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Monday, February 18, 2013

Country Woman - Will Batts

Fiddler Will Batts was the primary instrumentalist in Jack Kelly's South Memphis Jug Band, a popular string band whose music owed a heavy debt to the blues as well as minstrel songs, vaudeville numbers, reels and rags. Born January 24, 1904 in Michigan, Mississippi, Batts was working as a farm hand when he decided to pursue a career in music full-time; he sooned joined Kelly's band, a fixture of the Beale Street area, and in 1933 they made their first recordings, followed in 1939 by a second and final session. Batts also backed a variety of other Memphis performers, including minstrel singer Frank Stokes; a 1952 session with harpist Big Walter Horton was his last known recording date -- he died on April 16, 1954.

Jack Kelly & His South Memphis Jug Band (1933-1939, BDCD-6005)

Twenty years have passed since Bengt Olsson's monograph, 'The Memphis Blues", was published. To this day our knowledge of the city's musical development is largely based on his research. As Olsson noted, Memphis boasted a preponderance of jug bands and when record companies finally got around to recording the genre there were at least six formally organised bands working in the city. Four of those, Will Shade's Memphis Jug Band, Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, Jed Davenport's Beale Street Jug Band and Jack Kelly's South Memphis Jug Band, enjoyed fairly flourishing recording careers. Of those Cannon and Shade's became the most commercially successful, Davenport's managed just one session, while Jack Kelly's aggregation only seemed to find favour with record companies as Shade's popularity began to dwindle.

Little is known of Kelly and the few biographical details available come from the reminiscences of others. It is thought he was born in northern Mississippi at the turn of the century (1905 has been suggested) , moving to Memphis in the twenties where he remained until his death around 1960. He is remembered as a street musician who worked with guitarists Frank Stokes, Dan Sane and fiddle player Will Batts. Later Kelly, Sam and Batts augmented their sound with a jug player, DM Higgs, forming a group called the South Memphis Jug Band. Their repertoire tended to favour blues based material and the combination of two guitars, violin and jug produced a decidedly "country blues" sound, more so than that of a conventional band, the line-ups of which, usually included instruments like banjo, harmonica, kazoo, washboard and washtub bass.

The uninhibited music of the country juke joint and southern township hall is evident in Kelly's first recordings in 1933.  The all pervasive impression being one of musical excellence rather than originality of lyric. Jack Kelly's basic chording and medium tempo picking, perfectly complemented by Dan Sam's buzy bass run flatpicking, the heavy rhythm of the two guitars underscored by Will Batt's plaintive fiddling and sonorous jug blowing of Dr Higgs add new dimension to fairly standard themes like "Highway 61" or "Ko Ko Mo Blues". However, when Jack Kelly and Will Batts returned to the studio six years later they underwent a metamorphous, dropping Sam and Higgs ‑ along with the "South Memphis Jug Band" tag - and in their place an unidentified guitarist (whom Olsson has always insisted was Little Son Joe) providing the foil. This change of personnel had a marked effect on their sound, almost taking their music back to the decade that produced the fine partnership of Frank Stokes and Dan Sane. Also the material took on a more lyrical, profound or topical air as in, for example, "Joe Louis Special" ("Steak and gravy is his favorite dishes"), "Diamond Buyer" ("Somebody, somebody, somebody been trimming my horses mane") or the post depression "Neck Bone Blues" ("times got so hard well it made many men to eat kneckbones").

Throughout the forties and fifties Jack Kelly remained playing in Memphis finally teaming up with harmonica player Walter Horton. In 1952 they recorded two numbers for Sun records, as Jackie Boy and Little Walter, but that was the last contact Walter Horton had with Jack Kelly
and when questioned about him many years later Horton couldn't even put a date to his death.
                                                                                                                    Alan Balfour August 1991

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