Saturday, June 19, 2010


I walked up to the battered shack. It was the identical to the thirty or so that flanked either side of it. In what amounted to an Avenue of abandoned houses.
In this section of St Louis it was a common sight and was risking my life by just driving through here.
By my reckoning there was a man living here who had so far lived to the unlikely age of 115 years old.
 I knocked on the heavy door and after about a minute I heard shuffling foot steps and then the door slowly creaked open.
I stood face to face with a battered old black man who looked more like a dried prune than a human being. His pupils were hidden behind large white cataracts
“Woz you want boy?” he asked in a raspy voice.
“Are you Bo Johnson… Oh MY LORD!…Is there a dead body in there?” and I retched and fell to my knees.
I had found my mark.

As a music historian I am often up for the challenge so it was a mild surprise when hunting through some old boxes in the State Library of Mississippi I came across a solitary thick acetate disc of a 1934 recording of Wallpaper Paste Blues by Blind deaf and smelly Bo.
When inspected it turned out to be the genuine article from that time in history when Alan Lomax and his team were scouring the Delta for indigenous folk music for the Smithsonian Institute. On further listening the recording was authentic for the period and done by a short lived division of the Edison Phonograph Company based in Boston.
The man Blind deaf and smelly Bo was neither a known musician or a very good one. In fact it was terrible.
The Smithsonian shows no historical record of the recording and the name and the music are too bad to be dismissed as an early novelty recording.
This needed serious investigation.
Thus began the search for the missing Delta bluesman Blind deaf and smelly Bo Johnson.

For years I had heard rumours, whispers, footnotes in sidebars of the biographies of the great bluesman: Johnson (Robert and; Tommy) Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Charlie Paton. Sometimes a slight reference to an early musician who was so terrible he was an inspiration for others to be better. A man who by his abject failure as an entertainer  made those who followed after him look so much better when using him as an opening act .
Using the powerful and extremely accurate research tool that is Google and the internet, as well as a massive University grant I went searching for this enigmatic legend.

I discovered an actual reference to the man and more importantly a name whilst going through Police records from Clarksdale Mississippi from the archives of the 1930s.
A long and arduous task but panning for gold is a practice of patience.
I discovered notes pertaining to an itinerate beggar who would deliberately get arrested so he had somewhere to sleep at night. Though he had many arrests it seems the local constabulary treated him as their own charity case and let him use the tool shed.
Strange practice for those times and attitudes.
His name: Bo Johnson, more commonly known as Blind deaf and smelly Bo.
A non du plume that was believed to be partially accurate but also to avoid confusion with another itinerant musician Blind Bo the Third.

An obligatory picture of Civil war black soldiers or slaves for reference as by US law for documentaries like this  

Only one recording of Blind deaf and smelly Bo exists. A 1934 one-sided 78 rpm disc recorded by a travelling representative from the Edison Phonograph Company Boston division.

He like others of the time used popular coloured musicians to help sell new and cheaper mass produced record players to black population.

This salesman obviously didn’t understand the basic and primitive nature of the blues and though Blind, deaf and smelly Bo’s music was as savage as could be made it resulted in people returning their phonographs to the stores in droves and demanding refunds.

A grainy old black and white photo for effect

“I was only 22 at the time and had no idea what this music – if you call it that- was about.

I was raised on the classics and all this folk music sounded the same to me. Discordant and simple.”

F.Hyram Whittlesea an educated and cultural man who rose the corporate ladder to become head of RCA Victor Classics in the 1970s and the most important person in the telling of the story of the legacy of Blind deaf and smelly Bo Johnson.

F. Hyram Whittlesea wrote a self-published book of his memoirs in the 1980s before passing away peacefully in his eighties.

An act of vanity but an important record of fact and one of the reasons I eventually found the mythical blues man.

What follows are exclusive extracts from Whittlesea's self penned biography:

My Life in the Recording Industry and the Strange Thing and People I Encountered on the Way

F. Hyram Whittlesea Vanity Press 1982 used with permission from the Whittlesea Estate

“ I got the job just out of college with Edison Phonograph and they thought it would be an experience to blood me in the field, so they sent me from Boston to the state of Mississippi to record indigenous music so we could use them to sell back to the coloured folk in the plantation areas.

There was a large population down there and many of the folk were coming into some disposable income. It was predicted to be a growing market that needed capitalizing on”

Smelly Bo was my fist contact. I drove into Clarksdale and noticed a crowd gathered around a man playing a guitar on a bench. They were showering him with coins as he played. It was – to my ears – a terrible racket but these people must of felt differently.

My first thought was – looks like I got my first recording artist.

His popularity was certain judging by the money he was making”

But as F. Hyram Whittlesea was to discover too late was the fact that the crowd were shop and stall owners bribing Blind deaf and smelly Bo to go away. It was discovered later this was Bo’s method of operation to earning money by setting up in a busy market place and driving customers away with his horrible sound and stench thus forcing the local traders to buy him off.

“when he had finished the crowd waited until he had collected all his coins and left before dispersing. I approached him and realized he was blind due to two large cataracts on his eyes. I heard his name called by one of locals when the shouted out to him “ I hope yous breaks your legs Blind deaf smelly Bo” at the time I thought it was some theatrical well wish, I now know better.

Well, I assumed he was deaf and was wondering how I could approach a man who was near impossible to communicate with? Then as I followed him down the road pondering this dilemma he turned and asked me “Why you following me boss?”

“You see people just assumed that Smelly Bo was deaf because he played so bad.

It was then with renewed confidence I approached him with my offer”

“It was during this close contact that I discovered the reason for Bo’s third nickname. It was like the man generated waves of stench from his person like nothing I had seen before or since. I man did not now the meaning of the word wash or soap”

“Bo was extremely interested in recording his song, I say song because he only knew one and made variations on it, but he was far more interested in recording in a hotel room, when I said it was a new hotel he became extremely excited.

The reason for this became obvious during the recording process.”

            the original record label discovered by Walter.W.Walton at the State Library Mississippi

“I placed Bo against the wall and set up my portable acetate recording discs on a table. I had primed Bo with some cheap whiskey to settle his nerves mainly because he was in a slight agitated state as soon as he entered the hotel room. You see when he entered the room he seemed to draw in large breaths through his nose and this seemed to excite his senses. I took this as a good sign for a dynamic performance. Whilst setting up the recording devices Smelly Bo insisted on turning his chair towards the wall which was newly wall papered every attempt by myself to turn him back again led to a struggle and argument, in the end I moved the recording equipment to suit his position because coming in close proximity to Bo was an unpleasant affair.”

The recording of Blind deaf smelly Bo was a quick affair and done in one take it was removing Bo from the hotel room that became Whittlesea’s largest problem.

“After we had finished the first take I couldn’t seem to extract anymore out of Bo and decided what I had was enough it was only when I was ready to leave that I noticed he had stripped back pieces of the wall paper and was furiously licking the scarred exposed wall underneath.”

Hyram an educated man had heard of such behaviour in his travels and identified it as Wallpaper paste addiction or papyiusious. It came to as a shock to Whittlesea that when he had the words of the recording deciphered it was exactly what Blind deaf smelly Bo was singing about whilst he was recording”

F. Hyram Whittlesea left Bo in the hotel room with $20 and informed the desk clerk there was a coloured man trashing there room and left never seeing Bo Johnson again. Neither did he pay any royalties or commissions, not that any were made. In actual fact the recording of Blind deaf smelly Bo nearly cost F. Hyram Whittlesea his job and his career.

One of the main effect of papyiusious is blindness. This now explains the first of Bo Johnson’s nick names. He most likely formed his addiction in the 1910s when he was a teenager when paste licking was a popular but frowned upon habit much like glue and petrol sniffing in later years. Eventually many states removed the active ingredient that caused the addiction , the only state not having done so is Missouri where I discovered Blind deaf smelly Bo.

Other interesting snippets were found in my travels, one was handed to me by John Hammond noted Robert Johnson historian.
John has procured a pamphlet entitled “Truths of the Delta” apparently a legendary tell all that exposed the myths of Delta bluesmen. In it was reference to the old story of Robert and Tommy Johnson having sold their souls to the devil at the cross roads, the pamphlet says it’s all a big con and both men learnt their techniques from a man named Devlin Cross who owned a small roadhouse outside Clarksdale. It also goes on to mention Blind deaf smelly Bo as a brother of the two other Johnsons and that the blues were actually created by William Stovall III a descendant of the original plantation owner but gave it to the workers as a gift instead of a pay rise. And lastly that Heddy Leadbetter (Leadbelly) was actually a white man dressed as a Black and White Minstrel.
Of course this pamphlet was dismissed as rubbish but it was still interesting that Bo Johnson was mentioned.