Buster Pickens

Posted in - Biography on March 15th 2014 0 Comments

Blind Lemon Jefferson famously sang that “the blues came to Texas loping like a mule” but a better metaphor might have been the freight train. It was the railroad that linked the far flung Texas towns where the bluesman, particularly the piano players, plied their trade. In one of the greatest train blues, “Railroadin’ Some”, Henry Thomas, who made a living singing along the Texas and Pacific and Katy lines, recites a litany of rail stops including Rockwall, Greenville, Denison, Grand Saline, Silver Lake, Mineola, Tyler, Longview, Jefferson, Marshall, Little Sandy, and his birthplace, Big Sandy. Similarly the railroad is the recurring theme in the blues of Buster Pickens in such songs as “Santa Fe Train”, “Rock Island Blues”, “She Caught the L. & N.”, “Mountain Jack” and “Santa Fe Blues.” ”This is to be expected”, Paul Oliver wrote, “for the life of the barrelhouse pianist in the vast state of Texas is strongly influenced by the railroads which link the centres.” As Pickens confirms: “I traveled by freight trains. I rode freight trains practically all over the country. I flag rides and so forth. I might go to Tombell an’ I might stay there until things dull down. Then I hear of another camp where it’s booming. I leave there and probably go to Raccoon Bend-oil field. Then I leave there and probably go to Longview…Kilgore…Silsbee..just wherever it was booming. …These other piano players-Son Becky, Conish Burks, Black Boy Shine, Andy Boy, and all these men-they went out different routes-hardly ever paired up. Each lookin’ for his own bread. …Up and down the Santa Fe tracks in those days was known as the barrelhouse joints. These places was located in the area where the mill was in, and you played all night long in those days. They danced all night long. And the blues was all they wanted; they didn’t want anything else.”

The sessions that comprise this collection were organized by Paul Oliver for the Blues Research and Recording Project with the recording done by Mack McCormick and Chris Strachwitz. In the summer of 1960 Oliver came to the United States with the aid of a State Department grant and BBC field recorder with the idea, as he writes of “putting on tape the conversation and music of blues artists in the country and the cities, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. Some of the blues singers were famous, or had been, whilst others were unknown and destined to remain so.” As Oliver’s journey progressed west he teamed up with Strachwitz and McCormick who had been roaming around Texas looking for blues singers. The recording of Buster Pickens was a result of this collaboration.

Pickens lone album, for Heritage (HLP 1008), the self-titled Buster Pickens, was recorded over several sessions in 1960 and 1961 and released in 1962, subsequently reissued in 1977 on the Flyright label as Back Door Blues and now appears on CD for the first time here. It was Oliver who wrote the liner notes and interviewed Pickens, some of which has been transcribed by Oliver in his groundbreaking Conversation With The Blues. Two other songs by Pickens, again reissued on CD for the first time, were recorded in 1959 and come from the album The Unexpurgated Folk Songs of Men collected by Mack McCormick. “To Have The Blues Within”, a snippet of his interview with Oliver, appeared on the companion LP/CD to Paul Oliver’s Conversation With The Blues. On the album Treasury of Field Recordings Vol. 1 (77 Records, 1960), also compiled by Mack McCormick, the track listing lists “Blues in the Bottom” by Edwin Pickens but this song does not appear on the album.

The lumber industry was an important incubator of the piano tradition in Texas and surrounding areas. As Peter J. Silvester notes in his book A Left Hand Like God: A History of Boogie-Woogie Piano: “The logging camp could consist of a half-dozen boxcar like shacks of weathered wood, two or three bunkhouses to accommodate from seventy-five to 150 men… …All are set along a spur of the logging railway that runs back through old cuttings to the mills. These boxcar-like shacks would in fact be converted railroad boxcars, or could be boxlike structures built on railroad flatcars. …One of these shacks functioned as combination dancehall, crap-game dive and whorehouse. This was known as the barrelhouse, the honky tonk, or the juke. Furnished by the lumber company with drink and piano, it was a rough, tough place.” Black musicians, particularly piano players, followed the tracks to find work in these camps. “…From playing in the back streets of Galveston, Houston and Richmond, the Santa Fe group of pianists would travel via the numerous lines of the Santa Fe railroad-around the barrelhouse circuits to play in the various camps and towns.”
The sawmills and turpentine camps were familiar territory to Pickens. “Turpentine, in the pines”, Pickens recalled, “ find that around East Texas, but more or less Arkansas. You see, you take Eudora, Arkansas, that’s eighteen miles from Bastrop, Louisiana, across the line there. I played up there on the edge of the border of Louisiana and Arkansas: Eudora, Bastrop, Lake Providence and Ferriday which is nine miles from Natchez. Now they used to have roadhouses there and those turpentine camps, they were pretty popular in those days you know. …Turpentine, saw-mills, those were the ones that ruled the barrelhouse. They handled it. Then the oilfields had ’em too.”
It should be noted that the various Texas piano schools were based around the cities and industrial areas; Black Boy Shine was based around the sugar refinery township of Richmond (Sugarland), Andy Boy mostly played around Galveston and in Dallas another piano school developed that included Alex Moore, Will Day, Willie Tyson and others.

The Texas piano tradition flowered in the 1920’s and was at its peak during the 1930’s when a number of the tradition’s best players were recorded. As piano expert Francis Smith noted: “With the two major recording centers of New York and Chicago a thousand miles to the North, it was extremely fortunate that so many pianists of this important close knit Texas group were recorded ― all three record companies of the time being involved.” The three companies were Columbia, Victor and Vocalion in addition to Bluebird and Okeh. These companies, either singularly or in various combinations, made field trips to Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio in 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940 and 1941.

Paul Oliver observed that “Texas was as rich in piano blues as Mississippi was in guitar blues, which is not to say that there were no great blues guitarists in Texas, or piano men in Mississippi. A cursory glance through the discographies will emphasize the fact that a remarkable number of blues pianists came from Texas. They can be grouped into ‘schools’, characterized by certain similarities of style and approach, that were partly a reflection of the environments in which they worked, of their friendships and associations with other pianists, and by the isolation of Texas from other states. One school was the so-called ‘Santa Fe group’ who were based in the southwestern part of the state where the cities of Galveston, Houston and Richmond lie.“ Mack McCormick noted that the “itinerant pack of pianists who came to be known loosely as ‘the Santa Fe group,’ partly because they favored that railroad and partly because a stranger asking for the name of a selection was invariably told ‘That’s The Santa Fe.’ …They were known as The Santa Fe after the railroad that straddle Fort Bend County with a big triangle just Southwest of Houston, providing access westward to the high plains, cotton country, east to the piney-woods lumbering camps and north (pretty much following the old Chisholm Trail) to a string of cities and watering places. ”Here”, Oliver notes “was where the music thrived and pianists could be found like Pinetop Burks, Son Becky, Rob Cooper, Black Boy Shine, Andy Boy, Big Boy Knox, Robert Shaw, Buster Pickens and the singers who worked with them like Walter ‘Cowboy’ Washington and Joe Pullum.” Others associated with the group were Victoria Spivey and Bernice Edwards.

In the 1960’s Spivey reminisced fondly about those days: “At first it made me very sad and blue as it brought back my carefree days in Texas in the early 20’s when we were all playing the whiskey joints, gay houses and picnics. We all loved each other then. Had no animosity in our hearts. These were the days of lazy, offbeat blues piano and singing. I was a member of a clique that played West Texas from Galveston to Houston to Richmond to Sugarland. There were Anthony (sic) Boy, Joe Pullum, Houston, Bernice Edwards, Pearl Dickson and myself.”

As Oliver notes: “The great days of Texas blues were in the ‘twenties, when Pickens began to play for a living, and in the thirties when he was one of scores of blues pianists whose fame went before them from town, to camp, to flagstop to chock-house and honkytonk. These were the days when such pianists as Son Becky and Pinetop Burks, Andy Boy and Black Boy Shine were enjoying big local reputations, though if it had not been for a freak of chance recording they might never have been known outside Texas. Others, like Pickens himself, remained unrecorded though no less well known …Buster Pickens knew them and worked with them, changed places with them in the never-ceasing blues entertainment of the barrelhouse joints.”

1937 was an outstanding year for the Santa Fe group of pianists: Any Boy recorded in February for Bluebird, Big Boy Knox recorded for Bluebird in March, Black Boy Shine recorded in June for Vocalion (he had recorded for Vocalion in 1935 with no titles issued and again in 1936 with the entire eight song session issued), and Pickens recalls trying get on record himself with a guitar player by the name of Otis Cook. “In those days everybody was trying to get on record you know, and that was right after Coney Burks and Black Boy Shine and them made their recordin’s so we thought we’d try. So we got on this freight-ran into the freight yard at night-round about eleven, not thinkin’ the train was already made up and everything ’cause the engine hadn’t come down. So we got onto a Gondola car to sleep, take a li’l nap. We’ll they found us sleepin’ there, and we couldn’t get out of the yard. And so we got arrested that night, got ten days in jail. And so we never did get to make no recordin’s.”

Francis Smith described the Santa Fe style as “typified by an easy, relaxed performance, a strong syncopated left hand combined with a anticipatory right hand beat. Although this music was forceful and expressive, it often seemed as if the pianist was playing with his feet up. Consistent urgency found elsewhere was here replaced by a sort of southern laziness. Rolling left hand basses played a great part in the Texas tradition.”

The Santa Fe group had a number of peculiar, technically complex songs that were closely intertwined and formed a unique shared repertoire. First and foremost was “The Ma Grinder” and its related songs “The Cows”, “Dirty Duckins” and “Put Me In The Alley.”

“The Dirty Dozens was the openin’ number of the house” Pickens recalled; “we opened up with that number. Then we had another number was called The Ma Grinder, that was first cousin to the Dozens.” As Robert Shaw elaborated: “When a new man’d come looking for work the barkeeper’d tell him, ‘Let me hear you knock out The Ma Grinder.’” Victoria Spivey knew the song well: “The Ma Grinder-these were fighting words that often led to bloodshed and death. We all used to play it in our own way. Some would sing it. The first one I heard sing it was Houston, who tore up Galveston and Houston with it.” Pickens recorded two versions of the number: “The Ma Grinder” (unissued) and “The Ma Grinder No. 2” which was issued. Bernice Edwards cut her version titled “Hot Mattress Stomp” in 1935, Son Becky cut his version as “Mistreated Washboard Blues” in 1937, Rob Cooper cut two versions under the titles “West Dallas Drag” in 1934 and “West Dallas Drag No. 2” in 1935, Pinetop Burks can be heard combining both The Ma Grinder and the The Cows, another Santa Fe group set piece, under the title “Mountain Jack Blues” (Pickens’ song with the same title is a different song. The song is a railroad number, referring to Train No. 1435 on the Santa Fe railroad.) recorded in 1937 while Robert Shaw recorded the number in 1963 under its proper name.

“The Cows”, “Dirty Duckins” and “Put Me In The Alley“ were songs related to “The Ma Grinder.” Rob Cooper recorded “Cows, See That Train Comin’” (with the line “see me standing here with dirty, dirty duckins on”) with vocalist Joe Pullum in 1934 and Robert Shaw recorded “The Cows” and several versions of “Dirty Duckins.” Pickens recorded his version of “The Cows” which remains unissued. Related showy set pieces among this school of songs were “The Clinton” and “The Fives”, both recorded by Shaw.

Another common song among the group was “Hattie Green”, supposedly about a West Texas madam who the pianists would visit in Abilene. Victoria Spivey recalled that “Hattie Green, she was in the 1st Ward (Houston) and had a ‘meeting house’ where all the races could get together.” In addition to Pickens’ rendition it was also recorded by Pinteop Burks (as “Fannie Mae”), Augustus “Track Horse” Haggerty, Joe Pullum, Dr Hepcat, Robert Shaw and Mance Lipscomb.

“Jim Nappy” was another song well known among the group. The song was first recorded by singer Hattie Burleson in 1928 and according to Paul Oliver was about her real life lover who managed the traveling shows she put together. Pickens puts his spin on the song which was also captured on tape performed by Robert Shaw.

Other songs in Pickens’ repertoire were likely gleaned from records like Roosevelt Sykes’ “D.B. A Blues (You Old Yas-Yas)” recorded in 1934 (popular enough to be recorded again by him as “D.B. A Blues No.2” in 1936), Elzadie Robinson’s “Backdoor Blues” recorded in 1927, Texas Alexander’s “Boe Hog Blue” recorded in 1928.
While sharing the same title as Curtis Jones’ “You Got Good Business” recorded in 1937, Pickens’ song on The Unexpurgated Folk Songs of Men is a different song. One of Pickens’ unissued songs is “Barellhouse Man” which is the title of a 1926 Elzadie Robinson song. According to Pickens he met Robinson and her pianist Will Ezell in Louisiana. Another of the unissued songs is “Piggly Wiggly” recorded by Charlie McFadden under that title in 1933 and several times as “Groceries on the Shelf” and played by Robert Shaw at a 1971 house party that was caught on tape. Shaw also recorded McFadden’s “People People.” Mack McCormick speculated that McFadden may have been an influence on the Santa Fe group.

Pickens had a fine sense of harmony and tempo with his own personalized style. It was style that can be placed between the older Texas style of the Santa Fe group, with its strong ragtime influences, and the urban boogie piano with elements of the  more sophisticated, jazzy bar-blues piano. His favorite key was B #, but he also played in many other keys like A, A#, G, C, or E# and often made use of minor chords similar to the playing of Montana Taylor. In some numbers, like “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, he played some uncommon jazzy chords, and together with heavy use of the right pedal, while playing slurred notes, riffs or runs, he created a distinctive muffling sound, something uncommon among other pianists. He excelled at train numbers like “Santa Fe Train”, “Santa Fe Train Blues” and “She Caught the L. & N” where he plays a long introduction, imitating the train engine when it starts and slowly gets into motion. One of his finest numbers is “Santa Fe Blues”, which was only recorded by Lil Son Jackson and was also played by Robert Shaw. “Santa Fe Train” is his great autobiographical number, over gently rolling piano he reminisces about begging a ride on Santa Fe freight train, of meeting one of the numerous unrecorded piano players and taking over for him at the sawmill town of Cowswitch.
“He has outlasted most of his contemporaries” Oliver observed, “in their tough an often dangerous life and can lay good claim to be virtually the last of the sawmill pianists. This is due partly to his relative youth, for Ed. Pickens was born in Hempstead, Texas, in 1915 though he was barley into his teens before he making a living by playing the blues. Many of the bluesmen with whom he worked and who accepted him as an equal were twice his age when he commenced his career in the late ‘twenties, but others, younger men, died before they were thirty from the effects of hard liqueur, hard living and ‘exposure’ as he terms it. Riding the blinds through the chill nigh on fast-moving ‘rattlers’ after working in the hot and crowded barrelhouse took the life of many a pianist.”  Among those contemporaries were Black Boy Shine who Pickens last saw in1948, his health wrecked from TB, Son Becky who died of stomach trouble in the early 40’s, the unrecorded Peg Leg Will who was crippled riding the blinds  and Wilson “Thunder” Smith who was murdered in 1963.

After World War II the early Texas piano tradition virtually evaporated. Oliver noted that after “…the War, the juke boxes, and the law had combined to bring an end to both the barrelhouse circuit and the Texas piano player who, in Son Becky’s words had ‘spread some joy’ on the Santa network. …The group dispersed: Andy Boy made his way to Kansas City where he was last heard of in the 1950’s  [this was misheard by Oliver for Pickens actually said that he went to New York and was still there], while Joe Pullum migrated to California. Rob Cooper disappeared after woman trouble, and Cowboy Washington was forgotten.”

Moreover, the role of the piano was changing by the end of the 30’s, becoming more of instrument within a larger, often electrified, group. A few like Roosevelt Sykes, Big Maceo and Champion Jack Dupree were able to adapt while others, like the members of the Santa Fe group, were forced to turn to regular jobs.

Several other Texas piano players, did however, survive to be recorded in later years including Alex Moore, recorded during the same 1960 recording trip that recorded Pickens, and Robert Shaw a few years later. Like Pickens, Shaw was a member of the Santa Fe group and on his 60’s recordings was still capable of playing the technically complex style. Shaw put the music in context: “When you listen to what I’m playing you got to see in your mind all them gals out there swinging their butts and getting the mens excited. Otherwise you ain’t got the music rightly understood. I could sit there and throw my hands down and make them gals do anything. I told them when to shake it, and when to hold back. That’s what this music is for.” Then there was Lavada Durst, known as Dr. Hepcat, who was a disciple of Shaw’s but who recorded infrequently. Finally there was the Grey Ghost (Roosevelt Thomas Williams) who outlived them all, dying at the age of 92 in 1996.

After serving in the military in World War II, Pickens returned to Houston. There he  began a career as a session artist, and was relatively active between 1948 through 1953 backing Texas bluesmen such as Perry Cain, Bill Hayes, Goree Carter, J.D. Edwards and played on Texas Alexander’s last record for the Freedom label in 1950. After this brief flurry of session work Pickens would have to wait until the beginning of the 60’s to be recorded again. Pickens performed regularly with Lightnin’ Hopkins and appears on some of Hopkins’s records for Prestige/Bluesville in the early 1960’s (Walkin’ This Road By Myself (1962), Smokes Like Lightning (1963), Lightnin’ and Co. (1963). At the time of his 1960-61 recordings Pickens had just finished a tour with Doctor Sugar’s Medicine show. In 1962 Pickens appeared in the movie The Blues and also appeared (voice only) in the film Blues Like Showers of Rain which was constructed from photographs and field recordings made by Paul Oliver on his 1960 trip. He also appears in a film, recently issued on DVD, made by German researcher Dietrich Wawzyn and Chris Strachwitz (Down Home Music: A Journey Through the Heartland 1963). In his last years Pickens played with Hop Wilson at local gigs and was Lightnin’ Hopkins’ regular piano player. The promise of a new career in the blues revival ended tragically when he was shot and killed at age forty-eight by a cousin at the N.R. Lounge, a beer joint in Houston, on November 24, 1964. The report of his murder reached Hopkins, touring Europe at the time, who was deeply distressed by the news. With the passing of Robert Shaw in 1985 the Santa Fe style was laid to rest. As Paul Oliver wrote more than thirty years ago: “Down on Houston’s McKinney Street or Church Street in Galveston they don’t stomp The Cows or The Ma Grinder any more.”

Jeff Harris
Host of Big Road Blues, Jazz90.1

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Spivey, Victoria. Blues Are My Business : Robert Shaw: Texas Barrelhouse Piano (Record Research 81, January, 1967)
Wirz,Stephen. Buster Pickens Discography. Retrieved August 5, 2013, from

Special thanks to piano expert Michael Hortig who’s advice and comments were invaluable.

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