Booker T. Sapps

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To many people, the Booker T. Sapps might bring to mind a blackjack company run as a sideline by a funky rhythm & blues organist, or perhaps the name would mean nothing at all. To a blues harmonica player,…
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To many people, the Booker T. Sapps might bring to mind a blackjack company run as a sideline by a funky rhythm & blues organist, or perhaps the name would mean nothing at all. To a blues harmonica player, it is the name of a mysterious figure who managed to get in the crosshairs of microphones and portable tape recording equipment being utilized by roving ethnomusicologists of the '30s and '40s, with possibly more accuracy than the hunting rifles of local residents. When a harmonica player says that Sapps was a classic straight blocker, again one might think the discussion has to do with thugs ready to commit mayhem, but this is pure harmonica talk. Sapps is an early blues harmonica player whose existence suggests the possible solving of technical mysteries connected to the fine art of making tiny metal reeds warble in and out of tune. If the American blues scene is like a puzzle, like one of those 5,000 piece ones that nobody ever finishes, then Booker T. Sapps is the piece that someone finds stuck under the piano bench. He was recorded in the mid-'30s in the swampy state of Florida, accompanying singer and guitarist Roger Matthews. These field recordings were originally conducted by Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle for the Library of Congress. The repertoire of the Matthews-Sapps duo was heavily laden with folk ballads and similar traditional material, as evidenced by their versions of "Frankie and Albert," "Fox and the Hounds," and "I'm a Pilgrim." Their style is a bit similar to the user-friendly coffeehouse blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, but is even closer to the real down-home source of this style. "Blues as played outside the recording studio" was one critic's description of the sound of this duo, and it is a good one. "The Fox and the Hounds" is of course the showpiece for the harmonica and is a performance that would fit comfortably into an old-time country discography, that is as long as the gatekeepers were color blind. Country blues and old-time players had one important thing in common: They were the "it" as far as musical entertainment at local events were concerned and Sapps' music comes firmly out of what would have been the traditional repertoire of a mid-'30s dance band of either color. It was certainly not an enterprise that provided the musician with a living, as is purely evidenced by the fact that the performers recording in Florida were all surviving as migrant workers at the time. The Florida recordings seem to have been Sapps' only time in front of a tape recorder, but it has had wide-reaching musical effects. No less a folk icon as Bob Dylan has expressed his enthusiasm for Booker T. Sapps, and he definitely wasn't discussing street weaponry. The weapon of choice for both Dylan and Sapps was the harmonica, used by both in an authentic country blues manner. If the latter artist was indeed an influence, then it can be said that the sound of Sapps is truly "Blowin' in the Wind."