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Herschel Brown

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Almost nothing is known of Herschel Brown's life, even as far as years of birth or death, or precisely where he came from, although he apparently hailed from Georgia. What has survived of his music, however, is an extraordinary body of interracial blues and comedy. Whatever the particulars of his life or career, Brown was apparently a star in rural Georgia and neighboring states as a virtuoso of the spoons and the washboard, leading his own bands at least from the late '20s, if not earlier. He also sang and acted in a broad, burlesque style, and his total repertory as an entertainer ranged from blues and songster-style rags to hillbilly music and comedy sketches with musical accompaniment.

His full discography will probably never be known — under his own name, he recorded as part of Herschel Brown and His Washboard Band for Victor Records beginning in early 1928 in Atlanta, but it is possible that he was the "J. H. Brown" credited as leading the very similar sounding Spooney Five, who were cutting records in Atlanta for Victor four months earlier. By July of that year, he was cutting records for OKeh and it was with that label that the bulk of his extant legacy was made. It's a varied legacy as well — in conjunction with guitarist L. K. Sentell, he also recorded what were essentially comedy sketches set to music, as well as dances and ostensible blues ("Talking N****r Blues" etc.), and later worked with groups credited as Herschel Brown and His Happy Five (a very polished band by the standards of the era) and Herschel Brown and His Boys. After this late-'20s thrust at recording stardom — almost certainly interrupted by the onset of the Great Depression — he evidently disappeared from the recorded music scene, the only documentation some 75 minutes of raw and unaffected music aimed at the pleasure of the masses and the workingman. Potential listeners should also note that some of the material in Brown's legacy is almost certain to offend modern audiences, being pitched at the level of minstrel show-style racial stereotypes in both their lyrics and jokes; but his work is also an honest historical look at what was considered (for better or worse) acceptable entertainment in much of the country until the middle of this century. Additionally, the dances and instrumental rags that he recorded (which, as instrumentals, can't really offend anyone) are enjoyable and diverting even 70 years later, with "Old Time Tune Medley" standing out as a priceless array of patriotic and traditional tunes, mostly rooted south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and "Spanish Rag," showing off a unique, amazingly elegant virtuoso duet between Brown's spoons and Sentell's guitar.

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