King Solomon Hill
King Solomon Hill was the name assigned to a blues singer and guitarist who recorded a small handful of songs in 1932. His unique guitar and voice make them among the most haunting blues recorded. After much speculation and controversy, he is recognized to have been Joe Holmes (1897, McComb, Mississippi – 1949, Sibley, Louisiana), a self-taught guitarist from Mississippi.
The Mississippi blues artist Big Joe Williams took a fancy to the name King Solomon Hill and laid claim to it in interviews with Bob Koester, stating that the Hill sides were his first recordings . This was published to a wider audience by Sam Charters in his pioneering history The Country Blues. Big Joe had not known Blind Lemon Jefferson, so claimed that the song My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon was about another singer. In a footnote, Charters admitted that the story was open to question as the style, especially the singing style, on the King Solomon Hill sides was so different from Big Joe's usual style. In his later work The Bluesmen, Charters dismisses Big Joe's story, and comments on the strong resemblance between King Solomon Hill and Sam Collins, which led some blues enthusiasts to believe that they were the same man. The identification of Hill as Joe Holmes was made by one prominent Blues scholar Gayle Dean Wardlow and strongly contested by another, David Evans. Wardlow eventually found four informants who had known Joe Holmes and identified his voice on the records of King Solomon Hill. One informant lived in a section of Sibley, Louisiana known as Yellow Pine, within which there is a community formerly known as King Solomon Hill centred on an actual hill on which stood King Solomon Hill Baptist Church. A retired postal worker confirmed that King Solomon Hill would have been an acceptable postal address in 1932. The community is now known as Salt Works. No informant remembers Joe Holmes using the name King Solomon Hill, so Wardlow concludes that it was Paramount Records who chose to use his address as his recording name.
Joe Holmes was born near McComb, Mississippi in 1897. In 1915 he followed his brother to North Louisiana, where he married Roberta Allums. In 1920 he returned to McComb with his wife and their child Essie. There he played with the most famous local blues musician Sam Collins, known locally as "Salty Dog Sam" and on record as "Cryin' Sam Collins". When interviewed by Warlow, Roberta recalled seeing her husband playing with Collins, whom she recognised from a publicity image for Black Patti Records. One year later, Roberta and Essie returned to Sibley, while Joe pushed his musical career, initially in McComb, and then as an itinerant, returning periodically to Sibley. One town he played in was Minden, Louisiana, where he had a friend called George Young. In 1928 Blind Lemon Jefferson passed through Minden. Joe Holmes and George Young left with him for Wichita Falls, Texas. Holmes later celebrated his brief partnership with Jefferson on his record "My Buddy Papa Lemon". At that time he befriended Willard Thomas, known as Ramblin' Thomas, who became his favourite musical partner. Holmes would often travel to Shreveport, Louisiana to play with Thomas.
In 1932, while performing in Minden, Holmes was invited to record for Paramount. Wardlow speculates that the Paramount Sales Manager Henry Stephany stopped at Minden en route from Birmingham, Alabama to Dallas on the recommendation of Ben Curry (possibly the same man as Bogus Ben Covington), a friend and fellow musician who had moved from Arcadia, Louisiana to Birmingham. In any case, somebody representing Paramount took Holmes to Birmingham, where he met up with Ben Curry and other Alabama musicians: blues singer Marshal Owens and the gospel quartet Famous Blue Jay Singers Of Birmingham. The musicians travelled to the Paramount recording studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, and recorded at least twenty-eight titles, six of them by Joe Holmes and issued as by King Solomon Hill. The date of the recording session was previously estimated as c January 1932, but Roberta Allums stated that it was in the spring. Fourteen records were issued, three by King Solomon Hill, but Paramount was on the edge of bankruptcy, pressing and shipping only small numbers of records. Joe Holmes took three discs with white labels back to Sibley, but his friends and family never saw any discs with a Paramount label. His friend John Wills didn't believe they were 'real records'. Until convinced by Wardlow, he believed that Joe had paid to have them recorded privately. Few copies survived. One of the three, Paramount 13125 with My Buddy Papa Lemon, and Times Has Done Got Hard was long believed to be completely lost, until a copy was discovered in 2002.
As of 2013[update], King Solomon Hill has eight known recordings:
- "Down on My Bended Knee" (Take 1)
- "Down on My Bended Knee" (Take 2)
- "The Gone Dead Train"
- "My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon"
- "Tell Me Baby"
- "Times Has Done Got Hard"
- "Whoopee Blues" (Take 1)
- "Whoopee Blues" (Take 2)
"The Gone Dead Train" was used as the title for a ninth-season episode of the television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and actually is briefly played in the episode, along with mention of King Solomon Hill as the artist.
The 1969 film Performance, directed by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell and starring Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, contained a song called "The Gone Dead Train", performed by Randy Newman. However, this is a rewrite by Jack Nitzsche and Russ Titelman and bears only a passing resemblance to "The Gone Dead Train" as performed by King Solomon Hill. As noted by rock critic Greil Marcus, the "dead train" in the Newman version is used as a metaphor for impotence. In Hill's original, the train appears to literally refer to an actual locomotive, which Hill referred to as a "Death Train."
- "King Solomon Hill – Joe Holmes". Thebluestrail.com. Retrieved November 18, 2011.
- Charters, Samuel B. The Country Blues. 1959. Rinehart. English Edition Michael Joseph. 1960. p.137.
- Charters, Samuel. The Bluesmen. the story and the music of the men who made the Blues. 1967. Oak. p. 126-8.
- Wardlow, Gayle Dean. Chasin' That Devil Music, Searching for the Blues. 1998. Miller Freeman Books. ISBN 0-87930-552-5. p. 211. Originally published as One Last Walk up King Solomon Hill in Blues Unlimited No. 148 (Winter 1987).
- Wardlow 1998 pp. 3-4. Originally published in 78 Quarterly No 1 (1967)
- Wardlow 1998. pp. 4-5, 212-213
- Dixon, Robert M. W., John Godrich & Howard Rye. Blues and Gospel Records 1890-1943. Fourth Edition. 1997. Oxford University press. ISBN 0-19-816239-1
- Wardlow 1998. pp. 212-3
- Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920'. Calendar for 2004. Blues Images. 2003.
- Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music. 1975 (4th edition 1997) ISBN 0-452-27836-8
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