In 1994, more than 160 of Peetie Wheatstraw's recordings were rounded up, placed in chronological sequence, and reissued by the Document label in an unprecedented effort that filled seven compact discs. The contents of volume one stand as a fascinating prologue to Wheatstraw's main body of work, providing valuable insights as a composite portrait of this legendary and influential bluesman continues to emerge from the shadows. Born in Ripley, TN in 1902 and raised in Cotton Plant, AK, William Bunch was already operating under his colorful new name when, in 1929, he landed in East St. Louis and quickly earned a reputation as a blues guitarist and barrelhouse piano player. According to his biographer Paul Garon, when Bunch drew upon African American folklore to reinvent himself as Peetie Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son in Law, he was transcending his racially imposed second-class citizenship by initiating "a poetic motive force in the direction of freedom and liberation." This uncompromising and individualistic power is especially evident in the recordings that Wheatstraw made during his first 19 months as a recording artist. His earliest 78 rpm platter was cut for the Vocalion record company on August 13 1930, in the company of a musician whose name may have been J.D. Short or Willie Fields, but is listed only as "Neckbones." The two men shared the vocals, with Neckbones coming across as the comparative lightweight while Wheatstraw expressed himself through gritty, passionate moaning and groaning, pushing his voice to the limit and sounding at times almost like Charley Patton. This is quite different from the way he would sound beginning in 1934, and even those who are accustomed to Southern African American dialect will probably find much of his singing on this album to be difficult to comprehend. The listener is forced instead to focus upon the singer's emotive texture and intonation, and that's a good way to listen. In September and October of 1930, Wheatstraw recorded eight sides with his close friend Charley Jordan, a well-known bootlegger who was responsible for hooking Peetie up with Vocalion to begin with. These were the first records to appear with the words "The Devil's Son-in-Law" right on the label. In September, 1931, Wheatstraw went to Chicago and cut four sides for Bluebird with a guitarist who is believed to have been Charlie McCoy. Although for a change he was not identified on the label as such, the first song of the session was titled "Devil's Son-In-Law," and the song on the flipside was "Pete Wheatstraw." Distributed by Victor, these Bluebird recordings provided him with terrific publicity, spreading his colorful name and distinctive sound throughout the land. Wheatstraw's next opportunity to record was in March 1932 at a studio in New York City, playing piano behind vocalist Pretty Boy Walker, and this marks the first appearance of what would become Wheatstraw's signature introduction. Every recording up until this point had opened with a rhythmic pulse that made it feel like part of a continuum. Without the signature intro, those sides fit together like segments of a longer ritual, and that is the best way to appreciate them, as the three-minute duration was an invention of the recording industry. While the only extant photograph of Peetie Wheatstraw shows him playing a National brand Style 3 Tricone guitar, he recorded almost exclusively as a pianist. The last four titles on this collection feature him singing and playing guitar, and the picture in question was probably taken during that week in 1932. These records should be savored as definitive proof of Wheatstraw's influence on Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines, Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters, and Bukka White.
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