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Carl Martin


Carl Martin

( 1906 - 1979 )

Multinstrumentalist with very cool Blues Mandolin !

Carl tribute on MySpace

He was born 1906 in Big Stone Gap, Virginia near Appalachia. His father was a slave,who played fiddle known as Fiddlin´ Martin. Carl learned guitar from his older brother. Then Carl met Howard Armstrong and they teamed up a while (Carl on Guitar Howard on Mandolin ) before they met Ted Bogan. The three headed north to Kalamazoo MI around 1930. Armstrong left them because he got love sick and they never met again until 1970 ! Carl started around 1943 to play mandolin when he joined the army....
Carl Martin played the mandolin with G and D strings tuned to octaves. Anything he could whistle he could play on the mandolin.His main aproche was to play melody to support singing . He didn´t play much chords just melody.
He met and played with Yank Rachell and Charlie McCoy !!!

( All this details are from an interview published in Mandolin Notebook Vol.1 No. 6 (Dec 1978).

All the following details are from magazin LIVING BLUES No. 43 / Summer 1979

Carl Martin died May 10 in Detroit, at the age of 73 , after a brief illness. He had been playing shows with his band , Martin, Bogan & the Armstrongs , only two weeks previously , and about two weeks earlier he had done a rare U.S. solo concert.

Carl played the Blues , and he played them well, as any who have heard his reissue cuts will attest. But he also played hoedowns, polkas , old pop songs, new pop songs , and anything elso that would bring pleasure to an audience, because Carl was above everything an entertainer - he wanted to make people happy , and make them happy he did. His skills honed by yearsof playing for parties and dances , on street corners and in bars , on radio and in stadiums , in a simple ghetto apartment or the golden palace of a South American dictator , Carl could bring any crowd to its feet, leaving memories that would bring a warm smile months and years later.

Carl´s life encapsulated a huge breadth of America´s musical and social experience. Carl played music, mostly in string bands, from Childhood on ; by about 50 years ago(!)Carl had already teamed up with the two men who were to remain his musical partners, guitarist Ted Bogan and violinist/multi-instrumentalist Howard Armstrong .In the early ´30s they migrated via many stops in West Michigan to Chicago, where they continued to play, adding songs in German, French, Spanish, Polish, Yiddish, and even Chinese to apeal people of all the different neighborhoods where they would play.

The jukebox started the demise of the band. With it bars no longer neede live music, and even if the manager wanted to do without the coin machine and keep the old ways , the syndicate thugs would pursuade them otherwise. The war finished it - Carl served in the Philippines - his job, naturally, was in public relations ; he led a band that went out and played for the Filipino people, to let them know that "we" were good guys. Thirty years later Carl and I were standing at on a dock for the boat to the Mariposa Folk festival , and Carl , recognizing one of the dock workes as a Filipino , went over and conversed with him in Tagalog.

Carl never gave up music, though - all through the ´50s and ´60s his living room was full of players, and when he was "rediscovered" ( folk muscicians are never really lost - only some of their fans are ) he was ready to go out and continue to make people happy.

Carl loved people, and the affair was mutual. He would always listen to your troubles and depressions, and he was never selfish with his time or his money. I was priviliged to know him for almost 10 years - I´ll miss his wisdom, his smile and warm touch. More than any other artist I know, Carl would make an audience happy, whether it was "Crow jane" or "Ice Cream Freezer" for Blues fans or " Hello Dolly" for the people of La Paz, Bolivia. He sang from his heart and gave freely of his feelings.

Joy is not a plentiful commodity in our world , and we have lost one of its boundless sources - we can only try to learn from Carl and hope that maybe, at least on a one-to-one basis if not to a whole stadium like he did , we can make those we meet a little happier, their days a little brighter . Carl would like that .

---- Bruce Kaplan

Carl Martin was one of the more interesting, yet little known country blues performers to have recorded during the mid-1930s. An accomplished singer, Martin played mandolin, guitar, violin, and string bass all with equal proficiency. Beginning with an Oct. 27,1934 session for Bluebird, where he cut "You can Go your way" and "Kid Man Blues", Martin participated in six additional sessions from January of the following year through mid-April of 1936, for OKeh, Vocalion, Bluebird, Decca and Champion, recording a total of 13 selections. Among these were such memorable performances as the wry "Good Morning Judge", " Crow Jane" ( a widely circulated traditional piece that has been recorded frequently) and the fine topical song "Let's Have A New Deal". In Addition Martin participated in a number of recording dates led by such Chicago-based performers as Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red and Bumble Bee Slim, and backed up his close friends and long-time playing partners Howard Armstrong ( who recorded as "Louie Bluie" ) and Ted Bogan on their March 1934 recordings for Bluebird.

Through the help of the late singer-guitarist-mandolinist Johnny Young, I met both Martin and Bogan early in 1966 in Chicago, where they had lived since 1932. The following interview with Martin was conducted there on May 31, 1966.

- Pete Welding

I was born in Virginia - Big Stone Gap, Va. - in 1906. We were a large family; I had three brothers and numerous sisters.... yeah about eight or nine.

My father was a stonemason but he was a good musician, too. Played violin and guitar. He played a violin all the time, mostly played at parties around there; he'd get out with the fellows and play. They used to call him Fiddlin´ Martin. He never did make any records; way back then there wasn't any recording. My brother was a musician too. He was a wizard - played violin, all string instruments - named Roland Martin. He was six years older than me. He was my daddy's first wife's son. He was born in Spartanburg,S.C.; that´s where my daddy was originally from.

The way I got to play - fellows would come by and play the guitar; that´s mostly what they would play back there then. The only things you would see was the plectrum banjo, the fiddle and the guitar....and you could see a mandolin occasionally. But that´s all. Where I was, it was a coal-mining region. Fellows would come through there with a guitar -mining men - and they´d stop over at our house and I´d watch them play. I was just a little boy, and learnt to pick up a piece or two.

I was raised up in Knoxville, a big city. I had been born in Stone Gap but we left there when I was 12 years old and came to Knoxville and from then I call that my home. That´s where I really learnt to play. A lot of fellows had showed me how to play. See, my brother Roland had a string band, and that´s where I mostly learnt to play because, after he found out that I could hit a note or two on the guitar, then he asked my father to let him teach me how to play, so my daddy just turned me over to him. And I didn´t want to learn , ´cause I wasn´t studying about no guitar. But I couldn´t whup him ´cause he was bigger than I was, so he made me come home after school and sit down and study. Then he got on the train - that was in Knoxville, Tenn. - got on the train and went to Asheville and brought back a guitar my size. They had a 12-string guitar ; that was too big for my hands.

See, I´d come home after school, I´d sit down and practice the guitar. Wasn´t two weeks before I was playing in the band. Blues ? That was simple ! Playing in that string band in two weeks. They had a bass fiddle, had mandolin, violins . . . had all instruments, so I learned to play different ones by beeing around them an, I guess, by being musically inclined. I´d pick up everything I could see.

Now, he had four pieces in his string band - guitar,

violin, mandolin and bass. Roland, he played the violin ´most all the time, but he could play all those others, too. He played that old music - you know , country music. He played every kind of old breakdown number you could think of, played any of them. And he was blind, too ! I never seen a man beat him playing the violin, and I´ve seen some violin players! And when it come to that old kind of music! They wouldn´t let him get on no kind of music! They wouldn´t let him go in no kind of contest, no sir ! They´d let him play but they wouldn´t let him be in the contest. I never saw anyone to beat him playing. I never could understand him, to save my life, but he learnt to play. He could even make a sound in his head - humming like - that´d be just like a violin. It´d be making music just like it was a string instrument, like a violin; you could even record it. I don´t know how he did it and I never saw anybody else in my life who could do it. It would be just like you were playing a violin, playing the melody in your head just like a violin. Never knew what it was. He was a natural musician. Played for both white and colored, and he traveled all over, went through Virginia and West Virginia, Kentucky, and all down South.

The string band worked every day. They went out every day in the week. Back there then they´d pick up 20, 25 or 30 $ every day. Just go out and play, stand on the corners, on vacant lots - all different places - play all day. Play for medicine shows . That was right around World War I, 1918 or so. We played on sidewalks, streets, in stores, anywhere. Fellows would go on vacation and I´d go right with them and play music for them; they´d dance . Be gone with them for a week or two. Played everywhere all through the mining area of Kentucky. Everywhere they knowed me ,men would see me playing.

I played bass fiddle, too. I recall once a fellow gave me 10$, said " You´re the best bass fiddle player I ever heard." I played when I played , whatever it was, guitar, bass fiddle. I played ! Then I went to play the violin.

(During the 1920s, Martin continued this pattern of traveling and performing, and by the late ´20s had formed a four-piece unit with his friend Howard Armstrong who, like him, played violin, mandolin, guitar and bass , as well as with various other musicians.)

First record I ever made, I made in Tennessee, in Knoxville. It was called " The Vine Street Rag ." It was me and Howard, about four of us there, recorded "Knox County Stomp" and " The Vine Street Rag ." The fellows beat us out of the record, though. That´s what discouraged me from lots of recording because - it was Brunswick - they beat us out , a fellow named Brown. The record was supposed to be under my name but he put his name on it. He told me his name was Brown.This was before ´32 , ´way back before then. We made the record and that fellow he told me, he said, "Now in a month you´ll hear from me". When the record came out I heard it on the vendor, but my name wasn´t on it.

That must have been around ´28, somewhere in around there. Me and Howard and Roland and another fellow - it wasn´t Ted (Bogan): I don´t believe I had run up on him then - recorded those numbers in the ST. James Hotel in Knoxville. Brunswick had their outfit there, they had come through there. They wrote us letters; if we had any talent,music and like that, they were going to put the studio up in the hotel and for us to come up there. We went up there and we made the pieces. They know when the record´s right. They had wax, made it on the wax. When they put that wax away, then he said, "You´ll hear from me in a month " He never did write back and so I said to myself, " Well,they beat us out of the record." I heard that record, but I had to pay to hear it, on the vendor. That discouraged me right then, you know , from making records.

(This record was probably Vocalian 1517, also issued as 5472, " Knox County Stomp / Vine Street Drag, " released as by the Tennessee Chocolate Drops,recorded in Knoxville, c. April, 1930, and probably featuring Carl and Roland Martin and Howard Armstrong. )

I came to Chicago in ´32. It was four of us. One boy´s in Detroit now, Howard Armstrong. He´s a bad man on the violin, I´m telling you , a BAD man . . . can play anything on the violin. Me and Ted stuck together. The other boy, William Ballinger, he´s playing bass violin in a band, some bigger band took him away from us. He was something too; he could really pick that bass violin.

We played anything, popular songs, anything they called for.We played for churches, for alloccasions. When you play music for your living, you play what the people want; that´s the way I always tried to figure for myself. Anything they want - if it was weddings, dances, breakdowns, churches, anything they sent for me to come and play. That´s why I learnt to play so well , ´cause I practiced all kinds of music. Then when I came to Chicago, I go in the Polish neighborhood, go in the Iris neighborhood, go in the Italian neighborhood. I go down to Lyon & Healy´s ( a large Chicago music store) and pick up the music and come back and sit down and learn it. I learnt to read music and I can get it off the sheet..

Way I got to record there , a fellow called (Lester) Melrose heard me , cameup to me. Bumble Bee Slim and them was recording with him back there then - Big Bill and all them fellows - and we got together and we was practicing, rehearsing together, and so Melrose heard me, so he got me to go down to record. Fellow called (J.Mayo) Williams, I went down to him and recorded too. I made some records with Bumble Bee Slim , but i forget what they was now . . . Bumble Bee Slim and Big Bill, and I made some with Tampa Red. I can´t remember what I played in those days.I just played with him (Tampa Red) - his numbers - but I don´t remember what they was, but I played with him, though.

It was about five or six years ago (about 1960) that I gave up music, maybe even longer than that. See, I played music for a living; I like to play.Now when I was in the army,I kept the morale up; I practiced and went aroung there playing. They told my sergeant, "Don´t let Martin come around here when we´re having contests. He wins all the first prizes ." Now, that mandolin I have, the army gave me that.And I had a Gibson guitar, afellow bought and gave me. I kept the morale up when I was in the army.

I always liked music and wouldn´t do anything but play music, but it looked like there wasn´t any demand for it.The syndicate took over the vendors, jukeboxes, things like that - that´s a lot of dis-encouragement to musicians. You know you can´t play here. I used to play in theaters before they put in loudspeakers, talkies, and a lot of places I used to play where you´re barred out now. You go in and the fellow tells you, " Don´t need music, we got music." Well, OK , there´s a vendor there - but look at the musicians that´s walking the streets and they can´t get in. That dis-encouraged me , too, a whole lot. Cuase I would have been playing music right around here still , but you can´t fight the syndicate, and I know it. See what I am talking about ?

Although he had not performed professionally for more than a half dozen years when I met him, Carl was in splendid vocal and instrumental shape . This was due to the fact that he and Ted Bogan, still fast friends, where in the habit of getting together from time to time for an evening´s music making,playing and singing for their own enjoyment. It was such a session at Carl´s South Side apartment that I first met the pair one evening. I was treated to several hours of their mandolin-guitar renditions of such ballads as "Red sails in the sunset" and " To Watch The Evening Sun Go Down" before they would deign to perform blues. Apparently they felt impelled to convince me of their musical sophistication; certainly they kept deferring my request for blues as though they couldn´t believe I would be insterested in such music. Finally, however, I persuaded Carl to perform "Crow Jane" From there on it was easy, and they performed blues for the balance of the evening.

Prior to leaving Chicago in June of 1966, I recorded Carl twice. At the first session he accompanied himself on mandolin and guitar, with the support of Johnny Young, who alternated in playing these instruments with him. That day, May 31, 1966 Carl performed "Crow Jane Blues" " Corinna" " Trouble on your hands" "Your State Street Pimp" a piece of Bumble Bee Slim had earlier recorded as "Running Bad Luck BLues" "Mistreatin´Blues" "Every Day I Have The Blues" "Gravedigger Blues" " "Liza Jane" "John Henry" "Frankie and Johnny" a tentative "Good Morning Judge" and a fragmentary version of "Goin´ Back Home" - an interesting program of blues and older folksong.

At the second session we attempted to recreate the sound of a string band. In addition to Carl, who played violin,mandolin and guitar, we again used Young, guitar and mandoin; John Lee Granderson, guitar; and John Wrencher, harmonica. All took turns on the vocals, and the instrumental combinations were many and varied. Carl´s solo efforts included "Deceivin´ Blues" " Trouble on your hands" "Hoodoo Blues" " and "Railroad Blues" and his driving mandolin and sensitive violin playing enlivened the vocal and instrumental perfomances of the other three.




Cadence - The American Review of Jazz & Blues

Vol. 3 Nos 1&2 , August 1977

Carl Martin: an Interview

Taken by Mike Joyce and Bob Rusch Transcribed by Bob Rusch


CARL MARTIN: I was born in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, 1906 on April the 1st. CADENCE: Were your parents musically inclined? 

CM: My daddy was . They called him Fiddlin' Martin. Roland was my older brother by my father' s first wife. I had three brothers ,two were half brothers.

I had taken up music from my half brother Roland Martin. He was known all around and when I met him I was around 16 or 17 years old, he was in his 40's then. He was older than my mother and he was blind. See my daddy was a slave he said he had been sold twice into slavery. So I guess I 'm the son of a slave. I had learnt to play a few numbers on the guitar by just listening to fellows that came around. Roland told my daddy, he said – WeIl, Carl can play a little guitar you ought to take him and teach him. He said "WeIl, there he is go ahead and teach him.  I didn't want to play no music, I wanted to play around the streets, play with Dick, Tom and Harry. I couldn't whup my brother so he make me come in from school sit down and play the quitar.  WeIl the guitar he had was a 12-strinq guitar, too big for me. So he got on a train and went to Ashville, North Carolina and he got a small guitar and brouqht it back. I practiced about a couple of weeks with him and then I was playinq with the band. Then I learnt the bass and he let me play that, but he wouldn ' t let me touch his violin, but I watch him all the time and finally learnt how to play it anyway. He had a mandolin too, and when I got ready to go into the army in the Iatter part of ' 41, a girl gave me a mandolin, it was Italian style and I learned to play it . I didn't get out of the army till ' 45, I went overseas to Hawaii and the Phillipines. They gave me a mandolin in the army, special service did , course mine got busted sticking in foxholes and water all runnin' in it. I used to play for the big dances and the lieutenants and colonels,although I was a mechanic in the special services . Everybody liked my playinq so I came back to Chicago and Mr. (Ted) Bogan was with me. We had been playinq and Mr. (Howard) Armstrong together since the early 30's. So we had retired from playing in '34, me and Armstrong we went back South and me and Ted strung around Chicaqo. We learned how to play different kinds of music in different neighborhoods. We didn't see Armstrong no more till '70, we got back together, when they wanted us back together for a festival and got his (Armstrongs) son to play bass. And we've been together ever since.

CAD : When did you first met Howard?

CM: When I first met Howard, my brother used to be a barber over in Lafollet, Tennessee. I didn't know him then but everybody there knew him and we would go around and play. I run into Mr. Armstrong over there he was a young boy. Hi was too young, his Mother didn't want him to leave and go on the road. But by us going up there pretty often than one day they decided to let him go. When he first left home he left home with me and we start out traveling like troubadours. He played the mandolin then and I played the guitar. We go from state to state hitchhiking; all over Virginia. West Virginia. Everywhere we go the man want us on the radio , we'd play requests. Came back home and a fellow came to me and wanted me to go to New York to make same records for Brunswick. We decided to go but he hadn ' t been home so long he wanted to see his parents first. We went home, but he got sick, they sent the ticket to Ashville , North Carolina but we wasn ' t there so he couldn't go on that trip. I met Ted Bogan in Knoxville , he was just on the road playing, I saw he could travel, he had the ability to learn, had potential and I say Okay, we get toqether. Armstrong came back with us and we had another boy played bass fiddle named Bill Ballinqer, l've never been able to catch up with him since we separated, but we´ve been going ever since. 

CAD: Playing for the radio was that for a white audience?

CH: Yeah , white audience. and we play anything they call for . For my own enjoyment I like all kind of music. If I didn't know it i´d buy the piano score . I can read notes. I never did go to school to learn nothing. I used to sing in a choir when I was young and they made us sing the notes before the words so I knew the notes.

CAD : Whose idea was it to form the Tennessee Chocolate Drops?

CM : We got together and we wanted to find us a name so that we could be recognized. So Hr. Armstrong he said we'll call it Tennessee Chocolate Drops. So we went by that name . Then we used the name the Wanderinq Troubadors and broadcast under that name also all around Knoxville . But you see at that time I didn' t make that much playin'. See a lot of the white fellows they wouldn't play as good as me but they get the jobs. So we just hit the road. We didn't have a quarter in our pockets. We walk across the mountains at night, lay down the side of the road, have a rock for our pillow. Get up early in the morninq keep going from town to town. We'd go to the restaurants the barbershops anywhere that we could get in out on the street and get a crowd, they throw us money. Go into the jail house and play for the prisoners, out there you don't have much choice. I love to play and make folks happy.

CAD, Where did you meet Leroy Carr?

CM, I met him in Indianapolis Indiana, met Scrapper too, in the early 30', I played with him every night for so long everybody was looking for me , the police came and said “Your people want to know where you at “We'd go out every night and ball, have a good time. There used to be another boy named Bill on quitar playing with them but they cut him out. They went for me from Knoxville.

CAD, How 'bout Lonnie Johnson?

CM, Oh sure , played with him right here in Chicaqo. When I used to go down to the studio and record they used to call me Lonnie Johnson. Oh yeah, cause we played so much alike. I don't know why we played so much alike.

CAO : How have you seen Chicago blues changed?

CM: Well. before Muddy Water they had a different style here. Well, I liked the style better than i do today. Fellows today can't play like we played yesterday . They play different. We had to pick the guitar to play the blues. Nowadays they use a pick or something like that and you don't play like we used to play. It's just a feeling you put in your music and you play it your way - you can't put it on paper.

CAD: Did your brother record?

CM: No, but he could play that fiddle , I never did hear anyone play like him.

He ' s the one inspired Armstrong.

CAD: Do you recall the Mississippi Sheiks?

CM: Yeah, I'm one of the Mississippi Sheiks too. I recorded with them. I played the violin with them . Last time Walter Vincson recorded I recorded with them . He's dead now. Me and him and Ted Bogan and Sam Chapman recorded together.

CAD: What do you like to play?

CM: lt don't make me any difference - It's what the people like that's what I like to do, I play what they like. If they're happy l'm happy. If you can 't reach nobody you ain't nothin'. Music has to have variation to put the expression you want to put into it. You got to learn to play a piece and feel it.

CAD: Before you resumed active playing what were you doing?

CM: I was working for the Bureau of Electricity in Chicago . I worked for the city for about 15 years, pave streets, raise man holes, sanitary district , put up stop lights . I was playing now and then . But i´ll tell you I was working with those felllows. I didn't tell anybody I was a musician cause sometimes you tell people you are a musician they make fun of you. But around the first of April they gave a big partyso I said maybe I´ll go home and get my instrument and play for the party. So I came downand got a box with a guitar and we sat down there.

That day Mayor Dailey and big man from all over Chicaqo were there.So we started playing and they were surprised to know that I was a musician and that I could play like that. They came to me and asked me questions, this , that and another . Man, the next morning I com to work they bought me oour or five suits  of clothes. And Dailey walked over to my bosshe said, look here, don't let him work, give him a job watchin'. I didn 't do a thing but sit down at the navy pier, way out at the end with beer and television.They didn 't need me out there because they had guards on the gate. A lot of brothers would have liked to have that job, all I do is put toilet paper in the bathroom,  and sweep the floor and that ' s it - go out and fish, anything, wasn't anybody there but me. The boss took us out on the lake and play for parties and everything , we had it made. (Laughter).

CAD : Are you writing much music ?

CM : I don't do no writinq now, but when I want to make a piece 1 write a piece.

CAD : When did you begin to use electricity?

CM: I taken the electricity when I come out of the army . l'd go around club and taverns and they'd make so much noise you couldn't hear the mandolin much. So I just got me electric so you could hear me. Now I got a Gibson electric guitar .

CAD: Did you ever get into 12-string?

CM: I could never get use to it, too big for my fingers

CAD: What was the first music you ever remember hearing?

CM : WeIl, one of them was “Oh, You Great Big Beautiful Doll" That was way back: and “ Wasn't it Sad When That Great Big Titanic Ship Went Down". My brother would play so many songs and a lot of that country music. Most of the musicians I saw would come out of the hills, most of the white fellas I say.Fiddlin' music was about the only music you heard. If you heard a man play a sentimental piece he was from up the road a little farther. I don't know how my brother learned or where he learned. He'd play that breakdown stuff tor 35 or 40 minutes. When I'd play l'd play anything that was called for. Now black people would mostly call for blues, that's their national anthem, the blues. If you can 't play the blues, they figure you ain't no musician . White people would call for a whole lot of songs like "Corina Corina" and "The Boston Burglar" and “Old Kentucky Home", those songs, they likedthem and I liked them too.

CAD, Are you qlad to be playing regularly again?

CM: I didn't think l'd be as successful as I was, I never dreamed it would pay off . Music is one thing I don't take no back seat on. When it comes to playing music – that´s me. l've had a wonderful time plyying. People havebeen very nice everywhere  I went, everywhere I went .


            Chicago June 1977

 This interview was made possible by a grant fom the National Endowment

of the Arts, Washington. D.C.