If harmonica players on the 1920s Alabama blues scene were barbecue, then the meat eaters would complaining about the shortage. To some blues researchers, the situation seems so bad they take delight in pointing out that one of these rare bluesmen, Frank Palmes, was actually a pseudonym for Birmingham's best-known bluesman, Jaybird Coleman. There was really an Ollis Martin, however, and he warns us that "Police and High Sheriff Come Ridin' Down" on the Document Great Harp Players compilation. Perhaps the law was coming to get him, because he never recorded again under his own name after this 1927 session for Gennet. Martin was active around the Birmingham area in the latter part of that decade, also showing up on some sides cut by Coleman, with whom he recorded gospel harmonica duets. Much more is known about Coleman than Martin or any of the former man's various musical partners. In fact there is a theory that Martin did not perform the second harmonica part on the Coleman recordings from this era, that it was probably another even more obscure Birmingham harmonica player instead. For what it was worth, Coleman and his obscure friends were the blues scene in the Birmingham environs around that time. The somewhat dismal picture that is left via documentation is really the fault of talent scouts, not the state's blues players. The prewar scouts of blues talent apparently visited Alabama much less often than some other states. These scouts were sometimes referred to as "race record field units" during the '20s and '30s. Their attitude about Alabama certainly wouldn't please Lynryrd Skynryd, and also meant the record buying public has lost out on the opportunity to hear blues artists with incredible names, such as Whistling Pete, Peanut the Kidnapper, Bogan's Birmingham Busters, Brownie Stubblefield, and the thinning pair of Georgia Slim and Guitar Slim. George "Bullet" Williams is another Alabama harmonica player from this period that shows up on some of the same anthologies as Martin. These are generally collections of Alabama country blues or early American harmonica virtuosity. Gathering all the tracks by Alabama harmonica players on one disc seems like a logical idea, especially if all the reports about a paucity of material are true. It took the Japanese to actually do it. The P-Vine collection entitled The Pioneers of Blues Harmonica, although credited to Coleman and Williams, also includes the fine work of Martin and Daddy Stovepipe, the Alabama harp player with the best name of all. Martin might have a more ordinary moniker, but in terms of harmonica players may have made more of a musical impact. The field reference for young harmonica students, Tony "Little Sun" Glover's Blues Harp Songbook, chooses the playing of Martin as one of its points of extended study.
Share this page