Dan Pickett

Blues Guitar

Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame

 

Dan Pickett was an excellent singer, with a vocal tone reminiscent of Tommy McClennan's and an exciting, sort of "revved up" sound, both vocally and instrumentally.  He plays a lot of slide in Vestapol as well as many numbers played in E position in standard capoed very high.

Throughout the 60s and 70s the identity of Dan Pickett was the subject of much speculation amongst post war blues fans. This was all put to rest in the mid-80s when Bruce Bastin secured reissue rights with Gotham Records. What follows was published in Blues & Rhythm 30 (July 1987, p4-5):

Are You From Alabama, Tennessee Or Carolina?

The Dan Pickett Story So Far.

[NOTE This article is substantially based on my sleevenote to Krazy Kat KK 811; it seems only right to point out that neither note nor article would have been possible had not Bruce Bastin of Insterstate leased the Gotham material in the first place, and made the Gotham files on Pickett available for my use.]

The title, from a Delmore Brothers’s song, almost sums up the scope for writing about Dan Pickett until recently. His remarkable music, recorded in Gotham's Philadelphia studio in 1949, naturally prompted speculation about the man who made it, Simon Napier suggested (1) that he came from Texas; Mike Leadbitter and Neil Slaven had him down as definitely from Alabama in the first edition of "Blues Records", Bruce Bastin has noted, in both "Crying For The Carolinas" and "Red River Blues", his obvious stylistic affinities with the first East Coast and Durham. In 1978, Paul Oliver made a reasoned case (2), on the evidence then available, for Dan Pickett's being the Tennessean Charlie Pickett, resuming a recording career started in new York in 1937.

Recent evidence from Gotham files appears to support the discographers. in July 1950, an attorney named Charles R. Paul wrote to label boss Ivin Balien from Geneva, Alabama, close to the Florida state line, on behalf of his client "a musician by the name of James Founty, known professionally as Dan Pickett". [copy of letter reproduced] However, it has been pointed out (3), that Pickett appears to sing (in "Something's Gone Wrong"):

"Bye, bye Roellen, Miston Farewell to the State of Tennessee, which might mean that he was from that state- at least when he recorded, (Roellen and Miston are small towns some twenty miles apart either side of Dyersburg, itself about seventy miles northeast of Memphis on Highway 51).

Founty/Pickett's complaint was that Ballen Record Company and Andrea Music Company were defaulting on the payment of royalties. This was not, in fact, the case, for the companies' contracts with him did not provide for any royalty. "In consideration of receiving the sum of $200, Founty hereby assigns to the Ballen Record Company eight ( master records" says the one relating to records - which makes it odd that Gotham issued ten. The artist also agreed "not to record the same selection for any other company for a period of three years". (Normally Gotham demanded five).

This agreement was signed on 23rd August 1949, which is almost certainly the date of the recording session- if indeed there were not two or more sessions. Pickett received $5.00 from petty cash on Saturday 20th, and another $7.00 on the Monday, both described as "advance on songs", so he may have been recorded on each day, it seems unlikely that seventeen songs could have been recorded in one burst.

The above is the stock - so far - of the information on Dan Pickett, other than the discography below and the cause of all the excitement, his recordings. It's to be hoped that the appearance of an album of these, plus the leads now known to exist, will prompt a search for the man or his relatives. Meanwhile, we have the music.

McCLENNAN

This was clearly influenced by the guitar, and sometimes singing, of Tampa Red, and a similarity to Tommy McClennan's vocal style can often be detected too, though I am less certain of a direct influence here; the chief characteristic of Picketts music is a remarkable dexterity as a singer, and in combining voice and guitar, and it seems to be the sheer pleasure of being so very good at his music that produces the chuckles, asides and so on that recall McClennan. There is a leaning towards the songs of Piedmont bluesmen, while "Laughing Rag" (Gotham's first issue, incidentally) has a more general "Piedmont feel" in its raggy guitar figures. More elusive influences can also be detected, suggesting a possible acquaintance with Louisiana and South East Texas, the appearance of Texas Alexander's moan on "That's Grieving Me" and the richer chordings of "Drivin' That Thing", recalling Oscar Woods and Ed Schaffer.

It's noticeable that, despite his undeniable status as major and original musician, Dan Pickett doesn't appear to have composed many original numbers ("Laughing Rag" is his weakest effort by some margin). He seems, in fact, to be what might be termed a blues playing songster, displaying the eclecticism of the songsters, and their tendency to recompose rather that create from new, but confining his repertoire to blues, with occasional forays into ragtime and religion. Not only that, he is to a remarkable degree dependent on the use of recordings for the acquisition of songs, which are then submitted to varying degrees of deconstruction, and reassembled into vehicles for his own expression.

Thus "Chicago Blues" recreates, not just Tampa Red's "Chicago Moan", but the version he performed on the 1929 Victor promotional record "Jim Jackson's Jamboree - Part II". (Pickett even uses Jim Jackson's introduction of "the man with the golden guitar", which presumably provoked the outlandish suggestion that Red might be the second guitarist on "Number Writer".) "Baby Don't You Want To Go" derives from two versions. "Old Original Kokomo Blues", recorded by the eponymous Mr. Arnold in 1934, is unsurprising, a much less likely source is "Mr. Freddie's Kokomo Blues", cut the following year by FreddieSpruell, and far from being a big seller which seems to have inspired the use of "Mary had a little lamb". Neither of the sources dared to sing the alphabet (!) however, and neither is responsible for Pickett's brilliant accompaniment.

It's less easy to find a source for the well known gospel song "991/2 Won't Do", but the general influence of Rev. E. W. Clayborn seems clear. He was among the first of the guitar evangelists to record (between 1927 and 1929), and as such his records sold well. It has been suggested (5) that Clayborn was from Alabama, but I don't think a direct influence is likely; religious music doesn't seem to have been a major part of Pickett's life (it didn't stop him recording "l Can Buy It (The Stuff Is Here)") and "991/2 " is basically a medley of favourites, such as a street singers might keep up his sleeve to meet requests. (It's also such livelier and more rhythmically free than any of Clayborn's work.)

ESTES

The Piedmont influence is seen in the stunning "Ride To A Funeral In A V-8" which picks up a 1935 Buddy Moss recording (much to Moss annoyance when it was played to him in 1969 in the hope of a lead to Pickett!`s,). "Lemon Man" is from Blind Boy Fuller's 1937 record, "Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon" (though I wonder if Sonny Boy Williamson's "Until My Love Come Down" of the following year was en route.) Namesake Charlie Pickett probably acquired the song from Fullers record too, and his associate Sleepy John Estes may be Pickett's source for "That's Grieving Me, "which Estes cut in 1938 as "Easin' Back To Tennessee", "Drivin' That Thing" sounds very like "Step It Up And Go" (1940), Fuller's most famous number, and `'You Got To Do Better" strongly resembles SonnyJones' 1939 version of "Love Me With A Feeling", though I suspect this is because both sound like Tampa Red's 1938 original.

"Baby How Long" and "Number Writer" are greatly changed by comparison with their sources. The former is Leroy Carr's big hit of 1928 given a "Tommy McClennan" treatment. "Number Writer" is Bumble Bee Slim's "Policy Dream Blues" from 1935, subjected to the full Dan Pickett treatment, which makes it verbally almost indecipherable, and musically unnerving-always seeming about to collapse under the pressure of his virtuosity, but never quite doing so.

Leory Carr's partner, Scrapper Blackwell, is the source for "Early One Morning" a version of his 1928 recording, "Penal Farm Blues", while Peetie Wheatstraw's influence is obvious on "Something Gone Wrong". The song is a mutation of Casey Bill Weldon's 1936 hit, "We're Gonna Move (To The Outskirts Of Town)", incorporating a line from Wheatstraw's 1936 "Santa Fe Blues" and, intriguingly, using his enigmatic word "fairase" Wheatstraw uses it to describe dance hall girls, but here it seems to refer to a train. Finally, "Decoratin Day" is from Sonny Boy Williamson, who cut "Decoration Blues" in 1938. Additionally, it incorporates lies from Robert Johnson's 1936 "Terraplane Blues", it's worth remembering that Johnson's current hero status was by no means reflected in contemporary record sales. l wonder if Johnson and Founty/Pickett ever met?

Most of James Founty's apparent sources were recorded between 1934 and 1938, which probably gives a clue to the period during which he learned his repertoire. If he started early in life, he might still be alive, and even still playing. Let's hope he can be found.

NOTES

(1) Notes to Postwar Blues PWB3.

(2) "Blues Unlimited" 129, March/April 1979, p.26.

(3) Bruce Bastin to the author.

(4) "Blues Records", 1st edn., Hanover, 1968.

(5) Peter Whelan, quoted in Bernard Klatzko, notes to Herwin 206.

(6) Bruce Bastin, conversation with the author.

Source: Dan Pickett

 

Pickett's real name was James Founty, and he was born and died in Alabama. A number of relatives were located in the '90s, but none of them knew much about Pickett's life; he was the archetypal rambling blues singer, given to dissapearing for months and years at a time, and silent about where he'd been. Dan Pickett is a paradox. His songs derive almost entirely from '30s commercial recordings, and repertoire and playing alike make his admiration for Tampa Red obvious and other. Yet his recordings are some of the most original downhome blues of their time or any other. Pickett's guitar is unpredictable, fluid and perfectly integrated with his singing, which is pasionate, declamatory and as exuberant as his playing, often cramming a remarkable number of syllabes into a line. Pickett takes other people's songs apart and rebuilds them, and although the originals are still reconizable, they are radically transformed, becoming the unmistakable, astonishing music of Dan Pickett. This is beautifull and very interesting recordings.

Dan Pickett remains somewhat of a musical mystery - he played Blues inflected slide guitar and his only recordings seem to be these, which he recorded for Gotham in 1949. This 13-song collection features the five singles from his Gotham session, plus bonus tracks.
1949 Country Blues is an invaluable reissue of ten sides originally released on 78s during 1949, plus four previously unreleased songs. During the '60s, these sides were highly collectable, and earned the reputation of being among the finest country-blues. That reputation wasn't misguided -- he was truly unique among country bluesmen. Pickett had a distinctive rhythmic style and unique phrasing that makes his records compelling decades after his release. He made songs from the likes of Blind Boy Fuller ("Lemon Man," also known as "Let Me Squeeze Your Lemons") and Leroy Carr ("How Long") sound like his own. At times, the music on 1949 Country Blues is simply astonishing. No serious blues collector should be without this disc. ~ Thom Owens
For years James Founty, known professionally as Dan Pickett, was a mystery man. Field trips in the early 90’s have solved most mysteries although most of the research remains unpublished. He recorded five singles for Gotham plus four unreleased tracks in 1949. Pickett’s repertoire was derived almost exclusively from 30’s recordings synthesizing those styles into a unique sound of his own.
Reissuers have unearthed little information about Dan Pickett: He may have come from Alabama, he played a nice slide guitar in a Southeastern blues style, and he did one recording session for the Philadelphia-based Gotham label in 1949. That session produced five singles, all of which have now been compiled along with four previously unreleased sides on a reissue album that purports to contain Pickett's entire recorded output -- unless, of course, as some reviewers have speculated, Dan Pickett happens also to be Charlie Pickett, the Tennessee guitarist who recorded for Decca in 1937. As Tony Russell observed in Juke Blues, both Picketts recorded blues about lemon-squeezing, and Dan uses the name Charlie twice in the lyrics to "Decoration Day." 'Tis from such mystery and speculation that the minds of blues collectors do dissolve. ~ Jim O'Neal, Rovi
Source: Dan Pickett
Birthname: James Founty
Nationality: American
Born: Aug 31 1907
Died: Aug 16 1967 (59 years old)
1949 Country BluesDan Pickett & Tarheel Slim

 

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