Friday, April 1, is April Fool's Day, but more importantly it's the 110th birthday of Carl Martin (1906-1979), a blues and jazz performer who recorded in the 1930s. He was born in Big Stone Gap, Va., but spent his teen years and early adulthood in Knoxville, often playing guitar on the streets with his older brother, fiddler Roland Martin. They played a style often called Piedmont Blues, which emphasizes fingerpicking and a light, jazzy feel, with elements of vaudeville tunes and ragtime, distinct from the simpler but perhaps weightier sounds of Delta blues. It was a style often heard in the barber shops and poolhalls of Vine Street in the years after World War I.
Here he met a newcomer from LaFollette, fiddler and mandolinist Howard Armstrong. The two became close friends, shared a house on Yeager Street in East Knoxville, and formed the core of a couple of Knoxville based bands, the Four Keys and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. They recorded at the 1929-30 Brunswick sessions at the St. James Hotel on Wall Avenue near Market Square, including some with local hooks: “Knox County Stomp” and “Vine Street Rag” (a.k.a. “Vine Street Drag”). Although they were a string band, with guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, like most early country bands, their style was closer to popular jazz.
All their early Knoxville recordings are included in the upcoming Knoxville Sessions box-set release to be celebrated in early May with the Knoxville Stomp festival.
In the early 1930s, Martin and Armstrong and others, including their friend Ted Bogan—they were all multi-instrumentalists began traveling, and ended up in Chicago. Martin was one of the busiest of them, cutting his own records, like “Crow Jane Blues,” and also backing better-known bluesmen like Tampa Red and Bumble Bee Slim, usually on guitar.
Almost forgotten for years, in late life Martin reunited with his old Knoxville chums I the late 1960s and toured college campuses across America and recorded as Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong. They cut a full album appropriately called “That Old Gang of Mine.”