Funny Paper Smith

Complete Recorded Works (1930-1931)

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John T. Smith, known variously as The Howling Wolf, Funny Papa, or (by default) Funny Paper Smith, was an itinerant blues singer who accompanied himself on the guitar while circulating throughout Texas during the 1920s and early '30s. Between September 1930 and April 1935 he made phonograph records for Vocalion as a solo act and in the company of a few of his friends. Out of more than 50 sides involving Smith that were listed in the studio logs, more than half were never issued and have since disappeared. Happily, his 22 prime performances, captured in Chicago in 1930 and 1931, were compiled and reissued on compact disc by Document in 1991 under the heading of Funny Paper Smith, the name that appeared by mistake on his 78 rpm platters. As a wandering entertainer, Smith could be compared with "Ragtime Texas" Henry Thomas, but that individual was a full-time train-hopping hobo while Smith is believed to have worked for awhile as a foreman on a plantation. Other distinct differences between the two musicians were instrumentation (Thomas broadly strummed his chords and sometimes blew into a panpipe of his own devising); style (much of what Thomas doled out was folksier than Smith's straightforward, hard-edged blues) and temperament, as Thomas comes across as gentle and old-fashioned when compared with Smith, whose lyrics regularly reference abuse, violence, and even murder. This tendency, and his incarceration following a homicide, place him more in league with wife-killer Texas Alexander. In contrast with many of his contemporaries who swiftly adapted to the parameters of recording technology, Smith's preference was to stretch out and express himself within a time frame that sometimes exceeded the duration of the three-minute record. Four of the titles on this collection spilled over onto the flipside, with the ""Howling Wolf Blues"" eventually filling four sides for a total of nearly 11 minutes. When Chester Burnett took on the name Howlin' Wolf a few years later, he was invoking his own masculine power, loneliness, and tendency to moan like a wild animal. Judging from the harshness of some of the words on this album, Funny Papa's adoption of the Wolf seems to have betokened a ferocity of which he was obviously proud. Smith's "funniest" lines, heard on ""The Fool's Blues,"" are a little bit self-deprecating, but most of the time he kept his defenses up while singing about real life, which for him meant being dark-skinned within the U.S.'s racially encoded caste system, and about being a man with passions, habits, and tendencies that could and did escalate into violence. ""Tell It to the Judge"" is a vaudeville duet with Dessa Foster that lasts nearly six minutes; she portrays a bootlegger while Smith poses first as a prohibition agent, then as the magistrate. ""Mama's Quittin' and Leavin',"" a blues duet of comparable length, co-stars Magnolia Harris, who, it has been suggested, might have actually been Victoria Spivey. Here Smith comes across as wryly misogynistic, recycling one of his favorite lines as he explains to his female companion that "rather than see someone else mistreat you, I'd rather keep you and mistreat you myself." Smith's collaborations with Bernice Edwards and pianist Black Boy Shine were cut in Fort Worth on April 20, 1935 and do not appear on this disc; a handful were included in Document 5224: Texas Piano Vol.1 (1923-1935). The rest of Smith's recordings, made at various sessions during April 1935 in that same Fort Worth location, involved Edwards, Shine, and guitarist "Little Brother" Willie Lane, and were not released to the public and may have been lost forever. Smith's career ended abruptly when he slew a man during an argument either about money owed or a woman regarded as his property. Sentenced to 25 years in the pen, he is said to have perished in his cell during or around the year 1940. While other labels have touched upon his legacy, this is the Funny Papa/Funny Paper Smith album to have.

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