A “DOMINATING INFLUENCE": FRANK STOKES AND THE MUSICAL TRADITIONS THAT MADE UP THE “MEMPHIS SOUND”
By T. DeWayne Moore, director, Mt. Zion Memorial Fund
Neither the date nor the location of Frank Stokes’ birth can be confirmed, but his impact on at least the development of the Memphis blues tradition is undeniable. Though he has not drawn a great deal of scholarly or popular interest today, he was a decidedly popular entertainer well before the recording industry mushroomed in the 1920s, largely due to his wide ranging repertoire that always kept the crowds entertained. According to the 1900 US Census, the earliest known document to note his birthdate, Stokes was born in June 1878—though other, later documents, such as his death certificate and World War I registration card, offer different birthdates, January 1, 1888 and January 1, 1877, respectively. According to blues historian Steve Calt, Stokes was born in the small farming community of Whitehaven, south of Memphis along Highway 51. Field researcher Bengt Olsson, however, traces Stokes to Senatobia, a small town in Mississippi some twenty miles south of Memphis in Desoto County, which, along with the adjoining counties of Tate and Marshall, served as an incubator of “a gentle but rhythmically solid kind of blues” tradition. It also featured a style of singing reflective of “the old field hollers.” Since this music was “ideal for dancing,” its purveyors found steady work in the traveling medicine shows that toured the South. Olsson attributed its popularity and diffusion to the “dominating influence of a single musician” named Frank Stokes, an African American who was “bald, six feet tall…and weighed 240 pounds,” according to guitarist and harmonica player “Memphis” Willie Borum.
By all accounts, Stokes lost his parents at an early age. He then apparently lived with his stepfather in Tutwiler, Mississippi, where he soon learned how to play guitar as well as work hot metal. The “burly blacksmith,” as blues biographer David Harrison described him, started performing on the streets around the turn of the twentieth century, eventually traveling to Memphis every weekend to perform. Less than a decade after the Supreme Court codified racial segregation into law in the Plessy decision, the popularity of the blues flourished in the deep South. He also developed a vast repertoire of pre-blues songs as a street artist. Recognizing the incentives of performing a wide range of music, he was a favorite in medicine shows and house parties, a consummate entertainer who drew on older musical traditions with dexterous facility.
In the 1910s, Stokes often toured with Garfield Akers (as blackface songsters, buck dancers, and comedians) in the Doc Watts Medicine Show, which toured the South during the Great War. The medicine shows employed dancers and musicians to help sell their patent medicines and cure-alls to the hopeful, sometimes desperate, folks in the crowd. By singing songs, dancing, and cracking jokes, the entertainers generally encouraged the audience to feel happy, even if only for a moment inside the tents, long enough to spend some coin on medicine “guaranteed to do you good.” While Stokes sometimes performed in the larger touring companies, such as the Ringling Brother’s Circus, informants more often associated him with the medicine shows that toured around the southern states.
Frank Stokes’ career as a medicine show entertainer also provided him the opportunity to collaborate with a host of notable white musicians, who also received their introduction to the music business in the medicine shows that toured the South. Country musicians such as Uncle Dave Macon, Fiddling John Carson, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, and “Harmonica” Frank Floyd all spent some time grinding it out on the medicine shows. Meridian, Mississippi native Jimmie Rodgers, made up in blackface, got his start in the medicine shows, travelling through the southern states from Texas to Tennessee. According to blues scholar Paul Oliver, in Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records, several sources vividly recalled—even forty years after the fact—that Rodgers performed in one medicine show with the Memphis blacksmith. “There can be little doubt that they learned from each other and exchanged items;” Oliver asserts, “perhaps under these circumstances Jimmie Rodgers picked up In the Jailhouse Now, one of the most popular songs among black medicine and minstrel show entertainers.” While Stokes never recorded the song, his sometimes playing partner and fellow north Mississippi native Jim Jackson recorded one of many versions later in 1927.
In 1920, after almost a decade on intermittent tours with various medicine shows, Stokes came back to the Memphis area and started working in a blacksmith shop on the corner of Democrat Lane in the small hamlet of Oakville. He possessed some skill in “shoeing horses, mules and all such as that,” but he also continued to play at local parties, saloons, and fish fries. On Saturdays in Oakville, he’d play outside the J. J. Arnold Grocery Store, located in the heart of Oakville, where everyone was hanging out. According to his wife Lula:
“If you was there on Saturday night you just couldn’t get through in no way! The place was crowded as could be…white folks too; they was crazy ‘bout Frank - called him lotsa times ‘cause they wanted him to play fer ‘em. [He] played all those foxtrots and waltzes for ‘em.”
After World War I and into the Roaring 1920s, Stokes was more successful than any of his peers around Memphis. His diverse repertoire included everything from the hokum and rags of the minstrel shows to the intricate fingerpicked-blues of Avalon-native John Hurt, and Stokes had an almost perfect vocal sound for the blues. His voice was deep, rich and strong, and he delivered in a loud, declamatory style. Though he could get rough sounding, many of his songs have a playful air. Several songs reflect the ragtime rhythm of pre-blues material: “Chicken You Can Roost Behind the Moon,” “Mr. Crump Don't Like It,” a particularly notable version of “You Shall” (commonly known as “You Shall Be Free”), and the traditional “Hey Mourner.” The influence of the medicine shows is evident in the tunes “I Got Mine” and “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” his version of the latter is one of the earliest—and cleanest—versions of the classic song. These tunes and others like “Take Me Back” reflect the popular musical styles that were supplanted by the blues.
Stokes doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, especially for laying the foundation for what is sometimes termed the “Memphis sound” by drawing on “the pastiche of blues and ragtime favored by artists like Furry Lewis [and] Tom Dickson.” Considering that his birth occurred an estimated twenty years before the turn of the century, the early studio sessions of Stokes’ may have captured the same type of music that the earliest-recorded country blues artists listened to as children. The “pre-blues” songs that Stokes mastered on the street corners of Memphis would later go through a transformation in the creative hands of blues artists.
Memphis was a potent musical force in the largely rural mid-South, and it attracted many of the region’s strongest players, which Steve Calt emphasizes in his liner notes to Frank Stokes’ Dream: The Memphis Blues, 1927-1941, one of Yazoo Records’ earliest reissue projects. Stokes found plenty of talent to work with in Memphis. Around southwestern Tennessee, East Arkansas, and northern Mississippi, he enjoyed musical alliances with such notable blues artists as Gus Cannon, John Estes, Milton Roby, Will Shade (Son Brimmer), Will Batts, Jack Kelly, Charley Patton, Willie Brown, “Memphis” Willie Borum, and Memphis Minnie.
While he made an impact on Hernando musicians such as Jim Jackson and Robert Wilkins, Stokes proved a salient influence on Garfield Akers and Joe Calicott, of Nesbit, a duo that worked on a “two-guitar sound” similar to that of Frank Stokes and Dan Sain, his most frequent guitar accompanist on record. Even though he was older than most of his peers in the “race records” market of the late-1920s, Stokes managed to hold his own in the studio. His abilities to sound good on record stemmed largely from his own experience as an entertainer. Some of the credit, however, should rest on the shoulders of second guitarist Dan Sain, who some consider one of the most underappreciated country blues guitarists of the 1920s. Among the “glories of the blues,” as admirer David Harrison remarked, were Sain’s flat-picked melodies over the top of Stokes’ propulsive rhythms. Beginning in 1927, the duo recorded as The Beale Street Sheiks, becoming a popular Memphis answer to the musical Chatmon family string band, the Mississippi Sheiks.
Stokes recorded solo in many of his early sessions, but Sain became his frequent accompanist in the studio. In some of his last sessions, Stokes invited his occasional playing-partner and fiddler Will Batts, the primary instrumentalist for the popular string band of Jack Kelly, the South Memphis Jug Band. The kind of sound that went with combining the guitar and fiddle was so reminiscent of the Mississippi Sheiks. The interpenetration of blues and older musical styles in their recordings demonstrated that versatility was a salient aspect of the true greats who recorded in the 1920s. The wonderful and variant set of “casual listening” tunes captured in Memphis on September 23rd, 25th, and 30th of 1929 made up the last of Stokes’ recorded output.
Stokes appeared on a total of thirty-eight sides for Paramount and Victor Records. He lived for a quarter-century after leaving the record business, and he continued to play, occasionally even with Bukka White, though his popularity diminished. Stokes eventually left Memphis and moved to Clarksdale, leaving behind his wife Margaret. Viola Miller, who at the time stayed with Dan Sain, recalled that Stokes picked cotton with them outside of Clarksdale around 1950. She also believed that he and some other men had eaten some poisoned meat at the Snow Café, 360 Issaquena Avenue in Clarksdale. According to his death certificate, however, Stokes’ death stemmed from kidney failure. In late summer 1955, according to one physician at John Gaston Hospital in Memphis, his kidneys had all but failed completely, the resultant buildup of toxins that the kidneys normally filtered caused him to have a stroke. He ascended to a higher plane on September 12, 1955. His funeral was directed by Orange Mound Funeral Home, of Memphis, and he was buried in an unmarked grave at Hollywood Cemetery on September 18, 1955.
 For a detailed
discussion of the his different birthdates, see note 3; “Frank Stokes,” death certificate, Department of Public Health,
Division of Vital Statistics September 12, 1955, #55-21075; “Frank Stokes,” U.S., World War I Draft Registration
Cards, 1917-1918 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA:
Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.
 Calt also maintains that Stokes birthdate was in 1888; see, Stephen Calt, R. Crumb, David A. Jasen, and Richard Nevins, R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country (New York: Abrams, 2006), 24.
 Stokes’ date of birth has been widely debated. In 1967, Bob Groom published a brief biography of Stokes in Blues World titled “the Memphis Rounder” after his 1929 song Memphis Rounder Blues. Noting that his origins were “shrouded in mystery,” Groom suggests Stokes was born “around 1890” in the vicinity of Senatobia in Tate County. His account is highly speculative and refuted in one 1973 article titled “The Beale Street Sheik” by Memphis Blues author Bengt Olsson, whose interviews were very important to uncovering the history of Stokes and the “Beale Street Sheiks. Olsson goes on to present “facts about Frank Stokes, picked up more or less by accident in various places,” one of which is that he was “born around 1865,” making him one of the oldest blues musicians to make records.
The twenty-five year difference is tough to reconcile, but the more recent commentary of blues scholar Elijah Wald provides some insight into discerning his actual birthdate. In his review of the album The Best of Frank Stokes (Yazoo 2072), Wald argues that Stokes “may well be the best example on record of what the great Mississippi blues musicians” heard in their childhoods, because he was born in 1887. The source for most of the information relayed in the liner notes, however, was the musician’s daughter, Helen, several of whose recollections have been proven wholly inaccurate. The errant statements of Stokes’ daughter reflects both the young age and the short period in which she lived in his household as a child—as few as four years.
In September 1918, the middle-aged blacksmith made his way down to the Central Police Station in Memphis to register for the draft during World War I. He informed that he was 41 years-old, and the registrar wrote his birthdate as January 1, 1877. The birth month and day listed on his draft card were the same as the ones given on his death certificate, which lists his date of birth as January 1, 1888. The informant who provided the information on the certificate (Margaret) was at least his third wife, however, who likely had no real clue as to the musician’s true age. Though it seems that Stokes may have been born on New Year’s Day, the first day of January was often assigned to immigrants and individuals who, for cultural or other reasons, did not know their exact date of birth. In addition, the earliest record of Frank Stokes in the US Census was in 1900. The 21 year-old musician and “levee man,” one census enumerator noted, was born in June 1878. It is the earliest document available that claims to know the month/year of his birth. Three men named Frank Stokes got their marriage license in Shelby County from 1904-1908, but all of them (or none of them) may in fact be influential musician; see, Bob Groom, “Frank Stokes: The Memphis Rounder,” Blues World 13:2 (March 1967): 5-6.
 Bengt Olsson, “Frank Stokes: The Beale Street Sheik,” Blues Unlimited 100 (April 1973): 25-27; Bengt Olsson, Memphis Blues (London: November Books, 1970), 15.
 David Harrison, “Frank Stokes,” in The Blues Encyclopedia, eds. Ed Komara and Peter Lee (New York: Routledge, 2006), 932.
 Paul Oliver, Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 89-91.
 Sheldon Harris, Blues Who’s Who (New York: Arlington House, 1979), 486; Samuel Charters, The Bluesmen: Sweet as the Showers of Rain (New York: Oak, 1977), 60.
 Olsson, “Frank Stokes: The Beale Street Sheik,” 26.
 Steve Calt, liner notes, Frank Stokes’ Dream: The Memphis Blues, 1927-1931 (Yazoo L-1008, 1991).
 Calt, liner notes, Frank Stokes’ Dream.
 Olsson, Memphis Blues, 17.
 Will Batts and Jack Kelly drew from a deep cultural well to merge the blues with minstrel songs and other such reels and rags. Born on January 24, 1904 in Michigan, MS, Batts worked as a farm hand until he decided to pursue a career in music and join the band of Jack Kelly, the South Memphis Jug Band (SMJB). The group quickly developed into a fixture on the Beale Street music scene. It was not until 1933, however, that the SMJB made their first recordings. and they followed with a second and final session in 1939. Batts backed up Stokes in 1929, and he also recorded with a variety of other Memphis performers. Batts died on April 16, 1954 at the age of 50. As for Jack Kelly, his 1952 session with Big Walter Horton on the harmonica is sometimes errantly attributed to Batts, and David Evans comments, in the liner notes to The Blues in Memphis, 1927-1939, that “little is known about him besides the fact that he is dead.” See, Dave Evans, liner notes, The Blues in Memphis, 1927-1939 (Origin Jazz Library, OJL-21), circa 1969.
 Even after his final recordings for Victor Records, Stokes hoped to continue working as a “musician” despite the lack of interest in his music anymore. The city directory of Memphis lists his occupation as “musician” in 1932; see, 1932 Memphis City Directory, U.S. City Directories, 1822-1989 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
 His primary cause of death was “uremia,” and his second and third likely causes were, respectively, “pyelonephritis chronic” and “benign prostatic hypertrophy”; see, "Frank Stokes," death certificate, Tennessee Department of Public Health, Division of Vital Statistics September 12, 1955, #55-21075.