Six Cylinder Smith

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Blues singer Josh White claims to have worked for more than five dozen different blind blues singers as a lead boy, although according to White not all of them were really blind. Blind Joe Taggart, for…
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Blues singer Josh White claims to have worked for more than five dozen different blind blues singers as a lead boy, although according to White not all of them were really blind. Blind Joe Taggart, for example, actually just had cataracts with resulting vision well above and beyond the range of what is considered legally blind. Taggart's name inevitably comes up in any discussion of Six Cylinder Smith, a blues performer from the Texas/Louisiana/Arkansas area. Six Cylinder Smith's opinion on the women of Pennsylvania, expressed without reservation in the song "Pennsylvania Woman Blues," is considered important enough to turn up on several different blues compilations released by record companies such as Yazoo and the howling Austrian blues label Wolf. Wherever Six Cylinder Smith goes, Blind Joe Taggart is sure to follow, which is not mentioned as further proof of the latter man's ability to see, but because many blues scholars think Taggart and Smith were the same guy. On the other hand, there is also evidence that they were not. White spoke at great length about his experiences with Taggart but more about how mean he was and not about other identities he might have had. When a bluesman assumed another name, the reason was not some kind of schizophrenia but usually an effort to do extra recording outside of a contract that had already been signed under one name. In the case of Taggart, he may have recorded secular blues numbers under the name of Smith, because in his former performing identity he was known as a gospel blues singer in the style of Blind Willie Johnson. To record a number such as "Pennsylvania Woman Blues" would definitely have been out of character for a so-called blues preacher. White has established that Taggart recorded numbers such as this under the name of Blind Joe Amos, yet the question of Six Cylinder Smith remains loaded.

The recordings he made for Paramount in the late '20s and early '30s deepen the mystery rather than clear it up. The art of blues harmonica playing always seem to involve the tiny instrument being cupped in the player's hand, leaving the musician with no hands left to play other instruments simultaneously. The style known as "rack harmonica," in which the harmonica is mounted on a wire rack that goes over the performer's head and rests on his shoulders, is mostly associated with the likes of Bob Dylan and is generally not heard on blues records. The major exception is the one-man blues band Jesse Fuller, who plays both a harmonica and a kazoo on such a rack as well as several instruments with his feet. Six Cylinder Smith is sometimes thought to be another exception to the "no rack" rule. Some blues listeners feel his recordings are done solo, then, with all the instruments being played by Smith. If this is the case, Smith is established as one of the earliest blues harmonica players, although by no means one of the most well-known of his generation. Whereas at least some biographical information is known about some of his harmonica playing peers, such as Dr. Humphrey Bates or Noah Lewis, the total of available detail about Smith seems to be summarized by blues fans' comments such as "Great name!" Others feel these recordings are duos involving Smith and Taggart, and of course there are those who feel the music in question is entirely the work of Taggart, who would then also have to be a rack harmonica player although there is no evidence of such techniques on recordings made under his "Blind" name. To wind up an account that might seem like the blind leading the blind, there is much solid evidence that recordings made by Blind Percy or Blind Percy & His Blind Band are the work of Smith, although blues scholars have not yet decided that Blind Joe Taggart is Blind Percy. A pity the booking agent character of Broadway Danny Rose created by Woody Allen for his film of the same name couldn't add Blind Percy & His Blind Band to a roster of artists that included a "one-armed xylophone player." One can just imagine the tasteless jokes: "Can they sight read?" Blues listeners who feel they might be able to unravel this mystery are welcome to dig into these compilations and listen carefully, eyes closed of course.