Frank Stokes--Playing Positions/Keys for his Recordings

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Frank Stokes--Playing Positions/Keys for his Recordings

Compiled by John Miller

Frank Stokes seemed a good candidate for one of the Weenie Campbell tables outlining the playing positions and keys of his recordings. He has had 42 titles issued in the re-issue era. Format of the table is to indicate the song title, recording date, playing position of Stokes (and Dan Sane, for the titles on which he's featured) and the play-back keys at which the performances sound. Note that except for the pitch at which the guitars were tuned, they were always in standard tuning. For the keys at which the renditions sound, + indicates sharp of the pitch, - indicates flat of the pitch, and multiple plus and minus sounds indicate intensified sharpness or flatness. This table shows Stokes' recordings prior to 1929, and his 1929 titles will be shown on the second table.

TitleSession DatePlaying Position(s)Playback Key
You ShallAugust, 1927Stokes, D, Sane, GF+
It's A Good ThingAugust, 1927Stokes, D, Sane, GA flat
Sweet To MamaAugust, 1927Stokes, G, Sane, CB flat
Half Cup of TeaAugust, 1927Stokes, G, Sane, CB flat
Beale Town BoundAugust, 1927Stokes, C, Sane, GA
Last Go RoundAugust, 1927Stokes, C, Sane, FD
Jazzin' The BluesAugust, 1927Stokes, G, Sane, C A-
You ShallSeptember, 1927Stokes, D, Sane, GF-
It's A Good ThingSeptember, 1927Stokes, D, Sane, GF-
Mr. Crump Don't Like ItSeptember, 1927Stokes, C, Sane, FE flat+
Chicken, You Can Roost Behind The MoonSeptember, 1927Stokes, G, Sane, CB flat
Blues In "D"September, 1927Stokes, D, Sane, GE+
Downtown Blues, Take 12/1/1928Stokes, G, Sane, CC
Downtown Blues, Take 22/1/1928Stokes, G, Sane, CB-
Bedtime Blues2/1/1928Stokes, A, Sane, DD-
What's The Matter Blues2/1/1928Stokes, D, Sane, GG
Mistreatin' Blues8/27/1928Stokes, EF-
It Won't Be Long, Take 18/27/1928Stokes, CD
It Won't Be Long, Take 2 8/27/1928Stokes, CD flat
Nehi Mama Blues8/27/1928Stokes, CD
I Got Mine8/27/1928Stokes, CD-
Stomp That Thing8/28/1928Stokes, C, Sane, CD
Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do, Part 18/28/1928Stokes, C, Sane, CE
Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do, Part 28/28/1928Stokes, C, Sane, CD
Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do, Part 38/28/1928Stokes, C, Sane, CE flat-
Take Me Back8/28/1928Stokes, C, Sane, CE flat-
How Long8/28/1928Stokes, C, Sane, CEflat-

Based on the tone of Frank Stokes' voice on the August, 1927 version of "It's A Good Thing", it seems very likely that the play-back pitch of the recording was compromised, and that it is fast.

Of the 12 titles recorded in 1927, 10 of them required Dan Sane to tune lower than at standard pitch, most often a whole step low, but on a couple of the songs, a full minor third low (a step-and-a-half). Because of the amount of time involved in tuning/re-tuning during the recording process it seems fairly likely that Sane was tuned a whole step low routinely, and went lower than that as the song contexts dictated. This tuning approach would also make sense in light of the photograph of the duo in which Frank Stokes was capoed three frets higher than Dan Sane. Were both players tuned to standard pitch, Stokes would have to be capoed five frets higher than Sane for their characteristic playing positions to work. In either event, the duo's musical division of labor (except when playing in C on the later tracks) presumed that at least one of the players would be using a capo. Note also, that unlike a lot of duos, Stokes and Sane were always in tune with themselves and with each other.

For "Last Go Round" and "Mr. Crump Don't Like It", Stokes played out of C position and Sane played out of the F position. Note that both of these songs employ circle-of-fifths progressions, and thus never required Sane to go to a IV chord, B flat in the key of F. For all subsequent recordings the duo did in which Sane played out of the C position, Sane played out of the C position, too, for most of the songs were conventional blues that went to the IV chord.

It has been suggested that the duo switched roles for "Beale Town Bound", and that does seem plausible, for the player of the lower guitar part, normally Sanes' role, has an altogether different touch and tone, and the player of the high part is playing single string descending lines almost exclusively.

It is interesting, though difficult to attach any particular significance to the fact that on songs where Stokes and Sane had more than one take, or Stokes himself had multiple takes, the takes are not done at the same pitch. The second take is almost always a half-step lower. Was this the musicians' idea or the idea of some A & R person from the record company?

Here are Frank Stokes' playing positions (and Dan Sanes', where applicable) for the 1929 sessions.

TitleRecording DatePlaying Position(s)Playback Key
Ain't Goin' To Do Like I Used To DoMarch, 1929Stokes, G, Sane, CC
Hunting BluesMarch, 1929Stokes, D, Sane, GG-
Rockin' On The Hill BluesMarch, 1929Stokes, A, Sane, DD-
Fillin' In Blues, Part 1March, 1929Stokes, G, Sane, CC#
Fillin' In Blues, Part 2March, 1929Stokes, G, Sane, CC#-
Wasn't That Doggin' MeMarch, 1929Stokes, G, Sane, CC#
Jumpin' On The HillMarch, 1929Stokes, A, Sane, DE flat-
South Memphis Blues9/23/1929Stokes, G, Will Batts, fiddleF#++
Bunker Hill Blues9/23/1929Stokes, D, Will Batts, fiddleD--
Right Now Blues9/25/1929Stokes, C, Will Batts, fiddleD
Shiney Town Blues9/25/1929Stokes, G, Will Batts, fiddleA flat--
I'm Going Away Blues9/30/1929Stokes, G, Will Batts, fiddleA
Old Sometime Blues9/30/1929Stokes, C, Will Batts, fiddleD
Frank Stokes' Dream9/30/1929Stokes, EF+
Memphis Rounders Blues9/30/1929Stokes, DE flat+


As has been noted in the Frank Stokes Lyrics thread, the duo's March 1929 session abounds in spoken asides, really more than in all of their other recordings combined.  They talk so much, in fact, and seem so un-self-conscious doing it that it makes you wonder if these particular recordings more accurately capture what they were like in performance busking, or particularly playing for dancing, a context in which musicians often feel invisible and thus free to be a little loose.

Frank Stokes and Dan Sane played wonderfully together, but it is a shame that Frank Stokes did not record more solo sides.  The way he could get a full sound playing time while still alternating his bass and picking melody in the treble was very unusual.  On his very last cut, "Memphis Rounders Blues", in the solo following his first verse, he does an alternation from the open low E string while playing in D, something I've never heard anyone else do.  What a tremendous singer and player he was!

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