In 1991, Document Records released a 20-side compilation of the 1927 and 1931 recordings of an unusual country-blues group called The Two Poor Boys. Their real names were Joe Evans and Arthur McClain. Their instruments included guitar, mandolin, and sometimes piano, but who played what, mostly, is a matter of conjecture. Both sang and played kazoos when the occasion called for it. Neither comes with a birth or death date. Beyond a rumor that they were originally from Hamilton County, the liner notes say, “all we know about the Two Poor Boys is in the grooves of their 78s.”
You never know where you’ll get a lead. Years ago, I swapped a few e-mails with John Newman of Nottingham, England. He’s made a study of early blues artists, and seems to have a soft spot for the eccentric ones, like Howard Armstrong, who broadcast and recorded here over 80 years ago. I just heard from Mr. Newman again this year, and he’s convinced at least half the Two Poor Boys lived in Knoxville.
Evans and McClain flourished during that jazz-age spell when so many new things were popping all at once. They’re generally classified as a “country blues” duo. Several of their tunes do fit into that format, and you need to call them something. But several of their songs swing more toward jazz or pop. As some scholars have noted, East Tennessee bluesmen were different from others, especially in terms of versatility. Black and white music tended to mix more here. To make a living in the ’20s, a Knoxville musician had to please a lot of different audiences. Black musicians even became adept at old-time country like “Old Hen Cackle” and “Sourwood Mountain,” of which the Poor Boys recorded convincing renditions.
But the Poor Boys’ “Take a Look at That Baby” sounds like a ’20s pop tune. “Georgia Rose” is a slow piano ballad, with piano accompaniment so elegant it implies a candelabra.
Thanks to Brad Reeves, the overworked director of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, I got to hear the Document CD The Two Poor Boys, which constitutes almost all they ever recorded. “New Huntsville Jail”—about Alabama, I presume—is a tearful lament, though I can’t swear the guy’s entirely serious. “Early Some Mornin’ Blues” is in the style of Bessie Smith; the singer pitches his voice so high in that you might guess it’s Bessie’s sister. “Little Son of a Gun” is an uptempo novelty piece with guitar and kazoo, stylish for 1927, like a comic vaudeville tune, and similar in style to Al Jolson, whose The Jazz Singer came out the same year. They remade it four years later in New York as “Oh You Son of a Gun,” in a different, slower style and more syncopated vocals, with a vampy piano. It sounds like someone opening for Mae West.
Mr. Newman, who has become pretty handy with Internet research, mostly via Ancestry.com, made some interesting connections between the Poor Boys and their local peers.
I was honored to get to interview idiosyncratic musician Howard Armstrong a couple times before his death in 2003. In those interviews, he didn’t mention Evans and McClain by name. But Newman cites Terry Zwigoff’s 1990 interview with Armstrong in the short-lived but beloved journal, 78 Quarterly. In that one, Armstrong refers to knowing Joe Evans, as “a shoe shine guy” in Knoxville who was adept at the 12-string guitar. In his long-distance Internet research, Newman discovered that Knoxville had a successful shoe shine guy named Joe Evans. His shop was right in Howard Armstrong’s old east-side neighborhood.
The Document CD’s liner notes go on to suggest Joe Evans influenced Armstrong’s bandmate (in the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, among others) Carl Martin, another Knoxville guitarist with eccentric blues styles and an extraordinarily eclectic repertoire.
Digging into the city directories, I found a black guy in East Knoxville named Joe Evans by 1926. But the clearer hit, the “shoe shine guy” Armstrong recalled, shows up in 1938, after the Poor Boys’ recording career. He worked at the Last Chance Shoe Shine—later sometimes known as “Joe’s”—at 1003 East Vine.
But here’s the clincher. In those early days, when Evans was hired on as a porter, the proprietor of the Last Chance was a veteran shoeshine man named Henry Keaton.
I would not have taken note of that name if not for the fact that Mr. Newman noted that once, 13 years ago in this column, I mentioned Henry Keaton. Armstrong, who told Zwigoff that Evans was a Knoxville shoeshine man, had told me about old Henry Keaton’s shoeshine place. Born before the Civil War, Keaton was an old man in his 80s when his Last Chance was known as an informal music venue, a place where musicians would show up now and then and see how many nickels would land in their hats. It’s a part of town that’s been more or less erased, but the Last Chance was somewhere around where Harriet Tubman intersects with MLK.
Connecting all that with City Directory research, it seems pretty likely that we’ve found our man.
Throughout his shoe-shine career, Evans lived at 411 Temperance, a long-gone street on the east side of downtown, married to one Cleo Wester, whose family had lived in that house for years. By the mid-’50s, he’d moved to Clinton.
Whether Arthur McClain lived in Knoxville, too, is more mysterious. A “colored” laborer named Arthur McClain shows up on the fringe of Mechanicsville in 1941, with a wife named Ethel. By 1948, he’s gone.
There’s an intriguing lyric in The Two Poor Boys’ “Cream and Sugar Blues,” a mildly sexual metaphor about coffee.
“I got all your sugar and cream, honey, ready for your coffee.... Gonna build you a cabin down on Jackson Avenue / So I can see everything that my baby do.”
There were Jackson Avenues in New York, New Orleans, and other cities. Here, Jackson Avenue was a main thoroughfare into the traditionally black community. And it was the address of JFG, our biggest coffee factory.