Gus Cannon lived long enough for his style of music to go from the cutting edge of southern African American tastes to being labeled “archaic” by a latter-day scholar. Cannon was born on 12 September 1883 in Red Banks, Mississippi, the tenth child of former slaves who became sharecroppers. Perhaps they taught their youngest son the refrain that he issued on a record exactly one hundred years after the delivery of the proclamation that freed them: “Well my old mistress promised me / when she died she’d set me free / she lived so long that her head got bald / thought I’d have to kill her with a white oak maul.”
Cannon initially played the banjo in a family or string orchestra and made his first instrument out of a guitar neck and a tin bread pan with a raccoon hide stretched over the open end, periodically tightened by a flame from the matches he carried. Cannon lived near Clarksdale around 1900 and worked as a cotton picker. There he heard one of the earliest slide guitarists recalled in the Delta and adapted the new style to his banjo. Like other African American musicians of this region and generation, Cannon chose the life of a traveling musician after experiences in agriculture and on the railroad and levee. Before the popularity of the phonograph and radio in the region, the medicine show spread new musical ideas across the rural landscape and was a venue of musical exchange. Traveling with various medicine shows before World War I, Cannon acquired the moniker Banjo Joe, and he recorded under that name during his first session. He also made contact with Tennessee-born harmonica player Noah Lewis and multi-instrumentalists Hosea Woods and Elijah Avery.
Unlike many blues musicians of the era who struggled to compose the four original pieces needed to earn a recording session, Cannon was a veteran musician at his first session in November 1927. That session highlighted his versatility and creativity (as well as that of his accompanist, guitarist Blind Blake) and hinted at the breadth of Cannon’s repertoire. The six recordings from that session included “Jonestown Blues,” named for a hamlet of cotton pickers near Clarksdale and recognized as the first “standard” blues recorded with banjo as the lead instrument. Cannon learned “Poor Boy Long Ways from Home” in the Delta around the turn of the century, but his slide banjo performance at this session was unprecedented in any recorded blues. He also lampooned Booker T. Washington’s 1901 White House visit in “Can You Blame the Colored Man?”
Like many other musical Mississippians of his generation, Cannon migrated north to Memphis, possibly to enhance his musical income. He saw that jug bands were popular and profitable and formed his own, perhaps at the behest of rural music scout Ralph Peer. Cannon and Lewis formed the core of the band, with Woods, Avery, and Lewis’s neighbor from Ripley, Tennessee, Ashley Thompson, taking turns playing guitar during the band’s nine recording sessions. The band recorded blues, rags, and medicine show songs such as “Whoah! Mule Get up in the Alley” and “Feather Bed,” which included the verse, “I remember the time just before the war / Colored man used to hunt for chips and straw / but now bless God, Ol’ Marse is dead / Colored man plumb fool ’bout a feather bed.” The most enduring of their twenty-nine recordings proved to be “Walk Right In.” Written by Cannon in 1913, the song reached the top of the Billboard charts fifty years later, performed by the Rooftop Singers. Cannon had spent the three previous decades digging ditches but earned some well-deserved royalties and briefly reentered the rather dim spotlight of the American folk music revival.
This child of slaves lived to witness and participate in the emergence of blues in Mississippi, the heyday of Beale Street in Memphis, the rise and demise of the race record industry in the South, and the 1960s American blues revival. In addition, he heard three of his compositions recorded by groups of musicians sixty years his junior. Cannon’s story was featured in at least two books, Time magazine, and the Saturday Evening Post, and he appeared in the first motion picture with an all-black cast, King Vidor’s Hallelujah! (1929). Cannon died on 15 October 1979.
- William Barlow, Looking up at Down (1989)
- Samuel B. Charters, The Country Blues (1975)
- John Godrich and Robert M. W. Dixon, Blues and Gospel Records: 1902–1943 (1969)
- Bengt Olsson, Memphis Blues (1970)