Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
We’ve all had the blues this year, some of us more than ever. Now the snow and cold have returned, sickness and poverty are on the rise, and even our holidays have been without gatherings and sometimes even without family—I don’t know about you, but I’ve been spinning cathartic blues records way more than usual. And this begins the Secret History of Chicago Music’s annual Winter Blues series, which covers the Windy City’s multitude of great blues artists, many of whom were neglected in their day and all of whom still deserve more recognition.
James “Kokomo” Arnold is a case in point—he’s little known today, but he influenced giants of the genre such as Robert Johnson and Elmore James. As is the case with many great early blues musicians, the story of Kokomo Arnold is now inaccessible in some of its details—he was born on February 15, but it’s not clear whether the year was 1896 or 1901 (accounts from the time differ from census records unearthed by blues researchers). He was born in Clayton County, Georgia, either in Lovejoy or in nearby Jonesboro, and he learned to play guitar from his cousin John Wiggs.
Like many of the era’s bluesmen, Arnold moved around in search of jobs, and as a young man he traveled north to work as a farmhand in Buffalo and as a steelworker in Pittsburgh. The earliest reports of Arnold performing publicly come from Buffalo sometime in the 20s, and he moved to Chicago in 1929—not necessarily to pursue music but to follow the booming bootlegging business. He traveled south briefly in 1930, cutting his first sides in Memphis under the name Gitfiddle Jim. Released by the Victor label, “Rainy Night Blues” and “Paddlin’ Blues” showcase Arnold’s distinctively intense style: barked, workmanlike vocals adorn his left-handed bottleneck slide guitar, in a time signature seemingly only he understood. Every raw string scrape is full of life and pain, chaotic and beautiful at once.
Arnold soon returned to Chicago, but when Prohibition ended in late 1933, bootlegging went with it. He became a full-time bluesman, and luckily, fellow musician Kansas Joe McCoy heard him and introduced him to producer J. Mayo “Ink” Williams, who’d just begun what would be a history-making run at Decca Records. In 1934, Arnold’s first recording for Decca gave him the handle he’d use for the rest of his short career: “Old Original Kokomo Blues” is the B side of that now-scarce 78.
Historians debate the inspiration for the tune. The original version—”Kokomo Blues,” the 1928 solo debut of Francis “Scrapper” Blackwell—was either a reference to a well-known brand of coffee or simply to Kokomo, Indiana. The importance of Arnold’s recording can’t be overstated, though: it was a smash, and Robert Johnson remade it in 1937 as “Sweet Home Chicago.” The rest, as they say, is history.
The A side of Arnold’s Decca debut was the similarly influential “Milk Cow Blues,” which Johnson adapted into “Milkcow’s Calf Blues.” In the years since, it’s been covered widely, including by Elvis Presley and the Kinks. Johnson likely also borrowed the phrase “I believe I’ll dust my broom” from Arnold’s tune “Sagefield Woman Blues,” using it to title a song of his own that later became a hit for slide-guitar god Elmore James.
Over the next four years, Arnold was quite prolific, appearing on at least 57 records for Decca. Most of his sessions were solo affairs—he preferred not to follow anyone else’s time—but he also recorded with folks such as Alice Moore, Roosevelt Sykes, Oscar’s Chicago Swingers, and similarly influential pianist and guitarist Peetie Wheatstraw. Arnold cut more than 80 sides under his own name during his time with Decca, which ran from September 10, 1934, until May 12, 1938 (a few were rejected, and most of those have been lost).
Arnold’s records were successful and he was well-known as a performer, but when he ended his association with Decca in ’38, he also ended his music career. He went to work in a Chicago factory and showed zero interest in returning to what he considered a crooked business. Beginning in 1960, Arnold’s recordings appeared on a long list of anthologies and compilations, including the 1964 split LP Blues Classics by Kokomo Arnold / Peetie Wheatstraw, but he turned away researchers eager to introduce him to the booming folk and blues revival. Arnold died of a heart attack on November 8, 1968, and was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
Compilations featuring Arnold’s work continued to arrive after his death, including several devoted entirely to him. Saydisc imprint Matchbox released the Kokomo Arnold LP in 1969, and in 1991 Document Records assembled an exhaustive four-volume CD set called Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order. Most recently, the double CD The Kokomo Arnold Collection 1930-38 appeared this year on the Acrobat label. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 6 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.
- Kokomo Arnold made his first recordings in 1930 as “Gitfiddle Jim.”
- Robert Johnson borrowed the tune from the B side of Kokomo Arnold’s first Decca record for “Sweet Home Chicago.”
- A line from “Sagefield Woman Blues” likely inspired the title of Johnson’s “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” which would become a hit for Elmore James.