About The Artist
Columbus Stockade Blues
Jimmie Tarlton is best known for his work as half of the team of Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton who recorded extensively for Columbia from 1927 until 1930 and again for American Record Corp. in 1933 (see Darby & Tarlton entry). However, Tarlton also made some notable recordings on his own in 1930 and 1932. In old age, he was rediscovered and recorded an album on the Testament label. Tarlton was especially known for being one of the first hillbilly musicians to popularize Hawaiian guitar stylings.
Tarlton was born with a multi-worded name — Johnnie James Rimbert Tarlton — in Cherow, South Carolina. His family was poor with his father working at sharecropping, lumber mills, and textile mills, and making little at any of them. Jimmie was often laboring with him from age nine. He also learned something about music from his banjo picking father, others, and African-American laborers. His mother sang but was sickly much of the time.
He left home at seventeen hoping to earn a living from music and wandering from New York to Texas, sometimes working and frequently "busking" for tips. He served briefly in the South Carolina National Guard during World War I, but by the mid-twenties settled.
In January 1927 he married Ann Fields and settled in Columbus, Georgia where he met Tom Darby and they began recording for Columbia in February. At their second session, they had a two-sided hit with "Birmingham Jail" b/w "Columbus Stockade Blues."
Several interviews of Darby and Tarlton over the years reveal some details of their early recording history. Clason Kyle wrote of "Columbus Stockade Blues," "...the song netted the composers little financial reward. They were under contract to a recording company at the time, and sold their services outright. Neither dreamed the record would be such a success and they say no royalties were ever received." Perhaps they did gain something, it got them a new and better paying contract.
George Butler wrote in a 1957 article that those record sold in the millions at a time when there was no television or juke boxes to boost sales and radio was just beginning to come into its own.
Despite continuing to record together through 1929, the twosome did not otherwise travel and play much together. Jimmie continued busking. For a time he hung around East Rockingham, North Carolina where he met and influenced the younger and not yet playing seriously Howard and Dorsey Dixon. Tarlton later would record Dorsey Dixon's song "Weaver's Life" as "Weaver's Blues" before the Dixon's had ever entered a studio.
George Mitchell wrote of his interview with Jimmy Tarlton in a Columbus (GA) newspaper in June 1968. The local newspapers seemed proud that their town was made famous by this tune and in articles over the years. Mr. Mitchell describes Tarlton as he pulled out his large Martin guitar to play "Columbus Stockade Blues."
"He plays with the guitar laid across his knees in the old Hawaiian or 'bottleneck' style. The glass neck is broken off a fifth whiskey bottle and heated in order to smooth down the jagged edges. The guitar player then places it on his little finger and, as he picks the guitar, slides it over the strings, making them cry and whine the tune."
After Darby and Tarlton did a final session in 1933, both men fell into obscurity. Jimmie apparently sang a bit on Columbus radio in the 1940's.
In 1962, both were rediscovered and reunited in mid-1963, but did not appear to be very friendly. Jimmie was musically as skilled as ever but Darby's skills had seriously declined.
In 1963, he was living with his wife in a small apartment in Phenix City. Mr. Mitchell related that he lived with his parents in a "log cabin with a stick and dirt chimney" in Chesterfield, SC. He said of those times, money was hard to come by and in the winter he would have to split rails or cut cordwood for a living. He picked cotton around the age of six, and was plowing before he was nine.
When he was seven, he started playing a "fretless homemade banjo with a head made of cat skin." Mr. Mitchell quoted Jimmie, "...sheepskin is too thick but that a black cat hide is just right."
After he married Ann, he said, "Me and her booked school houses together — me playing and her taking up the money."
He told Mr. Mitchell how those two songs came about. Jimmie was serving time for bootlegging in the stockade when he wrote "Columbus Stockade Blues." The warden ended up cutting his prison time for doing that song. He later got locked up for hopping a train in Atlanta that was bound for New York. The warden asked him to sing and he wrote and sang "Birmingham Jail." Jimmie said, "Boy, I put it on him. Tears were running out of his eyes." The warden collected the money to set him free.
In a 1969 interview, Tom Darby told Wanda Padgett, "...no one could sign "Columbus Stockade Blues" as he and Jimmy did when they recorded it for Columbia...We sang from our hearts and when you sing from your heart, that makes a difference."
Thereafter, Jimmie played a few shows, most notably at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles in 1965 where he played for a week. He also recorded an LP for Testament, Steel Guitar Rag (T-3302).
In 1978, Jimmy was living in a nursing home. But his friends had other ideas. Henry Clayton Parker (grandson of Jimmy) and Rick Edwards (a close friend) were pooling resources and raising funds to get Jimmy back home. They were to do a benefit performance at the Columbus Astros upcoming doubleheader. It was sponsored by radio station WPNX and was to be on Tuesday, July 18, 1978. Complimentary tickets were passed out around town to get attendance at the game; but, an admission charge of 50 cents was collected at the gate. There were several points in the stadium where fans could donate to Jimmie. Parker and Edwards were doing a music set at the event. "We want to raise enough money to get him (Tarlton) out of the nursing home so he can live out his life at home with his wife Annie. He was in a hospital for a time, suffering from heart trouble and diabetes. They hoped to raise about $10,000 to get him home and hire a daytime nurse.
By September he was back home. The local newspaper wrote of him in an editorial. "So it's good to hear that his luck is improving. In his day he probably made more Americans aware of Columbus than a hundred chambers of commerce."
Tarlton, who lived in Phenix City, Alabama, then sank back into obscurity and died at age 87. His wife died in 1991 at the age of 86.
Credits & Sources
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