RICHARD Rabbit BROWN
Blind WILLIE HARRIS
Listen to or download the Richard Rabbit Brown podcast: here
Songster Richard Brown was one of a group of important artists that preceded the development of acoustic blues during the 1920's. Songsters were musicians who performed material from the older traditions, essentially stories. Originally a 'songster' was a songbook but the term became commonly used to denote the singer. Such is the case with Richard Rabbit Brown, one of the most celebrated songsters and the only one from New Orleans to record. Richard Brown is believed to have been born in 1880, possibly in rural north Louisiana or even in Mississippi although New Orleans is occasionally cited as his birthplace. It is most often accepted by music historians that his family moved to New Orleans, possibly sometime between 1890 and 1900. In the lyrics to his best known song, the self penned autobiographical James Alley Blues, he refers to himself as having being born in the country.
He was brought up in Jane Alley where his parents settled in the colloquially named 'Battlefield' area, one of the toughest parts of the City. (In some accounts Jane Alley is referred to as Jane's Alley and now, commonly as James Alley. Louis Armstrong who was born in the same area referred to it as James Alley in his autobiography but photographs from the time show a street sign for Jane Alley. As is often the case, most likely Jane became corrupted to Jane's and then to James by common usage.) Noisy during the day, at night Jane Alley was notorious for its bloody fights and frequent murders. The police, who would not enter at night, would come by in the morning to pick up casualties. It was close to the black storyville area of the city, a district of run-down wooden shanties and shotgun houses where the streets were dusty or muddy, the houses crowded and sanitation primitive, and the equally tough adjoining white only red light district. Brown began by singing on street corners and in the bars in the district to supplement the family income. He was also a regular at Mama Lou's bar on Lake Pontchartrain and made extra as a singing boatman on the lake.
Said to have been a small man, and hence his nickname, he was described by a contemporary as something of a clown and not to be taken too seriously. However the few recording he made show him to have been a seasoned rather dramatic guitar player capable of dexterity and deep expression, with a somewhat gravely voice. He is also said to have been one of the first artists to learn the 12 bar blues pattern.
He wrote his own compositions and composed songs about several of New Orleans most notorious murders. Two of his most popular songs were "The Downfall of the Lion", concerning the shotgun murder of the police chief on Basin Street, and "Gyp the Blood", about a local waiter who sparked a near-riot, and the temporary closing of Storyville by killing two restaurant/bar owners, putting many musicians out of work. Neither of the songs were recorded and only snatches of the lyrics are said to remain.
(Gyp the Blood was actually the nickname of New York gangster Harry Horowicz who at the time of the Storyville killings was on trial for a gruesome murder in New York. The case received a great deal of publicity and Brown possibly chose this song title because of the attention it would receive. Horowicz was executed in 1914.)
Rabbit Brown recorded six sides for Victor in 1927, although only five were
released. These included the story songs "Mystery
of the Dunbar's Child" (about the 1914 kidnapping of Bobby Dunbar
from a resort near Opelousas, Louisiana), and "Sinking of the Titanic."
After the session Rabbit Brown 'disappeared' and there are no further
references to him. Some authorities report that he died impoverished in
1937, but this has never been verified. "Richard Brown" was not an uncommon
name and several deaths with that name were recorded in New Orleans between
1927 and 1937. It has been suggested that he may have gone to Chicago where
he had a nephew, or perhaps returned to his rural roots but this all remains
James Alley Blues
There is however a further mystery associated with Rabbit Brown. In 2003 a collection of rural acoustic gospel music was released and which contained one of the two known recordings by an otherwise undocumented singer named Blind Willie Harris. The song, "Where He Leads Me I Will Follow," was recorded in New Orleans in 1929 and the authors of the CD notes point out its "strikingly similar" resemblance to the 1927 Victor recordings of Rabbit Brown. This stimulated discussion among early blues and gospel collectors, and some at least stated that, without doubt, "Harris" was a pseudonym of Brown's. They are virtually indistinguishable from one another in both guitar techniques and vocal styling but no documentation has ever been found to link Blind Willie Harris with Richard Rabbit Brown. Maybe Harris was mimicking Brown? If they are the same person, then after his 1927 recordings when Brown disappeared, did he renounce his earlier colorful lifestyle, change his name and move to gospel, or was he pursuing two different but lucrative markets?
Blind Willie Harris - Where He Leads I Will Follow (excerpt)