Essays & Articles

“History & Mystery”  (a long shot in early blues and gospel)
– recordings of the Dixie Symphony Four
by Max Haymes

Sometime ago in the mid-1930s, (or a few years earlier) an African American group known variously as the Dixie Symphony Four or Dixie Symphony Singers recorded six performances for a record company on a radio station in San Francisco, California.  The date could vary between 1929 and 1934 as that was the life-span of the record company, Flexo, which was “located on Geary Street in San Francisco”. (1)   The performances included songs and humorous dialogue by members of the group when describing conditions working on a steamboat trip in the South.  A radio announcer carries this along when introducing these different items in the programme.  The location, as Romanowski points out in his notes, is supported by Harold Horton (the announcer) when he states “This programme has been a presentation from our San Francisco studios”. (2)

No entry exists for the Dixie Symphony Four in Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943, and the above is all we know about them – except for some possible clues in their recordings – four of which are sacred and two secular.  They give out fine sounding versions of Swanee River, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Little David Play On Your Harp, etc.  These performances were reissued on Document DOCD-5606 in June, 1998. [See transcriptions in the Appendix below].

A brief survey of all six of these recordings could yield some snippets and/or clues, which at best are open to question.  For example, two of the group’s first names are included.  ‘Jess’, presumably Jesse, occurs three times.  On Swanee River, Good News The Chariot’s Coming, and Swing Low Sweet Chariot, it could be argued that Jess(e) is the leader of the Dixie Symphony Four.  Another member is addressed as ‘Jim’ on one occasion, on Good News and less clearly again on Leaning On The Lord where the name ‘Jimmy’ sometimes comes across as ‘Jerry’.

The running dialogue between the songs as well as the announcer’s commentary include some knowledge of the South; even if the latter (who is bound to be white) does come across as patronising at times.  It is with these areas of the recordings that this article is concerned, rather than the songs themselves.  Certainly, the group seems to have had some ‘hands on’ experience of working on steamboats in the lower South.  While the announcer reveals himself as a complete landlubber, with his reference to “the left hand bank of the stream”. (3)   Whereas one of the group refers to the “leeside of the boat” (4) this being a nautical term.  A lee is defined as “a sheltered part or side; the side away from the direction from which the wind is blowing”. (5)   The boat itself might be pinned down as being a packet – one that carries freight as well as passengers.  One of the group refers to unloading “all that machinery that’s in front of the dock; in front of the boiler room there”. (6)   If this was a towboat the machinery would be loaded on one of the barges they conveyed up and down the river system, and not on the boat’s own deck.

By the late 1880s most steamboat packets featured a superstructure which housed the pilot at the helm or wheel; often called the Texas deck.  This is technically the top deck but the radio announcer Horton would have been referring to the lower deck (just below the main deck) where the black roustabouts could be seen playing cards, shooting craps (a popular dice game with blacks) or singing to the mostly white passengers above them for nickels and dimes, and occasionally a greenback dollar bill. This scenario persisted into the earlier part of the twentieth century.  Black vaudevillian Tom Fletcher recalls such a situation in the early 1880s.  His father was “considered the champion fireman (aka stoker) on the river because he could make one shovel of coal equal two other men’s.” (7)   As he tells it: “In late spring, when school closed, my father would take me on the boat and keep me with him until the river got too low for the boat to run and it would tie up for the summer. On the boat, the barber, Mr. Coleman, was a colored man.  His son was one of the waiters and the bootblack. Mr. Coleman played the guitar and his son could handle the jews harp. Both of them could sing, also.  The three of us soon formed a trio and, when dinner was over, we could go into the cabin of the boat to entertain the passengers and pass the hat. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to get an equal split or not.  I didn’t care, so long as I was singing”. (8)   Fletcher was born 1873 in Portsmouth, Ohio, “about 115 miles above Cincinnati.”. (9)   This scenario is referred to by the 4th. speaker after the Dixie Symphony Four had finished singing a very fine part-version of Swanee River.  ‘Beating the band’ implied a larger packet boat which often engaged a seven to twelve-piece orchestra who were usually black and got paid an agreed fee.

But Fletcher and his friends could only play while passing the hat, once the boat was loaded and the gangplank drawn up; when she set out on the river heading for the first landing to be visited.  Here the roustabouts returned to their strenuous and often dangerous work of unloading cargoes which sometimes included livestock; an animal would be carried down the gangplank by the roustabouts, on their shoulders, while they employed a rocking and rolling gait to maintain their balance.  But primarily the load would be large bales of cotton.

In Livingston, Alabama, an old roustabout recalls his younger days working on a steamboat on the Warrior River from Demopolis to Selma.  Richard Amerson tells John Lomax and Ruby Terril Lomax in 1940, in a chanting work song a typical day on the river.  He paints a graphic picture of carrying not only barrels of oil and sugar but kegs – probably of whisky – and even a live pig! He starts with describing how they unloaded sacks of fertilizer by walking “on upstairs”* and then ‘throwing’ or putting the sack down on the landing. (see pic.)

Alan Lomax: Richard, tell about your steamboat days.
Richard Amerson: All the way from [De]’mopolis to Selma on the Warrior River on Mr. Picken’s boat. My boss man was named Mr. Will. My straw boss was named Mr. Jim. When we go an’ unload fertilizer, we have to to the hull and walk up a tall step. And every time come on top and throw it down, the fellows would tell you when to commence to calling:
Go get your sack.
Whoa back, buddy, whoa back.
I got a coat here to fit your back.
Walk on upstairs and throw it down-bim!
Say, “That ain’t the right sack, hurry back”.**
Get with the next, buddy.
Whoa back, buddy, whoa back.
We got a coat to fit your back.
Back on the stairs-bim! bim! bim!-throw it down.
He hurry back “That’s the wrong sack”.
Him just calling.
Whoa back, buddy, whoa back.
We got a coat here to fit your back.
A bale of cotton on that ‘n back, then;
Upstairs to throw it down-bim!
Hurry back, that’s the wrong bale.
Ain’t got nary bale yet.
Whoa back, buddy, whoa back.
We’ve got a coat to fit your back.
A barrel of oil they put on that, an’ back.
Right up stairs, then they throw it down-bim!
That’s the wrong barrel, go bring me the keg.
Whoa back, buddy, whoa back.
We’ve got a coat to fit your back.
Turn your back around, an’ he put in a barrel of sugar on your back.
Got up there, throwed it down-bim!
That’s the wrong barrel, go bring me the keg.
Whoa back, buddy, whoa back.
We’ve got a coat to fit your Back.
*= “The boat’s gangplank, called  a stage on Mississippi River steamboats, jutted out in front of the boat and was maneuvered into place on the landing by the lowering of the boom to which it was attached”. (10)
**= The phrase ‘that’s the wrong sack/barrel’ etc. translates as go back down the ‘stairs’ or the stage, to get another. I remember, as a young builder’s/ground labourer; during the late 1950s,unloading a flat wagon with low sides containing some 5,000 bricks or several hundred sacks of cement (weighing 112lbs each) as part of a four-man gang. When we got to the last one of these loads, the foreman-who was one of the gang- would say ‘this is the one (load) we’ve been looking for’. In other words, we finally got the lorry unloaded-we had finished to our exhausted relief. Now, let’s get a brew (of tea in a tin can) on the fire.

Roustabouts unloading at the landing:   Natchez-Under-the-Hill in Mississippi. c.1890. The ‘stairs’ are clearly visible.

Right back downstairs a barrel of lard or something right on your back.
Go back an’ throw it down.
Say, “Go right back and bring me the pig.
You just brought a shoat [= a freshly weaned young pig]
Whoa back, buddy, whoa back.
I got a coat here to fit your back.
Right down there, an’ he put a handle (?) of beef on your back.
Throw it down-bim! That’s the wrong beef-bim!
Go back an’ bring me the captain here.
That’s the last go. That’s directly.  (11)

Harold Horton’s reference to “the top deck of the old ship” (12) indicates a packet boat rather than a towboat.  His three mentions of a name for this steamboat gives it as HARMONY.  Not listed in the comprehensive Way’s Packet Directory, but there is a HARMONY in his one on towboats.  The brief detail runs: “A small pool style towboat which towed sand and gravel in the Pittsburgh area.  Got on a beartrap [ =presumably a sandbar or sunken wreck] at Dam 5, Ohio River, Freedom, PA, on September 18, 1911 and broke in two.” (13)   She had been built at Pittsburgh , Pennsylvania, in 1888 and was a stern wheeler.  Interestingly, on Little David one of the group refers to “this Old Man” (another nautical term, for the captain) who “don’t know where he steerin’ this packet”. (14)   Of course there is a good chance that HARMONY was used as poetic licence referring to the tight barber-shop style harmonies of the Dixie Symphony Four who are described by Horton as ‘The Dixie Symphony Singers’.

Like the mythical (or possibly real) HARMONY, another towboat, named ALICE BROWN was also a stern wheeler built at Pittsburgh – in 1871.  Her entry in Way’s read: ”Built for Brown’s  Line, coal miners and boat operators at Pittsburgh , and regularly plied between Pittsburgh and New Orleans until 1915”. (15)

Possibly Brown’s Line were cutting costs and taking less-than-full loads without the need of barges.  Or the machinery on the HARMONY may have been a special one-off trip.  Certainly, one of the Dixie Symphony Four talks of being down in New Orleans and the announcer tells of: “…the Southern scenes on each side. [of the river] The cotton fields just bursting into bloom.  They look almost like snow drifts…” (16)   The ALICE BROWN lasted longer than the HARMONY towboat until she was finally “towed to the boneyard at Glenwood, PA” (17)  in 1919.

The ALICE BROWN on the Ohio River leaving Sciotoville, Ohio, for Pittsburgh on 27th. August, 1900.
More than 25 empty coalboats and barges appear to be in her tow.

The journey undertaken by packets and towboats such as the HARMONY and ALICE BROWN had first been traversed over one hundred years earlier.  Although the first steamboat to ascend the lower Mississippi River from New Orleans (named after the Crescent City) performed this feat in 1811, it was a few more years before any boats went further than the convergence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at Cairo, Illinois.  In 1889 Captain Gould referred to the historic moment when the first boat ascended the Mississippi above the mouth of the Ohio on the way to St. Louis, Missouri.  This was the ZEBULON M. PIKE on 14th. July, 1817.  “The boat only ran in daylight, and was six weeks in making the trip from Louisville to St. Louis.  It was landed at the foot of Market Street August 2nd., 1817”. (18)   Some 8 or 9 decades later, Market Street had become a major part of the burgeoning blues scene in St. Louis.

Judging by Gould’s remarks about the ZEBULON M. PIKE, she would have been a side-wheeler.  “The wheels had no wheel houses and she had but one smoke stack”. (19)   The plural ‘wheels’ referring to a paddle wheel on each side of the steamboat.  From this point in time the round trip from St. Louis to New Orleans (taking in Louisville, Kentucky, on the Ohio River; on the way) became firmly established.  A defining moment occurred in March, 1817; when Captain Henry M. Shreve (for whom Shreveport, Louisiana, is named for) “made the trip from New Orleans to Louisville with the ‘Washington’ in twenty-five days …. and the round trip from Louisville to New Orleans and back forty-five days”. (20)   As Captain Gould noted: “From that time forward there seemed no doubt of the result, and boats multiplied rapidly.  Every town on the Ohio river [sic] and some of the tributaries, were ready, and even anxious to establish a ‘boat yard’.” (21)

This would include towns on the Green River in Kentucky – immortalised by Charley Patton on his Green River Blues [Paramount 12972] in 1929. This river emptied into the Ohio at Henderson, Kentucky.  Some one hundred-odd miles further south (as the crow flies) the Ohio River joins the mighty Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois – on its way down to the Gulf of Mexico.  Shreve’s boat the WASHINGTON had been designed by him in 1816.  And  “opened the river to steam navigation, and all Mississippi River steamboats in the following years copied the basic design of the ‘Washington’.” (22)   That is to say, a boat with a shallow hull.  As ‘Jess’ of the Dixie Symphony Four described an old muddy boat he espied coming from the other direction: as “that old flat-bottomed scow”. (23)   A scow is defined in the dictionary as an “unpowered barge used for freight, etc. Lighter.” (24)   A lighter, in turn, is “a flat-bottomed barge used for transporting cargo, esp. in loading or unloading a ship”. (25)

So on this occasion, Jess is definitely referring to a towboat and probably a barge(s).  The scenario depicted by the Dixie Symphony Four in around 1929, had been common enough for some 110 years.  As Gould writes: “The steamboat ceased to be a novelty on the Mississippi in 1818, and became a recognised agent of commerce of the [Mississippi] valley”. (26)

The wharf mentioned by Jess after Good News was often the hull of an old steamboat moored up next to the bank of the river.  Responding to the movements of the water as well as being at the same level, this made transfer of freight much easier and quicker.  The various bells heard on the recording are reflecting the essential communication link between the pilot on the Texas deck and the stoker/fireman down in the engine room – slow ahead, fast ahead, reverse, and stopping.  This was also for passengers when leaving or arriving at one of the innumerable landings on the rivers.

Hull of the old BELLE LEE (a stern wheeler packet-NOT from the Lee Line) used as a wharf boat 1874-1886 at Natchez, Mississippi. Pic. c. mid-1880s.


Despite some ambiguity regarding the type of boat, the Dixie Symphony Four were talking about – the HARMONY – it is almost certainly bound to have been a packet boat.  The comments made after Swanee River suggesting the group could ‘ pass the hat to beat the band’ and ‘just sing … to all them folks [i.e. passengers] gon’ ride wid us’ would appear to confirm that the HARMONY – real or not – was indeed a steam packet boat.

The spiritual-influenced sounds of the Dixie Symphony Four and the ‘set’ dialogue + the ‘hammy’ comments from the white announcer are generally dismissed by some hard-line blues collectors; as indeed is much of pre-war black gospel music: the flip-side of the blues.  But the group give the listener and the historian a rare insight into the world of the Blues in the beginnings of the genre – thus rendering them invaluable – and can add a little more to our understanding of this essential and central African American counter culture.  This group also give fine examples of black harmony singing in a barber shop style; recently recognised as an actual important root of the Blues from black sources. (see notes to DOCD-5606 by Ken Romanowski)

Copyright © Max Haymes 2011


1. Romanowski K. Notes to Document CD. DOCD-5606
2. ‘Sweet Kentucky Babe’ Harold Horton speech. c. 1929-1934. San Francisco, California
3. ‘Leaning On The Lord’ (2nd. version) Harold Horton speech. (as above)
4. ‘Swanee River’ Dialogue; possibly 3rd. speaker  (as above)
5. McLeod W.T. (Man. Ed.) p.571
6. ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ Dialogue: 3rd. speaker (as above)
7. Fletcher T. p.8
8. Ibid. p.9
9. Ibid. p.5
10. Gandy J.W. & T.H. Gandy p.39
11. ‘Steamboat Days’  (LofC) Richard Amerson vo.; John Lomax speech. 1/11/40.Livingston, Alabama.
12. ‘Little David Play On Your Harp’ Dialogue; Harold Horton speech. c.1929-1934. San Francisco, California.
13. Way F. & J.W. Rutter. p.91
14. ‘Little David Play On Your Harp’ Dialogue; 1st. speaker (as above)
15. Way & Rutter. Ibid. p.10
16. ‘Little David Play On Your Harp’ Harold Horton speech. (as above)
17. Way & Rutter. Ibid. p.11
18. Gould E.W. p.102
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid. p.111
21. Ibid.
22. Gandy & Gandy. Ibid. p.3
23. ‘Good News, The Chariot’s Coming’ Dialogue; 2nd. speaker (Jess) c.1929-1934. San Francisco, California.
24. McLeod. Ibid. p.895
25. Ibid. p.580
26. Gould. Ibid. p.112


1. Author’s collection.
2. Gandy J.W. & T.H. Gandy Ibid. p.17
3. Way F. & J.W. Rutter. Between p.p.102-103
4. Gandy & Gandy. Ibid. p.15


1. Romanowski Ken Notes to CD: Black Vocal Groups Vol.9 1929-1942  [Document :DOCD-5606] June, 1998.
2. McLeod W.T. The New Collins Dictionary & Thesaurus In     One Volume [Collins. London. Glasgow] 1988. Rep. 1st.
3. Fletcher Tom. 100 Years Of The Negro In Show Business    With new introduction and index by Thomas Riis.[Da Capo Press. New York] 1984. Rep.  1st. pub. 1954.
4. Way Jr. Frederick & Joseph W. Rutter. Way’s Steam Towboat Directory [Ohio University Press. Athens, Ohio.] 1990.
5. Gould E.W. Fifty Years On The Mississippi or Gould’s  History Of River Navigation [Long’s College Book Company. Columbus,  Ohio] 1951. Rep. 1st. pub. Nixon-Jones Printing Co. Saint Louis.1889.
6. Gandy Joan W. & Thomas H. Gandy The Mississippi Steamboat Era In Historic  Photographs. Natchez to New Orleans  1870-1920 [Dover Publications. New York] 1987.

All discographical details from Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943. 4th. ed. (rev.) Robert M.W. Dixon. John Godrich. Howard Rye. [Clarendon Press. Oxford] 1997.
Additions/corrections by Max Haymes.
Transcriptions by Max Haymes. (see Appendix below)
Website conversion by Alan White.

Max Haymes       April, 2011


Dixie Symphony Four Recordings (1929-1934)

  1. Swanee River
    Dialogue – sound effects – steamboat whistles, bells
1st. speaker: “Looks like to me that they’ll never get this old ship loaded.”
2nd. speaker: “You sure is anxious to get to that sweet woman of yours, ain’t you?
Don’t worry, she’ll be there when you get there.”
3rd. speaker: “Yeah! She gonna be there an’ take your money. Just as soon as you put your foot on the shore.”
4th. speaker: “Man, look-a yonder. I wonder is all them folks gon’ ride wid us. If they do, man, we can just sing an’ pass the hat to beat the band.”
different speaker:  …?
(steam whistle)
2nd.(?) speaker: “Oh! There she goes. C’mon Jess, help me get this old heavy gangplank up, before Captain Jack starts hollerin’.”
(steam whistle-bell)
1st.(?) speaker: “This old river sure is low. Look at all the mud she stirrin’ up.”
(steam whistle-bell-percussive effects-whistle)
3rd.(?)speaker: “Well, one thing. We’s long gone now. Come on over here by the leeside of the boat an’ let’s get away from this cold wind. That’s only…”
announcer: “And so opens another programme which brings you the Dixie Symphony Singers on the good ship HARMONY touring the southland and bringing you a cargo of old spirituals and jubilees. An old  favourite opens the programme today and it’s entitled Little David  Play On Your Harp.”
  1. Little David Play On Your Harp
1st. speaker: “How come we came so close to that bank? Look like this Old Man don’t know where he steerin’ this packet.”
2nd. speaker: “He know what he’s doin’. He’s pickin’ out all the deep water. Listen. Man, listen to them boys up yonder. They is singin’ like a banjo.”
(humming/banjo vocal effects)
announcer: “And true, the Dixie Symphony Singers are singing like a banjo. On the top deck of the old ship HARMONY drifting along, almost twilight. With the Southern scenes on each side. The cotton fields just bursting into bloom. They look almost like snow drifts. There’s a boy driving a herd. A small herd, it’s true, of cattle home. The chickens, they’re settled for the night. The boys, well, they’re mighty glad. They’ve got some good news. It is good news. The chariot’s  coming.”
  1. Good News, The Chariot’s Coming
1st. speaker: “Say, Jess. Come over here an’ take a look at this old muddy boat comin’ up the stream.”
2nd. speaker: (Jess) “Yeah! You’d be muddy too if you’d been way up there in them bayous like that old flat-bottomed scow. She got-she goes way up there an’ brings cotton down to the wharf, what we tote down to the wharf in New Orleans.”
3rd. speaker: “She goes way up in the wilderness, don’t she?”
4th. speaker: “Yeh, man! That reminds me, too. Say. Say, listen over there, Jim. How did you feel when you came out the wilderness?”
  1. Leaning On The Lord
    False start and dialogue
Lead singer (Jim) “Tell me, how did you feel?
(group response: When you came out the wilderness?) [x3] Tell me, how did you feel….
1st. speaker: “Wait a minute, Jimmy(?) Wait a minute there. Friend, what’s the matter with you?” (Yessir!)….
Jim: “I’m just tryin’ to tell you how I feel when I come out the wilderness.”
1st. speaker: “Yeah! You must have felt awfully bad singin’ like that.”
  1. Leaning On The Lord
(humming/banjo vocal effects)
announcer: “As we come in close to the left hand bank of the stream. There is a shallow spot with a sandy bottom. It has been used far back as any of the natives know as the baptismal font and it’s twice a year. The Race comes down and holds their annual services, or semi-annual services, for baptism. And standing on the bank of the levee it has always been customary for the choir to sing one of the oldest and most popular spirituals Swing Low Sweet Chariot. As we pass that point, we hear the boys singing that particular number for us next.”
  1. Swing Low Sweet Chariot
1st. speaker: “Say, Jess. Look-a here, man. Look like we gonna stop here somewhere. Wonder what we stoppin’ at this lil’ old landin’ for.”
2nd. speaker: “What do you care for? All you got to do is just git that gangplank ready for this little old dock. That’s all you got to do.”
3rd. speaker: “The bossman said we gonna stay here long enough to unload all that machinery that’s in front of the dock; in front of the boiler room there.”
(steamboat whistle)
Get the line there, Jess.”
  1. Sweet Kentucky Babe
announcer: “And so as the good ship HARMONY makes fast to the dock, we bring to a close another performance which has featured the Dixie Symphony Singers under the direction of Vince Monroe Townsend Jr. This programme is arranged with one object in view. And that is your entertainment. We trust that you find it favourable. Your announcer is Harold Horton. And this programme has been a presentation from our San Francisco studios.”


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