Like any number of pre-ware blues players, the impetus of Papa Charlie Jackson’s career is up for debate. It’s generally agreed upon that the man hailed from New Orleans, moved to Chicago and kicked the bucket by 1938. But everyone seems foggy on the details – not to shocking considering the time.
Either way, when he arrived in Chicago, Papa Charlie already possessed a massive songbook comprising of compositions taking in minstrelsy, folk, blues and religious tunes. He was a busker, so appealing to the widest audience possible was his goal. And it appears as if Papa Charlie was adept at his craft. So much so, that the banjoist (an odd six string variant, tuned in the same fashion as a guitar), was granted the opportunity to record a few sides during the early twenties. And while that might not sound like too much of a shocking occurrence, Papa Charlie was apparently the first male singer to record an album only accompanied by his own instrument.
Prior to Papa Charlie, though, Sylvester Weaver issued few instrumentals. But for the most part, the blues, at that point at least, was dominated by recordings of female singers. It was a tremendous shift, even if today, the earliest recordings Papa Charlie made probably don’t sound too distant from anything else blues aficionados are familiar with from about the same time.
More interesting than Papa Charlie’s nascent recording career is the way in which he was able to play his banjo-guitar hybrid. For the most part, the instrument sounds like a sharply tuned guitar – or at least on that’s been slapped with a capo pretty high up on the neck. Papa Charlie doesn’t deviate from accepted forms or progressions, but inserts unique solos in any number of efforts in his catalog.
“Hot Papa Blues” counts a line that comes off as a bit distracting from the main figure, but winds up sounding so serpentine as to sate any instrumental fetishist. Surely, there were other players utilizing instruments apart from a traditional guitar and probably using them in surprising manners. It just happened that Papa Charlie was able to record a great deal over a pretty short amount of time. And in a market that wasn’t quite yet engorged with copy cats and unoriginal nonsense, that ostensibly made him a star, although a short lived one.
Who knows what fortune may have shined on Papa Charlie if he’d made it to one of the proper blues revivals. But he didn’t even make it through the depression. Bummer.