Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Prof. Kitzle's Time Machine Profile; Wilmer Watts


Wilmer Watts (1897 - 1943) Was a an Old Time Country Music singer, player and bandleader who recorded a series of 78 records for Paramount Records in the 1920's. Although not as well known as fellow North Carlina singer/banjo player Charlie Poole, who has undergone a revival over the last few years, Watts is for my money a more interesting artist with a crude but distinctive style.

wilmer watts

Born in Mount Tabor (now Tabor City) a market town in Columbus County, between 1896 and 1898. After he moved to the city of Belmont where he worked as a worker in textile factories. Having learned several instruments including banjo, fiddle, guitar, dobro, autoharp, harmonica, musical saw and drums he became a semi-professional musician around 1921 and made his first recordings in January or Feburary 1927 as a duo with local guitarist Charlie Wilson (1900 - ?) with a single entitled "The Sporting Cowboy" which was not released at the time although it was later rerecorded. With a new trio under the name of Wilmer Watts and His Lonely Eagles they recorded six sides for Paramount Records in 1927 using a line-up that included Charles Freshour (1900 - 1959) on guitar and the then unusual steel guitar which was played by Wilson. In 1929 he returned to Paramount's New York studios. This time Wilson was replaced on steel guitar by Palmer Rhyne (1904 - 1967), a fellow factory worker friend of Watts. These sessions resulted in fourteen sides.



Wilmer's banjo playing was quite simple and repetitive, staying to mid-tempo songs and quite different from the more complex ragtime influenced picking of Charlie Poole or blues singer Papa Charlie Jackson or the fast choppy style of Uncle Dave Macon. Unlike most of his contemporaries Watts' musical influences seem to be based mostly on traditional Anglo-Celtic sources along with blues, ragtime, or minstrelsy and his songs have a distinctive droning modal quality compared to those of his North Carolina contemporary Charlie Poole. In his lyrical themes (at least in his recorded works) Watts largely avoided traditional folk songs and focused on more modern themes ranging from blues to a few political protest songs usually in a mocking vein similar to those of song writer Joe Hill collected in the "Little Red Songbook" of the I.W.W.


Among Watts' best known recordings are;


"Cotton Mill Blues"; a bluesy protest song about the plight of factory workers, based on a 1900 poem "A Factory Rhyme" by George Stutts.

"COTTON MILL BLUES" (an explanation of the song with cover versions, done by a descendent of Posey Rorrer, who played with the better known fellow North Carolina singer/banjoist Charlie Poole )

"Been On The Job Too Long"; a murder ballad later covered by such artists as Leadbelly and Bob Dylan under the title of "Duncan and Brady".


"Walk Right In Belmont"; the first known recorded version of "Midnight Special", a later standard later covered by Leadbell>, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Mac Wiseman. This single was originally released under the name "Watts & Wilson" and later through Paramount's subsidiary label Broadway Records under the name "Watts & Wiggins". Note this song is not to be confused with the Gus Cannon song "Walk Right In".


"Banjo Sam"; an especially repetitive modal song with surrealistic lyrics later covered by Pete Seeger.


"Knocking Down Casey Jones"; a version of one of the many tribute songs then common to famous train engineer Casey Jones. This song is notably more heroic than Joe Hill's I.W.W. version.


"Fighting in The War With Spain"; an anti-war song mocking the Spanish-American War in which Watts makes light of the war and portrays himself as a deserter.


"The Fate Of Rhoda Sweetin"; A murder ballad sung and reportedly written by Charles Freshour about his own sister. This single was credited to Charles Freshour and The Lonely Eagles.


"She's A Hard Boiled Rose"; A version of a Tin Pan Alley song later used in another version by stripper Gypsie Rose Lee.


"Charles Guitaw"; A ballad (with a misspelled title) about Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield. This song was also covered by Kelly Harrell.





After the 1927 sessions Wilson left the group and was replaced by Palmer Rayne for the 1929 sessions. The Great Depression ended the recordings of many rural artists and Paramount Records went out of business in 1935 so Watts made no further recordings. He returned to Belmont were he continued working as a textile worker, tenant farmer and gas station owner as well as a part-time musician albeit without the Lonely Eagles who broke up. Watts often gigged as a one-man-band playing as many as five instruments at once. In 1931 Watts won a talent contest for his act awarded by Uncle Dave Macon. Later from the mid nineteen-thirties he formed a Southern Gospel group with his daughters as the Watts Singers who performed two regular shows on the radio but did not record. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer and retired in 1939 dying in 1944 at the age of approximately 47. His daughters continued as the Watts Singers with one of their husbands replacing Wilmer into the 1960's but did not record.



The only photo of Watts commonly known (showing him holding a fiddle rather than his usual banjo) was reproduced by the artist R. Crumb for a collection of trading cards of old time country musicians.


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