A Shadow on the Wind 1
Blind Dan Smullyan (aka Hambone Sykes) Original 1931 Recordings The songs on this CD were recorded during two sessions in May and July of 1931 in Chicago, Illinois, by an obscure and, until recently, virtually forgotten Mississippi blues man named Blind Dan Smullyan. Dan Smullyan, who incidentally was not blind, was of Jewish ancestry, and his story and the story of how these recordings came to be made represent a fascinating and revealing slice of America's social and cultural history. Dan was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1908, the son of Jewish immigrants from the Baltic region of Northern Europe. His father Samuel operated a dry goods store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1916, Samuel received a letter from a cousin who had settled in Jackson, Mississippi, a few years earlier and who now had a highly successful store of his own there, proposing that Samuel relocate to Mississippi and become partners in a second store in nearby Natchez. So it was that at the age of eight Dan found himself in the Deep South surrounded by unfamiliar faces, sounds, tastes, smells, and attitudes. As a child growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, Dan had been relatively protected from exposure to anti-Semitism, but here in the South, where the great majority of people had never even met a Jew, that centuries-old ignorance and prejudice was impossible to avoid. The white Christian children were told by their parents that the "Jew boy" was the devil, and they were forbidden to play with him. In the beginning, their taunting and name calling confused and tormented young Dan, but he soon learned that many in the Deep South endured this kind of treatment all the time. Rejected by the white children, Dan found a much more tolerant and forgiving place among the Black families of Natchez. Although there was still much ignorance - the Black children initially asked to see Dan's horns and tail - he was soon accepted into their homes and treated as lovingly as one of their own. Inevitably, Dan was exposed to the music that was being played there. At that time there were no radio stations and the phonograph was not yet commercially available, so this was live music. At parties and family gatherings, string bands played dance music, and from back porches at day's end, banjos and guitars rang out into the Mississippi night as people played both for entertainment and personal pleasure. The uncle of one of Dan's friends played guitar. His name was R.T Strickland, and he used a piece of bone polished to a smooth finish to play in the blues style that was becoming popular in the years directly prior to World War I. Dan was so taken with the sound of the slide guitar that he asked R.T. if he would teach him how to play that way. R.T. was more than happy to oblige. For the next year or so, whenever the opportunity arose, R.T. showed him something new and let him practice on his guitar. Dan learned quickly and R.T. seemed to get a real kick out of hearing this skinny, curly-haired, white-skinned kid play his music. He even showed Dan off to some of his musician friends, who were surprised at how well Dan had absorbed what R.T. had taught him and had a good laugh at hearing him mimic R.T.'s style. In 1921, while on a trip to Memphis, Samuel Smullyan bought a used guitar at a pawn shop and gave it to Dan for his thirteenth birthday. By the time he was sixteen, Dan was playing alongside R.T. Strickland and other local musicians at dances, picnics, barbecues, and jamborees. He also began developing his own style of playing, writing his own songs, and performing them solo whenever he was given the chance. Then, when Dan was nineteen, Samuel Smullyan died suddenly. His mother, Sophie, who had never completely adjusted to life in Mississippi, decided to close the store and move back to Brooklyn with Dan's sister, Deborah, who was still just fifteen at the time. Dan opted to stay behind and was given a room at his uncle's house in Jackson (Benjamin Smullyan was Samuel's first cousin-he was thus technically not an uncle, but Dan always referred to him as such). In fact, Dan stayed there only sporadically over the next several years, choosing instead the life of an itinerant, taking odd jobs and performing for tips to support himself. During this period, he went by the name "Hambone Sykes" - Sykes had been the name of a dear childhood friend who had been killed in a farm accident while still a teenager; Hambone derived from Dan's preference for using a dried, cut, and polished piece of ham bone as a slide when playing guitar. Hambone Sykes traveled a regular circuit from New Orleans north to Memphis and on south to Biloxi. It is known from letters he wrote to his sister that on at least one occasion he ventured as far east as Georgia and Florida. While it can't be documented, it is virtually certain that in his travels Dan crossed paths with many of the great Delta blues men of his day. There is some evidence from his letters that he always felt like something of an outsider and was never fully accepted by the other itinerant musicians. But in one letter to his sister, he mentions that "the great Charles Patton" had taken a liking to him, come to his support in a disagreement he was having with another musician, and even asked to learn a couple of his songs. It is also known that in 1930 Dan visited New York City - a trip paid for by his uncle Benjamin, who felt that Dan should be given the chance to see his mother and sister from whom he had now been separated for nearly three years. Most of Dan's extended family lived in New York, with members residing in every borough except Staten Island. The visit was open ended, and Dan used the opportunity to reacquaint himself with the city he had left as a small boy. Ultimately, though, he found the crowds, the frenetic pace of life there, and the generally unsympathetic nature of the people to be disheartening, and after two months, he took the train back to Mississippi. It would be another five years before he saw his mother and sister again. During layovers between his extended road trips, Dan would stay at his uncle's house and help out in the store. Benjamin's, as the store was called, had expanded greatly and was now a cross between a traditional general store and what can only be considered a precursor to the modern department store. When business was slow, Dan would often sit in a room in the back, practicing his guitar and writing new songs. On one such occasion, early in 1931, a man came into the store to buy a pack of cigarettes-Lucky Strikes Dan recalled in a letter to his sister. His name was Myron Abraham, and he owned a record company in Chicago. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a significant market had developed for recorded black music. These "race records" were meant to appeal to the growing black record buying public as phonographs found their way into more and more homes across the South. A number of country blues men had sold exceptionally well, among them Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, and the aforementioned Charlie Patton. Myron Abraham had come to Mississippi in search of undiscovered talent. When he heard Dan practicing in the back, he asked Benjamin who it was. Benjamin told him it was his late cousin's son, and called for Dan to come to the front of the store. When Mr. Abraham saw that it was a skinny white kid-a Jewish kid no less-a spark went off in his brain. White singers in black face had become hugely popular, appearing in vaudeville and now even on Broadway. Abraham was sensitive enough to recognize that Dan had nothing in common with those performers, but he reasoned that if Northern white audiences had developed a taste for a watered-down, sanitized imitation of Southern culture, maybe they would be ready to take the next step and embrace something more authentic, a real Mississippi blues man who just happened to be a nice-looking white kid. He proposed that Dan come to Chicago in the late Spring and record some songs in the studio he had built in the basement of his home. So it was that in May of 1931, Dan took the train north to Chicago, and over the period of a week recorded twenty-four songs. At Abraham's suggestion, he returned in July and recorded twelve more. Since a number of the most successful blues artists were blind, Abraham decided that Dan should be marketed as Blind Dan Smullyan, partly to evoke the sympathy of record buyers, but also to add a note of authenticity, while still maintaining some connection to his true ethnicity. Hambone Sykes, he reasoned, sounded too black to appeal to the Northern white audience he was targeting. In November of that year, two sides were released on Abraham's Kleer-Tone label: "Dan Bo's Weary Blues" and "A Shadow on the Wind". Neither record sold well, probably partly as a result of Myron Abraham's miscalculation regarding the commercial potential of Dan's music, but also, in fairness, as a consequence of the onset of the Great Depression and a general decline in the popularity of country blues. By all accounts, Myron Abraham was a decent and fair-minded individual, and while he was unable to turn Dan into a star as he had hoped, he seems to have developed a protective, even paternal attitude towards him. In 1933, when it became clear that the Blind Dan Smullyan concept had reached a dead end, Abraham offered Dan the opportunity to relocate to Chicago and work as his personal assistant. Although Kleer-Tone Records was dissolved in 1934, Abraham had already achieved a considerable measure of success as an entertainment impresario, theater producer, and talent agent in the Midwest. From their first meeting, Dan had demonstrated an impressive knowledge of music and a surprising awareness of contemporary music styles, as well as a keen intelligence and an ability to learn quickly. He rightly believed that Dan would be a legitimate asset to his growing business. Dan accepted the offer of employment and excelled in his new position, taking on much responsibility and allowing the company to expand it's reach into more Midwestern cities. He even carried on the business alone for two years after Myron Abraham's death in 1939. In 1941, when the United States entered World War II, Dan made the decision to enlist. It should be mentioned here that, probably as a result of his experiences as a child growing up in Mississippi, Dan had a heightened sensitivity to any sign of hypocrisy and injustice. In Chicago, he became an ardent supporter of progressive movements and social causes. During his years working with Abraham, he organized a number of fund-raising performances and concerts to benefit the trade union movement and the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. In these efforts he was an unapologetic associate of known Communists. As events in Europe unfolded, Dan became more and more agitated. In a letter to his sister, he explained that he was finding it increasingly difficult "to just sit on my hands and watch as the Fascist machine runs down the decent and innocent..." He was deployed to North Africa in 1942. Tragically, in 1944, Dan Smullyan was killed in action at Anzio Beach as Allied forces attempted to draw German troops away from their defensive positions around Rome. The acetates of the thirty-six songs Dan recorded in 1931 were found in the back of closet in the Brooklyn brownstone where Dan's sister lived for the entire remainder of her life after returning from Mississippi with her mother in 1927. When Deborah Smullyan died in 2002 at the age of ninety, her daughters found the recordings, along with several boxes of personal effects, letters, and papers dating to Dan's time in Chicago. Found there also were all the letters Dan had written to his sister from 1927 until his death. Much of the source material for this biography comes from those letters, but there was also a promotional biography written by Myron Abraham, which included important information about Dan's early life in Mississippi and his introduction to the blues. A word about the recordings: the acetates from the two 1931 sessions - there were multiple takes of many of the songs - were well packed, and apparently remained undisturbed in the closet where they were found for more than fifty years. They were never exposed to more than normal seasonal variations in temperature and were in generally good condition considering their age. Every step has been taken to "clean up" the original tracks and make these CDs an enjoyable listening experience, but for those accustomed to hearing the pristine sound quality of modern digital recording, they may require some effort to fully appreciate. The songs themselves, however, will make that effort worthwhile. Dan was extraordinarily adept at absorbing the many musical styles he encountered in Mississippi as a teenager and young man. But he was never an imitator. He blended his diverse influences into something very much his own. There is a loneliness, longing, and sadness here as deep as any found in the music of his more famous contemporaries. There is also fire, passion - even joy - unbridled in their intensity, but at the same time innocent, pure, and uncorrupted. Each of the thirty-six songs is distinct and unlike any of the others, a remarkable feat given the relatively limited palette Dan had at his disposal. Although they appear to have gone unnoticed in their time, they emerge now as an important contribution to the blues repertoire. The songs reveal Dan to have been among the greatest and most original of blues lyricists - an important American poet - capable of expressing complex emotions with the simplest of language and able to tell profound, universally meaningful stories through a skillful blend of imagery and metaphor. At times his writing can have an eerily contemporary quality, foreshadowing the work of the singer/songwriters of the 1960s and 70s. Had Dan lived a full lifetime, he might have been encouraged to try performing again in the 1960s, when a number of the surviving delta blues men enjoyed a resurgence of popularity. Had that been the case, this pieced-together biography would have been unnecessary, as he would undoubtedly have told his story in his own words. As it is, it is hoped that having read these pages will add a further dimension to the songs presented here, and that a wider awareness of Dan's life, along with the depth and originality of his work, will finally allow him to assume his rightful place among the important artists and cultural icons of the first half of the Twentieth Century. A final note: it should be mentioned that among Dan's personal effects was a copy of a letter written by Myron Abraham to a music publisher in New York City. In it Abraham stated that Dan "had already recorded over fifty songs." The acetates discovered in 2002 contain only thirty-six songs. It is possible that the letter was an exaggeration designed to impress the publisher with how prolific Dan was - or Abraham may have been referring to the total number of recordings, including alternate takes, which do number over fifty. But it is also possible that there was a third, undocumented recording session in late 1931 or early 1932, and that somewhere, maybe in Chicago - or even in Mississippi - there are additional Blind Dan Smullyan recordings waiting to be discovered. If they ever come to light, and if they are in a sufficient state of preservation, they will most certainly be made available.