April 9 was the 11th anniversary of the death of Yank Rachell, one of the true legends of the blues, who lived in Indianapolis from 1956 until his death in 1997. He was especially known as the "Blues Mandolin Man," not only because he played this little-used instrument for the blues, but also because he was one of the true masters of the blues mandolin, with masterful folk musicians such as Rich DelGrosso and Ry Cooder devoted to studying and teaching his particular way of playing.
Which was unique for two reasons: first, he was entirely self-taught, and second, he developed his own particular way of playing the mandolin that emphasized playing the along the melody line of the song and not the more common way of strumming the instrument to the chord patterns.
While playing the blues on the mandolin produces a most compelling, haunting, indeed beautiful sound, the number of significant blues players on this instrument number fewer than 10. Among those at the very, very top was Rachell.
And Yank truly loved that instrument. As he told me in 1996, a year before his death, on an evening he was feeling particularly exuberant, "Yeah, I'm gonna live to be a hundred! And I'm gonna die playin' that mandolin!"
He had several other memorable quotes. Such as the one from the time when I first met him, on Indianapolis back in 1980, when, through contact enabled by a family friend of Yank's, I talked to him on the phone, and the following Saturday he came all the way downtown to meet this unknown-to-him white blues fan in an unfamiliar hotel restaurant, and sat with me for a full hour talking with me, but wouldn't let me buy him anything.
He shared this thought with me on what the blues were all about, which I quoted seven years later when I had the great honor of writing the notes for his Chicago Style LP issued by Delmark Records. Yank said then, "You know, when you have a couple of drinks, and you're feelin' sad and lonely, the blues just come naturally. The blues will always be there."
Then there's Rachell's famous description on how he feels when he does have the blues, when he's depressed: "I got the blues so bad they done turned into the blacks." Or this line from one of his numerous songs (Yank estimated that he'd penned over 900 songs in his lifetime, several of which have become blues classics), on his woman kicking him out: "She done throwed my cap outdoors." Or his exuberant celebration of sexual intercourse, from one of his original classics: "Tappin' that thing/Great God almighty, keep tappin' that thing/Great God almighty, keep tappin' that thing/Every mornin' and evenin', Lord, keep tappin' that thing."
Rachell began his recording career in 1929, at age 19, when he, Sleepy John Estes and Jab Jones, who called themselves the Three J's Jug Band (jug band music was a craze then), traveled the 59 miles from their home in Brownsville, Tenn., to Memphis to record "Divin' Duck Blues" and a couple of other sides. Yank played and recorded in the 1930s with Sleepy John Estes and with Sleepy John and another Brownsville native, Hammie Nixon (both of whom would also join Rachell in the 1960s on as living blues legends).
Yank also recorded himself, accompanying himself on either mandolin or guitar (he was an excellent guitarist as well) and singing, or sometimes accompanying other singers, from 1934 to 1941. From 1938 to 1942 he frequently recorded with the seminal blues singer and harmonica player, Sonny Boy (John Lee) Williamson, and lived in St. Louis from 1939 until 1942. While there he played on both sides of the Mississippi River, both in St. Louis and across the river in Illinois.
He moved back to Brownsville in 1942 with his wife and family, built a house there, then moved himself and his family to Indianapolis in 1956, where he lived until his death.
Rachell was a devoted family man and steady jobholder all his adult life, not the rambling blues minstrel that Sleepy John Estes and other bluesmen were. So he was not as well known in the 1930s and 1940s as some of his blues contemporaries were.
Also, Rachell was not as well known in the North as he was in the South, so while living in Indianapolis he frequently went back to the South to play shows as a member of various bands. This is how he developed his penchant for amplified mandolin -- because electrically amplifying the sound made the mandolin louder, and thus easier to play, because fewer strings were broken.
He gave up playing in the late 1950s at the request of his wife but resumed after her death in 1962. In his later years Rachell shifted his playing preference entirely to the mandolin, even re-playing and re-recording songs of his he'd originally played on guitar.
With the folk boom of the early 1960s, Rachell was "rediscovered", along with Sleepy John Estes, Hammie Nixon, and numerous other blues greats who'd recorded the acoustic blues in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, but had been forgotten.
Like other "rediscovered" veteran acoustic blues players, Rachell, now teamed up again with Sleepy John and Hammie, found an enthusiastic new audience for the blues among the young white college students and student hangers-on who eagerly embraced the blues and other folk music in the coffeehouses and folk concerts of the early and mid-1960s. Yank, Sleepy John and Hammie performed on the blues circuit in the United States, in Canada, and even made tours in Europe, and were signed to Chicago-based Delmark Records, an independent blues and jazz label that was a major outlet for the recorded folk blues.
Yank accompanied Sleepy John and Hammie on several of Delmark's recordings of Sleepy John Estes, and was featured under his own name on a 1964 Delmark release, Mandolin Blues, which also featured Sleepy John, Hammie, and a young, largely-unknown-at-the-time acoustic guitar player named Mike Bloomfield. Yank also recorded an acoustic solo album for Blues Goose in the early 1970s, which, although Yank didn't particularly like it (he complained that all Blue Goose wanted "were them old songs"), established itself as a blues classic. While the Blue Goose album is out-of-print, Mandolin Blues has been re-released on CD.
Many of the young white musicians who played with Yank in his later years thought that, because his early career was that of an acoustic bluesman (not that there was much choice in that, as the electric guitar wasn't invented until 1938) and because his later career in the early 1960s was also that of an acoustic bluesman, they'd "let Yank be Yank" by insisting on playing the acoustic blues with him. What was not realized was that, in his later years, from the 1970s on, Rachell preferred playing with an electric band, and that he felt most comfortable playing with an electric blues ensemble of himself on amplified mandolin and vocals with a backup of electric guitar, electric bass, and drums.
But he never did play electric city blues or R&B, which is tightly structured; he still played the looser, loping country blues, only amplified, with an electric band backing him. As one of his drummers put it, "Yank doesn't play R&B, he plays Tennessee blues with an electric band." Which could oftentimes be very hard for his accompanying musicians to follow, for, in his rendering of the looser Tennessee country blues with an electric band, there could be unexpected chord changes, switches from a 12-bar to a 16-bar format, and extra words thrown into a line.
Two musicians who played regularly with Yank were especially adept at picking up on Rachell's unexpected deviations from tight city blues structure, for they both had keen ears that could detect when a change was coming -- guitarist Gordon Bonham, and Yank's granddaughter, Sheena Rachell, who was his favorite bassist.
Rachell was as compelling and accomplished as an idiosyncratic electric bluesman as he was as an acoustic, and two notable alums were made of his electric sound, both of which ranked as among Yank's favorites. They were the 1984 Blues Mandolin Man on Blind Pig, which is now out of print, and Delmark's 1989 LP release, Chicago Style, which was re-released as a CD in 1993.
This writer had the singular honor of writing the notes for Chicago Style for the LP version, which carried over in shortened form on the CD. I am very proud to say Yank liked my notes very much. In his last decade of life, Rachell recorded two acoustic CDs as well, Pig Trader Blues with guitarist David Morgan on the Slippery Noodle Sound label, and Too Hot for the Devil with guitarist Pat Webb and harmonica player Allen Stratyner on Flat Rock, which was finished in October, 1986, six months before Yank's death. Both are still in print, as is Chicago Style.
Rachell also appears live on one track on Live from the Slippery Noodle Inn, Vol. 1, backed by the Indianapolis blues band Red Beans and Rice, and on tracks on two CDs from John Sebastian and the J Band, taken from his appearance with them at a benefit concert for him in Indianapolis in January 1987. Yank's early work solo and with Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, and with Sonny Boy Williamson, are also available on European blues reissue labels, which can be found or in, or ordered from, a high-quality record store.
Rachell was a gentle, courtly man who was devoted to his family, revered patriarch of the Indianapolis blues scene, and vital influence on almost all of its leading blues musicians. Unfortunately, his last years were marked by congestive heart failure and the need to undergo dialysis twice a week. Rachell was also completely color blind, never noticing in any invidious way the whiteness of his fans and musical players. As he himself said, "I don't care if you're black, white, green, yellow, or purple, as long as you can play the blues."
Rachell and his blues were the subject of a Master's thesis in musicology at Indiana University-Bloomington by Pete Roller, who frequently accompanied Yank on guitar; and in the last year of Yank's life Richard Congress taped seven long interviews with him, which were compiled and edited to form his biography, Blues Mandolin Man, published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2001.
Yank died not only admired for his art, but truly loved as a man, by all who were blessed to know him. As his granddaughter Sheena put it so well, "He was a good man who played the blues."
After his death, a record company was formed, Yanksville Records, which undertook a several-year-long process of recording a tribute CD to Rachell, which features both local artists and such national luminaries of blues and folk music as John Sebastian, Mike Seeger, and Indianapolis's own Andra Faye, a member of the renowned blues group, Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women.
A CD release party will be held on Sunday, June 8 on the grounds of the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis, and will feature cuts from the CD performed by a variety of musicians, including nationally renowned mandolinists Andra Faye and Rich DelGrosso. Tickets are $10 in advance, and $12 at the door, and can be purchased by calling 317-232-1882. More information can be obtained by e-mailing Mike Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org, or phoning him at 317-846-9610. Proceeds will go to Sheena Rachell, who has been diagnosed with Wegener's Granulomatosis, a rare, debilitating lung disease.
All in deserved honor of one James "Yank" Rachell, who, as a young farmboy in Brownsville, Tenn., acquired his first mandolin at age eight by trading a pig for it! When his mother found out, she admonished him, "Next fall, when we're all eatin' pork, you can eat that mandolin."
But Rachell never did eat that mandolin; instead, he went on to become one of the true masters of the instrument, a blues legend even while still living, and someone fondly remembered and truly cherished to this day.
George Fish can be reached at email@example.com.