibly J.D. Short) for ARC on September 13, 1930 and continued recording on his own into the early part of 1931. After an isolated session for Bluebird in September, 1931, Wheatstraw returned to ARC, and then moved to Decca in 1934, where the bulk of his best recordings were made. Peetie Wheatstraw recorded in every year of the 1930s save 1933, ultimately producing 175 sides in all with only one rejection, an enormous total for a blues artist in the pre-war period. This figure does not include recordings made by Wheatstraw sitting in on records made by his frequent partner, Kokomo Arnold, or ones made with Amos Easton, a.k.a. Bumble Bee Slim.

In the only known photograph of Peetie Wheatstraw, he is shown holding a guitar; curious, as he was a primarily a piano player, although he may have played his own guitar on a couple of recording dates. On his records Wheatstraw usually required a guitarist to play with him, and had many excellent ones to choose from, including Kokomo Arnold, Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Jordan, Charlie McCoy, and Teddy Bunn, in addition to pianist Champion Jack Dupree. On some of his last dates, Peetie Wheatstraw recorded within a jazz inspired framework, collaborating with Lil Armstrong and trumpeter Jonah Jones. His true strength was not so much in terms of instrumental ability as it was his singing and the varied lyrical content of his songs, which dealt with topics such as loose women, alcohol, supernaturalism, gambling, suicide and murder. Robert Johnson cribbed so many lyrical ideas from the work of Peetie Wheatstraw that it's not even worth going into specific examples of that derivation here.

The sheer size of Peetie Wheatstraw's recorded output has worked against his reputation. Some blues experts have expressed the opinion that Wheatstraw's recordings are limited stylistically, lack variety and tend towards repetition. One hallmark of his style was the use of pet phrases for purposes of punctuation, most typically "Oh, well, well" in third verses of songs. On the contrary, it would seem that anyone who was thinking of formalizing aspects of blues songwriting in the 1930s would be hailed a harbinger of things to come, rather than blamed for a lack of imagination. In the later '30s, Peetie Wheatstraw's recording sessions were being held once every two or three months and consisted of six to eight songs per date, so he had to develop formulas in order to keep his content fresh. That Wheatstraw did so successfully was something that affected nearly every blues musician within hearing distance of one of his records. He was overwhelmingly popular throughout the 1930s, and he is credited in some quarters with being the artist who carried the blues from its lowly status as rural "devil's music" into the cities where, in time, it would grow, thrive and change to suit the needs of a new, urban audience.

Peetie Wheatstraw would not personally live to witness these future changes. Since his death, researchers have probed arduously in an attempt get at more information about him, interviewing his acquaintances and reviewing civic records. But even more than sixty years after his death practically nothing substantive is known about him or his life, despite his ambitious recording schedule and tremendous popularity. For someone cultivating the legend of a deal with the devil, Wheatstraw's death was eerily appropriate -- celebrating his 39th birthday, Wheatstraw and some friends decided to drive to the local market to pick up some liquor, and on their way out they tried to beat a railroad train that was coming down the tracks at full speed. Needless to say, they didn't make it.

Wikipedia:

For the 1978 film, see Petey Wheatstraw (film).

Peetie Wheatstraw (December 21, 1902 – December 21, 1941) was the name adopted by the singer William Bunch, an influential figure among 1930s blues singers. Although the only known photograph of Bunch shows him holding a National brand tricone resonator guitar, he played the piano on most of his recordings.

^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues – From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 184. ISBN 1-85868-255-X. 

Early life and career[edit]

Born to parents James Bunch and Mary (Burns) Bunch, Wheatstraw is assumed to have been born in Ripley, Tennessee, but was widely believed to have come from Arkansas. His body was shipped to Cotton Plant, Arkansas for burial, and fellow musician Big Joe Williams stated that this was his home town.

The earliest biographical facts come from fellow musicians such as Henry Townsend and Teddy Darby who remember Wheatstraw moving to St Louis, Missouri in the late 1920s. He was already a proficient guitarist, but a limited pianist. He was commonly found entertaining audiences at a club called Lovejoy in the east St. Louis area or at a juke joint over a barbershop on West Biddle Street. By the time Sunnyland Slim moved to St Louis in the early 1930s, Wheatstraw was one of the most popular singers with an admired idiosyncratic piano style.

Wheatstraw began recording in 1930 and was so popular that he continued to record through the worst years of the Great Depression, when the numbers of blues records issued was drastically reduced. It was blues musician Charlie Jordan who broke Wheatstraw into the recording world, setting him up with both Vocalion and Decca Records in a duet entitled “Tennessee Peaches Blues” with an artist called Neckbones. The time following this first recording in August 1930 was especially prolific for him—he produced twenty-one songs in two years including solos like “Don’t Feel Welcome Blues,” Strange Man Blues,” “School Days,” and “So Soon.”, He made no records between March 1932 and March 1934, a period in which he perfected his mature style.

For the rest of his life, he was one of the most recorded blues singers and accompanists. His total output of 161 recorded songs was surpassed by only four pre-war blues artists: Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson and Bumble Bee Slim (Amos Easton). Among the clubs of St Louis and East St Louis his popularity was outstanding, rivalled only by Walter Davis. Despite rumours of his touring, there is little evidence that he worked outside these cities, except to make records.

^ Harris, Sheldon (1994). Blues Who's Who (Revised Ed.). New York: Da Capo Press. p. 551. ISBN 0-306-80155-8^ Cite error: The named reference russell was invoked but never defined (see the help page).^ Garon, Paul (1971). The Devil's Son-in-Law. The Story of Peetie Wheatstraw and his Songs. Studio Vista. p. 7. SBN 289-70211.9^ Gates Jr., Henry Louis (2008). African American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 226–228. ISBN 978-0-19-516019-2. ^ Garon (ibid) pp.14–15.^ Dixon, R.M.W. & J. Godrich (1970). Recording the Blues. Studio Vista. SBN 289-79829.9^ Wald, Elijah. (2004). Escaping the Delta. Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Amistad. p.41. ISBN 0-06-05247-8.^ Garon (ibid) p. 15.

Persona[edit]

By the time Bunch reached St Louis, he had discarded his name and crafted a new identity. The name 'Peetie Wheatstraw' has been described by blues scholar Paul Oliver as one that had well-rooted folk associations. Later writers have repeated this, while reporting that many uses of the name are copied from Bunch. Elijah Wald suggests that he may be the sole source of all uses of the name. It would have been in character for Bunch to invent a name with a whimsical folkloric flavor.

All but two of his records were issued as by 'Peetie Wheatstraw, The Devil's Son-in-Law' or 'Peetie Wheatstraw, The High Sheriff from Hell'. He composed several 'stomps' with lyrics projecting a boastful demonic persona to match these sobriquets. His hardened attitude and egotism have given contemporary authors enough ground to compare him to modern day rap artists. There is some evidence that the writer Ralph Ellison might have known him personally. He used both the name 'Peetie Wheatstraw' and aspects of the demonic persona (but no biographical facts) to create a character in his novel Invisible Man. Elijah Wald suggests that Wheatstraw's demonic persona may have been the inspiration for Robert Johnson's association with the Devil.

African-American music maintains the tradition of the African "praise-song", which tells of the prowess (sexual and other) of the singer. Although first-person celebrations of the self provide the impetus for many of his songs, Wheatstraw rings the changes on this theme with confidence, humour and occasional menace. Blues singer Henry Townsend recalled that his real personality was very similar: "He was that kind of person. You know, a jive-type person." Blues critic Tony Russell updates the description: "Wheatstraw constructed a macho persona that made him the spiritual ancestor of rap artists."

^ Oliver, Paul. (1959). The Devil's Son-in-Law. Peetie Wheatstraw. Reprinted in Oliver, Paul (1984). Blues Off the Record. Thirty Years of Blues Commentary. The Baton Press. ISBN 0-85936-153-5.^ Wald, Elijah. (ibid) p. 267.^ Dixon, Robert M.W., John Godrich, & Howard Rye (1997). Blues & Gospel Records 1890–1943, Fourth Edition. Oxford. ISBN 0-19-816239-1^ Cite error: The named reference russell was invoked but never defined (see the help page).^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues- From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. New York: Schirmer Books. p. 184. ISBN 0 02 864862 5. ^ Garon, (ibid) p. 74^ Russell, Tony and Chris Smith (2006). The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-051384-1

Style[edit]

Wheatstraw operated in a community of musicians in St Louis and East St Louis who knew of, and performed with each other. He was also a recording star subject to the demands of record producers and the challenges of other stars. These forces created a consistency in his instrumental styles, which later critics have found uninteresting. Samuel Charters' influential The Country Blues dismissed Wheatstraw and other recording stars of the period as tending to “a repetitious use of clichés and a monotonous accompaniment that was as unimaginative as their singing". Tony Russell, while much more appreciative, warns that “anybody listening to long stretches of his recordings is likely to go stir-crazy”.

Against this generic style Wheatstraw projected instantly recognisable 'trade marks'. Most of the records on which he played piano, including his accompaniments to other singers, begin with the same eight-bar introduction. Much more distinctive was his vocal style, often described as 'lazy' because of his loose articulation, but better represented by Tony Russell as “gruff” and “clogged”. Most distinctive of all was his strangled semi-falsetto cry “Ooh, well, well” (with variations) interjected in the break of third line of the blues verse. According to Teddy Darby, one woman listener exclaimed, “Good God, why doesn’t that man yodel and be done with it?”

What distinguished Wheatstraw’s recordings most of all is the quality of his lyrics. Like other successful performers, he sang of the concerns of urban African Americans removed from their rural roots. Some of his most memorable songs deal with the Repeal of Prohibition, a New Deal WPA Project, and slum clearance for urban renewal. His “stomps” project a unique personality, boastful and demonic. His songs on more mundane themes are extraordinarily varied. His lyrics, though seeming at times slap-dash or improvised, are at their best direct and vivid evocations of the black experience. Wheatstraw's significance as a poet is discussed at length by Paul Garon.

Wheatstraw's self-promotion swiftly paid off as he became a popular performer in East St. Louis, to the extent that he was asked to Chicago in 1930 to partake in recording sessions. He first entered the Vocalion Studios on August 13, 1930, and recorded a handful of numbers which included "Four O'Clock in the Morning" and "Tennessee Peaches Blues". Over the following decade, he would make several such treks, recording over 160 sides for the Vocalion, Decca and Bluebird labels.

Wheatstraw was known for his laid-back approach and adept singing and songwriting, though his instrumental talents were average at best. His songwriting appealed to working class minorities, due to their nature of the content – he often wrote about social issues such as unemployment and public assistance. There were also pieces about the immoral ways of loose women, and true to his own self-publicity, death and the supernatural. Almost all of his songs included his trademark "Ooh, well well", usually accentuated in the third verse, and this has been carried on by many subsequent bluesmen, most noteworthy today being R. L. Burnside.

On his records Wheatstraw is occasionally heard playing guitar, but he usually took to the piano and required a guitarist to play with him—among his collaborators were Kokomo Arnold, Lonnie Johnson, Charley Jordan, Papa Charlie McCoy and Teddy Bunn, in addition to pianist Champion Jack Dupree. On some of his last dates, Wheatstraw recorded within a jazz inspired framework, collaborating with Lil Hardin Armstrong and trumpeter Jonah Jones.

^ Charters, Samuel B. (1960). The Country Blues. English Edition. P. 32. Michael Joseph.^ Russel (ibid) p 697.^ Garon (ibid) p. 15.^ Garon (ibid)

Influence[edit]

Wheatstraw's influence was enormous during the 1930s. Perhaps the most obvious example of Wheatstraw's impact can be seen in the lyrics and vocal stylings of Robert Johnson, often considered the most important blues figure of the era. Many of Johnson's own recordings were actually re-workings of other popular artists of the time, and he drew heavily from Wheatstraw's repertoire. For example, Wheatstraw's "Police station blues" forms the basis for Johnson's "Hellhound on my trail". His "Devil's son in law" nickname also reflected Johnson's similar image.

Wheatstraw, along with Leroy Carr, was one of the earliest blues singer piano players. Many elements of his style can be seen in later artists like Champion Jack Dupree, Moon Mullican and Jerry Lee Lewis. Wheatstraw also made many recordings with the very influential Kokomo Arnold, who wrote the blues standard "Milk cow blues".

Peetie Wheatstraw is mentioned in the song Letters sent by the band Half Man Half Biscuit on their 2005 album Achtung Bono.

Death[edit]

Wheatstraw was still riding the crest of his success when he met his premature demise. The songs “Mister Livingood” and “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living” were his last known recordings in his final recording session on November 25, 1941. On December 21, 1941, his 39th birthday, he and some friends decided to take a drive. They tried to entice Wheatstraw's friend, the blues singer Teddy Darby, but Darby's wife refused to let him join them. Wheatstraw was a passenger in the back seat when the Buick struck a standing freight train, instantly killing his two companions. Wheatstraw died of massive head injuries in the hospital some hours later. There is a legend that his death drew little attention, but the accident was fully reported in St. Louis and East St. Louis newspapers and obituaries appeared in the national music press. Down Beat led the front page for January 15, 1942 with the story of the accident, and an appreciation of Peetie's career under the headline, "Blues Shouter Killed After Waxing 'Hearseman Blues'". Wheatstraw was buried in Growders Cemetery in Cotton Plant, Arkansas.

^ Cite error: The named reference Gates_Jr._2008_226.E2.80.93228 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).^ Garon (ibid) pp. 100–103.
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