Jimmie Strothers was a blind banjo and guitar player from Virginia who recorded 15 tracks for Alan Lomax and Harold Spivacke in 1936. Biographical details are sketchy, but Strothers was apparently a medicine show entertainer for a time before going to work in the mines, where an explosion took his eyesight, forcing him to earn a living as a street singer. Things changed even more drastically when he was convicted of murdering his wife with an axe and was sent to the state penitentiary in Lynn, VA, which was where Lomax and Spivacke, working on a field recording project for the Library of Congress, found him. Strothers recorded a total of 13 songs (plus alternate takes of "Jaybird" and "Poontang Little, Poontang Small") over the course of two days on June 13 and June 14, 1936, often with fellow inmate Joe Lee sharing vocal and guitar duties. In what may have been a crowd-pleasing gimmick from the medicine show days, Strothers and Lee even play the same guitar at the same time on "Do, Lord, Remember Me."
The songs recorded over the two days were split between secular pieces and stripped-down versions of sacred hymns, all reflecting an era of post-Reconstruction rural black culture, and what is most remarkable is the variety of song forms that Strothers had in his repertoire, and the eerie passion and energy he brought to his singing and banjo playing. The odd "Keep Away from the Bloodstained Banders," the first track Strothers recorded, is a variant of a John Adam Granade hymn from the 1800s, "Let Thy Kingdom, Blessed Savior." At the other end of the spectrum, Strothers delivered two takes of the bawdy "Poontang Little, Poontang Small," which earned a "Delta check" (the designation for erotic material) when it was entered into the Library of Congress archives. "I Used to Work on the Tractor" is a caustic comment on working for an exploitative contractor, while the six-minute "Goin' to Richmond" is a long blues. Strothers also recorded an interesting version of "Cripple Creek" on his second day with Lomax and Spivacke called "Thought I Heard My Banjo Say," which fleshes out a song that is usually only done in brief fragments. In two days of recording, Jimmie Strothers managed to leave behind an edgy, singular, and fascinating group of songs that explore the boundaries between the sacred and the profane. ~ Steve Leggett